Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Right here on this hill called Byrsa, once stood the beautiful city Carthage. The infamous war leader Hanniball called it home. I think of all the bloodshed that was staged here and the icy wind seems to send an extra chill down my spine.
According to legend Carthage was founded in 8 BC by the Phoenicians under Queen Dido. It became a rich sea port that was eventually destroyed by the Romans because they saw it as a threat to their regional power.
The view from here is exquisite: lots of green and deep mountains beyond the sea. Today the city of Tunis decorates the natural backdrop. I live a thousand lives as I take in this important historical site. All the legends become real to me now.
Historians don’t know much about the original city because most of the culture and records were destroyed during this time. No wonder most of the stories about Carthage and Hanniball are based on legends.
The Romans eventually reconstructed the city, which became one of the largest and most influential cities around the Mediterranean. Even when Rome came to a fall in the 5th century, Carthage prospered.
We visit the Antoinine Thermal baths a short drive from the ruins of the original city. It is situated right on the shore and was clearly a great and royal structure. I later read that these Roman baths were one of the largest built under the rule of the Roman Empire.
Only when the Arabs arrived, did the era of ancient Carthage end. What the vandals didn’t destroy, the Arabs did. I can still see the beheaded Roman statues here. Our local guide says that the Arabs cut off the heads of the statues because Islam believes that thinking and creativity is the realm of God, not of man.
A lack of building materials in the area meant that the remains of the city were used to build other cities in the area such as Tunis, the capital of today's Tunisia. So although the foundations of the Phoenician as well as the Roman cities are still visible, most of the rest has been scavenged.
Today Carthage is a suburb of Tunis. During the Summer Festival, the reconstructed Roman theatre is still used for shows. We test out the acoustic from the metallic stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our show…”
Even when we say it softly our colleagues in the ‘audience’ can hear every word. It seems that nothing and everything has changed here in Carthage.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
It’s a carefree blue, that. The kind of blue that automatically makes me draw lots of fresh sea air into my lungs and breathe out everyday worries onto the breeze.
After just a few hours in Sidi Bou Said I feel like I have been on holiday for weeks. Surely it must be those sky blue doors, set off against whitewashed walls and mirrored in the sky above and the sea beyond.
My colleagues and I try to avoid the cruise ship masses that have descended on this little town outside Tunis today. Since it is a bit of a tourist trap, Sidi Bou Said is not a good place to eat – for that we will opt for the La Goulette (seafood) or La Marsa (Italian food) areas close by – and it is worth seeking out the little shops in the side streets where memento prices can be as much as three times less than right at the bus stop and around the main areas of interest.
We spot a yellow door in between all the blue ones and our curiosity reveals a charming hotel, complete with Phoenician mosaics and a typical blue door leading into each room. The receptionist tells us that Hotel Sidi Boufares used to be a Sufi school, no wonder then that the serene atmosphere now officially has us in relax mode.
In typical tourist style we click away on our cameras and keep walking the cobbled streets until we find a sheesha bar with a view of the Atlas Mountains on the other side of the bay. We order almond tea, which arrives in tiny glasses and tastes just like the sickly sweet Moroccan mint variety. The almonds are floating on top with a few fresh mint leaves. It’s not my favourite but in the spirit of this day I enjoy it immensely.
On our way to find a taxi back to the Golden Tulip hotel in Carthage, a local lady lures me into her shop with some jasmine oil. I buy a hand made perfume bottle to save the oil in - for those days when I want to smell like the white flowers and open the blue door in my mind.
Monday, May 12, 2008
9 May is Russia's most important holiday. Everything closes down on this day to make time and headspace for honouring the war heroes of World War II.
On the eve of Victory Day, as it is called, I find myself standing in front of the Kremlin. The Red Square is inaccessible to the public today as preparations for the victory parade are under way. According to CNN, this is the first full scale military parade, complete with army hardware and war planes, to take place since the Soviet days.
Outside hundreds of wreaths and bouquets line the wall of the Kremlin. A symbolic flame is guarded by officials and war veterans walk around donning their ribbons and medals.
'I survived because I come from a village, not from the city,' says Alexander, who was 18 when he started driving army tankers for the Soviet Union, 'village people are stronger.'
'My tank was fired twice,' he continues, 'first time six months in hospital. Second time I couldn't hear or see for longer.'
Alexander seems thrilled to share his war stories with whoever would listen while his wife observes from a distance, in awe. She is a simply stunning elderly lady. Being here makes it clear why Russian women are the fantasy of men all over the world. They are indeed blessed with perfect proportions.
'This is my wife,' says Alexander, 'she is younger than me and didn't experience the war. She was just a little girl when it ended.'
The way he looks at her moves me deeply. She smiles a coy smile. Her wrinkles crinkle like lines in a painting. Her eyes shine like the golden domes of the Church of Christ the Saviour. This is a woman in love, no doubt about that.
In all my life I had never seen anything more beautiful: an elderly couple that look at each other with so much love and admiration. They are still excited to be with each other after a whole lifetime together.
Love and war. These two extremes. Perhaps experiencing the worst in life makes it more likely that one would appreciate the best. Maybe seeing first hand how fleeting life can be makes it impossible not to live with all one's heart.
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
When we arrive at Akwa guesthouse in Koh Samui our faces are hanging. All the planning to meet up on an idyllic Thai island, all the anticipation of staying right on the beach… and now this.
There’s nothing wrong with Akwa itself, in fact it’s pretty funky – but it’s not right on the beach as the reviews said. There’s a very busy road in front of the guesthouse and then another row of shops and hotels before our feet hits white sand. Even then the beach is full of litter.
The first tourists beached Samui around the 1970’s. In one lifetime a pristine island became an overcrowded, hedonistic garbage dump. Why does a human being always have to abuse everything; consume it and spit it out as though it is the only person in the world? What happened to preserving natural beauty for others to enjoy?
We find the same disappointment when we cross over to Koh Tao. The beaches are dirty, the sea is full of gunk and the coral reefs are mostly dead. However, the scenery in Tao is gorgeous, the food is good and the massages are cheap.
So for a bunch of friends who met up from all over the world, this is still a relaxing and rejuvenating holiday. Plus, we did find some pretty, quiet beaches in Koh Tao (such as Freedom beach in the picture) where we could enjoy the island dream.
Best meal: Fresh BBQ king prawns at Buddha View Resort in Ao Chalong Bay, Koh Tao
Best view: Watching the night fall and full moon rise from New Heaven restaurant at Freedom Beach, Koh Tao
Best beach: Ao Leuk Bay, Koh Tao: the sea water is the most crystal shade of turquoise I have ever seen
Best snorkelling: around Nang Yeung island – a rope keeps boats from anchoring in the reef so much of it is still alive
Best massage: There’s an elderly lady that offers Thai massages on the beach in front of Akwa guesthouse in Samui. She has the kind of magic touch that I have never even found in five star spas.