Friday, August 29, 2008

Reporting from Southern Tunisia

It's been SO weird to be reading about Obama and the DNC while traversing the south of Tunisia.... But I think I've gotten the jist of it, and now all that he has to do is win in November!
But where was I?
I think I was heading to Matmata, to live in the caves. I did just that.

There are only 1,000 people in Matmata, so we aren't talking a huge metropolis. Its claim to fame is that the bar scene from the original Star Wars (Le Guerre des Etoiles) was filmed there. It's sort of tacky, in that the hotel has put up Star Wars sheets on the walls, and there are some books around with paper clippings. Of course, my US-marketing mind gets going, thinking about how it could become like Roswell, NM there, with regular conventions and exhibitions. As it is, I never spoke to one person there who had even SEEN the movie, so they must sort of wonder what the fuss is all about.
For centuries, the native peoples of Southern Tunisia have lived in caves. They stay cooler during the brutal summer heat, and warmer in the cold desert winters. I stayed in one that tried to retain some of the original "charm," and they succeeded somewhat. Originally, a deep crater was dug down approximately 40 feet, and then rooms were dug into the ground at the lower level. Make sense? Does this picture help?
There's a sweet "museum" in town, run by an enterprising woman who saw the need and turned her home into a venue that shows how people used to actually use the cave/troglodyte homes. Each home had a salon/living room, a bedroom or two, a store room for food and grains, and even an indoor bathroom. Mind you, all of the signs are in French, and the woman who owns it was there to answer questions but none of that helped me much -- altho I do have to admit that I'm doing a BIT better with my French...
The highlight of my stay there, other than sleeping in a cave for two whole nights, was meeting a guy named Ali who teaches physics at the local school. He's 29 and lives with his mom, which isn't unusual here. He also tends to their goat flock, and one night I walked up the hill with him as he watched his "kids." It so so peaceful and quiet up there, not that Matmata has much noise about it anyway. In his broken English and my bad French, we managed to talk for two hours about everything: Bush, of course (they really dislike him...), religion, matrimony, the future and on and on. The wisdom of a goat herder can never be discounted -- he sees life in such simple yet logical terms. He also showed me the plants that camels prefer, and told me that cats are kept because they kill the scorpions.
Later that night there was a wedding in town (on a Wednesday, but they have to get them in before Ramadan begins next week). Trucks of young people drove up and down the one main street of Matmata, yelling and singing like it was Nebraska.
There aren't too many other "backpackers" around, but I did meet up with a few. Some from Japan, others from the UK. But it was nice to speak "plain ol'" English, which I haven't done really since I got here. It really does amaze me how quickly people bring up George Bush, and never in a good way. I do think the rest of the world will really wonder what's up with America if Obama doesn't win.
Masses of tour buses come to Matmata for the day, but then leave by sunset and the town returns to normal. I had a great dinner the last night of chicken tagine, with a typical Tunisian salad of cucumbers, tomatoes and........ canned tuna fish! They find more things to put tuna into, including omelettes, sandwiches (often spelt sandwitches here) and pizzas.
I found a good internet place, but they still won't let me hook up my camera so I can't upload pix... but asap, I promise!
Today (Friday Aug 29) we took the bus back to Gabes, and then found a louges (a minivan that goes to a certain city after all the seats are filled -- faster and as cheap as the bus and a better way to meet the locals) to Tatouine.
Tatouine could really be a Star Wars mecca as well, if it wasn't so hot and so far from anything. It's next to the Sahara, about eight hours south of Tunis BUT George Lucas did use the name as the place where Luke Skywalker lived, so it's famous for that.

What a ride: camels sitting by the side of the road, men sleeping by the side of the road during the hot part of the day, horse-drawn carts pulling anything and everything...
We (two Japanese tourists and myself) rented a taxi and driver for the late afternoon and went to see more of the Star Wars sites... the four story mud homes that were used in the movie. Not a bit of cheese to the place, and if you didn't know you would never have noticed. The buildings were built centuries ago to hold grain, and later people moved into them. Believe me, a picture will tell a thousand words...
I love just hanging out, sipping my "the a la menthe" (mint tea with sugar) and people watching... as the Arabic mucis wafts through every speaker. (OMG, is that the first time I've used waft this year??) Even in small cafes in small towns the cafe waiters (always male) will wear a black or striped waiters jacket, like the type you used to see in the 50s.
The guys in Tatouine have a very "hip" factor about them, as tho they don't want to appear backward in any way. They wear Nikes and t-shirts with English words on them, and wear their hair all slicked back. The older guys will all sit and play dominos or backgammon, but they ALL drink espresso coffee. It's also cool to see such comraderie, as they walk arm in arm or rub each others shoulders (in a very non-sexual way of course; it's just that women are out of bounds until married!)
Typing on the French keyboards takes me twice as long; this has taken me an hour to write, so I will sign off and go crash.
I think tomorrow I will head north, toward the coast, and start making my way back to Tunis. I then have a flight to Cairo on Sept 4.
THANK YOU for reading this, whoever you may be!! Email with any questions!