Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Big Chill

Freezing Temps - and No Heat
The last few days have been the coldest that I've experienced in my two years in Serbia. For much of the winter, temperature lows fluctuated right around the freezing point. Today, the temperature when I woke up was -16° C. This cold weather has moved in from Russia. Yesterday morning at school, one of the three power lines at the school went down. Unfortunately, it was the line that also held the server, routers, and much of the school's heating. For much of the day, kids wore their jackets in classroom, but the greatest whining was that the network was down. It's amazing how dependent we become on technology!
In typical Serbian fashion, getting a straight answer on the cause of the outage and when the power would be restored was elusive. Finally about 15 minutes before the end of the school day, the power went back on.

The Roma
On days like this, I think about the people in the city who do not have proper housing - namely the Roma. Most of their shacks are built from cardboard, tin, and other scrap material. Certainly not weatherproof or winterized. There are many who say that the Roma choose to live that way. However, I find it hard to believe that they actually like or prefer enduring the winter temperatures in such conditions.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Serbian Orthodox Christmas

When I was walking down to the green market in my neighborhood this week, I noticed people standing by piles of branches with dried-up oak leaves. It appeared like they were selling them! Upon closer inspection, I saw that the oak branches were bundled with some straw and sometimes a small packet of grain or field corn. As the Serbian Orthodox Christmas was coming up, I assumed that this was part of its Christmas tradition. Note: As the Serbian Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar, Christmas falls on January 7.

I described the bundle to a Serbian friend and asked her what it was. She said it was badnjak. In villages, she explained, the husband would go out to the woods on Christmas Eve (January 6) and find the most beautiful young oak tree/branch he could find and cut it down. This is placed inside the door. In homes where there are fireplaces, the badnjak is placed in the fire for good luck. In the city, the small bundles I saw would more likely be placed in a prominent location such as the middle of the table.

On Christmas Eve, a meal doesn't include any animal (or dairy) products. Fish is allowed though. Some Orthodox Serbs have been doing this kind of fasting for a period prior to Christmas - some as long as 4o days. Left-over food from this Christmas Eve meal is traditionally left on the table, covered with a tablecloth. Spirits of the dead are said to come and also enjoy this feast. On Christmas Day, the meal is large and more Serb-like - with meat being a feature, such as roasted pork. A special round bread cesnica with decorative braiding is also typical. A coin is sometimes placed in the bread, a sign of good fortune for the recipient.

Another Serbian friend taught me the Christmas greeting, which is much more in-tuned to the true meaning of Christmas: Hristos se rodi" (Christ is born!) and as greeting in reply: "Vaistinu se rodi" (Really born!).

Indeed, Christ is born!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Zagreb Travelogue - March 2005

Zagreb 2005
CEESA Conference, Croatia
March 17

Off to the Conference

Due to its relatively close distance (229 miles), our school was able to send a large number of its teachers to the CEESA (Central and Eastern European Schools Association) conference in Zagreb, Croatia. After school, we all boarded the bus at the nearest road wide enough to handle a coach bus. With tote bags full of snacks (we wouldn’t stop for food), we were prepared to undertake the approximately 7-hour journey.

Once outside of Belgrade, the hills gave way to flat land. The open rural land was a stark contrast to the city of over 1,500,000 people. Although the temperature was spring-like, the brownness and bare trees still reflected the recent winter snowfalls. Water was standing in some fields that likely were covered by snow just a week earlier. When I remarked that some of the fields were already plowed, the local teachers remarked that this was unusually late, due to the “long” winter. If only the winters in Wisconsin were that short! A few small tractors worked up the rich land. Small villages dotted the land, with their terra-cotta tiled roofs and orthodox spires emerging from the skyline. Although I spotted a few sheep, their small numbers and absence of olive trees was evidence that I was not in Tunisia.
Upon reaching the border, we all showed our passports to pass from Serbia and into Croatia. Local teachers commented on how different it had been a little over a decade ago, when the region was known as Yugoslavia. As it became dark, the movie “The Last Samurai” was played, subtitled in Serbian. As we approached the outskirts of Zagreb, a police car escorted us the rest of the way to the hotel. Although we didn’t see this as a necessary measure, it assured that no hostilities would occur to the Belgrade-licensed bus. Even today, there is still resentment between some Croats and Serbs.

Friday, March 18
City tour
After the conference sessions were over for the day, many conference-goers boarded busses to begin the tour of the city and the host school, the American International School of Zagreb. The school, formerly a Catholic seminary, certainly was larger than our rather homey campuses in Belgrade. After a quick tour of the school and its crafts exhibits, interested parties boarded the buses to begin the city tour. Even though we didn’t travel very far, maneuvering the narrow, rather congested one-way streets made traveling by bus take longer than it probably would have if we had walked. Trams seemed to be the other sensible transportation method used by many residents.

Interspersed throughout the old part of the city were buildings dating back to the late 1800’s. This reconstruction occurred after a disastrous earthquake that demolished many of its Baroque structures. Some of these older buildings appeared to be recently restored, while others were in a state of neglect. Several of the prominent buildings were painted in various hues of yellow, beautifully contrasting the blue sky of the spring day. Graffiti was scrawled over the bottom level of many buildings.

Ban Josip Jelačić Square
Driving past the famous Mirogoj Cemetery, our first stop was the Ban Josip Jelačić Square. In the central part of the square was a prominent columnar monument, with a golden statue of Mary facing the cathedral and several golden angels surrounding the base. The sculptures were especially beautiful as they glowed in the setting sun. We had a few minutes to peek into the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a part of Zagreb’s visual identity with its Neo-Gothic twin spires. Next to the cathedral was a fortified-looking conical tower, with a gate that used to be the Kaptol’s southern entrance.

I was surprised at how quiet the streets seemed; there wasn’t the lively atmosphere of the downtown walking street of Belgrade. There were, however, some fancier sports cars showing off at high speed - something I hadn’t seen in a while. Of course, I don’t think any Yugo cars will do much speed racing anyway! Signs were all in the modified Latin script, making Croatian much easier to read than the Cyrillic dominating the otherwise similar Serbian language.

At the restaurant, a large table had been reserved for us. Surprisingly, the restaurant wasn’t all that smoky. The group dined on mixed meat platters, which were quite similar to what I’ve eaten in Belgrade. Drinks consisted of Croatian pivo (beer) or wine from the country. After the late meal some went to a jazz club, while others walked back to the hotel, tired after a long day of conference sessions.

Saturday, March 19
Upper Town
After conference sessions on Saturday, I departed the hotel with a few other teachers and headed towards the street where we heard people were selling Easter-related
and other crafts. Many of the vendors had already packed up for the weekend, but we did get to see some of the ceramics (hand-made and moulded), handmade jewelry, and painted eggs. I had enough money to buy a painted wooden egg and charming tiny porcelain bishop figurine.
Determined to see St. Mark’s Church, whose multi-colored coat-of-arms tiled roof was featured on the cover of the conference program, I headed onward in spite of the continually graying sky. Walking up the steps next to the funicular railway (built in 1891), I went past the famous Lotrščak Tower and its rooftop canon which has faithfully fired for over 100 years exactly at noon. I now had a beautiful view of the Lower Town. Church steeples interspersed throughout the city peeked through the skyline. Nearby, a young wedding couple posed by the stairs and a street performer played the guitar. Drawn by the steeple of St. Marks, I walked on. Older women carrying bouquets of flowers walked away from the church, now at the end of the narrow street. A Croatian flag proudly waved from the side of one of the older buildings. Although the sky wasn’t blue, St. Mark’s was still impressive. Unlike the decorative roof, the inside was rather simple. After enjoying my walk through the Upper Town, I headed back to the hotel in time for supper.

Sunday, March 20
Palm Sunday
Determined to see a bit more of the city before our bus left, I went for a morning walk. Nearly all shops were closed and the streets were quiet. Men and women stopped at flower stands in city squares to purchase fresh bouquets of spring flowers. I also noticed more and more people carrying a green, non-flowered plant, which I then realized was an olive branch bundled with what looked like pussy willows. Outside some churches, I observed some selling piles of olive branches. The sound of church bells tolling enriched the festive morning.
Although I wasn’t following a map, the relatively grid-like layout, combined with the landmarks of prominent buildings, statues, and grassy boulevards, made it fairly easy to maintain one’s sense of direction. Once the spring flowers were planted and things greened up, I’m sure these areas would be quite lovely. I am looking forward to the same in Belgrade.

Back to Belgrade
The police car once again escorted us out of the city, where once again the flat plowed lands dominated. As we neared the border, the lengthy queue of semis (many from Turkey) was quite astonishing. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait in that line. Back in Belgrade, things were unpacked and preparations began for school for the following day.

Spring Thaw in Belgrade - March 2005

Dear all,

Today I took the tram downtown, bought some watercolor paper (didn't have
the type I wanted, but I bought a sheet to see how it works anyway) and
gesso, and walked up the main walking street. It was the first nice weekend
in some time. By that, I mean that the sun was out, sky was blue, and spring
was in the air. The snow from a week ago was melting quite nicely, along
with the resulting ice which covered any sidewalks or walking areas. Lots of
other people had the same idea and were out for a stroll as well.
Young families pushing strollers, others stopping to buy ice cream from a
street vendor, teens with their shopping bags, everyone with their
cigarette, and old men leisurely walking as they chatted. I decided to join
them, grabbed a sandwich, and read from my book as I ate in the park. As I
entered the park, the initial series of park benches had crocheted doilies
of various sizes, a few handknit sweaters, and some antique toys and pins.
Some of these vendors had good faces, so I'll have to bring my camera next
time. The smell of popcorn was in the air, and you could faintly hear the
sound of the accordion coming from the street performer on the walking
street. As I read and ate my sandwich, the sun provided spring warmth and
the snow below the bench was a nice rest for my feet. The park was also
active people, talking, pushing strollers, reading, and walking. Little kids
bent over to pick up some of the wet snow, which quickly melted into a
smaller ball. After finishing my lunch and progressing in the book, I got
up and went for a little walk in the park as well. I then boarded the tram
and made my way back to Senjak, where I stopped to pick up some produce at
the green market and then back down the hill again to pick up a wool suit
jacket I had tailor-made. Also got a little drawing done, more reading,
cleaning, made granola cereal and baked some molasses cookies. Tomorrow I
hope to get some more drawing done. As it is supposed to rain, that will be
a good thing to do.

Thought I'd share one of the crafts that Serbia is famous for. The
mountainous region of Zlatibor is known for its hand-made 100% wool
sweaters. Typical ones like you see on this webpage and
are brightly colored and contain village scenes or plant motifs. On Friday
one of the women from the village came to school with some sweaters and had
them on a table in the lobby right in front of the computer lab. I was
"obliged" to take a look and one in particular called my name. It is natural
wool-colored background with a simple village scene and a cute hood. A very
warm and unique item that will be a great momento of Serbia.

>From Melissa in Belgrade, where the sun finally came out yesterday to begin
melting the ice and snow

Education and the Roma - 2004

Dear all,

Hope everyone is having a wonderful Thanksgiving. Here in Serbia we didn't
have off of school today, but still celebrated a staff dinner after school.

