It was bizarre, a 20-foot high statue of a Chianti-like wine bottle in the roundabout in the middle of the town. It was my first day in Tunisia, a country where 98% of the population are Muslims, and I was driving through Korba. I was in for more surprises, luckily mostly pleasant ones, on my first visit to this North African country.
As I had enjoyed my travels through Morocco I was looking forward to visiting Tunisia. Robert, a French associate of mine, whom I met in Cairo on my way to Tunis, had warned me that after Morocco I would not like Tunisia. I was not deterred by his remarks even though my departing flight was only 24 hours away and I still did not have a visa. At this particular time I also did not have a passport or a receipt to show that my passport was in the Tunisian Embassy.
As there is no Tunisian Embassy in Malaysia, where I was living at the time, I had been advised to apply for my visa at the Embassy in Cairo where I would be staying for five days prior to my sojourn in Tunisia. I arrived in Cairo on Thursday and after checking into my hotel headed off to the Tunisian Embassy. Armed with the necessary forms, photographs and photocopies I eventually managed to meet with the woman who handled visas. I was curtly told that I needed a letter from the New Zealand ambassador. This letter had never been mentioned by the Tunisian Embassy in Indonesia, whom I had rung prior to my departure or on their website. After much heated discussion it appeared I had no choice but to head off to the New Zealand Embassy to get this letter. I had half an hour to get to the Embassy before closing time and this was of get concern to me as although it was relatively a short distance, I was in Cairo, a city of 22 million people and well-
renowned for its traffic jams. In addition, it was Thursday, the Tunisian Embassy would be closed on Friday and Saturday, and my flight to Tunis was booked for Monday. The immigration lady at the Embassy told me it would take a week to get the visa. The numbers did not add up and I began to wonder if I would ever get to Tunisia. I had appealed to the lady giving her copies of my flight and hotel bookings in Tunisia. I left all completed forms with her and told her I would get the New Zealand Embassy to fax the letter to her.
Finally, after a 15-kilometre taxi ride that took two hours I arrived back at the hotel, poorer by 296 Egyptian Pounds (US$53) for a one-page letter and US$100 for the taxi. I couldn’t do anything until Sunday, except plan alternative travel arrangements.
First thing on Sunday morning I took the hotel taxi to the Tunisian Embassy and told the taxi driver that I would call him to either wait, if my visa could be obtained within a couple of hours, or go back if I was to wait longer. After submitting my passport and the imperative letter, the young Tunisian boy said “un moment” when I asked him how long I would have to wait. I informed the taxi driver to wait. The visa application ‘office’ is a small barred window in the side of the Embassy, covered with a lean-to tin roof. It was 38°C in the street, it felt like 60°C under the tin roof. “Un moment”, was always the answer I got whenever I managed to shove my way to the window. I noticed after six hours that everyone had gone and I was the only one waiting. At last, I thought to myself, I’m going to get some attention. I poked my head to the barred aperture and requested some attention. Nothing. Finally an armed security guard came and said I had to leave as everyone had gone home. Bloody hell, I didn’t have my passport and I was still waiting for either a receipt or my visa. I rang the New Zealand Embassy emergency number, remember it was Sunday, kiwis day off. While I was explaining my dilemma to the New Zealand Consul a man appeared from the Embassy. He asked what I was doing there and requested that I leave. I explained in the nicest possible verbal
communication that I could after spending six hours in sauna-like conditions without a toilet or anything to drink that I did not have a receipt or a passport. He introduced himself as the Tunisian Consul and after listening to my quandary told me to come back at 10:15am the next day. I asked him if I would get a visa, but his reply “Inshallah” (God willing) did not inspire confidence. I explained that I would rather have his assurance than God’s intervention. So, frustrated, exhausted, dehydrated and with a bladder about to explode I got into the taxi to go back to the hotel. To cut a long story short I got my visa at 10:23am the following day and at US$537, (taxi fares, visa and letter costs) it was a very expensive visa.