Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Train Travel in Tunisia

How was my phone running down so fast in Tunisia, I wondered, glancing at the screen while waiting for the train from Gabes to El Jem. At home, it keeps a charge forever.

I switched on Airplane Mode for now. (Later, I'd learn to keep the wi-fi off as it seemed to lose power from constantly seeking a signal.) Surely, there'd be a spot to charge on the train. I'd bought a first class ticket in hopes of there being a power point in each row. But just in case, I'd been fully charged when I left my hotel room on Djerba, just like I had bought a cappuccino and now picked up a croissant from the gare snack shop in case there was nothing to eat on the train. Though I'd seldom been on a train where there were no food options, even if it was a guy wandering around with a tray of snacks. 

The morning was beautiful and just the right mix of chilly and sunny, like spring at home. I'd been prepared for this weather having lived in Cairo during one "winter" some years back, but I probably needed to have brought along a thin fleece for the chillier moments.

I exited the station and walked over to the train outside on the tracks. Through all my trips abroad, I've learned not to judge the interior of the train by the exterior, but even so, the outside looked pretty worn. Still...I'd been on great trains in Egypt and Morocco that were nothing special on the outside. I pulled myself up onto a weatherbeaten car with a giant number 1 on the side.

I found a seat that didn't fall back when I sat down on its worn, plush, teal cushioning.

I laughed at myself now. Sure, a place to charge a phone. Had I just started traveling yesterday? Ha. I wondered what the cars with the number twos on the outside looked like inside.

Well, I guess if the train got me from here to El Jem, that would be enough.

To the Gare

Another morning, another minibus.

I left my cheap-and-cheerful (and kind of cold and broken, to be honest) hotel right after the call to prayer echoed through the Houmt Souk medina. The sky wasn't light yet, and I thought about using my phone as a flashlight as I walked along the cobblestone alleys hoping to get out without a sprained ankle. But before I had the chance to worry much, I was out of the medina and along the regular paved road that led to the louage lot.

The ticket office hadn't opened for the day as I asked hooded men standing around which was the louage to Gabes. They motioned me into a minibus, which filled up with sleepy commuters in about ten minutes. We zipped off to the ferry as the sky brightened.

The trip to Gabes was short enough—an hour? Two?—and as we approached the outskirts of town, passengers started asking the driver to stop and let them out here and there. This emboldened me to keep an eye on my phone map, and when we turned near the gare, the train station, I asked the driver to stop.


"Nam. Le Gare. I go to le gare." I'd been speaking a horrific mix of bad French, worse Arabic, and amateur English while in Tunisia. I'd reasoned with myself it was better to speak badly in French and Arabic than to do constant charades, and it seemed to be working.

The driver let me out across the street from a coffee shop. Not like a Starbucks, but more like a place men hang out at night, smoking and bro-bonding. Ah, fuck it, I thought. I marched in and ordered a cappuccino to go, then walked over to the train station. I bought a first class ticket. A splurge! Maybe I'd have somewhere to plug in my phone in first class.

I'd be on my way soon.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Han Shot First

The louage minibus taxi made its way through the afternoon traffic out of Gabes. About an hour later, we pulled up to the car ferry to Djerba.

I was just going to the first town on the island, so I thought about walking onto the ferry, but was worried it would be cold. The louage had to wait in line for a minute, then the driver surged ahead, trying to bully his way onto the ferry.

He didn't make it. He sighed in frustration, but then another ferry opened up on the next pier over. The louage driver pushed ahead of a bus and pulled all the way to the front of the boat. He shut down the engine, not close enough to the edge, apparently. The driver and a ferry attendant rolled the louage a few more inches.

The crossing was smooth, though I would have gotten out of the minibus and walked around if I hadn't been squashed into the middle.

On the other end, I used my phone map to track our progress, then leaned over the seat in front of me.

"Here. Stop here."

"Here? Not Houmt Souk?"


Why indeed would I want to disembark in Ajim?

There was a non-historical site I needed to see there.

I made my way from the roundabout, following the coordinates I'd programmed into my phone, and there it was.

The cantina.

I'd like to say it was a moving moment to see something I'd first watched on film in 1977, but 1977 was a long time ago, and the Mos Eisley cantina exterior has probably seen better days.

I snapped a few photos, walked to the bus lot, and caught a louage on to Houmt Souk. I'd had a long day, but a hell of a great touring day. And that was it for Star Wars. I wasn't going out into the desert to see the Luke Skywalker igloo or the pod races canyon. I couldn't be bother to checking out the exterior of Ben Kenobi's house. I just walked to the couscous restaurant, went back to the hotel, and packed my bags for the morning, when I'd head back to Gabes to catch a train.

Off to See Aunt Beru

The drive from Gabes to Nouvelle Matmata was short, maybe 25 minutes, and I spent longer trying to move on to Old Matmata than I did in the share taxi.

Today was market day in New Matmata, so the streets were packed with vegetable sellers and shoppers. I asked someone where to get the share taxi to Old Matmata, and he told me to wait. Various share taxis pulled up and each time I'd look at him. He'd shake his head and I'd wait a bit longer.

Finally, he frantically motioned at me to run. He pointed to a share taxi. I walked over to it—too slowly as it turned out—only to have a huge family push me aside. They piled in and took all the seats. I asked the driver what to do. "No room," he said with an exasperated shake of his head, leaving me there with other would-be passengers.

Tunisia is much safer and more regulated than other places I'd been around the world.

As I waited for the next louage, it started to rain, later prompting a remark from a friend that the new moisture farmers at the Lars homestead were a lot better than Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru had been. Ha. 

Finally, I got my seat in a louage, and we drove over a hilly strip of tarmac into Old Matmata. That's where Luke Skywalker grew up in the original Star Wars movie, and where 400 years ago, people dug homes out of the ground to create cool pit dwellings around central courtyards. Most people have since moved to modern housing in New Matmata, but some people still lived in the traditional homes, and the spot I was going to today was a hotel. Not to stay in—just to look around.

The louage entered town just after noon and then doubled back to the transit center, so I was disoriented by the time I stepped out into the rain. A tout tried to get my attention, but I put up my hood and walked away. I definitely wasn't looking for a place to stay or a tour guide. I had a place to stay, back on Djerba. My goal was to get in, see the Lars homestead, and then get out.

The first part worked well. I used my phone and my preprogrammed GPS coordinates to visit Hotel Sidi Driss, the boyhood home of Luke Skywalker and real-life troglodyte pit dwelling dug out of the ground, then I walked back to the transit lot.

Now I remembered why I'd originally planned to do this first. The earlier it is in the day, the more likely one is to get a share taxi. Old Matmata was the most remote spot I was visiting today, and I should have been here first thing if I wanted to be sure of getting out and back to Djerba.

I stood and waited in the rain. Once in a while, a louage would pull up. I'd ask the driver his destination, but it was never once that I could use. I started to worry that I wouldn't be able to get out of town today, or that I'd get back to Gabes too late to move on to Djerba. I liked visiting Hotel Sidi Driss, but I didn't actually want to stay overnight in it.

Finally, I risked leaving my station for a minute to run into Tourist Information.

"Is there a bus to Nouvelle Matmata?"

"There is a bus to Gabes."

Great! I needed to go Nouvelle Matmata-Gabes-Djerba.

"What time does it leave?"



I felt better, at least. I'd eventually get to Gabes, even though the bus wouldn't leave for another forty minutes.

I was feeling a bit desperate standing there waiting on the bus in the rain, when a share taxi pulled up. One passenger was in it.

"Nouvelle Matmata?"

The driver nodded and I got in.

The other passenger, a middle-aged man who looked like a farmer or herder, addressed me now. "The driver would like to know if you want to leave now. He says if we do not wait for other passengers, you will pay 8 dinar."

Oh, hell yes, I'll pay 8 dinar. How many times had I bought multiple seats to get taxis moving, from Bali to Mali? And how many times did it cost me a lot more than 8 dinar? I was more than willing to fork over $3.33 to get out of the rain.

Back over the mountain we went to Nouvelle Matmata. Only a few stray vegetables husks lay on the street as proof market day had happened. I waited briefly for the louage to Gabes, and we were off and away within 15 minutes. I only had to buy one seat.

On the outskirts of Gabes, other passengers started making special requests. "Drop me here." "Leave me at this corner." Finally, I was the only remaining passenger. The driver looked at me. "Djerba louage," I requested.

He left me at the main louage station, saving me the trouble of finding it on foot.

Shortly after I boarded it, the Djerba louage pulled out into the sunny late afternoon.

I'd make it back to the island today.

Changing Taxis in Gabes

I promptly got lost in Gabes.

It's always anyone's guess on if you should listen to the random guy you ask for directions or whether you should use Google Maps on your phone. I'd needed the phone in Medenine, but here in Gabes, I should have listened to the guy. 

Google Maps took me off-course to the wrong louage station, but I did have a nice walk around a busy street, passing by what (no doubt this is culturally rude of me) looked like a Jedi robe outlet.

I backtracked, asking other people as I went for the louages to Matmata, and it wasn't until I got back to my starting point that a brilliant man pointed to a building in the distance. 

"See that sign on that building?" 


"Turn right at that building."

Some people are really good at giving directions.

I did as he said, and the louage station was exactly where it should have been the first time, if I'd listened more carefully to the first guy.


I was motioned into a minibus and sat down to await departure. 

Morning in Mos Espa

A month ago, I'd typed a Tunisia plan into a Word doc on my laptop.

Louage (share taxi) to Gabes, Matmata, old Matmata, then back to Matmata, Gabes, then to Medenine and back to Djerba.

Why had I done it in that order, I mused now as I made a last-minute swap in my itinerary. I left my hotel at quarter of six and headed to the louage terminal.

The sun had not risen yet and the station was dead.


That wasn't what I'd expected. I wondered if I'd just missed the six a.m. louages, or if maybe the day just hadn't really started yet. I walked across the street to the bus station and asked around.


A bus driver shook his head and started up a local bus. A pair of travelers sitting on a bench noted my request, talked among themselves, then motioned for me to follow. We all three went back to the louage station, where a transformation had occurred in the five minutes I'd been gone. The ticket booth was lit and open, and some minibuses engines were on.

I bought a ticket to Medenine and was motioned into a minibus. Ten minutes later, the eight seats were full and we pulled out, heading across the Roman causeway.

The Roman causeway was built in the 6th century BC, but it was damaged in 1551 during an escape by the corsair Dragut and his fleet, when they'd been hemmed in by the Spanish navy. They simply cut a canal through the causeway and escaped into the night. The causeway wasn't repaired until the French rebuilt it in 1953, atop the old Roman base.

That entire paragraph I just typed is suspect. Facts were thin on the ground, but there definitely was an old Roman causeway, updated in 1953, and my share taxi definitely took it to Medenine.

I was there to see Ksar Medenine, which was the easiest Mos Espa location to see via public transport. There are two other ksars used as Anakin Skywalker's home, but this was the one that I didn't need to take a guide and a car to visit.

Disoriented from having no landmarks, I got out of the louage and asked the first person I saw.

"Ou est Ksar Medenine?

They motioned me down to a roundabout. I asked someone else, got another wave, and hiked half a block before I realized this couldn't be right. I'd plugged the GPS coordinates into my phone ahead of time, so I fired it up and followed slowly, up a muddy lane to a vegetable market. I took a right down an alley—this was all highly suspect, but the ancient granaries unexpectedly lay before me.

I was the only tourist, though there was a small group of six old men hanging out and smoking. I quickly realized this wasn't where I'd intended to go, but it was actually better. The right place looked like this, and I was somewhere less visited. Later, I'd realize this was one of the Anakin Skywalker sets, but that didn't matter anyway. What mattered was this decaying alley of ghorfas was not exactly in the guidebook. Well, nothing much was in any of my guidebooks since the newest of them was nine years old, printed before the Arab Spring.

The morning light on the ghorfas was stunning, completely amazing, and I paced around shooting photos hoping that somehow, my Lumix would capture the moment. Finally, knowing I still had to get to Luke Skywalker's childhood home and the cantina of Mos Eisley today, I headed through the vegetable market back to the louage station.

"Ou est louage pour Gabes?"

A man told me to take a taxi. Oh. I walked across the street to the bus station, where a different man actually put me in a taxi and told him where to go. I was getting my travel legs back.

Minutes later, I was across town, getting into a different minibus, this one headed to Gabes.

Monday, February 26, 2018

At the End of the Day

I had some couscous and vegetables at Les Palmiers, right down the alley from my hotel, then headed back to turn in for the night.

My day had started in Valencia, Spain, and then had stops in Barcelona and Tunis before arriving on Djerba in Tunisia.

I didn't yet feel that certainty and confidence travel gives me, but I could see it barreling down at me. Tomorrow I'd spend the entire day sightseeing by local transport. That oughta do it.

A Night in Djerba

Here's a look at my hotel, Erriadh, in the central medina of Houmt Souk, Djerba.

It was cheap and cheerful, for sure. I would recommend it to any budget traveler interested in staying in the center of town, but those of you used to a high standard or luxury might seek out one of the resorts along the coast. Perhaps there are better options in town as well--current info is not easy to find given the dearth of tourists.

I walked down the road to Les Palmiers for
some inexpensive legumes and couscous.

On to Tunisia

Crawling out of bed at 3:30 a.m. in Spain turned out to be easy, given I'd spent so many hours sleeping over the weekend, due to illness.

What I didn't expect was running into comic con guests in the hotel lobby—they were returning from a Sunday night out, and had only come back this "early" to get editor Daniel onto his plane back to Portland.

Shaking my head, I waved good-bye and got into a taxi to the bus terminal. I'd loaded the local ride-sharing app, Cabify, onto my phone and used it once over the weekend, but the taxis I'd taken had been cheaper and faster to hail.

The taxi ride to the Valencia bus terminal took less than ten minutes, and I sat there for what was only really 10-15 minutes, awaiting the 4 a.m. departure to Barcelona Airport. It felt like forever.

I had my neck pillow along, and that kept me comfy enough until the 9 o'clock arrival at the new terminal. I checked my luggage for the week and carried a pod bag through to Gate D.

Oh. From gates D and E, you can't get to the services of Barcelona's airport. You can see them, but you're past passport control, and you can't use them. I would have known that if I'd read the sign. I nibbled on a croissant. This was going to be a bread-y trip.

My carry-on bag and I flew to Tunis on a half-empty flight. Good thing too—I'd hate to see how long a full flight would've taken to get through the deliciously inefficient queue at Immigration. Had I missed this, the love for bureaucratic theater? Not really, but it was not without its charms.

I finally got through, allowed into Tunisia, where I hit up the ATM and then picked up a data-only SIM for 11 dinars. My TMobile SIM didn't work here, and my backup international SIMs had expired a few years ago when I'd neglected to renew them promptly.

I was feeling travel-rusty and giddy from the odd hours I was keeping, but I got myself some food (Ham? What? Okay, Tunisia is not Kuwait.), and got onto the domestic flight to Djerba, the land of the lotus-eaters, where I wandered out of the airport to the taxi rank, and got into an old car with a bad diesel stench.

The driver put the meter on without me asking, and zipped us along the coast as the sun lowered into the sky. He pulled up in Houmt Souk, and said "Now you walk," pointing to the car-free medina. Oh, okay.

I paid the man the figure on the meter, hefted my bag onto my shoulder, and melted away into the cobblestone alleys of the Houmt Souk center. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

O Valencia

I spent most of my weekend in Valencia, Spain in bed in a hotel room. The food poisoning of the first night had hit me hard, and all the energy I had was devoted to fulfilling the duties I had at the comic book convention. I didn't really have to worry about feeding myself since food didn't sound at all appealing, though I did make a halfhearted attempt to locate a single banana. I didn't find one, not even at Starbucks. My big success was buying some cashews. When you feel sick, your victories for humanity are kind of limited.

On Sunday, I mustered the energy to catch the bus to the City of Arts and Sciences, an architectural marvel with various museums and Europe's largest aquarium. It looks a lot like a future from Dr. Who.

And so ended my first and only trip to Valencia, not with the bang of the first 24 hours of vomiting, with with a whimper of gingerly walking around some cool buildings.