I’m having trouble writing about our trip to Tozeur and Douz in Tunisia because I know I can’t post what I write until we get out of the Middle East. Just thinking about the possibility of Internet censorship kind of kills my desire to share our experiences. I may be paranoid about the extent to which our internet accounts are being watched, but then again, I may not. The Internet in our apartment mysteriously goes down whenever I post something with Tunisia-specific words in it. I’m not interested in rocking the boat while I’m still in it so these posts will just have to wait until we’ve made it to Greece or beyond.
We booked a flight to Tozeur in southern Tunisia shortly after we arrived in Tunis and initially, we had planned to rent a car and drive from Tozeur to Douz (2 hours) and then onward into the middle of the desert to an oasis known as Ksar Ghilane (2 more hours). Ksar Ghilane had great reviews at TripAdvisor. People raved that the sunset camel rides were to die for (so to speak). We would camp in a tent overnight and then head back to Tozeur for our flight to Tunis.
A few hours after we’d decided on this plan (after HOURS of research by yours truly) and booked our flight, John made a quick search for travel warnings and advisories in Tunisia. The United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia had all just updated their sites with Douz and Ksar Ghilane in an “orange zone”. The “Orange Zone” is a place where non-essential travel is strongly discouraged. The United States web site did not have Douz or Ksar Ghilane in the orange.
“What do you think that means?” I said.
“I don’t know.” John said.
We’d both been nervous about this trip to the south anyway and now, with this new information, we didn’t want to go anymore.
“What should we do?”
This was a question that we left up in the air for 24 hours so that we could “sleep on it”. The next morning, while John and I were jogging, we decided to call the airline and ask if our tickets could be refunded. If yes, then that would answer our question about what to do. If no, then we’d still have to think on it. The United States had issued no travel warning. We assumed that the UK, Canada, and Australia warnings were the results of the Lone Wolf attack that had recently happened in Australia.
As it turned out, the airline was willing to refund out tickets with only a $20 surcharge. We decided not to go to the south.
Whew! Problem solved.
But after getting the refund, I continued doing research to try to figure out why most of the largest countries of the world had decided that over half of Tunisia was now a Danger Zone. I found some news online about a bombing and air raids just across the border from Tunisia in Libya. At first, I felt a wave of relief. (…we made the right decision…). But I continued reading about Libya and the more I read, the more I felt like the UK, Australia, and Canada were being a little over-cautious perhaps by putting southern Tunisia in the orange. Why were bombings in Libya a problem for Tunisia? There were always bombings in Libya. In fact the same thing had happened near Tunisia earlier in the year in August.
The newpapers in Tunisia are heavily censored and they’re only available in French and Arabic which makes it difficult for us to get any real information about this place. John and I went out jogging together and discussed our emerging perception of the situation. We’d had some truly life-changing experiences in the hinterlands of other countries similar to those described by travelers to Ksar Ghilane. Cities tended to be boring, but the rural areas that have been somewhat untouched by modernization are often incredibly rich with sights, smells, interesting people, and the stuff that travelers yearn for. Now, instead of worrying about our safety as we had after we’d booked tickets with Tunisair to Tozeur, we were worried about regret. What if we didn’t go to Tozeur and Douz and we regretted it.
So we modified our plans. Again. We decided to take a flight out of Tunis on a Tuesday evening and return the next day in the evening. We’d only be in the south for a little over 24 hours that way. We’d stay in Tozeur, outside of the orange zone and dip into the orange for only a few hours to see Douz, the Sahara and perhaps even go on a coveted camel ride through the desert. We would not go to Ksar Ghilane on this trip, but if it seemed safe, there would still be time for us to return the next week and do the whole “camping-in-the-desert” thing as well as see the Festival of the Sahara.
We congratulated ourselves on our plans. They were a little edgy but not completely stupid. We were taking educated risks, or so it seemed. As the date neared, I worried that our trip might be boring. I also worried that it would be…too interesting, but there was nothing in the news to make me deeply concerned about that. We packed up and flew to Tozeur on a Tuesday evening and spent the night in an uncomfortable vacation rental.
The next day, we drove across the Chott el Jerid salt flats to Douz. On our way, we encountered a police check-point in Kebili. “What the hell is that?” I said when I saw the group of men in black gathered along the roadside.
“A checkpoint, I think.” John said.
