28 May 2019


A visit to Mexico City ‒ CDMX for Ciudad de Mexico ‒ imprints images in the mind and heart. The sounds and colours of a city in perpetual motion. Yellow uniforms of the street sweepers who start at dawn; bold designs of street art everywhere; the smooth hissing of the Metro; a ceaseless flow of passersby day and evening; sidewalk sales of shoes, hats, handbags, vibrant merchandise; the clamour of market vendors; shimmering feathers of indigenous costumes; painted buildings contrasting with stately stone; the iconic Frida Kahlo appears everywhere, in every medium.

Street performance is a time-honoured Mexican tradition, buskers of every stripe will pose with you, like an awesome mime in faux-bronze. Old-fashioned organ grinders ply a waning trade, competing with live music in the evening that induces impromptu street dancing. Children up till all hours (well, it was Semana Santa).

Many colonial family mansions have been re-purposed into museums, art galleries ... and restaurants.

The unexpected always delights:

A Moorish pavilion in Santa Maria la Ribera park
Panteon San Fernando
Queen of the harp, Plaza Garibaldi
Festival de la Cartoneria

In the side streets of the historical centre, the bustle slows down somewhat by late evening. In our neighbourhood's pedestrian streets, coffee houses and bars emit a warm, inviting glow; restaurants entice with signboards; street art murals abound. A vertical garden faces the entrance to Regina Coeli church. Across from a row of cafes, a convent has been re-purposed for university programs; do the students ever sleep?

Has a major city ever been so clean? Has a subway system ever worked so well? ... among the many things we could possibly learn from this amazing city. More to come ...

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman

30 April 2019


Five years. Five years since I began chasing camels. Chasing them here on a blog, mind you. It was 23 April 2014 when I began writing.

The real camel adventures began much longer ago and continue sporadically. After all, it's not every day you can find camels to ride, pet, admire, or kiss.

... And Camelogue is still available at https://www.blurb.ca/b/8605379-camelogue.

My odometer registers eight countries that offered me camel experiences. Some more than once. They ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.

"Sublime" Pushkar, India, 2009
"Ridiculous" dripping wet Bellingham, Washington, USA 2016

I was still wet behind the ears when I first went to Egypt. Were seductive Saqqara and Giza planting a subconscious seed? Did they poke some epigenetic trigger?

Of course, I will run out of camels and travel locales, sooner or later. Not to mention the nickels once saved for my old age. Who needs prism spectacles or hearing aids or new teeth, she says, when the world offers so many fascinating cultures to explore. When we find, see, and feel ancient footsteps. When we still have magical, natural places to feel oneness with the planet. Where the sky blissfully expands into the universe.

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman

08 April 2019

MOVIES Part Three

Highly opinionated comments on movies that have some aspect of camels or desert. Continued from MOVIES Part One and MOVIES Part Two. You know you can click on those links, right?

The Sheltering Sky
Debra Winger and John Malkovich seek isolated places in the Sahara to find? avoid? remedy? their hollow relationship. I never liked Malkovich but he's bearable here, till he gets typhoid and takes far too long to die. She ‒ restless, dazed, possibly nuts ‒ wanders off, meets a camel caravan and one mishap after another. Appropriately acclaimed for its gorgeous cinematography, it's Bertolucci-directed, but Paul Bowles' aimless existentialism and characters leave me cold. Partially filmed in several Morocco locations.

OK, 'fessing up. Only watched the one-third (or so) that takes place in Morocco (and actually filmed there in studios I visited in 2017). A sad, harrowing tale of little boys playing with a gun and how far the consequences reach — in a random universe, we all have a degree of connection to everyone else. Brad Pitt does a more than creditable job; it was agony watching/waiting for Cate Blanchett to die.

Pure treasure hunting good fun, and camels! Mathew McConaughey performs as Clive Cussler's action hero Dirk Pitt in an improbable story of a search for a missing Civil War-era iron battleship, supposedly sunk upriver in what would be Mali(!). Great camaraderie interaction with supporting actor Steve Zahn. Penelope Cruz plays the trusting wench, albeit a humanitarian doctor; no one dies except the bad guys. Yes, some filming in Morocco, more in Spain, 2005.

Sand and Sorrow
George Clooney's activist side narrates (and produced) this documentary of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur - a province in Sudan - largely being ignored by the rest of the world. Government-directed genocide of "non-Arab" civilians, millions of people still displaced and unsafe even years after the doc was made (2007). Killing and burning. Very difficult to watch.

P.S. I loved you once, George, but I can't forgive you for the NescafĂ© ads. 

The Story of the Weeping Camel
Oh — what a slice of life in rural Mongolia! Absolutely enchanting. This 2003 docudrama is available online. Of course it's the Gobi desert where, in the midst of their daily life, a nomad family tries to save a baby camel rejected by its mother. The effort requires special attention with traditional customs and music. Deeply moving and joyful.

Letters from Baghdad
A documentary of 2016, Gertrude Bell's letters speak to her adventures and British service in Arabia prior to and during the First World War. As much or more than the more celebrated T.E. Lawrence, Bell helped shape Middle East alliances and policies. Less attention is paid to her archaeological accomplishments and her founding of the renowned Baghdad Museum. Produced and voiced by Tilda Swinton as Bell, the film is rich with archival footage and Bell's own photographs, with contemporary commentary from the many historical figures she met or worked with. Extremely well done.

The Little Prince
Aside from unable to grasp the wispy little voices of child characters (uneven sound?) half the time, I could not make much sense of it. Maybe because it's so French? Same trouble with the book, moi, long ago. This new adaptation (2015) includes a darling little girl who, in searching for the Little Prince, sees the worst of grown-up behaviour, assisted by the incredibly ugly but kind Aviator. The Sahara makes a brief appearance along with an enigmatic fox and a snake. The Little Prince himself did not impress me. See with your heart seems to be the message, but it's enough to know that the twinkling of stars means happy laughter.

Cairo Time
A romantic side of Egypt, of Cairo (2009). Juliet arrives in the city to meet her husband who remains absent in Gaza until the end of the film. Husband's good friend Tareq escorts Juliet in sightseeing, a mutual attraction building. Ultimately, consummation is thwarted. Flimsy story, but the scenes of Cairo are wonderful, so many places I've been. ... I know he's acted in Star Trek and Syriana and numerous films or stage productions, but why can't we see MORE of hunk Alexander Siddig who played Tareq?!

Keep those movies coming ...

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman

17 March 2019

Muscat, Oman 2013-2018

The gleaming city of Muscat sits in folds of the western el-Hajar mountains, sloping to a natural harbour. Facing north and east into the Gulf of Oman, this is largely a twentieth-century developed city. Refreshingly, it avoids the ostentatious sky-high architecture of many oil-rich cities. Oman's iconic frankincense burner dominates one hill, symbolizing a long history of tribal/nomadic trading.

Muscat and indeed the entire country are proudly conscious of their Bedouin traditions. A charming diorama at the lovely small Bait al Zubair Museum displays the city origins, not so long ago. Certainly it was long known as a trading port.

Oman's national animal the oryx; a handpainted display at the museum
The enlightened Sultan Qaboos bin Said has led his country for almost fifty years. All power rests in him as king and benign dictator. He modernized Oman from poverty to prosperity with impressive infrastructure, universal education and health care, and freedom of religion. His likeness, at varying ages and stages, can be seen everywhere in Muscat.

Playing a mainly neutral position in Middle East politics, and also between the West and Iran, peaceful diplomacy is more the Sultan's style. The question of succession hangs over his people: he has no children, but he has a number of other family candidates to choose from. His principal palace here in Muscat is not open to the public. On the royal shield (and national flag), the khanjar (curved dagger) is another distinctive Omani symbol. Known for centuries in this area, it represents heritage and, depending on the engravings and precious-metal workmanship, social status.

But the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is open to visitors. Non-Muslims are welcome requiring modest, covered-up dress and doffing the shoes. One can only gape at the spectacular interior the massive chandelier, the enormous handwoven carpet, and stunning mosaics. Outside, all around the mosque, are acres of space and gardens, areas for placid reflection and admiring the graceful lines of the architecture.

A central gathering place in Muscat is one of my favourite markets, Mutrah Souk. Colours glow and textures commingle, tempting one to choose a souvenir that will recall the ambience. The stall fronts can be deceptive; behind them, merchants often have a large inventory they will eagerly search to find just want you want. If you look like a serious shopper, they will sit you down and serve you tea. To be sure, haggling over prices is customary, but there's little pressure to make a purchase, as Omanis are generally polite and respectful.

By evening light, traffic seems to hush on the Corniche and the call to prayer echoes across the harbour. Peace. The dhow is another well-loved symbol, the fisherman's traditional boat.
A dhow sits in front of the Sultan's private yacht.

Muscat, don't change! Oman, stay stable!

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman

25 February 2019

Ships of the Desert (for real)

There ARE some. Real ships. Found in natural desert areas or in humanity-devastated deserts.

In 1954 in the ancient Giza plateau of Egypt, archaeologists discovered the solar boat of Pharaoh Khufu. Almost 5,000 years old, the ship had been buried in a pit covered by enormous stone slabs. In a dismantled state, it took years of painstaking reconstruction. Although this solar boat was not the only one known or found, it is the oldest and best preserved. Its location at the foot of the Great Pyramid indicates its dedication to Khufu.

Why "solar"? Well, it's been determined it is not a funeral vessel:
"Despite its exemplary design, it was not intended for sailing or any other use on actual water. Dedicated to Khufu (King Cheops), the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, the Khufu ship was most certainly a ritual vessel."[1]

You can see why it took years to reassemble, finally being put on display in the 1980s in a special building. Restoration experts had to carefully study ancient shipbuilding The boat symbolizes the travels of the sun god but all the mysteries have not been understood or interpreted yet.

A different place, a different story.

The Aral Sea in central Asia was the fourth largest fresh-water lake on the planet. Scenes like this, of abandoned fishing boats, have been common in the past forty-fifty years. In the late 1950s Soviet engineers began diverting the two great rivers that fed the sea, in order to construct an enormous irrigation system for the agricultural steppes of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

As a result, the Sea dried up at a fearsome rate until only small lakes remained of total volume less than 10% of its original size. Once providing one-sixth of the Soviet Union's entire fish industry, jobs were lost, prosperous towns died, people migrated. Not to mention the ecological effects.
"As a result of the drying over the past decades, millions of fish died, coastlines receded miles from towns, and those few people who remained were plagued by dust storms that contained the toxic residue of industrial agriculture and weapons testing in the area."[2]

The good news is that restoration attempts since 2005 by a World Bank-financed project are making some recovery in the northern section. Replenishing fish stocks has been successful there.

What anthropogenic havoc we wreak on our beautiful planet!

1. http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20180510-the-egyptian-boat-buried-for-5000-years

2. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141001-aral-sea-shrinking-drought-water-environment/

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman