08 February 2018

A Sea-less Beach

Small and little-known (outside their national borders) deserts and semi-desert arid areas crop up in the world, not all of them in year-round tropical latitudes. For example Bulgaria's Stone Desert; Tabernas Desert near Almería, Spain; or the Kyzyl Kum, shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Certainly not all deserts are populated with camels and covered with sand.

Yet sand dunes are a geographic feature often associated with camel riding (at least in my mind) but also with great bodies of water, appearing on every continent. Dunes can be found on many coastlines around the world; the Great Lakes have them too!

Aside from my frivolous "beach" remark, De Haere Nature Reserve in the Netherlands is one of the unusual small inland pockets of sand; not to be confused with the manor house of the same name (an estate for visitors to tour, with related activities). The now-protected conservation area is north of Apeldoorn in the Veluwe hills, by the village of Nunspeet. I'm sure there is a scientific, historical explanation for this small and secluded anomaly. How did this sand mass appear in an unlikely place?

The last Ice Age left a pool of melt water between the retreating ice and the slope of the moraine it created. "During this period, sand over sand was deposited."[1] For centuries some grasses made it a suitable area for grazing animals but probably only two hundred years ago, agricultural drainage of remaining swamp water, over-grazing, and shifting sands completely dried it up. Low bushes, heather, and mosses can be seen in the periphery but little takes root in the moving sands that inexorably change shape to their own rhythm.

Unlike Holland's national parks featuring immense dunes by the sea, this miniature enclave is hidden within a scrubby pine forest planted in the modern era. The forest also houses a secret underground war-time hiding place. Now that is intriguing ... and deeply disturbing.

A great venue for a picnic or a trail ride if you have a horse. Here I am with not enough photographs after the fact, not enough for true appreciation of this little gem. Although walking through fine sand on a perfect sunny day is tiring ... or good exercise!

[1] Nunspeet Village, ""De Haere," http://www.nunspeetvillage.nl/groen/n020.html.

Photographs: CDM

© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman

20 January 2018

Friends Send Me ... camel things (8)

Repeats may be inevitable from time to time; please forgive. The treasures continue to flow in ...

Cousin Brian educates me; this will be useful. Does he know the Arabic word sounds the same?

Speaking of Brian, both he and Fred thought Camelflage was pretty unique; jungle camouflage?

Below, admittedly lifted wholesale from a friend of Doug Baum. Get it?!

Mon amie Facebook Coralie has her very own personal clown camel called Tyrki.

A stamp? From Hungary? Christine says it's a song.

Can't imagine where Sharon found this but I want!

Richelle bakes onto the interweebs. If this had been real, would I dare to destroy eat it?

Jane and Marian found this memorial in Victoria Embankment Gardens: Officers and men of the Imperial Camel Corps Egypt, Sinai, Palestine, 1916-1918.

© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman


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