Monday, April 21, 2014

Tunisia, Part 3: Berbers and Camels


Berber Villages

For the second part of the first day of the tour, we headed to a traditional Berber home. The original indigenous people of North Africa are called Berbers. They would build their homes into the ground with a central open space that provided access to the other rooms. By being built into the ground, the home's temperature is regulated, and they are protected from high winds in the desert.

Expert lizard catcher

The men of the tribe would mostly be in charge of the livestock, and would migrate with the herd to find fresh grass and water. The women would be in charge of the household duties and handicrafts.



This woman was demonstrating how they would grind wheat. I tried it, and it was surprisingly hard to get your arm into a steady rhythm. I would slow down when I had to stretch out to the far end of the circle.


They would use their homes to provide water as well. The picture above shows how they would collect rain water from the side of the rock and it would drain into a well.


Above is a Kitchen. The pots along the wall would hold olive oil or spices or honey.


A storage room.


The bedroom. The fish is seen as a symbol of good luck and peace, and is similar to a horseshoe over the door.


The dining room.

Many families still live in dwellings such as these (I'm pretty sure not this specific one though). In fact, large Berber groups were living in Tunisia without the governments knowledge. I read a story, which I can't find again, that one village made themselves known to a city after a flood or an earthquake had destroyed many of their homes. Before this, the government had no idea that they were there.


Like all indigenous people it seems, Berbers are kind of getting the short end of the stick these days. While they haven't been the victims of small pox blankets, they are largely ignored and disrespected by governments. In Libya, schools are not allowed to teach the traditional Berber language. In Libya and Morocco, families are not allowed to name their children Berber names. But, in Algeria and Morocco (after 2011 reforms), Berber is recognized as one of the national languages.


Camel Riding in Douz

After the Berber village, we made a beeline for Douz to go camel riding in the gate of the Sahara desert. I was very much looking forward to this part. We got off the bus and were quickly pushed through to an assembly line of people handing us traditional ponchos and wrapping our heads in haphazard turbans. Then as a group we were escorted to the large mess of camels waiting to be ridden into the sunset. 



These camels were all male because apparently it was starting to be the "make-little-camels" season. Something cool about camels during this time of year is that there is a an organ in their mouths that they inflate and use to make noise that shows dominance over other males and attracts females. Needless to say, these camels were doing this constantly. The organ is called a Dulla, if you were interested.



One camel managed to break away from his grouping and made a run for it. Much to the dismay of the rider on its back. The rider eventually fell off, but he was okay. It didn't seem quite as scary as when Jeff and I found ourselves on the backs of two runaway horses in Turkey. 


One point of advice is that while you've already paid for the camel riding. The man leading your camels into the desert for an hour is only going to see pennies of it. It is worth the karma points of giving your personal guide a few dinars as a thank you for their work.




The camel riding was another part that we were happy to have Heythem there. In the beginning everyone had their picture taken. At the end of the ride, one could buy there photos for 4 Dinar. This was quite expensive compared to other things in Tunisia. Heythem, though, with the help of our tour guide got all three of ours for 4 dinars.


We spent the night in a huge hotel. Not all the light bulbs worked in our room. It was nice enough though and we had a bathtub! Our dinner was a buffet style of an assortment of Tunisian dishes. It was pretty good, and Heythem was sure to not even touch our bottle of wine (not included in the tour package).

We fell asleep hard knowing that we had another early day tomorrow to see the sunrise over the salt-flats.



Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Tunisia Part 2: El-Jem, Matmata, and Berbers.


Transport in Tunisia

For several reasons, we decided to take a tour bus around Tunisia, instead of our usual attempt to make our way via public transport. Driving by car was eliminated because the roads were said to be in poor shape, with potholes and random closures. Also, periodically there were police blocks set up in hopes of identifying a criminal. In addition to these two reasons, there is also the obvious third reason that Jeff and I are not experienced in driving in developing countries. We can insist upon lane lines all we want but that will not make anyone else use them. And unlike India, it is not common for people to hire drivers to escort them around the country. 

With cars out of the question, that leaves trains. While this is a completely viable option to travel to certain cities, for our purposes, they didn't make the cut. The sights we wanted to see were in the middle of the country, and it would appear that the trains mostly serviced the main cities on the northern coast. Heythem was also not a big fan of the train, because he found them to be crowded and unreliable. Personally, I have no experience though.


Tunisian Tours

In order to book our tour, we found a travel agency in Monastir. Through the agent we booked a two day one night excursion with Voyages et Loisirs Tunisie. By doing this tour we would be in a 50 passenger bus that would see the Colosseum in El Jem, visit Matmata where Star Wars was filmed, visit a Berber village, go to Douz and ride camels, travel to a desert oasis by 4x4s, and end our second day in Kairouan. It included two lunches, one dinner and one breakfast. And, we believed it to be a good price. Jeff was squeaky about the 50 passenger van, and there were smaller and private tour options, but not within our last minute time frame. 

In order to make this tour we were up by 5:30 am to catch our 6:00 am departure. We had to walk 10 minutes from our hotel to a different hotel, which I mention only because we then later drove past our hotel. We could of been picked up, 30 minutes later, at our original hotel. If there is anyone you don't want to wake up early, especially needlessly early, it's Jeff. He doesn't get grumpy in the way most people do, he doesn't snap or make rude comments, but he does make fun of you for not stealing coffee from the not-your-hotel breakfast buffet and call you a sheep for following rules. 

El Jem Amphitheater exterior

El - Jem, El Djem, قصر الجمّ

After we drove for about an hour, we arrived in El-Jem to see the roman amphitheater. This structure is technically an amphitheater, but I'm pretty sure everyone refers to it as the colosseum. It is the third largest colosseum in the world, after the famous one in Rome and one in Verona. Scenes from Gladiator and Monty Python's Life of Brian were filmed here as well. Structures like this were used by the Roman's to help win over a population, by providing entertainment and the appearance of strength by the architecture itself. The colosseum in El Jem was interesting because it was a building out in the open, a victim to the elements. Other structures would use a cliff or hill for protection or to aid in the stadium seating. El Jem was built from the ground up. 

It is worth noting that the under ground tunnels are very well preserved in this colosseum, where the lions and tigers were kept before battles. These are better preserved than Rome's colosseum. 

El Jem Amphitheater exterior

El Jem Amphitheater exterior

Over the course of time, the Romans abandoned the city. The colosseum was then used for a number of other things aside from lion fights. During the Arab invasion, the Berbers (indigenous people of the area) used the colosseum as a stronghold and hiding place. The structure is very well preserved, excluding the bricks taken to for construction in the local city and the mosque in Kairouan. Also ignoring the explosion that the Turks made to uncover the hiding places of dissidents. 

El Jem Amphitheater exterior

El Jem Amphitheater interior

Tourist Price in Tunisia

Between El Jem and our next tourist sight, we made a stop for some coffee. While everyone piled out and ordered coffee, Heythem asked some boys sitting nearby how much the coffee would be for locals. Instead of just telling him the price, the boy leapt up and offered to order the coffee for Heythem. Because of this, we got our coffee for much cheaper than the other tourist on our bus. I believe we paid 800 Milims for each, when the rest on our bus paid 2 Dinar (1000 Milims = 1 Dinar). This apparently did not please the owner of the shop when he realized that the coffee's were being given to white people, but Heythem gave him some extra money to appease him. 

This is something we experienced the rest of the tour, the price for tourist was easily 2x or 3x higher than for locals. And that negotiation was possible in most situations. 

Matmata sign

Matmata, مطماطة

Even Tunisian's didn't know of Matmata until 1967. The town is a traditional Berber village that previous had kept to themselves and their nomadic customs. In 1967 there was 20 days of rain that collapsed many of the towns traditional underground homes, so in order to seek help, a group was sent to a nearby settlement for help. From this, many families moved to the new above ground homes in the settlement that was built to be Matmata, but many families still chose to live in the traditional troglodyte  dwellings. 

Today, Matmata is famous for it being the home of Luke Skywalker while he lived with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine. The filming was done at the Hotel Sidi Driss, which has some of the film props set into the walls. 


