between the lands

Jessica and Andrew’s travel journal

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takin an L…0

Posted by Andrew in EGYPT, TUNISIA (July 16, 2007 at 8:14 pm)

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We don’t like to admit defeat, but we have to in this case.
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Libya simply wouldn’t budge, and we could not get into the country. Without telling the entire saga, Ill include some details for the curious,(most people seem to be curious about Libya, as we were) interspersed with pictures from the magical Ksour of Tunisia for those with short attention spans.
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We began our efforts to get into Libya in February. The usual way to go is with a tour agency—officially, no tourists are allowed without one. It was going to cost more than we hoped, but we figured how many chances to you get to check out the amazing desert and ruins of Libya. Several agencies wrote back, saying the government had put a freeze of visas to Americans (not officially, but they just wouldn’t issue them), one guy offered to do it for $900, which was just too much.
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Then we found Libyan friends of friends in Granada, who really tried to help us and hook us up with good folks back in Tripoli, (thanks Matug and Hussein) but their connections petered out after a while, saying for Americans it was just too difficult…
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Then we heard about the transit visa option, where you just get a one week visa to cross the country(either from Egypt to Tunisia or the other way around). I had read about lots of foreigners doing this, but not Americans. We applied at the consulate in both Cairo and Tunis, but week after week they would tell us “call back next week” they were very nice, and said our papers were in order; they even said that Americans are sometimes granted visas, but alas, for us it never happened.
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Last week—Last chance. We were in southern Tunisia, two hours from the border, staying in Tataouine (the area where these pics of ruined ancient hilltop berber villages and grain storage ksour are from) We decided to just head for the border and try to talk our way in. We got past several levels of security, filled out the Libyan customs form, passed by the enourmous 70s style mural of Qadaffi, and were officially on Libyan soil, but then we were called into the office. An hour debating with some guy called ‘the general’ and other officers, and they said it was simply impossible for us to enter without a visa, and Tripoli wouldn’t give them the ok to issue us one. They were very nice, and seemed like they wanted to help, but their highups in the capital wouldn’t allow it.
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So now were back in Cairo, after flying over Libya –‘the forbidden land’. I could wax philosophical about how we now better understand how arab people feel, when the American government refuses to allow them into the US for no good reason, but instead, ill field a question from a betweenthelands reader, and intersperse the answers with pics from Cairo—‘the mother of the world’ as its known.

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A reader asked us to answer the following on the blog.
“I’m curious and perhaps other folks are too who are reading it. How has the safety/security situation been? As a tourist and/or as an American?”
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Ill answer first. In general, the bottom line is—we all know how wrong our (westerners) perceptions are about the Arab world, but its one thing to know it, and another to experience the reality. It’s hard to exaggerate how kind and generous people have to been to us. While of course there are scam artists here and there(just like in NYC), the majority of people are much more quick to share food, water, help you if you are lost, etc. than people in the US or Europe are.
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When we say we are American, there are a range of responses. Some people are simply still in love with the ideals America stands for on paper. Others make jokes about Bush, ask if we like him, or ask why Americans elected him. Others, say ‘America, oh…” and the conversation moves on to other topics.
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I’ve never felt unsafe being a foreigner or an American. The only threatening words I’ve heard were in Constantine, Algeria, when a group of 9 year olds were talking to us for a while, and then one said in broken English and hand gestures that al-Qaeda was going to slit our throats. I can only assume it was because a few months earlier, there was a bomb in that city, and im sure the kids have heard a lot of ridiculous things about ‘Al Qaeda’ (the same type of absurdity we all hear). There were adults nearby who were embarrassed, and told the kids to stop bothering us.
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The only place we were advised by some people not to go was Tizi Ouzou, in Algeria–theres been some problems there recently,(bombs, kidnappings) and people were telling us its a few crazy people who like blowing themselves or others up–kind of like whats happening all over the world. Regardless–we didnt go.
If there are radical isolationist fundamentalists in our midst, they haven’t made themselves known to us. Overall, the people of the Arab world are upset not only because the misperceptions of them are making their lives harder(eg. they cant study or visit relatives in the US and Europe, etc), but its hurt the tourism industry, which is one of the most important, especially in countries like Egypt. So they are economically suffering, because people are afraid to come visit their countries.

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JESSICA SEZ:
Andrew & I are greeted daily with cries of ‘Welcome!’ from random passers-by in the street. People have been overwhelmingly considerate and kind. Folks will lead you to your destination when you simply ask for directions. A couple times a complete stranger in the same coffee shop or sandwich shop has actually paid our bill, without having spoken to us, for the simple reason of hospitality!
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Everybody asks “Where are you from?” I’m usually embarrassed to answer, but I never try to lie. Most folks politely say how great America is, perhaps even out of courtesy? Other folks will ask you frankly, but not harshly, “Why do the Americans allow this war to continue, killing babies and innocent victims?” When a beautiful, articulate and sensitive 14-yr old young lady tells you glumly, she knows why – “it’s because Americans think we (her brothers, friends, her people) are all terrorists”, believe me, this is hard to respond to! She is right – my people have an irrational fear of her people, whipped up by political and economic manipulation. And as I walk the streets of Cairo, Algiers, Tunis, Amman, looking into the smiling, tired, laughing, or wary eyes of other ordinary folks, as they walk by skinny, fat, wearing dorky glasses, or as suave as an Arabian prince, I see just how irrational and ridiculous that fear is. ‘They’ are just like ‘us’, except perhaps a bit kinder to strangers. And they wear more clothes in hot weather.
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The one bit of culture shock that I continue to have trouble with is the rigid gender-roles and separation. Girls and Boys (of all ages) simply do not mix here the way they do back home. Girls hang out away from the public eye, together, and Boys hang out EVERYWHERE, together. Girls are quiet and gentle, and Boys are rowdy. Boys are free and Girls are under control, or that’s how it looks to me. This bugs me every day. I was a tomboy. I wouldn’t be caught DEAD in a dress until my late teens. What would life have been like for me as a tomboy in Egypt? I just don’t know.
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ANDREW RETURNZ:

