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Kairouan, Tunisia

Though I am getting better at the keyboard, it is still difficult to compose thoughts and sentences when I have to concentrate so much on just physically typing the words. From our last dispatch, we saw some more ksars south of Tataouine, they were all very picturesque but mostly reconstructed, so there was not the adventurous element of the abandoned ruins and exploration. But these were almost whimsical with their little stairways and doors -- kind of "Dr. Seussian" architecture.  Some of these ksars still have people living in the little hovels inside the city walls. We continued to be the only guests at our hotel in Tatouine and had a great dinner composed of last night’s leftovers – doesn’t sound good, but they were fixed up very yummily and wholly satisfactory after a day of sightseeing. 

Restored Ksar Ouled Soltane near Tataouine, Tunisia.

Ksar Restored Ksar Ouled Soltane near Tataouine, Tunisia.Restored ksar near Tataouine, Tunisia.Restored ksar near Tataouine, Tunisia.Restored Ksar Ezzahra near Tataouine, Tunisia.

I love the blue doors anywhere ... one of the signature design features of this Mediterranean-influenced country. But I particularly loved it when there was one blue door standing out boldly alone in a ksar complex. We saw this in several of the restored ksars. Just one blue door. It's the magic door, obviously. I want to go inside! 

Restored ksar near Tataouine, Tunisia, with one blue door.Restored ksar near Tataouine, Tunisia, with one blue door.The day we left Tataouine we headed into the desert to the edge of the Sahara to a hotel at an oasis on the edge. Decided to take a 4-wheel drive route since we have the truck.  The map showed basically one fork between the turnoff of the sealed road and Ksar Ghilane, our destination. The turn off of the sealed road was marked. Thereafter, I lost count of the forks. I began writing down each fork and the mark on the odometer and which direction we took, in case of needing to backtrack. Twice we had to turn around – once when the road petered out into a little camp with water troughs for sheep/goats, and once when we started down a path and it quickly became obvious that no one had driven down it in ages and there were huge sand dunes in the middle of it. We had our trusty tiny compass, and with that tried to keep on (1) the correct direction according to the map, (2) the road most traveled. 

It wasn't too far from the sealed road that we encountered our first sand drifts and had to use low-4 to plow through.  We spent a lot of time on narrow tracks, crossing overland from one track to another when it looked like one was a better option. It was a little nerve wracking driving through the dunes, but Erik was having a pretty grand time.  Finally we hooked up with what was obviously the main road, and shortly before we reached the oasis, a Land Rover came speeding up behind us, passed us, then stopped in the road and the driver got out.  We stopped; he peered in and asked where we were going. Then he asked where our compass was, pointing to the dash where vehicles these days tend to have one. I showed him our tiny compass (came attached to a winter coat Erik bought a few years ago) and he laughed, took it from my hand and showed it to his passengers. He said we were the first people through the area that day, and he was obviously impressed by both our navigation skills with our puny compass and Erik's driving skills making it through all the sand dunes. 

We ran across this sign which I thought was kind of hilarious. A cafe in the middle nowhere ... no roads or paths to it, just there it is, plunk in the middle of the desert.

Nomad Cafe in the Sahara desert on the way to Ksar Ghilane, Tunisia.

After we made it to our hotel (a bunch of air conditioned tents at the edge of the desert), we took a camel ride a short distance into the Sahara. The sand is like cocoa-powder, it's so fine (and infiltrates everywhere). The camels lived up to their reputation as foul-breathed, grumpy and stubborn creatures. Mine was bent on biting Erik's on the butt all the time.

Camels nibbling at a thorn bush in the Sahara desert outside Ksar Ghilane, Tunisia.My foul-breathed grumpy camel in the Sahara desert outside Ksar Ghilane, Tunisia.Camel in the Sahara desert outside Ksar Ghilane, Tunisia.Silhouettes on the sand dunes of us riding our camels in the Sahara Desert, Tunisia.

My guidebook said that if you're going to splurge on one accommodation in all of Tunisia, it should be here at Ksar Ghilane for these posh private tents in the oasis. They were pretty fun with private bathrooms and everything in them. Later, after dark, we ventured into the dunes by ourselves to look up at the stars away from the lights of the hotel. Saw several shooting stars.

