Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Under a Desert Sky

The day dawned still and clear with the sun slowly peaking over the Dunes.  Around me were the iconic images of the desert that had so drawn me here.  Camels sleeping in the dunes, and one early riser perfectly silhouetted.  As the sun rose. the desert glowed in reds and shadows. People moving about created images that were zen like in their small perfection against a desert pallet.  My pictures can’t capture the vastness of it, or the true beauty that surrounded me, but neither can my words:
After a long day on camels yesterday, we were all more than a little stiff and sore.  Even more of the group decided to walk, but I was determined to stick it out for another day.  Our camels were saddled up:

We headed out into the desert:
I found myself spellbound by the way the desert changed with the light.  When a cloud hid the sun, the dark colors popped out, but in sunlight the shades of the dunes were breathtaking.  This picture really captured that effect of sun and cloud.

I did find a couple of pictures that showed some of the flies, although I must admit that by the second day we did not notice them and had a better strategy to protect our food.  They seemed to prefer light fabric, but in the end, our backs were covered by their little black dots.
Throughout the day we would laugh when anyone found a reason to say hold on.  After a half day of riding, I was more than ready to get off my camel.  We drove to Auberge Oasis that is best found through its GPS coordinates.  In the middle of the desert, because of a spring, they had created a spot for weary travelers.
We were thirsty and tired, and they had that great American ambassador, Coca Cola.
The people in the village were decked out in their best because it was the feast of Eid al-Adha. We did not take their pictures out of respect, but one of our drivers who was from the Oasis, and took time out to visit his family let us take his picture.
We felt guilty that we were keeping our guide, drivers, the cameleers and the camp crew and cook from being with their families on such an important feast.  After a rest at the Oasis, we headed to our new camp site for our last night in the desert.  The sun was a treat again, but I enjoyed it and didn’t take a lot of pictures.  Here is our camp as the sun set and we relaxed with our desert chilled wine.
And of a lone figure in the dunes:
It is amazing how well an IPhone can capture a mood.
We were all in high spirits that night.  The flies were asleep, the wind and dust were gone, and we sat under a full moon as our cook brought us  a wonderful tagine of lamb and veggies.  As we talked, someone told Omar how much we regretted that they could not be with their families for the feast and that they were missing the sacrifice and ceremony. That is when Omar told us that they were not with their families, but that the entire crew did perform the ceremony of the sacrifice that morning,before we got up.  I thought of the cat noise I had heard.  Part of the feast is to share the food, so the lamb we had that night was from the sacrifice of the morning.  A couple of our group were vegetarian, but upon hearing this they ate some of the lamb to express their gratitude for being included in the festival.  We felt touched. 
As we sat under the glow of the moon, the cameleers and the camp crew gathered around the camp fire. Using pots, pans and the water jugs as drums, they began to sing.  Omar told us that the songs were part of the tradition of the festival and that there were two parts, one for men and one for women.  The crew had divided up and was singing both parts.  We listened with joy, for there was joy in their song, and I captured it in video on my phone.

Then they invited us to join them.  We thanked them for sharing their feast with us and gathered around the fire and sang.  It was repetitive and we were soon able to sing our parts.  I felt so much a part of the desert, and of the world, dancing by a fire under a moonlit desert sky.

Then one of the drivers asked us to sing an American song for them, to share our tradition.  We were unprepared but extraordinarily willing to comply.  All we needed to do was to find some song, any song, that our group, ranging in age from 28 to 80, could sing.  My mind was a blank, I could think of nothing.  Christie suggested we do a “doo wop” song, and for whatever reason Sue thought of “Chapel of Love” by the Dixie Cups.  I grabbed it like a drowning person.  I knew every word.  We launched in with enthusiasm and the repetitive chorus had us all dancing and singing at the top of our lungs.  Our audience spoke little or no English, so it was our joy and exuberance they reacted to (not our beautiful voices).  They thanked us for sharing our American tradition and at that moment, Chapel of Love had represented us well.  Spontaneous celebrations are always the best.  

As the crew continued to sing around the fire, we began to move to our tents.  It was the end of a long, perfect day.  The stars were disappointing, outshone by the moon. Omar told me the moon would set around 2 am and then the stars would all be visible.  I went to my tent to the sound of drums and singing, happy and tired.

I woke around 3 am and stood in the center of camp.  The stars were all bright and glowing, an umbrella over my head.  Their light was enough to outline the dunes and the faint shapes of the camels sleeping.  I thought of the scene from Alex Haley’s Roots,   “Behold the only thing in the universe greater than yourself." 

At the end of the feast of Eid al-Adha, surrounded by a sleeping camp, under a desert sky, I knew that this was one of those days that becomes a treasure you revisit for the rest of your life.  From the views of the deserts to the songs by the fire, we had connected to people without need of a common language.  Maybe it was because without common words, we shared common emotions.   I felt surrounded by friends, peace and beauty.

Tomorrow we will finish our time in the desert.  Hold on, there is one more sunrise.

Salaam alaikum.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

In the Empire of the Desert

“In the empire of desert, water is the king and shadow is the queen.”
-Mehmet Murat İldan

We left Erfoud and headed south toward Erg Chebbi and the first dunes of the Sahara.  Along the way we saw puddles, on the road and beside it.  The rain last night was evident and I wondered how it would change the desert.  As we climbed the dunes the wind picked up.  Omar told us it came down from the mountains because of the rain.  It was a steady wind and it caught my scarf.  I felt like a kid with a kite.  I was so excited and happy to be in the desert at last.  It felt like the edge of an adventure. 

 A young boy brought a desert fox for us to see.  

Then we headed on south, close to the border with Algeria, looking for our rendezvous with our Bedouin cameleers and camp crew.

The road was a trail now and our four wheel drive was in constant use.  There was water at the low points in the trail and finally we had to go off road and make our own way.  Our route was through camels scrounging for food and we came upon their old Bedouin owner.  Our driver stopped to discuss the route with him.  He said we could not get through, it was too wet, and so we scouted the way.  The mud was beginning to dry already in the constant dusty wind.  Great cracks were forming and the top layer shrank, but below it was still mud.  Our driver thought he could make it through, so we walked and the drivers gunned their way.  Then it was back to the vehicles for the drive.  The wind remained a persistent force creating a sandy haze over everything.  It was strange to see the desert in such a sandy fog.  Camels appeared as though through the mist. 
Our drive was now at speed to keep from bogging down.  The sand was deep and seemed to shift in the wind.  It felt like we were slaloming around moguls of sand and rock.  Our driver and our guide were focused forward, looking for a route and finding it.  Then we saw the top of a tent, peaking over a dune.  We had arrived.

We got out to the full force of the wind with our new sheshes tied around our heads and tucked across our face.  It was sticky hot, but the sand was scouring anything uncovered, so we went into the tent for lunch.   Inside it was stifling and the dust still managed to filter in.  Omar poured some wonderful mint tea, and we discovered that the flies loved it too.  In fact the flies loved everything.  It seems that between the date harvest in the Ziz valley, and our camels, the flies flocked to us.  Our food was eaten quickly with many a swatting hand, and the tea and the food was crunchy from the sand.  The tent rattled with the wind. 

I think that lunch was when our group really formed.  I have traveled with groups before, and at some point someone emerges as the whiner who will make you uncomfortable for the duration.  I was thinking in the tent, that this was that moment.  I thought, we knew this was the desert, we knew we would be camping, this is what can happen.  What did happened is that everyone kept talking, and laughing, and sharing hints about avoiding flies, and drinking hot mint tea.  That is when I knew we really had not just a great group, but a group of great people.
We wrapped our heads in our sheshes, covered up from the blowing  sand, and went out to meet our cameleers, and our camels.

Riding a camel is really tough at the mount and dismount.  As each of us got on, Omar helped as the camel rose, yelling “hold on, hold on”.  The cameleers, who had walked 3 days with their camels to reach us, laughed each time the camel stood.  In fact they proved to be a jolly group, talking and laughing, first with Omar, then with each other.  I noticed that at the slightest bump my cameleer would shout “hold on” then laugh.  They only spoke Berber, but I assumed that they had learned the meaning of this from Omar.

We rode for a couple of hours through the desert, and the ride was not rough, but sitting on a camel is hard on the thighs and butt.  There are no stirrups, so you can’t shift your weight or take it on your legs.  I tried to put one leg over the “saddle horn” the way we did in Jordan, but we were not on a flat road and the cameleers would not allow that. A number of people chose to walk. 
I was grateful when we saw in the distance the tents of our camp.
It was in a beautiful desert scene surrounded by dunes and the wind seemed to die down as the sun began to sink.  We all decided to climb up to the great dune to get a great desert view.  It was a tough climb and I was carrying my big camera, which had come to feel like a lead weight.  A day in the blowing sand was taking a toll on the camera too.  I did get some great shots of the dune climb.  It looked like everything I had envisioned.   I could not wait for a night in the desert.
The wind came back, blowing fiercely.  At least the flies were gone.  They rise after breakfast and sleep before dusk, so it was only lunch that was a food battle.  The camels were bedded down in the dunes around us, as we ate a wonderful tagine dinner.   Our guides and drivers were no strangers to camping in the desert, so they chilled the wine we brought by wrapping it in wet newspaper.  In the dryness, the quick evaporation chilled it nicely.  We drank wine and looked at the sunset.
Red sky at night...

We had a camp fire and the wind was like a blow torch sending sparks along the ground for 30 yards.  At least there was nothing to burn.

 As we were talking about the day, I told Omar that our cameleers were such jolly cheerful people.  All day, they were talking and laughing with each other, and they were careful too.  They wouldn’t let me ride sidesaddle, and they kept telling me to hold on, even when it wasn’t bumpy.  Omar told us that they were all sharing a great joke.  When he told us to “hold on” in English, it sounded like another word in Berber.  That is why they were using their new English word and laughing all day.  What did it mean, I asked, of course.  He didn’t want to tell me, but he did.  It meant “balls”.  So just like the cameleers, we all learned a new word that day, in Berber.  At the most opportune time, someone would shout out “hold on” and we would laugh, the cameleers would laugh, and life was good.

It was an early night, too dusty and windy to linger by the fire.  The wind made my tent ripple like sheets drying  on a clothesline.  The noise was constant.  I put in my headphones and sometime in the night I fell asleep.  I woke at around 3 am.  Omar had said the wind might die down by 2 or so, but it was still howling.  I got up and made a trip to the privy tent.  Coming back I almost lost my way in the dark and dust. 

The next time I awoke it was just at dawn.  It was silent and still.  I thought I heard a noise, like a cat.  It was time to get up.  It was the morning of the feast of Eid al-Adha.  A quiet clear morning, and the beginning of a new day in the desert.

Salaam alaikum.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

In Motion – through the Middle Atlas to Erfoud

We left Fes for a day in motion, moving into the Middle Atlas mountains for a dramatic change in scenery.  Our first stop was a Ifrane, a town built by the French to give them a place more like the Alps that the Atlas.  

It looked like a Swiss town.  We didn’t linger.  We knew the day would end at the edge of the desert, a place we were all anxious to reach.

