23 April 2017

Kairouan, Tunisia 2012

Today is one of those blogaversary days ... ever since the camels clamoured for their own space. Travel demanded babble at the same time. And it happens to be my ninety-ninth post on the blog. Here's to another three years, insh'allah!

Kairouan, the holiest Muslim place in Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage site, was a special stop on our way south in Tunisia. Olive trees and sheep abounded at first in the scenery; for some reason lamb was expensive and not common on restaurant menus or buffets. Many fences consisted of prickly pear cactus plants that can grown to ten feet tall. A very effective fence! They grow a red fruit, an acquired taste (often featured in weird cocktails); talk about intensive labour, to collect them. We reached very flat country, dotted with salt lakes. On the city outskirts, we passed camel butchers set up on the roadside. The head of the animal is always displayed to indicate what kind of meat they're selling and that it's fresh.

The "pools of the Aglobites" (spelling varies, Aghlabids, etc) were actually cisterns for rainwater collection built in the 9th century, during the Arab Aghlabid reign ― the golden age of Kairouan. A technically complex project, it was an engineering marvel of the time; four of the fourteen pools have been excavated. The view was excellent from the adjacent small tower. The pools or basins are only one part of the UNESCO designation for the city that includes outstanding architectural heritage and rich spiritual roots. For many centuries Kairouan was the capital of the Arab-Moslem world in Africa.

A camel with a hopeful owner/handler awaited outside, a ride I had to pass up. The same applied to the prickly pear jam in the small gift shop, but I did load up with some "worry beads" (seen hanging in all Tunisian vehicles). You never know what stress they will relieve. The ubiquitous mint tea was being served; our leader Samy drank almond tea instead; the small glass was half full of almonds.

 We moved on into the medina to see the restored mausoleum of a Sufi saint, Sidi Abid el-Ghariani (sidi = Moslem saint or holy man). Gorgeous architecture here, dating to the fourteenth century. The amazing ceilings were painted cedar, elaborate decoration. Sufism (tasawwuf) is a mystical, ascetic sect of Islam, particularly noted for scholarship. The most visible manifestation of Sufi to the uninformed is their dervish dancing performances.

On to the Great Mosque itself (we were not allowed in the prayer hall). Besides its status in Africa, it is the fourth holiest place in all Islam. Seven pilgrimages here are the equivalent of one Haj to Mecca and means being reborn, all sins wiped out. That's why many reserve it for when they're old. 

A glimpse of the interior

Originally built by the city's seventh-century Arab founder, it was rebuilt within the next two hundred years with some features added again from time to time. The courtyard is huge but not quite as big as the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, biggest in the world we were told. There's a huge cistern below the courtyard, more evidence of how parched is the general countryside in this inland region.

Trailing through part of the very clean-looking medina again to a most impressive house I thought at first was a small hotel. Another amazing ceiling. It was a venue for showing a promotional film about Tunisian history and culture. Unfortunately the film director used every sort of hackneyed trick with images and superimposure, whatever the proper names are for those techniques. With our irrepressible guide Samy constantly at our side, it's not as if we weren't being exposed to loads of information about the beauties of Tunisia!
That's the ceiling

And finally ... ah well, to be expected, somewhere on the tour ... the carpet shop visit with hospitable mint tea. It's near the medina entrance, across the street from the old tribal cemetery outside the walls. I could not learn how old the burials were, stones were whitewashed, inscriptions worn away. Luckily the carpet demonstration was not too long so we didn't feel too guilty at not buying. A woman was demonstrating the process. I liked the small pieces with more primitive depictions and symbols of Berber life but was not disappointed when I couldn't get a salesman's eye; they only want to sell the expensive, good quality carpets. On to a luxury hotel in the former kasbah for buffet lunch, arriving just in advance of a huge crowd of what looks like convention delegates.

What a privilege to visit this historical landmark of a city, a full morning of cultural basking.

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

14 April 2017

Friends Send Me ... camel things (5)

More. They keep coming.

How about a free-to-a-good-home camel? I make an exception for a new pet, just the right companion for lonely Misbah; thanks, Amanda and Cathy!

Shirley is good at finding the proliferating memes:

Not to leave out Audrey who's been watching. The same camel model appears in a hundred iterations and is probably not raking in a fortune in royalties:

From Jenelle ... so clever those rednecks:

Where on earth did this come from?
Coralie Lemeur ont plusieurs:

Even Google finds occasion to show off:

Last but not least. A new meaning (and a new body location) for camel toe:

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

04 April 2017

Macau, China 2014

Before visiting, Macau to me represented two alien images: the world's most notorious, dangerous gambling centre, and the opium-addled underworld of evil Dr. Fu Manchu, the Sax Rohmer mysteries I devoured as a teenager with breathless chills. Basically, Macau must be a cesspool of iniquity; can I get rid of my stereotype?

We left Zhongshan in the morning to drive south. I find the bus shelters along the way very attractive. Our leader Lisa reviewed our trip with her map and stars. She also gave some interesting alphabet and pronunciation lessons. The prevalent Chinese colours signify: Red – happiness; Yellow – prosperity; Green – longevity. Love the sing-songy "Ni hao" (hi; hello; greetings).
Lisa reviews the trip

It wasn't easy to follow a local story about the Girl and the Pearl – star-crossed lovers; wicked troublemaker; girl dies/drowns/what?! – but we stopped briefly in seaside Zhuhai where a statue of the girl rising from the sea commemorates the story, well-known here. Again, a popular spot for Asian tourists. A sole man was begging by the tourist buses, looking homeless and furtively alert for police.
There she is
There he is
From Zhuhai we followed the wide Zhujiang (Pearl) River estuary to the coast of the South China Sea, along a pleasingly landscaped boulevard. Definitely a warmer, more tropical (humid!) feel to the air now. A five-minute ferry ride took us to Macau, but not until after waiting in the usual queues plus an immigration check. Macau is one of the self-governing territories in China's "one country two systems" policy. Macaoans (and also those in Hong Kong) are quick to make the distinction that they are not mainland "This is not China!" one of them said. And it's still very much a gambling mecca.

Our first stop was the oldest temple in Macau, built in 1488, called A-Ma, dedicated to the goddess of the sea. A little beauty, the Taoist temple pre-dates the Portuguese who were the first Europeans in Asia, very early 1500s.

Wow, we experienced our first crush here — the site is small scale, too small for the ever-growing crowds. It has a very narrow entrance way to these architectural gems. So many Chinese pilgrims ... they are burning incense and bowing and performing little ceremonies with a basin of water and leaves. It's actually a series of temples, each higher (narrow, steep stairs) than the one before. Truly beautiful but the crowding became unnerving by the time we left. Local guide Cheryl charged away not watching for our stragglers.

After lunch to see some UNESCO sites in the old centre of town. The original Portuguese fort has been restored with views over all of Macau (said to be the most densely populated place on earth). Thankfully there were multiple escalators to ascend the heights! There's a museum within I'd have loved to see but ... not on the itinerary. Down below again, we saw the ruins of (Jesuit) St Paul's, the first cathedral built in Asia, begun in 1602. Only the ghostly facade remains, outlined against the sky.

Then we traversed a busy, narrow "walking street" to a small main square by St Dominic's church. Street food and samples at every other stall. More crowds of course, but this was more like the ambiance of many cities we had visited.

Little did we know just then, that was our taste of the "real" Macau. Away we went ... away from the central core ... over a bridge to our hotel Sheraton Macao Hotel Cotai Central for one night. Cotai Island is being developed as the Las Vegas of Asia (international casino corporations), so I admit instant prejudicial dislike at the notion. We could see, in the growing twilight, that our hotel and the Venetian across the street are luxury monsters in a construction wasteland. No doubt all kinds of slums and neighbourhoods had been cleared for Cotai's new moniker "The City of Dreams."
Gamblers' shuttle bus

This hotel was "the biggest Sheraton in the world" with 3,880 rooms (yep). Overwhelmingly huge. With the obligatory casino and its own shopping mall. Finding the the right lobby of several, and the right bank of elevators consumed inordinate amounts of time. From here on I gave up using the camera for the exhausting glitz and miles of high-end brand-name shops; it could just as well have been the Dubai Mall or Heathrow duty-free traps (eye roll).

There was literally nowhere to go outside the hotel, no local neighbourhoods to explore, or even a corner convenience store. We were on our own for dinner and did not want a formal meal. The two hotels; this was it. Someone recommended a food court at the Venetian. Finding the food court first entailed finding the crossover skywalk, then guessing our way through an often deserted (eery) maze of jawdropping decor and the occasional employee whose directions were incomprehensible.

When we found it, seemed like hours later, the food court was surprisingly full of people. Where did they all come from in this wilderness? Oh, right ... the thousands of combined hotel rooms. Are they weary tourists like us? Surely the dedicated feverish gamblers don't leave their machines, or maybe they are dining (celebrating?) in one of the luxury haute cuisine restaurants. A FatBurger was our uninspired choice. Wondering how many times we would get lost on the return trip. But we did discover an outdoor performance with explosions of coloured lights, pumping music, and good cheer.

Old history, new wasteland, contrast on the ground, illusions realigned. It's 95% about the $$.

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

12 March 2017


A little time out ... till next month or so.

Time to explore the Maghreb again.

Time for mint tea.

Time for Berber sands.

Time to meet new camels.

03 March 2017

Novgorod, Russia 2006

The city of Novgorod was an unusual inclusion on our itinerary, not then visited by most tourists, but it was an appropriate break on the long drive between St Petersburg and Moscow. That's aka Novgorod Veliky, not to be confused with Nizhny Novgorod, east of Moscow. It was an interesting prospect since it is older and much more historic than both the principal cities.

 Novgorod is revered territory as the birthplace and fatherland of Russia. First documented in 859 AD before Christianization, it was politically tied to Kiev (Kievan Rus') for some time, then became a princely republic in its own right, controlling wide areas beyond. Its location at the end of the Silk Road and its trade with the Hanseatic League network made it a wealthy, powerful state until Ivan III of Moscow (Ivan the Terrible) sicced his oprichniki on them in 1570. Novgorod declined and Moscow ascended.
Our local guide Galena met us on our arrival to make a tour, since we would have a much longer drive, and early call, the next day. She took us to the ancient kremlin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to Galena, the bridge between the kremlin and the old town is where early citizens would meet to resolve problems; debates often accelerated with much shouting or sometimes physical blows. The peaceful 30-acre kremlin grounds appeared a bit neglected; gigantic old bells were sitting dormant in a courtyard.

 St Sophia is the patron saint of the city, thus the name of the eleventh-century cathedral. Bells in the tower were pealing at the time and the faithful were approaching for a church service — by no means all old people, as I'd expected. We learned the symbolism of the “onion” domes of the Orthodox churches. Of course they are not onions. They are candle flames. Three on a church = the Trinity. Five = Jesus & the four New Testament authors. Thirteen = Jesus & the twelve apostles. Pretty well everywhere we saw in Russia, the domes were painted with gold leaf.

The most famous native son was Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod 1236-1252. I did a little more research later on ... acclaimed for defeating invading Swedish forces in 1240, he also frustrated the Teutonic knights on a bloodthirsty incursion, keeping both at bay. His alliance with the Mongols, who had reached their doorstep, saved Russians from full-scale oppression. Nevsky's acknowledged leadership of the times, supported by church and boyars and other princes, saw him canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church some three hundred years after his death.

Some vendors on our way out of the kremlin made much of birchbark paintings and souvenirs. We had been told many times that many of the poor try to develop a little extra income by selling roadside products like potatoes, mushrooms, berries, dried/smoked fish or crafts. They were not aggressive vendors and we were happy to oblige.

That evening travel buddy and I walked down to the Volnya River which divides the town; lovely place where some men were fishing, an obvious picnic-lovers’ spot. Reality check: a moment grasping a feel for 1,200 years of clamorous events. History, here.

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman