Thursday, July 2, 2009

How many camels are you?

Well, the last of the blog posts by my friends about our trip this past weekend have been posted, so it's about time I finish before all of the details become completely blurry...
After a night of lounging by the pool (arguably the first real break I've taken since I got here), I woke up early to go on a tour of the medina of Tozeur. Tozeur is a beautiful city, made up of sand colored walls that criss-cross the city like the maze. There are shops jutting off and sitting under archways, as well as a large central market. Here, I tried date juice for the first time, a super sweet drink sold by old men sitting on street corners. They just have little buckets of water to rinsse the cups out after you've drinken and it's all very communal. After the tour of the medina, I went shopping (again) with the some friends. We went to a berbere shop where I bought traditional pants--they're very cool and I'll show you all back in the US. The shop keeper was this hilarious young guy who was quite smitten with one of the girls. At one point, he asked her, "how many camels are you?" and then went on to say he would pay 30,000 camels and 5 ferraris to marry her. I'm not sure if that many camels even exist in Tunisia, but we got the message. I'm also starting to perfect/better my haggling skillz. The shop keeper said I was just like his people--strong and stubborn, i.e. I got the price I wanted!

After the free time, we continued onward, going to the Dar Cherait, a museum where we learned about the traditional clothing and customs of the South. It was a pretty typical museum, filled with scary manequins, but it also displayed some interesting ocassions--like traditional weddings, hamam visits, etc. We then went to the oasis of Tozeur, where we rode horse-drawn carriages into the center. This was a pretty scary experience--sitting backwards in a rickety cart with no seat belts and barely anything to hold on to, while taken narrow curves...But once we reached the center, we took a tour, looking at pomegranite, banana and date
trees. We also got to sample the fresh dates and see one of the workers climb to the very top of the tree barefoot and without protection to collect the fruit. Impressive. He made it look so easy that some of the Americans tried. Needless to say, their attempts did not turn out as smoothly.

Afterwards, we visited a zoo in Tozeur. It was a mixture of one of the saddest places I've been to before and one of the funniest. Our tour guide was a bit of a comedian. He started the tour by showing us a wall of bones and pointing out which ones came from which tourists--on one side, the American tourists, then the Germans, the French, even Tunisian. He then preceeded to call us "tourists!!" every time he wanted to get our attention during the tour. At the end, he did a show with snakes, lizards, and a scorpian named Janet Jackson, whose cage was a cigarette box called a "garage."
After lunch at the hotel, it was time to head to the place we had all been looking forward to--the Sahara Desert! During the two or so hour ride, we made a few stops. First, we visited one of the locations where Star Wars was filmed! I know it was a scene from the first movie, but I can't exaclty pin which one--something about miles and miles of sand in every direction kind of looks the same. In actuality though, the area is a shrine that sits on top of a huge hill. Getting out was our first experience in the desert and it definitely has a different feel to it--hot, heavy, but unbelievably unbelievable.

We then continued on to the Chott Djerid, a salt marsh that has been split in two by the recent construction of a road, which follows the streams of red, green and purple salt for miles and miles. We got out at a little tourist attraction made on the side of the road. They built a castle and other structures out of the salt, like a cross between sand castles and winter ice sculptures that reminded me of the Winter Carnival in St. Paul. We then visited another tourist hot spot, premature sand stone formations collection like boulders. I didn't really understand the geology behind, although some of the more scientifically minded students tried explaining. The boulders were mostly just fun to climb on and jump off of.

Finally, we reached the Sahara Desert that we were expecting--sand dune after sand dune. We took a camel trek for about a half hour to our campsite. The camel ride was bumpy, a littly painful at first, but very fun. The next day, my legs were throbing, but it was definitely worth it. Our campsite was perhaps too posh to really call camping--we had huge air conditioned tents and comfortably housed 6 in large beds, a bar/ cafe, a tent for lounging, a restuarant and a music tent. There were also showers that I tried to brave the next day, but it was really more of a drizzle that only removed on of the many layers of fine sand covering me. That evening, we were treated to a huge 5 course meal lit by lanterns. We then watched and listened to traditional belly dancing and drumming. Somehow, I was pulled up to the makeshift stage and danced with the belly dancer and two other girls from the group. We were up there for what felt like forever, barely able to keep up with the intricate movements and laughing too much to really try. After a game of mafia, I took off towards the sand dunes and spent hours star gazing. We saw countless shooting stars and could easily recognize constellation after constellation. It was amazing to see the sky so clearly and while laying on beds of sand, nonetheless. One of my friends made an interesting comment about wondering who all had walked on the sand we let fall through our fingers. It's amazing to think about and to have been sitting on one little piece of a region so large and encompassing.

The next morning, we took little carts back to the bus. That is, little horse-drawn carts that had no closure to them--people were falling off at every turn. The day was spent traveling to Djerba, which would be our final stop. Today was mainly devoted to the architecture of the region, with many stops to look at different houses. In the South, it used to be very common for people ot live underground in houses that had courtyards that were deep pits and had rooms coming off under the ground. We stopped at another location where Star Wars was filmed, this scene, however, was a little more familiar. We also had lunch in one of the houses, sitting on mats on the floor and sharing bowls of couscous at a long table of 15. At lunch, two of the people from the group, dressed as a couple in a traditional wedding ceremony.

We stopped at all sorts of beautiful panarama's overlooking abandoned towns and thriving villages, including the town of Matmata. The city has constructed white "MATMATA" letters in the style of Hollywood and we all gathered around to get our picture taken with them. Our final stop for the day was a granery that has since been abandoned. Like most historical sites in Tunisia, you are allowed to climb all over it and we had a lot of fun taking group photos and eating ice cream in the old storage spaces.

That evening, we crossed the bridge into Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia. It is considered one of the must-go-to places of the country and, because of that, very touristy. We stayed at what was probably the nicest hotel I've ever been to. We had huge rooms overlooking a colorful garden, three swimming pools (salt water, fresh water and one with a slide!), were only a short walk from the beach and the buffet was incredible! I spent the evening swimming in the pool, swimming in the sea, stuffing myself silly and then dancing with the other guests to dances led by the staff. If I can imagine what a cruise is like, this is it minus the boat.

The next morning I went shopping in the medina with some friends and then started feeling guilty for having not started my homework, so we spent the rest of the morning at the hotel cramming. We left the hotel after lunch and spent the afternoon making little stops around the island. We visited the Ghriba Synagogue, which has the oldest torah in the world and is well-known throughout the Maghreb. Being there was surreal. As we were leaving we passed people coming in to pray while the call to prayer was sung in the background. Nonetheless, it was a really good example of people living together peacefully and acknowledging similarities despite such varying beliefs.

That afternoon we also visted a beautiful pottery town and a medina. Like all medinas, this town was bustling and full of vendors hassling us. But before we had free time to shop, we stopped at a church that we were supposed to visit. For some reason or another, however, we were not allowed to enter, which was a contradictory ending to the hospitality we'd experienced at the other religious sites. Our final group stop was a hostel in the area that had played an historical role for trade in the region. We then headed to the airport, where we flew back to Tunis and took a bus home to our host families. I must say though, my second pang of culture shock came at the airport, where the security was reminiscent of the 1990's in the U.S. It was unexpected, but very appreciated, because the last thing any of us wanted was to be held back given how exhausted we were.

And now, I am back in al Marsa. I have a test tomorrow that I should be studying for and am looking forward to a nice relaxing weekend filled with both recovery and nostalgia.


  1. What a great trip! And such beautiful pictures -- I love the camel under the night sky and the beautiful purple and pink pools in the salt beds. Amazing views all around. I hope you have a restful and fun weekend -- Mom

  2. Wow! You are having such amazing adventures. Thank you for taking the time to share all these great stories with us!
    Lol I just today figured out sometimes I can click on the photos to enlarge them. Beautiful captures, and you are looking so chic! =)