23 May 2016

Matmata, Tunisia 2012

~~ Star Wars Alert: Tatooine (Tataouine) is a real place. 
It is a province and a town in Tunisia. 
Matmata is a small town at its north end. ~~

Salt flats, northern Sahara
The little Berber town of Matmata has a lifestyle unto itself. Here be troglodytes. We have driven east from Douz in a beautiful amber light, sun obscured by the sand haze in the air. As we pass away from desert and salt flats the terrain becomes hillier, we begin to see man-made entrances to caves dotting the hillsides. Or are they caves? Most homes are like circular craters, dug into the ground, the central portion open to the sky, with rooms carved out of the surrounding sandstone. Light from the centre illuminates the interiors that have no windows, just doorways.
 On the town outskirts our van stops at the side of the road and we are about to find out what it's like to live underground. Only the whitewashed exterior and a few pots mark the door. A long dark entrance leads to the courtyard; we pass a man who's been having a nap on a small bed along the narrow entry lined with some household utensils and the odd bit of clothing.

Roadside homes are often prepared to receive spontaneous passing visitors; it's a way to supplement their meagre incomes. It's almost a cottage industry, you might say, but the native hospitality has been eroded by their exposure as (reluctant) objects of curiosity. Our guide Samy gives us little advance information of what to expect, acting as the cheerful host. I'm not at all sure he, being from a different, urban part of the country, is even conscious of the dwellers' sensitivities.

The courtyard is sunny (it's still morning and the day is hot), deserted, and shows half a dozen doorways. A pet called a gundi, of guinea-pig resemblance, is in a cage. Oh ... a small girl about six or seven years old peeks around a doorway that leads to a yard where an outhouse can be seen. So this home is not a perfect crater. A family member will undoubtedly be out somewhere tending the goat flock. We gawk around, encouraged by Samy to investigate the rooms. It seems quite intrusive; most of us feel diffident.

Several rooms have beds arranged with colourful, patterned hangings and blankets. The clothing hanging on wall pegs is spare. The kitchen has something like a primus stove, some pans, and many clay pots for storage. It's hot as hades in there as if someone was recently cooking. Normally the temperature here would be cooler than up on ground level.  

The little girl is now hanging out in the courtyard looking bored. Suddenly, or so it seems, an elderly woman in black dress appears seated in the courtyard.
Since she looks posed, we take turns being photographed with her (still feeling uncomfortable). Naturally she doesn't know any English and seems disinclined to engage in talk. But our companion Alice strikes a chord with her and they have some amiable exchanges. Instinctively we give donations for taking the photos, only half-understanding that it was expected.

Samy directs us to the living room where a spread of pita, olive oil, and mint tea has been set out for us. A typical breakfast for the family. It was cooking the pita that likely sent the interior temperature shooting up. The woman does not appear again, so we serve ourselves, a sign (to me) that this must be a tiresome business for her. However the little girl does join us, looking annoyed and slightly sullen; no doubt her presence was ordered to add more atmosphere.
She is sitting apart not far from me. My companion found the perfect recipient for the bag of jujubes she'd carried all the way from Canada. The kid's eyes light up and she actually smiles. Earlier we were reminded that it was Remembrance Day. It is quite touching when over this little feast, someone starts the poem "In Flanders Field" and we all recite as best we can.

Onward as lunch time approaches, into the town of Matmata. Here, an obligatory visit to a small underground hotel, one of several in the town, based on the circular pit concept. We peer at it from above; we enter its courtyard from below for a different view. This hotel, Sidi Driss, is billed (and immortalized) as "home to Luke Skywalker" yes, one of Tunisia's many Star Wars locations. You too can sleep here. And so even the dullest of us (not mentioning my name) finally gets the long-lasting impact of filming in this area. We are not shown an actual bedroom, but a group of tourists is having a fine time lunching in the underground dining room off the courtyard.
Then to a "regular" hotel for our lunch ― Hotel Matmata is perhaps the only other hotel open in off-season ― an old and interesting place needing attention to maintenance. The cool, vast marble lobby is lovely. Lunch is a small but nice buffet lacking, very oddly, any sweets; no complaints about apples and oranges but not typical for desserts here. One has the sense everywhere of cutting corners.

 A stuffed goat kid is part of the dining room decor. One of the courtyards has molded clay depictions of a woman making pita bread, a large camel with a broken tail. Despite its rundown condition the place has much more charm than our occasional plush, generic hotels.

Star Wars probably started a new tourist invasion in the 1980s and keen fans still come to look. The location sets generally survive in good order for visitors ― others are west of here in Douz and near Tozeur. However, the latest Star Wars movie (The Force Awakens) did not film here.[1] Tourist boom time for this region may be over. Long known as a smugglers' route, extremist activities have been taking advantage of its relative isolation.

[1] Conor McCormick-Cavanagh, "Tunisia's Star Wars Fans Battle to Bring the Force Home," Middle East Eye (http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/tunisia-has-potential-establish-itself-star-wars-fan-paradise-599714959 : accessed 28 December 2015).

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

11 May 2016

Military and Police Camels

What an excuse for extraordinary photos! In the Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Africa, camels have long served in terrain where a horse could not perform. In fact camels still serve a useful role in strategic army and policing commands.

Probably the most exciting and popular part of India's annual Republic Day parade is the Border Security Forces contingent. You would scarcely believe a 36-piece brass band is included in the camel brigade. True! Even Google did this:[1]
Photo: NPR

Just as incredible is the mounted military pipe band of the Pakistan Desert Rangers. The old Empire has a long echo! In daily life the riders and their steeds are in far less colourful attire, musical instruments safely stowed elsewhere we presume.
Photo: Aamir Qureshi

But wait. Not to be outdone, how about the Royal Oman Police Mounted Pipe Band!?? Purely ceremonial, the band along with its camel cavalry exists to promote cultural traditions. Sultan Qaboos clearly has respect for his educational days at Sandhurst Military Academy and subsequent service in a Scottish regiment of the British Army.
Photo: sickchirpse.com

A photo of the Saudi National Guard eludes me. Qatar has a mounted camel unit, and probably so do several more countries of the same climate and traditions.
Qatar Heritage Police. Photo: www.news.CN

Of course what you are seeing are ceremonial dress uniforms and displays. Everyday routine requires their appearance to be much more suited to their desert surroundings. While some camel units have been replaced by tanks, others have transitioned to public law and order duties with high visibility as tourist attractions.
Jordan Royal Desert Forces. Photo: Warrick Page, NY Times
Photo: camelphotos.com
Photo: BDM
Placing Egypt's mounted police in tourist areas was a smart move. A quiet job, perhaps a bit boring?

Historically, army camels have been known since ancient times, at least from Hannibal's crossing of southern Europe. They were far superior to horses as pack animals in terms of cargo weight and distance coverage. As cavalry, they were equally fast and when couched would serve their riders as gun placements or shade from an unforgiving sun.

Recently a Bactrian camel skelton was uncovered in Austria, believed to be part of the Ottoman army besieging Vienna in 1683.[2]
Photo: BBC
The British became accustomed to using camels in their historic campaigns in Africa, India, and the Middle East. Australian troops formed the first companies.
Imperial Camel Corps Brigade, First World War. Photo: Capt. Douglas G. Pearman
Here is the Imperial Camel Corps's ambulance transport, an amazing photo from http://australiancamels.com/camels-in-war/:

The United States Army imported camels to be pack animals in southwest desert areas, a previous post here. Compare the results to Australia's importation of camels in the same nineteenth century period for similar purposes: Oz now has an explosion of feral camels whereas the American southwest has none. 
US Army Camel Experiment reenactment. Photo: Texas Camel Corps

Interestingly, one Australian police force is bringing camels back for desert patrols after a sixty year hiatus.[3] New South Wales has come full circle.

Camels are familiar to United Nations troops who now serve in missions in countries with demanding equatorial terrain, for instance Sudan and Eritrea.
Photo: http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/camels-at-war/

It seems unlikely that the stolid beasts will be completely replaced by tanks.

[1] http://tech.firstpost.com/news-analysis/google-doodle-celebrates-indias-67th-republic-day-with-bsf-camel-contingent-296624.html.
[2] Jonathan Webb, "Intact Ottoman 'War Camel' found in Austrian cellar," BBC News, Science and Environment (http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-32145248).
[3] NSW Police Force, https://www.facebook.com/nswpoliceforce/?fref=nf.

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

01 May 2016

Road Trip - Bordeaux to Monaco

On the lame side ... another attempt to recapture fleeting and fleeing memories. One time we were guests at Château Loudenne, owned by a subsidiary of a friendly client (his client, not mine ). The chateau is one of many in the Médoc wine-growing region along the west side of the Gironde Estuary. We had a few days, mostly exploring the countryside Pauillac, Saint-Emilion, Margaux, St-Julien and of course numerous wine-tastings at these famed places we'd only known previously as labels on our red wine bottles. 

The historic pink chateau sits in one of the oldest (seventeenth century) Cru Bourgeois estates in beautiful grounds above the estuary. Loudenne vineyards occupy 154 acres. Besides the serious wine business, Loudenne caters to guests with "upscale quarters and fine dining" and is popular for wedding parties.[1]

Each evening as the only guests we had a semi-formal dinner with the chatelaine of the manor, feeling like aristocrats. The kitchen often offered fresh white asparagus, to be eaten by hand, dipping into a memorable hollandaise. We were loyal to Chateau Loudenne's products for many years while the LCBO carried them. Quite recently the chateau was sold to a Chinese company that continues its traditions but plans to expand guest accommodation and sell half its wine production in China.[2]

I do remember this!

We managed to see a little of the city of Bordeaux. Here's a historical postcard view:

From Bordeaux, we drove across country to the Mediterranean coast, passing Toulouse and the mediaeval fortress of Carcassonne. Having read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the latter made me think of the Crusades and its mystical associations nearby with guardians of religious treasures ~ perhaps even the Holy Grail itself ~ my imagination working overtime. One photo did survive, regrettably damaged ...

I'm not sure now if it was a one-day drive, but it was late when we reached our next destination: Monte Carlo. We had tickets for the Monaco Grand Prix! Quelle spectacle! In our Formula B racing days we had met some Formula 1 drivers ... Denny Hulme, Jimmy Clark, and the like, but darned if I can remember a thing about the race itself or who won. How exciting is that. You know, something like below - the start of the course - with ear-splitting noise:

It was also a fortuitous opportunity to visit with an ex-pat friend living in nearby Villefranche-sur-Mer. Our old friend was working diligently on acquiring his third wife and consuming vast amounts of local plonk. Maybe that's why I recall so little of the entire trip. Eh?

Villefranche street

[1] www.chateau-loudenne.com.
[2] Jane Anson, 3 July 2013, "Chateau Loudenne's new Chinese owners planning luxury hotel," Decanter (http://www.decanter.com/wine-news/chateau-loudenne-s-new-chinese-owners-planning-luxury-hotel-17756/ : accessed 16 March 2016).

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

21 April 2016

Two Years Already?

Jerash, Jordan

Two years is quite a long time in a writer's world. In a few days it will be two years since this blog began. Bloggers tend to mark that sort of anniversary thing, taking ourselves seriously once a year ... if at all. Makes us feel efficient. Or anxious. Will I run out of camel stories before the next one rolls around?

One gets addicted to travel. Not of course to the dreary, practical details (weather forecasts ahead; packing to be hands-free; airport torments) but to the idea of being there, somewhere significant and wondrous, somewhere pulling seductively at your curiosity. What will I have in common with them? Are they much different from us?

Add in a family history addiction and target lands become obvious. Thankfully I have fulfilled most yearnings for the old family origins but it's difficult to decide between ancestors and other attractions. I have no connection to the stunning landscapes of Vietnam or the ancient people of Ethiopia and yet I long to see them.

Then again, my personal travel agenda looks for camel opportunities (oh really?) which further complicates travel decisions. After all, the budget is limited and the body declines. Cruising has become a (not entirely satisfactory) means of exploring new places; comfort becomes an unapologetic necessity at my age but day-long excursions are seldom quite enough.

