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. 

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.