I watched Eliot walk away from the hotel balcony; he walked in a careless fashion, taking big strides forward and his head bobbing while his scarf swayed from left to right. The time was five o’clock, the theatre show was supposed to start at five but as I soon learnt Tunisians like many Africans have they own track of time- one that requires a lot of patience because most events take place thirty to sixty minutes after the prescribed time. I would have joined him but I had quite a long and busy journey from South Africa to the capital of Tunis and then eventually, via a bumpy bus ride, to Nabeul. I inhaled deeply as the sun set amazed that I was still alive. I sniffed my armpits and decided I should take a hot shower.
I left home on Christmas evening, my grandmother, my aunt, my cousin, my nephews, older brother and soon to be sister in-law gave me hugs to bid me farewell. We had had quite a successful Christmas lunch- usually the day gives rise to my neurosis and depression- having lost both my mother and father it is actually a day of sorrow- or at least it used to be. I tried my best this time to unify my family: I made calls, bought the meat, bought gifts for my nephews and even delayed packing my bag for the trip to Tunisia. My brother’s girlfriend and I were busy in the kitchen making salads while he braaied the meat outside. My nephews were playing in my car and my aunt and cousin were yet to arrive from church. When they did finally arrive the meat and food were ready, we sat down, said a prayer and dug into the delicious food. It was intimate; my brother who is usually not so affectionate tried to make us all laugh, my grandmother who is a dweller on passed events in life was recalling how my brother as a baby almost died because of a respiratory infection but because of her vigilance she took him to the hospital where they immediately gave him the help he needed. My brother thanked her for saving her life and we moved on to much lighter subjects. Once we had finished eating I took to packing my bags while my cousin and brother’s girlfriend cleared the table and washed the dishes.
The airport was busy, at least the airliner I was using was very busy. There were lots of families, huge families with numbers reaching twenty comprising of grandmothers and grandfathers, husbands, wives, aunts and uncles, daughters and sons, and cousins. An attendant saw how frozen I was that she stood up from behind her desk and told me in a soft voice to come to her and she would attend to me. She very quickly checked me in, I embarrassingly thanked her for noticing my confusion and for her helpfulness. She could have easily chosen to sit behind her desk and just watch me embroiled in my confusion.
Once checked in I bought an alcoholic cider and a big bottle of water before boarding. I knew I could only have the drinks when I boarded the plane. On the plane I only opened my bottle of water because my cider needed a bottle opener and I did not have one. I was so upset because I knew I would need some alcohol to deal with the screaming babies, and the toddlers who were running up and down the aisle. I prayed that I would be able to fall into a deep sleep and only wake up once we landed in Cairo.
In Cairo I waited two hours before boarding the plane, at customs they confiscated my cider- I did not fight- regulations are after all regulations. I was just happy to board the next flight to Tunisia and see the country with Eliot.
Eliot had arranged for a friend of his to fetch me at the airport. I had three hundred rand on me and my VISA card. I was advised to buy a Tunisian SIM card before leaving the airport so that I could communicate with the person who was going to fetch me but when I finally landed after three boring hours from Cairo to Tunisia my bank card would not work and they would not accept my South African rands; they wanted only dollars and euros. My phone was going to switch off because of a low battery and so I quickly wrote down Eliot’s Tunisian number and his friend’s number. The people at the airport were not helpful at all, firstly they barely spoke any English and it seemed like I was nuisance to them when I asked for help. It was really disparaging. I was close to tears but I decided to walk up to the taxi drivers and show them the name of the guy who was supposed to fetch me and then ask if I could call from their cellphones. Nothing is for free in this world, despite telling the people I met about my situation they did not believe me and so I could not make the phone call. I decided to ask one of the taxi drivers to take me to the city centre because I thought my card was not the problem but that that the ATMs in the airport had run out of money. I found driver who looked desperate for money, we struggled to understand each other but after a few minutes of pointing to my phone and Visa card he took me to the city centre but once again the card did not work. I told him this and he got mad, he demanded his money and that’s when I gave him my friend’s number to call. Eliot answered and quickly got hold of the friend who was supposed to fetch me- he came swiftly and paid the driver who had charged him an absorbent amount. I wanted to hug and kiss him- I knew once I met him that he was a good soul. He introduced himself as Kheridine and I introduced myself and aftr these introductions we laughed about the situation I was in as if we were old friends.
He immediately drove to downtown, Bourgebia, where we hunted for a local SIM card. The first shop we got to was too expensive, so we decided to go have some food and relax. He took me to a packed café that was selling shwarmas. He ordered a huge shwarma, chips and a handful of olives for me. We went to sit in the upstairs area of the crowded café and got to know each other; at first I thought Kheridine was gay but it turned out he had a beautiful wife whom I later met on the day; I guess I mistook his soft mannerisms and affection as signifiers of a gay man. After eating we went to find a cheaper SIM card; I was so relieved to finally have network. The first person I called was my Eliot who immediately told me to get on a bus to Nabeual where he was. Kheridine drove me to the bus station and bought me a ticket and as soon as I entered and sat down the bus moved.
It turns out I took the cheaper bus the one that tries to avoid all the toll gates so I saw the back alleys of the country, I saw a few sheep, a ceramic factory which was really just a big house and from that house beautiful broken ceramics trailed along the road. I soon got used to the bumpy ride and was lulled to sleep by the motion. I woke up when I heard everyone getting off the bus, I prayed to God that I had not missed my stop and got off.
Nabeul was spray painted in red on the bus stop benches, I got excited and called Eliot who told me the name of his hotel. I had misspelt the name of the hotel but the taxi driver understood me when I told him where I wanted to go and drove me straight there.
Hotel Kheops is like a book with a great cover but the contents are actually trash. I stood outside the grand hotel waiting for Eliot to return from his workshop which he was hosting. Tunisia is dusty from Tunis to Nabeul to pretty much everywhere in the country, the cars are covered in a white crusty dust, so are the streets, the pavement and the houses which are mostly painted white with royal blue lines on the borders of the windows and doors. I leaned against the wall and patiently waited, within a few minutes he came up with his unusual big strides kicking dust up in the air. He told me he had been looking for a Merlot as it is my favourite wine but could not find it. Finding alcohol in Tunisia is hard, I think it would be easier to find a black car that is not covered in dust. We went up to the hotel room, talked about the events of the morning and laughed about them. He then told me that there was a theatrical show at five but it was one minute to five and I wanted to take a hot shower before leaving. He left me and at half past five called me to tell me the password of the wifi and that the show was just about to begin. I could have actually made it had he had been patient enough to wait for me to take the shower.
He returned after the show and we went to dinner in the hotel dining hall, there I met the students he was working with; English was not their primary language but they did not need the English language to be hospitable which they were. One of them was having a birthday party on the beach which was supposed to start at nine in the evening after dinner but it did not because Tunisians like many Africans have their own track of time. I was tired and at ten o’clock decided to go up to the hotel room and rest for a while before going out to the party. I did not make it to the party. I had slept a long peaceful sleep that was as closest to death as I had have ever felt. In the morning I woke up at the crack dawn, walked up to the balcony and saw the moon floating over the white sleepy town, I watched it disappear as the sun rose to take its majestic place over Nabeul. I wondered what the day would hold for me but with my local SIM card in had I was sure it would not be as hectic as the previous day. It was going to be a good day.