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Photographer's Note

The white streak of the car’s headlights pierced the darkness, illuminating the rocks and ruts of the ‘piste’ which was supposed to take us to Old Matmata. A well-paved new road also goes to Old Matmata through New Matmata, but it’s twice the distance of the older piste. As dusk was already rapidly encroaching, Ken and I decided to take the shorter route hoping to get settled at our destination before dark. Now we regretted that decision as blackness enveloped us on this narrow, twisting, pitted path along the edge of a southern Tunisian mountaintop.

Only half an hour earlier, Berber boys in Toujane had shouted, “le piste, le piste,” after us as we trundled through their rock-and-cave hillside village.

I looked up ‘le piste’ in my dictionary. “Trail,” too late I realised what the boys were warning us about. So, avoiding deep holes and edging around boulders we inched our way along the piste in the dark. At times the surface levelled out into a shallowly grooved corduroy road. Then we’d screech on the brakes again at another long section of cratered concrete.

Eventually the silhouette of a house, like an apparition from an Arthur Conan Doyle story, interrupted the darkness with its eerie light. Three dogs charged out barking viciously, and chased behind our rented Volkswagen Polo for a stretch. We ploughed on.

Far below, in the valley, a cluster of faint lights teased us forward.

“That must be Matmata!” I rejoiced. Eyes fixed on those distant lights, we twisted and turned and bounced along at a steady five kilometres per hour for what seemed like an eternity. The lights receded and disappeared, plunging us again into darkness. After another relatively smooth stretch more boulders started.

A horrifying thought possessed us, “What if this path comes to a dead end? We must turn back.”

The prospect of retracing our steps over that jarring trail was daunting. But going forward into the night along a disintegrating path was even more frightening. So back we went, over the same pits and bumps we had come. Back, past the ghost house. Ran another race with the barking dogs. Back to Toujane, the rock-hewn Berber village where boys had first warned us about ‘le piste’.

“Auberge Shambhalla,” declared a sign on Toujane’s main, and only, street.

“You come from le piste?” Beshner, the young auberge proprietor welcomed us incredulously.

Yes, like a couple of stupid tourists, we had, indeed, attempted to drive the piste in the dark.

Auberge Shambhalla turned out to be one of the many typical cave and rock Berber homes in the region featuring several rooms dug into the cliffside and barrel-vaulted, round-roofed, stone buildings extending around a central courtyard. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the indigenous Berber people of southern Tunisia cut deep caves into the cliffs to escape the Arab invasions. In such troglodyte dwellings, underground, they lived undetected by the marauding armies. The constant temperature inside the caves was cool during the desert heat of summer and warm during winter. As a result, the Berbers continued to live in their climate-controlled underground havens even after the invasions were over.

At Auberge Shambhalla we got the underground cave for our bedroom. Brightly woven Berber rugs and tapestries covered the floor and bed, which consisted of a foam mattress placed on top of a built-in earthen platform. Niches in the walls served as storage space. A bare electric bulb provided lighting. A weathered, palm-wood door, locked with a stake through a latch on the inside, closed the entrance, while a gap above the door served as ventilation.

There was a bathroom at the end of the courtyard equipped with a ceramic toilet, sink and cold shower. The well in the centre of the courtyard was no longer functional after two years of drought. Running water in the bathroom was fed by a reservoir, which was filled once a month by a tanker truck from the north. In keeping with necessary water conservation, the basin was not connected to a sewer. Instead, a blue plastic barrel underneath caught the runoff, perhaps to be used to flush the toilet. Unlike most tourist hotels in Tunisia, Auberge Shambhalla was very basic accommodation. But what a chance to share in a genuine Berber experience!

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Additional Photos by Eva Kato (dawekato) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 498 W: 480 N: 357] (2269)
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