TUNISIA: North Africa Lite.

Click on images to enlarge them.

Chott El Jerid

Between us, Thao and I know almost the whole African continent at a grass-roots level – including N. Africa, Sahara, other Arab/Muslim lands, Black Africa.

Tunisia is what we'd call 'Africa Lite' in that:
- Has very good food for European/American tastes (fine baguettes, croissants, etc. plus Tunisian cuisine);
- An easy 12-hour ferry ride from Sicily;
- Nice European-quality hotels in most places, even 5-star ones that beat many parts of Europe; Jerba is in fact a largely tourist-resort island where in parts you can almost forget where you are;
- Excellent well-paved roads everywhere;
- Many/most people speak French, some English;
- A quite developed tourist industry, one of its foreign currency staples;
- Many Tunisians work in Italy, have been to Europe;
- Other amenities we are used to.
I'd never been here before but toured Morocco a few decades back, considered it superb and desirable Africa Lite, but now add Tunisia as it's sister nation in that regard.

It also strikes me as Islam Lite in that;
- Calls to prayer in most parts are rarely heard;
- Freedom of religion/dress is evidently practiced;
- Women are largely western-dressed versus covered (not all areas, but most);
- Women seem to participate in the work force more than many places;
- It has a relatively secular political/religious system and is aligning itself more with the European Union than more radical regimes.
("Lite" by the way is not an insult in the slightest: I agree with the Americans we met at a Middle East café who consider Canada as "America Lite.")

Tunisia, even with a long Algeria border, is not even slightly similar to crossing the Algerian Sahara north-south 30 years ago; that was nothing 'Lite', quite the opposite. Sadly these days it is unwise to cross Algeria in any direction; too many guys with guns and ill intent; Tunisia actively resists them.

But no mistake, Tunisia is still Arab, has sufficient North African feeling to know you are on another continent – in their culture/economy, not ours.

In that vein, we'd suggest staying at the Tunisian 2-4 star hotels, not at the 4-5 star foreign chains, unless you want to stay in 'quasi-Europe with Tunisian staff.' Both options are available.

We loved Tunisia within limits explained below, and recommend it to anyone seeking:
..........(a) an Africa Lite experience
..........(b) a land crossing to Egypt or
..........(c) a beach resort holiday close to Europe but cheaper and slightly exotic.

We went for other reasons, glad we saw it, and frankly would not bother going back. But that is not a reason you should not explore it and decide for yourself.

We spent almost a month there, drove it top-to-bottom three times.

Partly we waited around to obtain visas for Egypt (easy) and Libya (not so easy, see Libya and Egypt blogs.) We also went as Europe winter refugees, being only partially rewarded, as we biked in cold/rainy 7˚C one day, other times 10˚-15˚C.

Mainly we wanted to get from Italy to Egypt by road, then go east from there. Also I will have crossed all N. African countries, so might be better able to compare.

Customs clearance at entry: An efficient piece of cake, with Canadian passports anyhow. Bike clearance, zero issues. The outstretch hands routine started immediately however: A guy managing lines at the border wanted a bakshish [definition] for pointing me to the right booths (totally unnecessary); he scorned my one Euro offer as too small, tried for a greedy ten Euros, but a pack of $1 duty-free cigarettes and a brush-off backed him off.

Tunisians do have seriously outstretched hands; our biggest single annoyance there – perhaps they suffer from TMT syndrome (Too Many Tourists.) It's good to make clear your nationality at times if Canadian or American – but they evidently do not adore their former colonial masters and biggest tourist market, the French; according to one candid Tunisian café manager, the French often treat them with 'condescension' and do not chat so much 'as equals.' When I explained they treat Canadians, even French-speaking ones sometimes a bit similarly, "tu n'es pas seul" I said – he and his friend had a good laugh.

In Tunis we found the right hotel, ended up spending 11 nights due to visa and other travel-business issues: 3-star, handy-to-everything Excel Hotel on 35 Habib Bourghiba (their Champs Elysées) hotel links here. The price is a reasonable 80-90 Dinars (C$70-ish) for two. The big news is they have free wireless internet in some of the rooms (the hotel next door wants $2-$3 per hour for internet), a decent breakfast, professional staff, nice clean rooms.

One corollary that sticks in my craw even a month later in Libya as I blog this:
I sought au courant advice (twice) from 'my' Embassy, given that we were going around the globe via bike, displaying the flag in some iffy nations, publishing the trip – as explained; naively hoping they'd be interested/helpful (as have many other Embassies been over the years) – besides it's their job, who else to ask? Got nothing but a 'go-away' thru the 1" glass and non-working speakerphone. The consular lady was perhaps too busy negotiating world peace – not.

She was so disinterested, unhelpful, aloof, my parting words were "I'll publicize your bad service." She shrugged, smiled as in 'go ahead, I could care less.' So as promised...

As one who pays for its existence, the Canadian Embassy in Tunis is the worst run ever encountered – having done excellent foreign trade business with many of them. This Embassy person for example, had never heard of Myanmar, was puzzled about the name when I asked if who might know about travel issues. Never heard of it, and you work for whom? Difficult-entry Saudi Arabia (basically no tourists allowed), other places named – forget it, zero interest in advising, she won't even ask anyone, just go away.

No one in this Embassy writes Arabic evidently, in Tunisia's language, so perhaps there are no Italian literates in the Rome Embassy either? Please, are passports not your very job? Libya requires an "official" in-passport Arabic stamp, done only by the passport-issuing nation. Well, we got 2-minute rubber stamps done by the receptionist for about $40 (an entire new passport costs $50-$100) but no Arabic translation as paid for; instead a slip of paper with a translator's address, who in turn gouged the price of a hotel room to write out literally 10-15 words: name, date, country. It is misleading non-service, plus of course nonsense: They indeed have Arabic speakers in-house who translate stuff daily, they just do not want to bother doing their job.

Astonishing too was the aloofness of others on staff. Imagine you work in Africa; one day in front of your office, going for lunch you see a big shiny bike with your home flag & license plate, a seldom-seen item, so a little surprise/curiosity would be human nature. Not here; heads down, studiously ignoring us. Not one Kanuck made eye contact, deigned to say 'bonjour.' Hard work to be that aloof, just never happens in the 100-some countries I have driven. But enough of these cushy-tushie Canucks.
Back to real-world Tunisia, here's a CIA's public facts book link. GDP per Capita (PPP = Purchasing Power Parity) is approaching the healthy $8,000 range [source link] and growing (average for Middle East and North Africa is $3,900.) It's #112 out of 225 countries listed in the world, earns money from oil, phosphates, agriculture, car parts manufacturing and tourism, so is pretty diverse. Unemployment is not low, at a reported 14%.

Capital city Tunis is modern, in the region of which lives about 4 million of the 10 million national population. It has elegant parts, no slums we saw, and a nice old medina. Quite Europeanized, lots of cars, many of them newish Toyotas etc. Money is in evidence but not splash wealth.

Women are by far mostly uncovered, many are in the work force – our hotel was apparently managed or owned by women.

On the trendier main drag Bourghiba, lots of patisseries, decent shops. If you make the error of sitting at an outdoor café as I did, you will be taken for about $3 for a so-so café au lait; then go for a second cup literally a half block down the side street as we did, sit with Tunisians not tourists, for 50¢ a cup and it's way better.

Go Tunisian in Tunisia, not quasi-French, is the right answer.

A few steps on the side street next to our hotel, on Rue du Caire are both Restaurant Neptune and Abid, both specialize in spicy Sfaxian food (Sfax is the 2nd biggest city, below) – these eateries are reasons in themselves to stay in the Excel Hotel; fab food cheap within steps, more than two can eat for around $10. Their version of a seafood paella (riz aux fruits de mer) is among the best spiced and most-calamaried I've had, became my staple. Fine cous-cous with stewed lamb or roast chicken. Fresh fish. Great French baguettes. A green pea spicy stew that's hard to describe, but excellent. No wine/beer, although some restaurants evidently serve it, we did not encounter one. However decent Tunisian wine is available in a few stores, in the $3-$10 range.

Indeed we ate/drank very well, almost everywhere in Tunisia, inexpensively, with variety, colorful tastes, evident cleanliness, and culinary originality. Zero ill effects. The Tunisian Briq is a fried light pastry envelope filled with egg and sometimes tuna, a nearly-every-dinner gourmet item we'd never before experienced. Harissa is a spicy/hot awesome side dish/dip/condiment of chili, garlic, salt and caraway – I will learn how to make it when I get home, we added it to everything. Then there was this bread-like donut thingme (do not recall the name) the street vendors made into the most delicious sandwiches for under 50¢ – we often sought it out and miss it ever since, one of the best fast-food items ever.

Bottom line, cuisine is another reason to tour Tunisa. A delicious mix of French, Spanish, Arab and African – now evolved as Tunisian. Way more than more cous-cous, kebab and shwarma, of which we have had our fill by now.

The people all over Tunisia (until the very end in Ben Guerdane) are not however the most warm or friendly one has encountered – most are pleasant/polite enough, but a bit formal perhaps, arms-length, stand-offish. No new best friends here. No one invited us to their home, unlike other places where invites are often frequent (as in Libya, next). It may be the TMT factor. Or whatever it is.

Outstretched hands for never-satisfactory tips, even from their arms' length – and a look with scorn, not a smile, at the tip and the tipper. We are reasonable-to-generous tippers, but Tunisians made me want to give nothing – and sometimes did just that, when I didn't like the attitude; two can play.

Occasionally, like in Syria, studs in groups just jumped aboard Black Bike for photo ops, with zero hesitation, let alone respect for another's property or good manners, meanwhile ignoring the alarm. If I were to climb uninvited into your bicycle's or car's drivers seat, or just walked into your home, you'd be cool with that? Not. When I asked them to get off, they acted like I was being unreasonable and argued in Arabic, no apologetic tone. In Tunis, I ended up paying C$10 a day for a guarded parking lot – too many bold studs were all over the bike. Looking is one thing, pretending to drive it and pushing buttons is another.

With a few exceptions then, people-wise Tunisia gets no grand bouquets from us. Not bad people, just not the best we've encountered.

And the constant over-charging of foreigners gets old, it exists in many places, but in Tunisia is almost de rigeur. That, and attempts to steal cash by giving insufficient change (the 'oops I made a mistake look' when you catch them, and it's never in your favor) – we caught someone almost daily. Being over-charged 20%-400% for being white/yellow is fiscal racism; what would they (or our law) call it in reverse? We're foreign here, hence easy financial marks, no deeper than that. A rich Arab/Berber would pay the same as a poor one – it's not about wealth, just opportunism. One can live with it, I understand economic opportunism, we try to get to know prices as quickly as possible – but the frequency and 'biting the hand that feeds you,' turns one off.

The whole country, Tunis included, has cops galore. Perhaps that's why it feels safe and evidently is. We didn't get stopped at road blocks or document-checked, were always waved through in a friendly manner.

Except once: We stopped to take photos of shepherds (below) and stretch our legs, but soon afterwards got chased by a nice BMW 5-series police car, evidently a military base not far away was watching us through binoculars. I showed them photos of grazing sheep, no military bases, and they were happy, waved us on after a 15-minute polite delay. But they did radio in our passport info for a check...

In some areas police are stationed a block apart; it's hard to commit a police-attracting crime – or for that matter get too lost. The cops were all very friendly and helpful when asked directions, and often advised me to go the wrong way on one-ways, do illegal u-turns and such. Traffic laws are pretty flexible, even in the traffic cops' eyes.

With time on our hands awaiting Libya visas, rode a week or so south to see the Sahara desert. Glad we did, a taste of Sahara Lite (Back Bike could not handle Sahara Heavy.)

A nice round trip back to Tunis exploring different routes. And it's true desert, vast, flat and rock-strewn sand, with a good network of paved roads cut through it. We encountered a few sandstorms, photo below; riding in a sandstorm is an 'experience', one compensates constantly for the powerful wind pushing you off the road, fine sand gets just everywhere, you and bike are literally being fine-grain sandblasted at 50-100 kph. Visibility is approaches bad fog conditions at times.

Photo taken midday, sun blocked by sand in the air.
Click to enlarge, see sand blowing across the road.
Sand-blasted us and Black Bike, with very powerful cross winds.
Ksar Ghilane, Paradise Campground we got a tent with sand floor and beds.
about $50 including 2 meals. No hot shower due to generator not working ...

Ksar Ghilane [map] is as far south as we went, quite deep in true Sahara. It was mostly paved road, in spite of an outdated map showing otherwise, the last few kilometers were a sand rutted road, a bit of a challenge, but no biggie.

The actual village of Ksar Ghilane. Not much there.
A few km away is the tourist camp area.
The desert.
Those dots are camels with tourists aboard, coming through the dunes.
A Berber horseman, actually a skilled rider, offering tourists an experience.
Bet this is the first time you've seen camels pooping in Sahara.
Dare you to contradict me.

The 'gas station' on the edge of town: They fill you up with a plastic 5-litre bottle and a funnel after pumping from the barrels by hand. How good is the gas? It worked.

There is a (very) hot spring in the camping area, that had a half-dozen Germans in it – it's surrounded by tourist huts selling sand roses, baskets, blankets and such. The merchants get to watch tourists bathe all day – an unsubtle placement of souvenir huts that discourages bathing.

The locals are fairly aggressive in selling camel rides and anything else they offer, but they do respect a clear "no" and ultimately leave you alone.

This being low season, we were among very few tourists. But judging by the number of little 2-seater ATVs neatly lined up for rent in one of the mission-specific camps, they must flock here from Europe to experience off-roading in the sand; a recommended place to do it, if that's something you enjoy.

One night was enough for us on this quite pretty oasis. Aside from miles of very nice undulating sand dunes, and the hot spring, it features a Tamarisk [link] tree grove that we'd never seen before.

Seeing this remote oasis is definitely worth the trip if you are in Tunisia – not just for itself, but also the cool desert variety en route south.

In case you go, do not stop for refreshment at the junction of C114 & C211 (where you turn south to Ksar Ghilane.) There is a tourist-trap Café Jelilli owned by an eponymous Berber; an unscrupulous con, whose livelihood consists of taking advantage of white tourists. We know Tunisia prices; he quadruple-charged for things we didn't want nor ordered. Besides ethics, the food barely passes and tea is awful. When I confronted him about his rip-off, he tried to sweeten me with China-made key chains with camels. Pass.

On the way north, between the towns of Kebili and Tozeur, north of the tourist-geared town of Douz [maps link], we crossed the Chott El-Jerid – a super-flat and enormous salt water lake with hardly any water, mid-desert, about 5,000 sq. km. A litre of water from it can evidently yield a kilo of salt, that's salty! (Star Wars scenes were shot here.) We crossed on a fine memorable causeway. Although extremely barren, an unusual natural wonder.

On the lake, a few other strange but apparently inhabited huts.
Near the town of Matmata [map] there are famed troglodyte homes [link to excellent photos.]
Another gas station in southern Tunisia below – one of many hundreds. Trucks somehow bring in a lot of gas from next door Libya where gas is virtually free (15¢/litre) and little re-sellers offer it at $1 a litre in Tunisia – about 25% below local 'real gas station' prices. They seem to do well, and police either turn a blind eye or they are somehow legal, not sure which.
After a week in the south we arrived back in Tunis in cold 7˚C rain – that's really unhappy-making on a bike. After such rides, one appreciates a nice hotel room and hot shower all the more ...

A couple days later our long-lost package from Wingstuff.com in USA was found in the main Tunisian post office (2 full days were spent chasing it down!) Post Office had lost it, sent us all over town on a wild goose chase – but one smart woman Postal employee, finally went digging and found it for us back at the airport. No money was involved, aside from perhaps $20 in Tunisian taxes, she was just a kind professional whom we thanked profusely.

Plus Black Bike's mission-critical Carnet de Passage (basically a costly vehicle passport, see Technical blog for the saga) I reluctantly, had to have for Egypt and certain points east – it was not needed for Europe. Long story short; this was a travel nightmare, barely averted.

That, and the lost bike parts order being solved, the Libya visa finally came through, hallelujah (see Libya blog.) We hit the ground running, had been in Tunis too long, mostly doing travel-business things that were not Tunisia's fault.

En route, stopped in the nice city of Sfax. It has a nice medina.

The charming gentleman below developed a keen interest in Thao as she strolled around Sfax, sang for her in a café and chased her down the street with some candy. He was not rude at all, not obviously on the make, just wanted to be friends, wanted his photo taken ... evidently a nice friendly guy.
Singing for Thao.
Sfax is the industrial capital of Tunisia; The English Patient scenes of Cairo markets were shot there. They get virtually no tourists we were told, but we spent two nights (including Valentine's day sans chocolates or flowers) because we had a very good room with internet in the fine Hotel Thyna www.hotel-thyna.com for about $50, about a block from a good medina (old walled city/market.) A city worth a visit if passing by, and this hotel wins on all counts.

New friends, on back of a pickup truck, on the short ferry to Jerba.
Took a slight detour to the famed tourist island of Jerba, which purely as a matter of taste, we candidly do not love. We might feel differently however, were we working in a European office and in need of an inexpensive beach. Charter flights of French or other European holidayers come for a week in the sun, staying in big western-style resorts, in an subtly-named Zone Touristique. It obviously makes money for Tunisia which is only good, it is just not our particular taste. The resorts look very modern, mostly upscale and western, are spaced far apart along perhaps 10 km of beach, with little/no landscaping between them.

Wheezy below, doing this blog in Ben Gherdane, our last and literally favorite stop in all of Tunisia – ironically at the end of our 3 1/2 weeks, just 30 km from the Libya border.

As you can see, the very nice Hotel Edhiafa [link] wasn't so warm that day but we liked it, the owners and indeed the whole town very much. Simply an unspoiled, unpretentious, unaffected-by-tourists (not many stop here), quite traditional Muslim town.

Even the dozen-truck fleet of 30-year-old Peugeot 404s harkens back to another era – it was the most reliable inexpensive car in Africa when I lived there and it still chugs on decades later. Great car for its day.

People on the streets of Ben Gherdane are warm, smiling genuinely, friendly beyond what we were accustomed to in Tunisia, we ended up staying two nights just because we liked them and their town, were tempted to make it longer. This is the kind of Africa we both like to see/experience. They didn't mind having their photos taken, we filmed away.

Again, nothing earth-shattering, no big monuments, tourist attractions or history, just real, traditional, warm and in spite of vast cultural differences – good human contact.

We were a curiosity item of course, but not pestered at all. People just going about their business, we were curious about them, they curious about us, some would approach us as we walked about for a chat, they wanting nothing but acquaintance. It's nice when that happens.

Libya was the next morning ...

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  1. nice to meet you
    mohsen (edhiafa hotel)

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.