x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Louages and lablabi keep Tunisia running

On the road While louages are the backbone of the north African country's transport system, lablabi is the staple dish of the working class.

Lablabi: Tunisia's spicy, working-class staple.
Lablabi: Tunisia's spicy, working-class staple.

Tunisia's network of louages is made up of independent vehicles that collectively form a large portion of Tunisia's public transport. It can perhaps best be compared to Wikipedia in that the idea seems like one that should not be dependable: each individual contributes a bit part, and there are countless opportunities for chaos to arise. In fact, the system functions rather well and millions of Tunisians rely on this inexpensive and surprisingly reliable means of transit for both short-haul and long-distance journeys.

In Tozeur, in the south-west part of the country near the border with Algeria, I asked around with locals and easily found the louage depot across from an ageing football stadium. A far cry from the grand train stations of Europe, the depot is really just a side street with what looks like an idle traffic jam of sputtering white vans and cars with red stripes painted along their sides and their drivers screaming whatever destination they are heading to into the air.

I was planning on making my way across the country's southern desert region to Matmata, a small Berber town in the south-east where people still live in troglodyte dwellings as they have for centuries. The route there by louage, however, is not direct and it helps to have an idea of the towns along the way where you can change cars onward to the next stop. In addition to being economical, taking louages can lead you to places far off the tourist trail. On this journey, I would have to first stop in the industrial town of Gafsa, then Gabes on the coast and then change for a louage bound for Matmata. So when one of the drivers called out "Gafsa! Gafsa! Gafsa!" I threw my backpack in the van's boot and waited for it to fill up with people. One of the nice things about the louage system as opposed to collective taxis in other places - such as Abu Dhabi - is that the prices are usually fixed and unless you find a particularly unscrupulous driver you won't need to bargain or watch as locals pay a fare half as much as tourists. And the prices are set so that they will be affordable for Tunisians, many of whom make wages much lower than in most western nations. In the case of my approximately 100km journey from Tozeur to Gafsa, the fare cost about US$3 (Dh11).

To be clear, there are downsides to louages. They don't follow a regular schedule and won't leave until they are filled to capacity, which, depending on the vehicle, can be between four and eight passengers. In some cases, if you choose to visit a not particularly popular place on a quiet day, you might never set off unless you are willing to shell out and pay for all of the remaining seats available. This also means that on busy routes louages will run into the night but on less frequented routes, if it's after dark, you're probably out of luck.

Not only do louages get you around Tunisia, observing the way they function and the life going on inside of their cramped compartments is one of its most interesting pastimes. In contrast to the blackness of the overnight train that I took from Tunis, when my louage from Tozeur left in the mid-afternoon after about a 30- minute wait, the scenery was incredible - with the Chott el Jérid, a vast perfectly flat expanse of dried salt lake, reflecting the sun on either side of the road.

Arriving in Matmata after a five-hour journey, I found a room for the night in an underground hotel called Hotel Marrhala, which cost $9 (Dh33). I split one of the double rooms with two rock-slab beds with an Irish backpacker that I knew from the hostel in Tunis. Yes, we were bunking in what was literally a 2m by 3m cave, but at less than five bucks per person, and with a good story for later, who can argue?

Still, the next day when I louaged to the very touristy city of Sousse, I splashed out on a four-star hotel on the beachfront. But the splash hardly made a ripple because room rates had dropped from $106 (Dh390) per night in the peak summer season to a mere $32 (Dh117) - including continental breakfast, buffet dinner and free Wi-fi in the lobby - in chilly December, when the pool and adjacent shores lacked an essential appeal. Clean, quiet and comfortable, it ranks among the best deals I've found in a while. However, I'd never pay full price for the place even if I had money to burn because the food was lousy - bland sun-lamp dried ratatouille for dinner and what looked like the same dish mixed with fried eggs the next day for breakfast. The staff seemed fairly disorganised, most so when not one of the front desk personnel working overnight knew the password for the Wi-Fi and they had to ask a guest nearby to help me.

The next day I wandered through Sousse's large medina, which feels much more geared to tourists than the one in Tunis. The medina in the capital is a busy bazaar where locals shop and it's easier to blend in, but in Sousse shop owners zero-in on their tourist targets. One way to disarm them, I found, is to shield yourself with a communication barrier. In these parts, Arabic, French and English are widely understood. Other tongues, however, are a rarity, and so when accosted with an entreaty to buy something I simply replied, "lo siento, solamente hablo Castellano" or "sorry, I only speak Spanish". By and large it worked and I left many a would-be tout walking away in confusion and frustration, unable to sink their hooks into me. Of course, the strategy can backfire, as I saw when finally one shop owner did speak fluent Spanish and I had to discuss my "home country" of Argentina at length. A word to the wise: if you plan on pretending to be from Buenos Aires then you'd better know a thing of two about Maradona.

While the eateries I spied in the medina were pricey and seemed to sell watered-down fare aimed at foreign palettes, across from the police station, just outside the old city's walls, I found a tea shop offering something a world apart - lablabi. The dish is a working-class staple and its table-side preparation was as entertaining as the stew was delicious. The waiter broke up a stale baguette with his hands into a bowl in front of me, poured steaming chick peas on top, threw in pinches of salt and cumin and a dollop of harissa and then cracked a soft-boiled egg inside. He stirred the mixture so vigorously some of the muck was flung onto my lap. The fiery taste and bone-sticking goodness, however, were well-worth the $1 (Dh3.7) plus dry cleaning bill that it cost to repair the damage.