Star Wars and Gladiator

I just arrived in Cairo and once the sun goes down here things get really chaotic. But I will leave that for my next post.

My last few days in Tunisia were spent down south before returning to Tunis. Despite a lot of travel time, I accomplished my goals of seeing part of the Tunisia desert, where I visited a town used for a location in the original Star Wars, and one of the arenas used to film the movie Gladiator.

One thing about Tunisia that first caught my attention as I was researching this trip was how many sites in the country had been used as locations during the filming of the Star Wars movies. While the heat and difficulty in getting to all the sites without a car limited me, I was still determined to see at least one Star Wars location. Read more of this post

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Lost In Translation

Traveling by yourself for a few days without a concrete plan + not speaking the local language (in this case Arabic or French) + heat topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit + Ramadan = not the best idea.

Let’s just stay the last few days have been challenging. And a bit exhausting when you add in my level of physical activity in this crazy heat. But I’m not deterred and plan to power on for my last few days here in Tunisia.

I’m probably more tired than usual because I spent last night in a hostel room that cost me six dinar, or about $3.75 for the night. Believe it or not for that price, I got my own room plus a breakfast of bread and coffee. Of course the room had no AC or fan, I had to share a bathroom of dubious quality, there was no internet and no outlets to charge my devices. But for one night I could deal with it. Two nights though is a different story.

my lovely sleeping quarters in Djerba

given I exercised twice while staying here I had no choice but to use the shower

When I set out from Tunis to go down south there were a few places I had in mind to visit: Sousse, known for its beaches; the island of Djerba, also known for its beaches and distinct culture; El Jem, which has an amphitheater where the movie Gladiator was filmed; and finally either Matmata or Tataouine, where some scenes from Star Wars were filmed.

I had been warned about the heat in the south but figured I could deal with it for a few days. I now understand the toll it takes, particularly during Ramadan. Exercising in my stifling hotel rooms has not helped me nor has the lack of available cold water here. I have never in my life been so desperate for water. I hoard it at every opportunity. It’s so no much the physical toll it takes on you but the mental strain, making concentration and patience that much harder.

Without a clear gameplan, I decided to hop from place to place, which has proven somewhat difficult with an inconvenient train schedule and buses that leave only when they are completely full. It is really hard to get decent information or travel independently when you can’t communicate with people.

The main challenges have been getting directions when I’m lost (this happens quite a bit), negotiating prices of hotel rooms, ordering food and of course just interacting with people. It does help me deal with touts in the market though as i blithely ignore their French salutations and continue walking. Every time I find someone who speaks English I try to hold onto that person for dear life.

I can’t say too much about Sousse or Djerba as I did not spend much time in either place and limited my exploration because of the heat. But there are a few things from my last few days around Tunis that are worth sharing.

Don’t ever get sucked into a political discussion

One evening I was invited to dinner at the family home of someone I had met through Couchsurfing. He is a student who frequently works with Americans in Tunis and when we sat down to talk before dinner he started firing questions at me about American foreign policy. What do Americans think about Arabs? What did I think about the war in Iraq? Why did we spend money to support the old Tunisian government?

As I tried to fend off these questions as politely as possible, he started in on the big one, what were my thoughts on the Israel/Palestine conflict? This was one area in particular I did not want to get into but before I knew it he had pulled up some YouTube clips of an American Jew being arrested in Israel for criticizing the government’s treatment of Palestinians and another clip of Arab students protesting a speech by the Israeli ambassador at UCLA. He laughed as the speech was continuously interrupted. Wasn’t that so funny, he said. His slant on this issue was clear but despite my personal objection to the manner in which he expressed his bias, I was not about to share that with him in his own home in a very Islamic neighborhood.

I tried to respond by playing devils advocate. How would you solve the problem, I asked? His response: bring together the youth of both cultures to talk things out. When I explained this might not be a politically palatable solution he insisted that talking always works. When I then asked him if he would travel to Israel, to talk to people from both sides, he said he wouldn’t because the Israelis would harass him because he is Arab.

Eventually I was able to change the subject and we had dinner with no issues but boy was I glad to leave there without things escalating.

at least I got dinner and this photo of Coca-Cola in Arabic from my contentious evening

How would you respond to this question?

The same night as the dinner above, I found myself at midnight in downtown Tunis with nowhere to stay for the night. My previous two hosts were unavailable and nothing else had come through (I was not going to ask the guy I just had dinner with to crash at his house for the night). I needed to find a hotel and started working through my short list. I was able to get in touch with a place that had a room and managed, with plenty of wrong turns along the way, to finally get there.

When I reached the front desk and handed my passport to the proprietor to finish checking in, he said to me, don’t you agree that British English is easier to understand than American English? You Americans don’t speak well, he said.

Again I held my tongue but obviously I don’t think we are harder to understand.

Evidently, Tunisians, who are more familiar with British visitors than Americans, find our accents hard to understand. I appreciate that. But did he really expect me to answer yes to that question?

Coolest venue for a concert

On my last night in Tunis, Samia and I saw a concert in Carthage’s Roman Theater. The venue, which is about two thousand years old, hosts concerts every night during Ramadan. We had the pleasure of seeing two Lebanese pop stars, Najwa Karam and Ragheb Alama, that are very famous across the Arab world.

Samia and I at the concert

It was quite an experience for my first Arab concert. First of all, the place was jam packed, easily exceeding the theater’s capacity. During the show people were singing along, dancing and basically going crazy.

I certainly enjoyed the music but couldn’t help feeling a bit left out as I couldn’t understand anything the singers said or sang about. Not to mention having never heard of either of them before.

But they put quite the show and what a cool opportunity to see a performance like this in such a setting.

the theater was packed

Having learned from my mistakes the past few days in Tunisia, I think I am better positioned for the next week or so with places to stay for my remaining time in Tunisia and, a Couchsurfing host already lined up for my first few days in Cairo. No matter what happens being flexible and knowing that nothing is the end of the world helps to keep things in perspective.

the Bardo Museum, housed in a 13th century palace, was filled with amazing mosaics and artifacts

gratuitous shot of some street meat

Link to Tunisia pictures

The Adventure Continues…Up Next: Star Wars sites in southern Tunisia and a return to Tunis

Tunisia…During Ramadan

When I found out before leaving on my trip that I would likely arrive in Tunisia during Ramadan I wondered if it might be best to go somewhere else. After all, wouldn’t it be difficult to travel and get a sense of the culture when nobody was eating during the day? But after thinking about it, I reconsidered. When else would I get the opportunity to travel through a Muslim country during such an important holiday? Rather than take away from the cultural experience I banked on the hope that it would add to it.

So far I think I have been right. From the moment that I arrived off the boat from Palermo, Tunisia has continued to impress me. And with so few tourists here because of the summer heat and Ramadan I feel like I have the place all to myself.

mosque outside Sidi Bou Said

Ramadan does lend a different feel to the country. For instance, during the day most places are like ghost towns with people staying inside to avoid temperatures that often soar into the high 90’s. But when the call comes at sunset to end the fast, the streets start to swell with revelers out to gather together for an evening of eating, drinking and smoking nargila.

The best part for me has been the privilege of sharing iftar, the post-fast meal, with locals. Traditionally the meal is shared with large groups and as you can imagine, a ton of food is served to break the fast. This has been my greatest chance to try local cuisine and I can assure you it is delicious. Sure they eat a lot of grains (they are breaking a fast after all) but the meat and fish are delicious and the food has a nice, spicy kick with the frequent application of harissa, a Tunisian hot chili sauce. Plus they break the fast with dates, one of my favorite dried fruits.

Med dishing out some delicious Tunisian food

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