Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tunisia with a smile

The more I travel, the more I learn. And the more I learn, the less I know I know. And, the less I know I know, the more I want to learn. And so, you see, it is a vicissitude, a vicious cycle, without beginning or end. I have travelled since before I can remember, and I will, inshallah, travel until I can no longer remember. It is a ceaseless, restless urge, a reckless yearning, a plaintive need. Maybe it will quell with the passing of years, the permutations of life, the finding of love and the holding on to it. Perhaps. Perhaps.

But there is something visceral, for me, in travel, a stirring of senses, a churning of desires. I have seen life fall apart. I have staggered through its rubble, numb. And I have changed because of it. But that which remains, at the core, is me. And part of that me, not all, but part, is travel. I will probably never be rich, never own fancy cars or expensive houses, never be famous or more than ordinary. But I will travel.

It hit me, again, that prickling of restivity, that immolant spark of curiosity, triggered by many things, not long ago. Recognizing the symptoms, I sighed and logged onto the internet. I tallied up my accounts, fingered the dirty bills of Egyptian pounds I had accumulated over months of English tutoring, calculated the funds and checked the airfares. Tunis. Hmmm. Cheap, developing country. Inexpensive to travel in, 'exotic', safe, close. Done. I worked some more, studied hard for exams, struggled through lesson plans and meetings. Suddenly, the Eid was upon me, a week of no school, no work, and 8 days of adventure.

I was wedged, quite literally, against the front window of a bus and the rattling door that scraped against the highway, careening alarmingly into the setting sun. Behind me, next to me, surrounding me, were similarly uncomfortable passengers, pushed up against one another as each bump jostled their precarious balance. “Good?” the driver asked, leaning over several passengers to smile at me. I smiled wanly back, willing his concentration back to the road. Travel during Muslim holidays in Islamic countries using public transport is not recommended. The BibleQuranTorah, otherwise known as my Lonely Planet guide to Tunisia, failed to mention this. I had fought, for many hours, to obtain my square inch of dirty bus floor, to cram myself onto an overcrowded overcrowded and speed towards my next destination. I made it, of course. The bus driver even took the bus off route, delayed his return to Tunis, to find me a taxi. When I offered to pay extra, he refused, demanding less than the actual fare. “Bon vacances!” he called cheerily as I disembarked into the night and an unknown town.

My Tunisian friend, Anis, marvelled at my determination. “I've never met anyone quite so...independent.” “Let me teach you a new word. Stubborn.” At his quizzical stare, I produced the Arabic translation and he nodded, emphatically. “Yes, you are very stubborn.” I took it as a compliment.

Sheer stubbornness got me through Tunisia. Not intelligence, coyness, grace or flirtation. Stubbornness. Running around bus terminals, tugging on sleeves and asking every person I could how to get to the next city. Pushing through throngs to achieve a seat on a minbus. Shouting in Egyptian Arabic. Being barely understood in said language. That is not to say it was not consummately enjoyable. It was. Flitting through Roman ruins, palm groves, desert oases, ancient medinas, bustling could it not be? But the journeys there, that was half the fun, at least.

I began in Tunis, arriving on a windswept night of black waters, glittering lights, and cool winds. Tunis is a port city, on the Med, cooled by a sea breeze and warmed by a golden sun. The ancient Romans made Carthage their playground; the modern Tunisians have added electricity, swanky villas, and roads, but the views they enjoy from Byrsa hill, heart of ancient Rome, remain the same, sweeping views down the water, blinded by a thousand hues of blue . Add a few Roman pillars, headless statues, crumbling glory, and you'll find me clambering amongst this strange melange of old and new, shaded palm groves harbouring Roman temples, high walls sheltering the President's palace.

Anis, a friend of a friend, told me I'm a guest in his country. Then he put me in his car, asked if I'd ever seen the movie Taken (if you recall, a film about kidnapping foreign female tourists and turning them into sex slaves) and drove me north. At the site of Utica, the former Roman capitol (albeit briefly) we disentangled ourselves from the car and set to exploring the half-excavated city, choked by weeds and wildflowers, replete with still vivid mosaics and Punic coffins. Then he took me to his family and a dinner of spicy couscous, lamb, laughter, and garbled attempts at French and Arabic. Then he left me, the next morning, at the bus station, somehow finding me a place on a bus that, it seemed, the entire population of Tunisia also wanted. The queue in front of the ticket window included screeching women, men climbing on other men's shoulders, people choking each other...general chaos.

After that, the natural stubbornness he so eloquently decried asserted itself. I found my way to Dougga, a magical Roman city built on a hill presiding over the fertile valleys beyond. It was here, resting against an ancient Roman pillar, shaded by an olive grove that I smiled. It was slow at first, just a twitch at the edge of my lips, but it spread, split my lips into a wide grin, a beam, as they say, from ear to ear. Whatever lay ahead, whatever lay behind, faded into the simple perfection of ancient Rome brushed by a Tunisian sun, the beauty of the past discovered by the present.

From this moment of peace came many more. A kind man at the bus station, informing me, courteously, my bus had arrived early, leading me to the queue, accepting my thanks with a shy acceptance. In the palmerie of Tozeur, a desert oasis far in the south, stumbling amongst the prickly trunks and waving fronds, wading through a clear spring, discovering hidden mosques- humble, ramshackle, built with faith and hand- and swaying bridges, laughter rippling in the undulating shadows. A waterfall tumbling out of the desert sands. A lizard crawling through my hair. A black ghost drifting through the brick-worked medina of Tozeur. New friends met on a rooftop. A coliseum rising above the tumble of El-Jem, filling my vision with memories of Gladiator (parts of it were filmed there), expanding to stay my steps as the entirety of its grandeur revealed itself, mysterious, echoing, ghostly. Lady Gaga blasting on a mini bus. Nadia, my seat mate, leaning over and whispering to me, “Take my phone number and call me if you need anything.” The temples of Sbeitla (yes, I know, more ruins) towering over a desolate plain. Sheep that escaped the slaughter, dotting the fields. And shopping, of course. Bartering for Berber jewelry in old souqs, cuddling new scarves and curious wooden puppets. The sea cliffs of Sidi Bou Said, cluttered with picture-perfect white houses and blue doors (a city ordinance actually, the colour design) stepping down to the water.

Peace is not a continuous road; it is rutted with weariness and annoyance. Crowded train rides, harassing men, unheated nights, shared bathrooms. But that smile returned, again and again, unbidden, independent, stubborn.