09/08/2008, Monastir, Tunisia, Africa!
The passage from Sicily to Tunisia was mainly uneventful, with light winds, calm seas and brilliant stars at night. Our biggest adrenalin-rush moment was when Rick noticed that the bilge pump light was on and realized we were taking in water. Within moments he had tracked down the cause-the exhaust valve on the engine had failed. Fortunately, he was able to jury-rig a replacement very quickly with a fitting that he pulled out of an obscure locker. He continues to amaze me with his resourcefulness and the extent of his pre-trip planning. We've carried about five hundred pounds worth of spare parts with us for over six thousand miles, "just in case". Even though I've been known to whine that the lockers I would like to keep my T-shirts in are filled with nuts and bolts, it makes me feel very safe. It's not like we can phone up the CAA when something goes wrong in the middle of an ocean.
We considered stopping at Pantelleria and sailed close enough to get a good look at its fields and cliffs, but we were anxious to get to Tunisia and decided to sail through the night. By 4 a.m. we had 17 fishing boats within sight, with a confusing array of red lights. Not a single one of them showed up on the AIS, and even the radar wasn't consistently picking them up We eventually realized that most of the boats were displaying the over-and-under red lights signifying a vessel that is not underway and is limited in its maneuverability. That made it a bit easier to navigate through the obstacle course, but I was relieved that most of the action happened on Rick's watch instead of mine.
We arrived at Monastir's fuel dock at 8 a.m. on Sunday, and were happy to see that the price of fuel was roughly half of what we'd been paying in Italy and France. The police arrived immediately and we began an arrival procedure that took nearly two hours to complete. We expected that bringing alcohol into the country could be an issue, but the customs officer seemed to be concerned only about "whisky" and guns.
It was a bit disconcerting when the policeman returned to ask for money for "service". We might have obliged if we'd had any dinars, but it is not possible to obtain Tunisian currency outside the country, so we were effectively penniless. He came back again after Rick made a trip to the bank, but by then the skipper of a nearby French boat had advised us not to pay, so he went away empty-handed. Later, the secretary in the capitainerie suggested that we should file a report about the incident, but we decided not to push our luck.
Monastir marina is located in the "zone touristique" and consequently it was not immediately obvious that we had arrived in a new continent. If it weren't for the sound of the prayer calls and the view of the minarets of the town, we might have thought we had taken a wrong turn and arrived back in France. The vast majority of boats in the marina are French-flagged, which isn't surprising since French is widely spoken here and the cost of living is a fraction of what it would be in France. After days of searching, we have found only two people who speak English- a German man who keeps his boat here permanently, and a Scottish woman who has lived in France for most of her life.
It has been more difficult than usual to meet people, because Ramadan began on Monday. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset- a particularly difficult assignment when Ramadan occurs during the long, hot days of summer. Out of respect for the Muslim community, the marina administration is not permitting social gatherings in the clubhouse before sunset. Even in the tourist area, the scene is very subdued until the sunset cannon is fired. After dark, things get livelier and we can sit on deck and listen to the prayers from the mosque competing with the strains of the "Hokey Pokey" drifting down from the discotheque near the beach.
Late on Monday afternoon, we made our first foray into the town. Monastir has some interesting sights- we walked past the 8th century ribat (fort), a large mosque and the fantastic mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first president. The Monoprix was mobbed with people- the large yoghurt section was stripped bare and everyone seemed to be buying dates or date pastries. (Later, I read that it is traditional to break the Ramadan fast by eating a date). Most things seemed inexpensive, but I will have to change my breakfast habits, since a box of Special K cost nine dinars-over eight dollars! We continued on to the market, where the floors were muddy and the produce in the vegetable stalls looked limp and unappealing. Live birds were swooping around under the roof. A man was holding two live chickens upside down by their feet, while two other hens scuffled around his ankles in the dirt. Rabbits were crammed into cages, their whiskers trembling with fright. I began to contemplate the possibility of turning vegetarian. When Rick felt someone trying to pick his pocket, we beat a fast retreat to the boat, feeling a bit shellshocked. This was not the first time we'd visited a market in a developing country, but it was a bit worrisome to realize that this would be our main source of provisions when we return in the spring for a more extended stay.
To my great relief, the market scene was completely different when we returned on Wednesday morning. Delicious fresh bread, busy stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, a vast array of herbs and spice, wonderful raisins and olives and a huge fresh fish section. I think we will eat well here. The vendors seem very friendly and honest. In one case when I inadvertently overpaid (who would have thought that a big bag of tomatoes could cost only twenty cents?) my money was returned to me. Pickpockets do seem to be a real concern, though- I felt someone opening my waistpouch on the return visit. We will have to keep out wits about us and not carry large sums of money. Tourist "scams" seem to be a problem also. As we were leaving the market, we were approached by a man speaking very good English, who welcomed us to Tunisia and informed us that today was a public holiday and that the government was sponsoring an excellent display of high-quality Tunisian crafts-he could take us there now if we wished, but we must go quickly because it would be closing soon. We'd fallen for that scam in Thailand about twenty years ago and weren't about to make the same mistake here!
It may sound like we are on holiday, but in reality it has been an exhausting week. The heat is so brutally intense that we break out in a sweat with the slightest activity. Sahara dust is everywhere, mixing with the sweat on our skin and staining our clothing. Working inside the boat at midday is especially difficult and I have coped by stripping down to just my panties while I work. Rick says I remind him of a photo from National Geographic. (You will note that National Geographic came to mind rather than Playboy; this is how things change when we reach the age of 50). Rick has broken out in a nasty heat rash and sleeps fitfully at night, mumbling strange phrases in his sleep. One night he sat bolt upright and shouted "Christie Brinkley!" then wandered off to sleep on deck. I was happy to have the bed to myself for a while, and not just because of the Christie Brinkley outburst. There's a real advantage to having control of the single fan on our bedroom wall. What were we thinking when we installed a furnace rather than air conditioning?
Thursday was the hottest day of all and at five o'clock we decided to take a break and go for a swim. Actually, I decided to go for a swim and Rick decided that he couldn't let me go to the beach alone. Although Tunisia is more liberal than some Muslim countries, I assumed that the expectations around dress would be different and wore a skirted bathing suit with a T shirt over the top. Even so, I was the most scantily-clad woman on the beach. All the other women seemed to be swimming in head scarves, long sleeved tunics and long pants or skirts. At least the hejab (veil) is not generally worn here.
Since Tunisia is not part of the EU, we have now resolved our VAT concerns. We were fortunate to have reserved our marina position early in the season, because Monastir marina is now apparently fully booked for the winter. Anyone considering this as a wintering option for 2009/10 should try to confirm a booking by the spring. We would suggest arriving a little later in the season than we did, since presumably the temperatures will moderate as September advances.
We are excited about getting home on Wednesday night and even more excited that Rick's mother is scheduled to be released from hospital on Thursday. It was a disappointment that her discharge was delayed for another week, but we are happy that we will be back in Halifax to help her get settled at home. I promise not to complain about rain or cool temperatures for at least a week.