Geckos and Gelato: Tunisia June 2024


Browse archives for July 12, 2024
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Soooo, still committed to the alliterative titles, even if this one doesn’t really count. I mean, visually they both start with G, but the pronunciation kills the effect. Aw well.

We had our Jeep ride out of the Sahara, and were then reunited with Ashraf and our van. And started the long drive to the city of Tozeur. Winds, which were already intense that morning, have REALLY picked up. Our van got stuck again in the super soft sand dunes that had blown onto that same patch of highway. Happily this time all of our wheels stayed on the pavement, which made digging ourselves out and pushing easier and we were able to get un-stuck without needing the assistance of a giant busload of European dudes. Unhappily, there was an injury. I mentioned the INTENSE winds, right? They were so strong that the mini-van’s automatic sliding door was having trouble opening and closing. With both wind resistance and sand getting into the sensors, it would only move partway and then automatically close again. A few of our group made it out the door before it closed again, and then a few of us scrambled into the front seat and out the front passenger door, which just opened like a normal door…although against HUGE wind pressure. After the van was pushed free, we went to climb back inside, but the door would open slide open about 12” before closing again. Courtney went to climb into the passenger seat and into the back to assist from inside. But before she could get there, we suddenly hear Yassine insisting that the door be opened again right away! Once that happens, he just stoically walks away from the van and us, clutching his hand, and bent over for a bit. Silent but obviously injured. Stoic AF. Oh no!! Honestly, dude is super stoic. There wasn’t even screaming when his finger got caught in the closed automatic door, just firm insistence. OUCHY! And so now it’s no longer a fun adventure story, but a “Damn, somebody got hurt” story. The good news is that it turned out not to be as bad as it could have been, I guess. No broken bones. Just severely pinched and bruised. Poor guy. So that sucked. We got to see that patch of finger turn interesting colors over the next few days. 🙁

We’re starting to lose more visibility in the increased sand storm, but do get to enjoy a guy driving his two camels in the back of his pickup truck. The animals seemed very chill. Cracked me up. I don’t think this blurry photo captures it, but we followed these camels for quite awhile, and I so enjoyed just watching his head bob up and down, looking around while lying down in the truck bed.

Then we’re approaching a large salt lake area, so now it’s a WHITE OUT of a salt/sand storm. All vehicles turn on their blinking hazard lights and are driving super slowly, as visibility is nill.

So that nixes one of our salt lake stops, but that’s okay. We did later stop at this random roadside structure with a boat and a few wooden sculptures and some flags.

The winds are still Soooooo intense. It’s kind of a struggle to stay standing. But we gamely wander around for a few minutes before we all decide we can keep going. Ha. It’s a long day of driving, and we’re all tired and sandy. Everyone’s mostly listening to their own tunes. Arthur, knowing I’d had issues with my audiobook earlier (Reaper at the Gates by Tahir. Very fun to be reading this story inspired by Ancient Rome and Egypt in these landscapes!! But I’d failed to download it in the library app and so couldn’t listen for a few days). He asks me what I’m listening to now. I mention I had a different audiobook already downloaded so I’ve just started it. It’s apparently a Classic, but not one I’d heard of before. I tell him the title and author. “Oh man. Why are you reading that?!? That’s so depressing. He kills her and throws her body in the lake.” I’m sure I had a blank stare and just blinked a few times. Then, “well, okay then. Guess I’ll look for foreshadowing while I read it.” OMG! I’m laughing but also flummoxed. It’ll be fine…I’ve known the plot before reading most Classic Lit. But in this instance, I’d not even heard of the book before, so it would’ve been brand new to me. Ha! (I’m deliberately not listing the book, to avoid spoilers for others, but feel free to ask me if you’re curious).

Late lunch at Restaurant Soleil in Tozeur, entertainingly decorated with a fake palm tree pillar and fake sky.

Food and service are great. Most of us ordered a dish that Yassine kept saying was like Tunisian pasta. It involved a thin bread cut into pieces (so I guess in the neighborhood of noodles), with a lovely sauce and peppers and nuts and lamb and also some dried fruit.

It’s also always lovely to grab a meal that isn’t at the hotel. There’s a very inquisitive street cat, who is clearly a regular and a menace of fluff. When it sneaks inside, it spends several minutes rubbing against our ankles and getting pets from Sarah and Courtney. We watch the staff gently shoo it back outside, but it continues to pace outside the doors, waiting for its chance to slip back inside again. (We’ll have lunch here the next day as well, and this same cat manages to get inside 3 more times during that meal. Ha)

Courtney petting the street cat, outside after our meal

Then off to our hotel for a MUCH ANTICIPATED shower (remember that we’re all still coated in all the windstorm Saharan sand). It’s glorious. Relaxing at hotel. Decent enough hotel buffet for dinner. This hotel is Packed with tour groups, so we have an assigned table we have to use.

Next morning, we head out to find a Jeep waiting for us, with a new driver. What?!? Turns out no Ashraf today. We’re taking a Jeep to go exploring. There’s a hilarious moment of misunderstanding about 10 minutes into our drive, Yassine starts unfolding a large paper map, while talking speedily with our driver. There’s some fumbling with the paper, and it really seems to all of us that we’re lost or he needs to show our new driver our destination. Real Magellan shit over here! But nope, he brought the map as a very kind visual guide for us, to show us where we’d be headed for the day (as so many of our stops will be off roads).

Along the way, we get some impressive views of the Atlas Mountains, and then we’re off to Chebika, a mountainous oasis in the desert. It’s Stupidly hot again, and, ya know, the desert, near the Algerian border. And then you can see the oasis as this striking patch of green amidst some mountains. As you’d expect for a watersource in the desert, there are millenia of human history here, from ancient Rome to the Amazigh people, and there’s a current town nearby. We’re told it’s going to be a bit more intense hiking than our original itinerary. (Unfortunately for your girl, who already hates walking downhill on loose scree and gravel. I’d brought a collapsible hiking pole for this trip, to help with that and my balance issues. However, I’d taken to leaving the pole in the van. Not knowing we’d be with a new driver in a jeep all day instead. Eek!). We grab our water bottles, I sunscreen up with my big hat, and off to meet our Chebika guide (whose name I forgot to record. Darn it).

Photo Courtesy of Arthur

He had an infectious smile and a kind heart. As we’re climbing up the mountain trails, he says to me, “I will be your Papa” as he pats his chest and offers me his hand for balance as I clamber over a boulder. Very much appreciated.

Then we come to the first part where we’re squeezing through a mountain crevice. Unexpected!! Michael kindly offers to carry my small day pack.The footing is kind of treacherous…although with walls on both sides, not gonna be able to fall too badly. Ha!

Then more climbing up up up. Which I hate, because I know we’re going to have to go down down down on some similar loose gravel paths.

There are souvenir vendors set up occasionally along the different trails. Unexpected, but definitely a more unique and scenic way to buy gifts for folk back home.

One folding table has a “Tattoo” sign up, which has us all giggling and a bit skeptical that this is maybe the most hygienic outdoor desert location for getting some ink. But as we get closer, I think it’s a translation difference, because he had small metal bracelets and was offering custom engraving. Climbing up the mountain in the heat is obviously not super pleasant. But for me, it’s always more about the phobia of the loose downhill slide. Our guide is wonderfully sweet and patient (and very stable), offering me a hand for the slipping and sliding scree bits. Eventually we get to a section with some carved stone steps and that is much better.

And at the bottom, greeted with a truly lovely site.

This mountain oasis pond, with FROGS and dragonflies.

Photo Courtesy of Arthur

It’s stunning. You can see where the water is coming out of the mountain.

And then it’s walking along a small stream, clambering along and over a few more smaller boulders,

and we find an actual waterfall into another pond. Magical.

After a post hike cup of tea, it’s back to our Jeep. I also didn’t write down our drivers name, which is a shame, because he was very Fine! I was super stoked that it was my turn to ride in the front seat for this next portion of the trip. Ha! (Because the jeeps have fewer seats than our van, we’d been trading around who sat where. Although the group kindly never made me clamber over into the very back seat for any of our jeep rides, which I appreciated). That extreme competency thing is always attractive (as he confidently takes us off-roading, with the Arabic version of those “I can kill a bear and build you a log cabin” vibes). The fact that he was also super fit, with defined cheekbones, a prominent nose, and sparkling eyes, I felt like the Universe was reading my dream journal. Ha! Also appreciated that he was playing music (Ashraf normally had our van stereo off). And his musical tastes were mostly euro dance songs (be still my beating heart! As an avid C89.5 radio listener all my life, I knew a lot of the tunes and could sing/bop along). We shared some knowing glances and head bobs to the beat. He’s driving us out into the desert. We turn off from the highway and are just making our own path, to some good tunes. And I’ve got that great view (ha, I meant out the windshield from the front seat, but the view to my left wasn’t bad either. *laughs* ) There are lots of bumps and dips, as this is off-roading. Those in the backseat couldn’t see when these were coming, and would often squeal or squeak at the unexpected bounce. And our driver would give me a sideways glance with a twinkle in his eye and small smile. Ha! He’s also playing some Arabic pop songs, too. Michael hollers “Tracy, can you Shazam this song?” “I already got it. And the two before.” After a few more requests, I just take on the role of recording all the new-to-us songs so we can make a group playlist later. Fun.

And now we’ve finally come to the LARGE SAND DUNES, as promised. As we’re driving up up up, the driver switches the tunes over to an Adele song. Strange choice. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like Adele. But the vibes were not quite sand-duning tunes. Ah well. The view from the front seat is intense, as I’m the first to see nothing but empty horizon, as the ground disappears, we crest the top and start the plunge down the hill. *cue the excited squealing from the Jeep. (In honesty, the driver and Yassine were not squealing. And I don’t think Arthur made noise either. Unsure about Michael. His main concern had been motion sickness, as a previous trip to Namibia riding the dunes had proved pretty nauseating for him. Happily for him, this was a much shorter session of riding the dunes, so nobody got sick). It’s fun. And then we stop at the top of one dune, and can look out over one of the Star Wars Mos Espa sets. Again, from Phantom Menace. These Dunes are where the Darth Maul light saber duel was filmed,

As well as several of the Mos Espa exterior shots.

There are some vendors at folding tables set up around the site. And a man walking a camel on a harness, offering photos and rides.

Glad to see at least some locals able to capitalize on Star Wars tourism. The infrastructure for such a tourism thing is really lacking.

It’s very fun to just get to wander freely around these buildings. No admission fee. No rules. No guard ropes or off limit areas. The sun is punishing. There’s an adorable dog grabbing some shade.

Courtney is extra hilarious in our selfie. A good time is had.

After that, we pile back into the Jeep for our next stop. More off roading until we rejoin the road.

Then we suddenly take a random unmarked turn, once again heading into the desert. Some truly impressive mirages shining in the distance in this brutal mid-day sun. And then we’re at the Lars Homestead, from the original Star Wars film.

(There’s a sign explaining a 2011 online campaign that raised $10,000 to restore this site, which had been pretty deteriorated after 40+ years in the desert).

We’re the only people here. There’s a small bird inside the building (possibly injured, possibly just thirsty). Yassine sets up a small bowl of water for it. Off to the side is one folding table with some souvenirs (different stones and crystals from the area, not specifically Star Wars themed items). But the vendor isn’t there: possibly his lunch break? I feel slightly badly that he’s gone, as I’m not sure how many people come this way, and I’m sorry he missed a chance at a sale. Michael then calls me over, has me stand in a specific spot, and instructs me to take the most inappropriate but entertaining photo, as he goes to recreate the film scene: he lies down where the dead smoking body is, in front of the house. Yassine is a bit perplexed why Michael is lying face down on the ground. And why we can’t stop chuckling about it. (Later, when I have internet, I bring up photos from Star Wars to show him the scene Michael was mimicking).

And then it’s a drive along the desert highway back to Tozeur. We have one hour to relax in our hotel rooms, before our exploration of the Medina and then dinner at a different Oasis, which has a restaurant. Courtney and Sarah decide they’re tired and want to skip the evening activities. So it’s me and the boys for the night. The Medina is super cool.

A Unesco heritage site, Yassine explains that the distinctive brickwork we’ve seen everywhere is something Tozeur is famous for. The technology was first done in Damascus (hundreds and hundreds of years ago) and made it’s way West to Tozeur (by the 13th or 14th century, if I’m remembering correctly). Each of the design patterns have different cultural meanings and significance (the only one I remember is the Caravan symbol, representing the Bedouins).

We’re wandering around after most of the shops has closed (to beat that late afternoon heat!).

There are a brother and sister riding their bicycles along the mostly empty streets, their laughter and taunts to each other echoing off the alley walls. We come to this wall with all of these tiny ledges in it.

You’re supposed to stand a certain distance away, facing away from the wall, and tossing a pebble over your shoulder. If the pebble lands and stays in one of the tiny ledges, you’ll get the husband that you want. Yassine tried twice and failed. Michael and I were also unsuccessful in our husband-hunting rock throw attempts, and jokingly consoled each other that a pebble probably wasn’t predictive of ones marriage prospects. Ha. Arthur thought we were all being too silly and walked away.

We stop at a Berber Cafe with gorgeous panoramic rooftop views, and some very fun and funky designs.

More mint tea. Always a nice way to relax and chat. I learn that in Tunisia, they don’t use the Arabic word for tea, instead using the French word. “We/I would like tea/coffee please” was one of the Arabic phrases I’d memorized. Happily, pretty easy to substitute thé for shay. (Never actually got to ask anyone for coffee, as Yassine would often order for the group. Or when at an actual coffee shop, would be ordering by the specific espresso drink we wanted. But saying the arabic word qahwa is VERY fun. I recommend y’all listen to it online and then repeat. Very pleasing).

A bit more wandering through town as the sun is setting, including this wall that was part of a former Synagogue.

then into the van for a drive to our dinner. Heading into the oasis where restaurant Chak-Wak is located, we lose all street lights. So we’re driving small dark roads with palm trees all around us. Strangely Ashraf has the interior dome light on in the van. Which is tough for visibility and I can hear my dad’s voice in my head, disagreeing with this choice. (We later learn that when near the Algerian border, it’s required by law to drive around with the dome lights on at night, so police and guards can check more easily for smugglers, etc. Yikes!). It does feel like we’re driving out into the absolute black wilderness. Eery, but also lovely, with all these palm trees illuminated only by our headlights. Eventually we come to a small parking lot and an impressive historical battlement/wall of some kind.

It was only AFTER I GOT HOME and Googled the restaurant that I learned the Chak Wak is a whole park area in the oasis, including FIFTY DINOSAUR STATUES, as well as some Zebra and Giraffe Statues, and a museum. Honestly, it looks like an amazing blend of cheesy and awesome. But the part we visited was just some lovely historic kasbah-like walls, palm trees, ponds, and a very nice restaurant. As we’re walking along the wall, I see a gecko!! Hello Best Friend! We end up seeing several scurrying along the wall, and popping into tiny crevices to hide. Yay!

Photo Courtesy of Arthur

The restaurant is huge.

The menu is in french, and there are no descriptions/ingredients listed: just the names of dishes. I order “Supreme Poulet Fondant” which proved to be chicken breast covered in melted white cheese and spices. Both Arthur and Michael had said they were still full from lunch, so were just going to get something light. Arthur ordered the spaghetti and was presented with a plate that could have fed a family of four!! Michael ordered bric (a Tunisian specialty, we’d had often. It’s a fried thin pastry, filled often with egg and tuna fish). And a side of french fries. Yassine and Ashraf both got a pizza. There were several different pizza flavors listed but not explained on the menu. When served, they’re given pizza topped with Tuna Fish and Black Olives. (If I haven’t mentioned it yet, Tuna fish is everywhere here. Often used to top salads. In the Bric. Often even a small bowl of tuna is served next to the required harissa hot sauce, olives, and french bread available with every meal. And Yassine is also a fan of cats, and has often snuck a small piece of tuna (or lamb) for nearby street cats during our meals). So I ask, “Is that the Tunisian Pizza?” (Tunisia Pizza was one of the three flavors on the menu). They both look at me, stunned, and state obviously, “No, this is the Naples Pizza.” (huh). Then what are the Tunisian toppings? “Onions with a hot sauce.” Holy Heartburn, Batman! Ha. It’s a really nice and relaxed dinner, with good conversation and reminiscing already, as our trip is quickly winding down. The live music then starts up. Two older gents are playing: one on a handheld drum (bongo sized, but not a bongo) and the other on a larger than standard keyboard. Yassine says they’re playing mostly traditional songs. It’s lovely.

As we drive back to the city of Tozeur, our van makes a stop in front of the four gelato places we’d driven past earlier on our way out of town. Arthur “Why are we stopping?” Yassine “Because you said you wanted ice cream.” Arthur had indeed said this, multiple times, as we drove past the shops and then again at dinner. But apparently he was joking (I also did not pick up on it being a joke this time. And I, also, am NEVER mad about getting some gelato). As we’re walking to get in line, Arthur bemusedly and with appreciation says, “Jeez. This guy. You can’t say anything around him without him doing it. If I asked for the moon, he’d probably give it to me.” Yassine, sincerely, “This is my job” with his hand over his heart. Arthur graciously expresses his gratitude, forgoing his standard joke response. He truly seems a bit dumbfounded that his “joke” wishes for ice cream were delivered. So many flavor choices. I ask for melon (as I can see the juicy cantaloupe color, and I tend to prefer the fruit flavors). Yassine is concerned. He tried to clarify, twice, Melon? You want Melon? When I answer in the affirmative, he says I should taste it first. So then he obtains a taster spoon for me. Yup, it’s delicious and refreshing and what I want.

(Although clearly NOT a favorite flavor for Yassine, who got one of the chocolate combination flavors). We’re loaded back into the van WITH OUR ICE CREAM (I again hear my father’s disapproving voice). It’s only a two minute drive to the hotel. We say good night to Yassine and Ashraf, and the boys and I finish our ice cream at a lovely poolside table. The hotel trees are lit up at night with different bright rainbow colored lights. A bright blue tree. A hot pink tree. A vibrant yellow tree. It’s unexpected but fun. Lovely chats continue. So pleased that our small group of strangers happened to be a small group of kind strangers and that we all got along so well. Because a 12 night tour is a LONG time! Eventually we realize how late it is, and head off to bed. Happily we don’t have to leave super early, even though we have a longer drive to our next stop. Because there really isn’t anything to see/do en route, Yassine says we can sleep in a bit. Breakfast 9:30am, and leave hotel 10am. Sounds great.

Star Wars and Saharan Sandstorms: Tunisia June 2024


Browse archives for June 24, 2024
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I’m still hung-up on alliterative titles, as you can see. Typing these recaps now that I’ve returned home, as so much of our “down time” on the trip was while in the van driving from place to place, and I’m too prone to motion sickness to allow for writing while in a vehicle. I did take some basic notes while in country, and I’ve got photos to help remember, too. We’ll see how it goes.

Today happened to be market day, which offered lots of vibrant activity to observe while driving through the different towns.

It was also the beginning of garlic season, so we’d spy trucks loaded with garlic bulb clusters. Yum!

We stopped at another historic Amazigh building. We were the only people there, except for the sweet elderly woman who made us some lovely mint tea. ’twas particularly lovely to see the sun shining on the golden mosque dome behind the ancient buildings.

Then we headed up and over some mountains. Fascinating to see the different modern towns built into the cliffsides. And atop most of the mountain peaks, you could see the ancient Amazigh granary storage buildings still. There was a definite brown-ness to the vistas, which initially tricked your eyes into thinking there wasn’t much to see. But if you stopped and actually Looked, suddenly all the different levels and varigations and buildings started to reveal themselves.

While we stopped at this particularly vista for a stretch and view, a small group of Italian motorcycle riders stopped as well. I was surprised (and impressed) after they took off their helmets and revealed themselves all to be retired age. Definitely wasn’t expecting the bikers to be seniors. A few with their go-pro cameras affixed to their helmets. What a fun adventure. And then walking down the road came a laughing and carousing group of about a dozen women. All dressed very fashionably and in a variety of fun colors. Carrying coolers and containers of food, laughing and hooting. Yassine asked them what they were celebrating. They just laughed harder and made some ululations of joy. Michael hollered Congratulations (as we’d been guessing perhaps a bridal party of some kind). And one of the women, in a vibrant pink top, asked Michael if he would marry her, and then laughed uproariously. Mike was filming at the time, so we kind of thought that makes the proposal legally binding! (In a fun bit of kismet, we came across three of these women (including the one who proposed) again a few days later. While stuck in slow traffic, we saw them exiting a car several regions away from where we’d first seen them. But this wasn’t a movie, so Michael didn’t demand Ashraf stop the van so he could talk to her. Ha! Still, I would totally have watched that movie.

Our lunch stop has been much touted by Yassine for seeing Star Wars stuff: Hotel Sidi Idriss. A hotel built in the fixed up interior rooms used for the Lars homestead. As there isn’t much tourism infrastructure in Tunisia in general, it’s not surprising that they haven’t capitalized much on Star Wars film sites.

A few have tried over the years, but also, so far very few Americans visit, and tourists in general tend to stay in the Mediterranean cities rather than venture south into the Tattouine region. So I was glad to see this hotel/restaurant doing its best to celebrate this location, and to try to give tourists something to visit.

There were some of the props and set pieces still around (while the originals from the 70’s were long gone, they were rebuilt in 2000 for The Clone Wars filming. There were also several painted Star Wars characters throughout, to varying degrees of accuracy.

Yassine had arranged ahead of time for us to get to eat in one of the film set caves/interiors. Adorable.

Michael, after seeing his photo, “I look like a Goober.” Me: “An enthusiastic goober! Being excited about the things you love should always be celebrated.”

We later made a visit to a Troglodyte house, as we were traveling in the Matmata region.

I still feel slightly unsettled by that being the term used on all the signs and when discussing these regional cave-dwelling people. As it feels to me like it carries some negative baggage. There are fewer and fewer still living in these underground homes now.

The women who showed us around their home were lovely. The cave room designs were incredibly effective at providing temperature regulation, and it was perfectly pleasant inside the rooms (Definitely better than outside in the blazing sun, as you can see me hiding in a tiny patch of shade).

I was particularly a fan of the way they carved and utilized some of the cave and wall-coating materials to create kitchen cabinets and bed frames.

The matriarch then gave us a demonstration in traditional grain grinding preparation, and Courtney was once again conscripted into the demonstration. She’s a total good sport about it

Our next stop was one of my absolute favorites, and not on the original itinerary, but Yassine thought we’d like it. He was right. The Musee Berbere in Tamezret (despite the term Berber being thought pejorative by many, even the Amazigh people (as they call themselves) use the term Berber when speaking with others. The founder of the museum, within a 2,000 year old Amazigh cave housing, is also the host and guide.

He is a fantastic storyteller. His eyes are vibrant and evocative, he smiles with his whole face, and uses his whole body to convey interesting and funny histories of his Amazigh people. The true impressiveness of his performance is the fact that he doesn’t speak English, so gave all of his explanations in French, which Yassine would then translate for us. (I was able to follow about 1/3 of it myself, but the others in our group who don’t speak any French, they all said they still felt captivated and engaged before getting the translation). He had a fancy job in the capital of Tunis (architect, if I’m remembering correctly). But then he returned to his traditional home to open the museum and help preserve and share his people’s stories.

Explaining how the different cave homes were interconnected with a series of tunnels throughout the mountain, including secret escape tunnels. One way the Amazigh could help avoid being conquered by invaders. Escaping out the secret tunnels with all their valuables…and then maybe stealing the horses and valuables of those invaders. Ha! (And yes, Avatar the Last Airbender fans, I WAS singing the “secret tunnel” song to myself). Fascinating stories of their matriarchal society. About the Amazigh version of speed dating, wherein young men would have approximately 10 minutes to chat up each of the ladies at a feast. And if she liked what she heard, they could have another conversation at the next gathering. But it was always up to the woman to decide whom to marry. And if it turned out she married a man who wasn’t a good husband, divorcing him was seen as a sign of strength and moral character and made her a more desirable bride for knowing her mind and demanding a true helpmate and partner in raising their family. Nice! We were shown some very old and gorgeous Amazigh embroidery that had been in his family for generations.

It’s explained to us that the very low doorways between each room are Not because the people were very short. More it had cultural and religious significance about staying humble, etc.

