And so it starts. J'arrive en Tunis with a one hour delay. The plan had been simple: despite the many emails that were written, despite the many kind and lovely people that agreed to meet me, host me, show me around, despite the people I know that live here - I decided to arrive by myself. No picking up, no going straight to an address. I want to write for tourists, after all, so how better to start by being one all around.
Alas, I put on my two big backpacks front and back and head towards the taxi station. Where, of course, I fall into the tourist trap. "Pay no more than 15," my friend hat said. "Taxis costs 5 or 7 Dinar" had the guidebook explained and that it is best to pay by meter. "They will ask for 20 anyways," I hear my friend's voice in the back of my mind as I sit in the yellow-orange car and the driver - who had proclaims "bi l-meter" when a police men led me to his cab - insists on 20. Even my Arabic won't help. At some point I give up, and start observing where we drive.
The Tunis area seems flat. The air feels dry. A little dusty. It is about 6.30 in the evening and the sun has started setting, tinting everything in a beautiful orange-red. I notice quite a few building sites. Generally, buildings seem tall and fine, but like they would have looked fancy about ten years ago, and even then just for a few months. Traffic isn't crazy. Busy, but "civilized" so to speak. More honking than you would expect on European roads, but maybe less than in New York. As we get closer to the city, the side walks start to get quite crowded. Women in veils and men in traditional gowns mingle with short-skirted girls and some are formally dressed. It's the kind of coexistence that I know from Palestinian streets and from Marrocco.
I get to a different guest house than I originally had picked, and they say that all the cheep rooms are unavailable right now. Off we go, lala-land tourist Rahel. Pay away. Justify it as "it's the first day." But on the scale of things, it's not too bad. Plus, most other guests in the hotel appear to be Tunisians.
My room is small with three single beds and the perfect view on th e"Place de la Victoire." At least that's what tour guides call it. Tunisians seem to know it better as the "Port de France." And really, there is a "port" a door from rocks in the middle of the square. Really, it is more like a huge unnecessary arch. Remnants from other times, I would expect.
A boy of 10 or so is pushing a black almost old-looking car through the square. An orange flashy tag on the back window. "Ssssplah," as it hits an information board, and a million little pieces of glass shatter on the ground. Now some men have gathered around the car - not the board - to inspect the impact. All of this most likely to the delight of the many men in coffee shops around the square. It's the kind of coffee shop with tables outside, where chairs don't face each other, but are situated in such a way that allows for perfect people-watching. It also is the kind of coffee shop where you will never see a woman. Except, of course, for the occasional blonde-head with her male accompanier.
I cannot say that I feel overwhelmed. I almost feel at home, in fact. It's a smell in the air, the sounds all around and the general mood that has become somewhat familiar by now. It is fitting though, that I sit in my shabby hotel room and watch a little from above. It is more private that way. Nothing on the square feels private. A million things are going on, but everyone sees everything. Of course that is bewildering for Germans and the like, who know roads as means to end. You walk somewhere, don't look at anything. Life here does feel much more lively in that sense.
But I can tell. I'm rambling. I better get up and out before the sun is gone. And of course I must find money somewhere. Welcome to Tunisia!
PS: I say I am a perfect tourist now, but the truth is that fate put me on a plane seat next to a French-German woman, who traveled to Tunisia on business - to seek out hotels for her online travel agency. A lot of thoughts on tourism were shared, and I start to feel I may be onto something. We'll see. We will.