It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the culture of Islam, it was the culture of Buddhism, it was the beach by the sea, it was the hamlet in the mountains, it was the spring of relaxation, it was the autumn of inner–reflection.
Usually, we sign a one year contract and stay in a place from September to June. However, when the opportunity to volunteer and live at a Buddhist monastery in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains for six months presented itself, we had to take it. Now, from where I sit – on my private balcony overlooking the crystalline Mediterranean Sea – I can see the decision was destiny.
Following our volunteering, we accepted a six-month position (to round out the year) with an American NGO (non-government organization) in Tunisia: Amideast. When we were hired, we were supposed to have been placed in one of the largest cities in this small north African nation, Sousse (you may remember it from the terrorist attacks in the summer of 2015). But fate reared its head yet again and our assignment shifted to a smaller city about 20 kilometers south along the eastern seaboard.
Yep, you guessed it. The name means monastery. So while we’ve been staying put for 10-12 months at a time, we moved to two different locations within the same year and both were – for all intents and purposes – monasteries.
My first impressions of Tunisia were mostly unexpected. The people smile all the time. They seem much friendlier in general than in other similar countries. Perhaps it’s the climate. The summers (they say) can get very hot, but all in all the coastal cities share the weather of Greece, Italy and southern Spain.
There is a lot of litter around on the streets and blowing in the wind. The beaches aren’t up to American or even European standards (probably one of the reasons tourism has dipped recently), but what surprised me is that the air seems cleaner than Nepal and Egypt. There seems to be much less dust and there is an ability to take deep breaths and smell the salty sea air.
Monastir as a city is quaint and quiet. It juts out on a little peninsula that faces east so the sunrises sparkle off the blue-green water. The view from our balcony looks out over the Mausoleum of Bourguiba and the ribat (a medieval fort) as well as the eastern wall of the medina (old city). There is a lot of traffic along the busier streets, but it’s nothing compared to the hectic turmoil of Nepal. So maybe first impressions are relative. If we had arrived in Tunisia directly from the United States, we may have been in for much more of a shock than we were.
The cost of living is much lower here than many other places, including Spain. In fact a kilogram of oranges costs about $0.25 and rents are a fraction of what a similar apartment would be in America or Europe. We’ve started running again, now that we have room to do so, and there are lots of benefits to exercise so near to the sea. More importantly than any of that though: we feel safe. There was a lot of speculation regarding our security before we got here. I’m pleased to announce that as of the writing of this blog, all is well.
One of the initial downsides that may impact the entire time here is the work schedule. Many of the classes are geared toward adults and therefore must take place in the evenings and on weekends. It makes planning meals and leisure time activities difficult. On top of that, it’s not a static schedule. There is the potential to get more classes each month when new sessions begin.
Like everywhere else in the world, Tunisia is full of positives and negatives, advantages and disadvantages. Only time will tell if the pluses outweigh the negatives, but so far, it’s looking quite good.
Until Next Time….