Tunisia and its Secrets
June 8, 2015
Why did I chose Tunisia for this trip…a few reasons…first off, I was trying to decide between Morocco and Tunisia because I really wanted to spend the night in the Sahara…I have trekked in the Himalayas and wanted a sort of opposite experience AND to see the Stars in the desert…Morocco seemed over visited and to be honest did not have a welcoming feel as I investigated(especially for a single woman)…I like places that people don’t think to visit…mainly because it feels more like a real adventure and also because usually they turn out to be the true gems…Tunisia did not disappoint and proved that final point to a tee.
Arriving in Tunisia after 4 ½ weeks of intense traveling, I was tired and worried that I would not have the stamina to handle to itinerary my hired guide had in store for me. But it turned out to be perfect. I hired a guide in hopes of getting to understand more of the country as I traveled and I would hugely recommend it. Tunisia is exceptionally easy to travel solo but you would miss the best parts as well as the back stories. Most tourists come only to Tunis and then see Carthage & Sidi Bou Said and spend the rest of the time at one of their beautiful beach resort towns of Djerba, Hammet or Sousse…but that would mean you completely miss the south and that, along with some other amazing places in the north misses the heart of Tunisia.
Juanita, a Canadian expat, who has lived here for 10 years(before the Revolution, during and after) is an incredible guide. At first I was surprised when she met me at the Djerba airport…I didn’t expect a Westerner…all my guides in these countries have been locals…BUT I must say I had the most fun with her…maybe because she understood what I was looking to experience since she once came here with wide eyes and curiosity…She didn’t just focus on Mosques and Palaces etc…She immersed me into people she knew throughout the country and little known places(for tourism) that were absolute marvels of history and time like the old Berber city of Chenini built on top of and into the mountain. It was built in the 12th century to hide from invaders so there are all sorts hidden marvels to protect them. A small group of Berbers still live in parts of it and depend on the sale of their incredible Olive Oil pressed by camels as well as Tourism, which there is definitely not enough…
Tunisia has been really struggling since the Revolution that tossed Ben Ali out. They are the epicenter of the Arab Spring. A vegetable vendor was arrested for selling his vegetables and told he could not do it anymore…as his only source of income and as Ben Ali was strangling the people more and more, he was so desperate that he set himself on fire and that sparked a huge reaction from the people and a Revolution ensued that brought the end to Ben Ali and began free elections. Tunisia just a few months ago Democratically voted in a government that seems to be working for the people. After Tunisia, the Arab spring spread to Egypt and so on…but Tunisia is the only country that has been successful…After the Revolution, the economy took a nose dives and it was just beginning to lift itself out with the great help of tourism(it’s lifeblood with cruise ships from Europe) when ISIS attacked the Bardo Museum 2 months ago and has threatened to do more damage and kill more tourists, especially those visiting Star Wars places…This have absolutely destroyed the Tunisian economy. And they are the one country fighting to stay Secular and Democratic. That is the final reason I really wanted to come here…I wanted to show support. Throughout my travels here, so many Tunisians have thanked me for coming and told me how sad they are that tourists have stopped. They take great pride in their country and feel very protective of anyone visiting. So the attack hurt them on a personal level as well…They felt shame that vandals would do such atrocities.
With no tourists here, I got to see places, usually teeming with people, all by myself…and I loved that…but I am so saddened and worried that if tourism doesn’t pick up, their economy and thereby their government will collapse and ISIS will take hold as they are hoping to do and go right across to Morocco and turn this whole region into a caliphate…Trust me when I tell you the people do NOT want that. Having said all of this, I went to all the places that had threats made against them and saw only wonderful locals who were welcoming and, like Iran would come up to me on the street just to say Thank you for visiting. They are still quite hopeful but we all need to help…The West cannot let them collapse
Ok…back to Chenini(a little Star Wars trivia is one of the Moons of Luke Skywalkers home planet was named Chenini- George Lucas shot parts of several Star Wars movies in and around Chenini, Tatouine etc)…Chenini is a mountaintop Berber Village with cave houses built into the Mountain. We arrived in Chenini and Juanita hired a local guy from our restored Berber Cave Home(now hotel) to do a guided walk of the old city…He was hysterical…he ran up these steep stairs and then would look back at us and realize that we were several flights below since, let me tell you, these were steep and slippery stairs of stone and gravel and one wrong move and I would be a ruin too! This young man was so proud of his town and would delve into some great stories of how the Berbers would allude those trying to invade their city and steal their foods…They would build huge pots in the walls and ground and then make the holes quite small. They created a system , that they knew but others didn’t, to retrieve their oils and breads etc…
He showed us their Camel Press room that is still used today to make Olive Oil…There is a circular structure & trough where a camel walks around in circles to crush the olives…then they are put into a flat sort of basket into a hole in the ground…a stone press is put on top of the basket and squishes the oil…it runs off and voila: Olive Oil!
Camels…they are quite the popular animal in the south…used for all sorts of things…I learned that people usually only own males OR females but not both…as with cats and dogs, the Tunisians don’t fix any animal except the racing camel(so while racing if a female is around the camel doesn’t just stop and throw his jockey!)…so they don’t want them intermingling until breeding time. Males are the workers on treks etc and the females are sent out into the desert to hang out, once impregnated, to have their baby and spend up to 2 years raising it. As we drove through the south, we saw many many herds of these females roaming around…they are all owned but usually just roam on their own…every once and awhile an owner will come out and check on them…or if they suspect a problem pregnancy, they will send a vet. They have quite the good life…
The Tunisians, because they are Muslim and live by Halal, are very respectful of their livestock , which means they believe an animal MUST be happy, well fed and live a very good life before they can slaughter it for food and clothes…They will not eat any animal that has lived badly or died by an accident or suffered.
So it is quite common to see goats and sheep wandering without a Sheppard in towns …But most of the time a Shepard is guiding them for their grazing everyday…as with Iceland the Sheep are everywhere grazing freely….goats too….Cows are treated the same but there are very few.
When it is time for slaughter, incense is burned as a calming feature and their throat is slit in a way that death comes instantaneously. They really are strict about this. The animal must not suffer and they must have lived a happy life until that moment.
Berbers are the main indigenous people of Tunisia…The Bedouins live in the desert or Villages. Tunisia is one of the few, if only countries to still allow the Bedouins to live in the desert, legally. When the Arabs came across this region centuries ago, they were able to capture lands fairly quickly…but not with the Berbers…It took over 50 years to capture these lands. Tunisians also speak their own version of Arabic(Interspersed with French…since they were the Overloards for quite awhile)…so if you are fluent in Egyptian Arabic, you would find it difficult to completely understand Tunisian…Juanita has lived here 10 years and still is trying to make it work…There are no books so it is a hard language to master.
Juanita took me to the Oldest Synagogue in North Africa , El Ghriba Synagogue…which dates to 572 BC…but the structure is not that old…They say that the oldest Torah is there. We also visited the Art Village of Erriadh & a Houmt Souk…we toured around Tatouine where we saw 2 Berber Villages, one which is still inhabited. Tatouine is now famous for a more recent history:Star Wars…Yep…several of the movies were shot all around these areas…We, of course, ventured into a few and I imagined how the crews squeezed into these delicate places…The locals must have been overwhelmed by the production…since their world is so quiet and simple. Actually several movies, including the English Patient have shot here…Seems film friendly.
