This isn’t going to end the way I thought it would. In fact it ended quite poorly and I find myself feeling disappointed and a bit cheated.
We are driving along National Road Number 3, headed toward Tunis. We’re just outside Gafsa and tt’s already been an hour or so of driving from Torzeu. The red and white kilometer marker says there’s still 330 km to Tunis. It’s going to be a long drive, Mohammed tells me. He and Mondher chat away in Arabic and French as the odometer clicks along.
I’m feeling isolated and alone, a feeling that will only get much, much worse as the day wears on. I can contribute nothing to the conversation in the front seats and I don’t want to interrupt. But it’s my tour, dammit, and every so often I screw up the courage to ask a question.
Mondher’s English has gotten worse of late. I suspect it’s because it’s not his go-to language. I’ve known a lot of multi-lingual folks, amazing individuals all, who if they’ve been off with family, friends, or colleagues speaking another language for a weekend or a trip, come back and struggle to get back into the swing of English with all its idiosyncracies. I suspect they speak whatever language they HAVE been using more often better than normal as it’s what they been using most recently. Like the coordinates from the navi-computer, it takes a few seconds to pull the words out of memory when it’s been relegated to the back. And sometimes I feel like Mondher doesn’t need to fully switch to English as he’s only throwing out a tidbit or responding to a minor question of mine, so it’s not 100% comprehension or responsiveness. Sometimes he picks out a keyword I’ve used as context to set up my question and answers that, providing what to him sounds like a reasonable answer and to me sounds like a non-sequitor.
At some point I decide to ask to stop at a Camel Crossing sign. As is often the case when you ask somebody else to take the photo for you, the angle isn’t what I would’ve chosen or hoped for. I wish he’d gotten more of my feet and shown the ground a bit more OR gotten closer to a medium-shot of me at the waist. I suppose I could crop it to that but… eh, it is what it is:
We stop along the way at les voyageurs cafe coffee shop as neither Mohammed nor Mondher had breakfast expecting to get it at my hotel. They told me there would be breakfast but the corner was pitch black the whole time I waited outside and I had given up when they arrived at 7 AM this morning. They seemed as confused as I was by the hotel’s lack of service to its customers.
While they drink coffee and cappuccino respectively, I mention the radio doesn’t seem to be playing Cheb Hosni. It was a reference to the last night when we were at a café and a song came on the radio that Mondher said was a favorite of his 20 years ago. Mohammed said this Nigerian singer, Cheb Hosni, was like a Bob Marley. Mondher took offense saying Bob Marley was old; Mohammed pointed out the song playing was 20 years old and was therefore an “oldie.”
For the record, the song was apparently by Collette Nancy, a Lebanese singer who both guys admitted was very attractive. I wished they’d said she was very hot right now.
Around 11 AM, four hours after leaving Tozeur, we arrive in the city of Kairouan, which Mondher tells me is pronounced like “kato-one” or making me ashamed for my home country he also tells me, “it’s like ‘Kato Kaelin.’” It has me thinking about what legacy we will leave behind, all of us collectively and each of us individually.
Kairouan is also where they shot a lot for “Cairo” in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In reality, it’s one of the largest cities in Tunisia, settled in the 7th century by Muslims and therefore considered the fourth holiest city in Islam (behind Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem). The reason being that the very first mosque in North Africa was built here. But more on that in a moment.
In the meantime, Mondher takes me on a strolling tour of the medina…
At one point, he takes me to the Well of Barrouta. This was a fabled innovation to get fresh water into the medina. A camel would turn a wheel that propelled a water wheel to draw jugs of water up and dispense it. A recreation was there and for a dinar I had my photo taken with the camel. He was no Sultan.
After that, I was taken on a photo scavenger hunt for the various filming spots of Raiders Mondher pointed to this balcony as one in the basket chase/shoot out scene.
And here’s a spot where they were supposedly searching for the baskets.
Down this alley the monkey motorcycle spy ran… and so did I.