Well, a few past favourites (actually, all from land trips):

Dutch camel - http://camelchaser.blogspot.com/2015/05/dutch-camel-love.html
Pushkar camel - http://camelchaser.blogspot.com/2014/08/pushkar-india-2008.html
Tozeur camel - http://camelchaser.blogspot.com/2015/10/tozeur-tunisia-2013.html
Shaolin camel - http://camelchaser.blogspot.com/2015/11/shaolin-china-2014.html
And the unforgettable camel show at the docks in Djibouti. Even a panoramic shot would not be wide enough to show the extent of the sheds and the liveliness of the young beauties.
Djibouti camels - http://camelchaser.blogspot.com/2014/04/djibouti-east-africa.html

My draw to a particular part of the world is clear, and is coming not just from the magnificent beasts I admire but also from the mysteries of the Rift Valley origins of mankind and monuments of age-old civilizations.

Since the earth will drastically change in the next few generations is changing now! already polar bears are swimming for their lives to find sanctuary I am grateful for whatever historical/archaeological bits I can still see. Regrets? Oh yes. Not going to Syria in 2007 before daesh(1) began destroying humanity's heritage! Not having the suppleness of a 30-year-old to undertake an extended camel safari!

Nonetheless, forging on. Estonia, you are still on my list!

(1) See http://www.northeastern.edu/news/2015/11/3qs-what-using-the-name-daesh-rather-than-isis-or-isil-really-means/.

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

06 April 2016

Tecolutla - Part Four

Zocalo rehabilitated
It was November the last time I was there. Slowly over several years the town is recovering from the flood. But Hector was bedridden and the hotel had that sad look of seen better days. Daughter Sylvia was here more often. The hotel is not up to snuff because Rosario has her hands full looking after Hector and her (by now) two small boys. A Boyfriend appears to be living in; what was his name? Ostensibly he is here to help run things, be a practical resource, a strong pair of arms.
And new ventures for high season

Juan Carlos took us to meet Turtle Man: Fernando "Papa Tortuga" Manzano. For years the man has been rescuing and nurturing the seasonal eggs of an endangered species Tortuga Loras, or Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles. Juan sees a future in eco-tourism for Tecolutla. He is contacting biologists and government officials. [In fact, the Tecolutla Turtle Preservation Project became a reality a few years later, with programs and an education centre now underway.] One of the regular El Rincon patrons suggested Mr. Gringo might enjoy going to a cock fight in Poza Rica, which he might have ... nasty repellent idea. Thankfully that never materialized.

Typical Teco restaurant flyer
One day The Boyfriend is on a ladder at the side of the hotel with Rosario desperately wringing her hands. Our hydroelectricity has been cut off. Unpaid bill, it seems. Boyfriend tinkered with things on the hydro pole; at any moment we expected his hair to burst into flames, charred body plummeting. But he managed to make it work. Otherwise he made himself scarce and Mr. Gringo became the default handyman.

We went to a parade in Zamora after enjoying the weekend bustle of its market. Sure as fleas on a Mexican cat, I've forgotten which feast day or festival was being celebrated. We found "my" restaurant too. One time Tecolutla erected a stage on the beach for a night of music and dancing, with fireworks as a highlight. It was a bit unnerving to watch showers of sparks falling into the dry thatch of the palapas. But when Tecolutla has a party no worries spoil the boisterous fun. 

Novel advertising experiment
November was not a good month to be there. The weather was cold at night thanks to el Nortes. I was attacked by sand fleas, not knowing they flourish at daybreak and dusk on the beach. Our friend thought there may be bedbugs!
Cristobal, magic mechanic
Plans were afoot to convey some used cars from Canada to Tecolutla whereby Mr. Gringo and Juan would Make a Profit. Here we must acknowledge that neither's language skills had improved vis-á-vis the other. Small old pickup trucks were highly valued and with the attentions of an excellent mechanic would keep running forever. Lord knows, Cristóbal kept our old car in working order. Mr. Gringo set out southward on his own one day in such a vehicle, towing another, to end up stranded in Reynosa. The incoherent story received on my end involved an intermediary in the Reynosa jail and an impound car lot. Don't ask. I immediately dropped the cross-examination.
New highway sign at the turnoff near Zamora
  Then life intervened as they say, and contact was intermittent. Sadly, word came that Hector died. Instead of being described as a fishing village now, I see that Tecolutla has indeed morphed into an eco-tourism destination. The place has grown exponentially; I scarcely recognize the size of it now. Garabatos is still on the hotel directories ... brava Sylvia!

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman