The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition

Since I have returned from Tunisia, I have spoken to a lot of my friends about Tunisia and they have asked me several questions. I have compiled this into a neat little Q&A section below and whilst I will be talking very specifically about Tunisia, a lot of what I say will apply to other countries like Turkey, Egypt and Morocco as well.

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology

Limpeh is here to answer your questions on Tunisia

Q: How safe is Tunisia for foreign travelers, especially for those who wish to move around on their own rather than join an organized tour?

A: There are areas you should not visit – especially areas close to the Algerian border in the west and in the Sahara desert in the deep south because of the threat of terrorism and the country has indeed become less stable since the 2011 revolution. It is a shame as that means places like Tatouine (where the filming for Star Wars took place) are off limits at the moment, but there are still plenty of places where you can visit and it is reasonably safe. There are some grey areas where you could visit but with caution – take Dougga for example. That is on the borderline between what one would consider safe as it is rather near the western fringes which are strictly off-limits to foreigners. I spoke to the Tunisian tourism office in London and was told simply, “don’t go, it’s not safe”. But when I spoke to the Tunisian tourism office in Tunis, I was told, “it’s probably safe if you went on a guided tour with a local guide, but don’t wander there on your own. Safety in numbers.”

I chose not to go to Dougga because I already had plenty to do in the Northern and Eastern areas, which are considered very safe for tourists. A lot of common sense goes a long way when travelling somewhere like Tunisia – when we stumbled upon quite a big political protest in Tunis near some government buildings, we watched from a distance but didn’t take any photos. There was a strong police presence in Tunis and at one point, the protesters had an altercation with the police as they started pushing each other. When you see a potentially volatile situation, you walk away rather than run towards possible danger – that’s the kind of common sense I am talking about.

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology

Limpeh in Kairouan

There was only one very minor incident in Kairouan which I was more than able to deal with – as I was walking down an alley in the city, I felt I was being followed by two youngsters (about 14 or 15 years old). I heard giggling and they were speaking in Arabic about me – hardly surprising as I always stand out as a foreigner in Tunisia. What they don’t realize is that I actually understand some Arabic – most Tunisians just assume I don’t speak any Arabic so they can just talk shit in front of me. They were giggling then one of them threw a small pebble at my feet (it missed). I turned around, stood my ground and told them off in a schoolteacher manner (rather than in a confrontational, angry manner) – I was firm but very calm. I told them in a mix of Arabic and French to stop what they are doing and leave me alone. They both turned around instantly and walked away because of the way I handled the situation and of course, my ability to speak French and some Arabic did help.

Apart from that one minor incident (which quite frankly, could have happened in any city in the world), I had no other problems related to security. There are scammers and con artists who will try to cheat you of your money, but with a bit of common sense, you can avoid them. There will also be the occasional beggar as well – but simply be firm and they will leave you alone once they realize you will not give them anything. I did meet a German tourist who had either dropped his wallet or was pickpocketed on a crowded train – there was a surge of people trying to get off the train when it arrived at the station and that was the kind of opportunity where pickpockets would strike as they have an excuse to push right up against you without arousing too much suspicion. Again, you need to be careful about things like that no matter where you travel.

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology

In the capital Tunis

Q: Is Tunisia a cheap holiday destination?

A: Yes, oh yes. Just to give you an idea, you can get a baguette for about 0.25 TND (£0.08) in a shop, whilst in London, the same baguette would cost you about £0.50. I also needed some cotton buds (the kind for cleaning your ears) whilst I was there and you can normally get a pack for about £1 in London, in Tunisia I paid 0.9 TND (£0.31) for it. I can get a great meal in a decent restaurant for about 9 TND (£3.15)  whilst a similar meal in London would cost you about £15 at least. So compared to London (where I live), everything costs between a third and a fifth. I don’t hesitate to jump into a taxi in Tunisia whilst I would always use public transport in London.

The fact that everything is so cheap in Tunisia means that you can afford to stay in 5-star luxury for a fraction of the price you would pay in Europe or America. However, it is never ever so straight forward. For example, public transport is incredibly cheap, but if you do not speak French or Arabic, you will find it very confusing as there virtually no information in English and most of the locals just don’t speak English. If you join an organized tour for English speaking tourists with an English-speaking guide, then it is very expensive for you because they know they can get away with charging such tourists a high price and they will pay. Likewise, when you walk into a touristy shop, the shopkeepers will usually try to overcharge you if they know you are a rich tourist – being able to speak French and Arabic may help in the bargaining process though.

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology

I traveled around independently using public transport.

Q: Surely some of the locals speak a little English… no?

