Islamists Attack Hotel Bar In Tunisia

Tunisia has long been a favorite North African destination for its beautiful beaches, ancient ruins, and relatively tolerant atmosphere. That tolerance, however, may be changing.

The BBC reports that a group of Salafists, Muslim hardliners who have been gaining in influence in recent months, stormed into a hotel bar in Sidi Bouzid. The Salafists had warned the Horchani hotel management to stop serving alcohol and when they didn’t comply, dozens of Islamists entered the hotel bar, chased away the customers, and smashed the bottles. They also entered rooms in search of alcohol and turned their wrath on the furniture.

There were no reported injuries.

Sidi Bouzid was the birthplace of the Arab Spring. It was here in 2010 that a fruit seller set himself on fire to protest government corruption and oppression. This set off a chain of events that toppled governments in several Arab nations. While the Arab Spring has opened up the possibility of democracy, it has also encouraged Islamist groups that were generally suppressed by the old-style military dictators.

[Photo courtesy Flickr user spDuchamp. This is not a photo of the Tunisian hotel and is used for illustrative purposes only.]

‘Star Wars’ Fans Rally To Save Iconic Set In Tunisia

Every single “Star Wars” movie, save “The Empire Strikes Back,” uses the desert landscape and dusty villages of Tunisia as backdrops for the planet of Tatooine, the place where Luke Skywalker grew up. Specifically, Luke lived until the age of 19 at the Lars Homestead, the fictional name for a very real building that was, until recently, in danger of collapse.

To the rescue was neither Luke Skywalker nor George Lucas, but Mark Dermul, an avid “Star Wars” fan from Belgium who has been leading “Star Wars” tours of Tunisia since 2001. On a trip to Tunisia in 2010, Dermul discovered that the rounded hut that served as the exterior of the Lars Homestead in the film was in a state of disrepair. Dermul then set up the Save the Lars Homestead Project, working with the Tunisian Tourist Office and Tunisian government to secure the proper permissions to restore this movie landmark.Save Lars raised $10,000 in 10 months and almost didn’t get realized because of the Arab Spring. At the end of May 2012, however, Dermul and his band of “pioneers” traveled to Tunisia, where they patched and re-plastered the Lars Homestead over the course of several days.

The Lars Homestead in a state of disrepair.

The Lars Homestead after restoration.

In the film, the Lars Homestead is located on the Great Chott Salt Flat, which is in reality Chott el Jerid, a salt flat in southwestern Tunisia. If you want to attempt a visit to the Lars Homestead, the “Star Wars” Wiki, or Wookieepedia, provides directions:

The location is a bit hard to find. From Nefta, take the road to Algeria (but do not enter!). Look for the 26 kilometer marker. If the weather permits, you should even be able to see the set from the main road. It’s only about 900 meters from the marker. However, be mindful of the trails you follow to get there. The surface may be difficult, especially when it has rained. A four-wheel drive shouldn’t have a problem, though. When you drive up to the set, you’ll get a rather eerie feeling, as it is only a small set, but so very pivotal in the saga. And there it is, in the middle of nowhere…”

[Photos Wookieepedia/Save Lars]

Bombalouni: A Tunisian Treat

Sidi Bou Saïd knows how cute it is. The little town perches on a hill, its buildings a remarkably uniform white with blue trim. Its architecture, characterized by Ottoman and Andalusian buildings, is postcard-primed, and the town’s cute architecture is arguably surpassed by the views of the sea and the coast from the town’s hillside. Twenty kilometers (13 miles) from Tunis, Sidi Bou Saïd can be reached by a reliable, inexpensive commuter train service from the Tunisian capital.

The alleys of the town throng with tourists from late morning through late afternoon. Buses lumber into a huge parking lot at the foot of a hill in the town, releasing their daytripping passengers into the town’s quaint streets. The road leading up from the parking lot is congested with stalls and shops selling huge quantities of tchotchkes. There are some nice things among the inventory, though nothing holds a candle to a little edible treat that sells for 500 milim, or half a dinar (31¢): the humble Tunisian doughnut, or bombalouni.

The word “bombalouni” bears strong similarity to the Italian word “bomboloni.” But anyone expecting the dense ball of delight that is the Italian bombaloni (a delicious filled doughnut) will be disappointed. The Tunisian cousin isn’t a dense ball at all but a freshly fried ring of dough dragged through sugar.

The ring of dough is uneven, jagged. It’s also greasy, though not overwhelmingly so. A Tunisian bombalouni should be eaten relatively quickly, while it is still hot. It is served with two sheets of paper, which do the job of sopping up excess grease. Public trashcans near my favorite bombalouni stall in Sidi Bou Saïd are stuffed with these sheets of paper by the end of the day.

There are better reasons for traveling to Tunisia, surely, but the bombalouni’s draw is noble.

Egyptian protests reinforce the importance of safety while abroad

Some people run away from danger; others run toward it.

Multimedia journalist Rachel Anderson is one of the latter. She’s lived in Egypt for six months and chose to stay after the highly publicized protests prompted an American evacuation. “Nope. Never!” Anderson said when asked if she’s considered leaving. “[I’m] spreading the word of what the Egyptian people are currently enduring and am providing a voice to an audience who wouldn’t otherwise be able to.” That doesn’t mean she’s ignoring her personal safety.

“I’m staying in a hotel close to the protests so I don’t spend much time on the street alone,” Anderson said. “I’m not walking around outside the square by myself.”

That’s a good thing, said retired U.S. State Department anti-terrorism expert Ed Lee. Lee consults travelers on international safety and believes that civil turmoil – like what is currently happening in Egypt – is a good time to reinforce the pillars of travel safety.

“No country is completely safe. A lot of people don’t get that,” Lee said. “That’s why roughly 20 percent of travelers have some sort of security issue while away.” Lee recommends following a safety routine before traveling – no matter if you’re traveling to Egypt, Tunisia or London.

Do Your Research

“Make sure you go to the U.S. State Department website and look at any available information on the country you’re going to,” Lee said. Don’t stop there – U.S. travel warnings are thorough, but crosschecking that information with the equivalent U.K. and Australian travel sites is also important.

Register Your Itinerary with the U.S. State Department

“You can actually register your itinerary with the State Department directly on their website,” Lee said. Registering your location, passport number and contact information can help the U.S. Embassy locate you if disaster strikes.

Get International Medical Insurance

“You must have international medical coverage,” Lee stressed. He recommends looking into companies that specialize in travel insurance, like MEDEX and International SOS. And have a medical exam before your trip. “You’re in trouble if you get an illness in a developing country,” he said.

Always Carry Photocopies of Your Passport

“Keep copies in your luggage,” Lee said. “Put the originals in a safe at your hotel, if you can trust it.” Also, be sure to know if you’ll need an exit visa to avoid problems if you need to leave a country quickly.

Know Where the Embassy and Hospitals are Located

This might seem like common sense, but many travelers don’t think of looking for the U.S. Embassy and hospital until it’s too late. Make it a point to locate these landmarks on the first day of your trip.

Don’t Be Too Trusting“People let their guards down while traveling,” Lee said. “And that’s how people get robbed.” He recommends avoiding taxis – especially in developing countries where thieves are known to steal commercial taxis. “Being robbed when you just wanted a ride has a way of turning a normal day into a really bad one.”

Cruise lines cancel Egypt through June

Royal Caribbean and Azamara Club Cruises announced late Wednesday that they will cancel Egypt ports of call through June. This latest blow to Egypt tourism is a good indicator of the situation at ground level but travelers seem undeterred.

To cruise lines, safety of passengers and crew is a top priority. Fired by the US Department of State travel warning for the area, cruise lines were quick to pull ships out of the area, a distinct advantage cruise vacations have over other options. If weather or political conditions make going ashore a bad idea, they can move the ships elsewhere. That itineraries are being modified through June speaks volumes on what the travel industry expects in the foreseeable future of Egyptian tourism.

Top cruise industry information source follows the latest developments and keeps an up-to-date roster of which lines have changed itineraries. In a recent poll, CruiseCritic asked
members if they would consider a trip to Egypt at this point.

Of the 250 respondents, those who had already planned to visit mostly said that they’ll wait until the situation stabilizes. 55 percent said that the unrest hadn’t deterred their future travel plans, close to 19 percent said that as soon as the State Department drops the travel warning, they’ll be visiting the Pyramids, 14 percent said that Egypt remained on their travel wish list, but other destinations had now bumped Egypt down a few spots. 11 percent said a visit to the country was never on their list.

It’s not just Egyptian tourism suffering either.

Citing a “changing political environment” Disney Cruise Line as well as land tour operator Adventures by Disney dropped Tunisia from all land and sea tours last weekend. Yesterday, SeaDream Yacht Club added to the list of lines avoiding violence in Tunisia.

“We continually evaluate our itineraries, and the decision to modify this itinerary was made in part due to the changing political environment in Tunis and the recent Travel Alert issued by the U.S. Department of State for Tunisia,” Disney spokesperson Christi Erwin Donnan told USA TODAY.

Because these drops are a result of US State Department travel advisories, it’s possible that they will be extended past their scheduled changes as further developments occur in the troubled region.

Flickr photo by ayman_17