This is the second installment in my mother’s stories about being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tunisia. In comments to her first piece, many asked how this came about. My father was a poultry farmer who retired from farming in 1982. He wanted to continue being active in agriculture, travel, and share his expertise. My mother, who had worked on the family farm, had a background in public health. They were chosen to help with agricultural projects, including rodent control.
Cultural Exchange Weekend
by Barbara W. Klein
It was the weekend for Cultural Exchange, also known as the “Kick Out. We and Beth, another volunteer, would be spending the weekend with a second -year volunteer, Colleen from Minnesota, at her site in Sidi Thabet, a suburb of Tunis, the capitol.
We had to first get to Sousse, a half hour away from Hergla, to then catch the train, which was about a two-hour trip to Tunis. Though some of the volunteers hitchhiked, we opted to take a taxi.
Since Colleen wasn’t expecting us until late in the afternoon we had time to browse around Tunis. Marty and I gravitated to the venders with bright carts laden with every flavor of halavah imaginable. I chose pistachio and Marty, vanilla. Beth was longing for a glass of beer, and the only place to get alcoholic beverages in a Muslim country was at an international hotel. We enjoyed a beer with olives and other tidbits at the Hotel Internationale.
Before getting a cab to Sidi Thabet we bought a kilo of peaches at a fruit stand for our hostess, which the vender wrapped in a cone made from rolled newspaper. The fruit was quite ripe and didn’t travel too well, but was delicious anyway. We passed a tile factory and a grove of almond trees and then came to a villa ( one story house) where Colleen waited for us on the porch.
After dinner we were visited by the neighbors and we sat on the roof, though there was plenty of land near the house. Tunisians like to gather on the roof at night. Mosquitos are plentiful in Tunisia but we were only bothered by them indoors. We were told that they hide in the mattresses and bedding during the day. You could sit outside all night and not get bitten. We spent a lovely weekend sightseeing and eating.
On Sunday morning, we bid our hostess good-bye and looked for a taxi to take us to the train station in Tunis. The taxis were small and were meant for only two passengers. We pleaded with the driver that we were only three people and didn’t want to split up, and that we had to catch the train from Tunis. He let us in the cab and shortly after, stopped at a store. We were nervous because we had to make the train. The driver came back with four sodas. He took the taxi sign off the cab’s roof and turned off the meter. He asked us our names and what we were doing.
Then he headed toward the highway and not the train station. He told us that his name was Yusiff and gave us a spiel to say if we were stopped by the police, since we had three passengers in the car. He told us to say that we were big shots from Washington and were on our way to visit friends in Sousse. He taught us French and Arabic and pointed out interesting things. We assumed that he was going to Sousse anyway and explained that we were going to Hergla and asked him to drop us off on the highway when we reached Hergla. He drove us to the center of Hergla. We gave him what we thought the fare from Sidi Thabet should have been. He promptly returned all but about the equivalent of $2.50, the amount that was already on the meter when we first got in. This didn’t even cover the fare from Sidi Thabet to Tunis. We wanted to give him more but he insisted that we had paid enough. Marty asked him where he was going and he said “Oh, back to Tunis.” He got in the cab and left.
We had plenty of experiences with other cab drivers, but none as pleasant as this one.
In Hergla, I noticed this woman spinning yarn. As a knitter myself, I’m always interested in handicrafts. She explained she was spindle weaving. There are very few people who do this craft in Hergla. Most work as housekeepers or weave straw. She carded the wool and got a long strand of yarn from a small coil, stretching the yarn as she worked, spinning a tightly spun skein in a short time. It’s a matter of balancing the spindle against your leg and twirling it. I tried it; I think I’ll stick to buying yarn at the store.