Carthage, Matmata & a manual car

So, to begin – at the airport on the way to Tunis I saw the famous Egyptian actress Yusraa and her husband (forgot his name – Ehab Toufic maybe?), he’s that English looking dude.  It was cool, nothing too impressive looked like normal people, I’ve just confirmed that it is impossible for me to be star struck. But I was still kind of curious about them, and there was that voice in the back of my head saying “it would be kind of cool to talk to them or sit next to them or something”…anyway I’m writing this at the airport with a rowdy couple at the airport fighting with the gate people and waiting for the police…it sounds more dramatic than it actually is.

For a trip I was very “blah” about, it’s starting off as quite something that’s for sure! – 2:49 p.m. (Dubai) **

So here I am at the hotel – finally – at 11:42p.m. Tunis time (2:42a.m. in Dubai) and man what a day.  The plane trip was surprisingly pleasant especially after I heard bad things about Tunisair. They had good movies (once I figured out how to control the panel- I saw Oceans’ 13, Norbit and an Egyptian one called Harb Italia and hoping to see Bobby and Some other movie on the way back).

Anyway coming into the airport wasn’t all bad, I was able to exchange currency and other than being told that the hotel (Golf Royal Hotel) is pretty much crap, everything else was fine, had my positive vibes on.  Then came the kicker, renting a car….the punch line – they don’t have automatic, they are all manual.  Now I only realized this after I paid and after the fairly decent endeavor I had earlier in Cyprus, driving on the left side,  I thought I’m up to doing do this, and frankly it was time to learn – boy I was wrong! I couldn’t even get it out of the airport – so embarrassing, and then I was waiting to tell the rental guy to take it back because there is no way I can drive it, fate once again was laughing at me as the police said I had to move “NOW” without letting me explain.  To make a long story short I stalled a lot of times in the middle of traffic, with honks coming at me from everywhere.

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My lovely Manual Ride

After the fact that it was night, raining, unable to find the hotel, and freaking out…oh and I spent most of my money on gas which was none existing when I got the car, as icing on the proverbial shit cake I was baking,  and I honestly don’t remember doing this, but I passed a red light.

So the cops found out I was Arab (I was to embarrassed to say I was Iraqi and instead said I was Emirati…which led them to be really nice and very friendly). This further completed my first day impression of Tunisians as overall very open and warm wih strangers.   Notwithstanding that fuzzy friendly bit they threatened to take my license due to the red light pass but choosing instead to “forgive” me with a fine of 30 dinars (100 AED or $25) which cost me most of my loose change money.  But they gave me some valuable manual driving lessons, particularly how to stop without stalling the car which was a big one for me, and to a lesser extent some directions to the hotel.

However, I still found myself looking for the hotel for another 2 hours at night, needless to say the directions given by the police didn’t help at all.  After going through pretty much the entire city I ended up where I was in the first place near Abu Nawas hotel.

Somehow I managed to talk to these two guys who gave me some earlier manual driving lessons and did so again. Needless to say, the language was a major barrier…and then I called the hotel…..and by some miracle FINALLY made it.

Other than still not figuring out how to open the trunk to get my bag out (had to lower the back seats and get it that way) and had a mini heart attack thinking that I lost my passport or I forgot it with the police (then I found it under the passenger car seat) all was okay.

The room I got is clean (bare minimum but decent and spotless), no water to be found though and I’m SOOOOO dehydrated, but I’ll leave that for tomorrow. Surprise surprise there is wireless internet here, no water but wireless internet go figure!

The Golf Royal hotel – Room

Anyway tomorrow is another day and if it’s anything like today I’ll be typing my ass off….what a day!  This is the first time I keep a diary on my trips and will do so from now on (missed all the others, Luxor, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Cyprus) but I think with crap going down like this, how could I have not done this earlier. – 12:00 a.m. (Tunis time from now on)**

Well it’s definitely been a crazy day – it started with a traumatic event, aka getting out of the parking lot near the hotel. It literally took me an hour – no lie – and a lot of angry people either trying to get into my spot (and then giving up and driving off) or those that just wanted to pass through.  I couldn’t reverse and forward out – it was a never ending nightmare.  Finally when it did work, I somehow ended up in  Kairouan, the old capital, after stalling a few times on the highway in between (specifically in the toll booths).

The beautiful Grand Mosque of Kairouan
Kairouan City

In Kairouan I had a few stragglers hanging out, pestering me.  But then I finally gave in to this one guy who took me around the old medina and into his house where I met his family.  I instinctively lied saying I was half American and half Lebanese (mainly because of my embarrassing driving – I didn’t want to say I’m Iraqi, and wasn’t in the mood to talk about politics and Saddam Hussein’s life).  With a rare moment of luck, and for him to maximize his profits, he got his cousin to drive us to El Jem (the biggest and best preserved Roman Colosseum outside of Rome).  Seeing the drive to the Colosseum,  I quickly realised that I would have been in living hell if I was to drive there myself.

