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Sahara

Day 88: Djerba

Djerba, Tunisia 
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There Must Be Easier Ways To Make A Living, Number 24: wrestling freshly caught octopus.
Michael Palin - SaharaOnce out of the harbour, we run into a lively sea, licked up by a freshening wind. The stubby, wooden-hulled boat bounces all over the place as we search for the line they put down a couple of days ago. So competitive is the fishing out here that they mark the line as discreetly as possible, and it's only after a half-hour search that they detect the green plastic bottle to which the line is attached. By now the boats are bucking all over the place as the pots are hauled up from the sea bed no more than 12 feet below us. I'm hanging on for dear life as we hurtle up and plunge down the waves, but the fishermen are balanced only by knees against the rail as they inspect the pots. There are fifty on this line. One after another contains only sand and seaweed and is tossed back into the water. Not an octopus to be seen. It's early in the season, they say.

We head for another line. The wind is strengthening and the boat tossing ever more violently, but the third pot they pull out produces a great cry and the pink rubbery mass inside is tipped out unceremoniously onto the deck.

Then another and another. All hands are at the pots and I'm given the job of keeping the catch in a large blue plastic tray. This isn't easy. The octopuses are not at all keen to stay on the tray and once they get a leg outside it their suckers clamp on to the wooden deck. By the time I've loosened one leg, the other seven are stuck fast. Clinging to the octopuses with one hand and a piece of superstructure with the other, I succeed in wrenching them off, only to be flung across the boat, octopus in hand and fast latching on to my arm.

Keeping the octopuses in the tray becomes like a routine invented for a Japanese game show, but it seems to cheer the fishermen up no end. Meanwhile, I've become quite an admirer of these tenacious creatures and am thinking of starting an Octopus Protection League.

Knowing the British, there probably already is one.

In the late afternoon, as the shops are opening, I walk through the souk, which seems well stocked with goods, mostly aimed at the tourist market. Rugs, tiles, lamps, hands of Fatima, pieces of Rose du Sable (natural sculptures of crystallised gypsum found in the desert), hubble-bubble pipes and the like. There are some superior items in a shop owned by a man known as 'El Haj', including a Turkish carpet woven with a million knots per square metre. El Haj (an abbreviation earned by anyone who has been on the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca) is a short, scholarly man with a neat moustache and thick glasses, wearing a cream gandoura over a tartan shirt. He speaks English well, and five other languages too, but almost apologetically, looking down as he does so.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 88
  • Country/sea: Tunisia
  • Place: Houmt Souk
  • Book page no: 229

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