Saturday, February 12, 2011

Anchored at Comino Island, Malta

Its not the first time we've anchored at Comino, mostly famous for the irridescent Blue Lagoon, but it is the first time we took a day to hike around the island, and what a pleasant surprise. The views from the cliff tops were breathtaking, and there is alot more to the island than it appears from the water. In the middle are buildings which were at one time quarantine hospital buildings and are now home to a few people. We met an elderly gentleman called Carmen who told us that only 7 people live on the island now, and he only comes there on the weekends, but there used to be 100 people living there in his lifetime.
There are remnants of farming; rusting farm tools and field dividing walls aswell as domestic plants which are now growing wild.
St Mary's Tower which is an impregnable fort built in 1618 to fight off pirates who plied the waters between Malta and Gozo has recently been renovated back to almost perfect condition - wasn't open - so we didn't go in, but did climb up onto the ramparts to take in the views.
Quite an incredible day really, dinghying around the caves to start with, seeing a really big shark at close quarters and feasting on the colours of Spring in Malta. This is our 2nd Spring here now and other than the water being a bit cold for swimming comfort I think this is probably the best time of year to visit Malta. Its absolutely blooming with plantlife, aqualife but less people life.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Back in Malta - Anchored in the beautiful Blue Lagoon - on our own

We arrived back in Malta last night after a pretty boisterous sail back - sailed until just a few hours off the coast of Gozo - a beamer all the way - Moondancer X just loved it, and if it hadn't been for the bloody awful sideways chop it would have been 'perfect', but who expects perfect in February. It was a good sail back, and when Gozo was in sight it really felt like we were coming home.
So young Toni woke up this morning to the crystal clear waters of the Blue Lagoon on Comino, which is a small island in between Malta and Gozo, a rare privelege to be in this amazing place without the hoards who normally grace it in the summer months. Thought about going for a swim as the sun is shining and its quite warm - but Nah! that's pushing it a bit.
Glad to be out of Tunisia. Though we saw a few awesome things there, and regret not staying to see the Sahara, its not one of my favourite places.

Tunisia - Feb 2011 - Posted from the Blue Lagoon, Malta

Tunisia February 2011-02-08

We’ve come to Tunisia of necessity; MoondancerX being Canadian can only be in the EU for 18 months without being officially imported or leaving. As we have been here for 18 months and have no desire to sail our boat under any other flag than Canadian we have come out of the EU and Tunisia is the closest place to Malta. Tunisia has just undergone what the local people refer to as a ‘revolution’, which I suppose it is – they have ousted their President of the last 23 years with some bloodshed – depending on which reports you read, about 40 people killed - but some pretty scary violent demonstrations.
This happened about 3 weeks ago mostly in the town of Tunis, and perhaps it is only in our imagination there does seem to be a residue of bad feeling about the place.
Of course that may just be the way it is here – we see groups of men everywhere sitting around in cafes doing nothing – when we walk past these ‘man caves’ they stare at us and it doesn’t feel like friendly staring. As we are almost always the only non-native people on the streets wherever we go they may just be curious as to why we are here when most of the other non-native people have fled. Also because we are the only people on the street who ‘presumably’ have any money we are ‘marks’ – and consequently the vendors try very hard to sell to us. We smile politely and say no-thankyou, maybe later, etc. , and keep on walking.
Our arrival in the Monastir Marina was good – the first person we met was Kamil, who is the Immigration Policeman; he took our lines and helped to dock our boat. The paper work was handled quickly and painlessly with lots of smiling, we had to wait awhile for the Customs lady to finish a phone conversation with one of her children, which she was not at all embarrassed about even though it was alot of googoo, gagaa type words, universal baby language. When the papers were all completed and stamped I asked for a copy, but was told I’d get it later, then they both came to our boat, which was still in much disarray, the salon being where we sleep during our overnight passages. They asked to see anything that we wished to declare – we didn’t understand; they meant alcohol, another universal word, so we showed them the worn down heels of a few bottles we had in the cupboard, then Kamil said everything is ok, just formalities and went away.
We spent that day and the next on the Visitors dock awaiting instructions from the Capitain de Marin as to where we should go. We slept a little, found the showers and went ashore.
Our first encounter was with 2 boys who asked us for cigarettes, then money, then responded with a very un-moslem sounding ‘ f---k you’ when we refused to give them either.

