Archive for the ‘World’ Category.

Letter from Libya II – Tuesday Market

Sent on 12th June 2012, in this letter our correspondent reflects on the local market, the closure of the airport by a militia faction on the 4th of that month and visiting the British Military Cemetery.

Hello to my devoted fans, well I can dream can’t I? I looked at the calendar today, we use those here unlike on a previous assignment where the days, weeks and months were scratched on the walls of the less than luxurious dwelling I was stuck in, and discovered I have been here for more than three weeks so I thought to myself that the folks back home deserve another dose of life in the sand pit screaming “You’ve got mail” from the in box.

So here is issue 2, read on and enjoy. On second thoughts, pour yourself a large drink of the alcoholic variety, sit back and get mellow before taking your imagination on a roller coaster of discovery, or a rush hour trip round the M25, whichever metaphor you feel best describes what follows.

I have previously mentioned that the supermarket here in Club Med de L’Afrique du Nord is a trifle expensive and also limited in choice. Most shopping is now being done at Tuesday Market, a slight misnomer because this large supermarket is open every day except Friday, as yet I have not been able to find an explanation for this and I’m not going to waste time looking for one either. Whilst I describe this emporium as a supermarket the main sales area within the building it’s not Sainsbury’s. The shop carries most of the things you would expect to find but there are a few exceptions. These commodities are sold from smaller traders located at one end of the main mall.

  • Fresh fish, the word fresh is used in this context to differentiate from frozen and does not imply still dripping wet and wriggling despite being a couple of kilometres from the coast.
  • Meat, generally not too bad but cuts vary from back home and the only really recognizable bits tend to be chickens, and offal. Lamb chops are difficult to come by and are usually full of bone shards because of a butchery technique learned from really bad sword and sandal epics or over enthusiastic use of a blunt chain saw. The end result resembles a road kill where bones are involved and strange shaped lumps of flesh where no structural integrity has been left.
  • Fruit and vegetables. Choice is not that wide and quality varies immensely. When buying a lettuce for example be prepared to throw away at least half. Carrots are miserably small and not firm but I reckon the prize for most disgusting example has to go to avocados. These are most often so over ripe that a prod of the fruit starts it wobbling, the insides are liquid, totally yuk. This is not confined to avocados, mangos, kiwis and bananas can also be found in what I consider to be a state of self-contained liquefaction. It is possible to find acceptable produce but a diligent search operation has to be conducted.
  • Bread. Libyan bread is great, flatbreads, wholemeal rolls and pittas are all freshly baked on site for the bakery outlet at Tuesday Market along with a selection of Danish style pastries, what’s not so good is the ersatz western sliced loaf which is dry when fresh and tasteless. There is also a section selling Arabic pastries in various forms but mostly based on sugar syrup, coconut and pistachios and all completely delicious. So much so that visits to that counter have to be strictly rationed.

Apart from the demolished buildings of which the Gaddafi compound is a shining example there is not too much in the way of fighting related damage to be seen. Compared to other places I have been to Tripoli got off fairly lightly, even glass fronted structures seem to have largely escaped the attentions of Kalashnikov wielding youths. So I was quite amused to pull up alongside a pick-up truck in the morning crawl to work that had more holes than metal in some of the panels. As my driver explained, this had been used by one of the militias during the revolution and had attracted more than its fair share of 7.62mm air conditioning technology, either that or the truck had been left parked across someone’s driveway. I suppose the driver tells tales of daring do when asked why he is behind the wheel of this motorised colander, could be he customised the vehicle himself just to impress but enough speculation and on with the rest of this less than epic saga.

Last week Tripoli airport was closed by a militia from a town some 80 km from the city. They were protesting about the alleged kidnapping or detention of their commander who was on his to Tripoli. The story goes that he was stopped at a police checkpoint and it was pointed out that he did not have a permit for his firearms or for the two tanks in his possession. Not unreasonably he was detained by the police for these infringements. To this point everybody is in agreement with the story but from here on things get a bit hazy. The official version is that he was sent on his way after his toys were confiscated; however he hasn’t been seen in public since being taken into custody.

There are two theories being promoted, firstly that he’s been deep sixed by the authorities but where is the body, plenty of building sites around but none of them are working so becoming part of the support structure isn’t possible, lots of desert but what with shifting sands and all that means a good chance of later discovery. Of course there is the tried and tested method beloved of Idi Amin of feeding the presidential crocodiles. While there is no presidential saurian pool here I have been assured by various locals that the departed Leader was not above taking unwanted friends to the zoo for a private tour after hours so who knows, maybe it’s become a tradition.

The second possibility being put around will certainly delight international conspiracy fans. I am reliably informed that a foreign government, USA, UK or France, through their spy agency, CIA, SIS or DGSE, lifted the commander on his release by the police and spirited him away to some dark and distant hole in the ground with the intention of having a chat over a cup of coffee. Evidently he is/was supposed to have some knowledge regarding the location of a Gaddafi son who has not yet been located or who may indeed be a guest of this particular militia while he is asked politely about bank account numbers and other mundane matters pertaining to missing millions.

While all this has been going on the commander’s men have decided to stage their idea of a non-violent protest at Tripoli Airport and set off in convoy from their home town. Not only do they drive a convoy of some sixty heavily armed, and in some cases armoured, vehicles some 80 km along the main highway without anyone in the police or official military wondering what was going on, they then drive straight onto the runway and surrounding areas simply by bypassing the guarded entrance and driving through the perimeter from scrubland. All that was needed to complete this attention seeking exercise was to park a truck equipped with an anti-aircraft cannon under each plane parked on the tarmac and point the muzzles upwards towards wing fuel tanks. Instant airport closure and suspension of flights was the obvious reaction of the authorities.
Eventually the sort of forces of law and order arrived, the majority being a militia who seemed to take control of the situation convincing the aggressors to depart peacefully, albeit taking all their weaponry with them to use as a bargaining tool in the next round of discussions, such is life.

As some of you will know I sometimes take time to become a bit serious and contemplative, I’m not all humour and cynicism and I’d like to relate a recent experience to you. A few days ago I had the humbling experience of visiting the British Military Cemetery in Tripoli, a monument to some thirteen hundred commonwealth and allied servicemen. Access is via the now disused and largely overgrown grounds containing an Italian cemetery and various scattered graves and memorials to other nationalities and religions. As I approached the steps leading up to a low metal gate I really did not know what to expect. Before coming here there had been reports in the media of mindless vandalism at the British cemetery in Benghazi so I had no idea what scene would greet me. Imagine my surprise as laid out before me was an immaculate vista of lush green lawns and simple white headstones interspersed with low growing flowers and shrubs. A central cross rose into the clear blue sky on a day when the weather could not have been more perfect for such a visit.

I wasn’t looking for any particular names amongst the fallen, this was more a time for reflection, contemplation and peace. It was so very hard to believe I was in a city which had been involved in a very recent violent and bloody civil war, rebellion or revolution depending on your outlook. Although the walls are not particularly high the traffic seemed very far away and muted, the loudest sounds were the water sprinklers and the clipping of the shrubs by the three gardeners working quietly but efficiently to maintain the appearance of this oasis. Those of you who have visited the cemeteries of World War One in France and Belgium that like Tripoli are part of the estate looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would find no difference in the standard of care and attention to detail between the massive memorials to the dead of the trench warfare that characterised the Battle of the Somme and this far smaller reminder of another conflict.

Here there aren’t the rows of stones with the same regimental crest on them from when whole platoons, companies or even regiments were decimated in a single engagement. You might find four or five Royal Air Force aircrew possibly from the same aircraft, or headstones bearing the Royal Armoured Corps badge where comrades in the same tank died as they had fought, together. There are Merchant Navy and Royal Navy seamen, men from The Africa Pioneer Corps and Queen Victoria’s Own Madras Sappers & Miners. A wide spectrum of religions is represented here; alongside the Christians are Jewish soldiers, Hindus, Moslems and Sikhs, at peace together, what a difference to the world outside those gates.

I am grateful not only to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who are responsible for the upkeep of these cemeteries in sometimes some not very friendly parts of the globe but also to my driver for finding his way to the only entrance and also to my interpreter, both of whom gave me the chance to walk around alone with my own thoughts. A final observation, this cemetery contains the graves of service personnel who died in the region post 1945 as well as some British citizens, one as young as ten months, makes you think doesn’t it.

With that picture in your mind I will finish this episode with a fond farewell and goodnight everybody.

Letter from Libya I

Sent on 26th May 2012, in this letter our correspondent describes his arrival in Tripoli on May 17th 2012 ahead of the election of the first post-Gaddafi parliament (eventually held on the 7th July that year) to work on a contract fitting out the media centre.

This latest communication from your globe-trotting scribe comes from the city of Tarabulus Al-Gharb, a thriving port and home to some 2.2 million inhabitants. With the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea breaking gently upon the beach this idyllic location……..Hang on, who am I kidding, even giving the place its Arabic name cannot change the fact that I am actually in Tripoli, capital city of Libya, home of the late and little lamented Muammar Gaddafi/Qadhafi/Gadafy.

You may ask what I am doing in a country that has only just decided to become a democracy after a fairly bloody civil war spiced up with a fair amount of air delivered explosive ordnance courtesy of the UN Security Council and several members of NATO. Couple of reasons not the least being a well-paid contract doing some audio-visual consultancy, the other being it’s been a while since I’ve worked anywhere out of the ordinary and away from the normal environment most of us find ourselves in on a daily basis.

I arrived here on 17th May to be given the sort of welcome that I have come to expect as a result of two previous visits to work on projects instigated at the behest of the former camel faced ruler. This by now traditional arrival ceremony involves forgetting to send the car to pick me up at Tripoli airport. My sense of humour becomes seriously strained after almost two hours of fending off taxi drivers and flies, equal in numbers and tenacity but personally I think that the flies win on personality. Eventually I was retrieved from the oven of the arrivals area and taken to what is to be my home until whenever my work is completed.

I suppose now would be a good time to comment on the local driving. The most common style seems to be to follow the lane markings as if there is some optical guidance system under the vehicle to keep it centred on the white lines where these exist. Overtaking and undertaking are done with the minimum of clearance and in such a way that a fusillade of car horns and possibly firearm waving would be the inevitable result in many countries. Here such behaviour is accepted and everyone just carries on with minimal comment and barely a sideways glance. Where no lane markings exist such as on some of the multi-lane freeways driving can only be described as extreme freestyle, anything goes including using what I assume is supposed to be the hard shoulder to undertake at top speed despite the very good chance of a 17 seat taxi bus being stopped to pick up or set down passengers. Traffic calming seems to consist of stripping off the top five centimetres or so of tarmac for about ten metres to encourage cars to come to a virtual stop before hitting the gas again. As is common in a lot of the more anarchic countries traffic lights are considered an advisory device especially if no traffic police are present at the intersection and parking can best be described as abandonment, even if it reduces the road width by fifty per cent.

Enough of what has become an almost traditional comment on the driving habits of a country when it is featured in my jottings, on with the story. After leaving the airport it was decided that I would go to the place where I would be staying. I honestly did not know what to expect and generally I expect the worse but am ready to be pleasantly surprised. Well, surprised I was. The car came through an efficient checkpoint and entered what I can only describe as a holiday village development of the sort seen in Spain or the Canaries. A central piazza with blocks of apartments is surrounded by neat villas, laid out in such a way as to avoid a feeling of being crowded, on a gently sloping site leading down to a rocky coastline. The villas are equipped to a very high standard with all the appliances necessary for an extended stay, good size bedrooms, air conditioning and lounge with a satellite TV system.

The villas are shared and I’ve been lucky enough to have a housemate that not only do I get on with but he’s also a very good cook. We try to take turns cooking dinner which stops us getting bored with our own cooking as well as being a far more efficient way of using time and resources than trying to cook separately.

