VIDEO TRAVEL TAPE – TUNISIA REVISITED Part 1 -13 5mins
TUNISIA REVISITED Part 2 Berber Horseman 3.5mins
TUNISIA REVISITED Part 3 Dinner Concert 11mins
TUNISIA REVISITED Part 4 THE ROAD NORTH 5mins
TUNISIA REVISITED Part 5 HAMMAMET 7mins
TUNISIA REVISITED Part 6 TUNIS & LE KRAM 8mins
TUNISIA REVISITED Part 7 Carthage & Sidi Bou Said 5mins
The Text Article
TUNISIA’S ‘ALL INCLUSIVE ’ MIRACLES
The bible story of the miraculous changing of water into wine at the wedding of Cana (John 2:10) has long held a strange fascination for me, probably mainly due to the fact that good wine is my alcoholic beverage of choice. So you can imagine my total surprise when on a recent trip to Tunisia in North Africa I witnessed the same miracle in reverse! More about that shortly. After nearly 20 years of organising and escorting people on upmarket special interest tours, my wife and I decided to investigate the bargain basement ‘last minute’ deals that abound in the shop windows of travel agencies in many parts of Europe. The big drawcard of these travel deals is that many of the exotic locations such as Greece, Spain and Tunisia offer a package tour that is ‘all-inclusive’. Put simply, that means that the budget-minded travel consumer can expect a return flight to a fascinating destination, lodging at a summer holiday-style resort for usually 8 or 11 days with three buffet meals a day, afternoon snacks and free alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks (excepting imported brands) and, in most cases, cruise-style entertainment at night. Last Minute deals are not a new phenomenon and they bring to mind the impression that they mean, as airlines often do, that the sellers are offering the same services available to passengers who have already booked, but at a lower price, in a bid to fill empty seats. The same method applies to the popular ‘wotif’ and ‘last minute’ dot com websites that top up resort and hotel accommodation when those properties still need a few spontaneous, last minute, holiday planners, to occupy their remaining empty rooms within a given time period. So why not throw in free booze, nice apartments, attractive swimming pools, three buffet meals a day, some dubious entertainment called animation and teams of poorly paid drink waiters and target the holiday-makers who are looking for such an all-inclusive affordable holiday or the person who just wants to save money on their next vacation. It’s the same principle as the hotels and airlines offering their usual services for a budget price to reach full capacity, isn’t it? Not quite! Major travel groups, such as Thomas Cook and Russian Express, have established joint ventures in Tunisia and the Soviva Resort at Port El Kantaoui in the Sousse region, is the perfect example of such an interesting travel partnership. To get their happy holidaymakers from the U.K. or from continental Europe to exotic places far from their homes, the venture needs a third partner and that’s where deals with the airlines, chartered or commercial, become vital. Without the transport, the last minute, all-inclusive package would not be so appealing.
We selected the 4-star Soviva Resort for our trial of this new spin on the old British model of cheap summer holiday camps in sunnier places than could be found at home. Our travel industry contacts had warned us that the 3-star properties were not worth even the low price that they were asking.
We left on a regularly chartered Travel Service airline Boeing-737-800 from the Czech Republic to Monastir, a small airport where shuttles swoop up the swarms of excited passengers arriving in their best holiday gear to then drop them off to their chosen resorts up and along the Sousse coastline. The all-inclusive deal was certainly a bargain at around USD800 per person with return flight and resort accommodation for 11 days. I had to wonder how the resort actually made any money after the plane ride was paid for, but they must or they wouldn’t do it, would they?! We chose Tunisia because my wife had spent time there in the past when it was more politically stable and while her two children were very young. She wondered if her memories of friendly Tunisians going about their work singing to themselves, despite their relative poverty, would still hold to be true. They did! However the visa cost to travellers on Australian passports proved to be not so friendly at 200 dinars (USD 121) for two people, payable at the entry point. It didn’t matter; it was going to be a fascinating adventure to discover what ‘all inclusive’ really meant. The eventual arrival at the resort brought a smiling welcome and in response to our mention of the high visa cost, the duty manager, smiled even more as he told us that we looked as though we could afford it. My wife was delighted to chat with the manager’s assistant who had lived close to where my wife had lived up north in Tunis where the hotel woman had been a student at the university in historic Carthage. So one tick for a very friendly welcome. Always well researched on what to expect from our travels, we then asked for a room far away from the pool and entertainment areas. Again, our request was met with smiles and we were escorted through a virtual labyrinth of white apartment blocks, all bordered with tropical gardens, to a pleasant room at the rear of the property with a balcony view across the roofs of other blocks to other resorts and a few glimpses of the ocean beyond. No complaints about that; it was quiet.
On our first wander around the resort we noted the large outdoor pool with a giant slide that would give a bungy jumper a few doubts about sliding from such a great height. The swimmers a nd people-watchers were all huddled beneath rows of thatched beach umbrellas that were similar to other sun shelter stuck in the white sands along the Mediterranean beachfront – a 400-metre walk from our resort. They were quaint and provided that you kept ducking you could walk on the pool path beneath them without constantly banging your head.
We took a sip of our first ‘all inclusive’ drink of white wine poolside and, as the shock to the first palate of a very weak wine took its time to disperse, I began listening to the varied languages being spoken all around me. We had arrived with a planeload of Czechs so it became clear quite quickly that the Slavic languages were well represented as I got an earful of Czech, Slovak and Polish tones surrounding me. But the loudest conversationalists were clearly the Russians, with the U.K. contingent making a formidable attempt for the loudest group prize by coming in a close second. Somehow it was still charming; maybe that was what ‘all inclusive’ meant, I thought to myself.
The pool crowd slowly dwindled to just a few determined paddlers standing in the shallow water as queues began to form at the entrance to the dining room where the buffet dinner was to be served. At precisely 6.30pm, the doors swung open and the feeding frenzy began. Despite the stream of hundreds of hungry diners – many bulging out of their costumes or casual summer dresses – flowing towards rows of fresh salads, fried chicken, seafood and chips, no impolite pushing or snatching was evident. The lines were still orderly as more food options appeared. They included pasta dishes cooked to order and soups and Tunisian-style stews and cuts of roast turkey. Kids, young and old, were obviously making a mental note that they would soon be able to return to another bar containing a multitude of tempting desserts, as they proceeded to find a table and devour the contents of their overly-stacked plates. This was an ‘all-inclusive’ food hall where no one judged you or your food by weight. Or, if they did, they kept the sniggers to themselves. One casual observation that I made to myself was that with the combined weight of the people in any corner of the room there was a logical purpose behind the tight airline luggage restrictions of 15kg checked baggage and just 5kg carry-on. However, everyone seemed to be having a good time as some were seated inside the dining room and others outside on the patio being served by attentive drink waiters; well, attentive for the first week at least. The groups of people with their many languages and wearing mostly loose or little clothing began chatting away with their fellow last minuters discussing how they liked their travel choice so far. It was the last week of September and although there are more than 500 rooms in the resort, the season was winding down and it was obvious that the summer highs of 1500 guests were beginning to slide to below the 1,000 mark. The days were sunny and the daily top temperature was averaging around 30 degrees Celsius – hence the scanty dress. Although the clothing was casual around the pool with a few women even deciding that topless was a more comfortable option in the late summer heat, the resort guests observed the custom of wearing more modest dress while walking or swimming at the public beach nearby. Day Two dawned and it was a perfect opportunity to do nothing. So prior to taking a swim I decided that a pre-lunch drink would be another way of testing the inclusiveness of the holiday. I ambled up to the bar where two young Tunisians with new wave Mohawk hairstyles were mixing and serving up all manner of alcoholic concoctions to an equally mixed line of customers. It wasn’t easy for them. The young barmen (aged somewhere in their late 20s) spoke English well enough, but apart from slicing through Slavic accents they were also battling the brogues of the Scottish and the Irish, interspersed with some loud demands from the Russian guests. So now it was time to take the Australian’s drink order. ‘White wine, please’ I said hesitantly, thinking of whether they might be more familiar with the French term ‘Vin de Blanc’ or even the Czech ‘Bilé Vino’. But the young man who served me seemed to have understood what I had requested and grabbed a bottle from the chilled container on top of the bar above the fridge and poured me an incredibly insipid white wine. I looked at the glass, sniffed the liquid inside, and then tasted it, half expecting to detect that he had somehow mistakenly poured me vodka. But no, there was a tiny hint of wine in there somewhere, even though it was a totally clear white, watery coloured liquid in the glass that he had placed in my hand. I gave him my best incredulous look and reminded him that I had ordered a white wine. With a mock attitude of disbelief that I was seriously questioning him about the authenticity of the beverage, he told me to taste it again and then I would realise that he had really served me a glass of white wine. In the absence of a Tunisian candid cameraman jumping out, saying ‘Gotcha’, I held up the glass to the waiting customers and included them in my moment of dismay. ‘Isn’t this the palest white wine that you’ve ever seen’, I announced. The Tunisian barman, although probably prohibited from ever tasting such a drink by his religion, looked unfazed by the laughter that had erupted at my remark and went on serving the rest of the guests. The White Wine Well I was now stirred. I photographed the pale imitation, then I hurried to the alternative poolside bar, checked that they were serving the same brand of white wine as I had just received at the lounge bar and Iagain asked for a glass of white wine
Even though white wine can be straw-yellow, yellow-green, or yellow-gold coloured I was relieved to see that there was a familiar yellow tinge to the white wine that I had been served from the poolside bar. I smiled at the barman, strolled across to the boys back at the lounge bar and showed them the difference. Still they protested that the wine they had given me was white wine. I had endured enough nonsense for one day, so I walked the few steps up to the lobby and asked to have a private word with the duty manager. I soon noticed a flurry of activity back at the lounge bar that was visible from the reception desk, as I explained my grievance. In the short time that it took the manager to walk with me back to the boys, it was obvious that the offending bottle of clear liquid had disappeared from the bar top. Instead of reaching to that spot, they opened the fridge and produced 6 bottles of the same wine showing that it was the right colour. I quickly challenged the notion that six full bottles could prove that they hadn’t been serving diluted wine and the manager apologised and agreed to rectify the situation as he chastised the boys in Arabic, presumably for their wine fraud. Was I convinced that the boys were acting alone and that they weren’t perhaps following a management policy of watering down drinks? No, but it was possible, especially when you consider how lowly paid the barmen are in Tunisia. I questioned several of them independently about their wages and work conditions and was astonished to learn that they were earning only 350 dinars (less than USD 215 ) per month! They worked 7 days of the week for 8 to 10 hours a day, depending on the guest levels. I quickly gained a new sympathy for my two ‘miracle workers’. In fact, I checked what I had been told from other staff with both of them as well and was told exactly the same information. My discussion with them had caught the ear of a ruddy-faced Scotsman who was approaching the bar for a whisky (not the famed Scottish variety).. As I turned to walk away, he grabbed my arm, saying ‘That’s really interestin’. Did he jest say 350 a month?’ When I confirmed the figure with my eyebrows raised, he added ‘That’s aboot 100 a week!’ I didn’t bother to correct his mathematical calculation, but I told him that they worked hard for every dinar they earned from what I had seen. The Scotsman thought for a moment and nodded his head in agreement. ‘Yeah, they doo work soo hard! But ya know what? We’ve been tipping the driver an extra dinar for every taxi ride we’ve bin takin’ aroon..’ Before I had the chance to reply, he commented further on his tipping practice. ‘They must think we’re rollin’in it!!’ I blinked at his attitude and walked away to the dining room for lunch where I inspected the dishes on display and was pleasantly surprised to find that there were new dishes , different from the previous day’s buffet offerings. They were serving a very flavoursome Couscous, a Tunisian favourite that is made from steamed semolina granules and is perfect with either stewed meat or fish as a tasty substitute for rice. The lunch dishes also included a goulash and several kinds of soup. Steamed vegetables were on display along with the usual servings of fried chicken, fish fillets and the ubiquitous chips. There were also lamb dishes; one of them was too tough to be the lamb ragout as labelled. It was brown and very chewy and had to be mutton. But other lamb dishes were more convincing. In fact until the last few days of our stay, in early October when the guest numbers plummeted, the changing variety of food challenged the validity of many of the food complaints on the whinge website, TripAdvisor, about this resort. The amusing aspect of the so-called reviews on such websites is that there are so many conflicting opinions. Many of the complaints seem to reveal unrealistic expectations of what holidaymakers should receive for the very little money spent. Listening to other people talking around the dining area a few genuine complaints did emerge though. One of the Czechs was complaining that the tourist agency representative whose job it was to help the group was rarely available at the resort to help translate local information on excursions for non-English speakers, Another woman was questioning why the ‘animation’ for children (and their parents) presented by the young team from Thomas Cook had to start so late at 8pm and continue loudly until midnight. It’s true that if you don’t enjoy watching strangers behave as adoring stage mothers pushing their kids into public singing and dancing before the assembled audience, seated close to the bar, then Soviva is definitely the wrong choice for you. It can be excruciatingly loud as the Thomas Cook team members wind up the guests’ kids and the amplifiers scream out their performance to the stroke of midnight. The term animation is used at resorts in its most literal sense i.e. the state of being full of life or vigour. The enthusiastic DJ and the young animators are certainly animated, but don’t mistake the term for entertainment, which it is not. It’s important to add noise as being one of the accepted all-inclusive items for this type of holiday. Admittedly, most of the noise is the joyous sound of people having fun. But when you make alcohol so freely available from morning until late at night, you can hardly escape some unacceptable noise levels well into the early morning. That’s not to say that the hotel management and security patrols don’t act when there is excessive noise overnight or misbehaviour occurs around the grounds. They do! I was impressed to see one young group seated near us at the pool being approached by resort security officers and told that they had been making loud noise on the grounds at 3am. When one of the group, a young woman, complained that she had been in bed and asleep at that time, the security manager informed her that they were all identified on tape from the security cameras and that they had to immediately attend a meeting in the manager’s office. We never saw them again. There are also such diverse groups on these trips that a few observations reveal some very intriguing characters. Apart from watching some pleasant interactions between family members, another interesting pursuit is to guess the background of some fellow guests who definitely stand out from the crowd. For instance, there was a tall, Russian man with thinning grey hair, compensated for by a long ponytail. He was often seated in our vicinity. He always spoke very loudly in Russian to the members of his entourage, comprised of about 6 women and occasionally a young man.. He drank copious amounts of vodka, which soon became a talking point in the resort, but he actually appeared to be little affected by it. What became obvious was that this man’s party of women was constantly changing, every couple of days. Most of the women were in their 20s or 30s, except for two regulars who were aged probably in their late 40s. They all seemed to be hanging on every word that he spoke and were often nodding their heads in agreement with his loud utterances. So who was he? I could only imagine. He had the appearance of an overly confident film producer or director and, given his changing coterie of vaguely attractive young women and the occasional vaguely handsome young man, the possibility of him being a Russian porn movie director amid a group of working actors sprang to mind. Or perhaps he was a low level Mafiosi figure, sharing his charm with minions who were also on vacation. Or perhaps he was just a loudly spoken family man with many children. I’ll never know. However we should always remember that those who watch are they themselves being watched. After asserting myself with management over the wine scam and finding that every time in the few days after the incident that the young men at the bar sounded an alert to each other in Arabic when I approached, it seemed that I had brought some attention to myself. Fortunately, over the rest of my stay I actually made friends of the barmen and we all smiled whenever I ordered a white wine while pointing to the fridge. But within a few days drink waiters that I hadn’t seen before were coming up to me and asking ‘So you’re the Australian?’ I immediately disregarded the Australian Government’s advice to travellers to always exercise a high level of security awareness if heading to Tunisia and I admitted to being an Australian national. I’m glad that I did because it led to very pleasant conversations with two young men who seemed to find an Australian in their midst a complete novelty. One of them had an uncle who was married to an Australian, with both now living in the U.K. So we talked about each of our countries and our different cultures. Another surprise was a young waiter who approached us by the pool. He was serving drinks from the bar nearby. He told me that I was the first Australian that he had ever met. Suddenly becoming aware that I may not be typical enough for him I mentioned that I spend a lot of time each year in Europe leading classical music tours. This comment prompted him to exclaim loudly his love for classical music! We then began a conversation about music and, detecting that he probably had a good tenor voice, I asked him how his interest began. He explained that it had started by listening to opera. I immediately launched into my party trick of warbling the first bars of Nessun Dorma which sent him immediately hurrying, perhaps to obtain occupational safety ear muffs. But then he remerged a few minutes later to show me a video on his friend’s smart phone. It was a performance of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht Musik by theVienna Philharmonic Orchestra and he wanted to know whether I liked it. I confirmed that I enjoyed it – who doesn’t!? But he was delighted to have been able to show me the video. Tunisian men also sing to themselves while they are working. I asked one of them what song he had been singing in Arabic? ‘Oh it was a song I made up!’ he replied. ‘What’s it about?’ I asked. ‘Oh you know…just life…and, of course, about love,’ he smiled broadly as he explained what had been simply a tuneful, private meditation for him. For those interested in delving a little more into the Tunisian lifestyle, there are organised trips outside the resort environment. One option I prefer is to hire a car and driver (a wise precaution on Tunisian roads) and get to where the real people live. My wife was familiar with the Arabic word for the old city quarter called the Medina and in two places we found good examples of this preserved, walled North African traditional shopping district; one of them was located near Le Grande Mosque in the city of Sousse. We were shown to the area by a group of eager teenage girls who were headed for the Medina for some shopping of their own. The narrow, usually crowded streets of row after row of small shops with their goods spilling into the alleyways are certainly a cultural experience. You just need to prepare yourself with either a stash of cash or, alternatively, armour plated ears to combat the relentless assault on them from the lines of determined merchants wanting to barter back and forth for as long as it takes for you to acquiesce and purchase their goods.Unfortunately, while you can still experience part of the colourful, noisy, smelly Medina atmosphere, the goods up for sale are now rarely local and even more rarely a bargain, even when you reduce the trader to tears with your best barter banter.