Tented accommodations at the oasis of Ksar Ghilane at the edge of the Sahara.

The next day, the little stretch of road between the hotel and the road north to our next  destination was flooded, and it was a challenge to get through. A local man saw us rocking back and forth in a mud pit trying to get out and ran over to ask if he could help. I don’t know how he could have, though he might have had a tractor, we had seen some at a house up the road. But we made it out. During our time navigating the desert, we have really NEEDED our four wheel drive capabilities and low-4 gear.  Driving to our next destination, the paved road was often drifted with deep sand dunes. It was interesting driving away from the desert, as you can see exactly where the Sahara begins – it is literally a huge wall of sand looming straight up from the flat scrub-brush plains.  You can literally step over a thin line and suddenly be in the Sahara desert, not to emerge again for thousands of miles. Not quite like I expected. Herds of camels on the plains.

This is a shot looking through the windshield. We were actually traveling the main paved highway back to Matmata. Can you pick out the road? Look for the little white posts that outline the road on it's right side. One job that provides steady employment around here is the street sweeping crew ... perpetually pushing away the sand that covers the road in new places and creative ways each and every day.
Highway covered with sand dunes. Tunisia.

We made it to Matmata (Erik still having a grand time, driving like a rally car today), where people live in underground homes. Another scene from Star Wars was filmed here -- the Lars homestead interior. 
Lars Homestead Star Wars set, Matmata, Tunisia.

Then we drove on to Kairouan, making a pit stop at el Djem, where the third largest Roman colosseum in the world is. The colosseum, though not as big as the one in Rome, is much better preserved.  My favorite part was that you could walk beneath the arena, where the animals and prisoners and gladiators waited to come up “on stage.”  You could hang out in one of their pens and see what it must have been like in those hot, cramped, dark quarters. Then imagine being prodded out of your cell and brought down the long corridor beneath the floor and led up the steps, emerging into the arena, where death surely awaits you.  We were there at closing time, and the guard walked through the arena clapping his hands to get the attention of us  stragglers to tell us to leave, and the sound of his clapping echoing through the bleachers was impressive. Imagine tens of thousands of clapping hands and jeering voices. It was truly terrifying.

El Djem, third largest Roman colosseum. Tunisia.

Looking down on the area inside El Djem ancient Roman coliseum in Tunisia. photo by Shara Johnson

Well, these "publinets" (internet access) are not air conditioned and my brain gets tired typing on these keyboards. There are more details to divulge, but perhaps after I get home to my own computer I can write more. Today we spent the morning wandering around the medina in Kairouan. It a beautiful medina, and Kairouan is particularly known for its Berber carpets ... carpet makers are concentrated here inside many "carpet houses." We were told we should experience this, so we did, and it's a whole ritual where you walk in and are served mint tea, survey the carpets, watch a woman working at her loom (far, far slower than the Chinese villager working at hers by the same method), then you sit down on benches in a large room and they role out carpet after carpet for you to consider. They are certainly beautiful. And it's a hard sell, but the carpeteers, if I may call them, also know that many tourists are not there to buy, so you just need to be firm. 

Carpet house in Kairouan, Tunisia.

Sometimes it's worth stepping inside a carpet house just to see the "house" itself. In this case it was a former mansion.

Ornately painted ceiling and walls with windows and chandalier in Kairouan Tunisia. photo by Shara JohnsonInside a former mansion, turned carpet house, Kairouan, Tunisia.

What Kairouan is most known for is its Great Mosque, the most important and oldest mosque in northern Africa. As non-Muslims, we could not enter any of the rooms, but some had the doors open so we could look inside. The architecture was very grand with large pillars and arches. 

The Great Mosque courtyard in Kairouan, Tunisia.The Great Mosque outer corridor in Kairouan, Tunisia.Huge door at the Great Mosque, Kairouan, Tunisia.Inside one of the halls in the Great Mosque, Kairouan, Tunisia.

Okay kids, my brain is worn out. Until our next adventure .....

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Read more posts about Tunisia

Read a Tuesday Tale from El Djem: "How to Get Free Rings"

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