From the Masseria to the Sassi

I love being on the road. When you cycle, your slow and steady pace enables you to get to know the countries you’re visiting in a way that is not possible when city-hopping. Your impressions of that place are influenced more by entire regions than major tourist sites. You work hard for the distance you cover, whether beautiful landscapes or smelly buffalo fields. Although you do not stop in every quaint town or for every beautiful view, you experience the journey in a much more tangible way than you could by train or car. You feel like you’re a part of your environment, and not just an observer behind a window.

You do, however, get smelly on the road. The feeling of hair plastered to your head in a impressive sweaty greasy helmet-hair-do becomes normal. The other day I wondered aloud about whether I would be allowed to look around a dance studio we passed. Thomas kindly reminded me that I looked rather homeless and had black grease smeared down my legs… I didn’t check out the dance studio.

The filth adds to our endless appreciation for our hosts along our way. A nice shower and a deep sleep go a long way.

My aunt and uncle, Fiona and Brandon, who live in Poggiardo, provided us with everything three worn-down travellers could hope for: hot showers, warm beds, and food galore. Fiona and Brandon are undertaking a massive restoration project. They are turning a dilapidated 18th century Masseria into a beautiful home. Masserias, old farmhouses that were fortified to protect the farmers against attacks from the Turks or pirates, are common to the region of Puglia. We ate home-grown olives (they brought in 75 year-old olive trees by crane to plant on the property), and drank Aperol spritz’ in the room where the animals used to poop and drink from troughs. Fiona’s artistic eye has completely transformed the property. It was so lovely to visit Italy’s “heel”, and it was important for me to catch up with family I haven’t managed to see in years.

Over a few Aperol spritz’… Or maybe the 5L bottle of wine… We decided to meet up with Fiona and Brandon in Matera. We had no idea what Matera was, but it was exactly on our route to Naples, so we decided we’d see them in three days and specified a campsite as a meeting place. I’m still a little shocked we made it to Matera in time; the persistent headwind made even cycling downhill difficult. But on the third morning we were finishing up our bottle of Fiona’s homemade finocchietto (fennel liquor) when she and Brandon drove their massive white van into the campsite.

Matera was phenomenal. We arrived with no expectations and were blown away. Sassi is the old city of Matera and has been continuously inhabited for the past 9,000 years. The old city is composed of part-cave, part-man made dwellings that are carved into a breathtaking limestone gorge. The lower rudimentary caves look frozen in the Palaeolithic period and lie underneath a complex myriad of streets and cave-houses.

Matera’s transformation from ‘shame to fame’ came about in the 1950’s after public awareness of Sassi’s desperate poverty and rampant disease. Between 1953 and 1968, the 15,000 inhabitants of Sassi were forced to relocate to new housing developments.

We visited a “typical” cave dwelling that was open for visitors. The clean plastic horse in the manger and the fresh plaster over the moulding damp limestone glorified the cave dwelling, especially after reading the child mortality rate in the 50’s was over 50%. Today, some of the cave dwellings have been renovated and turned into swish hotels, the profits surely not falling into the pockets of those stripped of their homes by law and forced into failed housing projects that segregated their once-strong communities.

On our last morning, we drove across the river to look across the gorge at the ancient city. It was a sight I will remember for a long time.

Our journey until Matera

Our journey until Matera


The refurbished Masseria

The refurbished Masseria


5L of great wine

5L of great wine


Camper van

Camper van


The creepy Mel Gibson movie was filmed here

The creepy Mel Gibson movie was filmed here


Posing

Posing


The gorge where Matera was built

The gorge where Matera was built


The Sassi

The Sassi

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Thank you a thousand

Italians can be quite lovely when they’re not at the steering wheel. In fact, we have encountered an overwhelming amount of generosity in past weeks from not only Italians, but also Moroccans and South Africans. As Cristina mentioned in the … Continue reading

Thighcumferenceameasurements (we measured our thighs)

The post you have all been waiting for! Thigh measurements. Just remember that bigger is not always better…

THOMAS
Right thunderous thigh: 56cm
Left thunderous thigh: 57cm

ALEX
Right thunderous thigh: 51cm
Left thunderous thigh: 51cm

CRISTINA
Right thunderous thigh: 49cm
Left thunderous thigh: 48cm

Hoping to leave Rosarno far behind us, we cycled out of our campsite and onwards. Our arrival to mainland Italy had been riddled with lost iPhones, rain, and strange-creepy towns. Nostalgic for dreamy seaside Sicilian towns, we were left wondering how many “Rosarnos” were to come.

