Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wide Awake in the Sahara... a journey by camel.


Sunset in the Sahara

The Sahara Desert -- how does one even figure out how to think about it?  3.6 million square miles.  Almost as large as China or the United States.  Sand. Nomads. Dromedaries. Scorpions. Snakes. More sand.  In its harshness and severity I ultimately saw extreme beauty and solitude.  I would go back in a heartbeat.

Having crossed the Atlas Mountains days prior, we had been working our way south and quite a bit east, getting deeper and deeper into Morocco.  Our destination was the village of M'hamid, the last outpost at the edge of the Sahara, and the last town before the Algerian border about 25 miles away.  If I were still in my twenties I might have found a way to cross over into Algeria to get another stamp in my passport.  That, however, seemed like more effort than I wanted to make, not to mention I would probably not be able to re-enter the U.S. and then who would feed the cats and our one remaining fish?  That's part of being in one's fifties -- you actually think about the consequences of your actions before you do something stupid.

Fortunately I was extremely content at being in M'Hamid and near the Algerian border, not to mention the compound where we were staying for part of the time had a pool and a spa.  It was also owned by the French which meant there was wine available too.  Algeria dropped off the radar in no time.

Arriving at Dar Azawad, our small kasbah style hotel, we dropped off our bags and prepared a quick overnight backpack of clothes to take with us into the desert.  What does one wear while riding a camel and sleeping in the desert?  This was a fashion question that I had never dealt with in previous years, and seeing as I have no fashion sense whatsoever I actually didn't give it too much thought.  In fact, not thinking much about what I was wearing had been my modus operandi regarding my clothes during the entire trip, which I would unfortunately live to regret when I later saw all of the photos from the journey.   And having to listen to Steve tell me "I told you so" when he questioned my attire I put together before leaving the states.  Another regret.

With bags in hand we were back in the car, headed to the rendezvous point to begin our trek into the desert.  More dust and sand, our Berber guide and a couple of camels awaited our arrival. A handmade, hand-painted sign with an arrow indicating 'Toumboktou' swung from a post.  Veronique dropped us off and I noticed her speed quickly back down the road knowing that there was wine and a comfortable bed awaiting her.  I was beginning to wonder if we had been tricked.

Tombouktou Market
After a fifteen second lesson on how to mount a camel we were positioned and ready to go.  Our guide took my scarf (called a chesh) and twisted it, wrapped it and spun it around my head and face to block the sun and sand for the journey.  Steve didn't want to be mummified like that so he wrapped the chesh around his neck so he could pull it up if needed.  He also had on his cool leather outback hat which on its own created a dashing "Indiana Jones" kind of look.  However, with the chesh wrapped around his neck and flowing behind him it sort of took on the appearance of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert", but I didn't tell him that.  He'll find out when he reads this blog.  I had to get rid of some of those photos too.

Steve, before the scarf
We set out on our journey with our guide leading our camels as we paralleled the town of M'Hamid for some time.  To our left was the Sahara.  To our right was, sadly, the negative effect of civilization with trash littering the way, the occasional single sandal that must have fallen off while on a camel, tires, big pieces of scrap metal, and plastic bags galore that swirled in the dust storm and desecrated the beauty of the countryside.  None of us probably think about the impact of those plastic bags from the grocery store that we use regularly, but when you are in Morocco and see the direct repercussion on the landscape you will vow to never use one again.

We couldn't do anything about the trash, so we chose to look to the left and focus on the austere beauty of the desert.  A light sandstorm whipped up and we watched it sweep and swirl across the desert floor, listening to the ghostly sound of it whooshing in the otherwise silent space. We soon turned east and now were heading directly into the Sahara.

Once the remnants of civilization disappeared, except for the occasional mud-walled kasbah, I slipped into my suspended state of disbelief that I was actually where I was.  The vastness of the desert and its beauty engulfed me and I was without words.

Beautiful, ancient kasbah along the route...
We continued on in silence, interrupted sometimes by the grunt of a camel or the squeak of our saddles.  The lilting rocking rhythm of the camels' gait was somewhat meditative and every step of the way I felt connected to a higher source.  It is such a timeless feeling being in the desert; the past, present and future all intertwined at once.

After an hour or so of rhythmical plodding through the sand we arrived at our camp and a beautiful, mystical and exotic scene unfolded.

A few small, mud-walled buildings made up a communal area, and spread out on the sand were enormously beautiful Moroccan rugs, one scattered on top of another.  Small, low tables with leather poufs and stools were scattered about, and the traditional pierced tin lanterns sat atop the rugs, waiting to illuminate the night after sunset.  We immediately stopped in our tracks, sat on the poofs, drank our mint tea, and took in the beauty of the palm trees and sand dunes and gnarled and twisted trees shaped by the winds over time.  It was magic.

I love this tree!

Rosa joins Steve for some mint tea!

 Our camels, taking a well-deserved rest.

Beautiful rugs and pillows, ready for us to relax...
Asking our Berber host if there were others that would be joining us he said “Ah, yes, the Swiss will soon be arriving by camel”.  It was delivered in such a matter of fact way; as if the Swiss are always arriving daily by camel.  Statements conveyed in that manner amuse me.  It seemed a very English way of stating the obvious, and I felt for a moment as if I was being filmed by David Attenborough for a PBS special.

Sure enough, within about twenty minutes, the Swiss did arrive by camel.  We made our introductions to Judy and Roger, and were quite happy to learn that English was a common denominator for us all.

The Swiss, arriving by camel!
Finishing our tea we made a quick trip to our individual campsites to drop off our bags.  These sites were made of mud walls, and the roofs were handmade woolen tarps from goat hair that were impervious to the weather.  The floors were sand, covered with rugs, and two single cots were pushed together to make one larger bed.  We found out that it would be okay to haul the beds outside and sleep under the stars, so that was added to the list of things to do after dinner.  In fact, it was the only thing on the list of things to do after dinner.
Our cot, moved out into the open...
Dinner was another traditional tagine cooked in the open air kitchen at the camp.  It was good, but the meat was unidentifiable and none of us wanted to inquire as to what it was.  Judy just ate the potatoes.  I couldn’t identify the taste and I knew right away there were several things that I hoped it wasn’t.  Never did find out - somethings are best left unknown.
After our leisurely dinner we wound our way back to our campsite.  There were no lights anywhere, no glow on the distant horizon, just an inky, midnight blue-blackness and a trillion stars above our heads.  In fact, the sky was so crowded with stars and the Milky Way itself that we had trouble picking out the constellations.

With nightfall the desert grew cold and we ended up wearing everything we brought all at once.  While putting on our layers in the walled hut a small, quick motion caught my eye.  I looked at the wall but didn’t see anything.  Then the motion again, and now a scorpion came into view.  And might I point out it was where my side of the bed would have been had we decided to sleep inside.  This was not good, and as much as it goes against our nature to kill anything except mosquitoes this little guy met his demise from the heel of Steve’s shoe.  It actually made us both sad because we were the guests in his town.  But then we got over it, …sort of.  We weren’t afraid of it coming outside but rather taking up space rent free in our backpacks or tennis shoes.  Neither of us like those kind of surprises.

Layered in all of our clothes, we also dragged several heavy, handmade woolen blankets outside with us.  I had my paisley pashmina from Italy with me and as I wrapped my head up in that I thought I probably look like a homeless person who has done their clothes shopping from the dumpster at goodwill.  I was very glad that Judy and Roger’s site was over the next sand dune.

Crawling under the covers on the cots we laid there and looked up into the sky, trying to take in the magnitude of what we were seeing.  Rightly so, the first constellation that came into focus was Scorpio, and it was huge and bright and pulsated, emitting its disapproval of our recent actions. Ironic, isn’t it?  

The wind was blowing and a light spray of very fine sand covered us in no time. We lay there, not saying a word as there really are no words to describe sleeping outside at night in the Sahara.  There was a three-quarter moon that kept us company, the Milky Way blazed a brilliant trail across the sky, a trillion stars twinkled and pulsated and sometimes fell from the sky while we watched them shoot across our heads, and we lay there in silence all night, wide awake in the Sahara.

Early morning view from the cot, just after sunrise...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Chez Pauline, Goulmima, Morocco

 Arriving at Chez Pauline's compound was what I had always imagined Africa would be.  Having left  Fes that morning, we had a long journey ahead of us to our first remote and slightly uncivilized destination.  Passing through one primitive town or village after another helped bring my expectations lower and lower.  The scenery was amazing and the people intriguing along the route, but as things got scruffier and dirtier I was beginning to wonder what our final stop would be like.

As we entered into the village of Goulmima, a one road town as I soon found out most of them would be, we turned off the main road and began bumping along broken pot-holed pavement, then gravel, down alleys, through pastures and forest;  little roads no bigger than a goat path that included 90 degree turns and dropped off on either side into piles of rocks and debris.  Men and women dressed in their djellebahs with the women covering their heads and faces with scarves, walked the alleys, rode their bikes, or straddled their donkeys while on their way to wherever.  I was never sure where they were going as it appeared there was really nowhere to go.

After what seemed like quite some time we started to see crudely handmade signs indicating Chez Pauline was just around a few more corners and down a few more alleys, 400 meters here, 600 meters there, none of which was accurate although that didn't really matter in the big scheme of things.

(.....yes, this is one of the roads we took to arrive at Chez Pauline's!)

Still in a skeptical and somewhat anxious mode, wondering what we might be getting ourselves into, we arrived to the edge of the property.  Parking our car on the gravel  we were immediately greeted by Andre', the very friendly and humorous husband of this French duo.  In grubby clothes and covered in grease from working on his Mitsubishi Trooper that he had driven up from Conarky, Guinea West Africa with all of their cats and dogs, he instantly made us feel welcomed.  So far, so good!

The grounds were lush, overgrown and primitive.  We made a quick decision to not haul our suitcases across all of the dirt and gravel and pulled our luggage from the car and plopped it on the ground.  The three of us then proceeded to dig through our bags in search of clean underwear, a change of clothes for the next day, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and of course a bottle of wine!  Once everyone had their gear we zipped up our now dirty luggage and put it back into the trunk for the night.  

(....found it!  Digging for underware, pajamas, deodorant and toothbrushes, with Veronique Stalmans)

Next came Chantal, out to greet us in all of her Frenchness, tempered by twenty plus years of running a hotel in Guinea, West Africa, and another ten years in Morocco. These two were true ex-pats and living a life that I had always imagined.  As we strolled through the grounds a beautiful property unfolded and again I was reminded that I was actually in Africa!  Enormous palm trees were planted throughout the terrace and outdoor dining.  Apricot trees were heavy with fruit, and the sultry scent of jasmine and honeysuckle hung as if suspended in the hot, dry air.  Hibiscus, cactus and bougainvillea added brilliant bursts of magenta, red and orange into our field of vision.  Dogs lolled about in the grass chewing on the bones of I don't want to know what, and cats lazed around on the chairs and warm stone terrace.  The property was enclosed by a high wall done in the typical Moroccan fashion of mud mixed with straw, and as far I could see beyond the compound walls were palm trees and forest.  We could hear the donkey braying in the background and dutifully went over and introduced ourselves to him after we had settled in.

As we entered into their home another world opened up.  The rooms were filled with hand carved wooden furniture from Africa, sitting atop large, colorful Moroccan rugs.  Tribal masks hung from the walls, and one room was dedicated to a collection of what seemed like a thousand books and French and Moroccan magazines.   Another sitting room appeared to be a tribute to their French origins, with antique European furniture and lace doilies on the end tables,  These two were ex-pats to the nthn degree and I loved it.  

As we walked down the hallway to our rooms beautiful blue oriental rugs showed us the way, and black and white photos of them as a younger couple on their worldy adventures were atop every cabinet and hung from the walls.  At this point I was pretty sure I didn't ever want to leave.

Later that night an evening meal of Tagine and moroccan salads, wine and bread under a beautiful night sky was the perfect ending to a fantastic day.  The primitive sounds of crickets and frogs were our symphony during dinner, and we had front row seats!

I know I have painted a pretty picture for you so far, and it is at this point that the story takes a sharp turn.

Our bedroom for the night was pretty in an simple kind of way,and the bathroom too, done in beautiful tiles and decor.  However, there was no door to the bathroom or the toilet, which is key to the rest of the story.  

Under normal circumstances the lack of a door would be of no concern after 23 years of marriage.  But, with intestinal problems looming for Steve, I know he was really wishing for some privacy.  I didn't help matters much by laughing hysterically when the problems officially started.  Over the course of the night we eventually shared many intimate " first" moments totally unrelated to sex.  The sounds of trumpets and a small three piece ensemble bellowed from the bathroom.  It was like attending a free concert spontaneously set-up near a raw, open sewer.  This is really fun I had to keep reminding myself as I smothered my own head with my pillow.

To top it off we ran out of toilet paper in the darkness of the night - not a spare roll to be found.  Digging through my purse and tote bag I managed to come up with enough Kleenex to get us through till daybreak when we were finally comfortable to knock on Veronique's door and grab some from her.  I think for the rest of our lives we will always refer to intestinal issues as having a case of the "Chez Pauline's"!!!

The tables eventually turned and I got to experience the unpleasantness of 'Marrakech Express' without a bathroom door to protect me either.  Fortunately, as the author of these tales, this is where my story starts and ends!  Poor Steve, I bet he wishes he had been the one taking those writing courses along the way....