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. 

27 August 2014

Down East From Away

Another of my ancestral descendants homes is on the eastern seaboard.
Not exactly ...

Oh, I see ... someone snuck in a photo of my friend Ricky at Sunnyvale Trailer Park.

My down east home from away has perqs like cats and a balcony. A cat is a perfect home accessory if you are not allergic to them, depending on the current assortment. A balcony is a princely treat for the balcony-deprived. Not that I can see the harbour from here, but I know it's over that hill and down the street and past the Citadel and thank gawd it's mostly downhill walking.

Every summer Halifax is at its best. The city is old. Well, old compared to much else in Canada. Here is where the English set up their naval and military base in 1749 to the dismay of area natives and Acadians.

Downtown, the Old Burying Ground at St Paul's Church is the best place for a family historian to park herself. The oldest Protestant (Anglican) church building in the country will fascinate any historian. Besides the windows and artifacts, its memorial tablets are a record of significant parishioners who contributed to the city's life.

Fairview Cemetery is another popularly visited site where many thousands pay their respects every year to one hundred and twenty-one victims of the Titanic sinking. Buried over a century ago, their gravestones say "died April 15, 1912" but sadly, some individual identities are still unknown. In our twenty-first century, DNA has identified this unknown child as 10-month-old Sidney L. Goodwin of England.  

Perhaps lesser-known, the cemetery at the Little Dutch Church has burials of the earliest "foreign Protestants" who came to Nova Scotia in the 1750s. Some of those Deutsch-speaking Lutherans went on to found Lunenburg. The church here is sited at a mass grave for typhus victims who died during their Atlantic crossing.  

Halifax's history is naturally tied to every aspect of seafaring life. Restored parts of the panoramic waterfront are a delight to stroll, all on a human-size scale. Maritime Museum of the Atlantic ... Historic Properties ... Pier 21 ... Canadian Museum of Immigration ... and nirvana for seafood lovers.

 Since that sounds like a tour brochure, I might as well add that from there it's all uphill to the Citadel, a National Historic Site. Halifax has serious hills. Over a two hundred and fifty-plus year period, the Citadel has undergone several modifications and restorations.

Annapolis Royal cemetery, Fort Anne
It's not all cemeteries and dead people. Down East also has possession of a car, Another princely luxury! That means road trips! Annapolis Royal, here we come. And the Highland Village and Grand-Pré and Birchtown and Louisburg and stop at Frenchy's everywhere. Why doesn't Upper Canada have Frenchy's, tell me that?  

Staying in a rented wee hoose in Shelburne, we celebrated the 225th anniversary of the Loyalist Landing. With Governor Parr welcoming us, it was very like being back in the eighteenth century. Except for the electric lights that greatly added to the exciting parade of ships after dark, blazing up the night sky for the cheering bystanders.

  Ancestor alert: Cape Breton! Best of all, we found great-great-grandfather Hector McFadyen's house at River Denys (ancestral home! ancestral home!). It was up for sale. Checked my bank account; a purchase was not in my future.

Down East folk art lives and thrives, as does its special brand of humour. When is my next visit? Will someone tell me that?! When!!  

20 August 2014


A question arose of interest only to myself, or possibly to the world’s small band of amateur camel fanciers. Why was every camel saddle in Tunisia very different from those I’d experienced before? Placed behind the hump, and of strange construction, it nagged at me. My disinterested companions dismissed my queries as frivolous and vexatious. The saddles looked logically arranged to them. Sitting on the hump would “hurt” the camel they say, and what was my querulous (boring) problem anyway?

Little did I know in advance the abundance of camels Tunisia would offer. You just have to know where to look. We’re not talking safari treks here. Those too are always available. (Much to my regret, I’m past my expiry date for packing/loading saddle bags and sleeping overnight on the desert sand. A few hours six or seven feet high on a good animal in dreamy peace is all I require.) Camels are available on the beaches and in the small towns where individual entrepreneurs hire out for as long as you want.

At Frigua Animal Park, I encountered my first Tunisian camel. There I understood the saddle arrangement was set up for adults taking children with them, but the entire saddle was behind the hump. The wooden harness contraption for safety sits on the hump with the blankets for seating arranged aft. The unexpected opportunity was not a time to question or argue, just shut up, get on, and — after a year’s absence — familiarize the feel again for a little while.

But each encounter with the saddle business puzzled me more. They are not at all what I remembered. The language barrier precluded intense discussion with camel handlers who — obviously — used the model they were born to, unaware of other variations. In fact it seemed to me the primitive wooden safety rig took precedence. 

It took my Texas friend Doug to clarify, post facto. Gratuitous photo of Doug, Texas Camel Corps leader and Middle East guide extraordinaire with his special Bactrian friend Gobi. See Doug's camel ranch and travel activities at http://texascamelcorps.com/.

North Arabian saddles (Petra, Jordan)
Turns out I was accustomed to the North Arabian saddle commonly used throughout Jordan and Egypt, placed on top of the hump. Tunisia uses the South Arabian style, a much different construction and looser arrangement that can vary seating from the camel’s shoulders to the hips (Doug can be much more technical). All the Tunisians I dealt with placed it behind the hump on the hips in their traditional way, but would often amiably make slight adjustments for me — let me just say there was a certain amount of discomfort in the basic wooden structure.    
South Arabian saddle (Tozeur, Tunisia)

Speaking of saddles, how about such ornate trappings as this. Probably for special occasions only. For instance, most camel handlers of Rajhastan and Egypt go all out to decorate their animals with colourful trappings for festivals or even for tourists. But this full-size saddle at a shop high in the mountains of Jordan was mesmerizing. What royal images it conjures!
But back to my original introduction to Tunisia. Tunisians speak of dromedaries, not camels. Quite so. An enjoyable visit to the Animal Park that day sprang a dromedary surprise for me, icing on the proverbial cake!

On the desert road between Tozeur and the the oasis village of Chebika, Tunisia

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

12 August 2014

Fes, Morocco 2005

A visit to the Mahgreb ‒ North Africa ‒ was a last-minute decision into a rather whirlwind tour of Morocco, including the four royal cities of Fes, Meknes, Marrakesh, and Rabat. Starting in gorgeous Benalmadena near Malaga on Spain's Costa del Sol, we drove to the ferry that took us across the Strait of Gibraltar to passport control at Ceuta in Morocco. I've already mentioned my surprise companions, the wild tribe of loudmouth extroverted Brazilians.
Wikipedia Commons, by High Contrast
Destination Fes (not FeZ we are told); we ascend the picturesque, rolling mid-Atlas mountains. A few “comfort stops” along the way help to acclimatize, enhanced by offerings of customary mint tea in glasses. French is supposedly the country’s second language but Spanish seems more endemic. There's a distinction between north and south parts of the country because the north is arable and has many urban centres; the south is desert and the High Atlas mountains. In the passing rural fields, what first looks to me like many field crops of exotic, basketball-size blooming plants morphs into the sad spectacle of scores of abandoned white plastic bags littered by the wind.
No-one visits Fes without seeing the medina, the old walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the cultural heart of the country. Here was the most fascinating locale of the entire trip. Originally built for fortification, the sights, sounds, and smells have changed little in its thousand-year-old existence. We arrived at the gate early morning; few shop owners and residents were about. It was Ramadan, and people sleep late to help the daylight go by. When they eat in the evenings, they stay up late. As we progressed through the morning, the streets became more and more congested.

Tour leader Alami handed off to local guide Raschid for our smallish English-speaking group, being some Aussies and me. Raschid is an uncommon but proud mixture of “the best of Morocco” as he tells us right off the bat: Arab, Berber and Jew. He shows us the palace courtyard and several mosques; we trail long, pausing to study the intricate design details. The architecture is fascinating, some of it stunning, to western eyes. Probably the best part was simply strolling the hilly, twisting warren of streets — streets? actually, incredibly narrow alleys — gazing at everything with delight and enjoying our history lessons. By noon or so, people were crowding into the various mosques, all but hidden in the narrow dark doorways. Some of them did not appreciate tourists gawking and inadvertently impeding their entrance to worship.

Then the not-so-subtle shopping agenda kicked in, expected by some of us. Let's see, there was the Brass Merchant, the Carpet Merchant, the Leather Merchant, the Embroidery Merchant, and the Pharmacy Merchant selling soaps and precious oils. Initially the prices were quite outrageous. Here was my introduction to the skills of market bargaining, or haggling. No seller expects a customer to pay the first asking price. Raschid was as helpful as possible with negotiating.

Of course the carpets were beautiful but I heard muttering from the merchant after no-one stepped up to buy ... their carefully unrolled displays apparently for naught. Nor were we particularly intrigued by the leather products, another reason not much buying was going on amongst us. However it was interesting to see and hear about the traditional tanning industry. Leather is Morocco's biggest export and it's still very much a hands-on process. The dyeing vats, viewed from the height of a scary, narrow, dizzying staircase, are a famous sight here.
Dye vats; photo by Derek White of 5¢ense
Our agenda was becoming a rush from one sales pitch to another. If we didn’t keep up in between the designated shops we’d be sunk. You’d never find your way out of the medina maze. A few low grumbles around the group: do they think we are all wealthy and only here to spend money? Irony — many of the goods we saw are available all over North America (right in my neighbourhood at home) and often cost less.

About 1:15 pm we arrived at the Caftan Merchant and then Raschid disappeared. For a full hour we languished without Raschid outside the clothing shop, waiting as instructed, clueless and hungry. Whenever a loaded donkey approached (the only way to transport goods up and down the medina streets), often with little warning because of the congestion, we learned to instantly flatten ourselves against the wall. I bought a caftan perhaps out of sheer boredom, practicing my new basic skills ... followed by intermediate skills of turning your back and walking away when you don't like his latest price. That's a tough one when you really want that certain something!
Most of them were trotting quickly despite the heavy burdens you didn't want to be crushed by!
Things picked up when the ubiquitous trinket/souvenir sellers found us as a captive audience; lots of cheerful banter in a mixture of languages and satisfactory purchases. Brenda also graciously declined a friendly youngish man’s invitation to enter his home across the street for refreshment and accept him as my Moroccan husband. Good thing the Brazilians weren't here; they'd smother the guy with attention. Meanwhile, all of us musing whether Raschid had gone to mid-day prayers or outright defected. Our empty stomachs were righteously complaining and not a cafe or bakery in sight! 

Later we learned that a husband and wife in our group had retroactively decided to purchase a carpet and needed his assistance in the (extensive) negotiating. That’s personal service, alright, but a few pissed-off Aussies held back at tipping time because we'd been more or less abandoned.

Despite the bit of downside, the day's experience was enthralling. There was a moment with a street musician. A moment in a small poultry market where live birds were offered, butchered on the spot if you wish. I spotted my favourite clementines at a grocer’s and bought a few. So sweet and fresh!! Not long off the tree, I'm sure, and infinitely superior to those that arrive at my supermarket. Ah, sometimes the little things make such a difference.

Before we left Fes, we had one of those lavish dinner shows in a very lovely venue. The entrance to the place was hidden in one of the dark medina alley ways. Inside, mile high ceilings and Moorish columns, belly dancers and lots of musicians. Who care if it's touristy? Delicious food and much fun with audience participation; the Brazilians shine tonight. Another of those little things: traditional marinated lemon chunks in the tagine ― many restaurants at home seem to omit them; instant seduction, forcing me to learn later how to do it.

Since then, I have been into a number of old Arab medinas, but Fes is still special, more than fulfilling a long time wish to see North Africa.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

02 August 2014

Pushkar, India 2009

My introduction to the Thar desert in India’s province of Rajasthan was on a sorely tested digestive system. Delhi-belly felled my group one by one and the wonderful curries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner temporarily lost their appeal. So we are happy to have tents with toilets and limited wash facilities, despite water rationing. The ropes at the back of the tent look like an unobtrusive way to hang a bit of laundry, whereupon we discover the waste from our facilities flushing into open trenches that may or may not be moving along. Along to where, one wonders. 

Night temperatures drop from over 40 degrees Celsius to about 15. It’s the desert, alright! And the Pushkar Camel Fair has more camels per square foot than anywhere else on earth. To fully embrace this experience, all I have to do for three days is not eat anything ... thus avoiding more internal combustion! Experienced sufferers advise that bananas are tolerable on a weak stomach. 

The first foray into the fairgrounds is on a camel cart rather awkward and difficult to climb into. It takes a half hour to get there, four people on a cart, bumping along like peas on a drum. Children begin appearing out of nowhere to beg for money and shampoo. They are from the gypsy camp relegated to the outskirts of the vast fairgrounds. Pleas of “hello, hello” vary with “mama, mama.” A couple of them play Frere Jacques on their screechy little string instruments. Older and bigger hawksters start pestering us. 

The small town of Pushkar holds an annual religious festival devoted to the god Brahma, along with the famous livestock market. Camels take precedence; horses and cattle are a minority. Thousands of people milling on the fairgrounds have staked out their spaces for tents and the animals they want to sell or trade. Many come from remote villages; some have never seen foreigners like us before. All the camels I could ever imagine, extending to the horizon. This desert area has been drought-stricken for three years. Cement pools here and there hold water for many purposes. Presumably it is well boiled for the ubiquitous chai. 

Our guide explains how the camel bargaining goes, among the uneducated tribespeople who don’t understand paper money. Buyers and sellers thrust signals to each other in intricate hand clasps that have a known value, conducted discreetly under a piece of cloth. 

At last: next day at 6:30 a.m. is my specially requested sunrise camel ride. The digestive tract is slightly more under control. On the spot financial transaction somehow results in charging me double; lack of coffee makes me acquiescent. Impassive camel tender Sadao leads me and Rahma the camel toward the familiar fairgrounds again. Solitary men here and there are squatting in the semi-darkness, enjoying a certain morning-type relief. Women seem to be invisible. Beware of thorny bushes along the track so not to rip your legs to shreds. Some camels are mean that way, deliberately rubbing up against injurious obstacles. But Rahma seems as oblivious as Sadao. Likely they didn’t have any coffee, either.

When we reach the tribal camping grounds everyone is busy preparing breakfast and morning chores. Fascinating to see all the small fires of each little campsite—the smell of wood-burning smoke has been universal in this country since we stepped out of the airport an age ago. Vendors offer a variety of puffy deep-fried delicacies. A foreigner on a camel at this hour is a novelty. As we wander the camp, a man greets me as the owner of Rahma and invites me for chai. Without the backlash of Delhi-belly and visions of the stagnant water source, I would have accepted.
Sadao signals, time to turn back. Along the track he temporarily abandons me. This is more like it. I’m free to choose my forks on the trail, having figured out the steering mechanism. He trusts me as an experienced camel rider, right? Meanwhile, the temple of Savitri, wife of Brahma, glows on a hill in the rising sun. Glancing over my shoulder I glimpse a back fling of clothing as Sadao does what comes naturally onto the sand. Several tractors are warming up and zooming off to work (in the fields irrigated by our waste water?). They are playing pop Indian music at earsplitting decibels. Rahma and I are in synch. Sadao catches up to me just before we reach tent city. Hawksters are at me brandishing photos. They are rather good; fast turnaround.
More swaying, banging, bruising camel cart rides back and forth to the town. Once, a dialogue with camel behind us as we sway and bang along. His driver teases us by allowing the camel close enough to put his head under our awning. Breakfast bananas are swiftly stowed out of sight. The drivers love our shrieking. Comes to mind: “If the camel puts his nose in the tent, can the rest of the camel be far behind?” Indeed. 

Each time we disembark is a testing of our stiff limbs. We spend long hours exploring the holy sites, watching the contests and exhibitions in the arena, dazzled by the colours and commotion all around us. We pass stalls selling camel ice cream and camel dung paper. Only one pickpocket incident, during the mustache contest;  Continual rehydration is necessary. Late afternoon “resting” in our tents is like baking in an oven.

A dozen of us go for a sunset camel ride, in a different direction. My camel is gratifyingly colourful but the local photographer-hawksters are mysteriously absent. We stop near a nomad tent with goats to watch the obligatory sunset. One camel handler lights up a cigarette. We see his camel likes to inhale the cigarette smoke. Puts his head down, sniffs heartily, and then tosses his head back in apparent enjoyment. Me with dead camera batteries. Is this how Camel cigarettes began?
Reading the newspapers later, we learn that some camel vendors will turn their unsold camels loose. In this economy the price of feed has escalated and they’ve lost the potential income from a sale. They can’t afford to take the animals back home and maintain them.It’s said they love their camels and treat them like family. The camel population of Rajhastan has dwindled alarmingly in the last few years. Very very sad. 

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.