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World Summit blog: Heat, taxis and cous-cous

A strange first day

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WSIS Tunis Tunis is relatively mild this time of year for a North African country. Although if you've just come from Britain, the sudden jump of 10-15 degrees wouldn't let you think so.

But heat was very much the order of the day as the Kram conference centre was forced to open its doors early in order to accomodate ongoing discussions (arguments) about internet governance and funding of networks in developing countries.

The hall that will be used for the main summit, starting Wednesday, was still being done up, plus "WSIS TV" was testing its TV cameras, presenters and sound. I know this only because you could watch it all on a widescreen TV in the press room. There was no way you were getting near the actual room itself - unless you were willing to take on six grey-suited security men in a row.

Maybe they're worried someone will plant a bomb. Although having been through seven security checks to even get that far, it seems pretty unlikely. I've also been checking and I'm not sure any of them are packing. Presumably they hope attitude alone will prevent any crazed lunatics from trying it on.

Anyway, all of this meant the controversial topic of internet governance was debated in a smaller room just off the main hall. And it became immediately clear that there is small and there is small. Net governance is the hot topic at Tunis and it was immediately clear it would be a crowd-puller. The result was a packed and steaming room with jealously guarded seating. I was forced to sneak off to the side, grab a chair from another room and plonk it on the end of the line, pretending it had always been there.

It wasn't long before the social nicety of leaving a jacket or a bag on a seat to reserve was replaced with a time-based system. More than five minutes away from that seat and it was gone. The only token strong enough was an open and running laptop. Even that was a risk.

Fortunately the fact that the room was akin to Turkish bath helped root out the weak. In fact it was so hot and humid at one point that delegates started making official complaints and the president of the meetings assured everyone that he had asked the Tunisians to see to it as a matter of priority.

God knows how they actually pulled it off, but within half an hour the room temperature must have dropped 10 degrees, sparking the UK representative to thank the hosts for reducing the heat in the room because the discussion itself got heated.

And it looked as if the discussion would do exactly that, until the chairman cleverly diffused the tension. He sent all the warring parties off to decide the points where they could actually agree. Unfortunately the heat took hold again. Aside from a huge dose of commonsense, the one thing the even smaller drafting room needed the most was a draught.

From Turkish bath to Japanese sweat-box. I suspect the only thing to come out of the process will be a universal participant weight loss.

Taxi!

The Tunisian authorities have laid on dozens of buses to shuttle people from their hotels to the conference centre and back again. Unfortunately, this morning the plan hit a snag when none of them actually turned up.

Fortunately, Tunis is rich in clapped-out, cheap and yellow taxis who think the sudden influx of rich foreigners is too good an opportunity to miss. Three things you need to know about Tunisian taxis. One, if their light is red, they've got someone in the back, and if green, they're available. Two, given the slightest opportunity they will drive in the middle of the road and only move over to save hitting another taxi doing exactly the same but coming the other way. And three, they always have a meter which the cabbie will always round up and add one dinar just for the hell of it.

What is especially odd with cab journeys at the moment though is that most of them take place on a completely empty, beautifully tarmacked road. The Tunisian authorities have effectively cordoned off the main three hotel areas and their routes to the Kram centre. Dozens of roadblocks force you to slow to a crawl, you wave your summit badge, they ask you where you're from to judge just how bad your French is and then wave you on.

As a result, the locals are being forced to drive around the areas and you get a weird Planet of the Apes moment everytime you reach the dead-man zones.

Food

One of the great attractions of Tunis though is that the food is terrific and cheap. Well, if you discount my hotel and the Kram centre where it is inedible and expensive. I lunched at what I was informed was the best and most expensive restaurant in Tunis.

Dar Zarroukh in Sidi Bou Said was beautiful (overlooking the sea), offered sensational food (fish in particular) and wine, and had top-class service. A full lunch with starter, wine and dessert cost under £30.

And of course, this is North Africa and so cous-cous in very much in effect. Much smaller grains than the Morrocan or Algerian cous-cous but just as tasty.

There is clearly a wide money disparity, as there always is if you come from a Western country and visit anything other than another Western country. But Tunisia is remarkable in that it doesn't seem to bother anyone. No con-men, no child-thieves, no staring, bitter locals. In fact, the Tunisians are an extremely helpful and friendly bunch.

Their only flaw is adherence to officialdom. To get a coffee in the media cafe today I had to go through two levels of authority, eventually finding the top man for the cafe who green-lighted my coffee. Everyone was perfectly pleasant about it. It's just that I couldn't have any coffee until it had been approved.

When I asked for a copy of the map of the conference centre (only one appears to exist, pinned to the back wall of the information desk in the media area), they were only too happy to help. Once they had been given authority to do so. They helpfully located the relevant authority and after I was given a cursory glance, a copy was approved, so long as I didn't share it with anyone else.

As we neared the photocopier with this sacred text, the incredibly helpful aide holding the map tried to find someone to approve her using the machine. I cajoled her into making copies without finding the person in charge of photocopiers. She mischeviously complied - and went so far as to make not one but five copies - four of which she kept in case any other subversive journalists asked her for one.

You get the feeling that unless these crazy foreigners were about, she'd never have got away with it.®


More of Kieren's hopeless gibbering can be found at www.kierenmccarthy.co.uk.

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