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.

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 4


We were told that we would get up early, and by golly we did. At five we wake up, at half five we eat breakfast, at six we’re in the bus. It’s really cold, and we cannot fathom why the hell we are freezing in a bus when we have snug beds back at the hotel thank you very much.

The reason would become obvious: We have a good bit to go and a few places to see before Detour is comfortable enough in the knowledge that we’ve really been shown the country.


Of course we are the elitist group in the back of the bus that is snickering and being charmingly non-conformist, but every trip has a few of those, and in this company you don’t have to try much. I imagine that everyone on the bus was feeling original, although only we actually were.

The first stop was the salt desert. With mountains in the far distance, the devils bathtub used to be flooded by the Mediterranian sea, and is covered by salt. We all shuffled out of the bus to take pictures and hopefully find some coffee at the small store.


The sun rises and of course it’s postcard-like; a pretty view with nothing but salty sand and an empty road. We are impressed, but it’s hard to vocalise when your teeth are chattering. I think this was the moment that I cursed my “pack light” philosophy the most, considering that “pack light” in my mind implied “forgoe a jacket in favour of a thin scarf.”

Someone buys olive soap, someone drinks more hot tea, we get back into the bus ten minutes later, herded like the pack of sheep that we are.

Next stop is an oasis in the Atlas mountains. The views are rather stunning – it’s very Indiana Jones (which we find out was filmed nearby) and we walk past hot springs where Russian tourists are bathing. We pass a guy who has gone nutty and is screaming “pasta! macaroni!” at an Italian tour group, and then it’s time for us to make it down to the bus again, Anna in her high heels braving stepping stones over springs.



The social highlight of the trip, except Sine befriending a lively Norwegian kid, was when a under-age couple in front of Anna started fondling each other in a rather severe way. It cheered us up when Sine told us about it (she being the one spotting them, and they saw that she saw, and she saw that they saw that she saw, etc) and the rest of the trip I keep an eye out across the isle in case they would get up to any shananigans that I could pretend reminded me of similar stuff I’d never done when in their age.

An early dinner is had at a posh hotel. The guides boyfriend works here, so we’re in slightly less of a hurry and allowed a short respit. Coffee at the poolside and then it’s off to a Mosque two hours further up north. It’s one of the oldest Mosques in North Africa, but we hardly notice because our guide dissapears into a carpet factory to pick up a rug she’s pre-ordered. Christoffer and Anna buy cigarettes from a guy outside the bus. Too bad we’re not allowed to smoke in transit.

Soon we’re back on track, and after a couple of hours we’re back in Sousse. The woman who was cleaning our rooms had taken a shine to Anna and folded her night-gown into the shape of a butterfly.

Drinking wine and discussing the nature of the tourist we arrive at the conclusion that there’s no escaping ones role, and every effort you make to distance yourself from the herd of foreigners only furthers the penetration of tourism – you’re the forerunner of global capital wherever you go. There is no escape, embrace your involantary imperialism, just don’t forget to pack proper clothes.


Tunisia and back, day 5 & 6

We’re back from the trip and Wednesday passes in the sign of leisure. Me and Anna walk around the beach and try to find the “real” Sousse. There has to be something that isn’t geared towards tourists, something that keeps the local people sane if for no other reason than because it’s cheaper.

At a beach café we drink coffee, and even Anna puts sugar in it now because there’s a salty quality to the water – maybe they’re desalinating sea water, or the ground water is so full of it. It reminds me of how Iceland all smells like fart because of the sulphur that permeates everything.



A few tourists, seniors mostly, lay like beached whales on the scattered sun-deck chairs. Walking in sand takes time, and a few hours pass before we choose to take the inland way back. Along unfinished skeletons of hotels, and fancy resorts with tennis courts, we’re looking for food. Anna scores the only interesting foodstuff on the whole trip, a deep fried bread filled with egg and tuna, and is munching while we make our way downtown.

One of my few and (in my opinion) humble goals of the trip was to eat a lot of nuts. We passed a few stores that carried olives, beans and nuts, but to my dismay they proved to be as expensive as in Sweden. Considering that the average salary in Tunisia is one sixth of what it is in Sweden, we couldn’t see how people made by. Either Sousse is an expensive city and the salaries are adjusted accordingly because of the tourist trade, or there must be a big enough upper middle class that skews available consumer goods.

The train station is just next to our hotel, and we check the time tables for Tunis. Anna is by now fluent in French thanks to sheer willpower and mutilated Spanish, and once back with our friends we decide to take the train early next morning and be back the same day.


Thursday morning finds us hastily drinking coffee by the train before the station manager ushers us into the carriage. Afterwards, we’re not certain why he was in such a hurry – the train doesn’t leave until fifteen minutes later, and we’re longingly looking at the people who are standing outside, smoking. We needn’t have worried about this though, because smoking on the train in Tunisia is not a problem at all.

The vegetation outside our train is much greener, and there’s something reassuring about trees that don’t seem planted. With the ocean far away, smaller mountains to one side, the landscape is far more pleasant than in the southern parts of the country.

We’re going to Tunis and then onwards to Carthage. We’re unsure how to get to the ancient city, but that matter is sorted for us by a taxi-driver just outside of the station. Anna is certain that we’re being taken advantage of, but the price is low enough that no-one else minds. Carthage is a twenty minute drive away, and having probed us enough to realise we don’t know much about the city, most of the trip consists of our drivers incessant attempts at offering himself as our driver for a day. We’ll get to see all of Carthage and the blue city as well, all for the very reasonable price of 15 dinars per person. Too high price? Twelve dinars?


Having spend two days on a tour bus we’re not very keen on being herded from one Kodak moment to the other, and decline in different ways until we give up on it and Christoffer, who is riding shotgun and acts as spokesperson, is repeating “thank you for your offer, but we’d rather walk” over and over again. Once we get out of the taxi Sine gets the drivers business-card (on it, a picture of a Porsche) and he walks over to the other drivers, maybe hoping to snag us on our way out of the museum.

I eat crisps, the others eat sandwiches, and we’re all shivering with cold. The museum proves to be little better, and with our arms wrapped around ourselves we’re looking at relics 2500 years old – shards of pottery, glass works, someones skeleton.


Some people can be swept away by the tides of history when they’re among old ruins, but that isn’t something that I’m good at. I can most often immerse myself in a photo or a description as much as the site itself, and looking down from the former fort atop Carthage makes my mind drift to more practical matters – i.e. where can I buy coffee – rather than back in time to when proud men would carve dentures out of bone at the age of 30.

In the store on our way out we meet three bored girls that are a wonderfully friendly bunch. One of them tries to pick up Christoffer, unbeknownst to him, and we’re all given fragrant ointments rubbed on our hands – the one on my right hand is “Tunisian Viagra”. Viagra here smells of peach and flowers.

Sine has had cramps the past hour or so, and she’s drinking Coke and then mint tea that the girls make. The one who tried to charm Christoffer now joins us in a light mocking of Sine, and suggests that we either lead her as a camel, or carry her as luggage. Ah, the good-spirited art of kicking those who are already down!


We’re walking down the hill, look at some water and the presidential palace (no pictures, please), and decide to take the commuter train to the blue city – Sidi bou Said – because apparently it’s pretty and some famous people decided to take consecutive shits there. The older man selling tickets for a pittance tries to scam Sine out of 20 dinars, and it takes a bit of standing around and staring angrily before he returns it.

It’s not the stealing per se that is annoying, it’s the nonchalant routine of it all: He couldn’t brake the twenty that Sine wanted to pay with, and asked her for smaller bills without returning the twenty – all the time acting as slow and ignorant as he could in the hope that we’d leave. It’s disheartening how common this behaviour is wherever tourists are involved; just be an asshole and whowever you’re scamming will get mad and leave, with little hope of reprimand.

Sidi bou Said is pretty enough, but how much sight-seeing can one take? Yes it has pretty blue decorations, yes I imagine that it must have been inspiring at one point, and no I don’t want to buy your chess-set nor water-pipe nor a henna tattoo. Somewhere along the way we have become so hungry as to be grumpy, and we’re walking to and fro before finding a café with a beautiful view and the most hideously crappy and clinically retarded staff ever. (Except the guy who made the expensive omelettes whom Sine liked.) The mood becomes rather grim in a general “fuck you I shouldn’t have gone on this trip you fucktart” way. Soon enough we’re smoking water pipe somewhere else, and start back to Tunis so as not to miss our train back to Sousse.


The commuter train takes longer than we expect, and we’re worried that we’ll miss our last ride. Once in Tunis it takes the help of a very well dressed man to show us the subway, and we’re soon in front of the train station with fifteen minutes to spare before departure. The bureaucracy of any given country is always interesting, and we encountered one at the train station. We had open return tickets, but before we were allowed on the train we had to validate extra return tickets and gotten them rubber stamped before showing them to three station hosts to get on the platform. It reminded me of all the meaningless jobs that people were made to have in communist Poland; you dig a hole, someone else will be along to fill it.

Once the train is rolling, a few young guys start banging out a rhythm on the walls and windows and singing loudly – we’re guessing it’s local talent warming up for a raucous night, and as charming as it might seem we’re glad when they get the hell off our cart and disappear into the night. The rest of the trip is spend sitting on the floor in between carts, smoking a lot and watching the wagon become more and more empty the closer to Sousse we get.

The bar on the corner is happy to serve us boukha and gin and beer and popcorn on small plates, and with one eye on the tv screens showing scantily clad women advertising phone-in sex-lines, we are summing up the past week. Sahara is an overwhelming place, tourism is rotting the country, and let’s buy a lot of olive oil to back home.

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: