"I LOVE YOU TUNISIA" -- and an 8-hour overnight train ride.
This weekend I took a trip with my friend Nehal down to Tozeur, it is an 8-hour overnight train to the far western reaches of the country, right on the Algerian border.
I have taken many train rides in North Africa (specifically Morocco) and enjoyed them, so it only briefly crossed my mind that an 8-hour overnight train might not be a practical way to get to Tozeur. In fact, it was by far the best option for us, as it didn't leave til late Friday night and returned late Sunday night, so we could get a full two days in the Southwest -- with Nehal's work schedule, that is the best we could hope for!
The fact is, riding second-class overnight train is a trip you will not forget, but may very well want to. In hindsight, you will vacilate between wanting to forget it, and chalking it up to a worthwhile experience having once in life == (a "learning" experience).
A rough synopsis of our 8-hours goes something like this:
8:45 PM Train departs from Tunis, we get a snack before getting on, and are excited for the trip.
8:46 PM Strange singing comes from the back of the car, at first, sounds like a female voice, eventually we discover it is a young man (teenager?), singing traditional songs very loudly. About a half an hour later, he and his posse start roving the aisles singing loudly -- we think -- it's only 9PM, and eventually he will stop singing.
8:50 PM We realize our seats are close to the middle of the train, which just happens to be where the seats split and start facing each other (why do the seats face inward?) A friendly young Tunisian starts staring at Nehal, without stopping, trying to make eye contact with her. She feels very awkward and tries to avoid his stares for the next 4 hours, until he becomes one of the more sane travelling companions and they start having whole eye conversations over the other crazies on the train.
9:30 PM -- The strange, florescent lights of the train are still on. I think to myself -- still early days -- they have to turn the lights off at some point.
10 - 11 PM -- I actually think that this trip is going to go quite well, I have 2 seats, and am stretched out reading my magazine and sleeping.
11 PM -- The train begins to fill up -- Nehal and I get stuck with two people joining our seats, but don't sit together! "Yellow scarf" man sits next to me, and "crying crazy lady" sits next to Nehal.
Yellow scarf man tries to talk to me the entire trip -- he insists I take some almonds and cashes, offers to buy me coffee, goes up and gets me some pretzels, goes up and gets me a towel to use as a pillow -- and my favorite of all, goes up and gets deodorant spray and starts spraying it around the train and on his hands, insisting that I take some to fight off the bad smells of the train.
At first, I think he says he's getting off soon, only to later realize that he is going all the way to Tozeur with us! At one point, he says, we can go on vacation together. In my head, I'm thinking -- 6 more hours with this man, who speaks mumbling Tunisian Arabic, with a strong southern accent that I can't understand at all. I am trying to be as nice as possible, but it is just so hard to be on a train with people who have such different expectations about what public and private space mean than you do. But, in the interest of being nice, I explain that I'm American and am travelling with my friend who is Indian origin. This becomes important information later on.
2:00 AM The lights are still on. Who doesn't turn off the lights on an overnight train? The heater is on and burns the metal on my purse so that it burns my skin, and yet the door of the train to the outside is open leading to a freezing draft, so we are both freezing cold and burning hot at the same time.
2:15 AM This is when the real fun begins. Blue scarf man essentially goes crazy -- he starts roaming the aisle, engaging everyone in conversation. Despite the fact that other people are trying to sleep, they all talk to him -- no one asks him to stop yelling, or quiet down, or mind his own busines....they are all just laughing at him.
I wake up to him yelling about respect to some poor French man, and the he comes over to my aisle, and engages with yellow-scarf man, who volunteers the information that I am American, while Nehal's seat-partner volunteers that she is Indian.
Blue scarf man is asking all about us -- are we nice? Where are we from? But he's asking yellow-scarf man. At one point, he comes over to talk to Nehal and says -- "I love you Tunisia".
Eventually, he starts talking to Nehal's seatmate, and somehow convinces her to go to the bathroom(?) with him...so they walk to the back of the train together. I take this opportunity to trade places, and go join Nehal for the rest of the journey. Lesson #1: Always sit with your own traveling companion!
He finally gets off, and then from the outside, starts hitting the window with peace signs right outside our window -- the window is so dirty and its pitch black outside, so we can't even see him, but Nehal reaches down and pulls down the blinds emphatically and everyone (everyone!) on the train starts laughing -- I can't help but crack up, because we have "escaped" that situation somehow.
3 AM The lights are still on. Lesson #2: Bring a scarf or eye covering to cover your eyes.
4 AM I wake up again, to hear Nehal's seat mate (now sitting with yellow-scarf man), yelling with another man, about whether she is really from a certain town -- he accuses her of not being from there (she doesn't have the right accent), and she proceeds to tell her life story. At this point, I look up, just to see 3 men in soldiers uniforms holding the yelling man back from the woman, all standing right next to me and Nehal. Obviously, I pretend to be asleep.
5 AM Two young kids start playing American rap music at the top volume. I look up and see them dancing in their seats, but pretend to be asleep. Eventually they start playing Bob Marley, and it is a bit bearable -- I still don't understand why or how no one on the train comments about how this is unacceptable to do at 5 AM.
Lights still on.
6 AM We finally arrive in Tozeur! Yellow scarf man wakes me up and asks me when we are going to have coffee. I explain that we already have a busy schedule. It is pitch black, and freezing cold. There are no taxis in sight -- and we are freezing! It's also a dark small street to
Also, yellow-scarf man is hanging around, it is unclear where he goes, but I do not want to give him my phone number. Eventually, we see a black van pull up, and I ask if that is a bus -- it turns out to be the Police. I decide it is safe enough -- we ask them to take us to the main road so that at least we find a taxi.
We finally make it to our hotel around 6:30 AM, and have to call and wake up the receptionist, but eventually we make it safely to our beds for a morning nap before our adventures were actually supposed to start.
All in good fun, the train ride got me thinking about how Tunisian society is really quite different than American society, and about what factors made this trip so unenjoyable.
1) Who keeps the lights on full blast all trip? It's an overnight trip!
1) When would it be OK in the US for the person you just met on the train to insist on spraying you with deoderant spray, offer to accompany on your vacation, and ask to get your phone number for coffee? I think that there is an instant familiarity that is assumed in Tunisia, whereas Americans really don't even want to talk to the person next to them on the train most of the time. They don't necessarily mind exchanging cordial formalities, but they are not going to ask to go to coffee after the train ride.
They also will not stay sitting next to you, once every other seat on the train opens up -- Americans like our personal space a bit too much, we would always choose to move to be alone, even if we enjoyed talking to the person next to us.
2) Public Space -- The train in Tunisia is public space, it becomes a platform or stage for public displays of either comedy or politics. In the US, every now and then the metro also becomes a public space -- but not always, and most of the time, people just prefer that you pretend that despite being in a public transportation system, you have actually safeguarded a piece of your privacy.
This is actually something I have thought a lot about -- many people in Tunisia, particularly young men but often young women as well, are always putting on a show -- they are conscious of who is watching them, and how they present themselves to the world. They don't walk from point A to point B with any speed or purpose -- they will shout to one another across the street, bringing others into the conversation, beacuse the street is treated as a stage, for them to present their public persona -- in the US, especially in big cities populated by many professionals, we walk from point A to point B simply because we have to go to point B, and we happen to be at point A. We are frequently not conscious of who else is around us and what image we are presenting to those who might be watching us.
3) Fighting -- There really is so much yelling and arguing that goes on in Tunisian trains, but there is a lot more vocal yelling in general in public spaces here than in the US.
Then of course, there are just personality factors -- we happened to sit by some of the stranger characters on the train.