17 December 2014

My Island Home

(revised from 2010 publication on the BDM blog)

Sometimes a longing is transmitted across generations. Racial memory? This poem, by Hector MacDougall (Iain Hyne), “Coll of the Waves,” translated from the Gaelic, resonates among a surprising number of Collach descendants, long-separated from their island origins:

Fair gem of the ocean,
Sweet Coll of my song,
With joy and devotion
To you I belong.
I yearn for the island
I left with a tear
But soon I’ll return 
Now that summer is here.

After almost two hundred years, my McFadyen spirit returned to the Isle of Coll in 2010. And yes, it was summer.

Family historians in Canada have many overseas ancestral “homes.” This is a very special one for me. The Cal-Mac ferry is a liberating, exciting (to me) ride to the Inner Hebrides from Oban, past the Isle of Mull.

What inexpressible feelings to walk among the deserted croft remains, touch the deteriorating burial stones, explore the pristine beaches and hills, enter some of the old dwellings. Of course I did not find the family black house or a “lone shieling” that disappeared along with most of the old inhabitants. A few crofters’ houses have been saved and renovated here and there. But I was able to visit Toraston and Cliad, last known communities of my McFadyens. Each seems to have only one farmhouse now. 

After near depopulation, over the last half-century Coll has attracted permanent incomers. Still, some among the approximately two hundred inhabitants have ancestral ties to the island. The Killunaig burial ground near Cliad has many McFadyen markers, of which only the most recent can be deciphered. It doesn’t take long for the sea air and thriving moss to wreak its natural course. I did not reach another almost inaccessible burial ground at Crossopol, a daunting distance even for a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, which we didn’t have, across private land. But my people are here under the soil at Killunaig where the overgrown foundation of ancient St Fynnoga church can be seen.

Ballyhough was another community for McFadyens, not of my known line, but who knows before 1776? It’s now the home of Project Trust, founded by Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, the first NGO in Britain to educate and send “gap year” kids to foreign countries as aid volunteers. They learn from historical community life on Coll to prepare for experience in new places. The bond is so close that some of the volunteers have chosen to settle on Coll; some have children who in turn work with Project Trust.

Maclean-Bristol, author of the brilliant history From Clan to Regiment, Six Hundred Years in the Hebrides, among other works, lives in the Maclean fifteenth century Breacachadh castle. It was my great pleasure to spend a few hours with him in this historic setting where my ancestors were clansmen and soldiers for Maclean of Coll.

 Coll is one of Scotland’s great but little-known natural beauty spots. The present inhabitants deal well with occasional tourists who are often birders or hikers or those who just plain want to get away to an idyllic, unspoiled location. The beaches and dunes on the Atlantic side are so amazing they take your breath away. The machair was in full bloom.

One must book well in advance for the 7-room Coll Hotel or the smaller B&B Tigh-na-Mara! Otherwise, you can be one of the infrequent campers among the beautiful dunes. The locals rightfully expect due consideration for opening and closing gates when tramping across their fields. Sheep and cattle are a large part of the livelihood. Signs everywhere in the Highlands and Islands are in two languages: Gaelic and English.

Arinagour is the main community, and you look quite at home if you’re wearing rubber wellies or crocs. The hotel has a jolly lively pub — I expect because it’s the only pub on the island. Any local event is cause for repair to the pub for celebration or discussion. Visiting yachtsmen are regular customers. Soccer and golf were prime topics during my stay. Not to ignore the finer points, the barman tells us the Coll Hotel’s own whiskey is blended “right over there,” waving in the general direction of a windswept promontory, nary a cottage visible. I think of 250 years ago when this small island reportedly had up to thirty distilleries! 

Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland
                              And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.”
                           Canadian Boat Song, author unknown, sometimes attributed to John Galt.

                               I left with a tear but a dream come true.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman

30 November 2014

Giza, Egypt 2011

In the fall of 2011, the effects of that year's Arab Spring were widely felt in Egypt. Unrest and protest had followed. Tourism dropped off dramatically. Their economy happens to be heavily dependent on it. One sign of the slowdown was when transiting the Suez Canal there were no cruise ships in the northbound convoy. Election signs were everywhere.  

In Port Said, a lively city (centre of recent and future unrest), Mediterranean entrance to the Suez Canal, we had a blaring police escort in and out of town for a trip to Cairo — nothing like being thrust into the spotlight!
Our bus had a mandatory plain-clothes security guard, making us feel safe, right? He had a fairly discreet shoulder holster under his jacket unlike the heavily armed soldier on buses in some countries. Discreet? He was either sleeping all the time or yakking on his cell phone, earning the scornful contempt of our guide; she shared her antipathy freely and frequently in several languages with us and the bus driver.

