Log #20a Bizerte

June 24, 2001 in Log Series 20 - 29, Logs by Series, Series 20 Tunisia, The Logs

Sliema Creek, Malta

June 24, 2001

Hi Folks,

I’m fully operational now from the internet café, able to pre save my E-mail on disc on a PC format to send from the internet, and also now I can even download and save on disc to be able to read at my leisure on board from my Mac laptop. So, keep the E-mails coming as I like to hear from the many people who get my logs.

The log below starts the #20 series for Tunisia. I will have it finished in three or four logs before starting the #21 series on our current voyages to Lampadusa, an Italian island, and Malta here in the middle of the Med, and the ports we visit in Italy on our way to Croatia which will then start the #22 series. As you can see from the date on the log, I am about three weeks behind, but who’s counting?

We’re enjoying serious summer weather, and it is nice to be able to converse  easily in English again. We’re amazed at the forts and the history of Malta – fantastic, but I’ll talk about it in my logs.

Enjoy this log on our arrival in Tunisia.

All the best,
Aubrey

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Log #20a Bizerte

June 8, 2001
Enroute to Hammamet, Tunisia
Covers the period May 26 to June 2, 2001

A beautiful clear dry sunny morning (temp. 27˚ C. at 0930) as we are motor sailing south south west towards Hammamet in a light easterly wind, and I have time and kindly sea conditions in which to sit down at the laptop and update my logs. As indicated in my last Log #19s, we landed in Bizerte (37˚ 16.5’ N, 009˚ 52.9’ E) on the north coast of Tunisia on May 26. An important, strategically well-situated port, it was developed initially by the Phoenicians in the 3rd or 4th centuries BC with a channel dug  to link the sheltered waters of the large saltwater Lake Bizerte to the Med. It has been used as a military and commercial port since then by the Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, French, Germans and Italians in WW II, and finally again, the French. They occupied it even after Tunisian independence in 1956, until a final confrontation with Tunisian forces in 1961 in which over 1300 local people lost their lives asserting total independence from the colonial power.

There is a long breakwall, Jetée Nord, starting from the channel entrance to the Vieux Port on the north side, and extending eastward for several hundred metres. To the south, south of the big ship channel going into Lake Bizerte, another long breakwater, Jetée Est, extends northward to form a large triangular well-protected harbour, further sheltered behind another breakwater, Digue Exterior, two hundred metres off the seaward entrance. Vessels can easily enter either side of this outer breakwater although the large ships use the south eastern opening. Good holding for anchoring in the Avant (Outer) Port in the northern portion of the harbour permits boats a panoramic view of the fortified Casbah and entrance into the Vieux Port, as well as the long sandy beach above which is the palm tree lined Boulevard Habib Bourgatfa. A 5 dinar per day ($5.00 Cdn) charge is levied for this privilege, but for 3 dinar more we were alongside (not bows-on Mediterranean mooring) the floating dock at the Port de Plaisance at the foot of Boulevard Bourgatfa, a five minute walk from the centre of town and the Casbah.

We found the customs, immigration, Guardia Civil, and local police, all of whom came down to Veleda within an hour, quite friendly and cooperative. We filled out the few forms to clear in, and there was no charge for any of these formalities. A friendly, cursory inspection of the boat by the customs man modified our case of beer, several bottles of liquor and dozen bottles of wine to a “claimed” inventory of 4 bottles of wine at his suggestion. Opened or part bottles don’t count. He also cautioned us that the immigration people might ask for whiskey, and to say we had none. They did, but were satisfied when we indicated we had only wines. No problems! Friendly people.

This was our first contact with Africa! The sand blown from the Sahara with the red rain in Pollensa on Mallorca does not count. From the boat we could see the ramparts of the Casbah, two or three square minarets, several white domed buildings, and we could hear the calls to prayer echoing across the water several times a day. The weather was clear and hot with an intense white sun. We were in a North African, Moslem country, a totally new experience for us, at least for Judy, as I had been to Jordan, a mid east Moslem country before. We were looking forward to exploring it.

We met a couple of Brit boats, an Australian, and a Swedish boat with whom we made friends, sharing ideas and information on areas of the Med we had visited. We can accumulate a considerable amount of local knowledge from discussions with other cruisers such as these. We were able to use a bank machine to get Tunisian dinars. The exchange rate made one dinar (divided into 1000 millimes) just about equal to one Canadian dollar, or two dinars to the British pound. Food, eating out and fuel were very economical. Diesel was only 415 millimes per litre, or about $.42 Cdn, or 20 pence, per litre. The expensive things in Tunisia are the tourist traps.

Many towns and cities were defended by a fortress “Casbah” or a fortified “monastery” called a Ribat. The residences and stores within the walls of the town are referred to as the Casbah, with very narrow  winding cobblestone streets, archways, a few ancient gates giving access, souks, small narrow residences, a hammam (a Turkish steam bath), and a mosque. If there is a larger town wall extending around the original ancient city, this community within the wall is called the Medina. We were picked up by a “helpful” local who arranged for Judy to go into the hammam for a steam bath and massage during the women’s hours, and meanwhile took me on the back of his motor bike around various parts of the old and new city. He said it was a festival for women similar to “Mother’s Day” and conned me into buying Judy a Tunisian robe, shawl and headband. We had sweet tea at a noisy roadside café just outside the Casbah, and watched the noisy dusty hustle and bustle of an Arabic town.

