African plains and the trek to find our hotel in Kairouan

Kairouan Travel Blog

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The line to check in at TunisAir was very short but, our smiles quickly became frowns and 20 minutes later, the attendant was still on the phone resolving the problem that a Tunisian family of four was having. The line that we did not choose was going much faster……whatever.


Our flight was very late leaving, over an hour. It was something to do with baggage. The flight seemed to be quicker than we had expected given the distance. Soon we were landing in Tunisia, Rob’s first time in Africa and only my second. The coast was a turquoise and clear. The mountains in the background as majestic as you would expect from Africa.


The lines at passport control were insane. There were several hundred people in the hall but, the lines were moving at decent pace. We were through in 15 minutes or less. The boarder guard asked where I was going, the name of the hotel, if I was a tourist, and if it was my first time in Tunisia. It was quick but the guard could have been friendlier.


We picked up the rental car and headed out… of Tunisia in hand. May God/Allah be with us!


The sun was very bright and it was hot, heat we haven’t experienced since sometime last year….

.maybe in Sicily.


Although not as bad as Armenia, the highway etiquette is equally about assertiveness and dominance of your opponent. In navigating the ocean of craziness Rob did ask me if we accepted the additional insurance coverage….and yes we did! There are no lines painted on the roads so, like in Armenia, what would look like 2 lanes to you and me, might be 3 or 4, times……insane. Also, streets having no names made it impossible to use a map effectively. This caused Rob great emotional distress as the navigator. There were several times that I asked him if he was just guessing at the directions he had given…..and he had!


We thought that we were going to have an easy time connecting from the airport to the main road south but……didn’t happen.

We never found that turnoff and we ended up on downtown Tunis. We tried to navigate our way to an alternative route south but only got more lost. We stopped (in a no parking zone) and Rob got out and asked for directions. He returned having somehow gotten directions given to him in French and understood. We headed out again. We had been driving around for about an hour!


Snaking our way through central Tunis, we did finally connect with the road that took us to the highway south near the coast. It wasn’t the road that I had planned but, I was happy to see a sign with Sousse 138 km on it. I knew it to at least be in the right direction.


Along the way we passed the great plains areas with great mountains in the distance in the interior. The coast was peeking at us now and then, to the east (our left). There were many shepherds with their sheep and rogue cows along the side of the highway.


Soon we were heading west, inland and the scenery was changing again. We were still in a plains area but, the low brush and some short trees would soon become just barren. There were areas that obviously would become lakes during the rainy season. The salty sandy ground gave this away.


The traffic was sporadic. We were only held up, at times, by slow moving hay trucks.


Some of the villages that we passed were only bumps on the highway, selling watermelon or pit stops for camel riders.


In a town, near to Kairouan, we saw a large General Motors plant….unexpected.


We made it to Kairoun……after being lost in Tunis and now many, many hours of driving.


We spent the next hour driving around trying to find a landmark that would assist us in finding our hotel. I was soon to give up and look for another place to stay or another town as this one is rough looking. There were more people clogging the streets than cars. This journey to get there needed to be over.


Rob finally insisted that we pull in to a Shell station and ask for directions as we were making our way through the poverty-laden labyrinth of that section.  As it apparently takes a village of people to give directions here because, once again, multiple attempted to help. Finally a cab driver had us follow him to our hotel. Due to our cynical nature, after many negative experiences in such situations, we expected the help to come with a price attached. After showing us to a location that we would have never found…..he waved and went on his way. We were happily surprised by his friendliness. We were again happily surprised by the close proximity of a parking place to the hotel. It was our oasis in the desert.


The hotel sits on what is the main square (Place des Martyrs) of the city. There are many people on the square and sipping tea and smoking at tables lining the sidewalk across from the square, which is in front of our hotel, as well. As we got out and walked to the front door of the hotel Sabra, everyone turned their attention to the pasty white boys, especially the tall blonde one.


Once we got inside the old man behind the counter was not able to understand we had a reservation.  Luckily a younger man came up and spoke decent English.  As the old man was looking at a flipping day of the week calendar behind the desk Rob looked over and point to my name.  The old man slapped his hand and said “don’t touch”. Apparently that calendar was their reservation system.  The strange conversations had trying to make the reservation finally made sense.  A key was pulled and the younger man took us up the stairs to the third floor (2nd floor European).  As we made our way to a corner room at the end of a narrow and dimly lit corridor we noticed a lot of young men running around.  This was a little concerning to us as we were very tired and it seemed like a college frat party.  Luckily to didn’t last late into the night.


Our room was basic and barely clean and well aged, but we did have a shower and sink in the room and the toilet was just next.  The toilet had no seat on the toilet, which is not uncommon in this part of the world.  There was very little paper and by the morning none.  There was a water hose to wash with in one of the toilets creating a Tunisian bidet.  We have now learned that for some countries it be better to bring your own roll of TP.  We also realized we had no towels and when we asked we couldn’t even rent them.  We found a compromise in using our t-shirts.


Once we were settled we need to address our dinner.  We looked at the book and identified a couple of restaurants close to the hotel.  We walked to the Hotel Splendid and found its restaurant was closed, but the bar was open.  As we were making our way back to the area of our hotel a guy came up and started talking to us.  As with everyone he asked where were from and made friendly.  He then tried to direct us to a place for dinner.  His friends were in the background sitting in their plastic chairs on the street corner laughing and heckling him.  We made it clear we were going the other direction and moved on.  We passed a pizza place and decided to try and find something else, but made mental note for later.


Once we reached the Bab ech-Chouhada (city gate) we could enter the medina with its many souks.  Just outside the gate is a fast food place with a McDonalds’ “M” symbol, but definitely not a sanctioned one.  We wondered into the souk and were fascinated by the detailed designs on the doors and beautiful blue painted trim details.  As moved along, there was just fantastic visual treat one after other on the most unassuming, bland, and disintegrating buildings.  Their use of nails and paint to create personality for a low cost was stunning.


When we got to next restaurant it was closed too.  But fortunately we noticed a place that was opened.  We went in and there was only a family of three seated who greeted us.  We took a table and waited.  On the TV was a program showing a number of Tunisian women dressed up and shaking it for the camera, almost like a contest of trashy women.  After a bit Rob got up and called back to the kitchen and a man came out and gave us menus and took our orders.  I played it safe with a cheese omelet and Rob with for the mystery menu.  The food was good and Rob has a new appreciate for what couscous can be when prepared right.  The service was fast and efficient so we were back to our room before it was too late.  Exhausted from the long day we turned on a video and listed to the sound of youth running wild in the halls and the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the mosque across the street and the several others in close proximity. All in all it was an interesting first day in Africa.

jart2b says:
I love your doorway photos! beautiful architecture...
Posted on: Jun 14, 2010
gejah says:
The same in Egypt with the TP! :)
Posted on: Jun 14, 2010
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photo by: maycek