Feature: Camel Market
It's early morning, just before scorching, and I'm in Douz, a dusty little town on the southern sands of Tunisia. The market takes place here each Thursday. People come from all around to buy kidney beans and dried fish, pomegranates, and squash as orange and plump as basketballs. Shoemakers open their doors wide to sell desert shoes - a type of loafer made from camel and cow hide and topped with pretty embroidery. Today, the open-air market is really rocking because school starts tomorrow. Kids, lured by the siren's song of Tunisian pop music, flock to the clothing stalls. Here, backpacks, cotton underpants and thick, black hair extensions are all on display. But I'm after something else. I'm going to the livestock market...
Just cross the crowded market square toward the oasis - what the French call the palmerie. Then take the staircase into a shady patch about the size of a football field. You'll know when you get there.
Yes, there are sheep and goats, horses and asses, and chickens and pigeons and rabbits. But I'm also surrounded by men. Men from town, and Bedouin men just in from the desert, wearing big cotton cloaks that drape to their shins and thickly wrapped turbans.
It's been a week since they last met. Now, they clasp each other like lost brothers. They hug, then thunk their fists over their hearts.
A fellow named Shwayarg - one of the few who speaks English - wants my impressions. "Not for tourists," I say. So why am I here? To see something I'd never see back home in Minnesota. And to size up the camels. Before sunset, I'll be riding one into the Sahara for a night under the stars, and I want to know just what I'm up against.
I'm told these grousing beasts aren't actually camels. They're dromedaries -
one hump instead of two. But they're the same size - about as big as an SUV
- with the same sandy coloring, and the same rascally temperment.
I'm soon picked out by Muhammud, a friendly guy who gently leads me back to where clusters of yellow dates are sheltered by a rooftop of palms. There sits his camel, crouching like a baked potato on the sand. He suggests I take him for a spin. I decline. The thought of careening around on this beast - in the midst of all these men, no less - well, it makes me sweat. And to think, only a couple hours from now that's exactly what I'll be doing as I head off, camelback, into the desert.
I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever make it back.
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