About seven years ago I did the unthinkable. I travelled to Tunisia for a 6-week volunteer program. It was 2012 and Tunisia was part of the whole Arab Spring uprising that happened a couple of years before I made my trip there. The country was largely spared from the violence of overthrowing the regime and transiting into a democracy. But still, there were lives lost during the struggle.
I didn’t really understand the political situation in Tunisia at that time, but I remembered the country being somewhat chaotic and messy while I was there. There were curfews and protests organised during my 6-week stay in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. We were respectful of their need to have a better future as a nation. We avoided the protests and the unrest and followed the curfew. Even then, disruptions were minimal and life in the city seemed largely normal.
In fact there were a lot of things I don’t remember and only when looking through the photos that I took during my stay there that I could finally recall snippets of events and of people that I have met. I am bad with names but I can recognise a face without much difficulty
I signed up for the volunteer program while I was in the third year of university. It was during the summer break and I was bored. Yearning for an exotic adventure, I decided to plunge head on and signed up for an overseas volunteer program that my university collaborated with a youth group in Tunisia.
I remembered going to Tunisia with five other schoolmates. They were from different courses. I remembered clearly that we took an Emirates flight to Tunisia via Dubai International. I remember the layover at Dubai, waiting for a connecting flight (Emirates again) to Tunisia while sipping coffee at Starbucks.
Upon arrival at Carthage International Airport in Carthage, I remembered certain people waiting for us at the airport to greet and welcome us to their country. It was a long flight and I remembered clearly that I was really tired. But I was surprised by the sheer number of people waiting for us to receive us and soon after saying hello to everyone, they offered to drive us to our accommodation.
We arrived at the apartment. It was a small apartment, probably a two-bedder, that we had to share with several other volunteers from other countries. It was close to the the Main Street of Tunis, where nice little cafes and restaurants were lined up along spacious streets and pavilions with well tended trees and gardens.
The other volunteers were from The United States. Other volunteers soon arrived in the coming days; Malaysia, Mexico, Guatemala, Senegal, Kenya, Estonia, China and a few others. The group grew larger and larger as more and more people arrived.
We were closest to the volunteers from The States, Mexico, Malaysia and Guatemala, partly because we arrived at around the same time and we stayed in the same apartment for most of the duration there. I could clearly remember the first day of arrival. But the days in between were less so. Perhaps as we settled into our own little routines, and we did our own volunteer work, time passed by quickly in between those periods.
Other vivid memories were how cramped the apartment became when more and more people arrived, and how hot some nights were while sleeping in that apartment. And the mosquitos. I had no idea where they came from but they came in droves at night. It was uncomfortable to sleep at night.
But amazingly no one complained about each other. Somehow, despite the pressure of sleeping in such close quarters, we were considerate and thoughtful to each other. No one stepped on each other’s foot and we all respected each other’s personal space. That was something I clearly remembered. We bonded really well, really fast. We enjoyed each other’s company.
While we were there we visited a number of beautiful places, like the ancient Roman city of Carthage, where you can find ancient Roman ruins and interesting museums showcasing Roman artefacts. We visited the coastal town of Sidi Bou Said, with its white walled houses with blue roofs. That place has beautiful cafes offering nice views of the coast. It reminds me now of Chechaouen, Morocco.
We enjoyed ourselves in a resort town of Hammamet, chilling by the resort pool and taking this party boat that is pirate themed, sailing along the coast of the Mediterranean.
A few of us had the chance to drive down to Sfax, another Tunisian city, in the south. I remembered attending a health care conference which I completely did not understand because everything was communicated in Arabic. And I was the only Chinese looking Asian there, which attracted quite a lot of stares. I felt really awkward being there. It was the most vivid thing I could remember of Sfax.
Towards the end of our stint in Tunisia, I remembered the vast majority of us took a train down to the town El Jem. El Jem was particular interesting because there is a well preserved Roman amphitheater, the most intact you can ever find, on the african continent. Everyone knows the coliseum in Rome, but this one is just as special. At its most glorious back in the day, it can sit 35,000 spectators, making it one of the biggest Amphitheatre ever built and still standing today.
I clearly remembered that a symphony orchestra came to El Jem to perform inside the coliseum. I can no longer remember which European country the symphony orchestra originated from, but I clearly remembered that we attended the performance and it was the most beautiful and atmospheric symphony orchestra that I have ever attended. Surprisingly the acoustics within the coliseum is really good and the aura of the ancient Roman ruins coupled with classical symphony being played from within made for a truly magical evening.
Perhaps we were just lucky to be at the right place and at the right time. The concert was in town and we decided to extend our stay in El Jem just to attend it. However, as the concert ended late, almost 11pm if I recall, nobody noticed that we just missed the last train back to the capital. We were essentially stranded. Nobody knew what to do. We wandered outside the coliseum and I vaguely remembered that someone approached us asking if we had a place to stay. We didn’t. But we didn’t want to tell him that. Instead, he incessantly asked us to follow him back to his home to stay for the night. All of us were reluctant at first. But being stranded in El Jem, with no place to stay for the night and with little knowledge of the town itself, we had little choice.
We followed him home. I cannot recall how long was the walk to his house, but I remembered it was quite a distance. His home, surprisingly was homely with a large inner courtyard, which we sat and hung out till dawn. No one dared to fall asleep, because we didn’t know who that guy was or what his original motives were. So we chatted with the host and he chatted with us, in broken English and a mix of Arabic, which we tried our best to comprehend. He offered us tea and beverages and slowly we warmed up to him. At the end of the day, he was genuinely friendly and he had no ill intent.
When dawn arrived, we caught the first train back to the city. I remembered the train being crowded and stuffy. There were no seats available. It was really packed to the brim. And as the day progressed, the carriage that we were in became really warm. We were after all on the outskirts of the desert and the day can get swelteringly hot. The journey took about 3 to 4 hours if I recall, but it felt like forever.
Because the trip to El Jem was towards the end of my stint in Tunisia, I no longer have any pictures of that day’s events or any in the subsequent days. That is because I failed to upload the most recent photos taken to my notebook before my camera was stolen from me in Amsterdam. I have written about the encounter in another blog post.
Without pictures to rekindle my memories in El Jem, it is difficult to describe the things I saw in the city or what happened that day after the concert. I can only recall brief outlines of our time there. I guess this is the first time where I realised that photography is more than just about taking pretty pictures, it is about capturing moments and immortalising them forever. Memories are precious, pictures are vessels where memories reside. Somehow I think that was what drew me into photography in the first place. I don’t want to simply take photos, I want to capture memories. Memories of time in school, of my friends, of the good and bad events that happened, and of my personal journey through life.
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