Only a few short days remain for our Tunisia visit (actually, as far as I tell, the length of these days will be the same as any other). We’ve been communicating with the couple we will stay with near the town of Černovice in the Czech Republic. Our home for the next month will be at the New Mill, or Nový Mlýn, a sustainability project in South Bohemia. It sounds like the winter has been incredibly hard for them and circumstances may be a bit different than we were expecting. Nonetheless, we are excited and looking forward to the next leg of our journey.
Our last day trip took us to the northern coast town of Bizerte and nearby Ichkeul National Park. We brought a friend along (or did she bring us along?) named Nihel. Her family lives in Bizerte so she was an appropriate tour guide. Upon arriving by trusty louage, we took a taxi to the park. Ichkeul is a bit of a special park: several species of plant and animal were threatened due to the creation of dams years ago. The park is a crucial habitat for several migratory bird species and has been restored over the decade. It has also been important to ensure the salt level remains in balance with nearby Lake Bizerte thereby sustaining a dynamic mix of life. When the government took over the land some years ago, they invited the current inhabitants to continue living there providing they cared for the land in a particular way as taught to them by specialists. During our visit, the park was empty (can’t imagine why considering it was a balmy 40°F and raining). We wasted a few minutes visiting a showcase of taxidermy from the 80’s that was masquerading as an “ecomuseum” and spent the rest of the late morning walking around the salty lake practicing amateur bird watching. Sulfurous hot springs bubbled up feeding decrepit hammams (Turkish baths) and wild fennel and olive trees were growing abundantly. We got up close and personal with herds of sheep and listened to squawking chickens and whining goats.
We traveled to Bizerte and visited the home of Nihel’s family. There we met her mother and younger sister and ate leblebi sandwiches and tajine (quiche, more or less). Nihel’s sister was preparing to head back to school (she is in her last year of high school and was home for lunch) but with some convincing, she was granted permission to skip her final class (ironically enough: US Geography). Soon, two other giggling seniors arrived and it seemed that the native English speakers drew a crowd (foreigners don’t often visit Bizerte). We set off on our walking tour with arm-linked girls in tow. At the beach, the waves were big and the marina was quiet. Feeling somewhat guilty for pulling the girls out of school, I assigned them some homework and wrote Hillsboro and Brookings on a scrap of paper and told them that locating these places in Oregon was their assignment, due next time we see each other. As we left Bizerte, Nihel’s mother gave us a very special gift: a homemade Tunisian spice mix called tabil. It smells delicious.
Carthage is a town near La Marsa and, like Dougga, has been made famous by its ruins (in this case a mix of Carthaginian and Roman). It’s truly a beautiful setting, right on the Mediterranean, but unfortunately the location isn’t as well-preserved as Dougga. We spent a half day there, seeing the usual sights and arrived by our favored transportation method: TGM train. First stop was the Carthage Musuem atop Byrsa Hill.
The ruins at the Carthage Museum aren’t overly impressive (although you would think they would be for the 10 dinar entrance fee). Once we got inside, we realized 9 of those dinars pay for the view alone. Stunning. As we are fairly easily amused, the highlight of the museum was the scale models of ancient sites furthering the long-held aspiration to become an assistant to an architect (and forever construct miniature buildings…so fun).
We walked down the hill right to the edge of the Mediterranean to visit other ruins. This included the Baths of Antoninus Pius and a (smaller than Dougga) theater. Along the way, we stopped to visit an art gallery displaying the work of a Scottish friend we’d met at one of the libraries in Tunis. (This friend actually drew/painted a piece just for us and we are shipping it home! It’s incredibly beautiful and maybe the coolest thing in the world.) After chatting up the gallery owner and enjoying the art on display, we continued our walk through Carthage. The 4.5 acres occupied by the Baths were like a mini nature park and a nice relief from familiar concrete Tunis life. Despite the signs pleading with children to not climb on the ruins, they couldn’t help but do so and document it all on their cell phone cameras.
To close out the evening, we hopped back on the train and met our friend Mohammed in the tourist-clad town of Sidi Bou-Said. We sampled bambaloni (a fried doughnut akin to an ‘elephant ear’). At a café overlooking the marina, we watched the sunset and shared conversation and chicha.
Since we have been in Tunisia, we have attended two soccer games at two different stadiums. The games have been of rival times but not pitted against each other. There are, as to be expected, security and police at checkpoints throughout the entrances, but they aren’t looking for alcohol like we thought. Actually, they pat down all attendees searching for fireworks. Inevitably, some will get through and be thrown on the field (or on other fans) and police promptly extinguish them. As if they stadium wasn’t smokey enough from all the cigarettes….
Our first game, Club Esperance, was enjoyable but disappointing. Our adopted club lost in the added injury time of the second 15-minute extra play. The stadium wasn’t packed and it rained some, but the game was still fun to watch despite these conditions.
The Club Africain game came with a promise for Tunisian soccer at it’s best. Club Africain fans are noted to be quite passionate, so it was no surprise that after a month-long break due to the Africa Cup, the opening game vs. Gafsa attracted a sizeable crowd. At all soccer game in Tunis, there are hardly any women in sight; the stadium is overwhelmingly filled with men. (Since every moment is a math moment) let’s have a math moment: The capacity of Stadium el Menzah is 45,000. With the stadium 3/4 full (only the “Gafsa fans” sections were empty), we can estimate that 33,750 fans were in attendance. During the (long) walk through security, I saw 6 women. While waiting for a friend to join our group, I spotted another 5. This took roughly 45 min, stadium opened 3 hours before the game (1/4 total time observed) multiplied by 2 major entrances, and let’s add 15 women to account for estimation error. Got your answer? 103, which is only 0.23% total attendance of women. Represent. Club Africain took the win with two goals and we escaped the stadium without getting trampled (arguably a notable achievement).