When a traveler picks up the morning paper these days or watches the late news on television, they are more likely than not to see some of the places they visited in past years – but now they may be in a state of turmoil. With the global political unrest that is occurring in Africa and the Middle East – a war in progress, and the natural disasters of earthquakes and floods, it is difficult to remember those tranquil days. A few years ago, Barb and I visited both Tunisia and Egypt. These stops were part of a larger trip, but we spent about a week in each of these interesting countries. They were enjoyable vacations. The past month, many of the places we visited have turned up on the news; they are now filled with riotous crowds, looting, and a strong police presence. Let me share with you a few of the contradictions we’ve recently seen.
First our visit to Tunisia. We flew into Tunis from Frankfurt. The flight was filled with remarkable vistas as we flew over the Swiss Alps, much of Italy, the Mediterranean Sea, and finally into Tunis itself.
I was particularly interested in this area because as a teen I learned that Tunisia was the final area in Africa held by the German Army in World War II. The country became the embarkation point of the Axis troops in their retreat to Europe, and thus was home to fierce battles on land, sea, and air. During a visit to Dougga, we discovered a British cemetery. It had been built as a tribute to the British military – to show the thanks of the citizens of Tunisia.
We had no specific goal in mind for our time in Tunisia – only to see the country and get the feel of a different culture. The hotel we chose, the International El Hana, was in the main part of Tunis, right on Habib Bourguiba Boulevard. (This is where everyone was demonstrating a few weeks ago.) This boulevard is a wide, open street. It is lined on both sides by a mix of stores, apartments, hotels, restaurants and office buildings. The large median area contains kiosks, benches, fountains, and flowers. My memory is of a vital, active city. The stores were filled with goods for both locals and tourists. Among these shops stood a street display of some of the most beautiful and exotic flowers that I have ever seen. Walking along this street gave us a feeling of peace and tranquility. The weather was warm, and the people seemed happy. We were ignored and accepted as we strolled along.
It was here in this setting that I took one of the most descriptive pictures in my digital photo album. On a bench under a large shady tree in the center of the boulevard sat four of the Tunisian populace – side by side. On one end was a woman covered completely by her black abaya, with a white headdress flowing to the ground – a reflection of her heritage. Next to her sat a young college student in black jeans, tennis shoes, and a loose blouse. She was totally engrossed in reading her book. The third lady was eating her lunch and smartly dressed in a tailored western business outfit. And finally a gentleman in a gray business suit. Here, I thought, sat the past, the present, and the future, the young and the old, the east and the west. It all seemed so natural to me then.
In retrospect it is hard to envision the violent uprising that we have seen lately on the television actually taking place at the same site where we were in Tunis. My brief visit, however, makes me optimistic about the country’s future.
Even more to the point is the turmoil we have been watching unfold in Egypt. For our time in Cairo we chose a western hotel, the Nile Hilton, located near the city center and overlooking the Nile River. Our room was located on the third floor and had a large balcony which overlooked the El Tahrir Bridge, the Nile and around to our left was Tahrir Square. We chose the hotel because the entrance to the Egyptian Museum was straight out the back door, and we could watch the Egyptian world move about under our window. One evening a wedding celebration took place at the hotel. The people were beautiful – their dark hair and the tan sheen of the bride contrasted with the white of her wedding dress. Barb tells me all the young men were handsome too. We were able to sneak a peek into the ballroom and watch them dance. In the nearby bar the older men gathered and smoked their “hubbly-bubbly” pipes and shared their stories. This scene could have occurred most anywhere, and everyone seemed happy. It is hard to imagine these young people crowding the streets with their demands for freedom and democracy.
We walked the streets, rested in Tahrir Square, paused for a minute in the center of the October Bridge – enjoying the general surroundings. The Nile, not the cleanest of all rivers, hosted a variety of different types of boats from rowboats to the ever-present feluccas.
Recently it was a shock to see television reporters standing on a balcony very similar to ours, shooting photos of masses of charging demonstrators, fires burning out of control, piles of stones being used as ammunition, and thousands of rioting crowds. It was the same hotel we had lived in, and it could have been the same balcony. But no wedding party those nights.
Life certainly has its strange twists and turns. What a difference a few years can make. One never knows what is really going on when one travels to a new land. Their faces do not always reflect what’s in their hearts.
Harry Hubinger is a retired engineer who operated his own company for twenty years. He first began traveling outside the United States on business, but these visits escalated upon his retirement. He has now traveled to 115 countries and continues to add several new ones each year. In 1998 he began writing his humorous and insightful articles for a supplement to a local newspaper. These stories, based on experiences most travelers could identify with, soon earned him a wide local following. In 2005 he published his first book, Stamps in My Passport—a collection of travel vignettes. Harry has lived in Danville for almost forty years and has volunteered with the Danville Police Department for the past seven. His wife, Barbara, is the detail chronicler of their trips. Her journals provide the background for Harry’s broader view. You can get his book at: www.travelbookspub.com.