We left Gafsa today and drove a couple of easy hours north to the town of Sbeitla, a town beside a far more ancient Roman town, Sufetula. Sufetula is now ruins, but quite well preserved ones.
Along the way, and for our drive afterwards, we were amazed by our treatment as we drove through little towns — everywhere, people waved or gave us the thumbs up. In one town in particular, everyone was in on it, jumping around and waving as we drove by!
We found a park at the tourist centre, and were immediately set upon independently by two men who apparently worked in souvenir shops within the centre. The first wanted to show us some trinkets to buy; we sent him off. The second was after the same, but first asked us for — you guessed it — whiskey. As always, they persisted for way beyond the time that would be considered polite and acceptable, and we felt quite furious by the time I saw the second man off. We swallowed our irritation (Katherine: “I didn’t swallow my irritation. I let it rage, baby.“) and reminded ourselves that we’ll be back in Italy in just a few days.
We had a quick snack, toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches again — so good to have cheese again! — and walked through the tourist centre (doing our best to ignore one of the irritating vendors), to get tickets to visit the site.
Katherine remarked on the unfortunate fact that she felt like she wanted to race through the ruins as quickly as possible so we could get back to Nettle, our comfort zone (and keep Nettle safe from any store vendors that thought they might have a go at break-and-entry, as unlikely as that would be).
Italy definitely can’t come soon enough, for us! We puzzled over what would lead so many men to ask foreigners for whiskey — it’s happened to us about eight times, representing a good proportion of the places we’ve stopped. I was kinda hoping it’d become a bit of an in-joke and be funny, but it’s just irritating. I wondered whether it might be a cultural thing — an artefact of the still-present Berber culture’s hospitality that makes it appropriate here for strangers to ask for such things; but it’s alcohol — there’s nothing acceptable about that! Particularly so in Tunisian culture, where it’s forbidden (therein lying part of the answer, I suspect). I suppose every society has its problematic individuals. We just seem to be meeting all of them, one by one.
Anyway, talking about the issue made it more intellectual than emotional and irritating, and we soon forgot it in the splendour of the ancient Roman town.
We were amazed at the preserved details, particularly the intricate mosaics in the bathhouses, including one large room with a completely intact mosaic floor. The temples, for which Sufetula is most well-known, are very impressive, towering above the surrounding rubble.
We pretended to each other that we were shocked and offended at the affectionate antics of a young local couple who were flirting with each other around the temple — a shameful display of public affection! We, on the other hand, as usual, would keep an eye out for onlookers and steal a hug or kiss before someone noticed (shows of public affection being considered rude here). It’ll be nice to hold hands in public again in Italy! Always feels weird just walking side by side.
We returned to Nettle and pondered our next move — we’d heard tell of a hotel nearby that lets motorhomers stay in the car park for a whopping 18 dinars (about $16 AUD or something like €9 EUR, off the top of my head). We thought we’d have a look, and laughed when the guy at reception told us 25 dinars! For a car park! We scoffed and drove onwards, keeping an eye out for a wild-camp suitably away from any towns and whiskey-seekers.
We drove for a long way and didn’t find any places that looked particularly appealing. We ended up settling for pulling over by the edge of a smaller quiet side road. We had waved to a girl leading a donkey in the nearby village as we did a U-turn, and after we pulled over, a louage (minibus taxi-like thing) pulled up and she hopped out — Just to say hello! At least, we thought it was her — kinda difficult to tell, given that she was all wrapped up in a shawl earlier. She was very sweet — as Katherine remarked, outgoing enough to come out to say hi, but too shy to actually say anything when she got here! I attempted a little conversation in French, but her French was worse than mine (hooray! I’m better at French than someone!), and she ended up saying a shy good-bye and leaving again in the louage!
So we settled in, at a rather large slant which, strangely, always makes it hard for me to walk around in Nettle, and Katherine made dinner while I post-processed photos.
A less pleasant interchange happened next, when there was a tap at the door — What the crap? Even out here? — I opened the window and peered out. There was a 14 or 15 year old boy, very timid with presumably very little French, who was asking for…something. Katherine picked up “l’eau” (water), and I repeated it as a question — you want water? He nodded, then said something about medicine. Medicine? For what? What kind of medicine? (In French, where we could). Blank look. Katherine wondered if he had a headache or something and was after Panadol — I prompted in broken French, medicine for the head? Yes, he nodded, medicine for the head. Um.
About five or ten minutes of prompting later, with me carefully repeating details and asking for confirmation, doing hand gestures, going around in circles, and suffering many long uncomfortable silences, he managed to change his story and communicate a very confusing and contradictory tale about needing 10 dinars to go home. No, not in a taxi or a louage, in a car. His friends’ car. Why was his friend asking for 10 dinars? Why didn’t he have the money already? Oh, it was a louage? Your friend is the louage driver? Why not pay him when you arrive at home? It went on and on, with me getting more frustrated and almost shouting at the guy in my appalling French. I suggested getting the driver to come here so we could pay him, I suggested hitch-hiking; he wanted 10 dinars so he could go home. 10 dinars. To go home. Who knows what that thing at the start had been, about water/medicine…
About twenty minutes had gone by, and Katherine had dinner ready and going cold on the table. We had only a 20 dinar note. Our choices were to close the window and have an audience for the rest of the night (or have a break-in attempt like at La Goulette!), to just drive off to escape with dinner sliding around the table, or to just give him the 20 dinar note and hope that we were doing a good deed and not just getting conned. Another item for our “Rascals” expense category!
Oh well. I guess we saved 5 dinars by wild-camping instead of staying at the hotel. It’s funny how the money never matters — $17 means very little to us, really — but there’s something about the experience of being separated from money when we feel like we’re being had that’s very uncomfortable. Hopefully he was legit, just a little slow and bad at communicating. Katherine remarked on how similar his manner was to the strange guy we met outside of Douz — the same long silences, just standing there staring at me, the same timid manner.
Just a few more days till Italy and being left alone!
For a silly end to a silly day, just as we were falling off to sleep around 11:30, a car pulled up outside and there was yet another knock at the door (we’re going to have to install one of those deli ticket serving systems out there , I think). We swore, jumped out of bed, threw our clothes on, put the bed up, put some stray dishes onto the floor where they wouldn’t cause trouble if we had to leave quickly, then I grabbed the keys, put them in the ignition and gingerly opened the window. This time, it was better than we’d expected — it was the friendly National Guard.
They kindly told us they didn’t think our last-ditch-effort wildcamp was safe (then the other guy disagreed and said no, there was no danger!), checked our passports, and then suggested we stay in the town. I explained the difficulty we had finding somewhere else to stop, and our aversion to staying in towns (whiskey, whiskey, whiskey), and they laughed and said we should tell any whiskey-seekers that we have friends in the National Guard (or something to that effect); pas du whiskey!. They suggested they lead us back into the closest town and drop us off outside the police station to stay there for the night. We agreed, they apologetically bid us good night, and we drove on into town to be deposited at our worst wildcamp ever: Right beside the busy main road amidst a louage stop! Loud trucks, motorbikes, passing right by our ears, yet we managed to fall off to sleep fairly quickly and slept well.