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Me and My Italians - A True Story
By Arthur Lee Anderson
owner speiragems

I decided to go to Greece. I was real bummed out. I was taking a homeopathic cure for lead poisoning and I couldn't sleep. I was down in Lithia Park in Ashland, Oregon where I live, 5:00 a.m. August something or other and it dawned on me that I needed to go to Greece and sleep in the ruins at Delphi. It seemed like a real cleansing idea at the time. I didn't have any money so I wasn't really expecting too much to come of this mission from god-type idea. That afternoon my sister calls and she observed that I seemed sort of depressed and I said "Yeah, I need to go to Greece and sleep in the ruins ... She says "Want a ticket?" I says "You serious?" She says "I have some frequent flyer miles you can use to get there if you want ... " Hot damn!"

So a month later I'm sitting on the tarmac in a 757 at SFX waiting for my non-stop to Paris to get on with it. We take off. Three or maybe five hundred feet in the air I get to observe a huge flame (and boom) shoot out of the engine below my window.

(A backfire?) I thinks. Not "No" but "Hell No-" We keep climbing but now there's a stream, like a fire hose, of liquid shooting out of some nozzles about 2/3 the way out on the wings. Now I've flown a bit and this was new to my eyes. It occurred to me that we were jettisoning the fuel. Oh boy. I'm scared. The pilot comes on the air and announces engine trouble and tells us we were returning to the airport. He also tells us we better brace for a "short landing", i.e. we're maybe going to crash. The stewardess approaches me and asks me if I'm up for helping people off the emergency slide once we get down. She asked me like my 5th grade teacher used to ask if someone would like to clean the chalkboard erasers. "Yeah, sure, no problem..." We get down.

Sort of rough, lots of squealing of brakes then a bunch of fire trucks encircle the plane. They spray us with foam for 45 minutes. The firemen are all backing away from the plane with this "Holy S---" look in their eyes. This continues as we sit watching, ensconced in our seats with our seatbelts fastened (of course). The pilot comes on again and says, "Our brakes got a little hot" ... I guess so.

All in all the crowd on the plane was pretty smooth. No old lady yelling "I don't want to die!" like in the movies. I think when the prospect is real people get real introspective. I did anyway. So we get towed back to the gate and switch to an identical 757. I was relieved. I mean, what are the odds of two planes blowing up back to back?

We fly. 11 hours or so later we are in Paris. 2 hour layover and 3 more hours of flying and we'll be in Athens. A long day to be sure but the ruins beckoned.

A few hours later I'm going through passport control. Stamp, stamp, stamp, everyone is waived through. Everyone except me. They decide to do a spot check on my passport and the guy's eyes lit up. They pull me over to another desk and the cop there says "You have problem, big problem... Something about 1972 and some hashish and me being in the same place at the same time. Anyway, that was another lifetime as far as I was concerned, having long ago parted ways with my old habits.

To make a short story shorter, they remembered it as having occurred in this lifetime and they didn't want me to come in the country. They put me in a holding cell for the night with a couple of Pakistani gentlemen who had just come from Moscow with one way tickets and a pocket full of Rubles. Things could be worse I am thinking. I give one of the guys a pack of smokes. He is really grateful and tells me in effect that while I'm in there he's "got my back ... " Considering that other than my own self, he and his traveling companion from Moscow are the only other people in there I'm not quite sure what to make of this bit of information. They send me back to Paris the next a.m.

Now by this-time I haven't slept in a couple of days and I'm sort of bummed out(wasn't that how this whole thing got started?) I'm in Paris. I crash in a cheap hotel, cheap for Paris anyway, sixty bucks a night or so. I sleep, probably dreamless, I dunno. All I'm thinking as I drift off is how good Lithia Park sounds for a vacation. The next morning I go to the Air France office think- "I'll resurrect some of this trip by going to the Canary Islands". All I knew was that they were somewhere off the coast of Morocco. There's a very nice lady at Air France and I ask her about flights to the Canaries and while she's checking I ask her if she knows anything about them. She tells me they are pretty much barren rocks and I ask her about Morocco. She suggests Tunisia. It sounds interesting. I know nothing about it so I say "O.K." This lady probably could have sold me a ticket to Uganda or Miami at this point.

Next day I'm on a plane to Tunis. Tunis, I get to the airport. It's the first place I've been where you can't get a guidebook in the airport, not in English anyway. I'm soon to discover that not only is there no printed matter in English but nobody speaks it either. Everyone speaks French, German, Italian and Arabic but alas, no English or Greek or Spanish which are the only languages I can stumble around in. I'm at the mercy of my cab driver. I get across to him that I want a cheap hotel, as best I can. He takes me into town and drops me off somewhere at a hotel. $40 a night. Shit, it's not a whole lot better than Paris. I did not budget, or rather, I just didn't bring a whole lot of money with me.

I'm tired, bummed, all I want to do is eat and sleep and I'll make some decisions in the a.m. I check out my room, convince myself it's fine and head down to the coffee shop in the lobby. I order something off the menu (which was in German) that looks like pasta and a Coke. There's a lot of Arabs in there drinking beer. It reminds me of Istanbul and I recall that the Turks were here with the Ottomans for a good long spell. I gather real fast that this is not a fundamentalist Moslem country, at least not around there. That night there's a couple of guys that appear to be hustling other guys. I wasn't paying a lot of attention but an argument broke out and one of the guys followed one of the hustlers into the john. The staff seems to notice and goes after them. I'm not sure what happened next but in the next 30 seconds a full scale brawl erupted, complete with a guy getting a bottle broken over his head. No, he didn't go down. I've only seen that in the movies so I was surprised at how lightweight the effect seemed to be. I bolted out the door, ducked into my room and decided I could sleep on an empty stomach. About two hours later it starts ripping again on the street below my window. I get the impression that it would not be difficult to witness a homicide thereabouts if that was ones interest. It's not mine so I'm still bummed and tired. I manage to drift off to sleep and about midnight the folks in the next room, drunk I guess, return to their room and sing Arabic pop songs for an hour or so. That eventually cools out but about two a.m. my phone starts to ring. I pick it up, silence. All I needed was an obscene phone call in Arabic. I unplug the phone. Lithia Park looms in my head. I manage a couple of hours shuteye.

The next a.m. (or rather, later that same a.m.) I awaken and I realize two things. One, Tunisia, so far, is out of my budget (my return ticket is for 3 weeks hence) and two, I don't want to be here, now. I realize I must change my return date both for financial as well as psychological considerations and that I must get out of Tunis immediately. I head for the Air France office hoping to find some nice person who speaks English. I encounter something I've grown to despise over the years, a low-level bureaucrat with a rubber stamp and an attitude. I explain that I don't have enough money to stay the full three weeks in Tunisia, though I'd love to etc. He smiles and says "You got problem, big problem, your ticket is special fare ... Now I had bought this ticket at the Air France counter in De Gaulle airport in Paris with zero advance notice and as it cost me $400 it didn't seem real special to me. I have a choice of staying the whole time and running out of money or paying $300 for a one way ticket back to Paris. I pay, giving myself twelve days in Tunisia and I head for the train station

Possessing only a map (written in German) I pick a town at random, Sousse, which is half way down the coast, out of spitting distance to Tunis anyway.

I arrive in Sousse. My cynical mind is suspect. Lots of whitewashed buildings everywhere. I think some guy from the ministry of tourism took a trip to Greece, came back and gave the order to paint it all white. This is partly because all the old stuff, the medina(old town) are all brown limestone and adobe mud. Oh well. It's probably just a Mediterranean phenomenon and hey, it's nice. I look for a hotel and a lady tells me of a cheap place out of town a bit. I head out to the Hotel Scherezade. It's $30 a night. My stomach sinks, I'd budgeted mentally for $20 and as I'm heading south I'm concerned that this may be as good as it gets. At any rate it is on a beautiful beach so I dig in. It's a tourist place, full of German and French tourists. So far in Tunisia I've seen one English couple, zero Americans but a veritable plethora of German, French and Italians. Many fat, or rather "horizontally challenged" Germans in particular. Real strudel and schnitzel types. I go to the beach. Many horizontally challenged German women going topless and lots of grey-haired hubbies in the tiniest string bikinis I've ever seen. I've always wondered what phenomena it is that inclines normally conservative, older Europeans to strip down and let it all hang out the second they get away from home. As this is a Moslem country it all seems a bit incongruous but, what the hell, it's Club Med time. Could be worse.

I spend two days in Sousse with a day trip to "El Jem", a small town inland that boasts a full size ancient Roman coliseum. The Romans really left some serious stuff in their wake. This one appealed to me because it had no tourists, no plaques, no explanations, just this thing there. So old even the ghosts had split.

The next day I left for Jerba, an island off the southern coast. I arrive in Jerba six hours later via train, bus and ferry. I finally locate a nice third world hotel, much more my speed right in the souk(marketplace) in the main town on Jerba, Houmat Souk. $8 a night, yeah, some of the tension starts to evaporate from my furrowed brow. I like it, alot. It's cheap, pretty and interesting. The Club Med element is conveniently sectioned off on the other side of the island. Granted they usurped the best beaches but I can live with that. One thing about Jerba is that there is a real island mentality, definitely separate from the rest of Tunisia. A lot more laid back in general there are Arabs, Berbers, Jews and the horizontally challenged Germans all co-existing. The Jews have been there since 584 B.C. virtually in the same villages, surviving occupation by Arabs, Turks and pirates for centuries. Food is cheap and good. I'm feeling like I can do this.

The market (souk) in Houmat Souk is full of the same junk you see in just about all the souks in Tunisia. Lots of toy drums, bad carpets, cheap jewelry etc. The bargaining is pretty easy, "How much is this?" "40 dinar" (about $40....."I'll give you 2"..."OK., make it 5", etc. There's one phenomenon I couldn't quite figure out. There are Chicago Bulls Tee shirts and hats all over the place in Tunisia. I'm not a sports fan and I wasn't sure who the Bulls were but I figured they must be a basketball team with some tall Tunisians on it. No other sports team was in evidence, just the Bulls and you'd see their logo on everyone from a ten year old Arab boy in an obscure village to the German and Italian Club Medders. What gives? Inquiring minds want to know...

I spend a couple of days in Houmat Souk, soaking sun, sipping cafe" in the cafes wandering about in general and starting to feel like this is resembling a vacation in some ways. The rest had been work up to this point. I decide to sign on for a two-day trip to the Sahara. They have two day bus trips or three-day land rover trips. The land Rover sounds tempting, visions of the Tangier to Liberia off road race comes to mind. Alas, the bus is cheaper so I go for it.

Two days later, 6:30 am. the bus station in Jerba. I climb on the bus and I'm the only person on board this 56 seat Mercedes Glide Mobile. I'm thinking this is great and maybe only a few more people will show up. We pull out and drive across the island to the "zone touristique" which is the club mad strip of hotels on the beaches. We pull into a hotel and there is a sizable group milling about who are to be my travelling companions. Now by this time I've gotten pretty astute at spotting nationalities, especially en masse. Everyone dresses pretty much the same, French, German and Italian, anything with an American Logo on it is de rigeur. I spot a couple of Chicago Bulls hats on some of the men. This group though, looked different. Not as horizontally challenged as the Germans and not quite as aloof as the French. They pour onto the bus. Italians! All right! Every last one of them. The guide for the bus climbs on and starts speaking Italian through the microphone. He, like everyone else, doesn't speak much English. I'm wishing I'd paid more attention to that dip who taught French in Jr. high school. Anyway, this is all looking copecetic to my eyes. To use some more gross stereotyping, if the Germans could be from Arkansas or Texas, the French could be from New York or L.A. then the Italians could be from Trinidad or Jamaica. We stop at a couple more hotels rounding up a few more strays, Italians all the way. We roll out for the desert. I'm happy. These Italians seem to have an unaffected grace about them.

