Dave the motorhome is full of us coughing folks; he’s stood still on the northern edge of the largest desert oasis in Tunisia, with half a million palms, at Camping Desert Club in Douz. Ju’s got the man flu. I’ve got a cough, which of course equates to flu for me too. No worries though, it’s cheap as chips here and a great place to wait it out for the town’s souk. As in Europe, the traders move from town to town each week, arriving here on Wednesday afternoon and early Thursday morning. By a few accounts, it’s a lively affair and worth waiting for. We may even see a couple of camels change hands.
Last night we found the Publinet (Internet Cafe) we’d used the previous night closed, a ferme sign hung over the door, the owner presumably joining his mates in the packed cafes to watch the football. As we walked by them, each guarded by a collection of battered mopeds, the huge flat panel screens flickered green while the ever-excitable commentators yelped out, erm, comments. The sight of neat plastic lines and crisp visuals is an odd one here, where the back streets slowly fill with sand, and people’s houses stand in various states of completion as they scratch together the funds to raise them skywards over a period of years.
There are only men in the cafes, of course. Returning back to the campsite (via an Orange shop who confirmed there is no signal here – if you come, use the Tunisiana network!), Janet, an American English teacher who’s staying here in a tent between jobs, told us there are plenty of other Publinets here, just to try another. She’s lived in lots of places, travelling widely outside the US, living her dream. To be doing it alone as a Western woman in Islamic countries takes some guts in my book. She told us of a period spent living with a 15 strong Tunisian family, where the women of the house would spend hours scrubbing clothes by hand. We asked if they could afford a washing machine. The family had money, but the grandfather controlled it, and clearly an energy-saving device wasn’t a priority. Either than or holding the women in place by ensuring they had limited time for the non-menial aspects of life was seen as advantageous. Tunisia is, according to our Rough Guide, the foremost Islamic community when it comes to the emancipation of women. From my (very much external and limited) viewpoint, there seems much more to do.
Finding a second Publinet, we sat among the black-coated, be-jeaned men listening to the Arabic tunes drifting over from the main desk fronting the small room of 7 or 8 desks. They provide free WiFi here if you use one of the other machines, so both of us could use the Internet at once. Also, one of us could use our laptop, as the Arabic keyboards are nothing short of insanely complicated, and we’re dubious about the security of popping our passwords in the resident computers. Getting an @ symbol requires three keys to be pressed at once, a full stop needs two, oddly the ! only needs one, and I’ve failed to find the apostrophe. The keys were clunky, like they were backed with the ubiquitous sticky dates. The previous office we used displayed a counter on your screen to show how much cost you’d incurred, ticking up slowly at a rate of 2TD/€1 an hour. This one didn’t have this feature. As we stood at the desk at the end of our session to pay, the man behind it smiled and shouted something to someone sat at one of the computers. I assumed we were being assessed, how much should we charge the Westerners? My cynicism was misplaced, he just wanted his friend to speak French to us. As we walked home we stood aghast at the fact the stall holders in the central square had just shut their doors, leaving bowls, fruit, vegetables, clothes and desert roses all out, unprotected.
It’s my biggest problem here, working out who wants what, or who wants to give what. In Morocco, it was pretty simple, everyone wanted to sell you something, or for you to just give them money, clothes, sweets and the like. It’s different here, almost everyone wants nothing but to say hello. Not all of them though, as I found out in a surprising way today.
Ju felt ill last night, and opted to stay in bed this morning with the shivers. I reluctantly popped out to get the washing into the machine (which is bolted and locked in its own sheet metal box). Sophie, the non-nonsense French site manager wasn’t around to crack it open. She’s normally sat under a very African-looking veranda next to the camp’s restaurant bar. One of the guards opened it for me, speaking English and French. With our clothes swishing about all on their own, I took Charlie for a walk through the palms and pomegranate trees and around back through town. The sun shone, but the air was cool as I dragged the furry one away from the piles of rubbish strewn about beneath the trunks closest to town. A man led two camels along the tarmac road which bisects the packed sand track, watching me as I watched him, and his loping dromedaries In town the nippers were off to school, dressed just like their Western counterparts, surrounding Charlie, a few touching him as he shrank from the sudden wall of hands. I picked him up and pretending he was a dog machine gun, derderderderderder, but with more of a barking noise, wufwufwufwufwuf. They leapt backwards in a wave as we and the furry one spun around, everyone laughing. A few of them followed us through town shouting CHAR-LEE, CHAR-LEE until an adult instructed them loudly to about-turn back towards education.
In Dave I lasted it out about 5 minutes before getting Dave-fever, picking up the camera bag and walking the 20m to the oasis at the site entrance. A man passing the gate shouted something, I assumed to the guard sat staring drone-like at nothing from a plastic chair inside. Onto the same sand path again, the chap fell in alongside me, speaking, as usual, some combination of French, German and Italian and with occasional fall-back Arabic. I wondered what he wanted, and couldn’t work out what he was saying, something about lady? Something about six? I walked slowly, confused, getting nervous. At this point he started to mime, seeming to form air breasts with his hands and pointing at his groin. Ah, my lady, she is sick? Yes! That’s right, she’s ill. Big mistake. The chap’s a male prostitute and has just taken this ‘Ah, oui’ as a come on. He taps me on the groin, at which point realisation dawns and I turn into a ‘No’ machine gun “no, no, no, no, no”, offering my hand to shake his in a ‘no thanks’ kind of way. Another mistake, mixed signals, he’s now simulating something obscene and pointing to a fallen palm at the side of the path (it’s broad daylight, people are working the palms around us), not letting go of my hand. About a million more ‘nos’ and he releases my hand, and in a weirdly non-threatening resigned way walks off. Sprained ankle forgotten I was back in Dave in about 3 seconds, wondering What-on-Earth? Checking the Rough Guide again, it seems such encounters are to be expected, in a society where female virginity at marriage counts for everything, some men look for other avenues of release.
Next time out of Dave I made sure Ju was with me. With a list of supplies we walked the back streets around the town, and then into the centre, dodging mopeds which, once their riders have attained top speed, stop for nothing. The place was busy, no other tourists to be seen, just the usual small-but-incredible sights of these ancient trading towns. It has a frontier feel to it here, like the ignored rules of the north apply even less here. A chap leaped from the road onto the back of a moped as it dashed past, its rear tyre as bald as a coot. I find it magnetic, attractive, and fearsome. We bought vegetables at a stall, the man handing us a plastic bowl to fill, whcih we did, and simply weighing the lot together, 1.5TD, about 70 pence. As my brain translated the French afterwards, the cost was actually 1.2TD, but I’d accidentally waved him off as he kinda rooted for change, maybe explaining why he called us back to give us two oranges.
The sight of a delivery truck with a milk logo on the side tempted us into a shop, where we picked up three cartons of UHT, a baguette, a box of Tunisian Jammy Dodgers (sort of), four small dry cakes, four eggs, two bottles of water, a tin of tomato concentrate and four chocolate puddings for 9.8TD, about £4.50 (and milk is expensive – roughly European price). Arafat had told us shops must display prices here, and hand over receipts or they get fined. Some of the items in the little place had tiny labels, but we just got what we wanted, and no receipt. The shop owner spoke to us in German, running around trying to be helpful, three of his egg-stash smashing on the floor. My plan to knock up a camel stew has been delayed though. For one thing we didn’t buy the meat, passing the hanging-animal butchers I’m going to need to slap my face a few times to get the courage up. Also, we’re told the meat is often so fresh it needs 2 or 3 days in the fridge before you should eat it anyway.
Drums are playing out again now. The wedding next door has kept us entertained with Ibiza-volume Arabic tunes hammering out at the palm leaves the past two nights. A Tunisian man is marrying an Italian lady from Bologna. It must have been impossible for them to talk to one another as the music blared loud enough to knock over a donkey. The weddings last days here, but the guard told us that was the last night, so maybe the drums signify something else? Dunno. Our little campsite has two new motorhomes too, a French-Dutch combo who’ve hooked up to travel together. All the motorhome folks here look, well, seasoned, like they were born in the back of a taxi in Delhi or half way up the north face of the Eiger. I wonder what we look like?
P.S. The Internet cafe owner just left us alone in his shop for 15 minutes, cash, computers, everything. He’s off to pray.