Mass tourism makes a mockery of the Great Saharan Experience.
Douz is a scrubby little town in the Tunisian Sahara and a launching pad for the ‘Desert Expeditions’ offered by just about every hotel and freelance guide in town. Gone were the sumptuous Tunisian girls that had driven me crazy on the streets of Tunis; here few women were to be seen out and about and though most of the men now wore Western city clothes, there were still some wearing long jelabas or with a cloth around their heads.
I arrived at 5 in the morning and being too cheap to pay for a night that would only last another couple of hours, I made myself breakfast of bread and sundried tomatoes I’d brought with me from Italy outside the hotel I intended to stay in. The first call to prayer sounded and a handful of the faithful passed in the shadows on their way to the mosque, returning my salaam aleikum without bothering to glance in my direction.
The sound of footsteps came hurrying down the hotel staircase and I looked up to see a Japanese boy in t-shirt and shorts. In a world of his own he did 10 star jumps, ran up and down on the spot and then dashed off into the darkness for his morning jog.
I got a room, slept a few hours and went for a stroll – by mid-morning I had already fended off half a dozen efforts to take me out for a desert trip and took refuge in a restaurant where a small French guy in his 40’s seemed to be helping out in the kitchen.
‘My name is Daniel but they sometimes call me Aladdin,’ he said with sparkling eyes, ‘It’s an anagram of Daniel.’ Al-e-din. He had been coming to Douz for 10 years but now couldn’t stand the place. The people had all become hustlers or prostitutes for the tourists and the local culture was fading with each year.
‘The old places were cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Concrete is the opposite. And no one knows to take care of the date trees any more. All the young people just want to come and sell their bodies to the tourists. They all hope to go to Europe and then come back rich. Are you free tomorrow morning? I could show you something interesting. Do you have a camera?’
‘Just the two blues ones to either side of my nose.’
I met Daniel the next morning he took me out to where a local guy was mystifying the town by collecting all the trash to sell back to government recycling projects.
‘The other thing you must know about Douz is that everyone knows everything. Everyone knows you are walking with me, right now. There are no secrets in a village.’
We walked out of the village into the groves of date trees where old men made sure that the irrigation was reaching the palms. The ground was sandy and it was hard to imagine anything else growing here though there was some fassa between the palms, green shoots used for feeding the camels.
The man who recycled the garbage wasn’t there but we walked around and looked at the piles of tins, water bottles and plastic bags he’d amassed. It looked like about 5% of the refuse I’d seen lying around on the ground about Douz. Still, it was amazing that anyone was making any effort at all.
I headed out into the Sahara later that afternoon with Khairi, a local guy with whom I could speak Portuguese as he lived part time in Portugal and was forever on the phone to his girlfriend in Lisbon.
‘She doesn’t want me to work with tourists any more because she is very jealous.’ he simpered, ‘But I tell her I love her so much. So now I just come with you help you because, my friend, life is not about money.’
We met his friend, Saleem, with his donkey, loaded up with supplies and walked out of Douz towards the desert. At the outskirts of town we passed a couple of garish compounds obviously built with foreign money and I guessed these belonged to local guys who had managed to make a European woman fall in love with them on a romantic night in the desert. The odd thing was that although these houses seemed to be designed with no other objective in mind other than to look expensive, just outside the compounds were rubbish heaps that forced us to cover our noses as we passed.
Piles of rotting garbage accompanied the road out of town towards the desert and plastic bags seemed to be the new tumbleweed. Khairi and Saleem pleaded with me to ride in the cart but I wanted to trek in the desert and they both made anxious faces as they pretended to worry for my wellbeing. We stopped about 5km out of town in a nondescript bit of desert and it became clear that the expedition was going to be something of a joke. There were a few small dunes within walking distance but the lights of town could still be seen and I realised I’d fallen for the Package Tour of the Desert for Dumb Tourists.
‘I am unhappy if you are unhappy!’ Khairi moaned, playing his puppydog face. I turned to go for a walk and they were both on their feet as though I had announced I was going swimming with sharks.
‘But you will get lost!’
I laughed and walked off, determined to at least get some solitude. It wasn’t the desert I had dreamed of on the 20 hour boat ride from Italy but at least there was no one else around and I could spend some time staring at the sky, asking how and where I should live. As I watched sand dance along the rim of the dunes, answers weren’t so forthcoming but the questions seemed to matter less.
It was embarassingly difficult to find my way back as twilight fell but there was no way I was going to be reduced to crying out for help so I struggled to retrace my own footsteps in the sand but still overshot the tent by 100 meters when I heard the voices of my guides behind me.
‘We were so worried! Were you lost?’ Khairi whined.
‘No, no, I was just making a little tour of the area,” I replied, trying to summon the reserve of T.H Lawrence.
Saleem already had dinner on the way and had caught some desert rats in traps he had set and these dangled from an overhead line for a late night delicacy. They had already opened up a couple of bottles of a local spirit made from fermented dates and despite their earlier assertions that they were both ‘sons of the desert’, it was evident that I was out here with a couple of clowns. Khairi’s phone rang every few minutes as his jealous girlfriend kept tabs on him from 2000 miles away and Saleem seemed put out each time I so much as tried to break a piece of wood to put on the fire.
Tourists were regarded as children here. We were to be taken out of the town to a bit of scrub land just part the garbage heaps, fed, fussed over and generally babysat while we had our authentic desert experience. We were fragile, incapable and precious. We didn’t know how to make fires, boil a pot of water for tea or make dough for bread. We were to be given the most comfortable place to sleep, the biggest share of the food and if we tried to wash up our own plate it was like a declaration that the guides were neglecting their duties.
Khairi’s friends drove out twice on their scooters to drop off forgotten supplies and held frantic conferences around the fire, yelling out across the metre or so that separated them before leaving us out here in the wild again. Saleem tried in vain to get me to eat roasted rat and Khairi was mumbling into his phone until the early hours. No, my love, of course I’m not looking for other women, I love you so much…
It was pathetic but also rather comic. By day 2 both Khairi and Saleem were bored and restless, the alcohol having run out and I agreed to head back into town the next day. I made a big show of carrying off the garbage that they had intended to leave behind and took some pleasure in lecturing them both about recycling and sustainability. They nodded meekly but clearly thought I was nuts. For my part, I was anxious to just dump them as soon as I could. At the edge of the Sahara there had to be a real guide somewhere.