The Travel Bug – Michaela’s story

I knew I wanted to travel, way back when I was 16. I had already had holidays in the Med since I was 5 but one holiday in 1981 and one event in particular on that holiday told me right there and then that one day I wanted to see the world and its people…….

And so it was one cold February day that I took a flight from Birmingham to Monastir, Tunisia with my Mum and Nan, us 3 girls alone for what was initially a sun holiday which turned into a discovery of a culture little known to us. Of course we did the tourist thing, the pool, the beach, a trip here and there but it was soon evident that this country was more than that. The Sahara desert, troglodytes, lush oases, date palms, donkeys, camels, such biblical scenes which until now I had only seen in old films. Ladies dressed head to toe in black, faces covered, their men dressed in full length robes a few paces ahead of them. Battered up old buses with goats and chickens amongst the passengers. The mosques with the muezzin making the call to prayer from the minaret, a spine-tingling sound which I love to this day. The colourful souks, the spices, the bartering, a new sight, a new sound around every corner.

We were lucky enough to be invited into a family home for a meal in the village of Sahaline, what an experience that was, a brief insight into their life and customs. We were welcomed into their home through a wooden door which led from the dusty street into a bedroom, a large iron bed where apparently “all” of the children slept. Here cologne was tipped onto our hands for us to wipe through our hair before 2 glassfuls of Tunisian tea, thick red, strong and incredibly sweet, brewed in a clay pot over an open flame, not particularly nice but accepted so as not to offend. The second glassful with peanuts floating on top no easier to drink (these people just wouldn’t understand the nut allergies of the Western world, although I don’t think they existed back then!). Medicine taken, a brief tour of the house, a central courtyard, with rooms off each side, dark, basic, few furnishings, apart from one room, the parents bedroom. Fabrics and throws in rich colours, gold and reds, heavy wooden furniture, so opulent and in stark contrast to the rest of this modest house. We sat cross legged on the floor of the courtyard, a huge metal bowl was put down before us, a mound of cous cous, some sort of meat loaf, hot chilli sauce, we were all expected to eat from the same bowl, the food was delicious! We were also expected to drink from the same water jug, try telling these people that we shouldn’t drink their water!! We chatted, our Arabic non-existent but their second language being French made conversation possible. We learnt to belly dance with the daughter whilst Grandma sat in the corner of the courtyard doing the washing in a metal bowl which looked just like the one we had eaten from!! Such an amazing experience but although contributory, yet still this wasn’t that single event that sparked my desire to travel…

Sahaline had not adapted to mass tourism at that time, maybe things are different now, but then it was real Tunisia with local people going about their daily lives, watching this was fascinating. Even their way of shopping was alien to us, tiny shops which just looked like a hole in the wall displayed their produce on the dusty street but it was the butchers which caught my attention. An open window, a slab of marble in front, a dead sheep hanging above it, limp & lifeless, throat cut and dripping its blood onto the dusty street. Flies buzzing around the wound, the butcher, grubby and wielding a knife, a basket of live chickens at his feet. A man in robes rode up on a bike and pointed at the chickens. The butcher grabbed one, causing a commotion, clucking and feathers flying, no escape for this one as in one swift movement its neck was wrung, wrapped in newspaper and handed to the man on the bike. I stared in amazement at what I had just seen, a far cry from a trip to the butchers in the sanitised suburbs of Birmingham. I couldn’t tear my eyes away, the man placed the chicken under his arm and rode off, the chicken still twitching forcing the man to flap his arm as if he was trying to fly. This scene has stayed with me for the last 37 years, it still makes me smile as I know that at that moment, the wanderlust within me was awakened.