It can be fun to hear the play-acting that occurs there though. One sham is for one merchant to shout to passers-by a price of ‘10 dinars best price!’ for an imitation leather wallet. That allows the real trader to suddenly appear to tell you that for you the price would be a ‘special’ and that he can give it to you for ‘just 5’. You haggle, but he won’t go lower because he says you already heard the other merchant wants to charge 10. You’re tempted so you say ‘OK..so 5 dinars’?!’. He replies ‘No sir…give me 5 Euros and it’s yours!’ You remind him that the other merchant said it was selling for 10 dinars. The leather man is not concerned and replies ‘Oh he is jealous of me because my wallets are better than his…take no notice of him.’ That’s how business is done in the Medina.
You can still find a few handcrafted bargains, especially in carpets. But even there the bartering becomes exhausting. When you finally decide not to purchase, because of the hassle of having to ship the carpet back home, the trader remembers that his cousin has a silver shop with many specials and he takes you by the hand to show you where you can buy something that you won’t have to ship home. On this occasion you find you’re entering into another illustrious store, with the formidable name of Ali Baba’s Silver shop. There seems to be a great number of enterprises with the name Ali Baba, even an entire shopping centre. If the marketing sign doesn’t have the words Ali Baba in it, there’s a good chance that it may contain Hannibal’s name instead – in honour of the Carthaginian Military leader, famous for leading his men, along with a herd of elephants, across the Alps to capture Roman territory in Italy Trainee Trader Sadly, the Medina and less impressive shops are now swamped with imported goods from other parts of the world, including kaftans from Indonesia and sports goods ‘knock-offs’ from China. A very pleasant nighttime attraction in the Sousse region is the Marina area at Port El Kantaoui. Prepare yourself for a kitsch, Disney-style entrance gate to the Marina, but once you reach the harbour area inside with its collection of shops, cafés and restaurants, you’ll start to enjoy your visit. A break away from the resort buffet food to enjoy lavish Tunisian dishes and real seafood such as lobster, shrimps and mussels can be found here amid the immense fleet of expensive luxury boats tied up at every corner of the marina. The highly-rated and totally enjoyable Le Mediterranee seems to be the favourite for both travellers and locals alike. The seafood, service and views across the water are unforgettable. Other marina restaurants, serving traditional Tunisian and Italian cuisine at somewhat more affordable prices, are also popular. Le Mediterranee The walk into the Port city, across the road from the Marina entrance, is also worth doing. The fountain display and the pleasant ambience there make for an enjoyable, nighttime stroll. The downside to visiting anywhere in the Sousse region at night is that from 9pm taxi drivers are allowed to double their tariff for the journey. If your resort is closeby it won’t send you broke, but if you are travelling further a-field, it could be an unpleasant surprise. Folkloric shows, no matter how nicely performed and colourfully staged, tend to bore me silly, but while the Folkloric at the Medinat Alzahra Parc is probably similar to the typical show-and-dinner package offered in other countries, it does have an important difference. Its open-air museum features an exhibition of genuine Arabic culture and the Berber desert lifestyle. A walk through this lively exhibition with cooking and agricultural demonstrations leads to an enactment of a Tunisian wedding with a nicely performed Arabic song-and-dance show, accompanied by a dazzling Arabic horse-riding display. Groups are then ushered inside the building for the folkloric performance that includes audience participation. While professionals and amateurs entertain the crowd with attempts at traditional belly dancing, a reasonable meal is served dish by dish in large bowls. The final part of the package is a cinematic-style presentation combined with live action vignettes in a stadium-style re-telling of Tunisian history. It synchronises clever screen depictions with mounted horsemen, vivid swirling dances and waterside military re-enactments into a very long outdoor show.The problem is that with the narration being provided in several different languages, (not English on my visit), it stretches what is a fascinating story into a bottom-aching concrete seat experience in the grandstand.
