Nov
7
2009

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Welcome to Africa

by Tara

We walk around Palermo this morning, absorbing our last bit of Italian culture before we leave. Our final stop is a pastry shop where we buy four cannoli for our future Tunisian hosts. The man behind the counter takes his time with gift wrapping while his boss looks on to make sure he does a nice job with the bow. It turns out beautifully. We hope they won't be crushed during the long voyage ahead.

Next we check out of our hotel following a hefty continental breakfast, some of which we sneakily stash in my backpack for the ferry ride. We take our bikes out of storage, pack them up, and wheel away. We are on our way to the port! After asking directions we are ushered towards our ship, the Coraggio. As we wait in line to board, Tyler realizes the ticket we printed online might not be sufficient. He asks and sure enough, it isn't. A quick sprint to the port entrance and a few minutes of waiting brings him back with our real tickets.

Grandi Navi Veloci Coraggio Ferry

We try again to board and are denied once more; this time we need to be processed through customs (or a security checkpoint? we're not sure). We are permitted to leave our bikes in the care of the ship employees and we run to checkpoint to be validated. As we approach we realize there is no line, just a mass of people. We join the waiting mob and proceed to stand motionless for what feels like forever. After fifteen minutes the "line" is only two people smaller. We're not sure why it is taking so long, but we're definitely making a conscious effort to remain patient. A half an hour passes. Forty five minutes. At this rate, it will take a lifetime before we make it to the front!

Palermo Port

Everyone is trying to cut the line as nonchalantly as possible. Occasionally someone calls a line cutter out in burst of angry Arabic or Italian. The mass still isn't moving. Our ferry is meant to depart at 11:00 but it is now 11:30 and there is no sign of improvement. Our only entertainment is the line of cars next to us, each with a ridiculously huge and lopsided load piled on top of it. We're amazed the cars don't collapse under the weight. Washers, dryers, bicycles, couches, beds and more turn normal cars into haphazard and precarious looking double-deckers. The novelty quickly fades. After nearly two hours our patience is growing thin. The inefficency here is maddening. We are praying our bikes remain untouched.

Excited Tara

By some miracle, the guard controlling our line looks at me, singles me out along with the only other female in the bunch, and ushers us forward. Tyler joins me and we both breathe a sigh of overjoyed relief as we approach the tiny booth. We hand our passports to a police officer through a little window and he processes them in seconds. Why oh why was it taking so long? We don't wait to find out, but run excitedly back to the ship, finally allowed to board.

On board we quickly secure a seat, start the GPS tracking and exchange an enthusiastic high five. We spend the ten hour ride working on journals, sleeping, playing cards, watching the Sopranos and writing letters to Tyler's brothers and sisters. The sea isn't bad at first but the waves pick up a little for the second half of the voyage leaving me with a general malaise, sort of like a hangover. A cute little boy helps me take my mind off the churning sea; his brilliant smile and happy-go-lucky toddler shenanigans are incredibly cute. We're glad we're not the ones chasing after him every two minutes, though.

Ferry Sunset Boxes

Finally we see the lights of Tunisia in the distance! We are coming into port! We pack everything into our backpacks and leave our bench, following everyone to the exit. We are now in the midst of another mob, this time a tightly packed throng waiting to disembark from the ferry. It is reminiscent of scenes from Titanic, where people from the poorer berths below deck were locked in and unable to leave. In this case, the doors simply haven't been opened yet. They will be, but right now we're not fully docked.

"Stop treating us like cattle!" a man shouts. There is a tension in the air, the calm before a storm. The doors are about to be opened. Anticipating the chaos to follow, a man shouts in Italian "piano, piano" which means quietly, calmly, but no one heeds his hopeful warning. The doors are opened and the guard is practically blown out of the way in an onslaught of pushing, bumping, prodding bodies. Tyler and I are laughing at the absurdity of the situation, unable to move of our own volition. We are carried along in the flow, pushed from behind if we don't advance fast enough to meet the standards of the mob.

It is a madhouse. The man next to me smiles and says "you are in the third world now!" Just before the door we get separated and Tyler stops to wait for me. The man behind him yells something in Arabic and digs his elbows into Tyler's shoulders. Undaunted, he curses at the man loudly in English and stands his ground, refusing to leave without me. I quickly manage to catch up and we finally make it through the doors, both grinning ear to ear. On the other side, a man smiles, shakes his head, opens his arms in an expansive gesture, and exclaims "Welcome to Africa!"

We walk, elated, down to our bicycles to repack our things. After attaching headlamps to the front our bikes, we make our way to customs. Again, a mass of people wait to be seen. Things move quickly and a little more orderly this time around. When we make it to the front, a policeman at the counter examines our passports and passes us through with a loud slam of his entry stamp.

Next comes the x-ray conveyor belt and metal detectors. We don't have to take our shoes off, but we do have to remove every pannier from our bikes to be sent through. We do as we're told, praying that our things will be there waiting for us by the time we cross the threshold to meet them. Mercifully everything is there and we reassemble our bikes once more. Finally, we wheel our bikes out to the streets of La Goulette, a suburb of Tunis. We made it! All that remains is a short ride to our host Carla's house.

La Goulette, Tunisia

Thankfully our headlamps are much brighter after a battery change, and there are plenty of street lamps to light the way. We take our time. Signs are mostly in Arabic, except the few we need which point the way to a suburb called La Marsa. Along the way we pass Carthage, THE Carthage.

When we finally make it to the right neighborhood, Youssef, our host's son, comes to guide us for the last few blocks to their home. Our host Carla, welcomes us and we are fed, introduced to their pets (three cats and two dogs) and given a brief tour of the house. We finally retire at 1:30 AM to our very own apartment in the garden, incredibly thankful for place to come "home" to during our first days in Tunisia. Goodnight Africa!


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