On the train ride south, it seemed like someone was dialing back the saturation levels in my mind’s-eye Photoshop every ten kilometers. Eventually the landscape was simply tan and even things that were nominally green — a few palm trees, some scrub plants — seemed to be some undifferentiated dark color. We were getting near the desert. It was cold outside and the heat was on in the train.
After four hours, we got to Gabès, the end of the line for Tunisian passenger trains. I bargained a ride to Matmata from a Berber in a Peugeot. En route he stopped at a bakery for a box of macaroons. He had perfect Crayola crayon brown skin and wore a rough wool djellaba with a pointed hood.
At my request, the driver took me to the Hotel Sidi Driss, which in its Hollywood incarnation had been Luke Skywalker’s boyhood home on Tatooine, back when he lived with his Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen.
There were two camels parked out front of the hotel, whom I mentally named R2D2 and C3PO. The location was actually a troglodyte pit dwelling that’s native to this part of southern Tunisia. The Star Wars set dressers had added some pipes and vaguely sci-fi doodads, some of which are still in place. But age and neglect have taken their toll. The paint was peeling, the seams were showing, and without the Lucasfilm movie magic the place seemed a little forlorn.
I decided not to stay at the Sidi Driss. Luke had checked out long ago, and the rooms were shared dormitory-style affairs, crammed full of small uncomfortable-looking beds. That didn’t bother me as much as the fact that there was no heat in the underground rooms. I didn’t fancy freezing.
I walked around the place and kept running into a young woman from Kyoto who seemed just pleased as punch to be there. Such is the power of American pop culture. She and I were the only tourists there; January is very much the off-season in the desert.
I was here:
Watching carefully for Tusken raiders and Jawas, I explored the surrounding area on foot. Guidebooks describe the terrain as “lunar,” but to me it looked like a huge construction site, as if some divine Caterpillar had gouged deep furrows in the land and piled up rocks and soil here and there.
After hiking around for a while, I worked up an appetite and headed to a roadside cafe. I’m not sure what Luke would have eaten, but I had some grilled chicken and a Celtia beer.