Truly, it was a special stop with fascinating information. He’s so passionate about sharing his people’s histories. I hope that more English groups are able to visit, as long as they have a guide able to translate the french. Or honestly, with phone translation these days, it would probably work too.

Way back at the beginning of our trip, Yassine had taught us a few different Tunisian greetings, including that the Berber people say “Azul” with their hand over their heart. This proved easy for us Americans to remember (because of our limited Spanish, honestly). So we’d greeted our guide this way. After our visit, Yassine told us that our guide was particularly touched by this. That the majority of Tunisians do not know the Amazigh language, and so for a group of Americans to have traveled so far and known this, this was a beautiful thing.

And now it’s time to start our drive into the Sahara Desert for our overnight camping trip. We’ll drive to an oasis area, where we transfer to some Jeeps to drive the final 40 minutes into the desert to the campground. Weather for last several days has included sandstorms in the area. Which is a bummer, considering stargazing in the desert was one of Courtney’s top reasons for wanting to do a desert trip. We’re all a bit bummed, of course. And Michael is being extra vocal about how upset he’ll be if we can’t see the stars. I mean, yeah buddy. We all get it. And we’ll all be really bummed. Because we ALL traveled very far to come see this. But also, We Don’t Control the Weather!! The rest of us are trying to put a positive spin on worst case scenarios. Like, never been in a sandstorm before, so that’ll at least be a new experience. But yeah, internally we’re all sad about it. But trying to make the best of a situation.

It’s a little better/less windy as we’re starting our drive. Hello desert! Sand sand sand. And camels! Sometimes wandering across the road.

. Sometimes coming over to investigate our van

. Us Americans get excited every time we see them (which is often, actually). Yassine and Ashraf are indulgent. I know it’s probably akin to seeing the Bison at Yellowstone Park (the first day you’re so excited to see tiny tiny herds miles away. By the end of the week, you’re so over it, as Bison are literally walking through your camp site and peeking in your car windows). But still, we were only there for one night, so remained charmed and excited. You can see the different markings the Bedoiun people use, like cattle brands, to track who the camels belong to.

We then approached a section of highway that was Covered almost entirely by very tall sand dunes, that had just blown over since the morning.

Our van is having to drive along the edge of the road, as it wouldn’t make it over the dunes. Unfortunately we drove off the road and our tires got stuck. Everybody out, and we all try pushing. However, this fine reddish Saharan sand is like FLOUR and it is a nightmare for the van’s tires.

(It was a little surprising the van didn’t have a small shovel and board in the back, same way we carry snowstorm supplies when crossing the mountain passes in Washington State). We’re now sent to look for large rocks or broken edges of asphalt road that we can use to attempt some traction. When over the highway hill, in the distance, we see one of those giant 42 person tour buses approach. Now, they’d have stopped to help us in any case, I’m sure. But our van was also blocking the one bit of not-sand-dune-covered asphalt. The bus brakes, a good hundred yards or more away from us. And 8 or 9 European dudes (in shorts and gold chains) disgorge from the bus, pantomiming rolling up their sleeves, and they come marching excitedly over to our stuck van. And about 6 or 7 of their wives and girlfriends then get off the bus, and wander over to start taking pictures. I abandon my rock search and wander back to the front of the van, where I see Sarah from our group standing with the Euro ladies, and she’s holding this phone on a tripod, filming the men trying to push the van free. “Where did you get that?” “From one of them. He handed it to me, grunted “Record,” and then went to start pushing.” Amazing. I was only sad for him that there’s no Livestreaming from the Sahara, so his video would need to be uploaded after the fact. Ha.

But the guys managed to get our van freed, there was much cheering. Some of the women orchestrated a giant group photo.

Everyone waved goodbye, and we all climbed back into our respective vehicles, with a fun story to tell. It was still a bit of a drive to the Oasis, where all 6 of us (plus a new driver) piled into one Jeep for our 40 minute drive further into the desert.

The landscape is stunning, with no roads and few way markers (occasionally we’d pass a tire, painted red and white, half buried in the sand, that was obviously used as some type of navigation system). It’s bumpy and squishy and windy (windows are down to allow for a breeze in the desert sun), so I’ve wrapped and tied my headscarf sarong around myself to help keep the sun at bay.

When we get to the campsite, we’re told we’re the only guests, so we can each have our OWN tent if we’d prefer. And we all do!

They’re super sturdy, with thick tent material outside, and two layers of blankets inside (to help keep the sand out). This also meant the tent is SUPER HOT!!! Definitely wished it came with a small fan. But there’s one small light, and an outlet for charging your phone. AND I didn’t have to set up the tent myself. Hard to complain too much. Super cute, even if it is hot.

AND even if I’m still VERY NERVOUS ABOUT SCORPIONS!! No thank you, please. Not inside my tent please! Happily that didn’t happen, as I nervously checked my shoes and every surface before ever touching it with my hand or foot.

Also, in a HUGE stroke of luck, the winds have died down and there is some clearing in the skies. Clouds are moving past and we are hopeful of potential stargazing. Sarah, Yassine, and I enjoy a local Tunisian beer on the tiny patio at the campsight.

It’s stunning in the early evening, approaching sunset.

Courtney, not a beer person, decides to try a fig-based liquor, which was fun. And we have the ubiquitous pile of green olives to snack on. Always a welcome treat. Suddenly Yassine is VERY excited about a bird that lands nearby. It’s a male Desert Sparrow. Apparently they are super rare and hard to find. He tells of a three week trip where he was the guide for an avid birder, and this was one of the few species they were never able to find. The camp bartender comes out to check on us. Yassine asks about the bird, and he is shown that they are actually building a nest in the roof of the patio. Sure enough, the female then appears with some nest building materials.

Throughout the evening, these tiny delicate light sparrows occasionally land near us, when flying to and from their new nest.

Then, we see a pair of people wandering out in the sand dunes. Wait, it can’t be! But it is!! It is that same French couple who had complained about the “loud table of Americans” a few days ago. Oh dear! We were told that two other people would be in the campground, and it’s them. Oh no! Also, there is a futbol match happening on the TV, and the campground employees occasionally give some raccous cheers. And I swear the French cast dirty looks back in our direction. And it wasn’t even us being loud right then. Ack!

That evening, we’re going to be shown how to make Bedouin bread. So it’s the 5 of us, and the French couple. Sitting around, before the demonstration begins. And because Yassine is a bit of a troublemaker (and possibly aided by the sunset beers we enjoyed), he starts talking to them in French. Asking if they remember him, how they’d approached him about the loud Americans, and surprise, he wasn’t a Berber waiter, he was actually our tour guide. (I mean, I didn’t catch ALL of the French translation, but I caught enough of the words to know this was legitimately what he was saying to them. WAY more confrontational than I’d ever be in this situation). The woman, to her credit, tries to downplay it. No no, we weren’t complaining, we were just observing. It wasn’t criticism, she keeps repeating. (Awkward!!). The man then says how he’s been to America ten times for business trips and starts listing cities he’s visited, which included Boise. (Super curious what industry he’s in, but didn’t get the chance to ask, as our bread demonstration then began). Really interesting, and the giant round thick disc of bread is buried in hot embers, and everything is covered in sand.

After about ten minutes, he used a large stick to uncover the bread and push it out of the embers. Then it is methodically beaten with a large towel to get the sand off. And then we’re all given large chunks of fresh warm bread and it is delicious. Pillow-y and soft center with a nice sturdy but not hard outside.

After dinner, we’re pleased to find a dark sky with several patches of stars visible. There’s some wind picking up, blowing this fine flour-like sand everywhere. So much sand. But we’re able to see many stars, as there’s a break in the clouds, and the sand being blown around is light/small enough it’s not obstructing our view. We wander a bit in the dark through the sand dunes, find a good place, and several sit down/lie back to stargaze. I turn on my phone flashlight to check for scorpions!! Yassine, with a devilish chuckle, says, “No scorpions! Only Pit Vipers!” and then laughs himself silly. It’s great that after our first few days, Yassine really warmed up and started teasing with us. And also that he finally learned to not take Arthur seriously. Because Arthur would use Making a Ridiculous Complaint as a form of humor. Which just was not translating across multiple languages and cultures. And for several days, Yassine would be genuinely upset and trying to figure out how to fix the thing Arthur was complaining about. And we’d all have to quickly reassure, “No. No. He’s joking.” But after a few days, when Arthur lodged another pretend complaint, Yassine just points at him and says, “I don’t believe you,” which is much better.

It’s a lovely time stargazing, finding the occasional satellite and airplane, too. And a few recognizable constellations. The winds and clouds and sands mean it’s not clear enough to see the Milky Way. But it’s still pretty cool. Then it’s off to our individual tents, as the winds and sands being blown into our faces is becoming more intense, and these fine red sand grains are just coating us and our clothing. The temperature and breeze is nice. Yassine says he often prefers to sleep outside the hot tent, but we’re pretty sure we’d have to dig him out with a shovel in this sandstorm. And he’s not wrong that it is so warm inside. Ah well. More nervous scorpion checks as I put on my Pajamas and settle into bed. I foolishly decide I won’t need a final bathroom trip before sleeping. Reading on my cot in the Sahara, listening to the winds rustle the tent. But after an hour, turns out I probably should do a final pee. Darn it. I just put my sand caked shirt and pants over my pajamas, grab my flashlight and head out. And during the dark isolated walk to the toilet building, I do see a stupid Tunisian Scorpion. (editor’s note: they’re not stupid. I’m just scared of them). And he’s scuttling along ahead of me, in the flashlight beam. And I’m speaking to him, saying I don’t mean him any harm, ask him to return the same courtesy to me, and to please get out of the way. The scorpion buts up against the two stairs to the toilet room. “Dear friend. You have to MOVE!! Either left or right, because I’m not stepping OVER YOU!” Eek! But I walk to the other end of the staircase to ascend and do my final night time business. Once I’ve walked back to the tents area, I look up. And the stars are amazing. Winds have cleared the clouds. Nobody else is around. It’s not silence, as the wind is quite loud, but it feels so isolated and powerful. Very very cool. I spend quite awhile just breathing and gazing and existing. Then I climb back into the warm warm tent. Another nervous scorpion inspection. I remove my sand-blasted outer layer and go to bed. After a bit, I adjust to the heat and drift off. Sometime later that night/morning, I am awoken to a what can only be described as someone grabbing onto and shaking my whole tent. It is just intense winds, but it truly feels like several people are pranking me and trying to shake the whole thing apart. It is VERY LOUD. And unsettling. I’m woken up from it a few more times.

In the morning, we are all groggy from hot tents and Intense windstorms all night. I’d packed a change of clothes, but ended up just re-wearing my sand-caked outfit from yesterday. Why get a new pair of pants and shirt all sandy?!? Actually Arthur says he was comfortable temperature wise, once he tied open the heavy duty door and two layers of blankets to allow a breeze inside. “Isn’t your tent FULL of sand now?” He shrugs.

Breakfast in the Bedoiun cafeteria room, which is super cute. I mean, it’s just a big cafeteria room, but all the Bedouin blankets give it a real sense of style and place.

There’s a giant white spider (at least 4” across. Tarantula sized) on the ceiling of the washroom, above the sinks. Spiders don’t unnerve me the way scorpions do. I mean, I don’t want one as a pet. But I don’t feel like they’re an actual threat to me/the big spiders don’t really bite people (if I am wrong about this fact, please do NOT correct me). Whereas I know people stung by scorpions and it hurts soooooo badly! I have the “I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me” discussion I have with most critters I encounter (be they a tarantula in my bathroom stall in Belize or a raccoon in the tree outside my bedroom window screen at home). Over breakfast, I ask if Sarah’s used the washroom yet (as I know she is NOT A FAN of spiders). She has, and she confesses she saw the spider and had a minor freakout. But then used ME AND COURTNEY as her inspiration to be Brave! *heart eyes emoji* She says she told herself, “Those girls have been so brave, and have seen So Much Shit, that you can brush your teeth with a giant horrible spider several feet away.” (Earlier in our tour, I’d shared some rainforest stories, and Courtney shared tales of her time in the Peace Corps in the Philippines). Now, two weeks later, and I’m still feeling all silly and proud that I was someone’s example for Bravery!! While I feel like I’ve got lots of skills and talents, that’s not an adjective I think to apply to myself. So that was really nice. Later, when Michael hears of this, he has to pop into the women’s washroom to get a spider pic, and he’s pretty impressed at it’s size, too. We’ve all said we’ll share photos once we’re done editing. If I get a copy of spider pic, I’ll add it here later. *update: Arthur sent me spider pic. It’s great, but zoomed in so there’s NO sense of scale. Please just believe that it was palm sized, and on the ceiling directly above the washroom sinks. Here you go:

The winds are intense still, causing a stunning quality to the sunrise light.

