August 18, 2018
An ancient mariner was asked what he was going to do when his life at sea was done. He said, “I’m going to tie up my boat, put an oar on my shoulder, and walk inland until someone says, ‘What’s that?’ That’s where I’ll stay.” We didn’t use the oar trick, but we were happy to find our Licata apartment clean and functional, with working air-conditioning!
We finished our summer cruising two weeks ago after an “exciting” sail from Hammamet, Tunisia to Licata. It’s been a hot summer in the Mediterranean, and we sailed through one of the results – energetic thunderstorms! One of them produced a violent and destructive tornado on the Italian island of Pantelleria, and we were within ten miles of it as it was happening.
Thunderstorms pose two problems for sailors – occasionally very strong, gusty (but short duration) winds, and lightning. Serafina can, and did, handle the winds, but being hit by lightning would ruin your whole day. Oddly, sailboats are rarely struck by lightning – which seems counter-intuitive – since they have tall, conductive metal (mostly) masts sticking up out of a very flat sea.
Maybe the rarity of lightning strikes on sailboats is explained by the high conductivity of salt water, making it less likely for the lightning to detour on the way down (or up, depending). It could be that unlucky sailboats just sail into the spot where the lightning was going to hit anyway. Nonetheless, the one strike that was less than a kilometer from Serafina got our attention!
Another engaging part of the voyage to and from Tunisia was crossing the shipping lanes in the “Canal di Sicilia” – the water between Sicily and North Africa through which all Mediterranean shipping must pass.
This pinch-point in Mediterranean shipping gets us to the subject of Carthage. Most people have only vague ideas of where and what Carthage was, despite the fact that at one point it was the largest city in the pre-industrial world – some 750,000 to a million inhabitants in the first century AD. By then it was the Roman capital of the “Province of Africa,” but its origins were very different.
Carthage was a city in what is now Tunisia, thirty miles northwest of where Serafina was moored in Hammamet. It was founded about 1,000 BCE by Phoenicians migrating west from what is now modern Lebanon. As the center of “Punic” civilization, Carthage and Carthaginians (including some famous ones like Hannibal) dominated the Mediterranean until their defeat by Rome in the Third Punic War in 146 BCE. The Romans destroyed the city entirely, enslaved its population and even, according to legend “sowed the earth with salt.” Apparently, after having lost the first two very costly Punic Wars, the Romans were in a vengeful mood. The Romans eventually rebuilt the city, but it was destroyed again around 600 AD in the wars involved in the Muslim “Conquest of the Maghreb.”
But for almost a thousand years, Carthage and Carthaginians founded ports and cities throughout the Western Mediterranean, including many in Spain and southern Italy – incidentally including Trapani, from which we departed for Tunisia. It’s yet another example of the profound influence of Arabic cultures on the development of “western” civilization. Unfortunately, almost nothing remains of the original city, its miles of strong walls, and its fleets of hundreds of warships. Its few archeological remains are in a quiet suburb of Tunis.
Our experience of modern Tunisia was brief – three days in the marina of Yasmina Hammamet. We did see some evidence of the mixed evolution of Tunisian society in the days after the “Arab Spring” – mainly in that the crowds taking strolls through the marina included women clad in black from head to toe (in fierce heat, and accompanied by husbands in t-shirts and shorts), but also younger women in belly-baring, scanty outfits that would have made any American teenager proud. There seemed to be an atmosphere of tolerance. The food and wine (yes, Tunisia has a robust wine-producing region) were excellent, and diesel was a real bargain – a euro a liter less than the best price in Italy. I had one of the best dishes of the summer in Hammamet – beef stewed with whole chilis in a very dense and intense sauce made of finely ground fresh mint leaves. Something to remember!
We got back to Licata to find preparations for “Melt Fest” – a food festival celebrating the mixed cultural influences that form Sicilian culinary traditions – well under way. We were especially proud to see this statement as part of the official publicity for the festival: “At 6:30 pm on 24 August, at the Marina di Cala del Sole, there will be a meeting to talk about the ‘Palermo Charter’, which supports ‘international human mobility’. According to the Charter, we need to move from ‘migration as a painful obligation to mobility as an inalienable human right.'”
And speaking of being inland, I forgot to mention one of our stories from Sardegna last time. After we did the hike to a Nuraghi from the very small town of Gairo Taquisara, we had lunch in a house/restaurant with a memorable mutton stew (Pecora al Umido). We sat outdoors rehydrating with cold beer, surrounded by woods on all sides, and before the food arrived we heard, from somewhere not too far off, what sounded like “Help!” repeated several times. It seemed oddly timed, like someone (speaking English) was severely in distress.
Maybe someone had fallen and broken a leg? Then there was a long period of silence. Then the cries started up again. We brought it to the attention of the restaurant’s owner, and she jumped in her car and drove down the road looking for someone in a ditch, or a flash of color in the woods and couldn’t see anything. And didn’t hear the cries again.
We ate for a bit, and then the cries began again. So, we, along her and two other locals, piled in her car to look for the problem more diligently. Maybe a 150 meters from the restaurant we found the issue. It was a young female goat who had stuck her head through a fence and gotten hung up on her horns, unable to go forward or back. She was panicked, exhausted, and seemed to be in shock. “She speaks English!” someone said.
Neither the restaurateur nor her two male friends seemed to have any experience with animals, so I rotated the goats head, bent the wire and got her out. She lay there in a heap, occasionally bleating piteously, and didn’t seem able to move. After pouring some water in her mouth and on her head, we decided to leave her to recover at her own pace. Twenty minutes later as we left the restaurant (after getting the recipe for the mutton stew), we saw that she had gotten up on her own and left the scene. Nice to have a non-nautical experience with a happy ending!