This time of the year is my favorite...I get to record the highlights of my year and share them not only with my email friends but also my snail mail buddies. Yes, it's that time of the year again. I hope you're not too tied up with holiday festivities so that you can't read this letter. As usual, forgive me if I repeat myself for you email readers.
As usual, I'll plug the web page at http://www.blueloutimes.com.
I'm in Tunisia...but that's getting ahead of myself. As I left 2000, I was in China. That's a great place to start.
I was there when the P3 plane incident took place. It was a real tense start. I'll move back even before that. During the Bosnian war, the US allies bombed the wrong target and got the Chinese Embassy. In a government led / sponsored protest, a half-million Chinese students gathered around the US Beijing embassy and threw Molotov cocktails or whatever they could get their hands upon. You could leave the embassy area and not have a problem but it was tense for several days at the embassy grounds. We got briefed by the embassy that this occurrence was a possibility. Other than the throngs of cameras that hung out across the street, we didn't see anything. The only upset folks we saw were those on CNN. There were a few protesters but they quickly found themselves in jail.
In a BLT Exclusive, the rest of the story... The American ambassador to China was trying resolve the situation and free the hostages. He couldn't escape the Embassy without being followed by the throngs of camera crews and reporters following him. That's where we came in. The Embassy folks came and asked us to move our construction storage area. Quietly, we complied with the request. The Ambassador's driver drove his car around the back of the Embassy. The Ambassador snuck out the back door and jumped into his car and drove out the back gate (our former construction entrance) unnoticed by the media in front of the embassy. The hostages were freed shortly thereafter. That's a small part of history of which I'll be proud to be a part of forever.
I was also there at the rise of the Falun Gong. If you remember, this was a religion that the Chinese government frowned upon...even arrested. Way back in January, several of their Rhode Scholars doused themselves with gasoline and lit themselves on fire...it still ruins my dinner thinking about this when CNN showed it in their regular half-hour rotation. Their cameraman was a member of the church I went to and I gave him an ear full and he said they'd warned the studios that this film was a bit graphic. Unfortunately, he didn't tell ALL of their studios so the Hong Kong studio had no clue and didn't give any warning for a film that was comparable to some of the more grotesque slasher movies you see in the theaters.
I wasn't in Beijing when they were awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics. I was mixed about the whole concept during my stay there but after I left, I thought it was just plain wrong to reward them in spite of the many documented and undocumented human rights violations done by their government. From what I saw on the tube, it was quite a party when they got the Olympics...many days they went on.
I admit I was happy to go and see China but like any other local, I'm always happy to go to another place. That stop was a short one...Puerto Rico...about three weeks. We were doing a Naval Barracks until we were given a stop work order and that was it... Needless to say, we were really bummed about the whole affair. Most of us had really cool places to live. I could see the ocean from my kitchen window. I even had my own truck.
It didn't stop me from taking a side to the Virgin Islands to visit a friend who just had a son...only a twenty minute plane ride. For those that don't know, the Naval Base was the hub of media and protestors who didn't appreciate the fact that the armed forces used the island of Vieques as a site for full-scale war simulations with live rounds and a few locals who sometimes were innocent victims of stray bullets, mortars, etc. Also included were several peace protesters who felt exempt from the laws and entered the site. In spite of your feelings for this type of warfare, you have to admit that entering an island while bombs and bullets are going off is just a tad bit on the dumb side.
Next stop...my present locale...Tunis Tunisia and another media spectacle...September 11, 2001. Yes, I was in the former home of the PLO while this affair was going on. To their credit, most of the Tunisians were feeling sickened just like the rest of the world but a few were happy and showing their glee in noticeable fashion.
For the record, I have no media aspirations. It just seems to be that of late, I have the gift of being in the wrong place at exactly the right time...or is it the wrong time? You decide.
I've been here since June. We're building a brand new embassy complex that should be complete next fall. As is the norm, I have no clue as to where I'll be next nor when that will be. My only hope is that I'll be here long enough to get the 330 tax except status. I've built a web site for the job. Our home office changed servers so I can't make the changes the boss requested before open it to views. In essence, I can't give you the address. As soon as all the kinks are worked out, I promise to pass on the web address. (Editor's Note: This has been deleted.>
For the curious, the local currency is the Dinar. One US Dollar is worth 1.43 Dinar locally but the international exchanges give out over 1.5 dinar to the dollar...go figure.
If you haven't gone to the globe, look for Tunisia at the northern tip of Africa below Italy.
I've seen most of the ruin sites around the Tunis area. We're just off the Mediterranean but the only place to go scuba diving is about a three hour drive from hell around here so the only ocean activity around here seems to be the beach which goes right along with Sunday church services.
I have to admit that when the French left Tunisia in the late fifties, they left it in pretty good shape all things considered. It's mostly Muslim but I go to Mass conducted in English every Sunday. Dress is modern...around ten percent of the women double the use of their bed linen as dresses and head covers. You can get pork and alcohol. Women outnumber men in the college rosters.
