I was told that even though officially the ferry wouldn’t leave until 1am, I had to be at the harbour for 10pm as the gates would close shortly after. I didn’t trust the ticket agent and didn’t arrive until closer to 10:30. It was still far too early, with the ferry not arriving until well past midnight, and by the time all the freight had come off it was past 1. I made my way on-board, letting the crowd of Algerians run on first and get all the best places, and it wasn’t until 4am that we actually left the port in Palermo. On certain ferries in Europe, like the one I took from Spain to the UK, or from Ireland to the UK, I stand out as being a cheapskate by sleeping on the floor. On this one, I can’t imagine that many rooms were sold as every seating area was taken by people trying to stretch out, but with some seriously unnatural positions given the curve in the benches. I found a good place, upstairs on the floor where there were only cabins, and called it home for the next 10 hours.
As we pulled into the harbour in La Goulette, for my first sight of the African continent the main thing I remember is the sparkly blue of the water, and the sheer number of white buildings. This would be the start of a new continent, but I think that Tunisia is about as easy as Africa will get. A country with a hugely developed tourist industry, although right now a complete lack of tourists due to things such as the attack on the Bardo museum and the resort of Sousse both in 2015, where I would get a visa on arrival, where being mid-winter would mean easy weather, and a small country so everything is relatively close. It seemed like a good place to start.
My first welcome to African bureaucracy was trying to pass through passport control. It all seemed to be going well, and then at the last minute I was told to follow a different passport official. I was escorted downstairs to the police, who seemed rather fascinated with the amount of money I had but after 20 minutes of questions about my route I was taken back upstairs. I think that my reservation for a flight from Tunisia to Algeria helped smooth things over, definitely a good thing to have when one enters a country by bicycle, even though mine might have been worthy of a Blue Peter badge. Having got past the passport officials, it was time for my bike to go through the x-ray machine, which failed miserably and ended up with me crawling into the machine to retrieve some parts. On the upside, I think the absolute disgust on my face at the incompetence that they had just shown meant that I didn’t have to open all of my bags as I was instead waved through.
I’d been thinking of arriving a couple of days earlier, which would have seen me get in at 10pm instead of 3pm when I did arrive. That would have been inconvenient because there was an 8pm-5am curfew in place which meant that those who arrived at the port at 10pm, after a 12 hour crossing, were then treated to 7 hours being locked inside the port until 4:50am when the police very quickly made sure everyone was up and about to get them out of the building at 5am. I’d been in touch with both a host on Couchsurfer, Tahar, and one on Warmshowers, Adel, who lived only 5km from the port so it was with him that I decided to stay the first night.
Adel had let me know before, but he wasn’t actually home as he was away on work. Thankfully he had two other guests, a Korean cyclist called Hyeonseok (HS) who had cycled from Korea since March 2015, and a Brazilian backpacker called Ricardo that HS had met at the port and looking lost had invited him to Adel’s place. HS & Ricardo had both arrived a couple of days earlier, and had the horrible experience of spending the night at the port. English isn’t the strong point of HS, he had disliked it in school, but it was fun again hanging out with a Korean. As I only was staying there for one night, and then heading to Tahar’s place the next morning (Wednesday), we came up with a bit of a route idea and decided to in principle ride together starting on the Saturday. A plan, and I’d not be riding alone for the first time since my trip to Ireland with Gaz that I never wrote about on the blog.
To celebrate the plan, we headed to the local supermarket which because of the French colonial influence was of course Carrefour. The number of potholes in the middle of the pavement made me certain that I was no longer in Europe, as did the loud call to prayer from the mosque and the number of cafés – all full only with men drinking coffee, smoking shisha and playing cards.
Tahar, my Couchsurfing host, is in his 70s but has lived outside Tunisia for most of that time. He is a man with a strong opinion of his country, and it was fascinating to hear him share it. It also means that he knows plenty of places to go, and people to meet, and after helping me get my first SIM card since I lived in Korea in 2011, he sat down with me and tried to make me a plan for my trip. My planning style generally involves looking at a map, and deciding a city and that I’ll go in that general direction. I have a vague idea of an overarching idea but that is about it. Tahar on the other hand is a man who likes to plan. 30 minutes into the plan, we were only 3 days in and my head was starting to explode with the amount of micromanagement. That kind of planning is feasible for a long weekend trip, where you want to maximise your time and tick off everything there is to see in a city, but trying to work out the places where I would visit, and how many hours I should allocate to a town just was not for me. We stopped shortly after, Tahar sensing my strong resistance.
My three highlights for the time in central Tunis started with a Couchsurfing meet up, which Tahar took me to, where I got to meet some quite fantastic people – in particular Amine and Yassine – including a guy from Libya and an Egyptian. That was what really made me feel like I was in northern Africa. Amine is a photographer, and when I told him of my plan to head to the south of the country he gave me his information and told me to get in touch as his family live there and could hopefully help me. Yassine is a man who loves his languages, and also loves showing his city to people, so we arranged to meet up the next day so he could show me the medina – the central walled area – of Tunis.
The second highlight was that tour. Yassine seemed to know everything, and passionately shared his city with me. From treating me to some delicious local pastries (Makhroub), to explaining the architecture and design features of the buildings (doors used to have two knockers on, one for women and one for men which made different sounds so the occupier would know who should answer), and translating the intricately beautiful Arabic calligraphy which is apparently often only possible to read because it is verses from the Koran as the stylisation is such that the regular form of the characters is lost. I was also shown to the central square, where the Arab Spring started – born in Tunisia – and has had such an impact in the region. The curfew was imposed due to current dissent amongst the people at the high rates of unemployment causing people to wonder what the revolution was for. Apparently one after effect of the revolution was to build a large black fence in the main square, because now that they had democracy they wouldn’t need to protest. Hmmmmm, well.
My other highlight was the Bardo museum, home in particular to some phenomenal mosaics. It was also the location where 21 people (tourists and locals) were tragically gunned down back in March 2015. There is a plaque at the entrance, but the time that you notice it the most is when you walk into the treasure room and see bullet holes in the wall and display cabinets. The holes are in three compact rooms, and it’s hard to imagine the terror that must have been felt by those in those confined areas who were enjoying some culture only to be mowed down by gun-waving lunatics. To me, leaving those holes there serves as a much better memorial of those killed than the plaque outside.