We're not sure what to expect as we purchase tickets for the ferry to the Kerkennah Islands off the coast of Sfax. It doesn't really matter what it's like, though, the total cost is 1 dinar 800! We board the boat, bungee our bikes to the cargo area railing, and make our way upstairs to while away an hour at sea.
Tyler lays down on a hard metal bench for a nap in the sun and I take out our Rough Guide to Tunisia to read up on the islands. Apparently we're on our way to Kirke's Island from Homer's Odyssey where Odysseus is bewitched and held captive by the island's sorceress! Some hate it, saying it's boring and run down, but others fall under its spell and return year after year.
Twenty kilometers and one hour later, we arrive at the tiny port town of Sidi Youssef and are greeted with a lone fishing boat bobbing in the harbor, practically no cars, and a very refreshing lack of noise. Liking it already, we cycle off to explore.
After several kilometers of riding past nothing but sand and scrubby bushes in wide open land, Tyler spots this tower cropping up among the palms. Curious, we follow a winding dirt path towards it to find out what it is.
The men working there wave and say hello instantly, coming over to shake our hands. We haven't shaken hands with anyone in quite some time; this small, familiar gesture means so much to us, and especially to me, for these men lack the leering glances and shifty eyes I've become accustomed to in Tunisia. They treat me the same as Tyler, leading us tromping over mud puddles to show us their pride and joy—an artesian well. These simple, honest guys have perhaps the most important job on the whole island—pumping clean, salt-free water out of the ground.
After thanking them and making our way back out to the road, we encounter two elderly, weather-worn women in colorful shawls, collecting some sort of plant from the ground and carrying bundles of it in hand-woven slings on their backs. As best I can tell from their smiles and charades, the plants are for eating. We ask to take a picture but the woman is too shy, so we ride on.
Everything on Kerkennah feels distinctly different than mainland Tunisia, in a very, very good way. The people we pass are genuinely friendly and kind, treating us as small-town neighbors rather than what Tyler likes to call "walking wallets". Replacing the frenetic medina mentality of haggling and the constant presence of people whistling, shouting, vying for the attention of a couple of foreigners, are the genuine smiles and waves of the handful of islanders we see.
People stop whatever they're doing, from tending their sheep to painting their boats to trimming their olive trees. They smile brightly, exuding a joie de vivre, and wave at us welcomingly. Children walking slowly home from school spot us and excitedly run along side of our bikes, full of exuberance and joyfully shouting "bonjour! bonjour! bonjoooooour!" with honest-to-god interest and delight, completely devoid of pellet guns or demands for money.
Already we can feel ourselves falling in love with these islands. It isn't that the palm trees are the most picturesque (in fact they seem wind-blown and tatty, exposed to the elements, lending them a quality of strength and timelessness) or that the scenery is "perfect," but there is a sense that we are welcome here.
There's an openness, a vastness despite the islands' small combined size, that makes us feel simultaneously like we've come home and that we are intrepid explorers with the world at our fingertips. The entire area is free-camp heaven; we can go off road and camp anywhere we'd like and no one is likely to mind or even notice. Time is different here: slower and stretched somehow, charted by tides and shadows instead of ticking clocks and kilometers per hour.
Being on these islands is rejuvenating, renewing the health of our souls and our belief in the goodness of humanity. We haven't been aware of how greatly we needed this simple reminder, but being in this special place makes it readily apparent.
When the light is at its most beautiful in the late afternoon, we pull off the deserted road and wheel over the hard-packed sand to find a spot to sleep for the night. Next to a cluster of dead/dry? palm trees, a couple hundred meters from the shore, we choose a location that feels right. It is so intensely beautiful, peaceful, and open that we can hardly contain our joy. We are both happy—ridiculously happy, happier than we have been in what feels like a long time.
As Tyler scavenges for materials with which to create a fire pit, I calmly assemble our tent and sleeping bag, marveling at our chosen location. We are on a desert island off the coast of Tunisia! As I prepare our home, I watch Tyler start a fire in seconds: he strikes our firesteel at a bit of fiber from the inside of a palm tree. Flecks of molten metal fly into the tinder, sending it instantly ablaze. There is no easier place to start a fire than in the desert!
Finally everything is prepared and I join Tyler by the now roaring fire which sends plumes of smoke out into the twilight air. This, we say again and again as we stare at the licking flames and entrancing ruby embers, this is why we're on this voyage: to feel a sense of connection with the world around us, to find people and places like this, to make ourselves at home on this planet. We watch the western sky change from pink to crimson to intense shades of orange as the sun melts into the desert landscape.
On the eastern horizon, a strangely shaped luminescent object appears peeking through a lattice of clouds. The object slowly moves upwards, past all visual impediments, and reveals itself in all its glory as a gigantic, icy-white orb of a full moon, rising right before our very eyes. Over the next few hours it migrates ever upwards, illuminating our evening like a giant celestial spotlight. After what could be hours or minutes, we let our fire fade to entrancing embers. When we grow chilly and finally lose interest in their hypnotic glow, we take to our tent and fall asleep under the moonlight.