The Sunday Family Travel Series: Traveling to TunisiaPosted on Aug 7, 2011 | 4 comments
The Best Travel Happens On Accident.
In my experience this holds true pretty much all the time. Sure you may hit some bumps in the road if you allow yourself to explore, but you will find some treasures as well.
The Miller's of the Edventure Project have one of the greatest stories of accidental travel I have ever come across.
How does a Canadian/American family of 6 end up living in Tunisia?
For those of you, like me, who are even the slightest bit unsure of your global family travels, this is an interview you have to read.
What was your daily budget in Tunisia?
Our daily travel budget, in general is $100 a day, which was plenty in Tunisia. In order to stay within such a limited budget we either camp, or rent houses when we’re in one place long enough, as we did in Hammam-Sousse. We cook for ourselves more often than we eat out and we avoid “supermarkets” with expensive, imported goods, and instead shop in souqs and small shops where the locals do. Staple foods are subsidized by the government in Tunisia, so things like pasta, rice, lentils, bread etc. are very inexpensive and readily available.
So how does an American Family of 6 end up living in Tunisia?By inadvertently overstaying their Schengen Visas by four months! We were cycling through Europe in the general direction of Turkey, or north Africa, depending on how the winds blew. We discovered while we were in Rome that we were solidly four months over our Shengen Visa (which we didn’t know about at all, due to a combination of our oversight and a significant change in the laws about the time of our arrival on the continent.) Armed with this new information we decided to get off the continent, post-haste, and took a ferry from Civitavecchia to Tunis. With signature Italian laissez-faire, the border officials didn’t even notice our infraction. We needed to stay out of the Schengen countries for a minimum of three months, which, fortuitously, was exactly the length of our Tunisian visa.
In addition to our political exile, we had wanted to spend a few months living in a Muslim country for the educational benefit of our children. Tunisia, at the time, was a safe, moderate, foreigner-friendly place to immerse ourselves in a new culture and learn.
How did you live while you were in Tunisia? How did you make your arrangements to stay there?We rented a second story walk-up apartment in Hammam-Sousse, just steps from the Mediterranean. We found it through a holiday home rental website and had arranged with our landlord to pick us up at the international ferry terminal and carry our bikes & gear in trucks the three hours across to Sousse. It was a simple enough matter.
The apartment itself exceeded our expectations: two bedrooms, a kitchen, a big living and dining room combination, even a real bathtub, with two second story patios from which to watch the sun rise and set over the sea. Electricity and water as well as cable television were included in the rent, which sounded like a good deal, until we discovered our landlord’s proclivity towards not paying the bills on time and we had the electricity shut off. It’s an adventure to pay bills that are not in your name in Fr-arabic (the weird combo of French and Arabic that Tunisians speak among themselves.)
Finding a place to stay in Tunisia should not be a problem, there is a thriving tourist trade with Europe, at least there was before the Arab Spring. Perhaps things have changed now.
What did your kids think of living in Tunisia? What was their average day like?
Our kids learned a lot living in Tunisia. Most of it was really good, or good for them, some of it was also really hard. By this point, seven months into our cycling trip, they were used to being illiterate and using “creative communication,” so the language gap was no problem for them.
The souqs were a different experience, and they would vie for the privilege of accompanying me on Friday mornings to carry the big bags full of artichokes, couscous, clementines, olives and rainbow colored carrots that we’d trek home with. They missed pork, after our time in Germany, almost as much as their Dad and I missed wine, after our weeks in Italy. There are religious dietary restrictions that are part of daily life in some parts of the world.
Their average day wasn’t much different than it is anywhere else we find ourselves, only it was punctuated and measured between the daily prayers being broadcast from the mosque. Ezra, especially, appreciated that evening prayers fell at his bedtime and he expressed his gratitude that “in Tunisia, the mosques sing children to sleep.”
They spent those three months doing some intensive school work, making friends with other children in the building, running and playing on the Mediterranean beaches, learning to do the shopping in French at the hole-in-the-wall shops within walking distance without us, and shopping avidly for Arab knives as souvenirs. They learned to recognize the women by the head wraps that classified each town. They learned to love berber bread and studied olive production and became completely enthralled with the Star Wars link to Tunisia. They also fell in love with the TV show “Knight Rider” which they watched on cable with Arabic subtitles. We don’t have TV very often!
I read the story of your time in Tunisia on your website. Tell me about THE SLAP!
Ah yes... the slap. It was a simple thing, really, and we didn’t see it happen. The children were out playing with the local kids, running up and down on the first floor terrace, being kids. Evidently they were too loud for one man who came out of his door, yelled at the children in Arabic and slapped Elisha hard across the face with an open palm because he was within reach. The kids came roaring up the stairs with Elisha crying and a bright red cheek.
Of course our first reaction as parents was to be angry. Of all of our children, Elisha is the least likely to be the one to be loud, or to be irritating to a stranger, but he’s the one who got slapped.
It provided a really important educational opportunity for our kids. We talked for days about the differences between cultures, and how not all of them are “quaint.” In Tunisia, children are hit, by whomever they irritate, and that’s okay, while from our perspective, to slap a child is abusive. Our kids learned an important lesson about respect for other cultures as well as the importance of dialogue between cultures. We’d never have wished for one of our children to be hurt, but the reality is that life sometimes does hurt and not everyone in every culture will consider children a “precious gift,” as we do. As my friend says, it’s important for children to learn that “there are tigers in the world.”
I plead ignorance, but my thoughts on Tunisia always come back to desert and more desert. I know nothing of Tunisian culture or everyday life. Can you tell us 3 things about life in Tunisia that would surprise the average traveler?
That’s because much of Tunisia IS desert, or very close to it! However, in the northern tier of the country there are also forest covered mountains where it sometimes snows. The Mediterranean coast is dotted with palm trees and they grow tropical fruit. The further south you go, the more “deserted” it gets and there’s a point at which you stand on the edge of the Sahara where the scrub grass ends and the only thing before you is wave upon wave of an ocean of sand that is bigger than all of the USA combined. It takes your breath away.
Three things that would surprise the average traveler to Tunisia:
1. There’s a thriving sex trade with two sides: one side is the growing market of European men who come for young men. Once this was pointed out to us it was obvious everywhere. The other side is to European women who come on “full package” tours in which a dashing Arab man comes with the room. This is fed on the Tunisian side by the difficulty and expense of marrying, which many young men cannot do until they are well into their thirties.
2. The Secret Police are watching, and watching carefully. As Americans, they were watching us especially closely. Our affiliation with a local church didn’t help us (the only church in a 100 mile radius). Our apartment was watched. Our observers offered to keep an eye on our bikes for us outside of church on Sunday mornings. And we were required to log all sorts of personal and passport info to get access to the internet. That was a new experience.
3. Tunisia is the most liberal of the Muslim countries, in that women have rights, may work, may travel unaccompanied, may own property and may become educated. In fact, the government mandates that girls be educated, which is delightfully progressive of them.
Even so, Tunisian culture is dominated by men. All of the jobs of any consequence seem to be held by men. Cabs are always driven by men. The tea shops and cafes are populated exclusively by men. Women are most often seen shopping, or moving children between school and home, but they are rarely seen out in recreation without their men, even though it’s legally permissible. Veiling is not legally mandated, but it is certainly the cultural norm. In the bigger cities, Tunis & Sousse, for example, you occasionally see young women wearing European clothes with their hair exposed, but only in the cities. In the towns and beyond women are almost always veiled, but not in the chador “tents” instead, they wear colorful local clothes that identify them by town or people group. The berber women also wear their wealth in the form of gold bangles and ankle bracelets and chains.
I managed to make friends with only one Tunisian woman; she had an unusually progressive husband who allowed her to visit with me openly. She ran the shop on the first floor of our building. She offered to enroll Ezra in her son’s preschool with him, and she discussed daily life, her family and religious experience with me, which I will always be indebted to her for. She was my teacher.
My other teacher was a cab driver who never bothered to learn my name but who called me “Canada” and took it upon himself to educate me on all things Tunisian, Muslim & Halal. He also helped me sort out the difficulties with our landlord and the electrical bills.
If you go to Tunisia you have to . . .
Visit the Colosseum at El-Jem... it’s so much better than the Roman Colosseum. The kids played “gladiators” all afternoon on the arena floor. The carvings into the sandstone walls left over centuries as visitors have come and gone are stunning. The little museum on the other side of town has the best collection of mosaics we’ve seen outside of Ravenna, Italy.
Try to attend the Festival du Sahara at Douz. The dates aren’t advertised and they change every year. There’s no way to nail it down but go down to Douz in October or early November and ask when in the next eight weeks its going to happen... then, make plans to go back. You’ll NEVER regret it, and you’ll be one of just a handful of westerners who attend.
Leave your assumptions about “Muslims” at home. Try, with an open mind, to get your western head around the meaning of “Inshah-Allah,” the depth of the gratefulness represented by their prayer beads and the high honor in which they hold women... which is the root of so much of what we as westerners hold as offensive in their treatment of them. There is much to learn.
If you go to Tunisia don't . . .
Don’t believe anyone in the market who invites you to a “festival today.” They’re selling carpets and it will take you six cups of tea and half a day to get out of their shop.
Don’t be afraid to try things: food, a few words of Arabic, a camel ride, haggling in the souq. Sip the nasty tea they offer.
Don’t make an ass of yourself and every other foreigner to follow you by insisting on your way of thinking, throwing money around like it should buy you privilege or make you right, flaunt your political leanings, show contempt for religious or cultural differences you don’t understand or otherwise make it difficult for the next guy. We often found ourselves apologizing for those who had come before us and their closed minded, bad behavior.
Given the political state of Tunisia at this time, would you go back today?
This is such a hard question. We’ve watched the Arab Spring with our hearts in our throats as they burned the police station down the street from our house and rioted in our town. We wonder about our friends and neighbors. We are so thankful to have lived there when we did. With the contacts we have there, and the experience we have, we probably would go back today, but I don’t know if we’d go for the first time now. It’s different to return to somewhere, having lived there in the past, than it is to jump into a cold lake for the first time and try to swim. The political and cultural climate have shifted drastically and that’s a reality that must be weighed seriously.
All The Best in Your Adventures!