As I write this, I’m smoking shisha and sipping coffee while watching the blood orange sun descend beneath the canopy of palm trees in the southern oasis town of Tozeur in the Saharan desert. After ten days of wandering from the north to the south, Tunisia feels like an oasis among countries.
Ever since I quit my job and booked a one-way ticket here, the number one question I’ve gotten is, of all the places in the world how did you pick Tunisia?
Although my Google Home had no problem telling me to quit my job to travel, she wasn’t as useful when it came to choosing a destination. So I was on my own. I knew only that I wanted to go on an adventure and that I wanted be somewhere cheap — I am after all, unemployed. After deciding that blindly throwing darts at a map on my wall was an inefficient method of buying flight tickets, I went on skyscanner.com, an indecisive traveler’s dream app because it lets one make queries as broad as this one:
With a single click, Skyscanner returned a list of countries along with an estimated cost of a one-way ticket from New York anytime in March in order of cheapness. As I scrolled down the page, Tunisia caught my attention like the twinkle of an eye—this was the birthplace of the Arab Spring and Luke Skywalker! For a moment, I wondered what life was like in this fledgling democracy while my inner Star Wars nerd pictured herself standing in the troglodyte caves of Tatooine, the desert planet in the Outer Rim.
I glanced at the map on my wall. My gaze lingered on the tiny Arab country amid the smattering of haphazardly strewn darts and the blueness of the surrounding Mediterranean sea, the vastness of the Sahara, the immensity of the Atlas Mountains beckoned to me. I must go there!, I suddenly thought.
And so I booked it.
Two weeks later, with only my backpack and boarding pass in hand, I arrived in the capital city of Tunis and sauntered into an 18th century palace that also happened to be my Airbnb. Not far from the Lake of Tunis, its castle-like entrance lay hidden in a maze of narrow, labyrinthine alleyways characteristic of the Arab world.
I spent the following days exploring the surrounding villages near Tunis and the evenings getting lost in those alleyways trying to find my way back to my palace (seriously, every night felt like a sequel to Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey).
Sidi Bou Said (sid-ee boo say-d) — on the coast just beyond Tunis — is a village where the buildings are all uniformly painted white and blue. I remember wandering through there because the distinct coloring makes you feel like you’re taking a stroll in the clouds and in pictures, the village seems to melt into the sky above and the Mediterranean Sea below.
Past Sidi Bou Said, I found the famous village of Carthage where the ancient city of the same name once stood. Although the Carthaginian ruins were more or less just a bunch of half-destroyed rocks, visiting the archeological site was a humbling reminder that this tiny village on the Mediterranean Sea had once been the center of a grand empire that rivaled that of the Romans.
As I began to make my way overland to the south of Tunisia, the calm waves of the Mediterranean Sea gave way to the soft ripples of sand in the Saharan desert. A 7-hour bus ride from Tunis to Tozeur had taken me to a new landscape, a beautiful oasis in the largest desert in the world.
Yesterday, we went to Mides Canyon near the Algerian border, passing through a few tiny, scattered villages along the way. The scenery was incredible, which is probably why so many movies—including the Raiders of the Lost Ark and English Patient—have been filmed there.
Later in the day, we went offroading into the desert to find the Star Wars set that was quite literally built from nothing in the middle of nowhere. In fact, it’s identifiable only by its latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, i.e. don’t come here without a GPS (unless you want your sequel to be Homeward Bound: The Unending Journey).
After about an hour of driving over a roller coaster of sand dunes, we stumbled upon what was once Mos Espa, the hometown of Anakin and Shmi Skywalker—my namesake! George Lucas derived Shmi’s name from the Hindu Goddess, Lakshmi, which also happens to be my name. I doubt this is a coincidence.
The funny thing is, the boy in the picture dressed like Qui-Gon had never actually seen Star Wars before and didn’t seem to know much about it. So in his mind, people from countries all over the world were traveling out to the middle of the Sahara to see a bunch of old sand huts and a few grey pointy towers with antennas.
If you need a reminder, this is what the town in Tatooine looked like on the big screen:
I didn’t find R2D2 in the real life Mos Espa, but I did make a friend there—a fennec fox! I’m pretty sure this little guy can understand more Arabic than I ever will. Womp womp.
When night began to fall, we drove away from Mos Espa. The horizon was so mesmerizing that I felt like a zombie staring aimlessly into the distance.
When the last remaining embers from the coal atop my shisha fade out, I decide it’s time to head back to my hotel. The rooms are half empty because tourists are now few and far between in Tunisia. As a visitor, I’ve had the luxury of experiencing everything here with little outside distraction, but the struggling tourism industry in the wake of the 2015 attacks here has left many Tunisians without jobs or income.
Because tourism accounts for 8% of Tunisia’s GDP and nearly 14% of total employment, its decline — valued at $1.5 billion last year—has had a crippling effect on the economy and the livelihood of its people. And a desperate and unemployed population is the easiest target for terrorist recruitment. In this way, higher unemployment in turn breeds unrest and extremism, which harms the tourism industry even more and further eliminates job opportunities and income sources — it becomes a sad cycle.
Of course, I can’t speak authoritatively on the security situation in Tunisia, but based on my research, my experiences here and the advice I’ve received from Tunisians, there are many places in the country that are quite safe and well worth a visit. And I believe that spending money here as tourist is a great, non-patronizing way to have a positive impact on the country.
The people of Tunisia have been incredibly welcoming during my time here and I’m happy to say that even as an English-speaking woman traveling by myself, I’ve felt pretty safe — with or without a head scarf. I hope that by sharing this, others will be inspired to discover the beauty of Tunisia and its people as I have. Flights on Egypt Air are super cheap and if you have an overnight layover in Cairo, then the airline will put you up in a 5-star hotel with a lunch and dinner buffet for FREE!
On that note, I’m off to plan my next excursion to the troglodyte caves in Matamata! I’ll leave you now with one last picture of my fennec fox:
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