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Taking the slow boat to Tunisia

The first sign of trouble comes when the boats’ engine stops idling. It is 11:30 on a bright morning; already half an hour past our designated departure time, and the boat shows no sign of leaving port. The Mistral, the strong, cold wind that haunts the South of France every winter, whips the waters in the port of Marseille into a frenzy as I gaze out the salt-encrusted window. 

Finally a voice crackles over the loudspeaker. We are assured an imminent departure. Settling into my seat, I take a moment to inspect my surroundings. Rows of uncomfortable seats line the walls. Garbage cans and white paper bags are ominously stacked next to each row of chairs. The ferry slowly begins moving away from the docks. 

The French coast is a no longer visible; my thoughts drift along with the massive two thousand passenger craft. There is an easy way to do Tunisia. There is a two-hour flight from Paris to Tunis. There are tour companies with guides who speak fluent French or English. They will pick you up at the airport and drive you through the country in perfect, climate-controlled conditions. We didn’t know what we were searching for, but somehow we sensed this was not for us.  

The end is in sight. After almost two full days of detours around Corsica, rough seas, vomiting children, and loudly arguing Tunisian men, any romanticism has been thoroughly dispelled from my naïve thinking. This has not been the moonlit sea crossing that I had envisioned. After a sea voyage that would have made Odysseus queasy, a faint blinking light on the horizon is a beautiful sight.

The light, the first we have seen in over thirty-five hours, turns out to be the city of Carthage. On the approach the lights of Carthage shine dimly; thoughts of a former prominence descend as the boat continues on towards Tunis.

The Holy Roman Empire, more than two thousand years ago, identified Tunisia as an important stopping point in their quest for world domination. Their loud arrival was marked as the opening of North Africa to Christianity. The Romans, as was their custom, destroyed the city of Carthage and rebuilt it in their honor. The city would later become one of the greatest Christian centers throughout the Roman Empire.

Today, the city of Carthage has lost its luster. Once settled in Tunis we spend a morning poking around the small town, but, like most visitors, leave disappointed. The Roman ruins, having succumbed to the elements and a lack of restoration efforts, leave the imagination with a near impossible task. It is not easy to conjure up a prominent past with such scarce remains. The action in northern Tunisia has moved fifty kilometers south to Tunis. The capital city is our first stop as we clear customs at the docks and hail a taxi.

We arrive in the bustling center of a city that has not entirely distanced itself from its history. A clash of cultures, of the more peaceful variety, is still evident. This clash takes the current form of a generational struggle between foreign influence and traditional values. In a land where Roman culture was forced upon Berber settlements in dominating, violent fashion, now an invasion of style and culture has landed on the shores of Northern Africa. 

Where once blasting trumpets marked the arrival of the Holy Roman Empire, now the latest 50 Cent album blares from record stores. As we walk down the main strip, the trendy Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the silent conflict is reinforced time and again. Young men walk around in black denim jackets and survey the scene through dark, brand name sunglasses. Traditionally dressed Muslim mothers and grandmothers, revealing none of the light brown Tunisian complexion, pass by younger woman who have put down the head scarves and squeezed into designer jeans and low cut blouses.

The sun sets on the capital city; my companion and I continue our tour of Tunis. After a heaping plate of couscous that is as delicious as it is cheap, we wander in the direction of the Souk. A row of purple lights illuminates the main strip. A Muslim call to prayer is heard just as the discotheques and nightclubs that have opened in recent years begin to throb.

Just a five-minute walk down the wide, European style main strip, the streets begin to narrow and the buildings take a more traditional turn. We have found ourselves in the “Souk,” or the traditional marketplace. The Souk is not a place for the faint of heart. Rabid vendors, aggressive verbally and occasionally physically, hawk a large variety of goods. Haggling is an art in the Souk, and these Arabs seem to have it down to a science. The winding market after hours does not seem the most inviting place. After each making purchases that we cannot explain, my companion and I wearily make our way back to our hotel. 

