Tunisia is undoubtedly the most accessible Muslim country in the world. Morocco’s borders with Algeria are closed, and there’s a checkpoint every ten minutes through Western Sahara. Egypt requires a visa (humph) and although the Jordanian visa is free for Brits on arrival from Egypt, good luck with trying to near its borders with Saudi or Iraq. Even Turkey’s borders aren’t all open, the Armenian one has been shut to Westerners since forever. Meanwhile, plucky little Tunisia, sandwiched between unhappy giants Libya and Algeria offers a window on the culture of the area that could lead people to believe that it was almost liberal or permissive, which I’m sorry to report it isn’t. Human rights here are a joke, and women (especially western women) are still regarded as nasty little creatures which only exist to torment the otherwise pious and pure minds of the menfolk. Free and fair elections are as in the hazy, ill-defined future as the hydrogen fuel cell engine i.e., it’s never going to happen. Even YouTube is banned lest people slag off el presidente (who – AS USUAL – is beyond all worldly criticism).
Burned into my memory of Africa is a bumper sticker that I saw in Nigeria saying ‘Only God Can Judge Me’. Oh great, well do what you like then, you arrogant sod – murder, steal, rape, lie, cheat and scandalise because our human courts are obviously a figment of your stupid, religion-addled imagination.
Welcome to Africa, peeps. Checking the Islamic calendar, it says that it’s 1431. That’d be around right… absolutism, the ancien regime, the divine right of kings, the putting to death of ‘witches’ etc etc. The fifteenth century is alive and well and living in this, the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East. No wonder Algeria and Libya make it so hard for us plucky adventurers to pay them a visit. But I’ll talk more about Libya (it is, I’m sorry to say, a pitifully hilarious place) tomorrow.
Today’s mission was to shake the hangover from my head and get as close to the Libyan border as humanly possible. After managing to lose one of my phones (damnit), Dja and I headed over to the train station and I nabbed a ticket for Gabès, the railhead not too far from the border with Libya. The journey was uneventful and lonely, I settled in with a copy of Sherlock Holmes and around 9pm we had arrived.
I could have pressed on to Ben Guerdane, closer to the border, but I decided to stop for the night. After being ripped off by a taxi driver who drove me around the block, I found a hotel that my brother Mike had texted me the address of (Gabès is too insignificant to merit a mention in the Lonely Planet), but it was full. I ambled down the road to the next one on the list, and it seemed decent enough for the price (£4). After checking in, I headed out to find something to eat. No such luck – everything was closed. Not a café, not an inn, not a sausage.
Alone, in a grotty bedroom in the middle of nowhere the seconds counted down to my 31st birthday. I tried calling Mandy in Australia again and again. She didn’t answer. Eventually I gave up, curled up into a ball and wished myself Happy Birthday.