On bright eyed and bushy tailed travel and the scars of mass tourism in Tunisia
Being travellers, I think, makes us see the best in people. It takes us outside of ourselves a bit, lets us see different ways of life and the things that all people and societies have in common. While it has made me somewhat jaded in specific senses, overall it’s made me a much more open and interested person in everything that’s going on around me.
I’ve always noted my male privilege when writing about travel. So many of the awesome experiences I have had travelling alone, like getting into a random guy’s car and going to meet his family, getting on the back of a stranger’s moped in the suburbs of Medellin to go see a plantation, and so on, are things that I just couldn’t do if I was a woman travelling alone. Even the way I would be looked at and hastled in most of the middle east would make it very hard to me to feel as intimately connected to the region as I do right now.
So here we go. What really frustrates me about Tunisia is that it’s apparently a sex tourism destination for european men on package tours. I am not saying Americans don’t do this here, but it’s kind of absurd. I am literally afraid to make eyecontact with people on the street most of the time, because if I talk to them and sit next to them (A) they will almost as often as not try to sell me sex, and (B) every respectable person in the town I am visiting will think I am a total sleezeball. Add in that (C ) I don’t speak French, which is the language in which these propositions are made, and I am not always as immediately aware of what is happening and can accidentally go along with it for a moment, even though everyone around me speaks French and so sees me… as a total sleezeball.
Tunisia is, in this sense, the first place that I have been where I can’t be totally carefree with who I am friendly with and where I go with them. While I have had to be careful of certain things in other places (like gaurding my nationality in parts of Iraq and the camps in Lebanon) that was a careful omission of information while otherwise being open, friendly, and happy to talk to total strangers. This is different. And it really bothers me.
Since I’ve had to limit myself from many of these experiences, I have found myself flying through Tunisia. Part of travel is interacting with the locals, and it’s hard enough here that I’m leaving 9 days early to head to the greek islands to be a raging tourist. Cause at least then I will be able to talk to people.
That is not to say that tunisians aren’t the most hospitable people ever… they very likely are. It’s obviously a case of a minority ruining an experience, and I am still quite enamoured with many places in Tunisia and have had some really great experiences.
Today I went to El Jem, which has a colloseum which is MUCH nicer than the one in Rome (it’s the 3rd largest in the world and much better preserved than its Roman counterpart since Catholicism never showed up to steal its stone for St Peters Basilica), along with a beautiful museum with reconstructed villas. It’s a tourist site, but, very importantly, there are no hotels in Al Jem. Which ostensibly means that middle aged men don’t troll the streets at night trying to find 16-19 year old arab boys to fuck them (Sidenote: People can get away with doing this. They cannot get away with drinking alcohol, even buying it in a store). And the difference in hospitality was stunning. Ditto for the few times I’ve needed to crash for a night in between destinations in little towns in the desert. People were friendly and excited to give me directions, happy to hear me trying to speak arabic, and genuinely willing to say hello. I had a sandwich ant a stand in the street and asked the kid who was running it for directions to a museum, which was about 10 minutes away. About 2 minutes into my walk, he showed up with a scooter and drove me the rest of the way, out of pure hospitality. It was great. It reminded me of Sumatra or Lebanon or Bangladesh or someplace like that.
It makes me realize that the places that are most special to me, whether it’s Sicily or Naples in Italy, Lebanon in the Middle East, Bangladesh in South Asia, and so on, are really the places where the social scarification of mass tourism have yet to do their dirty work. Hopefully I’m not facilitating that process.
I guess these are the impacts of tourism. It’s presence (especially when “it” is manifest by 5 star hotels with high walls around them and wealthy, non-assimilated westerners being shuttled in and out in airconditioned tour busses) kills part of a place. The city I’m in right now, Mahaida, built as a capital for the Fatamid dynasty before they took Cairo, could be Beirut in some ways. It has great food, sheesha pipes burning into the night, palm trees along the corniche (seafront drive), ruins scattered throughout the city, and nice beaches, including quite a few which are dominated by Tunisians (I was more Burqinis today than I have in a long time). All that is different is the mass tourism. And it means that a 30 minute walk means one will be hustled for money or by kitch-pushers at least a couple of times, that half of the restaurants are sealed off, air conditioned monoliths full of middle aged white people in short shorts, and that you’ll be propositioned to pay for sex at least 7 or 8 times, at least if you are a young guy blonde walking around alone.