Monastir - is a good size town with a huge fort/Ribat right on the waterfront dating back to 796 AD and remodelled many times since, and incredible Mausoleum built by and dedicated to Habib Bourgiba by himself, reportedly having spent a few billion dinars of this poor country’s money to do so. He’s in it now, having died in 2000, along with his first and second wife. The Municipal market/souk is fantastic, the men selling fish are most prominent and working hard to make their sales for the day – after all fish doesn’t keep. The meat counters are a bit daunting – not at all like buying cuts of animals in our supermarkets where we know what to expect. And when skinned I can’t tell the difference between sheep and goat. Chickens all look alike so that was a safe buy.

We took a long walk down the waterfront in the direction of their equivalent of the Costa Del Sol, which because it is quite far away from the town centre has not changed Monastir very much. Being off-season and post revolution it was pretty dead and the only cafe we found which had a bit of life to offer was full of smoke. Literally full of smoke – alot of people sitting around smoking hookas - young Toni told us that they smoke some fruity tobacco compound which is not drugs, but I’m sure with that little oxygen getting through the smoke to the brain it probably acts as some type of anaesthetic. These hookas as quite common in the cafes. We sat outside to drink our very creamy coffee, Tony senior asked some young people what kind of drink they were drinking – a small glass of tea with almonds floating it in, they told us it is called The de blusse, tea with almonds and offered it to him to taste – of course he refused but they insisted. That is twice we have been offered a person’s food to taste, the other time at a Street Vendor’s booth selling garbanza bean soup. That is a very heart warming thing to do – not thinking that who you have offered it to may ‘contaminate’ your food. Very generous.

Another day we walked in the other direction, around a very craggy point which at one time – probably during WWII, must look that up – a very heavy duty boat ramp was built into the natural rock using a red brick which they make here and incorporating some ancient ruins. The video describes this quite well. Right out on the end of the point are the remains of a very ancient dwelling where people can walk around freely on mosaics which are crumbling away underfoot and pieces of ancient pots just lie around for anyone to pick up. We would have been content to walk around the outside perimeter of the place but were lured in by 2 men who may or may not have worked there, and were definitely trying to make money out of us. As we were the only people out there, miles away from the town we were a bit nervous – well perhaps I should speak for myself – I was quite nervous. Up to a point we followed where we were lured and politely steered our way out of the site aware of the disappointed muttering from the one who was trying the hardest. When we walked out they both took off on a motorcycle, which makes me think they were just 2 guys who saw some foreigners who might give them some money. At least if they swore at us I didn’t understand it.

Mahdia – on a train. There is a 2 track station in Monastir and the train that comes in will take you to Sousse or Mahdia. Mahdia is the end of the line, but Sousse being a bigger city has connections to other places. Good timing is probably not our strongest point. We got the train to Mahdia on Saturday at about 1.00pm, along with hundred of university students leaving Monastir for the weekend. So we stood in the space between cabins along with about 20 other people and enjoyed a long but fun train trip to Mahdia. We met a group of young men who really liked to joke alot, initially at our expense, but when we took it well we actually enjoyed some conversation. We met a young woman called Arij who spoke excellent English and told us alot about their lives. She is an engineering student at university with gentile manners and the desire to finish her studies in Canada. She gave us her phone number and offered to help us if we needed it while here in Monastir. The young men seemed to be under the impression that everyone in Canada is rich and they asked if we could help them to come and live in Canada. We didn’t get into the money conversation as they probably wouldn’t see it from our point of view, but we did tell them that they need relatives to emigrate to Canada.
One of the things that struck me during this time was how often I heard Arabic words which are the same as Maltese, and actually had the same meaning. I suppose that goes back to the Pheonicians who founded both Tunisia and Malta a few thousand years ago.
Most of our time in Mahdia was spent walking along the coast of the biggest cemetery I’ve ever seen – in the Moslem culture they believe that each person must have their own burial space, not on top of each other, which means that they need alot of space. And this graveyard in Mahdia is occupying the most spectacular real estate in the town. Can’t help but see that as valuing their ‘dead life’ more highly than their alive one. More fabulous ruins left behind by the Romans – a tall archway which leads nowhere now as most of what was on the sea side of it has fallen away, stands like a stately portal out into the sea. Other than the graveyard being extremely impressive the other impression was of motorcycles – load of them – small 50cc motorclycles bombing around everywhere – the noise on the roads becomes quite annoying, like loads of chainsaws going off all over the place.

El Jem – by louage – the louage is a shared taxi which holds about 7 people who will come and go during the trip. According to our guide book this costs about 4 dinars per person one way. We went to the louage station yesterday morning and started negotiations, which is a bit ridiculous really because we were trying to negotiate without understanding each other. We thought we were to be passengers on the louage along with others, and what the driver thought was he was being hired as a private driver. Had we joined a public louage the trip would have cost us 24 dinars for 3 of us there and back. It cost us 80 – which really didn’t feel good at all to us, and it wasn’t until we were on our way and saw that the driver was refusing to take other people that we realized what was going on. And when we got to El Jem and he wanted 40 dinars then and another 40 to bring us back we were a bit choked and saw our mistake. So another lesson learned in our travels.
We went to El Jem to see the remains of the Roman Colosseum, the 3rd largest in the Roman world, built between the years AD230 and 238. Only 8 years to build that incredible structure – oh what a wonderful thing slavery was. Imagine doing that and paying wages. Being there after driving one and a half hours through mostly decrepid Tunisia was quite difficult to take in. Incredibly sophisticated engineering went into building that structure. What went on in it sometimes doesn’t smack of highly evolved people, but its as if the Romans were a ‘superhuman’ culture who lived in that time, and when they were gone – all that was left behind was garbage. The photos and videos do a much better job than I can of describing it, and my feeling while walking around on stones which had been walked on by thousands of feet before mine can only be described as awe. There were several men working in various places; we spoke to one man who said that he was a student specialising in Roman archaeology. It was he that told us we could go underground to see where the gladiators waited in the dark for their turn to’ entertain’ the crowds.
After the Colosseum we went to the Mosaic museum – also incredible, the best of them were mounted on walls, but many of them are still on the floors to be walked on by everyone. The mosaics are housed in a beautiful villa like building with many curved windows complementing the square and rectangular mosaics.
I think that because we are brought up to value antiquities so much its hard to understand that such valuable artifacts can be enjoyed at such close quarters. If they were in Canada, they’d have fences around them or they’d be built into some type of humidor. I suppose they think that if they’ve been here this long, they’ll last alot longer, and they don’t have so much money available to preserve them. Actually some of the work they are doing to renovate these ruins isn’t that good, and if they keep doing it what they will have are not originals.
Coming out of these places and into the streets of El Jem were transported back to being the ‘marks’, and though we did it, its hard to keep smiling when one feels a bit invaded by the vendors, and knowing that ‘our driver’ has taken advantage of our ignorance and our fear of taking a stand.

The other big thing that we wanted to do while in Tunisia is to go to the Sahara desert. We made a decision at the end of the day not to do that. That will have to wait until some time in the future – or never in this life. We’ve heard that there are still troubles further south, so we do not feel comfortable to rent a car and drive ourselves, and most of the arranged tours have been cancelled as the country is still in a ‘state of emergency’. This is scheduled to be lifted on the 15th February – we have work to get back to in Malta, so we’ll leave day after tomorrow. - The wind’s in the right direction for our sail back.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sorry - post not working

Sorry, the 'longer post' did not work - please see facebook for what I had intended to put here. I'll figure it out when I get back to Malta. Not sure why, but I have limited time to work it out.

Tunisia - longer post

This is the Roman Colliseum in El Jem, Tunisia, I have written much more to post here, but the blogsite is not working in its normal way while I'm here, but I'll keep trying. If unsuccessful I'll have to wait until we get back to Malta to post it.
I've got alot of spectacular photographs taken in Tunisia which I also cannot post here for some reason - I'm going to post a few on facebook, that seems to be working for me right now.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Tunisia -

This is an abbreviated post - we don't have good internet access here. In fact up until today I have been unable to actually sign in to the blog. Not sure how I got on today, but here it is.

We arrived in Monastir Marina this time last week - it seems like alot longer than a week.

Since we've been here we've done a bit of sight seeing and have met the other liveaboards in the Marina who I already feel I will miss - but some of them may come to Malta while we are there. Our first day here was mostly taken up with sleep to make up for the overnight lack-of, the next day poured ferociously and since then it has been blowing like snot - lots of snot. Each day the weather reports have predicted the wind will ease and finally it has.

There were a couple of things that we really wanted to do while here - one to see the Roman Colusseum in El Jem and the other to take a trip to the Sahara.

We went to the Colusseum today and it was all that we could have hoped for - magnifique almost works, and then a trek across 'town' to the mosaic museum which was unimaginably incredible.

So the other thing - to go to the Sahara - not going to happen on this trip. Things are still a bit 'dodgey' here in Tunisia, we're not completely comfortable being the only 'stand-out' tourists wherever we go, and we have work to go back to Malta to do. Here are a few pictures - I'll post more on web-shots.