The seasoned traveler in me can laugh off just about anything that happens anywhere. But not in Tunisia.
My husband, two traveling companions and I swooped into the Tunis airport, finagled a car rental deal and spun out onto the road, into a stream of livestock, vegetable carts and old cars.
Ah, the heady sensation of dust and goat dung, the giddy whirl of untrained drivers!
The temperature in the Renault was approaching 100 degrees, but the dust was so bad we couldn't open the one window that worked. We clambered out, sweating profusely, at Sidi Bou Said, the picturesque artists' colony on the seashore that we'd heard so much about.
The town is perched on a cliff overlooking the beach. The sands below are streaked with seaweed and remnants of underwear and soda bottles. It is an altogether charming sight at night when the boat lights twinkle offshore and it's too dark to see the underwear.
We beat a hasty retreat to Qairouan, about three hours south, a holy city of Islam that is renowned for its rugs. Qairouan has some fine historical and cultural offerings -- the Grand Mosque and the Roman pools, for example -- but we found it hard to care after fending off the roaming dog packs. We departed the next morning, still brushing debris from the dust storm off our belongings, heading toward the Sahara, naively dreaming of dunes and sparkling oases and camel caravans.
We were moving at a relatively slow clip, as we had to pull over frequently to sound out the road signs in Arabic. Nevertheless, we were stopped by a group of policemen just outside Qairouan. They examined our passports, told us about relatives in New York and Chicago and demanded 15 dinars for exceeding the speed limit.
The second group was waiting for us in a stretch of scrub desert about 50 miles farther down the road. They had relatives in California and asked for 20 dinars. A third group, melting in the afternoon heat just north of Gafsa, was too hot and listless to pressure us, and when we balked at the fine of 25 dinars they just grinned and waved us on.
On through scrub and rubble and the croppings of half-built houses that are peculiar to Tunisia. On to Gafsa, an "oasis town" where the desert wind blows a toxic mixture of bus fumes, litter and burnt-orange dust in great swirls. We gasped on to Tozeur.
Hanging around the outside of our hotel in Tozeur was a gaggle of young hooligans who leeched onto us, offering camel rides, trips into the desert and bargains in rugs and silver. Granted, we may have been a little cross when we arrived in Tozeur, but we didn't deserve the treatment we got from them. We never went anywhere on foot during our three-day stay without four or five of them sidling along.
Finally, in a moment of weakness, we let our hustler sidekicks talk us into a camel ride in the desert with uncle Ali Ben Mafour, the well-known camel tour operator. We drove to the appointed spot in a small desert town on the Algerian border, where a one-eyed octogenarian, a small boy and four camels stood waiting in the street.
I haven't spent much time around camels, but these animals struck me as exceedingly ill-tempered. When they weren't snipping at us, they were chomping on each other, bucking and snorting. Ali Ben Mafour and his boy led us around a small oasis, clucking to the camels, warding off horseflies and blowing dust out of their nostrils in much the same manner as the camels.
We hurried on to the island of Jerba, and thought we had finally found Tunisian paradise. But that was before we ate the salade mechouia at the luncheon buffet by the pool. It wasn't until the evening of the fourth day that we felt well enough to join the evening entertainment at the hotel, billed as a "Berber Feast."
We were still a bit queasy, but famished nonetheless. At length, the main course arrived, borne on great copper platters by Berber waiters in white balloon pants and red tunics. What do Berbers eat? Roast goat in a thick oil sauce, that's what. We quickly closed this window into a new culture and went back to the bungalow to pack.
Mellen Candage is vice president of an editorial services company based in Arlington.