The Barbary Hillbillies

October 6th, 2005 9:55 pm by Dave from here

The drive from Tozeur to Tatouine was full of varied scenery. First we crossed a seasonal salt lake on a causeway about six feet up. You could see that the road used to go on the lake bed itself, but that they got tired of its being closed — they dug out enough earth to build the causeway. Tozeur had the second largest “palmeraie”, or oasis of irrigated palm trees, in Tunisia; the road led us to Douz which reportedly had the largest. Tozeur’s seemed much more green — Douz is much more at the edge of the Sahara and had a lot more sand. It even had a little dune.

From there, the road turned west toward Matmata, and was just plain desert for many miles. Eventually it became rolling hills, establishing the beginning of the Ksour country extending between Matmata and Tatouine. Ksour is the plural of ksar, which seems to have two meanings. A “Berber ksar” appears to be a fortified village on the top of a hill. An “Arabic ksar” seems to be kind of a multi-story storage space (like the kind you rent in America if you have too much stuff to fit in your house) for grain, olive oil, and dates. It’s also a little like a Certificate of Deposit; the village will have rules about how much you can take out because it has to get you through bad years. Both are architecturally similar, consisting of little rooms called “Ghorfa” with arched roofs, so they have shared the name. Along with the ksour, large numbers of people in the area live in houses dug into the ground.

The other thing the area has as a common thread is that it boasts several Star Wars filming locations. In fact, there’s a planet in Star Wars named after the largest town in the area, Tataouine. We saw the largest one today, Ksar Hadada, which portrayed a city in The Phantom Menace — it’s currently being converted into a hotel. The smallest one, in Matmata, is already a hotel — it had the cantina scenes from the first two films.

[Ray continues:]
Matmata is a real hole. The minute we pulled into town we got accosted by a batch of guides, who said they would give us a one hour tour for 15 Dinar per person. The rate we’ve been getting has been around 10 per hour for both; but it seemed important as we were going inside people’s houses (or so we thought) so we settled on 15 for both and took a guide who spoke some amount of English.

He had us drive to the Sidi Driss Hotel (the “Cantina” and something from some later film) and park and then spent the rest of the time on his cell phone chatting to his friends in Arabic. The “house” was just a model set up for the purpose; and everything we saw we would have seen without a guide at all. This is the experience you have doing business with all the dealers in the world, you contract for some piece of Work and as soon as you reach an agreement, the only thing you see of them is the back of their heads as they phone around for their next contract. The Art of the Deal.

After 45 minutes I was ready to leave. Having lived in Los Angeles, I am not going to be completely bowled over by an abandoned movie set. They have a charm. It was interesting that the set was made of some kind of dense foam rubber molded into treads and painted. The house also was interesting. Being surrounded by tour buses was not. Having been ripped off was also not. We drove out of town and headed for Techine, where we were also accosted by townspeople to show us the houses. The difference was, that we were the only people in town other than the residents; and the guy we were with asked for 3 dinars at the end. We also gave 2 dinar to the manager of the underground olive oil press. It was clearly was a working press, having mashed olives in vats and a put-upon looking donkey roped to a stone and kids’ toys on the ground. In the made-for-touring places, no matter what they purport to be, you see a rack of postcards and the same identical loom with about two inches of carpet started on it, so that you Get the Idea that the Natives are Weaving. I swear, if you went to a telecommunications software development facility, they would have one of these looms set up with the first ten lines of #include’s to make you feel they were doing something. And terra cotta tajines for sale in the lobby.

The kids in Techine were so untouristed they didn’t even want their photos taken. They had rabbits in an underground cage. Familiar territory for the rabbits. A beautiful sunset drive to Medenine. Then a stupid drive to Tataouine; a policeman stopped us and was seriously looking at everyone’s ID and taking it back to the office, I think something real must have happened. Maybe it’s just the latest al Qaeda sortie in Bali. When we got into town we got a little lost twice but ultimately made it to the hotel where the man wasn’t sure whether the paper we have is a voucher though that’s what it says.

We’ve spent two full days in Tataouine. Yesterday was spent mostly ksar-hopping east of town, from the meticulously preserved Arabic Ksar Ouled Soutane to the ruins of Ksar Jelidat. Today we toured ancient Berber villages west of town, including Ghermassa, Chenini, and Douiret. All of them have a corresponding “new town” close by, where most people moved when they got tired of living in mud and stone huts with no electricity or running water because running water is what makes the walls fall down. A few people still live in the ancient villages. The people we’ve encountered in this part of Tunisia don’t seem quite as nice as further north — the guides in Chenine also wanted $12 for 30 minutes of leading you 100 feet while talking on his cell phone (he got $7; you never know at the outset how hard it’s going to be to find your way and we’ve failed to connect with a couple of more obscure ksour), and kids haven’t been taught not to beg from tourists. Or they have been taught that it’s advantageous. It must be a little odd to live in a village that’s been there for 800 years and all of a sudden tour buses are running your goats off the road on the way to some wrecked grain storage facility that you wouldn’t use as a latrine, and make a movie in it. And, their shoes are worth more than the net assets of your family. Except for the royalties. Of course there were royalties, weren’t there Mr. Lucas?

Eclipse in Tozeur

October 3rd, 2005 10:28 pm by Dave from here

The sketchy Internet connections have resulted in new logistics for writing these memoirs. Now we write them on the computer, and put the file on a CD along with photos we’re backing up. Then, when we get to the Internet cafe, it’s just copy and paste. It’s easy even if they don’t have a US keyboard layout, though I’ve learned how to install that on Windows as well. Tunisia reportedly has “forbidden” sites — I have no idea what they are. Maybe the bad connections are because some central Tunisian ISP is keeping you from going to the bad sites. But there were large signs in an Internet cafe in Tunis which tell you not to go to them, and if they were blocked, why would they bother asking you to avoid them?

Friday we drove to Sbeitla. We took a small road, and a wrong turn onto a smaller road (we wondered why there wasn’t a sign), whose pavement ended and became an occasionally sandy occasionally bumpy dirt road. Miraculously we came out on the correct road after awhile and we didn’t have to turn around and do it all over. The guidebook told us that the ruins there were best viewed in the morning, so we just headed for the hotel. The one recommended, which we had tried and failed to call from Tunis, seemed not to exist — we never could find where it was or where it had been. We went to another one which was pretty minimal — we had to ask for pillows, toilet paper, and another blanket, which they raided from various other rooms.

The monuments in Sbeitla were pretty nice, but we got there too early to get a guide; we hadn’t realized that it had just become not daylight savings time. There were some nice temples, a restored bridge, a restored theater, and some baths which had collapsed so you could see where the heating went. It all looked pretty nice in the early morning light.

We left around noon Saturday, and drove thru the desert to Tozeur, stopping briefly in Gafsa to see the Roman pools which a kid dived into, twice, a dinar a dive. The second time he bounced off a wall just like Boris’s cat. The landscape looked much like Nevada, with the occasional olive orchard. We checked into our world-class $96/night hotel that looked pretty empty and whose rooms smelled bad. It does have a nice clean pool, though, and I guess we’ve gotten used to the smell. Tozeur is a pretty tourist-oriented town, and has Tunisia’s second-largest oasis of palm trees.

Sunday we took a long day trip. First we backtracked to Medlaoui and boarded the Lezard Rouge, a tourist train which goes up into the gorge of the Sedla river. It goes up to a phosphate mine and turns around and goes back. The cars were extremely cute, dating from the 1920s, and there were some nice views of a muddy green river cutting through a dry canyon. Then we drove west to Mides, Tamerza, and Chibika, three oases in the mountains where a 22-day rainstorm in 1969 washed all the residents out of their mud-based homes and they all had to start over. In Mides, a guide led us past souvenir stands, through the old village, and down into a gorge where scenes from English Patient and Star Wars were filmed. Tamerza was similar — it had a tiny waterfall which we found with some difficulty, since the guides were unpleasant to deal with. By the time we left, it was dark, and we returned to Tozeur.

Today, Monday, was Annular Eclipse Day, and it was beautifully cloudless all day until late in the afternoon just in time for a cute sunset. For the eclipse, which reached its peak around 10:15 am, we went downtown so that we could share our viewers with locals, and experience their experience. It didn’t get very dark at all — the tiny faraway moon took four minutes to cross the sun. There were lots of little plants and trash grates which cast nice projections of crescents and rings during the various phases of the eclipse. We ended up in front of a cafe, and probably 50 or 60 people came up at some point and looked through our carboard goggles left over from some previous eclipse. It was disturbing to see that someone else had gotten some goggles in town that had some cheap blue filter of some sort that didn’t protect at all.

This afternoon we took a break and didn’t go anywhere. We took a dip in the pool, I read my book, and Ray wrote lots of postcards. But the action will continue tomorrow as we drive through Douz and Matmata on our way to Tataouine.

The Digital Divide

September 30th, 2005 9:23 am by Dave from here

We’re in Tunisia, which seems to have a pretty minimal connection with the Internet. Ray had a hard time reserving hotels online, and there doesn’t seem to be anyplace in the little suburb where we’re staying where we can get connected. In downtown Tunis, there are several Internet cafes, but their connections are slow and intermittent. Fortunately we’re able to switch the keyboard layouts from French or Arabic to English (U.S.). So this long posting will just record everything that happens until we get a chance to tell you about it, which might have been awhile.

When we last posted, it was Saturday night in Palermo, just before driving out of town to what someone thought was the best restaurant in Sicily. Indeed, it was very nice. We each got the “tasting menu” (four appetizers, an entree, and dessert) and a bottle of wine. All of that on top of lunch, when we split a spleen & cheese sandwich (a specialty of Sicily or perhaps Palermo) and an octopus salad was too much. So we’re trying to control ourselves from now on. The night before we went to a place our hotel recommended close by — a delightful little pizzeria where despite its humbleness, it had such unfamiliar but delicious items as pasta with pistachio and shrimp.

Sunday we toured the Palazzo in the Sicilian parliament building, with its ornate chapel and series of “royal apartment” rooms with various decor, and then drove west out of town towards Trapani. At some point I got tired of driving on the freeway, and at the exit where I got off to get on the “little road”, we stumbled on an archaeological site, Segesta. This had a large Doric temple that had never been finished, and an amphitheater high on the hill with a spectacular view of the bay west of Palermo and its seaside towns, and the freeway viaduct we’d just driven over. Italians seldom locate freeways on the ground — they are usually a succession of bridges/viaducts and tunnels, to ensure safety when driving at 200 kph.

Later we arrived in Trapani and found our little bed & breakfast. For a small town, I was surprised that the traffic was as dense and chaotic as it had been in Palermo. Presumably it was because the America’s Cup race was happening there in the next few days and the town was packed. We drove out of town again for dinner, this time up to the hilltop ancient town of Erice which was similar in size and approach to Mont St. Michel — you park your car at the edge and walk around on the little old streets.

Monday we boarded the ferry to Tunis. It was an 8-hour crossing scheduled to leave at 11 — it actually left just before 12. The weather was beautiful and the water was completely calm, so I just sat around and read and Ray wrote postcards. There were lots of little islands off Sicily and again off Tunisia, and tons of boat traffic the whole way as well. We cleared customs around 8:30, and were attacked as usual by the taxi touts. Instead of a taxi, we ended up in some guy’s dad’s truck — the dad was pretty clueless when it came to finding our hotel, but we eventually got there.

The hotel is in the little seaside resort of Sidi Bou Said, known for its white and blue architecture, attracting tour buses full of people just to walk around the neighborhood and buy trinkets. It’s called Hotel Sidi Abou Fares and has really nice little rooms with bright multicolored tile and a barrel-shaped brick roof. There’s lots of hot water and the staff are very friendly. Unfortunately, the rooms have only one outlet, and you pretty much need that for the fan, so it’s hard to charge the computer, the cameras, the cell phone, and the GPS.

Tuesday we made the mistake of taking our laundry to get done. They wanted $30 to wash and dry a load of wash, and we were stupid or desperate enough to pay it. They’re the only place in town, and they charged us for two loads which was way excessive. So if you ever go to Sidi Bou Said, you’ve been warned — “Netraf Pressing” will rip you off. It’s a reminder to do laundry in the sink every night before it piles up.

Meanwhile, we went to the Bardo Museum, Tunisia’s national museum. There are lots and lots of Byzantine mosaics and Roman and even a few Phoenician statues, from Carthage and many other ancient sites. A few rooms displayed a bunch of fancy furnishings — the story told by the museum is that some rich guy in Rome was equipping his home around the 1st century BC entirely from Greece. The furniture and art were on a boat which went off course in a storm in the straits of Messina and sank just off the Tunisian coast. It was discovered in 1958. They don’t say how they knew this. A GPS log wouldn’t last this long. Just think what we will know of modern civilization in 4000 AD from the containers of IKEA furniture that wash overboard in contemporary storms.

Wednesday we hit two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Carthage and the Tunis medina. There’s not much left at Carthage — the Romans destroyed most of it, Caesar rebuilt it, and the Vandals wrecked it again in the 5th century. Also, Carthage is now a tony suburb of Tunis (the President lives there, for example) and a whole lot of stuff is just in people’s backyards. When it rains hard, the populace goes to places of exposed dirt to pick up 2 millenium year old coins. A museum shows a few shards that got left, and some excavations have unearthed a few foundations, including an amphitheater and a large public baths next to the sea.

The Tunis medina is your typical maze of twisty little passages although a bit more comprehensible than many. The paths between the entrances and the main mosque are jampacked with people walking by little stores selling stuff they don’t need. Other paths are more relaxed and navigable. We explored a little mausoleum, and a palace which houses the Association to Preserve the Medina. On their wall they have a floor plan of the medina showing every wall in every house in the whole place — it’s about 20 feet by 8 feet.

The guidebook tells you it’s dangerous to walk in the medina at night. It also tells you it has some of Tunis’ swankiest restaurants. With trepidation, we went to one of them. Apparently it was well-founded — after dinner the restaurant offered to take us to the edge of the medina in a golf cart, which we happily accepted. Instead of waiting up to 40 minutes for a train back to the hotel, we took a taxi.

Thursday we went to the airport, rented a Fiat Uno with air conditioning, and headed west to Dougga, a large Roman city which had allegedly been buried for several centuries, so that much of it was very well preserved. There was a small theatre, a “capitol” with several intact columns, large cisterns for a water system, two public bath complexes, and hundreds of sites of houses and shops. A new excavation revealed a horse stable for a wealthy citizen. One road through the site was part of a system of Roman roads leading from Libya to Morocco. The roads had clean-outs for the drain system every 6 meters or so. There was a large house reportedly used as a brothel, and a fascinating communal latrine with openings in a horseshoe-shaped bench, which our guide said was used simultaneously by men and women, shielding themselves with their togas.

It’s been cloudy all day, which is too bad as the afternoon light at Dougga is supposed to be very pretty on acocunt of the yellow stone that the entire city is built of. It’s also too bad because there is an eclipse coming up. Five Australians were in the courtyard of the Sidi Bou Fares this morning, plotting lines on their map of Tunisia which did not exactly agree with Ray’s lines, which is curious. They are planning to see the eclipse from the Northern Edge. That is an advanced fetish. Yahoo weather says that Tozeur will be sunny up to Monday, after today. Too soon to tell.

Thursday night we arrived in Le Kef, a little town on a small mountain close to the Algerian border, with a large Kasbah ruin on the top. There are very friendly people here, including someone who led us a couple of blocks to the local Internet cafe, where we are posting this.

Those of you who are familiar with the last scene in Suddenly Last Summer will have no trouble relating to travel in the less touristed parts of Tunisia. That’s one of the nice things about eclipses, they take you to places where people aren’t totally jaded. The people who weren’t jaded this morning were about five dozen school children from the school next door to the Hotel Residence Venus, In case you weren’t awakened by the mullah announcing he could distinguish a white thread from a black, the Tunisian National Anthem at 8 AM would have done. Anyway, it seems that the cultural point of reference for California tourists with beards is an entity called Serifanta or Sadifanta or some syllables like that; everyone agreed at the top of their lungs that that is who we looked like/what we were; and they all have pictures on their cell phones to prove it now. I have some photos of them, too. I think that is a good way to wake up in the morning as we were tired from eating too much harissa too late last night.

Jet Yellow

September 24th, 2005 4:45 pm by Dave from here

We continued our stay in London visiting friends. We hooked up with Andrei and Frank for lunch, and spent the afternoon with Andrei having gone all the way to London in a Starbucks, but only because the cafe across the street was closed for renovation. We visited Dave and Madalyn and the nine-month-old Zachary and had takeout food from yet another delicious unique vegetarian Indian place Rasa, this time Kerala cuisine.

Friday morning we returned to the British Museum briefly, where we saw the Rosetta Stone and their African collection, including lots of brass plaques from Benin. An African lady was there with a display of four paperweights and a necklace that you were allowed to touch so that you knew what it felt like to touch antiquities. Then, after a Korean lunch (has anybody ever had English food in London?) it was off to the Stansted Airport where we boarded our Ryanair flight to Palermo. Ryanair is a discount Irish airline, like Southwest, but more so. Some of the additional corners they have cut include not hiring a color psychologist to avoid having themed their interiors in bright yellow and dark blue of a most unattractive hue, removing the pockets on the seat backs, and making the seat backs so they don’t recline, presumably so they can cram a few more in. The first 65 people who show up at the airport get to stand in a special line. We were 158 and 159, got to the front of the “normal” line and ended up with a window seat.

Arriving in Palermo was reasonably stressful. The aiport, like all antiquities in Italy, is under restoration so we had to take shuttles to the various contact points involving passport control and car rental. The signs on the freeway were all in stock table font and had the names of streets other than the ones that the minimal maps we had (copied and pasted from were indicating we should look for. But eventually we found Marbela Residence, the delightful little apartment where we’re staying. While walking around Palermo’s cathedrals and churches today, we’ve crossed paths with three weddings, one of which was in progress in a small church as tourists including us milled around and gazed at the historic mosaics. Also the bookstores are filled with students buying books for the new term. Also, the crypt underneath the Palermo cathedral seems to be a collection of sarcophagi from around town and not any place where anybody requested to be buried. In case you were all looking for something to start a collection of.

