Ooh, What a Day!
18 September 2008 | Medina (the Old City), Tunis, Tunisia
First mate Ziggy MacKenzie
Ooh, What a Day
Saturday in Tunisia...what to do? Aah, a little retail therapy perhaps. Said, our driver for the day, picked us up around 11 and as he drove us into Tunis, pointed out the buildings and monuments in half French-half English. We walked the main street, a very European influenced Avenue de France, lined with embassies, hotels and a very large cathedral. Who knew two popes were born in Tunisia and another one's family originated from here? The streets were packed with locals shopping and wandering but not eating. It is Ramadan and from sun up to sun down, neither food nor water shall pass the lips of a Muslim.
As soon as we crossed through the archway of the medina (old walled town around the Mosque) we were in retail heaven. The narrow alleys lead us into the souks where different alleys or sections were dedicated to different wares - clothing, jewellery, leather, ceramics. We had been warned about the aggressive vendors and that bargaining was expected. We had a field day bargaining for wooden bowls (yes Karen, Em and Kate, I finally got my olive wood bowls), dishes, framed scorpians, camel bone bracelets, and necklaces. Each vendor tried a different tactic, but we stuck to our guns, walked away, returned when called or chased, offered a new price and finally settling on something we both felt fair. Said would interject every now and then, in Arabic, sometimes early in the negotiation with a look and short expression that, even not knowing Arabic, you knew meant, "way too much". Sometimes he sided with the vendors and picked out pretty items, taught us about their religious or ceremonial meaning and tried to get us to buy.
Said remained by our side throughout the day except for a 45 minute break midday when he left us in a tiny café while he went for prayer at the Mosque. We plunked ourselves down amongst what could only be tourists for no locals would dare be eating and ordered coffees, tea avec menthe (served with pinenuts floating on top) juice and sandwiches. We watched the souks empty except for a lone shopkeeper who stayed back while all the Muslims went for prayer. Said returned at 2:45 and after a few more souks, he met up with another 'guide' who led us to the government house. A fellow Canadian we met in Rome had warned me about this approach, whereby they hand you off to friends or brothers who eventually lead you to a carpet shop. It turns out that "this was the Government House, formally the King's Palace and now home to the most exquisite carpet 'museum' only open one week a year and this was the last day of the week, but first you come up and see the view". Peering over Tunis we could see the different mosques, the whitewashed buildings, the hundreds of satellite dishes and loads of garbage on the roofs. After sitting on the King's bed and making a wish, we were lead into a room filled with the most beautiful carpets, but after explaining we live on a boat and have no home, they shewed us out the door.
It was closing on 5pm and Said wanted us to return to Sidi Bou Said, as the evening was approaching and he wished to return to his family for dinner. We hurried through the souks as some vendors closed for the day only to be replaced with food stalls selling pastries and desserts for the evening. We sampled a few but didn't take to the almond, honey and fig treats.
As we drove back to Sidi we passed a pick-up truck with a goat in the back - an offering from the bride's father to the prospective groom. (John, you should have held out for at least a goat from Bill!).
We ran from the car back to the boat in the torrential rain - the first we had seen in months since Barcelona. Pulling our wares out of backpacks and bags, we displayed all our goods and spent the next hour retelling the bargaining stories behind each item - from the 2 toothed jewellery vendor to the guy who asked "30 dinar for 1, 2 for 75" and then sheepishly shrugged his shoulders when John pointed out his flawed math, to the man who asked John how many wives to the vendors yelling "John, hey Canada" as I tried to find him amidst the crowds.