El Jem Colosseum

The brief moment of luck did not last; unfortunately we got in trouble and the national guard (not traffic police) caught Abdul Karim (the cousin) passing cars in a lane with no passing allowed….that, coupled with the fact that the car is assigned to me to drive and no one else (thank you again Mr. Car Rental man), and then the fact that my passport is still with the hotel, with nothing to prove I was me (apparently the driver’s license was not enough).

So another lovely shakedown for money ensued, and they fined us with a letter for a court appearance which will be given to Abdul Karim.  We forgot about it on the way to El Jem and managed to enjoy the rest of the trip – it started getting crazy cold, but before that we had a traditional Tunisian lunch meal with rabbit, roasted potatoes, lamb and bbq fish.  This was smothered with a hot sauce, and complemented with grilled salad (beans and grilled mashed eggplant).  We also had traditional “Fakr” soup which uses some wheat/grain type thing called Fakr instead of lentils or couscous.

I think (I actually know as fact) I got ripped off paying the guys a lot of money, but it was worth not worrying about driving and being shown El Jem, Kairouan, and very briefly but nevertheless seemingly interesting  – the city of Sousa.  This plus smoking about three drags with the guys….they SMOKE man, like A LOT. Half my time with them was trying to find a spot to get the cigarettes lit, because in most places smoking was banned, was kind of amusing really.

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Drive views of “Tunisia the Green”

So I made it in good time to the hotel tonight and I start to think that I’m really getting the hand of the manual driving thing (misplaced confidence I am sure)…eventually and hopefully I won’t stall and ruin traffic in this country again.  I did improve so much (if I do say so myself) than this time around yesterday – I still stalled, especially at the tolls…but much better.  Tomorrow is another day and for now I won’t stress till then – 10:00 p.m. (Tunis)**

Well today was to be straightforward – go to Matmata and see the cave houses from star wars and head back to Hammamat and if there is time see Tatouine and the Bedouin Kasers…..well despite this “reasonable” schedule I ended having a crazy day – surprise surprise.

I didn’t even have breakfast; dreading another getting out of the parking trauma like yesterday, luckily I only stalled once or maybe two times max.  The trip to Matmata was LONG, then when I looked at the map I realized I pretty much crossed the entire country from north to the south and a little west.  I passed by Sousa, Sfax, and a million other villages on the way to Gebas…surprisingly I didn’t get lost and although the tourist office was closed (Sunday is their day off) I somehow found the Sidi Driss hotel with the star wars caves.

Infinity olive groves on the way
Sidi Driss Hotel
Matmata Caves

Then it was another 5 hours back and needless to say Hammamat was no longer on the schedule, it was too late.  What was funny is I thought I was getting stopped by traffic police…which would have totally sucked because my passport is still with the hotel and if I get any fine I would need the passport to prove I ain’t no terrorist.  False alarm though, so I stopped fearing for my life yet again, and despite feeling better about driving manual my muscles were hurting because I was so tense for so long during the driving in the day.  I finally realized these three cops wanted a lift to their house on the way to Sfax, it was a head guy (his name was Noor Al Din) and two other younger guys.  I made them drive (one of the young officers did) to relax a bit and avoid looking like a total tool in front of them.

We talked a bit, they hate America and love Saddam – the usual.  They namely gossiped about this secretary who can’t type and how to cook a goat….very interesting (in Tunisian Arabic of course, so I didn’t understand everything).  What’s weird is on the way back after like 4 hours after I dropped them off, Noor El Din was in a roundabout near Sousa and on my way back to Tunis.  He somehow saw me and flagged me down; apparently he needed a trip back with this other guy Mohammed (this was pre-UBER days, I did feel like a high end driver)….one of those serendipitous moments.  At this point, he (Captain Noor El Din) was warming up to me a lot more than during the morning and invited me for couscous at his house (he almost ignored my “no’s” and drove me to his house), but I told him I had to do “work” things…whatever, I was really tired and over it, plus I was still full from an amazing spicy couscous I had in Mahras with fish and potatoes; apparently Noor Al Din was offering the same thing.

Mahras and its delicious cuisine

When I finally reached the hotel…tense after a long drive with the stick shift gear, the hotel guy, Shukri, who works nights was very friendly (more so than yesterday). He again offered to drive my car, I only realise as I’m typing this that he was probably looking for a tip or extra cash which I wasn’t getting…oh well, he was in a very good mood and was telling me about different Tunisian desserts (I asked)….very cool guy, too bad I didn’t get to know him better.  He was older with round glasses and looked like Roosevelt, very approachable.

