Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Epic South

So I got back “home” from our four-day trip South late Monday night, but I’ve been putting off writing this entry due to an overload of both things to say and work that prevents me from finding a way to say it. Bottom line: the trip was absolutely awesome. Yes, I did end up getting sick, but just a pretty minor cold, and I was so extremely optimistic and high on life the entire time that I think I forced myself into a quick recovery. Everyone around here has been spending a lot of time sick, due both to our close proximity in the school and the high stress level, but I think I’m really benefitting from my more laidback, I-just-graduated-so-screw-grades-I’m-not-going-to-kill-myself attitude—in terms of health, at least.

Anyway, back to the awesome trip. We left early on Friday morning and headed to Kairouan, a town in the middle of the country known as the “Mecca of the Maghreb” due to the springs it was founded around, which were discovered after a goblet said to be from Mecca was unearthed at the same spot, and which are said to be fed by the same holy source as the water there. Appropriately, we visited two of the town’s mosques. The first was a prominent sandstone structure, with high columns and vaulted ceilings and mats carpeting the floor to accommodate the praying men that were already starting to arrive for the afternoon’s service. The second was smaller but in my mind more beautiful, as it involved walking through a number of courtyards and passageways all covered in elaborately hand painted tiles that put the atrocities I’m creating in my ceramics class to shame. I also liked that I saw a few women in the second (although Tunisia is fairly progressive, its Islam still discourages women from coming to mosque, telling them to pray at home, and when they do come they’re usually relegated to a separate area). I had to cover my legs, arms and head to enter them both, which gave me a lot of sympathy for the women that do the same on a daily basis—I came out drenched and eager for the air-conditioned bus.

We spent the night in a town called Tozeur, which was really cute and fun to walk around. While walking around I tried traditional Tunisian cookies made of orange flowers, figs and pistachios and I tasted water drawn from a deep well by a camel. One of my biggest triumphs all weekend was interaction with local shopkeepers. With my more advanced level of Arabic (in comparison to the last trip) and my better sense of prices, Tunisian mannerisms/personal space and the bargaining process, I found my conversations with shopkeepers both rewarding and fun. It’s still a little intimidating at times, especially as a woman, but I have grown to enjoy the back and forth process (and I managed to score pottery, a scarf, and a shirt for what I consider to be great prices!).

The next day, we visited a museum and took a horse cart ride into the Tozeur oasis. Standing in an oasis, it’s easy to understand why Islamic visions of heaven always take this form—after the desert, the shady, sweet-scented haven of date palms, pomegranates, figs, and bananas was almost unbelievable. A date picker explained the process they use to fertilize the female trees with male pollen, then scrambled up to demonstrate the picking process (which we got to sample—delicious!).

En route to our camels, we stopped off at too many scenic overlooks to count: at an immense salt flats that looked like the surface of the moon; at mountain shrines; at crumbling sandy rocks; at arid, mountainside villages, where the squat stone houses blended into the dusty land dotted with black wells. By the evening we had reached the edge of the desert, where we were met with camels for our short sunset ride into our “camp” site in the Sahara. For those curious, yes, camels are a little bumpy (and my thighs were sore the next day) but you get used to it pretty quickly. The only unnerving part was the lurching up from the ground at the beginning and the drop back down at the end (they are some long-legged, gangly animals after all). The campsite was more along the lines of a hotel, with huge, air conditioned (!) tents and full kingsize beds, running water toilets, and a bar. We had a rotisserie cooked lamb, tajine and watermelon for our dinner before dancing to the music of the traditional Tunisian band. Then Akira and I followed David, the group’s unofficial photographer, out to play around with super-long exposures in the darkness of the desert, where we used a flash to freeze momentary images of ourselves that we then drew around with a flashlight. It was the most fun I’ve had with photography in a while, and we vowed to try and shoot some more before the end of the trip. I stayed up chatting and watching falling stars until about 2am, when the dunes suddenly turned cold and I crawled happily into my gritty bed.

I didn’t appreciate how sandy I was until the next day when I had to put my contacts back in. Ouch. The line of us blind people crying and cursing together at the sinks was admittedly pretty funny. I spent the day like PigPen in Peanuts, with a little cloud of dust forming around me every time I moved (the Saharan sand is surprisingly
fine and light—not like beach sand at all). We hitched a horse ride back to the bus, then continued east; stopping at a few sites where Star Wars scenes were filmed (surprisingly not as cool as I expected, but interesting fact: Tatouine is a real city in Tunisia), eating a traditional cous-cous lunch in a troglodyte (mountain cave) house, and finally ending up on the historic Jewish island of Jerba. After getting a long-awaited shower, we spent the rest of our time enjoying the beach, browsing the souks, and visiting a historic synagogue.

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