FOR A WEEK I'd been laid up in Jerba, a run-down resort isle on Tunisia's Mediterranean coast, with a ghastly stomach bug that had liquefied my innards. Even so, I was determined to visit Tataouine before leaving the country. This dusty southern settlement at the edge of the Sahara is renowned for its ksoursancient Berber strongholds built into the rocky hillsidesbut Star Wars nerds know that it sits in an area filled with locations used in the first movie. I wanted to go there and poke around. "Tataouine is only a two-hour drive," I whined to my traveling partner, my then-wife Jackie, as a Jerban doc named Borgi poked my distended gut and scribbled a prescription.
Next morning, I gulped down a handful of mystery pills, rented a car, and hit the road. By the time we got to the vicinity of Tataouine, I was so cramped and feverish that we scrapped plans to return to Jerba and decided to make the daylong trip to Tunis, the country's bustling capital, in search of an English-speaking physician and a decent hotel.
On a barren stretch of highway, our car's oil light flashed red. I pulled over and yanked the dipstick: not a hint of oil. Another mile and the engine would've seized. After a 25-minute walk in the blistering sun, we found a rickety roadside kiosk. A freshly slaughtered goat hung from the awning, its blood pooling in the hot sand. On a shelf behind the counter I spotted motor oil, which the merchant happily sold me for about $10 a quart.
In Tunis, we checked into a hotel and I set out to return the car, braving the Tunisian rush hour, a snarling mayhem of cars, buses, motorcycles, and pedestrians. Two blocks later, a bus bashed my left front fender. The driver leaped out, waving his fist and shouting in Arabic. His passengers were irate, shrieking and pointing at me. After jotting down a phone number, he darted back to the bus and drove off.
The car was barely drivable. I parked in an alley and staggered to the rental office, making several stops at restaurants along the way to relieve my tumultuous bowels. Nobody at the car place spoke English or grokked my stick-man drawing of the accident, so I indicated to one of the agents to follow me. When we reached my car, it had been booted. The agent scolded me in Arabic, shoved the car keys in my breast pocket, and ran away.
By now it was dusk, and I felt utterly helpless. I returned to the car office and pleaded with the agent to help me, but our language barrier was insurmountable. Rational thought ended right there. I hurled the keys, dashed out the door, and sprinted the eight blocks back to our hotel in the dark.
Breathless and frantic, I told Jackie to pack. We barricaded ourselves in the room, certain that the Tunisian police were scouring the streets for the evil, auto-smashing Americans. At dawn we flagged a cab to the airport. Three hours later we were in Geneva, and by morning I was cheerfully handing stool samples to a Swiss doctor. He wondered why we ever went to Tunisia in the first place. Damned if I could remember.