5 days. 10 cities. 4 trains. 1 bus. 6 louages. 2 autostops. 1 car. 1 motorbike. And about 100 conversations, maybe more. I need to see what I will write about, so I headed to the south, and - in the spirit of my floating motto - nothing came as it was planned.
It is Friday morning, 8am. I sit up in my bed, am bright awake and wonder what the day will bring. Two weeks so far have taught me well that mornings in Tunisia are the worst and best for me: a whole day opens many opportunities, and I know that I have no idea what will have happened by the time I go to sleep. Surprises are the norm, and I literally have to plan that I will change my plan. That morningly unknowingness, however, is spiced by a salty lack of certainty which merges with what can feel like a lack of purpose, but really is just homesickness. Alas, I find comfort in the familiarity of writing and type away about the Queen of Carthage.
By 9 am I know that I will not go to the research center I am based at. My German roommate Valerie and I will head to the village of El Jem, which hosts a Roman Amphitheater that was built in 238 and is rather famous. By 10 past 9, I know that I will meet some tourism professor first, who heard about me even before a mutual friend introduced us via phone. By 10 am, we have discussed the future of Tunisian tourism, and I know that I should not go to El Jem, but to Matmata -- better known in Star Wars IV A New Hope as "Lars Homestead," where Luke Skywalker grew up…
To cut a long long story short: after typical transport difficulties, Valerie and I arrive in Djerba, a famous tourist island in Tunisia's south. On a moped, that some coffee owner lent us out of nowhere and for free, we have seen almost everything there is to see by the next morning: endless streets (perfect for a moped newbie), sleepy villages, abundant heat and sunburn, a capital whose capital are souvenirs, and massive hotels by beaches that are impossible to access for outsiders, and - arguably - impossible to leave due to a lack of tourist adventurism but also a lack of actually interesting activities (other than W4 or Horsebackriding in resorts that tourist buses drive to).
The hostel owner, who hosted only one group of Tunisian police before us, is sad that we are spending "leila uaahiida" (one night) only, but wishes us the best. And for us, the best includes: Berber wedding preparations, something like Tunisian goulash, a harmless water hunt by Tunisian of us white women by the beach in Zarzis, hitchhiking in Medenine, and suddenly driving the rental car of someone we just met back to his sleepy tiny hometown in the mountains.
After Valerie heads back to Tunis, I hang out in a Berber villages with the famous Star Wars scenery, but when I want to visit the Sahra to do my tourist camel riding, the Tunisian Revolution stops my half-hearted intention.
Monday afternoon: I sit in a lounge, and I already got myself invited to a home in Douz. We don't speak the same language, but the two veiled women next to me assert that their son knows French, and they are too friendly to say no to. Then the car stops suddenly, and continues with this motionlessness for about 5 hours: protestors from Hamma blocked an important trading route from Kebili to Gabes. Why? The educated men cannot find work, but the police confiscated the goods they sold illegally. Sounds familiar? It should, because it is essentially the story of Mohammed Bouazizi, who - by the way - was the one to start the Arab Spring.
Let me explain. A Japanese journalist I met two weeks ago summed it up quite fittingly: "This was a revolution due to unemployment. Tunisians now have democracy, but that's not what they asked for." And the country's economy and unemployment problem really hardly changed since Ben Ali has left. No wonder -- the government is restructuring everything, and creating jobs while rewriting a constitution is obviously much to handle. But "democracy takes time" as everyone from people on Tunisian streets to clever academics will confirm. It's been one year and a half, everything has changed as well as nothing. For now, however, people still are optimistic, and those who aren't block some street and - in solidarity - nobody complains about it.
Because, truly, a strange tranquility and peacefulness is the most notable trademark of this protests. "It's the revolution," giggle school girls in a bus and mumble drivers of big buses. Everyone seems to agree that this stop of traffic is annoying, but also understandable. Even the protestors themselves agree. "But this is the best way," they tell me, and that they want to speak to the Tunisian customs office. In the meantime, two police men make the rounds "even we just have to wait," they tell me, though it is a little bit unclear what we are waiting for.
In the end, no customs officials will show up, but the Tunisian military comes with howling sirens and disperses the crowd with tear gas. We get back in our louage, and head to Douz like we are escaping somewhere. Nobody is worried though, and I am told that things like that will just keep happening. I guess we must remember that this country is only practicing democracy. And well, we also must remember that waiting - generally - is not that uncommon in Tunisia. These two aspects makes a good mix that prevent the annoyances and anger that such a protest would inspire back in the States or Germany.
After the delay I decide to rely on the offer of the two friendly women in hijab. In Douz, I follow them through desert-sandy roads in a heat that is barely bearable even at 9 o'clock at night to a simple but charming house with a big courtyard with a palm tree, three rooms with nothing but mattresses and carpets on the floor, a plane kitchen that has its backdoor facing dunes, and - of course - a stable with sheep, three of which are to be slaughtered in the morning to be sold in the families butchery and only source of revenue.
It is unbelievable how welcoming this family turns out to be. First, we eat couscous and chatter away despite language difficulties. While I do remain deprived of that camel ride that I had meant to do (after all I'm researching tourism, so I ought to do what tourists do?), I get a trip with my own prince of the sahara, who takes me on his moped past the touristic zones (once again: massive hotels away from the real city to inevitably prevent real contact with locals…). We sit and he tells me about older Western woman who come here to sleep with young Tunisian men, and then he tells me of his butchery that he opened just before his father died, and that destroyed his dreams of finishing his studies in Computer Science. It's interesting to hear him talk, but all the while my left hand gets addicted to pushing through and piling up the fine, fine desert sand that feels like silk.
At night, we sleep outside, and I spend the whole day with the women of the family sitting, talking eating, sleeping. There is not much else that the heat would let us do. The only change of pace is when the girls (16, 20 and 23) get excited to make me get a henna tattoo on my hand. I try to resist at first, but when I leave, a beautiful black flower decoration on my right hand, and a slightly less beautiful red tint on all of my finger tips (that they call beautiful, but that looks a little bit like a disease to me) will stay with me for two more weeks to remind me of the desert life, and the first Tunisian lifestyle that I found remarkably different from other towns across the country.
To finish off my trip I visit two more cities, make a few more acquaintances and randomly runs across a friend somewhere. Exhausted but inspired and with a better image of Tunisia I head back home on a noisy 9 hour long bus ride to the capital.