If the presentation could be cut down to about 45 minutes, it would be worth seeing. Also there is money to be saved by making your own travel and entry arrangements. The tour operators jack up their prices for this popular event. The advantage of hiring someone to drive you there and back is that you can arrange to escape before the crowds pour out. We also hired a car and driver to head towards the capital city of Tunis, which allowed us to inspect other places along the way. It also gave us a better insight into the real state of the country as the driver gradually opened up to provide his opinions on politics, religion and his own lifestyle and aspirations. He was a professional driver and a devout Muslim who observed the set prayer breaks required by the Islamic faith during each day. He was a very pleasant, down-to-earth man who used to live with his wife in Old Hammamet, the first Tunisian holiday resort district on the northern edge of the Gulf of Hammamet. In more recent times the more affluent tourists have been drifting towards a ritzy area a little further south along the coastline. The newer development is called Yasmine Hammamet (after the Jasmine flower that grows in such abundance there). Many of these new resorts resemble Disneyland sites but they provide a little more luxury and the streets and beach are kept neat and tidy for the wealthier clientele. But Old Hammament, with its fortified walled Medina, has the authentic Arabic charm so I inquired why the driver had left the area to return to Sousse much further south. The answer was simple; his wife was from Sousse and she was missing her family and friends. It had been an arranged marriage, but it was obvious who was now arranging whom. He one wish was to own a small farm with olive trees and a few free-range chickens, but he claimed prices had escalated so much that his dream was unlikely to be realised. The freeway leading North provides a smooth, comfortable ride, while the secondary roads, despite some worrying moments as drivers speed through congested narrow village streets, offer some interesting insights into the local living conditions. The village scenes feature people working the olive groves or sitting on their doorsteps to chat with neighbours in the heat of the day. The back road also travels through newly developed areas such as the textile industrial area of Enfidha, called the Enfidha Industrial Park, where, according to our driver, much of the finishing work for European garments is carried out. No doubt, the modern new airport on the coast at Enfidha is also a boon to textile factories shipping garments back and forth between European manufacturers and Tunisia. Our driver was outspoken on the results of the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, which he claimed had led to sharp increases in the cost of living, the removal of welfare payments to the poor and a slowing down in major public works. After we had crossed the majestic Atlas mountain range with sweeping views over the capital of Tunis, the large-scale port development came into view as we drove around the densely populated area and headed for Carthage. This prompted the driver to suggest that life under the ousted President Ben Ali had produced all the modern developments that had taken place in Tunis. Well, we saw several of his palaces that must have looked very grand before they were emptied by the Islamist-led government that was installed after he had fled from the country. Ben Ali must have invested a fair bit of public money into those properties. Also, the United Nations’ Stolen Asset Recovery team ended up returning a sum of 29-million dollars from what it claims were looted assets by Ben Ali and his wife. Curiously, our devout Muslim driver described him as a ‘good President, even if he was a dictator’. He said he ‘gave to the people, not like the present President’. By the time we had left Tunisia it seemed that perhaps there were many other people who might agree with the assessment that the Islamist-led Government was not shaping up too well. The President announced that he was willing to step down once a new constitution was created and new elections were held. We had talked to several Tunisians, including a security guard at another resort that we visited and we were told that there was resentment about Russians buying up resort properties and paying very little to their workforce. Did that mean that there was a likely to be another people’s revolution? Not according to the small sample of ordinary Tunisians that we met, but there seemed to be a definite trend towards installing a secular socialist Government. Everyone that we spoke to about terrorist risks in Tunisia denied that those risks were real. Keeping in mind that tourism is a major plank in their economic platform and the industry is such a major employer, despite the low wages, it wasn’t surprising that Tunisians did not want to discourage foreign visitors from their shores. They spoke of the downturn in very popular attractions like the once popular Desert excursions; something that they attributed to exaggerated western media reports of the risk of terrorist attacks. It’s true that several western Government’s travel advisories warn their nationals that terrorist groups have spoken of launching attacks against tourism targets, but it is clearly not believed to be a realistic risk by the people living and working there. Our driver went much further on the subject. He was very annoyed by what he claimed was U.S. President Obama labelling Muslims as ‘terrorists’. I had never come across any reference by the American President generalising in such a manner, so it seemed to me that this otherwise rational man was being misled by exaggerated reports and deliberate misinformation on how non-Muslim countries were describing radical elements within Muslim nations. As we listened on his car radio to Muslim prayers being sung, including one sung by a woman with an amazingly good voice, it was obvious that he was receiving much of his attitude-forming information from the same source, his car radio. Sadly, he then quoted from a broadcast of the impending doom for both America and Israel. He said that they were prophecies and he believed that they would be fulfilled. I had already read of the distorted quotes from the Quran being spread through public and social media but to hear them quoted as being fact soured for me what had been a wonderful trip to Tunis and Carthage. On the way to Carthage with its few remaining relics from the period after Rome had finally levelled the ancient city in 146BC, we stopped off for a while at a former salubrious suburb called Le Kram where in the French colonial period Europeans had built houses by the beach. It was also here that my wife had lived, for three months of the year, with her two young children back in the late 1970s. She was determined to track down their former residence where she had had to provide for the family on 2 dinars a day. This had led her to borrow money, buy up local garments and, when she returned to Europe, to sell them at a small profit to fellow Czechs. It was another case of necessity being the catalyst for becoming entrepreneurial. On our first attempt she asked the driver to navigate the narrow back streets of Le Kram as she looked for any building that vaguely resembled the apartment where the family had once lived. We got close on the first try but soon retreated to the main street to a small bistro to devour a Casse-Croûte (Tunisian Tuna Sandwich with fiery fillings) as our lunch break. Then we toured Carthage