The first few days have been spent meeting the people I will be working with, some new but also a goodly collection of familiar faces from previous assignments in strange places. Although I’ve worked in Libya before I never really spent much time in Tripoli, just a couple of days at the end of one show and then I took the opportunity to visit the Roman city of Leptis Magna approximately 130km along the coast toward Benghazi rather than hang around in the capital. Hence I have been trying to get my bearings and get an idea of how the city is laid out and where the buildings and places relevant to my job are located in relation to one another, the GPS on my phone is extremely useful in this respect although when first fired up it was convinced I was in Northampton.

As we only have limited transport resources shopping is a bit of a problem and sometimes the on site supermarket is the only solution. In common with captive audience shops everywhere the prices are a bit high although there is an adequate variety of foodstuffs and household goods. The one commodity I will not be buying there is western chocolate. Mars, Kit Kat etc. are fairly exorbitant but for sheer cheek the prize has to go to the guy who priced up the Christmas sized tin of Quality Street, sold for around £5.00 in Sainsburys, here the local price translates to approximately £24.00, absolutely no chance of that going in the basket I can tell you.

As I finish this first communication on a very pleasant early evening I can look out across the Mediterranean from my chair and reflect on the fact that this is by no means the worst place I’ve ended up in. I hope by the time I manage to put together the next poorly crafted missive together that things are still relatively peaceful here and that there are no dramas to report or comment on.

From our own correspondent…

A very good friend of mine, who shall henceforth be known as Bazz, and with whom I share a similarly cynical outlook on life does, on an occasional basis, do some work under the auspices of the United Nations in various places around the world that are not generally regarded as being on the tourist trail.

Whilst in said countries he is prone to penning missives on life as he sees it in these places and distributing them to a few friends, one of whom is, I am thankful to say, me. He has kindly given me permission to publish them here for others to read.

For the sake of clarity, copyright for these remains with him and anyone who wishes to exceed the bounds of fair usage is politely asked to make contact with me before doing so in order that permission can be sought.

The first of those that I have should appear shortly and the intention is post them all over the next few weeks.

Happy reading.

Crawling out of the woodwork

Australia’s crusade to make their country more attractive to smugglers whilst trying to stop people using the product of the tobacco plant continues with the news that, as of now, people entering the country will only be allowed to bring in two packs of smokes under duty-free rules. Bring in anything more and you have a choice (ha!) between having your cigarettes stolen or your wallet looted.

Moving (physically although not spiritually) away from the convicts, it appears that the recent antics of the tobacco control fools in Tasmania has led to their real goal becoming more and more transparent – not that it was well disguised to the more realistic members of the proletariat.

Whilst it is perhaps no surprise that the government of Singapore* is considering a similar legislation to Tasmania, it seems that the Finns are also thinking about it as well. To someone who hasn’t kept as close eye as some on the tobacco control lobby this was more surprising but some googling reveals that Finland is something of an early adopter when it comes to controlling tobacco.

Lest however you think that this mania is just something Johnny Foreigner is getting himself worked up about, news emerges of something closer to home:

GUERNSEY is set to demonstrate ‘similarly bold measures’ to a potential ban on cigarette sales to anyone born after the year 2000, the Guernsey Adolescent Smokefree Project chairman has said.

GASP (how original!) is, I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear, at least partly funded by the Guernsey taxpayer

This silliness though isn’t just confined to a group of islands too close to France for their own good.

Senior doctors and anti-smoking campaigners have told Sky News they are working towards making the UK a no smoking nation within the next 20 years.

Leading specialist Professor John Britton has called on the Government to back the goal, describing it as entirely realistic.

“Andrew Lansley could make himself a legacy greater than that of almost any other Health Secretary in history,” Professor Britton, who chairs the Royal College of Physicians Tobacco Advisory Group, said.

Yes folks, things have come so far in recent times that the ultimate goal of the tobacco control lobby is now openly admitted to after so many years of pretending otherwise whilst they incrementally shifted the goal posts just that little bit closer to their destination with the passing of each piece of dictatorial legislation.

I would say that alcohol will be next but that campaign, along with the one against the wrong types of food, has been underway for a while.

Forget the various bastardisations of the Pastor Niemoller quote, they have (unless you are a non-smoking, teetotaller who has never eaten anything unhealthy in your life) already come for you. Do you fight as they drag you off for re-education or do you meekly surrender and become the drone that they want you to be?