Okay so we both veered off topic a bit, but hopefully some of the question was answered. I like to stay away from this preachy stuff, and simply use pictures to show you what its like, but im sure many people have been wondering the same thing so its worth a few paragraphs. Wed love to answer any other questions people have—either post them here, or email us individually. Well try to keep it short.
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Back to reality, were headed to the sinai peninsula tomorrow, to climb Mt Sinai, and then go swim in the red sea before we head on back to Jordan. Were happy to be back in the land of fresh fruit juice,(Egypt) but we must continue on…

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Planet Tunisia0

Posted by Andrew in ALGERIA, TUNISIA (July 6, 2007 at 3:41 pm)

We finally tore ourselves away from Algeria. It’s debatable whether we overstayed our visa, but like everyone else there, all the police were so friendly, they didn’t mind at all. Thanks again to all of our new friends, including Mohammed and his family, who kindly spent the day with us in Cherchell.
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Had to make a stopover in Kabylie, where the indigenous African berbers are still reppin their language, written and spoken—Azoul!!
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JESSICA SEZ: The rumors are true, Algeria really is the unspoiled Maghreb. It’s got ‘4 seasons’ (desert, ice-capped mnts, beaches, plains), spectacular scenery, a thorough bus network to get around at good rates, and a network of real youth hostels (heavily used by Algerian youth athletic teams). Unlike Morocco and Tunisia, no one will follow you around trying to force you to buy something – anything! You can let your eyes stray onto an item in a souk without conjuring an ingratiating, patronizing hard-sell. You can ask for directions from a stranger who will not ask for a tip, and might even tell you to hop in his car for a ride. The tourist is still such an unusual sight, that folks see YOU – not a walking wallet – and that allowed us to see THEM as well.
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I was able to talk to Algerians more freely than anywhere else in northern Africa, with no strings and no ulterior motives. And they were very happy to discuss and share with us. What a relief it was. I hope to go back, and I hope they can keep that character of openness in the future…
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ANDREW RETURNZ:
On To Tunisia—land of some really unique stuff. While I do have much love for Algeria; and agree with what Jessica sez above; Ill point out that while Morocco is quite tough in terms of harrassment of foreigners; Tunisia is alot more mow key except along the well beaten path

First we hung out in El Kef (or Le Kef as the French prefer).
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Nearby we took a soak in some actual Roman baths!!! No, not ruins of baths; these thermal baths, which are out in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a difficult road, have been in continuous operation for over 1,800 years. It was so cool to be here, we didn’t even mind than it was 117 degrees outside that day.
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More ruins of course, including Bulla Regia, where it was so hot, the romans decided to build their homes underground.
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On to El Haouaria, where we were 1 week late for the annual falconry festival.
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Oh well, la prochaine fois…
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We got to swim in a sea water filled pool, so close to Europe, we could almost see Sicily.
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Next, down to Kairouan, the 4th most holy city in Islam (Mecca, Medina and Jeruselum are the first three).
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JESSICA SEZ:They told us 7 visits here equals one trip to Mecca.
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ANDREW RETURNZ: Only a short hop to El Jem, the biggest coliseum we’ve seen yet—it used to hold 30,000 people.
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Kariouen is also a carpet makers center.
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Its been a while for you movie lovers, so heres a North Africa themed movie I’ve made, featuring clips from Prayer time in Fez, the carpet auction in Kariouen, whirling dervishes dancing in Egypt, and some other assorted stuff. ***one problem, because of government censorship of the internet here in Tunisia, the service is so slow I cant upload this movie. So ill post it when we get to another country with better service. Sorry…***
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Then to the Island of Djerba, which still has a small Jewish community, and a synagogue which supposedly holds one of the oldest torahs in the world. There’s a big Jewish pilgrimage here during Passover.
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We stayed in a funduq, old multi-roomed boarding houses for the traveling merchants;
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…and we swam in the warmest sea yet on this trip…
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And of course, the ubiqutous Tunisia Jasmine flowers–all the guys are wearing them!!(fo real)
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Now I write this post from the town of Matmata. We are staying in a hotel that’s a network of underground caves.
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It was used for Luke Skywalkers home in Star Wars, and for the cantina where Han Solo bucked down Greedo. No joke!
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Most people now live above ground here, but there are still lots of troglodyte dwellings. If nothing else, it keeps cool during the day…

Well be in Tunisia a few more days, and then were giving Libya one last shot—we’d like to travel over land back to Egypt. If they still don’t let us in, well have to hop over to Cairo (on an expensive airplane—ugh!) and then head east. See ya’ll in Tripoli, en sha’allah…
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