Monday, November 22, 2010

Tunisia - Quick & Dirty

I am way behind on my travel writing: Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, US Road Trip, Stockholm, Moscow, Kiev, Istanbul, Odessa, and more stories from the usual suspects (London, Paris, Rome, Naples) have been woefully neglected. But today, I find myself in Tataouine (Tunisia, not Galactic Empire) with not much to do but hang out at the internet cafe, and thought I should get down some tips and observations above and beyond the standard guidebook fare while they're still fresh in my mind. So here goes:

1. All travel here takes place in the morning. If you want to go anywhere, it's probably happening before noon, and definitely before 3. There's no "sleep where you want to wake up" going on, unless you want to pay an arm and a leg to buy out the whole van.

2. There really is a strange, casual resemblance to "Star Wars" that is above and beyond the tourist sites. Road signs point the way to minor Jedi. Dudes are occasionally dressed like Obi-Wan Kenobi.

3. Tunisia is basically Jamaica, or maybe the Dominican Republic, for the French. A place to go for a cheap and all-inclusive beach holiday, with the more adventurous folks taking a day trip into town, or maybe arranging a 4x4 tour.

4. As such, all even mildly touristy towns are laid out basically like Vegas: a regular city, and then a huge, guady, and insular "zone touristique" a mile or so outside of town.

5. This ends up - especially in the off-season - leading to a serious lack of interaction with other tourists if you are the dirty backpacker type. My brother and I are used to backpacking around Latin America, where you're hard pressed to avoid Australian or German 20-somethings if you tried. But here we're following the Lonely Planet faithfully, and have encountered 2 Japanese solo tourists and a middle-aged American couple who wandered into the internet cafe to watch "America's Next Top Model."

6. There really is a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Here is how it works: roll up to the El Ghriba synagouge on Saturday. When they tell you it's closed, tell them you're Jewish. Wait for them to check your passport and let you in. Say Shalom, kick off your shoes, throw on a yamulke and tallis, and try to follow along with the guys inside. Save the 1 Dinar admission fee because it's Shabbas and you aren't supposed to have money. Feel kind of bad as you roll past the guys walking back from Synagogue in a taxi. Don't feel that bad though: they don't let the non-Muslims visit the Mosques in this country, so you figure it's only fair.

Note: sorry ladies, I am pretty sure the worldwide Jewish conspiracy only applies to men.

7. The cult of personality is weird. There have been two leaders since independence. The first guy was the leader of the independence movement. The second guy deposed the first guy in a bloodless coup when the first guy was 83. All the posters are of the second guy, but the main street in each town is named after the first guy.

8. This is the first place I've been where I can't speak the main language, the second language, or the main tourist language. 50 words of French will help you immeasurably.

9. The best marketing scheme I've seen so far: accost tourist on the street. Ask where they are from. When you get the answer, pull out tattered notebook and point to a page written in their language. Have tourist read what a great guide you are. Successfully sell 4-hour tour for 10 dinar more than what the guidebook suggest it costs despite not speaking a language in common.

10. The worst-executed tourist scam so far: try to sell 35 dinar ride from Matmata to Gabes. Make a deal to give a ride to Nouvelle Matmata, and then arrange for a van for tourist to Gabes for 20 dinar total. When arriving at Nouvelle Matmata, fail to arrange van ride that gives you sufficient profit margin, try to claim to tourists that there are no buses or vans to Gabes, and reiterate offer to drive to Gabes for 35 dinar. Don't get money in advance and end up taking the 5 dinar offered when tourists do not fall for the scam.

11. Best executed tourist scam so far: do not make deal with guy above to take tourists in your van for (I'm guessing) 10 dinar. Try to get 25 dinar from them directly. Make deal for 20 because tourists do not do "walk away" trick quick enough and are tired. As soon as money is handed over, magically fill the rest of the van with 6 other people despite initially insisting there is nobody else who wants to go to Gabes.

12. Best bargaining strategy. Show interest. Immediately get price quote. Immediately walk away. Keep walking and do not look back for at least three or four "hey, hey, HEYs." Return. Do not give a price yourself until original price has been lowered to almost appropriate amount. Haggle. When you get close to a deal, walk away again. Return after one or two "hey, hey, HEYs" or the guy will think you are actually not interested. Haggle. Overpay.

13. Remember to constantly remind yourself that finding the love of your life in a lunch counter behind the bus station in Gabes only happens in the movies. But still enjoy demure smiles and extra olives on your merguez sandwich.

14. Pay the extra 93 cents for "Confort" class on the trains. Realize this only guarantees you A seat, not the specific seat that is actually on your ticket. Still easily worth it.

15. Spellcheck on the computers is in French. Sorry for the mistakes.


  1. An entertaining read, I need to travel more.

  2. Hey - firstly - we are a Canadian middle-aged couple and second, it was only my wife who was watching America's Next Top Model - not me. Thirdly, one needs some familiarity from home from time to time - a diversion from the very similar annoying experiences we had.

    Incidentally, in our blog - we also mentioned that we met very few travelers - save for some US expats...and a couple of New York brothers pecking like crazy on the cyber cafe keyboard - must be spies...

    So what do you think of what happened to Tunisia after we all left (did you insight those folks)???

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