Posted: 1st May 2012. TUNING IN to IN TUNE …. Episode 10
Hope the New Year has been good to you so far with few hassles and lots of happiness. Ours has certainly been very relaxing – mainly because of its predictability – though there is never a shortage of things to do. Days have turned to months very quickly with certainly no time for boredom.
It is fitting that the new season “ Tuning-In” should start with the number 10 – the number ‘1’ representing new beginnings. Both ‘wintering’ and Tunisia have certainly rewarded us with some very different and interesting experiences. We have really enjoyed our time here and would happily stay longer or winter here again.
I ended last “Tuning-In” wishing you all Happy Christmas and wondering how our ‘first’ Christmas ‘alone’ would turn out – I will continue the story from here.
The morning was wonderful – thanks to Skype. After chatting to Mark and Jaimie, Coralie and Allan and David’s brother Louis and wife Michele – we joined a dozen expats on our pontoon for a Christmas lunch to which we all contributed. I was popular with both my big apple crumble and cauliflower bake.
There are some very interesting folk staying here and the afternoon turned into a late evening.
One young Slovenian couple, Bobby and Visnja had just sailed from Slovenia through Croatia and were keen to tell us where to anchor – un-hassled – in Croatian waters. A few others have also ‘sung the praises of Croatia and we are starting to think we should make it a 2012 destination. They have dinner with us the following week and we pencil their info into our pilot book.
As we become more familiar with our surroundings, and the Tunisian people and their culture, it is easy to settle into a routine.
I love traveling on the buses into the nearby towns and watching the people, they are such an attractive race and I have located most of the things we need. Apart from shopping I am still happily exploring too. This is not a pastime shared by David, I might add – shopping is definitely an event to be avoided whenever possible.
Our social calendar remains nicely booked even though a few expats have left for home-lands and other places of calling.
“You must visit Tunis,” we are told.
Tunis is the capital and has two distinct parts. The ‘new’city – created by French colonists in the 19th century and the medina or ‘old’ part which was founded by the Arabs in the 8th century. There is also an enormous collection of Roman mosaics housed in the Bardo’s Ottoman palace, now a museum.
So, with only a backpack each – which turns out to be a good decision as it turns out – we board an early morning louage for our three day visit. Costing only $2.50 each, a louage is a shared taxi van which takes 8 passengers and leaves when it is full. The 65 km trip to Tunis, along a 6 lane motorway takes about 40 minutes. Louages, like buses, have depots and the Tunis one is a few km from the centre of city. A taxi soon takes us there and we find a reasonably priced hotel, dump our backpacks and make our way to the train station for our trip to the Bardo Museum. We could take a taxi but want to experience a Tunisian train. This, as it turns out, is an experience we will long remember.
The train station is only a short distance away and we enjoy the walk past many modern shops and department stores and some rather ornate art nouveau buildings. Trains run every 20 minutes and ours soon arrives. It is a bit crowded but a lovely Tunisian lady minds us a seat – like so many Tunisians she is very happy to see tourists and extends her welcome. Another makes sure we get off at the correct station for the museum. Unfortunately the exhibits are being transferred to a modern extension to the old palace which has no where near the same atmosphere. Only about a third of the mosaics are on display but they are amazing and well worth seeing. We still manage to spend a good two hours taking it all in.
It is late afternoon by the time we head back to the station and where there weren’t many people before it must now be rush-hour. The train arrives – absolutely “chockers”. Everyone crowds the door waiting for those getting off, then push their way on hoping for at least standing room. We are shoved along with the crowd. The limited standing space lessens as everyone is pressed together. David continues the story.
A sadder man but wiser now.
The crowd of people should have triggered alarm bells. I had my wallet deep inside my jeans front pocket on this occasion, quite confident it was safe there as it was a tight fit. I always try to be aware of people around me and constantly check belongings. My wallet was in my pocket when I was on the platform just before boarding the train and gone a couple of minutes later when I checked on the train. It shows you can never be too careful and it does not pay to underestimate a skilled pick pocket. The annoying thing was that I had considered putting the wallet in an inside zippered pocket of my jacket. So I lost 200 dinar in cash, the worst thing of course was the hassle of cancelling credit cards and having them replaced while overseas. Another lesson learned, this time the hard way.
I still have some money and my credit cards so all is not lost.
I am usually very philosophical about things like this but David of course is very annoyed with himself. Things happen, recriminations don’t help, so I am very impressed when David says “ I am not going to let this spoil our time here,” and he makes a super effort to let it go.
Apart from one near miss in Prague a few yeas ago we have had no incidents like this and I guess we have become a little complacent and a bit too trusting.
Putting it behind us, we study our Lonely Planet and the following day board another train via Carthage to the beautiful, Andalusia inspired, cliff-top village of Sidi Bou Said with its gleaming white-washed houses with bright blue window grills and draping geraniums and bougainvillea. It is easy to see why this place inspired the artist Paul Klee. There are a few tourists here but also many Tunisians and a lot of young couples. We follow a gaggle of chatty girls along a narrow cobbled street lined with drooping branches thick with blossom and find ourselves at a lookout area and a small cafe hugging the cliffs. An exceptional view overlooking the Bay of Tunis and Carthage provides a backdrop as we enjoy the Tunisian tea specialty – a sweetened mint tea with almonds or pine nuts floating on top. Clear blue skies add to the beauty and we congratulate ourselves on ‘letting go’ and continuing on instead of going back to Tunis – which was considered at one point.
On our third and final day we plan to visit the old Unesco World Heritage Medina which is only a short walk away from the hotel but as we finish breakfast, noise levels are beginning to build outside. With our packs in storage for the day we enter the street and are faced by wall-to-wall people. Thousands cover the side walks and streets. Placards wave above the sea of dark heads, drums beat and a procession marches past, there is yelling and chanting and groups are gathering listening to animated, arm-waving speakers. Of course, it is the 14th Feb, the anniversary of the Revolution – a big event here in Tunis where it all happened. No one thought to remind us in Yasmine.
As a first anniversary there is no evidence of any real organisation – just enthusiastic, cheery, celebratory chaos. Most of the shops are closed – obviously a self declared holiday. It is fascinating and we linger to watch.
Still, we want to see the Medina, so we slowly weave our way through the masses to finally reach the entry gate. Here a maze of tunnels and alleys branch out to accommodate hundreds of tiny shops and markets selling everything from fish and vegetables to clothes, shoes, cds and TV sets as well as the usual touristy stuff. All are open and keen to exploit the extra visitors. It always amazes us how so many shops selling exactly the same things manage to survive. Sprinkled among this are mosques and ancient palaces and monuments. What a fascinating place!
I would have loved to spend longer here but we needed to get back to Yasmine this evening and we weren’t too confident about the frequency of louages out of Tunis with all the celebrations happening. But we need not have worried.
With traffic at a standstill we gave up on taxis, donned our packs and hiked to the depot where we only had to wait a few minutes for our louage to fill up.
Once back we would have to make prompt arrangements to have David’s cards replaced.
The weeks are following each other in much the same way through February. Our list of “things-to-do’ is gradually getting smaller though new things are constantly being added. David has finished a lot of work on the boat.
With gas so cheap, at $3 per 2.5 kg bottle, I have taken full advantage with the oven and David is being spoilt with lots of cookies, carrot cake, lasagnes etc, – fortunately our waist lines haven’t expanded too much.
I also still enjoy at least two trips per week into Hammamet which is a half-hour bus trip away and has more shops than Barraksal – our closest town. On Thursdays they have a local market. This is an experience I had to repeat a number of times – even took the video one day.
Fifty plus tables are piled high with different new and used items. Jackets and leather coats, nightwear, bedding, table-cloths, socks, ladies tops, menswear, bags as well as fruit and vegs. ……..everything. This is where locals shop, rummaging through the piles, filling bags. I find a good pair of black walking shoes still packed with paper and pay 7 dinar ($4). It is a bit like a huge Salvation Army shop.
March is here already and the days are getting longer again as well as considerably warmer. I persuade David to take a “break” for his birthday to visit El Jem and the other marina at Monastir, where many boats winter.
Kais, our very helpful English-speaking Tunisian friend, offers us a car again at the same cheap rate ( $25) per day and we make our way to Monastir where we spend our first night in the Regency Hotel which is mainly occupied by French guests. The marina is smaller than ours, less touristy and closer to a main town but I like ours better.
El Jem turns out to be worth the visit. The colosseum, once the crowning glory of ancient Thysdrus, which derived its wealth from olive oil, was a thriving market town in the 1st century AD. It is another World Heritage Site of which there are many in Tunisia.
Believed to have been built around AD 230, the colosseum was the third largest in the Roman world and is one of the best preserved. It is amazing – we spend hours here and have the place virtually to ourselves – one advantage of being out of tourist season.
The 4 star, El Mouradi hotel at Mahdia has been recommended so we head back to the coast and book in. For some reason, but much to our delight we are only charged 60D ( $40) for room breakfast and dinner. This place is mainly occupied by German tourists and I have never seen such a sumptuous buffet. 8 varieties of bread, countless mains and salads and a wonderful selection of desserts ( my favourite)
After dinner David and I sit in the bar area where many people are playing cards and listen to a disc jockey’s selection of old-time Latin favorites. A few couples get up to dance twirling happily to the inviting rhythm. I bounce my feet and pretend I‘m dancing, determined that I must teach David how to do the cha-cha and jive. A group of single ladies get up and invite me to join them. Dancing is the best exercise.
It has been a lovely three days and with our time running out I immediately plan our last “holiday” – a trip to Northern Tunisia. We decide to stay in one place in the area of the Kroumirie mountains around Ain Draham and go on day trips this time. That way we can enjoy some of the facilities of a 4 star hotel instead of just being there to sleep. They have an El Mouradi there too and remembering all the things available to do and the wonderful buffets, we book 5 nights leaving April 1st.
The intervening weeks pass quickly with the usual boat chores plus a few others. A very skilled sail-maker is making us a windscreen and enclosure for our helm. That will stop us having to look like “Tele-Tubbies” when we are sailing in less than pleasant weather. The days are getting a little warmer now – 15 to 20 during the day but still only 10 or so at night – not unlike our Australian winter/early spring
We did buy a small electric heater but have only needed to use it a few times. The curtains I made help keep in a lot of the heat.
Strong westerly and south-easterly winds spoil things a bit though, the latter often creating big swells which can bump us around a bit. Like most of Europe this weather has been atypical. It is usually much less rainy and windy with mostly lovely sunny days.
It is still better than English weather and we are not complaining.
April is here already and we are off on our last Tunisian venture. I am very excited.
After being surrounded by water and white boats with only a few waving palm fronds to break the monotony I am really looking forward to walking – even seeing some greenery !!
So it is with great anticipation ( never a good thing ) that we set off in another of Kais’ cars on a cloudless morning. We will follow the motorway past Tunis to Bizerte on the northern tip of Tunisia then turn west and continue along the coast to Tabarka an old fishing port – supposed to be very lovely. We will stay there one night before heading off into the mountains for our 5 night stay.
It takes us just 2 hours to travel along the excellent road to Bizerte – another 2 hours and we will be in Tabarka – in time for lunch.
Things are going well ……. too well.
A smaller road leads us west to Nezra and the traffic dies down to only the occasional car so it is with a bit of a shock when we are suddenly stopped behind a long line of traffic. We thought there must have been an accident.
I get out and walk ahead to see the reason for our hold-up.
It is a road-block.
Locals blocked the road to Tabarka in January cutting off all supplies and nearly crippling the town. After a week it finally produced results. It was a wages issue then.
Cars, utilities and big rocks lie across the road effectively cutting off any access from either direction. People are walking past lugging suitcases moving from a louage on one side to a louage on the other. I walk through, video strapped to my hand filming the obstructions – careful not to film the 30 or so men who are, by now, all looking in my direction.
A blonde woman, toting a camera is not an everyday sight out here.
“ This is so stupid !” I tell them, waving my arms and shaking my head, knowing what havoc it will cause – which is, of course, their intention.
They don’t look angry at my obvious lack of sympathy, in fact I see faces filled with contriteness, uncertainty and regret.
“It is about water,” a man with a media crew explains. “ They have no fresh drinking water and the government promised to fix it yesterday. A block worked last time – so they try it again, but it is not the right way and causes too many other problems. I can’t make them understand,” he concludes in frustration.
I can sympathise with all sides as I walk back to the car and consider giving them our two bottles of water.
Consulting our map we decide the safest way to avoid further blocks is to go cross-country through Ain Draham and the mountains. It extends a four hour journey into 7 hours but we enjoy it all.
The scenery just keeps getting better. We can’t believe how green it is. Plains soon begin rising into gentle hills which fall into the greenest valleys we have seen – and that includes Switzerland and N.Z. Vast fields planted with wheat, newly sprouted stretch for miles in all directions. Mimosa (wattle) trees line the roadsides while bushes of purple, pink and white flowers adorn the ground underneath. Fields of yellow daisies and canola break up the green with sprinklings of bright red poppy flowers drawing the eyes away. It is truly beautiful and we are both in awe. I can’t find enough adjectives to describe what I am seeing – I am in raptures!
The road gradually climbs up to Ain Draham where cork and pine forests dominate the hillsides then winds down towards the coast and Tabarka.
Tabarka on dusk, looks pleasant and peaceful and an evening stroll along the waterfront ends an interesting and very pleasant day.
The following morning we retrace our journey back up into the mountains to Ain Draham where the local market is in progress. Somehow we get caught up in the middle. Pedestrians don’t seem to worry too much about cars – they just meander across the street in front of you. I think it is funny, David is too busy trying to miss them to be too amused.. He eventually weaves us through, and we make our way, 20 km down the steep mountain towards the Algerian border and the town of Hammam Bourguiba where our El Mouradi Hotel is located.
The very winding but pleasant road emerges into a lush, open valley flanked on all sides by rolling hills and steeper mountains. Cork, and pine forests mantle the hilltops. We stop for photos at a lookout point – taking our time and appreciating the view. The El Mouradi dominates one corner.
When we return to the car our Tunisian mobile is ringing. It is Kais.
“ Are you OK?” he asks in relief when he hears my voice.
We assure him we are fine and tell him where we are heading. He has been tracking us and of course, we are right near the Algerian border. Poor Kais, on our southern trip we had him sweating because we were heading out into the desert towards the Libyan border.
This El Mouradi Hotel – much more expensive than the last one is nothing like the one at Mahdia. We are disappointed.
I should know by now that looking forward to something is bound to disappoint and cause ‘dints’. It places an expectation on the venture – one that is usually cloaked in all the wonderful imaginings that the brain can conjure up. As wonderful as imaginings can be they rarely come up to standard since expectation always puts pressure on the outcome.
I was imagining using the gym and pool and joining in with the many organised activities but this hotel is very different. The room is certainly as spacious and well appointed with a lovely balcony overlooking the valley and mountains but here the similarity ends.
According to our Lonely Planet guide book – which we should have checked more closely, this hotel is frequented largely by rich Tunisians who come here to reap the benefits of the two natural hot springs for water cures and beauty treatments, all of which are added costs. Only the 30 m square pool and spas are free.
Dinner turns out to be another ‘dint’. Having imagined the sumptuous feast of Mahdia we are disappointed to find half the selection with mainly Tunisian choices. We are also the only non Tunisians in the nearly full dining room and I was hoping to meet some other tourists to chat to. I am feeling a little sorry about being here.
The beds are very comfortable though and the extreme quietness allows for a very sound sleep.
A walk into the surrounding valley and mountains the following day lifts our spirits even further and any doubts about our choice of venue fade away.
It is truly beautiful – we are both reminded of New Zealand as we follow a narrow road beside a clear stream, past olive and cork trees and chickens scuffing among the thick mat of grasses and plants providing the ground cover. Water bubbles softly over rounded stones and a woman tending her small herd waves. I point to my camera and she nods, happy to have her photo taken. In the distance, paddocks of fresh wheat shoots rise up into hills covered in bright yellow mimosa shrubs and scores of flowering plants. Taller mountains rise up behind.
The road ends and a track continues through the fields up into the hills. Plane trees newly shooting, olive, cork and pine trees shade our path as we climb to the top of the hill. Every few hundred metres a small herd grazes, always tended by one or two herders. Each has about 12 animals – a mix of woolly brown and white sheep, some goats and sometimes a cow or two. They dot the landscape. As I walk, I watch small white flowers pass under my feet and begin to sing…..
“ The hills are alive …. with the sound of music ….”
“ It does feel like that doesn’t it,” agrees David.
Continuing along the hill top, we spot a rocky outcrop under an old olive tree. It overlooks the entire valley and provides a perfect place to rest and eat our lunch.
We sit in silence and just absorb.
It is amazingly peaceful and blissfully still.
We soon ‘let go’ of our disappointment – feeling very grateful to be here.
Even dinner improves – well, our attitude anyway. There is plenty to eat. David finds chicken and braised steak to his liking for dinner and I find a lovely cucumber and tomato salad and I shouldn’t eat too much dessert anyway. We are starting to warm to the place. As always, the Tunisians are friendly and welcoming, and being among them in closer quarters is very interesting.
“Have you seen how some of them eat?” observes David.
Where we just take small amounts, finish and then get more if we need it, they fill their plates with everything they might want and place them in the middle of the table. Then, using a fork, everyone reaches out and eats from the plates in the centre. Food is often dropped on its way to the diner’s mouth often landing on other food along the way. This creates quite a mess in front of the diner who rests his elbows on the table using his forearm as a lever. Mandarin peels join the pile. At the end of the meal the waiter simply gathers up the plates and left-over food, then taking the tablecloth by the corners, folds it in the middle and rolls the whole lot up taking it away. Only a small number eat this way but the older men are the worst. It is obviously a cultural thing. For people like us who pride themselves on leaving a spotless table and finishing everything on our plates, it is very amusing.
There are some families here with children but most are middle aged couples or groups. A few tourist buses arrive each day.
Another interesting eye-opener is the 30 m square swimming pool filled by a natural hot water spring. There is an aqua class at 4 pm every day but before I join in, it seems wise to check it out. I am not sure of the ‘correct’ swimwear and don’t want to seem disrespectful. The concierge tells me anything is acceptable and points to the poster displaying a girl in a skimpy bikini. “Sometimes they wear nothing,” he smiles and I know this is the case in their hammams or public baths.
True, there are certainly many different states of dress when I go to check it out. There are some women in swimming costumes and all the men, of course, are in swimming trunks only. Deck chairs surround the pool but these are mainly for leaving robes and towels. One woman walks along the pool edge fully dressed in a long skirt, embroidered tunic and head scarf – suitable for dinner. I assume she is leaving and am amazed when she walks down the steps into the water and joins her near-naked husband. It doesn’t seem fair to be so ‘brain-washed’ but they are happy to comply with their religion and at the same time accept others who choose to act more freely.
I leave my shorts on over my swimmers.
There are six women in the spa when I enter, who immediately greet me and then, combining their ‘English’ talents ply me with lots of questions about where I am from, why and so on. They are very sweet, interested and full of fun – evident when an instructor enters the main pool to begin the aqua class. Fifty pairs of arms are soon waving in unison as our legs bounce up and down in time to the music. Nothing too strenuous but lots of laughter.
The decision to stay here just gets better.
We make a few day trips through the surrounding countryside and visit Bulla Regia another Roman city – its wealth was based on wheat. Bulla Regia is famed for its extraordinary underground villas built by the ever inventive Romans to escape the summer heat. This one is special because we can actually walk right into the complete, superbly preserved rooms rather than having to imagine how things must have looked from waist-high walls.
It is late afternoon by the time we return to the hotel. Just as we pass through the village the car suddenly stops. David turns the ignition off and on, the gauges flick for a moment and die. Locals appear from all direction full of helpful advice.
“ I have plenty of petrol” David tells them when they keep insisting “ Non essence! ” He thinks it must be an electrical problem.
After a ten minutes of trying everything I ring Kais.
“ We were driving and the car has just stopped,” I tell him.
“ I know,” he replies.
“ Gobsmacked” is probably a good description of my reaction. I listen as he apologises.
“ Just take the key out and put it back in, it will be OK. So sorry, it won’t happen again.”
Obviously, we are too close to the border. The car has a GPS tracking device fitted which initiates automatic switch off in this circumstance – excellent security. I guess it can also be used to immobilise the car if it is stolen. We tell the helpful locals and have a good laugh.
It is soon time to head back to Yasmine – a distance of about 250 km along lovely country roads some a bit pot-holey but it is worth it for the beautiful scenery.
We do make one detour, to another ancient Roman city – Dougga. Also a Unesco World Heritage site this one is listed as “one of the most magnificent monuments in Africa.” This site is remarkably complete giving a wonderful picture of how well-to-do Romans lived with their numerous bath houses, theatres, various temples and shops lining the paved roads. Waist-high walls, in this case, give a great overall picture. Although we are nearly ‘Roman-ruined out’ we are glad we stopped. Again it is very quiet with very few tourists and we can really take in the atmosphere. This is a hill top city with amazing views.
“In Tune” is waiting patiently for us when we return. With only three weeks to go before we are due to set sail we need to start getting her ready in earnest.
Within days we are on the hard – high and dry in the boat yard while she has her bottom cleaned and repainted with antifoul. While the workers paint we busily polish her hulls. When the traveler lifts her back into the water, two days later, she looks brand new again.
David has added shelves to cupboards, changed oils, put coolant in engines, cleaned the calcium out of the toilet pipes, cleared rust spots, changed the engine impellers, greased the winches, etc. etc. while I have been mainly working inside, sorting all the holds and cupboards, sewing and cleaning. Making clears to fit onto our batyline shade enclosure around the deck has taken me quite a few days for example – always lots to do.
Allan and Coralie Skype us regularly with news of Allan’s excellent recovery. Progress is slow but he is back to his old alert, ”cheeky” self. They are constantly monitoring their Liapri 41 “Whiskers” progress. Skippers Jacki and Graham have gone through the Panama canal now and are in the Galapagos and well on the way to Australia. They have made very good time and are very impressed with the boats’ performance – 9 knots in 15 knots of wind – something we haven’t yet managed.
Only a week left now. Our sails are back up and our wonderful new helm enclosure is finished. Traveling without being blasted by the wind, rain and salt-spray will be wonderful. Especially since I spend so much time up there. David has also finally soldered the HF radio aerial connections.
Today we brought 540 dinar worth of stamps to be put into our passports to indicate we have paid our visa fees for the 7 months. We have been here illegally really after the first week and so it is a relief to have this potential problem officially resolved.
I will miss Tunisia – not only the fresh, plentiful supply of food but also the people.
We have been very happy here.
New horizons beckon though – The small island of Pantelleria will be our first port of call then Malta, Syracuse in Sicily, the boot of Italy to Croatia, back down to Corfu and the Ionian area and finally to Preveza in Greece where we will winter In Tune while we travel back to Oz for about 6 months. It will be mid October by then.
That is Plan A anyway – what actually happens could be quite different.
We have also made many new sailing friends, Peter, here on our pontoon is sailing with us to Malta others are also going to Croatia so we will not feel alone.
I will leave you here.
The adventure and the learning experience continues, as again we sail off into the “unknown”. Having forgotten heaps I‘ll have to do a bit of re-learning – luckily I have a competent teacher on board.
Hope you happy and life is treating you well,
Love, light, peace and warmest wishes to you always,
David and Lucy – Louise