Alone in the Dark

At its best, travel includes surprise.

The year I got married, my wife had a job with a Harvard project on health and education in Tunisia. I packed a trunk with books, wrote my name and Tunis on the top in nail polish, took it to a Jersey dock, and wasn’t sure I’d ever see it again. (The trunk did arrive.)

We lived in the ancient city of Carthage, on a trolley line outside Tunis. Carthage is where Dido lived and later Augustine. A block from the Mediterranean, our house looked out on a Roman bath (thermes), and beyond it, the Presidential Palace, occupied by Habib Bourguiba. There were few shops other than a “djerby,” a sort of convenience store named after the island of Djerba, island of the lotuis-eaters, in the Odyssey.

When we tired of walking through the souk of Tunis and sitting in cafes left by French colonizers, we set off for the ruins of an ancient Roman City in the sands in the direction of the Algerian border. Remarkably well preserved by the dry air, the city was deserted. Waling alone and impeded by no door, I wandered from the desert glare into a dark ancient house. It was exciting to be alone in what had been a densely occupied place a couple of millennia ago.

Gradually, as my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I realized the room contained a group of men, and then I saw why. There was a large horizontal millstone, the top being turned by a donkey pulling a stick. A man resumed dropping olives through a hole in the upper stone. The olive oil ran through a stone channel into a cistern in the ground.

Mustering my tourist Arabic, I said hello with as much calm as I could manage, as if it were normal to happen on what looked like a Biblical scene in my childhood Sunday school. The men were wearing white robes. They started talking softly, perhaps as startled by me as I by them. I soon left.

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