For once, I managed to wake up before 8am; I must be finally adjusting to the time zone. After breakfast I finished packing my things and checked out of the hotel, ready to head to Hammamet for the rest of the week. I needed to catch a taxi to take me to the louage station – louages are shared minibus taxis that take people all over Tunisia. According to the woman at the front desk of the hotel, catching a louage would be faster than taking the bus, as long as I didn’t find myself being the first passenger in a particular taxi – otherwise, I’d have to wait until the taxi would leave, and sometimes that longer than you’d like it to be.
I went outside to hail a taxi; the first one stopped and said he’d charge me 10 dinars for the ride to the louage station, which was absolutely ludicrous, since it shouldn’t cost more than two dinars. I waved him off and grabbed the next one, who was decent enough to not try to rob me and turned on his meter as soon as I got inside the front seat next to him.
We weaved through Tunis to the south side of town until reaching the louage station. As soon as I stepped out on the curb an attendant asked where I was going.
“À Hammamet,” I replied.
“Les billets sont là-bas,” he said, pointing to the ticket agent.
When I got to the agent I noticed a sign posting the fares to various destinations. Just below Hammamet was Hammamet Sud – perfect, since I was actually going to a new resort and business complex called Yasmine Hammamet, about 10 miles south of Hammamet proper. I paid the four dinar fare and was immediately directed to a waiting louage that had only one seat available. As soon as my bags were in the trunk and I was in the seat, the louage was on its way, no waiting necessary.
The louage took the highway east out of Tunis towards Cap Bon, the peninsula that’s home to Hammamet and a collection of popular beach resorts. As we sped down the highway, I began to wonder if I’d made a mistake about not going to Kairouan yesterday, The louage was faster than I expected, not making stops along the way, so maybe I could have gotten there in less than three hours. Perhaps there’d be time on Saturday after the meetings wrap up; we’d just have to wait and see.
We rode along for about 50 minutes, listening to Tunisian pop music without anyone saying a word, except to answer their mobile phones, which kept going off every five or 10 minutes. Soon enough, we arrived in Hammamet Sud, and before I could get my bags out of the trunk, they’d already hailed me a cab to take me the rest of the way to Yasmine Hammamet. The taxi ride was probably no more than 10 minutes, and cost three dinars. As we pulled into Yasmine, I felt like we were entering a gated community. Leaving the highway, we drove along a wide boulevard with fresh asphalt, lined with palm trees on each side. We passed one resort hotel after another.
Then, we arrived at my hotel, the Lella Baya. Quite literally a postmodern sandcastle, the Lella Baya is an enormous structure, designed to look like castles made out of brown and white sand. Inside, the décor was so over the top it probably would have made Walt Disney blush; an Aladdin fantasy come to life, with huge vaulted Moorish ceilings and columns, once again made to look like sand. It took a while for me to get checked in; it was well before noon and technically they weren’t supposed to let you check until the afternoon. But after 15 minutes or so, my bags disappeared; a few minutes later I was whisked away to the third floor, where I found the bags waiting on my bed.
I had a little time before heading over to the conference center, so I took a quick walk down to the beach, right behind the hotel. The beach was jammed with Spanish and Italian tourists, lounging under thatched-roof umbrellas. I was caught somewhat off-guard when I realized some of the women were bathing topless; not a big surprise if this had been a beach in France or Spain, but it seemed both odd and awkward that they were doing it in an Arab country.
After my walk I went back into the hotel to find out where the conference center was. The man behind the front desk told me to go to the shop to get a map, and the shop keep was happy to charge my five dinars for the privilege to look at a map and find out. This was somewhat irritating because Yasmine Hammamet is so new, it’s not given much attention in the guidebooks, so there was no other way for me to look at a map than to buy one from the hotel. It seems they could have at least had one I could glance at with the concierge or something.
As it turns out, the conference center was in the medina, five minutes’ walk south from the hotel. I step outside onto the sweltering pavement – it was pushing 35 degrees Celsius today – and prayed I wouldn’t be a sweaty mess by the time I got there. A few minutes past the hotel I discovered Carthage World, an amusement park with a variety of rides, none of which seemed to be running at the moment. The entrance of the park was marked by two life-sized mannequins of war elephants; a pair of security guards smoked their cigarettes below the tusks, relaxing in the pachyderm shade. Beyond the elephants were other mannequins, mostly of Arab sailors and pirates – though the pirates were sporting Caribbean pirate garb rather than North African corsair accoutrements. The strangest thing about the park was that its logo was the ancient Punic symbol for children I’d seen at the Sanctuary of Tophet – the same symbol used to mark the place of children that had apparently been sacrificed in the names of Baal Hammon and Tanit.
Soon, I arrived at the medina – not a medina in the traditional sense of the word, though. Yasmine’s medina is brand-spanking new, a complex of restaurants, casinos, shops and conference space that would be my home for the next few days. The kitschiness of the place was breathtaking. It wasn’t even parallel to Disney – this was Vegas, baby, no doubt about it. In fact, the architect who built the Yasmine medina appeared to have done a PhD dissertation in the transformation of Vegas in the 1980s and 1990s: the developers of Circus Circus and the Mirage would have been proud of the medina.
I entered the medina through the southern side, not sure if I was supposed to have gone through the northern entrance, since it was labeled CASINO in huge letters (as opposed to UN CONFERENCE, which would have caught my eye). I passed a swanky café full of beautiful Tunisians having a late morning shisha and coffee. Weaving through the complex, I eventually saw the first evidence that the UN was having a meeting here: a map showing where you could go to pick up your badges for the event. I followed the map but discovered that they weren’t set up yet for accrediting people or handing out badges. In fact, most of the activity in the medina seemed to be geared towards putting on final coats of paint and sanding down any rough edges on doorways.
