Our last day in Tunisia was our most exciting. But not necessarily for a good reason.
We headed out to the camel market on our final morning. No, we were not looking to buy a camel, but we were searching for an authentic experience in Tunisian life – for this market, or bazaar, was a place of vast proportions and numerous opportunities.
Picture dusty rugs on the desert ground – aisle after aisle of them – with vegetables, fruits, trinkets, pots, pans, pottery, spices, leather goods, and drinks for sale. There were animals, too: goats and sheep and, I suppose, camels, though I think they were in a different part of the bazaar. I bought a baggie of saffron for my mom. I knew it was supposed to be the most expensive spice in the world, but here it was dirt cheap! I wish I had such a good source of saffron now.
It was hot in the open-air market, and aromatic. Cinnamon and peppers and sweat filled the air. And it was full of noises. Bleats and baas, the sounds of goat milk streaming into metal cans. The call of merchants selling their wares, the din of old and wrinkled women gossiping, of young men jesting, of children laughing and crying and playing in the aisles.
We walked down row after row, being jostled and beckoned to, and then, almost as if we’d planned it, all of us stopped – after being persuaded to by the vendors – to admire something that looked like cantaloupe.
My best friend and I stood at one rug, talking with the vendors. I say “talking with” but really it was more “talking at” – they didn’t understand us and we didn’t understand them. I think the phrase “James Bond” might have arisen. Other than that our communication was by smiles and gestures and thumbs up.
The rest of our group stood not two feet away from us at the neighboring rug.
We watched as the vendors cut into a melon with a scimitar – using that long, curved blade to slice through the melon as smoothly as if it were butter. We laughed and they laughed and we did our bit to promote good will and international peace.
And then, suddenly, one of the laughing and smiling salesmen at our rug jumped up and grabbed my friend around the neck. He held his scimitar to her throat – the tip just millimeters from her skin – and, unbelievably, laughed.
No one in the souk looked up. No one worried or noticed or troubled about the gullible Americans and the scimitar-wielding melon-salesmen.
I stood, immobile, terrified, tongue-tied. The man smiled on and on, his gold-toothed grin so wide that I could see where his molars ought to have been. His friends, too, grinned and guffawed.
It felt like minutes passed but I suppose it was only seconds. Next to us, our traveling companions were unaware that anything was wrong, so mesmerized were they by a slick little melon-cutting exhibition going on at their rug. Bits of sweet, orange flesh flew in all directions.
And then, all of a sudden, the man released my friend. Spewing out words we did not understand, he pulled away his sword, still laughing, still flashing those golden teeth. So much laughter! So many broken melons.
It wasn’t until we headed back to the hotel, sometime later, that my friend’s aunt realized her wallet had been stolen.
It was all a diversion. And we fell into their trap perfectly.
But it makes for a great story.