A few months ago, I was checking out the extra features on my newly arrived Indiana Jones Blu-ray set and noted that "old Cairo" was shot on location in Tozeur, Tunisia ... which happens to be a 4 x 4 drive away from the Tatooine set for Star Wars.

That was the clincher!

Realizing cabin fever would overcome if I didn't venture out of the country this Spring, I instantly decided on Tunisia. Factors included:

  1. Country where the Arab Spring began
  2. Non touristy -- not a popular spot certain to be over-run
  3. Region that I've not previously visited (though I have been to Egypt)
  4. Relatively inexpensive

But most of all was the idea of visiting movie location terrain. Raiders of the Lost Ark ranks among my favorites, so wandering in this locale had tremendous appeal. And Explore! adventure travel offered a tour that ventured into southern Tunisia and spent a couple days in Tozeur.

The company asked if I had seen the U.S. State Department warnings about Tunisia--but that's no problem for me.  I figured not to do anything stupid, and I certainly was NOT going to proclaim my U.S. identity--so nothing but Spain, France, and Brazil soccer jerseys for my wardrobe this time. Besides, I figure I've been in far more treacherous terrain in parts of LA, Chicago, and NYC before.

I donned my Indiana Jones hat (from Peru), arriving in Tunis a couple days before the tour group would gather. Just off the plane (24 hours without sleep), I tried to find the medina that afternoon but mangled the hotel worker's instructions--instead finding a close-by mosque with a few street sellers.

But after a good night's sleep, I was far more successful the following day. The medina is a crazy busy place with tons of merchants all scratching out a living for themselves in their shops. Of course everyone there is striving to make a deal, especially when seeing a non-native wandering about. I felt no real danger there--toting my passport, credit cards, and cash in my money belt.

It wasn't until the following day meeting with our tour leader, Noobie, that I learning how "reckless" I had been. A very proud native Tunisian in his fifties, he was taking us on a GUIDED TOUR of the Medina and told us that we MUST lock all our valuables in the safety deposit box--so no passports, no credit cards, and no cash outside a few dinars that we may need for lunch.

The U.S. State Department's warnings had become irrelevant. Noobie was vigilant to the extreme to protect his tour clients. Guided Tours were the norm ... and these could be interminably detailed. He had once been an academic teacher and was VERY structured. So each Guided Tour had a standard pattern--an elaborate introduction preparing us for all that we were to see.... plenty of details with lectures along the way.... and an inevitable summary/conclusion to remind us of ALL the essential information that we had viewed along the tour route.

I've never heard so much information during an adventure tour before, but I don't remember all that much from the presentations.  The main surprise about this tour was discovering how confined we were to our hotels. I'm still not sure if this was due to the nature of Tunisia (and tourist safety) or due to the location of our hotels since most everything shut down at 7:30 PM in the areas we were located. I could also have been due to our tour leader being over-protective of us as well.... He did sabotage a plan that I forged with a couple of elderly ladies to escape our hotel in Tozeur to visit a cafe that offered traditional Tunisian music.

Overall, Tunisia reminds me greatly of home in Arizona--similar climate, desert terrain, desert plants, desert oasises. We just don't have the camels and Roman ruins. So with the country not being all that different, with extended lectures during guided tours, and extreme hotel confinement, Tunisia could have been a real bummer.

But that's where the small moments count SO much. Among them:

  • Some cool people in the group. Odds of travel groups being compatible rises exponentially when I'm the only American--Brits, Aussies, and Canadians stereotypically are more pleasant and far less likely to be obnoxious. That worked again this time. I especially enjoyed the "young" U.K. couple from Birmingham that got stuck with all us geezers; they; were incredibly tolerant, flexible, open, and friendly. I know we'll be keeping in touch.
  • The two oldest ladies from Australia were incredible. Turns out that Helen is a kindred spirit when it comes to movies, so we shared a lot of favorites during our bus trips.  Fran cracked me up one morning when she came down from breakfast. Reading the trip notes for the day, she read out "2 hour Guided Tour" and let out a GROAN.    She looked embarrassed when she heard me laughing like Hell...that moment was priceless!
  • Lawrence of Arabia flashback experiences: Riding a camel in the Sahara gains appreciation for Peter O'Toole  ... actually that was NOT fun. But I learned first hand why they call camels the "ships of the desert" because they make you feel like you're in a small rowboat in the middle of the Atlantic.  So opting to hike the hour and a half back was a bonus for me... It made me aware how fast these lumbering beasts are with their long strides  I felt like Gasim wandering in the desert.... though it was about 30 degrees cooler than it was during his rescue scene.
  • Camel revenge.  Eating grilled camel the two days following the camel riding experience. Very tasty...and those beasts deserve to be devoured!
  • Being on my own in the Tunis medina and encountering a friendly and smooth hustler. He escorts me inside his father's perfume shop... which gives me a chuckle when his father ends up cursing his son in Arabic for bringing me when I had NO intention of buying perfume.
  • After getting one medina merchant down to 1/7 of his initial asking price...a long process of tea drinking and relationship establishment.... he asks if I can kick in 10 dinar so he can buy a beer.  I say "But I thought you were a Muslim" to which he replied, "Yes.... but not all the time."  ... the laugh was worth the 10 dinar!
  • Star Wars shooting locations. Tunisians have adopted almost zero American marketing techniques when it comes to these. Only selling the same souvenirs that you can get in any city medina, this was actually a bit charming when you think about it. One specific site at a "cave" hotel where some scenes were shot involving Luke and his aunt and uncle did have a local dressed as Obi-wan Kenobi hanging outside... seeking potential souvenir buyers.
  • Using imagination to visualize Spielberg and Lucas on location. This is necessary (along with a bit of research) since Tunisia hasn't really taken advantage of these for tourism--but I did see a valley that R2-D2 and C3PO may have used and I was able to get a rooftop view of the medina in Tozeur that Spielberg transformed into Old Cairo by removing the numerous TV antennas.
  • Learning about the "hand of Fatima" from a devout Muslim guide in a small Le Kef cultural museum. He is distressed at the commercialism of the merchants who hawk these wares, promoting them as items for protection or for good fortune. He says these SHOULD be called "the hand" and that the five fingers actually are meant to represent the five pillars of Islam. He also chanted a prayer beautifully in one room to demonstrate its acoustics.
  • 4:30 AM wake up calls daily from the minarets.  Also other times during the day, but the early morning "call to prayer" matched my usual wake up time ... and these were about the only local music I was able to hear in Tunisia.

Tunisia isn't for everyone, and it's not too difficult to see why they are suffering a lack of tourism. If you're thinking about visiting the Middle East there are many other places that would offer more interest--both Israel and Egypt rank much higher (from places I've previously visited). And from what I've heard and read, Turkey, Jordan, and Morocco are more promising destinations.

If you're just looking for a desert experience, come see me in Arizona.  We may not have Roman ruins or camels, but we have great scenery, lots of activity options, and we don't shut down the city in the early evening.

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Comment by JMac1949 Memories on April 1, 2013 at 6:38am

"4:30 AM wake up calls daily from the minarets. " That's the main reason I could never convert to Islam. that and the fact that I'm too arthritic to kneel down to pray.  Excellent post R&L ;-)

Comment by Mimetalker on April 1, 2013 at 1:35pm

Very nice. I think I have convinced Kilam to give "the hand" to his dad for his birthday (April 4)...though it will be in the midst of the zombie birthday party we are planning for him.

Comment by Myriad on April 3, 2013 at 10:17am

I've been thinking of a tour to Morocco.  I tend to forget all the edumakayshun the tour guides try to inculcate, but I did an i-pad video of a Spanish tour guide all about the growing of olives, in case I ever need...  "Did" Egypt before the current troubles, for which I am very grateful - far out.


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