While waiting for Judy to finish in the hammam, he took me to his home in the Casbah where I met his wife, mother, brother and one of his sons. They spoke some French, and were quite interested in my life, family, wife, and Canada. The house itself was interesting. The entrance along one of the narrow streets had only an old but ornate door. No window, no number, even the streets in the Casbah did not seem to have names. All was cement; walls, ceilings, archways, doorways, and a set of stairs going up to an open flat roof. The floors  were well worn stone. A dark cave-like corridor led from the front door (the only door) into a small open-air whitewashed “atrium”. To the left off the corridor was a door which I surmise led into a small toilet and washroom (no bath or shower). Up the left wall ascended a flight of white cement steps to a rooftop “patio” on which could be seen a clothesline and electric wires, and which provided a rooftop view of the narrow street and surrounding whitewashed cement patios and the sandstone walls of the Casbah.

The central open space measured about 7 by 5 metres. On the opposite wall from the entrance was another door into a small cramped 3 by 3 metre kitchen with a sink, a two burner countertop cooking stove and a couple of shelves. No window, the only light being from the open door and a single hanging light bulb. On the right wall was the opening to the family rooms, a small living room 3 by 5 metres, just big enough for two sofas and a plain wooden coffee table facing the entrance where there was a refrigerator, and a shelf holding a old faded colour TV set, turned on all the time. There was a concrete alcove with a mattress on which a child was sleeping. Behind the end wall was a small bedroom partitioned off with a sheet. There were no windows in these rooms, and every room was whitewashed. A photograph of the mother hung in a simple frame on one wall, and an Arabic script from the Koran hung on another wall. Otherwise there were no decorations on any of the walls.

We then went and brought Judy back and then went for our session in the hammam. I knew not what to expect. Judy enjoyed it, but did not have a guide along with her as I had. In we went, through a couple of bead-hung and fabric-draped doorways into a reed-matted change room. My guide spoke some English, but was not very communicative. I did not know if we paid first or after, or how much. I later found out the standard charge was about 10 dinars. We stripped, and he had a baggy pair of shorts and I was given a towel to wrap around me.

We were given a couple of plastic pails and in we went into a warm  misty arched room with a central pillar. Keep in mind that this bath may have been 500 to 800 years old! In fact it was not unlike the remains of the Arab baths we saw in Palma, Mallorca, a few months ago, except this one was operational. Through this room into a smaller hotter room with a large trough of hot water from which we filled our buckets, then sat down and soaked our feet in them. This was the hot chamber, in which we soaked ourselves from the bucket of hot water, sitting on concrete stools, perspiration starting to drench our bodies. After a while we took our refilled buckets of hot water into the arched chamber, and sloshed down the raised marble platform.

Then started the massage. A “masseur” had me sit with my back to him while he knelt behind, massaging my back, arms and chest, then in heavy sliding motions continued to wipe my skin, rolling off dirt tendrils from the pores of my body. He would periodically flick these traces of accumulated dirt beside me as testimony as to how much he was cleansing my skin. He then had me lie on my stomach and pummeled my back, and twisted my arms and legs giving them invigorating stretches. He applied soap and sloshed me down and similarly shampooed my head with a stimulating plastic spiked scouring pad, and sloshed me down again. He was now done with me, and went to his next client. No conversation took place.

Not having been instructed as to what came next, I decided to get another couple of buckets of hot water and continue to soak while watching a couple of kids enjoy sliding around the marbled floors like seals on an ice flow. Then I went into a side booth in which there was a tap and a stool. This was where a person can strip and then wash again completely before exiting to the outer change room to cool down and dress. Then we went out. I asked how much and was waved away as my guide went in to pay. Then back to his home and Judy who was being visited by ten others, sisters and children who came to see the Canadians, all talking in Arabic and some French. We would have invited the family to come to our boat next day, except it appears that Tunisians are not allowed on foreign boats, similar to restrictions we found in Cuba.

I gave Judy her Tunisian robe to the approval of the family. She had to put it on and pictures were taken of her, the two of us and the family. An interesting experience.

However, all that bonhomie was not without a cost. The guide was not showing us around out of the goodness of his heart. He asked for 60 dinars for his “expenses”! I naively gave it to him without bargaining. I should have suggested a lower amount, but was not in the haggling mode. Even the robes for Judy were in question as to cost. At the store it was indicated they would cost 35 dinars, but we did not pay for them then and were to pick them up later. When he and I went to pick them up he asked me to stay with his motor bike, and to give him 40 dinars for the gifts. I did, but got confused verbiage when I indicated I thought it was only 35 dinars. However, he came back with the gifts and didn’t offer any change.

I suspect he took advantage of my confusion, took my 40 dinars, went back and haggled the price down to 20 or 25 dinars and pocketed the extra. I have since encountered many such rip-offs of tourists, and it has soured me to some extent. Often help or directions have been offered, only to have a price tag put on them afterwards. We were being conned left, right, and center at the souks and anywhere we were identified as tourists. They were trading in on our good nature and unwillingness to say NO! It got to the point that we avoided eye contact as we would then be set upon as prey to be lured into a store, or shown a view that people don’t normally get a chance to see, or offered an alternative “as the mosque is closed today, but for you a special opportunity to see …”, and then 10 or 20 dinars are asked for afterwards.

More about Tunis and Carthage in my next log.