Louage- nf. def: A Tunisian shared taxi van that drives REALLY fast. It is white with a colored stripe indicating where/how far it goes (yellow=local, blue=county, red=intercity). There is no set timetable; drivers depart when their louage seats are filled or when they are sick of waiting. Behind the driver and passenger seat, there are generally two rows of double seating, and a rear row of three.
Ever since we arrived in Tunisia, I've been nervous about taking a louage. I'm not exactly sure why, but I think my jitters probably had to do with everyone appearing to innately know how the whole operation worked in what, by all appearances, was a complicated and disorganized affair. As per usual with my fears, it was nowhere near as daunting as it initially seemed.
This morning we followed the map of Gabes in our Rough Guide to Tunisia to the local Gare Routiere; a station for road transport. As we walked though the parking lot towards the bus area, we passed through a throng of louages and their drivers yelling and saying "Where are you going? Djerba? Tataouine? Medenine?" Ignoring people who get in our face here is old news now; we dismissed the drivers without a thought and finally made it to the buses. Unfortunately, when we arrived we found that we'd missed the run to Tataouine and the next one wasn't until late in the afternoon. Time to join the fray!
Out in the parking lot, drivers were still shouting their intended destinations ("GAFSAGAFSAGAFSA" "DJERBADJERBADJERBA!!!!" "TATAOUINETATAOUINETATAOUINE!") and pointing furiously at their white vans. I was steeling myself for the inevitable haggling process when we discovered there was actually a ticket booth! Sweet! To our surprise, the tickets were the same price as those for a bus, and we were easily able to locate which louage was ours thanks to the drivers' constant shouting.
We arrived just as a full "TATAOUINETATAOUINETATAOUINE" van was pulling out, which meant that we had first pick of seating in the new empty van that pulled into its place. We chose the front row, and settled in to wait. I watched old men on crowded benches make and drink tea while waiting, while a young boy went around to all the louages selling packs of gum. The man who took the passenger's seat up front bought some and shared it with us. Little by little people trickled into our Tataouine-bound van; as soon the louage was full, we tore out of the parking lot and headed south.
It was fun watching the kilometers fly by, but we also gazed out of the dirt-smudged louage windows with a touch of sadness and nostalgia. We were passing roadside stands selling dates, strange new makeshift gas-stations consisting of only cans and bottles, and a subtle change in scenery that sped by all too quickly. These small things would hold much greater significance if we were on our bicycles—we would stop to take photos every five minutes, notice every undulation of the earth, marvel at the slight changes in the faces we passed, sweat in the hot desert air while riding, and snuggle in the cold desert air while camping. Though we enjoyed the ability to travel so far in such short a time, we still wished we were on our bicycles.
Two hours later, our driver deposited us all in the southern Tunisian town of Tataouine. We stepped out of the van and were greeted with a heavy gust of hot air complete with swirling bits of sand. It had been chilly on Kerkennah, in Sfax, and in Gabes, but just two hours south, the weather was distinctly different. It was HOT. On Christmas Eve! Instead of trying to navigate in the heat, we hopped in a cab which took us directly to the hotel we'd planned to stay in. Hotel Hamza turned out to be pleasantly clean, no-nonsense, breakfast inclusive, conveniently located right next to a Publinet (public internet), and inexpensive—only 21 dinar. We immediately dumped our backpacks on the bed and headed out to wander.
Not more than a block from the hotel we both stopped in our tracks like two hunting dogs at the scent of something sweet and fried, both saying "do you smell that?!." Following our noses, we entered a pastry shop that was making Tataouine's specialty- Kab el Ghezal / Cornes de Gazelle (gazelle horns). The man making them explained to us how he rolled out the dough, cut it into the right shape, and topped it with a mix of honey-sweetened sesame seeds, almonds, and other nuts.
Then he showed us how he sealed the dough around the filling and fried the horns in a giant wok-shaped pan filled with oil. When finished cooking, the horns were removed and dipped in some sort of sugary syrup. Tyler and I each tried one. The final product is toothachingly sweet like baklava and rich like a freshly fried doughnut—delicious, but heavy.
Continuing on, we decided to make our way to Ksar Megabla, an old Berber grain storage building about a kilometer and a half away in the outskirts of Tataouine. Ksar Megabla and the many other ksour (plural) that dot the south of Tunisia were places for nomadic tribes to store and defend (if need be) their supplies of grain. These fortified structures also provided a common place for Berbers to congregate, share news, and worship (at the nearby mosque). We weren't sure what to expect as we marched uphill into a sandy headwind, but what we found was AWESOME. Tyler said if we have kids he wants to build a mini-version with them.
On the way back from the ksar, we ran into a group of boisterous kids who shouted hello and bonjour at us. Tyler began snapping their photos and they laughed and giggled and ran up to us. When he was done, all the kids crowded around him so they could see themselves on the small digital screen. I wish we had another camera so I could have taken a picture—they looked so cute all huddled together!
By the time we returned to our hotel we were famished. After dropping our guidebook off and using the bathroom we wandered around until we found a nice little restaurant. I had my new favorite, a simple Tunisian salad (salad, tomatoes, cucumber, jalapeno pepper, in a lemon/vinegar sauce) and Tyler had grilled chicken and fries. While we ate, an adorable black kitten befriended us, the first in ages that didn't dash away from us when we tried to say hello. I'm sure the food helped!
Tomorrow we head to the Berber village of Chenini, and then to a hotel inside of a ksar!