The Lonely Planet rates a top highlight of the country as "the friendly people you meet when you travel alone." As a single traveler I probably met about ten people per hour, minimum. The ability to discern between someone who will eventually want to sell you something and someone who just want to genuinely be friends is an exceptionally difficult one to develop. In some cases its easy because the person trying to have a deep and meaningful conversation with you just happens to be standing in the doorway to a shop of some kind. I got the idea pretty quickly that this guy is going to eventually want to try and sell me some piece of crap.
There are lots and lots of people who approached me in the street, or on transport, or in a myriad of other places to start conversations. I learned over time that over 90% want to sell you something in the end. There are some common starters such as, "Hey! Don't you recognise me? I work at your hotel!" which is total bollocks because I know damn well this guy does not work at any hotel. Or, someone who chats idly away for awhile then wants to go grab a coffee or beer.
By the end of the three weeks I was so good at handling the sales people I loved walking through tourist areas just to taunt them. My recipe, by the end, was to never do anything I really didn't want to. As the saying goes, just say no. I would stop at a shop to have a look at something, or someone would start a conversation with me. I would go along with the conversation, talking away enjoying myself. As soon as they suggested something like I should go on a wonderful boat trip tomorrow, or go inside for a look because it doesn't hurt, I would just say no. They would ask a different way and I would simply stand there, look them in the eye, and say no. I would keep repeating no, until they gave up and walked away. It made me feel much better than ignoring everyone and turning my back to people. It gave me the opportunity to meet everyone, even people who would be potential friends.
There is another side of this coin. I did meet a fantastic guy on louage to Tataouine. This guy showed me all kinds of fascinating things that aren't in any guide book over the five days I spent down there and he wouldn't let me pay for a single thing! He even kept buying me gifts, inviting me over to his place for dinner (pending his mother's approval, of course). We took a taxi back to his house in the suburbs and had a wonderful meal. He then put me back into a cab to go back to the city, and wouldn't let me pay for a thing. The dinner was wonderful, his baby sister fell in love with me and fell asleep in my lap, and we went to a spectacular local "relais" (family café) packed with families, men and even hordes of women. That was a brilliant experience that I believe few travelers get.
I also had lots of other conversations with "regular" people who didn't have anything to sell me. My biggest advantage was that I spoke French. A tourist who doesn't speak French I think would have a much harder time making real friends since few speak English. Even French is a bit rough for most people.
As Morrie describes, many Tunisians are unemployed. I have read that each working adult will support another six adults, and as many children. It also seems that every unemployed male spends all day sitting in the shade watching the world go by. In some towns, to walk down the main street, would be to walk past as many as a hundred pairs of staring eyes. I would try sometimes to meet their eyes and smile. This caused no more reaction than if an elephant had met the gaze of its spectators, as it is paraded around a zoo. I found myself hiding behind sunglasses from both the unrelenting sunlight and stares.
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