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Aéroport Tunis Carthage, June 15, 2013

As we are we touch down on Tunis airport, houses of white and blue spreading on a bed of bare, dessert-looking field spark the feeling of an unusual yet exciting journey ahead. The overall mood is that of another in-between country, struggling to link the rich & colorful past with the light-year speed into the future.

Tunis airport is a tiny, old and run-down airport. Blue by no surprise is the overall color tone of the place. “VISA” so it says with an arrow pointing left on the signboard. That’s obviously where I am heading. Visa on arrival is always an interesting experience wherever one goes. Anything can go wrong at an airport and I am well-prepared to welcome any of such incidents though it would be a tough job to justify 11 hours of flying and 6 hours of waiting in transit just to arrive at this smallest country in North Africa. OK Tunisia, here I come!

There’s no queue at the visa counter. That’s kinda unusual for a country offering visa on arrival. Wherever else I’ve been, long queues are the common sight at visa counters. Well, at least there is a visa counter. Always look on the bright side of life! A middle-aged, overly made-up lady sits quietly behind the counter as I approach. “I need a visa, please!” I open the conversation. “What country?” asks she without even looking at me, nor my passport. “Australia” I reply “How many days?” she asks “3 days” I reply “100” she says “Can I pay in USD or credit card?” I continue as I obviously have no Tunisian dollars on me. “No”, says the lady in a harsh cold voice. “Where can I change money then?” That seems like a logical question I guess. The lady says nothing, gets ahold of my passport, takes out a small stamp and a scrap piece of paper, stamps on it, writes the word “USD” underneath the stamp and gives it to me. “After the counter” she says, “and come back here to pick up your passport”. I look around. The only counters are the customs counters. Well, you can’t miss it. And so I line up at the customs counter in search for my money changer! Well, at least I know for sure that I can get a visa. Anything else should be trivial.

As I stand in line, a Chinese guy behind starts a conversation and asks me why I am in Tunis. I obviously un-mistakenly look Chinese. When I tell him I am here for meetings with some partners in the coffee business, he immediately responds “You must sell cheap coffee!” I look at him, smiling. Africa and cheap, the guy seems to know how to join the dots huh? In return, he tells me he is here to look around for opportunities. We never have time to finish a conversation but I am sure he’s got some low-cost projects hanging in the air.

It’s my turn and I approach the customs counter, confidently placing the scrap piece of paper on the counter. “I was told to get out and change money for my visa”, I say. The customs lady gives no look at myself, nor my scrap evidence of authority, yet nods her head. That’s it? Wow, that’s easier than I thought! As I put my carry bag through the security scanner, a few security staff is busy chatting, laughing happily as the conversation goes. One guy looks up as I pass the gate, gives me a huge smile and asks “USD?”. I return him with an equivalent huge smile and reply “yeah”. Hmmm, this USD business seems like a common thing here after all. There is a money changer on the left as I walk out to the baggage area. Unfortunately, the sign in front says “Closed”. What now? “This is getting kinda messy” I think to myself. Such time calls for patience. I smile and try to keep calm as I approach a security guard to ask for help. To my surprise, he smiles and points out to the exit door. “You can find many outside”, he says. This is cool! This is the first time I ever get out into a country without a passport. There’s always a first in anything you encounter on a life journey. It can be fun or it can be super annoying, depending on your attitude I guess.

As I walk out to the waiting area, eyes of curiosity are on this Asian girl with a small carry bag, happily walking out in leisure, ready to take on anything waiting ahead. Like any other airport, people sit, stand, wait, and hurry around. Judging by the look, most of them are either from the Middle East or neighboring African countries. “Money first”, I remind myself of my mission as I easily get distracted by the foundational interest in observing the world around. There are about 6 money changers in front of the exit and my God!, they are all placed with long queues. Wow, this seems like a thriving business in Tunis. It takes almost half an hour in line just to get the money changed. The only thing that keeps me entertained while waiting is an old, black African Muslim guy sitting at the opposite coffee shop, looking all quiet, miserable, patiently waiting by his coffee. He does not seem to move much. For an instance, he reminds me of the lady who turns into a rock statue waiting for her never-returning husband from the war in a Vietnamese legend. As he patiently waits, I get my money changed and walks back in. I find it amusing making that re-winding trip back to the visa counter. Who gets to enter a country twice in one go?

The lady gets her TND100 and I get my visa and passport back. Fair trade! “Don’t forget to check in at customs!” she reminds me. How’s that for a reminder? If I can get past customs without a passport, I certainly can get past it once again with one I guess.

What an experience! The first encounter certainly paints an overall mood of a laid-back, easy-going, developing country where money and opportunities seem to set the scene. Palm trees & white, tiny-windowed houses welcome me on a sunny day as I leave the airport on this exciting journey to learn more about the history and people of Tunisia….

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