I was lucky enough to visit Tunisia in my second year of college, 2009. I was unlucky enough to find myself on a Somali pirate ship… and it was by choice. This is not a horror story like Jude’s terrible kidnap, in actual fact I wasn’t in any real danger at all, just mere discomfort.
On a walk through Port El Kantaoui with my Mum we saw advertisements for gimmick-y pirate tours and we were desperate to get out on the sea since it was just too cold to go for a paddle on the beach (it was February). We paid our deposit, booked a day and turned up that morning, bright-eyed and bushy tailed with hope for a swashbuckling day visiting ports nearby and the always exceptional meal you get from ship kitchens.
We hopped on board and were greeted by a few pretty averagely dressed men. No Captain Hook character here, much to my disappointment. We assumed they were Tunisian and when trying to strike up conversation they grunted that they were Somali and that they were busy. Mum and I entertained ourselves while others clambered onto the boat. We realised with a sinking (haha) feeling, as we left the port, that we were the only English speakers, neither of us capable of any Somali or Tunisian vocabulary. We’re pretty damn rubbish at Russian and Polish too, unfortunately.
A few minutes after making way, a man delicately wrapped a bandana around Mum’s head, much to her dismay, but she rolled with it. I had a few seconds to snap a picture before he demanded money for the honour. Obviously, when we told him we hadn’t brought ANY valuables (except the camera) or money with us he was quite aggrieved. He snatched the bandana from Mum’s head, pulling her hair and cursing us a he stormed away.
What the hell just happened? Did our tour guide just threaten us on open sea?
The rest of the trip dragged. Loud, port storming music blasted out of the speakers, the “pirates” continued to ignore us, tutting as they went past. The Captain found it hilarious to sway the boat left and right as waves crept up over the edges. I’m no die hard thrill seeker but I’m not a wimp either, the lack of friendly communication from our guides left me genuinely fearing for our lives… or at least my breakfast, which was slowly making it’s way back up my oesophagus.
We finally stopped for lunch which wasn’t as great as we hoped but still edible. I am a little fussy with food so I don’t tend to get upset when something isn’t to my taste. Instead a dropped little bits over board and watched the fish come to the surface.
I do love the fishes.
Obviously, I was told off again. I don’t know what he said but he shouted, pointed and snatched my plate away. I watched quietly as other members of the group were allowed to entice the fish for the pennies they kept handing over. We were completely excluded, shunned for being tight English tourists. I continued to take pictures of seagulls to pass the time. Our day was completely ruined. We couldn’t wait to get back to the safe hands of the Tunisians. They don’t pull your hair, shout at you, spit near you, tut at you or demand money you don’t have.
What was going to happen at the end of this trip? Would they follow us back to our hotel for tips?
Having visited North Africa a few times I’m aware of some of the problems that might arise when travelling in a small female group. The stereotypes are mostly true… the men seem to enjoy engaging with blonde, female tourists. It’s not always a bad thing, I’ve had a few lovely chats with Egyptian men, who when we part ways say a nice farewell and are happy to have practised their English.
These “Somali pirates” frightened me but we made it back to the hotel unscathed. We stopped at a small milkshake/smoothie cafe for a drink and so that we could check in a public place that we weren’t being followed. There was a nice English lady there visiting her Tunisian fiance so we relaxed and got back into enjoying our holiday.
Traveling is a terrifying thing. I read blogs over and over and hardly any describe how frightened they are of other people. I’m a big believer that most people are kinder than you can even imagine, but just sometimes there are people to keep a close eye on.
I feel for Jude, the experience she had was a million times more heart wrenching than my own, but her determination and hope is an inspiration to anyone. When the story surfaced I was horrified but it resonated. When you’re stuck on a boat with no where to go and you’re faced with men demanding money, you feel helpless.