Well, I guess it's what I get for opening my big mouth (or big moot, as I heard a Quebecois once say). Today I had a ride. The full meal deal - adrenaline pumping, feels like I'm in a movie, yayayayaya! Only it wasn't in a movie which took some of the shine off the experience. A lot of it, actually.
It was the fastest cab ride in a slow car that I've ever had in Tunis.
Slow car, you ask? Yes, the car couldn't manage to crack 100 km/h (as others that I've been in have - consistently). It just wasn't in good enough condition, and hey, it was rush hour. But that didn't mean that it wasn't fast! Far from it.
There are all sorts of ways that you can go fast if you really want to. You can burn every red light (check!); you can squeeze a fourth car in a two-lane road (check!); you can add a third turning lane when there's only supposed to be one (check!); you can pass vehicles as you're cresting a hill (check!); you can honk your horn a lot to intimidate the other drivers (check!): you can go over the speed bumps at full speed (check!); you can swerve around oncoming, turning, stopping or otherwise obstacle-creating cars (check!). There was more. Things like honking at pedestrians and speeding up towards them or whipping down a one-way road, but I'll leave those to the imagination. In any case, through the whole of it, my driver maintained a calm face and managed to avoid hitting anything, so I was somewhat relieved. Except for the whole being in the passenger seat part. Oh well.
Welcome to Tunis!
marbles in the road
Every day that I head on into AMIDEast to teach my English courses I pass a group of four or five young boys playing marbles. A lost art? Certainly not so in Tunisia.
In any district, from the richest to the poorest, they can be found focussed with knuckles in the dirt and huddling around a dirt marble pitch. Eyes intent and totally sucked into their micro-world, their knees are dirty, their hands caress the marbles' surface, their talk is animated, and they play the game.
It's incredible to me coming out of Canada and our pre-fab existence. The magic of the tiny crystal in this world evokes Bradbury's world of Dandelion Wine and its endless days of summer. I cling to it, and I hope never to lose it.
I was noticing with Tiara today the look of the workers coming into Citee Ennasr and couldn't help but think of those old photos of Brooklyn in the late 20s through 40s. The similarities are as startling as the differences. They are for the most part either first or second generation city-dwellers caught up in the typically industrial rural exodus and fitting themselves into the 'modern' world. They are the street-sweepers, the housekeepers, the masons and plain old manual labour.
Tiara works down in their world, and while it's not the picture of despair that comes to mind when we think of the early Italian or Eastern European or Irish quarters of old New York, I don't know that it's far. It's not unusual for a family of six, with grandparents and cousins and uncles to live in a small house together. They import their religion and cultural values to the city that will not validate them, and they work for the people who are the most flagrantly open and un-traditionally muslim in the entire middle east. Granted they have a house, and that's one of the differences that I'll get to in a bit - because it's nothing like you'll see in North America.
The men and women who are able take the 'popular' (meaning cheap and incredibly crouded) bus to the rich neighbourhoods or factories and work all day for pitiful wages and then back to their world - out of sight and out of mind.
The masons in particular come to mind. You see them, eight stories up (nothing goes up very high here, which is a good thing...), walking narrow scaffolding that consists of boards punched through the brick wall on which other boards are set or affixed (sometimes a nail or two will be used). And they lay bricks, cement, plaster, electric cables... The heat rises, they crack out their plastic bottles for water, and roll up their sleeves. They are thin, due to a meagre diet with very little protein and also to their intense physical exercise. They grin, they're missing teeth, the rich few ride in on those strange little motorbikes that hack black up the hills. The contrast to their millieu is stark.
And there's a difference, around them in Nasr, the culture is the height of modernity - the women are in pants or shorts - showing skin that the men in their districts would never show. The vehicles that roll by are a parade of brand-new Audis, Mercedes, Coopers, SUVs, Hummers. The coffee at 2 1/2 dinars is TEN times the price of the their cafes. The gap between rich and poor is flaunted. It's also a gap of years - every day they move from the 1950s of Citee Ettadhamen - cars / trucks / brick ovens / dirt roads and collapsing asphalt - to the 21st Century with escalators / blase teenagers / computers / reliable electricity and water...
The weird bits are where it crosses over. Houses, for example. There's a strong house-building initiative in Tunisia, there's an established family-planning program designed to limit population growth, new clothes and consumer culture are solidly intrenched to say nothing of the police controls. These last serve a dual purpose of balancing the cultural revolution and protecting the population such that thefts, let alone agression, are rare.
The new third world. The old and the new. The world.
Slowest Cab in the World
Slowest Cab in the world...
Generally in Tunisia the cab rides are somewhat interesting. If the regular traffic makes up its own rules and gets irritated when they are not followed, Tunisian cabbies tend to push this to the extreme. For canadians, they talk about the orderly and civilized drivers of Montreal who always obey the law and never honk their horns - they talk about it like the contrast of night to day. Nuff said.
But then not all cabbies are insane. Unfortunately. I had to get to work this morning, and after waiting for ten minutes to catch a cab (two is about average) I sat down in the slowest cab in Tunis. Woualla (swear to god), I have never seen anything like this guy. Traffic rushed on by us at rush hour as we crept along in the slow lane. We didn't break 40 kph.
To make it even more interesting, we would slow to a dead 10 kph crawl for every crack in the road that could have punched out the vehicles linchpin and left us stunned on the concrete. Apparently linchpins are something to be careful of in cars. This car, anyway. And the driver regularly slowed as his hacking stopped him from being able to pay attention to the road. That way, more people could pass us with propriety. Did I mention it was a slow ride? Sssssllllloooooowwwww.
I have been in a cab where the driver's wife and kid were in the backseat, the latter practically crawling over it to get to him, and we didn't drop far below 70 kph. It was still a rather slow ride by Tunisian standards... but acceptable.
Anyhow, eventually I got to my destination. The cost was on par for normal since time is negligible with respect to distance on the meters. Thankfully. Seriously, I've had to make the trip at rush hour, and it wasn't rush hour this time, but it took almost as long. About double the average and triple the frustration.
And now I will go on with my day.