Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Living underground

Imagine living underground.

Keeping your house at a constant temperature so it is cool in Summer and cozy in Winters.

Imagine being called a troglodyte by people who visit by the bus lead.

This is the strange yet appealing story of the Berbers who have made Matmata their home.

Matmata in Southern Tunisia is famous for the house where Luke Skywalker grew up with his Uncle Lars.

George Lucas used a local cave dwelling in the first Star Wars film and it certainly has an otherworldly feel about it.

After 4 hours rattling along roads in a bus watching the landscape change from urban to barren to rocky we finally arrived.

Matmata is stunningly beautiful. Rocky outcrops have entrances plunging into darkness where a corridor will lead to a central courtyard. Sometimes a small palm plantation accompanies the dwelling and every so often you see an ancient Berber woman emerge from the shadowy doorway clutching a small metal chipped teapot or a small child.

Some dwellings have been turned into hotels and another larger one is a cultural center and museum with a large garish sign above it.

Other however are timeless and when you enter them plunging yourself into the cool air from the scorching sunshine outside it is like stepping back in time.

Stepping back to a time where there was no internet, facebook, direct debits and modern day problems. It was peaceful, quit and incredibly still.

No mechanical noises or sounds from this century enter your ears. The silence is almost deafening.

Wandering thought the main corridor you emerge back into the sunlight where the central courtyard opens up to the brilliantly blue sky above. Small doors lead to a number of rooms of different sizes and some had massive wooden furniture in them and they must have been assembled in the room as they would no way fit through the cave door.

Everything was still and quit until a bus of tourists arrived.

It was time to leave.

Walking up the hill which the dwelling was carved out of the rock you look down from above. No barriers, railing or any ropes to stop you falling. I stood on the edge and had a ridiculous urge to jump down on the tourists below. Lucky I am slightly scared of heights and backed off to a distance that I didn't feel I was going to fall over.

Leaving Matmata I wondered how simple and stress free life must be for those living in caves.

Then I read about how the government are trying to move the Berbers out to newer modern housing.

They cling on to their ancient way of life with white gripping fingers and show no signs of letting go.
Go luck to them I say. Long may they reign in this barren landscape.

Long may there way of life be preserved.

I feel honored to have seen it before it may be too late.

Monday, 27 May 2013

What have the Romans ever done for us?

Romanus Eunt Domus/Romani ite domum

My Life of Brian Trip

Monty Python's Life of Brian to me is the greatest comedy film of all time. I could watch it over and over again a thousand times and still laugh at the jokes, situations and brilliant physical humour.

The Rribat in Monastir
Therefore it was too good an opportunity to miss when I got the chance to visit two ancient places where the film was shot.

Monastir Ribat

Built as a defensive fort to scan the sea looking for invading Byzantines by Harthama ben Ayan in 796. The ribat has been added too over time growing in size and shape; and in the 12th century the Kasbah was added.

Monty Python were not the only ones to film here. Franco Zefirelli filmed Jesus of Nazareth here too.

I was interested in the Monty Python film though and when I walked through the side entrance to the ribat I looked up and could see the tower where Brian fell out of while being chased by the Romans and landed in a passing spaceship. Only to be later called ‘You lucky bastard’! Watch the clip here.

Outside the gates cars honk their horns and you walk through the tourist area where sellers try and harangue and persuade you to enter their shops. They offer titbits such as ‘best prices in town’, ‘no hassle, just looking’ and my personal favourite ‘I have nice things for you sir, lady, madam, mister’.

Once inside the ribat the sounds of the outside world disappear and you are surrounded by silence.
I stared at the tall wall and all I could imagine was red letters giant letter painted high up and all over saying ‘Romans go home’. Just like the film.

Luckily we were the only ones there which added to the experience and enabled us to wander freely in peace and explore every nook and cranny.

The ribat as seen in the film with a fake frontage
There were a few boards in several languages about the building work and the excavations that have taken place. Every so often in a shaded spot you would also find a small potted history mounted on the wall.

The ribat has many rooms and rooms that offshoot from other rooms. It was a silent dusty maze of hidden tunnels and passage ways.

Outside in the blazing sun stairways without handrails that made my stomach churn when I climbed them and looked down were too irresistible to not climb.

I clambered up the stairs and the view over the city and the sea was impressive but not as impressive as the beach front where an old man beer gut and all lounged in bright orange speedos. What a sight to witness while inside an ancient monument.

Wondering the battlements I reached the tower and of course ascended to the very top where a giant Tunisian flag fluttered in the welcome breeze. Unfortunately the stairwell even though it looked clean stunk of urine and made you dash up holding your breath.

Steps without handrails, hense why I am holding on to the wall

At the top I could see far out over the Islamic cemetery all the way to the ex-president Habib Bouguiba’s mausoleum. I could also see orange speedo man now wandering the beach looking for prey most probably.

Next stop was El Djem. One of the most impressive and best reserved Roman amphitheatres in the world.
But before that there was one last Pythonesque moment when a northern transsexual boarded out train carriage and spoke with a deep voice and scratched her/his stubble and received many stares from the bemused locals on the metro.

El Djem

El Djem took my breath away. It is truly magnificent standing there looking out over the town in the blazing sun. A large looming presence that dominates the landscape and had such a majesty and beauty about it that I can see why Monty Python filmed here and why tourists flock through her gates.

Smaller than the coliseum in Rome but much better preserved (mostly because of the lack of earth movements) and most importantly it has more access to the visitor.

You enter through the main gate and can either walk out into the open air centre where a small stage was being erected for a local concert that night or you can climb the stairs and wander and explore.

This is what I did and it was the best decision I made.
Three ancient flights of stairs later and I was all alone with my footsteps echoing down the corridor bouncing back off the stone archways above me.

As with most developing nations there is a distinct lack of health and safety and therefore not many barriers or railings.

I have to admit I was a little bit of a naughty boy as I climbed over a railing and wandered quite perilously close to the edge and out onto the crumbling ledge.

It made for a great photos.

I looked down and was relieved that I had gone up rather than straight into the open air part as now the place was teeming with tourist. Most of which were Russians and many were dressed the same. Old ladies wearing entire matching outfits including shoes and looking like an ancient Cheeky girl tribute band wandered around posing in strange positions for the camera.

Luckily I was up high and away from them all.

After a few photos and another naughty trail clambering moment I wandered down into the sunlight.
This in the film is where Brian meets the Judean People’s front and confuses them for the People’s front of Judea. He is told to ‘Fuck off’ in one of the films funniest lines.
The Judean People's Front as seen in the film

Of course I re-enacted the scene and was filmed doing that line unfortunately it didn’t come out right. But here is the original. People's Front of Judea

Everywhere I went in El Djem and Monastir scene from the film came flooding back to me. I could hear the words from the films and famous lines. My head was full of jokes and a smile crept across my face and I openly laughed out loud at some of the thoughts I had.

The only thing that slightly disappointed me though was the complete lack of recognition at both sites for the film. Nothing was mentioned and when I later spoke to some English tourists they both had no idea that the film was shot there.

To me however; it was a comedy pilgrimage and one worth every dinari. “Spare a dinari for an ex lepper”!

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Being punched in the balls by a pirate

There are certain tourist things that I would normally avoid like the plague.

One such thing is a cruise or any tourist boat related activity.

Alas I broke my rule while in Tunisia recently.

Down by Sousse harbour were there terrible mock up pirate ships and in a moment of madness two of us decided what a funny idea it would be to go out to sea.

We were joined by a couple from where we were staying and one morning we found ourselves on deck looking out at the dirty polluted water front.

I felt out of place in the modern town and away from the wonderful souqs of the medina.

Looking back at the harbour front I could see unaware tourist being mobbed by trinket sellers and men with forlorn and ragged looking birds of prey. Those birds looked so unkempt and lost. They should be flying free not plonked on a tourists shoulder for a photo.

Nevertheless here I was on a tourist pirate ship bobbing along in the Mediterranean.

We were here now so better make the best out of a bad deal I thought.

To be honest I was bored stiff as we chugged along with the petrol engine belching out smoke and making the ‘galleon’ experience even more unrealistic.

I sat on deck and stared at the other passengers; Russians mostly. You can tell a Russian tourist a mile off.

They sometimes have mullets, love to be adorned in gold and wear clothes that would not look out of place in a jumble sale.

They really are an odd bunch and they do like a comedy hat.

One Russian we saw picking his nose vigorously while queuing for the bureau de change wore a fez. Another, this time on our boat donned a captain’s hat and a red vest and short combo.

Then when I thought things could not get any worse out came the ‘entertainers’ or as the Tunisian crew called it the ‘animation’.

One skinny little runt of a man who needed a good wash lay in glass shards and got Russian ladies of rather large proportions and even louder voices to walk on his back.

He also put his face on nails and got a German woman to stand on his head. Basically a masochistic array of stuff that really was rather boring and unexciting.

Then things turned sour.

One of the Tunisian crew grabbed me by the hand and pulled me out from the audience. I didn’t want to get up but was reluctantly pulled to my feet.

They saw I had thinsg in my pocket and made me pass them to someone I was with and take my sunglasses off.

Then the topless skinny man who earlier was posing for photos as a pirate made me imitate his pose.

I stood with one leg in front of the other hands clasped in front of me with out stretched arms.
Standing there I had no idea what they were going to do, something odd probably and involving the pile of broken glass that was on a mat next to where I stood.
The Tunisian pirate stood next to me and imitated the pose and then walked off behind me.
Suddenly, without provocation and warning I dropped to my knees and all hell broke loose.
The pirate had stood behind me and swung his arm between my legs smashing me in the nether regions and sending me to the deck pile a sack of shit.
I fell to my knees and couldn’t breathe, the wind was literally knocked out of my sails and my eyes watered.
The pain of a good groin shot is indescribable really; all men know just how bad it feels when you are hit plumb on the plumbs.
I shook with rage and pain while all around me things went a little hectic.
The people I was with jumped up and surrounded me. Shouting started up and other people on the boat including a giant tattooed skinhead biker German seemed to fend me off.
The Tunisian crew were laughing and joking as if nothing had happened. All the while I lay on the ground in a world of pain hands clutching by balls making sure one had not popped.
To this day I still have no idea why he did it, was it part of the act or did he slip and do it by mistake.
The guys I was with said he just simply walked behind you and punched you in the balls. He question I ask is why?
The puncher broke through the protective wall of bodies and confronted me. By this time I had managed to pull myself up onto my knees.
He came right up to my face and started to laugh. I saw my hand had formed a tight fist and my knuckles were white with the pressure. My arm tensed and cocked backwards.
I wanted to hit him so hard and also grab him by the throat and throw him over board.
Somehow I controlled my temper and shouted at him through painful gritted teeth to F off. This action gave the crew the message and they all suddenly disappeared.
The entire mood of the boat changed.
The Russians all looked on with horror at the crew and the bog German approached and offered me a cigarette.
All went quit and the eerie stillness was only broken by the sudden starting up of the engines as we headed back.
A few passengers clapped me on the shoulder, gave me the thumbs up, shook my hand or in one case hugged me before they disembarked.
Now was the hard bit.
I refused to get off the boat until I had got my money back.
Finally after quite a discussion I left with the cash in my pocket.
The moral of the story; never travel with pirates, especially Tunisian ones.


Welcome to Tataouine

The Toyota land cruiser rattled along a dirt track. 
Either side of the car was vast nothingness, a barren landscape void of all habitation.

Occasionally a small long dead shrub would fly past the window or a lone plastic bag would flutter in the desert breeze.

After a while of spine juddering travel the road gave way to sand. The sands grew in size until we were not in a barren landscape anymore but a mountain range of dunes stretching for as far as the eye could see.

This was the Tunisian Sahara that I had come to see.

The windows of the car were shut to avoid the dust and sand getting in and the atmosphere inside became stuffy.

Our driver was a local man a Berber from can trace his ancestry back to before the Arabs arrived in North Africa.

He knew every dune and every contour of the land as he raced up the nearest dune and bounced down the other side.

I gripped the handrail and my backside lifted off the seat when we shuddered over the crest of the dune.
A huge smile swept across my face at the sight which greeted me. Nothing but rolling sand mountains were to be seen.

This was the true Sahara Desert, land of mystic tales and ancient crossings.

Our destination however was not that ancient.

Our driver hustled over dunes sending me dancing about in my seat, I couldn’t help myself and let out laughs of appreciation as he aimed for the biggest curves and coolest looking dunes to mount a four wheel drive attack.

Soon a small dot on the horizon appeared. It stood out against the brilliant white sands of the desert and slowly, ever so gradually grew bigger.

This is what I had come to see.

The land cruiser pulled up a hundred yards away from a large dune. I got out and closed the door.
I stepped onto the compacted sand and walked forwards.

Plunging my feet into the dune I raced up its steep banks and looked down at the sight below me.

There below my feet was the desert battered and semi crumbling set from Star Wars.

Unfortunately it was not from the original Star Wars movies back in the 70s and 80s. This was the 13 year old Phantom Menace film set.

Left here to face the elements of advancing and unrelenting desert.

You could see parts had collapsed and been sand blasted to pieces but the majority of the structures were still in tack and looked very sci-fi.

When you got up close however you could see how cheaply they were made. The robotic instruments protruding out of the ground were all widen and one almost fell over when I touched it. Luckily I grabbed it and placed it back in its rusting socket.

If I closed my eyes I could imagine what this must have been like when they were filming. A hubbub of activity and many people is wonderful costumes.

Now it looked rather sad and quiet.

I wondered around it all and went into every building that I could. Some were padlocked shut and others were bare inside except for the wooden skeleton that holds them in place.

Sadly the light was failing and it was time to leave. As the land cruiser pulled away and once again headed for that far off bumpy track I looked out of the window.

Star Wars was a massive part of my youth and as I saw the film set vanishing into the distance it made me feel rather old. Almost a metaphor for growing up.

A smile crept across my face as I realised one thing; I will never grow up!

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The biggest adventure of them all

Welcome to Casa Ben

Finally after a long uphill struggle I have moved into the new house.

The monumental task or making the house a home slightly stresses me out a little. I look at the work needed and my mind boggles.

The decorating of the previous occupiers was appalling.

Large green and white striped wallpaper and terrible carpets of odd colours.

The first thing I did after assembling furniture was to decorate the second bedroom. This has changed from a dark blue dingy room to an open white space with all my masks and world travelling collections adorned on the walls. This I have called the adventure room.

All I need is a leather winged back chair and it will be my own little man den.

There is of course so much else to do. The kitchen needs doing; the bathroom is horrible and I need to make the main bedroom into a room that doesn’t look like something has vomited on the walls. Oh and I need to turn the front garden into a drive.

On the plus side I have a ‘man shed’ and a ‘man garage’ to do ‘man’ things in and feel ‘manly’ with my tools.

Here are a few pictures of the house and the fantastic ikea world map picture I put up on the wall.

Lastly check out the globe bar, truly brilliant and very me.

Back to decorating and all my time being consumed by painting and the like.