For those who remember the old TV series, Happy Days, they do have camels in Tunisia...not many here in Tunis where the population runs up around 1 million. (Haven't ridden one yet with no plans to do so). Like many other places, there is a huge diversity in income as are the homes. Most folks live in low-rise homes or apartment complexes.
Transportation is either French (Renault or Peugeot) or German (VW...the biggest, Mercedes, or BMW). There is a train system for transportation around Tunis. It's about a half hour walk from my house. You can take a bus or a taxi. Mopeds are a constant source of irritation...they aren't regulated by law, ignore all stop lights, and hold up traffic everywhere they go.
Driving is typical middle east which loosely translates into all of those nightmarish driver's training simulation films we took in high school...look up there, he might cut into your lane...and does. It puts defensive driving into a whole new plateau. I can count at least four or five opportunities to have an accident...each day.
I've only had one accident. We do lunch at the local mall...Carrefour. Well, Carrefour is the place to be at most any time of the day. My time wasn't lunch on Tuesday. In the US, if you pull out of any parking lot, you must stop before entering the main road. Such was not the case on this Tuesday. I was traveling down the road at a normal rate of speed when a car from the parking area fails to stop while pulling out of a parking lot. He stuck his nose out in the traffic lane. My passenger shouted for me to look out, seconds after I'd noticed and started working on the brakes but it was too late...the tires skidded and there was a loud boom...fender bender..his. Nobody was hurt.
The damage to my car, was surprisingly minor..a couple of paint scrapes and a wee bit of rumpled plastic. I drove a Renault econobox (Now I have a VW Polo which is the smaller version of the Golf). I say it was surprisingly minor because the car is so small / cheap and the noise the collision made was quite loud.
The other car, was not so lucky. He pulled the big dent out of the fender on site and with a bit of putty, it will be all right. The fender was not his problem, it's the suspension that was bent to a strange angle. His left front tire was in a real odd position. If left untreated, it will be really difficult to steer and will shortly pull the front end apart and / or ruin his tires.
Before I could say or do anything, the parking lot security was on the spot asking me if I had money to pay for this damage. Now, let me get this straight...this dude pulls out in front of me and fails to stop in the proper location...and it's my fault. I told him I wasn't signing anything or saying anything without aid of an interpreter as his English was worse than my limited French. As luck would have it, two of our best interpreters were eating lunch inside and I sent my passenger to get them.
In Tunisia, the police will not come to an accident...I'd guess...unless someone is injured. You fill out the paperwork that is required by law to be in your car at all times, and your insurance company takes care of the rest...the ultimate no-fault insurance. If you don't have the papers, you can go to jail. When my interpreter arrived, the crowd grew a bit and suddenly, there were witnesses that weren't there at the time of the incident but were saying they saw the whole thing and the rich American, guilty or not, should be held responsible. I disagree. Well, we exchanged addresses, etc. but they never filled out the form. Perhaps, my company may have to pay for the negligible damage to my car but we didn't get the phone number of the other driver so we can't contact him as he lives out of town.
FYI, in the US, it would be an open and shut case. He didn't stop coming out of a parking lot and therefore, he'd get the ticket. There's a law requiring all motorists entering a public roadway from a parking lot to stop. In Tunisia, the law is different. The other driver was on my right so it's simply my fault. The very next day, I narrowly avoided a similar situation but it would have been the other motorist's fault...he was on my left. Go figure!
Just a couple of days before, the boss suffered an accident as well. Someone rear-ended his Toyota Landcruiser. The Toyota was unblemished but the other car was totaled. So much for driving in Tunisia.
The weather... Well, during the summer, it was typical desert...hot, dry, and windy. Temps were up in the hundreds. I didn't see rain for about four months. Now, it's winter with temps dropping to the forties and rising to the fifties with frequent showers.
I live in a huge house I once shared with three other associates. Now, it's down to just one roommate and two stray cats. We have limited satellite with CNN, ESPN, a couple of movie channels, several Arab stations, BBC World, Disney, and a few channels that highlight US TV shows and news. A maid comes in once a week although right now, it's in transition. I've showed our current maid our place twice and she hasn't been able to find it....even with a map! I've posted photos of my house on the web site.
My home is located in Carthage within walking distance of most of the local historic ruins....Roman Amphitheater, La Malga Cisterns, Cathedral Of St. Louis, Byrsa Hill, Carthage Columns Most are within a half hour walk and posted on my web site. I recently added a moving page about the American Cemetery located about five minutes away by car. It's here that most of the WWII American war casualties that died in this region are buried.
Language is a Tunisian variation of Arabic which most of our guys can't figure out in spite of living in Arab countries for many years. I don't do bad with my decades old year of high school French. It's very predominant.
Tunis is a tourist city. There are lots of beaches but you must go away from the city to get away from the maddening crowd. I'm not exaggerating in saying that the tents cover the entire beach and are spaced so close together, you bump into several before you crowd your way into the water. It's not what I call solitude so I hit Gammart or Hamamet. You can take a short ride out to the desert regions and go on Safaris through the wild regions.
Star Wars was filmed in Tunisia....some of the more remote regions. I saw a feature on Tunisia on the travel channel. The host traveled to some of the more remote regions...interesting but not enough for me to want to go see.
Most our guys had a rough time finding a place to stay if they came here in the summer. I was surprised at how quickly things dropped off after summer ended.
One Sunday, I took the train downtown to the Medina. The Medina is a huge labyrinth of shops with narrow pathways to walk on located in the city center...in this case...the city center of Tunis. Generally closed on Sunday, I went knowing that there might be a few shops open without the huge crowds of tourists. Little did I know what the Medina had in store for me.
I more or less stumbled into the place as I had to walk many blocks after I left the train. As you know, my sense of direction is somewhat challenged when I'm in a new area. We'll, I ran into an area that was full of young males. I had no idea where I was but it didn't take long to figure out where I was...right in the center of red-light central....yes, the world's oldest profession was alive and well in the Medina. The locals call it Abdallah Gesh. There was a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and ages. Some of these ladies I could either call my daughter or my mother...it was that varied. Most did little to disguise hanging out at the door in nothing more than bra and panties...some less. Beds were less than ten feet from the door on the ground level units. In the upper level houses, the 'rental models' were spaced out up the stairways for all to inspect.
Soon, I had Mohammad, the pimp, who was going to show this starry-eyed sucker around and earn a fat commission. Unfortunately for Mohammad the Pimp, I was not the sucker he thought I was nor did I have the desire to give Mohammad his commission nor partake in any of his ladies' services...I was merely lost in the labyrinth and wanted my way out. Mohammed shouts a derivative phrase of one of George Carlin's seven dirty words and I just keep walking looking for the exit...about five minutes later, I find my way out. Prostitution in Tunisia is controlled by the government. I guess what surprised me the most was that in spite of the strong Muslim belief, the world's oldest profession will carry on. So much for my tour of the Medina.
The Mediterranean games were held in Tunis. They akin to the summer Olympics. I didn't go nor watch them on the tube. I wasn't interested.
Food...atypical for Arab countries. You can get lots of fruits but not many vegetables. Beef is pretty sorry. Stick to ground beef or the highest priced steak. Chicken is typical international food for me. Tunisia has lots of seafood. Italian food is served at most restaurants. You'd best be prepared to get tuna on your pizza. Forget about ham. Sausage, if you can get it, is beef. I'm, mixed on Tunisian cuisine. It's pretty bland but some of the seafood or lamb can be quite tasty.
Other than gas stations, you won't recognize any of the local business establishments. Tunisia does not allow foreign ownership. A business must be owned by a resident of Tunisia.
Medical technology...well, it's here. I recently had a blood test that had to be exported to France for analysis. The cost nearly gave me a heart attack. You can get basic tests but anything elaborate, I'd recommend Europe which is a two hour plane ride to nearly any destination.
Right now, it's Eid...the end of Ramadan. For the unknowing, Ramadan is a time of fasting for the Muslim...no food, water, alcohol, tobacco, sex...from sun up to sundown. Here, that's from about 6:45 am to 5:10 pm. It's the first time I've been in a predominantly Muslim country during Ramadan. Yes, I was in Tanzania during Ramadan but it's only a third Muslim. Here, life just seemed to come to a screeching halt. Restaurants, if they tried to open, would not do so until eight in the evening. We let our workers go home after working from 07:30 to 14:30. Most businesses closed down around three. Rush hour traffic moved from 17:00 to 15:00.
As we got further into Ramadan, the physical impact seemed to grow. People showered less and paid less to physical appearances. The physical effects of going without food and water were more permanent with people complaining of headaches and numerous pains. If these folks would have gone home and rested, the impacts would have been minimized but Ramadan is a month of fellowship so the party wagon was the norm. Most folks looked forward to the camaraderie but as the visitors tapered off, the only thing left were the aches and pains so Eid, the end of Ramadan, was very much welcomed.
Our company gave us Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and possibly Monday. I say possibly Monday as the month of Ramadan is based upon Lunar cycles so you had to look out the window to see if there was a moon to determine if Ramadan was here or if it was over. In the end, we got Monday off.
I spent the time off putzing around Tunis catching up on things I've ignored for some time. I was a regular visitor to the beach and the gym. I did a lot of reading. It was just a time for me to get caught up on things. I did discover the beauty of converting all of my CDs to MP3...got an MP3 player coming in about a month. I'm going to convert my computer to a jukebox and leave my CDs at home.
I'll be heading to London for Christmas and New Years. In between, I'll be heading westward to Bristol England to visit my current roommate and former boss on the Armenia project and his family. I'm getting really excited about this trip.
That's about it for this year. Would love to hear from you. Have a blessed Christmas and a prosperous New Year.