31 January 2015

Eastern Med Islands 2011

Mediterranean islands are chock full of ancient history. A romantic can easily imagine Jason and the Argonauts or Odysseus sailing amongst them in ships of yore. Our somewhat larger 600-passenger craft glided into Rhodes harbour early in the morning. Day trips are hardly more than a superficial cultural experience, but luckily we were off-season with few other tourists.
Rhodes is one of the bigger Greek islands, situated off the south coast of Turkey. Must-see is the UNESCO heritage-designated Old Town and in it, the Grand Masters' Palace, a centuries-old seat of the Knights of St. John (also known as Knights of Malta and other appellations). What did I know about the Knights? Close to zip: recalling dim thoughts of the Crusades. Richard the Lion Heart. And shades of ambitious mystery novelists who attribute all manner of mysterious skulduggery to the order.

We spent most of our time exploring the magnificent 14th century palace that houses the Byzantine Museum. In 1856 the palace was largely destroyed by an accidental explosion in its armoury; almost one hundred years later it was painstakingly rebuilt and restored from the original plans. To use their full title, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta dates back to the monastic Order of St. John of Jerusalem, dedicated to caring for sick and poor pilgrims in the Holy Land.

It became a military as well as religious order under a Papal charter; its mission then expanded to defence of the Holy Land at the time of the First Crusade. The order attracted members from everywhere in Europe to make it a fierce defensive Christian force. After Jerusalem fell to the Ottomans in 1291, the Knights moved their administration and hospitals to Rhodes, Cyprus, and Malta over a period of time.
  In the museum, I was thrilled to see one of my favourites, the reproduction of Laoco├Ân, “one of the greatest of all artworks.” The original masterpiece is attributed to Rhodes sculptors and when discovered in Rome it was grabbed for permanent display in the Vatican’s Belvedere Garden.
The Knights began fortifying the town of Rhodes when they arrived in the early 1300s. The outer grounds of the palace now provide a park for exercise and families.

After an enjoyable little trek downhill through narrow streets we had adequate time to gaze around a central square and look at the shops. On the way a picturesquely pathetic small child was playing a faintly familiar song on a bouzouki type instrument. Seeking handouts of course. It would have made a striking photo if the camera had been uppermost in mind. Some of our group, all supposedly well-travelled, had to be told NOT to give her money when she should be in school. An ice cream shop has amusing creations in its display window.

Greece was in bad financial shape in 2011 and the tourist industry was suffering. Our local guide Ireni was not optimistic about the upcoming election, urging us to return soon, bring our friends.


Cyprus is a divided island, as we know. Limasol was our port, in Greek jurisdiction. Rumour has it the town is filled in season with the nightclubbing offspring of Russian oil-money and possibly serves as an offshore tax haven. Or money laundering; take your pick. My tour went into the hills to see mountain villages, thus I missed discovering any direct evidence of the jetsetting Russian oligarchy. 
 Beautiful scenery and sometimes terrifying hairpins on the mountain road led us to a variety of craft and home industries. It only took the first visit to see how business had stalled in the discouraging economic climate. Production had basically stopped. Owners, managers, or employees whoever was tasked with showing us around these places were subdued. Our local guide Antoinetta was the most animated soul of the day.
Photo of their poster

At the village of Agros we visit House of Roses, a small factory based on cultivation of (immense fields of) the ancient Mesopotamian Rosa Damascena. They produce perfume, cosmetics, wine, candles, ceramic ware, and what-have-you. The site was virtually vacant: no humming of machinery or chatter of workers. A brief introductory talk was uninspired; much more time was given to browsing the shop for souvenirs. 

Photo of their poster

After that was a cottage-industry of jams, jellies, preserves, and candy. We toured the pristine kitchen where I believe a woman was at work stirring something. Preserved tender young walnuts and a candy made from fresh grapes are specialities. Samples, of course. Our bags were getting heavier with fragrant and tasty purchases.  

Then came the winery. Just the right time for a tasting. Here we found more enthusiasm in the unabashed sales talk, maybe because the harvest was over as a natural course of events rather than due to financial woes. All wines were unfamiliar but I bought a red, knowing enough to steer away from the retsina.

A pensive moment on their terrace with the cats was worth its weight in gold.

Barely disguised commercial promotion on a "tour" is easily forgiven because these people are desperately dependent on the tourist trade and we were the only tourists around. Of course we felt silently obliged to spend some money as we met one pair of melancholy eyes after another. Did we help prop up the economy? Not so much, I think. Even more so than Ireni yesterday, Antoinetta implored us to come back to her island again.

