A Blighty Flashback in El Jem

Dave the motorhome is surrounded by eight foot blank walls, over which peep the upper layers of the El Jem amphitheatre (N35.29750 E10.70519). We’re in the town’s municipal car park, and the guardian chap has just arrived (no-one was here to take cash for the first few hours), cost for the night: 2TD, about €1. Ju’s now having a panic as he’s closed the main gates, possibly precluding her plan to get takeaway pizza for the night. As it’s her turn to cook, this means she may have to cook, unlucky.

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Parking El Jem. It doesn’t appear to be guarded, but the little town seems very calm, peaceful and benign. Also, Charlie actually functions as a guard dog here, the ticket man flinched when he poked his furry head out the door.

Werner cooked us all a meal last night and within the belly of Beast of a home, he ran through his best 100 photos, many of them absolutely stunning, many taken in Morocco. A couple of locals knocked on the door begging for whiskey, obviously heading off empty handed (we didn’t have any for starters!).

At 7am Ju climbed out of bed, off to grab more sunrise action. My African early starts seem to be catching. Ismail was already up and off out for the morning, interrupting Ju’s capturing of our distant nuclear fusion ball of flame as it flared up over the glassy sea. He’d come to ask if we’d stay a while longer so he could give us a tour of the village, but we’d decided to head off, so Ju apologised as I listened to all this going off in rapid French from the bed. Ismail clearly works hard, putting the hours in, he and his perfect little motorhome park deserve every success. At the moment political strife totally out of his hands restrains the guy and many wonderful Tunisian people, like him, which seems bloody unfair.

Sunrise over El Kahena.
Sunrise over El Kahena.

We settled up later on, a total of 55TD, about €28 for two night’s stay, a three course meal for two and the hubble bubble chicha pipe. It’s flipping cheap for us westerners here. We’ve had folks tell us in the past we’re insensitive tourists, exploiting poor Africans, unfairly haggling them down on prices, basically being bumbling British idiots who understand, and desire to understand, nothing of the countries we travel through. Something we dismiss out of hand.

If tourists like us don’t come to places like this, then the lucrative, high value trade we bring simply disappears, as it pretty much has in Tunisia following the revolution two years ago. Not haggling over prices just accelerates the transition places naturally make as foreigners arrive, from the genuine article into a tourist zoo (someone else’s words those last two, not mine). Recent feedback on A monkey ate my breakfast : Motorhome adventures in Moroccosuggests that perhaps we shouldn’t have fun when haggling with these ‘poor people’. We understand this view, but it seem a little condescending, the ‘poor locals’ viewpoint. They’re dignified folks and deserve respect, many are successful, many only poor by our standards. For another, why not have some fun (or nervous release), both sides always have a laugh when we buy stuff, once the deal has been done at least!? We’ve always felt when we’ve haggled that we’ve got a fair deal for all parties although realistically, since we’re rank amateurs at it, the locals have probably got a fabulous deal.

Yes it’s cheap in North Africa, but that’s not why we’re here (we spent a silly amount of money in Morocco). We’re here for the challenge of living in, learning from and travelling through a developing Islamic country and, while we’re at it, we’re having a whole heap of fun.

Ah, erm, where was I? Hugs all round, we said goodbye the other folks on the campsite who were heading off into the desert and set off. And with that, I got us lost. Slipping my leash I ignored Ju’s suggestion to stick to the better roads to El Jem, a slightly longer route. After a couple of hours we’d gone in a circle, on pot-holed single track roads between fields of olives, and were almost back where we started. Asking a chap the direction to El Jem at a three-way junction, he pointed up a gravel track. Err, no thanks. And off we went again. The Michelin map, which as far as we can tell is the one everyone has, is pretty pants, not having most of the small road and towns on it which the roadsigns refer to.

One of the towns which did make the Michelin map as we rounded in on El Jem. Amazingly, people part like the Red Sea.
One of the towns which did make the Michelin map as we rounded in on El Jem. Amazingly, people part like the Red Sea.

Eventually we ended up here, the hulk of the amphitheatre standing out distant on the plain, surrounded by low storey buildings, as the road tootled along through yet more olive trees. Finding the walled enclose, no sign of the ticket man, we jumped out and took Charlie for a walk (with mandatory nipper-stroking thrown in), buying a few groceries and scouting out the place a bit for tout-factor. I was steeled for a proper gauntlet, tens of touts and faux-guides leaping on us, but it was pretty much dead. A couple of guys making half-hearted attempts to get us into their westerner-only cafes, most of the tat shops surrounding the monument were closed.

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As a Muslim, you’re bound by your religion to visit Mecca. Poster in El Jem.
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4500 is 4.5TD, which is about £2. As that’s far too expensive per individual packet, we guess it’s for an entire brick?

Dropping off groceries and the mutt, we headed back out, all of about a 200m walk. 8TD each plus 1TD camera tax gets you into the amphitheatre and the nearby museum filled with huge mosaics and bits and bobs of other Roman artefacts found during excavations of the town. Of course we loved the amphitheatre, who wouldn’t, it was a delightful thing and completely free of hassle, lots of folks having obviously taken advantage of this to scratch their names into the ancient stones!

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El Jem Amphitheatre. Half the websites we check say Life of Brian filmed the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ scene here. The other half say it was filmed in Carthage. We say: always look on the bright side of life!

Bumping into a family from South Yorkshire, who live just a few miles up the road from us, we were instantly transported back home for a while, so comforting to speak English, to share the same sense of humour for a few minutes. Failing to swap names, I don’t know what to call the guy we met, but he knew his stuff camera-wise. He’d left many of his lenses at home though, for fear they may be stolen here. The fear factor of coming to a place like this is something we understand well, but fighting this our underlying feeling is Tunisia (and Morocco) are far safer than much of Europe.

A closed shop in El Jem. Everything's left outside. Market stalls routinely thrown a cover over things when they close.
A closed shop in El Jem. Everything’s left outside. Market stalls routinely throw a cover over things when they close.

A few pictures of the mosaics in the museum follow. They were magnificent, and I can now understand why museums in Italy and here lift them from their original placing; there’s no money to look after them otherwise, they’d crumble to nothing. The museum has even shifted an entire villa from the centre of the town and rebuilt it next door, to ensure it can be maintained (they added a few bits too as far as I can tell!).

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HUGE mosaics!
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Nom nom. Tile mosaic layers got the equivalent pay of 2 chickens a day, although the main guy who drew the design made 4 chickens a day.
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Being a Christian, prisoner of war or in massive debt could indicate a messy end in Roman El Jem.

The sun’s setting to my right behind a tall, healthy palm, Charlie’s snoring and the ever-present whine of mopeds indicate ongoing life behind the walls. Time to go see if we can get at pizza.

One last photo. The death mask of a Roman-era Berber chap, incredibly detailed, almost just asleep.
One last photo. The death mask and cast of a Roman-era Berber chap, incredibly detailed, almost just asleep.

Jay

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