Wednesday, February 28, 2018


I'd been apprehensive about the guesthouse I'd booked in Tunis. Not because I mistrusted the photos on the booking site, and not because I thought something was wrong with it, but because I generally prefer the anonymity of a hotel to the intimacy of residing in a stranger's habitat. I don't even like staying with friends, for the most part, so bed and breakfast situations can be awkward.

The host—Khaoula—was a smart young Tunisian woman with a background in interior design. Slim with a pixie cut, she seemed too green to be so invested in restoring 18th century architecture in the Tunis medina, but here she was, dedicated to preserving the past and building a community. Tunis was the heart of the Arab Spring. Perhaps I should not have been surprised.

El Patio guesthouse reminded me of a gorgeous riad I'd once stayed at in Fez, though that had ultimately been quirky as I'd been the only inhabitant. (Some other guests had cancelled, I believe.) Every detail had been attended to, every bit of decor carefully considered. I snapped a few photos—the small decorative tiles on the windowsill, the corresponding medallion in the top center of the same window box—these were clever additions.

Arriving in Tunis

I took a quick look around the Tunis train station, but didn't see anyone holding up a sign with my name on it.

The train from El Jem had run late, so I figured the guesthouse host must have given up on me. Or maybe she hadn't gotten my text. My instructions were to text her with my firm arrival time, but I couldn't text on my local SIM card. I'd purchased data only.

I used Skype and my data connection to text her but hadn't heard back. I had no way of knowing if my workaround had worked around.

She'd had my arrival times from an email, but wasn't here, so I wandered off out of the station to find my way to the guesthouse.

"DO NOT try to walk to the hotel," had been my instructions. Which made no sense to me, but anyway, no one was there to meet me, so I walked to the hotel using Google Maps, exactly as I'd been told not to.

A Little Off

Here are some fun businesses I spotted back on Djerba.

In Tunis, I also saw a Pizza Hot, but didn't get a photo in time as I was busy reflecting on Pizza Hat, a restaurant I once patronized in Damascus.

Lunch on the Run

"Small museum with a few mosaics" is how my ancient guidebook described the museum in El Jem.

Small compared to the Bardo, sure. But the mosiacs were marvelous and the backyard held the remains of a large Roman villa named Africa House. I was gobsmacked, having zero expectations of the museum.

Well worth a visit.

I was anxious to get to the train, but also hungry. I hurried back to the main street to look for food options.

I ended up with chicken shawarma on a chapati, scarfed down while running to a train, which turned out to be late.

It's Okay, He's a Friend from Work

The train was super-comfy compared to being stuffed into a louage, even though I've certainly been on nicer trains.

Around noon, I disembarked in El Jem. I could see my destination towering over the street at the far end of town. 


That's it. That's why I stopped off here to look around during my train trip from Gabes to Tunis. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Fun with Food

"I need a minute," I said to the volunteer working at the portfolio review booth. "I'm going for a walk."

It was my first day at Valencia comic book con, and I'd done six out of seven portfolio reviews, but I felt like throwing up.

And I had to take this seriously--earlier, I'd vomited twice into a trash bin when I couldn't make it to the ladies room fast enough. I didn't think I had the flu, but I did think I had food poisoning. I have a long list of food intolerances and allergies, and last night had been annoyed by the pressure at a group meal. I'd nibbled on things I knew I shouldn't eat, just to shut people up who were bugging me.

And now I regretted that.

I left the Marie Javins booth and walked in a loop around the portfolio station. I barely made it to the next trash bin, threw up three times, and glanced around to see if anyone had noticed.

If they had, they were averting their eyes.

I headed back to the booth, reviewed the last portfolio, and left for the day, catching the metro back from the convention center out in the boondocks to the hotel in the center of the city.

"Wouldn't you rather take a Cabify?" The coordinator who'd brought me to Valencia was all about ride shares.

"Wouldn't you rather risk throwing up in the metro rather than in someone's car?"

He saw my point. I headed back to the city center, nibbled on some McD's fries (What is that auto-order touch screen? I have to operate the ordering system now? Progress??) to see if I could keep that down, and went straight to bed. Tonight's group meal would have to get along without me. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Routine Disruption

So this is about to happen. What do you think—can I find something to do in Valencia? I bet I can.