“Can we turn and avoid it somehow?”
“No, honey…I think they’d come after us…” John said as he slowed to a stop next to a group of men.
A man in a black uniform with an automatic rifle and dark sunglasses sauntered up to our car with the slimy confidence of a small-minded person who had been given too much power.
John was cool. I sat forward in my seat, my demeanor decidedly less cool than John’s. Lydian dug our passports out of our packs in the backseat. I found the registration for our car in the glovebox. The policeman pushed his gun behind his back, took our passports, and walked away. We watched him go…holding our passports.
“I don’t like it when people take our passports…” I said with tight lips so that if anyone was looking, they couldn’t see what I was saying. I tapped my finger nervously on the dash. Perhaps I’d watched too many episodes of Locked Up Abroad.
“I know…”John sighed. He tried to act relaxed. He’d watched a lot of episodes of Locked Up Abroad with me.
The man returned with a bigger man holding another gun.
“Where you from?” The man asked with a gruff Arabic accent.
“The United States.” John said.
The two men discussed this “new” bit of information for a moment in Arabic. I wondered why they needed to ask since they already had our U.S. passports. I had my eyes on those passports that the policeman was holding at waist level outside John’s window. The two men clad entirely in black, chuckled about something to each other. They shifted their feet, opened our passports, and chuckled again. Eventually, with hesitation, they gave the passports back to John. John smiled heartily at them and rolled up his window.
“Go, John. Just go.” I said. And he did.
That one encounter with checkpoint police put a damper on the rest of our day which was further dampened by two more, similar encounters involving groups of men, all in black, huddled in desolate areas of the desert with machine guns and automatic rifles. We learned later that the interim president of Tunisia would be flying into Tozeur around the time that we would be leaving. This would have been helpful information to have before the trip. And it was the anniversary of the beginning of the revolution in Tunisia. Also useful information. The revolution had been set off by a man who set himself on fire after being humiliated and abused by the police. There are, needless to say, some power imbalances with the police force in Tunisia. And, on top of all that, there was an election, the first democratic election to be precise, scheduled within just a few days. Also important information.
We’d known about the presidential election in Tunisia before we arrived, but it had been scheduled for December 31, the day after we were scheduled to leave the country. We’d scheduled our trip to avoid the elections, but the date had been changed sometime after we left the United States and entered the Media Dead Zone. Even though we read all the news about Tunisia on Al Jazeera everyday, the information was scanty, overly optimistic, and usually irrelevant to our travel plans.
By the time we got to Douz, I had sirens going off in my head and red flags waving. I didn’t even want to get out of the car to ask directions or go to the restroom, let alone do a camel ride. John felt the same way. We saw camels, but we weren’t remotely interested in them. The vibe was heavy and tense. We were way out of our element. Orange zone or not, this was not a place for frivolity or fun. It was a place for protests, uprisings, hostage situations, Islamic insurgencies, and terrorist threats. Not really what we were in the market for.
We drove through Douz to the edge of the city to stare off out into the desert (while keeping an eye on our perimeter at the same time). We kept our windows rolled up and John parked our tiny car on the asphalt, at the edge of a sandy, endless expanse that stretched out before us far into the distance. It was flat, dry, and isolated. We kept watch in our rearview mirrors.
“Don’t drive out there.” I said to John. “We could get stuck.” A number of horrific desert scenarios went through my head.
“Oh believe me.” He said, “I don’t wanna go out there.”
We sat quietly for a moment looking out into the desolation, surprised by our lack of enthusiasm to go touch the sand of the Sahara or…even just get out of the car and look at it.
“I just feel like…” I began, “Like we won’t make it back for our flight this afternoon if we get out of our car…” I hated to say it. It sounded stupid. “Like we shouldn’t even stop to talk to anyone here because we might get led in the wrong direction…Do you know what I mean?”
“I know exactly what you mean.” John said nodding, still staring off into the distance.
“I can’t believe I feel this way.”
“It’s disappointing.” I said.
“I don’t think we’re gonna do a camel ride.” I formally announced to Lydian even though she had been leaning forward in her seat, listening pensively.
“That’s okay.” She said. “I don’t think we should do it either…It really doesn’t feel right.”
She’s such a cool kid. I was grateful that she knows how to roll-with-it. I didn’t want to let her down by wandering haplessly into a hostage situation.
I couldn’t put my finger on it. Over the years, we’d done a lot of crazy things in places that were less touristy than Douz. In the Yucatan, we’d gone off into the southern part of the peninsula in search of a family I’d read about in a newspaper whose shack had burned down at Christmas. Finding them was like finding a needle in a haystack (they lived in an area that wasn’t even service by postal mail). We’d gotten in a boat and traveled to Tortuguero, an obscure location in Costa Rica, a difficult trip given that there are no street signs whatsoever in the entire country. We’d traveled to Iquitos and down the Amazon River to a lodge that was two hours from anything resembling civilization. But never, in all our travels, had I ever felt anything as foreboding as what we felt in Douz.
John turned the car around and we crept forward past some abandoned brick buildings, back toward the direction that we came.
“Maybe we could drive out of Douz and go just a little bit to the south to see if we can see some more of the desert without getting out of the car.” I suggested. Lydian and John agreed that after coming all this way, it might be nice to see more of the Sahara. We took a right out of Douz and headed south. Ahead of us stretched miles and miles of yellow sand and total desolation.
A few minutes into our mission, along the road in the distance, we saw a little black speck. As we got closer to it, we realized that it was another police checkpoint.
“Shit…” I said. “Can’t we just turn around here?”
“No, honey. They’ll come after us.”
A voice in my head said, I’ve had enough. I wanna go home now.
It was silent in the car for a long tense moment.
“Get out the passports.” I told Lydian with a long sigh. She handed them up to me and I handed them to John as we pulled up to a big group of men dressed once again completely in black with black sunglasses and a big collection of automatic rifles. Again, we handed over our passports and watched as a man in police garb walked over to a bigger, obviously more powerful man to discuss our “situation” and laugh at us.
Again, I heard the voice inside my head, I’ve had enough. If you get outta this, go home.
In other countries, on other trips, we’ve seen soldiers and police officers with big guns walking around. In Turkey, soldiers walked the streets with big guns slung over their shoulders. In China, at Tiananmen Square, young men stood guard with guns that were bigger than they were. We’ve been stopped and scammed by the police in Mexico. A man in a black ski mask went through all our belongings at Tahrir Square in Egypt. But this experience of being all alone with a large group of armed men in the Sahara desert in Tunisia was seriously unnerving. I sat forward in my seat, frozen, as I watched our passports being examined by the policemen through John’s window.
The man who’d initially stopped us came back to the window. He asked, “What country are you from?”
John said, “The United States.” Again, there was an inexplicable reluctance and hesitancy by the man holding our passports. He didn’t want to give them back to us. He flipped through them. Discussed the passports with another man. Flipped through them again and chuckled over our pictures (they’re our post-robbery photos from when our passports were stolen in Mexico). He gave them back to us, I believe, only because we were from the United States. Again, I felt that shaky sense of insecurity from knowing that if we were from some other country, our fates would be different in some way (the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened only two weeks later). Or that our fates would differ if the relationship between the United States and Tunisia suddenly deteriorated in some respect or if the United States was just a little less powerful than it is. I wasn’t sure what variables were keeping me alive and free at the moment, but it was obvious, that it wasn’t my own doing or the result of my own strength or cunning.
John took the passports and handed them over to me. I handed them to Lydian. He rolled up his window and we continued driving south.
“We should turn around and go back to Tozeur.”
“Yup.” He said. “We’ll just drive a little way and then turn around after they’re out of sight so that it doesn’t look ‘funny’. The story will be that we got lost and we accidentally went the wrong direction. Okay?” He said to me. “Okay, Lydian.”
“Okay.” She said.
Several miles down the road, John flipped our car around. We headed back to the checkpoint. This time, we slowed down, but they recognized us and waved us through without stopping us.
We all breathed a sigh of relief. I peeled some oranges as a celebratory snack.
It was a huge relief to get back to Tozeur where things seemed remarkably different from Douz and Kebili. We returned the car to the rental agency and one of the agents drove us to the airport.
As we rode through Tozeur to the airport, we saw people putting up Tunisian flags and political pictures on the stone
walls in the city, presumably preparing for protests. We were very happy to wait at the sterile little airport for five hours rather than do anything else in the southern region of Tunisia. It was an incredible relief to make it back to the relative civility of Tunis that night.