Today we made sure to have a big meal in the marina complex before leaving to go sightseeing. We each ordered the biggest breakfast on the menu, the Arab breakfast. It came with eggs and bread, as well as a healthy serving of a thick soft cheese covered in honey. The cheese is different than anything we have had before.
We can see how it would be easier to be faithful to Ramadan when there are no restaurants open, you get to go home from work early, and everyone around you participating. But we don’t know how the people who work in Port Yasmine Hammamet do it when they have to watch tourists stuffing their faces and don’t get to go home early. So we asked our waiter about fasting. He said it was a way of life and you just deal with the headaches and thirst and stomach pains. When we pressed him about how hard it must be to serve food while not eating, he commented it would be a heck of a lot harder for him to resist Tunisian food than it is to resist the western food.
Anyway, we drove back to Tunis. Yesterday we forgot to comment on the driving. Driving in Tunisia is significantly better than in Italy or Turkey, but still crazier than America. The roads are nice and wide, which helps a lot. In Tunisia, red traffic lights are viewed as a yield sign. They slow down, and if there is no oncoming traffic, they continue on, despite the light being red. Like Turkey, they like to invent lanes where they don’t exist. They also like to pass you on two lane highways, even when there is oncoming traffic. That is probably the scariest. But, when you are sure that the passing car is about to collide with the oncoming car, suddenly the cars in both real lanes both move a little closer to the curb and create a lane in the middle for the passing car to drive in. Oh, and pedestrians like to run out in the middle of the road when cars are coming at them, especially on major freeways. It is kind of crazy.
Anyway, our first stop was the tourism office. Christi went in while Eric waited at the no parking curb in case a cop showed up. There was one woman there, on a personal phone call, and she did not look happy about the interruption. She put the person on hold. She handed Christi a pile of brochures. Since we still had no clue exactly where we were, we asked her to point out our location on a map. Sorry, she said, I have no map. Christi asked for driving directions to the nearest tourist site. She shrugged. Christi decided to be more specific and asked for directions to the Bardo Museum. She said it was near the airport and to follow the airport signs. It was clear she wanted to go back to her phone call, so Christi left.
Back in the car, we checked the map and saw the Bardo Museum is on the other side of downtown from the airport. Like yesterday, we drove in circles hoping we would just happen to run into one of the places we wanted to go. Yesterday, the driving in circles wasn’t too bad. But today the traffic lights were out all over the city. Police men were directing traffic. Every intersection had a long line of cars backed up. There was tons of honking and gridlock. Eric was getting stressed out by the traffic, and he was in an air conditioned car, on a full stomach and fully hydrated. Just about everyone has a harder time dealing with stressful situations when they are hot, hungry or thirsty. We knew every person around us was hungry and thirsty, and judging from the number of open windows, few cars had air conditioning, so almost everyone was hot, as well. We felt sorry for them.
We eventually bumped into the Medina, the original portion of the city of Tunis built by the Arabs, which has remained largely unchanged for over 500 years. Ironically enough, it is on the same street as the tourist bureau, so if we had just driven straight instead of making a turn, we would have bumped into it much sooner. Too bad the lady at the tourist board couldn’t have said to go straight down the street a few blocks to the nearest tourist site. Here is a photo of the entrance.
We expected it to be the total tourist trap, and in a few small sections near some of the tourist sights, it is. But, it seems that the majority of the old city is really for the locals, with mostly locals walking around. The less touristy sections reminded us of Ochre, Siracusa, with the narrow streets. The main drags have shops on the first floor, and the shops look pretty much the same as any store you’d see in a modern mall.
The side streets off the main drags are a mix of residential and commercial. In these side streets, you have some beautiful renovated buildings, some dilapidated boarded up buildings, and everything in between.
The tourist brochure for the Medina that we had picked up from the tourist bureau had a map of the old city in it. We wandered around for quite a while in the maze of streets before realizing that we were never going to find the tourist attractions without the map. So, we pulled out the map. Big mistake. People with map = gullible sucker. Once the map was in hand, people came out of the woodwork to sell us stuff. Unlike Egypt, no one harassed us. While the sales people were equally as pushy as those in Egypt and refused to take no for an answer like the sales people in Egypt, they took the exact opposite sales approach. They killed us with kindness. They would give us all kinds of helpful information and be so super friendly that you just can’t say no. We got suckered into some perfume at double what we should have paid (fortunately, it was a small bottle, so not too bad of a rip off). As an FYI, cactus oil smells like a floral bouquet. Who would have thought?
Our perfume salesman directed us to a historic Mosque, but it was closed. Another “helpful” person swooped on us, promising to bring us to the beautiful arches gracing the cover of the tourist guide/map we were holding. We were led into a tourist shop and were annoyed we had been deceived. But our helpful guide assured us it was the right place. It turns out the building was once a castle or palace or something. We were led upstairs to see a former king’s bed. We believe it is real gold. Then we went up to the roof to the famous arch. Our tourist brochure wasn’t in English, so we never did get the full low down on what the building was or why the arch is so important.
On our way back down, we got snagged by the high pressure carpet salesman. We knew escaping without the high pressure sales pitch was too good to be true. The carpets are cheaper than they were in the place we went in Turkey, and given how nice and helpful the guy was, it was hard to say no. But we managed to escape without a rug, albeit by the hair of our chinny chin chin.
Having to sit through a carpet pitch in order to see a tourist attraction left a bad taste in our mouth, so we decided we were done with sightseeing in the Medina. We walked around the part of town between the Medina entrance and the clock tower. This area was built by the French in the 1800’s and definitely has that French feel to it. Out in the street and in the non-tourist sections of the old city we got no aggressive sales pitches. Everyone was pleasant to us.
We have a friend in San Diego named Kaanan who is from Tunisia. Kaanan had put us in touch with his family. Kaanan’s brother, Ramzi, was going to meet us at the Medina entrance at 1800 and bring us to their family Ramadan dinner. Most of the restaurants in the area were closed, but, conveniently, the one right across the street from the Medina gate was open. When we got tired of walking around, we went to the one open restaurant and got cold drinks. The restaurant was packed with tourists. When Ramzi came, we got up and left. We followed Ramzi to his sister’s house, where the party was.
An hour later, we realized we had left our video camera sitting under the restaurant table. Oh no! If we had been in a mom and pop restaurant in a non-tourist area, we are sure it would have still been there. But we were in the heart of town, in a high traffic tourist restaurant. We knew the chances of the camera still being there were slim. Eric and Ramzi went back for it, and to our amazement, they had the camera! The waiter noticed the camera as soon as we had walked off and picked it up and put it in their safe. They recognized Eric as soon as he walked in and pulled out the camera for him. We are so grateful. We had about 45 minutes of video recorded. The camera could be replaced, but not all that video.
We were surprised to find out that this family Ramadan dinner had been thrown together today, partly for the family to get together, but also partly for us. We were touched that they would go to so much trouble for total strangers, but they said they were happy to welcome a friend of Kaanan’s. We were excited to meet so many of his relatives. They are such kind people, and fascinating to talk to. We asked a lot of questions about Ramadan. They told us one of the purposes is so you can understand the suffering of the poor who have no access to food and water. The fasting is supposed to make you more sympathetic and caring. We wonder if American culture would be different if we had some sort of similar ritual of self-sacrifice. We suspect it would.
The food was all cooked and the table laid out with food before sunset. Everyone tried to not stare at the clock as the minutes ticked by. Sunset was at 7:35 and at 7:45 we dug in. Dinner was fabulous. They served dates stuffed with butter as a starter. Talk about decadent. They are like a rich dessert. Another starter is called a brick. It is a spring roll wrapper stuffed with egg, shredded meat, cheese, parsley and capers. It is folded in half and deep fried. It is so good.
Another starter they served is called slatet belanket, which has chilis grilled with tomatoes, tuna fish, olives and cheese on small pieces of bread. The salad was similar to the slatet belanket. It is called slatet mechia, and has the same toppings, along with lettuce and cucumber. The chilis were a little hot for us. The slatet dishes had some serious kick to it.
The main course was called nwasser, which is chicken, chilis and potatoes cooked together on a bed of homemade pasta that was so good. Fortunately, you could take the chilis out and it wasn’t too spicy.
We could not quite get everyone around the table at once for a photo.
We were absolutely stuffed, but then they brought out dessert and mint tea, and we managed to make a little more room. We always seem to have room for dessert. When we left, they even sent us off with gifts, which we couldn’t believe. Our dinner with them was definitely the highlight of our time in Tunisia so far, and we feel privileged and thankful that they had us. It was special for us to be able to partake in such an important cultural tradition.