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.

14 March 2015

Friends Send Me ... Camel Things (Part One?)

My friends send me things. Going by that, you'd think the world was awash in camels. OKKKK, maybe only Australia. I love them all and am so grateful they are electronic things not taking up space in my place, thank you very much for that. There had to be a stop to the overflowing trinkets!

Some gifties have been acknowledged already (among others, from Elayne and dear wicked Sheri). Several alert people sent me the popular video tethered-camel-bites-stupid-man-throwing-him-to-the-ground-probably-breaking-some-bones and dozens sent me the lonely Google camel. This shot is particularly nice because it's allegedly in the UAE's Liwa desert, one of the drops I crave in my bucket.
Ruth spotted a restaurant in Fort Wayne. Imagine in Indiana. Judy sent a Scottish pub sign; must have been a warm day in Edinburgh.

I cribbed this from my FB friend Doug for no good reason except I lost the reference to Tammy's camel lying in the middle of a Quebec road. That was to make up for the baby llama photo she sent by mistake (but Tammy, the baby was darling anyway).
No idea now who sent me this.
This is apparently a Dutch camel.
If you thought some of those were odd, England has its (serious) share. John found this (at TNA of course), shades of Empire!
And this just in from Leigh in Sheffield instant word-association (it wasn't even Wednesday), bravo! We query whether an image might simply do the job here.

That's likely enough for now, more in the wings. I've spared you a repeat of the fabulous Geico video ad that went viral but maybe you didn't see the sequel:

Two camels were standing together when one of them said,
"Eric, why do we have these big humps on our backs?"
Pleased to be asked, Eric answers,
"That’s where we store our body fat, that’s what gives us the strength and stamina to carry on for weeks at a time when we march out onto the burning desert sands."
"Oh! alright, but how about these funny curly eyelashes, what do we have them for?"
Glad to share his knowledge Eric answers,
"We have them to protect our eyes from the violent sand storms that descend on us when we are out in the barren wilderness that is the scorching desert?"
OK," Looking down he asks," But why do we need these big flat feet?"
"We need them to keep our footing when we walk on the shifting sand dunes out in the treacherous desert? But tell me Dennis, why all the questions?"
Dennis answers with a shrug, "I was just wondering what we're doing in Melbourne zoo!"

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

01 March 2015

Israel 2011

Continuing from Jerusalem 2011, my second day in Israel had such a growing air of absurdity that my irreverent funny-bones were irresistibly tickled. I can but relate the tale with as much dignity objectivity propriety as possible.

Overnight our ship moved north to the port of Haifa but it was still a two-hour drive to Nazareth and the Galilee area. Heading north, that is, to within shooting distance of the Golan Heights. It was a cool day, becoming colder as it went on. Our earnest guide began by giving us his real name but insisted we call him Bud. It's a bonding technique employed by experienced guides, often successfully, with foreign-language tourists. But possibly Bud was a trainee. 

Bud was severely pronunciation-challenged in the English language. He mentioned Moslems praying at their masks which should have been a clue but wasn't, not at first. We understood Ga-lilly quite quickly. I don’t know how many times he spoke of the disableds before we caught on he meant disciples. Since he was so eager and bursting with information to give us, no-one wanted to hurt his feelings by drawing attention to it and we translated as best we could. He referred constantly to the BY-bical (Bible) which ~sorry~ cracked me up each time. Discreetly.

What's more, Bud or his employer had decided that every stop would have a reading from the New Testament, presumably to enrich our understanding of Jesus’ time spent in this part of the country. I suspect he had been practising with devout Christian pilgrim tours. Whereas our group might be called an eclectic or ecumenical mix.

Away to Nazareth, hometown of Jesus' parents. First, Basilica of the Annunciation commemorating the angel telling Mary she is pregnant. All newish-looking, because it has been reconstructed; bits of the previous Byzantine structure have been incorporated. The contemporary art featured in this church was outstanding, and we had time to appreciate it! We went below to an excavation believed to be Mary’s family house and then next door to see Joseph’s workshop under the Church of St. Joseph. First-century ruins and tools were found here. Exhilarating stuff for history-archaeology-culture junkies.

Things soon went rapidly downhill. Our bus deposited us next at the obligatory souvenir shop, more of the exorbitant prices, we feeling like a captive market. Bud stipulated a twenty-minute stay and waited outside to herd us back to the bus which was re-locating itself but he didn't tell us that.

We browsed around and finally I was at the cash register a bit late and flustered because of it, when Bud said to me, don’t rush, don’t worry. Exiting the shop I saw no Bud, no group sign waving, no bus in sight, no people I recognized. The roundabout where we'd been dropped off was insane with traffic. Oh well, they left without me, right? Head count fail? I decided to stick with last known whereabouts, wishing uselessly for an ice cream fix. 

