On Saturday, we made the hot, dusty walk to the souk. Our path takes us along the water, past the Great Mosque, toward the fishing harbour. As we pass the public beach, children splash in the waves while their mothers wade or swim nearby, fully clothed in headscarves, long sleeves and long skirts. In a small cove below the road, a young woman is swimming, also fully clothed, while her husband stands guard. As we get further from the town centre, the amount of garbage on the side of the road increases exponentially. We step around a dead bird that no one has bothered to remove, and the carcass of a dead cat, so flat that it looks like it has been run over by a steam roller in a Looney Tunes cartoon. In real life, this is not very funny.
By the time we reach the souk, my feet look like this.
At the souk, our senses are bombarded by the brightly coloured vegetables and fruits, the shouts of the vendors and the smell of fresh herbs. Near the entrance, stalks of garlic are neatly stacked in the back of a small pickup truck, the heads forming a mosaic pattern. The vendor cleans garlic heads with a shingle, and the silvery skins float in the breeze. Green almonds, still in their shells, are piled on a blanket. Cherry tomatoes cost the equivalent of 25 cents a kilogram, and a friendly woman translates from Arabic to French to help us distinguish whether the shiny red peppers are the mild variety, or the dangerously hot ones that we once purchased accidentally. We buy a kilogram of dates, a bunch of fresh dill (impossible to find in Sicily!) and a big bag of sweetened nuts that several vendors reach out to taste as we walk through the crowd.
A large section of the souk is given over to the sort of junk that is found in flea markets around the globe. But here, the quality is even lower than usual, and the piles of used clothing and shoes have seen better days. A carpet salesman pursues us as we make our way between the stalls, wanting to give us a "prix d'ami". We escape to a shaded café to get out of the mayhem.
As we drink our cappuccino and bottled water, I do a quick count of the number of women wearing headscarves (hijab). When teenagers and tourists are excluded, roughly seventy five percent are wearing scarves. While I am certain that this is a higher percentage than in 2009, Rick is unconvinced. But we also see four women wearing black garments that hide everything but the eyes (niqab) which we did not see here at all during our previous visit.
Why am I interested in the headscarves? After all, they can be quite chic, and the young women who wear them with tight pants and figure-hugging blouses do not appear to be at all oppressed. But both the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, and his successor Ben Ali, were opposed to the hijab. Bouguiba went so far as to call it an "odious rag". From the early 1980s until 2011, Tunisia's laws banned the wearing of headscarves (hijab) in public offices and schools. With that ban now lifted, it seems likely that more Muslim women in Tunisia will reclaim this right. Whether or not this turns out to be a good thing for Tunisian women remains to be seen.
On our way back to the marina, we drop in to the Orange shop in the medina to top up our internet data. We've already used a gigabyte in about 5 days. If you think you're immune to culture shock, try navigating the cellphone and internet system in a foreign country. It's a bewildering process when the clerks do not speak English, French is their second language and the rules of the cellphone company are convoluted. The clerks are helpful and patient, but we never do get a real grip on what happened to the second gigabyte that we thought we had paid for on Monday. We walk away scratching our heads, but with 750MBs added to our account.
It's time for lunch. We treat ourselves to seafood salad, pizza and cold beer at the Calypso restaurant and spend less than $15. As we are walking down the dock, we run into Kara and Phillip, who have hauled Fabuloso in the Port de Peche. They are looking for someone to do a tour of the south of Tunisia, similar to the one we did in 2009. Depending on the weather, that might just be a great idea! As we climb back on board Aisling, Paul, next door asks if we have plans for the evening. Would we to join them for dinner at the Calypso Restaurant?
Mr. Mrad's travel lift broke down on Thursday. By the grace of Allah, Aisling had splashed back into the water just hours before this happened. Being stuck on the hard with the temperature soaring above 30 degrees by mid-morning is not my idea of a good time. What a relief to be floating again! I'm sure that Mr. Mrad and the owners of the boats in the yard are equally relieved that the lift was up and running again within a day.
Aisling looks great, with a fresh coat of paint on the bottom, the waterline raised and the hull polished. As I write this, Aziz is on deck, polishing the topsides and all the stainless steel-a job that is usually mine, and often goes undone. In this heat, it is not a job for the faint of heart, so the pleasure we feel about getting all these tasks dealt with is marred by the guilt of knowing that Aziz was probably on the verge of heatstroke by the end of the day yesterday.
It's too bad we can't be at anchor, but if we have to be in a marina (and we do for at least a few more days) this is not a bad place to be. To start with, the toilets and showers are not half a kilometer away as they were in Marina di Ragusa. The dock is lined with small restaurants where you can get an excellent meal, including wine or beer, for around $10 Canadian a person. Wifi is available in the tea salon -although we don't need to go there and drink endless cups of almond tea anymore, because we have bought a data plan for Rick's phone. There's a decent grocery store in the marina, and a larger one in the town. A baguette costs the equivalent of about 20 Canadian cents. At this time of year, the daily market has an abundant selection of fresh produce, and the variety and quantity of fish available rivals anything we've seen in Italy. We're parked right next to Paul and Gabriella, the couple who watched over Aisling when she wintered in Marmaris and Marina di Ragusa. I ate fresh dates with my breakfast this morning. All in all, it's very pleasant.
I'm not saying that it's perfect. There's a distressing amount of debris floating in the water around the boats. The cockroaches on the dock are large enough to be featured in a science fiction movie. We've already had one feral cat jump onboard. (I've told a few of them that I'd like to take them home with me, but I didn't really mean it.) And although the customs officer who checked us in didn't ask for money as had happened when we arrived in 2008, he did ask for two bottles of the good Italian wine that he'd spotted in our fridge. "One for me and one for my friend." At the end of the day, we watched him stow both bottles of wine in his car, so clearly his friend was out of luck. We just hope he shared it with his wife.
