Years ago, when I was studying abroad in Paris for a semester, my New Zealand housemate Sarah and I decided to go to Tunisia in northeast Africa for “spring break.” We learned about Tunisia’s southeastern island of Djerba from a tourism company across the street from our school. Going to Djerba with a direct flight from Paris was the same price as going to London, so we opted for sun instead of rain.
Upon arrival in Djerba, we were chatted up by customs officers as unusual tourists (non-European) but cleared to go to our hotel. We checked in at our seaside resort, temporarily surrendering our passports. While unpacking our clothes in our room, there was a loud knock at the door.
“Miss, you are missing a visa,” a hotel staff person said to Sarah in French with an Arabic accent, pointing to her passport. “You must go back to the airport to have a visa stamp put in it.”
For moral support, I returned to the airport with Sarah. We were met by the same customs officers who took us into a back room and asked Sarah to show them on a map exactly where New Zealand is located. We had small talk for about 30 minutes and then they put a stamp in Sarah’s passport in exchange for what was probably $10 at the time. But satisfying the officers’ curiosity was the real payment. Thankfully, spring break was a lucky break since Sarah wasn’t deported!
Curiosity was consistent among Tunisians as we were the first American and New Zealander some had ever met. As an American in particular, it was surprisingly rare to make the first impression for the country! We had no trouble making fast friends, particularly with Tunisian men working at our hotel. They became our de facto guides, even taking us out at night.
We happened to be in Tunisia during Ramadan, when daily fasting – including no smoking, drinking or sex – from sunrise to sunset occurs for a month per Islamic tradition. This meant that hotel staff would take turns napping behind the reception desk and post-sunset evenings were lively. I remember taking a taxi back to our hotel minutes before sunset when our Muslim driver, seeing we were foreigners, pulled out a cigarette.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he nervously laughed, lighting up as the sunlight dimmed.
“Don’t worry, we got your back,” we said with confidence.
Taking further advantage of our non-Muslim status, our male hotel friends took us out to a café one night, where we were the only women among about 50 men. Because we were accompanied by locals, no one said a word. We ate the most delicious baklava I’ve ever tasted, drank coffee and smoke a waterpipe (also known as a hookah) under a starry sky. Our French improved quickly as that was our common language in the former French colony.
French also came in handy with a French woman and her daughter on a small group tour to the Sahara Desert, the largest hot desert in the world. We were the peacekeepers and translators between them and two German women in our Land Rover with a male Arabic guide/driver. We all journeyed together for two days in the hot sun with all of our limbs covered out of religious respect and spent the night in a tent on a veritable oasis. (I can confirm that the desert gets cold at night … I froze in the tent with all of my clothes on and three blankets!)
The oasis was as I pictured it from Bugs Bunny cartoon with endless sand, palm trees, camels, a watering hole and tents in the middle of nowhere. The sand was golden and fine like soft powder – the most pure and beautiful I’ve ever touched or seen. We went for a dromedary (one-humped camel) ride for kilometers across the sandy utopia. My dromedary belched non-stop, sending shockwaves of bad breath in my direction.
“Is he okay?” I asked our guide.
“Indigestion,” he explained as I thought my dromedary was about to die.
“Oh mon Dieu,” I thought. “How long will it take him to digest?”
Thankfully, after about 30 minutes, we dismounted our dromedaries to climb a sandy hill. At the top was a reward: Coca-Cola. It was sold by a Tunisian man who cashed in on us thirsty tourists. It would have been the best television commercial ever for The Coca-Cola Company.
On return to the oasis, my four-legged companion was thankfully less noisy and stinky. But I almost slid down his back as it was like a little hill and he walked in an awkwardly jarring way. I grasped onto his hump tightly, imagining I fit right into the Bugs Bunny cartoon.
That night, we had a bonfire with Tunisians and other tourists. A few locals, including our driver, chanted while playing drums. I remember seeing the drums through the orange flames and hearing the crackling fire compete with chanting.
The next day, we traversed across the golden sand back to civilization, stopping for a couscous lunch with lamb and fresh vegetables. Authentic couscous doesn’t come from a box and takes hours to make. It was another “best in my life” experience.
Back in the resort village, horse-drawn carts contrasted with cars on the road just like the resort did with the actual village and our friendly hotel staff with aggressive shopkeepers in tented bazaars. In town, poor children and vendors in an open-air market flocked to us like celebrities. We shared what little dinar currency we had. (I still own a ceramic tea set that I purchased there.)
Sarah and I wished we had each packed a suitcase full of items to give away. It was the first time we saw such poverty. Back then, Tunisia’s poverty rate was at least 25 percent (fortunately, it dropped to 15 percent by 2015). But it was rich in culture and the people rich in spirit. They put the fortune into our fortunate trip.
Tunisia inspired me to explore other countries where few Americans go – or tourists at all for that matter – so I will always be grateful for this “lucky break” that enriched my life.
Note: All of the above photos are from royalty-free sources as my own Tunisia photos are buried in an album at my U.S. childhood home. I will dig them out next time I’m there!