Our first trek was in the Cedar Forest, in a park where these ancient trees are protected.  We saw intricately carved cedar throughout our Moroccan trip in ancient and new buildings ranging from the Medina el Bali in Fes to the new mosque in Casablanca.  Today that cedar is only harvested from dead trees and the living are protected.  They were towering giants that made me think of Ents.  It was a lively walk because of the Barbary Apes we encountered (they are really monkeys).  They are found only in the Cedar Forests of Morocco.  Used to tourist, they were interested in stealing our water bottles.  Standing under the Cedars did make me feel small.  The walk was a little steep, but smooth and easy.  It felt like a scene from The Sound of Music.  Our group was not yet jelled as a group, but we were beginning to get to know each other.
We stopped a few times to catch the view, and the wind was strong and cool.  It was so green.  Lunch was a treat in a restaurant in Bou Anguer and we stopped to take pictures at the gates to Midelt.  With a few hours of stopping we had covered 2/3 of our journey as the sun began setting over the Ziz valley.  The Ziz valley is the “grand canyon” of Morocco, and the Ziz river is the life blood of the people who lives along the journey we were taking.  As we got out of our vehicles to look down on the valley, I could smell rain.  Some of the darkness came from clouds, and towards the west, hiding much of the sun, we could see the storm clouds over the desert.  Our guide, Omar, told us the winds had shifted from the High Atlas, and we could see snow, and early snow, on the mountains.
 It rains about five times a year in the desert, and we were going to be there at one of those times.  As we would learn, the rain comes and then goes, but the wind lasts longer.
I watched the clouds creating a beautiful sunset.  Below me was a village along the Ziz, where we could see cook fires, people moving around, and the beautifully squared off irrigated plots that would define the careful farming of this arid, green land. 

With the smell of rain we drove out of the mountains and arrived in Erfoud after dark.  We were tired, hungry and excited to see what the next day would bring.  We had to pack a small bag for the desert.  Tomorrow we got ride camels through the dunes to our camp.  Sleeping in the Sahara, surrounded by our camels under a blanket of stars.  That was the image that brought me to Morocco.  


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Shopping the souks of Fes

We started our day in Fes at the Dar el Makhzen, the King’s home when he is in Fes. The gate is a beautiful bronze restoration that has a timeless beauty.  Next to it is the old Jewish quarter, built around 1250 when the Arabs and Jews were driven out of Spain during the inquisition.  The majority of the Jewish population of Fes left in 1956, at the end of the French occupation, but signs of their time there remain.

We walked through the Fes Jajadid, the medieval Fes built outside the walls of Fes el Bali where goods and services were advertised with signs in French, Arabic, and Berber, often with pictures that made everything clear:

After a trip up the ridge opposite our hotel to see with the wonderful warren that is the old medina, we went back toward the old city. 

Our first serious shopping stop was at a factory and school, where apprentices are trained in the ancient skills of ceramic that have made such a mark on every important structure in Morocco for over 1,000 years.

We saw the pot dug in the ground where the clay is mixed with an ancient formula that includes local pigeon poo, the kiln where hand painted tagines, tiles and other objects are fired using olive pits for fuel.  There were the foot pumped potters wheels where artisans made cups and vases.  The only concession to modern technology was the assurance that no heavy metals were used in the glazes.  Everywhere I looked there was a still life, moments of beauty.  Would you like to see?

It did my heart good to see that Fes has found a way to continue to build the beauty of Morocco and that the young people we saw were getting the skills to continue the tradition.  I did my part to support them by buying some of their most beautiful work:

They make me smile.

But there was so much more.  Our next stop was as a textile cooperative where they sold handmade rugs made by Berbers.  We drank our mint tea as they brought out the rugs and I could not resist.  They were so beautiful, and they felt almost intimate as you thought of the women and men who sat at their looms and had the vision to create such beauty.  See for yourself:

I had to bargain for the rug I bought, of course, but that was all part of the ambiance. 

After a wonderful lunch we went to the Chouwara tannery, a place that had not changed in centuries.  After seeing the process, I could not bring myself to buy:

We held mint under our noses to hide the smell, but the view of the workers stomping in those vats was like a scene from Les Miserables.

So we moved on.  At a local shop we saw artisans weaving scarves, a process often done by men:

My final purchase of the day was the best 30 dirham of the trip.  I bought a shesh that would prove that Moroccans know their desert gear.  My first attempt to tie it was a little clumsy, but I got better with practice.

We went back to our hotel pumped from the excitement of the day, and ready to begin the trekking part of our journey.  Tomorrow would be the Cedar Forest and the Atlas Mountains, and then, the desert.

Salaam alaikum.