01 August 2018

Mountain Villages, Morocco 2017

A major part of the joy in travelling with the "Texas camel corps" is the off-beat itinerary and impromptu daily contacts. From Marrakesh, we take a day trip into the High Atlas mountains. On a good road we wind and switchback higher and higher. At a viewpoint we briefly browse the crafts for sale, and Doug never misses a chance to talk camels and saddles.

Later reaching a fork, the route on the right will take us to Ouikaimeden, our high destination. But first, the cops sitting in their car at the fork stop us. Our driver Mohamed is told to get out of our vehicle and go to their car. Eh?! Lengthy conversation takes place; finally Doug gets out to see what's up. Back and forth to our van for paperwork. Phone calls ensue. We are resigned to a potentially new twist in our agenda.

However the police were only checking out the rental contract for our van. Some of us suspect they were merely bored sitting there all day with next to no traffic. Having been stopped occasionally before, the big difference here – Mohamed grins at this – no baksheesh changed hands.

We're heading to the snow line, more hairpin curves, the road becomes one lane, then ultimately fades away into a sheep path. The highest mountain in Africa, Toubkall at 4,167 metres, is just beyond us; we are at about 9,000 feet elevation. There's a ski resort here but it's spring, season over. Flocks of sheep feasting on green grass. Heather goes off to a shepherd hut to commune with her new Berber self.

Seasonal homes dot the mountainside above the road. Tagines are bubbling at a nearby outdoor restaurant; lunch time. We share beef, lamb, and goat. A man selling bracelets and necklaces comes, persisting, but otherwise it's all pretty deserted. The royal gendarmerie next door looks semi-abandoned.

On a new route, we follow the course of a steep-sided river to come down from great heights. Lots of kids playing along the way; it's a school holiday.

The road runs along one side of the valley, carved out of the mountainsides; people live on the opposite side of the river. Their homes are connected to the road side by crazy foot bridges, some in better shape than others. Their balancing skills must be excellent.

Courtesy Mark Charteris
The lower we descend, the more the scene turns into a sort of endless restaurant row: patios facing the river with umbrellas and plastic chairs. Often the rocky river bank is the patio. At times when we stop, enterprising youngsters appear out of nowhere, ready to sell us souvenirs. We park at Ourika village, today very much catering to the holiday crowd; horse and camel rides are available.

Mohamed and I drink coffee while the others shop along the village street. It's a market atmosphere, congenial crowds.

Courtesy Heather Daveno
Just as darkness falls we are back in Marrakesh. We split up for dinner, spreading out from the main square, Jemaa el Fna. I only mention this — quite unconnected with the mountain villages — because the vin gris on the dinner menu amuses me. Well, it's not actually grey. It's much like a dry rosé, a good accompaniment for many dishes. Vin gris is unique to Morocco and a perfect companion for ending a very fine day.

© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman

11 July 2018

Our Lady of the Camels (3)

From following a German woman in India to following a Mongolian woman on a monumental trek to a Dutch woman in the South Sinai ... language can be an issue. Joyce Schröder's websites and Facebook page are in Dutch, not a language I've mastered. However Schröder's website DesertJoy allows Google Translate. http://www.desertjoy.nl/. Her banner proclaims "Nomadische reizen met Hart en Ziel" (Nomadic travel with heart and soul).

Of all those who seek to "find themselves," Joyce Schröder was one of the successful ones. Originally from The Netherlands, she experienced the awe of desert life for the first time in 1995 and made it her life. She fell in love with Dalel the camel and the Bedouin people of the Muzayna tribe; this is in the south Sinai region of Egypt between the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. She has long been fluent in Arabic.

Caring for each other and bonding as the two made countless exploratory desert trips together: over time Dalel taught her [as translated] "patience, imperturbability, trust, tolerance, courage and endurance." Eventually losing him was heartbreaking. In tribute, Shröder established the Dalel Foundation for Animal Welfare, a charity: http://www.stichtingdalel.org/ (Dalel Foundation) ... "Improving the physical and psychological well-being of camels in and around Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt."

Dalel fathered Jamila, born after he died; Jamila has by now given her three males. Her family.

Many of her days are spent ministering, with the experts she finds, to rural and isolated camels. The trust she has established is evident. Her Facebook page, "Camel Wellbeing" (Stichting Dalèl - voor Kamelenwelzijn in de Sinaï), is witness to many helpful visits to ailing or needy camels. But what they face are challenges rising feed costs, little veterinary availability, and climate change (meaning a drier desert), not to mention decreased income from tourists.

That is not say she didn't have to find a way to support such a life. She now leads a variety of camel tours from her base in Dahab, from October to May, supported by and employing her Bedouin friends. The tours will take from two to ten people, and are clearly well prepared for both educating their guests and maximum comfort in the desert world. She even arranges flights from Amsterdam to Sharm el Sheik with airport pickup.

Schröder says the rhythm in camel riding is beneficial for people with low back complaints; I can personally attest that it does no harm. Camel riding sometimes has a bad rep due to short trips with badly saddled camels. Not her animals! Each participating guest has his or her own camel for the trip. Walking along the way, or part of the way, is also an option.

Thus Schröder is achieving some of her goals raising consciousness about camels in her homeland and building a means to care for them. There is no reason she can't reach a wider global market! The tours benefit the Bedouin community as well as visitors. Sad to say, the drop in tourism to Egypt in the last few years affects standard of life mostly for the already marginal, but seems to be picking up again. In my opinion, visiting the south Sinai is no more dangerous than crossing your big city downtown street.

Joyof Nature is Schröder's more recent development, running tours with a partner on the southeast coast of Turkey. They take place during the summer months that are off-season, far too hot for the Sinai; in this location "... no towering hotel resorts or mass tourism!" she reports.

When all is said and done, it's a love story.

© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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