Chapter Fifty-Seven      February, 2011

First off: The Tunisian Revolution.  Yes, we were here for the start of if, and Yes we are still here.  You all know about what happened, so we’ll just tell you about how we made out.   

We were scheduled to leave Tunisia on January 14 to fly to England and return 5 days later.  This quick trip would reset our tourist visas for another 120 days.  But as it worked out, the Tunis airport was closed the day before our departure.  The local police informed us that it would re-open at 05:00, so we set off with a driver.  Riding through Tunis on the way to the airport we saw hundreds of riot police gathered in a side street waiting to be called upon.  Our flight left nearly on time, but by the time we had landed in London the Tunis airport had again been closed.  So we just made it out.  That’s when the really large and violent demonstrations began.  We delayed our return for 5 days more, waiting in England with our generous hosts to see what would develop.  After 10 days away we returned to the marina and Seraphim.  All was quiet in the marina, and Monastir was beginning to return to normal. There were signs of destruction all around. Buildings had been torched and looted. Statues had been destroyed. The amusement park, owned by President Ben Ali’s nephew, was burned. But most of the city was OK.

Prior to the revolution, the president’s face was everywhere. 

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These posters have disappeared from view, replaced by graffiti like this:

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We see the optimism of the people everywhere.  They are proud of what they have accomplished with their revolution and of what they have started across the Arab world.  They speak to us about the future and their children’s future.  It is an exciting time to be here, and we are glad we have had the opportunity to experience it first-hand.  There’s something very powerful in the perseverance of these people that we have come to love.

Since we returned there have been on-going demonstrations but we have not once felt threatened.   We feel so secure that we decided to tour further afield than we had already, and that brings us to our next, and more interesting adventure: The Sahara

The southern 1/3 of Tunisia is desert.  So we went to see what it is like.  The answer: Fascinating!  And huge!  And desolate (in many parts, particularly where we got lost on a dirt road for eight km with no way out). We started in the west in Tozeur, within sight of Algeria and worked our way east almost to the coast in Matmata.

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We didn’t know what to expect, and we were rewarded with surprises at every turn.  We were so excited to see our first “wild” camel, but after a while they became beasts to avoid on the road.  They are certainly rather graceful looking characters. By the way, we learned there is not a single “wild” camel in Tunisia. Each one is spoken for and tagged. They are set free for the winter to feed on their own, but that’s different from wild!

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Camels in the desert are used for transportation, maybe even the whole family and all their belongings.  This little “caravan” appeared to be exactly that. Families often set up house in one area and move with the seasons.

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The oases surprised us, too.  Some, like Tozeur and Douz, are huge with 200,000-500,000 date palms in them.  The palm groves are interesting to wander through; people are living and working inside. 

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We got lost in the oasis one afternoon, but two women with a donkey cart showed us the way out.

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But more surprising were the small oases we discovered hiding in deep gorges in the hills.  The availability of a water supply means that each of these springs supported a small village.  In recent years the villagers have sometimes moved from the ancient stone dwellings on the hills into more modern housing on the plains below, leaving the old village deserted and eerie.  We came across these little villages quickly; from a distance we could not see the oasis, then suddenly there it was.

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This little village has been deserted in favor of modern housing on the plain below.

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For the most part, we were alone.  The revolution has kept most tourists away so we had the sights to ourselves.  What was not affected by the lack of tourists was the market.  Market day was really interesting as people came to the oasis (this one is in Douz) from miles around to buy and sell.  We had a ball watching the interactions as buyers, sellers, friends and neighbors got together.

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We had been warned about sandstorms, and while we did not experience a full-bore sandstorm, we were able to witness a bit of blowing sand that gave us an idea of what it could be like in a big storm.  The fuzziness in the photos is not just haze; it is blowing sand and dirt.  Our eyes and mouths were full of it!  Now we know why they all wear those long scarves wrapped around their heads.

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We saw how people lived.  These people are Berbers, of various tribes.  They have lived in this area for thousands of years.  It was not unusual for us to see a lone man or woman walking across the bare landscape, coming from “nowhere we could see” and going “no place in sight.”  We also saw many villages, some deserted and some still inhabited.  The living is simple and basic.  In many places the people actually live underground!  They dig a pit 15-20 feet deep, then hollow out the sides into rooms and stalls for their livestock.  The resulting “house” is cooler in summer and warmer in winter.  Seems like a very logical way to live in the desert.  We are told the younger generation has avoided this type of dwelling, preferring more modern housing. But we saw young and old inhabitants living this way.  You can see that despite the fact that the exteriors are mostly the same, they still have found a way to create a personal touch!

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The landscape changed constantly.  Sometimes it was so flat you saw not a hump or hill all the way to the horizon.  Other times it was mountainous.  Oases sprung up here and there, and sometimes not at all.  The vegetation went from sparse to none, and this was during the rainy season.  

The people were dressed for winter, with wool burnooses on the men and long skirts and shawls on the women.  With all the sand and dirt and wind, these heavy garments are replaced with lightweight versions in summer.  Do the men’s burnooses look familiar?  Reminded us of  Obi-Wan Kenobi.  (The Star Wars movies were actually shot here!)

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We enjoyed the costumes of both men and women.  At first we thought them strange, but the longer we were in the desert area, the more practical they became.  Cold, wind and sand have to be kept out as best one can.

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Since we already toppled the carpet budget (and we don’t own a house) we weren’t lured into the tiny workshops here. Sharon did have to just look. Just once. Instead of carpets, she was drawn to the traditional wedding shawls. They worked her hard but we left empty handed. We both agree, however, their salesmanship is tops.

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We covered 1200 km. But we haven’t told you about the gas stations! There are very few cars in the depths of the desert. The normal mode of transportation is your God-given legs, donkey or camel. And the young seem to move around on motor bike. They fill up a dinar at a time!

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Our closest friend told us one day before we left home we’d return different people. This experience alone has made us different people. In all, it was a fabulous trip.  A true highlight of our adventure to date.  We were able to observe these people as they went about their daily lives in this harsh environment.  While we wonder what the movie stars are wearing on Oscar Night, they work hard just to survive.  It was a humbling experience and one we shall not soon forget.

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Next on the schedule is spring haul-out and bottom painting.  Then we’ll set off for Europe when the weather turns warmer in April.  Until then,

À bientôt!

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