Tunisia Part 2: El-Jem, Matmata, and Berbers.

Transport in Tunisia

For several reasons, we decided to take a tour bus around Tunisia, instead of our usual attempt to make our way via public transport. Driving by car was eliminated because the roads were said to be in poor shape, with potholes and random closures. Also, periodically there were police blocks set up in hopes of identifying a criminal. In addition to these two reasons, there is also the obvious third reason that Jeff and I are not experienced in driving in developing countries. We can insist upon lane lines all we want but that will not make anyone else use them. And unlike India, it is not common for people to hire drivers to escort them around the country.

With cars out of the question, that leaves trains. While this is a completely viable option to travel to certain cities, for our purposes, they didn’t make the cut. The sights we wanted to see were in the middle of the country, and it would appear that the trains mostly serviced the main cities on the northern coast. Heythem was also not a big fan of the train, because he found them to be crowded and unreliable. Personally, I have no experience though.

Tunisian Tours

In order to book our tour, we found a travel agency in Monastir. Through the agent we booked a two day one night excursion with Voyages et Loisirs Tunisie. By doing this tour we would be in a 50 passenger bus that would see the Colosseum in El Jem, visit Matmata where Star Wars was filmed, visit a Berber village, go to Douz and ride camels, travel to a desert oasis by 4x4s, and end our second day in Kairouan. It included two lunches, one dinner and one breakfast. And, we believed it to be a good price. Jeff was squeaky about the 50 passenger van, and there were smaller and private tour options, but not within our last minute time frame.
In order to make this tour we were up by 5:30 am to catch our 6:00 am departure. We had to walk 10 minutes from our hotel to a different hotel, which I mention only because we then later drove past our hotel. We could of been picked up, 30 minutes later, at our original hotel. If there is anyone you don’t want to wake up early, especially needlessly early, it’s Jeff. He doesn’t get grumpy in the way most people do, he doesn’t snap or make rude comments, but he does make fun of you for not stealing coffee from the not-your-hotel breakfast buffet and call you a sheep for following rules.
El Jem Amphitheater exterior

El – Jem, El Djem, قصر الجمّ

After we drove for about an hour, we arrived in El-Jem to see the roman amphitheater. This structure is technically an amphitheater, but I’m pretty sure everyone refers to it as the colosseum. It is the third largest colosseum in the world, after the famous one in Rome and one in Verona. Scenes from Gladiator and Monty Python’s Life of Brian were filmed here as well. Structures like this were used by the Roman’s to help win over a population, by providing entertainment and the appearance of strength by the architecture itself. The colosseum in El Jem was interesting because it was a building out in the open, a victim to the elements. Other structures would use a cliff or hill for protection or to aid in the stadium seating. El Jem was built from the ground up.
It is worth noting that the under ground tunnels are very well preserved in this colosseum, where the lions and tigers were kept before battles. These are better preserved than Rome’s colosseum.
El Jem Amphitheater exterior


El Jem Amphitheater exterior
Over the course of time, the Romans abandoned the city. The colosseum was then used for a number of other things aside from lion fights. During the Arab invasion, the Berbers (indigenous people of the area) used the colosseum as a stronghold and hiding place. The structure is very well preserved, excluding the bricks taken to for construction in the local city and the mosque in Kairouan. Also ignoring the explosion that the Turks made to uncover the hiding places of dissidents.
El Jem Amphitheater exterior


El Jem Amphitheater interior

Tourist Price in Tunisia

Between El Jem and our next tourist sight, we made a stop for some coffee. While everyone piled out and ordered coffee, Heythem asked some boys sitting nearby how much the coffee would be for locals. Instead of just telling him the price, the boy leapt up and offered to order the coffee for Heythem. Because of this, we got our coffee for much cheaper than the other tourist on our bus. I believe we paid 800 Milims for each, when the rest on our bus paid 2 Dinar (1000 Milims = 1 Dinar). This apparently did not please the owner of the shop when he realized that the coffee’s were being given to white people, but Heythem gave him some extra money to appease him.
This is something we experienced the rest of the tour, the price for tourist was easily 2x or 3x higher than for locals. And that negotiation was possible in most situations.
Matmata sign

Matmata, مطماطة

Even Tunisian’s didn’t know of Matmata until 1967. The town is a traditional Berber village that previous had kept to themselves and their nomadic customs. In 1967 there was 20 days of rain that collapsed many of the towns traditional underground homes, so in order to seek help, a group was sent to a nearby settlement for help. From this, many families moved to the new above ground homes in the settlement that was built to be Matmata, but many families still chose to live in the traditional troglodyte  dwellings.
Today, Matmata is famous for it being the home of Luke Skywalker while he lived with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine. The filming was done at the Hotel Sidi Driss, which has some of the film props set into the walls.
During a short stop for photos, Heythem ran off to grab some sand for his friends back home in Montana. Jeff was taking pictures of him as proof that the sand was legitimately foreign sand. While they did this, the boy pictured above came over to me and showed me his bird. While I was trying to say “no thank you,” the bird hopped onto my arm. We got a couple of nice shots with us and the bird, and in the end he asked us for 5 Dinar. Now, I should of been outraged at this ridiculous price, but in spite of being tricked, I actually liked the boy. He seemed genuine and nice, and just trying to earn some money. The problem was that we only had a 10 Dinar bill and 600 Milim in coins. Heythem eventually came over and talked to him, and once we had someone to communicate with him he said “Just give me whatever you think is fair.” So Heythem said.
I feel bad for not having more money for the guy, and it is a good idea to travel with small coins for situations like this.


Other Interesting Tunisian Facts

The rest of the tour will be described in later posts, for now this is a nice breaking point. There are some interesting facts that were shared during our long hours on the bus that don’t fit nicely into any of the other categories though.

Gasoline in Libya is much cheaper than it is in Tunisia. Thus, families will cross the border and buy tons of gas to then sell illegally along the road in Tunisia. This results in little tarp structures dotting the roadside with stacks upon stacks of 5-gallon containers of gas.

Tunisia is actually a very progressive country in terms of gender equality. This is doubly interesting considering 98% of its population is muslim. Girls make up 59% of classrooms, and more are enrolled in secondary school than men. Women make up only 30% of the workforce, but this puts them on par with western societies. Wearing the Hijab is a completely personal decision (from our observation most young women did not wear one), and the government does not encourage any public traditions of the muslim religion. They do not want anyone to be treated differently if they are wearing traditional garb or not.

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