The South Tunisian Coast and the Gateway to the Sahara

On our way to Sousse we spent one night in El Jem.  In the center of town is the second largest surviving Colosseum after the one in Rome.

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We pass whitewashed concrete structures, some crumbling, others meticulously painted, piles of yellow sand and gravel, sparse groups of buildings, large groups of men in colorful plastic chairs In front of wide mouthed cafés, all looking, students standing together, shepherds, often old or weather worn and shabby looking, empty lots strewn with garbage, neatly plowed olive orchards partitioned by walls of cactus, teenagers and men on small motorbikes usually two astride, black jackets, jeans, and cell phones, dark hair, watching, smiling, yelling something we don’t understand.

In Tunisia we have noticed it is common that live animals accompany dead ones of the same kind.

In Tunisia we have noticed it is common that live animals accompany dead ones of the same kind.

The sides of the roads are places of congregation.  We spent much time waving, waving to everyone.  It’s perfunctory, to the point where we often wave first.  Kids on bicycles riding up alongside us,  looking, smiling, waving,  maybe asking something but they haven’t been taught English yet,  that comes later.

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On the way from El Jem to Sfax the sky darkened and rain began to fall in mild bursts.

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Half way through the ride it began to come down fast and and we started to get wet.  It slowed up after a half hour and a man with a large van stopped and offered us a ride but we were just starting to dry out and decided to continue riding.

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We had a message from a Warmshowers host in Sfax to meet us at the first underpass we would find when we came into town.

In Tunisia there are a variety of tasty cookies and pastries.

In Tunisia there are a variety of tasty cookies and pastries.

Being hosted in Tunisia is to be very well taken care of.  There seems to be a small but growing number of forward thinking youth that have plans for a Tunisia that embraces travel, adventure and exploration.

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Thanks to fortune, word of mouth and the internet we were able to connect with this group.  In Tunis, Arafat who had bicycled from Istanbul to Beijing. In Sousse, friend of Arafat and backpacker, Hamza, and in Sfax, adventure sport enthusiasts Kais and Sabri (pictured above).

A special deset prepared from pine cones made once a year on the profit's birthday.

A special deset prepared from pine cones made once a year on the prophet’s birthday.

He arrived in a car that advertised some device that helped people with diabetes.  We followed it about five kilometers back to his house.  His sister greeted us in the kitchen.  Kais began to pull some enormous purple octopus tentacles out of a bag and into a pot of hot water.  Before dinner we went out to another huka lounge.

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The hookah lounges are like the Tunisian equivalent of a bar except instead of alcohol there are a lot of hookahs.

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The next day Kais helps us take a ferry out to the island of Kerkennah which are really just one island due to a landbridge which connects them.  The journey takes us about an hour and cost less than a euro for the two of us and our bike.

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Kais has a police friend on the island who he said would help us find a place to camp.

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When we get to the other side as expected the police are waiting for us.  We are ushered aside and we shake some hands and confirm that we are the Americans.  They meticulously rifle through our passports inspecting all the visas.   “And this one is Turkmenistan”
“Turkmenistan, yes yes.”  Pausing on the next one
“Indonesia,”
“Indonesia yes”  After this they ask us where we are going to camp.  We were under the impression that they were going to lead us to a safe place to camp and a five minute confusion began between us which culminated in them indicating a place on the pavement ten feet from the police station.  We decided to deal with it later and began riding the 20 kilometers to Remla.

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The island is beautiful and lonely and flat.  Large sections of the sea seem to be inundating it and there is sparse vegetation, mostly Palm trees and some bushes and violet flowers.  In Remla we eat some pizza and a kabab sandwich and sit lazily as the sun goes down, fantasizing about one day when we will have our own boat and we will sail from island to island, deep in the loneliness of the sea, the beauty of the sunsets, and the colors of her surface.

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I think your face must be the most beautiful thing in the world!
Don’t you know the most beautiful things in the world are water and clouds?  As we ride back the sun ends itself with an obverse melding of yellow and pink in the sky and on the sea to us obscured only by the silhouettes of the palms.  A full moon rises behind us and it is dark and calm with only the gentle roar of the tires on the pavement.

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When we get back to the dock we manage to negotiate a camping spot out by the sea within shouting distance of the police station.  Under the full moon the wind blows hard.

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It’s mercilessly sunny today.  It’s hard to open the eyes all the way.

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The ferry docks and we all pile off, cars and bikes and people in no particular order.  Large trucks are circling the block.  The trucks here have ridged tires and high clearance.

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We have lunch with Kais and Sabri and are shown around the medina.  The medinas in Tunisia are all very similar and going to all the different ones is like going back to the same place again and again.  But the narrow alleyways are comforting in the way they guide and protect, and when the walls open there are bounties to be seen, in dates or fruits or fish.  I don’t like the pesky shop keepers, the ones that see me as a bipedal moneybag, but I guess in a way that’s what I am in the medina.

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Kais takes us to the train station and waits with us to take the train.  The ride from Sfax to Gabes is very dangerous he told us the day before.  The Libyan truck drivers drive erratically and there is an accident almost every day.  We are curious about taking our bike on the train back to Tunis as a way to explore more of the south and decide it’s a good trial run to see how easy it is.

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They take the bike for 10 dinars (5 euro) and our tickets each cost 7 dinars.  They offer us to sit next to our bicycle in the storage compartment and we accept.

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Between the passengers and us is a loud and dark engine room.  The floor was cold and so I stood and leaned against the side of the carriage and closed my eyes.  When I opened them there were two girls inside the luggage room with us.  One of them was pulling a pack of cigarettes out of her purse.
“We come here to smoke,” she explained to Rasham “because If you are a Tunisian girl it’s not good to be seen smoking.  We come here or in the bathroom.”  When we got to Gabes it was dark and we pulled the bike off the train by ourselves and the girls walked us to a hotel.

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Riding to Matmata the next day the foliage dropped away and the bare land began to ripple into bigger and bigger hills.  The road snaked up through them amongst the tiny sticks of Palm trees under a blinding sky.

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Matmata was a community of troglodytes revealed to the world in 1967 when record rainfalls for 22 days collapsed many of their underground homes and the community was forced to send out a party to reveal themselves and ask the government for help.  Nine years later George Lucas came and filmed part of the first Star Wars film.  The hotel we ended up staying in, Hotel Sidi Driss, became the set for Luke Skywalker’s childhood home.

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In the post-revolution off season, the town felt a little cursed by the absence of tourists.  A dark skinned man with alcohol on his breath and jaundice in his eyes tried to sell us a $160 euro day trip down to an oasis in the south.  Prices are inflated but the places empty and tour busses full of Asian tourists seemed to buzz in and out without spending much time.

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Our room is a tiny cave, the inside painted white and lit up beautifully by I single bulb.  The hotel is actually just a series of about 5 twenty foot deep pits connected by tunnels.  Each of the pits have about 6 or 7 caves in them

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The next day a strong wind whips through the valley.  The skies are brown and filled with sand.  We decided not to bike.  Sometimes when one crawls in a cave one doesn’t want to come out.  We see the guy with jaundice outside the hotel I and don’t really want to acknowledge him but I feel like I have to and give him a nod.  His face looks dark as if it is swimming in rain clouds.  I am a bipedal moneybag to him as well but my kind aren’t coming around that often anymore and he’s angry that I’m not paying out.  There are several other hustlers around town over the next few days we spend some trying to convince we aren’t signing up for any tours.

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In the series of pits we find the one that must have been the star wars set.  There are a lot of fake instruments made from painted wood.   The next day the wind is strong again and I take the bike for ride to test the wind which turns out to be coming towards us.

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I’m thinking more about the idea of perfection.  How it lies ahead of us like a mirage in the desert only to appear beyond the next dune, ever escaping the seekers grasp.  How it taunts us from the other side of something.  How when it lies in us it lies in arrogance and when it lies in others it lies in jealousy and when it lies in things it lies in ownership.  Perhaps the idea of perfection is standing in the way of a clearer way of thinking.  Like black spot in one’s vision.

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But there is another concept which can also fall under the name perfection and that lies in full acceptance.  To fully accept ones self or world. To recognize that everything has it’s place, that is perfection.  And this the kind of perfection that makes one feel whole.

In this way perhaps perfection is a measure of acceptance.  When one finds perfection to be what is not, or what one does not have, this is a lack of acceptance.  When one finds perfection in that which is, that which one has, this is acceptance.  But perfection in and of itself, as a thing, does not exist.

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I took a bite of banana and ply it apart with my tongue.  It splits evenly into three parts.  Day 3 in the cave comes and goes.  I wish we had biked farther here.  I miss the constant movement we had in the US.  Rasham says it’s just winter and it’s natural for us to slow down but I can’t shake this feeling like I’ve lost my focus.  Like I’m growing soft. Perhaps we’ve been away from the meditation too long.  I think I want to die young or at least not die old.  I don’t want to be waiting for it.  I don’t want to ever wait for it.

It’s another day in the cave.  “It’s very symbolic that we ended up in this cave.” I say.  “We wanted a place to hole up for the winter and here we are.”

On day 5 the strong wind has finally stopped.  It’s a clear, calm blue skied day but it’s too late now to head east.  We don’t have enough time and it’s time to start thinking about how we are going to get out of Tunisia.  We have to head back to Gabes where we can take the train.

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In the sunlit morning I stretch outside the cave, never to return into it again.  The garbage we have accumulated over our time here is piled in several plastic bags just inside the entrance.  During our time here we managed to watch all five seasons of The Wire, hands down the most honest and well written television show I have ever seen.  Sometimes a book or movie transcends drawing simple conclusions about life and instead paints a meaningful picture, something that can’t be condensed or summarized.  This was the case with this series.

We are leaving Tunisia now, cycling to the train in Gabes, riding from Gabes to Tunis and then making our way back to Emna’s house for a final night before taking the boat to Sicily.  Before we leave for the boat I help Emna’s mother harvest some of the Bergamots, Satsumas, Mandarins and Oranges in the garden.  She sends us away with a basket full of them and we bike to ferry in the dark.  Goodbye Tunisia!

12 responses to “The South Tunisian Coast and the Gateway to the Sahara

    • Hey Connie, it has been an adventure for sure. Sometimes it feels like this invisible hand is slowing us down, but this blog is a little delayed and we have picked things back up again. Hope you are doing well. Love you too!

  1. Hey Guys! Thanks so much for my postcard! Before I forget, my favorite picture this time is the one with the boat and it’s reflection in the water. The winter here in the States has been the longest and coldest I can remember and we’re all just sick of it but Spring is around the corner and so, hope exists. I opened up a second BBQ location last week which has me quite busy but hopefully it’ll make enough money that I can spend my winters on a beach from now on, you’ll be welcome of course. It’s funny, when you were riding into DC, my only knowledge of DC as a city comes from The Wire and I remember worrying about you guys, lol. I still like my chances to be in South America between the months of October-March. I’ll keep watching to see where you guys end up. I’m sending out some special love, a miracle if you will, to you both. Enjoy it when it comes and know that none of us travels alone. All My Love & Best Wishes! -Chad

    • Hey Chad!
      It warms my heart to know that there is yet another restaurant in existence that serves the delicious food you so graciously introduced us to in Louisville. That feast was the kind of thing we fantasize about biking and the kind of thing that one looks forward to in those windy rainy moments. South America sounds like a good plan, it’s more than once that we’ve kicked ourselves for not being south of the equator this winter. we’ll be there one day. It sounds like things are going good at home besides the harsh weather and that makes us happy to know. Be well friend, we’ll be looking out for that special love!

  2. What a great post. Beautiful pictures! I’m heading for Tunisia! You hit the nail on the head with your description of Perfection, just another
    concept. Waiting for death is preparing for death. Gotta know what your getting yourself into. Just another step on the path of accepting oneself. Those caves were awesome, reminds me of some of the stories about the great patron saint of Tibet, Milarepa. He spent so much time meditating in caves and eating nettles he turned green.
    Thanks again, Bill

  3. Trenton and Rasham, I am sitting here with Anna enjoying your blog and pictures. She flies out tomorrow for a travel adventure in Central America for two and 1/2 months. Hope to catch up with you all soon. Janet

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