He told me this is where Indiana Jones was ducking behind a corner. (In a moment I’ll tell you about how I had the wrong scene in my head and how frustrated I am with this shot).
In this doorway, Marion smacked a guy with a frying pan and drug his body inside. The carvings remain the same; they framed out the rest of the door for the movie.
And this is where a truck blew up. THE truck. The one that makes Indy think he’s killed Marion.
As I said above, Mondher’s English has gotten worse. I get the impression he’s kinda tired of showing me around too. He keeps telling me about the last group he took, just the other week, two friends from North and South Carolina. They loved both Star Wars and Indiana Jones and they brought still frames to recreate shots and props. I think he’s trying to tell me this to prove he knows where things are and also to have me see how crazy some people are. As is often the case with tours, I don’t like hearing about what other people did or got to see that was better than my tour. Lie to me. Tell me the other people had rain the whole time, that they had a miserable time but that for me? For me this is auspicious weather and I’m lucky to get to see X or Y. As he tells me about this last tour, I just feel inadequate, like I should’ve done more or prepped more. As with other tours when I’ve heard how much better people were and how much more fun the other had, there’s that feeling keeping up with the Joneses. Speaking of which, the few times I tried to recreate him, I realized I’m no Harrison Ford, no Chris Strompolos, or Sean Patrick Flannery. If you squint I might be George Hall. There’s a gait and attitude to an action hero, and a really great one runs with purpose. I lack… everything.
As we round the corner we stroll past the Kazbah, the military fortification built to defend the Medina. It’s now a five-star hotel.
And the alley near it leads us to that oldest mosque in North Africa. Originally built in the 7th century, each successive king add his own enhancement/touch to make it bigger and bigger. It was finally deemed finished in the late 8th century. Because it was around mid-day, the mu’addhin had already called the faithful to prayers. As is proper and right, there isn’t supposed to be visitors strolling around inside while services are being held so I only took this shot from far away.
We are driving. And have been for some time. About an hour after we left the medina, they show me this:
It’s a binder of the walking tour sites of the medina.
They show me the book of photos and scenes … an hour… AFTER we leave?! WTF?!
Here are the photos of the ones I did kinda see… and by the numbers you can tell just how many I failed to see.
It’s actually kind of insulting. We missed quite a few spots or we were at the wrong angles on some. I’m annoyed and say in a rather snippy tone, “Ya know, as a constructive suggestion, it’d be a lot better to show this to clients BEFORE touring the Medina.” Mondher is in the front seat, flipping through the binder, holding it up now and again to show me photos of places and saying “Remember when I took your photo? Same place.” I guess. Mohammed has to suggest in Arabic that he actually hand the book to me so I can see it. I say this because after Mohammed’s words, Mondher almost begrudgingly hands the binder back to me.
Am I in a foul mood? Am I just done? I don’t know. I think I’m justified in being gobsmacked that this is all happening AFTER the visit.
They just want to get home. I get it. They know with the ferry they won’t get back until 1 am, or at least that’s how long it took on the last tour. All I know is that this day of travel and minimal touring is a really cruddy way to end MY tour. I’m feeling very let down and I guess it’s my fault for not being better prepared. At least that was how I was feeling up until they showed me THEY had materials they could’ve shared with me in the several hours we were driving north this morning.
Disappointing. Very disappointing. But maybe I’m just done with the whole thing. Maybe it’s me. It’s always me. I travel alone but people think that’s sad and that makes me sad. I think I’m prepared but once the trip starts I feel woefully unprepared. I finish the tour and resign myself to my own inadequacies … and then I find out I’m even more to blame for not being more aggressive in asking questions. I’ve been self-conscious about interrupting the guides; conversations in Arabic/French assuming they’re discussing important things … or even if they’re not it’s rude of me to interrupt. I’m feeling cheated and responsible for being cheated.
We drive on. And on. And on some more. We arrive in Hammamet, a former fishing and farming powerhouse that’s grown more into seaside tourism of late. It’s about 50 km to Tunis. I’ll be staying here tonight. Mohammed takes a call and tells me another driver by the name of Khalid will be there tomorrow at mid day to take me the rest of the day.
We wind our way through the traffic congested cityscape. After about 15 minutes, Mondher tells me they are taking me the city streets so I know where I am for tonight and tomorrow. I haven’t been paying attention for the last fifteen minutes. Once again, information I could’ve used BEFORE the tour started.
Mohammed says he will try and find a café for lunch near the hotel. I tell him they clearly just want to get going, that they should just drop me off, and that this day has been really, really poor. They say because I’m not feeling well. I tell them, no, because the tour has been really, really poor today. I point out once again that they showed me photos of the Medina AFTER the tour. Mondher tells me the photos are not part of the tour, that the itinerary just says we will take a tour of the Medina and he thought he’d show me the photos “just because.” That’s the worst kind of excuse for poor customer service – making the slight seem like a value added bonus.
They drop me off at 2:05 PM at a hotel best described as a family resort where mom and dad can leave the kids to run wild and they can ignore them. The lobby is as if I’ve been shrunk and swept into a gigantic ash tray; the cigarette smoke here is worse than any place I’ve been in Tunisia… and there has been A LOT of smoking in Tunisia. It’s also a cacophonous madhouse with house music playing from one bar, kids screaming at an air hockey table, and a reception filled with travelers waiting to check in.
Mondher checks me in but there’s a problem with the reservation. They’re arguing in French and Arabic but I know a customer service screwup in any language. I finally ask if anyone speaks English. A manager comes over to tell me he speaks many languages, English, Dutch, German – perhaps I’d like some Russian. I hold up my hand and say to him, “Sir, I’m having a really bad day here and I just need to know what the situation is and what is happening. In English.” People seem taken aback. The manager, the desk clerk, and Mondher all say in unision, “it’s no problem.”
I want to scream.
Eventually the snafu is worked out and I’m given a key, in a room about as far from reception as possible. As it’s recommended in the tour papers, I tip Mohammed and Mondher but hold back a few dinar at the last minute, spiteful and preferring to just have the excess dinar go to waste in my pocket on my return to America than to give it to them. It’s a petty thing to do and I immediately regret it… and yet am also still incredibly angry and disappointed in this day and retroactively in this tour as a whole.
I do then what one should never do – I compose an email.
March 3, 2018. 3:05 PM Tunisian Time
Dear Joshua and Kevin,
I’m writing this from a place of anger and disappointment and I’m tempted to hold off on sending it… but I’ve reread it a few times and while there are grammar errors and typos I feel like it properly expresses my feelings at the moment. As a result, I think it IS important to send it now, so that’s what I’m doing.
This email is to let you know that today’s final day of touring was so disappointing and such a colossal insult to me as a traveler that it has negatively impacted the goodwill and memories I had in the previous days.
I was willing to overlook the leaking toilet that spilled feces on the bath floor at the first hotel, the almost uniform poor food at the all of the hotels where each was seemingly confused that I would want to eat at their establishment. This confusion was most especially true at Hotel Sidi Driss and Residence El Oued. The latter was so ill-prepared to serve breakfast that I skipped it entirely. The second day (this morning) I briefly had someone in the kitchen area before they turned out all the lights at 6:30 waiting for… I don’t know what… though they didn’t understand a request for only a glass of jus d’orange, un boisson, I tried my best to overcome the language barrier and use any word or pantomime I could but it was a disaster. My French is terrible and my Arabic is non-existent. This is my fault, I know. The food at Sidi Driss was barely edible and despite being yelled at by the management who didn’t realize I was a guest, I took it all in stride as the crappy tourist trap price to be in such a place.
I also accepted that Mohammed and Mondher would speak to each other during the drives in French/Arabic and occasionally Mondher would tell me something in English. That’s fine – that’s part of the deal.
But today’s long drive from Tozeur to Hammamet was totally unacceptable. I didn’t want to interrupt their conversations and so for long, long, LONG stretches was just left to my thoughts – all fine though when Mondher did tell me something it almost too me by surprise.
When we arrived at the Medina Kairouan I told Mondher I needed a WC which he acknowledged and then proceeded on with the tour, ignoring the bathroom need. I suppose that’s in keeping with the famed story of Raider of the Lost Ark shooting there when everyone had dysentery and that being the story for why instead of a big action scene with the swordsman, Indy just shoots him. Neither Harrison Ford nor Steven Spielberg had the strength to shoot the action and it’s a great moment. What was not such a great moment was the wandering of the Medina. Mondher would point out a few things saying this was in the movie and I’d take photos and we kept wandering. We arrived at the oldest mosque in North Africa but it was prayer time so we just took a single photo from the outside at an angle.
Finally Mohammed drove to get petrol and I was able to get to a WC. Forty-five minutes later on the drive, Mohammed and Mondher produced a binder with photos of the medina both in the film and today along with a map… something that would have been FAR more useful to see in the HOURS drive leading up to the Medina. To have Mondher flip through the pages in the front seat and say, “see, remember when I took your photo there? Same place.” Mohammed had to tell him to pass the book to me to look at. I couldn’t believe I might have actually been able to appreciate the place and see more of the specific sights had this book been given to me even as we were walking the medina. Instead, it felt like insult to injury.
The men continued their conversation about I know not what in Arabic and French and I was left to stew with my thoughts of disappointment. Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m burned out and didn’t ask the right questions. But given that they had this information packet and didn’t bother to share it with me until well AFTER the visit? That’s maddening.
We drove on. And on. And we arrived at Hammamet around 1:30 PM. They drove me the streets and at some point Mondher told me “this was to give [me] an idea of the town.” They told me a driver named Khalid would take me onto Tunis tomorrow at noon but they were heading back to Djerba today. They took me to the hotel and after a series of snafus at check-in, they’ve left me here.
What a waste of today. Had I known this was a nothing day, much like the first travel day, I might have booked my flight out tomorrow rather than spending another day here in Tunisia. I thought though that given the itinerary I needed to be here another night. How wrong that is. Given the lack of touring and general isolation I’ve felt in this, I have to say the negativity of the day makes me actually regret the money I’ve spent on this tour. That is NOT the way you want your tour to end.
My general impression today was that Mohammed and Mondher just wanted to make the long drive back to Djerba. They told me last tour they didn’t get home until 1 AM because of the ferry. I gather I was more an inconvenience and just needed to get dropped off as quickly as possible. At least that’s how I felt.
Again, maybe it’s me. When I mentioned what a disappointment this was to Mondher and mentioned the photos being shown AFTER the tour of the Medina, he said that the photos were not part of the tour, only the walk through the Medina was and he was just showing me the photos now “because.” As we walked through he would tell me, “this is where they shot X,” or “this is where they shot Y.” In fact, he told me the tour group before me had brought props (maybe that’s who did the binder?) and raved about them, as he had done during the Star Wars locations. I don’t know if he was trying to make me feel better as he was often saying he felt sorry that I was traveling alone. To be honest, I’m okay traveling alone and it really only becomes an issue when someone else makes it an issue.
And to be doubly honest, given how today went, I deeply regret using a tour group at all and should have perhaps just done my own research and handled it all myself.
Again, and again, this is NOT how you should feel at the end of your tour.
I am very, very disappointed. I sincerely hope Khalid shows up tomorrow at noon. I don’t not have a very good feeling about anyone at the moment as I feel like I’ve paid a lot of money to be told how sad I am and to be ignored as I don’t speak French or Arabic.
Fingers crossed I can leave Hammamet tomorrow and Tunis on Monday.
I hem and haw and send it anyway, preferring to document in the moment my feelings and let somebody else sort it out… but that’s also why I hastily add a line or two acknowledging the folly in composing and sending an email in this state.
I decide the only thing I can do to try and salvage the day is to go for a run. So I do.
As I say in the email, fingers crossed I get back to Tunis tomorrow and out of Tunisia on Monday.
Welcome to Tunisia? Good-bye to Tunisia.