Most holidaymakers who flock to the Tunisian coast typically spend their days lazing in the sun, taking the occasional ride on a banana boat and congregating with fellow tourists at the all-you-can eat buffet - a day-to-day routine so mundane, that the days they arrive and depart are the only ones committed to memory. But for travellers willing to step beyond the limits of the hotel in search of a more exciting holiday, travelling from one medina to the next, there is the louage.
The louage - coming from the French meaning rental - is a shared taxi that seats between four to eight passengers and makes the farthest corners of Tunisia accessible. For tourists, the louage is a gateway to many exciting destinations such as the city of Bizerte in the north, the Roman amphitheatre in El Djem, the holy city of Kairoan and the cave dwellings in Matmata. The louage is an especially popular form of transportation among locals, which allows visitors ample opportunity to experience the country's culture and people first-hand.
What makes the louage so appealing is that it costs next to nothing and tickets do not need to be booked in advance. The six-hour trip from Tunis to Djerba - an island off the south-eastern coast - would set you back a measly 23 dinars (Dh60). Departure points can be found in more or less every town near train stations; otherwise, they are situated along the highways that run through the towns. Louage stations are usually easy to spot and anyone on the street would be kind enough to direct tourists in the right direction.
Departure points are at times chaotic, with several idle vans parked along the roadside, and drivers shouting their destinations, trying to be heard over the general commotion. The white vans, usually of French make, are immediately recognisable by their red, blue or yellow stripe that runs along the sides. These stripes differ in colour in relation to how far they roam. Those with red stripes commute between major cities, whereas the blue and yellow stripes represent regional and rural transportation respectively. Travellers should rely on finding the driver with the matching destination, rather than the right coloured stripe to prevent any confusion. The vans make their way to the station with no pre-determined arrival or departure time, but do so with such frequency that any wait is usually brief.
The louage leaves when every seat is accounted for. Luxury and repose should not be expected on the journey; hopes for comfort too quickly fade as drivers can reach sometimes nail-biting speeds on small roads - often while rummaging around for change, smoking and not wearing a seat belt. In the summer, passengers may sweat slightly in the non-air conditioned vehicles. Most people keep to themselves but some can be very talkative and interested in tourists bold enough to brave the louage. French and Arabic are the two languages spoken and striking up a conversation during the journey provides a great opportunity to divert attention from the road and to be given interesting tips about places to see, eat and stay.
Alternative and safer modes of transport such as the train do exist: however, the train tends to be slow and does not provide access to as many cultural and historical sites, and is even less appealing thanks to its erratic and limited schedule. The louage on the other hand, allows travellers to be immersed in Tunisian history and its way of life; not to see it as a static, dusty item on display in a museum, but to be plunged, head-first into the experience. Louages can make any holiday spent within their confines not only memorable, but exhilarating - for many reasons. And they make for some pretty vivid stories with which to spellbind your friends.