Spread your wings and imagination and come along with us now to Tunisia located on the Mediterranean Sea and site of the first Arab Spring...
As soon as the taxi driver dropped us off at the Souk (market)in Sousse, he instantly appears by our side.
I recognize you from the hotel, he says. I work there. My name is Ali. What are you looking for? Let me help you. You are very lucky. This is the final day of a three day fair and prices are very good...I can take you to a special place for leather.
We are not interested in leather. But let me take your photograph, I say, since you work at our hotel.
Oh, please, no, madam, please wait until I am in uniform as I want to look professional.
The kid’s fast with his tongue.
And so we become unwilling participants as Ali leads us deeper into the souk and through narrow alleyways to....surprise, his shop of leather sporting a big 50% discount sign.
We have no money with us, I say. Everything is back at the hotel.
Well, no matter. We take credit cards or you can choose here and pay at your hotel.
Can Canadians be rude? How to say NO over and over again with a smile? Our protests are completely ignored. No wonder. First, we follow him like sheep to the slaughter and second, he dismisses our repeated head shaking negatives until we become reluctant accomplices in this charade. He hangs on like a leech. I can only relish my one heh heh moment: Ali does not realize I discreetly took his photo. Somehow we manage to escape after he leads us back through the maze.
Politely and firmly shaking our heads at pleas to purchase, we follow a main artery meandering uphill until, through divine intervention, we arrive at the mosque. An old man wearing a fez suddenly pops out from a small cubicle facing the mosque and asks in English: where are you from?
From the French part?
Ah....English. He looks disappointed.
But now you are this far you must go to the Panorama for a good view of the surrounding area from the top. Just down to the right. He points in the direction and
I’m sure he watches us disappear among the throngs of shoppers. I hustle along the route, relieved to be rid of him.
Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, we cannot find the right alley. We consistently arrive back at the main artery after trying different paths, each one confusing because of similarities among the merchandise and stalls. My eyes are glazed. Sweat is rolling down my abdomen and back under my white long sleeved 100 % cotton top (travel professionals warn of dire consequences, like sticky clothing, if wearing synthetics in a hot country. So why am I sweating profusely?). My tolerance level is sub-low.
Canadiens! Canadiens! It is the old man with the fez cap again, calling behind us. You want to see the Panorama view on top?
The old man leads hot, frustrated and tired us through the honeycomb, a labyrinth of smothering shops. I want to drop crumbs along the way, like Hansel and Gretel, to find our way out should he abandon us or we lose him. We may need to bribe him to return to the beginning. Up and over and through and around and yes, even passing into and out of a carpet stall, he leads us higher and higher. Finally, true to his word, we reach a precipice, the top, for a panoramic view of surrounding Tunis with its minarets and mosques. We genuinely marvel at the scene, take photos, while I constantly fret within....how the hell are we going to find our way out of here?
I know he is conning us. After interminable essays on the virtue of each oil fragrance and forced sniffs of each tiny bottle, we want out at any price. After we pay an outrageous sum for a vial of ‘fresh’ lemon oil, he obligingly leads us to the medina’s entrance, satisfied he has extracted a winning sale. Elated at being near the entrance and freedom, I feel brave enough to ask one final question: his name.
Ali the Elder, of course. Probably Ali the Younger, yesterday’s con-man, issued the alert to watch for gullible white Canadians in the market.
...to be continued...