Sunday, 3 March 2013

francais! deutsch! italiano!

Our stay with Faten and Slim is very peaceful and relaxing.  We get to meet their daughter, Aysha, and have regular chats with her grandmother Dalila, who wants to know all about the Queen.  Did she really kill Diana?  What do we think of Charles?  We tell her she should come to London and visit Buckingham Palace.  Didn’t she know that the Queen greets all the paying visitors with a handshake as they enter?  

We’ve had a few days to work out a route through the country.  We’ve opted to take the train southwards to Tozeur in the desert and then cycle out to the coast and then back up to Tunis.  The first challenge is getting the bikes onto the train.  We ask at the Information desk in the station and are referred to Tourist Information.  Tourist Information is closed so we try at the ticket counter.  They don’t know either and refer us back to the Information Desk.  Eventually we are introduced to the Chef de Gare, a smooth well-dressed man in shades.  He has a well-trimmed moustache and for some reason makes me think of a pimp.  The impression isn’t helped when a badly-dressed heavily-made-up woman holding out a mobile phone interrupts us in mid-conversation, presumably complaining about a client.  He mutters orders into the phone and hands it back to his employee.  Finally we get to the baggage office and all is sorted.   When the train pulls in its chaos – we get our bikes loaded but we can’t get a seat.  Someone has suitcases all over two seats.  We’re about to have a fight with the suitcase people when a young woman and her friend offer us their seats.  It’s 9 hours to Tozeur, so we find it hard to say no to her kind offer.

It’s apparently tourist high season for the south of Tunisia, as the weather is not too hot to visit the desert, but Tozeur looks bereft of visitors.  Whenever we leave our hotel and walk around the centre of town we are greeted with assertions from men of all ages: “Francais!”  “Deutsch!”   “Italiano!No bienvenue or nothing.  There’s no sales technique, no charm, no how’s your father.  We soon learn to ignore anyone who approaches us because those who do are invariably trying to sell us something that we don’t want.  We’re quite happy saying hello to people as we wander the old quarter, it’s a different thing.  The old town has houses built with decorative brick patterns.   Alongside the town is a huge palmeraie fed from desert springs - the water flowing through it is crystal clear.  As with all tourist destinations in Tunisia, there’s a slew of expensive hotels built about 2 km out of the town where package holiday-makers stay.  It seems like a weird set up to us.  But there are barely any tourists around.  Many have stopped coming since the revolution two years ago.  Who wants to holiday in a North African democracy?  Goodness knows what might happen.  The Zone Touristique is full of sad, dusty, closed-up hotels - a ghost town appendage.
siesta time in Tozeur
After a couple of days we have adjusted to this backdrop and take a 50km return ride to another oasis town with a palmerie.  The cycling is a bit of a warm-up for us and we get a close up of the desolate landscape all around.  The desert is not all wavy dunes and palm trees.  It’s mostly scrubland and dust.  We are trying to imagine camping en route.  Mmmm.  The daytrip is fine until we hit the headwind on the way back.  The landscape is fairly flat and featureless.  The wind makes it feel like we’re cycling uphill.  As the wind is worse the next day we decide to delay our departure.  The town is covered in dust.  The sky is filled with it.  If you walk around in it for too long, your eyes, nose and mouth are filled with it.  The sun disappears and so does the end of the street.  It seems such a harsh environment to live in.

looking for salt
Our first day’s ride takes us over the salt flats of Chott el-Jerid to Kelibia.  The salt flats have neither water nor salt because, as we discover later, it hasn’t rained since November   -  the only rain in a year.  What we do have is a tailwind and we arrive after 100 km with enough energy to carry on to Douz, another 30km.  We pass through a string of one-horse villages always with just a couple of shops and a couple of cafes.  Young men are lounging outside the cafes and they shout out as we pass.  Some of it is friendly, some of it seems less so.  Stupid kids think it’s fun to cycle as fast and as hard as they can alongside us, towards us, behind us.  It starts to get tiresome.  Then, on an empty stretch of road two young guys wave us down to stop.  Gayle is in front and when they realise she’s not really stopping, one of them goes to grab the back of the bike, but as I’m following close behind and looking a bit narked he steps back.  What do they want?  Do they want to know where we are from? Where we are going? Shoot the breeze, liven up a dull day, and then wave us on our way?  We don’t know.  We’re tired and we don’t want to stop. We put on a little sprint and look back.  One of them is picking up a rock.  But we are too far gone.  We are happy to get to Douz after a long day but neither of us is particularly happy about the cycling ahead.  The experience has been a bit unnerving.  We need a rest and time to reflect and rationalise - many people were friendly but it only takes a handful of fools to spoil our mood.

1 comment:

  1. You've been to a party at the Palace too, have you?

    But on a more sombre note, I couldn't help think of the beach massacre of British (and other European) holiday makers in Tunisia on June 26th when I read this post.

    Despite this unhappy thought, I am still planning on setting off on my own adventure come Spring and am enjoying reading your inspiring blog.