Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Lessons from Carthage

This past Saturday, I toured the ruins of Carthage with my friend and colleague Linda. She is spending seven months working for the International Criminal Court in The Hague. She paid me a visit on what turned out to be the coldest week in Tunisia in a half century. I'm convinced the frigid winter weather simply followed her here to make her feel at home.

My Friend Linda at the Roman Baths
We took a train that runs from downtown Tunis to Carthage and other northern suburbs. We knew where to get off, but there were no signs to indicate where to go once we reached our destination. A taxi driver came to our rescue and offered to be our guide for the afternoon. He asked for a fee that seemed to be fair, so we took him up on his offer.

He took us to to over seven sites dating as far back as the eight century B.C. By the end of the day we saw an amphitheater, a coliseum, a ritual burial ground, a military dock, a villa, the Roman baths, and a hilltop that was the location of a complex consisting of a museum and the Carthaginian necropolis. In all we spent four hours looking at ruins.

Our first stop was the necropolis. After we paid our fee, we found ourselves accompanied by a distinguished looking gentleman who proceeded to recite the history of Carthage, starting with its founding by a group of Phoenician colonists led by Queen Dido, the sister of Pygmalion. It was a compelling story. But once he finished telling it, he held out his hand. A bit surprised, we made a donation. But he insisted on being paid more.

Ruins of the Roman Baths
It turned out that our museum guide was part of a fraternity. At nearly every site, we found ourselves greeted by people who insisted on either selling us a souvenir or serving as our guide. However, our experience earlier in the day prepared us for this, and we managed to avoid being separated from any more of our money. But we were not prepared for what happened at the very end of our tour.

We told our driver to take us to the home of my new friend Samia, who lives not far from the ruins. To our surprise, the driver insisted on being paid an amount that was nearly twice what he first asked for, claiming he did more than what he first agreed to do. Not wanting to violate some unwritten rule while a guest in a foreign land, we reluctantly complied.

We told Samia about our experience with the driver, and she wasted no time getting him on the phone. Linda and I heard her speak Tunisian in a calm but stern voice before hanging up about five minutes later. The next thing we knew, the driver returned and gave back everything we paid him except the fee he first quoted, claiming it was all a misunderstanding. Linda and I were mystified.

Me and My Friend Samia
We asked Samia what she said to convince the driver to come back. She said she began the call by asking if he was the driver who just dropped off the two Americans who work at the U.S. Embassy. Apparently, that half-truth was enough to get him to reconsider what he just did. I knew the U.S. passport came with benefits. I just didn't know this was one of them. I'm glad I was with a friend who knew how to play that card for me.

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