A hundred years ago all cross-continental travel was done either extremely slowly on winding overland routes or at the mercy of the sea's vagaries. Of course, that all changed in the 20th century and long-distance boat travel increasingly became the exclusive realm of holidaymaking tours on cruise lines or else ordeal-making journeys on small crafts. As grandparents will recount, however, there's something romantic to be said for time spent at sea when the curvature of the Earth is apparent, brine is in the air and you are making steady progress towards landfall.
For a portion of the more than two and a half million Maghribi immigrants living in France today, the ferry service between North Africa and Europe is still the transport mode of choice to travel between home and homeland - popular direct ferry routes to France leave from Tangier, Tunis and Algiers. For me, sailing aboard one of these vessels is a way to reach my destination of Marseille with the added bonus of spending the time at sea that I enjoy, but without the high prices or Bahama-shorts image that I connect with cruise ships. And at US$251 (Dh923) for the cheapest one-way fare, including taxes, with the ferry operator Compagnie Tunisienne de Navigation (www.ctn.com.tn), the 22-hour ferry ride from Tunis to Marseille is reasonably affordable, especially so considering that unlike airlines, the ferry company has no bizarre habit of making one-way fares more expensive than return ones.
After a week of making the rounds in Tunisia, this morning I took a taxi from the capital's Ville Nouveau section across the causeway running over Lac de Tunis to the La Goulette, a now-quaint port area that developed around a 16th-century, Spanish-built Kasbah. Upon arriving at the harbour, I find that, far from the medium-sized boat riding the waves that I had imagined, the ship I'll be sailing on - the Carthage - is a 180m-long white-and-red-painted leviathan anchored at the docks.
I hand my ticket to the agent in the terminal, pass through immigration and then a security scanner. The guards seem most bemused by my presence. I have heard from taxi drivers in parts of Tunisia that they have never driven an American around before, but the people here are downright wide-eyed. They do share with me one very important tip, however. One of the guards asks me how much money I have on me. While it sounds rather intrusive at first, he goes on to explain that the restaurants, cafes and commissary on the boat do not accept credit cards or Tunisian dinar and there are also no ATMs on board. I happen to have some euros tucked away, otherwise the following hours would be incalculably long and full of stomach pangs.
And so about an hour before the boat is to depart, I climb up its rampway and a crew member looks at my ticket stamped "pullman" and brusquely directs me to the lift and upwards to the boat's seventh floor. I had not envisioned being carried on a vessel with a lift taking up to 2,208 passengers between nine floors (with the first five containing up to 666 vehicles that also may be making the journey) but at least there will be plenty to explore.
The lift is packed and so I lug my backpack up a few flights of stairs and find beyond a front desk and past a drab corridor lined with private compartments that cost as much as $389 (Dh1,428) for one person, the place where I am to spend the next day and night. In a large open room with a bow-facing window are stationed about a dozen rows of seats with arm rests between them so that one cannot lie across. There is a big-screen TV in front of us playing Arabic soap operas, the matted red carpet is flecked with faded rainbow markings and people are stashing their things in the seats beside them. The pullman area has the feel of a floating airport waiting lounge.
I ask an attendant standing around if I can secure my things in one of the lockers in the back of the room but he tells me that they are all broken. What would really come in handy is one of those travel locks with an expandable cable, which only cost about $10 (Dh37) and would mean that I wouldn't have to worry about my things getting ripped off while I wander around. Unfortunately, I lost mine on a previous trip. My passport and the majority of my cash, however, are tucked away in a money belt.
I leave my bag on the seat and head in search of a portal to the open air. Near the front desk I find a doorway that leads to the green-painted deck and I stroll around before finding the way to the stern where there is an empty swimming pool - the air is much too cold - and a small cafe. Gulls are hovering in the strong wind and the Tunisian flag is flapping at the flagpole, and even though it's only about 10am there are men huddled around a table breaking apart a baguette and sharing a bottle of wine that they brought with them. When I order a cup of coffee I realise that they had the right idea, because not only is everything on board priced in euros, it costs European prices, with a coffee being almost $2 (Dh7).
That unmistakable series of chimes sounds and as the boat pulls away from the shore its turbines kick up a great dirty tide in the green water and then we begin moving away from land, with the cranes and industrial buildings on Tunisia's coast getting smaller and smaller. After a while, I return to the pullman area. I didn't sleep much the previous night and manage to doze off in my upright seat, with others bedside me sprawled out on the floor. When I wake up it feels like lunch time. I find that the boat has a choice of three restaurants ranging from a fancy prix fixe that costs $46 (Dh170) to a niceish, cloth-napkins à la carte eatery with filet de boeuf au poivre vert for $26 (Dh96), and the "self-service" bar where I sample a thin swatch of leathery escalope of chicken over limp french fries that costs $11 (Dh43). After breakfast, lunch, dinner and breakfast again aboard the Carthage I painfully understand that the food here is not good and not cheap. There are three bars too where the same equation is in place. One has a piano player whose singing is enough to make one lean over the boat's side. Another blares the worst hits of the 1980s. All are overpriced.
The situation is rather the opposite of a cruise ship where the quality may vary but everything is included in the price. On this ferry, they know they have a captive customer base that's hungry and bored and they make you pay dearly for that which you would never choose if you were on land. The one thing that I find on board, however, that is worth the entire cost of the fare is watching a sunrise at sea.