On our second (and last) day in Madrid we decided to go on a tapas tour. Tapas are traditionally the little snacks you are served when you order a drink. They are called tapas because back in the day the small plate of snacks would be placed on top of the drink you ordered. On our tapas tour we were taken to three different bars where we got a small complimentary drink and a tapas or two. The tour consisted of myself, Chris, the guide and a writer for “Let’s Go” travel books. The writer named Grace was enjoying her first week out of six in Spain. She was a young 20-year old student from Harvard who managed to secure a gig for herself writing for “Let’s Go”. She was kind enough to take down our blog address and apparently on her own “Let’s Go” travel blog will put a link to ours!
During our 3-week adventure in Morocco, I noticed some interesting things that I thought I could share with you. Currently we are in Bucharest, Romania. We just arrived here yesterday after a one day layover in Milano, Italy and before that we spent a quick two days in Madrid. I will get some photos up of Madrid shortly. In the mean time enjoy the following.
CERAMICS & TILES
Morocco has tiles on some roofs that strongly resemble the ones used in Italy, only the tiles are smaller and are usually found in one of three colours: orangish-red, blue or green. After visiting a ceramic producing town near Zagora in south-eastern Morocco, we learnt that green is the most common and traditional colour for not only roof tiles but also any shape that can be made out of ceramic, like ash trays, serving platters, plates, sugar bowls and the infamous Moroccan tanjine pot. In fact, green is the colour of Islam.
The many different colours of the ceramics are produced with primarily natural dyes. The yellow ceramics are dyed with saffron, the blue with indigo, and the light pinkish-red with henna water and lemon. The green is made from a combination of three things, one of them being copper. Some ceramics are fired once to make them off-white in colour, then they are decorated with naturally produced henna. After one more firing in the kiln, the design is everlasting.
Lunch and dinner in Morocco start with complimentary bread and a small plate of fantastic fresh olives. Salt and pepper are kept in small, communal dishes on the table instead of shakers. This means everyone must use their fingers to pinch the salt and/or pepper onto their food. The pure lack of soap, toilet paper, hand blowers and paper towels in restrooms has led me to eating my meals without the aid of salt and pepper.
It is almost impossible to find alcohol in Morocco, although it is available. The local brew is called “SPECIAL BEER”, that’s literally and actually the name of the beer. It comes in itty-bitty 24 cl bottles. Roughly three of these bottles equates to one standard Canadian bottle of beer. The servers in one bar had a habit of leaving the empties on the table, therefore making Chris and I look like extreme alcoholics when we had accumulated 12 bottles on the table within a couple of hours.
Islam is the main religion in Morocco yet prayer call is not heard as often nor as loud as in Turkey. In fact, the call to prayer in El-Jadida sounded very different. It sounded shorter and staccato. Mosques are not as plentiful or easy to locate.
The only indication of a building being a mosque is the 5–6 story square tower. There are no domed roofs, extra spires, or elaborate decorations and tile work like the mosques of Turkey. In a sense, the mosques had a much more humble feeling.
Young girls and adolescence wear western styled clothes like tight emo-jeans and T-shirt. The majority of women and teenage girls wear headscarves and occasionally you’ll see a girl as young as seven wearing one. The women here must have huge wardrobes in order to have a headscarf that perfectly matches the long-sleeved shirt which she has to wear under the floor-length backless summer dress. This is the attire of a very modern Moroccan lady in a big city like Meknes or Fes.
In nearly all the rural cities, towns and still within the larger cities the majority of women continue to wear the traditional outfit, a long-sleeved, ankle-length, hooded, “jacket”. Patterns and colours are limited only by the imagination. They come in patterns like leopard, zebra, bright red, green, purple, floral print, vibrant turquoise etc.
The variety of mens dress exceeds anything yet seen in the history of the Western world. Primarily men just wear pants and collared T-shirts, but you will also see men in thobes (a long-sleeved, floor length, white coloured outfit, which kind of looks like a dress shirt that’s been tailored to the ankles), a jacket somewhat like the ladies only without the hood and slightly wider cut and lastly some men wear long-sleeved, floor length, hooded robes usually dark brown or green in colour.
When men are dressed in these with the hood up they remind me of the Jwa’s from Star Wars. The hoods are very unique in how they point at the top and how the men fold them up so they can see.
This style of shoe is “very Moroccan”. All ages of people wear them. It is almost as if the design of the shoe developed out of function (like most things). You know when you’re in a hurry to catch someone who just left your house, how you slip on your shoes really quickly flattening the heals into the shoe? The Moroccan shoe looks like this has happened to all of them, only the maker sewed down the heel in the squished down position.