A: It really depends where you go. In top end 5-star hotels, sure the staff will speak some English but you must bear in mind the fact that Tunisians are educated in Arabic and French, not English. English is but a foreign language that some of them have learnt in order to work in the tourism industry – so only those who are very highly educated and/or work in the tourism industry will speak English; otherwise ordinary folks speak French and Arabic. Mind you, I’ve met plenty of people who didn’t even speak any French as they didn’t receive much of a formal education – this was when I was buying food in shops and the locals who worked in a shop didn’t understand any French. Don’t forget, this is a third world African country, so there aren’t that many highly educated folks around. Do make the effort to speak Arabic and French when you go to Tunisia!

Q: So French is spoken there, yes?

A: The ironic thing about the Tunisians and French is that it is everywhere – Tunisia was a French colony, so signs are always bilingual in Tunisia: in Arabic and French, but I rarely ever hear anyone speak any French. They will drop in many French loanwords when speaking the local Tunisian Arabic dialect, but hey, I come from Singapore where the former colonial language is English. People of my generation speak English as a first language and have well and truly embraced English. I think in English, I blog in English, I speak to my Singaporean friends in English and whilst I may know how to speak Mandarin and Hokkien as well, I don’t really use those languages at all unless when I am faced with a Chinese person who cannot speak English. In Tunisia, it is the opposite: the locals have to learn French at school, often to a very high standard but amongst themselves, they will always, always speak Arabic, never French. So when I approach the locals in French, they are happy enough to communicate with me in French but sometimes they speak it rather poorly. Oh and they mostly have a really strong accent in French too. So even if you do speak French, you must make an effort to learn at least a little Arabic in Tunisia.

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology
French and Arabic are the two languages used in Tunisia.


Q: When is the best time to go?

A: Avoid the hotter summer months (May to October) – it is just too hot and few places have air-conditioning. I thought I had avoided the worst of the summer heat by going in September but I still suffered as the temperature hit 39 degrees. I would say that the best time to go is December and January, where you get much cooler, more pleasant winter temperatures in the mid-teens but it is also the rainy season then. As this is an Islamic country, you should not visit during Ramadan (the fasting month) as many places will not be opened then – the fasting locals need to rest, rather than work in the heat so you may be very disappointed to find many things closed.

Q: What about the other tourists you’ve met there – where are they from?

I met many Russian tourists there, my hotel was full of Russians! Mind you, there were plenty of Russians in Greece as well when I was there earlier this year. After Russians, there were the French as well – they probably found it a lot easier to find their way around Tunisia as they don’t have a language barrier there. There were also a small number of British, German, Italian, Irish and Arabs from places like Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. I got a lot of stares and attention from the locals as there are virtually no East Asian tourists there at all – I’m quite used to seeing busloads of Japanese or Chinese tourists in Europe, but they are totally absent in Tunisia. Mind you, my sister who has recently visited Phuket told me that her experience in Thailand was totally ruined by the obnoxious PRC tourists there, I should send her to Tunisia where she will be the only Asian tourist there, the same way I was!

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology

Limpeh in Carthage

Q: Is Tunisia a very conservative Islamic country or more liberal compared to others? 

I’ve traveled around the Middle East and North Africa a lot and I would rank it in the middle of the spectrum but slightly towards the conservative side. Now the one most obvious thing I noticed was the way a lot of women were very conservatively dressed – even in the very hot weather, they were often in hijabs/niqabs (completely veiled apart from the face), wore long sleeves and skirts down to the floor. I even saw some women who covered their hands with gloves. However, there are also local women who dressed like Westerners and they can walk down the street in jeans and T-shirt, with their heads uncovered and that’s fine too – so it’s not like the stricter Middle Eastern countries wear women have to cover up by law, women are dressing like that because of their culture and religion, rather than the law.

On the other hand, there is a drinking culture in Tunisia despite it being a Muslim country – this makes it far more like Turkey where the locals consume a lot of alcohol despite Turkey being a Muslim country too. There are bars selling the local beer Celtia and plenty of locally produced wine, Gosh, compare this to Saudi Arabia where it is virtually impossible to get hold of any kind of alcohol. Everywhere I went, I saw groups of young people of different genders mingling freely, young women traveling on their own and plenty of women working. Perhaps we take this for granted in the West, but compared to other countries in the region, that makes Tunisia quite liberal and progressive indeed. In far more conservative Islamic countries, I would never to approach a woman for help or even to ask her for directions because I don’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, speaking to a man who is a stranger. But in Tunisia, I had no such problems – women were more than happy to speak to me when I asked them for directions and were genuinely friendly.

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology

Limpeh in Kelibia

Q: What about the situation for LGBT tourists in Tunisia then?

LGBT travelers must avoid any mention of their sexuality in Tunisia and refrain from any public displays of affection – it is simply not worth taking any risks, you don’t want to ruin your holiday. The golden rule for gay travelers in the Middle East and North Africa is this: never do anything with a local, never ever do anything with a Muslim. There are extremely harsh punishments including long jail sentences and the death penalty for homosexuals in these countries. Whatever you do with another foreigner and non-Muslim behind closed doors should be extremely discrete. Nonetheless, there is no problem for sex-sex couples to share hotel room – just don’t expect a double bed. The only country in the region which is less homophobic is Turkey but even then, I would still urge you to be very cautious in Turkey

There are plenty of stories where naive, older white gay tourists have been lured into a situation where they are blackmailed for a lot of money. A good looking local man would approach an older white gay tourist and befriends him. The younger local man would suggest going back to the tourist’s hotel and the local man would have his accomplices following him all this time. The moment the two of them get back to the older white man’s hotel room, there will be a knock on the door and the older white man would be ‘arrested’ for crimes pertaining to homosexuality. They would warn him that he would be imprisoned for a very long time and the older white man would beg for mercy – at which point they would offer him a chance to pay a fine and they would let him go. Some naive European gay men have been blackmailed like that for thousands of Euros and the bottom line is this: never forget that you are in a conservative Muslim country where gay sex is highly illegal.

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology

Limpeh in El Jem

Q: What is the food in Tunisia like?

It is not that interesting I’m afraid. There wasn’t anything that I totally fell in love with – apart from this drink that is made from an almond syrup cordial. Otherwise, the food is cheap and plentiful. Hygiene standards are pretty low – I remember a restaurant where the waiter brought bread to the table with his bear hands. Like he literally held the baguette in his hands (how about putting it on a plate…?) and then plonked it down on the table – that’s right, on the table, not on a plate and the table wasn’t even that clean. But surprisingly, I didn’t get food poisoning in Tunisia despite the fact that I was eating street food and even drinking tap water. I was glad that Tunisians have a love for Harissa – a local chilli sauce which made any bland dish instantly more exciting. Be warned that it can be quite fiery – so if you want just a little, say “shwayer-shwayer”(a little bit), but if like me, you like it hot, say, “attini barcha-barcha” (give me a lot of it).

There were two things that struck me about the way the locals ate. Firstly, they consumed a large amount of bread (French baguettes – a legacy from the former colonial masters). You see, like in Korea where they give you loads of free banchan (side dishes) with your meal, they do the same thing in Tunisia. You will get some vegetable stews, Lablabi, salads, olives and Harissa. I saw this family next to me in a restaurant fill themselves up primarily with bread dipped in the sauce of the vegetable stew and Lablabi, whilst they shared a small amount of chicken. They must have thought I was incredibly wasteful and decadent as I ate mostly meat and vegetables but didn’t touch the bread at all. They make a big deal out of couscous but I didn’t find it interesting at all.

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology

A traditional Tunisian lunch

Another thing that I realized was just how monotonous the food was – there wasn’t much variety. Apart from the local Tunisian cuisine, you could get pizzas, sandwiches, hamburgers and perhaps food from France, Turkey or Lebanon. But anything a bit more exotic, from further afield? Forget it. As this is a rather poor country, the locals don’t get to travel abroad much and there are not that many foreigners in Tunisia – so really, they have no developed a taste for exotic foreign foods like Japanese sushi and Indian curry, so as it is, you can forget about having any Asian food in Tunisia.

Q: Are the locals friendly?

A: Generally, yes, I think. Whenever I have approached anyone for help with directions, they have been extremely forthcoming. I tend to ignore people who approach me because I am always a bit suspicious about people who want something from me – like if someone tries to befriend you in a market, they probably just want to lead you to their uncle’s shop so you will spend your money there. Often, I would be warned by staff at tourist attractions, “don’t let anyone try to follow you in the Medina, tell them to leave you alone.” There was this one guy whom I tried to ignore in Nabeul but then he put his hand on my shoulder and I shook him loose and shouted at him in Tunisian Arabic, “Meta keesh maiya, idrukni!” (Leave me alone, go away!) Oh that’s where I draw the line, I don’t like to be touch by strangers – and this was a problem in Tunisia.

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology

Limpeh in El Jem

The locals are quite touchy-feely – let me give you an example. I once stopped to ask someone for directions in Korbous and this guy shook my hand, then put his hand around my shoulder as he gave me the directions. At first I wondered if he was trying to pick my pocket but no, he was just being extremely friendly in a way that I never would with strangers. The locals would always shake my hand when I talk to them and then hold on to it long after I wanted to let go. Perhaps it’s a local Tunisian thing to have this kind of physical contact between men, I found it a bit unnerving at first, then I got used to it. The only thing though is that there is a genuine language barrier with the Tunisians but if you do speak French and/or Arabic, then they will gladly open up to you and be quite friendly indeed.

Q: Is the shopping good?

A: It was so-so. I thought there would be bargains to be had in Tunis and Sousse, given their weak currency and there are no shortage of places to shop. I enjoyed going to the nicer shops which served an upmarket local Tunisian clientele and I hated the souks and medinas which catered primarily for tourists. However, I found the old saying 一分钱一分货 (you get what you pay for) to be very true – I did spend an afternoon shopping in Tunis, looking primarily at clothes. There were some really nice clothes but they were not cheap at all, there were some really cheap bargains but they weren’t particularly nice. In any case, none of these clothes were actually made in Tunisia and were imported from places like China or Turkey anyway. So I actually bought very little in Tunisia, apart from that lovely almond flavoured syrup that I fell in love with. I would avoid the touristy medinas and souks though – you’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all as they all sell the same stuff.

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology

With a cactus plant full of fruit in Utique

Q: What about public toilets? Was it easy to find a public toilet and were they clean? 

Actually the toilet situation wasn’t too bad. There are always public toilets at the train stations and bus stations, you can also go into any mosque and use their toilets there. Sometimes if there is a person cleaning the toilet, you would give them a bit of money and the standard tip for the toilet cleaner is 0.2 TND (£0.07 or S$0.14). At all tourists attractions, there will always be a public toilet and they are usually pretty decent if they are strictly for paying visitors (as opposed to for the general public). There are also toilets in most trains. The quality of the toilets do vary though, I’d gladly pay 0.2 TND to use a slightly cleaner one!

Q: What was your best memory of this trip?

So many. But I think it has got to be when I got talking to the locals and made friends, I really enjoyed talking to them and am genuinely surprised by the interest they took in where I came from – the best moment has got to be in Kelibia when I visited the fort and got talking to the men working at the ticket booth. They asked me where I was from and I ended up spending about 10 to 15 minutes talking to them about Singapore – after that conversation, they refused to charge me the entry fee for the fort and simply told me to have a good time and tell all my friends in Singapore about Tunisia so they will visit too. It is moments like that which I will remember.

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology

Limpeh in El Jem

Q: What was your worst moment on this trip? 

There were a few too! Like that moment when I got scammed in Monastir – I remember just standing there in disbelief, as I couldn’t believe I fell for it. (You can read the full story here.) Another source of stress was the terrible delays on the trains – the trains rarely ran on time and the standard answer when you ask anyone when the (already late) train would arrive is Inshallah (“God Willing“).  If possible, don’t use the trains, use a louage instead! And on the last day, I was determined to go swimming in the sea despite the fact that it was very windy and the waves were huge. As I popped my head up from the water to breathe, a big wave broke over my head and I ended up swallowing a huge mouthful of extremely salty seawater. I threw up immediately – all of my breakfast came right out and I had to stagger back to the beach, feeling extremely queasy. That was frightfully unpleasant, never drink seawater!

Q: Would you like to go there again?

A: I would like to do the southern half of Tunisia and visit places like Tataouine – but that would depend on the security situation improving in that part of Tunisia. I won’t visit the northern half again as I felt I’ve done it justice in the time I have been there.

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology

In the Medina in Tunis

Q: Would you recommend that I go to Tunisia too? 

That depends on what you’re after and what kind of holiday you desire. Tunisia has a lot to offer for those seeking something different, something exotic but it is ultimately in North Africa and is a poor third world country. There simply isn’t the same kind of infrastructure for tourism as you would find in somewhere like Greece or Spain – but by the same token, because it is less commercial, it is also a lot cheaper. I am glad I went, but then again, I’ve traveled through a lot of poorer third world countries and am quite used to dealing with such challenging traveling conditions. Do you homework and research before making your decision, to see if you will enjoy Tunisia. Ultimately, you should pick a destination you will enjoy – it is meant to be a holiday after all!

If you have any other questions about traveling in Tunisa, North Africa or the Middle East, feel free to leave a comment below. If you have enjoyed my writing about Tunisia, remember to check out my blog & vlog for plenty more travel writing. Do also check out my latest vlog for some videos I have shot in Tunisia. Thank you very much for reading.

The Tunisia travels Q&A edition - Alvinology

Limpeh in Sidi Bou Said


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