* Pretty much a dictatorship in all but name.

Prohibition in Australia

With the ink barely dry on the High Court ruling confirming that their national government can suppress any intellectual property that they disagree with, politicians in the Australian state of Tasmania have decided that they aren’t satisfied with this (quelle surprise!) and are now considering prohibition.

The daft draft proposal, which was passed unanimously by members of the Upper House of the Tasmanian legislature, doesn’t however apply to everyone mind – just those born in the 21st century:

The Tasmanian Government is considering ruling out banning tobacco sales to people born after 2000, in the wake of a vote in the state’s Upper House last night.

Legislative Council member Ivan Dean wants to make it illegal for people born after 2000 to buy tobacco once they turn 18 – meaning they would never legally be able to buy cigarettes.


“This would mean that we would have a generation of people not exposed to tobacco products,” Mr Dean said.

“It would be easier for retailers to enforce because when they ask for ID, all they would need to see if the person was born after the year 2000.

“Young people are more likely to give cigarettes to more young people.

“As the generation reaches 18 years, there will be fewer of them smoking and while some of those first turning 18 might smoke, as time goes on fewer and fewer will.”

Aside from wondering what the two Chambers of Commerce of which Dean is a member of will think of this extra imposition on their trade, I honestly don’t know where to begin in pointing out the absurdities of this pathetic – and frankly unenforceable – idea. Thankfully however Chris Snowdon has done it for me, concluding:

Nowhere in this article is there any suggestion that grown adults — now or in the future — might have the right to buy and smoke tobacco if they want to. It’s a sort of “think of the children even when they are no longer children” argument, which is fitting since Australian politicians clearly see the whole population as children and themselves as—what other word can there be?—nannies.

I have increasingly come to believe that the worst thing about Australia is that it is not far enough away.

Given that the anti-smoking lobby simply will not stop, even if they manage to achieve their wet dream of total and complete prohibition on tobacco and have rendered the tobacco plant utterly extinct across the entire planet, no matter what the cost, I’m of the increasing opinion that Leg-Iron was right when he said:

What I would do in response to this insanity is this:

Withdraw from the Australian market entirely.

No imports. None. No business going through the docks or the airports. Close all factories and warehouses and distribution points in Australia. Cut all ties to any tobacco-selling business in the entire country. Drop the whole country off the business map.

It’s what the short-sighted fools in the anti-smoking lobby want but, as he points out, I’m not sure they will like the results: lower amounts of money raised in tax, increased unemployment as those directly and indirectly employed by the industry lose their jobs, and a massive black market.

With alcohol being but the next target on the prohibitionist campaigners list, it might even make them think twice about what they are doing, especially if the two major breweries in the country – Foster’s Group and Lion Nathan – threatened to follow suit.

I doubt it though.

Aiming in the wrong direction

The train aside, my main – and preferred – method of transport is the bicycle. Yes, I realise that this makes me a member of one of Julia’s least favourite groups but with three exceptions* I stick the to Highway Code and get as annoyed with other road users as they no doubt do with me.

Whilst I am nowhere near Tour de France standard, on a decent, flat piece of road in good conditions I can get up to beyond 20mph under my own steam and on downward stretch of some of the hills between myself and my parents I go through 30mph – and have hit 40mph on one of them before now – without trying (only one of those hills has a 30mph limit).

Basically I cycle (generally) within the rules, have notched up more than 1k miles a year for most of the last 23 years and I cycle at speeds which are sometimes comparable to the motor traffic around me. And yes, I have the tree trunk lookalike legs to prove it.

You can imagine my disbelief then when I read that a city councillor in Melbourne, Australia has called for the speed limit for cyclists of just 20km/h – or 12.5mph in real money.

12.5mph? I can go up some hills faster than that!

So, why does said jobs-worth want such a thing?

Cr Ong said he was almost struck by a cyclist moving at speed recently. “The other day when I walked out from town hall I nearly got run over from a cyclist who shot through a red light as I was crossing Little Collins Street right in front of town hall.”

