SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 14, July 2016 - Page 101

During the eight day road trip we traversed the diverse landscape of Tunisia. The drive to the south is filled with seemingly endless silvery olive orchards and blooming almond trees. Once there we enjoyed brown rocky mountains where the Berber people carved out homes in the sheer mountain face of Chenini as well as the vast Sahara Desert which was used as settings for several Star Wars scenes. However much of the Tunisian part of the Sahara is rather flat with a fair amount of brush; it isn't the enormous sand dunes one imagines it to be. And if you know where to go you can discover waterfalls and palm trees in a beautiful hidden desert oasis. We stayed with his friends as much as possible so I was fortunate to have a variety of experiences with many different people in their homes in various areas of the country. Not once did I ever feel anything but warmth and acceptance. Therefore, it was without hesitation that I accepted the opportunity to spend the weekend in central Tunisia with the Couchsurfing group.

Eight cars and 32 people caravanned to Saliana for a weekend getaway in the pine covered mountains where rosemary and thyme grow wild among the trees. It was a mixed group of people of all ages, from 20 to 76. Most were Tunisian but there were also folks from Egypt, Libya, Turkey, Ukraine and, France. Some were students, some retired or unemployed. Others still, were employed in jobs as varied as hospitality, life coaching and conflict resolution. Everyone spoke English, we slept in mixed dorms, laughed a lot and all got along perfectly. We were the only ones in this mountain albergue. I felt like I was at camp as we hiked, climbed trees, hopped over creeks, played games and explored 3,000 year old Phoenician ruins.

Yes, I did all the fascinating touristy things: saw the well preserved ancient Roman Amphitheater of El Jemm, Star Wars sets in Tozeur and Tataouine, various Berber villages, the impressive and expansive cemetery in Mahdia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the desert I rode camels, watched the moon rise, danced to a Bedouin drumbeat and slept under the gazillion stars. All these things were wonderful but secondary to the people I met, learning about their life, their thoughts, ambitions, concerns and desires. My 'few days' had turned into 15 and I wasn't yet ready to leave this unassuming country that would go on to leave an unexpected impression in my heart.

Sandra Kowalski is a freelance writer traveling around the world and writing about her adventures.

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