There were so many reasons why I was the most excited to see Tunisia on this trip. It was the first predominately Muslim country I had visited, it was the first country in Africa, and it was the most culturally different from anywhere I had visited.
When we got off of our ship, we boarded a bus and started driving into Tunis, the coastal city nearby. Everything was so gloomy. The roads were made of dirt and there appeared to be a giant cloud looming over the city. The whole feel of the city felt much more depressing than any other place I had visited. We arrived in the city and drove down the congested and somewhat dirty streets. They were lined with tents and tents full of fresh produce. The fruits and vegetables seemed to be the only thing in the city that had any color.
Our first stop was the main government building. It was in the middle of the city center and by far the nicest building in the city. It was surrounded by loops and loops of barbed wire fencing, with razors sticking out just waiting to catch someone’s skin. Just three months earlier, Tunisia had gone through a pretty significant revolution, with masses of people standing in the same place we were standing now, fighting for freedom and rights. I felt the somberness full of victory that the Tunisian people must have felt when the revolution ended, knowing that their country was headed in much better direction, and wondering how long it would take for such a change to take place.
We spent some time roaming the streets of Tunis. They were dirty, often made of dirt or very old cobblestones. It was very wet, as though it had just rained, and the old buildings surrounding us would drip rainwater on our heads as we strolled along. The wheels on my wheelchair soon became covered in a thick, brown layer of muck.
On this particular trip, we didn’t leave our tour guide. I had the feeling it just wasn’t a good idea to be roaming around the city on our own. He took us to a local, indoor market where we had the opportunity to buy perfumes, jewelry, and other local customary items. One of the most famous souvenirs from Tunisia are the carpets. There were hundreds and hundreds of carpets, all being woven in front of us. It made me think of the Disney movie, Aladdin, and it’s flying carpets and how the storyline of the movie came from areas of the world that most children had no idea existed.
After the shopping, our tour guide brought us to a local Tunisian’s home where we would be “entertained” with dancing. We walked into a very, very narrow doorway that opened up to a flight of stairs. It was a long flight, turning several times, with the steps themselves made of very old wood that looked as though it was ready to fall through at any time.
I crawled onto Matt’s back so we could get upstairs. We had no idea what was at the top of the stairs, and it was a difficult flight for Matt and me to get up. The hallway was extremely narrow and the flight very steep. The room at the top of the stairs was small with low ceilings. Matt had to bend over so we wouldn’t hit our heads. It was about 200 square feet and lined with old chairs and couches, covered in beautiful Tunisian fabrics. It smelled musty and of incense. Once we found our place in the corner and the rest of the group settled into their seats, we were greeted by three women, one who appeared to be in her fifties, and two others who couldn’t have been older than twenty. They were likely her daughters. They were dressed in colorful gowns, with beads and sparkles glistening as they moved.
They served us warm apple tea, in cups not much bigger than a shot glass from The States, and fresh date cookies. Dates are the most common “welcome fruit” of the Middle East. And while we weren’t technically in the Middle East, the influence from that part of the world was prevalent here. They were very sweet, and just a bite or two the warm cookie was enough to satisfy any sweet tooth.
As they finished serving us, they turned on an old AM/FM radio sitting in the corner and started dancing. The older woman started dancing first, holding her arms high in the air and moving her hips back and forth rhythmically. She was wearing a very long robe, covering her from her neck to the floor. As the song finished, one of the younger women took over the center of the hardwood floors, covered in a large area rug, and started swaying in a seductive way to the music. She was dressed in a very fancy skirt that went all way to the floor, and a sequenced top that resembled a bikini top. She had a perfectly pasted smile on her face, and circled around the room with such grace.
She was attempting to get others to join her in her belly dance. And when she got to our corner, was able to, after much encouragement from us, get Julie to join her on the dance floor. Julie was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and had a nervous look on her face. The dark haired dancer standing next to Julie with her blonde hair made this part of the world seem so distant from where I lived.
On our way back to the ship, we all sat quietly looking out the windows of the bus. So many of the buildings were run down and dirty. And the people walking along the sides of the street didn’t smile. The poverty and struggles that this country would have to overcome were heartbreaking. I was glad that the revolution had passed though, and hoped that things would keep moving forward as they had been the last three months.
As we pulled up to the ship, we noticed three camels sitting on the ground near the ship. A few Tunisian men, covered in robes, were standing near the camels. As we approached the entrance to the ship and the camels resting nearby, we discovered that we could ride the camels for 5 euros each. I was terrified of getting on the camel. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to climb up the small ladder to the humps of the camel, and that once I was on the camel I would fall. I watched Julie and Matt mount a camel and instantly they had the biggest smiles on their faces. The next time I have the chance to ride a camel, I won’t let my fears keeps me away. It’s one of my regrets from that trip – not riding the domesticated camel.
They rode the camel for all of five minutes, going in a small circle near the boarding area of the ship. And minutes later we were back on the ship. Of the whole trip, I think that was the best 5 euros any of us spent.