Luckily Rosarno was not the Calabrian norm. We enjoyed the rest of our cycling in Calabria, especially cappuccinos on a sunny cafe patio in Pizzo, and watching the sunset while camping on the beach.

Monday the 30th however, was difficult. Towards the afternoon, our trusty regional cycling route turned into a large trucking highway. Then came the tunnels. Long, dark, narrow tunnels of death. There is NO light at the end of a dark multi-kilometre tunnel. Just darkness. So picture this: I am entering a dark hole in the mountainside where I am forced on the inside of the white line by the tunnel barrier, and I am starting to feel a little nervous. Then comes the sound. The sound of an avalanche building momentum behind my small flimsy bicycle. I assume that semi-truck drivers do not spend much time on bicycles in tight tunnels, because as they approach you, they honk. As if I need a warning I was about to be run over by a massive loud truck. If the noise and the truck weren’t bad enough, the wind completed my total desperation. The wind behind the truck slams into you and shudders your handlebars, a rather frightening phenomenon when there’s is no room for mistakes.

After a long row of tunnels, I was sitting on the side of the highway with my head in my hands unable to go any further. Luckily I am traveling with two caring individuals. As the first drops of rain fell, we exited the highway, cycled into Cetraro, and hopped on a train.

Our next stop was Praia a Mare. We cycled down a steep winding road from the mountains to the ocean. As luck would have it, we cycled into town and ran into the most absurd tandem bicycle. The front peddler was in recumbent position, while the back peddler sits in front of a large pile of bags, sport sticks, a stuffed animal, a bright billowing flag, and who knows what else. The best part was, we knew exactly who this was: Roberto. Gianluca, our Couchsurfing host in Messina, had told us about his friend traveling on his bicycle Va-Lentina (go slow), named after his now-ex-girlfriend Valentina. Gianluca told us ridiculous stories of accompanying Roberto up THE giant hill (the very one where Thomas lost his iPhone) with the chain falling off every 5 meters, and his friend nodding off in the front seat. It was quite the interaction! Roberto, and his new cycling partner Seth, were off on the train to Naples for some reason I never really understood. They broke down before reaching the train station… However, their enthusiasm and excitement was quite amazing, and that really seems to be all you need to succeed at cycle touring.

In Praia a Mare we stayed with our friend Iman’s parents. What hospitality they showed us! We ate more food than any sane human being can consume, and explored the beautiful beaches and streets of the town… but more on that in the next blog post…

Last campsite in Calabria

Last campsite in Calabria

image4

Roberto and Seth!

Roberto and Seth!

Traveling cyclists

Traveling cyclists

Rosarno

Last Saturday got weird.

First we had to cross the Strait of Messina from Sicily into Calabria, the Southernmost province of mainland Italy. I had a small language-barrier crisis at the cafe that nearly caused me to miss the ferry. In the rush to leave I knocked my freshly-poured cappuccino onto the ground. Anyone who has had a cappuccino in Italy will recognize how tragic that is. If I believed in omens I would say this was one, but I don’t, so whatever.

We had a nice day of riding, including an enormous hill that Thomas wrote about in his last post. It was only at the top of that hill that Thomas realized he had lost his iPhone, and that he had probably left it on the beach back at sea level. He decided to go back and look for it. Cristina and I were not so courageous. It was already mid-afternoon, and the weather was wet and cold. We decided that we’d meet at a designated point a little further down the road. After a cursory glance at the map, we settled on a town called Rosarno.

The ride was pleasant enough. The road descended gently between neatly-planted olive orchards, each dotted with little white and yellow flowers. But as we drew closer something started to feel a little… off. Maybe it was the giant mounds of stinking trash that were dumped along the otherwise scenic road. Maybe it was just the weather.

We rode into Rosarno just before sunset. The town is hard to describe, but I’ll try to sum it up in two words: dismal and sinister. It’s hard to say why the vibe was so dark. The road was in rough shape, and there were a lot of abandoned storefronts, but there was something else that we couldn’t quite put our finger on. Maybe it was the obvious racial inequality. The population seemed to be divided into two distinct groups: white people in cars and black people on rickety old bikes. What was that about?