Feels otherworldly and special. Also feels VERY GRITTY and mildly unpleasant. Nobody rub your eyes. And just know you’ll be finding sand when blowing your nose two days later. And it’ll take two shampoos to help clear most of it from your scalp and hair and ears later. But for now, we’re all in the weather together. Desert selfie, and we’re back into the jeep.

After 40 minutes, we reconnect with Ashraf and our van. And we start our drive to our next destination.

Amazing Amazigh Villages: June 2024


Browse archives for June 13, 2024
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Lovely morning in the Tataouine region. Off for a full day of exploring. First stop is Ksar Ouled Soltane.

Built by the Amazigh people in the 15th century, it’s another fantastic example of their granary storage buildings. Always at the tops of mountains or cliffs (for good defense), with pleasing rounded windows and doors, and lovely exterior staircases. Definitely feels like a Fantasy setting (vibes of the Finale of the Labyrinth movie). We’d already visited some Amazigh granary buildings (heck, our hotel was in a converted former village). But this one was very well preserved (and possibly was fixed up for tourists?).

There were a few entrepreneurial vendors set up. And 4 Thai tourists doing a very fun photoshoot. But we mostly had the place to ourselves. And again, Tunisia is not a land worried about safety warnings or guidance or really any rules when visiting these archaeological sites. We were left on our own to explore, wandering down alleys

and peeping into old storage rooms,

and free to climb up the staircases. Only limited by our own sense of safety (and balance, physics, etc), which means your girl didn’t climb past the 4th or 5th step, but others were braver. It was very cool to explore.

Then back into our trusty van, driving to our next exploration site. Van Madness may have been setting in. Bit of a maniacal gleam, there.

Next, a stop and a climb up to and around the abandoned historical Amazigh village of Douiret.

The mosque and a few of the buildings are still in decent shape, but many are showing the wear and tear of the centuries past.

While it had a population of a few thousand still in the 1800’s, it was down to only two families in the last several years, and Yassine said even they moved within this last decade.

There is a new town (also named Douiret) at the bottom of the hilltop, with electricity and better water access. Still, very cool to explore.

Here is a photo with an inset closeup of the carving at the top.

This symbol “Yaz” represents the Free Man, and the Amazigh People use it to refer to themselves.

At the base of the historical village was this cool Cafe building, featuring a Coffee Djinn. Couldn’t tell if it is closed forever, or just wasn’t open during our visit.

I hope that they’re able to be open during busier times, because a nice cup of tea after climbing around would have been lovely.

Then off to the village of Chenini.

Another hilltop Amazigh village (they’re always building at tops of hills or mountains). Where we had a nice lunch in a converted cave, which kept things slightly cooler in termperature.

Initially we were the only people in there (they had about 6 tables total) but a French couple and their guide came in partway through our meal. We’re having a nice chat, as we do. And I’d been thinking that our group energy levels felt a little lower. Maybe everyone is just hot and tired, I mused to myself. After the meal, as we wander down the path to begin our climbing and exploring, Yassine returns from the washroom. He is laughing so hard he is almost crying. Through wheezing laughing breaths, he explains that that French couple had come up to him, thinking he was an employee of the restaurant, to complain about the table of Loud Americans. Oops. Also, Bwahahaha. And accurate. (Imagine if we’d been at our Full Strength volume?!?)

95* out this day!!! In the mid-day sun. Insert song about Mad Dogs and Englishmen. After lunch we climbed up and around the village.

Some of the turns featured a spectacular mountain-top breeze along with the view, and those were my favorite parts. Ha!

Shade is hard to come by, but occasionally there’s a rocky overhang or a convenient rocky pillar providing some hiding from the sun’s rays.

the view from the very top!

Back to the van, and an unscheduled stop at the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers. There’s a lot of almost centuries old different religious traditions here. Ancient Christian tradition tells of Seven early Christians, persecuted by the Romans, who are walled up alive in a cave (either done by themselves for protection or walled up by others as punishment). They went to sleep. and years or centuries later, they’re found still alive. This is most often attributed to a cave site in Ephesus, Turkey, although other caves and regions claim this origin, too. The story becomes more complicated, because there is also a Seven Sleepers story in the Quran. And there are a few different sites and countries claiming this holy origin, as well. The charming Mosque near Chenini in Tunisia claims to be the holy burial site of these seven sleepers

. In some stories they also continued growing to be giants! And some of the ancient graves are suspiciously large here. We were shown around inside this charming small mosque, and it was told to us that this site has held several different religious buildings in the exact same spot over the years.

In addition to Christian, I swear he also showed us where a former Jewish holy building was…although a cursory Google search now doesn’t mention it. (Internet details on this mosque are slim). The site definitely felt special, with a lovely calm energy, and noticeably cooler temperatures in the inner most cave-like interior.

Back to the hotel for a refreshing shower (the updated/renovated rooms of this former Berber village are adorable. And having indoor plumbing, in this curved little room at the top of a cliff side in the Tataoine region…so refreshing.

And this room had one of the most powerful AC units of the whole trip. Or at least, the most functional. Several of our stops had an AC unit that was more decorative than cooling…air would blow from it, so it worked as a fan. But not always with a cooling effect. *tiniest violin sound. Hard to complain too much. (We did have some shower adventures our first day. Courtney comes out of the bathroom…well, I’ve turned our bathroom into a swamp. Ya know that thing hoses can do sometimes when the pressure suddenly changes, where they can swing around like a crazy snake? Well, the shower hose did that to her and she managed to spray water everywhere. Ha! And hotels in Tunisia were always VERY limited in towels, so she’s trying to mop it up using her one towel and the tiny bath mat towel. And then, our shower ran out of water when it was my turn. At least I noticed the water pressure was disappearing. So was able to conserve and turn off the taps while shampooing, etc. Camping rules! Happily on this second day, water lasted through both of our showers, no problem!)

Djerba Island, and Dinosaurs on Tataouine. June 2024


Browse archives for June 7, 2024
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(firstly, if you’re seeing this post without pictures, check back in a day or two. Uploading images without WiFi is tricky, so that may need to wait. The featured image was sunset over our hotel in Tataouine As I’m currently updating this, under a beach umbrella after having dipped my toes in the Mediterranean. Pretty darn perfect. Secondly, titles are hard for me. And I’m stuck on the idea of alliteration, so yeah….)

Morning on Djerba Island. We are off to visit El Ghriba Synagogue.

The oldest synagogue in Tunisia and possibly all of Africa. History tends to place it’s construction after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 6th Century BCE (or possibly after the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE). Legend says the fleeing community brought with them either a piece of the door and/or a stone from the destroyed holy temple, and have incorporated that relic on these grounds.

A very holy and ancient site, the building was renovated in the 1800’s.

Beautiful decorative touches everywhere you look,

you can sense it’s history and import,

yet it still feels welcoming and comforting instead of Overpowering and distancing.

Djerba Island still has a population of around 1,000 Jewish people, as well as Muslims, a Christian church, and some of the Amazigh people. (I’ve learned the term “Berber” is considered pejorative by many, and these people call themselves Amazigh, so I shall try to do the same).

Of course Courtney made friends with another Ginger cat outside. And this Kattous almost cooperated for a great photo opportunity.

Smiling at the English translation on this sign, asking visitors to wear respectful clothing when visiting this holy site. I feel like this is something many Grandparents would shout from their front porch rocking chairs.

Next to visit some ceramic artisans.

Explaining how they harvest the clay from the mines.

They bring a candle down with them, knowing oxygen is scarce. Once the candle starts flickering/goes out, got to get above ground quickly. No more than 30 minutes at a time. Courtney does ever love a cave, and so she and Arthur did some exploring down there by themselves, with a casual “don’t stay down too long” from the workers. This is truly a country un-anxious about safety rules and regulations. I’m sure that’s gotta be near the tippy top of Mazeur’s Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid (or whatever that guy’s name was).

Then a demonstration at the pottery wheel.

Sarah was enamored of all the paint decorations. When our ceramics guide learned she didn’t have a husband, he was suddenly in semi-serious negotiations. Soooo, if things don’t work out in Seattle, pretty sure she’s got a gig on Djerba painting pottery (and possibly as this guy’s wife). Ha.

Also made new best friends with some camels, including a baby!!!!!!

Visited the outside of this Christian church, too, but I forget it’s name. Record-keeping fail!

And some wandering through more art-wall filled parts of Djerba Island. Michael climbed up onto a wall to get this shot of the Flamingo mural.

Then began the long drive to the region of Tataouine, where George Lucas got the inspiration for, and did some filming of, Luke Skywalker’s home planet. Before arriving at our hotel, we’re told we’re going to see one of the Star Wars locations. Yay! When we arrive, we learn it’s from The Phantom Menace (less of a Yay, but still fun to see).

Hundreds of years ago, it was an Amazigh building (or possibly Bedouin. My notes, again, are lacking. Hopefully I’ll correct this later). Then part was transformed for the movie into the town of Mos Espa, where we first meet Young Anakin and his mother.

And more recently, some enterprising locals have transformed it into a hotel. Beds in the small cave-like rooms, with shared toilets and showers, and a tiny cute cafe area.

We got to wander around and take some pictures.

Then off to our hotel, which was lovely. Also a very old Amazigh structure, where the front half has been renovated into a much fancier hotel (than the Mos Espa set). Each room has electricity, it’s own bathroom, and an AC unit!!! Our group were the only people staying there. Yassine said they’d only recently re-opened after Covid/lack of tourism. Staff was so nice and so happy to see us. Also, in a former iteration, this renovated hotel had had a Wild West theme, as we found in a disused storage area fave, several cowboy themed signs and placards. Also, they once had a DINOSAUR THEME. Because there were still giant dinosaur statues scattered around.

The Tataouinea sauropod dinosaur was discovered here. And clearly the town has tried, in the past, to use that to entice visitors (the hillside along the main road has a giant Tataouinea statue on it). As y’all may have guessed, I LOVED having giant dinosaur friends around.

courtney is only ‘punching’ the dino because the statue had a pre-existing hole in its side, so she wanted to look super strong to have punched into its belly!!

A little worryingly, when we first arrived at the hotel, there were 5 police/military vehicles parked there, and two men with AK-47’s on the roof. Ummm….what’s going on? Michael said he saw armed soldiers climbing around the un-renovared historic half of the structure at night. In the morning, we were told it was military training exercises. Possibly. Also, our hotel was at the very top of the hill, offering great sightlines, and we were near the Libyan border. In an economically depressed area. When I’d asked what the main industries in town were, I was told “Smuggling.” So whether these were training exercises or active exercises, that was a bit unusual for me. The soldiers didn’t bother us, and they were gone on our second night.

Again, we were the only people staying there. The staff roasted a goat leg for us, served with some peppers and a honey sauce and it was friggin delicious!!

Each meal in Tunisia begins with fresh bread, harissa hot pepper sauce, and some olives. And often includes either a fresh salad with tuna fish, or some grilled veggies. And they served us a giant platter of fresh fruit for dessert. (We’d made a cat friend earlier in the afternoon, wandering the lovely courtyard areas. And then the cat wandered into the fancy dining room they’d set up for our dinner. While Courtney and Sarah were extra delighted at an illicit feline dinner guest, we all expected the staff would shoo her outside. Nope. The man in the large chef hat (a nice touch!!) carving the goat table side (so fancy) just gave the cat a knowing look and then went about his business, as the cat stretched under the table next to ours. Delightful.

Visual Gems in El Jem and Djerba: May 2024


Browse archives for June 5, 2024
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Next we were off to visit El Jem. I hadn’t done any research about this ahead of time, so it was a real surprise. The bonus of a tour is that someone else is in charge of the itinerary ahead of time. And it also meant I didn’t want to do too much research in case I found things I desperately wanted to see that wouldn’t be included. While i’d researched some of it, some has been new discoveries. El Jem provided a Truly impressive and huge Roman Amphitheatre (the third largest in the world!!!).

We got to explore all over,

including the cells underneath,

and climbing all the way up to the third floor.

“This is some real Indiana Jones shit,” says Michael. Ha. Not quite my pop culture take on it (definitely leaning more towards all the Swords and Sandals movies), but the “is this real or a movie?” quality sure rang true.

i also always absolutely love the juxtaposition of such ancient ruins with a modern city built up all around it.

We then toured a 2nd century Roman villa. With more super cool mosaics (including this of Dionysus riding a lion… instead of his more typical donkey).

And more fun with statues!

Yassine has asked us if we wanted to eat lunch at the hotel (boo) or wanted something different (yes please!). Stopped at this amazing roadside place, where they are serious about grilling meats. You’ve got to call in your order ahead of time, and it’s cooked in this giant underground ovens. Here they are using the electrical winch to pull up the meats!

Very very delicious lamb and chicken. Delicious thick soft rounds of Berber bread, to scoop up the grilled veggies and obligatory harissa hot sauce. Place was full of local families and had great vibes. No interior decoration. Bare bones tables and chairs (but clean). Arthur was a bit worried and out of his comfort zone, But ended up enjoying it too. Now sated, we continued our drive to the ferry docks for Djerba Island. Where we found lovely blue waters and the cutest tiny ferry (holds maybe 20 cars).

Djerba Island is lovely. And in recent years, has had an international wall mural project.

So wandering through town is extra beautiful,

finding all this fantastic art everywhere.

As we wander down one alleyway, we hear the maniacal laughter of children and I look up. On the balcony above us are two middle school aged girls, dangling a water balloon over the edge, and gleefully giggling with their whole bodies. We appropriately cower and surrender and beg for mercy. They wave us through.

Later we hear more laughter pealing down the alley, and we know they’ve found a new potential victim. We spend the night at delightful guest house Dar Dhafia. And they have a pool!!

It is tiny. And adorable. And I’m excited about it. We totally spend an hour floating and swimming before dinner (Sarah and Michael joining us, but staying in the chairs/dry side of things). We all opt for a lighter dinner, after the grilled meat feast at lunch, and then it’s time for bed. Wonderful day.

Mosaics, Mosques, and Monkeys: May 2024


Browse archives for June 3, 2024
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okay, that title is a bit of a stretch, but I enjoy the alliteration, so that’s what you get! *Laughs* but we did indeed see all of those things for our next two days in Tunisia (editor’s note: monkeys may have been of the plush variety).

Next we headed off to Sousse, a busy port city. Explored their archeological museum. Totally fell in love with this round-faced Medusa mosaic.

Something so intriguing and appealing about her. Also, the actual museum display is great, as you view her reflection in a mirror!! Not only is that helpful and fun for a floor mosaic, but wonderful in terms of the Medusa story, too.

Also really enjoyed these gossiping tigers! Maybe they’re supposed to be impressive and ferocious (should that be Fur-ocious?), but to me they just look like they’re telling fantastic stories to each other.

And three cheers for headless statues that one can walk behind. *Smile*

Wandered through the Sousse markets. Found some more monkeys , thereby continuing to fulfill the subtitle of this blog. Ha.

Then off to the city of Kairouan, where we experienced some dramatic weather patterns while viewing the outside of the grand mosque

, and wandering the charming twisting alleys.

Lots of decorative doors, and so many cats.

we even were rained upon for a little bit

Met a local artisan who demonstrated his weaving at the loom, and then sort of forced Courtney into participating too. But she was a good sport about it, and didn’t lose any fingers or nothing.

“Now we go to see something you’ve never seen before,” Yassine tells us, as he leads us inside a building and up a flight of stairs. To find a camel. Inside a building on the second story. Attached to an historic but still utilized well system. The camel walks circles around to draw up the water. Definitely wasn’t expecting that! I ask what the camel’s name is. “No, I don’t think he has a name,” says Yassine. But the camel’s owner understood my question and said his name was Kaseem.

(Just had to Google for the spelling. Turns out there are several spelling options, and Arabic meaning is “one who distributes goods” which is a pretty excellent name for a camel, then). A young arabic boy (around 6 or 7) and his mother came up the stairs to see the camel. His eyes got huge. But then he was too shy of us tourists so didn’t want to go any closer. We decided we were done camel viewing, so he could have a turn. 🙂

The next morning was more exploring around Kairouan, in the blazing sunshine.

Then a special visit to the Grand Mosque. Huge, and impressive.

Then on to a mausoleum built in honor of Abu Zomaa al-Balaoui, a companion and barber of Prophet Muhammad. Beautiful building, inside and out. So many gorgeous carvings and tiles. And we were offered a splash of orange blossom water for our hands and head, as a welcome and blessing (and it smelled amazing!)

And this dramatically colored and friendly cat was wandering inside. Demanded, and was given, pets.

Later during our explorations, there was another American visitor with her guide, and she also made friends with the cat (Yassine said he’d never seen a cat inside their before, but this was clearly a well cared for pet who wandered by). In the next room, as we’re seated and being told some history, the cat jumps up and curls onto Courtney’s lap. After a few minutes, that other American walks in. Her guide comes over to us, “Excuse me, but my lady has already claimed that cat.” Ha! There followed several minutes of chuckling debates over who could provide a better cat home “Oh, Seattle will be too cold for this sweetey. He better come live with me in Dallas.” Ha.

And we got to end the afternoon with a relaxing float in our hotel pool

(La Kasbah hotel is built partially within the historic walls. It is lovely!). And then my typical hiding from the sun, under an umbrella and sarong cover. But still enjoying the vibes while reading my book. The staff are super friendly. The man serving hot dishes at the hotel buffet is very friendly and playful. Joking around with us, and ducking for cover behind the counter. Truly delightful. He was happy about my few Arabic phrases, and has been trying to teach me more, which isn’t super successful as I generally need to visually see the words to help learn them. (A hotel buffet is never my choice when traveling, but it’s included in the trip, and food was decent, just not very exciting). Still, it was a lovely place to spend two nights. This trip has been a blast so far! Can’t wait to keep exploring.

Carthage Explorations (no elephant sightings): May 2024.


Browse archives for June 1, 2024
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Okay, heading off to Carthage, which i’d mistakenly thought was just one big ruins site. Instead, because it was such a giant city back in the day, it is many many different excavated sites scattered throughout the modern Carthage neighborhood. And because we did some of our scheduled Tunis sight seeing yesterday, we were able to visit many more things today. Bonus.

Yassine, our guide, is a Big History Buff, and we are learning loads. Including all the Roman negative propaganda against the Phoenicians and later the Vandals. It’s very cool. Also amazing how recently many of these sites have been excavated (most didnt start until after the French colonizers left and Tunisia got to govern itself in the 50’s or 60’s. And many in the 1980’s and even making discoveries today). The Phoenician dry docks were interesting, and fun to see the Million Dinar homes along that prime waterfront (only $333,000 US dollars).

The site of the Antonine Baths was very impressive (largest Roman baths in all of Africa). Huge, well excavated, with a current dig site we got to see, too.

Tunisia is also a country without guard rails or anyone around to stop people from touching or climbing on everything. We saw several Instagram Influencers climbing atop pillars in their obligatory flowing garments. It was very cool to wander through all the different rooms.

Saw several more places of archeological and or religious or historical importance, but I didn’t take notes on their names (ha) so will have to research that later.

It was very cool, though. Including some Phoenician burial stones. And a French Cathedral from the 1800’s (which incorporated several North African decorative styles). And saw this sweet dog.

(Cat sightings are Definitely about 300 to 1 compared to dog sightings).

Then lunch overlooking the water. When we’d finished our meal, but before plates were cleared, some very smart cats wandered over. Yassine is also a cat fan, and encouraged us to give them a few pieces of the lamb still stuck to the bone on our plates. Ha.

Afternoon was spent wandering through the small alleyways of a ridiculously charming (and expensive) neighborhood. Gorgeous decorative doors and expensive cars. Lots of tourists from all over the world. Came across two different fashion shops doing photo shoots to promote their wedding clothes stores. One for Berber outfits, and one for Tunisian.

There was also some type of competitive scavenger hunt/puzzle game happening between different teams of friends around the area. Different stations set up, with a puzzle to solve or dart board, etc. Led to lots of laughter and raucous shouting around. Fun to observe, and a very clever idea: competitive combination scavenger hunt/escape room.

Then we went to the North Africa American Cemetery, where the US dead from WWII African campaigns are buried. It is the only US Military Cemetery in Africa. And it happened to be Memorial Day. Museum was closed in the morning because of the holiday. Which seemed a little strange to us. Later, talking to the on site director, it is closed to your groups on American holidays, but anyone with a US passport can still visit. In any case, it was opened again that afternoon when we arrived. Somber and lovely. Definitely more “Memorializing” than I normally do on the average Memorial Day. Extra wreaths and flags set up around. There’s a long ceremonial wall with the names of the missing carved into it.

And several of the burial crosses are for unidentified bodies. “Here rests in honored glory, a comrade in arms, known but to God”.

The director on site gave us some interesting information. There are two of the Tuskegee Airmen lost in the African campaign who are honored here as well. The plaque in the office included a large memorial coin for the Tuskegee Airmen. Michael goes in close and reads the initials on the coin. “I know her,” he says. He’s a graphic designer and has several friends who work for the US Mint. And apparently the offical coin designers get their initials put on the coins (I’d never noticed before).

Random, but I thought it was kinda cool. Learning!!

We also explored a site of ancient aqueducts.

and the Roman Amphitheatre of Carthage (where St Perpetua was killed).

All in all, it was a very nice day. A great mix of history and modern Tunisia, some delicious foods, and lots of new cat friends.

Cousins adventure begins in Tunisia. May 2024.


Browse archives for May 30, 2024
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Holy crap. How is this possible!?! This trip that’s been a “maybe” on the calendar for months is finally happening. My cousin Courtney has been trying to interest me in a trip to somewhere in the desert for years, but I am not a desert kid. And monkeys tend to be scarce in the hot sands. But she took a trip last year with small tour group through Atlas Obscura (to Slovenia) and friggin loved it. I’m not generally interested in group tours, but was willing to consider it. So we looked through the available itineraries. Final choices were either Bhutan (which requires a tour guide to visit) and Tunisia, which I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing solo. And the Tunisian itinerary was really appealing. Mediterranean time. Carthage. Djerba. Desert Glamping and star gazing. A really interesting mix, all in one country. So we paid the down payment. And then the waiting. They require a minimum of 4 people for the trip to happen (maximum of 12). Waiting. Waiting. And finally an email one day saying the Trip Was Happening!! Woohoo!

We had a tight 1 hr 5 min transfer in Paris, which we’d been nervous about from the time of buying our airfare. But Air France maintained it was possible (even though you have to go through security again at Charles de Gaulle airport!). And we both had our carry-ons flagged for extra security checks, by the slowest most methodical security employee EVER!! Then more airport rushing! (Because while the flight departed 9:20am local time, when given our boarding passes at SeaTac, it included a chilling asterisk *gates close at 9am. So now we only had 45 minutes to get off our plane, run through airport, to through security again, and make it onto next plane. Eek! Happy to report we made it to our gate with EIGHT WHOLE MINUTES TO SPARE!!!! Also, the gate was still full of people and hadn’t actually started boarding yet/was running late. But even if it had been on time, we would have just barely made it.

AND I fulfilled my “off to see some monkeys” agenda, because a young girl on our flight had a fantastic large plush monkey toy…and her dad had the most magnificently intense large curling handlebar mustache. I wanted to take pictures of both the monkey and the mustache, but it didn’t feel polite.

At Tunis airport, it is hot and crowded. Waiting for our luggage. Waiting. One of our bags arrives, but not the other. Long line at the lost luggage counter. Those poor employees. Only two women for all the airlines arriving at Tunis. Every single person is yelling at them. Ugh. She can’t find my bag in the computer system at all, asks her coworker, and then asks me to stand off to the side. Eventually she calls me back and sends me into a side office with different employee. He also can’t find my bag in the system. Creates a report with a number and says to keep checking this website. And gives instructions on how to file a claim if bag isn’t delivered to hotel after 3 days. #Adventure. Also, I’m a little worried as it’s been over an hour since we landed and I’m not sure the hotel provided airport transport person will still be waiting for us. Luckily he was! And was very proactive on assisting with the missing bag. Tells us, despite what the form letter says, they never bring bags to the hotel. You have to go back to the airport to pick it up (which matches what some people in line were experiencing earlier).

We check in and get that glorious shower after long travel day. Grab a patio lunch. Stunning purple Jacaranda trees. Our hotel is in the French colonial neighborhood and it’s full of charming boulevarda. We do a little shopping trying to replace a few lost luggage items.

The man at the shoe store was as delighted to practice his English as I was to test out some of the Arabic phrases I’d memorized. “I am hungry. I am tired,” he says to me (after learning we spoke English). Me too! He was very sweet. Ended up sharing pictures of his 3 month old granddaughter Sara. He was so proud of her. Threw in a pair of socks with the shoe purchase, “My gift to you. You come to my country and lose your luggage. May things be better soon.”

Street cats are everywhere (boy is that an understatement. As this trip has progressed, the number of cats seen has increased exponentially. And some of them are ROUGH looking. It’s tough out here on the streets. But I wasn’t quite expecting to see so many of them missing one eye. Yikes). Courtney is much more willing to pet the ones who come over. I’ve made friends with a few in later days. And ones who looked a little better off (maybe with less chance they’re full of mites and fleas?). Ha.

We wander a little bit more and see the city lit up at night. Saw a crowded sports bar watching soccer match. Later at an outdoor cafe, giant TV screen shows the match 90th minute going into stoppage time. Sadly, the Tunisian team lost to the Egyptian team 1-0. Folks were, understandably, very sad. Later I looked online and they lost because of an own goal, which is even harder. But I did learn that the the Tunis team has some Rad nicknames. “Espérance Sportive de Tunis, known as ES Tunis or simply EST for short, and nicknamed “Mkashkha”, The Elder of Tunisian Clubs, the Blood and Gold Club and The Beast of Africa.”

Found dinner at a very stylish loosely Italian themed restaurant. Crowd was a mix of very stylish Tunisians, and some UK and European tourists. TV was showing the French Cup soccer match. Mostly strong party vibes and lots of drinking. We’re just tired, wanting food and then bed. Someone starts setting up microphone and DJ equipment. “Is there going to be karaoke?” Not exactly. A woman in a stunning Red Carpet worthy gown arrivesz and starts singing a Christina Aguilera ballad to a track (that includes backup vocalists). She proceeded to sing a variety of tunes, including some songs in Arabic that had the crowd singing and clapping along. As well as an Italian folk song that Courtney also knew, that drew in the crowd. Unexpected but fun.

Our tour wasn’t scheduled to begin until 6pm welcome dinner the following day. So we’d have a day to explore the city of Tunis on our own. But we’re told that the other tour folks (3 people, for a total group of only 5!!) also arrived a day early, so we’d be starting with a welcome breakfast at 8am instead. Huh, but okay. What ended up happening was, because we were all already in the city, our guide decided to change up the itinerary and do a few things earlier so we could have more time and see lots more around Carthage the next day. Which was great (even if it did cut down on solo exploration time).

We meet everyone at breakfast. A woman our age, Sarah, who also happens to live in Seattle (small world). And a Gen X son from Orange County traveling with his dad who lives in Northern California. The guys (Michael and Arthur) are exceedingly well-traveled. Like, been to more than 100 countries. Many of the trips taken together. Conversation is an avalanche of travel anecdotes! Smile and Arthur, the father, is so deadpan in his delivery as he is almost constantly telling a story that turns out to be a joke. But 30% of the time it’s a real story, not a meander to a punchline. Courtney catches on quicker and starts trying to beat him to the punchline. She’s often successful. And adorably, he doesn’t let this rattle him and he still continues on and says the end of the joke himself too, but with an acknowledgement that she earned points. His constant joking in a serious tone has led to frequent confusion and concern from our guide Yassine, though. Humor (especially such dry silliness and pretend complaints) doesn’t translate across language and cultural barriers. And I’m sure Yassine has had to deal with tourists who are constantly complaining and having issues with everything. So he’s constantly trying to suss out what the issue is, and either Arthur or one of us will have to let him know that he’s joking.

We got to visit the Bardo Museum, which has one of the largest collections of Roman Mosaics in the world. Truly some stunning self. And so many of them were huge! I particularly enjoyed the expression of this servant, holding up a mirror for the lady of the house.

Also saw a monkey shaped vase, so more monkey goals achieved.

Wandered through town, getting a chance to see so many of the gorgeous decorative doors for which Tunisia is famous.

Panoramic view from the roof of a restaurant, but happily lunch was inside (not in the sun).

Lovely conversation as we’re all getting to know each other. Giant platters of couscous and other Tunisian dishes. Brik a thon (a savory fried thin dough stuffed with tuna and egg). It’s explained to me that eating this is a test! I’m instantly competitive. Waiter brings over disposable napkins (as you eat this with your hands). Sometimes the egg is over-medium instead of hardboiled and the goal is to hold it and eat it in such a way that none of the yolk drips. It’s very hot out of the oven, but I want to prove myself! Once I finally got down to the filling, turns out my egg was more fully cooked, so not a challenge after all. Ha.

Next off to the medina for some sightseeing. Now, because this itinerary item was moved ahead one day, we’re here on a Sunday and 90% of the stalls are closed. But actually that’s okay, as we walk along each tiny hallway. Still cool to see, and there’s still plenty of sellers trying to get us to stop and purchase. We all recognize that being there when it was officially open and packed full of local shoppers and tourists and merchants would be overwhelming.

Gorgeous sunset view from our room. The black specks are hundreds of swallows swooping and feasting on the millions of mosquitoes. The cries of the birds are intense…so many of them makes it very noisy.

We then have our welcome dinner (pushed back until 8pm). It’s at the hotel buffet, which I generally find less intriguing/exciting as an option when traveling. But it’s convenient and not my decision to make. Smile perfectly decent food. And the staff are all great. Then it’s off to bed to prepare for tomorrow, visiting multiple sites throughout the Carthage area!

Rainy Oregon Coast: January 2024


Browse archives for February 22, 2024
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Spent two of the Rainiest days ever at one of my favorite places, Cannon Beach on the Oregon Coast.

And being the Pacific Northwest, even though it was soggy so often, we’d have breaks of 10-20 min, allowing for some lovely views The dog was unimpressed by the bad weather, often looking back at me, seemingly asking me WHY we were out in this miserable windy rain. But then weather would lighten, and she’d once again revel in all the fun smells and trying to chase seabirds while on leash.

On our second day, exploring a relatively isolated beach area near Manzanita, two dogs and their owners are exploring off leash. These pups seem a perfect energy match for Tilly. They’re playing nicely and excitedly with her still on the leash. And so i relent, and allow the dog some freedom to go play her favorite game in the world: chase!! And for 5 minutes they’re having the best time ever ever ever. Then Tilly veers off and dives face first into the seagrass, and proudly emerges with a dead seagull carcass in her mouth! I yell “Oh God!” And “Drop it!” As Tilly starts playing keep away & using the dead thing as chase-enticement. She rushes up to me, and shakes the carcass so vigorously that feathers and bits of dead bird go flying EVERYWHERE… including into my mouth! Oh my god! I may NEVER stop internally screaming.Back onto the leash and back to the car, me sputtering and grossed out to the max! Happily I’d recently been to the dentist, so had the small free sample mouth wash in the car. So Much Gargling! (Glad to have this option, as i might’ve started considering the hand sanitizer). Ugh. Convincing myself it was just a tiny bit of feather, because that’s the least worse of the options. *Shudder*

I then proceeded to text many pals the story, beginning “So if i die, know this is why.” Reactions were appropriate. Lots of laughter and commiseration and some shared gagging. Ack!! (Worth noting that only a small percentage of those I texted did a Proof of Life check in the next day. To them, many thanks. To everyone else, I see how it is. *Side eye*)

Hope Tilly truly enjoyed the beach chase game to its full potential, because she will never be off leash again!!!! Never ever!! The next day on the beach, walking past different sea grass that must also have been hiding dead things/wonderful stinky smells, dog did her best to convince me to let her off leash again. But couldn’t conceal the CRAZY in her eyes. Ha.

And then proceeded to gloriously roll on her back in what was assuredly a Stinky Spot on the beach. The joys of Dog Life.

*Laughs* Despite this HORRIFIC experience, the rest of the trip was very nice. Cozy reading time by the fire place, lots of damp beach walks and some park hikes. As a lifelong Pacific Northwest kid, I knew to pack TWO rain jackets, because often one is still sodden when it’s time to go outside again. Three cheers for a Black Friday sale offering an awesome mid-week rate in January that allowed for such fun adventures. And for a glorious 25 minutes of actual sunshine our final morning!

Favorite Books Read in 2023


Favorite books read in 2023

Here’s what stood out to me of the 80+ books I read this year. 

“A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

This was so flippin’ good. You’re dropped almost immediately into a “who dunnit,” with a newly assigned ambassador to the Gigantic Teixcalaanli Empire. This is a rushed assignment, and Mahit has to hit the ground running, try to figure out how the previous ambassador died, while trying to do the complicate political dance to continue preventing the empire from colonizing her small space station. Add a dash of some unreliable information sources: the people of Liesl space station have implanted imago devices, which carry a long lineage of the personalities and lived experiences of generations of their predecessors. It’s a fascinating bit of world building, but Mahit’s imago is 15 years out of date, so the only memories she can access from the previous ambassador are soooo old. Plus everyone she encounters likely has secret motives and multiple plots (she is a “barbarian” ambassador sent to the Empire’s seat of power). All the swirling diplomacy and false smiles and misdirections and personal agendas. It’s just fantastic! Plus the World Building is sooooo cool. The Teixcalaanli are fascinating and watching the way that their media has spread and shaped them and their conquered planets. The pacing is soooo good. Discoveries and secrets and adventure and mysteries and ever-present lurking threat and immediate dangers. It’s just such a well written and plotted political quagmire. And while Mahit’s concern for the death of her predecessor and for preventing the colonization of her people is obviously SUPER important to her, that’s all just a minor blip amidst all the power struggles within the seats of power in the Empire (having a murky line of succession will do that). And there are hints of a looming outside threat to the entire Empire, too! Truly wonderful. And the author deftly keeps it all grounded inthe very real personal and very understandable emotions. Our characters are interesting and well-rounded and complicated and flawed and very human. Space Opera is best when this genre allows us to see so much of ourselves and learn so much of ourselves. From the Vox review: “When you live in a place filled with power and wealth, it can be difficult to see how power and wealth breed destruction radiating out from the center. The empire can’t help but knock over smaller, independent nations, because even when it doesn’t try to, its pop culture and brand of politics infect everything around it. Smaller nations can stay alive through crafty diplomacy or military might or some combination of the two, but they still have to coexist in a world built by people who don’t realize how much chaos they’ve caused. The chaos becomes oxygen. It’s all around, so it must be normal.” BIG ideas swirl amidst the page-turning fun. I also really loved the sequel “A Desolation Called Peace”

“I’ll Give You the Sun” by Jandy Nelson

One of my favorites for the year. The narrative voices of the twins were SO PHENOMENAL. Fully unique and compelling and alive and imaginative and artistic and the way each of them orients to and within the world is amazing. Noah’s chapters are taking place at age 13, and Jude’s chapters are taking place three years later. Alternating between the timeline and their individual viewpoints was so effective. I felt instantly transported into their brains and worlds. Noah, as a visual artist, sees and describes things in such fantastical imagery. I honestly had to stop and check, two pages in, that this wasn’t actually a fantasy novel (as he was talking about being chased by giants and other metaphorical images. Wait, are these REAL giants?!? Nope, high school bullies. But so evocative). There’s real heartache and grief and the magic of first friendships and first loves and the complications of growing up and navigating early dating and hurts. It’s all wonderfully real and capital T true, and told in such compelling and immersive ways. Grown up issues and kid issues and it was just truly gorgeous and transportive and cathartic.

“Harlem Shuffle” by Colson Whitehead

I am consistently impressed at Whitehead’s wide RANGE of genre and tone and character building. Every novel I’ve read of his has been fantastic, but they are often so starkly different. This is a fantastically fun (and funny) heist, crime, low-key gangster period piece, set in the late 50’s/early 60’s of Harlem. It’s instantly engaging. The writing is phenomenal. The characters are so fully formed, you can feel them breathing from the page. The plot keeps the pages turning. We’re following Carney: striving furniture salesman and family man by day, with some less savory connections and dealings in the shadows. The lines between right and wrong are sometimes not so clear, and other times VERY clear but you can still often understand why a character chooses to cross them. Especially as the very real systemic problems and rigged systems of doing things “the right way” continue to be exposed and made plain. It’s also just dang entertaining. I saw Whitehead speak in Seattle for the release of the 2nd book “Crook Manifesto” and that helped spur me onto finally reading this novel, that’s been sitting on my shelf for a few years. Also my aunt Ellen was raving about it too, so I knew it was time. And so glad I did. Proved a fantastic companion for a trip to a cabin at the beach. I’ll leave with some words from the reviewer in The Guardian “And finally, you’ll discover a tenderness beneath the swagger. Whitehead draws his roster of secondary characters, especially the ones that could easily become stock figures such as crime bosses and petty thieves, with as much care as the primary ones. His portraits are never mean-spirited; instead, Whitehead renders the humanity of hustlers. He gets their sweetness down. Some of them have clean aspirations of farm life or higher education. He makes us love them the way their mamas must. Take, for example, Pepper, an enforcer who would be played perfectly by Samuel L Jackson. He asks our humble furniture salesman, Carney: “What made you want to sell couches?” Carney replies: “I’m an entrepreneur.” “‘Entrepreneur?’ Pepper said the last part like manure. ‘That’s just a hustler who pays taxes.’””

“Babel: Or, The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution” by RF Kuang.

Such a compelling and immersive and propulsive experience. This alternate history of 1830’s Oxford contains a really fascinating magic system. This world and history is very very much like our own, but there is Magic. But this isn’t faeries and vampires and wizards. The “magic” is created by scholars through the power of translation and definitions. When inscribed on silver bars, translated word pairings can create magical effects. Really wonderful discussions about language and power and the inherently tricky work of translating ideas and what is “left behind” shifting from one word/culture to another. And in Kuang’s Oxford, that “left behind” bit creates power. Magic that can be used for amazing healing and help in the world. But is most often weaponized by those already in power, or used for frivolity by the 1% (making garden fountains on grand estates burble more pleasingly or roses bloom year round). The journey our main character (and friends) go on feels so very true and believable. As this cohort of immigrants and women (people who would NOT have been allowed in Oxford in 1830, but are grudgingly accepted as necessary for the work of the magical translators) find each other and friendship and hardship and then, at different speeds, begin to start questioning the systems around them. And that sure sounds like it would make for a grim read, or at least, something that feels Heavy and like Work. Yet Kuang has crafted a novel where the pages just fly by. Plus, footnotes in fiction!! I’m always such a sucker for those. It’s wry and oftentimes hilarious. It’s also full of real world pain and trauma. And found family. Struggle and success. In essence, it’s life. Exploring the role and consequences of Empire and Colonialism. Of systemic hierarchies. Of class struggle and instransigent governmental structures. BIG ideas. Multiple and differing choices we all face when we are faced with/learn about injustice. And the multiple and differing and messy ways we all respond. Pretty much everyone in book club devoured this novel. Been thinking about it for months now. Truly, one of the best things I read all year. Really appreciated the nuanced and flawed characters throughout. They all felt REAL and believable, even when some were taking actions that hurt your heart or angered or frustrated you. And fascinating watching Robin’s internal and external journey.  

“The Oleander Sword” by Tasha Suri

So friggin’ good. I’d delayed reading this sequel, because I was on an (ultimately fruitless) search for an intensely detailed recap of the first book. While I’d remembered over-arching plots and characters, the story was so lush and rich and full of intensely gorgeous and detailed world building (each kingdom with its own rules and religion and cultures), I’d wanted a refresher. I did find several reviews that went over the first half of the book in details, but then stopped for fear of spoilers. So I ended up skimming some of the previous book and just plain re-read the final 80 pages or so, which was a delight. These words flow so pleasingly across the palette. And this sequel drops you right into the action. (So maybe wait until third book is published, so you can just read all three at once?). Some new POV characters, and old favorites. The stakes continue to be Intense with a capital I. Loyalties are stretched, hearts are conflicted, further discussions of empire and power and the murkiness of both. The ways in which power (who can have it, the cost of striving for it, collateral damage along the way) affects everything, even those just trying to live their lives on the sidelines. Truly fascinating new things are revealed. The cultures and religions described are so rich and vibrant and fully realized and wonderful to explore. Malina and Priya continue to be compelling characters. But truly, all the characters are fascinating and detailed. It’s just a phenomenal piece of writing, and Suri continues to show us that a “happily ever after” isn’t a part of the real world, and that conquest and power (regardless of motives) is damaging and hard and complicated, whether it’s being sought/wielded for moral reasons or not. Intense stuff. 

“Remarkably Brighty Creatures” by Shelby Van Pelt

Oh, this was lovely! Can’t remember who mentioned it so that I added it to my library holds list, but soooo glad I did. I had NO IDEA half of this is narrated by the Octopus at an aquarium, counting down the days of his captivity. The unlikely observations and interactions between the octopus and the elderly cleaning lady at the Aquarium. I’m smiling just remembering this story. Characters felt Very real, and sometimes frustratingly so (I’ve known too many Camerons in my life, and his understandable but frustrating inertia in life). This story is just plain charming. Some real emotions and true human moments. Plus, did I mention that part of it is narrated by a Giant Pacific Octopus?!? Wonderful. 

“Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Novel” by Tyler Feder

Beautiful and sweet and sad and appreciated. A dear friend gifted me this awhile ago, after my mom passed, with a heartfelt note that I may not be ready to read this, and I may never be interested, and that was okay, but here it is. Took me 18 months to be ready, but it was a very touching little memoir. Specifically focusing on her experiences of losing a parent when you’re younger (she was a freshmen in college, and her sisters in high school). About the lack of resources where she saw herself reflected, so finally deciding to write her own. And it’s also a lovely and poignant examination of the process of losing someone, and finding a way forward. The family dynamics. The interactions with the larger world. It was very touching. 

“The Swimmers” by Julie Otsuka

What a strange and lovely little book. It starts with a We narration representing all the different types of people who go swimming at the community pool. Long evocative lists and varied adjectives are piled upon each other, in rhythmic paragraphs mimicking the rhythm of swimming laps. There’s a meditative quality to it, but it’s also full of hyper-specific details. Our bookclub was split on how we each consumed these words, some focusing and absorbing each detail, and others letting the details wash over them. Both methods were found to be effective. The middle section introduces change. A crack appears in the pool. There is an ongoing almost Kafka-esque quality to this crack and the various vague but excessively named bureaucratic agencies that inspect and respond to the crack. We explore the different human reactions to this change. Eventually it is announced that the pool will be closing temporarily and then indefinitely. The frustrations and grief and anger and emotions such a loss causes. Reading this after having lived through the first years of Covid gave the metaphor extra power. What happens when something beyond our control shows up and throws our daily routine into a tizzy. There’s curiosity and worry and superstition, and things continue to change and we’re powerless to stop it. We’re shown such a variety of human reactions to such happenings.

And then we get to the final third of the book. I was NOT expecting this and was not prepared. One of our many colorful character gang of swimmers is Alice, a woman with dementia. But when she slips into the water, she remembers exactly what to do. In the final section of the book, we are following her story now that the pool has closed. Once again we have a “We” narration, this time it is the voice of the senior living Memory Care institution. Always smiling, always using euphemistic language. Always pitching things in a positive light, but very upfront about the costs involved and how being able to spend more money will garner a much better experience for your loved one. We also get some You narration, describing the behavior and emotions of the woman’s adult daughter. They’ve a strained relationship, and it’s emotional and tough and beautiful and real. Watching the daughter get glimpses into her parents’ relationship and learning to see more love and care there than she’d noticed before. There’s long rhythmic hyper-detailed paragraphs again, listing all the things Alice has forgotten and the things she remembers. She remembers details of being forced into an internment camp as a child. She remembers her daughter had a cat named Gasoline. She has forgotten the name of her husband. Again, some let this information wash over them, and others of us absorbed each descriptive word. Both approaches yielded satisfying results. Having not read the back of the book before reading this, and because Alice was just one of many swimmers for the 1st two thirds of this novel, I didn’t expect this change in focus/subject matter. And this is how I became the woman quietly crying, while reading this book poolside on vacation!! Having had my own experience’s with my mom’s dementia, this hit me! I found it powerful and beautiful. (Also I sat in further gratitude, that my relationship wasn’t difficult. And that my mom passed before her dementia got so bad that she was forgetting people). “Don’t mind the crying lady on vacation.” Ha. Turns out these servers are probably used to people crying for a whole host of reasons. They all just went about their business and didn’t inquire or interact. Also, the parts written about the Memory Care facility were full of wry cutting humor, but sometimes a laugh-to-keep-from-crying type of funny. It was all terribly true (in the same way the observations and reactions from the different bureaucracies were terribly true). And having worked in a pool in college, the descriptions of swimmers felt very accurate, too. Every subculture has it’s own vibes, and we’ve got several former lifeguards and swim coaches in book club, and they all felt the realness of these descriptions.

So it’s a book about all the different types of swimmers, about mundane habits and tasks and finding meditation and meaning in those things. And how we change, often against our will, when those things are taken away or changed. And then we follow Alice as the loss of this routine and her dementia grows and we follow her husband and daughter as this happens. And then my pal Sarah pointed out that there could be a larger metaphor here. The pool and the swimmers in all their variety and emotions and different experiences, this could represent your mind and your memories and experiences. And then the cracks begin, as dementia begins. And different parts of your brain react differently. And you try to paper over the cracks, and tell yourself they aren’t a big deal, and become superstitious, and all the myriad ways we respond. As some swimmers (memories?) leave the pool earlier than others. Until finally the pool is shut down. Woah. This book is tiny but powerful, with lots of layers, and carefully chosen words, and so many descriptions and ideas and words for you to swim through. Lovely and humorous and sad and upsetting and real and affecting and sweet. 

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin

Enough people finally told me to read this, so I did. It’s instantly engaging. The characters are so real and complex and flawed and human. The story is interesting, and while they’re older than me, I still had lots of nice nostalgia moments. Wishing characters were better at communicating with each other, as you watch lots of misunderstandings and hurt feelings and the consequences of making assumptions and then actively re-framing years of friendship and interactions. Narrative plays with time, bouncing between past present and future in a wonderful way, that explores layers and keeps the pages turning. Also really interesting reading about the different games that they develop. Sam talking about how you can’t reason/logic someone out of their perceptions of you really hit home. Understandable (and sometimes not) fumblings and missteps as they’re growing and learning to be adults. It just felt very real and immersive and interesting. Issues of alienation and isolation and finding your people and how to fit in or not within established systems. Learning and experiencing all the parts about being human. It’s stories within stories, like the video games they design.

“Stay True” by Hua Hsu

What a beautifully written memoir. So many times i was struck by a turn of phrase or description. In this memoir of his early college days. Strong sense of place and sense of time/era. As well as what that growing up post high school and into college experience is like. How friendships and formed and lost. Early fumblings at relationships and finding out who you are and how to be an adult. Evocative and brought up several of my own memories. And it’s also a beautiful and real examination of death and grief. Don’t remember who told me about this so that I added it to my library queue. Not generally drawn to memoir (unless it’s a travel memoir), even from people I know. But this was a nice and shorter read. And he is a very very wonderful writer. Many many quotes that i highlighted.

“Murder on Sex Island” by Jo Firestone

This was a god-damned delight. Jo Firestone is so friggin funny and I cannot recommend the audiobook highly enough. Wonderful getting to hear her unique voice (often full of humorous emotion) narrating this ridiculous story of Staten Island divorced social worker turned alter ego Private Investigator. Hired to to undercover on a “Love Island” style reality show to solve a murder. Ha. Observations are ridiculous and hilarious and it’s also a fun who-dunnit. I’ve only ever watched one episode of Love Island (on an Oregon Coastal get away with a dear pal who was obsessed, so we had to watch the two hour finale. It was a fascinating experience, and gave me some tiny insight into just how REAL the things being done on this fictional “Sex Island” reality show are. But still, this will be hilarious good time for anyone who hasn’t watched this type of reality show, too. 

“The Moor’s Account” by Laila Lalami

Compelling and lovely and fascinating historical fiction. Envelopes you in this world of 1500’s Americas, following a group of spanish conquistadors who get lost for many years. The true facts around this novelization were WILD!!! And the imagined way Lalami intuits and fills in the gaps all seem eminently plausible. The pages turn beautifully. The descriptions and interactions and variety of human experiences are quite telling and fascinating. Whether celebrating in Cortez’ looted riches or fighting the mosquitoes in a swampy quagmire, the reader is transported. And man’s pride and folly and care and harm for each other. This historical novel has ALL the twists and turns. Soooo good. 

“Project 562: Changing the Way We See Native America” by Matika WIlbur

Truly stunning. These photos are gorgeous. The profiles are touching and powerful and funny and real. There’s so much joy and reality and pride and truth here. Amazing hearing the author speak of her 10 year project and the true collaborative nature of this project… moving away from a Western Journalism perspective where these photos and stories would Belong to her alone because she took them down. Instead, she thought of this project as communal and in partnership with her subjects. Which required lots of effort and back and forth communications. And has resulted in something powerful and beautiful and real. This book is such a gift.

“The House in the Cerulean Sea” by TJ Klune

I was completely charmed and taken in by this book. Hadn’t read the back or anything about it. But I’ve had multiple people, from very disparate parts of my life, recommend it over the last year. Grateful my pal Peter gave me his copy when I was over for dinner one evening, “Just, take it. You have to read it.” Hadn’t expected I was going to get this wonderful cast of wayward magical kids. You’re transported on this journey, and you fall in love with all these characters. A few in bookclub had quibbles about the plot (and one person did not care for Linus and had major issues with the book, but still loved the orphanage characters). But pretty much all of us enjoyed the journey. If you’re looking for a sweet escape, full of hijinx and memorable characters and things working out in the end (even when maybe realistically they shouldn’t have been sorted as cleanly), this book is a great comfort. Found family and finding confidence in ones self and being fiercely protective of those you love. It’s a simple story, well told. Just lovely. And then there’s magical beings, too. 

“Atlas Alone” by Emma Newman

Hoo boy. I’ve loved each one of the books set in this imagined future, and have really appreciated that each is so friggin’ different from the previous books. Newman is one hell of an author. (honestly, the first book of the 4 is probably my least favorite, and I still quite liked it). This one is wrapping up some of the plot points left hanging from the second book, and continuing with a few of those characters, but with a new narrator with a fresh new viewpoint. Nefarious plots are investigated. Lots of continued big ideas, and small scale traumas and hardships. Glimpses into the truly gross and inhuman corporate excesses and fanaticism of the elites on this ship. Big ideas and grand scope, yet it’s such a smaller scale intimate and very human story. Masking and hiding, being so isolated and unable to trust even ones closest friends. It was a very good read, and I’m left itching for MORE MORE MORE. But Newman is taking a break, a long one. I hope she decides to return to this world. But the journey and different glimpses into different peoples and timelines have each been wonderful and dynamic and keep my guessing and turning pages. Such fascinating character studies and mysteries and adventure stories with Big Ideas swirling all around. Great stuff. 

“Hild” by Nicola Griffith

This was one of my absolute favorite books read in 2013 when it came out. And I was thrilled to learn Griffith had written a sequel ten years later. But I also knew I’d want/need to be re-reading this first. This is such a gloriously descriptive and dense novel, that never feels heavy or unweildy. You luxuriate in the prose and the descriptions. Since Hild’s “superpower” is from being hyper observant, it works so so well. The way important details are revealed through an observation of a wild thrush or an embroidery pattern. Which sounds like maybe it would be boring, but it is so beautifully immersive and engaging. But also, it is a BIG novel. And I was hesitant to give 500+ pages back to this world in preparation for giving 500 more pages in the sequel. So I was thrilled to find the library had an audiobook version. 22 hours(!!) but I decided to give it a shot. And basically tore through the whole thing in three days. It was wonderful being back in this world, and to have a narrator be there to be so confident in the old english pronunciations and vocabulary and names. This historical novel is such a joy and so well trodden and lived in and human. Here’s how I recapped it at the end of 2014: “Oh, how I do love historical epics. Gorgeous full story inspired by the seventh-century woman in ancient england who would come to be revered as Saint Hilda, who worked as the Seer to one of the kings. One reviewer said it was as “immersive as a river in rain. Her prose is so startlingly beautiful that reading description never feels like work — which is no mean feat, considering that many of her descriptions are about the running of medieval households.” It’s lovely and complex and well researched with taut/complex political maneuvers and clever and wonderful.” And then here was my initial review for myself when I first read it ten years ago: “Loved loved loved this. Sweeping historical epic, but the characters and events felt so small and personal…lovely minute details added such a richness and fully fleshed world, without ever feeling boring or slow. (I can’t quite think of buttermilk the same). Man, I swear you could almost taste the tastes, smell the smells, etc. The character of Hild is so fascinating and such a keen observer of her world. The plot DID NOT go where I expected, but it was fantastic.

The Old Irish and Old English names are a real trial. Very hard for my brain to deal with, and having so many characters with names so similar (while I’m sure it was accurate, it was VERY confusing). Griffith makes NO effort to hold her reader’s hand. if you aren’t paying attention and can’t remember, too bad. There is a family tree at the beginning, but one would really REALLY benefit from a full list of characters, because so many folks are mentioned who play key political roles, but we never even meet them. And they’re not part of Hild’s family. Also, the glossary and pronunciation guide are at the BACK of the book. I only discovered this halfway through. Would’ve been more helpful initially.”

—-Honorable Mentions—

“Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage” by Stephanie Coontz

This impeccably researched history of marriage throughout the ages is one of the books I’ve definitely thought about the most this year. Fascinating look at the institution of marriage and how it has changed over millenia and across cultures. While the first third, and some of the conclusion, deals with lots of interesting different cultural versions and ideas over the years, the majority of the book is mostly tracing marriage across western europe and north america. Lots of new information, and other things I already knew. Great resources and very well researched. Led to a super engaged and dynamic book club conversation. 

“Shutter” by Ramona Emerson

Ohhhh. This was fascinating, following a Navajo crime scene photographer (who also happens to see spirits. Which, as you can imagine, is an inconvenience if not a problem when combined with her job). Chapters alternate between current day and hee childhood and past. Keeps the pages turning, layering in important character insights, and just really nice little moments. Each chapter subheading lists the specific camera(s) used in that chapter, which was fun and gave great sense of place/purpose to this story. Real moments of loving connections with her grandmother and others in her community. And just very real interactions with coworkers and neighbors and the spirits. All of it was interesting, fast paced, and well done.

The pal who recommended this wasn’t sure if it would be too scary for me. So i was a bit worried. But didnt need to be. Its got some good atmosphere, and several ghosts hanging around their crime scene bodies (so descriptions of violent crimes and mutilations). But even though there is some supernatural menace, it wasn’t too scary. 

“Any Way the Wind Blows” by Rainbow Rowell

I found this a very satisfying wrap up to these characters adventures and finding themselves as they’re growing up and testing out adulthood. Some big truths and some bigger emotions (this is a Rowell book after all). Complicated family relationships remain complicated but people eventually start using their words and finding ways forward. The concept of lots of new “Chosen Ones” popping up in the magical world was interesting and unexpected new subculture to explore. And Baz and Simon start actually using their words, even though it’s a struggle. It was realistic but also reassuring. Loved Penelope’s journey here. And several of our side characters get interesting journeys of self discovery. I enjoyed the “peek behind the curtain” discoveries in lots of different ways. Finding out that things and systems and peoples are as binary nor as sorted as you’d thought when a child. It all felt very real and true, set in a world that also have magic and magical creatures in it. Some of the best things one wants in their YA.

“Passage West” by Rishi Reddi

What a complicated and emotional and very human story. You can tell how much research went into this tale of two Indian immigrants to the US Pacific Coast in the early 1900’s. From logging camps in Washington to sharecropping in California, we spend years following these two men, through friendships and hardships and fights and celebrations. The complex relationships, the cultural and political currents around them, familial obligations and oppressive laws. It’s mostly illegal for immigrants to own land, and the sharecropping system has so many pitfalls and opportunities for abuse. It’s also almost impossible for immigrants to bring their wives/family into the US. But also, the racist miscegenation laws make it illegal for many racial groups to marry anyone already in the US. So these men are often forced into long years of isolation and loneliness. There was so much history here, while following these very human stories. I’ve found myself often thinking about this novel throughout the year. 

“The Last True Poets of the Sea” by Julia Drake

This was a lovely journey. Our narrator is so raw and confused and quick to assume everything is her fault. In other words, she’s a teenager. After her brother’s suicide attempt, she’s shipped off to spend the summer with her uncle in the town of Lyric (founded by her great great great grandmother, the sole survivor of a shipwreck all those years ago). There’s mystery, and working at the aquarium, and a nice gang of quirky kids, and learning to find out who you are, and learning to communicate, and lots of explorations of mental health and emotions and family drama and trauma. As well as complicated teenage romantic relationships. And lovely writing. And funny word play. And clever pals. And lots of shipwreck discussion (historical and metaphorical). I loved being immersed in this narrative voice. It was a beautiful and easy to read journey. “A warm, wise, strange meditation on developing the strength to be vulnerable.” -Kirkus

“A Court of SIlver Flames” by Sarah J Maas

While the first book felt a bit formulaic and just average, appreciative of the pals who told me to stick with it, as this series took some interesting twists and turns, delving into the darker and traumatic effects of these high fantasy epic battles and the problematic nature of the relationship in the first book. All the content warnings. And so it was a fun way to pass the time, and this final book was good, too. Enjoyed getting to read Nessa’s story. It’s always interesting to read through the eyes of an unlikeable character. We get to see inside her head and learn a lot more of the layers and complex emotions and traumas she’s dealing with. Interesting reading about our Scooby Gang with an outsider’s eye. From someone who is constantly invited in, but stubbornly chooses for her own complicated reasons to remain on the outside. The journey towards healing. Enjoyed learning more about the library and the sanctuary it provides to those who find it. I enjoyed spending more time in this world and furthering the journey. I appreciate that things aren’t easy or pat, even though these are still novels where Good ultimately wins. But it’s all messier and more complicated (but in a way my heart can still handle write now. Not TOO grim or dark. But there are definitely stakes and consequences. And alliances are fraught and murky. The politick-ing is complex and well wrought). Appreciated getting more nuance and insight into Cassian, too. 

“Act of Oblivion” by Robert Harris

Excellent historical fiction about events after Charles II is made king, and the Regicides (those who signed the king’s death warrant along with Cromwell) are hunted down. While I knew a few of the large historical bullet points, there was LOTS that I learned. Honestly hadn’t ever heard of “The Act of Oblivion” itself, and found this idea of official “plugging your ears and saying La La La” law fascinating. What a way to ignore the years of civil war, king’s execution, and Cromwell’s rule. It’s full of fantastic historical details. Harris writes well and paints very evocative scenes. Often painted so well they help reinforce that I have ZERO interest in living in the 17th century. Yikes. You can basically Smell some of these descriptions. Ugh. Two of the “at large” regicides have moved to New England. The invented character of Nayler provides a great focus for this manhunt. We meet tons of historical characters and important and interesting events. There were so many factoids that I kept needing to tell friends about. Some of the descriptions and interactions with the Native Americans felt cringey and uncomfortable. While it seemed an intentional choice to be seeing these people through the eyes of our Englishmen in hiding, there was definitely some weird “noble savage” stuff happening that didn’t feel great. But the descriptions and settings and differences between the different religions of England and New England were explored in ways that felt organic and informative. The main characters are given interesting depth and rich internal lives. This is a story on the edges of the Royal Court and machinations, with some interesting insights. But it truly shines when exploring the lives of more average peoples during these days. Through the Plague and great fire. Through horrible torture and executions. Through lives in hiding and risk. Totally interesting read. Shout out to the giant billboards all over London’s tube stations in Sept 2022 that got me to add this to my library hold list.