We would have no trouble losing ourselves for a few days in the Tunisian capital. But despite the wonders the city assuredly offers, it is not our destination. It cannot offer us the escape we crave. That, we are convinced, lies somewhere in the rolling sand dunes of the Sahara.

We spend one more day in Tunis. A morning is lost in the Souk. Tired from the pushy tactics of the vendors, we waste away the rest of the day in a lovely out of the way café, watching the smoke from our hookah drift into the warm afternoon and sipping strong mint tea. When the sun sets, we head to the centrally located train station and board a night train south.

The extensive rail network and roadways, implemented by the French during their eighty years of Colonial rule, have provided Tunisia with the transportation infrastructure necessary for an increasingly important tourist economy. Trains are generally reliable and safe. The national highways, connecting all major towns, are smoothly paved and gas stations and scenic stops abound. A loud whistle blows and we slowly start moving deeper into this strange land. 

After a sleepless night the loud train slows and rumbles to a stop. The first rays of light are still at least an hour away. Despite the early hour, the air is noticeably warmer. We have arrived in Touzeur. From Touzeur, we are told, continue on to Douz. Then all you have to do is find a guide. The desert awaits. We join a group of Tunisians waiting outside the train station. Cigarettes are lit and idle conversation struck up.  Finally a van pulls up and a young driver screams “Douz.” We climb into the van just as the sun is peaking over the horizon.

The van, a “louage” as we would later learn, is one of the most popular and economical means of transport in Tunisia. In every major town a station, normally consisting of a parking lot full of honking vans and shouting Tunisians, exists in a central location. There is no set schedule. One pays a fixed fee and gains a seat in one of the vans. Once the van is full it departs for its destination. A van will never leave until it is full. Some of the vans are relatively new and comfortable. Others are noisy and on the verge of breaking down, often lacking basic necessities such as seat belts and emergency breaks. One cannot be picky.

We stay in Douz for only one night. A friendly hotel receptionist, doing a friend a favor, gives us a tip. We tell him that we are looking to go into the desert for a about a week. But we don’t want a group. We want to be alone with a guide. We insist on this point, ignoring his firm assertion that it is more common and even safer with a group.

“Why is it so important that you go alone?”

In the silence that follows his question we realize that we cannot explain it to him. Perhaps we cannot explain it to ourselves. He doesn’t press the issue.

 “I know just the man. Lives in El Faoaur. That’s where the desert starts.”

He takes a drag from the hookah he keeps behind the reception desk and tells us which louage to take. 
“His name is Mohammet,” he exhales a thick cloud of smoke. “And he knows the Sahara like he knows his pocket.” 

We step off the louage in El Faoaur and inspect our surroundings.  Before we have a chance to take in the small oasis town, a short, slight man with a toothless smile and a face weathered by the strong sun approaches. He stops in front of us and points an old, scarred finger at his chest saying “Mohammet” Then he makes a vague gesture in the direction of the desert that stretches away from his hometown.

We nod and begin walking when he motions for us to follow him. As we walk children, still in awe of our difference, peak through gates as we become lost in a series of narrow, winding alleys.
The labyrinth of El Faoaurs’ back streets finally spits us out at the entrance of Mohammet’s house. Entering a small courtyard small children and goats immediately rush to greet us. Two camels, standing wisely and serenely in the corner of the courtyard, peer down at us with apparent indifference. An old woman, presumably Mohammet’s wife, leads us into her home and motions for us to sit. After a few moments of inspecting our barren surroundings she returns with a tray of dates. The dates are followed by a plate of couscous. Finally it is time to go.

We leave the town and take our first steps in the Sahara. Mohammet and his fifteen-year-old son, Ali, lead the two camels loaded down by supplies. The town slowly becomes smaller as we walk farther into the emptiness of the desert.
Shrubbery and other low vegetation abound and the dunes are relatively flat. The camels occasionally stop and chew on the vegetation, in the process gaining enough water and nutrients to last them weeks in this harsh climate.  

After a few hours walk we stop for the night. The town is barely visible back in the direction from which we have come. We are already fatigued, but looking over at our companions one gets the sense that both the camels and the guides could walk forever.

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