This morning, the head of the Serbian Red Cross (who has two children at our
school) came and spoke to the upper school students for the kick-off to
their charity drive. The student council decided to cooperate with the Red
Cross here in its work with the Roma children. The Romas are often known by
others as gypsies. They have been living in Serbia (former Yugoslavia) for
hundreds of years. Having said that, they are a proud "race" and have
retained their own culture, language, and identity. Unfortunately, that also
has meant that they have not assimilated into their "host" culture, leading
to some ostracism and definite misunderstandings/misconceptions.

According to the Red Cross speaker, the number of Roma people in Serbia is
unknown, but some estimates are as many as half a million. The Roma are
populous here, as they are in other eastern European countries.
Unemployment, lack of education, and poverty are big problems for the Romas
here as in other countries. Most Roma children do not go to school - partly
because their parents don't see the need (it is more important to them to
beg, steal, or spend the time collecting cardboard or other items for small
amounts of money), and/or because they don't fit in - no proper clothing,
can't speak Serbian, etc. This lack of education then perpetuates the
poverty cycle and accompanying problems.

The Serbian Red Cross has begun in the last three years piloting a program
that is the first of its kind with the Roma population. It has begun setting
up kindergartens for Roma children, catering to ages 4-7. Here they are
helped in their acquisition of Serbian, given warm clothing, have toys to
play with, a good meal, and a good start on education. The belief is that if
the Romas begin to get their children in school at an early age, they will
then feel successful and stay in school longer, get that necessary education
which leads to jobs, and begin a more positive cycle.

The student council is kicking off a drive to collect warm clothing, canned
goods, toys (used and new), school supplies, and hygiene products. These
items will be donated to the kindergartens. Currently there are 30 Roma
kindergarten centers, but by January that number is expected to be around
50. This "charity" choice is an interesting one for the students at our
school in that the local students (which number around 25%) come from
wealthy families and often harbor the attitudes of their parents - that
Romas are undesirables, etc. By collecting items for the Roma children,
(some) going into the homes and schools of the Roma children and seeing
their situation, I hope that this disadvantaged population is seen by our
students in a different light. I also hope that our advantaged children will
begin to appreciate the special opportunity they have been granted due to
their privileged financial and social status to have an excellent education
and all its advantages. And, of course, I hope they will experience the joy
of giving to others. Many overseas students will enter higher-level
international positions (such as diplomatic) as adults. Greater empathy for
the disadvantaged and actively working to address their needs will benefit
the entire world.

Until later,

Spontaneous Excursion to Novi Sad, Serbia - 2004

I've learned that spontaneous trips can be a delightful way to spend a
weekend. Earlier in the morning, the director's wife (she teaches 2nd grade)
called and asked if I wanted to join them for a ride out to Novi Sad, a town
about 2 hours north of Belgrade. As I have been spending most of my time
here with school-related tasks/functions, it sounded like a great diversion,
as well as an opportunity to see another part of Serbia.

As we traveled out of Belgrade, the terrain changed drastically - from the
very hilly city to the flat plains dominating the countryside. On the
outskirts of Belgrade we saw a large number of homes that had their
structural bricks completely exposed. Jerry (school director) explained
that any home that is not stuccoed is considered incomplete, and therefore
is not taxed. In Mali, a similar rule was in effect for homes which had
their rebars exposed above the first floor.
Framing both sides of the road were large flat fields of corn, sunflowers,
watermelons, and other crops. Roadside stands displaying fresh produce such
as peppers and watermelons clustered along this main route between the two
towns. I always found it interesting that several vendors selling the exact
same things would set up their wares so close to each other. Along the first
stretch, one lane went north and the southbound traffic had 1 1/2 lanes. The
middle lane became a passing lane for either direction - an often precarious
situation. Thankfully, newly-completed construction with a divided highway
enabled us to travel much more quickly along the second stretch of the trip.

About two hours later, we reached Novi Sad (population 270,000), a modern
city situated at a strategic bend of the Danube. Prominent high on a hill
overlooking the river was a powerful fortress, developed in the 18th century
to hold the area for the Hapsburgs. Although grass covered the tops of the
walls, it was obvious that the perimeter of the fortress was quite
extensive. With a bit more time, you could tour through the dark tunnels
snaking across the area. Cannons and other war artillery stood near some of
the structure's moats. As we reached the top, we parked near the museum. In
front of the museum was an archaeological excavation in progress. Perhaps
some of the findings would make its way into the museum's collection.
Perched high on the hill, we had a great view of the city. Traditional
terra-cotta tile roofs contrasted with the newer sections of the city. Beams
from former bridges emerged from the river, remnants from the bombing there
during WWII. New lower bridges were subsequently constructed next to it. In
the distance was another bridge, in the process of being rebuilt after being
bombed in the late 1990's. Moving around the top of the fortress, we went
past a number of large buildings. Art galleries occupied some of the small
rooms, but it was obvious that with some renovation, the place would have
great potential.

Now back down the hill, we crossed a bridge and headed into the main part of
Novi Sad. With the removal of some graffiti and some restorative attention,
the entrance would have been quite charming. Lucky to find a parking spot
right away, we headed towards the pedestrian street. Bright flowers of
contrasting colors beamed in front of the outdoor cafes. Ahead of us were
some newly restored buildings in various colors, having all the charm of
other European cities. Along both sides of the cobblestone street were small
boutiques, restaurants, and cafés. In these streets you could find
everything from handmade leather goods to Reebok sneakers to a whole store
dedicated to Barbie. While eating lunch at a quiet seafood restaurant, a
small band marched by. Full from the lunch, we weren't tempted by the stands
of ice cream. Evidence of more restoration was underway in one section of
the street. With more funds, cities such as this and Belgrade could be quite
charming. Strolling back to the car, we headed back home by mid-afternoon.

Jasmine Scented Evenings - and a Flood - September 2003

Dear all,
As the temperatures have cooled down to a comfortable 70's and 80's, I
suddenly have more ambition and desire to do things. As I write this, the
crickets are happily chirping away in the 76° evening. All my windows are
open, letting in the breeze an occasional faint scent of the lovely jasmine.
Just before dusk, I went for a short walk around the neighborhood. Boys were
outside on the street playing soccer, and the girls chatting away as they
congregated on their roller blades and scooters. More and more of the
buildings in the area (I live in a suburb of Tunis the capital) are
progressing along, some with their cinder blocks/cement being painted and
others receiving decorative trim. Most of the homes are multi-level with
balconies and a walled/gated entrance. Extended families are quite typical.
Covering the tops of the wall and cascading down are bougainvillea other
flowering hedge-like plants. My favorites though are the jasmine plants.
Tonight, the gentle breezes waft with the scent of jasmine.

Ah, what a difference a few days make. Since starting this email, things
have drastically changed at school and elsewhere, due in part to the
weather. Earlier last week, it began raining. First it was just at night and
then an occasional shower during the day, then it decided to rain (including
lightning and thunder) hard and for several days straight. Just as Italy had
its worst flooding in 50 years, Tunis had record flooding (the government
doesn't publish those figures nor does it notify the public that a bridge
was taken out, etc.). Thankfully, my apartment (the school provides housing
for overseas hires) remained rather watertight. Unfortunately, the school
did not fare as well. The force of the water pushed the front gate from its
hinges. The water went up to the old buildings and portables (remember that
our school doubled in size since last school year and we have a space
shortage), but the "newer" building, finished just a few years ago,
sustained flooding in its lower floor. Personnel who did manage to arrive on
Wednesday waded through waist-high water. The lower shelf in the library was
under water and printers and other items stored on the floor in the computer
lab were floating. Breaking through a window, they managed to move some of
the brand-new printers (the computer shipment from the US had just arrived
not long ago) to higher ground.
On Friday, we drove to work (school was cancelled but we wanted to
assess the damage), flooded streets were still evident. Water bubbled up
through man-holes, three-lane highways became one-lane in areas, and large
trees were uprooted. Already forewarned by the Director, the librarian knew
that the books and videotapes on the lower shelves would be a total loss.
After peering into the flooded computer lab, I proceeded to help the
librarian and many members of the school community reluctantly take the
soggy bottom books outside on carts or wheeled chairs. As some continued
bringing out the damaged books, others wrote down the barcode number and
book title, shaking their head in dismay as damaged books began piling up.
Some of the books (many of them brand-new reference books), had just been
placed on the shelf the prior week. Others carried the books to a huge heap,
ready for trash removal. Had we been in the US, lamented the librarian,
perhaps we could have been able to save the books by freezing them quickly
or by other means. Here, they will quickly mold and mildew. It was difficult
throwing away Janson Art history and other reference books, many of which
were purchased through a special grant.
After the list of damaged books was compiled and a few mildly affected
placed in the sun to dry, I went to the computer lab to see what I could do
in there. Wading through water, I began to throw away cardboard, take out
the rug, and remove the lower drawers of my cabinets. As the flood shorted
the electricity, I would have no idea the extent of the damage. Two servers
had some water inside around the hard drives, so we promptly removed the
hard drives and placed the items out in the sun to dry. I learned that the
computer equipment would be covered by insurance, but the insurer wasn't
sure about the books - a potential blow to a school struggling to
accommodate the needs of its larger population.
Elsewhere, first floor elementary teachers began the process of cleaning
up, throwing away, hanging up to dry, and moving items - things many of them
did about a week earlier when a strong rain/wind storm went through. It is
especially difficult for these teachers, as they were already short on
certain supplies due to the doubling of classes and students.
Later the insurance assessors came, noting the damage of items. They
could not go down into the basement where the circuit breaker, some
furniture, and the school's nice sound system was held, as the basement was
totally under water. Levels had started to recede some through pumping, but
the stench of floating paint was horrible. The embassy health nurse came
over and gave instructions on how to properly sanitize the rooms to help
stop the related problems of mold and mildew and advised that the affected
classes not be held on Monday. The ever optimistic director didn't think
that it was necessary for school to be called off for anyone on Monday -
we'll see who won out tomorrow.....
Although I don't know the full details (not all the staff was there), I
did hear that some of the support staff lost everything. A few teachers
found their cars submerged and one couple (their first time teaching
overseas) found their house flooded and refrigerator floating, along with
the newly purchased school furniture and personal wall hangings they had
intended on hanging this weekend. Others lost irreplaceable teacher
materials and other items. But in the end, we realized that they are all
material possessions - and not nearly as valuable as human life. I'd like to
hear how the farmers fared, as agriculture still is an important part of the
country's economy.
It will likely be a very different start of school tomorrow, especially
for the classrooms affected. Hopefully it will be the last time we have to
deal with such a disaster.

Until later (and hopefully drier)

Winter in Tunisia - January 2003

I’ve been waiting to write this letter until I had something pertinent to
write about. Unfortunately, not much has been happening here. The big news
is all the rain – it’s rained for several weeks, at least a bit every day.
During the weekends, it’s rained practically the entire time. I’ve heard
that huge “lakes,” necessitating a drive of 10 km to reach the other
village, now divide villages that were once neighbors. People aren’t
complaining though, because there has been a shortage of rainfall for many
years. Those roads that are potholed are now filled pools of water. Those
that are unpaved (thank goodness, these are few in the capital city) are
masses of light-colored mud. Everything is greening up, signaling growth and
a rebirth that will make spring even more beautiful. I have heard that
ancient Roman sites such as the hilly region of Dougga are especially
beautiful when the wild flowers come out.