During a short stop for photos, Heythem ran off to grab some sand for his friends back home in Montana. Jeff was taking pictures of him as proof that the sand was legitimately foreign sand. While they did this, the boy pictured above came over to me and showed me his bird. While I was trying to say "no thank you," the bird hopped onto my arm. We got a couple of nice shots with us and the bird, and in the end he asked us for 5 Dinar. Now, I should of been outraged at this ridiculous price, but in spite of being tricked, I actually liked the boy. He seemed genuine and nice, and just trying to earn some money. The problem was that we only had a 10 Dinar bill and 600 Milim in coins. Heythem eventually came over and talked to him, and once we had someone to communicate with him he said "Just give me whatever you think is fair." So Heythem said. 

I feel bad for not having more money for the guy, and it is a good idea to travel with small coins for situations like this. 



Other Interesting Tunisian Facts

The rest of the tour will be described in later posts, for now this is a nice breaking point. There are some interesting facts that were shared during our long hours on the bus that don't fit nicely into any of the other categories though.

Gasoline in Libya is much cheaper than it is in Tunisia. Thus, families will cross the border and buy tons of gas to then sell illegally along the road in Tunisia. This results in little tarp structures dotting the roadside with stacks upon stacks of 5-gallon containers of gas. 

Tunisia is actually a very progressive country in terms of gender equality. This is doubly interesting considering 98% of its population is muslim. Girls make up 59% of classrooms, and more are enrolled in secondary school than men. Women make up only 30% of the workforce, but this puts them on par with western societies. Wearing the Hijab is a completely personal decision (from our observation most young women did not wear one), and the government does not encourage any public traditions of the muslim religion. They do not want anyone to be treated differently if they are wearing traditional garb or not. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Tunisia: Part 1: Monastir, Lablebi and the Political Situation

Comparably speaking, my traveling has definitely slowed in the last six months or so. I graduated in October and since then I've been riddled with what can only be described as the Graduation Blues. I have a list of projects that I think would be fun to complete, but it is like pulling teeth to get myself to do them. Once I do bully myself into activity, I am pleased with the feeling of accomplishment and success. But the next day is still a struggle to repeat the same behavior.

While thick in the throws of this mental funk, we went on a trip to Tunisia. 

What did I know about Tunisia? 1) It was in Africa. 2) It used to be a popular beach-vacation location for Europeans. 3) It would be warmer than Paris. 4)... okay, I don't think there is a four. 

Before the trip I did try to do some research for things to do in the country. I looked on Wiki-Travel and Trip Advisor, but didn't find much more than ruins, mosques, and a few museums. I also didn't feel the need to find many activities because Jeff and I had talked about having a nice, relaxing, beach vacation. We would only bring our phones as electronics and instead spend more time drawing and working on personal projects. I also knew that our friend Heythem would be helping guide us while we were in the country. 

Heythem is a friend of Jeff's family who is from Tunisia. He lives in the USA with Jeff's parents while he goes to school. I have never met Heythem before, but Jeff and him had met on a few occasions. With our own personal tour-guide, I was ready to sit back and just experience the country. 


Our first hour in the country was quite revealing, but good. The first surprise for me was how much the airport and the surrounding area reminded me of the New Delhi airport. I think when I heard "popular beach vacation place for Europeans" I was imagining a place that would feel more European (okay, I was expecting something more developed, but I feel like a pretentious asshole for saying that outright). Heythem and his father took us to a place to eat, and we had our first taste of traditional Tunisian food. 

Holy cow, it was good. 

Heythem's father told the cook what to do, and they made us a couple of dishes that were delicious and tasty. I will try and describe our favorite though: Lablebi 

1. Tear pieces of bread (can be day old) into a bowl.
2. Add garbanzo bean soup to the bowl so the bread soaks up the water (of course the soup was cooking beforehand).
3. Add tomato-based spice mixture (can be called Harissa)
4. Add Cumin
5. Add an egg (should soft-boil in the soup)
6. Add tuna (if desired, they eat a lot of tuna)
7. Add a generous amount of Olive Oil
8. Add salt, pepper, capers, and olives to taste. 

Delicious. 


The next thing we did was to leave Tunis and drive to Monastir, which is where we would be staying. During the drive, I began to learn more about the country. Apparently, the day before we arrived, in cooperation with America, the country captured one of their most wanted terrorists. On the one hand, this is good, on the other, the country was on high alert for a retaliation from the terrorist's supporters. This was amplified even more because the New Year was also coming up. Two month's prior to this, there was a suicide bomber. Luckily though, the only person he managed to harm was himself. Heythem was telling us this as we drove and once we got closer to cities, there were police checks manned by people in full gear with large assault rifles. They were pulling cars over, apparently looking for people on a wanted-list of sorts. Heythem was talking about these events like they were normal everyday things, kind of like how Americans are talking about healthcare I imagine. 

Then we made it to Sousse (near Monastir) where Heythem's uncle and aunt made us a huge and delicious dinner of fried fish, couscous with fish, fennel salad, mussels, shrimps, and cake for dessert. Heythem also has two young cousins who were shy at first, but by the end of the night were climbing on top of Jeff and I, yelling the only two phrases they knew in English: "How are you?" and "Thank you." 

Onze and Amira - spelling is approximate.
After that we continued on our way to Monastir and checked into a lovely appart-hotel that Heythem's family arranged for us. Heythem's father wanted him to stay with us for the night and sleep on the couch in the living room, but after some assurance from Jeff and I we convinced him that we would be okay on our own. 

Marina Cap Hotel in Monastir, Tunisia
In an effort to keep this post from becoming even more wordy, I'll quickly summarize the rest of our time in Monastir. The next day when we saw Heythem, he was surprised to hear that I was a little freaked out by all the terrorist conversation from the day before. That wasn't his intention, and he assured us that the country was safe (which a few days later, I began to agree with him). Jeff also chided me for my hesitancy and reluctance, but that's how he deals with emotions he doesn't understand. 

Marina Cap Hotel in Monastir, Tunisia
I learned that Tunisia is a very recently revolutionized country (2011), and the catalyst for the Arab Spring. Since the revolution, the government has been mostly stable, but there is still some unpredictability in regards to programs, economic action, and future plans. Some people seem to be more confident in the current party than others, but most agree that improvements are occurring and that they are better off than before. 

Monastir is most widely known as a tourist location, but also the birthplace of ex-president Habib Bourguiba. He was the first president of the Republic of Tunisia and served for 30 years (1957-1987). Before his presidency he was a political activist, being imprisoned several times, and helped seal Tunisian independence from France after WWII. Bourguiba was much loved throughout Tunisia, having improved women's right, economic organization and healthcare. He was impeached by the new Prime Minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was the politician later ousted during the Tunisian Revolution in 2011. 

The exterior of the Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum in Monastir, Tunisia
Tomb of Habib Bourguiba in Monastir, Tunisia
Heythem was invaluable to have as a companion on this trip. He was able to tell us the real price of things (not the tourist price), he took us places that locals eat, and he was able to show us how people really live in Tunisia. With him around, people were able to communicate with us more than they would have otherwise, and they also seemed to let their guards down as we were not as foreign as we would of been without Heythem. The interaction with him and his family also showed us how generous and loyal arabic culture is. Something that is all too easily ignored in American news media. 

Jeff wearing what I think is a traditional Berber Jacket. 
This post was a bit wordy. I felt it was necessary to set the mood of how I felt when I first arrived in Tunisia though, as the information will be good for other travelers to know. A lot of the feeling of a country can't be described in images alone. 


Well, I guess it can't be described in a blog post either... Anyway, until Part 2!



Thursday, November 21, 2013

Israel Part 2: Portraying the Palestine Position as Proper as Possible


During our road trip we drove along the border of Jordan. When you look at Google maps, there is a big chunk of the country with a dotted line border, right along this border of the country. This land is contested territory, along with the Gaza strip in the south of Israel near Egypt, between the Israel government and the Palestinians.

Palestinian city near the Dead Sea

When we were with Jeff's coworkers, I tried to ask if there would be trouble for us driving through this area - there is very little information about it online. They seemed to think it would be fine, because we weren't israeli, but didn't leave me feeling completely reassured. It turned out fine, there are plenty of red signs to tell the unknowing driver when they're about to enter a place they shouldn't. And as it turns out, Americans are not the ones who should stay out anyway.


All I knew about the Israeli Conflict was that America was helping Israel, there was some conflict with the Palestinians, but the Palestinians were a faceless people to me. With the help of wikipedia and Joe Sacco's Palestine, I'll try to explain some of the situation. From what I understand, Palestine was a country occupied by Britain after WWI. Then, during WWII and just after, there was a civil war in the country, and during the WWII the nazi's used a railroad through the country to transport supplies. These factors lead to the decision that 100,000 refugee Jews will be relocated to Palestine, and the country will be reformed. This area eventually became known as Israel, and was supposed to have arab and jewish states. These sections are what the conflict seems to primarily be about, acknowledgment of borderlines, access to water, and most contested: Jerusalem.


Jerusalem is hotly contested because it has important political and religious meaning for both groups. There are jewish and arab sections of the city, and officially they both have ownership of the city. Realistically though, this isn't true. Through various points in history, the arab population has been moved from one part of the city to another, in order to make room for Jewish wants (access to religious sights, for example).

The Western Wall, with separate sides for men and women. 
The Western Wall, two men praying. It's also called The Wailing Wall.

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock are located close to each other, and from them stem a lot of conflict. The Dome of the Rock is valued by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Islam believes that this is the location that Mohammad ascended to heaven. Judiasm believes it to be the spot where Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac. Christians believe that Constantine's mother built a small church which eventually became a Church of Holy Wisdom.  Today, from my understanding, the Arab quarter has the Dome of the Rock, and they refuse entry for Jewish citizens. Thus, the Jews pray at the Western Wall, the closest they can get to the Dome. To be clear, the Western Wall itself is also of significant importance, it just also happens to be the closest sight to the Dome of the Rock.

In the background, Dome of the Rock. The most contested piece of real-estate on earth. It is valued by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. 

The issue I have with the Palestinian and Israeli conflict are the ghettos that palestinian people have to live in. Most of this information comes from Joe Sacco's Palestine. To me it seems that the Palestinians are put in a no-win situation and expected to be content. They live in fenced-in communities, working outside is very difficult because they have to obtain a work permit, businesses are either destroyed or put in second to Israeli business (time-sensitive crops delivered after all israeli-family crops are sent), and there are israeli soldiers patrolling and enforcing curfews. This isn't to say that their are not "successful" Palestinians, there certainly are. There was a story from one in This American Life recently (click here for the transcript, it's Act Three). It just seems so hypocritical to me that an "oppressed" culture, like the jewish, are suppressing another culture.

A picture of the Old City and the tower of David. 

And who am I to judge? I'm an agnostic, white, kid from the "best country on earth." What do I know about sacred lands and conflicted people? I'm sure I don't have the Israeli story, but I am not convinced that anyone really does. When mixing political and religious motivations of two (and more) groups, it isn't going to be easy. I just have my own opinion, which I try to be rational about, but at the end of the day, it's really none of my business.

Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion, a roman catholic church. 

There is another thing I have to say about Israel, but not in reference to Arab-Jew relations. Just a general statement. As a preface, I haven't travelled to many places on a global scale, but I have seen quite a bit. I love animals, and when I travel I will pet most strays as long as they don't look like they'll bite me. In India, a place with tons of poverty, a stray may avoid you but they don't look scared. In Turkey, the stray animals are extremely friendly, even in the country-side. In Israel, the stray cats and dogs looked terrified of people. If I made eye contact with them, they would bolt and hide. Maybe that's a silly thing to make an observation or judgment about, but I think it's worth noting.

Israel turned out to be more interesting than I had thought it would. I think if someone has the opportunity to go, it's absolutely worth it. The country is a big giant desert, but the coast has nice beaches, and the food is really good. The must-see for me was definitely the Dead Sea, it's hard to experience anything like that.

Inside the big network shops in the Old City markets. Fun to walk through, be warned the salesmen are mildly aggressive.