It's not easy to get good wine here, either. At the Lostania restaurant, where to our surprise the head waiter remembers us from 2009, Rick asks the server for a wine list. "Blanc, rosé et rouge "is the reply. "OK, blanc" Rick replies. The waiter disappears, but returns empty-handed. "Eh, rosé ou rouge?" We agree to try the rosé, but moments later, he is back. "Voulez-vous du rouge?"
The truth is, the small restaurants probably can't afford to keep an inventory of wine on hand. In some cases, the waiters will duck out the back door and buy the wine after a patron has ordered it. This was never a wealthy country, and the events surrounding the Arab Spring have hit the tourism industry hard. In the hotel complex that surrounds the marina, we see a mere dozen or so lights illuminated at night, which is probably no more than 10% of the total. The replica pirate ships the Sultan and Barbarousse still leave and return with dance music blaring, but there are few Europeans among the passengers. Yesterday, when a merchant in the medina called us "dirty people" because we did not want to buy his plates, I began to wonder if I wanted to be here myself. But then I reminded myself of the beauty of the country, the richness of the culture, and the many kindnesses we have been shown since we arrived.
After years of being ruled by a dictator, it may take some time for the Tunisians to get their country on track. Eventually, I'm sure they will. In the meantime, we're doing our best to support the local businesses (but obviously not that guy in the medina!) Now, where shall we dine tonight?
Imagine yourself at Winners, or some other retail outlet of your choice. You see a handbag that you like. There's a price tag on the bag, but the amount seems high to you. You start to walk away. Then a salesman appears and asks you how much you want to pay for the bag. Since you weren't sure you wanted it in the first place, you hesitate. "Thanks, but I'm just looking." But the salesman is not giving up that easily. "No really, tell me how much you want to pay for this bag." Then he helpfully adds "It's OK to haggle with me, Madame." The only way to discover the real price of the bag is to invest some time in a lengthy negotiation. This is what you can be up against when you shop in the medinas and souks of the Arab world.
You know that, unless you're prepared to buy the bag, you'd better take a firm stand and leave in a hurry. So you say that you'll have to think about it, and maybe you'll come back later. But this guy seems downright desperate to sell you a bag...or anything. He's friendly though, and when he detects your accent he switches to English. He's so happy to hear that you are from Canada! People from Canada are so nice! Now he's upping the ante, and offers you a great deal on two bags. "It is very quiet today. Business is slow and I need to sell something."
Maybe you'll manage to escape, and get on with the grocery shopping you'd intended to do in the first place. (Thankfully, you will not have to bargain at the produce market.) But the price tumbles each time you say you want to think about it. "The price I am offering you is so good that I will have to tell my boss that I only sold you one bag! You see how honest I am being with you?" Clearly he not perceive the incongruity of those last two statements, but since you're pretty sure that he doesn't actually have a boss, you don't hold it against him.
Eventually, the price reaches a point where it seems ridiculous NOT to buy the two bags. OK, and why not that nice little wallet too? As you leave the shop, the salesman looks a bit pained. "You are very lucky Madame. But please don't tell anyone what a good price I gave you!" He slips a camel keychain into your bag, so you'll remember him when you get back to Canada. It has "Tunisia" written on it in glitter ink. Nice.....
You congratulate yourself. You got a smoking deal on those bags! It's only after you get home that you start to wonder...do the bags smell faintly of old cow?
We're obviously not expert hagglers, but here are Aisling's rules of the cruise for bargaining. (We learned most of these rules the hard way. A certain "Thinking Man" statue comes to mind..)
1. Before buying anything expensive, familiarize yourself with the going rates for similar items.
2. Before buying anything at all, be sure that you have room for it on your boat, and/or in your luggage.
3. Don't be too aggressive. The difference of a few dinars is probably a lot more important to the vendor than it is to you.
4. You may be offered tea, or bottled water. Go ahead and accept it if you feel like it. Talk to the salesperson, and enjoy the experience. Accepting a cup of tea doesn't necessarily oblige you to buy anything, even if you feel that it does.
5. In areas frequented by tourists, it's not unusual for the initial asking price of an item to be two to three times what the vendor is actually willing to sell it for. Saying "That's more than I can pay..." with a slightly disappointed look will often result in an immediate drop in the price. If this doesn't happen, it could be an indication that the vendor is not willing to bargain.
6. Your first offer should be considerably lower than the price you are willing to pay.
7. Before you make any offer, be sure that you are prepared to buy the item at that price. If your first offer is accepted, you've probably paid too much, but chalk it up to experience and cough up the money. You run the risk of offending the seller if he agrees to your price and you do not buy the item. You want him to still like Canadians, don't you?
8. Walking away may be the only way to learn the real price. If you're not sure, just say that you need to think about it for a while. If you change your mind, go back.
After all, you wouldn't want to find yourself back at home wondering why the heck you didn't grab the chance to buy that nice painting of camels in the desert, now would you?
It's happened again. We haven't kept up with our blog postings, so here I am, in Tunisia, writing about Nancy and Bob's visit to Sicily. And we said goodbye to them in Catania over two weeks ago!
Fortunately they've written their own online journal of their travels in Tuscany, Sicily and Rome. For the real story of their visit with us, click Here (or select the Quick Link called "Nancy and Bob's blog" to the right of our page).