So, a cyclist goes through a red light at what looks like (from Streetview) a fairly active pedestrian junction at ‘speed’** and rather than do complaining about the offence committed, he set his sights on something which had nothing to do offence, viz imposing a speed limit. Typically the prat hasn’t a clue about how to enforce it:

He did not know how the bike speed limit would be enforced. “The thing is not about enforcement, the thing is about education,” he said.

A speed limit is educational? Really? Methinks Councillor Ong has spent too much time sipping the double think juice.

If he wants the problem dealt with then he should ask the local police to enforce Highway Code (or Australian equivalent). I assume it is one of their jobs, much the same as it is back here in Blighty***…

h/t Angry Exile

* These are:

  1. I do, although very rarely, break red lights. Similar to some drivers, if a light I am familiar with changes to amber and I think I have the time, I will try and get through before it changes to red. I don’t always succeed and if I’m still within braking distance I’ll stop rather than jump.
  2. There is a one way stretch between myself and the London bound platform of my station which used to be (before one car driver too many lost control and ploughed the wall at the far side) bi-directional. Sometimes I get off and push, sometimes I will ride on the pavement (at a speed slower than walking) through here as it is a matter of meters compared to the 1/2 mile (according to Google Maps) to complete the trip legally.
  3. If I find myself coming home later than planned (i.e. after dark) and I didn’t pack my lights that morning I will still cycle home but I keep a careful watch out for cars and keep out of their way.

** People, especially stationary ones, are usually poor judges of speed.

*** Before they gave up and left it to speed cameras, obviously.

Falling flat on your Face(Book)

As anyone who has not been spent the last couple of months living off the grid will be aware, social networking giant Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), the brainchild of the hoodie-wearing, university-dropout Mark Zuckerberg, has gone public.

Before it kicked off its Initial Public Offering (IPO) roadshow, FB indicated it would be selling 337.4m shares (12.3% of the company) at somewhere between $28 – $35 a share, valuing the company at $96bn if it achieved the top end of the range.

Subsequently the company raised it’s target price range to $34 – $38 a share, which would value the company at just over $104bn.

Then, on Thursday, once the IPO had closed FB confirmed the final details of its listing: 421,233,615 shares at $38 a pop, raising $16bn and confirming an initial market capitalisation of approx. $104bn.

Given that in 2011, FB made $1bn profit on a revenue of $3.7bn that means it started off trading at over 28 times earnings. Apple at its peak share price of $644 was only trading at 5 1/2 times its eventual 2011 earnings and is now down to about 4.6x. Google is currently valued at just over 5x, Microsoft 3.5x, Intel 2.4x, Amazon 2x…

Facebook makes most of its money through advertising. It is thus concerning that their click through rates are below average. You can add to this their admitted problems with trying to making money on mobile traffic.

Yet, even given what – to me – looked like a company which has been horrendously overvalued, investors and analysts were expecting a first day ‘pop’ with, at the wilder end, estimates of 50% being made.

What they got instead was a fizzle with the shares closing up a paltry $0.23 (0.61%) – having opened at $42.05 (10.6%) and briefly touched $45 (18.4%) – and it seems that the only reason they didn’t close down was that the banks who underwrote the IPO took up their option to buy an additional 63,185,042 shares.

If I’d been silly enough to buy Facebook shares I’d be looking to cut my losses ASAP.

For comparison, here are the IPO and first day close details of some other internet companies:

Company Date Shares Float Price ($) Approx. Mkt Cap ($m) Close Price ($) % rise
Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) 1997-05-15 3,000,000 18 438 23.4 30
Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) 2004-08-24 19,605,052 85 23,000 100.34 18
Groupon (NASDAQ:GRPN) 2011-11-03 35,000,000 20 12,700 26.11 30.6
LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD) 2011-05-19 7,840,000 45 4,410 94.25 109.4
Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA) 2011-12-16 100,000,000 10 7,000 9.50 -5

Still, I doubt Zuckerberg will be too worried. Even after selling 30.2m shares in order to satisfy the IRS, his net worth weighs in at approx. $19bn.

