Before I go any further, there are a few things I’d like to mention…
- although I was filled with fear and trepidation before getting on that plane to Tunisia, it didn’t take long for me to feel very safe, comfortable and “at home” in Mahdia. Everywhere we went, we met wonderful, kind, friendly people. Shopkeepers, grocery clerks, hotel staff, people on the streets – in our three weeks meandering through Mahdia, we never met anyone that wasn’t friendly or helpful and I never met even so much as a glance that wasn’t friendly and hospitable. It probably helped significantly that my hubby spoke fluent French and that most Tunisians speak French. My French wasn’t as fluent, but the people were always patient and those who could, immediately switched to English for me. Mahdia is full of good and kind people.
- but most of the people we met did not want me to take pictures of them. I quickly learned to watch people’s body language and act accordingly. In an effort to respect this, I often had to forego good photo opportunities and had to restrain myself from taking more and/or better pictures in the street markets, the Medina and the Souk (Friday Market). So if my pictures seem oddly people-free or even non-existent in some segments, that’s why.
- although it took us a day or two to figure it out, getting around Mahdia was incredibly easy. Mostly we walked. But those little yellow cabs were everywhere and very easy to flag down…a bit scary at times, but one of the things Mahdia (Tunisia) is proud of is its reputation for no vehicle accidents. We could not understand how that could be possible after some of our taxi-experiences, but apparently it’s true.
So, now, let’s get on with the story of how we got our luggage back. Maybe it will help someone else someday. Our luggage didn’t make the connection in Paris, so we had to fill out forms, lots of forms, first at the airport, then I had to register online and fill out more forms for updates as to when and where our luggage would be available for pick-up. Normally the airline is responsible for getting lost luggage to the customer, but in Tunisia, airlines are not allowed to pick up and deliver luggage. It is up to the luggage owner to make their way back to the airport and show their passport before the luggage is released – and luggage is released only to the owner. My husband was not allowed to go by himself to pick up both his and my luggage…luggage was only released to the owner of the passport.
The idea of returning to the airport was a daunting endeavour, it being only our second full day in Tunisia. And still feeling somewhat jet-lagged by the 15-hour travel day on Thursday, trying to navigate our way back to Tunis seemed like an insurmountable task for my 77-year-old husband and myself. Luckily, our friend volunteered to be our guide and navigator, giving up one of his own vacation days to do so, and I can say in all honesty that we would surely have gotten hopefully lost without his experience and expertise in navigating the Tunisian transportation system. The good news though is that once you’ve done it once, you too can be a guide and navigator, because in the end, it turned out to be fairly easy and painless.
It took about eight hours, five taxis, a train and a louage. What’s a louage you ask? An ingenious concept in our opinion after having experienced the convenience and comfort of one. Within Mahdia itself, people use the little yellow taxis. When you want to go beyond the city, the best and most popular mode of transportation is the louage, which is a long-distance shared vehicle similar to a minivan. We took three louages during our stay in Tunisia, and they were all very clean, one even bordered on luxurious, and all three were quite comfortable to travel in. Louages travel throughout Tunisia but the difference between a louage and a regular taxi is that the louages do not depart until there are enough passengers to fill all of the seats. Lougages typically do not get used within the city itself, eg, Mahdia or Tunis. So you usually have to take a yellow cab to get yourself to and from the Louage station.
Since our friend had had to do this exact same trip the week before, we leaned on his experience and decided to take the train to Tunis and the Louage back.
So we started out from the hotel at around 5am on Saturday morning (I have to give a shout-out of thanks to the very kind kitchen staff who gave us a handful of fresh crispy delicious potato hash-browns to take with us), took a yellow taxi to the train station and caught the 5:30am train to Tunis. It was mostly still dark so we didn’t get to see much at first, but eventually the sun rose and we enjoyed watching the Tunisian landscape roll by us. We had read online that the trains in Tunisia could be quite rocky-rolling, but our three-hour ride that morning was very comfortable and enjoyable. Once we decided to see it as an adventure rather than an onerous task, we were glad for the experience and settled back to enjoy the ride.
When we arrived in Tunis, we took a yellow cab to the airport…it was a fairly lengthy drive, which gave us a good overview of the city of Tunis. Our taxi driver was friendly and chatty and gave us some interesting commentary all along the way. Once at the airport, it only took us about 7 minutes to retrieve our luggage. Then back out to the taxi stand, where we had to haggle for a decent price (because of the luggage, they wanted to charge us extra for each piece) to take the cab to the Tunis Louage Station. As we careened through the narrow streets of Tunis, narrowly missing other cars and pedestrians at every crowded corner, I found myself snuggling deeper and deeper into my faith and the comfort of prayer…sure that at any moment I would finally come face-to-face to my Father…
But we did make it and I breathed a huge “Thank You!” as we unfolded ourselves out of the tiny cab. The Louage Station appeared at first to be nothing more than a little white shack where you bought your ticket to wherever it was you wanted to go…but just beyond that little white shack lay a sight I had never witnessed before. White minivans stretching as far as the eye could see, and people scurrying around in every direction trying to find the right one in that sea of vehicles. It was a cavernous sprawling warehouse sort of building stretching beyond the doors to an even larger parking lot out back…it was clean, but dimly-lit, loud, crowded, the air was heavy with exhaust fumes, and the whole scene was buzzing with activity and the constant hum of car motors starting. We made our way to the needle-in-a-haystack that was our Louage heading for Mahdia. There were eight seats available, and we were the first three, so we had to wait for five more passengers to arrive before we could leave the station.
It didn’t take long, and we all settled in for the three-hour drive back to Mahdia, following the same road we had taken two nights ago when we first arrived, only now it was daylight and we were able to enjoy the drive much more. While the scenery was lovely, the most memorable sight for me along the way were the trucks laden and almost overflowing with bright orange tangerines. They were so close we could almost reach out through the window and grab one (and by that time, we were hungry enough to try!) Thankfully, we stopped half-way for coffee and snacks, and then continued on our way, arriving at the Louage station in Mahdia close to 2pm in the afternoon.
Once again we had to haggle for a decent price for the yellow cab to take us and our luggage back to the hotel. I had to sit in the front seat this time, since the guys volunteered to share the back seat with one of the pieces of luggage. I can still remember the taxi driver guffawing in delight at my audible gasps and shrieks of fear at the many near-misses all along the way, especially those narrow little lane-ways he insisted on taking, which weren’t wide enough for both the cab and the pedestrians we encountered.
We managed to make it in one piece, and, relieved to still be alive and intact, and with the gleeful anticipation of clean clothes, we gladly paid the extra fee for the luggage and made our way into our home-away-from-home.
And secretly, as daunting and tiring as it was to have to make that journey, I’m actually glad now to have that story to tell.
What I’m not so thrilled to tell is that I wasn’t mindful enough to take pictures of the Louage station in Tunis…it’s possible I wouldn’t have been allowed to take one anyway, given the great displeasure most Tunisians have of their pictures being taken. Furthermore, the morning train had been too fast and rocky for decent pictures, and I didn’t have a window seat in the Louage so was not able to take any pictures en-route on the way back. But I did manage to take a couple of pictures of the Louage station in Mahdia. (I’ll make up for the lack of pictures in future segments, I promise!)
I did find a picture of a Louage depot in Tunis, taken from another website online…though this one seems much smaller (and less chaotic) than the one we used. Click on the link here to go to the website (which is written in French) to see more pictures.