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Tunisian travels

The tendency when one is serving overseas is to use each posting as a springboard to explore the region, to travel around the continent one calls home for a few years. In Africa, this strategy hits two snags. First, the continent is immense. Second, with the exception of a handful of hubs, intercontinental flights are unreliable and expensive. Serving in eastern Africa, for example, South Africa was accessible but the countries of the Maghreb not at all.

Friends posted in Algeria, Tunisia, and also Côte d’Ivoire, which is not in the Maghreb but also on the wrong side of the continent, tried to convince us to visit during our two years in Kigali, but to no avail. We would have had to take red-eye flights with long layovers through Europe – a particularly unappealing prospect with two small kids in tow. When D found himself in Europe last month, however, those same previously inaccessible lands were all of a sudden one reasonably short flight away.

Why not visit Tunisia after all, D mused when his friend invited him for the nth time. We had med in Kenya, and in the intervening years she had visited us in Kigali, hung out with us in Belgium, and even joined us for an Ultimate Frisbee tournament in Bulgaria. D only had a few days at his disposal, but they sufficed to repay the favor.

So it was that after spending a weekend in Prague with one friend, D took advantage of the Columbus Day holiday to visit another in Tunis. All told, D spent about 36 hours on the ground – just enough time to enjoy some good food and company, take in the views across the Gulf of Tunis, and warm up after a frigid visit to Minsk.

Once the noontime heat had burned off, D’s friend took him on a stroll through scenic Sidi Bou Said, whose whitewashed walls and sky-blue window shutters and doorways called to mind Santorini. Like its Greek counterpart, Sidi Bou Said offers sweeping sea views (in this case the Gulf of Tunis, whose waters connect the Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian Seas). Sidi Bou Said is most famous for its doorways: the gates of all the houses feature ornate patterns tacked out in metal rivets.

The following day, D’s friend took him to see all the principal ancient ruins scattered around Carthage. This once proud Phoenician city was razed to the ground by the Romans during the Third Punic War. The Roman army went so far as to sprinkle salt across the surrounding fields to ensure that this capital of their most bitter rivals would never be rebuilt.

Ironically, the Romans who resettled in Carthage after its utter destruction had no trouble restoring the city’s prominence. Carthage grew to be the third-largest city in the empire and was a leading center of early Christianity in Africa before it was demolished a second time – this time by the Arabs. The Romans were considerably more thorough in their dedication to destruction. Whereas Roman sites abound, including a coliseum, aqueduct, and baths, only the excavated shell of one Punic palace remains, identified by carbon dating of charred remains unearthed at its stone foundation.

The touristing aside, D spent a lot of his visit playing board games. His friend travels to the annual board game fair in Essen and she organized a mini-fair for D, letting him sample half a dozen of her favorites. In Kigali, after a full day at the office and a busy evening parenting, we would sometimes gravitate toward the TV to watch a movie, too tired to do anything else. We have since made a concerted effort to cut down on screen time, substituting board games instead, and this visit gave D plenty of ideas of new games to add to our usual repertoire.

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