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    "No, I Will NOT Get Out of this Taxi in the Middle of the Desert!"

    map of Tunisia, Italy, and Egypt, and travel books

    TRAVELING ALONE, PART 6—Getting there from here (alone), and how my trip to Tunisia came to include Rome. (I posted this August 29, 2016 10:32 pm)

     

    In 2013 I applied to and was accepted into a two-week art festival for artists from all over the world in Tunisia. This was for the 11th annual International Festival of Fine Arts in Monastir, Tunisia. Then I had to figure out how to get to Monastir from Richmond, Virginia. 

    I could do that. I had booked airline tickets before. How hard could it be? 

    Turns out, you can’t get there from here. At least, not the way I had planned to go. 

    First, there were no direct flights to Tunisia, from Richmond. I REALLY wanted to leave from Richmond, to avoid DC airports. The problem was, when I entered in the parameters of travel I wanted (like traveling through Barcelona), all of the airlines wanted to take me through Chicago by way of Houston, and finally to Tunisia for a measly $6,000+. (I’m making up the cities—not the price). 

    After about 3 hours, I have an epiphany—why not have AAA help me? I paid big bucks every year, and got a lot of peace of mind, but hardly ever used their services. Time to change that. 

    So, I just dropped by, told them what I needed, and the dates. Ron (because we bonded), did a few magic keystrokes, and then a few more, and then asked the question that changed everything: “Do you need to go through Barcelona?” The only reason I had stated that as a condition of travel was because I knew people there. That was it. So…No. No, I did not NEED to go through Barcelona. That turned out to be a good thing, because it turns out that Barcelona only had flights going to Tunisia twice a week. BINGO! Once we took that out of the equation, obstacles started to drop away like leaves off a tree in fall. 

    First I could choose other cities to go through that had daily flights: Paris, Rome, Frankfurt. Hmmm…. 

    Paris. Even though this would be a connecting flight, the possibility that I could have to stay over (because that had happened before) meant I wanted to select my hub city carefully. Loved the idea of Paris, but my French is limited, and the stress of having to brush up on French in addition to my Arabic made my stomach go into knots. No.

    Frankfurt. That seemed to be logical, because I had 3 years of German in high school, and I could brush up quickly (maybe), but I was not enamored of staying in Frankfurt, if it became necessary. So, nope.

    Rome. Rome….Bella Roma. I had been there in 1975. I studied Italian there, and felt more comfortable reviewing my Italian than any other option. And it was ROME. I LOVED the idea. Rome it was.

    Now for the timing. Leave the US, land in Rome, and Ron (who was now my new best friend) suggested I plan to spend the night in Rome and take a fight out the next day to Tunisia, in case there were flight delays. Brilliant! And I would be spending. the. night. in. Rome. 

    And then I started to think…It’s a lot of trouble to go through customs, baggage, to a hotel, unpack (even a little bit), and then do it in reverse the very next day….seems to make a lot of sense to spend several days in Rome. You know, get over jet lag, acclimate to the Mediterranean weather in September. It would be a sacrifice, but one I was willing to make. It only made sense, right? 

    Then I could fly to Tunis, Tunisia (a 45 minute flight) stay for 11 days, and return to Rome on my way home. And since I had to stop there anyway, and since I would be very tired and perhaps stressed (all that traveling and painting and who-knows-what-else), it would probably be a good idea to stay in Rome a few days on my return home to rest and recuperate. It was only logical. 

    So, 3 days before Tunisia, 4 days after. In Rome. I could live with that. 

    Rome:

    Great trip to Rome (that is when Security stopped me with my paints in my carry-on). Great time in Rome. Got to do some painting. Great trip to the Rome airport for my flight to Tunis. 

    And then the flight to Tunis is delayed. “Only 45 minutes”. Only an hour”. “It will be a little while longer”. I will not bore you with the details, except to say that

    1) all of us waiting for that flight bonded, 

    2) children all over the world will make a game anywhere, anytime, with anything, including soccer with a bottle cap, and

    3) we left 7 hours later than we were supposed to. 

