I don't know whether we've mentionned anywhere else in this blog, but the predominant construction method in Tunisia is brick and concrete. Everything in the house is Brick and Concrete - the walls, the floors... For support beams, the bricks are packed full of concrete (normally they're hollow). For extra couches/chairs/beds, a concrete base is built and rugs or pillows are set on top of it. This all comes about because both bricks and concrete are subsidised by the government in an effort to alleviate housing deficiencies, and are therefore cheap. Consequently, if people are unhappy with a particular wall in their house, they take a sledge to it, and if they want a new floor (up to a safe maximum of three) they just build stairs in a corner, blast out a section of roof and build up. The lack of preciousness and the self-actualizing attitude are quite neat, and very refreshing.
The downside, though, and everything has to have a downside, is that the remains of old construction are all over the place. People mix their concrete in the street, for example, which eventually hardens into little lumps all over the place. And everybody mixes their concrete on the street - whether for a house or a massive apartment complex - so that the little chunky lumpies are all over the place and contribute to wear and tear on the road (think logging road washboard effect). Also, one of the most common sights on abandonned lots is of piles of red chunkies that are the leavings of once-bricks that either got crushed or trimmed in the precision hack-at-with-trowel method that though imprecise, is quite handy.
Ah well, these are the little differences that make such an experience interesting. The upside of the construction with brick is that people have incredible liberty to build all manner of shapes and orientations of buildings, without the canadian limitations brought on by the strength of either poured cement (and the moulds that hold it in place) or the of wood beams. The result is an interesting array of different forms, and an absence of uniformity or rote construction that keeps the eye engaged.
bedroom - blue light for a cool summer. And crepe paper bleeds like crazy!
hall critter, my hairy bird
living room and the first attempt
One of the first projects that I undertook when getting into our little abode was a set of light fixtures for the house. we wanted something that would be quick and cheap - and it would be nice if they were kind of quirky and played into the organic. So I built and installed papier mache bird-forms. Thought you might like to see :-)
Preparing for the Desert
We arrived in Tozeur in the dark. For the past two hours we had been driving across increasingly flat land, speckled with scrub and stones. Mountains lay like sleeping giants in the dark on either side of the car, and as we traveled the moon and stars came out overhead. It seemed very magical and we were happy to drive in the dark as though towards some ancient city of mystery.
Tozeur wasn't that mysterious, but it had enough elements of an ancient city to keep our imaginations sharp. We didn't have a reservation so we circled the town a couple of times in search of the tourist district. We found it, but the hotels were big and they looked to be out of the price range that we could afford. After a while we stopped to ask a police officer where we could find a decent hotel for a reasonable price. With a smile and thoughtful look he gave us directions to Hotel Karim and sent us away with a waive.
People in the south are renowned for their kindness and hospitality. Like in Canada the environment dictates that people help each other or perish, and that kindness to strangers and travelers has survived even though modern technology has made living there much less hazardous. Seeing the smiles on the dark brown faces reminded me of home and I felt more relaxed than I had since the trip began.
Hotel Karim was a gem. It was built on the corner of a street and it's structure is triangular. The centre is open to the sky and has a courtyard with potted plants, a fountain and several small tables. Looking up you see a balcony running the three connecting walls and doors to individual rooms behind them. I didn't realize at first that it was open air, and kept looking for the hallway where the current seemed to be coming from. Loren finally helped me by stopping me in the courtyard and making me look up into the sky full of stars and wispy clouds. It was quite a sight.
We were hungry and the local couscous was on the menu at the restaurant connected to the hotel. Before we made it to the restaurant, our one-armed hotel manager asked us why we had come and when we told him it was to do a Sahara trip he suggested he could be of service.
We were reluctant to let him arrange anything for us to begin with as we didn't want a package tour with cars and oasis-tourist stops. We wanted the real thing, out into the Sahara for a night and then back. He assured us that he worked privately with a local Berber man who didn't do group tours and who could take us off the beaten path. He said he would call and ask if he was available and then we could make up our minds after dinner.
Dinner was good if not fabulous. I think we all agreed that Loren's lamb couscous stole the show, and as a result Jason and I kept stealing bites from his bowl.
