Caves, Colliseums, Indiana Jones…and Me!

15 Nov

This is my second post about my Thanksgiving experience in Tunisia many moons ago. Five American women in Tunisia…made for some interesting moments…

Every morning in Kairouan, Tunisia, we woke at approximately 5:00a.m. as the muezzin’s call to prayer echoed through the neighborhood. Turns out, the minaret in Kairouan is the oldest in the world. I neither knew nor appreciated that then, though the sound of it did add to the feeling that I was living in an Agatha Christie novel. Or a Mrs. Polifax, maybe.

A wee bit of the souk in Kairouan.

Our second day in Tunisia we chose to go to a souk. I didn’t know it at the time, but this bazaar was the exact same bazaar where Indiana Jones up and shoots that overly-zealous, black-clad, scimitar-wielding ninja-esque guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark.* When we were there, there were no ninja guys to be seen. Instead there were pottery merchants and food vendors and carpet sellers, who lured us into their shop with the promise of tea and who were rather cross with me when I chose not to buy a carpet because it would cost me all the money I had and then I wouldn’t be able to buy anything else for the rest of the week. Let me just say: I’d have been better off with the carpet. Far better. I could still be walking on it, or admiring it hanging on my wall. Instead I bought classy things like a clay camel bearing jugs of water and a tiny wall hanging and a tea set (okay, I still like the tea set). Live and learn, eh?

I bought this in Tunisia for my mom way back in 1987. Service for 6!


From the souk we went to El Jem, a Roman coliseum, complete with lion enclosures down beneath the floor of the arena. I shut my eyes and tried to picture the Christian martyrs, to hear their murmured prayers despite the roars of the lions in their ears. Mostly I just smelled hot, dry air and saw sand. In my memory there was hay on the floor of the crumbling lion stalls…but it’s possible that was only in my mind. Unless, of course, they brought some in to stimulate the imagination of gullible Christians like me.

The Roman coliseum at El Jem.

We kicked ourselves a couple days later when we found a brochure for Carthage in the hotel lobby. Apparently none of us had done our homework to realize that Carthage is in Tunisia. Oh, well. At least we saw one Roman ruin, albeit a lesser-known one. Perhaps it was for lesser-known Christians. The non-vocal martyrs of the Roman age. Either that or the ones who would produce less of a spectacle while being eaten by lions.

The next day we saw the fourth most holy Moslem place in the world, the Great Mosque of Kairouan (after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem). This is the oldest Moslem place of worship in Africa. Apparently seven trips to this mosque equals one hajj to Mecca. We walked around the courtyard, but we didn’t go inside. I mostly remember blue mosaics: beautiful color in that dusty land.

Tiles at the mosque.

Courtyard of the Great Mosque

Later we saw a “Camel Drawing Water from a Well” – which, in retrospect, I have no idea why it was a tourist-draw, I just know that it was a “must see” we were told. More like a “must-pay”.  (The picture in this link is an actual camel drawing water from a well in Kairouan!

We took a bus into the Sahara Desert one day for lunch at a Berber hotel. And when I say “hotel” I mean cave. Or, rather, series of caves. We walked through a dark and sloping tunnel to a coutyard, open to the sky. Surrounding us were cave openings, dark and doorless, each entered by way of a ladder propped against the walls of the cavern.**

Similar to the place we ate…


They led us to one of the biggest openings and we climbed the ladder to find a long table waiting for us. Lunch was ready. We ate meat – goat, I think. And flat bread and vegetables in a stew-like dish. I’m an adventurous eater, so I tried everything. I don’t think I left exactly full, but I left satisfied and intensely interested. I mostly remember how dark it was – such a contrast to the incandescent world I lived in. I remember looking out of the unlit cave into the bright, desert light. Everything I saw out that cave entrance was tan-colored. Everything. It was sandy. It was hot. It was far, far away from home.

No, I don’t think I was homesick…but I was intensely aware that the world I lived in, the world I knew and understood, the world I complained about and criticized like any other teenager, was actually far from the norm of all teenagers the world over. I’m not saying I realized I was blessed – for who’s to say that a Bedouin teenager living in a cave isn’t equally blessed (It’s not all about STUFF, right?) – but I’m saying I realized I needed to be more thankful.

And, in the season of Thanksgiving, to a self-centered 17 year old, that was realization indeed.

Next time: The Camel Market, where we learned that “working together” is not necessarily a good thing.

This is the land we drove through. The edge of the Sahara.


*Just to be totally clear: I’m actually not positive if the bazaar in Kairouan was the bazaar used, or if it was the bazaar in Sousse. I found references to both as being used in Raiders’ street scenes. Also, I know that “ninja” is not the right term for that guy in the movie, I just can’t think what the correct term should be!  Here’s one quote I found to be interesting on the topic of filming Raiders: “The Holy City of Kairouan in Tunisia was the Raiders of the Lost Ark filming location for Cairo. Appropriately the town’s name means “little Cairo”. For filming the scenes on Sallah’s terrace, 350 television antennas had to be removed from local buildings to present a 1930s skyline.”  It should also be noted that elsewhere I read that the lovely white and blue houses that are typical in Kairouan were not typical to Cairo, circo 1936.  I’m pretty certain that movie watchers didn’t mind…

**Picture Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle’s home in Star Wars: A New Hope. That’s kind of like the place I ate in, only our place was far more primitive. The actual location of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s house is in Tunisia and can be toured.

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13 Responses to “Caves, Colliseums, Indiana Jones…and Me!”

  1. Beth Ann Chiles November 15, 2012 at 7:11 am #

    Great travelogue!!! And i especially love the tea set!!! Now that would have been MY choice for sure!!!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell November 15, 2012 at 8:21 am #

      I thought of you as I inserted that photo! Yes, it’s fun. My mom had it for years and recently sent it my way. I’d forgotten all about it. My dad sent me the pottery camel, too, for some reason. Can’t understand why he didn’t still need that…

  2. Minnesota Prairie Roots November 15, 2012 at 7:27 am #

    When I read your post title, I thought, this is going to be interesting. And it was. What adventures you’ve had. I found the dining in the cave part most intriguing. And the revelation you had to be be thankful.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell November 15, 2012 at 8:20 am #

      It was a fascinating trip. I’d love to go back…though at the same time, it’s not exactly a warm, fuzzy place…it’s too diffeent…a little stressful.

  3. hotlyspiced November 15, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

    That was obviously a very different Thanksgiving to the ones you would normally experience. I think that early morning call to prayer would drive me silly. Those poor Christians from all those years ago – what a fate! xx

  4. hotlyspiced November 15, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    And here’s the link for the marinated mushroom recipe…

    http://hotlyspiced.com/2012/11/08/marinated-mushrooms-and-on-the-trains/

  5. free penny press November 15, 2012 at 7:37 pm #

    What a great post.. How cool to have had this experience.I have never been outside of the USA and hope to change that real soon.

    Much enjoyed this post!!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell November 15, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

      Thank you – I’m so glad you enjoyed it! And yes, you must get out of the country – even Canada is so different from the US – it’s great to travel and experience things you cannot get at home!

  6. Barbara Bamber | justasmidgen November 15, 2012 at 7:43 pm #

    You’ve definitely had an adventurous life, Gretchen! I wish I had traveled as much as you did. Maybe once my kids have moved out and are more independent. I’m reading a book now where they traveled the desert and lived in caves.. but in the Judean desert (The Dovekeepers). xx

    • Gretchen O'Donnell November 15, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

      Oh, that sounds interesting – might have to check into that! I sure haven’t traveled much in the past 22 years – other than that one trip to Germany and France two years ago. I’d been stuck in the US for 20 years prior to that! No, that’s not true – we spent part of our honeymoon in Victoria, BC…which I love!

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