04 November 2018

Salalah, Oman 2018

The fates were against us on this trip. After five days of serene cruising south on the Red Sea and then through "Pirates' Alley" (halloo, Djibouti, in the distance) in the Gulf of Yemen, we arrived at Oman's agricultural city, Salalah. The air temperature had been slyly climbing to unseasonal heights; nothing is normal anymore in world climates. Combined with excessive humidity, spending much time on deck became uncomfortable to say the least. Perhaps that is why the "beach break" excursion was cancelled for want of enthusiasts. Sitting in scorching sun and sand for hours seemed folly when other excursions would have air-conditioned interludes in a bus or an indoors visit. The real possibility of sunstroke outweighed my regret at the loss of a potential camel ride on the beach.


Salalah's coastal location, though of desert climate, benefits from mild summer monsoon rain that turns the brown to green and fosters banana, coconut, papaya, and pineapple plantations. Its low-rise architecture is a distinct relief from the unrestrained skyscrapers of UAE cities. The Dhofar region has been famous for millennia for its production of frankincense, that irresistible, aromatic, plant-based resin. The iconic incense burner can be seen everywhere.

So my companion and I took a bus to Al Haffa Souk for browsing, a familiar spot from previous trips and just the right place for gifts. Here was quite the sales pitch for frankincense:

In fact, the aroma became so overpowering in the souk alleys in the stifling heat that soon we opted for cold drinks and coffee in the shaded streetside cafe. Waiting for the return bus, another buddy with respiratory trouble was suffering even more than I was.

What happened next was quite unreal. We and the entire market street were startled by a horrendous metallic crash. Immediately a crowd of men surged into chasing an SUV with a smashed fender that came to a sudden, erratic stop opposite me. An angry-looking young man slammed out of the vehicle to confront the shouts. Fender bender, we thought. Such a busy street. Let's not gawk.

After the chaos began to make sense, we learned that the speeding young man had just run over and killed two of our ship passengers, who'd been unloading from a bus. Third person seriously injured. Smashed the bus door almost off its hinges. And then he had not tried to stop. The outraged crowd that materialized so fast had somehow forced him to a halt.

Police, ambulances, witness interviews; counselling provided for fellow passengers. Terse newspaper reports that the arrested perpetrator not from the Dhofar region they emphasized had been speeding, with no driver's licence! Much later, the survivor who'd lost his wife gave his own account:

Imagine the pall over the remainder of the cruise. This beautiful, peaceful country that I love has its flaws.

© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman

14 October 2018

Al Ain, United Arab Emirates 2018

This post is pure fantasy. Because I missed my only chance to get to Al Ain, "garden city of the Emirates." Let's say, it's what I would have done, had I gone.

[We spent ten days sailing and touring in the hottest weather I've ever experienced, unseasonal even for the Middle East. The itinerary was made for me — new places like Khasab (Oman), Doha (Qatar), and Abu Dhabi (U.A.E.) ... more on some of those places elsewhere. But our final port, Abu Dhabi, promised an excursion to Al Ain and for whatever reason, it's been high on my bucket list. However, passengers were dropping out of shore excursions, unable to cope with the heat; only five minutes in the sun, between leaving the coach and entering the site to visit, melted us into dripping sweat and numbing of the brain. Stay out too long and we would literally begin to cook. More evidence of climate change. Finally I too admitted defeat; having the added sensory burden of fibromyalgia was too much of a health risk.]

My fantasy trip, perhaps, but based on collected facts. Abu Dhabi is one of the seven United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and its territory includes extensive land regions east and south of the city. Al Ain is situated about two hours inland from the city, verging on the fabled Empty Quarter desert (Rub Al Khali) ... a desert of epic journeys in the 1940s by British adventurer Wilfrid Thesiger. An exhibit of his photographs and other mementos is in the museum of Al Jahili, said to be the welcome sight of civilization he spotted after completing a crossing from the south.[1] Al Jahili Fort is now restored to its unique 1891 origins. There I would be, scanning from its circular heights for signs of a camel train.

Al Jahili Fort

Wilfrid Thesiger

I can scarcely imagine what Thesiger endured after leaving Salalah in the south. His Arabian Sands is regarded as a classic of travel literature, describing the lives of Bedu tribes, "probably the finest book ever written about Arabia and a tribute to a world now lost forever."[2] I.e., a world before oil was discovered. My own taste of the Empty Quarter was five years ago before scrambling around the debatable "lost city of Ubar," in Thesiger's time a site still buried and unknown. It is beside Shisur, a village familiar to Thesiger. Certainly the Bedouin are more accommodating now than some of the explorer's encounters with suspicion or hostility.

A 1948 Thesiger photo of  Qasr Al Muwaiji
The rugged Al Hajar mountains are on Al Ain's eastern flank; landmark Jebel Hafeet mountain overlooks the city for excellent views, highest peak in the Emirate.

Al Ain itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the oldest continual habitations on earth. Centred on and blessed with a large, flourishing palm oasis hence its appellation as "garden city" it recently grew from a village to tourist proportions. "This date palm oasis has been recognised by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for its importance as a repository of genetic resources, biodiversity and cultural heritage."[3] Strolling shady pathways in the oasis you can explore groves of tropical fruit trees and inspect working parts of the original irrigation system constructed 3,000 years ago.


Besides Al Jahili, a number of forts that once protected plantations in the oasis have been re-purposed. Of heritage and cultural interest are Al Ain National Museum with sections on archaeology and traditional Bedouin crafts; the Palace Museum was once the home of the UAE founder Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyam, renovated in traditional design to exhibit the ruler's lifestyle and diplomatic relations. Qasr Al Muwaiji is the birthplace of the current Sheikh Khalifa of Abu Dhabi Emirate, displaying lush gardens and material related to the ruling family. And more ... Al Qattara Fort houses a gallery and centre for all manner of arts. Oh yes, I would be lingering over the jewellery exhibits, the colourful pottery, historical garments, the ancient artifacts. A handicrafts market takes place on seasonal weekends, including tastes of local food.

Al Ain Palace Museum
And then! The renowned camel market of Al Ain, apparently one of the few remaining livestock markets in the Emirates. Here the beasts are traded for breeding, racing, meat, or milk. I might lose myself freely wandering among the dusty pens, admiring and taking photographs (only with permission). Camels are and always will be an essential part of the heritage and fabric of the Bedouin, whether nomads or urban dwellers. Of course racing has become a national pastime with all the entailed competition and prize money.

Al Ain has other tourist attractions of modern variety not to be mentioned in the same breath. Great changes have come to the U.A.E. in the last fifty years, but Al Ain is determined to maintain an old and proud culture. So let's keep my fantasy trip far from the Emirates' glitzy shopping malls and outré architecture.

[1] https://www.timeoutabudhabi.com/art/features/74944-in-the-footsteps-of-wilfred-thesiger
[2] Michael Asher, 27 August 2003, "Sir Wilfred Thesiger (obituary)," The Guardian.
[3] https://visitabudhabi.ae/en/explore/regions/al.ain.aspx
Also, "Al Ain," Yalla, the tourist guide for Abu Dhabi, Edition 2, 2018.

© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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