16 September 2018

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, 2018

The iconic rocks welcome us to Cabo San Lucas. Once a small, low-key town known for deep sea fishing, the place has mushroomed into laidback tourist party town from what I could see. It makes me wonder how its sister town, San Juan del Cabo, fared in the meantime; an even quieter, more high-end residential town that did not encourage tourism. Now ... the rocks are the only familiar sight to me from thirty years ago.

The arid desert locale and spotless white sand beaches in Mexico's Baja peninsula seemed a natural setting for a camel ride.

If the camel enterprise seems unusual for this country, it's become something of a trend in various Mexican resort areas. A tourist company operates this particular outing from Cabo, taking guests by truck north to Rancho San Cristóbal. There about a dozen well-behaved, pampered camels take turns offering small group rides. I say pampered because the animals are beautiful and obviously well-cared for. Our chatty guide ("call me Marco," with a joke about Marco Polo) is irrepressible.

My Texas cameleer friend Doug Baum was involved with a partner, Sidi Omar, in originally bringing these camels to Cabo and training them with their new handlers. That was some six or seven years ago with a fair amount of turnover among handlers since. Doug also goes on training and saddle support missions to Cancún, for instance.

First we get to do the third-party photography. Taking your own photographs while riding is a no-no, simply because they want both your hands clamped on the safety grip. Good thing they'd never seen me in the Middle East. They encourage the camel-kissing trick and the sharing a bite to eat trick. Camel has a piece of jicama in his mouth and waits for me to chew on the other end. Ugh. Pineapple would have been nicer!

No surprise that a waiver is required; this is North America, after all, where most camel ranches would require the same. (I wanted to say shades of Bellingham, Washington, where we indeed had the waiver but none of the follow-up safety issues). Therefore must don the accompanying helmet with something intended to resemble an Arab headdress attached to it. Goofy-looking, but can't escape it or the emphasis on safety. And disappointing: we mount the standing camels. No fun in that, especially with the two-seater saddles. Hoping my Oman camel T-shirt impresses them, I successfully convince them that I am riding on my own.

Once in the saddle, a very pleasant ride commenced. Through the cactus-strewn landscape to a small tidal pool, then back along an endless, pristine, uninhabited beach. Glorious, really (but hating the headgear sorry/not sorry). Then a walk through the desert flora with a guide. Finally we were taken to view the collection of rapidly developed print or digital photographs.

A very tasty Mexican lunch followed. A woman was kept busy cooking the corn tortillas for us to gorge on cheese tacos, beef molé, beans, spareribs, rice, and Dos Equis beer. I'm sure I took photos of the invitingly arrayed tequila shots but after a few samples I must have misplaced my touristy sense.

Olé ... a very safe venture.

© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman

02 September 2018

A Bridge!

Wow, who knew? Least of all, me. Lillooet, British Columbia, has a structure called Bridge of the 23 Camels! Too good to ignore; must be a story here (thank you, Google alert.)

Lillooet, once known as Cayoosh Flat, is on the Fraser River in the interior of the province. Its location where several streams join the Fraser is an ancient native site with still a large St'at'imc (aka Lillooet) First Nations population. Most Canadians with an inkling of history would associate Lillooet with the late 1850s and 1860s gold rush. From Lillooet's main street the Cariboo Trail began, leading north to even more gold fields.

When I was a child, Lillooet to me meant only one thing: "Ma" Murray (1888–1982). Anyone associated with the news industry in this country, as my family was, had heard of her. She ran the Bridge River Lillooet News for years, famous for her cantankerous editorials and salty expressions. Her masthead said:
Printed in the Sagebrush Country of the Lillooet every Thursday, God willing. Guaranteed a chuckle every week and a belly laugh once a month or your money back. Circulation 1556 and every bloody one paid for.” Her editorials consistently signed off with, "And that's fer damshur!"

A genuine character, Ma Murray seemed to represent our very own wild west. Many articles have been written about her, also books by Stan Sauerwein and Georgina Keddell.

As suspected, the name of the bridge honours the imported bactrian camels of 1862 to act as pack animals on the Cariboo trail because of their great strength. They acted all right, or rather reacted. The rocky mountain land did not agree with their feet; they spooked horses, especially the numerous stagecoaches; they were unhappy, nervous, and belligerent with people in general. Most were finally abandoned in the wild by their owners. The last known surviving camel, named Lady, died on a BC farm in 1896. Alas, photography was still in its infancy in that period; this iconic photo which is duplicated on so many sites is said to be of Lady:

Here's the eponymous old bridge; it's been fully restored, complete with bat houses within.

Excitement arose in 2012 upon the accidental discovery of a large skull that could belong to one of those by now almost mythic camels. Optimism was short-lived as it turned out to be that of a horse.

Inspired by the historic camels, sculptor Myfanwy MacLeod wanted to bring the story to light in bronze (albeit inexplicably as a dromedary rather than a bactrian). "Lady" now gazes out at a North Vancouver street intersection, chosen as one of the public art projects for BC's cultural history. MacLeod likes to think her Lady is on her way homeward.

For such a small community Lillooet is incredibly vibrant; much of its history has been preserved. Thus besides being a tourist destination for fishing and outdoor sports, it offers other small town delights. The area is one of the richest in the world for jade although commercial mining stopped some time ago. The Jade Trail in Lillooet is a project of thirty monuments installed to commemorate the different facets and mining history of the desirable stone.

The more I read about Lillooet, the more I am fascinated. I want to go there!!

1. Lillooet (http://www.lillooetbc.ca/Arts,-Culture-Community/Historical-Sites.aspx).
2. Stephen Hume, 20 March 2017, "Canada 150: Salty, fearlesss 'Ma' Murray edited Lillooet newspaper," Vancouver Sun (https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/canada-150-salty-fearless-ma-murray-edited-lillooet-newspaper).
3. Anmore Alternative News (http://www.anmorealternative.com/HERITAGE.html).
4. "Margaret Lally 'Ma' Murray," Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Lally_%22Ma%22_Murray).
5. Wendy Fraser, "The tale of the camel skull that wasn't," 11 July 2012, Bridge River Lillooet News (http://www.lillooetnews.net/news/community/the-tale-of-the-camel-skull-that-wasn-t-1.1013603).
6. "Historic B.C. camels inspire new North Vancouver statue," 5 October 2017 (www.cbc.ca/news/.../historic-b-c-camels-inspire-new-north-vancouver-statue-1.4328951).
7. Follow the Jade Trail in Downtown Lillooet (https://www.northerndevelopment.bc.ca/explore-our-region/success-stories/jade-capital-of-british-columbia-completes-monuments/).

© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman

20 August 2018

Lisbon (and Madrid) 1961

An item like this poster reminds me of how many marvellous times I have had, some of them eons ago. The memories may not be perfectly detailed but the feelings rush back with intensity.

I dragged my reluctant friend to Campo Pequeno in Lisbon for a bullfight night. She was likely recalling our recent visit to the bullring in Madrid with its then-mediaeval facilities, most vividly remembered for the muddy, stinking hole in the ground that passed for a senoras toilet ... from the stylized drama of the event to the essentially primitive.

Plaza Toros les Ventas, Madrid
I'm certain there must be upgrades in Las Ventas since then! The world's most famous venue of the bullfight is massive and of neo-Moorish design.

But back to Lisbon. Paco Camino's name stands out on the poster I saved. He was then twenty-one years old, having been endowed with full matador status only a few months earlier. It was a privilege to see him as a rising star, before he eventually became one of Spain's most honoured toreros.


Bulls are not killed in Portugal and their corridas de touros are different from Spain's. The formal sequence begins with the "dance" of the cavaleiro on horseback; he (or she, as the case may be) will plant three or four bandarilhas in the bull's back. Assisted by bandarilheiros on foot with capes to goad and position the unpredictable bull, the horseman's skill and grace are the highlight of the performance. A knowledgeable crowd of fans roars its approval or disapproval. Portuguese Lusitano horses are specially trained for the arena. Yes, women are nowadays fairly represented in the ranks of cavaleiras.

Campo Pequeno, Lisbon
The second stage resembles the running of the bulls at Pamplona to the amateur eye. Eight forcados will enter the arena on foot with no protection; they form a line to tackle the by-now angry bull. The goal is to subdue the bull and the front man's job is to secure the charging animal's head so all his pals can pile on. Their combined weight eventually tires the animal who is led out of the ring. Let's just say it's a very dangerous activity, yet there's no lack of daredevils wanting to participate. Some have dubbed them the Suicide Squad.

Paco Camino would not have been performing on a horse. But José Julío was Portuguese, so I can assume we saw both Spanish and Portuguese styles that evening. Of course I had to make online visits to refresh my memory.

Abhorrent to many people, the bullfight is nevertheless tradition, pure theatre with Roman gladiatorial origins, a deep part of another culture. Bullfighters are never, ever called toreadors as Bizet's opera Carmen popularized ... please: it's matador.

Wikipedia; http://www.gomadrid.com/activity/plaza-toros-las-ventas.html; 

© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman

01 August 2018

Mountain Villages, Morocco 2017

A major part of the joy in travelling with the "Texas camel corps" is the off-beat itinerary and impromptu daily contacts. From Marrakesh, we take a day trip into the High Atlas mountains. On a good road we wind and switchback higher and higher. At a viewpoint we briefly browse the crafts for sale, and Doug never misses a chance to talk camels and saddles.

Later reaching a fork, the route on the right will take us to Ouikaimeden, our high destination. But first, the cops sitting in their car at the fork stop us. Our driver Mohamed is told to get out of our vehicle and go to their car. Eh?! Lengthy conversation takes place; finally Doug gets out to see what's up. Back and forth to our van for paperwork. Phone calls ensue. We are resigned to a potentially new twist in our agenda.

However the police were only checking out the rental contract for our van. Some of us suspect they were merely bored sitting there all day with next to no traffic. Having been stopped occasionally before, the big difference here – Mohamed grins at this – no baksheesh changed hands.

We're heading to the snow line, more hairpin curves, the road becomes one lane, then ultimately fades away into a sheep path. The highest mountain in Africa, Toubkall at 4,167 metres, is just beyond us; we are at about 9,000 feet elevation. There's a ski resort here but it's spring, season over. Flocks of sheep feasting on green grass. Heather goes off to a shepherd hut to commune with her new Berber self.

Seasonal homes dot the mountainside above the road. Tagines are bubbling at a nearby outdoor restaurant; lunch time. We share beef, lamb, and goat. A man selling bracelets and necklaces comes, persisting, but otherwise it's all pretty deserted. The royal gendarmerie next door looks semi-abandoned.

On a new route, we follow the course of a steep-sided river to come down from great heights. Lots of kids playing along the way; it's a school holiday.

The road runs along one side of the valley, carved out of the mountainsides; people live on the opposite side of the river. Their homes are connected to the road side by crazy foot bridges, some in better shape than others. Their balancing skills must be excellent.

Courtesy Mark Charteris
The lower we descend, the more the scene turns into a sort of endless restaurant row: patios facing the river with umbrellas and plastic chairs. Often the rocky river bank is the patio. At times when we stop, enterprising youngsters appear out of nowhere, ready to sell us souvenirs. We park at Ourika village, today very much catering to the holiday crowd; horse and camel rides are available.

Mohamed and I drink coffee while the others shop along the village street. It's a market atmosphere, congenial crowds.

Courtesy Heather Daveno
Just as darkness falls we are back in Marrakesh. We split up for dinner, spreading out from the main square, Jemaa el Fna. I only mention this — quite unconnected with the mountain villages — because the vin gris on the dinner menu amuses me. Well, it's not actually grey. It's much like a dry rosé, a good accompaniment for many dishes. Vin gris is unique to Morocco and a perfect companion for ending a very fine day.

© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman

11 July 2018

Our Lady of the Camels (3)

From following a German woman in India to following a Mongolian woman on a monumental trek to a Dutch woman in the South Sinai ... language can be an issue. Joyce Schröder's websites and Facebook page are in Dutch, not a language I've mastered. However Schröder's website DesertJoy allows Google Translate. http://www.desertjoy.nl/. Her banner proclaims "Nomadische reizen met Hart en Ziel" (Nomadic travel with heart and soul).

Of all those who seek to "find themselves," Joyce Schröder was one of the successful ones. Originally from The Netherlands, she experienced the awe of desert life for the first time in 1995 and made it her life. She fell in love with Dalel the camel and the Bedouin people of the Muzayna tribe; this is in the south Sinai region of Egypt between the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. She has long been fluent in Arabic.

Caring for each other and bonding as the two made countless exploratory desert trips together: over time Dalel taught her [as translated] "patience, imperturbability, trust, tolerance, courage and endurance." Eventually losing him was heartbreaking. In tribute, Shröder established the Dalel Foundation for Animal Welfare, a charity: http://www.stichtingdalel.org/ (Dalel Foundation) ... "Improving the physical and psychological well-being of camels in and around Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt."

Dalel fathered Jamila, born after he died; Jamila has by now given her three males. Her family.

Many of her days are spent ministering, with the experts she finds, to rural and isolated camels. The trust she has established is evident. Her Facebook page, "Camel Wellbeing" (Stichting Dalèl - voor Kamelenwelzijn in de Sinaï), is witness to many helpful visits to ailing or needy camels. But what they face are challenges rising feed costs, little veterinary availability, and climate change (meaning a drier desert), not to mention decreased income from tourists.

That is not say she didn't have to find a way to support such a life. She now leads a variety of camel tours from her base in Dahab, from October to May, supported by and employing her Bedouin friends. The tours will take from two to ten people, and are clearly well prepared for both educating their guests and maximum comfort in the desert world. She even arranges flights from Amsterdam to Sharm el Sheik with airport pickup.

Schröder says the rhythm in camel riding is beneficial for people with low back complaints; I can personally attest that it does no harm. Camel riding sometimes has a bad rep due to short trips with badly saddled camels. Not her animals! Each participating guest has his or her own camel for the trip. Walking along the way, or part of the way, is also an option.

Thus Schröder is achieving some of her goals raising consciousness about camels in her homeland and building a means to care for them. There is no reason she can't reach a wider global market! The tours benefit the Bedouin community as well as visitors. Sad to say, the drop in tourism to Egypt in the last few years affects standard of life mostly for the already marginal, but seems to be picking up again. In my opinion, visiting the south Sinai is no more dangerous than crossing your big city downtown street.

Joyof Nature is Schröder's more recent development, running tours with a partner on the southeast coast of Turkey. They take place during the summer months that are off-season, far too hot for the Sinai; in this location "... no towering hotel resorts or mass tourism!" she reports.

When all is said and done, it's a love story.

© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman

18 June 2018

Ouarzazate, Morocco 2017

Wending our way from east to west, skirting the Sahara, we arrived in Ouarzazate, the premier film-making region of North Africa. We hired Mohamed, a local guide, to explore the town's impressive Kasbah Taourirt that has featured in so many desert movies. Not to be confused with Mohamed, our travel companion and my other son. Mohamed chatters enthusiastically about his own participation as an extra in many past movies.

Taourirt the Kasbah is immense ... we clamber up, down, and through dozens of interior stairways and passages. Without Mohamed we would still be wandering in the maze of over 300 rooms. It was a workout and well worth it. The harem, guest apartments, family rooms ... paying attention to the intricate carved cedar ceilings wherever we go.

Built in the nineteenth century, Taourirt housed an extended family that controlled trade routes in the region. Some of it now deteriorated, UNESCO has funded partial renovations for public viewing.

We discover an artists' gallery, oh good! Some of them are working on site, by a balcony overlooking the main courtyard. Plenty of mementos here to choose from.

Back on the street, across from the kasbah entrance is the finish line for a long distance runners' competition. An orderly crowd is applauding them; local police acting as marshals seem superfluous. Doug is kindly carrying my heavy bag for me as we near our vehicle. When I reach to retrieve it, he jokes, yelling "Help, police! Thief!" A cop on the corner immediately turns and starts toward us. Much nervous hilarity, Doug goes over to talk with him; another friend made.

Then ...
Credit: Mark Charteris
On we go to Atlas Film Studios not far away. Countless well-known movies have been wholly or partly filmed here: Ben Hur, Cleopatra, Kundun, Alexander, Gladiator, The Man Who Would be King, Game of Thrones, even some of Lawrence of Arabia and Queen of the Desert, always something in the works. Much to my surprise, also The Way Back (escape from a Siberian gulag), a most excellent under-rated film. Presently a mini-series called Tut is in production. We are waved away, "no cameras, no cameras." Enormous Egyptian sets and replicas are everywhere, although it would take more than a few hours to cover its twenty hectares!

We walked through a biblical-era market village, passed the site of Cleopatra's milk bath, admired an abandoned shipwreck, posed on temple steps, mingled with mounted tribesmen, and, before enjoying a leisurely, quiet lunch by the pool of the studio's Oscar Hotel, Heather snagged this fabulous photo of two extras:

Our afternoon was devoted to the nearby UNESCO site of Ait Ben Haddou, a fortified village (ksar) on a hillside. A "traditional pre-Saharan earthen construction habitat" and good example of southern Morocco architecture. Seventeenth century buildings likely grew over older ones since caravan times. Families still live here, making it difficult to monitor conservation and repair.

First we head down the hill from the tourist-built town to the Mellah river. After crossing the bridge our little group splits up for different directions and paces. This is a town where people have lived permanently for centuries but I'm not surprised to see a few vendors on the upward, narrow thoroughfare. I am tired and decide not to huff my way up to the top to see a tower. A vendor (another Mohamed) of snacks and drinks lets me park on a chair. He has a little English.

An older man with some English from a shop across the way comes to chat even though I am asleep with my eyes open. He gets my not wanting to climb the hill and says "asthma" pointing to himself. He tells me his inhalor is empty; somehow automatically I say I always have mine with me. His unspoken question hovers ... I ramble on about doctor's prescriptions, uneasy with the thought.

Mohamed's place is more than snacks and drinks; now that I'm awake again I am eyeing some nice dresses and scarves within/without his shop. And next door. And of course across the way. Many locally-made products.

Eventually I can't resist browsing the merchandise. Older man is helpful. OK, my conscience leaps and I ask if he wants to use my inhalor. Brisk nodding of the head. He shakes it and takes three very deep satisfying puffs. In gratitude, he grabs a scarf and winds a turban around my head with Mohamed nodding approval.

So I decide it behooves me to sit out front and give the patter to passing tourists like "Come inside ... many colours ... nice gifts ... I make you best price."

Doug shows up a little astonished at the tableau. Another one of those Moments.

© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman