A Morocco Flash-Back in Houmt Souk, Jerba

Dave the motorhome made it all the way to the north end of the Isle of Jerba today, before being sprung back as though attached to a giant rubber band into our chilled-to-the-max, €8-a-night, just-us-here spot at Centre des Stages et Vacances, Aghir (N33.75751 E11.01483).

The Isle of Jerba is 25km by 22km, and incredibly has a decent amount of empty dual carriageway, so it’s easy to nip about the place. Only if you do come here and drive, look out for the inverse speed bumps. Instead of Tunisia’s usual demon camouflaged hillocks waiting to one-inch-punch your vehicle into one of the tiny oil-spewing rooms which makes for a garage, they’re unfilled service trenches cut across the road. We spotted all but one of them, which thankfully was relatively shallow and Dave’s suspension and cupboard contents have survived intact.

According to the guru who wrote the Rough Guide, Jerba is “not an island of towns and villages, but of individual homes – the only apparent villages are the two Jewish ‘ghettoes’ and the island’s capital, Houmt Souk”. It goes on to say how the place has been the scene of revolts, Christian-Muslim battles and European versus Islamic pirate tussles for a thousand years. The houses and mosques are, it tell us, all more closely resemble fortresses than homes and places of worship.

Hmmm. My powers of observation being pretty limited, it’s a good job the Rough Guide man spilled all this knowledge on me. We pootled off this morning, driving an hour or so slowly across the island to the capital, necks straining about to spot all these tiny castles. They must be there, maybe Dave was too fast, or maybe we were just gawping too much at the array of shining white hotels, greenish grass golf courses, folks riding about on quad bikes and people trotting about on gleaming horses. Jerba’s the kind of place which was clearly once an out-on-a-limb small holding agricultural kind of place, then someone built an airport, think the Algarve in Africa. It’s not unpleasant, just feels oddly out-of-place. Even the tourist office in Houmt Souk was open, the first we’ve seen in the inside of in weeks, the others appear abandoned in the face of national and international politics driving us punters elsewhere.

Like a city gaining vibrancy with the addition of a university, building an international airport brings in cash, lots of cash.
Like a city gaining vibrancy with the addition of a university, building an international airport brings in cash, lots of cash.
Us Westerners love our fixed prices (probably as we've no idea what most stuff is worth to us). The Prix Fixe sign shines out above all the out of town shops here.
Us Westerners love our fixed prices (probably as we’ve no idea what most stuff is worth to us). The Prix Fixe sign shines out above all the out of town shops here.

Monday’s souk day in Houmt Souk, and the Rough Guide tells us there is also a ‘Libyan Market’. Although these days it’s pretty much a Tunisian Market, the weird cross-border stuff no longer makes it up here for some reason. We pulled into town to find the usual…

Souk day, yeah! RIght of way is determined by weight of vehicle around here, so we don't get held up for long with lumbering Dave carrying us along.
Chaos! But right of way is determined by weight of vehicle around here, so we don’t get held up for long.

Finding a patch of dusty land, no ‘guardian’ appears, a sign Jerba’s some way to go in terms of punter-milking-maturity compared with Morocco. Jumping out with Charlie in tow, we walked back into the town, our eyes drawn to every western white face bobbing along around us. Ju searched out the tourist info office, which reminded me of those ‘welcome meetings’ you get on package holidays. 10% information, 90% flogging tours. She made it out in once piece, even managing to deflect the attempt to flog us a map of the town. The lass inside was very helpful though, friendly, no pressure and, wait for it, spoke English. She advised we could free camp on the beaches north of town, no problem.

And with that, off we trotted, into a tiny version of Marrakesh. Uncovered market, covered market, fish market, cafes, resturants and jewellery shops. Cutting to the chase, I lost count of the number of folks trying to get us into their shop, the technique:

  • the usual ‘hello’ (in any one of five or six languages as attempts are made to guess your nationality), repeated as many times as necessary to catch your eye,
  • at which point a finger is pointed at something in the shop, anything, it doesn’t matter,
  • and a subsequent request to look inside.

Being Europeans we find it uncomfortable to ignore someone saying hello to us (we’ve read that in the Arab world it’s just fine to blank strangers trying to flog you random stuff), so we almost always look. And end up saying ‘no thanks’, ‘non merci, ‘la shukran’, ‘nein danke’ a screamingly frustrating number of times. I start off all smiles, shaking hands and hugging the hopeful salesmen, always respectful of their difficult job. Eventually it grinds at me and I just want out, and this place is maybe a quarter the hassle factor of Moroccan souks like the one in Marrakesh (no-one whistles you like a dog here!).

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Arab carpet sellers. If you can get a good deal from these fellas, you can get a good deal from anyone. Fancy your chances?
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Glinting in the sunlight, the pottery looked fabulous. Who knows, maybe it was made in Tunisia?
The shoes looks great, we even spotted some 'Converse' boots among the knock-off variety of stuff.
The shoes looks great, we even spotted some ‘Converse’ boots among the knock-off variety of stuff.
Me attempting to look like I'm not a grumpy old git.
Me attempting to look like I’m not a grumpy old git.

Hence, after a brief look around, we headed back to Dave for a breather and to abandon Charlie, then nipped back in for more. The pottery looked beautiful, huge round bright bowls, fittingly finger-buffet-fodder hands of fatima and magic camel water jugs (which don’t spill the contents when you turn them upside down). Ju wanted to get something. She didn’t so much tell me, as give off an aura of ‘I want to get something’. I was Mr Grumps, using the excuse of it probably all being Chinese to avoid the hassle. Result: no pottery, but we will get something now I’ve chilled out a bit and Ju’s sorted out a shop which sells guaranteed authentic stuff.

I enjoyed the food market mind, not least due to this guy:

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He was loads of fun, and managed to up-sell us to a staggering amount of fruit and veg. How many market stall owners do you know who can speak six languages? The fish auction was an interesting little place too:

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The chap in the tennis umpire seat does the fish-flogging to punters below. The place was re-assuringly filthy, the real deal.
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Motorised wheel chair, Tunisia-style. The guy was selling a tray of fish to passers by, while fending off a cat.

Quitting the souk in a bit of a huff, we picked up some Orange re-charge cards for our t’Interweb stick, and headed into a Carrefour mini-market thing to stock up on a ton of sweets, Western drinks, biscuits and other processed goodies, bringing balance to our diet as we attempt to eat all that green stuff over the coming days.

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I asked if they had 25TD of vouchers. No, we only have fives. Can I have five fives then please? Odd. Even odder, they cost 27TD.
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It’s nice to try new stuff, and even nicer to feel the cool flow of the known.
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Had to have a crack at this though – powdered ice cream – wish us luck.

Driving out of town we spotted the refurbished castle and pulled into the car park. It looked a bit dull, but the guidebook told of an obelisk off to one side, which stands on the site of the ‘tower of skulls’. Back in 1560, a Spanish fleet was mangled by an Ottoman-empire backed pirate. The resulting surplus of European craniums were put to good use, fashioning a tower which stood until 1848 when (boo, hiss) it was torn down to keep the latest batch of Europeans happy.

Between 500 and 5000 skulls stood here. What a sight it must have been.
Between 500 and 5000 Spanish skulls stood here. What a sight it must have been.
Estate agents always draw us in. I especially liked this one's patter 'Small House for Sale'!
Estate agents always draw us in. I especially liked this one’s patter ‘Small House for Sale’!

Around the corner we tracked down the Libyan market, just in time to see that yes, indeedy, it looked exactly the same as a Tunisian market half-packed up.

Libyan man (possibly) temporarily halts packing up in order to pray.
Libyan man (possibly) temporarily halts packing up in order to pray.

A couple of blokes tried to, I think, beg from us, picking the wrong time in my day to pop out the ‘Bonjour, Vous Etes Francais?’ question. I ignored them but the sight of the duo hanging about the back of Dave when we returned unnerved me. We cruised on looking for the beach, but this place was only a short drive away. There being no sign of any other motorhomes, or even a quiet parking spot, so we headed back, intending to stay another couple of nights and look around the island in the day.

Tonight, I have a website to migrate which is going to require another can of coke to keep concentration up. Maybe even a spot of powered ice cream?

Cheers, Jay

 

 

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2 Comments

    • No got a clue yet. You add milk, whisk it for ages then freeze it. We don’t have a whisk and our freezer is full – it may have to wait a while before we taste that beauty!

      How’s the ice cream in NYC – all over the streets I hear? Hope you’re OK.

      Ju x

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