I've been thinking a lot lately about accepting the culture of the areas we travel through, both to better understand them, and at times, simply to stay sane. I was in high spirits as we rode this morning, happy we're adapting well to a myriad of things which, in our culture, would be considered disrespectful by most.
I've more or less come to terms with being treated like a walking wallet here in Tunisia. I no longer feel bad ignoring or turning down (harshly, when necessary) the endless parade of people old and young trying to sell us something. When we actually do want to purchase an item, I enjoy the haggling, though at times it can be tiresome. It is a delicate balance to maintain perspective. If we want to enjoy ourselves we have to constantly remember not to take the way people act here personally.
Riding towards the roman amphitheater in the heart of El Jem, waiters from every establishment practically knocked us over as they dashed out, pointing furiously at their empty tables in a gesture that was likely meant to be inviting. We stopped at the first place where this didn't happen. As soon as we got off our bikes an old man walked up to us. With a flick of his wrist he unveiled an accordion of postcards while saying "1 dinar, 1 dinar, 1 dinar, 1 dinar". When we said no thank you, he came even closer and continued his mantra: "1 dinar, 1 dinar, 1 dinar, 1 dinar, 1 dinar, 1 dinar".
None of this bothered me at all until Tara told me that during our ride in she was shot at (and hit) several times by kids with pellet guns. I was leading and didn't realize this was going on. My initial reaction was that if it happened again I would chase after the kids, grab their guns and a) keep them, b) break them or c) throw them on a nearby roof. Upon further reflection I decided it would make more sense to talk to them. Unfortunately, we can't communicate.
On our way into El Jem, I had an uneasy feeling about the whole place, something I haven't felt in several days. At the market, vendors were selling fireworks (the small, loud kind that just go BANG) along with frighteningly realistic-looking black toy guns. All of the sudden I felt a sharp sting on my shoulder, and I whirled around to see who had shot me. Behind me was a chaotic, colorful mass of people, and many children with guns. It really upset me, and I thought to myself, "What did I ever do to you except smile?"Tara
While we enjoyed what turned out to be a pair of delicious pizzas, we witnessed several kids running around shooting other people. Nobody did or said anything about it. Slowly, my patience with the non-stop disrespectful behavior surrounding us began to erode. Constantly trying to separate us from our money is one thing; I know these people have very little. Running around shooting strangers is entirely another. I was seething by the time we left. I also decided that if it happened to us again I wasn't going to simply ride away and shake my head.
As we walked around the city, an old man approached us with a smile. He didn't seem to have anything to say so I asked if I could take his photo. When he agreed, I did, and immediately he held his hand out, rubbing his fingers together in the universal sign language for "give me some money." This really got me thinking about the fact that parting with a dinar or two would help him inordinately more than it would hurt me. I knew that we'd encounter this sort of thing when we left. Actually experiencing it and then attempting to come up with a logical conclusion about what should be done makes me feel like I am dipping my toes into a vast abyss the likes of which I'll never be able to fully reconcile.
Nonplussed about El Jem, we decided to pass on the 6 dinar per person fee to see the mini-colosseum. As we rode out of town, a scowling child with a mini assault rifle pointed his wretched gun at us and fired. As the pellet zinged by my ear, I slammed on my brakes. After leaning my bike against the nearest building, I tore off through the medina in a full on COPS style pursuit of the gun toting miscreant. The kid had a good head start but as I rounded the first corner he was standing at the end of the next street, watching cautiously to see if I'd been bluffing. When our eyes met I burst into a sprint and he dashed down the alley screaming at the top of his lungs.
At the end of the alley stood a woman who I assume was the child's mother. He ran flailing into her arms, mini assault rifle and all. The woman then pushed the boy into the doorway of their home, quickly followed and slammed the door. I could hear yelling inside as I turned around and walked back to my bike. As I did so, several people tried to ask me what was going on. When I pantomimed being shot at they shook their heads with looks that I took to be disappointment.
In retrospect, I feel foolish for chasing down what was probably a 12 year old, but I hope the boy thinks twice about shooting at people in the future. Those guns were NOT the nerf toys I played with as a kid. If you got hit in the face with one of those pellets you could easily lose an eye! (I officially feel like my father now.)
The moment we left the city, our moods lightened considerably. The countryside was a beautiful mix of silvery green olive trees and soft, reddish brown sand. We easily found a secluded spot behind a crumbling brick outbuilding and settled in for the fast-approaching night. We slept under the moon with the rain fly off, basking in the beautiful weather we've been enjoying in late November. Tunisia has definitely been a roller-coaster ride so far, but we're glad to be here for the beginning of winter.