Walden World

The wacky and wonderful tales of Beth's and Catherine's global adventures. And all things Walden too.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Religious Visits

While in Italy, in the town of Assisi, C pointed out that it was interesting, given that she was as Atheistic as they came, and that I fell under the "Other" category in terms of spiritual beliefs, we always ended up in the holy places of monotheistic, patriarchal religions.

For example, we were in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve; Rome during Good Friday and Easter Sunday; Fatima in Portugal; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem; Kairoun in Tunisia; The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; The Mount of Olives; the Sight of the Loaves and Fishes miracle; the Place of Beatitudes where the Sermon on the Mount was alleged to have been given and now Assisi at Saint Francis' grave.

I didn't bother to mention to her the irony of my lengthy bathe in the Ganges in 1987 nor that I was personally blessed by the Pope in 1972.

I enjoy checking out various religious beliefs and customs and the curiosities of them all.

But taking C to religious areas is a bit like taking an feral cat to a dog pen and suggesting that everyone just get along.

In Tennessee, instead of a pleasant day at "Dollywood" where we could have humour and jocularity with impunity (hey who can't in the end like Dolly Parton and Pigeon Forge?) she insisted we go to some homegrown baptist religious roller coaster theme park so she could fall over laughing. C was really looking forward to the hourly actors' recreations of important times during Christ's life, including his Sermon on the Mount, Ride into Jerusalem and Last Supper, after which one could purchase cotton candy and then go on more rides.

When I insisted this would probably result in us being lynched she was miffed.

Instead we ended up in some steak house that refused to sell wine, I think because it reeked of "Popishness" but gladly sold American hard liquor bourbon coolers. They were ok in a "dry" county because, I can only assume, they are considered a Protestant beverage.

I had first really caughten'd on to C's religious "intolerance" when we had visited Fatima in Portugal. This is the site where three young children apparently were visited by the Virgin Mary, one of whom was given a secret message and visions.

The official version that is wltimately a miracle happened involving some weird experience with the sun and it is considered a very, very holy site in Christendom.

As it was the 'down season' for pilgrims when we went, I had no issue going to see the "Sound and Light Show" of the Visitations to the Three Children by the Virgin Mary, just for fun.

Unfortunately the robotics were somewhat moth eaten and whenever Holy Jacinta (one of the representations of the children) raised her creaking robotic arms to the heavens to praise the Holy Virgin, her metal knees gave out leaving the puppetess to crash to the ground like the Tin Man in a car accident, and causing me to jump out of my skin.

By the time we got to the part with the Blessed Jacinta's Vision of Hell, complete with tacky paper mache demons being blown around by a big fan (which you could see behind a piece of "mache" hell wall which was pathetically crumblingn from water damage) I was ready to walk out.

C of course was falling over laughing and demanding I take a photo.

I had already bypassed the Lady of Fatima toenail clippers and wasn't about to further risk a lightning strike by taking photos of the Fatimic version of the "Barrel Ride" at Niagara Falls.

Fatima however was sweet in some respects.

There were countless dogs who ran around the town though "officially" banned near the church. In the large square before the huge Cathedral people would crawl on their knees for about a kilometre or so in an act of Penance.

A very sweet Nun from Africa with bad legs was laboriously performing the ritual, kneeing her way along very slowly and would stop every few metres at which point a friendly town dog would wander up to her and wag his tail and ask for attention. She would then scratch his ears and pet him, rest with him for a minute, catch her breathe and continue on her Penance. This happened on the entire route. Another dog would come by again for a pet and perhaps a message to help her continue her struggle.

In Assisi, I had hoped that the presence of Franciscan monks and the Nuns of the Poor Clares, not known for being worldly and also being generally friendly to animals, might make C a bit more positive on the whole religious thing.

However it wasn't helping that she was reading some intense Canadian novel that takes place in a Catholic girl's school with long held secrets of abuse, guilt and hypocrisy. As soon as we walked into town all she could do was loudly proclaim (as the nuns passed us by) "How could anyone become a Nun? How stupid! They cover themselves up? Why would anyone become a Nun?"

I began the usual platitudes that perhaps some people felt a spiritual connection or need to serve; then my usual speech about the Catholic church's role in the Third World; then lack of choices for women, and again C's snort.

Religion. What is there to believe in? And then why?

Perhaps it is to walk on one's knees, thinking of something other than yourself.

Perhaps it is being kind to the dog that is walking along beside you and giving it a pet.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Driving in Tunisia

Whatever you do, don't get it into your head to drive in Tunisia. We tried and I am still shaking.

Driving with Sofine a day prior seemed fine and in fact there was little traffic, but he of course knows the back roads and unused highways.

When we told an old hand tourist from England who had come to Tunisia every year for 20 years that we were going to rent a car, she just looked at me and in a cockney chortle shook my hand and said: "Nice knowing ya!"

We rented a car at a very high price and were disppointed to find that it was a dilapitated and dirty Peugoeut with a very sticky clutch. It was also bereft of gas.

As I was the only one to bring my license I was to be the sole driver and to take us down 500 km to the Sahara and back. I decided to practice by driving around the Cap Bon pennisula before we set off on our epic journey to the desert.

So first I had to fill up the car. The guidebook had gone on about how cheap gas was in Tunisia. When I had already paid over $50 and the tank was still filling I wondered about the guidebook only to realize that it was British. Canadian gas prices are considerably lower.

So off on our drive. First off, the highways were ok but unfortunately one had to go through countless small towns and roundabouts in which you apparently, according to the same guidebook, must always give priority to the driver coming from the right regardless of who was there first.

It was then I decided that the writers of the guidebook must have researched it by going to say somewhere like Sweden, or maybe they just browsed the internet from the comfort of London.

My deferring to the right only got a chorus of honks, yells and slamming of hands against the steering wheel.

Earlier in the day, C had said to me, after I had a small tiff with the hotel receptionist; "You see red very easily Beth, I am much more calm and can deal with these kinds of things".

She had also said it was a pity she had not brought her license as she wasn't worried about driving in Tunisia at all.

Suddenly, as the honking started C was transformed into some weird monster passenger. She whipped around and, in this most patriarchal of countries, started repeatedly giving the drivers behind us the finger and screaming "Fuck you! Fuck Off!" continuing the gesturing as the driver turned off the roundabout.

Then out came the multiple mopeds racing in front of you just to slow down to a crawl. Next came pedestrians who just sort of wander around the street like in a daze up and down the middle, across, both ways. The guidebook said driving in Tunisia was like driving in Italy. This was not Italy. I have driven in Italy. Mind you this is also the same guidebook which said that the harassment women recieve in Tunisia is akin to the "low level" harassment of Southern Europe. It was then that I became confident, that the man who wrote the guide, had written it entirely while in Sweden. I could be sure that he had never walked down Habib Bourgiba avenue in Tunis while female.

Back to driving. No one keeps to any sort of lane and spends the entire drive laying on the horn. C's gesturing didn't stop and each driver who honked, meaning all, got the finger and shouts to "fuck off".

Worst was the terrifying Tunisian practice of tailgating followed by passing on blind corners. I didn't care about the guy behind me passing, it was the oncoming lane that had me scanning the road ahead, which meant I couldn't concentrate on avoiding the wandering scattered pedestrians or the mopeds zipping in from all directions.

After being run off the road once, I told C that we would go to Korba to see the flamingos which live in the lagoon there and then turn back.

Just as we arrived in Korba a moped raced ahead and cut me off only to slow to a crawl causing further honking from behind. C again started her insults and hand gestures, but this time the moped didn't ignore the two women driving along, and started to chase us and drive alongside yelling into the window.

The driver looked like the late Corey Haim in his heyday of 1984 when he was 12 and the passenger like what I assumed was his heroin addicted grandfather wearing an oversized Eminem t'shirt and chain smoking.

I think maybe 10% of the drivers in Cap Bon that I saw were women.

I stopped to try and allow the Corey Haim moped to pass. Instead he turned and pulled up right beside the and continued yelling. So did all the men who wandering in the streets. They started shouting too. At whom I was not sure, but I didn't want to stick around to find out.

"That's it" I said "and please don't give anyone else the finger" I pled to to C.

