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Melissa's Trip to the Tunisian South: Part 3 - Matmata, Douz, and the Chott El Jerid

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From: Melissa Enderle (melissaenderle_at_TeacherArtExchange)
Date: Wed Apr 14 2004 - 22:50:21 PDT


Dear all,
Below is the 3rd section of my trip. Several sites in this area were used in
movies such as Star Wars and The English Patient.
Enjoy!

Matmata
            Just 45 kilometers from Gabés, the lunar landscape of the
Matmata region might just as well be another planet. It¹s no wonder that it
became the home planet of Luke Skywalker. Here, the Berbers of Matmata went
underground centuries ago to escape the summer heat. When you look across
the landscape, it¹s rather difficult to even notice that there are any homes
around ­ if it weren¹t for the TV antennas. These cave-like dwellings
typically consist of a circular central courtyard dug out of the soft
limestone, with the rooms tunneled off the perimeter.
            Like most of the tourists visiting the area, we went into one of
the homes that took visitors. The tall whitewashed stone wall and its
entrance contrasted with the shorter inner doors. Around the entrance were
painted blue symbols ­ the hand and the fish. I saw the same symbols around
other doors in the area. In the first room were two women ­ a middle-aged
and an older woman, both wearing a scarf around the head and red colored
patterned cloth gathered or pinned together to form a dress. The older woman
quietly rested as she sat on a thin foam mattress, revealing a bit of her
dyed orange hair and tattoo marks on the chin. She was very willing to have
photos taken, so I took several photos and gave her a coin. The younger
woman, sitting on a kilim rug, demonstrated how she ground flour with a
special stone. Stepping out of the sparse entry room, we entered the
circular inner courtyard. Peeking into the rooms with rounded ceilings, I
was surprised to see two TV¹s! Twenty years ago, according to Driss, the
area of Matmata was quite isolated. Now you can see satellite dishes, cell
phones, running water, and other amenities. About 800 still live in the
troglodyte pit homes.
            Continuing onward, we stopped to get a view of the hilltop
village of Tamezret. Just 13 km west from Matmata, the homes here are built
above ground using the abundant local rock. If we would have had time, a
walk to the top of the village would likely have yielded a wonderful
panoramic view of the surrounding area. Around the area, fragile flowers,
trees, and clumps of grass grew in areas that received collected rainwater.
The further we got from Tamezret, the drier it became, with short scrub
brush replacing any trees seen eastward. Occasionally, one would see a few
palm trees and flowers in tiny pockets. Signs with a camel indicating that
this was a camel crossing area were posted. In one instance we did see a
large herd of camels being led across the road. Built as a first defense
against desertification (the Sahara grows by over 3 meters each year),
fences constructed of palm tree branches and other materials helped contain
the rippled sand from spreading faster. Piled quite high in areas, the fence
reminded me of the snow fences placed in Wisconsin to help stop the
snowdrifts. Other ways of halting desertification have been discussed at
international conferences. After all, desertification is an issue that
affects people worldwide and has far-reaching implications. Traveling from
the east to the west really emphasizes how narrow Tunisia is (only 260 km
wide) and how diverse its ecosystems are. Soon we would be heading into the
desert.
 
Douz ­ Gateway to the Desert
            Lying on the northeastern edge of the Grand Erg Oriental, the
town of Douz is often called the gateway to the desert. Amongst all the
sand, it was amazing to think that the largest of all the Tunisian desert
oases, with more than 400,000 palm trees, produced so many of the prized
deglat ennour dates and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. Here, we
joined other tourists as we headed towards a large herd of camels waiting
for riders to go for a trek 30 minutes or longer. Already riding a camel
once before in Timbuktu, I knew what to expect as the camel began its
awkward move to a standing position. For others including my parents, this
was their first time. All were fascinated by the strange sounds that some of
the camels made, as well as the subsequent sight of the camel¹s long tongue
quivering out of the side of its mouth. It is amazing to think that a camel
can go for around 3 months in the winter with no water and 15 days in
summer. Many of the camels were tied together with a second camel, enabling
the camel guide to lead two at once. Not only did I have a solo camel, I
also had the most interesting guide. A short man (not even up to my
shoulders) with tanned, aged skin and a short white moustache, a kaki green
strip of lightweight cloth was tied to form a loose hood and a tan
loose-fitting garment ended slightly above his sandaled feet. Carrying a
walking stick, he quietly walked slightly ahead of the camel, every once in
a while gently adjusting the ropes around the camel¹s face. Occasionally he
would balance the stick over his shoulders in a relaxed pose.
 
The Chott El-Jerid
            About 28 km north of Douz and one of the main towns prior to
crossing the Chott, Kebili was a good place to spend the night. Although we
didn¹t have time to explore the town, I did enjoy the beautiful carved
plaster designs in and around the dining hall. The ancient town of Kebili,
according to Driss, was Rome¹s second slave trade city in Tunisia. Some
Roman mosaics and sites have been found here. Hot thermal springs are still
used in the hammams, the public bathhouses. Early the next morning, we began
crossing the Chott, an immense salt lake (once part of the Mediterranean
Sea) covering an area of almost 6,700 sq km. Stretching in a series of salt
lakes from the Gulf of Gabés westward into the Algerian city of Biskra, the
Chott takes up a huge amount of land.
            Having read that the Chott El-Jerid can create some stunning
optical effects (such as mirages) in the radiant Tunisian heat, it was
disappointing to see the overcast sky. Ever closer to the Chott, the sparse,
scrubby vegetation soon gave way to nothingness. Carthage was the
unfortunate recipient of this destructive material, when Rome sprinkled the
salt on the city as punishment for its defiance. Now, the salt is put to
good use; around 350-420 tons of it is exported to Scandinavian countries as
road salt, and some now is used as table salt. Huge piles of salt dotted the
lake that had mostly dried up. Along the way we passed some tourists
floating on their backs, enjoying the buoyancy of the salt and the hot
spring water. On one side of the flat paved road, a rowboat lay stranded on
the dry salt lake next to the rose-colored water. The scene reminded me of
frozen lakes in a Wisconsin winter, except for the unnatural-looking colored
water that had not yet dried up. Around the edges, salt began to crystallize
and form interesting shapes. To one side was a huge mound of salt with a
Tunisian flag on top. As I crossed the flat road, there was a large stand
with more tourist goods, including the ³sand roses,² formed of gypsum that
has dissolved from the sand and then crystallized into patterns that
resemble flower petals. The primitive Berber doll and leather camel were
just too interesting to pass up. The water on this side of the road was
colored a deep turquoise.

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