09 January 2018

Atlantic Crossings

Sailing across a big ocean can be an apprehensive prospect. Such cruises are considered re-positioning, when the ship is moving from one continent to another for a new season of clustered itineraries. Crossing the Atlantic in a grand ship like the Queen Mary 2 is one thing. Such luxury liners carry thousands of passengers; they are like small cities. Brrrr ... not for me; it would take a week to find your most pleasing spot and never see the same face twice. On the other end of the scale are those hardy sailors who cross oceans in something like a 30' sailboat, working like crazy all the way. Not to mention lunatics who think a rubber dinghy or a wooden raft would be fun.

To my mind, "small ships" are the ideal answer. Four of us friends are in synch on that and on one cruise we plan the next one: a November repositioning cruise from Spain to the Caribbean. Such cruises are not exceedingly popular because of the week or more at sea with no ports to visit. But we knew and loved this British ship Voyager from previous sailings. With a 600-passenger capacity, its nooks and crannies and crew were familiar.

Well, sailing across a wide, deep ocean makes any ship look like a tinker toy. Trepidation about notorious November storms was turned into jokes with much exchange of YouTube horrors. Alan* prepped us, of course, as the experienced second-timer, by relating how he was the only man standing on his first crossing. It was so rough half the crew were sick. "Lots of empty tables in the dining rooms!" he chortled, wonderful food being a highlight of any cruise. With antic faces he gleefully imitated people throwing up. Alan is a very entertaining guy.
* All names disguised to protect the guilty

In preparation, I google "pitch, roll, yaw." I pack gravol. I think about the sinister sound of yaw.

Happily, on departure day we find ourselves among less than 400 like-minded fellows. Habit dictates that you spend the first 24 hours, more or less, greeting people you've met on past cruises whose names are a blank and you desperately try to recall when that was so the other person understands your brain is totally sharper than theirs. Cabin numbers are allotted at random; only if you are up to negotiating with a humourless front desk can you expect to be anywhere near your friends.

Also on the first day, a ship normally holds a mandatory lifeboat drill. Plenty of warning comes with it, i.e. bursts of loud hooting and signals to the crew over the tannoy. Whereupon we must return to our cabins from wherever we are, retrieve our life jackets, and duly trek the corridors and stairs to pre-designated gathering points on deck. After all this scrambling around I am thinking the ship could be half submerged by now. Not my half, I hope. The particular deck for gathering is where the lifeboat stations are, although we do not board them. We assemble in whatever haphazard order we arrived and hear the captain deliver his well-practised safety lecture.

In a real emergency we would be directed in groups from assembly point to specific lifeboat stations. This news causes us four to discreetly shuffle and realign to be sitting together. Thus we reassure ourselves that we live, die, or drown with a friend to hang onto.

We enjoy a couple of stops in the Canary Islands as a sort of calm before the oops, no negative thoughts.

First morning at sea we meet on deck to check how big the swells are and what calamity is forming. Not only blue sky, we are sliding through the ocean like it was satin sheets. In fact for eight days we are forced to endure cloudless skies, bask in the sun, read our books, and pass the drinks. On the smoothest sail ever. Okay, so it's not the north North Atlantic. Life jackets and perfect storm drama are forgotten.

Alan's nose is quite out of joint at the peace of it all, instead feeling obliged to generate furious discussions about Brexit and what it means for his imported Belgian beer habit. The always-controversial National Health system is another favourite topic amongst Brits, requiring elaborate acting out. Our unbridled hilarity does not amuse fellow diners. When Barbara and Charlie begin critically comparing their denture work I have to opt out or upchuck.
On other levels, we cover such important subjects as calculating how many trots around the deck constitute a mile, or whether those Irish yahoos from Manchester can consider themselves genuinely Celtic. The mystery of Gaelic is touched upon. Competition in quiz contests is fierce. Internet via satellite being blessedly inconsistent or absent, it's like the 19th century again.

Sunset is as close as I can get to showing what are possibly the best parts of any voyage the clear nights when every star in the galaxy beckons. I did take countless amateur photos, the kind that merely turn out black.

It was so good we did it again.
Southampton to the Caribbean via Madeira. To our great sorrow the good ship Voyager had disappeared in a cloud of fuzzled corporate bankruptcy. Braemar is the ship we chose for its itinerary, a somewhat larger vessel with capacity for 900 passengers but carrying about 600. It's not necessarily a well-designed ship: recently it was cut in half (!) to add a large section into its middle (more passengers, heh). The cruise line had already accomplished this with a sister ship:

Now I'm a two-fer. But starting in Southampton in December was ill-advised; who needs four days of winter on a holiday? Reaching southerly Madeira was like loosing a pack of starved rats on a giant hunk of cheese.

