Postcards

Sara becomes a Jedi Knight- June



In addition to Arabic, I have also decided to pursue studies in Jedi Knightism. Actually, this photo was taken at the Umayyaed Mosque, one of the holiest and largest in the world, and particularly breathtaking for a structure finished in the seventh century.

I have to say, I was a little nervous starting this trip (wasn’t Syria an original member of the Axis of evil?) but, once there, was relieved to find it totally safe. My hotel – get this – actually has air conditioning. The nice man running a pastry shop across the street from my hotel gave me a free kanafa when I said I was American. And the local wine is delightful.

Damascus is reminiscent of Cairo, particularly in the Souq El-Hamidiyeh. It’s crowded here, and the exchange rate actually works in my favor (1 dollar to roughly 50 Syrian pounds). There is, however, one important variation from Cairo: the food here is incredible, and (knock on wood) hasn’t made me sick. For my first meal, I had chicken fattah at Leila’s rooftop terrace in the Old City. This was perhaps one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, until dinner when I had my first taste of mohammerah (think salsa, but creamy, served with fry bread.)

Today, I spent a relaxing day wandering around the crowded markets and steaming in a Turkish bath. Meanwhile, my travel partner was off an hour outside Damascus visiting Sayida Zeinab, a shrine to the daughter of the founder of Shia Islam, where he stumbled upon a funeral for a Shia imam attended by literally thousands of Iranian and Iraqi pilgrims. While this wasn’t the most welcoming environment in Syria, he was allowed to take several pictures of the shrine and go inside to view the body. Later, he slightly rattled, and me relaxed to the core, we finished the day with dinner on a rooftop terrace overlooking the Old City. I feel somewhat silly for being nervous about coming here; Damascus is a bustling city where I feel entirely safe. More exploring tomorrow….

My life in Tunis- July



My Daily Life
June 12, 2008
I thought I would give everyone a brief overview of my day-to-day life in Tunis.

I get up and have breakfast at the Carlton Hotel, where we are staying for the next 2 months. It is on Avenue Habib Bourgiba, the main avenue of Tunis, named after the first president.

I am currently in the afternoon session classes, so we have tutoring in the morning from 10:12:45. I have been taking my time getting to school, often doing some homework in the hotel before I leave. My roommate has morning classes, so she usually leaves by about 8, so I have time to be lazy and organize things by myself in the morning.

Walking to school is always an adventure. It is about a 15 minute walk that is usually quite pleasant. It is almost always very sunny, but not hot yet - in the upper 70's in the morning. Like most of the girls, I wear large sunglasses to detract unwanted attention. Getting to class involves crossing Avenue Habib Bourgiba, which is quite large. The classic arcade game Frogger is probably the best way to describe the experience. Crosswalks are seldom used. You pick somewhere along the street, crossing lane by lane, darting among cars. Once you make up your decision to go, you've got to keep going. People who suffer from indecision will probably never make it across the street! Yes, it is dangerous, but yes, that seems the only way to do it.

The school is down an alley that often has a pretty vile smell. However, once you get through the blue doors of the school, it opens into a pretty Italian villa. I sit outside in the morning under the fig trees finishing my homework and checking my email. The fig trees contain quite a few trees, and the morning is interspersed with splats from the figs falling. So far, none have landed on my head, although I have been attacked by fig juice falling from ripe figs still in the trees.

Lunch is from 12:45 to 1:45. I usually go to the market down the street for fresh bread, cheese, and fruit. If I spend over 2 dollars on lunch, it's a problem. Even spending 2 dollars, I often have lots to share. One of my friends accidentally bought four bags of blackberries the other day because she didn't realize how cheap they were.

Class is from 1:45 to 6:15 with a 30 minute break in the middle. During the break, we have a snack of fresh fruit (including figs from the fig trees outside), juice, and mint tea. Mint tea is a popular drink in Tunisia. It is made from green tea, mint, and lots and lots of sugar.

By the time I get out of class in the evening, I am exhausted. I usually go back to the hotel for a while. People eat dinner late in Tunisia, so if I have an actual dinner (chicken couscous seems to be my favorite), I don't usually go out until 7:30 or 8. Sometimes, I just have a gelato or quiche or something (everything in Tunisia comes with tuna and/or egg, which can get quite tiring).

Evenings involve homework and hanging out with friends. There is not a whole lot to do in Tunisia at night, especially for women. We usually just take it easy and relax after a day of sooo much Arabic class!

Travels to the South
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What I did this weekend:

1) I slept on the ground outside of a bus station in Tozeur - a town in southern Tunisia.
2) I crossed from one side of Tunisian to the other (north to south, then west to east).
3) I went off-roading in the Sahara Desert.
4) I saw Star Wars movie sets in the Sahara.
5) I rode a camel along the Tunisian-Algerian border.
6) I visited the troglodyte rock houses in Tatouine.

We left Tunis on the 9 pm bus to Tozeur, in southern Tunisia. It was a 7-hour bus ride. I was sitting in the back so my seat didn't decline. It also happened to be broken, so the seat kept falling off. I was also sitting near the window, or what used to be the window. It had broken at some point and been replaced with aluminum siding. The Tunisians in front of us were also playing music on their cell phones - different songs at the same time. Needless to say, it was an adventurous bus ride.

We arrived in Tozeur at about 4:15 am, just before the call to prayer. We spent the next couple of hours sleeping outside the bus station (see picture). Yes, we look like hobos.
We wandered around searching for a tour. We found one and the six of us headed out to the Sahara. We ended up off-roading in a 4x4. It was a lot of fun, once our guide fixed my seatbelt and I no longer feared for my life. We went zooming over sand dunes and around rock formations. It felt like a rollercoaster.

As we rounded a sand dune, we suddenly saw a bunch of huts in the middle of the desert. What is that, we wondered? Our guide informed us (or rather me, since I was the only one who spoke French) that it was the Star Wars movie set. We got out of the car and took the obligatory Jedi pictures. (hehe I'm whoosing).

Afterwards, we drove around a bit more, stopping to see a herd of wild camels and a well that the desert people used. Then, our guide took us past border security, explaining that the only reason we were allowed past was because we were with a guide. He took us to some guides who were going to give us a tour on camels. It was very very very hot and the sun was incredibly intense, but it was amazing to ride camels. Also, we're pretty sure that we crossed the Algerian border, which is technically illegal without a visa. However, since we were in the desert, the border is rather negotiable. We had some trouble crossing the border guard/Sahara police in the other direction, who didn't want to let us in without our actual passports (which were left for safekeeping at school in Tunis). It was the same officer who had let us through 2 hours before, so I'm pretty sure that he was just giving us a hard time because all he has to do all day is sit at this guard post in the Sahara and wait for people to come by. Still, it was a bit frightening.

Upon returning to Tozeur, we had lunch and grabbed a louage (a long distance taxi) to Gabes, on the other side of the country, where we were spending the night.

We left the hotel at 6 am Sunday morning to grab another louage to Tatouine. Yes, the planet on Star War was named after it. There is not much of touristy interest in Tatouine itself, however, the surrounding villages served as sites for the Star Wars films. Remember the troglodyte houses in the films and the Cantina? We visited Chenini and Douari. More historically, people lived in these villages until recently. A recent storm washed out one of the villages so all the people moved out, although there is reconstruction being done to preserve these beautiful dwellings. In Chennini, the homes were the dwellings of the ancient Coptic Christians, and their cross could be found over the doors.

After Tatouine, we grabbed lunch. Easier said than done. Our cab drivers took us back to the bus station, where we learned that there was a two km walk to the center of town to find the nearest restaurant. We went to the nearest salon de thé and ordered drinks. They offered to make us sandwiches. They went and bought bread, chopped up vegetables, and mixed it with tuna (I swear it’s the national dish of Tunisia). They even gave us free water (and didn't overcharge us). They were sooo nice.

We then arranged a louage back to Tunis - 8 hours. And our trip was over!
This was definitely my favorite weekend in Tunisia. The people were so incredibly nice. We had no stalkers or vulgar comments. Everyone went out of our way to be friendly and help us get where we were going. I have found that everyone in Tunisia seems to genuinely like Americans. We may get comments about our government, but it seems that they have a good opinion about the people themselves and admire and envy the freedom and prosperity that we have.

The weekend was also a great opportunity for me to practice my French. I was the only person in the group who could speak a large amount of French. I was the go-to person for translations and negotiations and all that good stuff. I also learned that it's not just my French that's bad - it's often the Tunisians. Less educated Tunisians often don't speak French as well. French is also less common in the south, which is much more conservative and a lot less European. It made me feel better about my ability to understand French!

Unfortunately, the weekend passed so fast. There was so much more I wish I could have seen. I like the south a lot better than Tunis and wish I had a chance to go back.