Although it’s a Mediterranean country, it gets cool enough to
warrant wearing a sweater and jacket. Unlike homes in Morocco, the average
home in Tunis has heating – especially nice on those windy, rainy days when
the temperature is 50° or even lower. Gosh, in Mali I didn’t even have a
spring jacket! In between the rain, the deep blue skies emerge, with sunrays
gently warming passersby.

Next week (exact date still not determined – awaiting moon
sighting results) will be the Aïd, the holy Muslim holiday commemorating the
event in which they believe Abraham was about to sacrifice Ishmael (the
Bible portrays Abraham sacrificing Isaac). Sheep are appearing everywhere,
herded in varying flock sizes to large areas such as the open field fairly
close to my house. While some are herding the sheep, buyers are selecting
just the right sheep and leading the rather reluctant sheep to the car. The
next challenge is to fit the sheep on top of or inside the vehicle. It all
reminds me somewhat of the large Christmas tree lots – except that these
“finds” have minds of their own!

There has been talk at school of a lot of upcoming changes. Have
you heard about the turmoil in Abidjan, the capital city of the Ivory Coast?
The African Development Bank had its headquarters there. Anyway, the bank
(with its over 1,000 families) was tired of all the turmoil and instability
of the country. They have decided to relocate the entire bank’s headquarters
to Tunis. Although we don’t know exact numbers, the school has been told to
expect over 100 new kids by the end of March. Right now the school has about
230 pupils, so adding 100 new kids would have a huge impact on the school!
The school board has approved the immediate construction of at least three
new classrooms, which should help somewhat. They also would like to push up
the planned construction of more facilities, but having the financial
commitment of this new bank would make things more assured and easier to
plan. I hope the Director gets some accurate enrollment projection before he
goes to the recruitment fair, otherwise it will be rather difficult to
determine what type of teachers (grade level, specialty) we need.

I’ve been trying to follow the news as diligently as I can.
Since I don’t have a TV, that means checking Internet news sites such as CNN
and BBC. The local government has affirmed its support to the American
community, saying that it would do all it could to ensure the safety of the
Embassy and American citizens living in Tunisia. Rioting or demonstrations
would not be tolerated. The American teachers (who married Tunisian men)
said that things remained very calm here during the Gulf War. I pray that it
stays that way. During that time, the families of American Embassy personnel
were sent back to the US for a few weeks, as a matter of procedure – not out
of any direct need. Because the school is quite international, the absence
of American students would not significantly impact the school population.
Should the worst happen, the school has evacuation insurance, so overseas
hires such as myself would be flown back to the US and continue to receive
some of our salary. So, if others are concerned for my safety and well
being, please assure them that Tunisia is basically a pro-Western, moderate,
stable country.

Until later,

Melissa Enderle

An Update from Melissa in Tunisia - Nov. 2002

As it has been a bit since my last travelogue email, I thought it would be
good to take a few moments to recount recent happenings and observations. I
am sitting out on my small balcony writing this, grateful that the
temperature is cooperative enough to enable me to be out here in my short
sleeves with comfort. Rains of the past months have greened up things quite
a bit, with grasses, crops, and weeds replacing the neutral color of bare

This morning, I took advantage of the beautiful weather and went for a
walk. My destination was some freshly plowed fields near the US Cemetery,
discovered yesterday as I went on the HASH walk/run. With Roman and other
ruins within sight, it would probably be a good time and place to find some
pottery fragments, mosaic pieces, and other small items tilled up by the
tractor. I ended up walking to a field plowed probably last week and then
rinsed by the weekend rain, which revealed many more items. Amidst the
rocks, weeds, and modern rubbish, were mosaic pieces and lots of pottery
fragments. Walking through yielded some finds, but would have seen more if I
had sat down and intensely viewed a small patch at a time. Looking at the
mosaic pieces made me wonder what beautiful design they must have belonged
to at one time, and what building floor it must have decorated. One of the
HASH people said that just 10 years ago, the nearby Roman aqueduct and water
storage facilities were all covered up, with only holes sticking through the
surface. Now they are a vast excavated area. Just how much more is lying
beneath our feet?

Things are progressing quite well at school. We just finished three
afternoons of parent-teacher conferences. A number of parents actually
visited me, indicating their concern and support for their child's
education. Last Sunday we arrived back in Tunis from the MAIS (Mediterranean
Area International Schools) teacher's convention, held in Rome from the
7-9th of November. Here, I had the opportunity to network with some other
computer technology people, attend some sessions, sneak in a few sights, and
eat some wonderful food. During one of the evenings, we were given a tour of
the palatial home belonging to one of the families attending an American
school in Rome. The designs and imagery created in different colors/types of
marble made the floors equally as impressive as the huge painting
collection, antique furniture, or the painted walls and ceilings. Determined
to see the Sistine Chapel, I was one of the first ones to enter one morning.
With the room nearly empty, I had the whole floor to myself. Although I
recognized most of the frescoes, things were different than how I had
envisioned it from my art history book. Having just come from the family
palace, I expected the room to be a bit larger. The vivid colors were
certainly brighter than those in the book. Seeing the juxtaposition of the
scenes truly demonstrated the careful thought and compositional planning
that had to have occurred in order to achieve such unity. I had a bit of
time on Sunday morning to see a few more sites, but will definitely have to
return another time when I can devote all my time to what this splendid city
has to offer. Only an hour away by plane, this should definitely be a

The first week of November also brought in the Muslim holy month of
Ramadan. Prior to the anticipated lunar sighting, families hastily shopped
to stock up on groceries and other items. The full stores and packed carts
reminded me of a Walmart on the day after Thanksgiving, when early shoppers
stampede the store to get the bargains. Fasting from sun-up to sun-down,
families rush home to prepare and share the big meals with extended family.
Celebration and visiting happens late into the night, with those wanting
breakfast getting up and finishing before the sunrise. Stores, businesses
and restaurants often adopt different hours - closing during the afternoon
and perhaps opening up after sunset. Traffic patterns also change. We have
been warned to avoid being out on the road around the time of sunset. At
this time, locals race to get home, sometimes even ignoring stoplights. I'm
sure the statistics of automobile/pedestrian accidents during this month
(although not published) would be quite telling. I will have to say though,
shopping at Carrefour (the large French store) which keeps its normal hours,
was certainly a most pleasurable experience, meandering through the aisles
with hardly another customer in sight...

I try to keep informed about recent news events through and and other news internet sites. The US Embassy has just moved in to
its new building - right across the road from our school. Hopefully this
move will mean increased protection and safety for us. Taking into
consideration the worldwide heightened alert, the director, school board,
and some embassy personnel are taking a closer look at safety of the school.
Physical changes and practices will be made in order to assure the safety of
all at school.

If you haven't already, please take a look at some of the photos of Tunisia
I have placed on my website:

A Bientot!


Weekend in Sousse, Tunisia - 2002

Within a short period of less than 2 hours, we had already traveled a
sizeable way south to our destination of Sousse. Located along the
Mediterranean, Sousse is a popular tourist destination who enjoy the beaches
and shopping. The third largest city in Tunisia, Sousse is an important
producer of olive oil, various industries, fishing, and a commercial harbor.
We stayed at a 5-star hotel called the Orient Palace for 30 TD a night
including breakfast and supper (ordinarily a package worth about 4 times as
much), compliments of the owners who have a child at our school. Nice side
benefit, heh?

Once in Sousse, it was immediately apparent that we were in a place
catering to tourists. Numerous large hotels with pools and other amenities
lined the roads and beaches. Signs were often posted in multiple languages
including German, French, Arabic and English. Discos, restaurants with
Western menus, a casino, and souvenir stalls were not difficult to spot.

Armed with a camera, money and a comfortable backpack, I began my
journey inside the medina. Shortly after walking through the arched gateway,
I noticed that part of the large wall (supposedly built around 859 AD)
surrounding the old city was gone, destroyed in WWII. As in the medina of
Tunis, vendors sat outside their tiny shops, hoping to lure potential
buyers. Quickly deciding what country you must be from, vendors welcomed you
in that language. Souvenirs and goods were plentiful: plush or stiff stuffed
camels, tacky camel T-shirts, plenty of patterned ceramic dishes, silver
jewelry, shishas (water pipes for smoking tobacco), leather goods and rugs
were some items readily available. If you paused or glanced at the goods in
front, the owner would extend an invitation to come and look in the shop -
just to look. Of course, good prices were promised. You had to be savvy and
patient, bargaining until a fair price was reached.

Through the labyrinth of stone-paved streets, locals were seen doing
their shopping as well. Meat stalls displayed fresh cuts - sometimes
dangling the whole head of the animal in the store window. The rich scents
of spices in large sacs filled nearby areas. The bright colors of cheap
plastic containers and the tempting array of cold drinks or local desserts
were difficult to miss. Young children carried fresh produce or baguettes in
large woven baskets, walking in sync with the basket in between them. Young
men strategically maneuvered clumsy carts through the crowds. An occasional
motorbike zoomed by.

After a time we stopped at a narrow shop selling rugs. Piled high around
the perimeter of the narrow room, the empty middle space was only wide
enough for one person. More inexpensive hand-woven knotted and woven rugs in
a variety of colors and patterns were available. It wasn't until the piece
was fully unfolded that the beauty was revealed. Having spent a little time
already, the owner offered us sweet mint tea and water. Bargaining finished
and purchases in hand, we proceeded to the nearby silver shop. Some teachers
were especially interested in the older Berber jewelry pieces.

After enjoying a freshly-made pizza, the rest of the group decided to go
back to the hotel and I went back into the medina. I had much more to
explore! With my new carte de sejour in hand stating that I am a teacher in
Tunisia, I could now get into museums and sites for free. The fortress-like
ribat was my first destination. Built in the 8th century, the Islamic
monastery definitely felt like a fortress or castle. There were the watch
towers, slits in the walls to shoot arrows through, and the openings in the
floor above the entrance from which hot oil or other items could be poured
over those who managed to get through the large door. Like many other older
buildings, the ribat also reused Roman columns in its structure. After
walking up the narrow spiral staircase to the watchtower lookout, I was able
to enjoy the magnificent view over the medina, harbor and the sea. I got an
aerial view of the nearby Grand mosque courtyard, as well as another view of
the impressive arcaded porticos of the ribat courtyard.

After a little shopping and sightseeing, I meandered in the direction of
the National Museum, hoping to fit a visit in before evening. Rather than
taking the more touristy or commercial route, I wanted to take a tour
through a more residential area. Unfortunately, the twisting street took me
in a diverted direction. I saw a woman standing in the doorway wearing only
her bra on top. Thinking that odd but not quite making the connection, I
continued on that way. After seeing a few more scantily dressed women and
one with nothing on top, I knew I had wandered into the medina's red-light
district. Unfortunately the route was a dead end - so I had to walk back
through the whole thing! Almost dusk, people were walking home, carrying
fresh baguettes. When I arrived at the museum, I discovered I was too late.
I would have to come again.

The next day I quickly walked through the narrow streets to reach the
museum in time to view its renowned collection before we had to return to
Tunis. Occupying the former Kasbah at the top of the medina, the Sousse
museum's superb mosaic collection awaited me. Walking through the inner
garden, I noticed a young man diligently working on a mosaic. The mosaic
figure, approximately 2 feet in dimensions, composed of small pieces of
natural colored stones, had taken the man 2 months so far. Just imagine how
long the huge murals covering entire floors must have taken the Roman
artisans! In addition to the extensive mural collection, the museum also had
Roman statues, funeral furnishings discovered in Carthaginian and Roman
burial grounds, and miscellaneous artifacts from the Romans, Punic and
Byzantine Christians. Knowing that some of these artifacts such as Roman oil
lamps could be found in the fields around my house in Tunis, I was eager to
do a little exploring when I got back to Tunis.

Upon returning to the hotel after the medina trip, I took a quick walk
to the beach. Whereas the hotel courtyard and nearby beach was virtually
empty in the early morning, the place was now filled with tourists, sunning
themselves and enjoying the beach and water.

Heading back to Tunis, the large modern hotels gradually were replaced
by large fields of olive groves and the occasional vineyard. Small homes and
fields with tractors dotted the land. Hills green with trees provided a
colorful release from the hues seen in the resort town. After passing
through a few toll booths on the modern road, we were once again back in
Tunis. Until another weekend.....

Trip to Dougga - 2002

After living in the capital city of Tunisia for a month, today would be
my first time out of the city and its sprawling suburbs. Our destination was
Dougga, site of some of the most splendid Roman ruins as well as some
earlier Punic funerary chambers. Like many destinations in Tunisia, the
distance was short enough to make this a nice day trip.

Driving past the modern capital and its many suburbs, traffic lessened
and the concrete buildings gave way to the rolling hills of the Tunisian
rural setting. Farmers plowed their fields, preparing the sandy brown soil
for planting. In other fields, irrigation equipment provided water during
dry spells. Groves of olive trees dotted the landscape, providing a
life-presenting green respite from the neutral tones of soil and rocks.
Along the road, one could catch a glimpse of workers placing picked olives
in large sacks. Roadside stands displayed the area's fresh picks including
pomegranates, watermelons, cactus fruit, tomatoes and plump bunches of green
grapes. Occasionally we would pass a horse-driven cart or small groups of
uniformed children walking home from school for lunch. After about an hour
and a half ride, we caught glimpses of temple columns as the winding road
neared the top of the steep hill.

Grabbing our picnic lunch, we headed towards the well-preserved theatre,
built in 168-169 AD. Walking about halfway up the theatre's flight of stairs
and determining that the view was pleasant, we ate our lunch. The strong
midday sun cast linear shadows of the theatre's slender columns. Through the
negative space framed by the columns, the magnificent Capitol could be seen
in the distance. The paved Roman road composed of large flat stone arranged
in an opposing diagonal pattern led past remains of homes directly to the
golden colored Capital. Immense fluted columns rose 8 meters high,
supporting an engraved architrave. On the pediment, a bas relief of a man
being carried off by an eagle remained partly visible. A blue sky began
emerging through the clouds as I peered through the space once occupied by a
grand roof. In the back room of the Capital, large numbered stones
containing inscriptions or carvings lined the periphery.

As we meandered down the steep slope towards the Temple of the Victory
of Caracalla, we were attracted to the portions of mosaic floors in some of
the closely spaced homes. Sprinkling water on the mosaics revealed the
bright colors of the floor designs, each unique. Some of the more
spectacular mosaics now reside in the Bardo Museum in Tunis- one of the next
places I need to visit. At the Temple, a mortar-less arch rose above two
tall, slender columns. In another section, the vaulted stone ceiling
reminded me of some cathedrals I had visited in Europe. Around the same
area, we visited the baths via an underground tunnel, a small forum, and a
well-preserved public latrine with twelve holes.

Exploring in another direction, we meandered down another Roman paved
street. Here, the loose ground rose quite high above the street level.
Fragments of pottery, oil lamps, and other items could be spotted. In
another area, the loose ground revealed a fossilized shell as I proceeded
down the steep slope. In some areas, indications revealed that there were
levels of buildings still buried. Imagine what treasures still lie buried
beneath the surface!

Tired from the heat of the strong sun, we headed towards the car. As we
headed down the winding road of the hill, we paused to let several sheep
slowly stroll across the road to the flock. Groves of olive trees provided a
little shade for the shepherd from the sun. In some ways, how much has
really changed over the centuries?

On the way back, Theresa, the director's wife, decided to take a
different route so we could see the Roman aqueducts that carried water all
the way to Carthage, a distance of 123 km. Along the way, we saw an unmarked
structure, similar in style to the Punic funerary chambers in Dougga. Near
the town of Oudna, the Zaghouan Aqueduct was spotted. The impressive
structure, dating back to 120 AD, varied considerably along the route. It
curved in some sections, rising in some places to quite a height. At other
times, it appeared to play hide-and-seek, with the arches appearing at
ground level and then seems to disappear, where the conduit is carried

About 30 km later, multi-level buildings began replacing the open
landscape. Instead of spotting cattle or sheep, groups of people could be
seen carrying out commerce or chatting at streetside cafés. In the distance
was the capital city. Our day journey had come to a close.

A trip to the Tunis medina - 2002

Our journey began as we boarded the older passenger train in La Marsa,
heading towards downtown Tunis. Stepping off the train, the modern city of
Tunis awaited us. In one street side shop, men individually bound fragrant
jasmine flowers for placement behind men's ears. Road and building
construction occurred here as well, just like every other part of Tunis. At
the outdoor cafés, men chatted as they sipped coffee or tea and smoked
cigarettes. Most dressed in modern Western clothes, with the exception of
some women who gently draped a shawl over their heads. I was surprised at
how many skimpy clothes and shorts I saw - certainly not what the guide
books described. Along the sides of the wide boulevard Avenue Habib
Bourguiba, one could see a variety of buildings, ranging from larger French
colonial structures to more modern tall apartment buildings and hotels.
Typical of most buildings in Tunis, white was the predominant color,
contrasting against the often bright blue skies. Compact cars waited as
groups of pedestrians walked across the busy streets.

Along the sidewalks and sheltered from the heat under the building
overhangs, men and teenage boys engaged in various entrepreneurial
adventures. Some held fistfuls of sunglasses, eager to capitalize on the
brilliant sunny days in the capital. Between the columns of a building
overhang, others had their shoeshine business set up. A few even squatted
behind scales, waiting for customers who wanted to be weighed. Some people
waited in line to use one of the several ATM machines. Shop windows proudly
displayed their wares, whether it be furniture, clothing, or shoes. At the
downtown movie theatre, posters proudly displayed the current feature
starring Dennis Rodman. Shortly before we reached the arched entrance of the
medina, we arrived at the governmental artisan store. Perusing through the
nicely displayed shelves full of items created in the country, we got a
better idea of prices and what art the country had to offer.

Upon taking the left main route in the medina, I felt an immediate
transformation in my surroundings. The narrow cobblestone street filled with
people as they tried to navigate or take a glance at what the tiny souks had
to offer. The methodical pounding of the repoussé artisans, exchanges in
many languages, and the call of the shopkeepers all added to the bustling
atmosphere. Occasionally a man would try to wiggle his way through the
narrow crowded street with his cart. Making our way past the artisan street
filled with carpets, ornate birdcages, and a variety of souvenir items, we
entered other streets. Some sold spices; others contained leather goods or
flowing clothing. The sweet scent of perfume filled the air as we entered
the perfumers' souk filled with delicate colorful bottles, a souk dating
back to the 13th century. Nearby was the souk of the fez-makers, with some
proudly demonstrating the traditional process. Almost lunchtime, the smell
of food ahead was especially inviting. Men chat as they sipped mint tea and
smoke the hookah pipe. Too hot and crowded for our tastes, we decided to eat
elsewhere. Making our way through the labyrinth of bustling souks, we once
again found ourselves back at the arch separating the medina from the modern

Taxis in Mali - 2002

Greetings from Mali, where it has graduated from being very hot to what I would like to term as blasted hot. After putting out the thermometer for about 10 minutes, the temperature was 107°. Just imagine what it must have been right out in the direct sun! Because many of the overseas hires teachers don't have a car here in Bamako, we take public transportation. The idea of taking a crowded baché shoulder to shoulder with sweaty bodies doesn't appeal to me, so a taxi is much more palatable. Rather than try to hunt down a taxi each time we want
to go somewhere, we have chosen to use a taxi driver who has proven to be dependable.
That's where Mr. Coulibaly comes in. He is a quiet, reserved fellow who doesn't get hyped up or upset by crazy drivers, animals blocking the road, craters in the dirt roads, or shoppers who decide to stay a little longer than planned. He (like most Malians) does not have a telephone, so we make plans the previous time we are with him. Mr. Coulibaly always shows up on time - not Malian time, which can be up to several hours later. We willingly pay a little more for his courteous, timely service, but don't feel like we are taken advantage of simply because we are toubabs - white people.

Riding in Mr. Coulibaly's yellow Renault taxi is a memorable experience. Like most cars in Mali, it is in need of repair. In the back seat, the doors provide you a choice. One door allows you to crank open the window for "air" (albeit the dusty polluted Bamako air), but you have no door handle with which to shut the door. The other door has no window crank, but you can shut the door properly from the inside. Depending on the luck of the draw, you will get the door which will on that day open both from the inside and outside.

This past Monday, after finishing our errands, we jumped in the taxi. The grinding noise we heard on the way there seemed to be louder. Within blocks after starting, the car stopped. Unlike previous times where a push would help start the car, the engine would not start. Coasting to a less busy road, Mr. Coulibaly parked the car and then proceeded to look at the
spark plugs. A man strolling by immediately stopped at the taxi. Wearing a strange hat, psychedelic shirt and a mysterious grin, he assessed the situation and paused. Taking off his hat, he outstretched his hands in a "Y", seemingly asking for strength and power. He continued his "duty" until Mr. Coulibaly closed the hood after changing the sparkplugs. Mission
accomplished, the man smiled, put on his hat, and walked on. Proceeding cautiously on, we were now within walking distance of our homes - should the car break down again. Deciding to take advantage of having transportation, a teacher asked Mr. Coulibaly if he could make a quick stop at the small grocery store ahead. Although he would love to, Mr. Coulibaly wasn't sure if he should, especially with the traffic police nearby. Explaining further, Mr. Coulibaly admitted that he wasn't sure if his car could turn left here. With the lane clear, the taxi successfully turned left, proceeding towards the grocery store. Safely at home, we gave Mr. Coulibaly a little extra money towards the repair of his taxi.

Like most things in Mali, even taxi driving is an adventure.....

Zlatibor Region of Serbia - Spring 2005

Zlatibor Region
Spring 2005

April 17, 2005

Spring break had just begun and I was nearly to my destination of Zlatibor, a mountain region about 230 km from Belgrade. Having left the town of Užice (pop. 60,000) after dropping off some people and picking up others on the bus, we proceeded with the last 25 km. to the town of Zlatibor. The tour-style bus slowly proceeded through the narrow, winding mountain roads. Small farms with terra-cotta tiled roofs dotted the valleys and sides of steep hills. The abundant pine forests (Zlatibor gets its name from zlato, which means gold, and bor, which means pine) provided green, compensating for the decidious trees that had yet to produce leaves.

Only a 4 hour drive (ok, in a bus it takes longer) from Belgrade, the region of Zlatibor is a favorite destination for Serbians. In the winter (with over 100 snowy days per year), three ski lifts and some cross-country trails accommodate winter sports lovers. In summer, people flock to the region and its mild climate, seeking refuge from the heat of cities. Although Zlatibor has an altitude of over 1,000 meters with peaks up to nearly 1,500 meters, the climate is milder than one would initially expect. The clean, pure air also attracts people with medical ailments, and is particularly known for its successful natural treatment of people with respiratory and thyroid disorders. For all, the beauty of its rolling pastures, creeks, and forested slopes is enough to provide some respite from the business of modern-day life.

Stepping off the bus, I opted to walk to my hotel. Although I didn't know exactly where it was, I heard from teachers at school that it was fairly close to the town center. Besides, I only had a small duffle bag (and my backpack where I had my photo/electronic gadgets) – the return trip would likely mean more bags. For a tourist town, I was surprised to see that signs (including the hotel and restaurant road signs) were in Cyrilic. For example the town name of Zlatibor would look like ЗлатиБор, and my hotel "Jugopetrol" would look something like Југоптрол. Even the tourist information booth's sign was in Cyrilic! I knew that I would have to crack open the Serbian phrasebook in order to make myself understood here – which was a good thing, since teaching at an English-language school doesn't force me to learn much of the local language.

After dropping off my stuff at the hotel, I headed back towards the city center. Although the air wasn't all that warm, the radiating sun felt wonderful. A small "lake" (more like the size of a large pond) provided a nice focal point for the town, with park benches and a sidewalk circumnavigating it. Children munched on popcorn from the rabbit popcorn vendor stand and all ages happily relished an ice cream cone. Groups of school children chattered and skipped along. Some paused for a drink at the "Česma Kralja Alexandra I" drinking fountain. After enjoying some moments of peace, I walked onward, heading towards the buildings past the lake. Here, newer cottages had been constructed, especially popular with weekenders from Užice and Belgrade. Moving onward, I meandered through the cluster of shops and restaurants. Nearing suppertime, I headed towards the direction of the hotel but was drawn to the expansive hill. On closer observation, one could see small purple spring wildflowers, delicately swaying in the mountain breeze. As I moved onward past the ski lift area, the flowers became more numerous, dotting the entire hill. Sitting down on the grass amongst nature with the warmth of the sun was quite refreshing.

Mokra Gora
The next day, I headed back into town to find and visit the tourist information booth. Unfortunately, the woman didn’t speak any English, so communication occurred in other ways. After understanding that I wanted to take photos of the countryside and people, she called for a taxi and I was soon on my way to the town of Mokra Gora. When realizing that both could speak French, the communication between the taxi driver and myself then became a bit easier. The skies varied between quite overcast (and even some sprinkles) to occasional patches of blue sky. Regardless of weather, I was going to see as much as I could.
Located near the Bosnia-Herzegovina border, the small village of Mokra Gora is best known for its spectacular Šargan Eight Railway. Designed in a figure eight loop, engineers in the early 1900’s were able to work around the steep cuttings and narrow gorges (300 m vertical difference between the two stations Mokra Gora and Šargan-Vitasi even though it was only a 3.5 km horizontal difference) to create this beautiful section of railway. Although the train route no longer serves its original purpose of connecting rural villages between Belgrade and Sarajevo, this short section has been restored back to its original 1925’s glory and is now a successful tourist attraction. Nearing the train station, I spotted a traditional-looking village on top of a hill. It was the set constructed for the 2004 film release Life is a Miracle. Like other buildings of the area, the roofs were quite steep to accommodate the heavy snowfall. Wood was the dominant building material, used both for construction and decoration. I especially enjoyed the unique church with its carved interior wood and the views from the plateau. The taxi driver pointed to the hills in the distance, which he said were in Bosnia.
The road to the Šargan train station paralleled the train tracks in several places. In other areas the railway went through tunnels. Even though I wasn’t taking the museum train, the view still was beautiful. At the train station were restored buildings including a museum with souvenir shop and café. Climbing up the steps, I walked past the end-of-line turnstile and up to the constructed waterfall. Walking through the pine forest (and pretty pink pine-like flowers), I saw another train tunnel and great views of the area.

On the way back to Zlatibor, we spotted an older woman by the roadside. Beneath her black scarf one could see her white hair with a thin braid across the top. When the driver asked her if I could take her photo, she smiled (many teeth missing), tapped her wooden “cane” and seemed thrilled. After I took a few photos, she held my hand, kissed my cheeks several times, and reached into her pocket to pull out a few nuts. Such warmth and generosity. Shortly after waving goodbye, it began to rain. Back in Zlatibor, I ordered Komplet Lepijna at a restaurant recommended by a teacher. After looking through the crafts stalls and purchasing some of the famous Sirogojno sweaters for my family, the sky once again grew heavy. It would be a good time to get caught up on some reading in the hotel and look at my photos.

Confirmed that Zoriča and the staff members of the Open Air Ethnographic Museum Staro Selo (meaning “Old Village”) were anxiously awaiting my arrival, I was looking forward to the next step of my journey in Serbia. The hotel workers at the desk that Monday morning could speak some English, so I explained to them that I was seeking a taxi driver who would be willing to hang around the museum village for several hours and then take me to some nearby areas for photographing authentic villages and their residents. A personal friend of his, the hotel worker knew that this taxi driver would be a good match – and he even spoke English. Making our way on the narrow winding road, we stopped a couple of times to take photos and for Mikica (taxi driver) to show me some small sights along the way, including the streams with clear water.

Just outside the entrance of the open air museum was a small village church built in 1764. The interior, also painted white, was quite simple. The floor was stone and there were no pews for congregation members. The front of the church had a wooden altar with several iconoclastic paintings that looked quite old. Mikica introduced me to the church Father, explaining to me that he had gotten married here seven years ago. Mikica also showed me several religious traditions, including kissing special paintings, candles burning for the dead and living, and entering/leaving the church facing forwards (walk backwards when passing through the doorway and leaving the church) and making the sign of the cross.

As we entered the museum grounds, we saw several groups of children who had come to see the preserved 19th century homesteads typical of the region. I hope that some of the students from the International School of Belgrade can come here as well to learn more about the cultural heritage of Serbia. For Serbian children, this would help broaden their knowledge of their native country’s history, and would provide a richer appreciation and understanding of their host country. Over coffee at the museum’s homey restaurant, Zoriča explained that she had established this ethnographic museum in 1974, the only one of its kind in Serbia. She had seen many other open-air museums in other countries and was eager to help create such a museum in her home country.

Our tour started with the main house of one of the two homesteads preserved on-site. The first room had a hearth in the middle of the dirt floor for cooking and warmth. The second room had an earthen heating stove, bed, cradle, and long table. The bed was for the eldest of the extended family and the cradle was placed near the stove for warmth. This room had a wooden floor and was the best-furnished space in the homestead. Married family members lived in cottages very close to the main house, but (as this was the heated place of the homestead) all main activities and socializing happened here.

The homestead also consisted of a chicken coop, corn crib (made of wattle to provide good ventilation and drying of corncobs) semicircular baking stove (bread was baked for the family twice a week), a shed for drying plums, a guest cottage, granary, milk house and stable. Only one woman of the family could enter the milk house for sanitary reasons. Here milk, cheese, and butter were prepared. In one of the storage sheds, tobacco hung to dry. In its second room one could see large wooden barrels and a special stove, all for the creation and storage of Serbia’s national drink – rakija (plum brandy). A blacksmith shop served the village. Here I saw wooden wheels and some old wooden farm equipment similar to that like my great-grandfather had used. The stable was located a bit farther away from the other buildings (the milk house was quite close to the main house) and had two levels. A ramp led up to the top level and was used to guide sheep up to the loft. This design is still used in the region. A simple wooden fence with woven soft branches surrounded the homestead.

On the site several buildings have been adapted for visitors and museum operation. A shop sells local handicrafts and goods such as honey and herbal tea. Others are now homey apartment cottages for visitors attending summer programs. There are also a few outdoor theatre-like areas for summer entertainment, lectures, and concerts. Knowing of my desire to take photos of local villagers, our docent took us to the village of Sirogojno. On the way, I stopped to try on a sweater for my sister (the famous Sirogojno sweaters are hand-knitted by peasant women of the region), but my mind was more focused on getting some good photos of villagers. After taking a few photos of some kindly older women, we then went the home of an older couple. I took some photos of them with the traditional conical haystacks in the background. The man then led me into a shed where he was making rakija. His stove for boiling the plums was more modern (but still rustic) than the one at the museum, but it served the same purpose. The finished rakija, he explained, took at least 2 years to ferment. The rakija he produced was mainly for his family, especially for festive events such as the family slava. He offered each of us a small shot glass to sample – it indeed was quite strong. Alcohol content may be from 40-70% (according to the internet, at least).

Proceeding back to the ethnographic museum, we were treated to a tasty meal of kyamak (milk cream butter) on fresh hot bread, sir (Zlatibor cow cheese), and svadbarski kupus (sour cabbage and pork with some veggies). After exchanging contact information and receiving some visiting tips for the next day, I thanked Zoriča and her staff for her warm hospitality. Prior to going back to Zlatibor, we saw a bit more of the countryside, including a small waterfall and country church.

The next morning Mikica picked me up and we headed towards Užice to buy some traditional Serbian music and see a few places recommended to us by Zoriča. We started by visiting the Church of St. George, named after Mikica’s patron saint. Nearby we visited Jokanovića House, a 19th century house preserved as an ethnological and cultural monument. Again, the people here were very warm and friendly, giving us a personal, complete tour. With a combination of the guide speaking sometimes in English and Mikica translating other parts, I understood most of it. The furnishings reminded me very much of items I had seen in Tunisia – an Islamic influence from the historical Turkish domination of the country.
We then went to a local gallery (warmly welcomed again) and the National Museum that housed ancient artifacts, some local traditional costumes, historical documents, and items through Tito’s reign. Tito’s Popular Army of the Liberation as its headquarters formerly occupied the building in 1941. After purchasing the CD’s, we returned to Zlatibor, where I had lunch at a restaurant recommended to me by Mikica.

On Wednesday morning, we left the hotel around 7:30 AM to get in as much as possible before my bus departed early afternoon. Once again, the skies alternated between menacing gray, some rain, and then blue skies. Our destination was Dobroselica, a small village with an old wooden church. At times the narrow road was covered in gravel. We stopped a few times to take photos of the beautiful natural scenery, pastures, and creeks, especially around the area of Vodice. Heading into the village, we met an elderly shepherd with his flock walking on the road. He carried a wooden rod much like those the shepherds in Tunisia carried. His face was reddened and wrinkled from a harsh mountain life. Out here, access to decent education and medical care was rare. He, like other men of the villages, wore the traditional Sajkača hat. During WWII, the chetniks were strongly anti-communist and bitterly resisted the invading Nazis.

One of the local residents offered to unlock the church for us. Taking the very large skeleton key, he went up to the short wooden, carved door. Inside the tiny wooden church (the man said it was 300 years old while an internet source said the church dated back to the early 19th century) were small iconoclastic paintings on wood of saints and many embroidered altar cloths and banners. Next to the church stood a wooden tower housing the church’s bell.

On our way to the next destination, we stopped at a restaurant/hotel outside of Zlatibor owned by a friend of Mikica’s. When going for a walk through the countryside the previous day in a quest to go down to some abandoned farm buildings, I had neared this building. We were then off to Mačkat, a village touted to have the best cooked lamb dishes. While there, we also visited the local church (which had Biblical scenes painted on the ceiling) and the elementary school. Like other educational institutions in Serbia, it had suffered years of neglect. The director showed me the school library, consisting of a few shelves of worn books (most not very “kid-friendly”), many dating back to and about the reign of Tito. On the way out, Mikica spotted two photos of his deceased mother who had taught at the school.
Nearing lunchtime, we stopped at a national restaurant that served the famed Mačkat lamb. The tender meat and potatoes were especially tasty and filled me up for the bus ride back to Belgrade.

This was the first extended opportunity I had to experience Serbia outside the capital city. The people were genuinely warm and friendly, and seemed to be especially enthralled that an American would take such an interest in the country’s heritage. The region of Zlatibor has a lot to offer tourists during various seasons. Hotels are being privatized and beginning to receive needed refurbishing. Meals and lodging are affordable, especially when compared to other European countries. Continued emphasis on tourism infrastructure and a positive P.R. will undoubtedly help the world come to recognize Serbia as an attractive place to visit. And the hospitality of the people will keep them coming back….

Winter in Serbia - Feb. 2005

Winter in Serbia

February 25, 2005

Since we’re on winter break, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on winter in Serbia. It certainly is different than Mali, where the coldest I recalled was around 60°. In Tunis, it never snowed, but winter was rainy, cool, and damp, making it seem cooler than the low 50°’s. I’m sure glad that it’s not quite as cold as a Wisconsin winter, which can sometimes hover around 0°F.

I will have to say that when it has snowed here, it has been some of the most beautiful winter wonderlands I have ever seen. The moist snow clung to every twig, telephone wire, shrub, and even the polygonal spaces of chicken wire fence. In my backyard, my poor bulb plants (who had sprouted in late fall due to some warm weather) were buried by a thick blanket of fluffy snow. In some ways I was glad that the narrow road up to school had not been plowed, as its whiteness completed the scene. At the lower school, the custodians/gardeners were outside, shoveling. On my way to school, I walked past the African Museum. In the middle of the sea of white was a small African hut with a conical roof. It truly was an odd scene! As I entered through the wrought-iron gates of the upper school, I was treated to another beautiful scene. The campus’ many trees were each delicately covered by a layer of snow. The pine trees hung, weighted down by the snow.

Last Friday the upper school had a contest at lunch hour. Each class (8A, 7B, etc.) assembled a team of 6 students and the homeroom teacher. Their task was to create a snow sculpture, using 7 or less props/tools. As a “judge” I was to determine the top three snow creations, rating them on their creativity and teamwork. Creations ranged from the morbid 6A’s cemetery (complete with ketchup for blood), to a porcupine. It was fun to see the kids enthusiastically working together as a team, transforming the snow into clever pieces.

The area where I live is an older section of Belgrade called Senjak. The roads are very narrow, with many roads being only one-way. Those that are 2-way typically only have enough room for small cars to pass by each other. Sidewalks are not always present, or are occupied by parked vehicles. As the sidewalks are not shoveled, they quickly turn to icy paths. Large mounds of snow piled up on the edges often leave the tire path as the only safe place to walk. If that wasn’t enough challenge, add steep hills. The one I have to walk down for grocery shopping is cobblestone, which gets very slippery.

One Saturday evening, a Serbian teaching couple took me to the ski lodge in a nearby section of Belgrade (whose name I can’t pronounce) for a nice hot drink with a great view. Even though it was dark (few lights), you could see kids tobogganing. There was no ski lift, but many skiers used the rope to pull themselves up to the top. It was nice seeing parents and kids enjoying some leisure time together. I’m sure it was a stark contrast to the scene of Belgrade during the NATO bombing.

Now that most of the snow has melted, I’m ready for spring. I look forward to visiting the countryside in its glories of spring growth. Such beauties of God’s creation will no doubt inspire me to do some artwork of the region.

Winter pictures (updated)

Tunisia South Trip- Spring Break 2004

Tunisia, although small, is a country full of diversities. In the 164,000 sq km within its irregular borders, this northernmost country of North Africa contains many ecological systems – from the rolling green hills and flat fields of wheat, to the neatly planted groves of olive trees, to the rocky wasteland and sand dunes of the south. In addition, it has 1,400 km of coastline on the Mediterranean Sea, affecting its climate, trade, industry, and tourism. Due to its strategic position, many have sought to capitalize on its resources – from the mighty Phoenicians and Romans, to the Berbers, Byzantines, Arabs, and French. On our seven-day trip, we would get a taste of Tunisia’s dynamic present as well as its grand past.

Departing by small bus from the Hotel Flora Park in the resort town of Hammamet, we made our first stop to Kairouan. Here, we stopped to admire the two large cisterns (called the Aghlabid Pools) built by the Aghlabids in 896 AD to hold the city’s water supply. In the center of the larger pool, you could still see the remains of pillars that once supported a pavilion where the rulers would come to relax on summer evenings. Our next stop in Kairouan was the Mosque of the Barber. This mosque houses the tomb of Abu Zama el-Balaui, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed, an imam who always carried three hairs from the Prophet’s beard around with him. The pretty tile work is Andalusian in style. Green is a dominant color, signifying the color of heaven. When we were there, two brothers, one about 4 years old and the other around two, were waiting in the central courtyard for their circumcision ceremonies. The guide Driss explained that families often wait until the second child is old enough and have both boys done at the same time, thus making the obligatory sacrifice of a sheep more economically palatable. Both boys were dressed identically, with an ivory-colored traditional robe, white slip-on shoes, white headdress, black and yellow headband, white long-sleeve blouse, and a Western black bowtie. Although the younger boy did not seem to understand what was about to happen, the family doted on the two children and welcomed photographs by onlookers.

Passing through opening in the medina walls and past the cemetery, we reached our next destination – the Grand Mosque. The original mosque of this holy city dates back to 670 AD, but most of what stands today was built by the Aghlabids in the 9th century. Although the thick buttressed stone outer walls conveys a rather austere presence, the look changes drastically as you step onto the large inner marble-paved courtyard. The paving slopes gradually to the center, where an intricately decorated central drainage hole (which reminded me of some of the baptismal fonts I saw at Byzantine sites in Tunisia) delivers the collected rainwater into the 9th century cisterns below. At one end of the courtyard is a square three-tiered minaret, with the lowest level built in AD 728. Also in the courtyard was a sundial that helped ascertain the times of prayer. At the opposite end of the courtyard was the prayer hall. The enormous, studded, carved wooden doors were open to catch a glimpse of the interior, with the enormous chandeliers above and woven carpets on the pillared floor below. The roof around the courtyard revealed a beautiful pattern of archways, created with approximately 450 (it is considered bad luck to count them) columns pilfered from the Roman sites in Carthage and Sousse.

El Jem
Moving south, we headed towards one of Tunisia’s star monuments – the Coliseum of El-Jem, now on the United Nation’s World Heritage List. The well-preserved amphitheatre dwarfs the small town of 10,000 inhabitants. Once a thriving market town on the junction of the Sahel’s main trade routes during the 1st century AD, ancient Thysdrus once contained sumptuous villas. Many of the most beautiful mosaics now housed in the Bardo Museum once adorned the floors of Thydrus’ villas. Even in the town’s peak time, the Coliseum’s seating capacity of 30,000 far outweighed the population of the town. Built in the 3rd century AD, the stone structure was once covered with various colored marble, including white marble imported from Italy. Around the inner perimeter in a few places, traces of the marble still could be seen. Like so many other sites, materials were subsequently removed and recycled by succeeding people. No cement was used, but the structure did contain pieces of lead. Typical of other Roman sites, the coliseum was filled with grand arches, impressively held together with keystones. The bright sun cast deep shadows through the arched walkways. Although some areas were recently blocked off, we still were able to meander through the amphitheatre’s many levels, including the underground passageways where animals, gladiators, and other unfortunates were held prior to being thrust into the arena as entertainment for the crowds.

The Olive Pickers
The landscape of Tunisia is lined with neat rows of olive trees. Cultivated since before Roman times, these hardy trees, about 60 million total in Tunisia, added gnarled character to an otherwise rather semi-arid land. The olives are harvested by hand in winter, used for olive oil and for eating. In fact, Tunisia is third worldwide in the production of olive oil. The hard wood with its distinguishing knots and lines is fashioned into bowls, small carvings, and instruments. The older trees – some over 3,000 years old, had trunks that split into two, nearly separate parts. With the knotty gnarled undulating branches, these squat trees reminded me of geriatric people hunched over with arthritis.
While we were driving through the countryside, we spotted some workers harvesting some of the small black olives in a grove alongside the road. Fine nets were used to catch the olives. Women, dressed in bright assortments of patterned dresses, performed additional sifting with handmade plate-sized sifters. Olives were then placed in large, woven baskets, with two women each carrying the heavy load by the two reinforced handles. Children and donkeys also helped out. I would have loved to stay longer and observe the process and take more photos, but the overseer instructed the people to go back to work and we had to continue onward as well.

Still heading south, we stopped at Sfax for a brief tour. The second-largest city in Tunisia has a well-developed port that handles the export of phosphate (nearly 50 million tons/year) from the mines at Gafsa. Many of the products I’ve seen in Tunisia are manufactured or packaged from this coastal city. The rather unspoiled medina, with its wonderful walled entrance, was used as a location in the film The English Patient. Unfortunately, we arrived at a time in which nearly all the shops were closed, removing the rather chaotic liveliness and interest I have come to associate with medinas.

About 137 km southwest of Sfax, we finally arrived in Gabés, a sprawling coastal industrial city. Once the principal Tunisian destination for the great camel caravans that brought gold from West Africa and slaves from Sudan, the city declined until the recent discovery of offshore oil in the gulf and the subsequent construction of a huge petrochemical complex.
Gabés also boasts of a large pelerine, full of date palms and pomegranate trees. The oases are irrigated by thermal underground springs. The naturally hot water also is used in the hammams. Although there are about 100 varieties of dates, the finest is known as deglat enmuor (finger of light), so named because the flesh is almost translucent. Nearly 50% of Tunisia’s dates, harvested in fall, are of this prized variety. Other parts of the date palm tree are also used. Liquid from the top of the trunk is used as a juice or liquor. After the harvest of dates, the dry leaves are cut off and used for fencing and woven items. The area of Gabés, with only about 200 mm of annual rainfall, aside from the pelerine, is quite sparse in vegetation.
Our bus dropped us off in front of the spice market, a rather touristy spot. Piled high in green pyramids, henna powder was for sale. Made by grinding the dried leaves of the henna tree native to the region, the resulting deep red-brown dye is used by Berber women to decorate their hands and feet, as well as to color and condition their hair. Various spices, some labeled in three languages, contributed to the overall color of the market and provided a wonderful aroma. Incense was also burned in some stalls, sold in crude rock-like forms. In addition to the souvenirs of pottery, stuffed camels, and other items found elsewhere in Tunisia, woven goods with Gabés or names of other southern towns crudely embroidered on the sides.
After about 45 minutes of wandering through the stalls, the bus picked us up and took us to our hotel for the night, the Hotel Chems Gabés. It was a long day, filled with many sights and lots of traveling on the bus. Tomorrow we would take the ferry to the island of Jerba.

We boarded the ferry at Jorf to reach Jerba, the island known according to legend as the Land of the Lotus-Eaters. The high winds blew dust over the dry ground. Women wearing the regional red striped dress covered their faces to shield against the gritty dust. With high winds bringing down the temperature and not much to see on the rough waters, I decided to stay inside the bus for the duration of the ferry ride. Our first stop was the pottery village of Guellala. The town got its name, meaning “strange death,” from the legend in which a stone fell on a tent there, instantly killing a girl inside. Although crushed, her face contained a smile. After seeing a demonstration by a young man creating some local-style pottery using a kick-wheel, we were left to explore the shops on our own. The prevailing winds forced us to scurry between shops. For a place touted by the guidebook for rarely dropping below 60°F, it sure seemed a lot colder! Here, we could find tiles as well as glazed and unglazed pottery with the incised lace-like designs characteristic of the local pieces. Of course, pottery from Nabeul was also present, piled high and scattered in-between the local pieces.

Our next stop was the old El-Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in North Africa. Jerba once had a large Jewish community, but after the state of Israel was formed, the numbers have dwindled down to about 700. The Jewish community of Jerba either dates its arrival in Jerba either from 586 BC, following Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem, or from the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 71 AD. Using either date, Jerba has one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. The El-Ghriba Synagogue, founded in about 600 AD, has its present structure dating back only to the 1920’s. Columns and striped arches were painted in the bright blue and white – colors so prevalent in many areas of Tunisia such as Sidi Bou Saïd. Brightly patterned tiles adorned the high walls, complemented by the plain green windows and ceiling. An old man with a snowy-white beard and chechia hat reclined on a simple bench as he read the Torah. To enter the room containing one of the oldest Torahs in the world and numerous silver plaques from pilgrims, we had to wear a hat and take off our shoes. Amongst the plaques were notes, likely stuck in between by the many people who make pilgrimages to the site.
The town of Houmt Souq, situated at the center of the north coast, was our next destination. Judging from the number of amenities catering to tourists, it was quite evident that tourism is a major industry here. Fishing is the other main industry of this town of about 65,000 residents. Once again, there were plenty of shops full of souvenirs. Our guide encouraged us to visit the fish market, where we heard two men auctioning off the catch of the day.
Our bus escorted us to the Zone Touristique, an area full of seaside hotels and more being built. The Hotel Coralia, was a large resort hotel with a great view of the sea and its beautiful shore. On the ground level was a large dining area and a bewildering spread of food. Following our satisfying meal, we went for a walk. Outside around the large swimming pool, Europeans baked themselves in the sun, with even older women tanning topless.

Trip to the Jerban farm
Following a contact provided by one of the teachers at school, I called the cell phone number of a young man who lives in Jerba. Indeed, his extended family was eager to receive us and show us their farm. After taking some photos at a staged Berber wedding at the town of Midoun, he took us by taxi to Mahboubine. Driving down narrow lanes edged with tall cactus plants, we finally reached the farm owned by his extended family. Several members of the family, a few of which could speak English, warmly greeted us. Upon hearing that my father had raised dairy cows, one of the older members nicknamed my father “Cowboy Jim”. We toured the farm – very different from the one we had seen in Beja. Some of the palm trees were very tall. Younice explained that some of the trees were over 300 years old. Here the soil was very sandy. Touring the family-owned farm, we went past a water pump house, beehives and a large grove of orange and almond trees, both in blossom. The air was filled with the pleasant fragrance of the orange blossoms. Khadija, one of the elder women we met, proudly picked bunches of the blossoms for each of us to enjoy. As we went past other trees or flowers, she added those to our bouquet as well.

Inside Younice’s house, we met his four sons, wife, and other relatives. The sweet mint tea followed greetings. Khadija then continued the tour, leading us to her house on the opposite side of the inner courtyard. In her simple house were many crocheted or embroidered items. After admiring one of the floral pieces on the wall which Khadija had embroidered, she promptly took it off the wall and presented it to my mother as a gift. She later presented a black plate with a camel on it as a gift to my father. How warm and generous these people were! Khadija pulled out some clothes worn by a wedding couple. She and Younice proceeded in dressing us up, followed by the photo shots. Man, I hadn’t played dress-up in a long time!

We were then invited into the home of an uncle. Although rather new, this house’s outer appearance (still resembling the traditional Jerban architecture) revealed that this family was slightly better off financially. Inside the furniture, furnishings, and a large TV also indicated this. The uncle and his daughter (who could speak some English) showed us the trousseau (hope chest) prominently displayed in one corner of the living room. Inside this box were items passed down from generations and would go to the daughter when she married. Here, we were treated to a glass of juice.

With evening arriving, we thanked everyone for his or her hospitality but indicated that we should go back to the hotel. The family would not hear of it and insisted that we stay for supper. After realizing that our protests were fruitless, we stayed as Younice’s wife began the preparation of couscous. She took my mother and me into the kitchen at each phase of the couscous preparation, explaining in French the process. In between, we went through the well-worn photo albums, full of photos of the family at weddings (including their own) and other candid shots. Due to the large size of the family present, we ate the meal was eaten in shifts. As honored guests, we were in the first shift.

Now 9pm, it definitely was time to go. Thanking everyone once again, we headed outside. Younice led us out on the dark, lit only by the moon and stars. Taking a different route through the farm and narrow roads, we finally reached the paved main road. With one last good-bye, we hopped in a taxi and headed back to the hotel, bouquet and gifts in hand.

After a leisurely breakfast and a stroll on the beach, the group (3 couples of Italians, a Polish-American mother and her daughter, my parents and I) once again loaded our luggage onto the bus and headed towards the ferry dock. This time, the sky was blue and the wind wasn’t quite as strong. The line to the ferry was long, so we were encouraged to get off the bus and look around. Along the fishing port we saw huge stacks of rather round terracotta pots. Fishermen tie these pots together and cast them out on long lines. Once they sink to the bottom, the octopus, which likes to hide in rocky nooks and crannies, crawl into the pots, at which time the fishermen haul the pots to the surface.

Back on the mainland, we once again passed by the Mareth Line and stopped for a few minutes to capture a glimpse of the flavor of the local market in Mareth. As our guide Driss had mentioned, women were dressed in the local costume particular to the area. Red was a dominant color and others wore striped dresses, many covering their head with a white shawl. Instead of the lighter skin I had grown accustomed to in other parts of Tunisia, here many had very dark skin. Against the bright white shawl and brilliant sunlight, this provided an extra contrast that was hard to miss.

Upon leaving Jerba, the palm trees gave way to drier land, dotted with scrub grass and a few stubby, thin trees. About 36 km south of Gabés, we passed through Mareth, a small market town where the scene of the most important battle fought on Tunisian soil during WWII. Originally built by the French in the lead-up to WWII to defend Tunisia against the Italian forces in Libya, the bunkers fell into the hands of the Germans after the fall of France, creating a formidable defensive line along the bank of the local river. Here, amongst the vast network of bunkers, barbed wire, minefields and antitank defenses, the Allies finally pushed back the Germans in March 1943, in a battle that lasted 12 days. A museum now stands at the Mareth Line.

Just 45 kilometers from Gabés, the lunar landscape of the Matmata region might just as well be another planet. It’s 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, it’s rather difficult to even notice that there are any homes around – if it weren’t 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 TV’s! 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 camel’s 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 camel’s 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 didn’t 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 Rome’s 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 “sand roses,” 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.

After traveling a distance through the totally barren chott, a large pelerine became visible in the distance. Soon we would enter Tozeur, one of the most popular travel destinations in Tunisia. After reading some books on Tunisia and seeing photos of Tozeur, I was eager to see the elaborate brickwork in that distinguishes the town. Once part of a defensive line that guarded the southwestern boundaries of Roman Africa, the town prospered during the great trans-Saharan route between the 14th and 19th centuries.

The Tozeur Pelerine
Prior to visiting the old town, we took a horse-cart drawn tour through a section of the pelerine. Tozeur’s pelerine is the second largest in the country with around 260,000 palm trees spread over an area around 10 km. Each section is privately owned. In addition to date palm trees, the section we visited had bananas, fig trees, pomegranate, and orange trees – now in fragrant blossom. The air inside the pelerine seemed fresher and cooler: in the summer, it may be only around 70° in the pelerine, while outside it may be around 120°! The Tozeur pelerine is watered by more than 200 springs that produce almost 60 million liters of water a day. Using a complex system devised by a mathematician in the 13th century AD, each tree receives water for 6-7 hours a week. Driss added that there are over 3,600 distributors of water such as the pipes we saw that distribute the thermal water. Around each tree the ground was mounded into a short wall, preventing the water from flowing away.

Once we were deeper into the pelerine, we stopped for a demonstration. To guarantee the best date and largest quantity, the male tree reproductive part is cut and put into the female treetop. Bees then do the rest, completing the pollination. By counting the “steps” of the tree bark and knowing that 2 steps equals one year, you could determine the age of a tree. A worker in the pelerine demonstrated how quickly and adeptly he could climb up to the top of the tree to reach the dates, using his bare feet to secure footing on the rough peaked shape of the bark. An Italian tour member tried to climb up with his shoes – it just didn’t work. The workers of the pelerine get a percentage of the date harvest, up to 50%.

Mountain Oasis Villages
As a side trip, the group went to visit the old Berber mountain oasis villages of Tamerza and Chebika. Situated close to the Algerian border in the rugged Jebel en-Nageb ranges, the villages were once part of a Roman defensive line to keep out marauding Saharan tribes. Because the Berbers communicated with mica mirrors, the Romans called it the “castle of lights.” These villages, along with nearby Midès, were abandoned after the region was hit by devastating torrential rains that lasted for over a week in 1969. These freak rains turned the earthen homes to mud and forced the villagers to move to nearby settlements hastily constructed nearby. Due to the narrow, windy roads and rugged terrain, we traveled the 60 km from Tozeur by 4WD. As we reached the parking lot at Chebika, I was disappointed to see the numbers of other 4WD tourist vehicles. We would definitely not be alone.

On the way to the old village of Chebika, one could see all the box-like, soulless concrete dwellings constructed after the floods. I can understand why the people were resistant to moving into them. Chebika means “spring” in Berber, named because of the small spring-fed thermal stream that flows from a pretty little gorge down to the pelerine. Still standing amongst the melted mud-brick ruins of the village was a small square building with a domed roof. Here, the imam of the village was to protect the village and warn them of any dangers. He couldn’t protect them from the rains though. Moving past the abandoned town, we continued up through the narrow gorge. Along the way, boys and young men held up mica and pretty stones, hoping for some sales. From the higher vantage point, one could see the likely path of the thermal spring – a mountain oasis of date palms, surrounded on either side by barren mountains.

