10 Questions: Cycling In Tunisia
Tara & Tyler set off from their home in America in 2009 to ride their bikes at a gentle pace around the world.
Their journals and photos – appropriately titled Going Slowly – make up what must be the best account of a bike trip we’ve seen yet: honest, beautiful and inspiring.
In this week’s 10 Questions, Tara & Tyler tell us about the part of the trip that took them to Tunisia, in northern Africa. It was a mixed experience, with some incredible landscapes and sights, but also a few challenges they didn’t expect.
1. Can you describe the experience of bike touring in Tunisia?
Tunisia is somehow friendly, warm, and exotic while simultaneously being completely infuriating. Mentally prepare yourself for constant harassment (in cities, anyhow). Once you learn how to deal with people, it becomes a non-issue. The culture shock can be surprising though, especially if you are a seasoned traveler who isn’t expecting it.
2. Which places do you recommend visiting on a bike tour to Tunisia, and are there any to avoid?
- Kerkennah Islands – We found the most relaxed atmosphere and the friendliest people on these desert islands. We also did some of our best free-camping — just us, a fire, the full moon, the ocean, and the palm trees. There’s a cute little museum, and some colorful characters about the small villages as well.
- Chot El Jerid (from Douz to Tozeur) - These salt flats are amazing– just huge stretches of pure while leading to the horizon. It looks like heaven!
- Ong Ejamel (for the Star Wars set) - If you’re near the town of Nefta, you must make the effort to go to Ong Ejamel to see the Star Wars set. Even if you don’t care about the movies, it is incredible. It can be reached via a “road” leading several kilometers into true desert. Bring lots of water. The road isn’t really a road, per say, but it can be cycled.
- Douz - This is the place to be around Christmas. Every year, the city hosts the Festival of the Sahara, where tribes from all across the desert convene, and hold demonstrations of song and dance, dog racing, camel racing, horse racing, and traditional wedding ceremonies. The dates are also delicious this time of year!
- Chenini and the other Berber mountain villages - Well worth the effort to get here. The houses are built right into the mountain– incredible!
There’s nowhere in particular we would suggest avoiding, but beware of big cities because you will get hassled more there.
3. What kind of budget do people need for touring in Tunisia?
It depends! We spent roughly 40 dinar a day ($30 U.S.), eating out a lot, cooking some, and free camping, with hostels and hotels thrown in as well. You could do quite well on much less if you tried.
4. Can you describe the roads and the traffic?
There are usually only one or two roads to get from point A to point B which makes for easy navigation. There are also markers every kilometer, showing how far it is to the next large town. Tara loved counting them down. It depends on the area, but traffic ranges from constantly busy to almost nonexistent. Watch out for louages (shared taxis) who are paid by how many trips they can squeeze into a day. They drive really fast.
The roads, which are usually well paved, generally have an abrupt drop-off to a gravel shoulder. We stayed on the pavement, as far to the right as possible. Expect a lot of traffic heading for you in the wrong lane, as idiot drivers overtake one another with regularity. All in all, the traffic can be a bit unnerving, but it helps to remember that drivers are used to swerving out of the way for wayward children, donkey carts, mobylettes, herds of sheep, etc.
5. What about the local people? What is their reaction to bike tourists?
Many people ride their bikes, but we were still very conspicuous in our giant loaded bicycles. Nearly everyone we passed smiled and waved, or at least stared.
When we stopped, we were often greeted by friendly people, hawkers who wanted to sell us something, and kids demanding money. Being American was never an issue. We only had one or two people who wanted to talk politics, which usually just consisted of “Bush– very bad. Obama! Good!” When we agreed, there wasn’t much more to say.
6. What has been your biggest challenge so far, and how have you dealt with it?
- Tara - As a woman I found I had to be very careful about how talkative and friendly I was, which was difficult because I was doing most of the communicating (I speak French, Tyler does not). Smiles and friendly banter, I quickly learned, are taken as come-ons. Going outside at night by myself, I was covered from head to toe, wearing a hoodie, sunglasses, and headscarf completely covering my face, save for my eyes. Even dressed as such, I was followed, hit on repeatedly by interested men, and generally hassled. One guy ran a few blocks across a park just to hit on me. The nearly constant harassment gets really old really fast.I was often the only woman among a sea of men at a cafe. This was intimidating at first, but I got used to the stares. In order to combat constant hassling, I found that I had to become as blank and empty as possible. No smiling, no friendly chat, no saying hello. It was really hard. When the men follow and vy for attention, saying anything, even “no,” can egg them on. Ignoring them flat out, even when they were in my face talking to me, seemed to work the best. It felt very, very strange to straight up ignore someone. It was all very tiring and annoying. I often wondered, why should I have to cover myself completely and make sure I am devoid of all semblance of humanity just to be left alone!?!?
- Tyler - Haggling was an annoyance, but if you don’t play the game, you get overcharged a lot. We wanted to explore cities, markets, and medinas, but it was difficult to look at anything without being accosted by a street seller. We got really good at ignoring people (though it isn’t considered rude in Tunisia, we had a hard time not feeling bad about it). When kids held their hands out shouting UN DINAR UN DINAR, I pretended not to understand and shook hands with them. This got them smiling and I think they thought of us more as people than as walking wallets.We would often be overcharged at restaurants, when the prices were clearly listed, and would have to approach the waiter about it. Always agree on prices beforehand, and if you take a taxi, make sure he turns on his meter instead of inventing your bill at the end.Lastly, a kid shot Tara with an airsoft gun, and some creep tried to sleep with us. I feel like this all paints a very negative picture of Tunisia, but that is what happened! Our time there was very challenging, but it was worth the visit!
7. What has been your greatest joy, while touring Tunisia?
Tara’s rim developed a crack on Kerkennah Island. While we were waiting for replacements, we bought a cheap mobylette (scooter) and rode it around Southern Tunisia. Mobylettes are EVERYWHERE in Tunisia, and it was a great way to meet people and really feel a part of Tunisian culture. We had so much fun!! It wasn’t cycle touring, but it was by far the most fun we had.
8. Can you get around speaking only English, or do you have to learn a bit of French or Arabic?
You’d be able to scrape by with English and charades if you had to, but a little French will go a long way to making a tour of Tunisia enjoyable. Even the most basic phrases will be immeasurably useful, and can help get you by until you pick up a few words in Arabic. We learned a few basic words which came in handy when speaking with someone who didn’t speak French. For the most part though, French is by far the most useful. Road signs are in French as well as Arabic.
9. Tell us about the food. What’s to eat and is there enough of it that you don’t necessarily need to bring cooking equipment?
Cheap roadside food stands abound. It is often cheaper to eat at these than it is to buy groceries, but there isn’t much variety. Sandwiches feature fresh salads, harissa (chilli paste), bright pink slices of “salami”, egg, or tuna. Chapatis, Fricasees… basically everything involves harissa, tuna, and egg in different variations. “Cheese” is all fake, American cheese slices or gross fake mozzarella. Deli “meat” is highly processed, bright pink, and comes in tubes. Restaurants selling grilled lamb are plentiful and the particular smell of it is ever-present throughout Tunisia. We would definitely recommend bringing your own cooking equipment if you plan on touring for longer than two weeks, but we really enjoy cooking. You could get by without it easily.
Outside of very large cities, supermarkets don’t really exist. All grocery shopping is done at tiny hole-in-the-wall “superettes.” There are very few options besides basic staples like couscous, canned foods, pasta, etc. There are plenty of good fruit and vegetable stands, with the best oranges and dates imaginable. Our favorite foods were Chawarma Sandwiches (like a doner kebab), Lablabi (like a peasant chili), and egg briks (an egg and curried potatoes fried in a sort of phyllo dough). The food is okay but gets old, and if you like to cook you will be disappointed by how few options you have. I would definitely bring cooking gear and have a few staples on hand if you plan on going into the desert, or for the occasional times you don’t pass a village or a superette. (Tara & Tyler have yet more thoughts on Tunisian food)
10. What’s the one thing every cyclist going to Tunisia should take with them?
A LOT of patience.
Also, always keep change on hand. No one ever seems to have change, even for a small bill. This was very trying at times, especially because shopkeepers often act like this is your problem, not theirs.
This is more than one thing, but get a headscarf while you’re there! We fell in love with ours. They keep your head protected from the wind and the hot sun, are very useful to block sand from blowing in your face and for women, they help you blend in a little; offering the slightest bit of privacy from the constant staring and hassling.
Thanks to Tara & Tyler for answering 10 Questions and providing the photos.
Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling through Tunisia:
- Tunisia Bicycle Tour Travel Guide – Advice from iBike, one of the better Africa cycling pages.
- Cycle Touring In Tunisia – Notes and a map of a 1994 bike tour in Tunisia