Spotting fellow westerners around these parts nowadays? Rare. I see few. The State of Emergency remains in place since a shooting 18 months ago killed 38 foreigners, 30 of whom were British holidaymakers. A radicalised 23-year-old ran amok in a beach resort. The Foreign Office currently advises against all but essential travel. Tourism has collapsed.
Not totally. We're here to help. People seem open and friendly and pleased to see us. I'm here courtesy of a short consultancy assignment.
Arriving from Sierra Leone was arduous. 27 hours’ door to door. Travelling from west to North Africa is seldom a breeze.
The route? Freetown... Conakry... Dakar... Casablanca... Tunis. We (me and you) are standing at the northernmost bulge of Africa. We are in Tunisia, where Africa juts out toward Sicily marking the division between the eastern and western Med. To the west Algeria, to the east Libya. To the south, the Sahara Desert. A 1300 km coastline is the northern border.
It's late January 2017. 0625 hrs. Still dark. Will there be any surprises on the morning run? Pink flamingos, perhaps? A hands knees and boomps a daisy moment, maybe? Who was it who once said, 'adventure before dementia'? Damn, it's gone. I can't remember...
Reveille. Much needed. A decent sleep. The top photo is from my hotel window. The Hotel Ambassadeurs, functional but value for money. Tempting to use the Ferrero Rocher tagline from many moons ago, "Ambassadors you're not spoiling us." However, it’s fine, don't overthink the reviews on Tripe Advisor.
The plan for this early hour? Well, we're going to head south-west towards the heart of the city. Then, circle back to the old quarter and finally run through the nearby Parc du Belvedere.
An hour’s steady run. It's chilly. I haven't been warm since arrival. There's no heating anywhere; including my bedroom, coffee shops, restaurants or hotels. The locals are wearing boots, hoodies, blankets, head scarves, thick coats, and that's indoors. While it's hardly a Siberian winter, I've come dressed for the beach. A short-sleeved T-shirt with a short-sleeved polo shirt as the outer layer, and that's outdoors.
No foreigners and I'm blending in like an excited dog's dangly bits. In my defence, I came from the peak of the hot season in West Africa at short notice. After brekkie, I'm buying a coat and a hat. The odds of bumping into someone I know in Tunis?
The city wakes slowly. The streets are quiet; there’s little traffic. I run on the roads; the pavements are not the best. Some cities are beautiful; this one? Maybe it's the winter.
A few businesses are stirring. Mostly spartan smoky coffee stands, filled by seasoned males. Large ancient coffee machines are coughing into life. Some men stand, some sit in white plastic garden chairs. Three-legged stools are serving as tables. Everyone looks cold. Everyone smokes.
Here’s what we're looking for; the tram lines. Let's follow these to the centre.
The side streets open into more of a French boulevard feel. Let’s push the pace to the big clock. Either side of the main street is wall to wall coffee shops and restaurants. There's plenty of armed security; it feels safe enough.
Time to jog over to the old quarter.
Tunisia has witnessed six tumultuous years. It shows. The Arab Spring was a series of democratic uprisings that quickly spread through the Arab world. It all began right here, in little old Tunisia.
These revolutions ultimately brought down Mubarak, Gaddafi, with the first domino to fall Tunisia’s own hard man, Ben Ali.
The catalyst? Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit and veg seller, who set fire to himself in protest following mistreatment by police. He died. It was January 2011. The first mass demonstrations against the Tunisian government began.
What followed was a remarkable chain of events no-one could have foreseen. The world learnt three things; first, the real winds of change in N. Africa; second, the power of social media. And, third, despots could no longer control the agenda.
It's still early on a Saturday morning. Now I'm warmed up I'm enjoying my tour through the streets. Impromptu street markets are springing up. Piles of mostly second-hand clothes on the ground. It has the feel of a haphazard car boot sale. I'll have no problem picking up a warm coat; I can pass it on in a few days. I'm feeling a big black leather jacket from the 70's with a huge upturned collar and large pockets on the front. I'll look like a German taxi driver. Maybe, an outsized grey woolly hat to complete the look.
First light is close. Time to head north over to the park near the hotel.
Look to our right. Pink Flamingoes.
Let's run up onto the high ground for a panoramic of the city. Then brekkie back in the hotel? One mile to go, downhill to the finish, pick up the speed. Oh, oh...
Nooo... argh, an arse over tit moment. I go flying. Smartphone in my hand somehow survives. My Fitbit snaps off and lands in the bushes. Crack my elbow. Knee hurts, right on the bone. Feels twisted; scheisse, merde, shit! What happened? What a buffoon?
No one to witness this strange selfie. What happened? A hard landing happened. I guess it shows my genuine commitment to the blog; I've skin in the game. JP - thanks for the line. My original idea was to say it was my female guest runner but the fingers look too long to be credible.
Nothing else for it; hobble, feeling rather pathetic back to the Ambassadeurs. The old unshaven doorman last saw me full of cheery bonhomie about an hour ago, probably thinking, look at him in his silly running clothes. He has both hands cupped around a cigarette. He looks cold. He's probably thinking to himself, had a little tumble did we, not zipping about now, are we?
Of course, he’s not thinking this. He's not me. Tunisians are great people. He's a decent fellow who's stood outside all night. In a couple of days’ time, he'll have a new old leather coat and a grey woolly hat.
Farewell Tunisia. I do hope sanity returns, the attacks cease, and normality returns. Next time? I’ll visit in summer…