Yet another $2 travel adventure

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
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Trip End Oct 17, 2008


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Flag of Tunisia  ,
Thursday, September 18, 2008

The medina.  This Arabic word for old town captures the imagination with images of ancient narrow alleyways lined with stalls selling pungent spices, aromatic foods and rich artwork.  Well, that may have been the case back in the day but fast forward several centuries to now and my how the times have changed.

I spent about an hour along with hundreds of my closest friends from Russia, Germany and France exploring the labyrinth that is the modern day medina.  Instead of pungent spices I found heaps of touristic crap being purveyed mercilessly by aggressive arm grabbing salesmen.  Indeed, there were the absolute must haves such as dried scorpions carefully mounted in plastic frames, stuffed camels with Tunisia emblazoned across their humps and silver trays waiting to tarnish as soon their new owners took possession.  However, some eagle eyed shopping did yield a few, and I stress few, finds such as lanterns and painted tiles, probably all made in China.

All this and I was only about two hundred feet into the place.  The narrow streets were about as wide as a car and the walls were hidden by all the colorful junk hanging anywhere and everywhere and spilling into the already crowded sidewalks.  I hung onto my backpack and guarded my wallet for dear life and made my way further into the chaos.  This was all the same kind of merchandise an eager shopper can find in any Mexican border town.  Just substitute a camel for a bull and imprint Tunisia on everything rather than Mexico and that's the general selection and quaility of stuff begging to be looked at.  After surveying a few blocks of this junk, I may as well have been in Tijuana, Tunisia, minus all of Mexico's dirt, smells and bordertown crime.

Wandering off the main crowded, colorful and shaded alleys brought me into a more residential part of the medina.  The big difference here was that I had lost the Russians and Germans and gained some room to breathe.  The mountains of goods had changed from camel shaped ashtrays to Armani shirts, Rolexes, piles of socks and every sort of cheap Chinese plastic houseware known to man.  Something tells me that if Armani is in a North African souk rather than a North American Saks, chances are it's maybe going to fall apart after two washings, maybe three inshallah.

Later on when I saw that I could get to Sidi Bou Said on the coast as well as Carthage and back for about $2 on the TGM train I got really excited.  Having done my research and asking the right questions (remember Sydney?) I set off for the main train station to catch the TGM up the coast. 

TGM trains out of Tunis do in fact leave from the main station I found out but just not my Line A.  The only one in all of Tunis and I had gone to the wrong place.  So much for asking the right questions, right?  That's ok though because I quickly found out you can take the Line 1 green tram from the train station right to the TGM stop where Line A should start. 

I bought my ticket and waited where I thought Line 1 should intersect my travel plans and the platform got more and more crowded as more and more shiny new trains marked Line 1 stopped, emptied out and left with no one on board.  I thought this was odd and got to thinking maybe these people are waiting for another train.  It reminded me of how those water taxis in Bangkok emptied out, moved up a few feet and then refilled with the same people with no logic at all in the process.

After all I was only taking it one stop to its end and what harm could come from getting on one of these empty trains.  Maybe they had a similar system set up like in Thailand so the next shiny new tram rolled in and after a crush of people exited, I started climbing up the three stairs.   I hadn't even touched the second stair when a hand firmly pulled me back down to the platform and all I could understand from the man was, "homina, homina, homina."   Now I was beginning to think that a visit up the coast just may not be in the works for today and I was seriously wondering where in the hell all these people were going and what tram was magically taking them there.

About a minute later my question was answered as a battered tram that would have been right at home in postwar Berlin stopped and the guard motioned me to it and said again, "homina, homina, homina."  Everyone else on the platform somehow instinctively knew this was the train so away we went one whole stop to the TGM. 

When this tram made it to the end of the line about two minutes later I felt like I was flushed out of it with the pack of people and just pushed right across the street to an awaiting TGM.  I am glad I had the forsight to count the stops to Sidi Bou Said since most of the stations were not marked with any type of name.  I got to where I thought  was the right stop and it seemed like everyone else on the ancient old train had the same destination in mind.

A steep road led up towards some white houses with the prerequisite Tunisian blue trim and I headed that way.  I knew the Mediterranean wason that side of the tracks, and I spotted a guide with a group of German tourists in tow and figured this must lead to something worthwhile.  It sure did and I was rewarded with an amazing view of the ocean from narrow streets lined with whitewashed homes covered in very fragrant flowering vines.  It was as much a feast for my eyes as it was for my nose.  Too bad it's Ramadan because I was really needing a feast for my mouth and stomach in this great little suburb of Tunis. 

After thinking that we should all own stock in the paint company that produces all this blue paint, I made my way back down the hill and past group after group of tourists wielding cigarettes barely able to inch their way to the top where I had come from.  I found the TGM station and three stops later and about 2000 years back in time I was in ancient Carthage.  Sadly, about all that's left of the Roman ruins are some crumbling foundations with killer views of the Mediterranean. 

The ruins are located throughout the town and are completely surrounded with white homes with you guessed it, blue trim.  What little I know about Roman history graduated from my brain long ago when I did the same from college so it was hard for me to fill in the blanks around the ruins.  There was no sea breeze today so I just sweated my way around from site to site. 

After about an hour of this it all began to look the same and I was having a hard time convincing myself anyway that this was halfway interesting to me.  I had just figured it was worth a look since how often am I in Tunisia anyway.  At least I can say I stood where the Romans did whatever it is they are famous for.  Some loud Germans climbed on board their shiny new Mercedes tour bus and I made my way back to my old but trusty blue unairconditioned TGM.  Sure we both saw the same ruins but for about sixty cents I got to see the real city of Tunis they will never experience from their airconditioned bus insulated from the world.

All this culture this morning has made me hungry and thirsty so it's time to find some bootleg food behind paper covered windows in a contraband restaurant.  I don't think Allah will mind too much if I break Ramadan again for the millionth time this month.  He's used to it by now for sure.
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