A green report on my very ungreen trip to Tunisia

Sorry for the extended absence, folks — I’ve been away on vacation, and there’s not much in the way of high-speed wireless in rural Tunisia.

Yep, that’s where I was. Nefta, Tunisia. Far, far, FAR away from Toronto, Canada. Now, I realize some of you will take the fact that I flew all the way to North Africa for a 10-day trip as reason enough not to keep reading this blog. I know it’s hypocritical of me to make claims of being an environmentalist and then proceed to spew over 20 hours’ worth of carbon into the atmosphere for pleasure’s sake. And I don’t really have any solid defense for this argument. All I can say is that there are hundreds of things I’m willing to do in the name of protecting and respecting the Earth, but right now, restraining my air travel isn’t one of them, and this out of nothing but complete selfishness on my part — I have a strong desire to see the world (that I’m polluting) first-hand, to experience what it feels like to be caught in a sandstorm, bottle-feed a baby camel, walk around a date plantation at dusk, and so on.

Anyway, that’s the only rationale I can give you, so for those still reading, here are a few photos and accompanying captions that address some of the green and not-so-green goings on in Tunisia, home of Star Wars, the Sahara Desert, date farming, Berber tribes and dromedary love.

OiLibya Gas Station in Tozeur

OiLibya Gas Station in Tozeur

As my boyfriend commented upon seeing this: “Well, at least they’re honest about it.” This was in Tozeur, where we picked up our rental cars (the most compact, fuel-efficient ones I could find; plus, there were four of us to each car). Filling up a tank costs about 40 dinars, which is $35 Canadian, which is pretty cheap. I don’t know about you, but whenever I saw this sign, I kept shaking my head and saying “Oy, Libya”…

A baby camel in Matmâta, a typical troglodyte village

A baby camel in Matmâta, a typical troglodyte village

How cute overload is this? Can you see his little milk moustache, too? I had just fed this guy some milk from a bottle and wanted to bury my face in his fluffy hump and snuggle him forever. Camels are everywhere in this country and are used for transportation, tourism and unfortunately food. What’s reassuring, though, is that they’re treated well — all the camels I saw looked well-fed and happy.

Environment Mouse

Environment Mouse

Readers, meet Environment Mouse. This cartoon rodent with enormous ears (“Qu’est-ce que c’est la souris avec les grandes oreilles?” my French-speaking friend inquired of a cab driver one day, which led us to the answer) is Tunisia’s green mascot. He doesn’t do much, other than adorn garbage cans, but we still love him.

An organic date farmer

An organic date farmer

My friend Rob snapped this photo of an organic date farmer at a plantation just outside Tozeur. We originally wanted to visit a date factory but ended up getting semi-lost; then, just as we pulled into a driveway to turn around and go home, we stumbled upon a small house and this man, who turned out to be the owner of all the palm trees around us. He gladly showed us around and explained why it was so important to grow these things organically — for instance, all dates have insects in them when harvested, but conventional methods include extracting these with toxic gases while the organic process involves freezing them. We got to eat dates fresh off the stem with no glucose coating, and the farmer even gave me my own palm tree seedling to plant at home (unfortunately, I wasn’t going to take a chance with Canada Customs, so I left it behind for the dude at Avis to take care of). I’m planning on writing more about this for my Sense & Sustainability column at the Post (this week’s story was on garburators, by the way), so watch out for it!


Flying over Greenland

And finally, here’s a snapshot from the flight back, where we flew over Greenland and, yes, there was a very direct and somewhat ironic connection between the plane I was in and the icebergs that were melting down below. But as depressing as that may be, it’s still beautiful.

That’s it for now; stay tuned!

15 Responses to A green report on my very ungreen trip to Tunisia

  1. That looks incredible — what an alternative vacation! As important as “being green” is, I think it’s also important to experience other ways life is lived on our planet and become a better global citizen in that sense.

  2. Ryan Coleman says:

    Looks like a great trip! Tunisia is an interesting country – I went there a couple of times ~20 years ago now and it was always an interesting experience.

    As for the people who’d stop reading because of the air travel – what the heck is the point of preserving the world if you never get to experience or see it. It’s not like you flew all the way there just to have dinner and then flew back.

  3. Oh, Martin who writes the Plasticless blog lives in Tunisia. He writes about trying to reduce his plastic consumption in that country. We are everywhere!


  4. Emma says:

    Enviro-Mouse!! so exciting. Love him. and want a baby camel as a pet.

  5. Jesse says:

    Just because you’re a hypocrite doesn’t mean you’re wrong. That’s a valuable lesson I learned a while back. In the world we live in its almost impossible not to be a hypocrite and still have values. So don’t feel so bad.

  6. Paul says:

    Yes you are a hypocrite. Yes you should feel guilty. You should feel guilty for phrasing the idea of not taking this trip as a sacrifice. For feeling a sense of entitlement to traveling the world. I wonder if the the date farmer feels that sort of entitlement. I wonder if he knows that his farm may be a desert when his great-great-granddaughter is born.

    I agree with Cassandara that it is important to see how other people are living around the world. But I do not think you will learn anything about a country or its people by driving around the country for 10 days. If you are going to sacrifice the well being of future generations by traveling that far then make the air miles count. Find a job in the other country or volunteer in the community so that you can become a part of it. This would involve sacrificing the career opportunities you have here and demonstrate how much you value seeing the world.

    I don’t want to come off self-righteous so I will say that you are not alone. Millions of people are flying every day all around the world for reasons even more frivolous than your own. The UNFCCC has no idea how to deal with this problem and as a result omitted any GHG emissions from air travel in the Kyoto Protocol targets and has not indicated addressing the problem at the COP in Copenhagen.

    I am a 22 year old graduating from University this year and all my friends seem checking their baggage and submitting to intrusive security checks, so I understand why you want to travel. But as a “environmentalist” I am wondering why you prefaced this entry with a rant about how it is bad but you don’t care. Instead why not discuss how and why it really is a terrible thing from a emmisions and environmental stance. Discuss why each kg of GHG emmisions from an airplane causes two times the amount of radiative forcing as emmisions on the ground. Or even just a estimate of how many kg of GHGs you put in the atmosphere so you could have the opportunity to milk that cammel. The sad truth is this single trip has probably completely offset any of the social gains you have created through your quick fix environmentalism.

    I know you probably expected this type of retaliatory comment on your blog. I can only hope that you would have been disappointed if you didn’t get one. I would really respect if you came up with a honest assessment of GHG emissions caused by your trip. I think that would be insightful to your readers.

  7. gettinggreen says:

    No, Paul, I don’t feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to travel, I just like doing it. And I’d hardly begin comparing myself and my own values to that of a date farmer in Tunisia. I already acknowledged the element of hypocrisy in caring about the environment and then stepping onto a plane for a trans-Atlantic flight, but I don’t measure my greenness in such quantitative checks and balances as whether or not a flight “cancels out” my other environmental efforts. This blog is for people who care about the Earth but don’t always treat it perfectly; it’s for people who are trying to embrace a greener path without abandoning every aspect of their current lifestyle. If you can’t accept the idea of people trying to be better to the earth while still committing green sins now and then, I suggest you simply stop reading this.

  8. seenonflickr says:

    I enjoyed your post very much. (That camel is the cutest thing.)

    And I think it’s OK to acknowledge the un-green-ness of travel (especially by air) and still see the world. (Did you consider carbon-offsetting?)

    Best wishes!

  9. pomegranate says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen organic dates in health food stores… I’m going to keep my eye out for them, though! Any idea what brand names to look for?