Such precautions aside, we experienced gratitude in one form or another for the return of tourism. The warm greetings and smiles for us on a festive Port Said Saturday night were happily reminiscent of a Mexican festival night.

How could I not take the opportunity to visit Giza once again? The town has grown into a hub of almost frenzied activity, a carnival, probably the most visited site in the country. This time is a little different. Far fewer foreign tourists. Sadly, the mounted camel cops have completely disappeared. More than half the visitors are Egyptian — because it is a holiday. And insh'allah, no sandstorm this time.

Nonetheless, the boys with their trinkets spring into action as a tour bus arrives to disgorge pale Europeans and North Americans. They chatter and pursue aggressively, intimidating the unprepared. Camel-hire guys want your business. They have their marketing ploys; sitting their cute kids on the camel is better than the one where they constantly rush and jump to block your path. Making slow zigzag progress is hard work on your part.

Camel handlers at the pyramids simply want to get you on, lead you around a bit, and then start the bargaining process at, oh, about 50 euros, LOL. As I have learned, Giza is not the place for a ride. Souvenir sellers are true to form with updated patter: "I have a gift for you, free .. free ... ." They are more tactile, it seems to me.

Well aware that eye contact, let alone a few words, will instantly create a small crowd of excited vendors, still I determine to engage and learn a few new words. I settle for posing with a good beast for a photograph. They don’t want one dollar U.S. bills. Newest ploy: “No good at the bank, give me $5, $10 ... .” Offering cigarettes is part of the satisfactory haggling, although one of them makes off with my lighter. Hey, at least it wasn't my camera. We had a few laughs and an acceptable if momentary tourist exchange.
It's fruitless to try explaining that a change in sales tactics would make a difference to the tourist market. Their enthusiasm has to be tolerated, if not embraced. A few dollars is little enough to contribute to what are desperate times for most of them.

 Because it's a family holiday, local activity swirls at the market below. A few camels and horses are saddled for the locals. It was a chance to wander without being pursued and see a variety of shaving tattoo designs among the animals.

   Who can resist the beaded headdresses? There's always a way to justify having another one!

I'm not immune to the get-the-kids-out-selling. How could you not buy postcards from a face like that?

At one point, a passing traditional family smiled at me in greeting and the man shyly said in English, “Welcome to Egypt.” Made my day absolutely.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman

26 October 2014

On the Seas

Forthcoming a gap in posts while I am on expedition. On what feels like another of my homes. Not the same as an ancestral home, nor a descendants' home, but one of like-minded, unencumbered-for-the-duration individuals. Let's say a desirable home in my modest world "all things being equal," requiring cooperation in matters of health, timing, and finances.

A small ship by most standards. Not your glitzy, hyperactive, floating city of thousands. One that normally carries about 500+ passengers, but with strategic booking of repositioning cruises usually has many less. Just a small village. Borrrring, right? No casinos, no DJs, no extravaganza entertainment, no catering to children, no all-night noisy parties, no cell phones! ... although I've spotted busy laptops in the bar during British business hours.

A ship that offers out-of-the-way ports and land excursions. Europe, Asia, Africa are possible. We're not talking intensive local immersion here. But quietly fabulous guest experts not only give talks from experience, show docs, demonstrate customs, mingle with us, they prepare us for our memorable journeys ashore. As do the local guides. Cruising spiced with wonderful food you couldn't possibly make in your own kitchen and occasional endearing amateur performances by the crew. Dull, isn't it?

You wouldn't like it at all.

There's more than one such little ho-hum treasure ship afloat. A ship where the days at sea in equatorial climes are therapeutic, curative. Where "singles" of a certain age are welcome, as much or as little socializing as you want. In between anticipating shore excursions, one can choose to read, talk, flirt, play games, exercise, nap. Or all of the above. World music in the background, 24-hour cheerful staff, all day coffee, all night balm under heavenly stars, amiable companionship.

Temporary, bien entendue, but that's part of the appeal.

What happens on the ship, stays on the ship.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman

13 October 2014

Flying Camels

A cornucopia of adopted mascots.
Exploring a legend sometimes turns ugly ...

The first modern adoption was born from a general disbelief among their neighbours that the infant country of Israel could actually produce an air force. "Only when camels can fly" went the mockery. Jewish aviators created the logo with glee.

Found myself intrigued by the information that the Israeli Air Force's 1st Squadron had originally used a flying camel as their logo. So did El Al Airlines. Equally interesting were two similar but rival ancient tales, recounted in variations. According to one, the prophet Mohammed and the Archangel Gabriel flew from Jerusalem to Mecca on a baraq, a winged camel. Another said it was Abraham who was thus transported to Mecca. 


The Israeli Air Force 100 Squadron still uses this one.

And then. Another air force crest. Hmmnn, it's RAF, 45th Squadron. What kind of cultural appropriation is this? Unless it harks back to the RFC and their Sopwith Camels.

Simple enough for a wee flying camel tangent. Should have stopped myself there.

More images and usages uncovered a variety of flying camels. A trade fair logo. Medals for the Levant Fair. Then a book. A movie. Another book. More books! ... seems the concept has tremendous appeal for illustrators and kiddies of all ages.  

A leather goods studio. An ad design agency. A sculptor. A yoga position. A yoyo, fer god's sake. Some people are definitely goofier or more obsessed than I. Also something to do with figure skating. Camel toes (not elaborating on that, having a pair of Gap pants two sizes too small; no, wait, that's not flying). Restaurants. Comic books. Artistic licence going amok. No idea I was in such unimpressive company.

To the point of nightmarish. A berserk winged camel creature from a bad drawing saying "kill, kill, kill!" (not illustrated here). That was it for me. Evil attitude. Too surreal.

This is about when my mentee Rahmi (Junior Camel Correspondent®) felt compelled to defend his legendary ancestor and flex some literary muscles. He has a way to go yet: keyboard adaptation and the roman alphabet are tricky. His first report is bound to show up sooner or later.

Patience; he's cool.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman 

27 September 2014

Petra, Jordan 2011

Third time lucky? Who said that?

Half a year after the Arab Spring began, a one-day expedition was a choice of Wadi Rum or Petra. Since the cruise Nazi excursion leader said no camel ride option at Wadi Rum, I chose Petra. Our leader has only one priority: getting us on the bus, off the bus, and finally getting us back on the bus at the appointed time. How many times did we hear this: no bus, no boat, no cruise, goodbye vacation.

Our entry port is Aqaba, still the small town of four years ago, destination of savvy scuba divers. I see further signs, though, of a developing, stand-alone tourist resort. Away we go on a two-hour drive up, up into the mountains, 5,000 feet, how high the desert is here! ... and the spectacular scenery I remember. My heart gives a strange lurch as we bypass Wadi Rum off in the distance; I would rather be there. Turning onto the King’s Highway (the ancient route), there are more villages than I recall.

Not much later, we begin the winding descent into Wadi Musa. Four hours here: allowing almost an hour each way for the entrance walk, not much time to traverse the entire “city.” I tell our guide Talal I’m gone once we enter Petra. No problem, but do not miss the bus departure! The entrance walk itself has no shade for the first half; the second part is rough footing through the wadi leading to the Siq. The return hike needs more time because then it’s uphill and the sun in the final part is blistering. Avoiding dehydration is a must.

Some Bedu continue to return to the caves on a seasonal basis. Once we enter the ancient site, I head myself along the cityscape trail. I’m not sure about the timing for reaching the little museum at the end of the trail. My plan is to have a glorious ride back to the Siq (camels are not allowed on the long entrance walk for obscure reasons). In hindsight I’m sorry I didn’t take a camel both ways within the “city” but was enjoying the lack of tourists compared to other times. The vendor stalls are fewer now, indicative of the sudden tourism decline. Marguerite’s (Married to a Bedouin) son Raami has moved to a different spot.

I’ve been walking briskly for about an hour, pausing here and there to buy trinkets or take photos. Only one or two camels pass me. As usual, many donkey rides are on offer, for climbing the surrounding mountains. It would take a young Olympian to attempt the entire ascent on foot, consuming the better part of the day to reach acrophobic heights like the shrine of Aaron (brother of Moses). 

A youngish guy with a donkey spots me. No, I want a camel, I say. Big mistake to speak up: he will get me one. No, I’ve already seen my destination ahead: the camel station by the museum. The ensuing conversation gets more annoying as I understand he doesn’t want me to reach the camel station. I don’t stop. He quotes US$35 to ride back to the Siq. In my bag I have a sole JD$20 bill, but some American cash. I laugh and say JD$15 .. not telling him three years ago I paid a fair price for a first class ride. He is indignant and we have a largely incomprehensible dialogue about the American dollar exchange rate. The camel station still offers more promise. Onward.

He won’t go away. We do more haggling with me up to US$20 and he is stuck at $US30. For like a forty minute ride? I’m getting a creeping Giza feeling — and I should have stayed with it. “His” camel is nowhere in sight but he has a cell phone and somehow his minion, an older guy, beams onto the spot with two decent-looking camels. More arguing, no attempt at charm. I’m almost at the camel station and he throws in the deal-clincher for US$25. His claim that the camels at the station are reserved for a shipload of tourists is highly suspicious but I cave. Maybe I’m having sunstroke. Donkey boy rides off before I can ascertain any names for men or beasts. 

Via sign language the totally taciturn (let’s just say surly) minion agrees to photograph me. Maybe he’s the actual camel owner for all I know. His photography is adequate as far as it goes but no long shot when the friggin’ camel is standing

Away we go with him on the lead camel so this is not going to be a thrilling, independent Zsou-Zsou ride. Where has gone the welcome of Petra’s Bedu people? Worries, of course. The slow economy and political uncertainty have made them desperate and more like the Giza rogues. But this year the Giza rogues, perversely, had more charm.

This little tyke was selling bits of stone, mama hovering in the background. The poorest do not have stalls; they spread their crafts on a blanket or send their children about — more children in evidence than previous times, with souvenirs and strings of beaded necklaces. 

About halfway between the midway rest stop and the Siq, my guy stops and at a silent command my camel folds up. What?!! No, no, I say. I’m not getting off – my ride isn’t over! (naturally, there’s no way I can make this camel stand up again.) Minion then informs me rather clearly for all his want of English that this is how far I get for $25. Looks like payback for not forking over US$35. I am so pissed off. He leaves with the camel. Me not happy with my failed bargaining. Now who’s surly? 

Youngster approaches to offer necklaces, quite the patter. One is cheap but two are cheaper (the chosen one is always the most expensive). He motions to sit down ... perhaps anticipating extensive but mutually satisfactory haggling. Or else he senses my now-vulnerable self-esteem. Why not. A couple more kids gather: a live customer! Maybe this is a kids’ co-op. We settle down with some Cokes. 

They have a few stock English phrases but not much interest in learning more. We struggle to find words for what one necklace is made of. Camel bone seems most agreeable to all. I pay for three necklaces trying to tell the boy I made his day. One of the little girls picks it up, “Make my day!” but I don’t think she has a clue about Clint Eastwood. Haggling is exhausting. She shyly gives me a small stone, striated sandstone, the kind the kids try to sell. It’s a piece of Petra to take home. 

Cruise people have mustered by the Siq entrance for a rest. The heat is taking its toll. Clearly, in the allotted time, they did not get far enough to see all the tombs, especially the higher ones requiring some climbing skills and a mastery of vertigo. Treading the sandy parts of the walk back is even harder than navigating the Roman paving stones. Dodging the careening horse carriages is another hazard.

Photograph by Jean Housen, 2010, Wikimedia Commons
When I stop to rest where the wadi opens into the sun, an unaggressive young man suggests a horse ride to complete the last mile of this trek. Included in my entrance ticket: who knew?! So I get on the horse, grateful for the relief; photo opp is the last thing on my mind. He’s happy to chat away about “Canada” and the Rocky Mountains and horses (among her multiple activities, Queen Rania sponsors care of these Arabian horses in their senior years). This is more like the relaxed, engaging Jordan I remember. The tip he gently recommended was worth it. My timing is good. Enough to browse the Rural Women’s Co-op Shop and not miss the damn bus.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

10 September 2014


One of those images that burn into one's brain, exciting the imagination.
        Amsterdam-bound from Delhi, India. Night.
        From the window of KLM 37,000 feet high.
        When I should have been sleeping.

A brilliant, clear crossing of the globe; incredibly distant, other-worldly, noiseless.
I'm floating, unseen between a universe of sky stars above and land stars below.

What caught me: a perfect imprint of the Black Sea in the dark, rimmed with the lights of cities and towns where a million people were doing their evening things eating, talking, putting the kids to bed, laughing, loving, worrying, arguing, praying, sleeping ― unaware of a benign silent observer.

Impossible to photograph those moments and almost impossible to find a duplicate of what I saw, but NASA somewhat obliged after the fact:

The (unfortunately small) crop

The original NASA photograph:

The Black Sea has always had a magic appeal for me. Celestially reinforced. Sheer heaven.