I turned the car around to return it having never glimpsed the promised Korba flamingos.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lies My Carpet Seller Told Me

So far on this trip we have encountered a number of folk who have lied to us but lacked any cannie-ness in doing so. The first lie involved a cabal of waiters at a restaurant in Naples who were running a mafia style system of service. I can only conclude that certain waiters resembled in status, the lesser families of the mafia, say a Tessio, and other waiters a Don Corleone figure in the hierachy of staff.

At the end of one meal, Don Michael Corleone, let us call him, an older figure who intimidated the lesser staff forcing them to say, give us the menu, reserving service and tip time for him, gave us the bill and said "Service is not included".

C and I looked at the bill. "Why then" she asked, "Does it expressly say 'service of 13% is included in the bill?

He looked trapped. "Umm...eet eesse for the chef, for him to cook"

C looked at him "We tip the chef for cooking for us?" she replied in disbelief. But she gave him some cheap tip anyway so not sure the point in asking. I was just worried that if we didn't I'd find a horse's head in my dinner the next time we ate there.

Then there was the carpet sellers of Kairouan. It is the fourth holiest city in Islam. It is also famous for its carpet making.

We hired Sofine, a guy at the hotel, to secretly guide us there as the hotel owner didn't like anyone cutting into his tourist business run out of the hotel which always started "journeys" at 5 am. We elected to get Sofine to take us at a more civilized 10 am.

I had hoped by paying Sofine a great deal of money privately, we wouldn't have to endure being forced to be taken through shop after shop in order to buy things to help pay Sofine a commission.

But it was not to be so.

C and I are old hands at carpet buying having been held against our will in countless carpet shops in Mororcco, parts of Turkey and the famed Medina in Istanbul. This involves a friendly man saying "just look" to which you go in feeling guilty and by the time the mint tea is out, you will never escape unless you buy something.

I actually don't mind it as I enjoy haggling and am quite good at it. My natural cheapness gives me a fantastic poker face as no matter how much I like the goods I really doubt whether I should spend any money on such a luxury at all. Thus down comes the price.

C however hates it when I haggle and is embarassed. She invariably pays full asking price for anything making her the equivalent of a fatted lamb for a wolf.

Once in Guatemala, in a Mayan market I left for 5 minutes to go to the bank only to find C in the centre of a knot of Mayan women, all draped in weavings having agreed to purchase the lot.

Now at the grave of a companion of the Prophet, C lagged behind Sofine and I for less than a minute. "Where is the vegetarian?" he asked, the disparaging name he coined for her. I went searching only to find her pleading for help. She was adorned in trinket necklaces placed on her neck by sellers who in turn demanded I pay them 10Dinar.

After seeing the mosque and the grave, Sofine suddenly made a quick turn into, you guessed it, a bloody carpet shop, for a "little demonstration" as the owner put it.

A few seconds later out came the damn tea and we were doomed. Carpet after carpet appeared and all the symbolism was explained, the quality established and the pressure started.

I think it might be easier to make it out of Houdini's famous upside down, manaceled water tank than a carpet store. So out came my face and down went the price.

I was tired. I didn't want to haggle and C was glaring at me for simply "not responding" to the salesman.

So we bought yet another carpet.

Then came the money issue. I tried to pay debit having left my credit card in the hotel safe. When that didnt work the owner said we could easily walk to the Medina to go to the bank machine and he started to frog march me in that direction.

To go there meant certain entrapment.

All his friends sat in the Medina waiting for me to just go in and "take a look". I instead elected to take all the day's money out, including payment for Sofine, and buy the carpet there and then.

Then came another lie: "In Tunisia" the owner said "it is a custom that when we sell you something you give us a 20 dinar tip each, for the service we have done".

C burst out laughing. This was a new one. 'I pay you for you forcing me to buy something, from which you have profited already, that I never wanted in the first place.'

I opened my very empty wallet to show I had nothing for such a tip and actually shook it.

C on the other hand said "no no" but searched her pockets dutifully found her only bill, a 10 Dinar note, which she handed over to the seller and his assistant.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Pater Familius Beth Gives Thanks to Saint Anthony for a Safe Journey

When in Tunis yesterday I lit a candle to Saint Anthony at the Catholic Church and asked him to guard us on our journey.