Along the way I stumbled upon a small post office. I’d be carrying around a batch of postcards that needed stamps, so I went inside to by some. The man working there spoke English, so I requested four stamps that would get my postcard to America.
“Where in USA are you from?” he asked.
“I live in Boston, but I grew up in Florida, near Disney World.”
“Welcome to our Disney World,” he said. “Hammamet is the best place in all of Tunisia. Have you been here before?”
“No, this is my first time, though I’ve traveled to other parts of North Africa and the Middle East.”
“Please enjoy Tunisia,” he said. “But maybe not Algerie, n’est ce pas?”
“Not this time,” I said. “Some day, Algeria and Libya, but now just Tunisie.”
Exploring the rest of the medina to get a feel for where the conference activities would be, I bumped into Renate Bloem and Rik Panganiban of CONGO, which promotes the interests of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at the United Nations. Renate is one of the leaders of civil society’s representation at the UN summit, so it was nice to finally meet her in person. Eventually, they had to leave for another appointment, but Rik pointed me in the direction of the cybercafe, where I was able to settle down for a while and catch up on some work.
Later in the afternoon, since there weren’t any official events going on yet, I decided to catch a taxi to old Hammamet so I could visit its medina – a real medina, at least in comparison to Yasmine’s medina. It was a 15-minute drive to Hammamet, following the coast in a clockwise curve along the peninsula. Stepping out of the taxi, I was greeted by another sand castle – this one, at least, had been first built in the ninth century, and served as a military and commercial stronghold for over a thousand years. The Hammamet medina was a beautiful sight – a sandstone fortress on the outside with whitewashed houses on the inside. Sure, this was tourist central, but at least it wasn’t built for the tourists – it was one of the main reasons they came here in the first place.
The taxi had dropped me off at the northwest corner of the medina, right next to a wide, sandy beach. Rather than head directly to the medina, I crossed over the beach to enjoy the view of Hammamet Bay, filled with fishing boats and Tunisian kids swimming. Across the bay, I could see Hammamet Sud; further to the left, you could just make out Yasmine Hammamet, only because you could spot people parasailing along a small strip of waterfront.
Returning to the northwest corner of the medina, I discovered a charming café called the Sidi Bou Hsid. One of the best locations for an oceanfront café I’d ever seen, it had marvelous things to look at on three sides: the ocean, the walls of the medieval medina, and whitewashed, domed houses that looked like they were straight out of Star Wars (which they very well might have been since the Star Wars flicks were filmed all over Tunisia). Ordering a mint tea and a bottle of water, I sat down at the café under a tall umbrella, watching the fishing boats go by. This really was a charming place.
Leaving the café, I entered the medina from the northern side and went for a long walk, getting lost in its myriad alleyways and impasses. The medina was in marvelous condition, much more so than the Tunis medina, with everything freshly whitewashed; not a crumbling building in sight. Most of the medina on this end of the complex was jammed with souvenir shops, fairly similar to what I’d seen in Tunis. But within a few blocks you were able to reach its residential areas, where kids played football and happy cats snoozed on doorsteps. (The cats here also seemed healthier than the ones in Tunis; none of them were skinny, they were clean, and many wore collars.) The medina was also much less chaotic than Tunis; I’d actually enjoyed the chaos back in the capital, but the peacefulness of this place was very refreshing.
Eventually I came out of the medina on the southern side, then backtracked through part of the walled city until I found an exit on the eastern side. I went to look for a café in the newer part of town but couldn’t find anything that struck a chord with me, so I returned to the oceanside café that I first visited an hour or so earlier, and settled in over a tall glass of Diet Coke and my Lonely Planet guide, whose Tunisian History section I reread for the fourth or fifth time. The sun was getting low in the sky, causing the light to dance on the water . Many of the day-tripping tourists began to leave as locals replaced them in the café. At one point I spotted a young girl who was selling sprigs of jasmine tied into miniature bouquets – Tunisian men traditionally tuck them behind one ear. I asked if I could take a picture, and she said yes, so I snapped a few shots of her before dutifully buying some jasmine for one dinar, which she showed me to tuck it behind my left ear.
By now it was after 6pm, and I was tempted to head back to the hotel. But given the dearth of choices for dinner there, I decided I’d take advantage of my time in Hammamet and get a bite to eat in the neighborhood. Crossing the road from the medina, I found an Italian café that was full of locals, so I settled in for a Boga (Tunisian ginger ale) and a small pizza. I thought I’d ordered a vegetarian pizza, but it came with meat on it – include what I’m pretty sure was ham, another Tunisian surprise. Fortunately, a cute little cat found his way below my table and began to nuzzle against my leg. He stayed with me for the next 45 minutes as I ate my pizza and not-so-discreetly passed him my ham, to the delight of the Tunisian children sitting at the tables around me.
After dinner, I figured it was time to go back to the hotel. Rather than take a taxi back, I took the Hammamet Toy Train, which is similar to the car-trains you see pulling people around at Disney’s parking lot, or inside theme parks. Each car of the train was decorated like Thomas the Tank Engine and was painted pink. For two and a half dinars, I got to sit with a bunch of German tourists as we zoomed at 40 kilometers per hour down the highway in what was essentially a convoy of glorified golf carts.
And now it’s 9pm back at the hotel. Most of the guests are crowded around giant-screened TVs in the atrium watching Euro 2004 football matches. I’m sitting outside by the pool with my laptop, while an Arabic-language version of The Chicken Dance plays in the background. Only in Yasmine Hammamet.