While ruefully inspecting my extravagant purchases, another group from the ship came to shop so their guide called my guide. Panicky Bud came running to fetch me. Seems I was holding up the schedule; apologies to all. Really, it was only fifteen minutes and others had arrived just before me, slightly dazed at temporarily being lost. It's apparent the ship's rep had already berated hapless Bud for his oversight. Everyone settled down with a few disgruntled glances at Bud.
Onward to the Church of the Beatitudes, location of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. The Franciscan Sisters built this octagonal church in the 1930s, a lovely building with a breathtaking view from the exterior colonnades over the town of Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee. The eight sides represent the eight beatitudes, also depicted in the upper windows. Bud was so absorbed in his recital he didn't notice we tended to spread out in all directions. Here like many holy places, a forbidding iron fence encloses the site.

As we left, head count in order, our bus exited the narrow gate and there was an almighty horrendous metallic

                            CRACK ...

... making us all jump. Three windows on the right side of the bus shattered and fell. Passengers beside the windows were stunned. TERRORIST attack?! We were all stunned, mute, edging toward the floor to cower. 

Oh, wait.

Turns out the bus driver incautiously scraped the iron gate with the side of the bus, making it bend, causing the windows above to break. Said driver's speed at the time and his spatial sense became noisily debated. Limping to our next destination at minimum speed, we heard a replacement bus had been ordered. The addition of an alfresco breeze made it even cooler and we were going to be really late everywhere.

With a few of us still half-traumatized, we reached the Capernaum area, location of much of Jesus' ministry.

 A tour highlight was to be a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Groups of tourists were coming and going from the boats that had rows of seats. As we filed into the boat, the rain began to pour. Nevertheless, we forged ahead onto the water to experience Jesus and the Disableds going fishing. Undeterred, Bud was diligently droning quoting the BYbical again; maybe he had waterproof pages, we couldn't even see him up front in the blind downpour. The awning over the seats was useless, leaking buckets onto us; besides, the rain was coming laterally with a ferocious wind. We were drenched. Visibility absolute zero. Some wag might have mentioned Noah's Ark.

Wisely, someone not steadfast Bud decided to abandon course and return us to the dock, soaked and miserable. You understand why no photographs are available. We had to wait some time, dripping and idle, in the tourist building for our new bus to arrive. Late for lunch at a typical “we cater to tourist busloads” restaurant, for a hasty meal followed by a tablespoon of coffee.

 Nearby at Tabgha, mercifully the rain had stopped. The small Church of the Primacy of St. Peter marks where Jesus appeared for the third time post-resurrection. Rebuilt over a fourth-century church, the original vibrant mosaics have been preserved within. Seeing the Disableds out fishing in the early morning, Jesus cooked a fish barbecue for them, according to the book of Bud. Even though his verbal delivery lacked magnetism, his pronunciation of "barbecue" was spot on (or possibly it was his interpretation of "breakfast"). The sculpture represents Jesus declaring Peter the favoured Disabled (apparently Bud was not attempting Apostle).
Close by is the Church of the Multiplications (which sounded like Bud-speak, but it's short for Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes). A replica of a fourth-century structure in a beautiful seaside setting, the mosaic floor here is one of the most renowned art works in the country, memorializing the feeding of the five thousand. Bud perched himself on a rock and wired up for a lengthy BYbical reading at which sign many of the group were circumspectly drifting aside to the beckoning seashore.

Further on, Capernaum was a village where Jesus is believed to have lived at Peter's home for a time. A modern octagonal church now houses the excavation of Peter's house, only discovered in 1968. It's amazing to think such discoveries are still occurring. The ruins of a fourth-century synagogue over its first-century foundation inspired passing dreams of ancient times. Built and rebuilt so many times, the site yielded artifacts from every age. Jesus likely worshipped and taught here.

Late in the day the question was whether we had time to reach Yardenit, the baptismal site of Jesus on the Jordan River. So yes, because Bud was full of steam even as we were wilting. Sadly, the day had turned to night so photography was not the best.

This long-established site "competes" with the more recently uncovered baptismal site downriver in Jordan which I saw eight years ago yet another example of tradition(s) as our Jerusalem guide would have said. What a difference. Here, much catering to tourists with souvenir hawking and amenities; and even in the cold, dark dampness, a small but steady stream of pilgrims was descending the stairs to immerse themselves. In Jordan, we almost had to hack our way through long grasses and shrubs to reach a modest platform on the stream without another soul in sight (although it's coming, I'm sure; the nearby excavation had been done and one church had been built).

All in all, I'd say a fairly solid introduction to modern Israel. By now Bud should be well-versed in both the New Testament and the inexplicable ways of foreigners.

I'm not done with you yet, Israel. I still pine to see Masada and Qumram and the Negev Desert.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.