Thursday, March 01, 2018

Day at Dougga

The six a.m. iPhone chimes taunted me from my bedside at El Patio, the boutique guesthouse I was staying at deep in the Tunis medina.


It tried again a few minutes later.


Three consecutive days of super-early rises had gotten the better of me. I barely made it out of bed by 6:30, and I knew I was pushing it as far as the louage time. I slid into my clothes, headed downstairs in the dark, picked up a back of snacks with my name on them from the hostess of El Patio, and as soon as I pulled the door shut behind me, realized I’d forgotten my scarf.

6:30 a.m. is a bad time to knock on a door, so I just went without, hoping not to get caught in the sun or rain. I walked down a narrow stone alley out of the medina, to the nearest modern road.

“Bab Sadoun, s’il vous plait,” I said to the taxi driver who’d picked me up by Bab Mnara. Bab Sadoun is where the gare routiere is located for the buses and louages I needed to get myself to Dougga.

So many questions, I know. What’s a gare routiere? What’s a bab? What’s a louage? What’s a Dougga?

A Dougga is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the ruins of a Roman city in…you guessed it. Dougga. That’s a town in Tunisia. It’s about an hour-and-a-half east of Tunis.
A louage is a share taxi. These minibuses are the backbone, front bone, neck bone, and ribs of African transportation, from Cape to Cairo. Or Tangier, I guess, if you’re on the other side of the continent. The Tunisian version holds 7-8 passengers. Like all minibuses or share taxi services, they leave when full. You buy a seat and wait for the taxi to fill up. Buses travel on a schedule, usually, but minibuses are much faster once they get going. Buses and louages live at the gare routiere, which is like a gare for trains, but for vehicles. A bab is a gate, a door through the walls of a medina or walled city. The actual walls are mostly missing in Tunis, and I didn’t see any gates yet, so I assume these are just traditional names from when there were gates.

The taxi from Bab Mnara to Bab Sadoun zipped me right over, stopping just a few times to pick up or drop off other passengers. That’s normal here. It's like that option in Uber where other people share your taxi, only this happens organically without needing tech to make people share nicely. It’s just part of normal life in some countries.

At Bab Sadoun, I got out of the taxi, paid my paltry 3 dinar, and wandered around looking for someone who seemed interested in helping me. “Teboursouk? Teboursouk?” That’s the town I needed to get to if I wanted to end up at Dougga.

Several men pointed me to the back of the lot, where my heart sank when I saw the minibus was completely empty. Had I just missed a full one? How long would it be until this filled up?

So far, I’d had pretty good luck with filling up taxis in Tunisia. I’d run into a problem in Luke Skywalker’s hometown, and had to buy the whole taxi there. Fortunately, it was only 8 dinar. Here, this would be a lot more than that, and I was saving my dinar for the private taxi from Teboursouk to Dougga.

How long can you wait, you might ask. How long until the taxi fills up? Well, those of you who’ve been here a while know that once in a while, the answer to that is HOURS. Which is pretty much the worst. The sheer boredom of waiting to depart and not being able to whip out your iPad and read a book due to that being rude in front of people who do not own iPads is a bummer.

I sat for about 40 minutes waiting for more passengers. One got in, then she got out. I mouthed the word “fuck” and put my head back, ready for a nap.

“Madam! Madam!” What? What?

A driver from a full minibus was motioning to me. There was one seat left and he wanted me to sit in it. I assumed this meant the van was ready to go and had accepted putting me in the empty seat and dropping me off en route to somewhere else rather than waiting for another passenger. I jumped in and we were off.

Was I right? Who knew? This is the trick to this sort of travel…you have to have faith other people are taking care of you and are a bit more competent than you would expect people to be back home. And since I don’t speak much Arabic or French, there was only one way to find out, which is get in the car and see where it went. Well, there is another way. I could have badgered the driver. “Teboursouk? Do you understand? Are we going to Teboursouk?” That’s obnoxious, so I just assumed he had it all sorted out, and off we went, choked in the Tunis traffic, which eventually thinned after the bathroom-fixture part of town. The scenery became green and rural, and eventually, we were indeed in Teboursouk. The driver pulled up in the center of town on market day. I was evicted from the minibus, which went on without me. “Dougga?” A driver of a different minibus asked me. “Nam.” (Yes.)

