When you quiz round the world travelers, their itineraries usually contain many of the same core countries and regions: Southeast Asia, India, and Australia are the most common with Africa and South America coming in just below (unless you’re in the Pacific Rim, the southern hemisphere really drives RTW airfare costs up). Eastern Europe is less common, though not unheard of, as is North Africa, our current location. We’ve met others who have hit Egypt, Morocco, and even Ethiopia, but we don’t know any one else who has included the small country of Tunisia in their RTW plan. There are probably many reasons for this: 1) cost of getting here–unless you’re coming on a package tour from Germany or France, there’s no rock bottom way by boat or air from Europe, and overland travel requires riding the highways of Libya or Algeria, either impossible or inadvisable at present; 2) its wonders are overshadowed by the pyramids of Egypt to the east and the more famous souks of Morocco to the west; and 3) many people have never even heard of it.
As itinerary master, I was turned on to Tunisia for 3 reasons (there’s great comfort in threes): 1) Carthage and Hannibal; 2) Star Wars (all 6 episodes); and 3) it would allow us to get back to North Africa without having to endure Egypt, a place that strained Tom and I to our limits in 1999. Much like Turkey, Tunisia boasts a western-friendly, secular regime and is therefore less intimidating for us than its Islamist neighbors. On the flip side, as a former colony of France, its official languages are French and Arabic, both tongues that elude us. (Between Tom and I we can get by in Japanese, Russian, and German, and we’ve learned a little Mandarin and Spanish for the trip. Both big boys study Spanish. Alas, no Francais.) Language barriers have yet to deter us from visiting a place, so we decided to make Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, the fifth of the six stops on our round the world tickets.
We arrived at the airport around midnight, after yet another connection through Paris (now our most visited city of the trip). We didn’t know what awaited us outside the airport doors but hoped the people would be friendly and the weather temperate. In a scene out of India, a herd of taxi drivers swarmed around us, grabbing our bags and shouting loudly in an attempt to win our business for the night. A seasoned handler of overly aggressive cab drivers, Tom swung his arms and in one Matrixlike motion recovered all the bags and silenced all the drivers. “You,” he proclaimed pointing at the driver of a dilapidated yellow station wagon. “15 dinar to the Sheraton.” The other drivers muttered, yelled, and threw up their hands at the great offense they had just been dealt and refused to clear the way for our cab once we had climbed inside. This was an inauspicious introduction to Tunisia, but if you were to judge a country by the cab drivers that frequent its airports, you might think the whole world a hostile, dishonest place. We soon learned that these drivers were the exception in this humble Mediterranean nation.
The next morning we visited the medina, or ancient walled city. No sooner had our driver deposited us on the street than I was stopped on the sidewalk by a young woman with her son. “I saw you on Oprah,” she exclaimed. “You did?” I asked. “Yes, you were in South Africa. You’re welcome to Tunisia.” I could tell that she meant it. We spent the next few minutes chatting about her country and discussing which locations we should visit. “Thank you very much. Please enjoy Tunisia,” she said as we parted. Imagine that, she was thanking me when she had been the one to extend such kindness. This could be our kind of country, I thought.
Just so we didn’t get big heads, a man in the medina’s busiest souk decided to set us straight. I constantly quiz Tom on the whereabouts of his wallet and remind him whenever we enter a new city of the hotspots for pickpockets. He’s usually prepared but on this day, he let his guard down just a bit. I was ahead of him by about 10 feet, shepherding the little kids. Suddenly he shouted ahead to me, “That guy just unzipped my camera bag.” I spun around to find three men wedged between us in the jam packed marketplace. “This one,” I shouted back, pointing to a tall, skinny man trying to take a quick left down an alley. I was ready to body block him with all my 90 pound might because frankly I’m fed up of being viewed as tourist prey by thieves. “Non, monsieur,” he pouted holding up his hands to show they were free of loot. Tom performed a quick inventory and verified that the important stuff was all still in place and called back, “I don’t think he got anything.” I let him pass. It wasn’t until four or five days later when we went to charge the spare camera battery that we realized it was missing. What the thief could do with it, we couldn’t imagine, but it marked the second time in nine months we’ve been snookered by thieves. (The first time was by a shifty cab driver in Xian, China.)
We left the souk unphased, figuring we had outwitted the thief, and found a fun cafe where we could have our first Tunisian lunch. We quenched our thirst with delicious lemonade and got really confused when our pizza arrived covered in canned tuna–a local specialty for which we were unprepared. As we ate, we noticed a group of women at the table next to us who seemed unusually interested in us. We started clearing the table to leave, and one of them spoke up, “Excuse me. Were you on the Oprah Winfrey Show a few weeks ago?” Now we were beginning to feel like celebrities.
Again we had a lovely but brief visit with the three women, all instructors at a local university. They explained that many at the school watch Oprah to improve their English and that our episode had aired just one week earlier. Tom was eager to hear whether our voices had been dubbed or whether we had appeared with subtitles. The answer: Arabic subtitles. As with the woman on the street, these lovely ladies extended us a warm welcome to their country and thanked us profusely for speaking with them.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets of Tunis, finding the ever necessary supermarket, and soaking up the Tunisian sunshine. Any time someone looked at us longer than usual or whispered to a companion we wondered if we were once again being recognized. It was a handy way to remind the kids they should always be on their best behavior, but then we remembered that we’re a traveling circus and draw attention to ourselves wherever we are. (If you know Asher, you understand what I mean.)
Grateful for the warmth we had been shown, we drifted off to sleep in our Sheraton beds hopeful that the rest of our days in Tunisia would be as good as our first.