Further north about 16 km, we headed by 4WD to the largest of the mountain oasis villages – Tamerza. High on an adjacent area, we could see the shell of the old walled town. Near the front of the town was a freshly painted domed building, contrasting against with the devastated brown shells of the mud brick village. Behind the village was the spring-fed pelerine, which locals claim produces the finest dates in Tunisia. Just 6 km from Tamerza, Midès stood high above a dramatic gorge. Only 1 km from the Algerian border, the stunning gorge has been used as a setting for many movies, including The English Patient.

On the way back to Tozeur, we stopped to get a view of a larger waterfall in a gorge below us. Next to the waterfall was a larger tourist shop. Driss explained that the homes in the distance were in Algeria. Above us we heard a military helicopter patrolling the border.

The Medina of Tozeur
Although used in the Berber rugs and architecture of the area, the diamond shape, a symbol of power, can be traced back to the Byzantines. In the 14th century medina, we once again were treated to a maze of narrow alleys. Instead of the white-walled buildings, traditional brickwork used protruding bricks to create intricate relief patterns. In the ceilings of the covered alleys, we could see the date palm tree trunks that were used as ceiling supports. The diamond was frequently used as a motif. This style is found only in Tozeur and in nearby Nefta. The pattern created by a variation in brick height and arrangement was enhanced by the angle of the bright sun.
After our stroll of the medina, we toured the Dar Charait Museum. Here we saw a series of replicas of scenes from the Tunisian life, past and present. Rooms included the bedroom of the last bey, a palace scene, a typical kitchen, a hammam, and wedding scenes with the beautiful local costumes. In one room was a fountain with an eight-sided star bottom. Driss explained that the 8-sided star is an Arab symbol (cultural and not necessarily tied to religion), which was derived from the Chinese, while the 5-sided star is Moslem.

The next day, we headed north towards Sbeitla, passing through the region of Gafsa. Although Gafsa also has a date palmeraie as well as pistachios, but its main export these days is phosphates. Ever since the French discovered around 1886 that the hills west of Gafsa were made almost entirely of phosphates, the area has steadily been turned into a large mine. A layer of fine, grey dust coats the area and the phosphate runoff causes pollution both in the region of Gafsa as well as the coastal areas from where it’s exported to the US and other countries as fertilizer and for chemicals. In fact, Tunisia is the world’s 6th largest producer of phosphates.

Putting on a few more layers to shield us from the strong winds, we got out of the bus and walked over to the Roman site of Sbeitla. As the site is around 50 hectares, we weren’t able to tour it in its entirety in the short time we were there. However, it was quite apparent that Sbeitla was an important, prosperous city for the Romans. The region was an important crossing point area in ancient times, centrally located between Morocco and the rest of Roman North Africa. The ideal olive growing conditions ensured that Sbeitla continued long after other Roman towns declined. Olive oil and golden marble were exported to Rome, while white Italian marble was brought to Tunisia. Sbeitla also became an important center of Christianity during the 4th century.

From a distance, the three temples were prominent in both scale and state of preservation. Unlike other capitols where a niche was created in the one building for each god, this one was split into three temples, one for each god. Prior to the temple area, we viewed the ruins of the great baths. Because the floors were collapsed, we were able to distinguish the under-floor heating system. Like other baths, Driss explained that this one had both hot and cold baths to help bathers adjust to the vastly different temperatures between winter and summer. A cistern acting as a reserve for the baths was visible nearby. Fragments of gypsum and volcanic rock were seen on the walls, acting as insulation for the hot water. Due to adequate rainfall and spring water, the area did not have to concern itself for with a water supply as other places had.

Amongst the Roman ruins were remnants of the Byzantines. A Byzantine military fort was partially visible, containing stones recycled from the Roman site. Olive presses, business remnants, and private baths (with a beautiful fish mosaic) were seen. Driss explained that some of the structures were once 5-6 meters high. Following the well-preserved Roman roads, we entered the main complex through the magnificent triple-arched Antonine Gate, built in 139 AD. From this vantage point, the arches framed the upcoming temples, a converging point for the two main roads. The gate opens onto a large paved forum flanked by two rows of columns which lead up to the temples. The middle temple was dedicated to Zeus. The better-preserved left temple was dedicated to Juno and the right one was dedicated to Minerva. Column tops formed as a composite of both Corinthian and Ionic styles were observed here.

As we head towards the theatre, we saw remnants of pipes in the walls near a Roman road. Driss explained that terracotta pipes were later used to carry water to the citizens of Sbeitla. Unfortunately, lead in pipes and other utensils had been used for so long by the Romans that it likely was one of the contributing causes of Rome’s downfall. Some of the walls were topped off by recent restorations, contrasting with the state of the excavated areas. While it looked neater, the restored areas looked rather artificial to me.

Continuing on, we entered the site of the two basilicas. The Basilica of Bellator was built in the 4th century on top of an unidentified pre-Roman temple. In an adjoining chapel was the basilica’s baptistery. The full-immersion baptistery had its white mosaic tiles recently restored. A beautiful lotus leaf mosaic was visible in front of the plain white baptistery. The nearby Basilica of St. Vitalis was built during the 6th century AD. Although not much of the larger basilica remains, the beautiful baptismal basin was a sight to behold. Left in situ in the ground, the rim is decorated with an intricate floral mosaic in brilliant reds and greens.
Our last stop in the Sbeitla site was the theatre. About 57 meters wide, the theatre is the lowest part of the site. The temples, by contrast, are the highest, signifying their strength and importance. We were told that the theatre had good acoustics. Unfortunately, a busload of kids had just arrived, instantly filling the small theatre with active voices and bodies. The theatre was built in a prime location overlooking the river that kept it slightly cooler in summer. Original excavations uncovered the orchestra pit and some columns, but recent restoration has completed the seating as well.
In the distance we could see the Atlas Mountains. There, Eisenhower and Patton successfully stopped the Germans during WWII. Now back on the bus, we began the journey of 105 km to Kairouan.

Kairouan (part two)
The Moslem holy city of Kairouan became our stopping point on the way back to Hammamet. Here, we stopped for the obligatory carpet demonstration. The carpet seller explained that the women who weaved the carpets worked by memory on a design. The woman working at the loom was creating a rug containing 60,000 knots per square meter. One square meter would take about a month’s time. The kilim is a woven and embroidered rug done by Berber women using vegetable dyes. The mergoum style rug features very bright, geometric designs, with bold use of reds, purples, blues, and other vivid colors. Berber women also weave these rugs. The carpet seller explained that the mergoum rug is worked from the back side. One woman usually weaves and the other embroiders. As we sipped our complimentary mint tea, the carpet seller and his assistants unrolled and placed various rugs in front of us. Designs, colors, and styles varied. The carpet seller explained the meanings of some of the designs and repeated that blue often signified the sky and green was a symbol of Paradise. The silk rugs were especially pretty, containing about 250,000 knots per square meter in these shimmering carpets. Seeing that the carpets were out of our desired spending range, we decided to head on and wander the medina. I did take my parents through a part of the medina including the Mosque of the Three Doors, founded in 866 AD by a holy man from the Spanish city of Cordoba. The mosque’s three arched doorways are topped by the three friezes of kufic (early Arabic) script, as well as floral reliefs, all carved in stone. I wish we had more time, so we could meander the maze-like narrow streets, but a schedule dictated we had to once again board the bus.

Day trip to Sousse, Mahdia, and Monastir
After saying goodbye to our Italian group and American mother/daughter team, my parents and I departed by 4WD and headed early the next morning south along the coast to Mahdia. The town of Mahdia now claims sardine fishing and tourism as its main industries. Much of the medina’s original walls were gone, blown up by the Spanish troops in 1550 when they abandoned the city to the Turks. The original Fatimid mosque was also destroyed in the process. Located on the tip of the peninsula of Mahdia, the large fortress Borj-el-Kebir stood on the highest point. Aside from the panoramic views of the city and the clear water, there wasn’t much left to see in the fort. We then entered the main part of the medina and wandered around for a bit.

Heading north again, our next stop was Monastir. Hungry, we had lunch next to the port. We then toured Monastir’s star attraction – an immaculately preserved ribat complex, regarded as Tunisia’s finest example of Islamic military architecture. Our tour guide took us through the small museum of Islamic art. We then explored the assorted ramps and stairs on our own. After climbing up the narrow, winding stairs of the nador (watch tower) built in 796 AD, we were treated to some great views of the coastline in one direction and the Bourgiba mausoleum in the other. The sun tried to peak through the clouds, highlighting my favorite part of the complex – the wall with the large ramp. It wasn’t difficult to imagine this building as one in Palestine. The movie directors of Life of Christ and Monty Python’s Life of Brian both used it to shoot scenes, seeing the ribat as an excellent example of authentic Islamic architecture. After the tour of the ribat, we then headed to the nearby mausoleum of the country’s first president, Bourguiba. No expense was spared on the building. A large walkway of decorative paving blocks led up to the domed building. Inside, a three-ton chandelier hung above the tomb. Marble from Italy and granite from Scotland adorned the building. Along the sides were niches decorated with gold leaf mosaic. In an adjoining room were some photos and memorabilia of Bourguiba’s including a pen from Ronald Reagan.

Our final stop was Sousse. Here, we toured the excellent archaeological museum. In addition to having some great Punic stones, the star attractions are the mosaics including the Triumph of Bacchus. Still needing some gifts, my parents were interested in doing more shopping. After hearing some ridiculous prices by some vendors, they decided instead to purchase things at a fixed price shop. Gifts in hand, they were ready to call it a successful trip. Indeed, it had been a great week.

Side Notes:

Berber Weddings
While on the bus, our guide Driss provided an overview of the traditional weddings. A marriage begins with an agreement signed and arranged by the parents, often at a young age. About 3,000TD is given to the mausoleum by the husband’s family, at which time the contract is signed. The husband also provides a dowry of jewelry (sometimes over a kilogram in weight) and around 6 dresses, embroidered with silk and often between 150-200 TD apiece. Prior to the ceremony, the woman, who must be a virgin, rests for 20 days in a dark room or cave. Here she is to eat a lot of food and should become as fat as possible.
The mother-in-law, after determining if the bride-to-be is fat enough, then takes her to a hammam. Here, the potential bride is purified. After this, a henna ceremony, lasting three days, is perform. Henna, applied to the hands and feet, purportedly brings good luck and wards off the evil spirits.
On the wedding day, the bride wears a dress she has embroidered herself (or by another person) and all the jewelry she has. The bride arrives at the wedding ceremony in a tent-like structure on the back of a camel. In town, the ceremony goes on late in the night – around 3 am. Large numbers of guests attend the wedding festival, which lasts up to 7 days. Imagine all the food the family must have to cook!

Nomads of Tunisia
Tunisia still has about 2,000 nomads, all registered with the government. These nomads are important to the country’s economy. Many raise sheep, which are used for their wool and meat. Others raise cows (for beef) or camels (skins). Camels are worth quite a bit – about 1,500-2,000 TD per camel. As we traveled in the South, low tents in a dark brown color could be seen in the distance. Along the roads in the South, we could see stacks of gasoline in plastic jugs. Given permission by the government to haul the gasoline from cities and then sell it in the rural areas, this service is likely appreciated by both the nomadic seller as well as their customers.