We got up at 8, went to breakfast, and got off onto a new continent! I was so excited to be in Africa.
As I’d hoped, there were camels to greet us at the port. We could see them from our cabin, even.
There were also guys waiting with peregrine falcons. As much as I know I shouldn’t look interested or else it will cost me money, I can’t help it! I love birds a lot, especially when they perch on me.
We had arranged a driver for a private tour beforehand, and were supposed to meet him at 9:30. The guy who organized it said he’d be there waiting at 8:30, but I reconfirmed that we wouldn’t be there til later. We followed his hand-drawn map to the meeting point, which was outside the entrance to the port. As in many cities, there are certain cabs that are allowed to drive into the port area, and some that aren’t.
We found the spot where he was supposed to be waiting, holding a sign with our names. There were a bunch of cabs parked there, but we didn’t see anyone who had a sign or who appeared to be waiting on anyone. We stood there for a minute looking at our map and wondering if we had the right place, but I was sure that had to be correct. While we were doing that, one of the drivers came up and told us he could take us on a tour.
We explained the situation, and showed him the details we had from the tour guide. He said, “This says 8:30! He probably left!” I tried to explain that we had actually planned for later, but he was having none of it. He even called the guy’s number on his cellphone, and said that nobody was answering. I have no idea if he actually called that number or not, but it was pretty funny. He said he would take us for the same price we’d agreed on ($100, which was far cheaper than the huge ship tours). We decided to go with him, even though his impatience was pretty irritating.
He warmed up a bit in the car, and started telling us about Tunis and his plans for us. All the tours go to the same places: Carthage, Sidi Bou Said, and the Medina of Tunis (that’s exactly what we wanted to see, too, without the big crowds). They go in a certain order, so he said he’d take us to those spots in the opposite order. We were perfectly happy with that.
On the way to Tunis, you pass a giant saltwater lake. Train tracks run on a narrow piece of land between there and the city (it goes to the port, too, but you can’t take it to any of the other spots we wanted to see).
Our driver’s name was Heddy. He drove us to a big central turnaround with a clock tower in Tunis, and told us he would be there to pick us up whenever we wanted. We agreed on noon. Matt noted the cab number in case we had trouble, and our driver pointed out the way to the Medina. We were supposed to walk down the main street and keep going until we saw the main gate.
We headed off in that direction, having to dodge a ton of traffic in the circle. (The key is to wait for a local and run along with them when they cross.) We were immediately in the heart of Tunis, and it wasn’t at all what I expected. There was a huge street with a wide pedestrian boulevard down the middle. The buildings were all very modern, and the majority of them were banks. There were high-end shops, and cute restaurants with sidewalk tables. It was much more European looking than I had expected.
Along the way, we picked up a friend. An old guy started walking along with us, and asked if we were from the ship. (That part was pretty obvious.) He said he was a mechanic onboard, and that he would have to go back soon. He said to keep going straight to get to the Medina and the mosque. We thanked him, and he headed off. It was kind of strange, and we were pretty sure he wasn’t actually from the ship, but that was fine.
A block down, we made another friend. Just like the first guy, he worked as a fish chef on the ship. (I didn’t ask him which ship, since there were two in port… I didn’t want to catch him lying!) He asked where were from, and started telling us about how he was here to visit his family for a few hours. He then started in on the things that could could be found in the Medina, which were way cheaper than anywhere else in the world. Perfume in particular; did we know that Chanel #5 was made in Tunisia? I feigned interest in what he was saying, but I could see where it was going. He told us that his brother owned a perfume shop in the Medina, and he would be happy to show us.
I thanked him and said that we weren’t interested in perfume, and went back to talking to Matt. He kept walking with us, even stopping to wait while we took pictures of the city gate. We hung back and tried to lose his interest, but he was going nowhere.
From the gate, he accompanied us into the entrance to the souk. He pointed at my purse and told me to watch it, because the area was notorious for tourist pickpocketing. (I was wearing my purse strapped across my body, and had the zipper clipped closed with a carabiner, so I felt pretty prepared for that. It was crowded enough that I had to hold it clutched against me anyway.)
We knew that we shouldn’t stop and look at things unless we really, really wanted to buy them, because the shopkeepers are expert salesmen there. So we tried to keep moving, but slowly enough that maybe our friend would end up far ahead of us and we could lose him. The problem with the souk is that it’s basically one very long tunnel with occasional shady-looking side alleys. Sometimes you’re outdoors and sometimes under cover, but you can only tell based on the narrow strip of daylight you can see above the shops’ canopies. It’s very loud, very busy, and there’s a man standing at every shop saying “bonjour, madam”. Between that and the friend we couldn’t shake, we were getting a little nervous.
We came to the corner where our guide was going to turn to head down to the perfume shop. We had slowed down and were pretending not to notice him waiting there. He turned briefly to head that direction, assuming we would follow, just as a group of tourists passed between us. We immediately jumped in among them and kept going straight, rushing around to get the group in between him and us. We had no idea if he realized it and was following us, we just kept walking as fast as possible through the souk. (In retrospect, we pictured our getaway much like the souk fight scene in Indiana Jones. I’m sure it looked exactly like that.)
We finally had gone far enough that we figured he wasn’t following us anymore, so we stopped at an intersection that actually had a street sign and was out in the sunlight. We had no idea where we were at that point, so our main problem now was whether to take the route we knew led to the exit, directly back the way we came, or to try to find another way and avoid our friend. I took a picture of the street sign, figuring it might help if we found it later. RIGHT.
We had actually ended up in a calmer area, so we felt like we could relax a little. We seemed to be heading back in the right direction, so for the first time there I actually paid attention to what was in the shops. They had EVERYTHING there: clothes and purses, souvenirs, and every kind of food. The fried breads looked amazing. We walked slower and saw some things, but still didn’t go into any of the shops. I wasn’t committed to shopping in Tunisia quite yet!
We ended up near a mosque, and from there an alley that looked promising. I overheard a British couple and was about to ask them if they knew the way out, but then suddenly we were at the exit. We had survived!!
We set off to walk around elsewhere in Tunis that was not the souk, all excited about our very daring escape from the crafty fish chef who really really wanted to sell us perfume.
We walked off the main drag a few blocks, and came across the tram turnaround that was full of little shops, newspaper stands, and food carts. It was definitely less cosmopolitan than the main street, but wasn’t particularly run down in any way, and all the food smelled REALLY good. We walked through a shopping mall, mostly because I wanted to visit a Tunisian shopping mall (note: a Tunisian shopping mall is exactly like every other shopping mall on earth), then went back out to the main street. It was hot, and we needed water. We found a small restaurant whose patio wasn’t entirely full, and grabbed a table. We ordered coffee (figuring we’d get the coffee pictured on the menu, which seemed to be something between espresso and Turkish coffee) and a huge bottle of water. We also had to ask the server if they took euros, because we didn’t have Tunisian currency and the ATM nearby was broken. That took a while, because he spoke French and we did not.
The coffee was as delicious as I’d hoped, and I enjoyed being able to sit there and watch people go by and not feel harried after our market experience. Which was hilariously funny in retrospect.
It was then time to go meet Heddy, so we paid (and got dinars in exchange for our euros, which was handy) and walked the few blocks back in the direction of the clock tower. I went to cross the street in an area that looked sort of torn up before crossing over to the pedestrian walkway, and a bunch of guys in military garb started yelling “Madam!” at me and pointing. I realized that the area I was entering was surrounded by barbed wire, so that was probably not the place to go. (Heddy explained later that it was some kind of government building, and in the wake of the riots last year, that made sense.)
We found Heddy across the street waving, and went to hop in the cab. He asked how things went, and wanted to make sure we didn’t buy anything in the Medina, since he swore everything was insanely overpriced there. Haha.
We were then on our way to Carthage. It was probably 8 or so miles away, and rather than taking the highway the whole way there, he drove us through some of the new developments along the coast facing the city. It was all still part of Tunis (even Carthage and Sidi Bou Said), but just different areas.
There were hundreds of very recent new condos, most of them seemingly unoccupied as of yet. (Heddy explained that he couldn’t have afforded them, but that people like us could. We didn’t bother trying to dissuade him.) There were huge nightclubs, too, all of them with western names like Miami Beach and Mississippi Restaurant. They all had giant patios and looked kind of like a huge Champps. He said they were really popular, and it was hard to picture since the area seemed really deserted during the day. There were at least three gigantic bowling alleys, too.
He pointed out the US embassy, and then we were in Carthage. You could see bits of Roman ruins laying all over the place, with giant houses built among them. It was definitely the rich part of Tunis.
The cathedral at Carthage isn’t very old, but it’s really impressive. We went inside, and they were having a bicycle-themed art exhibit, so basically we could’ve been in Minneapolis as well.
We tried to go up the spiral stairs to see if there was a view from the top, but the door was closed. We went back out to the courtyard to use the restroom, and then Heddy pointed us toward the museum. We didn’t have a ton of time, so we didn’t bother going in. We just peered.
(The museum reminded me a lot of the one we’d wandered around in in Rome. It’s so strange to just see pieces of fancy pillars and statues laying all over the place.)
There was a good view of Tunis from the museum, too.
We got back in the cab, and he drove us around the rest of the area. We saw the new president’s house (which you’re not allowed to take pictures of), an aqueduct, and the mostly-destroyed amphitheater. There were insanely huge houses everywhere, too.
He took us to see the new mosque, which is right down the hill from the cathedral. That led to a conversation about how they don’t have a lot of trouble with religious differences in Tunisia, and everyone pretty much gets along. We had definitely noticed on the streets that there were both women in hijabs and in European dress, with varying degrees of formality.
We went down to see the old Roman harbor, which is now at the center of a suburban neighborhood.
It was then time to go to Sidi Bou Said. Heddy asked us if we wanted to get food, and we said yes. He started telling us that we’d go to the town and then he would take us to the BEST RESTAURANT EVER, down near the port. We really just wanted to get something easy in Sidi Bou Said, so we finally convinced him to do that instead. Most of the tourist-guiding activity in Tunisia, like in other places, seems to lead to being taken to the businesses of people the guide is in good with. I’m sure it’s a great arrangement.
But first, we were going to the store. We knew, of course, that we were going to be stuck buying there, but that was fine. I loved our tour, and I’m glad we weren’t dragged to the Berber rug store with the ship tour.
Heddy led the way to the shop, and we met ol’ grandpa one-tooth. He was cute and friendly, and took us upstairs to see the view from the roof of the shop. The best view in all of Sidi Bou Said, in fact! (Our pub crawl friends heard the same claim from their shop-owner, too.)
We picked out some souvenirs for people back home, and I got a little metal camel whose back opened on a hinge. We picked out the usual magnet, and also grabbed a couple of nice handpainted bowls to take home. Grandpa one-tooth grabbed an elephant that matched the camel and said it was his gift to me, because it’s a good luck charm that would ensure I would have 10 babies. (God help us.) I thanked him and knew we were going to pay a billion dollars for everything there. (It ended up being over $200, so I was close!)
Heddy seemed very pleased with our successful shopping trip. He put our bag in the trunk and led us across the street to a restaurant he recommended. We were the only people in there (it was around 2pm), and the waiter was adorable. He described their fish lunch special as a very traditional Berber dish, and Matt decided to go with that. I explained that I was vegetarian, and he said that they could make a version with vegetables. I definitely was not expecting that.
Lunch was AMAZING. We had a sort of foccaccia-like flatbread with harissa and other sides to start, and a pitcher of Tunisian beer that I wish I could describe better. It was room temperature, and very heavy on the brewing spices. It wasn’t very carbonated, either. Our tagines arrived, and Matt’s had an entire fish laying on top looking at him. (He named the fish “lunch”.)
The Tunisian version of MTV was on. We saw Justin Bieber and Pitbull, in addition to a bunch of local music. I was way too excited about that.
After our extremely awesome lunch, we got back in the car and Heddy drove us to see the beach. On the way there, I started to feel not so great, like I was getting seasick.
The beach was huge, and had a boardwalk along the way. There were cute shops, including an ice cream place that Heddy wanted to take us to. He said he wanted to buy us an ice cream, but I told him I wasn’t feeling well. He seemed very worried about that, but I explained that I have trouble with seasickness.
After the beach, we drove up a hill for a great view of the city. It was really impressive. Heddy pointed out the special service that we were getting on our tour, how he took us to all the best spots. It was pretty funny, and we knew he’d be getting a good tip for it. Nearing the port, Hotel California came on the radio. Matt despises that song, and it was all I could do to not fall over laughing about it.
On the way back to the ship, he started telling us about his family, and how important it was to him that we would go home and tell people about Tunisia. He was worried that the news about the riots was all people knew. Which is fairly true in America in particular… while it’s a big European destination, it’s not very well-known to us. I would absolutely go back.
He dropped us off right outside the port entrance where he’d picked us up, and got our shopping bag out of the trunk. We tipped him well, and he seemed very pleased with the amount; he said he was going to get his kids some pizza for dinner. We thanked him and walked back to the little mall at the port. Along the way, another cab driver asked if we could trade him a 10 euro note for coins; the banks there won’t take the coins. We did that, and headed back to the ship. I hadn’t really realized til that point how incredibly hot it was there. The camels were still there hanging out, but it was clear they were getting ready to leave.
We walked through the shops and got back on the ship. Our balcony was so hot it was barely tolerable.
We went up to have a post-Tunisian snack of pizza, then headed down to play shuffleboard again. We ran into a few more people we knew while we were playing.
We then went up to the Lido deck because Matt had promised to try one of the weird Dutch sausages, and we were running out of time! After that, we went back to the room to change and watch the ship leaving port.
We also shoved all of our clothes in the laundry bag for Ishmael to pick up. Since we were traveling for 2 1/2 weeks, we figured we could bring about 10 days’ worth of clothes and have them washed. The ship had an all-you-can-fit for $25 deal, which was pretty excellent. That bag was absolutely bursting at the seams, too… I feel bad for whoever had to unload it.
We wanted to go play games in the lounge, but the Crows Nest (and therefore the game cabinet) was blocked off for a private party. The only game set up was checkers, so we did that (and could barely remember how… Matt finally went to find an encyclopedia in the library and looked it up). The couple from Madison wandered by, so we talked to them about their experience on the bus tour in Tunis. They did indeed go to the Berber rug shop, and they bought one! I didn’t think that ever happened. They explained how they were getting it home, because that part was confusing.
Our checkers game was so slow that I finally threw it and let Matt win so we could go get dinner. We went down to the Lido buffet around 8pm. I had squash soup, two kinds of salad (one involving lots of mozzarella), and no-sugar-added tiramisu. YUM. Matt had a good steak and acceptable lamb chops.
After dinner, we headed to the Queen’s Lounge for live band karaoke. Though it wasn’t our last night on the ship, it was starting to feel like it was ending way too soon. We watched the end of the Sharon and the Hal-Cats’ set, and then they passed out karaoke books and let people choose songs. There were some incredible singers, one Russian lady who stumbled through a brave version of “My Heart Will Go On” without being able to read english, a Belgian guy who sang “Sweet Caroline”, a Mormon guy who sang multiple songs, a gay guy from Berlin who sang “Smooth Operator”, an Indian Freddie Mercury, and a Swede who thought he was Elton John. It was all very, very entertaining.
We stopped at the casino bar for a cocktail to bring back to the room, and ran into the pub crawl group there. We made plans to meet them the next day for our final night of the cruise. SIGH.