Economy Plus

September 21st, 2005 9:24 pm by Dave from here

The journey of a thousand miles begins, as it turns out, with Ray helping Boris move his screen printer upstairs and getting blue fabric ink on his pants merely ten minutes before leaving for the airport. Fortunately there was some dangerous and corrosive antidote to this so that we don’t travel the world looking like smurfs.

When we got to the airport, we found that we had no assigned seat. We had nobody noticing us either, the checkin people were all teaching each other aspects of the system while the line grew longer. When we finally got there, the lady at the checkin desk, while taking our luggage gamely enough, would not give us a seat assignment either. She said, Go to Gate 92. I did that, while Dave went to Peets, and he said, wait 40 minutes. During that 40 minutes the whole plane boarded and by the time we were called to the gate desk there were maybe ten people left in the departure lounge. I wasn’t sure we’d get on the plane at all.

Some marketing guy at United Airlines has decided on a strategy of trying to get people to pay $79 to have a few more inches of legroom in “Economy Plus”. He learned at school that this is called “upselling”. Or maybe he learned in school that you can invent drip pot words and put them on Betabrite displays at airports just like they were English. “5 inches more legroom! Tell us if you’re interested in a $79 upsell.” It’s almost like the ads you get in email, except only 5 inches. Anyway, the problem this created is that they refused to give us a seat assignment until they became absolutely convinced that no one was going to go for it. And, we ended up in those seats, for no additional money, with lots and lots of legroom — in fact there were no seats in front of us at all! The flight was about an hour early — there was a 100 mph gulf stream that the pilot rode through Manitoba across just the southern tip of Greenland.

The people around us were all similar victims/beneficiaries of the seating policy, including a nice guy named Jay who is spending a term abroad from Cal Poly with whom we had customary airplane conversation and the time went a bit faster along with the jet stream. Cal Poly is getting their money’s worth: Jay will spend several weeks visiting new and old and online friends all over Europe and then settle into London to check out the art scene and at the end he’ll be that many units closer to a degree in Videography. He didn’t know Alex Lambert though, colleges are too stratified timewise for any continuity even within the art department.

And the incredibly expensive Heathrow Express gets you to Paddington through hyperspace, it seems. They have “Entertainment free” cars according to a placard on the outside but we went in one of the other ones so I don’t know what precisely is missing from our experience in the cars that are free ot if.

Everything in London is incredibly expensive — we went thru $200 today without even trying (including two nights of hotel, admission to the Persian antiquities exhibit at the British Museum, subway passes, breakfast, a map, etc.) But it does have gems like this vegetarian Rajasthani Indian restaurant Frank Colcord just took us to (Chai Pani on Seymour Rd, no relation to Chez Panisse as far as I know) that had all kinds of stuff you never see in US Indian restaurants, even in Mountain View, like deep fried cluster beans, millet soup, another unidentifiable porridge, and some new bread options including some puri-like substance all decorated up like a Christmas piƱata.

We got our strange cellphone SIM card working. You dial a number, and instead of dialing the party, it sends a text message to a machine in Liechtenstein, and then it calls you back and you hear the person’s phone ringing. But it seems less expensive than most of the alternatives. We just paid a pound to use an Internet cafe computer for an hour and then discovered that our laptop has a really good free wireless connection as well. So we’re both connected now.

Since you’re reading this, you’re connected too — send us e-mail and let us know what’s happening where you are.

The Roads to Ruins

September 16th, 2005 8:33 am by Dave from here

There are so many places in the world to go see. It’s always nice to see places in Italy, since every evening is likely to have great Italian food. And it’s especially nice to take a break from the empty space where our kitchen used to be.

This time we’re going to see Tunisia, home of many Carthaginian Roman ruins and the major inspiration for lots of the landscape in Star Wars. We’ll be going to the real Tatouine. There’s a silly annular eclipse near there, which I suppose is why we’re going there now. Then we’ll stop on Malta, and spend way too little time on Sicily, at Pompeii, and on Sardinia. We’ll finally see the tower in Pisa, and then hit the Italian autobahns, zooming to the Istrian peninsula currently owned by Croatia and represented in San Francisco by Albona Ristorante Istriano. A few days there, a few days in Venice, and it’ll be time for me to come home and go back to work. Ray will visit friends in Romania and go back to work on the kitchen a couple weeks later.