“Francais? Anglais?”


“Twenty dinar, to Dougga and return.”

“That’s kind of expensive.”

It is, but in my research, I’d read this trip was 25 dinar, so I was doing okay.

“Ah, all right. 20 dinar.”

Two other passengers rushed over to take advantage of the departing taxi, both older people, one a grizzled man in a Jedi robe and the other a squat older woman in a long black coat and headscarf. We drove down the hill out of town, dropped them off, then turned onto a small road back up a hill to the ruins.

The Dougga ticket booth was closed, though the posted hours said the site opened at 8:30 a.m. and it was already ten. My driver had some animated words with the security guard, then turned to me. “Deux minutes.”

Okay. He agreed to come back for me at noon. I stood there with the bag of treats from my hotel, wondering what to do with the two stale cakes and one orange, and awaited the ticket seller.

When he wandered up about 10 minutes later, he turned out to have a wastebasket in his hutch. Great. I dumped my treats. I didn’t want to carry them all over the ruins.

I bought my ticket for 8 dinar and 1 more for my camera and headed up the hill into the massive, sprawling ruined complex. There was a Forum, a central meeting place with a large columned temple, many smaller temples, underground baths, residences, an amphitheater, mosaics, all kind of things. The morning was gray and overcast, so I couldn’t get great photos, but on the plus side, no sunburn.

I was the only tourist present. There were a few masons at work on a wall, a few freelance guides at the gate, and some landscapers. But no other visitors.

After an hour and a half, I’d seen all I could and was ready to head back. I walked slowly down to the entrance, where the guard excitedly waved his phone at me. “I will call your taxi driver!” And a minute later, the driver pulled up.

We headed back to Teboursouk, where market day had died out and left behind some plant husks and vegetable crates.


“Yes, Tunis.”

The driver took his 20 dinar and left me at the louage to Tunis. Again, I had a bit of a wait, about 20 minutes, and then we were off to Tunis. I was squished in the middle for the ride to Tunis, with a sullen heavy woman refusing to move her bag out of the way and squish over. I kept doing that thing where you almost fall asleep—you nod off and then catch your head falling over and jerk awake. Finally, on the outskirts of Tunis, I stayed awake long enough to catch on when we were a few blocks from the Bardo.

The Bardo is a famous museum of Roman mosaics and art. “Je vais au Bardo,” I blurted out at the driver, as I yanked open the door and jumped out of the minibus at a pause in a traffic circle. He smiled and nodded. He’s a proud Tunisian, happy I was interested in his heritage. I wandered down a long boulevard toward the Bardo. The sidewalks were okay here—many times, they are not, and you have to watch your step. I was looking for lunch pre-Bardo, and there were a lot of cafes along this strip, but they almost all sold pizza. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I had two requirements. 1) I didn’t want to go into one of those men-only places where a bunch of men sat smoking and drinking Turkish coffee. 2) I didn’t especially want pizza, but I’d eat it if I had to.

I finally saw a patisserie that served quiche, and went in to order one. Then I had to get a chocolate cake, of course, so maybe eating lunch in a patisserie isn’t the smartest thing for me. The quiche turned out to be full of canned tuna, which is a thing here, so I just kind of picked at it, but I did a great job on the cake before heading on to the Bardo.

The Bardo was the site of a terrorist attack in 2015, similar to the attack at Luxor in 1997. Islamic State militants killed 20 people, mostly European tourists. Today, I had to walk the long way around the barbed wire to get to the only entrance, a secure area with a guard and concrete barriers. I went in through the metal detector after a group of Tunisian schoolchildren.

The Bardo is…holy fuck. It’s amazing. It’s full of exquisite Roman mosaics, just full of them. I spent an hour wandering the halls, and finally headed back to my lodging via the Tunis tram. I bought a ticket, threw myself at the mercy of the crowd in the packed car, which miraculously opened to let one tourist squeeze on. Taxis are cheap here, but I wanted to try the local metro. It’s crowded but efficient.

The line ended at the train station, the same spot I’d disembarked just 24 hours ago on my journey from El Jem. I pushed off the car along with the masses, and melted away into the medina, to walk in deeper and deeper among the increasingly smaller alleys, until finally, around one corner, there was my guesthouse.

Additional photos here.

1 comment:

William Kendall said...

The Bardo is incredible!