Star Wars and Saharan Sandstorms: Tunisia June 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.

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