December 13, 2018

A1 Travel, Off The Beaten Path: A Little Bit of Background

Written by:
Maureen McKamey

It's either the blessing or the curse of being a millennial traveler - I'm always trying to be a travel trendsetter. This is a girl who, a few years ago, thought that going to Paris was SO overrated. (Spoiler alert, it's not. Go to Paris, guys. It's everything you hope it will be, and more. But that's not what this article is about.)

My sophomore year of college, I surprised (more like startled) my parents by telling them where I had chosen to study abroad. No, I wasn't going to London, Paris, or Florence like my friends. I was going to Tunisia, a tiny country in northern Africa, squished between Algeria and Libya.

It wasn't a random pick by any means, and despite the resulting reaction from most people I told, it wasn't for shock factor, either. I was taking Arabic classes in college, and had a concentration in Arab Studies. So I thought it made sense to go somewhere where people spoke Arabic.

Here's the thing about Tunisia: yes, it's a Muslim-majority, Arabic-speaking country sandwiched between two other countries that seem to make the news for reasons that don't scream "vacation destination." But truly, it IS a vacation destination. OK, most people I spoke to about the trip thought I was going to Indonesia, instead, which, while also a Muslim-majority country, is an island that's part of a completely different continent. But despite the fact that most Americans know little about it, Europeans have been traveling to Tunisia for decades. Its Mediterranean beaches are its equivalent to Mexico. And they take expeditions through the Sahara Desert like our version of a trip to the American Southwest.

Riding a camel through the Sahara

I fell absolutely, totally and completely in love with the country during my semester there. The little town where I lived, Sidi Bou Said, was a suburb of the capital city, Tunis. Sidi Bou Said is perched above the sparkling sea, and all the houses there are painted blue and white, like a little north African Santorini.

An ornate door in Tunis's medina

The locals speak French in addition to Arabic - a remnant of European colonialism - as France once controlled much of the region. The country is home to Roman ruins that are better preserved than many in Europe. The ruins of Carthage, once a great city founded by the Phoenicians, then taken over by Rome, were just a short walk from my host family's house. And yes, of course there was the Sahara. Each piece of Tunisia's portion of this majestic desert has its own personality. Rocky, red and orange cliffs echo another place I fell in love with: Sedona, Arizona. But the sweeping sand dunes further south, the seemingly endless piles of beige granules that fade off into the horizon, and the view of the starry sky with zero light pollution, THAT was something I had never experienced before.

Beautifully-preserved ruins of Dougga in northern Tunisia

With French, Italian, Arab and native Berber influences, the food is varied, a bit spicy, but also recognizably Mediterranean. Fresh seafood, olives, tomatoes, bread and eggs were  staples. The country even has a small, but growing wine industry.

You may have heard of Tunisia during the news coverage of the 'Arab Spring.' This little country has always been friendly to the U.S. and Europe, but took a big step toward democracy when it was the first place in the region to overthrow its long-ruling dictator. While the small towns feel like what you may picture when you think of northern Africa, Tunis and its suburbs feel a lot like Europe. Young people dress in the latest fashions. (It's actually the first place I shopped at a Zara, long before the Spanish retailer made its way to Minnesota.) Women can choose not to wear a hijab. My host mom was the breadwinner in the family. She owned a line of lingerie shops - like Tunisia's version of Victoria's Secret.

My Tunisian host sister, Wejdene, and me

But Tunisia's progressiveness has also made it a target. You may also have heard the news about the couple of terrorist attacks the country has suffered in the past few years. Extremists tend to treat Tunisia a lot like they treat their other Westernized enemies, with the attacks in France and Belgium happening during similar timelines.

But unlike Paris, Nice, and Brussels, which are tourist hotspots with plenty of other industries to support their GDPs, Tunisia relies on tourism. It's a huge part of the country's economy, and this beautiful place has suffered more than the European countries I just mentioned, because for some reason, there's a distinction drawn between them. Europe, despite attacks, is still considered "safe." Tunisia and its "otherness" has been painted as unsettled, even dangerous. In a way, it really is like Europe's Mexico. An incredible country with both seasides and deserts, a tourism industry that's crucial to its well-being, and that is, indeed, in many spots, as safe as other places you may visit, but that perhaps may have a bit of a PR problem currently.

That's what you will come to learn about these off the beaten path destinations...oftentimes, their stereotypes aren't reflective of their realities. (Here's a plug for next week's chapter: why you need to stop believing everything you see on Narcos and visit Colombia.)

So if you've already seen the European side of the Mediterranean and are looking for something similar, but also truly different, I hope you will add Tunisia to your bucket list. Catch an Air France flight, stay in my sort-of-hometown of Sidi Bou Said, bring your swimsuit for some beach time, and make sure you take an excursion into the Sahara. You won't regret it.

An oasis in the Sahara