KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
I first saw Sousse 38 years ago when I arrived in Tunisia from the Algerian desert and travelled to the coast. My friend and I had thrown our lot in with a couple of German travellers, who had bought an old Mercedes in Germany, and drove to Morocco, then through Algeria into Tunisia and were planning to carry on back to Europe. We chipped in for gas and it gave us a chance to forego public transport and see the Sahara, south of Algiers.
We slept in our sleeping bags on the ground outside the car, while the two young men slept inside. So much for chivalry. They dropped us at a bus stand in Sousse and we caught the first bus heading to Tunis. That was as much as I saw of the city. All I remember is the bright colour of the Mediterranean and the endless olive orchards as we headed along the coastal plain northwards.
Now the beach at Sousse has become very popular with Europeans, and they outnumber the Tunisians in the summer months. The weather was cool and rainy so we didn’t even bother to go and have a look, but headed straight for the medina because it is reputed to have a stimulating mix of historical and religious buildings inside, cheek-by-jowl with the daily commercial activity.
We parked our car in a small lot near the huge walls and paid less than a dollar for someone to keep an eye on it. We plunged straight into the narrow lanes and looked for a place to eat. It had been a long morning arranging for the pick up of the rental car and settling the mess with our hotel reservation at the same time. The morning had dawned cold and rainy once again and we were happy to be heading south where it is usually warmer and drier at all times of the year.
We had originally booked our hotel online with Hotels.com but had extended our stay by telling the hotel staff we wanted to stay for an additional three nights. I should have confirmed that we would be charged the same rate, but neglected to do so, that was our first mistake. We sometimes begin the checkout procedure the night before we leave, but we didn’t; mistake number two. When we arrived to pay our bill, it showed the full six nights, and at a rate much higher that we were quoted on Hotels.com. The receptionist became a little flustered when I told her we had already paid for three nights on the internet, and she told us she had no record of our payment and that the hotel doesn’t take reservations through the net.
I was prepared with a screen shot of our confirmation from Hotels.com and one of the visa charge on our bank account but she was adamant. Luckily, the hotel had great internet access and I logged into Skype right then and there and called the information number on my confirmation. I got through right away and learned that Expedia owns Hotels.com. When the receptionist heard me say Expedia, she told me that they work with Expedia but that she didn’t receive a fax from the rep in Tunis. She called through to the office and got everything straightened out. Phew!
While I was on hold with Expedia, I learned that I should have extended the reservation through them to get the discounted rate; mistake number three. Live and learn. It’s hard to tell we are not well versed with booking on the internet. As you probably know, we usually arrive and see the hotel and the rooms before we make the decision on where to stay, so we are relative neophytes at this online game. There wasn’t much we could do, so we just sucked it up and paid the higher rate. Fortunately, it wasn’t too out of line, and we had really liked the hotel as well.
While I was managing all this, the man had arrived with the rental car and Anil was busy filling out all the papers. He did most of the paperwork, but we still had to go back to the office and finish things off. That wasn’t a problem as we wanted to drop the driver back anyway, but we were surprised to learn that the ‘new’ car we were promised, had 100,000 km on it already and was a little worse for wear and tear. When you look around at the vehicles in Tunisia, I would have to agree that a car with ‘only’ 100,000 km is probably a relatively new car. We were basing our expectations on the car we rented in Beirut and the vehicles there, which were BMWs, Mercedes or Jaguars at one end of the spectrum; or junk heaps at the other end.
We were very pleased that the man who was deputized to deliver the car to us spoke decent English and we had a chance to confirm that we were covered by insurance for all possible eventualities. We had decided not to use a credit card in case it might be compromised, so that meant that we would not have the collision damage coverage offered through the card. I was glad that we asked, because it was then made clear that we would have to pay an extra fee for the additional coverage. We asked the man what most tourists choose. We laughed when he told us that Canadians always choose the extra coverage, and that the French never do.
True Canadians to the core, we added the extra coverage and plunged into the rush hour traffic of Tunis. It wasn’t bad at all, and after what we faced in Lebanon, the traffic was tame and hassle free. Before we knew it, we were on the outskirts of the city, filling the tank at a gas station. They told us the cars are always rented without gas and should be returned empty; that suited us just fine.
We hadn’t driven a manual car for some years, but all our previous cars before owning the Volvo were manual, so we adapted pretty quickly and pointed the car in the direction of the toll highway to Sousse. The freedom the car gave us was exhilarating. Okay, enough rambling on about the rental car, back to lunch in the medina in Sousse. We managed to find a little restaurant next door to the one in the Lonely Planet that was recommended, but now closed. That’s what comes from using a three-year old edition, when the newest one had not yet been released.
We had a great feast of couscous with vegetables and chicken, and then set off to explore. One of the first historical buildings we came to was a small domed tomb, Kalaat El-Koubba, with an unusual ribbed design on the dome. In ancient times it was an old funduq or caravanserai (inn) where the travelling tradesmen would stay with their goods and their camels. The door to the funduq had to be built high enough and wide enough for a fully-loaded camel to enter. The koubba has been remarkably well-restored.
For the next hour or so, we wandered through the narrow streets of the medina, and also toured the interior of the home of a wealthy traditional family. The home appears to be frozen in time and now current family members live elsewhere and make a living on the admission charged to see their ancestors home. This has been done in Europe for many years now, so it wasn’t surprising to see it done here. We had walked through the interior of a similar house in Tunis, but it wasn’t furnished and this one was much more interesting. We especially liked the kitchen and the storerooms located on the upper floor.
We learned that the large courtyard is designed to slope to the centre so that rainwater is collected in a cistern below. This makes sense in a climate like Tunisia’s but I didn’t realize that the water stored underground also helps to keep the home cool during the hot summer months. The thick walls, shaded courtyard as well as the brilliant white walls work to keep the residents comfortable as well. This early in the spring, we don’t have to worry about keeping cool; keeping warm was more of a concern for us. We were glad we had sweaters, jackets and socks to stay comfortable.
We didn’t visit the mosque or the fortress because we were heading towards Kairouan, the carpet capital of Tunisia and we knew we would see many more of these typical structures there. We wanted to arrive and find a hotel before dark. Our confidence in driving does not extend to the hours after the sun sets. The highway into the desert had only two lanes, but there was almost no traffic at all and we were relaxed and enjoyed the drive.