Carry around soap in a plastic bag in your purse because 98% of toilets do not have any type of hand sanitizer. It is also wise to carry around hand sanitizer to use before/after toilets and eating. In Morocco , 95% of the toilets are squat toilets. If you are not use to these it helps to wear a skirt which can be easily lifted out of the way.
To avoid as much spray back as possible it is important to put your feet at quite a wide stance, but even more important is squatting as low as you can (without falling into the festering hole of waste beneath you!). My last piece of advice on how to squat properly and come out relatively clean is aim. The better you are at aiming for the drain increases your chance of less spray back by ten. Some squat toilets have a flush, some don’t. Look up and around for a string to flush. If you don’t see anything, I can guarantee you’ll see a tap and a little bucket. Without thinking about it too much, turn on the tap, fill the bucket and dump it down the hole. This must be the most energy efficient flush on the planet, but now you see why I highly recommend carrying soap and hand sanitizer. Toilet paper, very important, is not used really in many places believe it or not. Carry your own toilet paper at all times. Sometimes there will be a garbage bin with you and your squat toilet. If not, try to use as little as possible and wash it down the drain with your little bucket. Do not put tampons down the toilets, you may really, really regret it.
May 16, 2010 — 7:30 pm
Forget everything I said before. This place is not romantic. It’s deadly, unforgiving, and miserable. Full of pain and agony.
Okay, maybe not that bad, but right now Laura and I are in low spirits. We’re tired. We ran out of mineral water, and can’t help but remember how Rashid carelessly drank some, and used some more for dishes and washing on our first day. Rashid can drink the well water, but we can’t for legitimate fear that the bacteria and microbes will make us sick. We’ve put some treatment pills in a bottle of well water, but have to wait two hours for them to do their work. We’re very thirsty, and have aches and pains throughout our bodies. Rashid said it would be an hour from our lunch spot, but it’s actually been about three, and the heat is the harshest we have experienced. My little travel compass/thermometer maxed out today at an unbearable 50 degrees Celsius.
We’re at Erg Chigaga as I write this, finally, but rather than feel proud or excited by this unique place, we feel hollow and taken advantage of. The man in Zagora who sold us our camel trek, Mohammed, was very friendly, with a sincerity of laughter that bespoke of a straight-forward and honest business man. So when we asked him questions about how long each leg of “the ride” would be, and how long we would be “on the camels on any given stretch”, his answer of three to four hours satisfied us. Yet here we are. It’s the end of our last day in the desert, we’re at Erg Chigaga, the great 40km expanse of dunes on the Algerian border, and we haven’t been on a damn camel once. We walked 60km through the Sahara Desert to get here, and we’re feeling too beat physically and mentally to climb the great 300m dune that’s just right over there.
We asked after the camels again when we arived. Rashid’s response was the same as usual: apres, apres, “after, after.” This time we pushed him. “After what, Rashid? After we set up camp?”
“Wahha, wahha,” he said. “Okay, okay.”
But then, before we knew it, he sent the camels off into the distant plain to feed. We can see them now, from where we sit atop a small dune. They’re at least 4km away and the light is failing fast. There’s no way we can muster the energy to get out to them, and no way Rashid can collect them before sun down. We simply can’t understand why he won’t let us ride them. Laura is very disappointed and upset. I can’t blame her, either. She never rode a camel while she lived in Saudi Arabia. During her one opportunity she was too young and scared to give it a go, and her hopes of making up for it by spending three days on one have been sunk. Riding a camel was one of her main goals coming to Morocco, and we thought we had it all but cinched when we booked our tour.
At this moment, right now, we are in one of the lows that make the highs of travel feel so amazing in comparison. It sounds like a small thing, riding a camel, but after the beating heat and strain of walking 60km in the desert, that small thing is the whole world to us right now. We’re pissed off, frankly.
One of my goals on this trip, and in my life, is to “live without expectation,” what the Hindus call “relinquishing the fruits of your labour.” While I can’t claim to be there yet, I am trying. But it’s not easy. This trip was not what we expected. We’ve decided to take it up with Mohammed when we see him after. For now, I’m not sure my tired legs can even get me up one of the bigger dunes to watch the sun go down. My ankle is swollen like a baseball and each step is agony.
That was my last entry in my journal from the dessert. It’s a sour note to end on, and one I’m happy to say didn’t last long. Within five minutes of that entry, we had purged the negativity from our systems. Me, through writing it down, pretty much as you’ve just read it, and Laura through telling me how she was feeling and shedding a few stressed-out, tired, tears. We enjoyed a hug and felt some of the excitement and challenge come back to us. Aching, dehydrated, tired to the bone, we egged each other on and raced up the dunes, toward the highest peak of Erg Chigaga. The sunset was coming on fast. We could see several other visitors silhouetted at the top of one of the lesser dunes, watching the sunset we had sought for four days through the desert. No doubt they had been brought out that afternoon in the relative comfort of a 4WD, and the thought of them enjoying what we had earned while we sat and moped buoyed us on further, until we were panting and gasping for breath as our tired legs carried us up one, then another of the big dunes. Soon we were on the ridge leading to the top of the biggest. The 4WD crowd were no doubt too lazy to bother climbing it, we told each other, laughing.
“Good,” we declared. “We earned it. Those bastards couldn’t get through the desert. They probably have air-conditioned tents down there.”
And although we made the top moments after the sun had dipped below the horizon, the effort had redeemed us. The sunset didn’t matter. Being here didn’t really matter, either. But the effort of just getting here did, camels or no camels. That last sprint redeemed us, and it redeemed a desert trek that will live with us always, standing out among months of travel as something unlike anything else we’ve ever done.
It also didn’t hurt that we ran into Mohammed that night. The next morning, Laura got her camel ride after all.
This is the final part of a six-part series on our camel trek in the Moroccoan Sahara. To read the full story, please click here.
May 16, 2010 — Midday
The nights out here have been wonderful. Not only do we get to rest while things cool off considerably and Rashid sets to work on the evening meal, but we also get to enjoy the type of clear, starry sky you can only find in a dry environment far from city lights, in the desert or the arctic. The company we paid to arrange this trek is called Caravane Mille Etoiles, the Caravan of the Thousand Stars, and the name is apt. The only thing they should work on is actually telling people that it is not a camel ride into the desert so much as a relentless death march in the baking sun.
The dunes themselves have also been enjoyable, even though we have only been camping among relatively small ones (maybe 50m tall). Burying one’s sore feet in the still-warm sand and watching the sun set over a sea of dunes must be one of life’s great pleasures. The colours and textures that come out of the sand are predictably beautiful, although serious photography is all but impossible due to the heat, fatigue and just wanting to enjoy the last light of day without looking through a camera viewfinder.
One of the other highlights of our trek has been the array of desert life we’ve been lucky enough to come across. Of course living next to two huge, blundering camels has had its moments. Camels aren’t known for being shy about their bodily processes, pooping and peeing whenever and wherever the mood strikes them (including all over themselves), and burping and farting as they spend the night just outside our airy tent. It’s like a desert symphony to offset the beauty of the starry sky.
Shariff and Mimoun are also natural garbeurators, eating anything put within reach of their searching camel lips. They’ll eat anything from food scraps like orange and melon peels (they like these a lot) to the scrubbiest thorn bushes in the desert. And that’s just breakfast. Shariff even ate Laura’s prized fossilized rock.
But we’ve enjoyed other wildlife as well, including plenty of scarab beetles, red ants, a burrowing owl, crows and small desert birds. This morning Laura spotted a dung beetle methodically rolling his breakfast (one of Shariff’s ping-pong sized droppings) home for the wife and kids. We’ve also seen lizards and had fatal encounters with a camel spider and snake. Thankfully, the encounters were fatal for the spider and snake, not us.
Actually, the snake was probably the most dangerous thing that has happened to us during the trek. Rashid was calm but stern after he spotted the snake on a nearby dune, not two minutes after leaving camp this morning. Laura and I went for our cameras as the snake slithered its way up a dune away from us, but if we went closer than about four meters, Rashid would say loudly, “Attencion! Attencion!”, motioning us back. When he snatched a tent pole and went after the creature, Laura and I both went into conservator mode, trying to tell Rashid that it wasn’t necessary to kill the thing, as the snake clearly only wanted to get away.
But Rashid answered by hooking two fingers downward in the air with a quick hissing sound, in obvious imitation of snake fangs sinking into their prey. “Mort,” he said, simply. “Mort.”
So we watched as Rashid deftly decapitated the snake with one blow of the tent pole, followed by several more for good measure. After some prodding and our usual halted communication, we later learned from Rashid that this type of horned snake (he didn’t know the name in English, Arabic, Berber, or French) can kill a person with one bite. The venom is fatal every time, and the victim might only have one to three hours to live after a bite. (Update: After being spurred on by our friend Christine, who identified this beastie as a Saharan Horned Viper, or Cerastes Cerastes, I did a bit more research. The bite is not necessarily immediately fatal, but can lead to severe complications if gone untreated. Don’t believe everything you hear in the desert, apparently.)
Believe me when I say, we were very much on the lookout for other snakes after that. We were also quite grateful to have been ignorant of this knowledge during the first three and a half days of our trek.
We have one more hot afternoon of walking to go. We feel better now after eating and a short nap. Rashid says it is only about an hour more. After lunch the desert always feels more romantic and exciting. Our energy levels are up and we ready to set out again.
This is just one part of a six-part series on our camel trek in the Moroccoan Sahara. To read the full story, please click here.
May 16, 2010 — Midday
No entry for yesterday. Just too damned hot. Figured I’d make the effort today, despite my fatigue, before time and distance dissipate my memories like a camel fart in the desert.
I’m not a religious man, but “prayer” is the closest thing to what was going through my mind as we struggled up and then crested each successive rise this morning only to discover yet another scrubby valley to cross—prayer that each one would be the last, that we would finally see the dunes and scattered trees that might provide enough shade for our mid-day break. But valley after valley was the same baked hardpan. All we saw was more desert. Another shadeless expanse to cross. Another few kilometers before yet another rise and the hope that this might be it. We crossed about eight of these valleys this morning alone, and the temperature is above 40 degrees out here.
I have blisters and arch pain in my right foot, as well as growing swelling in the ankle (possibly an old injury acting up). Laura is about the same, with blisters, sore knees, bites, and what she figures is heat rash on her legs.
Although it is day four of five, we still haven’t ridden the damn camels, and the black thoughts that run through my head as we lumber on, watching Rashid and two camel asses get progressively further away with our dwindling water supply strapped to their backs should not be repeated in polite company. Let’s just say I have considered several of the ways a body could be disposed of in the desert.
Every step hurts, but we only have one more afternoon trek to reach the massive 300m dunes of Erg Chigaga, our final destination. We’ll spend the night there, hopefully after a camel ride of some sort. I’ve asked Rashid about the camels, as I know Laura is really looking forward to riding them, but his response is the same: “apres, apres.” He actually seems to feign a bigger language barrier than usual whenever I bring up the camels. It’s odd.
Tomorrow morning we’ll be driven from Chigaga back to Zagora, after a couple of interesting stops along the way, and it will all be over. Of course, it’s not all pain and misery. Overall, Rashid has been a great guide, if a little stoic. I’m not sure if it’s just the language barrier holding him back, or if he’s just quiet, preferring the solitude of his own thoughts to chatter. Of course, this is an ideal mindset for the desert, where even speaking, reaching for a water bottle, or bending over to pick up an interesting rock can require an iron will. The heat and exertion rob all thought and sap all extra energy. For me, retreating into my own head has helped keep me focused on just taking the next step.
Of course, we’d be lost without Rashid, at least in a figurative sense; actual navigation out here is not as difficult as I had thought. There are plenty of landmarks, including distant hills, trees, dunes, and the far-off mountains to the north. The desert is stunningly beautiful, and far more diverse in its landscape and wildlife than I would have believed. No we wouldn’t be lost, but Rashid has been indispensable in myriad other ways. As Laura and I lounge in the shade, even as I write this, Rashid is preparing tea before starting on lunch. He rises before us, prepares the meals, does most of the washing, and tends the camels. He is also necessarily relentless in marching us on to Chigaga, never varying his pace at all. Even though at times I have considered bludgeoning him with a rock, deep down I am grateful. It has occurred to me more than once that if Rashid were to take the camels and abandon us, we could easily die out here. Even though we’d know which direction to go, without food, water, and shade, we wouldn’t last long. Of course, we could probably flag down one of the 4WD vehicles that occasionally go by in the distance, kicking up dust on the rutted tracks to Chigaga, carrying tourists too lazy (or too smart) to attempt the 60km trek. We haven’t seen any other trekkers except a small group on the first day, and a few guides bringing camels back from Chigaga.
Not that we really signed up to walk ourselves. What we thought we were buying was a camel ride into the desert, perhaps supplemented with some walking. Hell, we’d have been happy to have a walk supplemented with even a little bit of riding, but so far nothing. Shariff and Mimoun, the camels, do have a large burden in carrying our water, food, gear, and other essentials necessary to sustain us out here. Not to mention our own baggage, which although only amounts to about 25 kilos, still contains such desert “essentials” as our two computers, two rain coats, and Laura’s blow dryer.
We’re not looking to strain the camels, which carry themselves like big, stinky champions, but we can’t help thinking that maybe Mohammed should have engaged a third camel if the baggage load is too much to add the weight of a person.
I have been doing my best to help out when possible (as has Laura), in setting up camp, loading and unloading the camels, and with meals and cleaning up, but Rashid is the main bread winner around here. And since it’s our bread he’s winning, we don’t let that bother us too much.
But here we are, in relative luxury. For the moment we have shade, a large blanket to lay on and our sleeping mats to cushion the stones below. We have hot mint tea, cookies and peanuts. The tea is actually good to drink in the heat; the body has less work to regulate the temperature and process the liquid. We have enough mineral water left that we should be abel to get through to tomorrow without resorting to treated well water. We have a hot lunch on the way, and one more night in the Sahara to look forward to.
This is just one part of a six-part series on our camel trek in the Moroccoan Sahara. To read the full story, please click here.