‘This is paradise!’ my guide, Ahmed, proclaimed as he lit his cigarette with a green lighter that stood in stark contrast to the barren backdrop of endless sand dunes that is the Saharan desert. The sun beamed so brightly from above like a torch in the sky that I wondered why he bothered using a lighter at all–surely the sun’s scorching rays would set it alight at any moment without a single bit of effort on our part. It was spring here in Ksar Ghilane—a remote oasis in southern Tunisia that serves as a gateway to the Sahara—and I shuddered to think what the temperatures in the summer would become.
The last time I had heard someone declare that we had reached paradise, I was standing in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The Amazon, dense and impenetrable, surrounds you with creatures that will bite, sting, and poison without remorse. ‘If you hear a jaguar in the night, run to the river’ my Amazonian guide, Antonio, had said matter-of-factly. But once you get to the river, watch out for the caimons and pirhanas. Oh, and while you’re running, don’t step on any fire ants or snakes. The former will hurt like hell and the latter could leave you with poison seeping into your veins. But hey, that’s all better than facing a jaguar, right? I didn’t see any big cats during my stint in the rainforest but everything else, I vividly remember meeting.
In the Amazon, we carried machetes to navigate and mark each tree on our path through the tangled greenery so thick that the sky above was barely visible. But here, in the Saharan desert, there were no trees in sight to mark our path, nothing to shield us from the sun’s glare. Here, it was the sheer nothingness that extends for an eternity in every direction that will kill you. Although my two guides, Ahmed and Antonio, were countries and oceans apart and didn’t speak the same language, I could tell that they would both be great friends, connected by an inexplicable sense of belonging in nature’s serene yet unforgiving expanses–Antonio in the Amazon and Ahmed in the Sahara.
I ran my fingers through the sand and gently patted Camilla (that’s what I named my camel) as she turned to me with that toothy grin of hers. Four years ago, when I was traveling in Egypt, I learned I was worth roughly four camels. A jovial man—who I thought resembled the sultan from Aladdin— had made me an offer I could refuse: four camels to be his fourth wife. I’m not sure if he was serious, but I was indignant nonetheless–surely I was worth at least nine or ten camels! And so I began negotiating. I don’t remember how many camels I had finagled before my friends dragged me away from the bargaining table, but the memory is indelible.
But now, exhausted and sweaty, I felt that Camilla was worth at least four of me. With her long thin legs, she looked as though she were walking on air while I appeared to be wading through quicksand. And the 15-liter daypack I carried on my back was no match for the treasure trove of resources Camilla had stored in her giant hump. She threw her head back and grinned with an air of superiority, as though she knew what I were thinking. Perhaps if she had been there four years ago, she too would have been indignant about my valuation.
When we finally finished setting up camp at our destination—the middle of nowhere—I gazed up at the sky and the sun beamed so magnificently in the distance, that it looked as though this were the moment that God had said, ‘Let there be light!’ (but not cell phone service, unfortunately). Although I was a creature of the concrete jungle, thousands of miles from my comfort zone, in that moment, I felt at home too. And that feeling, for me, is the magic of traveling. From the coastal cities of the north all the way down to the tiny Berber villages of Old Matmata, my time in Tunisia has given me a glimpse of the multitude of human experiences here and for a brief moment, the chance to live it.
Of course, my own experience is ephemeral but I find it valuable nonetheless, particularly during a time when this part of the world is avoided by many. And so the uniqueness of this tiny country remains a secret too well kept from the world, as though buried beneath the very sand dunes that blanket its lands. It’s not perfect here, but paradise doesn’t have to be!