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.


  1. Sounds like the train trip was pretty fun, you even busted out some imagination with the outlaw part :)

    As for the CLF, why am I not surprised you would bring some liberal hippie douche ideas to Tunisia? haha :P

    It is rather interesting to hear your observation on the tourist traps, and how obvious it is to spot them. It should help out though quite a bit when it comes time for your independent study out there. Several points could be made about that.

    The teaching of the card game sounded like a fun experience, especially with the language barrier and all. It must have been really entertaining to witness once it all clicked and they realized how to actually play.

    I'm happy you are having fun out there. By the way, way to keep up the food-story telling in each of your blog posts :P haha

  2. Lamb not cute? If you are looking for a tasty animal that is neither misunderstood nor adorable, I recommend goat. Sounds like you had a great trip. Look forward hearing about the rest of it.