After a quick break, I walked around Habib Bourgaiba Avenue near the clock tower, Carthage theater (from which I bought a Rai CD in a nearby kiosk) and the grande church there.  Then this drunk guy (who later asked for money) shook my hand and started talking shit like I am who I am but you are not who you are, and crazy crap like that….15 minutes later I finally weaned off with a dinar that I gave him.

Bourgaiba Avenue at night

Tomorrow better be my “relax” day because I fly at night and reach Dubai only an hour and a bit before I have to go to work….so need to subdue some of the daily crazy drama I’ve been experiencing.  I’m planning to see the Tunis Souk, Carthage ruins, and Sidi Bou Said all before I go to the airport at 5:30 p.m. leaving somewhat early (but not like today) and since everything is close and near Tunis it shouldn’t be a problem…hopefully (famous last words)…plus I’ll get cabs to save me from being the nervous wreck that I was being so far – 12:28 a.m. (Tunis)**

Well it’s the last day and I’m typing the final entry before I leave the hotel….so far its gone quite smoothly but I’m anxious about what remains of the trip from now to the end of my vacation (which will include the two most important site and which were originally to be done in the beginning – Sidi Bou Said and Carthage).

I’m just dreading the urban driving out of this city, but I should just suck it up and deal, the worst that can happen is I stall and screw up traffic, nothing that hasn’t been done already.  Despite my anxiety, the medina and souk in Tunis were awesome and had a couple of great Tunisian sweets, bought great souvenirs with the inevitable feeling I got ripped off yet again, but hey….what can you do, as long as you’re mentally prepared for it.

This old guy took me around, and even though he asked too much money for his “tour” it saved some time and hassle.  Had a good long conversation with one of the market sellers (actually a couple of them).  With one it was quite lengthy (and just for sake of talking he didn’t try to sell me anything) this started when we both smiled because this one cat just got of a chair it was sitting at and stood right beside me and looked up, very cute and weird (I took a picture of it) then when I went to talk to the guy it followed me there, it wasn’t a stray it was clean and well fed; but that’s how I got started talking to him….this is the most interaction I had with locals in any trip, quite interesting and makes it really memorable.

The Souk (and the Cat)

So of course nothing ends without a glitch, first of all I have to say I’ve become actually quite a good driver with manual in a short period of time, but I would probably never do it again, not while on vacation anyway, it almost (emphasis on almost) ruined the holiday with all the stress…not worth a try.  I hope where I’m going next, Sri Lanka, will have automatic cars.

Starting the day at Sidi Bou Said, and it lived up to the hype; was absolutely beautiful, truly the Greek islands with a twist as I saw in one of the reference to it say.  I loved it and it was very photogenic.

Sidi Bou Said

The Carthage ruins were also a site worth seeing and I loved people just talking to me like an old friend…the interactions continue. The pictures for both sites speak for themselves.

Awesome Carthage

Now come the lovely “issues”, first of all I got lost getting to the airport, the one thing I thought would be easy today….and then I hit rush hour traffic, not as bad as Dubai – but with my eternal manual driving stresses it felt like a life time. I almost stalled today but didn’t (except going to Sidi Bou Said, but the guard just nodded me off – apparently they are used to it by now-or there must be a poster of me handed out to police to ignore me).

Before I forget, I had EXCELLENT Lebanese food, better than anywhere in Dubai and a Syrian guys was running it, Amir.  He gave me his card and we talked politics….people here love the Lebanese, mainly because I pretended I was one most of the time; I was sick of people loving Saddam when I told them I was Iraqi and I had to play along fearing the wrath I would get if I didn’t praise him like I should (enter musical queue of the song “Praise You”).  I had some identity crises on this trip, I played a half Lebanese half American, Iraqi (but only to those who I knew were small chatters or nice people like the Medina guy this morning and Shukri the hotel guy), and an Egyptian (not too long on that one).

The problems didn’t end there, I have 200 Tunisian Dinars left (what amounts to 600 AED or about $180) which apparently I couldn’t exchange at the airport without a bank slip (why?, I don’t know), what makes it worse is that I can’t take them out of the country, so my 200 Tunisian Dinars are a waste…had I known I would have spent more in the souk or given it to the poor here. At least I slipped it by the airport….I’ll try and see if there is a sketchy exchange place in Dubai that does it, but highly doubt it, apparently it’s a big law here….Thanks a lot for letting me know earlier Tunis!

So I left on a bad note, but looking back at the pictures I calmed down, and I’m sure the trauma that is manual car driving in Tunis will fade over time.  Note to my future stressed out self,  please remember the gut wrenching aches and stress of driving stick here….it is TERRIBLE!!!  Anyway it’s not the end of the world, I just have to be more thrifty in the upcoming trips and get money owed..time to collect, and on that I say Au revoir Tunisia, beslama! – 7:44 p.m. (Tunis Airport)***

This was pre-Arab spring, how has it been to travel there since?  Anyone venture out to the desert south?  Has anyone hung out at Hamamat? Comment below please, would love to know.

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