Camel Treks and the Medina: A Week in Tunisia

After spending a little down time in Nice, I soon got the travel bug again, and after two quick weeks of R&R with my parents in southern France, I called up a good friend who lives in Porto to plan a trip. We were both seeking a bit more of a 'cultural' experience - whatever that means - and despite our relative geographical proximity, we decided against meeting at some halfway point in Europe. We wanted something different, something new. We quickly settled on a week in Tunisia.

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis

We were both interested in visiting Tunisia for several major reasons. Tucked between Algeria and Libya, this small north African country witnessed the birth of the Arab spring. It is home to some of the world's largest Roman archaeological sites, and a crossroads of cultures - Arabs, Berbers, Phoenicians, Sicilians - since time immemorial. As part of Francophone Africa, I also welcomed the chance to be able to travel to a place in which I could actually communicate with people (a refreshing change from the few months I had spent in India and southeast Asia).

Geopolitically, Tunisia presents a fascinating case study for many of the world's most pressing issues: immigrants attempting to reach Europe by boat, secularists and Islamists playing tug-of-war, an economy largely dependent on tourism. Above all else, we simply wanted to experience the unique cultural and aesthetic aspects of a historically and politically fascinating country.

We started off our trip in the capital of Tunis. Staying in the medina, we discovered the old bazaars of the Arab quarter, and sampled the traditional cuisine - mint teas, makloub - amidst carpeted walls, narrow streets, and walls awash in blues.

Our next stop was in Sousse. Once a popular tourist spot for middle-class Russians and Europeans looking for a more exotic experience than the beaches of their home countries, it was clear that Sousse had suffered from a recent dip in tourism. A mass shooting in 2015 quickly scared off tourists who frequented the city, and the signs of decay were everywhere. Abandoned hotels, casinos void of patrons, and the faded glory of restaurants near the seaside demonstrated a prolonged and painful period of economic suffering. After several hours of searching, we were finally able to secure a rental car to drive south to the desert. We left early in the morning for a six hour drive to the south. The landscape changed dramatically as we left the coast. Closer to the mediterranean, there were signs of development and economic activity, but as we crept along the long, flat highway south, the landscape evolved into scorching desert and sparse settlements. Occasional piles of trash, larger piles of rubble, and the occasional unfinished highway overpass left us in a somber mood. The only people we saw outside of major cities were small groups of young men crowded in the shade of these overpasses, trying to sell their wares to passing cars.

We made it to our first destination of the day: El Jem. The site of the Roman empire's third largest Coliseum (after the one in Rome and the second in Ephesus, Turkey), El Jem rises out of the desert unexpectedly. We were in awe of the state of preservation; we could practically visualize the gladiators emerging from the subterranean chambers to fight to the death. Unique in Africa and in the world, this amphitheater could once hold an estimated 35,000 spectators. This was an absolute highlight of our time in Tunisia, and even on its own was worth the half-day detour from Tunis.

The Roman amphitheater of El Jem.

We continued to the next stop. After taking a wrong turn, we found ourselves in the middle of a dried-up riverbed that stretched for miles. Although we were on some semblance of a path, the lack of signage and increasingly bumpy road gave us the impression we weren't going the right way. In the distance, through the stifling waves of heat, we saw a car heading our direction in the distance. We waved down the driver, a smiling man with a djellaba draped over his large frame. "Do you know how to get to Sabria?"

"Of course," he answered, "follow me." We pulled a U-turn and tailed behind him, and only after about 15 seconds he stopped and got out of his car. Shaking his head, he popped his trunk to get his spare tire. "Not again," he muttered, going through the motions. "The heat can pop your tire at any moment. That's why you have to drive slow," he said, with a sense of resignation. After brief small talk - the suffocating afternoon heat didn't allow for much else - we found out he was from Nice. Happy to meet someone who knew his hometown, he offered us a large, slightly fizzy, and questionably alcoholic bottle of palm juice, before pointing us in the right direction. "And don't forget to drive slowly, my friends!" he reminded us with a friendly wave, before we pressed on to our next destination.

We finally reached Sabria around four in the afternoon. We greeted our guide, a bedouin named Mabrouk, in a dusty village situated near a palm tree farm. Due to our little detour, we were about an hour late, and our new friend Mabrouk, in his infinite patience, had simply waited for us in the shade of one of these trees. After getting stuck in the sand several times, I had to get out and push the car while my friend Altay worked up enough speed to charge into Mabrouk's garage before skidding to a halt.

We were off. Along with Mabrouk and his friend Ali, we hopped onto two camels and headed further south to the Sahara, where we would spend the night.

Leading us into the desert on camel back.

After about two hours, we stopped to set up camp in the light yellow dunes of dusk. We collected some wood and settled in for an evening by the fire. Our loquacious friends cooked up a hearty and nutritious meal of couscous, squash, and potatoes. We were excited to be able to speak to them and learn about their lifestyle, although it quickly became clear to us that these two bedouins, who live in the middle of the desert, a three-hour drive from the nearest city, were not completely in tune to the goings-on of their country. After several attempts to figure out more about Tunisia as a whole, we understood that these men were largely unaffected by events in Tunis and elsewhere. They had their village, their wives, their children, and the land that they lived on; that was all they needed. As the stars settled on the sky and the sun disappeared over the horizon, we shared a few cups of tea and some contemplative silence.

Before bed, they conducted their ritual ablutions, washing their hands and faces, and turned towards Mecca to pray. I have experienced Islam in several parts of the world - Indonesia, Turkey, Sri Lanka - but this was the most striking -- dare I say stereotypical? -- image of the religion that I had ever encountered: a religion borne by nomads in the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. We sat in awe observing them, facing some point in the desert, and kneeling to worship as nomads have been doing in the desert for hundreds of years.

In the morning, we woke up to Ali and Mabrouk chatting by the fire. Mixing flour and water, they made a flatbread and buried it directly in the sand underneath the coals. After several minutes, they took it out of the ground, brushed off the coals and sand, and tore the flatbread into pieces. It was the freshest, most delicious bread I have ever had.

The wind picked up quickly and dramatically, as the fine sand settled into our ears, eyes, and every little corner of the little belongings we brought into the desert. Hurrying to clean up camp, we loaded our supplies onto the camels and began the trek back to the village. We were impressed with our guides who, at roughly twice our age, walked through the heat and sand and wind and chatted the whole way back.

After parting ways with our guides we hopped back into the car, coated in sand, and began the long drive back to Sousse. We were exhausted, and the heat drained what little energy we had left. We had a few gas station coffees and stopped midway for some roadside lamb barbecue. With our newfound energy we continued on to Sousse, where we dropped off our car, checked in to a hotel, and fell into our beds, exhausted.

We spent the next few days in Sidi Bou Said. This idyllic town, on the eastern hills of Tunis overlooking the mediterranean, conjures images of Santorini: white walls, blue framed windows, palm trees and an easy breeze. After the relative hardship of two long days of driving and a night spent in the desert, we were glad to put our bags down and settle into this beautiful town, with its cozy cafes, tasty restaurants and seaside views. We spent the evening sharing a couple bottles of wine and reflecting on the adventure we were lucky enough to experience.

The next day we visited nearby Carthage, a collection of scattered, unimpressive ruins, with little signage to give us an understanding of what we were looking at. A little disappointed, but still content with having seen El Jem, we headed back to Sidi Bou Said with our fill of Roman history, and continued the festivities.

We had already been traveling for a week, and had covered tons of ground in the small country. With a sense of pride at the trip we had completed, we promised each other to take another trip and parted ways, already looking forward to the next adventure.