    I arrived in Tunis about 8 pm. I was supposed to be picked up about 1 pm. I had been emailing the person (Nejib Rokbani) who was supposed to pick me up with updates all afternoon. I went to the Greeting desk for visitors in the Tunis airport (which is a VERY large airport). No one was there. Then I realized I was at the wrong desk, and went to the correct spot. People were there, but they had NO idea what I was talking about. They directed me to the HELP desk. At this point I tried to call Nejib again, but my phone would not connect. Yes, I had called the phone company before I left the U.S; yes, I had gotten directions for calling in Tunisia; no, nothing worked (turns out, I misread the directions). 

    I had put all my important contact information in the front of a folder I carried with me, that had the travel info, the event info, everything, in case I was asked. While I was trying again to call Nejib AGAIN (by now it’s about 8:45) a gentleman who was standing nearby and had overheard my conversation asked me if I needed help. Boy, did I! I told him I could not reach my contact with my phone, and he offered to call with his. I showed him the number, which he called. Nejib ANSWERED. He explained my situation, in Arabic, Nejib told him what I needed to do. Nejib’s nephew would meet me at the visitors’ desk in about 45 minutes. HOORAY! And then my knight in shining armor walked away (his aunt had arrived), and I never even knew his name.

    Nejib’s nephew met me, a lovely young man, drove me through Tunis (about 9:30 by now), and into an alley. Well-lit, but an alley. Into a large building with LOTS of cars. He told me that I was going to take a service taxi to Monastir and Nejib would meet it. Now, this might have been a real cause for alarm for most women, because this was REALLY going into the unknown. REALLY alone. Late at night. And in a car with a lot of other people.

    The Service Taxi:

    Fortunately, this situation was not unknown to me. From Amman, Jordan, my husband and I had taken a service taxi to Jericho (and then on to Jerusalem). A service taxi is one that takes off when it is full (about 8 riders), and there is a set fee for each rider. 

    So, I knew what was going on. He took me to a taxi, loaded my luggage, and gave the driver instructions. In Arabic. Fine. 

    It was the driver, a young boy,  5 other men and I. The taxi took off, and I immediately fell asleep. Some time later I awoke to the sound of a modern day version of ‘Leilet Hob’, one of my all-time favorite Arabic songs, and this was a wonderful way to wake up. Then the taxi slowed down, stopped, and one of the men got out. It was a pretty isolated area, and I remember thinking, “Boy, I would hate to have to get out in such an area”. 

    Not 10 minutes later, the taxi slowed down again, stopped, there was some shuffling in the back, and the driver came around to my side and opened the door. “Madam, please.” Please what? And he gestured for me to get out. In the dark. In the middle of what looked like middle of the desert. “ME?, NO, this is not Hotel les Palmiers!” “Madam, please”. “No, this is NOT Hotel les Palmiers, No, I’m not get…”. At this point I was DUG IN (think of a cartoon scene from Bugs Bunny)  

    And then, Nejib’s face appeared behind the shoulder of the cab driver. I recognized him because of Facebook. “Nejib, Nejib!” I was never so glad to see anyone in my life. Apparently, Nejib and the taxi driver had been in contact over the phone, and they had established the meeting point. 

    I scrambled out of the taxi, he took my luggage, put me in HIS car, and drove me to the hotel. The concierge was waiting for me, and by midnight I was safely ensconced in my room. By the way, Nejib spoke almost no English. He spoke Arabic and French (turns out, I should have brushed up on my French after all).

    And then the adventure began….

    So, what worked?

    Rome was a great choice. I staying in the pensione I had stayed in years ago, so there was no stress there.

    I had my contact information right at hand. 

    I knew about service taxis.

    I had my FACEBOOK page. Not only did I recognize Nejib, but even when I could not connect to email, I could get on Facebook, for the entire trip. Facebook was a huge part of how I was able to keep in touch with friends and family. 

     

    Next blog:  How to be the boss of your camel, and 'even the sweat has sweat'.

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