Cousins adventure begins in Tunisia. May 2024.


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Holy crap. How is this possible!?! This trip that’s been a “maybe” on the calendar for months is finally happening. My cousin Courtney has been trying to interest me in a trip to somewhere in the desert for years, but I am not a desert kid. And monkeys tend to be scarce in the hot sands. But she took a trip last year with small tour group through Atlas Obscura (to Slovenia) and friggin loved it. I’m not generally interested in group tours, but was willing to consider it. So we looked through the available itineraries. Final choices were either Bhutan (which requires a tour guide to visit) and Tunisia, which I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing solo. And the Tunisian itinerary was really appealing. Mediterranean time. Carthage. Djerba. Desert Glamping and star gazing. A really interesting mix, all in one country. So we paid the down payment. And then the waiting. They require a minimum of 4 people for the trip to happen (maximum of 12). Waiting. Waiting. And finally an email one day saying the Trip Was Happening!! Woohoo!

We had a tight 1 hr 5 min transfer in Paris, which we’d been nervous about from the time of buying our airfare. But Air France maintained it was possible (even though you have to go through security again at Charles de Gaulle airport!). And we both had our carry-ons flagged for extra security checks, by the slowest most methodical security employee EVER!! Then more airport rushing! (Because while the flight departed 9:20am local time, when given our boarding passes at SeaTac, it included a chilling asterisk *gates close at 9am. So now we only had 45 minutes to get off our plane, run through airport, to through security again, and make it onto next plane. Eek! Happy to report we made it to our gate with EIGHT WHOLE MINUTES TO SPARE!!!! Also, the gate was still full of people and hadn’t actually started boarding yet/was running late. But even if it had been on time, we would have just barely made it.

AND I fulfilled my “off to see some monkeys” agenda, because a young girl on our flight had a fantastic large plush monkey toy…and her dad had the most magnificently intense large curling handlebar mustache. I wanted to take pictures of both the monkey and the mustache, but it didn’t feel polite.

At Tunis airport, it is hot and crowded. Waiting for our luggage. Waiting. One of our bags arrives, but not the other. Long line at the lost luggage counter. Those poor employees. Only two women for all the airlines arriving at Tunis. Every single person is yelling at them. Ugh. She can’t find my bag in the computer system at all, asks her coworker, and then asks me to stand off to the side. Eventually she calls me back and sends me into a side office with different employee. He also can’t find my bag in the system. Creates a report with a number and says to keep checking this website. And gives instructions on how to file a claim if bag isn’t delivered to hotel after 3 days. #Adventure. Also, I’m a little worried as it’s been over an hour since we landed and I’m not sure the hotel provided airport transport person will still be waiting for us. Luckily he was! And was very proactive on assisting with the missing bag. Tells us, despite what the form letter says, they never bring bags to the hotel. You have to go back to the airport to pick it up (which matches what some people in line were experiencing earlier).

We check in and get that glorious shower after long travel day. Grab a patio lunch. Stunning purple Jacaranda trees. Our hotel is in the French colonial neighborhood and it’s full of charming boulevarda. We do a little shopping trying to replace a few lost luggage items.

The man at the shoe store was as delighted to practice his English as I was to test out some of the Arabic phrases I’d memorized. “I am hungry. I am tired,” he says to me (after learning we spoke English). Me too! He was very sweet. Ended up sharing pictures of his 3 month old granddaughter Sara. He was so proud of her. Threw in a pair of socks with the shoe purchase, “My gift to you. You come to my country and lose your luggage. May things be better soon.”

Street cats are everywhere (boy is that an understatement. As this trip has progressed, the number of cats seen has increased exponentially. And some of them are ROUGH looking. It’s tough out here on the streets. But I wasn’t quite expecting to see so many of them missing one eye. Yikes). Courtney is much more willing to pet the ones who come over. I’ve made friends with a few in later days. And ones who looked a little better off (maybe with less chance they’re full of mites and fleas?). Ha.

We wander a little bit more and see the city lit up at night. Saw a crowded sports bar watching soccer match. Later at an outdoor cafe, giant TV screen shows the match 90th minute going into stoppage time. Sadly, the Tunisian team lost to the Egyptian team 1-0. Folks were, understandably, very sad. Later I looked online and they lost because of an own goal, which is even harder. But I did learn that the the Tunis team has some Rad nicknames. “Espérance Sportive de Tunis, known as ES Tunis or simply EST for short, and nicknamed “Mkashkha”, The Elder of Tunisian Clubs, the Blood and Gold Club and The Beast of Africa.”

Found dinner at a very stylish loosely Italian themed restaurant. Crowd was a mix of very stylish Tunisians, and some UK and European tourists. TV was showing the French Cup soccer match. Mostly strong party vibes and lots of drinking. We’re just tired, wanting food and then bed. Someone starts setting up microphone and DJ equipment. “Is there going to be karaoke?” Not exactly. A woman in a stunning Red Carpet worthy gown arrivesz and starts singing a Christina Aguilera ballad to a track (that includes backup vocalists). She proceeded to sing a variety of tunes, including some songs in Arabic that had the crowd singing and clapping along. As well as an Italian folk song that Courtney also knew, that drew in the crowd. Unexpected but fun.

Our tour wasn’t scheduled to begin until 6pm welcome dinner the following day. So we’d have a day to explore the city of Tunis on our own. But we’re told that the other tour folks (3 people, for a total group of only 5!!) also arrived a day early, so we’d be starting with a welcome breakfast at 8am instead. Huh, but okay. What ended up happening was, because we were all already in the city, our guide decided to change up the itinerary and do a few things earlier so we could have more time and see lots more around Carthage the next day. Which was great (even if it did cut down on solo exploration time).

We meet everyone at breakfast. A woman our age, Sarah, who also happens to live in Seattle (small world). And a Gen X son from Orange County traveling with his dad who lives in Northern California. The guys (Michael and Arthur) are exceedingly well-traveled. Like, been to more than 100 countries. Many of the trips taken together. Conversation is an avalanche of travel anecdotes! Smile and Arthur, the father, is so deadpan in his delivery as he is almost constantly telling a story that turns out to be a joke. But 30% of the time it’s a real story, not a meander to a punchline. Courtney catches on quicker and starts trying to beat him to the punchline. She’s often successful. And adorably, he doesn’t let this rattle him and he still continues on and says the end of the joke himself too, but with an acknowledgement that she earned points. His constant joking in a serious tone has led to frequent confusion and concern from our guide Yassine, though. Humor (especially such dry silliness and pretend complaints) doesn’t translate across language and cultural barriers. And I’m sure Yassine has had to deal with tourists who are constantly complaining and having issues with everything. So he’s constantly trying to suss out what the issue is, and either Arthur or one of us will have to let him know that he’s joking.

We got to visit the Bardo Museum, which has one of the largest collections of Roman Mosaics in the world. Truly some stunning self. And so many of them were huge! I particularly enjoyed the expression of this servant, holding up a mirror for the lady of the house.

Also saw a monkey shaped vase, so more monkey goals achieved.

Wandered through town, getting a chance to see so many of the gorgeous decorative doors for which Tunisia is famous.

Panoramic view from the roof of a restaurant, but happily lunch was inside (not in the sun).

Lovely conversation as we’re all getting to know each other. Giant platters of couscous and other Tunisian dishes. Brik a thon (a savory fried thin dough stuffed with tuna and egg). It’s explained to me that eating this is a test! I’m instantly competitive. Waiter brings over disposable napkins (as you eat this with your hands). Sometimes the egg is over-medium instead of hardboiled and the goal is to hold it and eat it in such a way that none of the yolk drips. It’s very hot out of the oven, but I want to prove myself! Once I finally got down to the filling, turns out my egg was more fully cooked, so not a challenge after all. Ha.

Next off to the medina for some sightseeing. Now, because this itinerary item was moved ahead one day, we’re here on a Sunday and 90% of the stalls are closed. But actually that’s okay, as we walk along each tiny hallway. Still cool to see, and there’s still plenty of sellers trying to get us to stop and purchase. We all recognize that being there when it was officially open and packed full of local shoppers and tourists and merchants would be overwhelming.

Gorgeous sunset view from our room. The black specks are hundreds of swallows swooping and feasting on the millions of mosquitoes. The cries of the birds are intense…so many of them makes it very noisy.

We then have our welcome dinner (pushed back until 8pm). It’s at the hotel buffet, which I generally find less intriguing/exciting as an option when traveling. But it’s convenient and not my decision to make. Smile perfectly decent food. And the staff are all great. Then it’s off to bed to prepare for tomorrow, visiting multiple sites throughout the Carthage area!

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