Diplomats have an all right life. Their governments pay for them to jet around the world, put them up in fancy apartments or hotels, and they get to go through the short lines at the airport (the real benefit, amirite?)
One of my good friends, Ayhan, is an American State Department consultant for the Francophone North Africa region (hilarious, as she speaks no French or Arabic yet has beautiful Turkish. But why put her in Ankara, eh?). Anyways, here is a photo from us from back in 2013, when we were both bright-eyed youngsters living in Washington DC, getting free drinks from our Turkish bartender in Dupont because, again, language skills, great things!
One morning when I was living in London, I awoke to a text from her saying that she was to be posted in Tunis for six weeks and that she was interested in meeting somewhere in Europe. Well, I have a selfish side that can come out sometimes. I had never been to Tunisia, and here was the opportunity to go. Needless to say, we did not meet in Europe.
Perhaps as karma, I did have to re-purchase my airline tickets due to a last-minute scheduling conflict that required me to change weekends. Luckily, being that it was Europe, I "only" lost about $140 rather than god knows what the equivalent 1,000 miles last-minute purchase would be in America.
.A 6am flight out of Heathrow and a 6 hour layover in Rome later, I met Ayhan at the Tunis airport. She dealt with haggling with the taxi driver (a skill I had in Senegal, but I needed a day of being back in the developing world to get back into it), and soon enough we were at The Residence Tunis, one of only two hotels (read: resorts) in the city where the American government is willing to put up its diplomats due to security concerns. We thanked and paid the taxi driver, walked up the stairs, and placed our bags on the conveyer belt. We ourselves did not have to go through any metal detector or anything, and in a flash we had our bags back as they came out the other end of the x-ray.
Upon entering the resort, our nostrils were hit with a strong yet pleasurable, scent of blossoms. It is a large complex, with several fountains scattered throughout, with a large lounge area and a white-tablecloth restaurant. We went to her room, dumped my backpack off, and then went back to the lounge in order to have a quick dinner before bed. This being a resort that caters to the tourism industry, the lounge's menu was 90% not Tunisian food. I chose a Chinese dish, which was not the tastiest thing I have ever had but eh, I was hungry and tired so I wasn't being too picky. After finishing our drinks (a Bailey's for me, a special treat I tend to only have when I am traveling because of its cost), we headed upstairs and we were both asleep in her king size bed within minutes.
I arrived on a Thursday evening, which meant that the next day was, for Ayhan, a work day. She brought me with her to the white table-clothed restaurant for the resort's buffet breakfast (I cannot recommend the crepes enough) and then she and a couple of other short-term diplomats were picked up in a van and taken to the Embassy.
I meanwhile, took advantage of the early morning light to explore the grounds. As with the entire MENA region, tourism has decreased substantially in recent years. This is especially true for Tunisia, which used to be quite the tourist beacon until a couple of well-known, deadly terrorist attacks that targeted tourists. To give you an idea of the immensity of the decline: in 2014, Tunisia saw 430,000 British tourists. In 2017, just 28,000. Overall, in 2010 there nearly 7 million tourists, and by 2016 there were only 4.5 million. This is incredibly detrimental to the country and the region as a whole. However, in this particular circumstance, it meant that I was able to explore this resort without any other guests. I'm an extrovert but I also hate crowds when I travel (or do anything, really). I also normally stay in hostels, so I was itching to explore this resort and was selfishly excited that I would be able to do this without other people getting in my way.
Granted, I was also there at the end of November, so even had the terrorist attacks not scared people away, the resort would not have been full anyways. This time of year also meant that, while there was a beautiful outdoor pool area, it was unusable. I lamented the uselessness of the outdoor bar. I am not normally a beach vacation type, but if I'm going to be at a beach resort, I want to be able to sit under a palm tree and order my drinks from the nearby pavilion, dang it!
There was also a golf course in the distance. Now, I am putt-putt's biggest fan but actual golf is not my forté, so I did not venture that way.
The outdoor pool did get me in the mood for swimming, though, so back inside I went to get into my bathing suit and find the indoor pool. I entered the women's room, shoved my clothes into a locker, and then headed through the door...into Atlantis. I actually stopped and stared. I'm sure a pool of this level is relatively normal for nice hotels, but I rarely stay anywhere with any type of pool, much less this!
I slid in, happy to discover that it was a heated pool. About four feet (1.2 m) deep throughout, I just breast-stroked around for a good 90 minutes, interrupted only once by an employee who told me that I needed to put my hair in a pony tail (apparently loose hair is a sanitary issue? I have no idea why this was a rule, but I did what I was told).
The rest of the day was spent relaxing in Ayhan's large room, with a veranda that overlooked the ocean and a bathroom that echoed the pool area in its over-the-top comfort. No complaints from me though, I took a bath in a luxury tub and then a shower under a rain shower head (the best type of shower head!).
I enjoyed a sunset walk on the resort's beach, watching as local fishermen reeled in their nets and the local camel owners took their animals back home. As I watched them walk away, I felt bad. I hope that at least one tourist rode a camel that day. I love to travel in the developing world, but it gives me far more white guilt pangs than living there ever did.
Ayhan arrived back from work just as the last hints of the sun were disappearing over the Mediterranean. We regaled one another of our days. As I gushed about the pool, she got very excited and said, "oh my gosh, you know what we need to do before you leave? Visit the Hamam!" I stared blankly back. The what?
Ayhan, being half-Turkish, is much more in-touch with MENA traditions than I. She launched into an explanation of the famous Turkish baths. "It's a large bath area where people hang out in the swim suits. They scrub you down, put soap on you, then rinse you off with buckets." After hearing the description, I was all in!
When our appointment came, we bounded in (but in a sophisticated way, obviously) to the check-in desk. The woman indicated that we would be in separate rooms, and Ayhan quickly said that together was fine. The woman gave us a funny look but changed the service. We were then led to the changing room, where we got into our swim suits, and were then led down a long passage that slowly darkened as we went along.
The woman leading us spoke no French or English, so when we reached the end of the passage and a door, she merely opened it and pointedly stared at us to enter. We did as we were "told' and found ourselves in an extremely low-lit sauna. Except that it was a sauna in the fifth level of Hell. Through the darkness and steam (I swear to god, there was less steam and heat coming off Krakatoa in 1883), we could see a couple sitting on the other side of the circular room. Ayhan and I sat opposite them, and muttered to one another about the heat. And then we fell silent. And then muttered again, and then fell silent again. I was beginning to think they must have forgotten about us in there, surely this was not healthy.
At one point, Ayhan looked over at me and barked, "go outside." I looked at her and realized that perhaps it was an order I should follow. While she was glistening a bit more than she would have liked, I was positively dripping. I could feel sweat sliding down every possible section of my body, but I had assumed that was normal. One look at my friend told me that it was not, so I stood up and went out the door. The coolness of the outside passage felt wonderful and much more healthy than than interior. However, much too soon, an employee saw me standing there and despite my repeated explanations in French as to why I was there, she pushed me back inside.
Thankfully, Ayhan and I were beckoned back outside only a minute later. We were then ushered into a small room, with one bed and a wooden bench next to it. Once again, there was no common language between the three of us. Ayhan gave me a weird look, and said, "I don't understand why there's only one bed." But she got on it while I plopped onto the bench, which had about ten inches between it and the bed. The woman, looking thoroughly bored, grabbed a scrub brush that she held in her hand, and indicated to Ayhan to take her bikini top off. "Oh, it can stay on!" Ayhan said, but, again, no common language and the woman was getting increasingly impatient with us.
At this point, Ayhan and I caught each other's eyes as it dawned on us why the Hamam's receptionist had given us such a strange look earlier. Smirking, I looked away as she took undid her top and the woman began to roughly scrub away at every inch of free skin that she could get to. When she got to her lower extremities, she did not even wait for Ayhan to remove her clothes but simply yanked them down and scrubbed. We were both outwardly giggling now, which surely made the woman even more annoyed with us. My reaction to this situation was absolutely one of immaturity, but also, we were not expecting this!
Finally, she was done with Ayhan, who tried to put her bikini back on but was met with a violent shake of the head. The woman grabbed Ayhan's wrist and led her to a bathroom in the back corner. I heard a shower start, a minute later the woman came back, and then Ayhan re-emerged in her bikini, ready to take my spot on the bench. "Have fun," she said in good humor.
As my swim suit was a one-piece, I had to get naked before I lay down. At this point, neither Ayhan nor I cared what each other saw, as even with my averted eyes during her session, it was a small room and there were only so many places I could look. We basically made direct eye-contact throughout my entire session, jabbering away in full-blown giggles. Again, I cannot overemphasize how much we probably deserved the attitude we received from the woman who was scrubbing us.
Then it was my turn to head to the bathroom. There were dispensers of soap and shampoo. I got into the shower and turned around to the woman switching the hand scrub with a sponge. She lathered it, and me, with soap while I stood and stared at the wall. Finally, she was done and indicated to me to wash the rest off/use the shampoo if I was so inclined. I did a quick a rinse, put my suit back on, and -rejoined Ayhan in the other room.
We thanked her in English, French, and Arabic, but it was clear that she was happy to be rid of us. As we re-emerged into the greater spa (which included this night-time view of the pool), Ayhan assured me that this was not a normal Hamam experience. "It's normally pretty benign compared to what we just had." I did not care though, as a usual experience would not have given us so many laughs or memories. At the expensive of a poor woman just trying to do her job, perhaps, but we tipped well and I like to think that she too had a story to tell of that day.
And as a little p.s., a big thank you to the American taxpayer for fronting the lodging aspect of this little vacation!