Lovely Madeira, festooned for Christmas. Warm, laidback, comfortable Madeira. Should have stayed there.

That's not to say the Atlantic wasn't cooperative. It was. The weather was not, particularly (especially for those who worship the sun god). It's just that this was not our good old familiar ship. This one was inflexible about formal dining arrangements; in the casual restaurant the service was poor; crew members' tiny ID badges were impossible to read; instructions for accessing the expensive internet never worked for simpletons like me; front desk staff were professionally trained unsmiling robots; stewards daily adjusted cabin temperatures to frigidity; the medical centre made grievous errors in its billing; workmen were still tiling the second swimming pool that never became functional; the smell of drains invaded, pervaded, at times. And like that.

The captain was nice, though; he's practically a chain smoker.
I shan't mention the tribulations of the smokers' community. We expect to have a restricted area, but not out of sight and sound and service from the rest of the ship.

Good things: nice, roomy library; excellent cuisine in the Thistle restaurant; the smokers' community.

They say you "shouldn't go back again." Sometimes they are right.

© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman

27 December 2017

Chefchaouen, Morocco 2017

The "Blue City" of Chefchaouen was a place I had not seen in my previous trip twelve years before. This time it was definitely a highlight among Morocco's urban areas. Situated on a mountainside, the city long enjoyed a fairly isolated existence. It is said that the Jewish population popularized the blue colour on buildings a hundred years ago, although reasons remain obscure. One theory is that blue works as an effective mosquito repellent. The blue wash, from the natural indigo pigment, is strikingly effective.

Courtesy (companion) Mark Charteris
We checked into Hotel Khalifa one afternoon; it's an unassuming small hotel situated on the mountain adjacent to the old medina. My room had the usual marks of Moroccan hospitality with fruit basket and bottled water, besides the pleasing decor. A spectacular sliding door led to the tiny washroom where the Berber design elements continued. Every room of mine during the trip, whether hotel or riad, had a queen-size bed.

The day is getting on by the time we set out to explore, crossing a bridge over the Ras el-Maa river with its picturesque waterfall. Immediately we are in the medina, the old town, that from here spirals down (way down) to a central square. Apparently we must first search out drinks-before-dinner which can only be found outside the medina where alcohol is haram (forbidden). A different hotel, higher up the mountain, serves the purpose and fortified, we sally forth for the major descent.


It's dark when we arrive all the way down in the central square; our route twisted left and right past shops and homes, adults and children, intent on errands or eager for their waiting dinner. The fifteenth century walls of al-Qasaba fortress in the square are riddled with small openings for ventilation. This city traditionally harboured Christians and Jews in peaceful co-existence.
Our dinner is at Casa Aladin, on the top floor with a splendid view. The ubiquitous, hearty tagine dishes are far too much food for me at one meal so I sample a pastilla, a small-ish pie of flaky pastry with minced meat and some vegetables; its stellar feature is the icing sugar sprinkled over the top with yum cinnamon!

Later the return trip uphill is not as arduous as expected. You can choose dozens of different streets, simply remembering your direction: up or down. Next morning our leader Doug and I set off early for some shopping and schmoozing. Doug carries his tripod and video camera for serious photography. As we cross the bridge, I catch a woman doing her laundry in the river. At this distance I didn't think she'd mind, but she did.

The next thing we see is a handsome ostrich the owner had found in the Sahara. This is a first: up close and personal with Big Bird. I wonder if she lays eggs? Why didn't I think to ask? Ostriches running wild in the desert, who knew? Doug makes a new friend and a video in which I play a small role: https://www.facebook.com/texascamelcorps/videos/1318519328184724/
We stop to check out a clothing shop and meet Mohamed who shows us how he winds his turban to start the day. I never tire of watching Doug the Texan walk up to any man, grasp his hand, salaam aleikum, and the chat begins. In Arabic. It never fails to have a salutary effect. I envy his facility (and dedication) for learning languages.
Showing interest in an item is not merely browsing, it is a social occasion. Happily we both settle on purchases with a minimum of bargaining. We leave with effusions on both sides and a new Facebook friendship. Doug is not much into lively haggling. Bargaining for something he wants is a token to satisfy cultural expectations, because he's helping the modest economy wheels go 'round a bit.

Next stop is a carpet shop where Abdul welcomes us with mint tea and I buy a small blue camel wool carpet. Another new friend for Doug, both of them chattering amiably. Abdul has connections in Montreal ... small world: it seems everyone knows someone with a Canadian connection.

Spending time with "my son" the redhead is so very pleasant. He tells me stories along the way of his families and friends in Egypt and other countries. All the while we are snapping photos like crazy of the fabulous blue colours. Doug's years of Middle East travel have brought him recognition as a camel expert but true to his nature, he prefers to see himself as an ambassador for tolerance and understanding of other cultures. Goodwill is his second name, and it shines.

Courtesy Doug Baum
Courtesy Mark Charteris

We stop at the 400-year-old bakery to add to Doug's video of Chefchaouen. Some of these people he's met on a previous trips. They remember him (who wouldn't? This man in a Texas stetson greets them all and stuns them by conversing in Arabic).

Then we run into a wedding procession with enthusiastic drumming. Down to the square in the sunlight where I sit basking with good coffee while Doug busies himself with tripod and photos and videocam. My rusty French gets me by with the basics despite struggling to hear past the Moroccan accent.

Chefchaouen, the picturesque and friendly Blue City: not to be missed on any trip to Morocco!

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

29 November 2017

End of Year Approaching

I leave these pages until after Christmas with this controversial but colourful thought:

"A camel is a horse designed by a committee."
                     ~ Alec Issigonis

(allegedly a throwaway remark made to Vogue Magazine in July 1958)

20 November 2017

Robert Irwin

This lovely small (but dense, 232-page) book is like the Bible of camels. It ranges from the scientific to the historical. Everything anyone needs to know about the animal with amazing photographs, an index, and plenty of footnotes. Apart from the physiological and functional details it seems that Irwin has found about every literary reference ever made to this great beast.

Plus: How to buy, keep, and care for a camel? All here. Saddles, riding, traditions of different cultures, myths, adventures, military camels, racing camels, poetry, myriad illustrations all here too.

15th century drawing of a camel

A few fundamental nuggets ...
* the camel is a natural pacer, as opposed to a trotter
* a dromedary can comfortably carry a load of six hundred pounds; a bactrian can take more like one thousand pounds
* ceramic camel figures were long popular in China as a sign of prosperity in furnishing graves
* camel milk (enjoying new popularity among the health-conscious) has no cream
* While filming Lawrence of Arabia, his well-trained camel saved Peter O'Toole's life

16th century gouache miniature from Uzbekhistan

I wonder how Canadian immigration would view importing a pet? They have no category for camels. Oh wait. "Family Camelidae," along with cattle and other large animals, are not considered pets. Importing a camel into Canada is only allowed from the U.S.A. and requires an import fee, a veterinarian's certificate, passing all the tests for brucellosis and tuberculosis, and a host of other pre-import conditions.

There. Now I know that.  

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

06 November 2017

Merzouga, Morocco 2017

Walking from Moha's Camel's House about two blocks to the edge of town, we four tourists are ready to mount our camels and head into Erg Chebbi, the Red Dunes of the Sahara. Not all deserts are composed of sand although this may be the popular notion; sand composes only about twenty per cent of the deserts on earth.
Photo: Doug Baum

It will be my second time of desert camping; what will this be like compared to the elegant "glamping" in Oman's Wahiba Sands? Happily, the saddles are of minimal construction, i.e. minimal in the use of wood or metal; the soft form fits around the animal's hump and with a blanket or two across, are very comfortable (could someone tell Tunisians about this)?
Photo: Heather Daveno

My companions ― Heather, Catherine, and Mark ― and I mount one at a time. I'd had my eye on the young black camel but he was relegated to Mark. Mine is called Akawi. Our leader Doug is not riding yet; he is running like a madman beside us, ahead of us, behind us, taking photographs. The man is tireless. In fact he made a video: https://www.facebook.com/texascamelcorps/videos/1321974761172514/
Too bad he deleted the shot where I tore my shirt open to show my Canada T-shirt.
Photo: Doug Baum

I soon understand that riding in the soft sand dunes is not like the usual experience of riding on level terrain. Stepping down a dune, even going on a diagonal (not straight forward!) the camel's front legs plunge into the shifting sand ― at which point you'd better be using a strong arm or two to maintain your balance. Traversing up a dune is the opposite. Either way, excellent core muscles are another big advantage.
Photo: Heather Daveno

We meander, or so it seems, absorbing our golden environment, marvelling at the burnished colour of the desert sands completely surrounding us. Hassan, leading the camels, is often barefoot; Moha is free to supervise and also take photos. The colours of their garb are a feast for the eye. Because it's March, early spring, we are not subject to blistering heat. Over an hour later we spot our camp, nested so naturally in the dunes, seemingly miles from everywhere. If we keep riding east we would soon be in Algeria.

Photo: Heather Daveno
Photo: Heather Daveno
The camp tents are the traditional woven goat hair, very sturdy fabric, cobbled together in a circle with a fence on the perimeter for security when not occupied. There is a cook tent and a dining tent, a socializing shelter and of course the sleeping tents. The bedroom tents, about ten of them, encircle a common space. Depending on the number of people booked, you may have your own tent or share with others. The ground is sand but they have placed carpets for easier walking. A primitive enclosure for the chemical toilet attempts privacy, somewhat defeated by the zipper that only closes halfway down. We have lunch and a rest. Note to self: juicy orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon; try this at home! Although I doubt one can reproduce the sweet freshness of the ubiquitous Moroccan oranges.

Around 4:45 pm we get the order to saddle up again. We ride for a long time to a special vantage point for sundown. We pass one or two equally small, nestled camps impossible to see until you're almost on top of them. But we see no other riders. Mark's great long shot photo shows the occasional camp hidden within the dunes.
Photo: Mark Charteris
This time my camel is in lead position. We change positions to accustom the younger camels to learn staying in line. It's a wonder how our barefoot boys know where they are going; all are dunes to the horizon in every direction. Any route is a continual action of up a dune and down or along the other side; at times the incline is alarming. This is not always easy riding. Catherine and Mark had brought stirrups to use and I could see why. Propping my legs forward rather than hanging down was much more comfortable on a prolonged ride there's a reason why police and soldiers curl their legs up when they can.
Photo: Moha

Photo: Moha

The wind has picked up by the time we reach our dismount spot. The idea is to climb that huge dune and see the sunset. The climb is decidedly more than I want to attempt and I justify it by knowing the sun won't photograph well on my camera (heh, you can see how much I rely on my companions for good pics). Instead I commune with the placid camels, take a photo of each, and sing to them. Doug was broadcasting to Facebook Live from the top of the dune amid thunderous wind noise ... the wind that imperceptibly sculpts these gigantic monuments of nature. Facebook video:
They see me:

Photo: Heather Daveno
And I see them:

The sun went down, you notice. We have a long way to return to camp, judging by our timing to get here. Yes, dusk settles around us until it turns very black and nothing can be seen ahead; ascents and descents can't be anticipated! Yet we trust Moha and Hassan are operating on internal GPS. Above us, the pitch is punctuated by a zillion stars to thrill the most seasoned traveller. As always, the silence and comparative solitude are striking, tangible, harmonious. Eventually a flashlight beam from the camp signals our destination.
Photo: Heather Daveno
Heather said it: "You are closer to the stars on the back of a camel."

Dinner is served at a low table in the dining tent surrounded by swathes of colourful draped fabrics meeting at the centre pole. Cushions are provided at random for lounging. A small group from China has joined us for overnight. Ni hao! Tagine cooking is the staple dish, as everywhere in Morocco. I think Moha is pouring the mint tea at this point, to drowsy, satisfied guests.

Photo: Moha
However, the evening is not over. A good Berber meal is followed by music and camaraderie. Outside the camp, a fire quickly sprouts. Drums begin. Did a flute appear? Dancing sparks rise to the stars. The Berber men exult in singing. The delighted Chinese guests take their turn with a song and the drums are shared around. Music and laughter have no language barriers; it's a little U.N. of happiness.

Weary but replete in all ways, we drag slowly to bed. Mine is very narrow and a bit tilted to starboard along its length but right now it looks like the best place on earth to be. Close the curtain entrance and turn off my electric light (although we are never aware of a generator). Lamps around the camp are extinguished leaving not a glimmer of light for numerous individual night trips to the toilet, including mine, stumbling over carpets and groping unfamiliar structures. Mixed levels of contented snoring arise, but we are dead to the world. Until a confused man blunders into my tent, turning on the light, waking and scaring the bejeezuz out of me. The others were so out of it my startled scream didn't disturb a soul. Except one terrified Chinese gentleman.

Morning comes with sunrise, just as it should. All is right with the world. Fresh orange juice, freshly prepared bread; the cooking tent has been busy. With reluctance we have to depart this uncomplicated, elemental world, but knowing it exists, that such harmony with nature and humankind is possible.

Photo: Moha
Photo: Doug Baum

Photo: Doug Baum

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman