Sharm Charm

I don’t know how the gene has survived in the Swedish climate, but Sara claims to be unable to function without a trip to warmer, brighter countries in the winter. You’d think that this trait would have been mercilessly bread out of anyone foolish enough to settle this far up north, but perhaps it’s combined with some other, more useful genetic features which make up the Sara, and have survived that way. Either way, she booked a charter to Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt, and brought me along for a January excursion.

My previous forays into charter tourism have been a mixed bag — n.b. The Tunisian Experiment — but this trip was a whole other thing: My ambition was to eat houmous, swim a bit and perhaps read a book or two. Sara had been there before, so even though she mostly wanted to counteract the effects of Swedish mole-like existence, there were some ambitions as to activities: Snorkeling, eating fish, walking in the mountains.

We’re on the flight: The stewardess goes to check, returning with “yes, unfortunately penut-butter sandwiches are out of the question because of the allergies.” So we spend the five hour flight very hungry, doing the most of our chewing gum and water. Back in the flight crew cabin, Sara spots stewardesses eating the Snickers bars they’d withdrawn from sale because of the allergic person, which does nothing to improve our mood. Once we’re through customs we’re enjoying the mushy white peanut-banana infused bread, palm treas silhuetted against the setting sun, and soon are on our way to the hotel. It’s warm-isch, bright and we’re not in cold dark Sweden anymore, which fulfilles the first objective of the trip.

We’re travelling with unspecified quarters, so when the guide mentions that our hotel “isn’t exactly a five-star resort” we understand it as a promise of a broken faucet and bats in the closets. No such thing though; hotel Regal is well kept and in the old part of town (“old” being a relative term, since there’s almost no building older than 30 years) which suits us well — according to Sara it’s calmer and more cosy than the newer areas, and the “old market” is relatively close by.

There’s only us and a family with kids getting out at hotel Regal, which doubles the hotel occupancy. Out of the eighty or so rooms only a handful are in use, and so when we open our ground floor back door there’s a still pool and a closed bar outside. No sound interrupts the evening call to prayers.

Luggage is dumped onto beds, bathroom lights are turned on and off three-four times, and then we head out to eat. We don’t even get out of the courtyard before someone stops us, and within minutes we’re in the office of Manta Ray divers and Ramez is showing us his diving videos and describing the available tours. I hadn’t been under water since I took my PADI license three years previously and hoped to get a chance to see all the corals and marine life that people rave about — the most exotic thing I’ve seen diving in Sweden are two pissed off crabs, fighting — and we were suggested that a day-trip would also allow Sara to try an assisted dive.

[x_video_embed no_container=”true”][/x_video_embed]

With half-hearted and hunger-driven commitments of discussing the matter and getting back to him, we’re heading out to find food. Sara vaguely remembers a restaurant from last time she was here, and we’re soon heading downtown. Soon we’re in the Fares fish restaurant. It’s bustling, very bright, overstaffed, but the selection is big and the food plentiful; With a few exception this would set a routine for our stay, as Fares was one of the easiest places to navigate as a vegan – there’s plenty of houmous and baba ganoush and garlicky veggies. Not considered “main course material,” they’re dirt cheap, so I felt bad for getting the salad buffet each time and overtipped and bought unnecessary side dishes. Sara had all manner of evil foods and enjoyed deep fried, steamed and whatnotted marine life which I’m sure had a loving parent or thousand now orphaned offspring. Two missions accomplished and it’s only the first day. We’re off to a good start.

We go for a coffee, play some board games, and I try to get as much milage out of “la shukran” as possible in my interactions with the old market sellers. A couple of days later I also learn the hand gesture for “no thank you” which simplifies the process of turning down the taxis which badger you at every opportunity. Perhaps my Polish heritage instructs how I like my shop keepers — bitter and resentful — but I don’t see the value of shop owners assailing you and short of dragging you into their store. I understand that it must work or they wouldn’t do it, but I’m not sure what the mechanism is by which it works; certainly doesn’t with me.

More depressing is that some of the shop keepers — who without exception are male — take the opportunity when fitting a scarf to paw Sara. Far from everyone did this, but it was common enough to be depressing. As a tourist you’re a transient biped with cultural baggage, requirements and a wallet, and so are not afforded as much consideration as a real person, but it’s still sad when you greet people suspicious if they also are gonna rub their dick in your back accidentally for five minutes while grinning like an idiot.

And again, what the hell are you going to do about it? Huff and puff and storm off? You’re not making structural change, and not changing the mind of whoever wronged you. Trying to shame them, calling police or security? Sure, but how long will that take, what will you get out of it, and are you sure it would work? In the end, you flag the place and move on, perhaps write a blog post about it. This does make you appreciate more those men who sell you things who are actually nice and don’t grope you. I wonder if that’s a Yelp-review sticker they’d put in their window: “5 Stars! didn’t touch my butt once! ☆☆☆☆☆!”

Cars in Sharm El-Sheik suffer from tourrettes, but you pretty soon get used to the constant honking. “Driving” is better defined as “accelerating” while breaking is probably considered optional, as are headlights, even after dark. You soon learn to run across roads and never to assume that a driver regards you as more than a messy speed bump. The thirty centimeter curb which you thought was sloppy workmanship the first few times you saw it, turns out to be your well designed friend. Sucks if you’re in a wheelchair, but the cars can’t get at you easily.

We settle into a pleasant routine. Food at Fares or from the friendly falafel shop across the street (Later, Ramez the diver was incredulous. “You’ve eaten there and didn’t get horribly sick?!”) and swimming at by the lighthouse beach. We meet people who greet us first in Russian, then English, Turkish, Polish. Not enough Swedish tourists to merit learning that language. There’s plenty of racism all around, and Russians are the most numerous and most despised, viewed as angry drunk morons. In Fares — a non-alcoholic chain, as are many in Sharm — we saw a head waiter being berated for telling the party of ten that they weren’t allowed to drink their vodka at the table. The women looked put-upon but expensively dressed, the kids oblivious and fat, the men thick-necked and hostile — had you painted a more stereotypical image of a Russian family you’d have to add a babushka.

We bought a day trip with Manta Divers and with Ramez as instructor, and Sara did her first, and then second, assisted dive. I dove alongside them, and the corals and the fish and the clear water was ridiculously beautiful. I’ve become so over-sensitised by all grand imagery in movies and pictures that when I come across something similar in real life it feels fake. The first few times I saw the coral reefs while snorkeling I was laughing through the tube — it felt like a very immersive Disney cartoon. Diving among the corals added the bonus sensation of potentially maiming the local ecosphere by an uncontrolled descent, but I managed to stay clear of murder by adjusting the BCD once a second… The other bonus feeling was swimming out over the land shelf, and having nothing but a drop into darkness below me — it’s like a suspended fall into forever and ever.

For the remaining days, we’re swimming by the beach and drinking Turkish coffee — hot water poured over ground beans — eating at Fares, drining beer at the branded beer pub, or shopping fabrics and tobacco. Sara got a “very good price just for you” from the guy she bought from last visit, but in the end I spot the same leaf at the airport for half the price. The airport has the largest smoking lounge I’ve seen, and also a “Real British Pub” with probably the most atrocious service imaginable — checked-in people at airports are the most captivated clients short of prisoners — and as a moral support for my poor stomach which had had one Fares-dinner too many (my quota of houmous for 2013 is used up) I hazared a beer and some god-awful chips. Apart from a gurgling sound, and a constant feer of shitting myself while asleep on the plane, it was a content and browner Mateusz who landed in Gothenburg.

Tunsia and back, day 7

And on the seventh day they rested, and they saw that it was ok.

The last day was packing day. We were leaving at noon, and so we’re packed and out of the room with time enough to buy five litres of olive oil and cigarettes. I walk to the medina alone at first, hoping to score some cheap smokes, but my face is not one that invites haggling, and either way I don’t know where to start, and I can’t get the price below 25 dinars per carton.

Somewhat depressed I return to the hotel with the oil and ask Christoffer to come along and hold the business end of the shopping stick. With an air of gorgeous nonchalance he leads the way and within a few minutes we exit the medina with three cartons at 18 dinars each. He’s a God of nonchalance. If there ever is a war he might be that guy who will sell you a can of pork in exchange for gasoline that magically will appear because he knows a guy, but even in peacetime talents such as his are handy as hell.

On our way back we run into a man who sells cigarettes from a plastic bag. He asked what we paid for the ones I’m carrying, and I brazenly (and out of character) answer “fifteen”. He is willing to sell us a carton for 13 dinars, and Christoffer immediately jumps on him and offers ten. I end up buying a carton, and we’re soon back at the hotel.

I walk away and get two cans of harisha, the ubiquitous paprika paste, and we file into the bus. We will be at the airport three hours before departure, not counting delays, and as usual everyone is looking out at the cityscape wondering what this was all about and if there isn’t something that we might have overlooked.

Of course there is. During our week in Tunisia we got to know the country only a little, and what we learned was as superficial as doing more harm than good.

Here are a few advice on going to Tunisia:

* If you don’t like tourist traps, be sure to have read up on the country and have an actual interest in historic sites. Staying with the tour guides will leave you discontented and with an acidic fecal aftertaste.

* Tunisia has no food worth mentioning. This was a huge disappointment as we were all looking forward to something interesting. What we got was a bun with egg and tuna; in my case lots of salad. I have never visited a country with such lack of food tradition, and I imagine that Tunisia has simply picked up the food traditions of it’s conquerors, trying not to offend any-ones palate by aiming for the lowest common denominator: You gotta eat something.

* You might as well be wearing a tattoo spelling out “TOURIST” on your forehead for all the good any camouflage will do. Be prepared to get hassled by a lot of people looking to befriend your money – imagine that “ordinary” Tunisians are a rock band that you would like to get to know, but you can’t get close enough because of the guards and bouncers surrounding them. You will mostly run into guards that are annoying assholes because they are making a living off of you. You will become distant and bitter if you don’t remind yourself of the role that you are playing.

* Make notes of your trip. This will make it easier to blog afterwards, and you won’t forget things like the colosseum you visited.

* Consider going to Egypt instead. I hear Kairo is really cool, and they’re bound to have better food. Or, y’know, don’t fly half way around the earth because you’re conscious of the green-house emissions you’re the financial incentive for.

It was good to get away from Gothenburg for a week, and it was wonderful to travel Tunisia with three friendly people. I don’t know if I’m going on a charter again, but it’s a comparatively cheap way to travel (vaccinations not accounted for) and it would have helped to be better prepared. Being able to smoke anywhere is awesome, I just wish that the coughing would let up soon. I’ve halved my consumption to one pack a day, so I should be able to breath normally any day now.

Also, I ran out of hair wax on the last day and would appreciate it if you would buy me another one for christmas:


Tunisia and back, day 2 & 3


Having spent our first evening in the seedy lounge of Sousse Palace, me and Anna wake up hung over. Our companions in the other room are also well hung and are sleeping it off.

We leave the hotel in hot pursuit of groceries for breakfast, and soon end up in a plaza café close to the medina. We drink orange juice made from a citrus-like fruit and coffee. I sit in the sun and bitch about the sun a bit; everything is as it should be.

It’s much easier to brush people off when you’re hung over. You feel righteous when you’re hung over, you have a right to be be in a pissy mood. Regardless the validity of this assertion, it helps us to quickly make our way to a veggie market we’d spotted the day before.

Anna does her bit as the matron of a household, and I am the guy carrying stuff and paying people, appearing every bit as the whipped person I can be. We get deformed pears, damaged tomates, half-rotten pomegranates and some fresh mint.

You are far less hassled if you’re carrying bags of groceries – they act like a spell of +5 camouflage, allowing you to slip by hucksters.



In the evening Sine cooks a mint/chili pasta, and we decide to take a two day bus trip arranged by the travel agent the next day. It’s rather pricy, but we figure that it’s the only way we’ll get any grasp of the country and what the hell, how bad can it get.

We drag ourselves out of bed the next morning and at seven we’re in the bus, slowly realising that yes, it can and will get bad. The name of the travel agent should have given us a clue: Detour. I imagine that whoever came up with the name wanted to imply a detour off the beaten path, a trip into the unknown and real. Rather, it proved to be a detour from common decency and any sense of well-being.

Our guide quickly enthused about how fun we would have, and even made “fun” rhyme with “detour” to instill an association between those two words. She had Tunisian parents but had grown up in a small Swedish town, and spoke Swedish with an odd Norwegian flavour.



She was happy with her job. Not that she was particularly interesting or bright, and not that we enjoyed her folksy racism and lack of knowledge, but she did set the tone of the whole trip with her jolly remarks that she blessed us with over the loudspeakers that didn’t have an off-switch.

-Look at that woman everyone! She’s wearing black and lives in a hole! That’s their style!

The goal of the trip was Sahara, with a dash of oasis and local colour thrown in. “Local colour” proved to be references to what movie was recorded where, and a slightly different tomato salad from one place to another.



Tunisia is not a very large country, but differes in flora – south of Sousse you find a steppe that changes into a desert proper the closer you get to Sahara. You’re watching olive trees change into date palms and then into underbrush and then salt and sand. The change is rather gradual; you’re snoozing merrily and drooling onto the person next to you, and waking up you can’t really tell if you’re in the same place.

One of the few tell-tale signs of actual movement is that different regions deal in different goods. Selling peppers by the roadside becomes selling date palm juice, which in turn becomes selling petrol smuggled in from Libya.


Whenever I travel through Sweden, I am surprised that people actually live in all those small places in the middle of bloody nowhere. Gothenburg and Stockholm feel small enough as they are, but what are you going to do in Töreboda except smelling your cousins underpants and sell strawberries to tourists? I imagine that the situation for those living in El Hamma is similar.

When we passed the Mareth Line, a system of bunkers the French built in defense against Italy before WWII, our helpful guide explained that “the French would jump into the box on your left (everyone in the bus looked left) and then pop up in the box to your right (everyone in the bus looked right)” and that seemed to exhaust the topic. Later we were told that if we were looking for a more in depth history tour, we should definitely go on the historic Detour trip on Wednesday.

Anyway. We reach Sahara and everyone in the bus but me gets on a dromedary after being dressed in Sahara chic tunics and scarfs. I have some animal rights issues and stay behind drinking coffee, writing a polemic on morals or something.



At the café I have the first of only two exchanges during my stay in Tunisia that doesn’t involve someone trying to sell me something; I’m alone at a table and there’s a guy who asks me for the extra chair next to me.

It’s hard to appreciate, but this was really encouraging – tourism has fucked Tunisia in the ass with a tour-bus shaped dildo; protruding hands grasping at the intestinal lining for souvenirs. As a result all visitors are alienated from any sense of normality. You’re a tourist and that’s all that you’ll be, constantly suspecting everyone of wanting to cheat you in some way, and you’ll become so reserved and impolite that no-one in their right mind would want anything to do with you, except the assholes that made you suspicious in the first place.


We’ve managed to reach Sahara in time to see the sun set over the dunes, and it’s a very pretty sight, even from where I’m sitting. Darkness comes suddenly, the cold with it. I watch a group of Japanese tourists dismount their dromedaries and laughingly look at the pictures of themselves in the desert that have been rapidly printed. A generous hour later my friends ride back into view, their silhouettes appearing over the horizon in flashes from compact cameras.

Judging from comments made by some of my travelling companions, the walking style of camels has a stimulating potential that should not be underestimated. They rode in from the desert with rosy cheeks and nothing but praise for the animals. Good for them. The closest I get to a sexual encounter on the trip is when a cockroach scuttles over the bathroom tiles and sees me naked.

Anna and Christoffer buy pre-packaged Saharan sand because they are being ironic, and we all file back into the bus. We’re staying at a hotel nearby which proves to be very nice – it’s an open reception area with a proper bar, and we finish the evening drinking and smoking as much as is humanly possible, occasionaly doubling over in bouts of caugh and blowing our noses. It’s getting chilly and Sine retires for the night, citing an oncoming cold and the un-godly hour at which we have to get up the next day. An hour or so later we all follow suit and go to bed.

Tunisia and back, day 1

We’re back from Tunisia. We have returned from the prehistoric cradle of humanity and can tell you that you can buy a lot of stuff there.

It’s a good feeling to be able to cross off another continent from the “to-visit” map, althought the country is more Mediterranean than African. The week-long trip was an excellent idea.

out the airplane window

Me, Anna, Sine and Christoffer went on a chartered trip to Sousse in north-eastern Tunisia. It’s a touristy town, but since the winter is off-season there weren’t a lot of tourists. The good side of that is that there was very little queuing and navigating crowded streets. The bad side is that we were easily spotted by anyone who wanted to sell us sheep-skins, cigarettes, chess boards or drugs, which soon proved to be a lot of people.

Many languages sign

We arrive late at night, the flight being delayed one hour, and are soon dumped outside our hotel downtown. The porters’ friend got us a few bottles of wine and we’re sitting imbibing for a while before going to sleep. Waking up the next morning, our to-do list now contains “get more blankets” and “get more pillows,” as the nights are rather on the nippy side. The cold weather would be our steady companion on the trip, and quickly got nick-named “god-fucking-dammit” or just “fuck-shit” for short.

We saunter out of the hotel and eat breakfast next door. I abstain but end up eating Annas fries anyway because I’m an indecisive mooch, and then we’re walking towards the medina. A medina is a walled Arabic area of a north African city, and usually the oldest remaining (still active) part of a city; the one in Sousse seems reserved for small shops selling stuff to tourists. We didn’t get further than ten steps before we were pulled into a store selling carpets, and were forced to take pictures of a woman weaving.


In two hours we covered about 300 metres. I am a person of a gentle disposition and don’t suffer annoying people easily. I was walking in front of our group, and somehow assumed that the others weren’t really interested in buying anything, but rather take in the street. This resulted in me doing a yo-yo walk back and forth along the same streets, every ten seconds looking back and every time realising that the others were standing in front of a stall with sales-persons closing in on them as cats stalking birds: gently but with a focus.

I like the bustling of any city, and it’s really neat to see all these crowded streets with people on mopeds squeezing through narrow alleys. I just don’t approve of being bustled upon as much. This is a naïve approach to things when you’re a tourist, but still.

Those working in the medina quickly proved to know the basics of a shitload of languages. When the others talked Swedish I switched to Polish, but that didn’t throw anyone the slightest. Arabic, French, English, Swedish, Russian, Polish, German, whatever. A result of working with so many tourists (and being dependant on convincing them to buy your stuff instead of your neighbours identical stuff) is that you pick up languages like a sponge out of necessity.


We found a small restaurant run by a friendly guy and took in the view from his rooftop. Anyone living in a place like this is likely to look without understanding on parkour artists – of course you go from roof to roof, it’s the shortest way, are you making a sport out of it?
After food we walked up the hill to a museum that proved to be closed for renovation. We met the light-house keeper, and he let us into the tower which gave us a good view of the city. He told us a bit about the history, and it was fun to listen to someone who didn’t seem hell-bent on selling us something. Except that taking a picture from the tower apparently cost one dinar extra. Of course it does.

Lighthouse in Sousse

We go home, ponder over what to do with our evening and decide to walk until we hear music. Pretty quickly we hear noise and walk into a crowded and run-down place full of men. Men dancing, men talking, men smoking. Our gang increases the female population by 50 percent: it’s a sausage feast

I strike up conversation with Mondo, a friendly guy who helps me hustle the bartenders for cheap alcohol, and then hustles me for a beer. We end up following him to the bar of a hotel close to our own, and walk up the stair into the VIP lounge and buy bottles of fermented figs. Boukha tastes like crap but it’s cheap and the packaging is really nice.


We dance to music that becomes better and better the longer we stay in the room, and coming from Sweden we enjoy being able to smoke indoors. There is a guy with a Casio keyboard singing in Arabic to the general appreciation of the crowd, us included.

In fact, we were so enthusiastic that we inquired about how much it would cost to bring him to Gothenburg. He was hesitantly positive the first time around, but became a bit more reserved with each subsequent visit. It would have helped matters if we all told the same story, and not embellished it with tales of how girls would sleep with him or how famous he would become. Or if we weren’t as visibly inebriated as we were. I get his business card and promis to call first thing in the morning.


Meanwhile, Christoffer is dancing with men. A lot of men. Although we don’t realise it fully until the day after, we have probably stumbled into the only gay bar in town. Not even when someone asks Christoffer to translate “fuck” and then tells him he’s beautiful does he catch the drift, but rather takes it as a general comment on the good atmosphere and shouts “yes, beautiful” while gyrating his hips in imitation of the other men.


My dancing only drew scorn from most of the others, and possibly sniggering. Sine is in the bar with Mondo, who is properly sloshed. He is now openly stealing her money, chasing away anyone who he suspects is competing for our money, and then threatens to kill a hooker that has her eye set on Christoffer. We soon exit, and head across the street to our hotel.

First day and we’re rather happy with the outcome, and sleep like babies (drunk babies) under the new new covers that the friendly porter supplied us with.