My heart is racing. It's day two of our trip and already I've lost two daughters and a son-in-law.
When planning our trip to Tunisia, I never anticipated having to hail two taxis each time we wanted to change locations. Or what would happen if one taxi failed to show up at our destination. Should we call the embassy? Has there been an accident? My husband — always the optimist — says to give it another 30 minutes and we continue to scan the heavy Tunis traffic. Finally, a foreign trio appears on the horizon.
They were waiting for us at a louage station only a few hundred metres away from the bus station we were aiming for. Luckily, our youngest daughter Maia packed binoculars. The upside to the panic-inducing snafu? We discover travelling as a family of five makes it a snap to use louages, long-distance shared taxis favoured by locals. With only eight seats our party of five can buy the extra three for few extra Tunisian Dinars (one TD=0.63 Can.) and voila — private transportation. Most drivers even go out of their way to accommodate us, taking us to our hotels rather than dropping us at the next louage station.
Most being the operative word. As our family collectively screams at our intoxicated louage driver en route to the town of Mahdia, I can't help but think he wouldn't be pulling this stunt with Tunisians.
Surprisingly, alcohol is readily available in this Arab country and this driver had detoured down a back alley to buy beer. He cracks a warm one behind the wheel, and a second … and a third. Telling him not to drink does nothing. So do we stay with him, or make our feelings very clear by yelling at him and risk being dropped off in the middle-of-nowhere in a foreign country? Yelling it is. Thankfully we arrive safely at Mahdia, a picturesque small town situated on a rocky Mediterranean peninsula. We trek through the town's petite medina, then enjoy a restorative meal of fresh fish and squid served by a moustachioed cook.
We try our luck with trains the next time around. “Keep moving, push, don't let them pass us,” our oldest daughter, Shannon, urges us. A sea of bodies is pushing to get on the train while the press of passengers is trying to get off. It's a free-for-all, not something Canadians excel at, but we're learning. Our efforts succeed — sort of. We're on the train, but not a seat in sight even though it's “first class”. We manage to flag down a conductor who dutifully kicks out passengers who upgraded themselves.
Soon we learn first class also comes with almost a centimetre of urine sloshing around on the bathroom floor, making us contemplate the facilities in second class.
Questionable sanitation aside, Tunisians are their usual friendly selves, helping us to put our packs on the racks and showing us how to manipulate the seats that are still functioning. Our youngest is sitting with a young woman dressed in Western clothing and her two sisters clad in stylish black hijabs, illustrating the dichotomy of opinions in Tunisia. Women here have the choice to dress as they wish.
The three sisters take us under their wing, arranging two taxis to the bus station. Maia goes with them, we take a second cab. At the station, they rush over to pay our driver, making sure we're not cheated on the fare. Then they even handle getting our bus tickets to Houmt Souk, capital of the picture-postcard island of Djerba.
We’re lucky to have found accommodation on the island, but our luck doesn’t hold as we press on. There are no vacancies in Kairouan, a city we planned to stay in for two nights. Instead, this UNESCO World Heritage site becomes a day trip. Located in the scorchingly hot dessert, it's Islam's fourth holiest site and the home of the Great Mosque — one of the most important in the Islamic world.
With a family of five, it’s a constant struggle to find two rooms. Triple rooms are difficult to find and hard to book online. Maia shares a room with us, something she hasn’t done since she was a child. Luckily Chris, Shannon's husband, speaks Tunisia’s second language. But even excellent French skills can’t pull hotel rooms out of thin air.
We move to plan B — the city of Sousse — and secure rooms in its historic medina, still surrounded by stone walls the Aghlabids built on Byzantine foundations in CE 859. Sousse's natural harbour and location on the eastern seaboard mean it has been a indispensable port for various civilizations for the past 3000 years. Perfect for a family with a taste for history.
We visit the Ribat, a fort constructed in 821 CE, which functioned as both a religious institution and military protection. We climb the spiral staircase of the nador (watchtower) following in the footsteps of the Aghlabids who kept watch for plundering Christians from Sicily. Rising above the medina is the kasbah, or fortress, housing an archeological museum with some of the best mosaics in Tunisia.
Back in Tunis, the unwelcome comments Maia has heard throughout the country continue. “Hey beautiful. Snow White. Very Nice! Are you married? Will you marry me?” No matter that she sticks to long skirts and pants, no sleeveless tops and is travelling with her family. While at the beach Maia considered the benefits of a 'burkini', (an oxymoron if ever there was one), a light weight bathing suit that covers everything but the face, hand and feet.
Wandering through the medina,the old city, a formerly walled labyrinth of narrow streets filled with souks, (markets) selling everything from rugs, clothing and souvenirs to Tunisian foodstuffs, we hear a constant refrain. “Where are you from? Ah, Canada—Quebec? No, English Canada. We have special deals for Canadians today. Come into my shop and look around. Looking is free. How much will you give for that bag? Twenty dinars—not possible, you'll bankrupt me!”
Bartering is the name of the game and one thing that has not changed since my husband and I last visited Tunisia almost forty years ago. We persevere and manage to buy what we want at tolerable prices including bags to bring it all home in. But it is not the souvenirs that we treasure most from our trip. It is the wonderful memories we have made.