where, as we passed the heavily guarded Presidential palace, our driver warned me not to take photos or ‚‘we could all end up in jail’. From there we also visited the elevated and strikingly beautiful town of Sidi Bou Said, some 20 kilometres from Tunis with panoramic views across Carthage and the ocean. The entire area has Greek Island-style blue and white buildings, draped in Bougainvillea, and narrow alleyways, cascading down the hills, between them. Beyond yet another deserted Presidential palace from the Ben Ali era, we drove slowly down the hillside, noting several artists sketching the romantic doors, windows and dwellings inside this scenic commune. Then it was time for one more try at finding the lost apartment in Le Kram. My wife remembered the walk home that she used to take from the railway station to a road angled off the main street towards the former residence. This time she found it and was invited into the garden area by the present owners and was able to stand on the balcony where she had enjoyed eating meals outside with her children on their long hot summer days in Tunisia. It was later that we learned that it’s not only the sun that can cause problems in such a warm climate as Tunisia; it’s also the high humidity, especially in the months of September and October when a nasty-looking heat rash can suddenly appear, especially on the legs, if the air has not been circulating enough around the body. Fortunately, it usually fades within a few days without any medical treatment but it could cause problems on the plane trip home unless you’ve had it checked by a doctor first. So what’s my conclusion regarding last minute, all-inclusive, holidays in Tunisia? They are what you are prepared to make of them. Enjoyable travel to me is travel that meets your expectations. From what I’ve seen, there are many last minuters who are paying low prices but with high expectations of what the resort alone will provide. As I have demonstrated, if you decide to take such a budget trip you can enjoy it for what it is – a cheap vacation. But if you add on a few affordable adventures of your own, you can have a truly great time in a fascinating location. Just check, before you go, that the political situation is stable enough not to encounter any problems. Les Thompson, October 2013
Topics previously posted.
TRAVEL TOPIC – NIGHT TRAIN TO ROME 27 August 2013
For the past decade while I’ve been escorting Australian groups around Europe on organised tours, I have been warning them not to take night trains anywhere as the travel industry has received many reports of crafty pickpockets preying on unsuspecting or sleeping train travellers in several European countries.
Of course, practicing pickpockets and other malevolent miscreants don’t necessarily confine themselves to nighttime raids on rail passengers. I once had to chase an opportunistic thief across the tracks at Prague railway station in the early afternoon when he snatched my bag from the floor of a carriage while I lifting heavier luggage onto the racks above. Nobody saw him take the bag but I had detected a sudden movement at my foot from the corner of my eye as he boldly slipped just his arm into the carriage at floor level, snatched the camera bag and fled. Immediately, I gave chase through the corridor and out the door shortly after I had seen him leap from the train and, like an aging James Bond, I ran across two tracks to the next platform and scrambled up after him in pursuit; hot pursuit that is, with perspiration dripping and adrenalin gushing. I knew there were police patrols down towards the entranceway so he would have to head for the end of the platform with the stolen bag. Dozens of passengers were watching the antics from my train and a bored locomotive driver seated at his massive stationary vehicle close to the chase scene was startled by the appearance of a man in his sixties doggedly chasing after a man over 30 years his junior. I had the advantage of knowing that he couldn’t steal my documents or camera because the bag was locked. So I began to close on the brazen bandit as he was reaching the end of the platform with nowhere to run, but back towards me. I’m not a violent man but I was ready for the likely physical encounter. There must have been something about my determined expression that made him realise he would be wise to try to divert me from our collision course. As he began running back towards me, he suddenly flung the bag sideways, knowing that I would have to try to catch it before the bag (and camera) hit the platform. His strategy worked. Within seconds, my bag was safely in my hands but he was hurling himself back in the direction of the entrance with me screaming thief!!! to alert others along his exit path. I then ran back over the tracks and boarded my train to be greeted by the applause of all who had witnessed the rather comical scene. So it would seem very odd to many of my tour groups that I would ignore my own advice and take a night train from Vienna to Rome last week, simply because I had to travel there for a short 2-day meeting. But I did. I was prepared to do battle with the infamous gypsy hordes reported to be slipping silently into carriages in Italy and sneaking off with smart phones, passports, cash & credit cards from dozing rail passengers who had not noticed their valuables disappearing into the night. However, the day before I was due to depart a new threat appeared. A German newspaper, quoting U.S. intercepts of terrorist groups, reported that Al-Qaeda was preparing to slaughter hundreds of people by planting bombs on trains or blowing up tunnels and tracks on the high speed train networks of Europe. The warnings were mounting, but I steeled myself to face rail risks wherever they might be found and duly boarded my 2nd Class carriage at the Wien-Meidling station on the proud Austrian Federal Railways (otherwise known to trainspotters as OBB) workhorse 235, in carriage 409, window seat 96, with my trusty document-and-money bag firmly attached by straps to my trouser belt and across my body. This train trip was promising to be an interesting adventure. I was expecting the seating arrangement to be far more comfortable than the tight aircraft configuration to which I had been so sorely accustomed. There are six travellers assigned to each 2nd class train compartment, one half facing the other half, as the journey begins and they try to position their feet and retract their legs as to avoid those of the person opposite. Unlike aircraft passengers who recline their seats oblivious to battering knees with their seatbacks, rail passengers cannot inflict crushing injuries without facing their victims with whom they are making physical contact with their heavy or pointed shoes. The shuffling of feet and legs reminded me somewhat of a dance class. I found my dancing partner to be about the same height (6’2’) and roughly about as large as I am. He was a pleasant young Austrian, whose wife had been blowing kisses at him from the platform on departure as he sheepishly smirked and playfully caught them. To assuage any lingering embarrassment that he may have felt he quickly explained to me that he and his wife were expecting their first child in a couple of months’ time. He told me that this was the reason he was heading to Florence and then on to Perugia to buy a ‘family’ car at a price some 2,000 euros less than he would have to pay for the same vehicle in Austria. Seated next to him was a tall woman facing her teenage daughter, sitting next to me. The other passengers were a bearded young Italian man who was headed for Bologna and, on my side of the carriage, was the 6th passenger, a middle-aged man who was pleasant when spoken to, but who was clearly having a Greta Garbo moment and wanted very much to be left alone. So there was no threat apparent at all. I relaxed, gazed mindlessly out the window, feeling safe and totally uncomfortable in my cramped position. My legs were almost numb by the time early the next morning when the 235 Euronight train came to a shuddering stop at Bologna Centrale where more passengers would be boarding. As the doors opened, several passengers disappeared from my carriage leaving just the friendly young Austrian, Mr. Garbo and me behind. The only person to take one of the vacant seats in our carriage was a blonde-haired Italian boy who looked about 17, with his bag held tightly in position on his lap and clutching a smart phone. He soon drifted off to sleep. The jolly Austrian car buyer was also quickly slipping off to noddy land, a position where the person appears to drop his head slowly then abruptly jerks it back up again and slowly nods down again under the gravitational pull. The next episode began when the train was about 40 minutes out from Bologna by which time any travellers who had boarded had had ample time to find their seats and become as squashed as the rest of us. I was not drowsy enough to join the other three passengers in Sleepsville, so I went back to glancing into the dark outside the window. Similar to the instinct I had experienced during the Prague theft I detected a movement in the compartment. I glanced around towards the doorway and saw that a man, aged about 40 had slid into the seat next to the sleeping boy. He gave me a faint smile and waved as if assuring me that everything was OK despite his silent entry. I’m not in favour of ‘racial profiling’, but his large head and rugged features reminded me of many Romanian males that I had met while leading a tour to that beautiful country. Many middle-aged men there seem to resemble the centurion-type males from the period after Dacia, as it was called, was conquered by the Romans in 106 AD and made a province of the Roman Empire. This man also had the swarthy skin of the Romany (gypsy) people. My concern was not about his appearance but his sly manner of noiselessly opening the compartment door and positioning himself next to the sleeping boy and having the door close at hand. It seemed to be the actions of a person not wanting to be noticed and ready for a quick exit. I knew that I could watch his actions by looking at his reflection in the window so I turned my head away from him and made some quiet observations of my own. Within seconds, I noticed that he had begun staring at the sleeping boy, moving his eyes towards the bag under the boys hands, which were still holding, albeit it loosely, his smart phone. The man moved his head closer to observe the boy, but with his own hands clasped on his own lap. Suddenly he became aware that I would be able to watch him and he moved his head against the back of his seat. I looked directly across at him to let him know that I would certainly be continuing to observe him. He then pushed back into his seat and began to feign ‘falling asleep’. I knew he wouldn’t be likely to sustain his acting for very long, so I continued staring at him. Within a few minutes he opened his eyes cautiously and saw me smirking at him. I had just resumed my observation through the widow reflection when the train swayed a little on the track and the movement made the boy awaken. Although the man beside him was looking my way, I gestured to the boy to be aware of the new passenger seated next to him. The boy looked startled and seemed to understand why I was pointing at the man and then he turned his attention to his smart phone screen. This was enough to make the traveller under suspicion resume a sleepy look and close his eyes. Unfortunately, the boy became sleepy again and drifted away with his valuables still on his lap. I returned to my observation status and noticed that the sly guy was again wide-awake and that he was trying to gesture to me to plug in a phone charger in the power outlet below the window. I ignored him and he resumed his seat with me still watching him. The train’s next stop was Florence and as we were getting close to the city, I looked directly at the man and saw that he was still awake. He again rose from his seat and stretched forward towards the window, clutching his phone charger cord and a cheap phone, asking me to plug it in. I knew that if I took the cord I would have to turn away and he would be able to snatch the boys phone and bag, so I said loudly ‘You can do it!’ while moving my feet to allow him through. He asked again without shifting from his position and when he got the same response he simply reached over in front of me and easily plugged in the cord and phone. It was about ten minutes later that the train arrived at Florence. My Austrian friend and the Italian boy awoke, quickly grabbed their luggage, said good-bye and moved into the corridor to disembark. The suspicious man suddenly jumped up and also headed through the doorway. I shot a question to him as he was blocked by the stream of people leaving. “Don’t you want your phone?” I asked. The man mumbled something that I didn’t comprehend and then pretended to be startled by the question. Then almost begrudgingly he came back and picked up his cheap phone and left he compartment. There was no doubt in my mind that had I not been keeping a watchful eye over the sleeping lad that he would have become one of the many hundreds of hapless train travellers who awake to find they have been robbed and end up stranded without money, travel documents and their cameras and expensive phones. The train moved on towards Roma Termini as the sun began rising to display the lush grazing land and the romantic hilltop villages closer to its final destination. It felt good to have helped avert another cruel crime on the night train to Rome. THE RETURN JOURNEY TO VIENNA
If I had thought that the rail journey down to Rome had been eventful, I soon found that the fun was really about to start when I got to the platform to take my ride home. The train arrived on time (30 minutes before departure) but I couldn’t open the door and was told by the Italian train controller that my carriage 410 had been closed off and that I (along with the gathering of fellow passengers arriving to board the same carriage) should approach the Austrian Railways staff further down the platform and ask that we be assigned seats on another carriage. The Austrians were astonished to hear that a whole carriage was unusable (probably due to electrical problems) but reassured the most vocal troublemaker (i.e. Thompson) that they would replace the carriage. The Italian controller (obviously enjoying the moment) had followed me down to hear what solution was being proposed and immediately interjected, saying ‘not possible!’ The bewildered Austrians then asked him what he could do to help. At this the Italian shrugged his shoulders and said very loudly, ‘It’s not my problem’. Many words flowed between Thompson and the Austrians who tried in vain to calm the group by explaining that all would be fixed when the local manager arrived. The manager appeared about 10 minutes later to be greeted by the self-appointed spokesman (How did you guess?…yes, Pesky Thompson) and was briefed first by me on the problem. Below is a photo of the uncooperative 6′ 2’ Italian controller and his 5′ 2’ puzzled Austrian rail partner surveying the problem carriage from a distance.
Austrian & Italian rail bosses discussing the ‘Austrian’ problem
The attitudes were a strong indication that the Austro-Italian wars of the 19th century are gone but not forgotten! The Italian controller refused to take any responsibility for the Austrian failure to provide proper service for their clients and so the two sides went into a huddle and some 20 minutes later came away with a solution. As it was impossible to seat all the unseated passengers from the disabled carriage 410, Austrian Federal Railways (OBB) would drag off any of their passengers from carriage 411 who were bound only for Firenze and ‘bus them’ to Florence. Then the fugitives from 410 were told to scramble aboard and find empty seats which they could use as far a Bologna where there would be another substantial intake of booked passengers. The solution involved 410 passengers booked all the way to Vienna to then take a bus (provided by OBB) the rest of the way to Vienna while the Bologna passengers would board without further disruption. The Austrian Manager would ride all the way to Bologna to ensure that the operation was completed with the much-lauded German efficiency. Thus it seemed that a truce had been struck between the Italians and Austrians and the anti-Austrian grievances, once aired in the brilliant allegorical opera ‘Nabucco’ by Verdi, against the occupying Habsburgs would retreat into the background once more. But, it’s a long journey between Rome and Bologna and Thompson who had already rescued an unsuspecting Italian lad from a preying pickpocket on the journey down to Rome was called upon again to save another young Italian traveller. This time the threat came from an older Italian man who took umbrage that the young man (only travelling as far as Orvieto) had no reservation to take the spare seat opposite him in the carriage where I had found my window seat. The reservation is only required when travelling from country to country. The young ‘intruder’ was told by the grumpy fellow beside me that he could not ride in our compartment without a reservation. I said that all passengers from our disabled carriage had been told to board carriage 411 and find a seat wherever they could. This displeased Mr. Grumpy even more but still wishing to win me over to his side, he touched me on the arm and addressed me as ‘Papa’. rather than the usual ‘Signore’ – which made me think he may have mistaken me for either his father or the Pontiff. He then produced his own ticket showing me that he had a reservation and the young man that he was harassing didn’t and therefore should be ejected. I gave him an incredulous expression and explained again that he had already been ejected from one carriage which was ‘kaput’ and with a wave of my hand in true papal style I dismissed his appeal. Immediately he left the compartment and pounced on a passing Austrian train guard to seek a remedy for what he regarded as a serious breach of train travel protocol. Once again he was waved aside as the guard told him that he had other displaced passengers to seat. For some minutes the man sulked in the corridor but finally reentered to quietly fume beside me. His opportunity for a final appeal to assert his superior class status, in his 2nd Class carriage, came when the ticket inspector arrived and began to examine all tickets. As the inspector checked the young man’s document the aggrieved party rose to his feet and, pointing to the passenger as if he were an illegal immigrant who had just crossed the border, he told the inspector of the ‘crime’ and demanded that the young man be removed and presumably chastised for his transgression Unfortunately, for the complainant, the inspector was also Italian and with such a crush occurring in the corridor behind him he showed little patience and with a wave of his hand he also dismissed the case and disappeared into the throng outside. Eventually the train stopped at Bologna, the station where the bus had been arranged to take passengers from the disabled carriage to Vienna. However as I disembarked on to the platform I found the Austrian Manager in a spirited debate with an Italian Railways woman who was handling the train to bus transfers. She was holding a passenger list which did not match the Rome to Vienna list previously drawn up to identify those told to ride by bus. Instead, while the Austrian manager was doing his job of travelling on the train to ensure that his flock would be herded into alternative transport safely, the Italians had decided that it would be easier to have passengers from Firenze and Bologna travelling by bus rather than further disrupt the passengers who had already found seats in carriage 411. The Italian approach sounds logical but no-one had been informed of the change To complicate matters further several people boarded the train at Bologna and argued their way into their reserved seats in carriage 411. Again, hostilities broke out between the Austrian and Italian forces as the Italian woman became adamant that there was no room for passengers who had travelled from Rome on the bus they had ordered for the Firenze/Bologna to Vienna passengers. Those displaced by people boarding at Bologna were now at risk of being caught in the crossfire of the war of lists and end up casualties stranded on the platform. The Austrian General soon realised that the Italians would not yield so he began trying to sort out those who had vacated their seats as instructed. In every conflict it’s amazing how good fortune can still be found. The Austrian General had already identified me as someone who should be silenced quickly before I complained about the way he had handled the battle of the seats. Therefore he beckoned to me to follow him to a different part of the train and promptly moved me into a sleeping apartment to shut me up. There was a further delay as he returned to the fray to sort out other passengers, but by about 3.30am all of the passengers from carriage 410 were once again either enjoying or enduring the journey through to Vienna.
Les Thompson. 27 August 2013.
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