  10. Doug Appeldoorn says:

    Vanessa, I for one completely agree with your decision to travel. But where shall I begin with Paul’s comment? Firstly I’ll address the idea of travel itself and how I support your wonderful trip to Africa:

    I came across a great article on ecologically responsible traveling. I personally love to travel the world and always felt some measure of hypocrisy because it didn’t really fit in with my green ideals. But as this article points out traveling is good – “it breeds intercultural understanding and respect for our global environment – planetary thinking, at a time that we need a lot more of it.” Traveling is good especially when it’s done right:


    Plus – I usually buy carbon offsets to at least mitigate my air travel. Until they come up with a green alternative to air travel there really isn’t much choice. To say you shouldn’t travel because it’s bad for the environment is a little like saying you shouldn’t heat your home with natural gas in the winter because it contributes to Global Warming. If there were a viable alternative, I’d be using it. I would love to have geo thermal heating, but currently it is cost prohibitive. Paul’s comments also anger me because he is basically saying that you have to be 100% virtuous other wise you are a hypocrite.

    It REALLY bothers me that people think it should be ALL or NOTHING when it comes to living a sustainable life. We do more than most people, and yes we are not perfect, but having seen the world we have a greater understanding of it. You can spend 10 days some where and get a sense of how others live. You don’t need to quit your job and do all the things Paul is demanding you need to do in order to understand how other people on our planet live. Little insights gained while traveling can sometimes amount to huge new ideas. That is what we need right now – new ideas. Refusing to travel by plane shuts down so many possibilities. But of course when you are 22 you think you know everything, hey Paul? I suggest you get out a little more and perhaps grow up a little.

  11. Ann says:

    Paul, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately.

    I feel that air travel is one of the last taboo environmental issues. When people dare to suggest that we just shouldn’t do it, they are labelled as no-fun environmental extremists. I notice many people saying that there is no greener alternative to flying. Well, choosing to fly less is greener. Choosing not to fly at all is greener. As Bill McDonough says, “Doing less bad is not doing good.”

    It’s certainly not an issue to which I have a clear answer; I realize that many people have families overseas that they would like to visit. I realize that many people want to experience other places and cultures. But many people are awfully defensive about their air travel choices in a way that they are not defensive about discussing energy-efficient architecture or recycling.

    Anyway, thank you for bringing a bit of balance to the environmental air travel discussion.

  12. Martin says:

    I have a suggestion for those who want to fly less. If you are not tied down geographically by your work or other obligations, pick a place that is completely foreign to you and live there for several months or even a year or two. Move to a community that has not been developed for tourists. Learn to buy and prepare the local foods. Have real interactions with local people.

  13. Rym B says:

    Hi there,

    I am glad you enjoyed your trip to Tunisia. I am Tunisian myself and thought you might want to know that:
    – the Tunisian environmental mascot is actually a Fennec fox and not a mouse. Fennec fox is a local animal we find in the desert (see link: http://www.canids.org/species/Vulpes_zerda.htm).
    – in Tunisia, we have more than 200 types of date palms producing a variety of products, some are more marketable than others. In Canada, you may find the ‘Deglet Nour’ variety in stores. It is yummy!

  14. Rajib Sharma says:

    wow…. must have been a really thrilling journey…isn’t it?getting to be with a baby camel, wacthing a ‘non-living’ mouse eating up garbages, and at lastn a view of a dying land of so-called Greenland.the last one caught my attention!!!!!!!Was that the last time you visited that place?Was that the last time you saw a baby camel and fed it?was that the last time you saw those melting land?

  15. Rajib Sharma says:

    wow…. must have been a really thrilling journey…isn’t it?getting to be with a baby camel, wacthing a ‘non-living’ mouse eating up garbages, and at lastn a view of a dying land of so-called Greenland.the last one caught my attention!!!!!!!Was that the last time you visited that place?Was that the last time you saw a baby camel and fed it?was that the last time you saw those melting land?
    I hope the only YES would be for the last one?The ice will melt away and with present activities going around the globe, The Return Of The Ice is nearly impossible.Let us engage in Green activities on large scale which will bypass the Ungreen.
    Help Me…Is what I hear from the planets Land. Lets do it.You all guys have that capability which can bring a difference.Every minute step adds life to our nature.

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