25 December 2017

The Sahara - Fractured Chronology

I’m busting out of the chronological order of things partly because the number of blogs missing is overwhelming but mainly because our three day trip to the Sahara was exhilarating in its uniqueness and deserves immediate - relatively speaking - telling.

We chose to go on a tour for our first venture out of Monastir and into the wilderbushes of Tunisia.  We didn’t know what to expect, how easy or difficult it would be to get around, or how we would be greeted as we traveled.  This is a different place and although we have been treated with exceptional kindness by almost everyone, we have also been scammed, stared at and harassed by people selling wares.  

In our first few days at dock, Milly was boarded on several different occasions by assorted Tunisians wanting their picture taken on her - one proud dad lined up his tots on our bow for a family shot, another had his girlfriend snap a pic after he had climbed over our lifeline and still another cocky teen blithely sat down in our cockpit while smoking his cigarette.  This was all a bit of a shock!  However, a fourth guy, who asked for a picture, but left when he heard we had just arrived to a new dock location and were busy adjusting lines, returned with a home-cooked meal from his mother.  He joined us for dinner and has since become a welcoming friend and a wonderful and proud source of information on his country and culture.  So, although a shocked, we were also charmed.

After some negotiation, last minute price increases and some bail outs, six of us cruisers headed out on a three day tour, “Discovering the Desert”, driven in a minivan by Abdou, our trusted and able driver/guide.  We left Monastir and headed through several busy towns with men - always men - sitting at cafes.  They sit facing the sidewalk.  The vast majority, it seems, smoke.  We have been told there is upwards of 25% unemployment here so we assume these men are not loitering because they want to.  According to a teacher we met, the population is highly educated but there are no jobs.  The state of the economy is obvious in the tired infrastructure and distressingly widespread garbage and rubble.
A multitude of makroud flavours - strawberry, pistachio, almond, lemon, orange - deep-fried  and glazed in honey or baked.  

Strips of pastry ready to cut, bake/fry and glaze.

Vats of oil followed by a swim in honey.  We sampled right out of the honey bath, still warm and dripping.

First stop was Kairouan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered by many to be the fourth holiest Islamic city. The city was at it's prime in the 9th century when it was a powerful trading hub and centre of Islamic scholarship. 

Abdou stopped at a bakery which specialized in Makroud, a date stuffed pastry/candy, deep-fried and dipped in a hot, thick, honey syrup.  We watched the process and sampled the goods right out of the cauldron.  And then, of course, bought an assortment.
The Kairouan Great Mosque, the oldest mosque and minaret in North Africa dates from the 9th century and is a major pilgrimage site.  Apparently, seven trips here is equal to one trip to Mecca. A platform in the centre of the square has a method of timing the call to prayer via a sundial equivalent.  The huge square is packed with people/men during important pilgrimage times.  Like restaurants that required ties in the old days and had a basket of ties at the door for remiss gents to borrow, I borrowed a scarf to cover my head from a basket for secular folk.

There are 414 columns in the mosque, most taken from ruins of other buildings in Carthage.   The prohibition of animate artistic representations mean that graphic designs on columns, beautiful rugs, huge carved wooden doors and Arabic calligraphy are the primary decorations.  The decor seems simple and serene compared to the prolific art, often of agonizing scenes, in the Catholic churches we have recently visited.

This grand room was the men's praying spot.  We were allowed to look in but not to enter.  Women have a separate room to pray in and often enter the mosque through a back door.  We were not able to peek in to view the women's area to compare.

The doors we have seen in Tunisia are often blue - a local told us that blue wards off mosquitos - and decorated with large black  rounded nail heads.  The light sandstone around the doors are beautifully carved.

The rugs are famous in Kairouan region and this one was in a traditional building where the women used to live upstairs and were able to look out of the centre blue building without being seen from the ground by passing men.

Several men talking at once and throwing rugs on the floor for inspection made for a lively shopping experience.  One proved the rug was wool by pulling a bit off and burning it - sure smelled like burnt wool! So I had to buy it for Milly.  Buying in the medinas takes a bit of psyching up and practise.  Bartering is not my strong point, needless to say.  Often the best method is to begin to walk away.  The men will then come running after with the "best deal", often half the price of the original.  Then I can usually talk them down a teeny bit more.  Everything is very reasonable anyway, dare I say cheap, so I feel a bit guilty trying to get an even better price.