Back at Hotel Karim the hotel manager had called and told us the guide was available and it would cost about 85 DT each for one night in the desert, but that he would take us to the dunes. The dunes are the largest sand dunes in Tunisia and they provided the backdrop for the Star Wars films on the planet Tatouine, which by the way is the name of a Tunisian city. Our hotel manager figured that was about 40 km away and it was fairly deep into the Sahara. We would be fed and given a shelter to sleep under at one of the local Berber family tents. He had even made the guide promise to cook Berber bread in the sand. We were sold. It was more than we had planned on spending, but it covered the cost of the guide, the food, the camels and a very authentic non-tourist experience.
We retired to bed, knowing that we would have to wake early to be ready to leave by 9AM. Before we could nod off we had to repack our bags, and Loren had to make a couple of calls to deal with our BC Student Loans. You can't get away from student loans, you know. Not even in the Sahara.
We met for breakfast at 7:30 the next morning, ate our complimentary coffee, baguette and fig jam and jumped into the car to head to the central market. We were in need of a couple of things. The first was a whole lot of water for the trip, as we were responsible for our own beverages. The second was head gear to protect our fairer skin from the strong Saharan sun.
Have you ever seen a picture of the Touareg? They live in the desert of Algeria and Morocco dressed in dark blue-purple and black. They are usually depicted riding on camels and they are famous for having never fully integrated with modern society. The head scarves that they wear are lengths of fabric, about a foot and a half wide by about nine feet long. This they wrap around their head, leaving a third of it to then wrap around their mouth, nose, cheeks and neck. By the time the vendor had us all wrapped up there was nothing left of us but our eyes. Loren, Jason and I each were presented with different colours - Jason's was black, the darkest, and Loren's was cream coloured. Apparently only darker-skinned folk should wear the lighter wraps as the lighter colours won't block any UV rays, and you can still burn. Jason also bought a black and white checkered head scarf in the Arab tradition so that he could be sure that his neck was covered.
With our essential supplies now in hand, we returned to the Hotel to wait for our ride. Ten minutes later a horse and carriage pulled up and took our things. Then we climbed in and headed for the local park and monument to the poet Chebbi where our desert adventure would begin.
(Post sent a little after the fact...)
Apologies in advance to Jason when/if he reads this...
We're just heading from Kairouen to Gafsa and my new old nemesis, come to haunt me from Canada has come on the radio. Can you guess? Yup, that's it. Celine the canadian queen Dion... Tiara guestures to the radioi in mock defeat and what does Jason do? He turns her up!
That's one small scream for man, annd the most deserving of screams for music-kind. Adding insult to injury it's English Celine with that deadly (as in can invoke the desire to commit Sepuku) Titanic theme song. There's no escape. Even as we're heading in the direction of the Sahara...
Thursday was a holiday, it was the Birthday of the Prophet Mohamed, called El Moulud. Since it was officially a day off with pay, I requested Friday off too and we prepared to leave for the South of Tunis for a long awaited vacation and camel tour of the Sahara. The adventure is too long to tell you about it all in one go, so you're going to get installments. Hope you don't mind!
We ran into a number of problems. The first was that in order to avoid the very touristy group camel rides that last about two hours into the Sahara and then come straight back out, we needed to find someone with the right connections. Someone who could get us off of the tourist track. Our friend Wifak has a sister whose boyfriend has a friend that works in tourism. (that's how things work here!) So she promised to set us up with something non-tourist. The only condition was that we wouldn't know what the plan was until Wednesday night because this friend was a busy guy and couldn't get the scheduling done right away.
So we packed our bags and lunch for the next day, checked out how much a rental car was going to cost us, and waited for our phone call. It came at around 8PM, and we were surprised to hear that the friend had been REALLY busy and hadn't managed to arainge anything. It looked like the order of the day would be to improvise, so we shrugged our shoulders and decided to play it by ear.
We woke fairly early the next day. At least, Loren and I did. We woke Jason up and tried to mobilize him, but he had been up late the night before working on some report that he had to finish, and we couldn't seem to get him going. When he and Loren were finally ready to leave for the airport it must have been about 10AM. Loren and I were on the verge of calling the thing off, but Jason seemed confident that things would run smoothly. He didn't know what we know about Tunisian bureaucracy. Nothing happens as quickly here as it does in the first world. Nothing.
Jason replied that he only needed to pick up the car, pick up the bags and then go. Since it was only 6 hours to Tozeur (prounouced tou-zer) there shouldn't be a problem. I started packing a lunch, and then I washed all the dishes, and then I swept the floor and then I washed the bathroom before Loren called. It was 11:15. They had the car, but Jason had wanted to change his ticket with AirItalia. It might be italian, but the system was Tunisian, and it took him an hour to find out he couldn't. They were on the road. I had the floor mopped too by the time they made it home, then we packed up and hit the road.
I could tell you all about the road trip, how Loren got us a bit lost on the way out of town, about the great scenery, the forests of olive trees, the candied peanuts and roasted lamb by the side of the road, the horrible public washrooms and the passport checks at roundabouts, but it would take much too long to get it all down.
Our first major stop was in Karouan. We had made a point of stopping there on purpose as it is considered the fourth holiest city in the Islamic faith and today was the Prophet's birthday. All the roads were closed when we arrived and the city was teeming with people. There were police everywhere, and we were tempted to leave without seeing anything just to avoid the throngs of people.
I have to admit we were a little lost when a couple of young men/boys on a scooter pulled up next to us and started gesturing dramatically. We rolled down the window and asked them what the problem was. They told us we were headed out of the city and that most of the roads were closed but they could show us the way to free parking if we were interested. We were, so we followed them. They took us to the walls of the original city with the first minaret built in Tunisia standing massive and proud at its centre. We were in awe of this 14th century construction, still standing and still home. We got out of the car and thanked the young man who stayed behind to talk to us.
He pointed at the buildings and started telling us about the history and where to go to find the market and medina. I smiled, figuring he would want a tip, but I was happy with his tourism gig, so I didn't mind following when he started off, still telling us about the city. He took us through a park and down on to the road below the old city and directly into a rug shop.
I was a bit anoyed that I had been hooked so easily, but I did want to see the looms, and he showed us how the looms work and how the wool is threaded together. Then a relative, someone I hadn't seen in the room took over and led us into a show room. We looked at each other, wondering if we should really stay, but the rugs were so interesting, we couldn't help it. They told us to take a seat on the bench, proffered mint tea and began telling us about the different rugs in the room.
All the rugs were rolled up and propped against one another on the wall. There were hundreds of them and they showed them to us by snatching roll after roll from the wall and unfurling them with a flick across the floor. We were truly in awe. It wasn't even something that could be concealed. There were fine weave rugs and thick weave rugs, camel hair and lamb's wool and pure silk rugs, in berber patterns and arab patterns and bedouin patterns too. Any colour, any size, any thickness, any pattern you wanted was there. They were all hand made and they must have rolled out about 80 of them before they called a stop to the unrolling.
The we played a game. We learned two words in arabic (they escape me now) one meaning "roll it" and the other meaning "put it aside" and we sorted through the pile systematically. We got down to about three rugs each and then we got down to about two each and then we just had our favorites left. Jason wanted two silk rugs "magic carpets" as our sales man told us. Loren and I fell in love with a berber patterned, earth coloured rug. Then it was a matter of prices.
First, I should say, I liked this salesman. He obviously loves what he does and loves what he sells, and he never really pushes you. He just seems to know that in this magical place full of the most amazing handmade crafts there is something for everyone and if you let them dig long enough they'll find what they are after.
The rug was priced at 350 Euros, but that, he told us is a tourist price. Resident price, which is what we often get when people find out I work in Ettadhamen doing social work, was that price in Tunisian Dinars. That sounded very reasonable. It was still out of our price range. We weren't really sure what to do. We had been talking about getting rugs since we had arrived and we had always intended to take a trip to Kairouan for that express purpose, and now, here we were, but we just couldn't justify buying a RUG for 350 dinars.
I really wanted it. I really did. The guy was great, he asked what the problem was and we told him we just couldn't afford it. We didn't have a tunisian bank account so we couldn't just make automatic payments on it either. But we REALLY wanted it. I was ready to leave it, but I was ready to cry about it too. He shrugged and made one last suggestion. "If you promise to buy your other rugs from me, and if you bring your friends and family my way when they want rugs, then I can bring it down a little." This is the line you get when they are almost giving it away. You will rarely hear it. It is how they justify giving something at a low price. They ask for your loyalty instead of a regular profit margin. I had never heard it until this point. "I'll give it to you for 250." It was a deal. It meant that things would be really tight for a while, that there wouldn't be any money for treats and pop and things like that, but 250 we could do.
By the time we left the store, we had been there ogling rugs for over an hour. We had just enough time to swing past the entrance of the Medina before we headed out of town. We hadn't seen much of the city, but we had seen one of the things the city was famous for. And we were pretty damn happy that we had.