35 minutes ago
Tuesday, June 30
Things started strangely.
As I settled into my seat (as best a 6' 1" manchild can 'settle' into an airline seat), something wasn't quite right.
A quick browse of the food and drink laminate showed sandwiches for 4 euro, bottled water for 1 euro and beer for 1.50...my eyes seemed to lack a certain burning sensation...a distinct lack of sensory-overload thanks to relentless blue-and-yellow plastic hideousness and advertisements for 'baggies' of vodka and rum.
"That air steward-person doesn't look like a Transylvanian post-op transsexual", I thought to myself. "And I can still feel my legs below the knees."
I was on a Tunisian airline, you see, but Ryanair was etched into my mind's eye.
We were on the way to Yasmine Hammamet, a Tunisian coastal resort in its infancy. The idea of a resort holiday brought up images of drunken 18-year old Thomas Cook reps vomiting in each other's handbags whilst having brief, unprotected sex on the beach with swarthy Ahmed, the lifeguard/fruit salesman/salamander vendor.
Luckily I had left my handbag at home.
The girlf and I really needed a break and a holiday of poolside boozing and beach side lolling was just the ticket.
The Diar Lemdina hotel offered the perfect deal: the room was a two-storey job with 3 bathrooms and two bedrooms, all of which I used in rotation and never limiting myself to their specific function.
The pool was a long 10-second stumble from the room's door and the period between said door and falling headfirst into the pool, when I was absolutely beerless, was a nightmare.
Luckily, there was always a drinks-delivery youth waiting in the wings to take care of me, almost in that Remains Of The Day, Anthony Hopkins way.
I was Emma Thompson and little Mohammed was my silent protector and provider without ever really admitting it to me.
The first few days were a bit of a culture shock with the haggling nature of the nearby market, the Medina - I spent a half hour negotiating the price of a magic carpet with one tradesman only to discover it was a rug with little-to-no magic capabilities.
With the Medina right next door to the hotel, we were through it every night, dodging Arabic beckoning and cries of 'Cheaper than Asda' or 'Have a butchers' but it was something for which you really needed to be in a mentally strong state to cope and if you have never experienced this kind of thing, you are hereby warned.
The routine quickly became: get up, hit the pool, have lunch, have a beer, hit the beach, have beers, go on a jet ski, avoid paying 45 Dinar for 3 pieces of fruit, avoid buying a turtle/salamander/frog, have dinner and have beers in the fading sun.
Then we booked a two-day Sahara trip.
My Irish skin said 'no' but my fingers reached for the cash anyway and on the Thursday morning at 6am, having spent 4 days living the lives of particularly complainy lizards with excellent communication skills and Dunnes flip-flops, we packed off to the desert.
It took in many aspects including a gripping 4x4 trip to the Atlas Mountains, a horse-and-cart journey to a fruit plantation in the middle of nowhere, an oasis, camel-riding in the Sahara, nearly catching the sunrise in the desert, salt-mines and the Troglodyte caves where all the Star Wars Tatooine scenes were shot.
It was truly wonderful, one of the more weird parts of the trip being the visit to a Southern Tunisian couple, in their respective 70s and 80s, who actually lived in one of the cave houses, having reared eight children there.
As I stood there in awe of their achievement in such an unforgiving environment, an English girl bulldozed into their 'bedroom' bellowing 'They ain't goh now telllllleeee'.
Least of their problems, love.
Unusually, given my hyper-cynical disposition (and considering I was a tourist on a touristy tour) I was genuinely moved by the fact that in the corner of this cave house, an ancient woman was hand-grinding corn with a stone mill, collecting a few Dinar from the browsing tourists.
The old husband just sat quietly across from her, slowly baking in the 38-degree heat in his hole-in-the-ground house and yet they seemed content, nodding and smiling at the curious horde in front of them.
I'll never complain about my phone reception again.
It helped that our guide - a wizened prune of a man called Eddie with a hilariously crap line in jokes and a genuine affection for this part of Tunisia, where he was originally from - was a real pro, always showing us what to do, where to move, how to deal with the culturally unfamiliar aspects of the tour.
Toward the end of the 1300-kilometre round-trip he did seem to be verging on 'mentally delicate' but I'm sure he's ok now. Ok or still asleep. Or dead.
He even brought bread for the hole-in-the-ground family's donkey.
We made it back to the resort hotel after two days, drained and fulfilled, set for one more slap-up meal, a little hookah pipe, some Boukha and bed.
The next day was time to fly, just as the week had done.
I should have bought a salamander.
Sunday, June 7
Watching Werner Herzog's South Pole documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, is an exceptionally humbling experience.
Herzog sets out his stall early in the film, telling us that he was not interested in making a movie about 'fluffy' penguins and instead he takes his tiny crew to McMurdo Station, the American headquarters, and a town-of-sorts in the Antarctic.
In and around this area, he encounters a group of people working in a variety of disciplines - plumber, driver, biologist, volcanologist - and tries to discover how and why they have ended up here, at the 'bottom of the world'.
Herzog willfully seizes on the eccentricities of many of these people and manages to create a film that is beautiful, both in its visual representation of an unusual part of the planet and in its portrayal of the fragility of humanity and how, ultimately, we are all just a blip on this planet with extinction an inevitability, just like the dinosaurs before us.
Nature will take care of us sooner or later.
We are no more special than the single cell organisms that are scraped from the ocean floor by one 50s science fiction film enthusiast and scientist who celebrates the discovery of three new species in a single dive by jamming with a co-worker on top of their shed in the middle of the snow, their noisy blues echoing across the white plains.
Personally, I find this prognosis refreshing and Herzog certainly doesn't want it to be taken as bad news. As always, he sees the beauty in human existence, in their stories and thoughts and ideas and lives and he sees the eventual demise of our species as just another step in the world's history..and future.
Why do we deserve anything special because we are a little more intellectually advanced than most animals?
Isn't it wonderful to imagine that everything we have ever created, both hideous and sublime, will someday be gone, probably through our own doing, and the world could be once more left to the most basic creatures, scurrying and foraging on the ocean bed, only interested in the next meal.
The earth would have a clean slate again and it is just a shame that Herzog will not be there to make a documentary about that.
I can imagine his monotonous voice, just audible over helicopter-shot footage of a desolate, silent planet:
"Theees eees de plenet nowww. Chust ez eet begenn. Wiss nossing ett all exsseptt ameebazzz and plennnt liiiiife....'