In any case, the town was creepy and we were not about to sleep there. Thomas still hadn’t arrived, so Cristina and I took off into the countryside to find a campsite. By this time it was getting dark. At one point we stopped at a rusted iron gate that opened onto an abandoned warehouse. “Should we sleep in there?” It could have been a scene from a horror movie.

We pressed on, passing dozens of inexplicably creepy orchards until we got to the beach. Its vast sandy expanse would have been lovely without all the garbage. And the large, stray dog. “Yeah, maybe not.”

On our way to the beach we had seen a sign pointing toward a campsite. We wound around on tiny country roads until we found it. When we rang the intercom, the gate opened onto another world.

The campsite looked like the 90s. The decor was tiki-bar chic. The promotional postcards were obviously faded, as though they’d been printed a generation ago and never used. The only other guests were a handful of Germans. Everything was a little bizarre, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that we felt safe.

After we set up our tent, we rode back into town to find Thomas. The rural roads had only grown creepier in the dark, but we got back to town and found Thomas at the designated meeting place. It took us all of five seconds to get to the burning question: What is the deal with this creepy ass town? So we googled it.

First we learned about the race riots.

Calabria is home to thousands of African immigrants. Most are in the country legally. Many are not. Often these immigrants pay to come to Calabria on the pretext that they’ll be given a legitimate job. Instead, they’re forced into itinerant agricultural labour. They get paid under the table at rates that are well below Italy’s minimum wage.

In Rosarno, hundreds of Africans live in squalid conditions in an abandoned agricultural facility just outside of town. They sleep in crowded conditions without heat or running water. (It may be the same abandoned warehouse that Cristina and I declined to enter, though I wasn’t able to confirm that suspicion.)

In January of 2010, an immigrant from Togo was shot with a pellet gun in a nearby town. Hundreds of African immigrants took to the streets of Rosarno in protest. The protest turned into riots. Immigrants torched cars, broke shop windows, and clashed with police. The riots also sparked retaliatory attacks in which immigrants were beaten and shot with pellet guns.
In the aftermath, Italian authorities rounded up all of the town’s African immigrants and removed them from the area. Those who were in the country illegally were detained for identification and deportation. Makeshift dwellings were bulldozed. The Guardian referred to the incident as an ethnic cleansing.

Even after that bloody episode, African immigrants have an obvious presence in Rosarno. Whether the local Italian population likes it or not, the region’s economy is dependent on cheap labour. The region hasn’t made much international news recently, but I think it’s safe to assume that conditions remain dire and tensions remain high.

The second thing we learned was that Rosarno is a major hub of activity for the ‘Ndrangheta. In case you’re not familiar with this jolly bunch, here are some fun facts:

 

  • The ‘Ndrangheta are the Calabrian version of the Mafia. They are by most accounts Italy’s most powerful crime syndicate, eclipsing the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Neapolitan Camorra.
  • Rosarno services the nearby Port of Gioia Tauro, a major commercial shipping facility. The ‘Ndrangheta are alleged to maintain control of the port, which they use as an entry point for much of Europe’s cocaine imports (I’ve read estimates between 30 and 80%).
  • Rumour has is that the ‘Ndrangheta became the preferred partners of the Colombian cartels by being more reliable and professional than the Sicilian Mafia.
  • The drug trade is their bread and butter, but the Ndrangheta is involved in a host of other activities. Some of these are classic mafia fare: running extortion rackets and rigging public works contracts. They’re also involved in illegal garbage disposal, which might explain why so many of Calabria’s roads and towns are strewn with rubbish.
  • In the 1970s they expanded into the kidnapping business. The most famous case was the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, the grandson of a wealthy oil tycoon. A ransom was eventually paid, but only after the captors mailed the family a package containing a lock of hair and an ear.
  • They’ve also branched out into some more exotic activities, including the dumping of toxic and radioactive waste. Most of the waste is allegedly loaded onto ships, which are either sunk off the coast or shipped to places like Somalia, where poor governance allows for the waste to be dumped with impunity.
  • There have been at least two major internecine conflicts within the organization. The First ‘Ndrangheta War in the 1970s led to approximately 300 murders while the second, from 1985 to 1991, killed an estimated 700 people.
  • The ‘Ndrangheta are bound together by close family ties, which are consolidated through intermarriage. These family bonds may be the reason that the gang has produced notoriously few informants, making them exceedingly difficult to prosecute.

We also learned (to bring things full-circle) that the ‘Ndrangheta controls most of the agriculture around Rosarno. They’re suspected of acting as enforcers of the region’s appalling agricultural labour market, keeping the migrant labourers in check in order to preserve the profitability of the orchards.

As we left Rosarno the next day, we couldn’t help but wonder what we’d gotten ourselves into. What if the entire province of Calabria ended up being a crime-infested, trash-strewn shambles? Had we ventured into some kind of wasteland?

Read our next post to find out!

The Ups and Downs of Touring

I love hills. I love the challenge of climbing, I love looking over my shoulder to see my progress, and I love the feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment that come with arriving at the top. I love the burning in my thighs and the feeling of wind on sweat. Maybe most of all, I love the thrill of going down again, not only for the rush, but because I find a certain peace when all my hard work is undone in those few short moments. I think that peace comes from the knowledge that a new hill awaits at the bottom of each one conquered.

Some people don’t like hills. They would rather ride on flat ground, and in a straight line. For the obvious reason that hills are unavoidable when touring, these are not the types of people who tend to ride their bikes around the world. However, there is a less obvious reason as well: it takes a certain kind of person to enjoy climbing hills. They have to be adventurous, optimistic, driven, and up for a challenge. These people, whether cyclists or not, will end up traveling, exploring, meeting new people, and learning all sorts of quirky facts about the world and how it works. All of this is to say that I decided today that I really like people who love climbing hills, and I think I’m going to surround myself with more of these kinds of people from now on.

Now Cristina, Alex, and myself are by no means super-expert-bicyclists. Nevertheless, we’ve ridden our fair share of rides, and, as such, our fair share of hills. It should thus come as at least a mild surprise to learn that the three of us collectively agreed that we today conquered our “gnarliest hill ever”. What we mean by “gnarly” is that it was certainly not the longest hill we’ve climbed (I find myself thinking back to the constant 15km uphill ride along the Petit Train Du Nord in Quebec), nor was it the steepest, but it was a perverse marriage of the two.

We began at sea level, where the air was warm and the infrastructure relatively well maintained. By the time we climbed the steep 8.6 km journey into mountainous Calabria, the vegetation had changed, we could see our breath, and we were in a cloud. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure I saw a herd of wild yaks, but I may have been hallucinating due to extreme exhaustion. It took hours, and we were frozen, sweaty, and weak in the thighs.

We ate lunch at the top, and it was at this point that I realized that my cell phone was missing. While it wasn’t that long ago that I didn’t even have a smart phone, I realized then just how quickly one could become addicted to such a device. As I looked through the only pouch I had opened that day for the 17th time, my heart continued to beat faster and faster. Gone would be all my music, my notes, my poetry, my maps, my Italian learning apps, my online banking, and my ability to independently communicate with my family, friends, and girlfriend. It was then that the irony set in: the one time I misplace my phone would result in my having to ride back down, and then up again, the gnarliest hill every conquered.

So I rode back down – 20 km one way to be exact – to the the place I was sure I had left my phone. It rained the entire way, and I quickly became drenched, frozen, and on the brink of despair. I realized upon leaving that the chance my phone had been neither stolen nor ruined by the rain was roughly the same as that of a sloth with a hernia successfully outrunning an avalanche.

My lower back was in quite a lot of pain, and I soon lost feeling in my hands and feet from the cold, but I tried to stay positive. I made myself focus on the stunning natural and cultural beauty all around me. I thought of where I was, and how lucky I was to be riding my bicycle in such a place. I practiced my broken Italian, and distracted myself for a good amount of time by trying to remember how to say “ninety”. I thought of the kind cafe owner Giuseppe, who, with zero English, invited us to stay in his home when the weather turned bad. I thought of all the amazing new foods we had tried in Sicily, and of the new friends we had made.

As I neared the only place I thought my phone might be, I thought to myself: “Maybe I placed in on the concrete face down, so that the silver phone case will not only blend in with the pavement,  making it invisible to people walking by, but also protect it from the rain”. I held my breathe as I finally pulled up on my bike. I was completely and utterly exhausted, drenched, and frozen, and my phone was nowhere in sight.

Instead of cycling back, as I had intended, I took a train to Rosarno, where Alex, Cristina, and I had planned to meet. I sat alone, drinking cheap beers outside a dark cafe, put on dry socks, and slipped my feet back into my wet shoes. I was missing home and having a hard time finding the eager anticipation for the hills I would climb the following morning. I was wondering if I’d be able to find my travel companions, and if not, wondering where I was going to sleep.

Focacciawith our couchsurfing host.

Focacciawith our couchsurfing host.

I put my phone down in order to take this photo, and forgot to pick it up again.

I put my phone down in order to take this photo, and forgot to pick it up again.

Thomas' bike, waiting for the train to bring him back.

Thomas’ bike, waiting for the train to bring him back.

Our first taste of Sicily

We finally made it off the ferry thanks to an old Italian man who realized we were standing bewildered behind a large crowd of shoving people. After yelling “PASSPORTO PASSPORTO”, he dragged us to the front of the crowd who had been waiting to buy entry visas.

Arriving in Palermo in the dark put a damper on our plans to bike out of the city and set up camp on the beach before sunset. I was uneasy about how we were going to find somewhere to eat and sleep. Would we be awoken by police unzipping our tents and telling us to get lost?

I felt clumsy walking our bikes through the lively streets. Loaded bikes are heavy and wide, and the weight of the bike is thrown from side to side on cobblestone streets. We stopped, picked up food at a grocery store and sat in a “piazza” for a feast. Here, I learned my first valuable lesson: never travel while hangry (hungry + angry, for those who don’t know the term). Bread, cheese and cold meats had never tasted so good. Looking at all the beautiful old buildings, it finally set in that we had made it to Italy.

We biked ~30km in the dark out of Palermo and found a concrete perch overlooking the ocean. We set up camp and shared our €1.20 bottle of wine in celebratation of our first night on the road. With our tents popped and sleeping bags laid out, the empty holsters that had held my stolen water bottles had become convenient spaces for wine.

The morning brought sunshine and high spirits. Our first day of cycling! We rode on the SS113 towards Messina. We struggled up our first hills, but were rewarded by spectacular views of the rolling green landscape meeting the Mediterranean Sea. We passed castles in the countryside between countless seaside towns. Some towns were very small and consisted only of a small cluster of buildings, but without fail, every town had at least one “bar”–the Italian fusion of a cafe and bar filled with old men talking exaggeratedly, smoking, and drinking espresso. Many people watched us cycling past, and some would wave and yell ciao.

We stopped for lunch in Cefalù, a town straight out of a travel magazine. Once again we sat like vagabonds in the main plaza, on the steps of the towering duomo, and made our sandwiches.

By evening we had made it to Castel di Tusa. Along the beach we found some inconspicuous rocky areas were we could set up camp. Unloading our bags, a man walking down the beach approached us. At first we were apprehensive. Would he tell us to move camp? But from his fast-paced Italian tone we could tell he was just interested in what we were doing. We don’t speak Italian and he definitely did not speak English, but after two days of practice with some nifty language apps we deciphered that the grocery store opened at 5 and closed at 8, or maybe it was just that he would come back at 5 and show us where it was… or was it that the store closed at 5? Our new friend waved and disappeared down the beach. To our surprise he did return at 5, but to tell us that the ground was “troppo bruto” and with some pointing and hand motions at the rocks, he invited us to sleep in his yard.

A few hours later we were at the local bar drinking large bottles of Sicilian beer with our new friend Liborio Monte. He was an eccentric military man-turned-artist, whose answer to many of our questions was “Sicilia no polizia, Sicilia Mafia!”. We laughed about cow discos (all Sicilian cows wear loud bells) and his two lovers. The story of his love affairs became more absurd with every beer. One woman is a police officer who is married to a judge, and the other a surgeon. Neither “ragazza” knows about the other, so he carefully alternates nights and plans with each one.

We have encountered many kind and generous people on the road so far. Large smiles, waves on the streets, exchanges of “Ciao!” with other cyclists on the road, and the expression of surprise and interest when we say “sono Canadese” all seem to make the thighs a little stronger.

First dinner in the piazza.

First dinner in the piazza.

First night on the road.

First night on the road.

Early morning.

Early morning.

First stunning vista.

First stunning vista.

Architecture.

Architecture.

Break time in Cefalu.

Break time in Cefalu.

Cheap Sicilian beer.

Cheap Sicilian beer.

Liborio at work.

Liborio at work.

A particularly unpleasant boat

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.

Tunisian Origins

I picked up Alex and Cristina from the airport on March 17th. They arrived with bright smiles and gigantic cardboard boxes filled with bicycles, tents, sleeping bags, cookware, clothes for all kinds of weather, and a bottle of bourbon for our Couchsurfing host. Having arrived two days prior, I learned the hard way that it’s best to negotiate a taxi before needing one, so this is what I did before going in to meet them. The driver, who we payed very fairly, nevertheless attempted to charge us an extra 20% upon our arrival. I handed him the 50 Dinar we had intially agreed upon, muttering “tvathem”, one of the few arabic words I’d picked up, insinuating that there was no way he was getting any more.

That taxi driver was an exception. In general the Tunisian people have been kind, welcoming, generous, and honest. However, our host Dhia was the only Tunisia we got to know really well. We mostly ended up spending time with his American and Italian friends as well as a few Canadian McGill grads. Dhia made every effort to spend as much time with us as possible, despite working nearly full-time as a doctor in the final stages of his training. Giving us a full Tunisian experience was important to him, and we were very grateful to have him as a host.

Several people had recommended a visit to the Bardo museum, and I had thought that this might be something nice to for Alex and Cristina’s first day. I wasn’t familiar with the tourist attractions in Tunis, and the museum was in Dhia’s neighbourhood, so it seemed like an obvious first thing to do. However, Laurent and Gabriel, the Canadians I had met, messaged me the night before asking if we would help them film a part of their documentary the following day seeing as the weather would be nice. We obliged of course, thinking it would be nice to spend the day in the city’s beautiful medina, and because it would be silly to spend such a beautiful day inside a museum.

The next day, following our tour of the medina, the five of us sat down at a touristy cafe for freshly squeezed orange juice and a smoke from a hookah. As we were chatting enthusiastically in the sun about the differences between Tunisia and Canada, Laurent received a phone call from Dhia, who was at work, saying that there had been gunshots fired near his home, but that he didn’t know more. Laurent hung up, only to receive calls from both Dhia, and then his landlord, saying that there had been a terrorist attack at Bardo museum and that seven people, probably Polish, were dead. The mood at our table changed quite suddenly. Dhia told us that he was leaving work early to come and pick us up and bring us home.

Not knowing what was happening in the city, we walked to the end of the street so that Dhia might pick us up. Our senses were heightened, and we noticed an increased police presence. The air was tense, and as we waited for Dhia the traffic became increasingly congested. A car rear-ended another next to where we were standing. Dhia called us again, telling us to get into taxis because he was not able to get to where we were standing. He sounded extremely worried and distressed. By the time we were able to hail taxis, it became clear that hostages had been taken, that the death toll had potentially increased to 11 tourists, and that our neighbourhood had been closed off. When we told the taxi driver we were going to Bardo, he looked at us in bewilderment for a moment, before simply saying “No”. We had to put Dhia on the phone to give directions to the nearest part of our neighbourhood where we could be picked up.

Riding in that taxi through the streets of Tunis was a surreal experience. I sat alone in the back seat, with Gabriel in the front (the others were in another cab). The Arabic news was on the radio at full volume, but it wasn’t loud enough to deafen the sounds of passing police and ambulance sirens. The city passing me by through the window became a place that was foreign, unfamiliar, and even scary. I looked around nervously, irrationally half-expecting to see a gun pointed in my direction.

The taxis left us on the side of the highway opposite Dhia’s neighbourhood. We were a group of five foreigners, and as hundreds of cars passed us on the busy road, and I felt like a sitting duck. After crossing the highway and passing into our neighbourhood, an older woman stopped her car next to us and asked us if we needed help. She had a look of complete bewilderment on her face.

