The really lame thing about going on holiday towards the beginning of an autumn month is that you have no money left to deal life’s inordinate costs when you get back (endless Oyster top-ups, seasonal boots and coats, a fiver for a tiny carton of Canary Wharf soup etc). The really good thing is that you get to have lots of nice evenings in, hangover-free weekends and cosy cups of tea indoors catching up with friends and family (until the next payday, that is). Oh, and time to write; something that I didn’t get much of in September and equally something that I’m appreciating now.
After booking a ridiculously last-minute and bargainous deal via Teletext Holidays (who knew?!), a fortnight ago I boarded a plane to Tunisia accompanied by Lara (partner-in-crime at university, old housemate and all-round good buddy).
Tunisia has a strange African/European crossover (prompting a bit of a plug adapter packing trauma, thanks for calming me down, Mum), but it’s not really like the typical images that spring to mind when thinking of either continent. It’s similar to Egypt and Morocco in its landscape, maybe a bit like the Canaries in terms of its resorts, and possibly even bits of rural France or Spain in there too. George Lucas thought it was very ‘other worldly’, and therefore a great spot to film bits from Star Wars, while more of Hollywood ascended to shoot scenes from The English Patient (seeing this landscape was a personal highlight, as it’s one of my favourite films).
Tunisia is a very clean country, surprisingly so considering the lack of any real cosmopolitanism, and the number of people who live in relative poverty (the average salary per month is way under 900 dinars or £400).
We stayed in Port El Kantaoui, a purpose-built resort developed in 1979 to embrace the new wave of tourism that so obviously breathes life into a peculiar fixed-rate economy (it’s illegal to import or export Tunisian dinars). It was certainly nice enough – a 5* hotel (not quite by UK standards, but it was extremely comfortable), a brilliant all-inclusive package (free bottles of water, wine, massages, aqua aerobics classes, night time entertainment and a very varied buffet), and a vast pool where we spent the first four days of our trip endlessly reading, tanning, going for dips, and drying off. And repeat. And repeat. If it sounds boring, then all I can say is that it was the type of boredom that I definitely needed, away from work and my busy life in London. In fact, in the dry October weather (28 degrees with a breeze), it was absolute bliss.
However, our ‘culture optional’ clause that we had both laid down at the outset was beginning to irk. Yes, we needed the break ‘away from it all’. But as I was getting my free massage, listening to the supposedly calming music, all I could think was: “I’m not calm. I’m a Londoner, with an active mind and a propensity to worry my socks off. And I need to do something.” Luckily, Lara agreed, and we booked a two-day, one-thousand kilometre coach trip around the country to cover the final days of our holiday.
As expected, this is when we got to see the ‘real’ Tunisia. Not necessarily through the places they took us to (many of them tourist traps, naturally, but still bags of fun when it came to haggling for jewellery and fending off attention and bizarre chat-up lines from Tunisian men), but by sitting at the front of a coach (thank you to the rude passengers who stole our original seats; you actually did us a great favour). We had a large front window view, showcasing a larger expanse of road and infinite desert landscape in front of us, with nothing to do but stare forward and think (my iPod ran out of battery within the first couple of hours, ouch). Luckily, being an over-thinker, I loved it.
Of course, it would be rude not to mention the fantastic touristy things we did: pretending to be Roman lions in the Colosseum; entering the cave-like homes of people living in mountainsides; wearing traditional Arabic dress during an hour-long camel ride through the Sahara Desert (it’s a fortnight later and I think I still ache); getting up to watch the dawn break over the salt-filled Mediterranean seabed; 4×4 driving through the desert; a horse and trap ride to an agricultural oasis; and obviously all the amazing Tunisian people we met along the way. In fact, I would like to give an honourable mention to the following:
The man with eight children (or maybe wives?) who wouldn’t let Lara leave his jewellery stall (or his groping hands);
The kind men who gave us free amethyst (my birth stone) for just being “so beautiful”;
The sixteen-year old boy who shouted “Shakira! Shakira!” at us (one of the best compliments ever);
The man who desperately tried to flog me a bottle of Coke in the middle of the desert as I was clinging on for dear life to my camel, whilst trying to fend off the other camels that were headbutting my legs (how exactly am I supposed to hold it, let alone drink it?!);
The bus driver who, despite breaking us down for two hours, always talking loudly on his phone while we were trying to sleep, and swerving in and out of the road several times to overtake slower cars and donkeys, actually managed to drive us around 60 per cent of the country without getting us killed.
Thank you all. And thank you Lar for a great holiday.