Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pirate ports, clay caves and fresh fish

First of all, my apologies for such a delay in updates! I've had a busy week (I'm actually having to put the 'study' into 'study abroad') and I was sick the weekend before we left for the north! Here's the last entry about the southern excursion...then I'll crank out some posts about my trip up north.

Saturday we were given a free day on Djerba. 20 DT stipend in hand, our task was to explore the island. Sarah and Courtney and I had been reading up on the island the night before and were fascinated by the pirate stories. We made a point not to miss the "tower of skulls," and the fort where Dragut, a Turkish corsair, staged his amazing escape from Spanish fleets.

We left that morning to head to the Houmt Souk marina and the tower of skulls. The tower was a bit of a disappointment. Apparently it was demolished by the French in 1881, much to the chagrin of the locals, and now all that remains is a monument in its place. Sort of a letdown when you were expecting a giant pile of skulls like the name suggested. The story is that the dread pirate Dragut responded to a major offensive by Spanish fleets by killing 15,000 Spaniards. Those that remained in Houmt Souk (5000 in total) were forced to capitulate and every single one of them was decapitated. Dragut and his crew then stacked up all the skulls, pyramid style, and the tower remained there for 361 years.

Not willing to be discouraged, we caught a taxi and asked him to take us to Guellalla, a pottery town in the southern part of the island. Our guidebooks talked about a man who would let you tour his cave where he gets clay for pottery and we decided that sounded interesting. The taxi driver dropped us off and we were met by two friendly camels and the potter himself. He took us down to the cave, lighting candles along the way, and showing us how he distinguishes between the clay and the rock. It was really interesting. After the cave tour we explored his workshop and he showed us a cool contraption called a "magic camel," a piece of pottery with a hole in the top and the bottom and a spout. They are shaped like camels, with the neck and head of the camel forming the spout. He demonstrated as he poured water into the top hole, flipped the camel over, and no water escaped. He then poured water in the bottom hole, flipped it back over and poured it all out from the spout. Not a drop of water escaped through the holes. I still don't know how it works!

After thanking the potter for showing us his cave and workshop we walked toward the Guellalla Popular Culture museum, planning to meet some other students there. They, too, said they planned on visiting the potter and his cave. When we met up at them at the museum cafe, it turns out that they had gone to the place we had read about in our guidebooks...but it wasn't the same place! They went to a cave, too, along with a huge crowd of other tourists, got a quick look, and then were shuffled into the shop where they were expected to make a purchase. They didn't learn anything about the pottery, it was all for show. We had wondered when our taxi driver had gotten out to talk to the potter at our cave like they were old friends. We had, by pure luck and a little miscommunication, ended up at an authentic version of the tourist trap our friends had experienced. Here's a picture of us sitting at the museum cafe overlooking Guellalla:

Some of our group went into the museum but Sarah, Courtney, Lee and I decided to try to find the fort where Dragut had made his daring escape against Charles V of Spain. The story goes that Charles V and his Spanish flotilla had Dragut and his men trapped between the causeway and the fort (borj). Dragut barricaded himself inside the borj while his men dug through the causeway after nightfall, evading the Spanish ships. The causeway wasn't repaired until 1953, almost 400 years later. We hailed a taxi in Guellalla and asked the driver to take us to the fort. He drove us as far as he could but apparently it can only be reached by boat. Once again a little disappointed in the accessibility of our pirate story locations, we decided to opt for plan B. The driver had recommended we visit the southern port of Ajim, a fishing village.

Ajim is a haven for octopus hunters. The potters in Djerba make clay pots that fishermen use to catch the cephalopods. The fishermen drop the pots in the water and the octopi find them and crawl inside, thinking they are hiding or resting places. Hours later the pots are brought up from the sea floor, often with the octopi still in them. Who knew they were so easy to trick? When we arrived in Ajim we found a restaurant on the street selling fresh fish. Actually, to call this place a restaurant would be pushing it. There was a kitchen on one side and a single table in the other room. The men working there let us pick out our (freshly caught) fish and they prepared them for us for dinner. They also gave us salad mechuia (a delicious Tunisian grilled salad), bread, harissa, fruit and tea. It was the best fish I have ever eaten in my life, hands down. Here's a picture of Lee picking out our fish:

After dinner we went back to the hotel and went to bed early. We had a LONG trip back to Tunis the next morning.

On our 8 hour drive back, we stopped in El Jem, the 3rd largest colosseum in the world and a far better preserved one than the one in Rome. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It held 35,000 people during Roman times. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me. It was incredible. We climbed up the stairs and sat at the very top, but my favorite part was finding the hidden staircase that led down underneath the colosseum. It was there, in the dark, that the gladiators would await their fates. It also used to hold a complicated pulley system that would lug up set pieces and wild animal cages onto the floor above. The ropes and pulleys would even open the cages of the animals so no one got hurt in the process (except, in many cases, the gladiators!). The fights were always "refereed" by an official, and if a gladiator was about to lose a fight, he could throw himself upon the mercy of the official. Then, the ref held the audience to a vote. If they felt the gladiator had proven great bravery, he was allowed to live and go free. If they voted he was a coward, the official killed him on the spot.

Here are some pictures of El Jem, including one of the "basement" underneath:

After leaving El Jem we drove another four hours and arrived back in Tunis around 9PM that night.

1 comment:

  1. I love all these stories, they were such a great read. I am soo happy that you finally made a new blog post.

    It was good to hear that you got to experience the actual pottery place, lucky you! :) And the coliseum part of your tale just makes me want to watch my dvd of the movie Gladiator tonight!

    I loved all these stories, easily my new favorite blog post :) Also babe, why am I not surprised that you would mention food? I guess your dad has probably been licking his chops for the past 2 weeks, waiting for more food stories haha :P