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18 June 2018

Ouarzazate, Morocco 2017


Wending our way from east to west, skirting the Sahara, we arrived in Ouarzazate, the premier film-making region of North Africa. We hired Mohamed, a local guide, to explore the town's impressive Kasbah Taourirt that has featured in so many desert movies. Not to be confused with Mohamed, our travel companion and my other son. Mohamed chatters enthusiastically about his own participation as an extra in many past movies.





Taourirt the Kasbah is immense ... we clamber up, down, and through dozens of interior stairways and passages. Without Mohamed we would still be wandering in the maze of over 300 rooms. It was a workout and well worth it. The harem, guest apartments, family rooms ... paying attention to the intricate carved cedar ceilings wherever we go.




Built in the nineteenth century, Taourirt housed an extended family that controlled trade routes in the region. Some of it now deteriorated, UNESCO has funded partial renovations for public viewing.




We discover an artists' gallery, oh good! Some of them are working on site, by a balcony overlooking the main courtyard. Plenty of mementos here to choose from.





Back on the street, across from the kasbah entrance is the finish line for a long distance runners' competition. An orderly crowd is applauding them; local police acting as marshals seem superfluous. Doug is kindly carrying my heavy bag for me as we near our vehicle. When I reach to retrieve it, he jokes, yelling "Help, police! Thief!" A cop on the corner immediately turns and starts toward us. Much nervous hilarity, Doug goes over to talk with him; another friend made.


Then ...
Credit: Mark Charteris
On we go to Atlas Film Studios not far away. Countless well-known movies have been wholly or partly filmed here: Ben Hur, Cleopatra, Kundun, Alexander, Gladiator, The Man Who Would be King, Game of Thrones, even some of Lawrence of Arabia and Queen of the Desert, always something in the works. Much to my surprise, also The Way Back (escape from a Siberian gulag), a most excellent under-rated film. Presently a mini-series called Tut is in production. We are waved away, "no cameras, no cameras." Enormous Egyptian sets and replicas are everywhere, although it would take more than a few hours to cover its twenty hectares!






We walked through a biblical-era market village, passed the site of Cleopatra's milk bath, admired an abandoned shipwreck, posed on temple steps, mingled with mounted tribesmen, and, before enjoying a leisurely, quiet lunch by the pool of the studio's Oscar Hotel, Heather snagged this fabulous photo of two extras:




Our afternoon was devoted to the nearby UNESCO site of Ait Ben Haddou, a fortified village (ksar) on a hillside. A "traditional pre-Saharan earthen construction habitat" and good example of southern Morocco architecture. Seventeenth century buildings likely grew over older ones since caravan times. Families still live here, making it difficult to monitor conservation and repair.





First we head down the hill from the tourist-built town to the Mellah river. After crossing the bridge our little group splits up for different directions and paces. This is a town where people have lived permanently for centuries but I'm not surprised to see a few vendors on the upward, narrow thoroughfare. I am tired and decide not to huff my way up to the top to see a tower. A vendor (another Mohamed) of snacks and drinks lets me park on a chair. He has a little English.




An older man with some English from a shop across the way comes to chat even though I am asleep with my eyes open. He gets my not wanting to climb the hill and says "asthma" pointing to himself. He tells me his inhalor is empty; somehow automatically I say I always have mine with me. His unspoken question hovers ... I ramble on about doctor's prescriptions, uneasy with the thought.




Mohamed's place is more than snacks and drinks; now that I'm awake again I am eyeing some nice dresses and scarves within/without his shop. And next door. And of course across the way. Many locally-made products.




Eventually I can't resist browsing the merchandise. Older man is helpful. OK, my conscience leaps and I ask if he wants to use my inhalor. Brisk nodding of the head. He shakes it and takes three very deep satisfying puffs. In gratitude, he grabs a scarf and winds a turban around my head with Mohamed nodding approval.




So I decide it behooves me to sit out front and give the patter to passing tourists like "Come inside ... many colours ... nice gifts ... I make you best price."

Doug shows up a little astonished at the tableau. Another one of those Moments.


© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman

01 June 2018

Cartagena, Colombia 2018


Approaching Cartagena by ship presents a skyline rising from the ocean that might have been fantasized by an artiste for a futuristic tropical movie set. Colombia's independence from Spain was won in 1810. The Republic of Panama, through which we had just passed, was once politically part of Colombia but separated in 1903.


Cartagena has all the mod cons, having been a large commercial port for centuries. Drug trafficking, while apparently not declining in the country, does not represent this city nor does it affect the volume of tourism. The lovely walled colonial city within, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the main attraction. Not to forget Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Spain's greatest fortress in the Americas.



The streets are definitely for the people and tourists seem almost incidental. A few senoritas or enterprising youngsters pose in costume, expecting a tip for a photograph.



You could linger forever, admiring the buildings and public art ...




... and the shady plazas.


Various corners like this appear, but sales pressure on tourists could be called underwhelming compared to many other places.

