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Christmas in the Desert

by Tyler

This morning as Christmas snowstorms gathered their strength back home in the Midwest, Tara and I were venturing further into the deserts of Tunisia. While our families slept, we made our way to Chenini, a centuries old Troglodyte village near Tataouine. Like yesterday, finding a louage was no trouble at all. As we boarded, completing the six person quota for our van, the driver dropped his leaden foot on the throttle and scarcely lifted it an inch until we arrived.

As we tore through the desert at breakneck speeds the land began to rise and fall in great curving swaths. Without any warning or aching legs from difficult climbs, we realized we were in the mountains! Where on bicycles we are immediately aware of every slight change in elevation, we'd zipped up and down several massive crests without a thought before this obvious detail hit home. Though the scenery we were passing through would've made for truly epic cycling, I must admit I didn't mind being carried through it today.

It felt as though we'd only just closed the door of our louage when the village of Chenini appeared in the distance. Nestled in the mountains, stretched out along the ridges were several stories of truly foreign looking dwellings. Black holes everywhere, several stories high, appeared to lead straight into the earth! In stark and beautiful contrast to the uneven jumble of homes surrounding it, stood a brilliantly white Mosque, shimmering proudly in the sunlight.

Chenini Chenini

On arrival we immediately began turning down/ignoring the insistent offers for a tour guide that descended upon us and our louage. Thankfully the guides outnumbered the tourists, apart from the people actually living in Chenini we had the place almost completely to ourselves. Inside the village, Tara and I wandered around feeling surprisingly Christmas-y (or biblical perhaps?), singing songs like Oh Little Town of Bethlehem while a woman led her donkey up the winding maze of rutted tracks leading to her home. We passed children playing soccer in the dusty gravelly dirt, many people filling jugs of water to carry home, and the jaw of some long dead animal.

Chenini Filling Water Chenini Donkies Chenini Donkey Desert Jaw

Many of the dwellings in Chenini had very distinctive wooden doors covered in bits of metal scrap. Some of them led directly into the earth and stone they were hinged to. Neither of us could divine any rhyme or reason for the patchwork; maybe it was purely aesthetic?

Chenini Door Chenini Door Chenini Doors Chenini Door Chenini Chickens

We tried our best to talk to this man about his work but unfortunately the language barrier and his mumbling speech were far too great to overcome.

Chenini Man Chenini Wheelbarrow

Much of our own conversation as we explored the area was monosyllabic. The homes were so incredibly bizarre compared to anything we've seen that we were often at a loss for meaningful words.

Chenini Window Tyler in Chenini Chenini Chenini Tara Looking In Chenini Road Chenini Homes Chenini Houses Chenini Chenini Window View from Chenini

Tara loved the mosque. So white and planned and perfect next to the apparent randomness of the homes surrounding it, she found the juxtaposition breathtaking (and took several photos):

Chenini Mosque Chenini Mosque Chenini Mosque Chenini Mosque

No day of sightseeing would be complete without a cat or two. Chenini, like everywhere else in Tunisia, was full of them. We only managed to catch a photo of this one:

Chenini Cat

Leaving the otherworldly village, we walked down to a nearby roadside cafe. Tara had a glass of fresh mint tea while I sipped on a particularly good cafe au lait. As we waited for the next louage I pulled out our laptop and we looked at photos. Old men from the village and a few younger men still eager to be our guides enjoyed watching and listening as they hovered inches away from our editing process. We had tried to make conversation with them earlier but they only wanted to sell us desert roses.

Desert Roses

When a louage returning to Tataouine appeared, we quickly packed up and made our way over. This one was nothing more than an old truck with a makeshift covered bed and rickety bench seats. We paid one dinar each and hopped in. To our delight, a passerby offered to take a picture, and for once, did a decent job of it!

Us in a Louage

It is one part sad and one part hilarious watching people use our camera. We always put it in full auto but invariably they hold the whole thing way out in front of their face, trying to see something on the screen (there is no shooting preview on our camera's LCD). When that doesn't work they often look confused and peer with eyes squinted through the viewfinder from practically a foot away before just pressing the shutter and giving up. Nobody from Scotland to Tunisia seems to know how to look through a viewfinder anymore!

The louage ride back to Tatouine was an absolute blast (and probably extremely dangerous). As our truck cruised up and down the hills at a ridiculous pace we had huge grins plastered on our faces the entire way. Two of our passengers lived nearby and got off very early in the ride, the last didn't seem to be enjoying herself nearly as much us.

Louage Passenger Looking Out Desert Road Tara Looking Out Tyler and Passenger Rickety Louage

Back in Tataouine, Tara called our next destination, a hotel built inside a Ksar similar to the one we'd seen yesterday. We were hoping to spend a night there but unfortunately it was closed for repairs. Switching to plan B, we decided to make our way to Medenine to check out its smaller ksar and museum. Our next louage wasn't as exciting as the first two but it did the trick and we made it there in no time. We're both really impressed by how efficient the louage system is here!

Arriving in Medenine we quickly found a hotel to drop off our things. For only 10 TND (less than $8 USD) we checked into this beautiful establishment:

Hotel Room Hotel Bathroom
Hotel Shower Hotel Bathroom

Then we visited the town's ksar:

Medenine Man Medenine Men Playing Checkers

…and its Berber museum:

Medenine Berber Museum Traditional Berber Kitchen Traditional Berber Wedding Costumes

…and spotted a few more cats:

Medenine Cat Hiding from the Sun Medenine Cat Medenine Cat

As we were winding down from our jam-packed day, our families were just starting their Christmas festivities. We decided to go out in search of a "Publinet" so we could chat with them. We managed to find several but each one was full of facebook-addicted Tunisian men zoning out into their computers like zombies. We were about to give up and head back to our dingy hotel when I found an unsecured wireless network that we spent the next several hours stealing connectivity from. Somehow we managed to video chat with all of our immediate family!

Back at our hotel, on the verge of collapse, we couldn't believe how much had just occurred. It is remarkable what you can pack into a day when you're not cycling from place to place. We need to practice what we preach and slow down though. Today was a lot!

Dear family, Merry Christmas! It was wonderful to see you; we love and miss you all!