After an hour and a half we make landfall at Medenine, an old trading town situated amidst scrub desert reminiscent of Arizona. The bus pulls up to the souk and I get a clue as to what our adventure will entail. At the souk there are three other buses and about 15 land rovers all parked, picking up or discharging their respective cargoes. I get a quick hit that this is going to be a sound bite type of tour. Lots of turbans and jellabas in evidence amongst the various German, French and Italians. I see that small clusters of these folk all have on the same color jellaba, ostensibly furnished by the tour group operator, I imagine so he can locate his charges in the crowd though I assume the charges themselves are in a de riguer mode for the big desert excursion.

We stroll into the souk, all 56 of us about a third heading for the WC, another third or so with cameras sort of beeline it to the high ground up some stairs on top of the wall. Now all the medinas are the center of the old, and I mean old part of town and invariably have a wall around them that at one point kept out the riff-raff. All towns were fortresses. The folks atop the wall are all jostling for the best photo op, one that excludes tourists in the viewfinder. I take a few shots of the tourists taking shots and head outside the wall and around the corner where I get some great architecture shots. Great architecture in Tunisia. Something that seems to be common in a lot of desert places I've seen is the starker and blander the landscape the more ornate the dwellings placed thereupon. It is a nice contrast. Everywhere in Tunisia there are arches, mosaic, domes, nice stuff. I note that nothing here is painted white and assume that the whitewash is a coastal phenomenon. The souk itself contains the same stuff as the other souks. I wonder to myself if they buy it in bulk from Mexico or something. 30 minutes later-me and my Italians are back on the bus. By this time I have appropriated them as "My" Italians in my mind. I am rapidly coming to really like this crowd. They seem very unassuming, inquisitive but with a sort of innocent reserve. I'm probably idealizing them as is my want. I don't have a clue as to any of the conversational content and base all my conclusions on facial expressions voice tones, demeanor etc. They seem to have an innate grace. I do the same thing with people in my hometown with whom I often have just as vague a clue about conversational content as this situation. We roll on.

Another hour or so and I hear the word "troglodyte" bantered over the loudspeaker as the guide discourses in Italian and French. I pull out my guide book (I finally found one in English) and I see we're coming to a town called Mahtmata which is bonafide troglodyte country. I didn't realize that the word "trodlodyte" referred to anything other than those little gnomes in German fairy tales. Comes to mean underground dwellers and that's what these people are. Berbers who have carved homes in the cliff faces, chiefly in the faces of cliffs that make up the sides of these sinks or holes that are naturally occurring and are maybe 50 to 100 feet across. This is where George Lucas filmed those scenes in "Star Wars" of Obe Wan Kenobe in a desert with underground dwellings. Troglodyte land to be sure. So, we pull over, there's another bus there and half a dozen land rovers. We assault the village. Italians and me poking into every nook and cranny, Now this particular Troglodyte village is a prop for the tourists. An old Berber woman sitting on the ground cranking a millstone by hand. In another room a donkey lashed to a lever turning an olive oil press (olive groves cover the entire length of Tunisia's coast). All very biblical. I remember when I was young I hitch-hiked through Afghanistan and I was enamoured with the culture. It seemed so down to earth and wise. Some years later I came to realize that I'd been pretty subliminally influenced by Sunday school and visions of bearded gents in long flowing robes, Charlton Heston, to come to believe that people in turbans and jellabas were all philosophers or something. I climb a small hill and I notice that up the hillside there are utility lines disappearing into holes in the ground. I suspect the rest of the troglodytes live a might spell better than the trogs in the sound bite village. 30 minutes later we're off.

Half an hour down the road we pull into a troglodyte cafe, La cafe Berber, for lunch. We pour into underground caverns which are reminiscent of wine cellars with long tables. All 56 of us plus one other bus that was ahead of us. We are served cous-cous with German efficiency, everyone is fed in 45 minutes. Tunisian cous-cous, that same cracked wheat that you get in the grocery store except it is served with a nicely spiced tomato sauce with nicely spiced boiled potatoes and squash and a chunk of beef. Good stuff. The Tunisians really know their spices. In all fairness to the Ministry of Tourism they've done an excellent job of arranging things so tourists can get a real general idea of various elements of Tunisian culture with a minimal impact on the culture itself. I don't begrudge them funneling these mass amounts of tourists into select areas. It seems like a decent compromise given the shear number of German, French and Italians in evidence. I think the conspicuous absence of Americans in the equation is the perception that Tunisia is a fundamentalist Moslem berg ala Algeria or Libya, the neighbors on both sides. Untrue. The Tunisians swill beer with the best of them and to my knowledge don't behead people for adultery or anything like that. They are downright friendly and nice people, at least in the south.

Back on the bus, next stop Kebili and then to Douz. "Douz" is my idea of a name for a town on the Sahara. The landscape has been metamorphosing from olive groves on the coast, hundreds of kilometers deep to scrub desert to bits and pieces of sand desert. Everywhere you look there's mini oasis' consisting of clumps of date palms. From Mahmata to Kebili it gets hotter and drier. Kebili is situated on the edge of the Chott. The Chott is a huge dried up salt lake, a totally flat, featureless pan that is portrayed on my German map as a blue lake. When I first landed in Tunis I toyed with the idea of going to this vast inland lake and hanging out there, imaging marsh dwelling Arabs etc. The Chott- is as dead as this planet gets. About 30 kilometers past Kebili we arrive in Douz.

On the map Douz looks like it's on the Sahara. I had also considered taking a local bus straight to Douz instead of opting for this tour. I figured on wandering out in the desert with I & I. Good thing I took the tour otherwise not only would have I missed my Italians but I would have probably missed the Sahara as well. The Sahara starts about 10 kilometers past Douz and I wouldn't have known it because by the time you get to Douz everything is desert anyway. We pull into a huge luxury hotel in Douz. I took a slight pause of satisfaction knowing this was built for the German, French and Italians (no one at the hotel spoke English). For once I could travel in a place that the long atrophying tendrils of American culture couldn't be blamed for co-opting. We all checked into our rooms then piled back on the bus for the 10k ride to the actual Sahara. It was about 5:00 p.m. and we were going to catch the sunset and moonrise (it was the full October moon that night). A few of the young Italian girls opted for staying behind and hanging out at the pool. Some things are universal.

We drive the 10 kilometers and pull into a sort of broad parking area that is full of more camels than I've ever seen. Literally some 500 critters. We are truly at the end of the road. I'm a big camel fan from way back. Camels have a psuedo-dignity about them, sort of an arrogant pride that is nice to see in a domesticated animal. This is camel city. Big camels, little camels, pretty camels, ugly camels, grizzled camels, sexy camels, (whoops! only kidding!) Lot's of camels. We have an option of taking an hour-long camel ride into the desert or walking on our own. I couldn't resist. Me and my Italians, one by one, all 56 of us (minus the two back at the pool) boarded a camel apiece and set off into the Saharan sunset ... Yeah!

I was ambling along with a nice Italian couple. It was so much fun we were all smiling, big smiles. I started talking with the Italian gentleman. He'd speak Italian, I'd answer in English, no problem. We rode awhile together up over a rise and there it was, one big empty desert. Even the sand changed. The Saharan sand is almost like powder. It is sort of a cliche but it is true that everyone that sees this gets an overwhelming sensation just to walk out into it and disappear. It wouldn't be a bad place to die. It is alluring in the deepest sense of the word. It occurred to me that you'd probably have to walk a couple of thousand miles before hitting landfall.

The Sahara lay to the south, the sun was setting in the west and the full moon was rising in the east. I was happy. The whole trip became worth it all. From the engine blowing up on the plane in S.F. to this moonrise, this one vignette made it all O.K.

We spent a couple of hours there. That was not O.K. I want to come back, maybe rent a car and drive there and just hang awhile, at least a few days. It is one of the most powerful places I've ever been and I've been a few places over the years. Too soon we board the bus back to the hotel for dinner. So, I can enter the Saharan desert into my mental inventory of real good things on the earth.

Back at the hotel we have a feast. These Tunisian hotels seem to hire a lot of French chefs and they can really pull it out. Excellent spicing and they do it right, even when cooking for a cast of thousands. We eat and then retire early to get some sleep anticipating our 5:30 a.m. trip across the Chott.

Next a.m. up and on the bus after coffee (coffee is omnipresent in Tunisia, little espressos for 20 cents a cup). We drive to the Chott. I note the landscape is really getting flat and keep thinking we are in the Chott but after a few miles it becomes apparent that we are in the periphery. All of a sudden everything disappears, no scrub no solitary palms in the distance, just a perfectly flat horizon. The dead zone. With nothing to key your binocular vision on things become two-dimensional. Looking out on the Chott it appears as a wall, top half blue and the bottom half-brown. It is big, some 70 to 80 miles across. Right in the middle we pull up to a line of stalls selling mineral specimens purportedly found in the Chott. Bright blues, reds, and yellow specimens, unlike any I've ever seen. Behind the stalls I spot a bunch of paint cans, bright blues, reds and yellows. I don't know what sort of living these guys make out in the middle of the Chott selling bogus minerals but it sure is a long commute so I imagine they do O.K. for themselves.

There was a solitary item breaking the horizon, a shed with "WC" on it, sitting by itself on some dubious looking salt ledges. I suspect it is a prop that, should one choose to walk out to it they would find their feet punching through the salt crust into who knows what. Those Berber mineral dealers sure had a sense of humor. This place had all the ambiance of a truck stop I once visited at the juncture of 505 and 5, north of Sacramento called "Pantyhose Junction". They sold Elvis clocks and Mexican black velvet paintings instead of bogus mineral specimens but the feeling was much the same. On across the Chott it occurs to me that there is probably a kickback arrangement between the driver and the places we are stopping.

Far side of the Chott we come to Tozeur. It is date palm country and we're there at harvest time. We stop at a huge oasis that Tozeur was founded around. A tropical jungle of date palms, pomegranates, figs and olives, all crisscrossed with streams, paths., to probably several hundred acres. The humidity in the oasis is high in contrast to the stark aridity we'd just emerged from. We wander through the groves. I come across a couple of guys harvesting dates. Off the tree they are a smooth low/orange fruit. The taste is incredible, slightly tannic and pulpy but pure sugar. Good stuff. After about an hour in the oasis we go to see a very old Koranic school. As my Italian is no better at this point all I come away with is that it was old and had some great doors. All over Tunisia you see great doors, generally painted blue for luck as is the custom in many Islamic countries. I burned a lot-of film on doors this trip. After Tozeur it is off to Nefta, a small sound bite stop at the oasis there to buy some dates and after that we turn the bus around and head back towards Jerba.

The trip back was pretty uneventful, retracing our route without the sound bites. As we pass the now familiar spots we see a steady entourage of tour buses and land rovers at each stop.

After about six hours of desert with a few pit stops for coffee we arrive at the ferry for Jerba. I realize I'm going to miss my Italians. I hope I'll run into some of them in the souk back in Jerba where we can not converse some more. I mentioned the grace of the group. As we're approaching Houmat Souk a woman comes down the aisle passing the hat for the bus driver. My ever-cynical mind suspects the tour operator put her up to it and that he'll probably split the haul with the driver later. So what? I had a good time. I think the guide was probably pretty informative judging on how much he talked even if I didn't understand any of it. I pitch in my Dinar (about a buck). We arrive in Houmat Souk. I'm the only one getting off there, everyone else is heading back to the "zone touristique". As I walk up the aisle of the bus everyone bursts into spontaneous applause. I don't know if this was their way of showing appreciation for my having hung with them "incomprehendo" or what but it sure was nice. I say "arevadechi" and wave goodbye.

I realize I am really glad I made this trip. The Sahara was worth all the changes it took to get there. Sometimes it seems that when you do go through some stuff to get somewhere that there is a bit more depth to the experience. Like hiking into the wilderness as opposed to driving in. Anyway, I feel good. Lithia Park is fine but the Sahara is a little deeper cut. Next year I think I'd like to come back, maybe learn some French or travel with a French speaking friend. But then again, Italy sure sounds good ...



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