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Greetings from Tunisia,
I arrived in Tunis at 16:00 and whizzed through the immigration and customs formalities after waiting in line for less than 30 minutes. The speed and efficiency of the processes amazed me, no doubt only one of the many effects of the Jasmine Revolution which rocked the country four years earlier. Outside the terminal a big sign identified the municipal bus stop area, but the many waiting places without identifying signs made it confusing. Finally, asking one of the nearby parking attendants which number bus I should take for downtown, I learned through a combination of French explanations and gestures how to identify my bus. When the #30 arrived it turned out to be something that looked a lot like an old yellow school bus from my youth. Boarding the bus at the back I found a conductor waiting to collect a fare. I held out my open palm with several coins and he selected one for payment... and then gave me back another coin in change. Coinage is strange here. There are both bank notes and coins for the Tunisian dinar and many coins for the fractional millimes. Even after two weeks juggling the metal bits I still am not comfortable making change.
Transportation is cheap here in Tunisia. Bus fares are a fraction of a dollar: about thirty cents for the ride from the airport to the Centre Ville (city center-downtown). Taxis also are cheap by world comparison. Fare from the airport to downtown Tunis is supposed to be 5 Dinar, about $2.75! I passed on checking that out after arrival as I rarely use taxis anywhere. Eventually, I did hire cabs occasionally and discovered rates really are as cheap as the online references imply, though human nature being what it is, the tricks common to the taxi services everywhere have kept me from making much use of the "bargain" fares.
When the bus arrived at the downtown terminus I hopped off and started my walk of exploration, searching for likely looking first night hotels. The best hotel in the very center of the city turned out to be the Hotel Africa Tunis. Without easy Internet access I expected to be quoted poor value walk-in rates. Yep. $168 with a negotiated added breakfast turned out to be the best I could do at this fancy place.
As my digestive system screamed for relief and that only could be had in a really good hotel, I took the room for one night after asking the receptionist if I'd find better rates on-line with Agoda. He replied I might, but that the staff member handling booking agents had gone home and there could be no more Internet booking for the day. With no choice, I signed in and dashed to my room on the 21st floor for some urgent bowel relief.
The twenty-first floor room in the Hotel Africa Tunis I'd requested turned out to be a mixed bag. The high view of the city below provided many hours of enjoyable gazing. The ubiquitous security people roaming the building for the most part remained unobtrusive. Clearly a cut above most four star houses I've used, it came a long way from being a full fledged five star hotel. Cheap linens and pillows started the disappointment. A big surprise greeted me when I found no complimentary bottled drinking water or a tea kettle for boiling water! Needing a shower I discovered a shower head that gushed, but wouldn't spray normally as it needed cleaning or replacement.
The next morning at the breakfast buffet my spirits revived as I surveyed a lavish selection of French delicacies in addition to the usual local fare... plus overly solicitous waiters who appeared frequently to be sure I had everything I needed moment by moment, a deference appreciated perhaps, even expected by most of their up-scale guests in suits and ties. On two occasions uninvited guests joined me for feasting: mosquitoes hover around diners legs under the tables. To be generous, their guest relations representative contacted me to see if I had any problems with the hotel. After mentioning the shower head problem, that vary day a maintenance guy arrived to replace the head with a brand new one.
For my first several days in the city at times when the muezzins are scheduled to sing their exhortations I heard not a single one! Finally, a couple days later on the train to Carthage as we passed through a small town, an unfamiliar version of the discordant exhortation reached our car to confirm Tunisia is still a Muslim country. Then, today while worming my way through the narrow alleyways of the extensive Medina I heard it again from two separate minarets... just slightly amplified above the natural human voice. Someone has managed to implement noise control here in this capital city. Now after a week I know if I listen carefully at the designated times, I'll usually hear the politely subdued relentless religious reminders.
There is heavy police presence all over the downtown areas of the city. Many officers carry automatic weapons and barbed wire barricades block easy progress for pedestrians every couple blocks. People seem to favor black clothing; I see hardly any color except among the teenagers who always find ways to visually irritate their elders anywhere in the world.
After three days of exploring around its periphery, I finally ventured into the bowels of the old Tunis Medina. Throngs of tourists clogged the narrow, twisting, merchandise lined alleyways, moving as a single mass until some fixed obstruction appeared or a shop keeper managed to entice someone to stop and "take a look." The whole scene reminded me of salmon swimming up stream toward their spawning grounds with hungry bears waiting along the banks for a chance to take a swipe at one of them.
As usual, I walk a lot... when it is not raining or so windy I can hardly stay standing. I've made two excursions away from the city. First, after reading reports of Hammamet about 60km to the south I decided to take a day trip using the shared taxis called Louages. The colorful seaside beach community reminds me a lot of my old home town, Santa Barbara. On the placid shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the area is home to countless luxury hotels which I discovered have bargain room rates. The five star, 274 room Radisson Blu for example, advertises $65 walk-in rates and the receptionists sparkle, making me immediately feel as welcome as a VIP. Finding such great hotel values convinced me to spend the rest of my two week planned stay in Tunisia down there.
Before I left however, I took the train up to the site of the Carthage ruins. While waiting for our train's departure I met two boys who spoke fairly good English and engaged them in conversation about the political situation in North Africa. The older of the two, Amal is a 24 year old Tunisian. Concerned that Americans might not always be viewed as friends, I concealed my national identity as we explored the contentious issue of the Islamist terrorist activities. "What do you and your friends think about the news stories of atrocities being committed by the ISIS terrorists?" I asked.
His response startled me. "Those guys murdering people for TV cameras?"
"They're not Muslims! They are Americans! Why do you think they wear masks?" Before I could gasp a reaction to his question he continued. "You heard one of the guys talking English. They are all Americans or British..." he added with conviction.
"Americans?" I blurted incredulously. "Why would the Americans be killing non-Muslims?" I probed, hiding behind my neutral non-American false flag.
"Because they want to stir up trouble among the various Muslim groups in the area... so they are fighting each other instead of joining together to fight the foreigners." he explained in a dead serious tone of voice.
"What is it; the oil?" I probed.
"It is everything. They want to control everything."
"That's a very interesting analysis and it would explain some of the craziness we have been seeing in the news lately. I'll have to think about it. Thanks for sharing your understanding of what's going on over here." I added sincerely. ( Later I found the following article: US historian Webster Tarpley say that the United States created the Islamic State and uses jihadists as its secret army to destabilize the Middle East. )
After five days in the Hotel Africa Tunis I worked my way over to one of the Louage lots where the collective taxis leave for Hammamet and other distant destinations. Without a common language and everyone connected with transportation anxious to feather their own bed, I followed several proffered directions until finally finding the one of several departure lots with vans for Hammamet. The ride from Tunis to Hammamet only takes about 45 minutes over an excellent hi-way, portions of which require payment of a toll. All three Louage drivers demonstrated excellent driving skills and safety consciousness. On the first exploratory trip I checked several of the 5star resorts and then on return to my Tunis hotel checked the Internet for rates. The Radisson Blu appeared to be the best value and had a special lower rate of $55 with breakfast for a stay of three or more nights.
25 February-5 March: Hammamet, Tunisia
The Radisson Blu Hotel is five star; my fourth floor room faces the Mediterranean Sea where I can watch the Sun rise in the East every morning... when it is not storming. There is a large balcony with comfortable chairs that face South-East where I have an endless view of mostly calm empty sea; it could be a lake for its placid behavior.
The interior decorations are remarkable! My screaming red decor on white guarantees to shock me alert whenever I open my eyes. It is quite pleasantly striking. Only half of the Radisson is being used as this is the low season for Hammamet. Prominently displayed throughout the hotel are announcements specifying the hotel "dress code:" basically no bathing suits in the restaurants. The hotel has several dining venues, but the obscure Le Bistro cafe with a limited menu provided all of my mid-day meals. There are no wall-to-wall carpets in any of the hotels I checked, something not unusual in a beachside lodge because of the problems with sand.
The breakfast buffet is more than adequate, but a notch below the five star luxury I've experienced in other similar deluxe houses. Orange juice is reconstituted; coffee is weak and a long way from gourmet on my first two mornings, but improved starting with the third when a large convention crowd arrived. The sliders on dining room chairs make an awful racket when sliding across the polished marble floors (Someone needs to tell management about Nylon sliders.)
As the French colonial influence is everywhere still present, light flaky croissants and delicious crapes with several kinds of sweet sauces including chocolate syrup added a gourmet dimension to breakfast, in addition to several local Tunisian specialties. For example, a soup like dish called "Sorgho" provided a taste of a local sweet, thick gray concoction enjoyed by local folks at home. There is always a pile of dates still attached to the branches on which they ripened: beautiful and delicious. This morning they surprised me with fresh strawberry juice; I loved it!
The Hammamet Radisson Blu Hotel has the best in-room entertainment system I have ever enjoyed in any hotel. Programming choices in every major language are offered with an intuitive control panel display showing categories like news, sports, movies, etc. What a joy to have TV entertainment that is better than what I can get at home. WiFi is inconsistent: excellent and reliable in the breakfast dining room on the ground floor, but apparently with restricted bandwidth in the guest rooms. So limited is the bandwidth I cannot use my Skype VoIP Internet phone service.
During my long walk of exploration on the second day in Hammamet I got sick with a digestive disorder and took to my bed for the water cure. After a good night's sleep and limiting myself to nothing but a candy bar the next early afternoon, I hoped I might be able to try the $25 dinner buffet offered by the hotel every night. Not a chance. My body protested and threatened to make me vomit. The next morning it had returned to relative normal, but not without reminding me that all of my years meant paying more careful attention to its needs.
3 March: I've been here in Tunisia since 20 February, first in the capital city of Tunis and now in a small resort town on the shores of the placid Mediterranean Sea. A proper postcard crammed with pictures is in the works, but can't be sure I'll be able to finish it before boarding my homeward bound plane on 8 February out of Istanbul. For the few friends who expressed concern that I might be endangered by the presence of the radical Islamist terrorists active in North Africa, be assured I have personally seen nothing even remotely dangerous... excepting, perhaps a poster in the lobby of the Hammamet Radisson Blu Hotel where I'm staying that advertises the ISIS Car Rental service (no connection to the terrorists)!
It has been a busy six months since leaving on 12 August last year, which I'm sure must be obvious to anyone who has followed my exploits in the "postcards." The visits to Papua New Guinea and Tunisia bring my life list totals up to 128 countries which seems like a lot until I count the number yet beckoning. At the moment I am watching the excitingly calm surface of the Mediterranean Sea a mere fifty meters from my breakfast table.
As one of the grandfather pioneers of Internet use, I am disturbed by the way commercial promotion has crept into nearly every information page. Want to learn about tomato cultivation? Then be prepared for pages full of distracting advertisements for plows and work clothes... or worse, promotional interruptions with no relation to tomatoes at all! The popup ads are the most distracting. The search engine providers have milked every cent possible of commercial advertising revenue out of the massive database of information pages.
I used to be able to formulate search strategies that would filter out the blatantly commercial promotional hits, but the advertisers have become increasingly sophisticated so that no longer is an easy task. We need a new header category: "commercial free" and a search strategy to incorporate it in queries where we want to avoid all the commercial junk. Equally disheartening is the capitulation of Wikipedia to the lure of advertising revenue... and that after I made a small financial contribution when asked a few months ago. Greed in everything is not good! Perhaps that is a part of what the radical Islamists are trying to tell us.
Fred L. Bellomy
|Reference photo August 2002|