Given that then you’d have thought he’d have been able to hire himself a nice suit for his wedding…

Mark Zuckerberg with wife Priscilla Chan

The Talented Mr Shorten

There’s following the party line – and then there’s following the party line.

Tunisia Photos

As promised, my holiday pictures from Tunisia are now online. All told 267 made the cut so I suggest that before you start viewing them you get yourself a coffee or a large glass of wine. :)

Click on the picture below to get started.

The Capitol II

Travels in Tunisia

One of the reasons that activity around here has been lighter than usual is that I was on holiday last week and, quite frankly, had better things to do than following the antics of the children who dominate UK politics.

As the title suggests, I was in Tunisia. However rather than just lying on a beach and trying not to get sunburnt, I spent much of my time exploring some of what is left of Tunisia’s cultural heritage with three other Brits as well as observing the locals.

Rather than do a boring “what I did on my holiday” post, I thought I’d note down my observations (via either interaction or looking out of the windows of the minibus) as well as pass on some of the information provided by our local guide during the week in order to give a flavour of the place. In between making notes I also managed to find time to take some pictures. About 500 I think. Once I’ve sorted through them I’ll post the worthwhile ones.

Modern Tunisia is a country that is a mix of Arab, Muslim and French (being a former French protectorate) and the influences of all three are very visible.

Weather wise, the daytime temperatures generally reached a balmy 15C or so (a bit warmer down Sahara way) but chilly out of the sun as well as in the morning and evening. A dry heat though, not humid.

I suppose that the first thing to note is that something like 97% of the inhabitants are Muslims and this invariably shapes modern Tunisia much like Christianity has done so in Europe and Judaism in Israel. Yes this means plenty of mosques, almost no booze and certainly no sighting of pork products but for all of that it is not an overtly Muslim country as, say, Saudi Arabia or Iran appear to be.

One of the noticeable ways in which this is apparent is through looking at the female population. For their first post-colonial president education was a priority and he made it compulsory for all children, regardless of gender, up to the age of 16. As a result of this and his commitment to equality women are well represented in politics, education, health and plenty of other fields.

They also dress, very often, especially amongst the younger generation (students, young professionals), in a very Western way. Sure, they are quite conservative in so far as very little skin is shown but jeans, trousers, fitted tops, knee high boots etc were very much the order of the day. However it could be that slightly more skin is shown outside of winter. A few of the older women still wear the haik but for the middle aged and the young by far the most common piece of Islamic wear, when worn, is the Hijab. I say when worn because I would estimate that no more then 50% of the younger generation wore it. That percentage varies depending on where you are – more in some of the rural areas and in the Holy City of Kairouan but less in Tunis and other cities.

As with all things though advertising is generally the first place where boundaries are pushed and I saw a number of billboards featuring women who were, by Western standards, modestly dressed but by local standards were certainly displaying a lot of skin such as bare legs below the knee, short sleeved tops or, in one, a vest top.

Given that it is a Muslim country, alcohol is generally not consumed by the natives – at least not in public anyway – and as such the only bars I spotted were in areas that cater to foreign tourists. Alcohol is though available in hotels and, somewhat ironically, the country is a wine producer and, having sampled it, isn’t too bad a one either.

Instead they tend to drink to coffee and if you thought the UK had a lot of coffee shops then I’m afraid you haven’t seen anything yet. The coffee shop – usually independents, the only chain I saw was Lavazza – is their equivalent of the pub and, as you can smoke in them, is not it seems an endangered species in the way that the pub might sometimes seem to be. They also like their coffee strong so if, like Leg-iron, you like to mainline your caffeine then I’m led to believe you will quite like it there. The men tend to spend a lot of time in the coffee shops, to the extent that I did sometimes wonder if the anyone in the entire male population actually had a job. They also didn’t seem to stir from them at prayer time either.

The official language of the country is Arabic but French is also widely used and taught in schools from a young age (English is introduced a bit later). In the main urban areas all the signs were in both Arabic and French although French was less common in the villages and in one or two of the places on the outskirts of the Sahara I saw the French equivalent on a signpost painted over. In some places in the north of the country the Andalusian influence, especially on architecture, is noticeable, reflecting the history of the Moors who settled there after they were expelled from Spain in the late 15th Century.

One area where the country reminded me of family holidays in the Canary Islands and Portugal 25 odd years ago was the sheer amount of construction, both in progress and apparently abandoned, going on. From new apartment blocks in places like Tunis and Sousse to partially built detached properties in more rural areas the country sometimes appeared to be one large building site. The roads are also a work in progress – quite literally in some places where two sections of tarmac were being connected whilst traffic flowed around the road builders.

Transportation is the that curious mix of old and new with each big settlement having its own airport. Vehicles are generally European brands with some Japanese and no American makes that I saw. There appears to be a countrywide train network if the tracks are to be believed but I can’t say I saw a train outside of Tunis. Plenty of buses to be seen – even some bendy ones. Motorbikes and bicycles area used by many. And at the end of the scale there is still the humble donkey hauling a cartload of produce. Indeed the motorway signs actually specifically mention them alongside things like tractors as methods of transport which are forbidden to use those fast roads.

Unlike the UK, Tunisia still has traffic cops – lots of them – and they aren’t hesitant in pulling vehicles over to check that the driver is insured, licensed, has paid the correct taxes etc. They even have the sleeping policeman but no speed cameras as yet.

They are, refreshingly, not huge on H&S or anti-smoking. Yes, hard hats and high visibility vests are present but courses like ladder safety awareness and how to use protective barriers to inconvenience everyone within a half mile radius aren’t. The motorcycle helmet was uncommon and seat beats did not appear to be compulsory. People of all ages crossed roads at every opportunity and liberal use of the horn by drivers was common.

In what will no doubt be music to Dick’s ears, there are no shortage of Tabac’s in the country and smoking/non-smoking appeared to be down to the property owner. Given this and the number of people smoking I can imagine that the likes of Deborah Arnott would have a heart attack if they ever set foot in the place.

In the north of the country Tunisia is actually quite a fertile place. They grow most of their own fruit and vegetables (although not the banana) and the olive tree is their equivalent of New Zealand’s sheep, with something like 10 trees for everyone in the country. Given that the population is somewhere around 11m, that is an awful lot of olive trees! Agricultural land can only be owned by Tunisians – a legacy it appears of the amount of effort it took it get it back from the French after independence. Foreigners are allowed to farm but must rent the land from a local.

In the south, in the desert regions, they farm the oases. These are not the two trees and a pool of water but rather several hundred to several thousand palm trees, the females of which are cultivated for the dates. Dead palm fronds are used to keep the sand out and the wood from dead trees is used in furniture and sometimes construction.

The local currency is the Dinar, which holds up quite well against Sterling (about 2.2 to the £) and the Dollar (about 1.4 to the $) although the cost of things is relatively cheap in comparison. Wages are quite low – especially in the service industry – and tipping is expected, especially at tourist sites. Some of the tourists spots have lots of people, many of whom are children, trying to sell you tat. So much so that I did wonder to myself what the Arabic for ‘piss off’ was after the umpteenth time of being asked whether I’d want something. Also, try to carry plenty of loose coinage as we seemed to get through it very quickly and always remember to check your change.

Sousse can be described in two words: tourist trap. Driving and walking though the place I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me. A place to be avoided if your idea of a holiday isn’t going to a foreign country and doing there exactly what you’d do at home.

Tunis airport takes the inane security levels usually found at airports to seemingly new heights. Before we could even get into the terminal building itself on departure all bags had to be scanned. With only one scanner in operation this meant a bottleneck – perfect for any wannabe suicide bomber. Then, from the gate to the plane tickets were checked three times. Once by BA staff and twice by the cops. Not sure what the point of the second two was.

Politically the country is in an interesting place right now – hardly a surprise given that they had a (relatively) peaceful revolution within the last year which saw the overthrow their second president. They have a new government, Islamic, but it appears that their sole purpose is to write a new constitution, not to make wholesale changes. The discussions on this are quite open with the process being broadcast on national TV and there appears to be active engagement from the population in the matter. Quiet optimism appears to be the order of the day. We did suggest though that the best thing they could do was give their politicians as little power as possible.