An American Abroad

My Travel Essays & Articles

In the last two years, I’ve had various articles and essays published by the Village Voice of Ottawa Hills, my hometown’s monthly newspaper. They have graciously permitted me to repost those pieces here.

Your Miserable Life Will Soon Be Over

Mom-and-Pop Businesses and BMWs

Where English is a Pose

High Standards and Student Rights

Elephant Unemployment in Northern Laos

Taking the Road to Fuxian Lake

Expatriate Year

Why Would You Want to Go There?

Tunisia: A New Democracy is Born

When American Values Collide with Tunisian Society

Copyright Village Voice of Ottawa Hills. Used by permission.

Audio Interview With Yours Truly

Odyssey Master and fellow travel blogger Jay of Jay’s Odyssey conducted an audio interview me earlier this week about my travels and tribulations. It was a fun — even outrageous — conversation. We covered the pitfalls of eating spicy food in Bangladesh and then using a urinal, as well as the perils of being interrogated by the Tunisian police on suspicion of fornication. You can listen to it here.

Jay is a serious bicyclist who is about nine days away from embarking on an epic trip through Mexico and points south in just nine days. It’s a trip that’s been delayed twice, most recently because his bicycle was stolen. Now that he has wheels again, I look forward to following him on his journey. He’ll be Tweeting about his travels @jays_odyssey.

Anne Frank’s Message to Sousse

Terrorists today carried out an attack in Sousse, Tunisia, where I lived from August 2014 to February 2015. Much like the March 18 attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, today’s slaughter was both an attack on specific human lives and an attack on the Tunisia’s economy and its fledgling democracy.

Terrorism is a worldwide scourge. It can happen anywhere, at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in a train station in Kunming, China, or in a museum of Roman antiquities. Despite the horrendous bloodletting, the world is, by and large, a safe and wonderful place. As Anne Frank (who knew firsthand the effects of fanatical hatred) wrote in her teenage diary,

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

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But Anne Frank was not advocating that people wait passively for things to get better. Elsewhere in her diary, she wrote:

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

The terrorism of al-Qaeda and ISIS, like the terrorism of the Nazis, is not born of strength. Terrorism is a tactic of the weak. Resort to it is a sign of desperation, not power. The people I met during my time in Tunisia know this deep in their bones. It doesn’t make terrorism less scary, since you can be killed just as dead by a weak man as a strong one. But it does mean that the terrorists won’t win in the end. They may and probably will score tactical “successes” here and there, but the ideology behind the terror is spent. Attacks like the slaughter on the beach in Sousse today are like tantrums thrown by children who realize that they can’t have their way. Those who commit them are not brave; they are cowards.

So to my students, colleagues, and friends in Sousse, I say take heart. You are strong. It is the terrorists who are weak.

Terror at the Bardo

Today I woke to the news about the terror attacks at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Having been to the Bardo in late January, I can picture the scene there very clearly. Seeing the photos of frightened tourists sitting on the familiar ancient Roman mosaic floors brought the terror home to me.

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(Photo: Farouk Afi)

I spent the morning and early afternoon compulsively searching news sites for new information and contacting Tunisian friends and coworkers to make sure they were OK. The school I taught at, AMIDEAST Sousse, was closed for the day in light of the attacks as a precautionary measure.

My thoughts and hopes are with Tunisia tonight, the small country on the North African coast that welcomed me as a resident for seven months. When taxi drivers in Sousse would ask me what I thought of Tunisia, I would usually say that the best thing about Tunisia is Tunisians. The people I know there are no doubt horrified by what happened today and doubly disgusted that these acts of murder and savagery were committed by those who purport to carry the flag of Islam. I share their feelings.

One year ago, there was a terror attack in Kunming, China, about 70 miles north of where I was living. Like the attack on the Bardo, the Kunming attack took place in an building I had recently been in and knew well. At that time, I wrote:

I can well imagine the horror that the people at the Kunming train station felt as maniacs with two-foot knives ran through the station and indiscriminately stabbed, sliced and hacked away at innocent travelers. My heart goes out the victims and their families.

I feel the same way today about the people at the Bardo. And I hope I never have to write words like these again.

Old Weird French Cars

I shot most of these in Sousse, Tunisia.

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Kairouan

Kairouan is either the third or the fourth holiest site in Islam, depending on whom you talk to. (Question: who compiles rankings like this? How many cities are so ranked?) The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Matmata, it’s a Tunisian town with a George Lucas connection; the “Cairo” scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark were filmed there. I did not shoot any knife-wielding locals (although some of the touts came close to deserving it).

I took a louage there yesterday, accompanied by three good friends. We were here:

Our first stop was the Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba, which dates from the Ninth Century. Two of the friends with me were women who generally did not wear headscarves. At the door to the mosque, they were requested to cover their heads as a sign of respectful dress. One of my friends complied, taking one of the scarves that hung by the door and wrapping it very loosely over her head. The other refused as a matter of principle and didn’t join us at the mosque. I could see her point, though having just been required to wear a sarong to cover my knees before entering a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka, I understand the need to balance core personal beliefs against the demands of a religious society.

Like many mosques I have seen, the Great Mosque presents a fairly spare exterior. The interior spaces I could see were richly carpeted and had large chandeliers. Verses from the Qur’an were inscribed on the walls.

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After the mosque, I went rug shopping. What can I say? Academics love rugs. From the roof of the merchant’s shop where I bought two beautiful Berbers, I looked out into the medina and the surrounding town.

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After rug shopping, we walked around the medina.

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Our final stop was the Mausoleum of Sidi Sahab, generally known as the Mosque of the Barber. There was some gorgeous tile work there.

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Bulla Regia: Amphitrite Underground

Bulla Regia is a Roman ruin near the town of Jendouba, a four hour trip from Sousse by louage. While not as large as El Jem or Dougga, Bulla Regia has two unusual features. Some of the houses there were built underground, similar to the troglodyte pit dwellings of Matmata, but with Roman columns in subterranean plazas. And though some of the best mosaics from Bulla Regia are now on display at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, many of the surviving houses still have their mosaic floors in situ.

First I entered the House of the Hunt. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, though in its day there was probably a structure above-ground too.

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Then I descended the stairs.

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What I saw at the base of the stairs amazed me. It was a plaza defined by columns and brilliantly lit by sunlight streaming in through unusual hexagonal windows.

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There were various rooms adjoining the underground courtyard, most of which still had their original mosaic floors.

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I went back up to ground level and peered into other ruins in the neighborhood.

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Eventually, I came to the House of Amphitrite, a place that made my entire trip worthwhile.

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Amphitrite was waiting for me there. There was no one else in the house — indeed, during my three hours in Bulla Regia I saw only two other tourists. So I had the goddess all to myself. She was beautiful. And unusual. The halo seems like it might be a nod to the emerging Second Century Christian aesthetic

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Below her was Cupid riding a dolphin while admiring himself in a mirror. Having just been to Thailand, I recognized the impulse here: this is every Thai girl I saw riding a motorscooter while taking selfies.

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Poseidon and some other dude were there too, but I think Amphitrite had eyes only for me.

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There was also a picture of the owner of the house. Lucky guy.

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There were various rooms adjoining Amphetrite’s chamber, most with relatively intact mosaic floors.

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I know very little about the classical world, but couldn’t help but wonder what will remain of our civilization in two thousand years. Somehow I doubt it will be as beautiful and enduring as what I saw in Bulla Regia.

Bulla Regia: I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine

Fish out the Dylan, put John Wesley Harding on the platter, and drop the needle on track three:

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine,
Alive as you or me,
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery
With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold,
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold.

Augustine was here, in Bulla Regia, in 339. He took the stage on a stormy day and chastised the citizenry for selling their souls. He imagined the people greeting a visitor to the town: “What have you come for? Theatrical folk? Women of easy virtue? You can find them all in Bulla.”  

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(Theatrical folk? Women of easy virtue? Yes, please. Those are my people.)

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Augustine may have looked down from the stage at this mosaic of a bear and wondered what he’d gotten himself into.

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And when his preaching was done, he might have wandered around town, met some of those moral reprobates, and been tempted to return to the wanton behavior of his younger days.

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Augustine and I were here:

“Arise, arise,” he cried so loud,
In a voice without restraint.
“Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint.
No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own.
So go on your way accordingly,
But know you’re not alone.”

And nearby, a different kind of shepherd looked after an errant member of his flock.

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I dreamed I saw St. Augustine

Alive with fiery breath,

And I dreamed I was amongst the ones

That put him out to death.

Oh, I awoke in anger,

So alone and terrified.

I put my fingers against the glass

And bowed my head and cried.

Café El Kasbah

The Sousse Medina doesn’t give up its secrets easily. I’ve spent dozens of hours there. After each visit, I walk away telling myself that now, at last, I know the place, know its byways and cool spots. Then on a subsequent visit I discover something new and amazing and wonder how in the world I missed it before. It’s like one of those dreams where you discover a hidden room in your house that you were only dimly aware of before.

My new friend Sheima and I had planned to go to Tiziri (a/k/a the Berber café), a place I have written about before. But when we got there this morning, we were told it was closed. A kid hanging out near the entrance to Tizieri said there was another café just around the next alley. This was news to me, but we stepped our way down a muddy path til we came to the Café El Kasbah.

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Set into the ancient walls of the Medina, the café was chock-full of antiques. At times, the displays crossed the line into kitsch, but Arab kitsch still looks pretty good to this American.

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We traded the camera back and forth taking photos of each other.

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From a patio up on the roof, we could had a nice view of the medina. And at our feet, the floor was made of wildly mismatched tile shards.

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Even as my time in Sousse draws, unfortunately, to a close, I am delighted to find that the town can still surprise me. I hope I can discover still more before I leave.

Apollo & His Homeboys: At the Bardo Museum

During a recent daytrip to Tunis, I finally got to see the National Bardo Museum. As Lonely Planet notes, the Bardo is “[t]he country’s top museum [and] has a magnificent, must-see collection that provides a vibrant vision of ancient North African life. The original, glorious Husseinite palace now connects with a stark and dramatic contemporary addition, doubling exhibition space. Highlights are a huge stash of incredibly well-preserved Roman mosaics, rare Phoenician artifacts and early Islamic ceramics.”

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It undoubtedly has some amazing pieces, but as a museum experience, I liked the Musée Archeologique d’El Jem more. Part of the problem is one of display and lighting. I got the sense that the amazing artifacts at the Bardo could have been even more impressive had they been better exhibited. Still, being there and walking on mosaic floors thousands of years old and gazing at the incredible artistry of the sculptures made me think I might have been born in the wrong era. It is indeed a must-see.