Our last day trip took us to the northern coast town of Bizerte and nearby Ichkeul National Park. We brought a friend along (or did she bring us along?) named Nihel. Her family lives in Bizerte so she was an appropriate tour guide. Upon arriving by trusty louage, we took a taxi to the park. Ichkeul is a bit of a special park: several species of plant and animal were threatened due to the creation of dams years ago. The park is a crucial habitat for several migratory bird species and has been restored over the decade. It has also been important to ensure the salt level remains in balance with nearby Lake Bizerte thereby sustaining a dynamic mix of life. When the government took over the land some years ago, they invited the current inhabitants to continue living there providing they cared for the land in a particular way as taught to them by specialists. During our visit, the park was empty (can’t imagine why considering it was a balmy 40°F and raining). We wasted a few minutes visiting a showcase of taxidermy from the 80’s that was masquerading as an “ecomuseum” and spent the rest of the late morning walking around the salty lake practicing amateur bird watching. Sulfurous hot springs bubbled up feeding decrepit hammams (Turkish baths) and wild fennel and olive trees were growing abundantly. We got up close and personal with herds of sheep and listened to squawking chickens and whining goats.
We traveled to Bizerte and visited the home of Nihel’s family. There we met her mother and younger sister and ate leblebi sandwiches and tajine (quiche, more or less). Nihel’s sister was preparing to head back to school (she is in her last year of high school and was home for lunch) but with some convincing, she was granted permission to skip her final class (ironically enough: US Geography). Soon, two other giggling seniors arrived and it seemed that the native English speakers drew a crowd (foreigners don’t often visit Bizerte). We set off on our walking tour with arm-linked girls in tow. At the beach, the waves were big and the marina was quiet. Feeling somewhat guilty for pulling the girls out of school, I assigned them some homework and wrote Hillsboro and Brookings on a scrap of paper and told them that locating these places in Oregon was their assignment, due next time we see each other. As we left Bizerte, Nihel’s mother gave us a very special gift: a homemade Tunisian spice mix called tabil. It smells delicious.