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

06 November 2017

Merzouga, Morocco 2017

Walking from Moha's Camel's House about two blocks to the edge of town, we four tourists are ready to mount our camels and head into Erg Chebbi, the Red Dunes of the Sahara. Not all deserts are composed of sand although this may be the popular notion; sand composes only about twenty per cent of the deserts on earth.
Photo: Doug Baum

It will be my second time of desert camping; what will this be like compared to the elegant "glamping" in Oman's Wahiba Sands? Happily, the saddles are of minimal construction, i.e. minimal in the use of wood or metal; the soft form fits around the animal's hump and with a blanket or two across, are very comfortable (could someone tell Tunisians about this)?
Photo: Heather Daveno

My companions ― Heather, Catherine, and Mark ― and I mount one at a time. I'd had my eye on the young black camel but he was relegated to Mark. Mine is called Akawi. Our leader Doug is not riding yet; he is running like a madman beside us, ahead of us, behind us, taking photographs. The man is tireless. In fact he made a video: https://www.facebook.com/texascamelcorps/videos/1321974761172514/
Too bad he deleted the shot where I tore my shirt open to show my Canada T-shirt.
Photo: Doug Baum

I soon understand that riding in the soft sand dunes is not like the usual experience of riding on level terrain. Stepping down a dune, even going on a diagonal (not straight forward!) the camel's front legs plunge into the shifting sand ― at which point you'd better be using a strong arm or two to maintain your balance. Traversing up a dune is the opposite. Either way, excellent core muscles are another big advantage.
Photo: Heather Daveno

We meander, or so it seems, absorbing our golden environment, marvelling at the burnished colour of the desert sands completely surrounding us. Hassan, leading the camels, is often barefoot; Moha is free to supervise and also take photos. The colours of their garb are a feast for the eye. Because it's March, early spring, we are not subject to blistering heat. Over an hour later we spot our camp, nested so naturally in the dunes, seemingly miles from everywhere. If we keep riding east we would soon be in Algeria.

Photo: Heather Daveno
Photo: Heather Daveno
The camp tents are the traditional woven goat hair, very sturdy fabric, cobbled together in a circle with a fence on the perimeter for security when not occupied. There is a cook tent and a dining tent, a socializing shelter and of course the sleeping tents. The bedroom tents, about ten of them, encircle a common space. Depending on the number of people booked, you may have your own tent or share with others. The ground is sand but they have placed carpets for easier walking. A primitive enclosure for the chemical toilet attempts privacy, somewhat defeated by the zipper that only closes halfway down. We have lunch and a rest. Note to self: juicy orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon; try this at home! Although I doubt one can reproduce the sweet freshness of the ubiquitous Moroccan oranges.

Around 4:45 pm we get the order to saddle up again. We ride for a long time to a special vantage point for sundown. We pass one or two equally small, nestled camps impossible to see until you're almost on top of them. But we see no other riders. Mark's great long shot photo shows the occasional camp hidden within the dunes.
Photo: Mark Charteris
TO BE CONTINUED ... This time my camel is in lead position. We change positions to accustom the younger camels to learn staying in line. It's a wonder how our barefoot boys know where they are going; all are dunes to the horizon in every direction. Any route is a continual action of up a dune and down or along the other side; at times the incline is alarming. This is not always easy riding. Catherine and Mark had brought stirrups to use and I could see why. Propping my legs forward rather than hanging down was much more comfortable on a prolonged ride there's a reason why police and soldiers curl their legs up when they can.
Photo: Moha

Photo: Moha

The wind has picked up by the time we reach our dismount spot. The idea is to climb that huge dune and see the sunset. The climb is decidedly more than I want to attempt and I justify it by knowing the sun won't photograph well on my camera (heh, you can see how much I rely on my companions for good pics). Instead I commune with the placid camels, take a photo of each, and sing to them. Doug was broadcasting to Facebook Live from the top of the dune amid thunderous wind noise ... the wind that imperceptibly sculpts these gigantic monuments of nature. Facebook video:
They see me:

Photo: Heather Daveno
And I see them:

The sun went down, you notice. We have a long way to return to camp, judging by our timing to get here. Yes, dusk settles around us until it turns very black and nothing can be seen ahead; ascents and descents can't be anticipated! Yet we trust Moha and Hassan are operating on internal GPS. Above us, the pitch is punctuated by a zillion stars to thrill the most seasoned traveller. As always, the silence and comparative solitude are striking, tangible, harmonious. Eventually a flashlight beam from the camp signals our destination.
Photo: Heather Daveno
Heather said it: "You are closer to the stars on the back of a camel."

Dinner is served at a low table in the dining tent surrounded by swathes of colourful draped fabrics meeting at the centre pole. Cushions are provided at random for lounging. A small group from China has joined us for overnight. Ni hao! Tagine cooking is the staple dish, as everywhere in Morocco. I think Moha is pouring the mint tea at this point, to drowsy, satisfied guests.

Photo: Moha
However, the evening is not over. A good Berber meal is followed by music and camaraderie. Outside the camp, a fire quickly sprouts. Drums begin. Did a flute appear? Dancing sparks rise to the stars. The Berber men exult in singing. The delighted Chinese guests take their turn with a song and the drums are shared around. Music and laughter have no language barriers; it's a little U.N. of happiness.

Weary but replete in all ways, we drag slowly to bed. Mine is very narrow and a bit tilted to starboard along its length but right now it looks like the best place on earth to be. Close the curtain entrance and turn off my electric light (although we are never aware of a generator). Lamps around the camp are extinguished leaving not a glimmer of light for numerous individual night trips to the toilet, including mine, stumbling over carpets and groping unfamiliar structures. Mixed levels of contented snoring arise, but we are dead to the world. Until a confused man blunders into my tent, turning on the light, waking and scaring the bejeezuz out of me. The others were so out of it my startled scream didn't disturb a soul. Except one terrified Chinese gentleman.

Morning comes with sunrise, just as it should. All is right with the world. Fresh orange juice, freshly prepared bread; the cooking tent has been busy. With reluctance we have to depart this uncomplicated, elemental world, but knowing it exists, that such harmony with nature and humankind is possible.

Photo: Moha
Photo: Doug Baum

Photo: Doug Baum

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

23 October 2017

Malmo, Sweden 2016

To reach Sweden from Copenhagen, we took the amazing Øresund bridge-tunnel-causeway, sixteen kilometres. One is hardly aware of the great maritime span being crossed, in a smooth transition from ground-level to subterranean to skyway. From one terra firma to the other is about a half hour including border controls. Normally, EU residents would pass through quickly but recent immigration pressure had tightened security measures.

To Malmo, a tiny taste of Sweden, with unfortunate time constraints on our part. In the most interesting hotel! Mayfair Hotel Tunneln was built in 1519, originally the town house of a wealthy nobleman, upon an earlier cellar constructed in 1307. The unique atmosphere of the ancient cellar now serves as the hotel dining room.

Artifacts from past centuries and restored public rooms display some of the building's long history and the fascinating characters who played their parts in it. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries its aristocratic owners often hosted prominent, even royal, guests. One can confidently say a king and a princess slept here. Much larger than it looks from a frontal shot, at one time it housed the governor and offices of Skåne province.


Malmo is at the west end of Wallander country, Skåne, where crime novelist par excellence, Henning Mankell, placed so many of his stories. Alas, no time to hunt for his haunts. A diehard fan might expect a few noir elements to pop up in this city, but what we saw was memorably light and colourful.

Speaking of past centuries, best of all was meeting my Swedish cousin Mitzi who flew here from Stockholm, bless her. We share a fourth great-grandfather in our Estonian-Latvian family line; that would be Jürri Jurikas who was born about 1772. Coffee and conversation were the best way to begin our visit; then shopping, of course.

The old town was mere minutes away, walking, from our hotel. Pedestrian-friendly streets were not too crowded on a July day but the restaurants were overflowing! It took some time before we could find a lunch venue where four could sit comfortably. Seeking a dinner restaurant was equally thwarting, as was the service. "Swedish meatballs" on the menu did not represent the traditional recipe we expected, according to our disappointed and indignant cousin. It seems the chef, of Middle Eastern origin, had taken unforgivable liberties. The protest was acknowledged even as some of us hungrily ate the non-Swedish meatballs.


Ah well. Early morning exemplified peace and quiet in a short walk before breakfast.

The first meal of the day could not have had a more unique atmosphere than the hotel's historic cellar.  

Such a short visit but feeling the family bond. Malmo, the only thing I cannot forgive you for is the lack of ABBA souvenirs! (http://camel-chaser.ca/2016/08/swedish-superheroes.html)

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

11 October 2017

London Town, Maryland 2006

One day a special treat while visiting my friend in Annapolis. It was not so easy to tear myself away from the lovely serene view on her deck. And the non-stop talking. Donna and I met at the National Genealogical Society's first Conference in the States (Atlanta 1981) and remained fast friends through many years of conferences thereafter. It was also the same venue where she met her match in George, then editor of the NGSQ. I wanted to say a word or two about one day in August because she left our world a few years ago.

We were ready for the genealogist's second love: history. We went to nearby London Town, where the original seventeenth century seaport was being archaeologically assessed and partially reconstructed ... a "lost" town coming to life. The setting on Chesapeake Bay is magnificent. An archaeology lab is on site (a museum and other interests have been added since I was there ... http://www.historiclondontown.org/).

Twenty-three acres have been dedicated to the park that includes extensive woodland gardens. Horticulture enthusiasts come to enjoy the azalea glade and stroll the featured winter plantings.

The William Brown House (or London Town Publik House) is the main attraction. A National Historic Landmark, it post-dates the old town, probably built between 1758 and 1764. It's a fine example of colonial architecture and a living museum in itself.

Sharing the tour with someone so involved as a supporter of London Town Foundation was special. Needless to say, a variety of educational and historical demonstrations are presented here, along with cultural and arts programs.

Donna's friend, historian Greg, joined us for a walk in historic Annapolis; the entire district is a National Historic Landmark. Shiplap House is another (ca.1715) well preserved colonial edifice. Some believe the former tavern is haunted by the ghost of a once-popular prostitute, an unsolved murder.

Naturally, refreshments were mandatory. What a pair of local experts! I wish I'd taken more (better?) photos.

                         Thanks, crazy Caddy lady and RIP.

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman