Tuesday, December 28, 2021


Right on time - not two years later...


I showed up in Tunis, Tunisia on the 26th of December, 2019, unsure of what I’d find. I linked up with my couchsurfing host and over the next few days we wandered through the medina and beyond. This is the first country where I felt I was at a huge disadvantage as a monoglot - where most other places I’ve been have either adopted English as a second language (or at least have signage with Latin characters), the second language here is French (and there are no signs). Additionally, while the people were generally nice, there was an undercurrent of “I know better than you” - my first host actually insisted I put on a sweater before going outside in the moderately cool weather!


As usual, I have no idea what to write. The medina was impressive? There were lots of people, colorful shops, and good & bad smells? It was cool to go up to the rooftop cafes to drink coffee and smoke shisha (hookah). I'm not much of a shopper, so a lot of the appeal of any medina is lost on me. I did go to the library and write a poem though.

On medinas, generally, from an American perspective: have you ever been to the mall? Have you wished that all the clothes racks and jewelry displays and food courts kept their stuff within arms’ reach while you walked down labyrinthine hallways? Do you enjoy bumping into people and generally fighting to move forward, all while being slightly concerned about pickpockets and other characters? Then medinas are for you. Everywhere I went people were excited to show me the medina and I was like “oh, this is like a smelly, cramped flea market where, even if I wanted to buy something I wouldn’t, as I’ll have to carry whatever I buy in my backpack later.” In summary: not for me.

Really, honestly, the highlight of Tunis was the discovery of leblebi - a chickpea soup over shredded stale bread. I probably ate the stuff every three days. I will have to figure out how to make it at home.

The historical sites were cool - I spent a day and saw Sidi Bou Said with its blue & white buildings in the morning, then the ruins of Carthage in the afternoon. Knowing the history made the ruins interesting - on their own they were modest piles of rocks. The pictures I took reflect this.

After my first host, I spent a couple weeks at an AirBnB while I tried to coordinate with a workaway in the south. This was a fun time - the host and I got along really well and we explored cafes, bars, and restaurants around the city together.

Skipping ahead a bit, when I returned to Tunis in March I visited the Bardo Museum. I would highly recommend it - it's a museum of all the mosaics that have been found in the country (plus a few other things). I was really blown away. Before I returned to Tunis, however, I had to go to:

MONASTIR (two overnights)

I stayed with brother & sister couchsurfing hosts who opened the communication with "why bother visiting Monastir?" I should have taken that as a hint. I saw the downtown area, saw the rabat, and endured being "wrong" about everything in conversation. There were a couple cool spots in the city, but the whole adventure was colored by my hosts.

SOUSSE (three? overnights)

After the annoyance of the couchsurfers, I decided to hit up a hotel for a little more privacy, which was well worth it. I wandered around the medina, I wandered around the dock, and I made a day trip to the ruins at El Jem. The latter was very impressive - unlike Carthage, the amphitheater is pretty impressive in its own right.

The big downside to staying in a hotel (instead of couchsurfing or being in a hostel) is that there’s less of a personal connection with others. Sure, I got along with the staff, but it was much more difficult to get recommendations or go out exploring. I didn’t see a government building and I didn’t write a poem while in Sousse / El Jem.

SFAX (two? overnights)

As Monastir was colored by bad hosts, Sfax was colored by great ones! The family I stayed with was an absolute delight. They took me and another couchsurfer around to olive oil factories, tasty restaurants (including one on the island(s?) of Kerkennah), and that sort of thing. The only thing that sucked was that I got food poisoning for the first time on the whole trip - I suspect it was from some food I bought on the train. (As a travel note: the train was worth it over the intercity buses.) Thankfully, my hosts were absolutely wonderful and took great care of me.

ZAMMOUR (~six weeks)

There was an advertisement on workaway to visit the tiny town of Zammour in order to write a bit about it (and a local festival they have there) in English. I wasn’t really given any direction and was in need of a bit of a break from travel, so I ended up staying for six weeks and not getting much done in the way of actual writing (I wrote up some personal stuff, letters, and a few short stories for my other blog, but nothing for the travel blog or that might serve as an incentive for other to visit).

And this is where this blog has been stuck for over a year. There’s simultaneously a ton to write about my experience in Zammour and very little. I was almost certainly having a depressive episode, so a lot of my time there was spent consuming media or staring at the ceiling, which makes me feel like I didn’t do a lot. That said, I made some wonderful friends and definitely had some weird experiences that I’ll never forget. Well, no better place to start than at the start, I suppose.

It was a bit of an adventure to get to Zammour from Sfax - the main bus station doesn’t serve Zammour (a town of maybe 100-150 people), so I had to somehow get a taxi to take me over to a smaller bus station (“Louage! Louage Zammour! Merci!”). Now that I think about it, the smaller bus station didn’t go to Zammour either - it went to Bani Khaddesh and a friend of the guy who hired me talked to the driver to get him to drive into Zammour for a little extra payment. The trip was mostly in the dark, so I didn’t get to see the expanse of Tunisia sweeping out to sea as the bus zigzagged up a cliff wall 300 meters in elevation. I made it, however, and was welcomed to the men of the community in the only coffee shop in town. I met the person who would be my host and had my choice of cave. As the temperature in the region fluctuated wildly, these folks went with the tried-and-true method of air conditioning - it’s always the same temperature underground!

My memories of Zammour are a repeating cycle of the 200 square foot coffee shop and various homemade meals. I’m really having a hard time collecting these memories and making a narrative (though that’s nothing new to this blog). Perhaps a grab-bag list?
  • The cave that was my bedroom was about five feet tall, with a four foot high doorway. I hit my head a lot, with two times being hard enough to rattle my teeth and cause (very slight) bleeding. I don’t mean to kick this list off here, but it’s literally off the top of my head. The cave itself was my snug little place and I spent a lot of time in hibernation.
  • Speaking of maladies, I realize now I had a bout of gout while there. I woke up one morning and my toe was in incredible pain. Now, there’s no drinking in southern Tunisia and I was eating local, relatively healthy food, so this is what led to a revelation after I figured out it was gout a half-dozen months later (when I was back to the land of beer and cheesesteaks) - the multivitamin I’d been taking had something in it that was building up / triggering gout.
  • One night my host and a few of his friends went up to the ancient (“abandoned”) village on the hill where one of the friends lived at least part of the time. It was all old stones (or bricks?) and partially buried structures one needed to crawl into. The friend had made a cozy home and we ate a small feast over camping stoves. It was a whole night - part of my duty was to peel / cut up vegetables to start the feast and we left well after midnight. I wish I were a better writer, as it was a night of camaraderie, stories, and laughter and I wish I could convey how delightful it was. Dessert, for me, was a little stargazing on the walk home.
  • On wandering around, the guy who “hired” me never took me out to explore and never had anyone else show me around. Apparently the whole point of having me there was to write up the area as a destination for hikers, but I didn’t get to experience any of this (and I certainly wasn’t going to go hiking in the desert on my own - especially after several warnings about wolves).
  • One of the few tasks my host gave me (well, “included me in” as part of his own work) was building a large fence that wolves wouldn’t jump over to get to his flock of sheep. His sheep mostly lived in a cave (of course), but they had a little outdoor area to see the sky during the day. Fencebuilding was a ramshackle affair utilizing scrap pallets, wire, reclaimed nails, and a masonry hammer, but we were able to put something together to protect the sheep. I’m actually a little proud of it.
  • There were only two places to hang out in Zammour: the cafe and the hotel. The hotel was under construction / on a skeleton crew during the off season, so I was never quite sure what they’d have to eat / if the internet would work / if it’d even be open. That said, I did spend a lot of time there. Almost as much as I spent in/outside the cafe which had coffee, some soft drinks, and basically nothing else. That said, the regulars would ask around when “going into town” (Bani Khaddesh) and bring back sandwiches or other food.
  • Getting around / being independent was a struggle. I hiked over the hill to Bani Khaddesh once to the incredulity of the cafe regulars. After that they gave me a crash course in hitchhiking etiquette in the area and I either hitchhiked or flagged a taxi from then on. I didn’t venture over the hill often, but I was able to write a poem in a library, eat a bunch of leblebi, and generally buy supplies.
  • Speaking of general maintenance and venturing into Bani Khaddesh, I’d not been to a dentist in at least a year and a half and it caught up to me in Tunisia. This whole adventure was a comedy - getting a recommendation, arriving early, trying to communicate in a mix of hand signs and half-understood French/English, and it all just being irritated gums just needing a cleaning. The dentist didn’t even charge me.
  • The real tragedy of my visit was the death of my host’s mother. I didn’t have a close relationship with her or my host’s father, but I obviously felt bad. The guy who hired me tried to put me on a bus out of town the morning after the death, so I packed up and was ready to go. That said, I insisted on going to the funeral and expressing my condolences - I’m glad I did, as I’ve never witnessed a Muslim funeral and was moved by the experience. At some point my host found out that the guy who hired me tried to make me leave and was absolutely irate. It was a lucky break for me, as my host insisted I stay; I didn’t have anywhere else to go! I do feel the both of us became a bit closer that day.
  • Unrelated to the funeral, my host and his aunt, uncle, and cousin invited me over for dinner one night. They were having a regional dish - some goat (sheep?) head stew. There was a real name for it that I’ve forgotten. Anyhow, there was a delicious spread of rice and veggies and strips of meat… and a boiled goat head. I tried very hard throughout my travels to have things that locals were actually eating (as opposed to the “regional delicacies” offered only to tourists), but I had to decline an offered eyeball. While I was assured it was very tasty, I just couldn’t quite handle it, for whatever reason. That said, the rest of the meal was fantastically tasty.
  • As mentioned, the village could not number more than 150 people. One night I was invited to a gathering of the men of the village - some twenty (possibly more) people aged 15-50, likely a majority of the men, although I can’t be sure. It was dark and the group had flashlights and ropes. I did not know what I was getting into - while I doubted it was a lynching, it would not have been beyond belief. We walked down to a dry well that was covered in chickenwire (or something similar). While I watched, the group wrapped up one of the younger, lighter guys and gave him a bag. They lowered him into the well and he proceeded to grab and bag twenty-two sleeping pigeons in the next few minutes. Over the next hour or so, the younger members of the group plucked the pigeons and the older members built a fire and roasted them. The end result being a small pigeon feast at the cafe. Of the dishes I had in Tunisia, charcoal pigeon was my least favorite, albeit the most entertaining!
So, that’s a grab-bag list of Zammour. Somewhere in there I got my second (and final) bout of food poisoning. I did venture further afield while I was in southern Tunisia.


The biggest expedition I undertook was with a friend of the owner of the cafe. He was an archaeologist and tour guide… for Arabic- / French-speaking tourists. I got to see some interesting sites on this tour, including:
  • Cave paintings of ancient humans.
  • A random desert oasis with olive trees.
  • Some breathtaking ancient villages that straddled the line between the mesa and plains of the area (Chenini, specifically).
  • An archaeology museum, which my tour guide was very proud of.
  • The much advertised site where they filmed Star Wars. I was very excited to see this - I knew Lucas had filmed here and had, in fact, named Tatooine after a local city. What wasn’t revealed until we arrived was which Star Wars movie location we were visiting: so I can now say I’ve seen Anakin’s home from The Phantom Menace.
I also spent some time in Medinine, both on my own and with my host’s cousin. My own wanderings included the usual routine: government office, post office, library, and whatever I stumbled into along that path. With my host’s cousin (and her friends) I saw a couple old villages on the outskirts of the city, a “traditional life” museum (about the Berber lifestyle before modern times), and a bit of the main strip (including some more great food).

My trip back to Tunis was fairly quick, with a stop or two at traditional hotels and an AirBnB. While not mentioned before, some of the timing of this portion of the trip was influenced by my father’s promise to meet me in Morocco, made in December (or earlier). I ran out of passport time and left Tunisia March first, or thereabouts.

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