I am so very glad I did.

Both C and I have been very sick with flu and respiratory infections since Naples requiring great quantities of antibiotics. Yesterday C said she just wanted to get the hell out of Tunis and go to the sea.

This morning we packed up and asked our hotel staff to get us a taxi to the bus station. In Tunisia they have two kinds of buses: big buses and a small shared taxi bus called a "louage.

The guidebook warned us that many travellers believe louages are far too dangerous to travel in: they have no seatbelts, the drivers in Tunisia are insanely dangerous and there are countless accidents, with louage drivers more so as the only way to make any profit is to disregard all speed limits and try and fit in one more run per day as the routes and rates are all regulated.

I asked the hotel staff to get us a taxi to the regular bus/coach station but alas they told me "no you must go by loauge"

C was angry: "I told you no louages they are too dangerous". I said "What the hell? They are faster and that way we get to meet locals and live as Tunisians do".

The Gods curse those who laugh at their warnings.

The taxi on the house took us to the louage station where I went to a small booth and bought two tickets to Hammament. All the people stared at us, as they've been doing since we first arrived, as if we were from outerspace. One of the most disturbing things about this custom is the fact that all of the women who walk by stare at my crotch.

"Ummm....does my money belt look really big or something, why are all these women staring at me? Do I look really fat today?" I worried they thought I was pregnant

I bought the louage tickets and brought our backpacks to the bus and climbed in C behind me.

There was a small front seat for two in which a woman and her boyfriend sat. Next was an empty seat next to a very cross eyed young woman. In the last seat was a man and his wife, the only woman in the louage wearing a headscarf or hajib, snuggling each other.

I threw our backpacks on the floor only to be told I should haul them into the back. I got the seat beside the cross eyed woman and C sat behind me next to the couple.

Off went the louage. I was happy, dazily enjoying the feeling of travel, as I always so,in a different world surrounded by complete differences.

That is until we got onto the highway. Our friend the driver increased his speed to 110 km: the speed limit; then it climbed to 120, then 130, then 140 and kept going and going and here he was zipping in and out of traffic and at what must have been 150 km or more tailgating a Mercedes with less then a foot between the louage and car. All the while the road was reduced in size due to huge concrete construction barriers which jutted out into the road as if thrown randomly.

I think it was when the driver put on his seat belt, we having none, that I outright panicked.

He continued to go faster and faster suddenly breaking only to speed up again. Throughout our trip C has bragged about her great French, how she studied it in university although she had yet to actually speak French.

I turned around to her panic stricken. I was on the verge of completely losing it. "Can you ask the driver to slow down?" I said to C, my voice shaking, expecting her to employ her excellent French. C turned to the man next to her and said in English "Can you ask the driver to slow down? She is very scared" she said pointing to me." "Yes, yes I understand Inglish" said the man who said something to the driver in Arabic which the driver promptly ignored.

All I could think of was the laws of physics and how, the louage on impact, would stop suddenly and I would go flying out the front window like a cannonball at a speed of 150 km an hour. I could imagine the feeling of crashing through the windshield headfirst, the sound of the shattering glass. "OK" I thought "My only chance of survival is to try and crawl underneath a seat" and though all my bones would break and I would suffer internal bleeding I just might not be thrown through the windshield and may survive if they airlifted me to an American military hospital right away. That was my plan.

I then began to slump down in my seat trying to fix myself underneath on floor. The seats in louages are made for tiny Tunisians. There was no way I could fit. "Jesus Christ" I announced panicked "Can't he slow down?" I shouted. "You are scared eh?" said the man in front of me who proceeded to laugh and turn to go back to sleep. Everyone else watched as I tried in vain to squish myself to the floor repeatedly begging the driver to slow down, sweating profusely, crossing myself and taking the Lord's name in vain every time the driver hit the breaks.

Everyone began laughing at me. The cross eyed woman answered her mobile phone and began telling her correspondent about the foreigner beside her giggling like a giddy schoolgirl.

I felt someone touch shoulder. The couple behind me continued to laugh and point at me. The man was touching my shoulder and asking C a question. I could hear C respond: "No it is a woman, not a man, a woman, a woman." She said emphatically. He chuckled and told me "Everything is fine".

We arrived in Hammamet and I jumped out. "Everyone thought you were the funniest thing they had ever seen. Everytime you hid behind the seat they just laughed more." C said. "And they thought I was a man too." I replied. "Well he kept asking if me if you were 'padre'" said C.

I have in the past, been greatly insulted when I was twice asked if I was C's (who is two years older than me) mother, but now to be mistaken for her father?

It was then that I realized the enormity of the contempt I had incurred. Here in an enormously patriarchal society, the idea that not only was I a crouching, shaking, Don Knotts of a man, but that I was also C's father only added to my stigma as a completely craven and cringing coward.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tunisia Shhhhh!

Finding an internet cafe in Tunis has been like trying to buy drugs at the White House.

Most unnerving about internet use is that one must present and have ID copied and a search done on you before you are alloed to go on the net

This is because Tunisia is an olicepay atestay and everything is oniteredmay including ommunicationcay

i hope to have suitably postable musings by tomorrow which dont have to be put in the only code i know which i learned in grade four its just that i havent had use for codes since i stopped living with my parents

However as they cant understand what i say in very passable french i don t think they ll have copped on to Latinus Porcus....

That is unless i hit another wrong button and my script immediately changes to arabic yet again

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Naples: the Capit Suda of Italy. When I remember Napoli, having just been there yesterday but still suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I can only think of that line from writer Fran Lebowitz, wherin she said: "To visit Rome is to realize that Fellini doesn't make movies, he makes documentaries" Like the Roman god Janus it has two faces.

Naples has been described by many as "dirty".,

To say "dirty" does it a disservice. It is fabulously and completely filthy but like a dog who has just rolled in refuse she seems quite proud of herself.

C and I can't quite figure out where all the garbage comes from. We scratch our heads. Now people all take the garbage out and it appears to disappear but the next day further bags appear, falling and stumbling like a drunk out of the street bins set throughout the city.

Then there's just "the stuff": countless bits of paper, weird detritus such as pull tickets and endless thrown plastic single use espresso cups just strewn everywhere. Sometimes it seems like you might actually be in a garbage dump.

Next is the happily suididal driving habits of the populii. They zoom in and out in cars and Vespas in a fashion that makes the chariot race scene in "Ben Hur" look like a quiet drive in downtown Geneva. You come to realize that you can never cross the street, unless as in Cairo, you close your eyes and cross and hope that they stop for you.

In the old town or Centro Storico, the most fearsome of riders appear: countless Valkaries riding Vespas like leather clad bikers out of "Mad Max": they are invariably women and usually have some small toddler or baby standing on the front floor of the scooter like a dashboard decoration and happily sucking at a gelati. Their sister I imagine or or best friend rides shotgun on the back.

Helmetless, with a fierce look, sucking on one chain smoked cigarette after another, they race and weave through cobble stone streets oblivious to potential death, leaving behind them only a wake of swirling garbage

I can only assume it is the result of the Napoli experience of living eternally under the shadow of imminent death: Vesuvio ready to erupt at any second and throw half a million people into immediate danger or the threat of catastrophic earthquakes that creates a culture in which everyone appears to look at Death directly in the eye, and laugh at Her.

This is not to say Naples wasn't somehow fantastic. C would rise in the morning, go out from the hotel and say: "What a total dump this city is we have to leave right away".

However, as night would fall gently on the old town, its streets a warren of seemingly medievel buildings, so closely placed no sunlight could shine, we came to warm to Napoli.

In the dark all the garbage seemed to meld into the ancient grey of the buildings and people began to emerge and begin to live in the streets: children playing football giddily, oblivious of dog crap, broken glass or rotting fruit; everyone came out and stood at the corners of the street luminated under small fading "eco friendly lights", an irony given the garbage which made everything feel more medieval.

On our last night we sat on the steps of a church with Bianca, an archeologist with no funding for her work on ancient and medieval digs and her partner Lucca, a sociology student and their dog Sam. They refused to get him neutered, despite their very logical, Left and progressive views, for the reason that to take a man's balls away would make him listless and lazy. We would go to the shop to buy beers and wine and sit and talk about the problems of Napoli: the Camorra )mafia), the corrupution of Italian government, the strange beginnings of the fractured country and African immigration which has increased hatred for foreigners. The Neopolitans consider themselves the dirt workers for the North and now that the Senegalese have arrived they believe they are taking their conveted %shit jobs% away leaving them without any means. Funny to be jealous over the worst jobs but unemployment is rife as is the eduring presence of the Napoli mob who run the town.

At night Napoli had the Beautiful face of the two headed God Janus: in moonlight, with ample Campanian wine and conversation, you would love such a city.

But when the morning came out by the stacio termini hundreds peddling cheap soccer shirts, stolen I-Phones and Senegalese crafts, the filth and garbage swirling in the light of the morning, you just had to hate Naples.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

La Dolce Morte

So C and I are in Rome. I took her to the Roman Museum of History wherein she was aquainted with the lives of the Patrician citizens of the former Roman Empire and the Republic.

In recounting the history of Rome: that it was divided into two classes, Patrician and Plebian, of which the Plebians recieved free bread and wheat rations as they were largely unemployed; that Romans were also gorged on free games in the Amphitheatre; that wine and sex flowed freely in ancient Rome and finally that under really crazy Emperors such as Caligula, game days, which were officially a holiday, could comprise almost 250 days per year, C said that she thought the lot of life of the average Roman citizen, Plebian or Patrician was altogether a pretty sweet life.

Then we got to the sarcophogii of the many dead, Pagan inhabitants of Rome. There C's indemic Anglicism hit her. Here the Romans mourning so many beloved dead, be they their baby girls dying young, wives or husbands ripped from each other or youthful sons taken at 20 years, were all remembered in marble casket after casket showing the debauchary of Dioynisian rites: He was the God of Wine. C became a bit miffed that the afterlife of the ancient Romans, in fact the carriage of their very soul, appeared to involve becoming completely hammered and having to be carried home by a dwarf.

Thereafter her newfound respect of Pax Romani diminished quickly.

That is until we visited Via Veneto

Via Veneto is famed for its prominence in the Fellini film "La Dolce Vita", which means "The Sweet Life".

Right on Via Veneto is also the touristed cemetery of the Capuchian monks of a particular Brotherhood. Famed because of their fondness for creating what are called "bone chapels".

"Bone Chapels" are small church like settings constructed out of the bones of the many dead monks and nuns who have served in a particular Order. "Quite weird" I have always thought, but something found in very Catholic countries. They are there to remind you "the sinner", that life is but brief and that a cold and terrible death awaits.

In such chapels they always highlight some skull in a window with a plaque underneath reading: "As you are, I once was. As I am, soon you will be".

A total buzzkill.

But "Hey" I think, "I'm no stranger to the world of weird bone chapels" having visited a number in Portugal. Except when we went to this one on La Via Veneto.

Now this "chapel" was a total creepfest more reminiscent of a Haunted House ride then a holy grave. Not only did they assemble the bones in the usual array of decorative crafts: lamp sconces of tibia and fibulii, ceiling tromp l'eoil of finger and toe bones etc... but they also decided to stick a great number of dead monks back into their habits, hang them from the walls as if alive and have them scowl at you from under their Monkish cowels.

I felt like I was in an entirely Catholic version of the video for Michael Jackon's "Thriller".

Now I, more than some people, know that "idle hands do the devil's work" but really, could these monks have not taken up a more noble handicraft? Raising Saint Bernard dogs to save snow going travellers? Making delicious apertifs like Cointreau or Brandy? Raising orphans?

No. This lot dedicated their collective mettle to disinterring their fellow brethren and making them into chandeliers.

The most ghoulish of such folk art reached the high point on the last crypt.

They had either found very diminuitive monks, or small boys, and at the crest of the ceiling had reconstructed an entire little skeleton and suspended it in toto from wires like he was flying, in the way you see pterodacydal skeletons hanging in a paleontology museum. He held a scythe in one hand and swung scales in the other, all made from human shoulder blades and hip bones.

Here the Capuchians were there to remind you of how awful, bitter and terrible is the death of a Believer.

And I think it was here, that C decided that any afterlife which featured wine, dancing and stumbling home accompanied by a Satyr was a far better bet: "La Dolce Morte"