I’m terrible at traveling.
Don’t get me wrong, I love almost everything about it: novelty, uncertainty, newfound friends. I love trying new foods and observing new cultures. I love learning new words and seeing new sights. So it’s not that I dislike travel. I’m just bad at it.
When you travel it helps to have an open mind. It also helps to have a certain practical disposition – what some might call “common sense.” I have what I like to call an intellectual disposition, which is the nicest term I can think of for my crippling lack of street smarts.
I was reminded of that distinction in Palermo, which is where the three of us disembarked from what I’ll call The Boat.
Given its large size, it might be more accurate to call it The Ship, but that would be giving it too much respect. I’m going to call it The Boat.
But before we talk about the boat, a little bit of background…
The Boat leaves from the ferry terminal in Tunis. The terminal is adjacent to one of that city’s most vibrant areas, so our host Dhia took he opportunity to take us out on a whirlwind tour of Tunisian food.
We started with Lablebi, a garlicky chickpea soup that’s served on a bed of torn-up bread. After that we set out to find brik, a decadent deep-fried pastry stuffed with potato, tuna, and a runny egg. We found our brik and so much more, including harissa, salads, couscous, and fish (grilled whole), served with loads of bread and fries for good measure.
We left the restaurant reeking of fish, so naturally our next destination was a trendy high-end bar on the upper floors of a nearby hotel. Dhia’s friend Asma bought us a round of drinks and we said our goodbyes. Before he could drive us to the ferry terminal, Dhia had to give some change to a gang of young men who were running a protection racket on cars parked outside the bar.
I won’t spend too much time describing the ferry terminal, but three things stood out:
1) There were no-smoking signs on every wall. They were the first such signs we saw in Tunis, where people smoke constantly in every bar, cafe, and restaurant.
2) Men were smoking everywhere. There were ashtrays on every table. The air was grey.
3) There were hundreds of men. Smoking, leather-jacketed Tunisian men. We saw maybe ten women, most of them watching children.
We had bought tickets for a boat that left at midnight. When we arrived at the terminal at 4:00pm we learned that it left at one in the morning. After going through customs, we waited in the terminal until two. They finally opened the doors and we walked the long walk from the terminal to the dock, where we waited in the freezing cold until three.
Eventually, The Boat staff grabbed our bikes and gruffly strapped them to some sketchy concrete pillars. We locked our wheels and saddles in place and proceeded to the main deck.
We found ourselves in a dingy room full of dingy chairs. The windows were opaque. People were stripping seat cushions to set up makeshift beds. Tired humans were strewn everywhere. The nearby washrooms were full of smoking, leather-jacketed men. We found the largest remaining patch of floor and pitched our tents. The upside of anarchy is that you can pitch a tent inside The Boat.
I’ve lived a charmed life of first-world comfort. The Boat really put things into perspective for me. Not because it was inadequate. Actually, it was sort of the opposite: The Boat showed me how poorly I handle conditions that are merely adequate. It was bleak and beat-up and there was no toilet paper and I was slightly seasick. The proper response to those kinds of problems is probably just to get over it, but I did not. I was sad.
The Boat was set to arrive in Palermo at three in the afternoon. That was the same boat that purportedly leaves at midnight. The real-life Boat was late enough that we arrived in Palermo after dark with no accomodations and no food. After docking we stood on board for an hour or so waiting to go through passport control.
We finally escaped just after six and biked around Palermo looking for a supermarket. On the way we passed some gorgeous buildings and a lot of Conspicuously Fashionable People. Italians are just so damn fashionable.
At some point we took our eyes off of the well-coiffed locals for long enough to realize that someone had stolen the light from Cristina’s bike. And her bell. And her bottles. And my bell. And my brand new bicycle computer.
My first reaction was something like “fuck that stupid Boat and the stupid jerks who work on the stupid Boat.” My mood darkened further when an Italian child ran up to me in the street and kicked my bike. Who does that?
But since my rage subsided, I’ve adjusted my perspective and realised that anyone with any bit of common sense would know not to leave a hundred dollar computer unsupervised in plain view for thirteen hours in a foreign country.
Having one’s head in the clouds can be nice. It allows for introspection and even a certain sense of inner peace. But traveling requires a kind of down-to-earth practicality. It requires some presence of mind. It requires you not to be a total space cadet.
Here’s hoping I learned something.