Sunday, 6 August 2017

Traffic-stopping


I watched in disbelief as the oncoming vehicles slowed to a halt in the middle of a road that had no traffic lights/signals anywhere. It did not make sense until we turned to face the other direction, and saw the policeman -- the same one we had met at the ticket office -- in the middle of the road, his palms sticking out to both sides. Then he turned to us, tilted his head, and gave us the signal to walk without fear to the Roman archaeological site at Sbeitla. 

I'm not sure about Matej, but I felt a mix of guilt and self-importance. We did not require such special treatment. We were, after all, regular tourists to this country. But that was probably it: we were two out of a handful of tourists still visiting Tunisia, despite warnings from several countries not to.

Those travel warnings and advisories stemmed from two terror attacks in 2015: one in March, at the Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis, and another just three months later in the resort city of Sousse. Scores were gunned down in total. Visitors have since started streaming in through the doors and security checkpoint of the museum, and you'll find a mosaic plague at the foyer listing the names and nationalities of those who died in March 2015. Walking around the museum you find some areas off-limits, no thanks to that attack. But the mosaics, one of the most impressive collection from the Roman and Byzantine eras, make you forget, if even for a moment, the grim episode which took place here.

And it's the same story in Sousse: people have moved on. But while not everyone is convinced, the Russians seem unfazed. The security situation in other Middle East favourites, Turkey and Egypt, have pushed them to Tunisia. And the locals are keen to keep them coming, especially since the country relies heavily on tourism as a source of revenue. There's added security in the main thoroughfare in Tunis. Ironically though, it's become a bit of a catch-22 situation: while it's a measure to assure the public that security forces are on top of things, it scared a Russian couple I stayed with at a B&B.

I suppose they had reason to be fearful. They stood out. My tan and physical features let me blend in seamlessly. I had no problems hopping into louages (inter- and intracity minivans) for the northern port city of Bizerte for a day trip, or taxis to and from the UNESCO-listed Roman site of Dougga, said to be the largest and most dramatic in all of Africa.

Yet, I can't deny my own apprehensions. What if something happens?, I asked myself. I don't even have an embassy I can turn to (the closest one being in Cairo, Egypt). But stronger than the fear was my conviction that if something is meant to happen, it can happen anywhere: Tunis, Ankara, Paris, Brussels, what's in a name?

Alas, Tunisia may currently be at a disadvantage where worldviews are concerned. And it may take time for opinions to change. But until then, those who dare, will find a people raring to ensure you feel safe, and have entire museums and archaeological sites to themselves. 

Friday, 3 February 2017

Trip Report: Tunisia

I visited Tunisia in late September 2016, a country I'd been wanting to go to for some time. I came away with no regrets. Alas, I understand people may have concerns in the wake of 2015's two terror attacks. So here's my list of FAQs, and my itinerary, if you're thinking about travelling to this North African country.

beyond the sea, at Sidi Bou Said
My itinerary:
day 1: arrive in Tunis
day 2: day trip to Dougga (louage and taxi)
day 3: Bardo museum and Sidi Bou Said (by TGM train)
day 4: train to Sousse; walked around a bit
day 5: day trips from Sousse to Kairouan and Sbeitla (louage)
day 6: day trips from Sousse to El Jem and Mahdia (louage)
Downtown Tunis' main thoroughfare
day 7: train back to Tunis
day 8: day trip to Bizerte (louage)
day 9: fly out of Tunis

Is it safe?
Yes. Along the main thoroughfare in Tunis city centre, you'll see security personnel stationed at various points (including outside the French embassy). The only hotel I stayed at during my trip was in Sousse (I did Airbnb otherwise), where security would deny you entry unless you are staying at the establishment.
Should I really go to Tunisia? My government has issued a travel warning/advisory...
a section of the wall at the Sousse fortress
This is something you have to decide for yourself. Given today's security climate, a bomb could easily go off in Paris or Port Said. I have to admit at some point I was apprehensive, but I wanted to find out for myself just how serious a threat it is.
intricate mosaic on display at
the Bardo Museum, Tunis
How are the Tunisians?
Friendly, approachable, and very helpful. A couple of times I had wait staff switch to English when they realised I'm a foreigner struggling with French. My "poulet, oui?" would be met with "yes, it's chicken".
Do I have to watch what I wear?
sunrise in Sousse
Tunisia does not fit neatly into any one box. For every woman you see wearing a hijab, burqa, there's one wearing a dress, or a blouse paired with jeans. So once again, it's pointless assuming that just because it's a Muslim country, women can't dress as they want. In fact, they drive too and I've sat in louages (shared mini-vans) with solo (local) women travellers. Having said all that, if you're going to visit a mosque, wear something that goes beyond your knees, if they can't reach your ankles. In general, men can get away with shorts, but same rule applies as women when going to a mosque. When in doubt, take the cue from locals.
ruins at Dougga, a UNESCO
World Heritage Site
Visa requirement?
I'm from Singapore and didn't require one. Check with your individual government agencies. 
Getting to the city from the airport
the Great Mosque in Kairouan, considered
the fourth holiest city in Islam
There are public buses you can hop onto on the right side, after you exit the arrival hall (you can't miss it, there's a departure point). There's also a taxi stand on the left after you come out of arrivals. It should cost you about 3 euros (which is about 7.50 Tunisian dinars) to get to the traffic circle at "Big Ben" (their version of it). The most you should pay is 5. You could ask for a metered fare but even that runs into its own set of problems (with traffic and all).
Getting around
The louage (a minivan/minibus) became my best friend. Remember I don't speak French or Arabic, so all I would do at the louage point is "excuse me, Tunis/Sousse/Bizerte/etc?" and they'd point me in a general direction where I'd repeat the question. Never had any trouble with getting where I had to, that too in a jiffy. The only downside is that you have to wait for these vehicles to fill up before they push off (my longest wait was 1hr 15mins). That, or the passengers in the vehicle have to decide to pay a little more for the driver to set off sooner.
coasting along in Mahdia
El Jem, Tunisia's own Coliseum
If you don't like the unpredictably of the louage, the bus might be the next best option. But do note that they don't travel everywhere. For example, I went to Dougga by hopping onto a louage and switching to a taxi.
Trains are reliable. My airbnb hosts provided me with a timetable of train services to and from Tunis.
Money matters
the well-maintained ruins of Sbeitla
Tunisia uses its own dinars, which you can change at the airport when you get in. There are several money changers in the arrival and departure halls. If you intend to exchange your dinars for euros/dollars/etc when you're leaving the country, make sure you retain the receipt the money-changer gives you when you buy your dinars. Otherwise, the banks at the airport won't accept them. Do keep in mind too that the airport shops/cafes accept dinars (can't remember now if they'd take euros) so it'd be good to have a few of those on you when you're leaving, in case you get hungry.
entrance to Tunis medina
How expensive is it?
This is what I had for breakfast at a cafe near by airbnb place: a chocolate croissant, an almond one, and a coffee with milk. total cost: 2.85 dinars, or just over 1 euro. A regular chicken sandwich came up to about 2 euros. A cafe au lait set me back about 1.50 dinar (at best).
Tourist sites aren't too expensive either. A visit to El Jem's Roman amphitheatre costs 10 dinars, but it includes admission to an archaeology museum a little south from there (worth a visit).
Bizerte, northern Tunisia's
port city
Staying connected
You should be able to get a wifi connection at some cafes, and hotels.
Read!
The People Want the Fall of the Regime: The Arab Uprisings by Jeremy Bowen




As always, if you have any questions, feel free to ask.
I've also posted photos on instagram.com/kevuzingh if you'd like some inspiration. :)