1Tunisia, November 2005 Sylvia Caras

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1Tunisia, November 2005

Sylvia Caras

For two years I’ve been anticipating WSIS and a Tunisian vacation. I read guide books, searched on the web, investigated hotels, got no answers to my emails, found circuits busy when I tried to call (later I was told that was because the government controls communication, somewhat censors phone lines and email), didn’t know where the WSIS meeting was in relation to hotels, couldn’t get schedules for the internal airlines, found tours but not knowledgeable travel agents, .... However, in anticipation, I booked my air tickets in January 2005, and was able to cash in miles for the Frankfurt Tunis portion to save $400. I got a senior discount at a Tunis hotel, sent faxes and a registered letter to the other two, got one confirmation back by email and have my fingers crossed about the other. Then I tried to book the internal Tunisia flights. My French isn’t good enough to call direct and I couldn’t get lines to Tunisia anyhow so I started to call Tunis Air in London. Six months out, four months out, two months out ... the tickets aren’t in the computer system yet. After lots of anxiety I just decided the worst that can happen is I will have eight days and have to take a tour or make arrangements when I am there.

Since I would be gone a month I refilled four prescriptions early. Costco filled only 30 instead of the 100 I’d needed, but that didn’t matter because my doctor had written the wrong number of milligrams. The Canadian Drugstore autovoice called four times but no human was there when I called back. Turns out I had to agree with their shipping from the Philippines and New Zealand, and then that my credit card wouldn’t clear (I haven’t been able to figure that error out.) So a week lost in getting that moving. But all that began to seem trivial after the next things that happened.

Lufthansa cancelled the flights on which I had award tickets. Alternatives were 15 hour layovers each way in Frankfurt. So I cancelled the award, got my miles and the taxes back, and, since I now had a relationship with Tunis Air (a staff person also named Sylvia), booked on Tunis Air, changed a layover hotel award from Frankfurt to Tunis, mentally traded the money I’d just spent for a paid ticket with getting an award for another trip where I had been planning to purchase the ticket (and thus gain United frequent flyer status for 06 - and ticketing that too has been error-prone, a seat I had on hold was in AA’s computer for this October instead of next July), found UK Tunis Air wouldn’t accept credit cards from non UK banks, went to the travel agent I used before the web, and paid an extra $35 for them to issue the ticket.

The rest of my ticket was in combination with a meeting prior in Pittsburgh, and then next the APHA meeting in New Orleans! California, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Tunisia, California. Along came Katrina, APHA moved the meeting, but also changed the dates, so I had to try to reticket. I called United and the reservation agent said, “I’ve worked here 22 years - I don’t know how to do this!” She did figure it out, with convenient flights and good seats, except for San Francisco Frankfurt, at a cost of another $400. This vacation was getting out of hand. I kept wondering if this, now the fourth change, and all the problems with hotels, and the internal air not yet even booked, if maybe somewhere along the line I should have just cancelled everything!
I’m embarrassed to write that my phone card history just for July and August shows 23 international calls ($9.22 through a prepaid plan at www.onesuite.com ).
But, persistently, I called Tunis Air in London again and yes indeed the return leg of the pair of flights I’ve been waiting for is in the system and has an open seat, and the pair of legs I’ve already booked is still in the system, but wait, wait, ... there’s no outbound leg. On any day. Except by going through Paris.

After some hours of angst I regrouped, omitted one stop, rebooked hotels, resigned myself to seeing less of the area, relaxed, and the next morning checked one more time. The “under construction” website was up, at least in French, and, voila, you can get there from here. It was after closing in Tunis and London, my local travel agent wasn’t going to be in ‘til tomorrow, when I am scheduled to be out of town (thank goodness for cell phones), I am worrying so much that the flight which just appeared will be sold out overnight, ... And I decided to leave those hotel bookings in place as backup and cancel once I’m there,

A friend with an amazing outlook emailed back “I can't imagine that the trip will be any more of an adventure than planning it!.”
So, a few more calls, the flights aren’t in US travel agent computers, Tunis Air relented and accepted a US based credit card, and will hold the tickets at the airport for me (for an extra 25 pounds) and I’ve just received a faxed itinerary.
Departing and Arriving
The day of departure my flight is not ‘til 2 and I am ready very early. I tried to phone the intermediate hotel one last time, a person answered who was willing to listen to my high school French, confirmed my reservation (the hotel is full which surprised me since it is off season now) and so I used the internet to cancel my back-up plans.
I was surprised that it took 80 minutes to get checked-in on United and through San Francisco security; when the purser listed the languages available onboard, one was ASL; the flight to Frankfurt arrived 30 minutes early but no gate was ready; a cup of tea at the Frankfurt airport cost $5, the transfer to my Tunis Air connection was easy, no one has yet weighed my suitcase or my carry-on, despite all the care I took to comply with the rules - one 44 pound checked bag, one 22 pound carry-on . I realized while on board that I might have trouble checking my suitcase all the way home since I was traveling partly on an eticket, so in Frankfurt, the Lufthansa transfer desk kindly printed me a receipt and itinerary which they assured me would be enough of an authorization. On the next flight I dozed some and woke to what I thought was singing - my seatmate was reading from his prayer book.

At the Tunis airport there were WSIS welcome signs and repeated announcements, entrance was slow but uneventful, I picked up my ongoing tickets for the vacation portion that had been so hard to acquire, was bussed to the WSIS badging area, chatted in line with a friendly man who lives here and gave me his card, in case I need anything, and then, once enough of a group formed, was bussed to my hotel, a longer ride than I expected and a chance to chat with a woman from Sacramento in charge here of the Intel display.

Fortunately my hotel was the first stop, since by then I was quite frayed. It had taken 3 hours from airport - tickets, bus, badge, bus - and I had been traveling altogether for 23 hours. (The badge becomes an accessory at a conference and I was pleased to see that the orange badge theme color will match the clothes I had so carefully chosen to bring.) I’ve been through metal detectors a number of times, at the airport, at the badging site, at the hotel. When I checked, now that my other plans were in place, I asked if I could change the departure to one day earlier, was told no problem, but I later that night found it has caused the computer to bump up the rate $40 a night which I let worry me a lot overnight but was able to resolve in the morning), and the package of paperbacks and protein bars that I had mailed three weeks ago from the US had not arrived (and my guess now is will never - I used USPS global priority mail). There’s a lot of security in the corridors, at the interior entrances, put in place because of WSIS and, no, I’m told, not increased after last week’s Amman bombings.

My hotel, a Renaissance, is one of a handful of hotels along the Gulf of Tunis and near nothing but each other. It is three floors, has some wheelchair ramps and an accessible bathroom near the restaurant, and sprawls around a garden and pool and has a path to the Gulf beach. The hotel provided a welcome of a tray of fruits, a tray of sweets, and a liter bottle of mineral water, and three small bottles - quinine, ginger ale, coca cola. The room is ground level, has a patio with a table and two straight chairs, and a sliding door with no screens (an occasional fly). The floor is 1' square sea green tiles set in a diamond pattern and there is an area rug at the foot of the two twin beds and another beside the table and two barrel chairs. The TV remote controls are in Arabic; I’m guessing. There’s an open safe with instructions for setting a combination; I made a mistake, locked it closed with the default combination unknown to me, guessed at 0000, and felt most impressed with myself when it opened! There’s a small refrigerator, no ironing board or iron, a hair dryer which requires continual pressure on the switch to operate, a built in pot to boil water (the base and its cord are set into a tray and the cord goes down from the base through the shelf, behind the refrigerator, to the outlet), Nescafe and mint tea and almonds and pistachios. (Later when I was shelling the pistachios I decided they must be a net zero calorie food, that the energy expanded to open one must be equal to or more than the energy gained by eating one.) There’s a terry robe, terry slippers, thin absorbent towels including a huge bath towel, no face cloth (I guessed to pack one of my own), the tub is molded plastic, deep and narrow, fills quickly, has useful built in metal hand grips, and widens for arm rests if one lies down, and a shower head which can also be hand-held, but a daily challenge to make the water go from tub to shower - the trick is to turn it on a little, press in, add more water pressure. The whole bathroom, including the separated toilet area, is tiled and on the tub wall is a tiled mural, five palm trees and two sailboats. Beside the toilet is a faucet and hand-held personal hygiene spigot. There’s a extractable clothesline built into the shower wall but no place opposing to anchor the cord. And there’s a desk, a mirror above it, and two 220 outlets at chest level where I have plugged in my laptop to write this. The walls are paper thin and the couple in the room next door speak to each other continually and loudly (the woman’s suitcase didn’t arrive - she’s stressed, he’s offering solutions).

I slept and unpacked and by 11 AM had hired a taxi to visit Sidi Bou Said and take a look at the exterior of the Carthage ruins just by car. Sidi Bou Said is a traditional village, white stucco, blue paint and blue metal trim, rising steeply from the Gulf of Tunis, cobbled streets, a favorite tourist destination with stalls and wares lining the entry street.

While I waited in the lobby a woman kept setting off the metal detector, was frustrated while her whole purse was emptied since all she wanted to do was leave a message at the front desk.
In the afternoon I napped, then walked for a while along the beach, soft waves, blue and light green water, camel colored sand, beach umbrellas like broomstick skirts of reeds clustered at each hotel’s portion though mostly the chairs are stored for the winter, and just as I got back to the hotel grounds a light rain began. Today had been clear, in the 70's, a bit muggy, but the forecast has been for rain, rain and more rain.
So far, the male service staff are friendly and welcoming, the women do their job, don’t extend themselves. The men seem also very friendly with each other, lots of handshaking, multi-tasking, what seems to me confusion. It took lots and lots of yelling yesterday for the bus shuttle drivers to organize themselves and the passengers. My sense of the process and culture here is that it’s non-linear. Though arranged taxis are punctual to the second (that may only be for foreigners), generally the clock does not rule.
I think there are some intersections between the poetic Arabic nature and language, the curving high ceilinged architecture (which traps the heat high), mirages, and the non-linearity, the sense of InShallah, if God wills.
There is security everywhere, two men at each hotel’s entrances, including the path from the beach, two men, waiting, smoking, waiting.

I took with me to try out a foil pack of “camping” food that I had purchased from the internet, had leftover rice and beans in the refrigerator, wondered whether to try it cold, instead created a hot pot by adding an inch of boiling water to the plastic lined ice bucket and sitting the food container inside and covering for 15 minutes. The contents were warm throughout and I enjoyed a feeling of ingenuity and efficacy.

I realized that part of how I manage travel is to ground myself with hotel room organizing and housekeeping. It helps me to keep this journal, to make lists, and plans that work, and to check things off. I like “cooking” in hotel rooms, making tea and instant soups, going to the market for salad veggies and cheese.
I like studying maps and finding my way by foot. Here I cannot do this, sites are far apart and I am advised that I should not go alone to the Medina, the old, large, covered market for spices, silver, jewels, ... So yesterday was a hard day as I groped for how to take care of myself as well as dealing with the 9 hour time difference. By this morning (Sunday) I was better able to figure out the rest of the week and am planning before returning to my hotel by taxi to ask the driver to take me to the supermarket for cheese and nuts and maybe vegetables, though I’ve been advised to eat nothing unpeeled or uncooked.
I made the mistake of checking my email at the hotel, had to use a French keyboard with letters in unfamiliar places but that didn’t matter in the end because the service wouldn’t send. I had turned off as much as I could, had 75 messages, 65 of them spam!, and one that I let irritate me too much, questioning my expense reimbursement form from the Open Minds conference which I can do nothing about ‘til I get home. (This is from the person who wrote that she didn’t realize I wanted to be scheduled to do the presentation they had invited me to do; she’s asking for meal receipts but the estimate I gave included per diem and my understanding is that was agreed on.) I was planning on that check being in the mail when I got home and I’m guessing she wont send any until she has approved all.

The supermarket expedition had highlights - the market is in the middle of a large and modern mall, which I didn’t explore, and is itself huge. One inserts a one dinar coin ($.80) to release a cart, the coin is returned when the cart is returned. I was obviously needing help and people in the store pointed to me where things were. I bought a 1.5 liter bottle of water, $.20; .3 kg (a bit less than half a pound) of cheese, $2.00; 3 pears, $.75; 4 bananas, $1.00; and over half a pound of olives and pickles, $1.10. The taxi driver put the bags in the car, asked if I wanted to go to a nut shop (I had forgotten to look for them), and drove to a tiny stand where I bought a bag of cashews. Until now, I had been traveling on wide fast thruways. These roads wound through the streets where people lived, did errands, worked, went to school and I felt that I had finally had a glimpse of authentic Tunis, narrow streets, buildings close together, ugly, flat. Including the taxi and the nuts, the trip cost $5 more than the prior days buffet and I now have enough supplies for this leg of the trip. As well, when I returned to the hotel, I had a hotel envelope waiting for me at the front desk. “Me?” I was quizzical, wondered if there was a mistake, the clerk opened it, a message from the post office, my package had arrived (22 days by priority mail), and I was required to go to the post office and show my passport in order to collect it. Since I had just been driving by there this felt a bit of a cosmic joke, but I was able to arrange for the hotel car to take me there tomorrow morning at 8 and then to come back to the conference I’ve been attending.

I put away my groceries walked along the beach, collected some pretty shells, peachy pink colors, sat on the sand and for a while listened to the sounds of the water, was surprised to see the beach path security guards with rifles on their knees, returned to my room to wash the shells, eat supper (pickles, rice and beans, cheese, a pastry) and type these notes. Today was the kind of day I had anticipated, the kind of travel day that satisfies me.
I’m surprised how well my French is working and notice that sometimes I am speaking and understanding directly without mental translation. It’s a good thing, because outside of some hotel staff, there isn’t a lot of English spoken.
On the way to the post office the car was stopped several times for extra security as we passed the President’s palace where he will be in residence for the next several days. Each window at the post office is specialized. We started at one, was told to wait at two but there was no clerk, then those at three and four together helped us while another got the receipts book. They quickly found the paperwork, I signed in several places, paid $.50, and went on the conference I’d been attending. The driver took the package back to the hotel and agreed to cut it open since I had nothing sharp. It turns out that was unnecessary; when I did return security had insisted on opening the box, tearing the tape enough so that they could bend a flap and look inside, but not enough that I could easily open the whole package.
Mid-morning I shared a taxi with a woman who it turned out had been born in Tunis, was also Jewish, and worked in Nice, France’s silicon valley, doing something that sounded pretty exciting but which I couldn’t really translate.

I had to have my key recharged twice before I could open my hotel room door, walked on the beach, today was more lovely weather, and am now winding down from the WSIS pre-day (see that report for content details).

At the conference there is speculation about the future of the internet and a realization that “ we don’t know.” I find thinking about those unknown possibilities very exciting. I am looking forward to being surprised.
On the bus back today I got acquainted with a businessman from Seattle interested in policy. He told me about his travel logistics, 22 hours, what he thought might be next, I said a bit about civil society and human rights, he told me how he understood the meeting results and next steps, and then told me how much he’d enjoyed talking with me. Hmm, I thought, talking at, not interactive.

I finished the last of the plate of pastries the hotel left me. I have been amazed that I ate only one a day.

Then I went for a walk on the beach and on the way back chatted with the security guard who assured me that Tunisia is not part of the Middle East unrest, that the terrorists are “malade” (sick). I said that was too simple, that to stop them we must understand their minds, why they have so much fear of change. He said Tunis is not a rich country, no natural resources, only agriculture and tourism, he would like a house but doesn’t earn enough to save, and that here in Tunis life is simple -- one works, one sleeps.
One must insert one’s key in a wall switch to turn on the room electricity. But the chambermaid just wedged the switch on with the cardboard cover from the complimentary emery board.

Since I was here, I had been asked to represent WNUSP on the IDA panel presentation at the Disability Forum. I carefully prepared a few words about People Who and the internet, isolation, e communities, and how accommodations for others help us too. I was so focused on myself as a netizen, a person hooked on the technology, that not only did I not prepare anything explaining WNUSP’s history (of course the name speaks for itself and I do know the story) and I didn’t even think to include my usual sentence about my consumer credential (six hospitals, ...) until Kohe, from Japan, asked if I were a user. So, another lesson, about context, and who is the audience, and what is the message.
I took the conference bus back to the hotel where I’ve been staying and am typing in the lobby, waiting to leave at 7 for the airport for a 9:45 PM flight southwest to Tozeur.
It really did take 30 minutes in the hotel van from hotel to airport. I expected crowds since the Summit had ended but it was not at all busy. I decided to ask for a vegetarian meal on my exit flight to Frankfurt, the reservation agent puzzled and puzzled, said there would be a fee, I realized she had misunderstood and thought I wanted to change my ticket! She asked a colleague for the meal code and that was then easily accomplished. The ATM worked just fine though I won’t know what exchange rate I’m getting to I look at my statement. Interior flights were downstairs and around the corner, the 8 PM check-in started earlier, the 9:45 flight, originally 11:45, is now 9:30 and has one stop, my suitcase was exactly at the 20KG limit, hand baggage wasn’t weighed, though was limited to one piece. The clerk noticed wetness on the side of my suitcase, wanted to know if I had liquids inside, would I open the suitcase, allowed me to feel the dampness, and was satisfied when I explained I thought is was from the car, not from inside the suitcase. Security opened around 8:40, metal detector plus wanding, then all waited for the bus to the nearby plane. My claim ticket and passport fell out of their wallet as I boarded the bus and a woman noticed immediately and told me. I recovered them from the steps and my heart was pounding with what could have been so difficult and was so unexpected and I said this as I thanked her. (This is the first trip I’ve used this system; it worked very well the first two flights but was full of more papers and tickets.) The woman said “Now it will never happen again.” The flight is totally full. I was given a window seat in a 3 3 configuration (the web had said these planes were 2 2) sat beside a couple also going to Tozeur, he as university president, to a conference. She invited me to visit her office in the medina - she is in charge of a modern art vision in Tunis. The flight stopped first in Djerba were about a third of the passengers got off and a new crew boarded, and landed on time in Tozeur at 11:45 PM, bags were delivered promptly, a woman with a child tried to make a deal with a taxi driver for us to share but the drivers became very upset, one client per car is the rule. So they put my two pieces of luggage on the back seat and then invited me into the car. I wasn’t sure where to sit, the driver’s colleague took my small bag and sat with it in his lap on the front seat. And then they treated me to the “touristique” route through narrow dark alleys. I knew the trip was very short and took deep calming breaths until we arrived. I’m sure the $8 price was exorbitant, but I was too eager for bed for that to matter. I walked into the reception area, two long counters, two seating areas, one with a desk, and was stunned with the decor, huge expanses of space and ceilings I think 16' high, tile floors. In front of me was the actual hotel sitting room, 45' x 50'. My reservation was indeed in order, the woman who noticed I had dropped my passport, one of a couple with two little children was there, already settled, and I wondered how others had arrived so quickly, whether I’d missed the hotel car, didn’t want to wait for the porter to return from helping someone else so started to wheel my suitcase towards my room which caused the reception clerk to leave the desk and help. We walked thorough tiled corridors, another large sitting area perhaps 70' long with seven conversation areas of sofas, benches, chairs around a table, a patio with a fountain and flower petals in the water, off which were 7 rooms and two corridors each with a few rooms, all hugely welcoming, and unlocked my door. The first impression of the room was bleak, stark, in contrast to what I’d just seen, and fresh smelling, but in bed the smell of soap, like Ivory, on the sheets is very strong, unpleasant (but I am not getting a headache, not feeling ill, I’m just aware, and my mouth is coated with the smell.). The mattress is just fine for sleeping, and for sitting now and typing or reading it feels very lumpy. In the morning I realized the negative first impression was because of the dim lighting, but that sensation stays. So, I put some things away, fell asleep, and woke up at 7:30.

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