From Sicily I took the ferry to Malta. It was dark as the passengers stood on a long slanted road at the port, waiting, luggage in hand, for the ferry to arrive and for us to board. I realized later that taking the four plus hour crossing in the day would probably have been a better option so as to 1. Not arrive in Malta so late in the evening and 2. Be unable to watch the incredible approach to the island and the port of Valletta. Lessons learned I suppose were I to do it again.
But I was eager to depart Italy and as the season grew later, further and further into the fall (it was already November) the ferry schedules were becoming fewer; I had to take what was available. I had expected to arrive at this juncture at least a month before, but there had just been too many wonderful places where I stayed longer and/or I added destinations.
The crossing was terrible. I felt incredibly sea sick through most of it. Though others were up and about mingling, I sat firmly in my chair, my backpack upright in the adjacent chair, my head on its top, my arms clutching it. If I moved my head at all I felt woozy and sick to my stomach. They played a movie on a screen in the center, Titanic, and I wondered what crazy, sick crewmember had thought that an appropriate movie for sea journey in the pitch black night. Yet I could not look away as that would require me to move my head; I was extremely grateful to arrive in Valletta.
I splurged on a room near the center of town so I would not have to share and could walk to many places. The sick feeling that had begun in Rome had persisted and grown worse and I needed more rest. I called the US Embassy doctor who kindly agreed to come to my hotel for an examination and consultation, thus redeeming the position in my eyes after the nurse in Skopje had so easily dismissed me and left me my possible fate by rabies. As I planned on only five total days in Malta he asked me my next destinations – Tunisia and Egypt – and suggested I meet with the doctor in Tunis as the country had inherited a French medical system and he gave me her contact information.
Malta was so interesting, drenched in sunshine and history, an improbable small country amongst powerful countries in the middle of the Mediterranean, but blessed with some high cliffs and a long, deep harbor that made its defense possible. Despite not feeling 100% I made an effort to see as much as I could of Malta with what energy I had. I attended the “Malta Experience” a one hour movie on the history of Malta followed by a self-guided tour of St. Elmo’s Fort and National War Museum. I took a boat tour of the harbor, which helped me to realize what I had missed out on arriving at night and went to see the Blue Grotto, though from above (still traumatized by the boat trip on arrival). I spent a wonderful hour or so at the Museum of Archaeology and half a day out at Mnajdra, one of the megalithic temples of Malta that are listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Simply strolling the streets of old Valletta was enjoyable. Although I did not know it at the time, Malta was an oasis between the aggressiveness of Southern Italy and Tunisia.
I took a flight to Tunis; I could not stomach the thought of another Mediterranean ferry crossing.
I found a decent $28 a night hotel right on the tree-lined pedestrian Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the heart of Tunis. I feel pretty safe here and I have my own bathroom and TV with lots of American shows in French, which I do not understand. The shower doesn’t work so well and the restaurant has no menu, but it would be a pain to change.
As my hotel was within walking distance of the beautiful Medina of Tunis, I visited several times, meandering through the labyrinth of stalls and cafes. As I still had potentially months more of travel, I kept my purchases small and simple. I bought a beautiful Tunisian necklace and small vial of citron perfume, the latter of which smelled like lemon Pledge (a U.S. furniture polish brand). I could only think that it must be incredibly sexy to smell as if one has just finished buffing the dining room table.
I did a day trip to the ruins at Carthage and the nearby village of Sidi Bou Said, many of its homes with beautifully decorative doors in multiple shades.
In light of the recent terrorist attack at the Bardo museum I have wracked my brain to confirm I had been there. It would have been very uncharacteristic of me to miss a museum of its caliber, but I have looked through my journal entries and there is no mention of a visit, I have no photos, no souvenir entrance ticket.
In Tunisia my energy really faltered. My illness took so much out of me. Not only was I sightseeing but I had an appointment with the Embassy doctor at her local practice and then later a procedure at a Tunis hospital. I also applied for my Indian visa in Tunisia. Now that I am a visa officer myself and watch applicants line up for at least an hour before their appointment, snake through security, then through the line for an interview, I marvel at my own experience. In Tunisia, I walked into the Indian Embassy, more a mansion, into a large hallway, where a woman came down a carved staircase to ask me if she could be of some assistance. I filled out my application, paid my fee (US$100), and returned a few days later to pick it up.
The worst part was the unrelenting harassment.
Maybe I should intensively study French and Arabic and move to Tunisia – as I am obviously very attractive here. At least that is the nice explanation I have come to for all the unwanted attention I receive here. Everywhere I go in Tunis there are men following me. I am trying to ignore the hissing, clicking, kissy noises, whistling and whispering as I pass. I try to ignore the calls of “Hello,” “Bonjour,” “Your Name?” “Italian?” “Deutsch?” and so on and practicing the fine art of looking ahead and seeing no one, catching no one’s eye. I feel my jaw set hard and my fists clenched tight.
This happened absolutely every time I left my hotel. The avenue directly in front of the hotel was divided in the center by a long pedestrian walkway lined with old style street lamps and trees filled with song birds. It seemed perfect for strolling, if you are a man on the hunt. If you are a woman who just wants to go out for a walk alone, you will be out of luck. Notice I did not say a “single woman,” just “woman” because no matter if I said I had a boyfriend or I was married, if I was alone at that time, I was prey. Several men told me that if my boyfriend/husband really cared about me, he would not have left me alone, and that THEY would treat me right. <eye roll>
Given the health and stalking situations I decided to do something unusual—I signed up for a two day group tour, conducted in French and German. I spent awhile refreshing all the French and German words I knew, which together was perhaps a dozen. The tour visited the Roman Amphitheater at El Jem, the cave dwellings at Tataouine (made famous in Star Wars), Chott El Jerid, the giant salt lake shared by Tunisia and Algeria, and rode a camel in the desert oasis of Tozeur.
I also experienced a strange bout of homesickness: I could swear I saw a mirage out in the desert. From the tour bus window, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the reflection of a Taco Bell sign. I knew not to turn my head, I could not have suffered the disappointment. I sure wish there were a Taco Bell or a place to get some nachos or some great pizza or enchiladas, or just a place that had cheese that does not taste like tofu.
Overall it was a good tour, generally free from male harassment, although my body often felt awful and I understood little. My tour guide spoke some English but for whatever reason she started each place off in German. “Blah, blah, blah,” [in German accent] for 5 minutes. Then, “blah, blah, blah,” [in French accent] also for 5 minutes. Then she would turn to me and say in English, “This is the X. You have X minutes to look around, then meet back at the bus.”
As I was leaving the coliseum in El Jem a salesman says to me “Scorpians? Marlboros?” I thought I must have heard him wrong, but I took a peek at his table and sure enough he had resin encased scorpions and packs of cigarettes for sale. I declined to purchase anything but I admired his ingenuity.
Then with my Indian visa, diagnosis and medication in hand, I am ready to leave Tunisia. Unfortunately with my open ended ticket, it takes three times to leave. Three times I check out of my hotel and head to the airport, and twice I return later in the afternoon having to check back in. My planned eight day visit turns into eleven, but third time is the charm and I am on my way to the next destination.