Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pirate ports, clay caves and fresh fish

First of all, my apologies for such a delay in updates! I've had a busy week (I'm actually having to put the 'study' into 'study abroad') and I was sick the weekend before we left for the north! Here's the last entry about the southern excursion...then I'll crank out some posts about my trip up north.

Saturday we were given a free day on Djerba. 20 DT stipend in hand, our task was to explore the island. Sarah and Courtney and I had been reading up on the island the night before and were fascinated by the pirate stories. We made a point not to miss the "tower of skulls," and the fort where Dragut, a Turkish corsair, staged his amazing escape from Spanish fleets.

We left that morning to head to the Houmt Souk marina and the tower of skulls. The tower was a bit of a disappointment. Apparently it was demolished by the French in 1881, much to the chagrin of the locals, and now all that remains is a monument in its place. Sort of a letdown when you were expecting a giant pile of skulls like the name suggested. The story is that the dread pirate Dragut responded to a major offensive by Spanish fleets by killing 15,000 Spaniards. Those that remained in Houmt Souk (5000 in total) were forced to capitulate and every single one of them was decapitated. Dragut and his crew then stacked up all the skulls, pyramid style, and the tower remained there for 361 years.

Not willing to be discouraged, we caught a taxi and asked him to take us to Guellalla, a pottery town in the southern part of the island. Our guidebooks talked about a man who would let you tour his cave where he gets clay for pottery and we decided that sounded interesting. The taxi driver dropped us off and we were met by two friendly camels and the potter himself. He took us down to the cave, lighting candles along the way, and showing us how he distinguishes between the clay and the rock. It was really interesting. After the cave tour we explored his workshop and he showed us a cool contraption called a "magic camel," a piece of pottery with a hole in the top and the bottom and a spout. They are shaped like camels, with the neck and head of the camel forming the spout. He demonstrated as he poured water into the top hole, flipped the camel over, and no water escaped. He then poured water in the bottom hole, flipped it back over and poured it all out from the spout. Not a drop of water escaped through the holes. I still don't know how it works!

After thanking the potter for showing us his cave and workshop we walked toward the Guellalla Popular Culture museum, planning to meet some other students there. They, too, said they planned on visiting the potter and his cave. When we met up at them at the museum cafe, it turns out that they had gone to the place we had read about in our guidebooks...but it wasn't the same place! They went to a cave, too, along with a huge crowd of other tourists, got a quick look, and then were shuffled into the shop where they were expected to make a purchase. They didn't learn anything about the pottery, it was all for show. We had wondered when our taxi driver had gotten out to talk to the potter at our cave like they were old friends. We had, by pure luck and a little miscommunication, ended up at an authentic version of the tourist trap our friends had experienced. Here's a picture of us sitting at the museum cafe overlooking Guellalla:

Some of our group went into the museum but Sarah, Courtney, Lee and I decided to try to find the fort where Dragut had made his daring escape against Charles V of Spain. The story goes that Charles V and his Spanish flotilla had Dragut and his men trapped between the causeway and the fort (borj). Dragut barricaded himself inside the borj while his men dug through the causeway after nightfall, evading the Spanish ships. The causeway wasn't repaired until 1953, almost 400 years later. We hailed a taxi in Guellalla and asked the driver to take us to the fort. He drove us as far as he could but apparently it can only be reached by boat. Once again a little disappointed in the accessibility of our pirate story locations, we decided to opt for plan B. The driver had recommended we visit the southern port of Ajim, a fishing village.

Ajim is a haven for octopus hunters. The potters in Djerba make clay pots that fishermen use to catch the cephalopods. The fishermen drop the pots in the water and the octopi find them and crawl inside, thinking they are hiding or resting places. Hours later the pots are brought up from the sea floor, often with the octopi still in them. Who knew they were so easy to trick? When we arrived in Ajim we found a restaurant on the street selling fresh fish. Actually, to call this place a restaurant would be pushing it. There was a kitchen on one side and a single table in the other room. The men working there let us pick out our (freshly caught) fish and they prepared them for us for dinner. They also gave us salad mechuia (a delicious Tunisian grilled salad), bread, harissa, fruit and tea. It was the best fish I have ever eaten in my life, hands down. Here's a picture of Lee picking out our fish:

After dinner we went back to the hotel and went to bed early. We had a LONG trip back to Tunis the next morning.

On our 8 hour drive back, we stopped in El Jem, the 3rd largest colosseum in the world and a far better preserved one than the one in Rome. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It held 35,000 people during Roman times. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me. It was incredible. We climbed up the stairs and sat at the very top, but my favorite part was finding the hidden staircase that led down underneath the colosseum. It was there, in the dark, that the gladiators would await their fates. It also used to hold a complicated pulley system that would lug up set pieces and wild animal cages onto the floor above. The ropes and pulleys would even open the cages of the animals so no one got hurt in the process (except, in many cases, the gladiators!). The fights were always "refereed" by an official, and if a gladiator was about to lose a fight, he could throw himself upon the mercy of the official. Then, the ref held the audience to a vote. If they felt the gladiator had proven great bravery, he was allowed to live and go free. If they voted he was a coward, the official killed him on the spot.

Here are some pictures of El Jem, including one of the "basement" underneath:

After leaving El Jem we drove another four hours and arrived back in Tunis around 9PM that night.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A few facts about Fennecs

I forgot to mention an interesting story from one of the earlier southern excursion days. The night that we went to Onk Jemal, we found a dune to watch the sunset from. We were in the middle of the desert and out of nowhere this old woman walked out from behind a dune and came up to us. She had a very frightened baby Fennec in tow. A Fennec is a species of desert fox that live in the Sahara. They are adorable animals with really big ears. Labib, a cartoon fennec, has become the mascot for environmentalism throughout the country and Labib statues dot the Tunis metro area. Here's a picture of Labib and a picture of a real fennec:

But anyway, the old woman walked up to our group pulling the baby fennec by a chain and started talking to us. She wanted to know where we were from, how we liked Tunisia, and if we wanted to take a picture of the fox for one dinar. That probably explains why none of us have a picture of it. The scene elicited a strong negative reaction from me. These animals aren't meant to be domestic, and she was dragging it around by a metal chain leash to make money from tourists. Mounir talked to her in Arabic, telling her that she was mistreating the animal and she told him that the fennec belonged to her daughter, it was 6 months old and her daughter had raised it since birth. Apparently the fox cuddled with her daughter but wouldn't listen to her and bit her. Mounir replied with something along the lines of "I can imagine why," judging by the way she dragged the poor thing around. 

This might've been the first time I was actually angry in Tunisia. I've gotten frustrated by things before but this actually made me mad. I asked Mounir in English if we could figure out how much we could give her to sell us the fennec so we could let it go when she went away. He ran the idea past one of the SUV drivers and he immediately cautioned against it. I guess this is the reaction the woman wanted from tourists. The driver explained that this is a common practice among desert dwelling Tunisians, that they will capture a fennec when it is a baby, raise it in captivity and drag it around in front of tourists. When people ask if they can buy the fox to let it free later, they will barter with them for a price and sell the animal to them. Apparently people have driven these animals 50 kilometers away and let them free and by the next week Tunisians like this old woman have found the fennec and recaptured it. Because they raise them from birth, the animals are used to being raised in a domestic environment and don't know how to survive in the wild so they are easy to find again. 

After I got over my initial anger, it occurred to me that this story was relevant for the topic I want to study for my independent study project. My topic is on the impact of tourism on Tunisia's desert regions. Whether this example fell within my western view of animal rights or not, this was this woman's livelihood, and it was a way she had found to make money off of tourists. Who knows what she may have done to make a living before tourists started coming to the desert, whether it would have been better, more ethical or not. She has taken advantage of the number of tourists now exploring the Tunisian Sahara. The fact is, this country thrives economically off of tourism; it directly benefits the government itself and individual Tunisians alike. 

On another note, some of my friends have posted pictures they took on the excursion, so here are some pictures of me riding camels and dune jumping! The one by the SUV is around sunset the night we met the woman with the fennec. My jeans are rolled up because we had to cross a muddy chott to get to the dune we wanted to jump off of

Monday, March 9, 2009

Vocab word of the day: Troglodyte

The road to Djerba was a long one, so we broke up our travels by making stops between Douz and the island. Our first stop was in Matmata, a city well known for two things: a Star Wars set and strange homes known as troglodyte dwellings. Troglodyte homes are actually houses built into caves. They normally have a ground level entrance that leads down a set of stairs built into the earth. In the troglodyte home that we visited, an open, roofless courtyard sat in the middle of a number of rooms built into the cave walls. The woman who lived there invited us in, shared homemade bread and olive oil with honey and dressed Courtney in a traditional outfit for a bride in Matmata. Here's Courtney all decked out:

We also visited Hotel Sidi Dhriss, a troglodyte hotel that posed as Luke's Uncle's house in the first Star Wars film. Remember the scene where Luke eats his last meal with Uncle Owen and his wife? That's Hotel Sidi Dhriss. The bar scene where Luke meets Han Solo was filmed there, too. 

Our next stop was to visit ksours, old grain storage buildings. They aren't used anymore but they are definitely fun to climb on. It was nice to be able to get out and stretch our legs because we still had a few hours until we reached Djerba. The ksours (ksar, singular) look like this:

A long bus ride later, we got to the eastern coast of southern Tunisia. There are two ways to get to Djerba from the mainland. A causeway built during the Roman Empire's reign in Tunisia is still in use. You can also catch a ferry. We drove our bus across the causeway and headed towards a town on the northern part of the island, Houmt Souk. Houmt Souk is one of the few "cities" on Djerba. The island itself is only about 20 by 25 kilometers, and most houses are just scattered across the island. Concentrated groups of residential housing just don't exist outside of Houmt Souk or Guellalla to the south. 

Our hotel was an old fondouk, a place where travelers could live for a short time. There are fondouks scattered around Tunis as well, and historically they were organized by nationality. There was a French fondouk in the medina, a German one, an American one, and when diplomats or other important visitors came to Tunisia they would stay in the appropriate fondouk. They all seem to look pretty similar, with a central courtyard surrounded by rooms. Our hotel had a pool in the courtyard, a restaurant and a bar. Courtney and Sarah and I ended up with the largest room, with four beds and three rooms! One of the other girls had gotten sick that day so Lindsay, the girl she was planning to room with, stayed with us too because we had an extra bed. 

By the time we got to Djerba it was already evening so we explored the Houmt Souk medina. Djerba is an interesting place in the sense that there's a bigger clash here between tourism and traditional life than anywhere else. The island has a large population of Ibadites, a Muslim sect that broke from both Sunnis and Shiites following the death of Mohammed. They are a rather conservative group and they share the island with an orthodox Jewish population as well. While the two groups live peacefully amongst each other, the advent of tourism has had an interesting effect. Djerba would be a largely conservative, traditional place had it not become such a hotspot for vacationers. Younger generations are breaking with the traditions of their parents, starting up businesses to appeal to tourists and making money while older generations try to maintain their traditions and conservative ideals. 

After walking around the medina for a while, Courtney and Sarah and I stopped at a patisserie to get coffee and dessert. We noticed that the entire patisserie was filled only with men. We were the only women in the entire place. In Tunis and the surrounding areas, women are less discouraged from entering the public sphere, you see young women with young men in restaurants or patisseries or cafes all the time. In Djerba, if we did see women out, they were walking in groups together without men and didn't enter any of the public establishments. Our experience just reiterated the strange cultural clash we felt on the island.

Once we finished eating dessert first, we returned to our fondouk for pasta and couscous. We all went to bed pretty early that night, because tomorrow we had a "drop off" activity on the island. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Tunisia lie #1: Deadly scorpions come out at night at the Faouar Sahara Camp

We left Tozeur Thursday morning, and I was a little disappointed. I grew pretty attached to the bustling oasis town and made a mental note to come back before the end of my time in the country. Our next stop on the southern tour was Douz, another oasis on the other side of the Chott El Jerid, Tunisia's largest salt lake. Thursday was market day in Douz so we perused the souks. Most popular are the second hand American clothing sections. We noticed that shopkeepers in Douz seemed far less likely to barter with us than those in Tunis. When we tried to talk them into more reasonable prices, they refused. Sometimes they even acted insulted and shooed us out of the shop. Of course, the next time we walked by they'd invite us back in again but I found it interesting that bartering for lower prices was so much easier in and around Tunis. Perhaps in the south they are used to tourists not knowing appropriate prices for things---some of the shops are "fixed price" and always more expensive than they should be, so it wouldn't surprise me if shopkeepers in Douz just aren't used to having to barter much.

After a morning at the market, we went to a nice hotel in Douz to eat lunch and to swim in the pool. Mounir told us about a pool heated by a hot spring with healing qualities. After a buffet lunch a few of us put on our swim suits, went out to the courtyard and decided to jump in the pool. Turns out the water was FREEZING. It was borderline Lake Superior cold. A few guys jumped in and immediately got back out, shivering uncontrollably and wrapping up in towels right away. I decided they were wimps and jumped in, only to jump out seconds later, shivering just like them. When Faisal came out, he decided to jump in the pool and everyone started telling him how cold it was. He was sure he could handle it, and everyone else was unconvinced. I guess I'm not a quick learner because I told him if he could stay in the water for longer than 30 seconds that I'd jump in again. He did. Once I treaded water for a bit I regained feeling in my limbs and decided I could stay in for a while. All the other girls thought I was nuts, it was just a handful of the guys and me in the frigid water. Those of us swimming around in the water began to question the existence of this supposed hot spring. Then it hit us. Maybe this wasn't the hot springs pool!

Sure enough, inside the hotel was a very warm pool with a cascading waterfall of hot water. The problem was that the "healing water" was greenish. And it smelled disgusting. The best description I could give you was that it was a combination of sulfur and dog poop. Once we jumped in, we came to the conclusion that the water was not warm enough to justify staying in the green smelly muck so we went back outside and laid out in the sun. After a nice food and swim break, we left Douz and headed toward El Faouar, the desert camp where we would be spending the night.

The bus dropped us off about 6 kilometers from El Faouar next to about 20 camels and a handful of guides. We unwrapped the lightsabers from their sticks and tied them around our heads the way we had been taught in the market in Douz. Some of the guys even bought their own scarves for this purpose. Not really a fashion statement, the head wraps were functional. We all would have ended up with sunburned faces and sand in our hair. We were assigned camels in a seemingly random order. Mine, Naim, was one of the biggest camels in the bunch and was a dark brown color. Somehow one of the biggest guys in the group ended up on the smallest camel and ended up having to switch to a bigger one midway through. Apparently different colored camels had different uses historically. The white ones were the fastest and used for racing and hunting, the golden ones produce the best milk and meat and the dark ones like mine were used by smugglers in the night.

Two or three camels were attached to each other by a rope, for instance, Naim led Lee's camel, Baby (the cutest one in the bunch, a little one with really big eyes). My camel was led for part of the ride by one of the guides who walked the camel through the desert. For a while, he let Naim free. I tried to get him to go fast but my accent must be bad because he didn't understand when I told him "fisa fisa!" We stopped halfway to let our guides and camels rest while we decided to partake in a little more dune jumping. It's an addicting activity. After about a 45 minute ride, we got to El Faouar, our camp. By the time we had arrived there, let's just say I had a lot more support for the CLF!

Our "camp" was definitely more luxurious than we expected. We stayed in giant tents with beds, we had modern bathrooms in another tent and there was a food tent and a bar tent. No joke. We also happened to have the place to ourselves. Here's a picture of the camp:

We had some time to watch the sun set and initially I climbed up the dunes with a few other kids. In no time, the whole group had scrambled up the biggest dune and we all sat watching the sun set. Here's a picture:

Off in the distance, I saw a crumbling ruin of what looked like must've been a house. I asked Faisal what he thought it was and we decided to jump off the big dune and go check it out. Instead of watching the sun set from the giant dune, we sat on the ruined house and watched the sun go down behind the dunes. Here's a picture one of the other guys, Stephen, took from the giant dune, showing where we were:

After the sun set, two of the other students, Karen and Ryan, came out to check out the ruined building as well. After dark we walked back to camp and had a discussion of our day. Mounir got into the habit of getting a few bottles of wine, one red and one white, each night for our dinners or discussions. So we sat in a tent, snacking on mixes of nuts and drinking wine while dinner was prepared. I ate grilled chicken that night and talked with Mounir and Alessandra, our student services coordinator (and also the most stylish woman I've met, she's Italian and I want to raid her wardrobe). The topic changed to Tunisian soccer. One of the guys, Gaby, is studying sports in Tunisia for his independent study project and we were lamenting the fact that we'd be missing Sunday's match between Esperance and Club African, the rival Tunis teams.

Following dinner we explored the dunes some more, laying in the sand watching the stars. They were spectacular. Late that night when we were all still outside taking in the sights having finally reached the real desert, the sneaky people running the camp decided to tell us about the deadly scorpions that came out at night and encouraged us not to stray too far from camp. Afraid of losing an SIT student to a fatal scorpion sting, we reluctantly retreated into our tents and fell asleep. Mounir laughed at the story the next morning. Scorpions don't frequent this part of the desert, they prefer the rockier areas, and very few of them are so poisonous their stings can kill you. Apparently the scorpion story was merely a story to keep us from wandering too far into the desert that night. As we packed up our stuff and rode donkey carts out of the camp, we all came to the conclusion that the next few days had to be pretty spectacular to top our Sahara adventure.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

5DT scarf + stick = lightsaber

Wednesday morning we loaded into three SUVs and drove west into the mountains. Our destinations were three mountain oases, Chebika, Tamerza and Mides. The drive to Chebika was about 45 minutes long, past salt deposits, rocky desert and a grazing herd of camels (of course I've heard of camels! Sorry, dad, I beat you to it!) We reached Chebika, a mountain village that had been emptied in the 1970s when the Tunisian government encouraged people to "modernize" and move into the valley. It sparked a controversial debate among my classmates, because these people were removed from a place they had lived in for generations and told to uproot and start a life in a new place, but life in the valley allowed access to running water and related comforts, as well as access to schools. The result is that the old village is abandoned, the entrance to Chebika is now taken over by little shops and cafes, but the views are still breathtaking. We walked down a path crowded by other tour groups that had also arrived by four wheel drive vehicles, and I sort of wanted to get out of the congestion. Faisal and I walked up on the side of the cliffs until Mounir basically begged us to use less "creative" routes. He told us there would be lots of things to climb at the next oasis, but apparently we were giving him heartburn :P We arrived at a small waterfall that emptied into a stream. The stream was then routed into a path that brought the water to the village. It turns out my frog catching skills are a little rusty...the stream was filled with little frogs and I came close to catching a few but seeing as I haven't really done any serious frog hunting since I was like 8 years old at my cabin, they all evaded me. I like my dad's theory that because frogs are cold blooded that the Minnesota ones are more lethargic and easier to capture! Those darn Tunisian frogs are just too speedy. Here are some mountain views from Chebika and the spring where the frog catching attempts went down:

We then continued on to Tamerza, another oasis with an abandoned town but this one had been evacuated during a flood in the late 1960s. A new town with shops, restaurants and a hotel was built more recently. A few waterfalls fill a pool in the middle of these huge cliffs, and this spot WAS great for climbing, as Mounir had promised. The only problem was that the area was incredibly polluted. I've found that to be a common trend at the natural spots around Tunisia. Trash is everywhere. Still, the trash free sights were pretty cool. Here's one of the waterfalls:

Our last stop was Mides, which is right on the Algerian border. The road splits off, one direction leads to Mides, the other takes you through the Algerian checkpoint. Mides was another good place to climb, we sat on the edge of the cliffs, looking down into the stream below and this is what we saw:

When we returned to Tozeur we ate more couscous at another restaurant and then had time to go back to the hotel and rest. I snuck in an hour nap, which was nice. Then we jumped back in the SUVs and drove to Onk Jemal, a stretch of desert used during filming of one of the newer Star Wars movies. Onk Jemal literally means Camel Neck and is named because of a rock formation there that looks like the head, neck and back of a camel. Before we reached Onk Jemal, we stopped to collect mica in the middle of the desert. It makes the sand sparkle like this:

Once we reached Onk Jemal, some intense light saber battles ensued:

Some of my crazy friends went out and bought blue, red and green scarves, tied them around sticks, and voila! Lightsabers! The amazing thing is that these light sabers magically transformed into head wraps for desert travel the next day. The blue lightsaber eventually ended up on my head.

The Star Wars set didn't hold my attention for long because anyone who knows anything about Star Wars knows the new ones were horrible. I found some healthy sized sand dunes and decided to go jumping off them. I know my friends took pictures of me in mid air, but they haven't posted them yet so I'll add them later. But here's Faisal so you get the picture:

That night we buried into another buffet dinner and I don't know about everyone, but a lot of us went to bed early, myself included. I think I was asleep by 9 o clock. Dune jumping wears you out!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Tunisia lesson #5: Beware of friends who are willing to sell you for 200 camels.

On Tuesday morning we ate breakfast in Gafsa and hit the road, heading toward Tozeur. First we stopped in Metlaoui, a mining town known for the Lezard Rouge (Red Lizard) tour. The Lezard Rouge is an old red train that winds through canyons and gorges that look incredibly similar to scenery you might find in the American southwest. I rode out on on the outside of the train, which was a much cooler experience than sitting inside. Especially when we went through tunnels. The best part was when we stopped, though. THEN, we got to climb things. Faisal and Sarah and I all really like to climb stuff. When the train stopped in the middle of a gorge, we crossed the muddy river running through it and found the best views from the top of the rocks. The only problem was when the train whistled, signaling its departure, and we were hiking up the opposite side of the canyon. We made a few running leaps through the muddy river, climbed over the metal railings on the wrong side of the train and managed to hoist ourselves up onto the train just before it chugged off. I felt sort of like an outlaw in a western :) Here are some photos of the canyons we went through (and the Lezard Rouge itself):

After our train hopping adventures around the canyons of Metlaoui, we continued on to Tozeur. Tozeur is a pretty desert oasis and among my favorite of the towns we visited. When we arrived, we ate lunch at a local restaurant and had a choice of couscous with lamb, chicken, or camel. There was also a meatless option for the couple vegetarians in our group. Lamb is arguably my favorite meat these days, so that's what I opted for, though many of my friends decided to try the camel. I don't have much trouble trying new and strange meats---I fully plan on trying wild boar during our northern excursion in three weeks. But I had become too attached to camels to be able to comfortably order some with my couscous. After all, I was frustrated with the way I had seen camels exploited and overworked down south. My solution was to launch the CLF, which, naturally, stands for Camel Liberation Front, and I clued some of my amused classmates into my in depth camel release plans. I also happened to be sitting next to my friend Gaby who is allergic to horses. He was pretty sure that made him allergic to camels, too, and didn't plan on risking his health and passed on the camel ride planned for a few days later. Of course, this made him a natural CLF opponent, as were my friends who were happily chowing down on their supposedly delicious camel couscous. We got into a heated pro-camel/anti-camel argument and it soon became clear that a showdown was in order this week. Despite initial opposition, I remained confident that after our desert camel ride in a few days that I could turn some opinions towards the CLF. Regardless, I had no intention of eating what I viewed as misunderstood (and adorable) animals. I stuck with lamb.

After lunch we checked into our hotel, another nice place. I stayed in a triple room with Courtney and Sarah and we ended up with a nice balcony. We had a little time to relax but an hour later we had to be ready to go on a field study assignment. We broke up into two groups of eight and were sent to two different museums. In our discussion afterwards, we came to the conclusion that we were sent to these museums in order to look at them critically, and both destinations were so absurd it really wasn't that hard. I went to a popular culture museum filled with costumed wax figures. The figures were posed and dressed according to Tunisian customs. The museum itself was the brainchild of a rich benefactor interested in showing off the lives wealthy desert Tunisians, but other lifestyles weren't adequately represented. The museum was filled with expensive jewelry collections, glass and furniture displays and other demonstrations of wealth but clearly the museum owner had little interest in conveying other Tunisian lifestyles. Even more strange were the other exhibits outside the museum but still part of the complex. A mini "souk" lead to a collection of gift shops, while a fun house-esque exhibit lead tourists through the stories from 1001 Arabian Nights. For the record, none of those stories have anything to do with Tunisia or with the Maghreb at all, for that matter. Once again, our 5 DT admission fee clued us in to the fact that this was yet another inaccurate or misleading display of North African life meant to appeal to the romanticized Western view of the Arab world. Tourists dig Orientalism and many Tunisian tourist traps are making money off of it.

After hitching a horse drawn carriage ride back to the hotel for about 2 DT a piece, we went straight for the buffet dinner. We were relieved to find more options than just couscous. For the record, I don't even want to look at the stuff for at least a full week. It was my lunch AND dinner for most of the trip, I think because it's easy to serve to large groups and it's pretty much a staple here. The best part of the buffet was the dessert line. I gorged on blood oranges, mousse, tiramisu, baklava and cake. Following a discussion, we went to the hotel bar. Sarah, Lee, and I started playing a game of cards when some local Tozeur guys came up to us to talk. They were very friendly and asked how we liked the desert, where we were from, innocent questions like that. Then one of them asked Lee if he could buy me in exchange for 200 camels. Seriously. Lee laughed out loud and told the guy it sounded like a deal. I joked back, saying he should've at least bartered a little. I think I'm worth at least triple that price :P Despite serious inquisition into my existence as a commercial object, they seemed friendly enough. When they saw us playing cards, they taught us a Tunisian card game. After a few rounds, they asked to learn an American game. We opted for something relatively easy (or so we thought) so we taught them B.S. That was an experience within itself because with their little English and our shwaya Arabic, it was sort of difficult to explain that if you don't have the cards you need to put down that you lie and put down other cards instead. Then if someone knows you're lying, they call out B.S. and you have to take all the cards in the pile. The English numbers were throwing them off, too, so we eventually resorted to counting in Arabic. It was immensely entertaining when we caught them trying to put down khamza thlethas, for example (5 threes). Finally I explained the concept of the game through an open hand demonstration, one of the guys caught on and explained it to his buddies. The rest of the game was hilarious, they loved yelling "liar!" (which became easier than trying to explain what B.S. stood for) and shoving the pile of cards at each other when they caught each other telling half truths. All in all, a very entertaining cultural interaction. We went to bed at a pretty reasonable time that night, ready to wake up early for some four wheel drive tours of desert oases.

Hello, My Name is Maureen and I am a Makroud-aholic.

On Monday morning I left Sidi Bou and started to make my way south. Our first stop was in Kairouan, Islam's 4th holiest city. Kairouan is a fascinating, ancient city and we were able to visit a shrine and the Great Mosque. It's rare here for non-Muslims to be able to enter mosques but we were allowed inside the courtyard to take a look. Only followers of Islam could enter the prayer room however. The building itself is very interesting architecturally because the columns used to build it are left over from the Roman empire. I guess early Arab conquerers weren't real concerned with symmetry or matching because none of the columns are alike. They literally recycled columns from all sorts of random Roman buildings---the capitals (the top part of the column with the decoration) are a range of different designs. Here's a picture---how many different capital designs do you count?

We also stopped at a cafe with a well that supposedly contains water attributed with incredible religious and healthful virtues. Muslims who drink from the well on a regular basis are exempt from a pilgrimage to Mecca. Water is drawn from the well by a water wheel pulled by a blinded, muzzled camel who looked as if he hadn't seen life outside the dark cafe interior. A little put off by the treatment of the animal (hint: more animal cruelty to come in later posts), we left the well room and opted instead to drink mint tea and Turkish coffee and to smoke some chicha.
The greatest discovery I made in Kairouan, however, had nothing to do with architecture, religion or history. It had to do with food. Surprised? Here's the deal: Kairouan is famous for their Makroud, little seminola cookies with date centers sprinkled with sesame seeds. They are absolutely, completely addicting and though you can find them throughout Tunisia, my first and best Makroud experience occurred in Kairouan. After we bought a kilo to share we spent the entire rest of the trip taking turns buying kilos or two kilos or more of the delicious desserts and each time they were gone as soon as someone mentioned they had a box full in their possession. I absolutely expect to go through some sort of painful withdrawal when I go back to the states and I'm dreading it. I also wish I could say that previous statement was a joke!

After Kairouan we continued on to Sbeitla, a Roman ruins site. It's extremely well preserved, though having also seen the colosseum at El Jem, I have to say it doesn't quite compare but that will be clear in later posts when I put up El Jem pics. Here are a few views of the temples at Sbeitla.

While most Roman cities chose to construct a single temple in honor of the three most important gods (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva), three were built at Sbeitla, one for each god. The ruins of a theatre also remain.

Finally we reached Gafsa, a town known for little more than a convenient overnight hotel stop for desert-bound travelers. That is exactly what we used it for. The hotel we stayed at, Hotel Gafsa Palace, was rather extravagant, however, and a nice treat after a long bus ride. We ended the night with a group game of charades in one of the hotel rooms. Tunisian charades was a bit of an adventure, especially when trying to act out "lablabi" or "S'lim, the Coste waiter." :)