Moments later, Dhia pulled up in his car. He was pale, and clearly the most distraught of our group. I didn’t understand at the time, but he explained to me later that what had happened was one of his biggest fears. It was something that he and his family spoke about regularly, a nightmare they prayed would never come true. Tunisia is the only country emerging relatively unscathed from the Arab Spring. It has been sitting precariously on the edge of stability, with the entire world watching on the sidelines, waiting to see if it will survive the transition to democracy. To Dhia, this event was the potential beginning of that process of destabilization. Furthermore, Tunisia’s economy relied heavily on tourism, and an attack like this could seriously if not fatally harm the industry.

By the time we returned home, only an hour or two after the attacks, Alex, Cristina, and I had already received a flurry of Facebook messages and emails from worried friends and family members. I assured everyone at home that we were safe before distracting myself with the preparation of lunch. I remember feeling the adrenaline wear off as I fried carrots on the small gas stove. As I cooked, the afternoon call to prayer sounded from a nearby mosque and floated through the kitchen window.

After lunch I fell asleep from exhaustion. I woke up three hours later to find that it was only Alex, Cristina, and myself left at home. In the end, 21 people had been killed at the museum, most of them tourists, in addition to the two gunmen.

We had planned to go that evening with the other Canadians to make poutine for some of his friends on the other side of town. We figured that things had settled down enough, and that by not going we would have been giving the attackers a small victory. It was a wonderful night filled with laughter, good food, good drinks, amazing cheesecake, and a group of people well worth taking the time to befriend. With five of us working, it took nearly 4 hours to make the poutine. At midnight, we ate what Dhia called a “Cinderella dinner.” After dinner we all walked down to the ocean and stood for some time under the stars, watching the waves crash. It was my first tangible reminder of why I travel.

The next day was also beautiful, and we walked for hours from La Marsa to Sidi Bou Said, before marching on Carthage (literally). The tension was still in the air (figuratively), and there were police everywhere (also figuratively). The historic sites in Carthage were closed as a result of the attacks, but it was still a wonderful day, walking along the Mediterranean in the sun. My mind wandered from the terrorist attacks, and I found myself wondering the sorts of things I normally wonder, such as “Why are the doorknobs here in the centre of the door?” and “Would the combined difference in energy expended on opening the cupboard and front door from the middle as opposed to the edge (as is convention in Canada) be the same as running a marathon?” I blame these thoughts for our unintentional stumbling-upon of the presidential palace. We were turned away first at the beach, and then again on the street. However, something always brought us back to thinking about the people killed at the museum, a place we could easily have been.

When we were stopped for an interview by France 2, a major French news network, I told them in broken french that the events would not affect our plans to travel in and experience Tunisia. These sorts of attacks have recently occurred in Canada, Paris, Australia, and elsewhere, and are not good enough reason to avoid visiting a place. Indeed, they are reason to make special effort to visit. Sadly, even though this is the first attack of its kind in over a decade in Tunisia, many tourists will not feel the same.

We had a wonderful dinner of fish, salad, and harissa with Dhia. Harissa is probably the most Tunisian food (fact checked by Alex), and is used in nearly everything. The second most common food is probably the french fry sandwich (with your choice of merguez, shwarma, escalope, and more). Also worth trying are couscous, makloub, mint tea, and pine nut tea.

Our last full day in Tunisia was Independence Day. We visited the city centre to witness the red flags and festivities. When Dhia was in despair, I told him that the events at Bardo museum were more likely to bring Tunisians together than to tear them apart. I wasn’t sure at the time if this were true, but I felt it to be true walking through the streets on Friday the 20th. There was a widespread feeling of Tunisian pride, solidarity against terrorism, and peaceful identity. Tunisia is a beautiful, interesting, and exciting country and I look forward to one day visiting again.

Independence Day flags.

Independence Day flags.

Our Couchsurfing host Dhia

Our Couchsurfing host Dhia

We were approached and asked by some Tunisian students to be a part of their school project.

We were approached and asked by some Tunisian students to be a part of their school project.

"Welcome to foreigners. All Tunisians stand together against terrorism. Long live Tunisia."

“Welcome to foreigners. All Tunisians stand together against terrorism. Long live Tunisia.”

Walking through the medina

Walking through the medina

Hanging out with Dhia at Villa 78

Hanging out with Dhia at Villa 78