Because it was there. That is our new joke. I'm not sure what men do around here for work, but they sure spend a lot of time sitting along the road and standing in the middle of it. Seriously, gangs and gangs of them sit about along the roadsides and then decide to cross to the other side for no apparent reason, without even looking down the road to see if there is traffic approaching. We find it humorous. The mood when driving around is often enhanced by fun Arabic music on the radio when we can find it. The DJs here basically talk all day and insert a song here and there. It's extremely rare to hear two songs in a row, unless you can pick up radio from Europe – which we can sometimes here in Tabarka. Our truck has shortwave radio band, so we've gotten some funky stations like in Chinese; and our favorite to date: nondescript music playing softly while some guy says deliberately (and in English), "the fish is mute; the fish knows everything." [I actually wrote an entire essay inspired by these two sentences, which was published in Sou'Wester. You can read it on my writing website, HERE.] People are quite friendly when driving, particularly down south, everyone waves when we drive by, and smiles or blows kisses.
We're now in the coastal town of Tabarka, staying in a little apartment (our timeshare trade). When we arrived at the address of the hotel, we found it totally abandoned, the pool drained... We were a bit downcast, since we had reservations to stay here. Finally some man clued us in that it had moved. Our place is actually very nice with a lovely sea-view balcony. We go shopping each day for fresh bread to eat with our harissa we bought at the grocery store. At the 4-star hotel down the beach we talked the guard into letting us in the back gate to have beer at their bar, since you can't buy it in any stores during Ramadan (which we are in the middle of). The fancy 4- and 5-star hotels are gated; I guess to keep out riff raff like us. Tunisia makes one beer, "Celtia" and fortunately it is quite a tasty one; we like it.
Before we left Kairouan to come here, we had drinks at the most posh hotel in all of Tunisia (5+-star), the Kasbah, (means fortified tower) outside the medina in Kairouan. And yes, we rocked it. It was birding hour while we were there, the hour or so before sunset. Thousands of birds filled the trees around the outdoor swimming pool where we sat, and they made an amazing ruckus, quite fascinating, really. And that happened to be some sort of special day for the Ramadan, and the evening prayers blasted out of the minaret speakers for a good half an hour, until sunset at 7:30; the wailing prayers layered over the crazy chirping birds was a little surreal. All restaurants were closed that evening, except for one that our hotel owner finally pointed us to after we wandered around pitifully in hunger.
So we've seen several impressive Roman sites during our time in this area, northwestern Tunisia. The first place we went to was called Dougga. Pretty much had the place to ourselves, a fairly large ruin. Parked on a dirt road and walked across a field of weeds to the ruin ... what a glorious difference from standing in the concrete jungle of Rome packed between thousands of other tourists. This city, which is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site, had an amphitheater, a stadium and many temples and a triumphal arch. Erik tried a cactus fruit from a guy selling them at the outskirts of the ruin. He made a hilarious face…. that is to say, he didn’t much care for it.
The ruins we went to today, Bulla Regia, are those of a wealthy merchant town. Most of the above-ground buildings are but rubble, however several underground villas were in amazing shape, with tile mosaics still in place on the floors. The underground areas were as if the inhabitants had moved out only yesterday. Really neat. There were actually goats wandering around topside, and some shepherds loitering nearby. That's how "natural" these ruins are ... still part of the local landscape. It's so hard to believe what ancient mastery lies beneath an unremarkable field of low stone pillars and grazing goats. I would have to say this was one of my favorite ruins of any kind I've ever visited. I would put Tikal and Machu Picchu at the top, and then Bulla Regia despite it's small and humble presence next to the grandeur of the other two. Something about it was just magical. We were the only people there almost the whole time, frolicking through the ancient world. The tile mosaics on the floors captivated me. They were smart cookies, those Romans, building their residences underground to protect themselves from the heat ... the temperature down below was delicious!
We next went to Chemtou, a marble quarry that was renowned in the ancient world for its pink marble, and took a brief respite from Star Wars-land into Indiana Jones-land, when we entered into an underground shaft in the quarry, and the walls were LINED with spider webs, making us feel like we were in an I.J. movie; fortunately no tarantulas hopped on our backs. Here is our little truck we love so much inside the quarry.
The area around here is full of cork forests, harvested for wine bottle corks and other uses. The bark is stripped off of the bottom part of the tree, but it grows back in about 10 years. It's beautiful, rolling countryside with lots and lots of sheep and goat herds. The weather is a bit cooler than the south. Hurray. Have you ever seen a cork tree?
And in conclusion of this post, here is a Tunisian about to cross the road. :-)