We have very few photos of traditional Tunisians.  We have been told that the soul escapes if a picture is taken - you can hardly blame them for refusing photos with such consequences.  However, these two women were just in the scene we viewed from the top of a tower while looking at huge medieval cisterns built to satisfy the thirst in this dry city.  One had a huge cart of hay that looked ready to topple.

This traditional Berber man was also a tour guide at one of the sites.  He plainly loved to have his photo taken.  His traditional garb was accented by very dapper leather shoes, polished to shiny new.

Still in Kairouan, the Mosque of the Barber, was actually a zaouia, or Islamic religious school, venerating Mohamed's companion who had collected three hairs from Mohamed's beard and, hence, called the barber.  The outside courtyard were lined with stunning, colourful mosaics and stucco 

The ceilings were incredibly detailed with carved domes and stained glass.
Truly spectacular. Obviously proudly cared for and still revered as a pilgrimage site.
A lot of driving later and we stopped for lunch, went through a hub-bub of a city center with unique bricked buildings, finally to our hotel, a large affair in walled grounds where some Tunisian gathering was being held - live music and dancing - women, no men.  They were having a great time!


Our first sight of the Sahara was on a 4x4 trip.  The driver gave us a wild ride banking off, flying over and sliding down dunes and rocky shelves.  We flew around in the back, getting air, banging limbs and, in my case, becoming convulsed by hysterical giggles.

We climbed a rocky outcrop of an odd wind carved formation to view perfectly flat terrain with the rocky spine of the Atlas Mountains in the background. Perfectly blue sky but cool enough to wear sweaters and pants.

Even in the middle of nowhere, there are vendors selling wares, tea, trinkets.
The site of the Star Wars set is still a tourist destination complete with wooden peeling silver rocket props meekly sitting among houses looking somewhat dilapidated after years in sand and wind.  We slid down the dune in the foreground in the 4x4 - no wheel traction, just a gravity initiated slide.

A beautiful oasis of date palms and greenery along the Atlas ridge.  Berbers had originally lived in caves and earth houses in the mountain slopes but a 20th century flood had destroyed the village.  Some now get respite from the summer heat by sleeping in the caves but most live in a small village in the oasis.

The remains of the earth houses in the foreground with the modern houses in the back which don't look much different.  The water tower, filled by the spring, serves the village.

The 2 meter waterfall from the spring was surrounded by trinket stalls.  Measly by Canadian waterfall standards but an awesome oddity and major tourist attraction in the Sahara.

The Algerian border is in the distance - a band of sand marking the No Man's Land.  

A paved highway snakes through the valleys.  Most roads/lanes were dirt tracks for 4x4's and camels.

Another tourist centre.  Many sold headscarves which were the most colourful facets of the otherwise sandy brown landscape.  Apart from the sky which was always a deep blue.
Tozeur, one of the gateway cities to the Sahara, is known for it's unique yellow brickwork with dates everywhere.

 Alight at night with what we would call Christmas lights - must be called something else in Tunisia.

Dates are sold everywhere along the fringes of the Sahara and we were lucky to hit harvest season.  Sometimes super sweet, sometimes more subtle, always soft and sticky, they were delicious and warm from the sun.  

A pop up date shop - nothing but dates bought by the kilo.

A Berber camel by the trails.  We did not mount a camel this time.  We arrived at sunset and again at sunrise when camels were leaving or hadn't yet arrived.

Believe it or not, Chott el Djerid, is a 7,000 square km salt lake in the Sahara.  Much of they year it is dry, caked in salt, sparkling in the constant sun.  Salt is processed in some areas but mainly it is huge, dry salt pan.

As far as the eye can see...

Hopeful?  Apparently, in the winter it can get a bit moist.

Bizarre.  We crossed the lake from one city to another in our bus.  Can't imagine being lost here!

Our guide, Abdou, listened to our conversations carefully and would often make unplanned stops or detours to show us something he thought we'd be interested in.  The best kind of guide!  This guy was selling palm syrup or juice by the side of the road.  The juice or sap is harvested at the crown of the palm.  This guy climbs the palm in the evening, puts a pail at the tap in the crown, and climbs back up in the morning to collect his harvest.  The  hot sun during the day dries the sap so this is a night time process.  Incredibly sweet, very delicious!
Our arrival in Douz, another gateway to the Sahara, was at sunset.  No camel rides but as the others watched beautiful Arabian horses, I ran out beyond the last of the scrappy growth to the dunes.  Quintessential desert dunes - no rocks, just miles and miles of soft sand dunes.  

We returned early the next morning.  The desert is like an ocean of sand waves, complete with ripples and sand spindrift from the top of the dune.  The shadows were incredible.

This guy was not happy with our approach.  He grumbled a low, bubbly roar deep in his belly, frothed at his mouth, shook his head spraying the slobber, and shifted his weight from one foot to the other.  I hung well back but fellow cruiser tried to talk him through it.  Abdou insisted camels are friendly.  I didn't buy it.

You could take camel, horse or ultralight rides into the desert.  This is the hangar for the plane.  We decided against it.

Desert rose crystal found (and sold) all over the place

Another impromptu stop at a date farm and harvest.  The dates are harvested, arranged on the blanket, picked by hand and tied into bunches.  

No big machinery here.  The trees are notched for barefoot climbing with the aid of a waistband to lean back on - no other safety strap.  All the dead palm branches are hacked off by large serrated scythe before the picker even gets to the bunches of dates that are on very sturdy, thick stems.  He hacks that off, slings a rope around it and lowers it down to his partner on the ground.  Each tree has about a dozen bunches.

Camel herds in the desert roam free accompanied by a camel herder or two who roam with them during the day and herd them back to the tented family camp at nightfall.  

Not much tasty growth around for these huge creatures.

Camel crossing.  The hazard of camels crossing in the Sahara is similar to moose and deer in North America.  Night time collisions are common.

Modern Berber village.

Back in the rockier part of the desert we passed through an area of troglodyte Berbers.  Abdou was great friends with one of the families so we were able to have a peek at their home.  I think it was set up for tourist viewing but the family did live there.  The blue over the door is a fish.  Fish, particularly dolphins, are good luck in Tunisia.  Seems ironic in the desert but...
Sitting room

Within the "front door" was this huge courtyard, slanted toward a drainage pipe.  The rooms of the house opened into the courtyard.  Each was painted a bright white.

Master bedroom.  Note the fish.  The hand is also good luck - wards off the evil eye.

More formal sitting room.

Kitchen storage for spices, grains etc.  No refrigeration.  Very tidy.

Our lunch eaten with our hands.  Honey, bread, and a tomato and pepper based egg dish.

Grinding wheat to make couscous.

After honey for lunch, I helped myself to water from the well.

From the courtyard wall you could see a bit of modernity - solar panel.  Seems logical in the desert.

Backyard.  Other troglodytes scattered about the neighbourhood.

The central market in Gabes is the destination of brides preparing for marriage.  The bowls of henna are particularly important.

Abdou leads the way.

Baskets and bags of dried beans, nuts, seeds, grains, spices are in every market.  Much of the time, I have no idea what I'm looking at and the vendor is usually not able to help me.  It was a treat to tour with Abdou who at least had broken English and a very good nature.

Imagine multiple vendors and dozy tourists all talking at once in this tiny shop and you get a pic of chaos.

Dates, dates and more dates.  Pomegranate trees often grew within the date palm orchards.  They ripen at the same time.  Abdou made a stop at this place to purchase one for us from the best pomegranate region in Tunisia.  He bought half a dozen to take home to his mother.
On the way back to Monastir, we travelled on the Tunisian/Libyan highway.  The border is reportedly closed but the highway is lined with these "gas stations".  People bring cheap Libyan gas in gerri cans over the border, set it up on the side of the road and have an interesting system of holding the cans up high compared to the car or moto tank so the gas/diesel flows by gravity.  

Road side tea stand - sickly sweet mint tea which steeps all day, it seems.

The street restaurants advertise what they are serving by hanging a carcass outside the shop.  Most are sheep.  Typically, this one had a full carcass and a skin.  Guess we know what's on the barbecue.

And this one was being skinned on the sidewalk with clients at tables eating!  

All in all, it was an eye-opening, exciting first look at Tunisia and the Sahara.  A bit of a whirlwind and much faster than we are now used to, we hope to go back to do some hiking. And there will be a few more trips - to Carthage, Tunis and then to the Atlas Mountains in the north.