22 May 2015

(Dutch) Camel Love

That is a camel face on my left shoulder. Necking with me.

What can I say?

Camel love.

Combining two of my interests, camels and reading (try Phyllida Law's How Many Camels are There in Holland? title taken from the British Alzheimer's test ― nothing to do with camels really, but a delightful memoir of her mother's progression with the disease and how the family dealt with it, including daughter Emma Thompson and son-in-law Kenneth Branagh), I now know there are at least 85 of them, all at Kamelenmelkerij Smits (Smits Camel Dairy Farm) in Berlicum, Netherlands.

The friendliest beasts I have come across yet.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

30 April 2015

Sinai, Egypt 2013

A visit to the tiny village encampment of Um Dalfa made an interesting contrast with a previous expedition in the Sinai. Our leader is Mahmoud. At the port of Safaga on the north end of the Red Sea, about sixteen people from our cruise ship pile into the usual jeeps for the brutal two-hour ride into the interior. But wait, we get a break. A stop at a tree. It's unusual to see a tree standing alone in the desert. The terrain here is quite rocky underfoot; the landscape always surprises in its variety from one dune or outcrop to the next. We can climb about a bit and acclimatize to the immense space around us.

The villagers are well prepared for us. An inviting shelter promises tea. Waiting for fellow tourists to exit the toilets the only permanent structures here I'm approached by my driver Hani who wants to beg a cigarette for another driver with no English. The exchange takes a while to interpret because Hani's communications with western women were apparently learned from pickup lines in Hollywood movies. The distraction is fine because socially one rarely broaches the intended subject in a direct manner. 

Our on-site guide is Mohammed who plans to take us to a village home after his introduction. There's no school here, no mosque; the tent homes are all naturally portable for seasonal movement. There's not much around to support a community for long. Most of the men are gone, doing whatever it is they do the expected herd of goats is absent, so that's my guess. Or away to pick up supplies. Mainly women and kids take care of the tourism investment; they have taken pains to accommodate us amicably. Subsistence-level living in this particular spot means the women regularly trek with camels over the mountain next door to bring drinking water back.

As the others troop off to the selected home, just below that little dip yonder the camels (and the kids) are waiting. Another semi-complicated exchange takes place between me and Mahmoud who introduces me to Hassan, a young man ...

... who is in charge of camel arrangements. They are receptive as I suggest paying for extra camel time, starting with like now. Shockingly straightforward, I know. The jeep drivers creep closer in curiosity. My attempts at negotiating a price elicit obscure responses so I'm going to have to extemporize with the honorarium.
There are six camels waiting with their young handlers. I choose what looks like the tallest camel and with it comes a girl small in stature but old enough to be swathed in head covering. We head away toward a small wadi, soon out of sight of habitation. Glorious to be swaying in that unique silence on a comfortable saddle with no thought in mind but to watch the wind sculpting the sand.
"On s'assoit sur une dune de sable. On ne voit rien. On n'entend rien. Et cependant quelquechose rayonne en silence." Antoine St Exupéry, Le Petit Prince.

Eventually in my selfish solitary splendour I realize we have to take turns on the six camels because most of the group wants to try it out. The others begin joining me so I feel obliged to relinquish after hogging one for forty minutes. While we wait we play with some of the kids; we take pictures of them, and hallelujah, some of us find candies in our bags to hand out. Plus more cigarettes to the guys; they are not pushy. Then I get another ride!

Hosting a tour group is an irregular event for these villagers but we have plenty of interaction with them. Hassan is very pleased with his extra camel money and insists I meet his mother who clutches me to sit and have our picture taken. Broad smile behind the veil. Perhaps Mama was the mastermind behind the display of sale items ― a weaving loom with a work in progress stands in the background ― simple Bedouin jewellery; woven scarves; small carpets; camel-wool bags. I'm incensed when I hear someone in our group turning her nose up at the naive crafts so I proclaim loudly, "We want to help support this village!" Thus another small carpet joins my collection.
Hassan and his friends give us a song of farewell; it's an unpolished performance and all the more fun for it. A very good day of memories ... shukran (thank you) for the warm welcome and assalamu alaikom (peace be upon you).

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

23 April 2015

Same Time Next Year

Khalil Aziz
Same time last year I was thinking I would transfer my camel interests to a new blog and what do you know, here we are. Along with sundry memoirs of travel ups and downs. And distant homes.

What can be said for an anniversary except how gratifying to re-live some of the adventures and highlights, at the same time testing sensory recall. How exciting to plan more. If you hadn't noticed, I've not yet been to Kazakhstan, or eastern Turkey, or southern Israel, or Ethiopia, Mali, Madagascar, Mozambique, Mongolia and many other likely camelus habitats.

My known ancestors do not seem to account for this quirk. Yet we don't know all that lurks in our strings of DNA; it's still a mystery unfolding. Furthermore, we don't know the significance of behavioral epigenetics, stuff of some buzz in recent studies and certain circles. Trauma and memories can be transmitted along with DNA, affecting how the brain and metabolism express themselves. Who knows what one of my remote ancestors got up to in ancient times.

I like this quote:
Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited. You might have inherited not just your grandmother’s knobby knees, but also her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn.[1]

For the time being, I occupy the morphic resonance chair.

My assistant Rahmi has yet to submit his promised post, preferring to communicate audibly at a level that blasts the dishes out of my cupboards. Guaranteed to get the asshats neighbours out front waving their well-worn Eviction! signs. Another trip to the human rights tribunal. If Rahmi doesn't soon learn to type instead, we might be out on the street. Ah well, my ceiling fixtures are hanging by threads anyway.

Same time next year, hope to see you here in the meantime.

[1] Dan Hurley, "Grandma's Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes," 11 June 2013,
Discover Magazine (http://discovermagazine.com/2013/may/13-grandmas-experiences-leave-epigenetic-mark-on-your-genes : accessed 19 January 2015).

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

15 April 2015

La Foule illuminée

La Foule illuminée (The Illuminated Crowd); Raymond Mason, Montreal

On se perd dans la foule

05 April 2015


Camel racing is BIG in many countries, notably the Middle East. Probably the most intensive business and the highest stakes are in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Camel farms are an industry. Huge prize money is awarded to owners of the swiftest animals. A few years ago, some countries bowed to human rights concerns and stopped the practice of using small children as jockeys. Now, it's mechanical robots that ride the camels.

Lars Plougmann, Wikipedia.org
Camels and owners had to re-train to adjust to the change. The tiny, lightweight things wear jockey hats and racing colours to appear less freakish to the camels. Owners drive in their SUVs beside the track, monitoring the camels' speed and heart rates. They can move the reins and a whip with two-way radio controls to the robots' little hinged arms. Weird. I wonder how many SUV pileups they have. Camels are fast!

 Other countries and towns around the world have adopted less intense versions of racing, with adult riders. Some have token prize money, some have annual cups. Often the races are held in conjunction with a local festival. More often than not, amateurs are welcome to try their skills from a stable of camels at hand.

Australia 2009
It's not surprising that Australia seems to have the most fun with them. Alice Springs holds the annual Lasseter's Camel Cup in July, only one of many venues in that country. I quote from their website:
"The family and fundraiser event is well known for its unpredictable and very entertaining camels as well as the brave and crazy riders. ... Racing them can prove a nightmare for riders and handlers but fantastic viewing for spectators."[1]

Alice Springs 2012
More surprising is the enthusiastic American adoption by Virginia City, Nevada for several days in September. Camels were not unknown there in the nineteenth century as pack animals. Today, experienced riders and amateurs alike participate. Last-minute coaching advice:
He does his best to talk us all out of it, telling us we can back out at anytime, that is until the chute gate opens, then you better just hang on. He warns riders of the hazards of climbing about seven feet atop the beasts of burden that weigh anywhere between 900 to 1,700 pounds. “I have some of the best camels in the country, but they’re still animals,” he told us one year. “The camels will have more control than you will, and they have an attitude of their own. We don’t need any wusses here.”[2]

Pushkar, Rajasthan
Kind of reminds me of Pushkar where our tour leader had once been bullied co-opted into the free-for-all camel race open to all comers. He tells me this news after the day's races are over. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Seriously.

[1] "About the Cup," Lasseter's Camel Cup, http://www.camelcup.com.au/.
[2] Teri Vance, "Teri's Notebook: No joking matter, I'm in the camel race," Nevada Appeal (http://www.nevadaappeal.com/news/local/12801274-113/races-camel-friday-camels : accessed 6 September 2014).

23 March 2015

Phoenician Cities, Tunisia, 2012

Terrifying and incredibly sad, the recent slaughter of tourists in Tunis (March 2015) at the Bardo Museum. Weep for the victims and the senseless barbarity. Tunisia was the spark point, literally, of the Arab Spring in late December 2010 with Mohd Bouazizi's self-immolation protest against authoritarianism. Of all their neighbours in the Mahgreb and beyond, Tunisia has progressed best as a model for reform.
And now this.

A wonderfully picturesque country with an abundance of UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites, Tunisia was once a location for Phoenician (Romans called them Punic) seacoast towns, established during their mastery of the Mediterranean trade world. We made visits to two of them.

Kerkouane was a fourth century BC Phoenician town discovered in its entirety only about sixty years ago. An exciting, unique find because Carthage itself was purposely destroyed by the Romans and all other Punic cities were built over. The ruins at Kerkouane tell us more than we ever knew about the ancient Phoenicians. Theirs is a history still under study but they are thought to have originated in Canaan. They were known for being brilliant traders, merchants, and navigators, becoming the Mediterranean colonial power for seven hundred years BC. Cartagena in Spain is but one of the towns they founded; that is where Punic warrior Hannibal set out on his famous but failed attempt to conquer Rome.

Splendidly situated on Cap Bon peninsula overlooking the sea, Kerkouane had an estimated population of 2,500 (ca.500-200 BC). We can see sophisticated house plans, bathing and water facilities, and at least one temple to a triangular-depicted goddess. Conspicuously revealed after excavation were the mosaic floors and reddish-cement hip baths, each house having its own well. Note to self: The mosaic tradition obviously pre-dated the Romans. This town's major industry was creating the purple dye (sometimes called Tyrian purple) for which Phoenicians and Carthaginians were renowned. It comes from rotting murex shellfish and was highly valued. Kerkouane was abandoned, likely after the First Punic War.

The small associated museum was unfortunately closed. We did not fully explore the adjacent cemetery or tombs that raise debatable points being discussed by scholars whether the found remains of children indicated sacrifice of the first-born male child or merely the burial of stillborn children (the point came up again around Carthage). Departing on foot from the site entailed walking on the wild side for acrophobes: a narrow path along a cliff face high over the sea with a flimsy, haphazard railing.

Two weeks later in Tunis, we headed for the ruins of Carthage where I had EPIC CAMERA FAIL all day, unknowing at the time. On our way to the old harbour we passed the Tophet cemetery covered with Punic stelae (similar to examples we saw in the small, outstanding Sousse Museum). Tophet is a "reference to the biblical term which indicated the site where the Canaanites sacrificed children by burning them alive."[1] Ashes of babies, children, and animals were uncovered here ― encountering the same argument about Phoenician child sacrifice or burial practices.

Examples of pre-Christian stelae, Sousse Museum

Carthage was the Phoenician capital city, legend says founded by Queen Dido in 814 BC. Carthage was so powerful that the Romans, on finally winning the Punic Wars, decided to raze it utterly in 146 BC. They kept it under siege by sea and land for three long years and the weary citizens had lost all hope. What we know about that event comes from the second-century historian Appian. The Roman orders to eradicate every inhabitant and their homes was brutality in the extreme. Our guide Mehdi read us Appian's description of the Romans burning and killing. The fire burned for seventeen days and left a layer of ash over four feet deep. Watching, the victorious Roman general Scipio is said to have had a premonitory chill: 
"This is a glorious moment, Polybius; and yet I am seized with fear and foreboding that some day the same fate will befall my own country.''[2] 

Chill indeed ... Roman Carthage declined dramatically after conquests by Vandals and Arabs; much of the old Roman stonework was used to build the Tunis medina. Obviously no country, army, tribe, or ideology has a monopoly on war and slaughter.

Carthage from Byrsa Hill; credit: www.tunisien.tunisie.com

Now, a wealthy, desirable residential area surrounds the extended excavation areas. We are aware that the most visible ruins are Roman, from the city Julius Caesar built one hundred years after the carnage. The scattered ruins can be viewed from several points; Byrsa Hill was the one most relevant to Carthage, discovered by chance in 1921 under layers of soil and ash. Here we see some basic foundations and bits of Carthage houses that only survived because of Roman infill at the time. Most houses were multiple storeys when they existed. And as we saw at Kerkouane, they had excellent facilities for water and drainage. Byrsa was the terminus of Emperor Hadrian's later aqueduct, longest in the world, coming from a southern mountain near Zaghouan. A small museum displays artifacts from different periods ― Punic, Roman, Christian.

Preparing to depart the site, in the parking lot I am drawn to some burnt-out car wrecks, colourfully painted, pushed off to one side. Mehdi tells me they were burned during last year's revolution. Intuition flashed that this was no aimless display of graffiti. I did not know then that it had become one means of popular demonstration. Here was a visual, accessible, tactile medium whereby ordinary people had expressed their political outrage. "DÉGAGÉ!" ("Leave!") shouted one hulk prominently ― the chant the crowds chorused repetitively at Ben Ali. And leave he did. Peacefully. Such great regret at my lost photos! A few photographers did capture pieces of the phenomenon, although not my particular parking lot.[3]

Well, we went on to see the ruins of the Roman (Antonine) baths at the sunny seashore. But the present was with me, overriding imagined Roman indulgences and even the doomed Carthaginians.

 One Tunisian I spoke with felt that a single man Bouazizi should not be over-memorialized as the face of heroism when so many took part in the freedom protests. I can't say enough about the variety of this beautiful country. Hopefully today Tunisians have the strength to vanquish the terror-mongers.

[1] "Carthago (Carthage): Punic memories," A Rome Art Lover's Web Page (http://romeartlover.tripod.com/ : accessed 20 March 2015).
[2] "The Destruction of Carthage," Hannibal Barca and the Punic Wars (http://hannibalbarca.webspace.virginmedia.com/carthage-destruction.htm : accessed 19 March 2015).
[3] Ben Miled Zied, "Burnt out cars ...," 21 March 2011, Demotix (http://www.demotix.com/news/1580613/burnt-out-cars-turned-artistic-pieces-tunisian-revolution#media-1580588. "Intervention on cars burnt ...," Nafas (http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/nafas/articles/2011/emancipated_art/img).

© Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.