Did I expect anything different? After a restless night of thumping techno music coming through the paper-thin walls and the door slammings of comings and goings of the adjacent rooms, I finally gave up and got up. I went to get breakfast at 6 AM, the time I was told the night before during my dinner time fiascos.
It was dark and the door was closed so I sat in the lobby checking some things on my phone. The desk clerk waved me over and said I could go in. “Ouvert?” I asked. “Oui, oui,” he said, motioning me toward the door. I went inside… and was astonished at what I saw. The place was a shambles. There was a basket of stale bread, a couple of large bowls of cereal and a whole lot of darkness. The drink station was a mess, dispensers turned off, their nozzles caked with some dried out substance, their controls smeared with stains of god knows what. Dirty and seemingly clean cups and saucers were intermingled as if at a college mixer. I was grossed out. The maître’d from the night before came over and shooed me out saying they opened at 6:30. I told him this was not what I was told. I’m tired of being consistently told inconsistencies of “truth.”
I come back around 6:45. The door is open but little else has changed. The lights are still off. Maybe there’s another basket of croissants. The drink station remains a neat-freak OCD’s nightmare. I grab a roll and a bowl of cereal and sit down, sighing with resignation. I have another of both figuring this is all I can expect… but having over stuffed on the two things my doctor has consistently warned me I need to cut back on, I decided to head back to my room. It’s 7:15 or 7:30. As I am walking out the door, they bring out several chaffing dishes of hot food. Screw this place.
Mine are the only two comment cards in the suggestion box – one filled out last night from dinner, the other this morning about the breakfast. As the form is in French and I only know how to write in English, I assume my comments will be duly ignored and thrown into file 13.
I decide since Khalid is supposedly coming at noon that I should try and get a run in. If nothing else I hope it will help endorphin my mood. I log a slow 10 miles on the streets of Hammamet, trying to fake it hoping to make it real. Looking back, it’s what I’ve been doing most of this trip.
I ponder what my testimonial would be for this tour group. I read through a few of their posted comments and it’s like reading about a mirror universe. I’m hesitant to post the name of the company here for all the world to see but I’ve tried to give enough pieces and clues such that if you look at the whole you might be able to see a vision or montage that reveals the name as a whole. But considering the horror stories one occasionally hears about published reviewers being persecuted by companies for outing them as being terrible, I am not going to specifically list the North Africa travel specialist here that I feel so profoundly disappointed in. But if you send me a personal message to [email protected] I’ll do my best to fill in any pieces and tell you the name in private.
But in a redacted sense, here’s what I think my testimonial might be, as of 10:17 AM Tunisian time:
Thanks to [REDACTED] I paid an exorbitant amount of money for transportation to various Star Wars filming locations in Tunisia. I want to think I only paid for that and not the customer dis-service and lackadaisical tour guide information that would be marked by Wikipedia as needing review and revision. Because if I did pay for being made to feel foolish and dumb and to be treated in that manner, I’d be a masochist. And if I weren’t that then if I had paid to be made to feel that way I truly would regret having paid a single dinar to [REDACTED]. As it stands, I like to think I just got royally ripped off on the transport fees rather than viewing it as I paid to be emotionally abused and battered.
I feel like that might be soft-selling the experience though.
Approximately 12 Noon Tunisian Time
I started my Tunis tour defeated and angry as I had had a last minute meeting with the El Fell hotel manager before leaving. As we entered his office, he asked someone there to step outside; I would later realize this guy has been counting the copious dinar they had raked in the previous night. The manager told me he had gotten my comment cards and he was horrified. Recounting all that has gone wrong with my night at El Fell actually almost made me cry. He apologized but said they had three groups of almost 500 people. I told him that was great for him clearly, gesturing toward the stacks of money at the next table, but crappy for me. He asked what he could do and I told him I was leaving in an hour. He might have done something last night or this morning but now, what could be done? He offered me another night and I said I was leaving. He said the next time I was in Tunisia to let him make it up somehow. I said, much like Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, I’m never coming back here. Luke was wrong, I don’t think I will be. I ended the meeting as someone interrupted with another problem outside telling him his hotel has so broken and defeated me that I really don’t know what else to say.
Part of me wanted to say that after surviving the night in the house on haunted hill, my prize is I get to leave the house on haunted hill. But even I had trouble parsing that analogy.
I have every intention of writing a review on TripAdvisor, Orbitz, and any other travel site I can think of. But in fairness I will make mention of the manager meeting with me at least, even if it was far too little, far too late.
So it was with all that baggage both emotional and my physical luggage that I got into the tour minibus with Khalid and my guide Resa. They asked how I was doing and I just about lost it, launching into a soliloquy of sorrow and wrongs that got today’s tour off on the wrong foot. Eventually I calmed down and Resa launched into his guide talk.
I got more information and a better tour overview of Tunisia the country in the 45 minutes to the restaurant in Tunis than I did in my entire six days with Nader. I’m guess I’m glad to be doing this tour now, but it also only further convinces and proves just how cheated I was in the guide portion of my six day tour. I’m both relieved and enraged by this turn of events. I really, really got screwed.
With his discussion of the country and its history, Resa was surprised I hadn’t heard a lot of this before. He said this was all pretty typical information for starting a tour. While I was engaged and asking questions, I also was mentally thinking, “Man, you really, really got screwed, Kevin. Is it better knowing empirically that this was the case or would it have been better to just think it?”
I did find myself wondering if it was possible Nader, coming off his tour with those Carolina friends, got confused about what he had said to them versus what he hadn’t said to me. If I’m being generous I suppose I could try and see it that way… but then I think about all the money I spent.
I could go into details here about the geographical makeup of the country, about how at its peninsula it’s only 70 km to Italian land and 142 km to Sicily. I would talk about the strategic importance of Tunisia throughout history, how if one controlled it one could essentially control trade on the Mediterranean. I could go into the history of the founding of Carthage (or New City) by the Phoenicians and its subsequent change of hands to Romans and Byzantine and Arab hands, about its French colonization from 1881 to independence in 1956. Or about how there were the two presidents who ruled until the Arab Spring revolution of 2011 redid the constitution and set up a parliamentary system with a Prime Minister. I could talk about all that but Nader didn’t so why bother?
I wasn’t able to get it all down but it was useful hearing it at the time of seeing things. It was useful having the information and context in the moment. And while I may not have it all committed to memory, it made the visit and tour more interesting at the time.
The main thing I wrote down was about olives and olive oil. There are at least 60 million olive tress in Tunisia and it’s big, big business. They’re tied with Italy for olive oil production, but thanks to a monopoly of distribution Tunisia literally doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Ninety percent of the Tunisian exported oil gets sent to Italy and then the Italians decant it into bottles. Thus they get to slap “Product of Italy” on the packaging. As they are tied in production, there’s a 50/50 chance that Italian olive oil is actually Tunisian oil.
After a too-large lunch at a seafood restaurant in La Goulette, we made our way to the Tunis harbor to take a tour of Carthage. I had run a lot of the areas we visited during the Carthage Marathon and had warned both my tour operator and Resa my guide; it being Sunday though the old town I hadn’t visited was mainly deserted and closed. So back to Carthage and those same ruins we went.
Resa once again ran through all of world history in about ten minutes as we looked upon the harbor and discussed the strategic importance of the two harbor system — a trading harbor and a heavily fortified military harbor. Tunis offered control the sea and the sea meant money, money, money. And money, money, money meant war, war, war.
Resa’s drawing of the two-harbor system on Carthage looked to me more like the Starship Enterprise…
He summed up Carthage thusly: “It started as history, and ended as a quarry of stone.” Each successive civilization raided the ruins for stone and to put up their own marks. And as time progressed and residents moved in, a lot of the archeological sites were covered over or negatively impacted. The city as it was is just a series of ruins spread about the town now, and UNESCO only put it on the register in the 1970s, meaning the preservation efforts came long after the raiding and damage had been done.
We next visited those same damn ruins I kept passing during the marathon.
Resa did provide some context — they’re part of a 5th or 6th century basilica named via English translation “the House of Charity.” I don’t feel like trying to explain to Resa that I’ve been here before… several times in fact as I went round and round and round and extra rounds during race day.
The same is true of the American Monument and Cemetery for the US servicemen who gave their lives in Tunis during World War II.
And the aqueduct I kept running past was also (re)-visited.
It was strange and surreal to be driving the same roads I had run just a week earlier.
From there we headed to Sidi Bou Said, a place I also had been on the run and on my own to visit. But it’s a thing and it’s open and, well, so be it. I didn’t realize it was a 13th century settlement. But I did realize the blue/white color scheme was a French Colonial tradition codified into law, which explains the (almost) uniform white building with blue doors and trim. There are a few rebels in there — gold doors, red ones too. But they are few and far between. I asked Reas what the penalty was for “breaking the color law” but he didn’t answer. I’ve noticed that a lot about my tours — sometimes they just prefer to ignore me and follow their scripts.
He gave me some time to wander on my own, a sorta unnecessary thing but I decided to buy a deep fat fried donut that everybody seemed to have in their hands this Sunday afternoon. It was one of many food mistakes I made today. In retrospect, I really should’ve run way more than 10 miles this morning. I’m feeling and looking very fat. At one point during my tour with Mohammed and Nader they told me everybody gains a few kilograms when they visit Tunisia. This is both true and tragic for a guy like me.
At tour’s end, Khalid and Resa drove me to my self-booked hotel. For $25 in Orbucks, meaning this hotel was free to me, it’s a steal. Combined with its stable wifi and amenities superior to the hotels I’ve been at of late, it looks like I made a better hotel pick than the professional tour operators. Sigh. Welcome to Tunisia.
I wrote an email to those tour operators summarizing the day and I think that note’s final paragraphs are as good as any to close out this blog entry. It reads in part:
I appreciate you providing me today’s tour of Carthage but as I said it actually only definitively confirms what a missed opportunity I had for my once-in-lifetime trip to Tunisia and specifically to the Star Wars filming locations. While I’m glad to try and end this trip on a positive experience it sadly only highlights just how disappointed and cheated I feel about my six day tour that cost thousands of dollars.Even today’s trip, which featured a sort of after-the-fact review of places I’d already been or run past last week felt ultimately like a let down. But I gathered from Resa that on a Sunday these were about the only places open for touring. Nice to have context I guess.Was the whole visit to Tunisia then a good thing? Or was it a bad thing? I’m not in a place to answer right now because I’m so emotionally beaten up by this trip I can’t process just how bad parts were; I hope in time there remain good memories that may not be entirely tainted by the feeling of being, at worse, cheated but at the very least undervalued. I don’t mind paying for things that I feel have value and worth; I do mind paying for feeling like I was cheated or that I was dumb for having done this.I’m not sure what else to say at the moment.Regards,Kevin Hanna