Tuesday, May 25, 2010

32 things learned in Tunis

In no particular order:

1) When a clean, empty bathroom presents itself, use it. Shower. Brush your teeth. Pee. Whatever you can do. You don't know when you'll get another one.

2) Watch your head. Amy was watching her step while walking in Sousse, and came within an inch of colliding with a freshly decapitated cow's head hanging outside of a butcher shop. Really.

3) Butchers hang freshly decapitated cow and sheep heads outside of their shops on the sidewalk (See #2).

4) You never know when you will strike up a conversation with a world famous rally car driver, who then gives you his address and invites you to his home in France.

5) Flies can indeed land on your lips when you are napping in a windy louage.

6) Berber ladies carry cell phones and teensy little change purses folded into their many winding layers of clothing.

7) Berber ladies in red = married.

8) If you can speak Spanish, and the person you're trying to talk to can speak French AND Italian, you can basically have a normal conversation.

9) When Tunisians play the ethnic guessing game, Korea comes late, or never, on a list that starts with Chinois, Japon, Hong Kong, Philipinnes, Tokyo, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. And yes, Tokyo is considered a country.

10) Sometimes Tunisians think things are funny that are not. Like saying "heil hitler" to someone who they think is Italian (still haven't figured that one out). Or laughing, joking, and making charades as if they are pumping a rifle and shooting at you. Or pretending they have a bomb on a bus. Or saying Amy must be related to Bruce Lee. (Okay, maybe that actually is funny.)

11) Sahara hot.

12) Sahara windy.

13) Sandstorms hardcore.

14) Gas cheap.

15) One CAN get tired of warm, crusty baguettes.

16) Nothing can redeem a man wearing capris.

17) Being disconnected from the Internet is more challenging than expected.

18) Gabe is good at drawing street maps, but dislikes writing street names.

19) Chewing with your mouth wide open and picking your nose are acceptable public activities in Tunisia.

20) Old French and German men really like riding their motorcycles around Africa.

21) It really would have been smart to have learned some French before coming to Africa.

22) French people really do say "puton" when they swear.

23) Do yourself a favor and poop in the public WCs in your hotel, instead of your poorly plumbed, poorly ventilated private toilette.

24) Bathing with antibacterial wipes actually feels pretty good.

25) Tunisian coffee is DELICIOUS.

26) YAB brand banana yogurt is to die for.

27) A 2-meter Berber headscarf is absolutely the most useful piece of performance gear in the world. Thousands of years of field testing behind that shit. Keeps out the heat, keeps out the cold, keeps out the sun, keeps out the wet, keeps out the sand, can be used as towel, blanket, napkin, belt, sarong, tablecloth, pillowcase, etc.

28) After a week in the Sahara, a 2-meter Berber headscarf can smell really bad.

29) When riding louages, you should always position yourself to be in command of the windows.

30) Camels are giant, smelly beasts, but babies in the wild are shockingly cute.

31) Medina hostels, while cheap, are not an acceptable housing option.

32) Just because something is listed on a menu doesn't mean that the restaurant will serve you that food or has it that night. It is more accurate to say that if an item is listed on a menu, the restaurant at some point in its lifetime served that food to a guest.

Ephemera (Sunday, May 23)

We spent our rainy Sunday roaming around Carthage, once the playground of Dido and Aeneas, today a tony suburb 30 minutes outside of Tunis. It takes some work to imagine what the city must have been like 2,000 years ago, but there was something about the ruins of the Antonine Baths, an ancient Roman bath house along the sea, that stunned both of us.

Weird. I mean, we've both put a lot of care into trying to get out of New York, wean ourselves from the rat race and do some soul searching. For us, at least, that's a lot of what traveling is - actively seeking perspective in the vistas of foreign and alien places and cultures, maybe better finding our own way in the world, how we might shape it and have an impact. But there was something ... something just completely tragic and beautiful about the ruins in the gray, misty cold, knowing that overpriced cafes and taxis were just a few blocks away, that a measly few dinar could get us access, to crawl over this dead grandeur. Time was just so tragically obvious and sad. The Romans thought they were building an empire to last forever. And yet here we are.

Whites and blues (Wednesday, May 19)

We have found our way back to Tunis, and aren't really doing a damn thing. It's marvelous. But today we went to Sidi Bou Said, lovely little tourist trap about 30 minutes outside of the city. Much of the town is plastered with shops and offensively expensive cafes catering to the busloads of group tourists, but if you can escape the main drag, the town opens up into wonderful residential neighborhoods with beautiful vistas of the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Tunis. The blues and whites of the homes and the bright purples and oranges of the flowers were said inspire Paul Klee, and it's easy to see why.

Everywhere sand (Saturday, May 15)

The sirocco came through Douz. It is a blizzard of sand. It's in our eyeballs, in our ears, up our nostrils, everywhere. Gabe flossed sand out of his teeth. We wanted to take a video, but would have ruined our camera, which already has sand in all of its crevices, despite our keeping everything in Ziplocs. We are breathing sand, and even our Berber wraps aren't providing much comfort.

So much sand.

The Grand Erg Oriental (Friday, May 14)

Mohammed, our 4WD driver in the desert, drove us from Ksar Ghilane back to Douz straight through the shifting dunes of the Grand Erg. This was the heart of our Sahara trip - to swim through the dunes and hope that our Toyota truck would survive. Every so often, Mohammed would stop the truck, get out to climb the nearest high dune, and survey the sand. We have absolutely no idea what he saw, and as he spoke "only" French, Arabic and Berber, we couldn't ask. All we know is that he is brilliant, warm, and certainly we would have died without him driving us.

Nothing but windy, undulating waves of orange and gold. But words don't do the Grand Erg justice, so I leave it to the images. Video to follow soon ... damn the ban on YouTube!

The Sahara. For real. (Thursday, May 13)

You know how they say that the Grand Canyon is one of the few sights in the world that completely lives up to the hype? For me, the hype has always been about the desert, particularly the Sahara. I've always had a lot of romance wrapped up in my head about the Sahara. Something about the motion, the desolation, the absolute need for survival under a black sky. Even the word is exotic and gorgeous, to be breathed through. There is something terrifyingand darkly sexy about the idea of the empty desert, and I was totally ready to be disappointed.

But I wasn't. There wasn't anything about the Sahara that wasn't overwhelmingly beautiful, frightening, and vast, and that didn't, in an absolute and complete way, remind me that I am just a tiny little actor in a terribly gorgeous world.

Our Sahara was shaped by Ksar Ghilane, an oasis roughly 200 kilometers south of Douz, a tourist town that is the primary launching point for camel and 4WD Sahara treks (No camel trek for us - too dangerous in the summer). Ksar Ghilane is the largest oasis in the Sahara, and it is shaped around "the source," a small, muddy natural spring surrounded by palm trees and a few Berber campgrounds. Rappy had fun.

We spent the afternoon practing our headwraps with the young Berbers who live on the oasis. They are quick to offer opinions on your headwrap, and as a general rule, aren't fans of the Arab styles of draping. Too much conquering, perhaps.

The headwraps, made out of 2-meter long soft fabric, are used for everything from towels and belts to sun protection and rain protection and most of all, sand protection. (Not that it matters. The sand gets into everything. EVERYTHING.)

Once the sun went down and it was cool enough, we set out to explore the Grand Erg Oriental, which is literally a sand ocean lapping at the oasis. The sirocco, a summer wind that carries sand, was starting to act up, so we were fully wrapped and half blind, but we couldn't resist running through the dunes.

Sunset in the Sahara. I am small, and lucky.

Clean is a relative term (Thursday, May 13)

So, I "showered" last night in our little Berber cave. I used a combination of Oil of Olay Express Daily Facial Cleansing Cloths and Fresh Scent Wet Ones Antibacterial Hands & Face Wipes.

Just a few days ago, I washed Gabe's shirts in our medina hostel in Sousse, the call to prayer over the loudspeakers and the smells of fish, urine, and roasting pralines drifting up to our second-floor window. In the absence of a bowl (I used to use the cooking pots in our apartment in Bogota) I used a 2-gallon Ziploc bag and the detergent we carry around with us in a resealable plastic bag to soak the clothes.

Things change, non?

I love my husband a lot (Wednesday May 12)

So, if one is a supernerd Star Wars fan, one might know that George Lucas filmed much of the Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back footage in Tunisia. One might also know that Matmata, a small desert town just north of the Sahara, was the location for Tatooine, and that the fictional planet of Tatooine was named after the very real, very empty Tunisian desert town of Tataouine. One might even know that the home of Luke Skywalker, where we see him living with his aunt and uncle drinking that funny blue milk, is actually a real Berber cave home, tunneled into the ground to keep out the Saharan sun. One might EVEN want to stay in one of the cave homes that have been remodeled into hotels for Star Wars geeks, or have a drink at the hovel that was the site of Mos Eisley cantina, which still has set pieces of the bar laying around.

I am a Star Wars fan, but I am not one of THOSE people. Gabriel, however, is, and being a loving wife, I found myself, after 2 long, hot, stinky louage rides, in a Berber hovel. I am cheerful.

Anyways, it did end up being kind of fun. Also, who knew George Lucas ripped off everything? His costume designer should get no credit for any Jedi, Jawa, of Tatooine outfits, as they were all directly stolen from Berber culture. Seriously, she probably just bought out the local souk for all the extras. And he didn't dress the sets. But at any rate. The Berber caves are dark and cool, and despite the paint chipping off the cave walls and onto our faces in the middle of the night, Matmata was a not-to-be-regretted adventure.

Also, I married a geek.

The Ksour (Tuesday, May 11)

On the southern edge of the central coast of Tunisia, near the Libyan border, are the ksour, the hilltop villages and fortresses of the Berber. The Berbers are an ethnic mix, devoutly Muslim and indigenous to North Africa, with a culture and language distinct from the hodgepodge of Arab, Mediterranean, Western European and African that makes up the rest of Tunisia.

Many of the ksour (plural of ksar) are in ruins. Chenini, however, is a thriving Berber village of about 700 people with a small mosque, medrassa, and primary school. The ksar was built into the mountains in steppes to protect against attack, near oases where communities farm and draw water. The stones are the same color as the mountains themselves, so it's difficult to distinguish the homes from the environment, a protective measure against attack.

The first level of a ksar is the most desirable to live in, as you dOn't need donkeys to transport water uphill to the house and can carry it by hand. In the past, Berbers had really simple, ingenious ways of protecting their grains, oil and other supplies -- they built tiny entrances to their homes, and then constructed large pots and containers twice the size of the doorways within the walls, so that nobody could steal their goods. Today, that's not quite necessary, but the dim, cool rooms are still the most effective way of keeping out sand and heat and preserving food. Running water and electricity still aren't a big thing.

At Chenini, one of the few ways for young people to make money is to give tours of the nearby ruins and homes. Our young guide, Ali, spoke 6 languages: Berber, Arabic, French, Italian, German, and English. Berber at home, Arabic at mosque and with friends, French in school, and all of the major tourist languages. Nobody was there that day but us, though, and the emptiness lent a ghostly, magical, uniquely Berber color to the desert.

A camel and a well (Sunday, May 9)

After another long-ish louage ride, we found ourselves in Kairouan, the fourth holiest city in
Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. It is home to the Grand Mosque, a beautiful site which is the largest mosque in all of Africa.

In the nearby medina, it also is home to a camel and a well.

The well, Bir Barouta, is hidden in the winding streets of the medina. It's a pilgrimage site for Muslims, as it is believed to be linked to the holy Zem-Zem well in Mecca. We read in the guidebook that the site was a little tacky and touristy, with a camel at the center of it. We imagined a stuffed animal camel, maybe, or some neon-lit camel perched on top of the well.

After climbing up a steep, short staircase, we found the well, and a camel. Like, a real camel. A big 7-foot camel dressed in dozens of scarves, harnessed to the wheel on the well and tended to by the well keeper. The well operates with a series of pulleys that are turned as the camel walks in a circle, bringing up cups of water that pilgrims drink and wash with while trying to keep a safe distance from the camel. Which is of course impossible, because, you know, it is a giant animal and you are standing with it in a well.

We have video of this amazing feat, but Tunisia blocks YouTube. So for now, pictures will have to suffice.

Gladiators, Mosaics, Etc. (Saturday, May 8)

After our whirlwind flights to get to Africa and a day to recuperate in Tunis, we took a two-hour train to Sousse, our base of operations for a bunch of sightseeing in the area. We are staying in the medina. We are not doing that ever again (but more on that later).

Today we took a 90-minute louage (a kind of shared taxi) ride to El Jem, the largest and best-preserved Roman ampitheater outside of the Coliseum. Wild. You can see the little staging rooms where the Romans would house, say, lions, or Christians. The rows of (30,000!) seats and stairways are beautifully sculpted, and everywhere are little notches in the marble and brick where ropes or beams must have hung. The vastness is astonishing, and kindof fearsome.It doesn't take too much imagination to picture yourself in front of the screaming hordes.

Afterwards, we walked a short way to an unnamed museum, which houses the most stunning mosaics we have ever seen. The museum is in a restored Roman mansion, with a number of breezy open courtyards and a pool. While the workers and slaves of the time lived near the ampitheater, the wealthy traders of the area lived in this section in lavish homes. It is where it's at. Everybody says the Bardo Museum in Tunis has the best mosaics, but they are wrong. Get thee to El Jem.

53 little things we learned in Colombia (Wednesday, May 5)

In no particular order:

1) Little pickled, salted carrots are the best chaser for aguardiente.

2) Wine is generally terrible.

3) Do not trust people.

4) Trust people.

5) A gram of pure cocaine can run you $3 USD.

6) Do not drink too much aguardiente (see #1).

7) Medellin is the plastic surgery capital of Colombia, and quickly becoming the plastic surgery capital of South America. For their quincineras, girls often get their boobs and their butts done.

8) Newly done butts can "burst" during sex. It is inadvisable to have sex soon after plastic surgery.

9) There are only 3 TV channels and 2 newspapers, all of which are owned by companies that also have extensive commercial interests. This is bad.

10) Manzana Postobon is perhaps the best soft drink ever invented.

11) Bandeja paisa is for serious.

12) Hot water is NOT overrated.

13) Yerba buena is not mala.

14) "Cogalo" means "grab him." As in, "He snatched my bag, cogalo!"

15) Do not try to buy dairy products.

16) Water is cheaper when you buy it in a bag, not a bottle.

17) Exito is a backpacker's best friend.

18) Contact solution is obscenely expensive.

19) Transmilenio is our jam.

20) Cazuela de mariscos at Casa de Socorro in Cartagena is worth every penny.

21) The Cartagena breeze is the world's gift to us.

22) The weather in Medellin is the best in the country, maybe compensating for the fact that despite its extraordinary advances, Medellin remains the capitol of all of the dark undercurrents in Colombia.

23) The Kiwis and the Germans run the best, cleanest, most efficient hostels.

24) EVERYBODY cares about soccer.

25) Andres Carne de Res is like a Disneyland of meat and decadence.

26) Aguardiente appears, and then it disappears (see #1 and #6).

27) Colombianas. This may require a separate list.

28) Don't try to get anything done between 11:30-2:30. Or after 4.

29) Fuck Bancolombia.

30) Depending where you are in Bogota, a llamada can run you 150-250 COP a minute.

31) EVERYBODY gets their nails did.

32) Parque Independencia is the parque for us.

33) Aguila!

34) We like onces, the midafternoon coffee and snack.

35) Yes, it is possible to eat cereal and mangoes for dinner for 10 weeks.

36) The Swiss have the coolest passports...

37) ... and they're not part of the European Union.

38) Gabriel can't say "huevos revueltos."

39) Squeaky white queso fresco is best eaten after soaked in a mug of hot chocolate.

40) Squeaky white queso fresco is next best eaten heated up and smothered in oozing, warm arequipe.

41) Spending every waking minute with your spouse leads to the development of some very weird habits.

42) There are good arepas and there are bad arepas.

43) Killing a chicken ... not that big of a deal.

44) Castrating a bull ... a very big deal.

45) There is a giant white bull named Toby living in southern Colombia.

46) People are not shy about staring at Asians.

47) Colombia fought in the Korean War, which was the first international conflict after Colombia was accepted into the United Nations.

48) Less than 2 percent of the country is wired for high speed Internet.

49) Sometimes a PR campaign is just PR.

50) Law & Order SVU and House can be watched at any hour of the day.

51) Gabriel can indeed get motion sickness, at least in the mountain range between Cali and Ibague. Also, puking in a dark bus toilet while winding through mountain switchbacks at an alarming speed is difficult.

52) The roadside cafe outside of the bus station in Zipiquira has perhaps the best pollo asado in all of Colombia.

53) At clubs, you can hire an "angel" to drive your car home for you. Drunk driving rates have been cut significantly. Los Angeles should do this.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Goodbye, Bogota ... and my youth (Sunday, May 2)

It's impossible to describe our joy at getting to know our cousins Diana and Sergio and, of course, Diana's beautiful boyfriend, Santi. Equally impossible is describing Andres Carne de Res, a meat and drink-fueled pleasure palace an hour outside of Bogota, where we celebrated my 31st birthday. I'll let the pictures speak for me.

We miss you guys already!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Es ist 17:30 Uhr in Frankfurt ...

Two flights down, one to go.

Our layover in NY went kinda like this: J express to Tribeca, screeching love from our sobrino, suspicion from our sobrina (who doesn't quite remember us), massive shopping trip at Duane Reade for DEET and contact solution, pancakes, haircuts, lunch at Bar Pitti, a recital at Enzo's preschool (note: always take the opportunity to watch 3-year-olds play on xylophones, it is fucking brilliant), laundry, bap and banchan, a sad goodbye with the sobrinos, and then back off to JFK.

Our layover in Frankfurt is going kinda like this: yawn, sleep, marvel at the gorgeousness of German airport bathrooms, try to fight to stay awake, fail.

In three more hours we board Lufthansa again for Tunisia, and hope that Thomas and Adrian, our Swiss friends from Medellin, managed to conjure up enough French to make that hostel reservation for us in Tunis. Also possible that they were tipsy and screwing with us. We shall see, won't we?

Auf Wiedersehen!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Guasimilla - The Fotos

Marc, our new bestie in Bogota

Love him. Hate him. Love him. Hate him. Okay, mostly love him.

Thanks for the wine, the whiskey, and the, ahem, titillating conversation. Til next time, amor.