Kairouan to Tozeur, Tunisia, 19 September, 2008

In the late morning I took the bus from Enfida to the town of Kairouan.  Kairouan is one of Islam’s most holy cities, the place where the Arabs first established a base as they began to move eastward into North Africa in the 7th Century.  The town has gained a place of such import in Islam that if a believer in unable to make the hajj to Mecca, seven visits to the Grand Mosque of Kairoun will suffice.

I arrived at the bus station and slowly stumbled my way towards to Medina and the old town.  People were generally helpful, but Kairouan, like most cities here in Tunisia, seem to operate under the premise that street signs are anathema.  When they do exist, which is rare, they’re usually written in Arabic, which sadly does me little good.  I arrived in the Medina hot, and was immediately assaulted by vendors hawking goods, which did little for my mood.  I skirted the market areas and finally wandered through empty alleys until I arrived at the Grand Mosque where, despite the sign indicating that it was open for visits, I was shooed off by a brusque janitor.  I toured the outside of the Mosque and then continued wandering until I found myself at Bir  Barouta, a raised indoor well where a camel, blindfolded, walks in a tight circles turning a well that is supposedly connected to Mecca.  Regardless the source of the water, the image was a little depressing, and I quickly departed.

I tried exploring some more of the city only to find things closed, impossible to locate or of little value to my eyes.  Eventually I arrived at the louage, or taxi, station, where I hoped to grab a taxi to the city of Tozeur in the Western central part of the country.  Despite my guidebook’s declarations, I was told there were no louages to Tozeur, so I went to the bus station where I’d originally arrived.  I inquired as to the next bus to Tozeur, and though the sign said there wouldn’t be one for another four hours, I was told to sit outside and wait because one would be arriving in half an hour.  I asked if I needed to buy a ticket and was told no, I would do that on the bus.  I sat down outside with other travelers, took out my book and water bottle and began to read.  Within five minutes a station attendant was yelling, “Tozeur, Tozeur” and pulling me up towards the bus.  I tried to jam my book into my bag and carry my water bottle, and then I was being accosted by the attendant and the driver for a ticket.  I explained that I didn’t have one, that I had been told I would purchase one on the bus, which apparently was not how they saw things, so I was summarily dragged back to the ticket booth where I was charged two-and-a-half times the normal fare.  I began to complain but was told simply, “That’s the price.”  I argued, the ticket seller, a smarmy little man behind a glass window sat smoking and snickering with a friend, continued to repeat his refrain.  I told them I thought it was shit and turned to the attendant, who had continued the entire time to tug at my arm, trying to hurry me to the bus.  I asked him, “Is this the normal fare?”  He didn’t answer, only continued to tug at my arm.  I grabbed his arm, held up the ticket and yelled, “Is this the normal fare?”, and when he looked away I knew I was being swindled.  I didn’t have much choice in the matter, so I told them all to go to hell, grabbed my bag and climbed up on the bus where I fumed and muttered.  Luckily for my mental health the bus driver seemed hell-bent on establishing a new land-speed record, and my anger quickly turned to white-knuckled fear as we careened and caromed along the roads at breakneck speeds.  After an hour of this the police pulled us over and ticketed the driver, and the remaining three hours were a little calmer.

I arrived in Tozeur just before dinner, checked into a hotel, showered and then found a restaurant.  Tozeur sits just south of the center of Tunisia, on the western edge of the country not far from Algeria.  The city is known for its palm trees and their dates, and sits right on the edge of the Sahara desert, which creeps up from the South.  While eating my dinner I overheard a woman speaking with a couple next to me about a desert tour, which was something I was interested in.  I had seen her eating dinner when I’d arrived at the restaurant – she was sitting alone at a table reading, and she caught my eye because she reminded me greatly of my friend Melody in Seattle.  Genevieve is French-Canadian, and she and I struck up a conversation that mixed French and English to both of our likings.  After some discussions and getting-to-know-you’s, we agreed to a sit down and talk with a guide she had found earlier in the day.  We spent that night with our tour-guide-to-be in the palm tree oasis located below town.  Sitting on the sand under a jasmine tree, sipping coffee and smoking a hookah, the frustrations of the day began to slip away, and I felt relieved.  I thought, this, this is what I’ve been missing, what I’ve been needing, and for the first time in a while I began to become excited at traveling in Tunisia.

The tour guide was a young man named Mohammed, who outlined on a map for us the places we would go and the things we would see and do.  We agreed upon a price, and then sat and talked politics and go to know one another.  Initially, Mohammed struck me as bright and energetic, with a strong work ethic and a good knowledge of the surrounding area and history.  But in the following days I would find that he, like most things Tunisian, are not ever what they seem.

 

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