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Trip Report Tunisia - A Special Place (trip report)

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I returned recently from a special place. Imagine golden Saharan sand dunes, warm, inviting beaches on the Mediterranean Sea, sleepy villages with brilliantly colored bougainvillea spilling over whitewashed walls, many Roman and pre-Roman ruins, a Star Wars movie set, very friendly people and so much more..

This place is Tunisia, North Africa, tucked between Algeria and Libya, a small country about the size of Florida or Wisconsin.

So where to begin? Friend Lois, who spends part of the year in Texas, met me at the airport in Cincinnati. I'd flown in from Iowa, she from Dallas.

Over two weeks time we traveled much of this interesting country with 12 other people from all areas of the US.

We saw extremely well preserved Roman and pre-Roman ruins in Carthage, Dougga, El Jem and more. In El Jem an amphitheater, better preserved than the one in Rome,and is nearly as large. One of the best things about this trip was the near lack of tourists, so we mostly could explore at our leisure. From the deepest tunnel to the uppermost areas we were free to roam at will.

The Bardo Museum in Tunis has a most extensive collection of mosaics; huge masterpieces that were carefully removed from floors of ruins and painstakingly restored on the walls. Workmanship is extremely detailed and colorful. They almost appear to be hanging tapestries on the walls.

Olive oil, lime and phosphates are their main exports so we saw miles and miles of olive trees, also saw a phosphate mine where ore from an open mine is loaded onto railroad cars and transported to a processing plant for export as fertilizer.

Dates are also an important crop so in any oasis there are hundreds of date palms. Fertilization, bagging and harvest are all done by hand, with trees climbed by barefoot workers. Tree ripened dates are a most special taste delight.

Water is a very precious commodity and there are huge concrete catch basins for storing rainwater. New wells are being dug, up to a depth of 2000 meters so that new oases can be established.

We toured the North African American Cemetery, where nearly 3000 of our military dead rest; sacrificed in the North African Campaign during World War II. Also featured is a wall with the names of 3800 missing military whose remains were never found; many entombed in sunken ships in the Mediterranean. A very sobering time as we listened to our National Anthem and observed all those white crosses in a land so far from home.

One day we climbed into four wheeled drive vehicles and went 'dune riding.' Out in the Sahara, we climbed and descended some pretty spectacular dunes. Our destination was the set of the first Star Wars movie. Now, after 30 years, it's falling into ruin, but we had some avid fans who scooped up bags of Star Wars sand to take home. Also nearby was the movie set of "The English Patient.' 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' was also filmed in the area.

Another day we all donned Bedouin garb and mounted camels for a Saharan trek. Pretty funny, seeing all these old Caucasians ambling along through the desert on camels. Think we all enjoyed it, although most of us had some sore muscles for a day or two. Thankfully the sky was overcast that day so actually quite pleasant weatherwise.

We rode the "Red Lizard" Train, a holdover from a 19th century Tunisian official--The Bey of Tunis. This restored five carriage train is pulled by a steam locomotive and our carriage had plush red velvet and black leather chairs and couches. our private bathroom featured traditional porcelain fixtures, including a bidet. Other cars had more conventional seats. This train draws huge crowds on its daily run, with people sitting, standing, hanging, everywhere. The seven mile journey is through sme extremely spectacular desert scenery.

After several days in the desert we drove across Chott El Jerid, the largest salt flats in Saharan Africa, headed for the island of Djerba. We were ferried to the island, which features huge hotel complexes for 'destination' vacations, fabulous beaches, interesting villages, groves of olive and citrus trees and dozens of pottery shops.

This was Election Day back home and some stayed up nearly all night to hear the results. The next day, walking in a village market, vendors greeted us with "American?", followed by "OBAMA YES, Bush kaput." Regardless of one's political leanings, I'll never forget where I was on Election Day 2008.

We enjoyed a 'home hosted' meal where the family matriarch, an 85 year-old charmer, applied henna stencils to the women's hands, to the delight of all. This home, like so many in warm climates, is built around a central, open courtyard. Here there was a small turtle, obviously a family pet, probably keeps flies and bugs in check. Madame Turtle discovered my brightly painted toenails and decided they were obviously delicious, so attempted to take a bite. OUCH!

Food, as always, was interesting. As the country is Muslim, there was no pork. Fish is plentiful, as is chicken and lamb. Lots of stews, concoctions of many different cut up vegetables with small bits of fish or meat. Couscous was available quite often, obviously a staple. We were introduced to brik, which I'd never had before--an egg mixture wrapped in a thin, phyllo like pastry and deep fried. Introduced to a new spice, harissa, a sauce made from hot red chilis and used with great abandon. I like hot, but a little bit goes a long way.

Many of our meals were at the hotels, huge buffets of interesting concoctions. Couple things I nearly became addicted to were fresh squeezed orange juice and fresh pomegranates.

We traveled with an American tour group, Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) so we were really pampered and perhaps sheltered from the 'real' country. Whenever we were on our own, we found the local people to be extremely friendly and helpful. In Tunis one evening Lois wanted ice cream. We wandered the streets, peeking in little shops and finally wandered into the depths of one. We asked "Ice Cream?" to a young man way in the back of the building and he said "Come." Through twisting corridors, he led us upstairs to a delightful ice cream shop. We never would have found this on our own. This is but one example, there were many more.

A word or two of advice--apparently hotels air conditioning is turned off from Oct. 15 to May 15, so it was extremely hot in the hotels some nights. As we were often near the sea, leaving unscreened windows or doors open was not an option as there were mosquitos.

Back at the Tunis airport, I still had 20 Tunisian Dinars, which I thought I could spend there. No such luck--cashier in a gift shop told me "We don't accept dinars". Perhaps this is a common custom in 3rd world countries, but it was new to me.

Any further questions, feel free to ask.


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