Juanita filled me in on the lore of the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers(you might want to google it-you will learn the story of the 7 Christians and discover there is a bit of a controversy of the Cave location but in recent years archaeologists seems to have discovered Chenini is the “real” area )…and we had a lovely walk in and around it…The minaret is leaning so the Mosque is known as the “crooked” mosque. The cave part is the 7 sleepers. The Mosque is from 1323 but the cave where the 7 Christians slept is from 700AD
I had the incredible opportunity to visit with a Berber woman and her young daughter for Tea and play “dress up” in her Troglodyte home in Matmata. A troglodyte home is a house that is dug far into the ground and then caves and throughways are created for rooms…From above it looks like a big hole in the ground. It was an amazingly comfortable and cozy home..the home was quite large for her family. She & her husband had 3 kids and there were at least 5 bedrooms…she had 2 for guests…to say she was welcoming is an understatement…and her little girls was to die for cute. After a lovely fresh rosemary tea and fresh flat bread and homemade olive oil dip, she grabbed my hand and ushered me into one of the guestrooms where she proceeded to dress me up in traditional Berber Partyware…full with the jewelry and all…then she posed me on a bed to show me the life of leisure…but before I could get too comfortable she hurried me some kind of stone press…she positioned me with my legs sprawled around a very large Stone Press and put a stick in the round stone and demonstrated quite easily the rotation of the grinding she wanted me to do…Well it looked easy enough…that is until the stick was in my hand…Barley doesn’t look that hard to crush…but the 40-50 pound stone was quite a different story…after I proved a failure there, she had me climb up these stone indentations in the wall, using a knotted rope to get up… and still fully dressed in the formal garb…up to the 2nd floor to check on the chickens…yep the chickens and their chicks were all there I reported, as I shook with fear as my feet were beginning to slip…how embarrassing that would have been…but I hustled down and was undressed and put back into my regular clothes.
We could not understand each other verbally BUT we had the most wonderful afternoon and I understood her completely. I was so sad when we said our goodbyes…but Juanita and I had an appointment with the Sahara…so off we went.
Our drive to Douz, the town on the edge of the Sahara was a trip of gut wrenching twists and turns through and around and down steep desert mountain roads…and Nouri, our driver seemed to relish in the challenge of every curve…So much so both Juanita and I were both turning green.
Once we got to Douz, I was hustled into a place and asked to pick a scarf…this is not really a scarf but a Cheich…Some young man tied it on and by how tight it was, I was confident it would not come off! I felt like I was off to be an extra in the remake of Lawrence of Arabia by the looks of the Cheich.
Then it was off to meet my transport…a lovely camel whom I struggled to get on and once I accomplished it he quickly and I do mean quickly got up…Camels are quite wide AND I am not as limber as I once was…heck I have never been all that limber…It takes a bit of getting used to sitting on a camel but their gate is quite smooth…but when they are going up or down a dune, their back shifts and you NEED to hold on…It was my own private roller coaster…
2 ½ hours later, we arrived at our Bedouin camp for the night. Juanita has many cameleers (all Bedouins) who she uses…We had 4 and I was the only tourist…and Juanita as guide. They cooked the most amazing dinner over an open fire inside their Bedouin tent(made of animal skin-you couldn’t even hear the wind the tent was so well made) because the winds were blowing quite hard…The winds were so bad that they were worried we would have to find some desert brush to camp in so the tents wouldn’t blow away. Eventually they died down just enough to let me sleep in a dune, which made me happy but Juanita even happier because she really wanted me to have the Sahara experience…even if only for one night.
The sand in the Sahara is quite fine…more then any other I have seen…Let me tell you what blowing extra fine sand does NOT mix with…Contact lenses and Cameras! My lenses survived without me needing the googles but putting my new lenses in the next day made putting a contact lens in at 17 below zero in the Himalayas a breeze(and THAT wasn’t easy either)! Now my camera may be another story…not sure if it will survive…still working but the lens is kicking a lot.
We settled in on blankets on the sand…The guys made it so comfortable too…like sitting in a livingroom….then they made us a traditional dinner with Brik(a potato & egg & parsley with tuna or cream cheese in a thin pastry deep fried), then couscous with chicken and all sorts of root veggies…and this to die for dessert pastry called “Corned Gazelle” It’s a pastry with almonds in the middle put in a pastry deep fried and dipped in honey and hardened…OMG YUMMY.
After eating like queens, the Bedouins began to play music and sing and dance…and yes, I had no choice but to join them as they forced my feet to move…and no there are NO pictures. The moon was full so it took a bit more time to see the stars but when I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night I could see so many, including one shooting…but the silence was what was so spectacular…so quiet…and then the wind would whip up…I just stood there and felt the quiet and reveled in where I was standing…the Sahara! And at that moment it felt as if no one was out there…the Bedouins were a bit away and so was Juanita’s tent so I could feel that wonderful feeling of quiet alone I love so much…The Sahara is magical…and I know some may think it is only just sand…it is far more…even as I rode the camel out, I could feel something different…The desert here is magical and calming…and soothing…It surprised me. I really want to come back and do an 8 day trek to go further in and that says a lot since I was walking like a cowgirl the next day!)…The desert is white sand here but as you go deeper the color changes and the Sahara in other countries is more red…so this place is really one of the only white deserts of it’s kind in the Sahara. Other then the whistling of the wind and the whipping, every now and then, of my tent, I slept quite well…and I am NOT a camper.
Breakfast was homemade bread that I got to watch them make…looks so easy…and is delicious…but I am betting it’s a “don’t try this at home” kind of cooking.
After our desert trek, we headed northwest to Tozeur and on the way passed Chott El Jerid, the largest Salt pan. I did a little hitchhiking when I saw how close we were to Algeria(We got within 1 km of the border)….Actually many Tunisians vacation in Algeria. We walked through the Medina in Tozeur and looked around at the Medieval architecture…and then headed to an Oasis town and walked to a gorge. We had a lovely guide who was a geologist take us through the gorge. It is over 220 million years old…and he found me a lovely fossil to bring home while we were walking…He also pointed out yet another Star Wars AND English Patient area. The gorge was the area that Lucas used for the chase that is now part of Disney’s “Star Tours”.
We also visited the Tamerza waterfall, where we encountered a skinny dipping Libyan. I am not sure he was scheduled to be on the tour but he was a site to see for sure (-:
On our last couple of days we saw several Roman Ruins like El Jem Amphitheater, Carthage(theater and Roman Baths) and smatterings of ruins throughout Mahida which is a really lovely seaside(but not touristy) fishing village on the Mediterranean…We spent the afternoon wandering around, sipping tea, shopping and watching artists work the looms and spending the night on the ocean…listening to the ocean was so sweet…especially after just spending time in the desert…
Our last day was to Tunis and Sidi Bou Said, which is a gorgeous seaside town within 15 miles of Tunis that is known for it’s White and Blue motif…The white & blue is really to keep the structures cool…but has become so popular that many villages use it and Sidi Bou Said requires it…very Mediterranean. Here we slowed down even more and had tea overlooking the Mediterranean while taking lots of pictures…After a nice last meal together, Juanita found me a local guide in Tunis who took me to the Bardo Museum and around the ancient Medina(dating from the 700’s). Ahmed was my guide and he spent hours taking me to many places around Tunis and even a few we probably were not supposed to be in…One antique shop we climbed several floors with many gorgeous antiques until we got on the roof…and then the owner came up and by the tone of his voice I could tell Ahmed was getting yelled at…and we headed down…
Tunisia may be my favorite of all the places on this journey…and that is really a hard call but it just offered the most diverse experience….and all I can say is that I have had the most spectacular time here in Tunisia and never once felt afraid…as a matter of fact just the opposite. Please know that it is in the Koran and very much a foundation of Islam to be welcoming to all strangers and protect those who are your guests…So far, I have visited 3 distinctly different Muslim nations in different areas(Iran in the Middle East, Turkey straddling Europe & Asia & Tunisia in North Africa) and ALL, with no exception has been unbelievably friendly.
Traveling to Europe or the Americas or Asia or even the US, I have never felt as safe and welcomed as I have on this trip…so please, if you want a wonderful experience with everything from fabulous beaches and resorts(which I didn’t partake but saw) to Adventures in the Sahara or Mountains…or a wonderful Cultural experience with the Berbers…or a historical journey through the Roman times…or a geeky Star Wars tour of location shooting…Tunisia is the place…Easy to get to and worth a visit…5-7 days will give you enough of a taste that you will want to return for sure.
Well this is the end of my adventure and I start my transiting back to the states later today…I hope I have inspired a few ideas for future travel or at least you have enjoyed a bit of armchair fun…
I will do one final last impressions of my 4 places when I return home…And I will add all these to my blog along with tons of pictures of each place so you can just click on that link and then read whichever one interests you and looks at pictures from the various areas.
Thanks for reading my long winded stories.
I can feel a long sleep in my future…and I can’t wait to see my feline friends…if they haven’t forgotten me.
Your traveling friend