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.


  1. Sounds like you are having fun, I'm glad you are having a blast... it appears with your adventures that you are the second coming of Indiana Jones :P

  2. Love the picture of the shadows on the sand. The camel behind you looks taller than Naim!