01 October 2015

Tozeur, Tunisia 2012

Tozeur is a small town built around a desert oasis. One of its notable features is the distinctive brick-pattern designs in buildings all over town. The oasis is large and well-managed; we learned about the seasonal stages of harvesting and maintenance of the life-giving date palms.

After some free time in the peaceful medina streets we plunged into the contrasting fray of the morning market. The butchers customarily display the head of the meat they are selling; it signals that their meat is fresh.

By now I’d already happily acquainted myself with a few camels in this country. Time for my specially arranged ride. Jelel drives me to the rendezvous that turns out to be at the edge of "downtown." Two guys we meet. One is there to ensure the arrangement, probably the owner, and disappears almost immediately. Misbah is the camel handler, age indeterminate, since he is very weathered and has few teeth. And speaks a French mixture at machine-gun speed, but we learn to communicate. He's had tourists from Quebec so "Montreal" is his reference point for Canada. 

I mount a white beauty called Ali Baba. I check for blue eyes: nope. And away we go along a curving back street that skirts the oasis watercourse, behind and below the tourist hotels. It's quiet and pleasant but the South Arabian saddle arrangement may become a problem. I see places where palms lining the watercourse are black and dead; our guide Sami tells me later there was a fire. The water itself looks polluted and refuse has been dumped in spots, so at odds with the pristine oasis we saw this morning. 

Then we pass a semi-grungy local bar getting primed for business — no question the source of last night's lively music. Wave to the guys! They cheer for me (“John Wayne!”) due to their cowboy interpretation of a Tilley hat. Misbah picks some jasmine and bougainvillea from passing vines and makes a little posy for me. Touristy but nice.

After twenty minutes or so of stately pace the vista opens and we approach signs of other activities. A golf course entrance, and an amusement park of sorts. One or two families are about. Misbah is very aware of photo opps and he knows the park. Ali Baba too is obliging and accustomed to posing; I swear that camel is a born actor. 

Misbah places us in front of a giant replica of a man's head. In vain I try to catch the Arabic name of the celebrity. Now I know it was Tozeur's favourite son, "one of the first poets of modern Tunisia,"Abu el Kacem Chebbi (1909-1934), born in the area where our hotel sits. 

After that to my surprise, we change camels. Reason unknown, a momentary blip in our franglais. Maybe something to do with leaving the cobblestoned street to hit dirt and sand underfoot. Now I am riding black Mavroud who is older and (forgive me) a little moth-eaten, with less conceit than Ali Baba. Maybe the switch is to give the poor old guy some exercise! We fuss at adjusting things so I am not totally behind the hump.

Misbah and I agree emphatically that building golf courses in the desert is regretful. Nevertheless we are traversing part of it on paths, apparently following a familiar route. He waves his arms describing new projected tourist plans. I’m quite happy there are no golfers in sight. Then, at last. We reach the desert. Desert with tufts of the grassy stuff camels like to eat. Away from civilization for a bit. But the saddle is truly uncomfortable. Misbah understands we need a conference. Stop, dismount. When I say "sore bum" he repeats BUM delightedly. His new English word. 

He carefully rearranges the blankets. Then he says "Montez!" pointing to Mavroud's neck. I pose astride the patient camel's neck, another tourist trick I guess but what the heck. Old Mavroud is gentle as a lamb. Set off again toward the waning sun and I wonder if we are going all the way to the old Star Wars set. Misbah gives me the nose lead and walks behind, switching the camel and commanding him. A little trot, I wondered? Could I hope for a canter? Whatever it was, it didn't work. My supplementary proddings are ignored. Mavroud is simply not up to it today. We continue into the sunset, already way over the allotted hour.

I ask Misbah what is the smoke coming from the left (what on the desert could possibly burn?!) ... with intense concentration I translate it’s from the brickworks. He is eager to show me so we dip into a fold between gentle hills to see acres of this walled open air factory. Once there, he insists on taking photos of piles of bricks as he explains the manufacturing process. The site is almost deserted at this hour; it’s easy to see over the walls on camel back. We poke back and forth along the enclosure. This place is likely the town’s biggest employer.

Misbah seems keen to go on forever but by this time my sitting bones are very sore from the unrelenting saddle. The man has done all the walking cheerfully and loquaciously, some of it barefoot. We take a route through a different part of the golf course (still deserted) with great views toward the town. We chatter a bit and he blows me a kiss after some remark I make. Seems to me a sophisticated gesture from a small-town small-time entrepreneur who may or may not even own a camel himself.
Back onto the watercourse and eventually into the corner of the town we departed from. No Jelel. Misbah decides not to couche Mavroud yet. We turn the corner, parade along a main street (more John Wayne fans) and there's Jelel. I could have walked to the hotel from here. As we part, we probably would have had a discreet hug but for prevailing convention; others were watching. 

Probably the best ever.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

20 September 2015

Ferry Connections

Ferry whimsy. Who hasn't done this? Travelled on a ferry between point A and point B? It usually shortens the distance between two places, or enables reaching a specific place such as an island. For some people, a ferry is a daily ho-hum part of their commute. More fun are the holiday travels by ferry.
My first major ferry crossing was many years ago avec famille in a motor home over the Cabot Strait. I am convinced that at that time we boarded the ferry in Prince Edward Island to reach Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland, although that route from PEI is not in operation now. Wherever we loaded on, it was a long overnight crossing. Did I say fun? Sleeping in a metal room with no portholes is quite an experience. The slightly shorter trip returned us from Argentia to North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Timing did not allow us to go to St John's ... how shortsighted was that?!

My memories of the Rock are rather hazy apart from the demands of making beds, washing dishes, and cooking meals.

Cornerbrook was a lovely little town for a visit with friends. Crossing the main part of the island included an overnight in a gravel pit for lack of camping grounds. The scenery was amazing, unlike any other part of Canada.

However, my overriding memory is the fate of our ferry, the good ship MV William Carson, which sank not long after. It struck a small iceberg near Battle Harbour, Labrador; by good fortune, all 158 passengers and crew aboard were rescued.

All subsequent ferry journeys were peanuts after that. The Bay of Fundy: Digby to Saint John. The Chi-Cheemaun: Tobermory to Manitoulin. Gradually the massive motor home was no longer required.
Vancouver (Tsawwassen) to Victoria; don't remember how long ago that was or the name of the ferry.

Cape Breton to Cape Breton; the Little Narrows cable ferry takes you from one side of a Lake Bras d'Or inlet to the other in five minutes. It's a shortcut if you are approaching the Highland Village from the north.

Not to ignore the Toronto Islands ferries ... or the almost-obsolete vessel that lumbers back and forth to the Island Airport.

Elsewhere in no particular order:

Istanbul to Uskudar; a short trip across the Bosphorus to Turkey's Asian side.

Tallinn to Helsinki; the end of a trip through Russia and the Baltics.

Amsterdam (Ijmuiden) to Newcastle, UK; this is a BIG ferry! But smooth crossing on the North Sea in July.

Oban to Coll, Scotland; ancestral excitement!

Spain (Algeciras) to Morocco (Ceuta); past Gibraltar to the land of royal cities.

Not exactly a ferry (!) but a significant water journey was on the Great Lakes from Port McNicoll near Midland on Lake Huron to the Lakehead, otherwise known as Thunder Bay. The ship was probably the SS Keewatin. They loaded my car on and away we went. Let me tell ya, it's impossible to look back on crossing Lake Superior without obsessively humming "Edmund Fitzgerald" (thanks, Gordon Lightfoot).

Not exactly as pictured in the 1970s!
Most fun of all was crossing the Ottawa River from Carillon, Quebec to Pointe-Fortune, Ontario. We were towing a race car on a trailer that had approximately four inches of ground clearance. The rig was going to take up all the space on the tiny ferry. Mr. Québecois Ferryman gave it close inspection before allowing us to board, then stated the obvious with some trepidation, "She's low like hell."

Thrilling, every one of them.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

06 September 2015

Saint Catherines Monastery, Egypt 2013

My chance to visit storied Saint Catherines Monastery came at last. The illustration above, from a purchased booklet, captures the aura, the mystique, of this holy place a pilgrimage site for centuries the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the world.

It's a crack of dawn start to get there, a three hour drive from Sharm el-Sheik deep into the Sinai desert plateau, because the monastery closes to visitors before noon. Travelling the desert one is ever mindful of the long Exodus led by Moses into this land. Situated at the foot of looming Mount Sinai (Jebel Musa aka Mount Horeb), here it's believed Moses received the Ten Commandments. The biblical burning bush is located at this place. Tradition says here Moses met a daughter of Jethro at the well and married her ... Old Testament references are abundant. The prophet Elijah sought refuge here in the seventh century, living in a nearby cave.
Administered by the Greek Orthodox Church, the site holds the relics of Catherine of Alexandria who was tortured (Catherine wheel!) and beheaded for her Christian belief. The official name of the complex is Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai. Pilgrims and scholars from the world's three great monotheistic religions have come here even before Byzantine Empress Helena established a church in 330 A.D. Emperor Justinian fortified the site in the sixth century to protect the monks and the Church of the Transfiguration from roaming attackers and looters.
Our guide is Amr who came all the way from Cairo on a bus to serve us; he is an archaeology graduate of the American University in Cairo. The inevitable security guy in a suit sits in front of me. Amr gives statistics: of Egypt's ninety-three million population, twenty million are (Coptic) Christians. Sadly for me, Amr says there will be no time for camel riding; he saw me heading for the animals waiting patiently on the road.
St Catherine icon; Wikipedia.com
Saint Catherines library has the world's second most outstanding (after the Vatican) collection of ancient religious manuscripts. The Codex Sinaiticus was discovered here: the oldest, most completely preserved manuscript of the Bible. It's a relief to know that the most important documents have been filmed or digitized. Over two thousand priceless icons of antiquity in the monastery's holdings are no less distinguished. We did not have special access to the library or the icon gallery.
Ladder of Divine Ascent; Wikipedia.com
In the Church of the Transfiguration; Wikipedia.com
Photography is not allowed in the Church of the Transfiguration (by that time I had experienced yet another camera battery fail). We passed through the magnificent original carved cedar doors to the interior. The mosaics and art are overwhelming. St Catherine's reliquary is beside the main altar. Later, outside, we observed Jethro's well, the burning bush, the bell tower (a gift from the Russian Orthodox Church), and a small twelfth century mosque.
The Burning Bush thrives in its greenery
The essential tranquility of the surroundings induces awed respect despite the occasional crowding as one group of tourists follows another. Everything is so well kept. Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was notably fond of this place. He wished to be buried at St Catherines but state formality dictated otherwise. Today, a few dozen monks are in residence. For centuries the local Muslim Bedouin have been a loyal workforce, especially in the gardens. Their ancestors date back to the days before Islam.

Some die-hards prefer to begin their visit at midnight in order to climb Mount Sinai it takes that long in the dark to reach the top. Their "reward" is an unparalleled sunrise, dreaming of Moses in the face of God.
Saint Catherines Monastery has been well-preserved from potential damage due to its protection in historically troubled times, protection ranging from emperors to the prophet Mohammed to Napoleon. Cataloguing the collection began in the 1960s and continues. The Saint Catherine Foundation supports necessary, ongoing conservation of the precious manuscripts and artifacts. In view of the mindless destruction and desecration occurring today in the Middle East, I have fears for its safety.

Note: Usage rights for external photographs shown here extend to non-commercial reuse.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman


25 August 2015

Sousse, Tunisia (2)

Another day: We repeat like homing pigeons, into the medina past the marble camel. We wanted to climb the ribat, the fortress base for soldiers who lived like monks.
The ribat is built around a square with crenellated walls, and the entire place was empty at that hour. The cells of the "soldier-monks" open off the upper corridor. Because the Grand Mosque across the way does not have a minaret, the ribat's watch tower serves as such (although today, the call to prayer is often a recording). From the tower, a different view of the medina and the seafront.
Below, our coffee time again, striking up conversation when we could because we were still determined to find Dar Essid. Again receiving various opinions on directions, it took the rest of the morning to find it. I had read of a red light district – yes, of all things – somewhere near the kasbah; apparently it's a rather tightly sealed area with only one entrance. Not that we wanted to go there, but didn't want to stumble into it!

Success came after exiting the medina at one gate, walking the outside circumference of the wall, and entering again at another. Lo – signs for Dar Essid Museum! It was uphill close to the wall's interior, actually not that far from the ribat, so we had made a semi-circuit of half the medina area. But uh-oh. A small delivery truck was stuck halfway up the street (did I ever mention narrow?). Furthermore, he was totally blocking pedestrian traffic. He tried to drive down. He tried to back up. For a while we watched the proceedings with bystanders encouraging him.
Where the truck was stuck
 So there had to be a way around him in the warren of tiny streets to the side (did I ever mention logic?) to approach the street from the opposite way. One helpful man seemed to understand our goal, chattering away in Franglais-Arabic, maybe intending to guide us, or sell us something. Sure we could do this without any help we forged off. That only took another half hour, eventually emerging onto the right street ... where the wretched truck was still jockeying back and forth, exactly blocking Dar Essid's doorstep.

Finally, access. In the entrance reception a supremely disinterested woman took our fee, engaged with her cell phone. A typed sheet in English gave a bit of description about the rooms. This was the house of a wealthy Ottoman family, parts of it dating back to the tenth century. Gorgeous ceramic tiles decorate the walls and floors in traditional Tunisian style. Photographs, antiques, and family memorabilia were everywhere. We seemed to be alone except for occasional distant voices of other visitors. 

The late nineteenth century owner had two wives – separate bedrooms for each, of course. We saw the ancient Roman lamp displayed in one wife's bedroom, the famous lamp that signals the husband must not climax until it burns out. Husband in a hurry might slyly distract his wife so he could secretly extinguish the flame. A seven-hundred-year-old marriage contract was framed on one wall.
Other bedrooms were allocated for children under and over a certain age. These rooms are all off the main courtyard; the fabrics here were in better condition than those at Dar Baba ― but the pittance of an entry fee would hardly begin to pay for maintenance.
There were two kitchens, small and large, as we progressed multiple levels. Extensive and fascinating. We were aware that there was much more to the house, not open to the public, where the owner dwells. Although Ottoman rule in Tunisia ended with French occupation, a considerable population of Turkish origin remains.
The bathroom was a marvel with a marble tub and marble urinal proudly claimed as a precursor of the French pissoir. We had no idea when or how the tub was installed on this upper level. Good thing it was near the main kitchen for heating the water!
Then we ascended the final storey that led to the well-furnished servants' quarters. From there we had a splendid view of the medina down to the sea and its walls on another side. Oh no the promised roof-top café was a deserted little bar and we were dying of thirst. But suddenly out of nowhere a youngish caretaker guy appeared to find us some cold pop, thank you! Eager to practice English, he spoke of a friend studying engineering in Montreal. For some time we were a captive audience to tales of his depressing love life with a Spanish girlfriend; marriage is not a good idea without being able to afford or locate their own separate place to live (he wants Tunisia; she wants Spain). It didn't seem to occur to him that their disagreements about having children (he: yes; she: no) were just as fundamental. I was thinking get a new girlfriend! Or maybe I said it aloud.

Ultimately we headed out again toward the mosque and the medina entrance, "capturing" doorways as we went. We found ourselves in another local market area where piles of clothing and shoes were being sold. Second hand? Doing a rush business, anyway. Time for a relaxing café au lait, watching people come and go. The day ended with serious souvenir shopping on my part while friend the photog sought local scenes and portraits. She reported crossing a questionable area where some dubious men were gathered; eye contact to be avoided. She always manages well, superb photographs.

Part of a day was spent checking out the Port el-Kantaoui marina area, although I can't say the stretch of beach we saw was particularly inviting. Maybe the tourists sunbathing and strolling here had no clue about, or interest in, the historic medina ― the beaches do attract vacation people from all over Europe.
One day, rainy and cool after an evening display of spectacular lightning, we went by tram to the nearby town of Monastir. Next to the huge Sidi el Mazeri cemetery is the mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba; he is revered as the father of modern Tunisia from 1957 to 1987. The very wide area surrounding the structure is marble and was treacherously slippery in the drizzle. His impressive coffin rests in a rotunda, contrasting sharply with the plain rooms and simple slabs set in the floor for family members.
Altogether, Sousse was a highlight in a country where every new town and countryside scene manifested one awesome delight after another.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman