Thursday, December 23, 2010

Our tour of southern Tunisia

Paige, Steve, Salem and Moira
My daughter, brother and his partner/my best friend Moira arrived on December 11. A week later, school let out and we took off for a four-day tour of Tunisia's south. This ranks amongst the best vacations of my life. If you ever get a chance to take a similar trip, grab it!

Tunisia’s surface area is one sixth that of British Columbia. To the north and east, it has 1,300 kilometers of glorious coastline leading to soil so fertile it was known as the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.  To the west, the Atlas Mountains are high enough to get snow in the winter, even though nowhere else in the country has the thermometer ever dropped to freezing. And, of course, the south is the gateway to the vast Sahara Desert.

The Romans named the area Ifrikia province, a name that eventually applied to the whole continent. In the course of history, the country has been of strategic and economic importance to the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, and of course the French.

All this to say that there is an incredible richness and variety to be experienced in a small area, and my family and I did our best to profit from our chance to “do” the southern portion.

Day one. On the first day of Winter break, our driver, Salem, arrived promptly at 7 am. Having seen the first hour or so of road several times, I grabbed a pillow and went back to sleep until the first rest stop.  After that, the view whipping by was olive and almond groves. Our first stop was El Jem, a Unesco heritage site, and home of a 35,000 seat Roman amphitheatre that rivals that of Rome.

What an experience to walk beneath the surface of the floor and know that we were treading where gladiators, slaves and wild animals walked to meet their fates.

After an hour’s visit, followed by mint tea and a delightful honey-date pastry made by the café owner’s mother - his wife being “too lazy” to bake – we went to the other UNESCO heritage site in this small town, a mosaic museum. The third century Roman villa and its mosaics had been found in the sixties and painstakingly lifted indoors, leaving the ruins of the house itself intact on the site. The floor plan of the museum interior is a replica of the layout of the original villa. Those mosaics that weren’t in good enough condition to move were left in place so that visitors can experience the site in two ways. A few hundred meters down the road, another villa was found by chance in the 1990s. The Tunisian government decided to bring every piece of this villa to the museum site and to completely recreate the home using a mix of original walls and new stone taken from the ancient mines. We had the good fortune to speak to the head mosaic restorer who toured us around the project. If my explanation is too confusing, you can read about the museum at http://www.tourismtunisia.com/culture/eljem.html
Paige in front of Peacock mosaic


Catherine the Great's role mode
Then back on the road. We enjoyed an excellent fresh grilled fish lunch at El Mahres before heading further south along the coast to Gabes to visit its spice market. Here Paige got thoroughly ripped off by a trio of handsome young Tunisian men who charged her twenty dinars for a 5 dinar "henna" tattoo that didn’t last 36 hours. Steve and Moira bought spices - the right thing to do.
Gabes is famous for its dates, a fruit that I didn’t even think I liked until I came here. Now I start most days with a few. Its maritime oasis is host to an 4 square kilometre date orchard. We passed on the horse-drawn carriage tour, but at a roadside stand, we tasted palm juice, which was refreshing, sweet and delicious. It is taken from the palm tree in much the same way as sap is collected from maples.

Then on to Matmata, where I had been in November but was delighted to share with Steve, Moira and Paige. We stayed at the troglodyte hotel Diar el barbar. The cave experience was heightened by a power outage in the night. The floral velour bedspread was considerably helped by the lack of light.
View from the dining room at sunset.
Day two was a Berber village fest! In the morning, we went through an inhabited troglodyte home - a house dug into the side of a hill, often around a well-like courtyard. It was a bit embarrassing actually because the children were still asleep, but such is the life of a tourist. Here's a picture of Moira picking up some design tips for her kitchen reno.

Here is what a typical troglodyte home looks like from the outside. The circle of stones defines the central courtyard off which all the rooms are carved.
A colleague from school insisted that if we were in this area, we must look up the curator of the developing Berber museum at Tamerzet. It was great advice. The village is now deserted, but Monji Barras has spent the past twelve years restoring one of the homes and making a museum of it. We learned a ton. The Berbers dug their homes into the alternating soft and hard layers of these hills to hide from the Arabs who were invading Tunisia. Every consideration was given to secrecy and defense. Lanes were switchbacks. They dug a kilometre long tunnel to an oasis so that women could fetch water without being seen. Kitchen smoke was filtered so that it didn't give away their position. Monji was so knowledgeable, passionate, and genuine that none of us took pictures. Too bad, too, because the other thing he was was drop-dead gorgeous. A young Omar Shariff with a dash of George Cluny. I think he said some interesting stuff, too.

Then on to several other villages - Toujene (backdrop of Call of Duty 1 and 2), Oum Tamr, Medenine (site of Rommel's last engagement in Africa), Gorfas - ancient fortified granaries - Tatouine, and Ksar Hadada, and finally Douz where we spent the night. Many of these towns were used in the filming of Star Wars

So taken with this were we, that when we got home, we bought a copy of Star Wars: A New Hope in order to see it through new eyes. Good fun.

Day three was the best!!! Up, had breakfast and went directly to the dromedaries! I'll let the pictures do the talking.

Steve and Moira lead the caravan

Paige and I willingly follow

A mysterious stranger approaches on horseback...

... and carries me off!

Look, Paige, no hands!
The lone and level sands stretch far away...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Isle of Djerba

Ah yes. I have survived nine weeks without a long weekend - no Thanksgiving, no Remembrance Day - and now comes the reward. A five-day weekend to rest, relax and recreate. As soon as I knew for sure that Trish was coming, I booked three nights on Djerba, and what a treat that was.

The island is bigger than I had imagined, and completely flat. You can read a lot about it by scrolling through http://www.tunisia.com/tunisia/djerba Therein you will see all the sights that Trish and I missed. Day one we settled in and went the beach. Day two, we went into Midoun to the markets. Day three we rented a car and toured to Matmata on the mainland - a separate page all its own - and day four we went home. Did we see the most important synagogue in the Arab world? No. Did we visit the underground olive pressing plant? No. Did we tour the ancient fort of Borj el-Kebir? No again. Did we have a good time? No. We had a GREAT TIME!!

Cindy-Lou Hoo huts

Palms heavy with dates.

Trish soaking up the shade

Nothing much, but we're calling it home

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Sheep transport

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The sheep next door


 Well, across the road, actually, but that didn't sound as good. Isn't he gorgeous?! I can't remember what the children named him, but now at least I understand why Rym and Ashmedine hadn't been mowing their lawn lately.

In a few days it will be Aid al Adha. This is the celebration of the story of Abraham and Isaac which is shared by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. For those of you who are not biblical scholars, here is a good version of the event.

Sheepy, me, Ashmia and Papito. It is 22 degress, hence the heavy coats on three out of four of us.
Muslims the world over - and they make up twenty percent of the total population - celebrate the sacrifice by buying a sheep and bringing it home and then killing it. For weeks we have been seeing an increase of sheep all over the city. Any little vacant piece of ground has someone squatting on it with a few sheep - or dozens - for sale. I yell at them, "Run, Bambi, run!" but apparently they don't speak deer.

This is a flyer from a local grocery store. "Your sheep at a Giant price." I'm not sure how well this ad worked for them. A local gas station ran a campagne that said, "Play and win - a sheep!" I should be carrying my camera at all times.

Fall down, go boom!

This morning, Trish fell crossing the road before she could even get a taxi to her first adventure and sprained her ankle rather badly. This evening, not wanting my friend to be alone in her pain, I fell too. I was running flat out for the train in wide-legged pants and sandals. when the (long) toes of my left foot got caught in my right pantlleg. This might not have ended in disaster had I not had a marketing basket in one hand and a laptop in the other. Both hands being occupied with heavy things, I fell right on my chin on the cement.

Scraped knuckles

The full effect

Monday, November 8, 2010

Trish Arrives

I rented a car yesterday in order to be able to pick up Trish from the airport. The driving here is completely crazy. The highway has lane markers and speed limit signs, but both are completely ignored. Thankfully, people don't go out much at night, so I did fine picking her up at midnight. Teachers are granted two personal days per year and I was granted one for her first day. It was wonderful to have the car and take her to some of my favourite places - and to see a few that I hadn't been able to get to myself. Trish is a gifted photographer, and these are all her shots.
Me at the kitchen window

Roman cisterns - three minutes from my house.

Ripe olives on a tarp

We had lunch here at Sidi Bou Said

Ripe olive on my table cloth

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Domaine Atlas Winery

Tunisia is unique in the Muslim world in that it has its own wine-making industry. Islam condemns utterly the use of alcohol, but here they make it. My principal calls Tunisia's approach "Muslim Lite".  In fact, they protect their wine growers to the extent of having a complete embargo on foreign wines of any kind. At international hotels you can get grain alcohol from all over the world - for a price - but the only wine you can buy here is Tunisian wine. It's, well, it's not horrible.

Anyway, on Saturday morning at 10, a bus load of us left the school for a trip to the Domaine Atlas Winery about an hour out of town in Cap Bon. It was a perfect day. The company was good, the weather cooperated, and a good time was had by all. We started with a brief tour of the facility, the harvest having been completed three weeks earlier.
Gleaming fermentation vats and lovely oak barrels

Just to give you a sense of the size of these things.

Many litres of Chateau September 30th.
 Then the tasting began. I really couldn't tell you how many wines we tasted. They were certainly not stingy with the variety or the quantity. After the first three or four, the buffet lunch was served, and what a fine spread it was. There was a lamb dish that had probably simmered for a day, two cold salads and one warm one, oven fried potatoes, their own olives, an eggplant dish and good bread. Through all this, the wine kept on coming.
Lunch on the patio

The rest of the merry band
 At the end of the meal, they collected our order forms, then loaded up the bus and the director's trunk with our booty. A good time was had by all. I bought two cases and three half bottles of late-harvest dessert wine. Drop by some time.
The bus ride home was considerably more voluble than the trip there!

Monday, October 18, 2010

New dishes

OK. So not many people would bother to make a blog post about kitchen dishes. To appreciate their importance, you have to understand that I have essentially been camping out in a house since August. I brought a suitcase full of summer clothes, some toiletries, and a dog with me. Period. In the house, the school had placed very adequate furniture, two plates, two bowls, two mugs and some cutlery. There also were some old sheets and a few towels to tide me over until my shipment came. Because of incompetence on the part of Bekins, that shipment did not even leave Richmond, BC until September 30. I may see my things by December 1st. Inshallah.

Now dishes are not in my shipment, so I don't have to wait for them. Before I left home, I bought new pots and pans, new knives, new cutlery (I had to leave the kitchen in Victoria fully equipped) but no dishes because I thought I might see something here that would later be great momentos of my time in Tunisia. So without further ado - and don't ever ship anything via Bekins - here they are. I bought two each of four different patterns to mix and match. Come over; I'll make you dinner. You'll have to bring your own cutlery, though.

Don't they look amazingly like the background of the blog?