Occasional tiny churches dot the area, one dating from the 11th century! Stop the bus! But no, we have an agenda and today it apparently does not include history. To my great disappointment. Trying to capture them through a moving window is impossible. The sun starts to set on the Mediterranean about 5 p.m. this time of year; it gets dark earlier if you’re in a mountainous area. So that puts a natural end to a day’s excursion. 

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

16 January 2015

Hi Jolly

Photo credit: It appears so often on the Internet,
difficult to tell the real origin; this is from the
Quartzsite Yacht Club
He was called Hi Jolly. His name was Hadji Ali (Ali al-Hajayah). He was a Moslem Ottoman, the man most closely associated with the United States Army Camel Experiment. Or perhaps he was Syrian. Or Greek. It's a story not well known in the U.S.A., let alone Canada.

In 1856 the U.S. Army imported altogether seventy-five camels from the Middle East as the "answer" to facilitating American expansion across the southwestern territories. Who but a man of the Middle East to handle the animals and train the soldiers to adapt. Actually more than one man was hired from the Levant but Hi Jolly, as the Americans quickly dubbed him, became the legend. He was capable and well-liked by all accounts.

Courtesy Doug Baum
The project was the brainchild of Jefferson Davis, then U.S. secretary of war. His own experience in the southwest and understanding of camels' role in distant desert areas led him to the bold experiment. Camels would fare so much better as pack animals in the arid terrain than horses. And they did. The camels were stationed at Camp Verde, Texas, near San Antonio. They first fulfilled their promise in the 1857 Beale Expedition, a successful trip transporting supplies and surveyors across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California to Los Angeles. For several years their use was continued even after the Confederacy took over in southern areas.

Then what? By the time the Civil War ended the Camel Corps project had evaporated along with Davis's political power. Congress declined further funding; some said that camels frequently spooked the horses and other animals, causing disruption and timing delays. A plaque at the Hi Jolly Memorial in Quartzsite, Arizona, reads in part: "Officially the camel experiment was a failure, but both Lt. Beale and Major Wayne were enthusiastic in praise of the animals. A fair trial might have resulted in complete success." Some of the "failure" has to be attributed to uninformed poor treatment of the animals.

"Legends" beget more legends and it's not easy to separate facts from the apocryphal. Many camels were auctioned off by the government but others were set free in Arizona to roam the desert. Camels were still being reported in the American desert in the 1930s. More or less abandoned, Hi Jolly was out of a job but unlike his few colleagues decided to remain in the United States. Among other occupations he became a prospector and a mail courier. Known as Phillip Tedro after his naturalization in 1880, he married, had two daughters, and died in 1902 in Quartzsite, Arizona. There, much later, a memorial was erected to him.

Doug Baum, likely the most camel-knowledgeable man in North America, created the Texas Camel Corps partly to commemorate the Beale Expedition, and also to spread the word about these hardy and fascinating animals.  

Courtesy Doug Baum
His Facebook page says it: "The Texas Camel Corps was established to educate the public on the historic use of camels in America in the 19th century." Demonstrating historical re-enactments of the U.S. Camel Corps is only one of dozens of educational events he conducts or participates in all year long. I greatly anticipate the book he will publish in 2015.

This photo I took unsuspectingly about ten years ago is one of several you might come across in Arizona tributes to the legend of the camels and Hi Jolly. Quartzsite remembers its most famous citizen.

● Doug Baum, "The status of the camel in the United States of America," paper given at the 2011 Camel Conference of the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (https://www.soas.ac.uk/camelconference2011/file84331.pdf).
● Doug Baum, April 2014, "Confederate Reunion Grounds," The Camel's Tale (www.texascamelcorps.com and https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-US-Army-Camel-Experiment/).
● Ibraham Kalin,"From Hadji to Hi Jolly," 6 December 2014, Daily Sabah (Istanbul) (http://www.dailysabah.com/columns/ibrahim-kalin/2014/11/25/from-hadji-ali-to-hi-jolly).
Forrest Bryant Johnson, The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America's Desert Military Experiment. New York: Penguin, 2012; preview on Google books.
● "Hi Jolly" and "United States Camel Corps," Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hi_Jolly and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Camel_Corps).
● "The U.S. Army Camel Experiment," 2014 Tour Schedule, History America Tours (http://historyamerica.com/tours/14-CamelCorps.html).

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman

02 January 2015

Douz, Tunisia 2012

Re-posted and revised from the BDM blog, where it will disappear.

We are in Douz, "Gateway to the Sahara." No kidding, our hotel is right up against the town wall beside the vast sandy openness. The rooms have small windows to the outside world, rarely opened because of constantly drifting sand. As with most Arab structures, the beauty is in the inner courtyard. Here too, as every morning in this delightful country, we can gorge on yoghurt and pomegranate arils to our hearts' content.

Late afternoon, some of us gear up for our optional group camel ride. Others contentedly remain beside the pool, partaking of snacks or massage offerings. For us, it's barely a hop-skip-and-jump outside the wall to a little tour office sitting in the desert. The general plan here is to dress us up in cheche turbans (aka kefiyah elsewhere) and a loose djellabah so we look like clones. Jockey around for a group photo. It's a well-practised tourist manoeuvre, pardon my cynicism. My inner camel snob is showing, channelling shades of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, as in "Road to Morocco." 
OH NO. My camera memory card is full. Dither! Must rely on the others to provide what I missed. It's time to mount and I spot a white camel, perhaps the tallest in the bunch. Mine! But he doesn't have blue eyes ... our irrepressible guide Sami told us the best racing camels are white with blue eyes. We head off into the peaceful dunes with each handler leading two or three of us. The air has that slightly surreal haze from gently blowing, hovering, distant sand. The surprisingly comfortable saddle promises a smooth ride.

Not so long after we begin, a dashing young Tuareg on a perfect Arabian horse comes galloping up to my friend and me, as we are somewhat separated from the others. In rapid-fire French he goes into a invitation — no, insistence that one or both of us get on his horse and he will take us across the desert. No concession at all of interrupting an event in progress. We try to be friendly but he goes annoyingly on and on with the extravagant, totally insincere compliments—the familiar you will be my Tunisian wife, yadda yadda. It's embarrassing. He has his royal blue cheche drawn so only his kohl eyes show, right out of a 1930s movie. Hmmmm, another practised manoeuvre.

Does this silliness really work for him sometimes? But it gets worse. Ignoring the obvious that we are not smitten, he grabs my buddy's hand, kisses it, calls her Mama ... very bad move. If Mama is intended as a winning ploy, it has the opposite effect. Besides, she's getting a bit frightened. He's impeding our progress and our camel handler stands by hesitantly. The rest of the group is out of earshot. Then he tells her handler to couche the animal so she can dismount (and remount his horse) and the daft man on the end of the rope looks like he will comply. We start shouting at both men. 

Finally the horseman accepts the rebuff ungraciously and gallops away. I hear him hurl "Ingrates!" as a parting shot.

It seems only moments later we are stopped as a group. The others have already dismounted to climb the smallest bump ever to be called a dune. More photo opps. And a more or less discreet pitch for buying jewellery that magically unrolls from the folds of a handler's djellabah. Looks like this is the turning around point. Damn. Hardly a ride at all, not the expected hour. Not to mention fifteen or twenty minutes wasted trying to ditch the horseman. Where is the "Great Dune" the Tunisia guidebook promised?! More fretting about my useless camera.

Reality: We become aware of hearing distant dune buggies as the sun sinks, their rackety whine spoiling the air.

SO ... it was partially good and partially disappointing. My buddy's so glad she saw real dunes on yesterday's optional trek to the old Star Wars film set. Tunisia had much richer adventures on offer!

Photography November 2012 by Analee Smith and Peggy Wilson gratefully acknowledged.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

22 December 2014

Clem, the Clumsy Camel

Clem was born awkward and uncoordinated. He fared poorly at camel training school. He lurched and stumbled. He didn’t make the cut to be chosen for exciting caravan expeditions. Clem was having a sad life. 

Then suddenly he was the last camel sold to a well-dressed man in a hurry. The man was following a star. 

Clem picked up a lot of experience on the journey, following the star. Carrying the man and packed with gifts, he became strong and happy. 

When they reached their destination, he knew how to kneel as gracefully as can be.

Thanks to my friend Alison for: Mueller, Virginia. Clem the Clumsy Camel. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing (Arch Books), 1974.

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.

Photo credits: BDM and CDM July 2010.

P.S. Thanks for the comments on the original post, from Callie, Sheri, Ray, and the Anonymouses. They led me to believe I have DSS (Displaced Soul Syndrome).

© 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