Sculpture is generously spread throughout, delighting the eye with surprises.




Cartagena's size and importance was such that an office of the infamous Spanish Inquisition was established here in 1610. Relocated some time later in one of the city's most beautiful eighteenth century buildings, the Palace of the Inquisition is now a small museum to that horrific era, as well as emphasizing much larger exhibits of the city's history. Most torture instruments long displayed were removed upon the visit of Pope Francis in 2015 ... God forbid offending the pontiff's sensibilities. Our guide managed to show us a couple of unspeakable devices. Hard to believe the Inquisitors were still operating until 1821. One estimate says 800 "heretics" died in Cartagena. I cringe on seeing prominent words from my old friend St Thomas Aquinas, justifying the original intent.
 


Colombia is known for its emeralds but you'd have to do a lot of homework before considering a purchase. The country ‒ like so much of Central America ‒ is also strong on coffee! Choosing something to take home from bountiful displays requires a great deal of browsing.


One thing: the heat. Blazing sun and sweltering temperatures. Absolutely necessary to take it easy and enjoy slowly. Plenty of cool nooks for cold drinks, and the inevitable coffee.


One mentally marks the bucket list: Places for a Return Visit.




© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman

18 May 2018

Our Lady of the Camels (2)


Baigalmaa (known as Baikal) Norjmaa is an adventurous young woman tackling her dream. Born and raised in Mongolia, she's underway on the trip of a lifetime to promote her nomadic culture. Imagine, following the old Silk Road in a camel caravan from Mongolia across thirteen countries to arrive in London in an estimated three years' time ... twelve thousand kilometers in a project called Steppes to the West. Baikal is no stranger to adventure; planning one of this magnitude does not faze her.




I’ve been inspired by my people’s history and hope to be able to show Mongolia to the world."[1] True to her heritage, her entourage consists of anywhere up to a dozen Bactrian camels for the heavy work. Her human companions will likely shift and change with the passage of time.


From the website, Steppes to the West:
Both camels and humans face numerous obstacles including temperature extremes, dust, rain, snow and storms, and a variety of road conditions such as gravel, tar and rocky terrain. This will be challenging and sometimes daunting for the unshod four-legged, two-humped animals and their handlers. 
The Bactrian camel is the largest mammal in its native range and is the largest living camel. Shoulder height is from 180 to 230 cm (5.9 to 7.5 ft), head-and-body length is 225–350 cm (7.38–11.48 ft), and the tail length is 35–55 cm (14–22 in). At the top of the humps, the average height is 213 cm (6.99 ft). Body mass can range from 300 to 1,000 kg (660 to 2,200 lb), with males often being much larger and heavier than females. ... The camel is capable of carrying loads of up to 300kgs.

Obviously the camels are carrying a great deal of supplies, especially food, tents, and useful gear. The route has to ensure water and feed for the animals, supplemented by local kindnesses. It's a matter of being as highly organized as it's possible to be in often isolating circumstances. Since starting in November 2017, the team has already weathered a winter. Baikal says, "I'Mongolian – I’m used to harsh weather. ... But even though it’s a huge challenge with crazy conditions, I’m still in my comfort zone. It’ll only get really interesting once I get outside of it.”[2]


The adventuress has received considerable press and supporters as a modern Mongolian warrior woman, certainly due to her photogenic qualities and media savvy. Sponsors would definitely be welcome. It's difficult to say where they are right now with their limited access to communications (but I believe they crossed into China this month). It's not exactly easy to keep updating the website and other promotions when full attention is needed to the project at hand. Crossing national borders also requires complicated paperwork and causes inevitable delays.

 
Besides the website which has a number of videos in the Media section, Steppes to the West is on Facebook and Instagram. Baikal's personal website is http://www.baigalmaabaikal.com/. Sputnick News.com (9 May 2018) has a good short video: https://sputniknews.com/videoclub/201805091064256491-mongolia-uk-camel-caravan/.


CamelDabble TravelBabble will check in from time to time. May the road rise up to meet you, Baikal! Or, as we say in other countries: trust in God but tie up your camel.


[1] Charlies Allenby, "The adventurer trekking from Mongolia to London by Camel," 22 March 2018, Huck (http://www.huckmagazine.com/ride/adventure-steppes-west-baigalmaa-norjmaa-trek-mongonlia-london-camel/).
[2] Ibid.


© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman


01 May 2018

Marrakesh, Morocco 2017


Redux. Again, finding myself here, twelve years later. Some things were familiar!

The name Marrakesh has long conjured the essence of exotic faraway cultures. Many hippies of yore found a congenial stay here, some permanently. There is a considerable long-time ex-pat contingent among the population. While still the same city at its ancient core, certain elements have learned to cater to tourism ... to be expected. I have to say: unlike the lesser-known and relatively unspoiled city of Chefchaouen (an earlier post). 

The drive into Marrakesh from the southwest was a hellish traffic maze. It's the third largest city in the country with 900,000 population. First we had to find the right parking place in the medina, cruising streets so narrow I was sure our vehicle would get stuck between buildings. From there we walked to the riad, missing it on the first try; the GPS on Doug's phone did not work perfectly in the medina confines.


An elegant, pampering riad for two nights! Each riad we stayed in seemed to prove more special than the last one. Tucked away in the back streets of the medina, Riad Adriana was a serene rose-scented oasis. Literally. Fresh rose petals scattered in bed and bath greeted us.

We were completely entranced with our lodgings and its exquisite appointments the interior design; the obligatory fountain and a mountain of oranges piled nearby; the textiles, mosaics, lanterns, chandeliers; the gleaming brass sink and fixtures in the bathroom; lovely munchies awaiting. I was appointed to the "Bordeaux" ensuite on the main floor; all rooms entered from the courtyard or inner balconies.

But Doug was consulting with local guide Wafi and we hurried away since it was mid-afternoon. Our route to and from the riad only became familiar by the end of our stay. It consisted of navigating a few residential streets, then into the meat and produce section of the medina that eventually took us out to a parking area by the city wall. "Turn left at the barber shop," Doug reminded us if we should get lost. As if we would find the barber shop! Wafi had a heavy accent and as far as I could hear, had little to say; he was not a personable guy.


 

We drove, not far, to Majorelle Gardens, recently owned by Yves St Laurent who is venerated there; gay visitors (and others) pay homage at his memorial. Labourers were re-paving the entire street with bits of brick. We were lucky to bypass the queue stretching all the way along the block. Lovely place of tropical/desert plants, but crowded with tourists. A small museum showcases historical Berber dress and jewellery (collected by the original Majorelle owner, not YSL). Every piece was chosen with meticulous good taste, but alas no photography allowed inside. An elegant gift shop provides expensive souvenirs if you are so inclined.




Dropped off at Koutoubia mosque, we crossed the busy street to enter Jemaa el-Fnaa, the famous main square of the medina. But we had other purposes before joining the wide-open throng. We strode endless streets of souks following Wafi as he pointed out brass hammering, furniture making (a bridal chair!), weaving, wool dyeing; we saw the interior of an ancient fireplace bakery, a historic madrasa. and he steered us to selected merchants (always part of a tour guide's agenda). Wafi also ushered us into an argan emporium where we buy nothing. We nix the carpet seller. He was getting disappointed we were not buying from his selected souks. It was definitely a good tour but charmless Wafi displayed a certain air of bored superiority - for us or his job, we weren't sure.




Purchasing became a do-it-yourself project even though Wafi was supposedly there to assist. He sneered at the exorbitant price Catherine paid for a couple of scarves even though he silently observed the process. He disappeared when he saw me eyeing a colourful Berber dress. I persisted in a deal mutually satisfactory to buyer and seller. He, Wafi, then reappeared to steer us to an expensive dress salon of quality clothing. Nope, no interest from us. In his eyes we were irredeemable. Wafi apparently believes the myth that all tourists are exceedingly wealthy and have terrible taste. We saw the last of him not a bit too soon, all agreeing he had the personality of a cornered cobra.





We headed into Jema el-Fnaa for dinner, crossing part of the square. It was still daylight. I'd forgotten how much it caters to tourists — all the snake charmers, trained monkeys, trick performers, and so on. Surprising how many sad people were begging with signs claiming "Syrian refugees" ... Morocco has not been a known host to them. The famous water-sellers were absent at the time. Down a side street we went to Restaurant Riad Omar, climbing to the fourth floor dining terrace. Great view of the street and its bedlam below with the square in the distance, as twilight came. Best harira soup ever! Pastilla again, so big it has to be shared. Weariness sets in.



Thanks to Mark Charteris
The others stayed to stroll the square while Mohamed took me home. Crossing the suicide-traffic street to Koutoubia again, he took my hand protectively. A Casablancan, he told me he doesn't care for Marrakesh. I can understand why. The square is the iconic heart of the city, full of life night and day where you can seek out little gems of authentic interaction; but it is also like a hustler's paradise teetering on the verge of frenzy. After the short drive we got a teeny bit lost in the medina between the barber shop and the riad but someone helped us. We were grateful in many ways to have Mohamed with us. Doug calls him my brother. Since I'd dubbed Doug my son, now Mohamed is my other son.


We returned to Jemaa el-Fnaa next evening after a gorgeous day in the mountain villages. Three of us found a restaurant outside the medina where we could enjoy some wine. Grey (gris) wine on the menu amused me but it's pink, not grey ‒ mindful of a rosé. I learn later it's a product exclusive to the well-regarded Moroccan wine industry. An unexpected floor show added an aspect of social culture, although (dance critic) the belly dancer was too slim and dispirited to be truly authentic. The woman dancing with candles on her head was inexplicable: you had to be there.


Marrakesh, a city of contradictions, mixing tradition with tourism to the nth degree. It's busy and can be fun, exciting, but watch your wallet. In view of so many new places we'd seen outside the general tourism box, I have to agree with my other son.


© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman