sábado, 27 de março de 2010

Tunisia, part II.

It is windy, very windy and the sand blows over the desert in a gauzy white veil. We are there, my son and I, part of group coming from Spain in which we are the exception – the other 20 odd folk are all young Spanish university students, from Barcelona and Madrid, Valladolid and Granada. We mount the camels that are waiting for us and begin our saunter into the dunes: a tame ride on the fringes of the Sahara, where the sands have not yet taken on the reddish-ochre glow of the “deep desert” postcards we have seen. In fact, this is but a common ride offered to tourists, two or three camels pulled by taciturn men who seem disgruntled with their task. They become even more so when I exchange my odd mount for a better one - the fiery red Arabian horse who is offered to me, too tempting not to accept after so many years of nurturing my own “Orientalist” fantasy of deserts and desert horses…

As the days go by, we get to know our fellow travelers better. The young Spanish students in our group seem to take in everything with a definite enthusiasm for difference (the “natural”, the “cultural”) on occasions with awe … yet without any apparent signs of discomfort. Of course, our contact with the local people has been basically limited to the perfunctory – bargaining at the marketplace, primarily, and then there are the linguistic barriers that leave us content just to take in the long descriptions and explanations that our guide, who is quite fluent in Spanish, provides us. There are few moments when the barrage of vendors subsides. They are there even when rocky surge of the Atlas mountains separating Tunisia from Algeria rises before us, or while eating succulent dates in an “oasis” that looks more like a park in a small city than that which our long-kindled fantasies have led us to expect…

From the window of the bus, rapid succession of images: arid landscapes, arid towns. Peasant women with scarves and headgarb, or working alongside other members of the family in orchards and fields not so unlike “a roça” back home, occasional shepherds with their diminished flocks picking their way through the incongruous juxtaposition of new constructions and old mosques, people hawking their wares on the highway, a young woman waiting at an empty train station in the middle of nowhere. Driving through one small city at twilight, I see a neon sign outside a long flat building that says something like ‘Faculte d’Études Sociales et Politiques’, seeming so strangely out of context (my bias, albeit.)

Grabbing at any chance I get to talk to anyone, with whatever linguistic resources I have at my disposal – the cab driver, a gracious woman pharmacist with whom I share a brief exchange when I go in to purchase a pair of tweezers, the handsome young man whose horse I ride over the sands that in this case, are but the “gateway” to a Sahara I will never really enter. As days go by, we get better at the tasks at hand: bargaining at the medina, photographing peasants, veiled and unveiled women from a bus window as the scenarios whizz by, framing everything in transient perspective. Our guide is perpetually taking advantage of the hours spent riding our tour bus to feed us tidbits of information on his country: its long history since the days of Carthage and Rome, its route into modernity, the current political regime and the historic, improved status of women within this Muslim country, how Berber shepherds who still live inside caves carved into the stony hills depend also on the few dinars we drop into their boxes after our brief glimpse at their abode. I am not sure how many of the young folk on board pay attention, but some, I am sure, are as interested as I am. For others, perhaps much less.

Like most of the places I have been through too quickly, I feel like I should come back. There are things around me I try to grasp in too little time. Too many days spent on the bus, with all those landscapes and dun-colored towns whirring by. A calm afternoon in Sidi Bou Said and the gleaming blue sea stretching out behind it, Lucas and I drinking mint tea and almonds with the young ladies from Barcelona, and gentle caress of the Mediterranean sea and feeling just so damn lucky to be in a place I had never dreamed of getting to. Time, travel and strong(er) currencies are a privilege I know are not to be taken lightly. To greedily drink from the fountain of what this world has to offer and to perhaps give something back: just some coins, just these words?