Travels In Tunisia To Date, or My Tatto Impression, 30 September, 2008

As I prepare for my departure from Tunisia this Thursday (2 October), I’ve thrown together a couple reflections, in sum and whatnot of my travels so far in this tiny North African country.

Tunisia has been a rough go. I speak in euphemisms, and will not dwell at length at the seemingly endless frustrations I’ve experienced here: no one enjoys whining, least of all me being responsible for its chronicling. Suffice it to say that this country has been a multi-headed monster of adversity and frustration, seemingly perpetually intent upon frustrating this solo traveler’s best efforts. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys all-inclusive vacation packages—gated hotels, air-conditioned buses, multi-lingual tour guides, with a Western style dinner, on-tap German beer and Bingo to finish your night—you will find Tunisia ready to compete with the best of destinations. If, however, you have no interest in such prefabricated pleasures, preferring instead to take the local bus, hot and crammed and sweating, rent a cheap hotel room, buy a sandwich street-side, and explore from there, if, in short, you’re me, you’re in for a Sisyphean task.

In fairness, it’s important to acknowledge that Tunisia is tremendously safe—because tourism is such a significant percentage of the country’s income, stiff penalties have been effectively put in place to deter criminality—but safe travel in no way ensures ease of travel. In fact, in Tunisia the two seem to exist in inverse proportion to one another, and while I have little fear of being robbed, I have equally little confidence that a museum will be open despite the signage, a bus will be available, an explanation will be provided, and so on.

I’ve had some good experiences here, many of which can be read about in other blog entries. I don’t want to be one-sided: it hasn’t all been negative, but despite the weather it hasn’t all been sunshine either. Again, in an effort to avoid finger-pointing and shoe-staring, I’ll refrain from a detailed list of grievances, though don’t for a moment think I therefore lack one, and extensive at that. Rather, I think the biggest reason for my frustrations so far is language-based. It stars with a simple fact and then spreads outward – or, more appropriately downward – from there. I speak little-to-no Arabic, and my French, while steadily improving, is sadly capable of only the simplest self-expressions. Without dwelling too laboriously on the point: if language is the frontier of the self, i.e., One cannot be greater than the language one can utilize to define oneself, then sadly I have been reduced to verbal equivalent of Tattoo, the (in?)famous Fantasy Island character known both for his small stature and his constant refrain, The Plane, The Plane.

Needless to say, such comparisons do wonders for my sense of self…

A sad example, perhaps trifling though I feel it pertinent: I can’t recall the last time I told a joke. I tried a couple times, but as they were usually met with incredulous looks and required five-minute explanations, with the end result being a labored and false-smiling “Oh…”, I threw in the towel on such undertakings. To say nothing of everyone else that English permits me to be: sarcastic, intelligent, confident, capable, emotionally-aware, curious, etc. and so on. A more concise way of saying this would be: My language is small, and subsequently so am I. And so, lacking the ability to be the person I normally am, I’m left a) seriously stunted in my interactions with locals, and b) driven to pen and paper, which have, along with the books I found in Paris, been my refuge, though they have the added disadvantage of further keeping me from engaging the locals.

I am concerned – greatly, in fact – about this as I continue onwards. My next two destinations are Egypt and Ethiopia; the first again Arab speaking, though English will be much more available, while in the latter the most common languages are Amharic, Tigrinya and Oroyo… I have a surprisingly patient constitution for many of the frustrations that come with traveling in non-Western countries; I am running out of patience with this linguistic confinement. Needless to say, and regardless however silly it may sound, I didn’t see this coming.

In sum, I proceed with hesitation. Despite wishing the best for the travels to come, if all I can be on this voyage as a result of language shortcomings is a boiled-down, shrunken version of me, then I suppose there will arrive a day, perhaps coming sooner than I had imagined, at which I’ll tire of being less-than-me. An Aaron reduced to Tattoo is no Aaron I enjoy, and since I’m stuck with him all the time, I have to act with our best interests in mind. And while that’s the sort of pill that will surely be challenging to ingest, I suppose that’s why alcohol was invented: to help swallow some of life’s challenges.

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