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Morocco Part 1: Casablanca to the Sahara

Morocco

 Part 1: Casablanca to the Sahara

 

February  17-18, 2014

Dateline:  Casablanca

Latitude  at Casablanca, 33.32 degrees North,  Longitude 7.35 degrees West

We had booked our tour with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) which specializes in small groups and extensive immersion into local cultures and exposure to a large cross-section of local people. This trip would be a deep dive, whereas many other tours we have taken were just a mere snorkel. Or as our guide would put it: “the goal is to put a destination in your heart, not just on your camera”.

We left Atlanta at 3:25 on an overnight flight to Paris, and our flight took an interesting route with the clouds clearing as the sun was setting on the East Coast. We could see the coast of North Carolina, the barrier islands of Virginia, the Delmarva Peninsula, the Jersey Shore, Long Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod.

We connected in Paris the next morning for a 3 hour flight to Casablanca. Morocco is on Greenwich time, the same as England, an hour behind Paris. We arrived with images of Bogey and Bacall and Rick’s Café Americaine (from the movie, Casablanca featuring the lines “play it again, Sam and “we’ll always have Paris”)  in our heads, but that was quickly dispelled as we landed in a light rain instead of the famously Hollywood created fog, and we found it sadly lacking in the exotic aura we were expecting – but that would come later – with the rest of Morocco.  We were met at the airport by our guide, Jaafar. (Pronounced Zhah- fer with the accent on “Zhah”).  He tells us that his name means “little stream” in Arabic and that in contrast to Western names, most Arabic names mean something in their language. We then met our driver Samir and his assistant Abdrahim, which I think is a different spelling of Abraham. Before we left the airport, we exchanged some dollars for dirhams, the local currency here.  The exchange rate is 12 dirhams to the dollar.

The weather was overcast and cool for the 16 mile ride into the city from the airport and we learned a few key facts. Casablanca is Morocco’s largest city with 8 of Morocco’s 33 million people. Of that 33, 40% are under the age of 15. Casablanca  has the largest port, airport and is also the technological center of the country – and thus is in direct opposition to the exotic scenes we were seeking.  In fact the huge satellite dishes on every rooftop, didn’t add much to the enchantment. They have planted groves of eucalyptus trees hoping to dial back the air pollution that technological advances seem to bring along. Although the city dates back to the time of the Phoenicians, progress has cast much of the historic architecture aside, although the occasional donkey cart here or a traditional headdress there give hints of what used to be. The French are responsible for most of this commercial success including building the port, where today ships haul phosphate (Morocco’s chief mineral export) brought in by the trainload, to the rest of the world. Since Morocco has 75% of the world’s phosphate, it is understandably big business. We were charmed by the orange trees laden with fruit lining the streets, but were told they are only good for marmalade, not snacking, which is probably why the trees are still laden.

Casablanca translates as white house in Spanish, and indeed the Spaniards once ruled here, along with just about every other country in  Western Europe and the Middle East.  The notable exception was that Morocco was the only Arab country that did not fall to the Ottomans, possibly because it is so remote from Istanbul, they didn’t think it worth the effort.  The architecture is predominately Art Deco with a strong French Influence, but many modern more non-descript buildings dominate the city today

We only had a few short hours in Casablanca and did a quick drive through  the city.  We drove though the historic Anfa neighborhood where Churchill and Roosevelt had met in January of 1943 at the Hotel d’Anfa and made decisions regarding the invasion at Normandy. It is believed that the Germans got wind of the conference, but interpreted Casablanca to mean the White House in Washington DC and missed the opportunity to either spy or kill the leaders of the Allies.  The actual building where they met has been torn down, but there are many from that era lining the quiet residential streets. This is where the upper class of Casablanca live, or at least have houses. The list includes a prince of Kuwait and the King of Saudi Arabia, whose palace has its own mosque and whose walls span blocks and blocks. This neighborhood is a pretty sharp contrast to the crumbling and weathered neighborhoods in much of the city that look like they could use a new paint job.  There is a lot of new residential construction, but much of it appears to be projects that are making very slow progress. In addition to palavering with Churchill, Roosevelt pledged to sultan of Morocco at the time, Mohammed V, that the US would back Morocco in their quest for independence from France if Morocco would support the Allies.  The movement for independence led by Mohammed V came to be known as the Istiqlal, but this idea took some getting used to on many fronts and in many ways.

The Treaty of Algeciras in 1906 cooked up by the European Super Powers of the day had divided up North Africa – an area that the conquering Arabs centuries ago called the Maghreb (which means west in Arabic. The area that is Morocco today was called Maghreb el-Aqsa , which translates as the Far West). England got Egypt, Spain and France got what is today Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Morocco. The Germans  got a few meager pieces here and there as well. The treaty called for a sultan to remain in place in Morocco, but he would be controlled mostly by France. The sultan was actually deposed in 1953 and his son prudently went into exile.   But in 1956, the French Protectorate ceased to exist and Independence came to Morocco. They have been a staunch American ally ever since.

A Grandpa and Grandson in Casablancca

A Grandpa and Grandson in Casablanca

Archeology suggests that this area has been inhabited for 40,000 years and has been a crossroads between Egypt, Africa and the Middle East for centuries. The people here are of Berber, Arab and African descent and became Muslim during the 7th Century. There were a whole host of sultans or moulays ( a title meaning Prince or Lord) and ruling families that came and went, but when a particularly weak one named Moulay Abdel Aziz came to the throne in 1894, he managed to generate a great deal of debt with France (who already had a presence in neighboring Algeria and Tunisia). And so in 1906 the Treaty of

 

Western Fashions Making Inroads in Casablanca

Western Fashion Meets Traditional  in Casablanca

Algeciras was signed, Morocco was opened to International trade, and all sorts of squabbles ensued. The bottom line was that France declared the country a protectorate in 1912, although it took over 20 years to get everyone under control – and thus the many stories of the French Foreign Legion were born.  France kept up the “protection” up until 1956. Today the king is Mohammed VI, who is a very modern king.  He is the grandson of Mohammed V and the son of Hassan II. He reportedly married for love, and was the first monarch in Moroccan history whose wife appeared in public. And while multiple wives are legal here, almost no one observes that particular custom any more, including the king.

We drove along what is termed the Corniche d’ Ain Diab, which parallels the ocean and  had a quick walk along a boardwalk that had been  a booming tourist destination with clubs and restaurants, but it had recently been hit by a severe North Atlantic  storm  that some termed a tsunami and was mostly in ruins. They hoped to get it back together for the summer season, but there wasn’t a lot going on to make that happen while we were there.  We had a glass of wine and learned that a toast in Arabic – the equivalent to “cheers”,  is  Bisaha, Pronounced Bee-sah-ha with the accent on “sah”.

The Hassan II Mosque

The Hassan II Mosque

In the distance we could see the enormous King Hassan II Mosque which is the third largest in the world, and as we drew closer it did indeed loom large. This mosque is the only one in Morocco which non-Muslims can enter. It was completed in 1993 and is a marvelous structure of marble, bronze, tile, cedar, onyx and granite. Thirty-five thousand craftsmen worked on the structure. They have the highest minaret in the world, at 656 feet high, which can send a laser beam toward Mecca that can be seen for 18 miles. Per Islamic law, a mosque is strictly for prayers, and a sermons based on the Koran. There are no

A Side Entrance to the  Hassan II Mosque

An Entrance to the Hassan II Mosque

weddings or funerals or other ceremonies as found in Christian churches.  This mosque has a retractable roof and  was built at a cost of $80 million, for which the king asked all Moroccans to donate. We suspect there were a lot of takers since it was the king who was “asking”.  The prayer hall can hold 25,000 men, the women’s gallery can hold another 5,000 more and the square outside can hold another 40,000. It is built on the seawall, but sustained no damage from the recent storm. The El Hank lighthouse, built by the French in 1916, is visible on a distant point which dims (literally and figuratively) by comparison to the minaret and mosque.

Today religion is taught in school as a subject, but not as a mandatory brainwashing class. The country is 98% Muslim,  with Christians and Jews making up the other 2%.  There is a madrasa (aka medersa) attached to the mosque,  intended as a center for Koranic study, but with the interests of young people growing increasingly Westernized, it is used very little.

The OAT Bus

The OAT Bus

We drove to Rabat, one of 4 ancient Imperial Cities ( a place where the king establishes his official capital) in Morocco. The other 3 are Meknes, Fes and Marrakech.  Like Casablanca, it is a seaport and is also the financial and intellectual center of the country. On our way we learned another phrase that we would hear daily as our guide told us the plan for the day or the next day, which is Ensha Allah (pronounced as one word In-shah-lah with the accent on “shah” which means God willing.  Muslim people are always humble in this regard.  I.E. God can change your plans at any time without notice, so don’t go getting too sure of yourself.

We checked into the hotel – the Belere Urban Rabat, and had a few hours of free time. Gary and I took a walk to explore a bit.  We rapidly came to the conclusion that we had best wait for the guided tour since we saw very little that was interesting or exotic. Our first clue should have been the Urban in the hotel’s name. We did comment that Rabat’s buildings, like those in Casablanca, could benefit from a good coat of paint. We met our fellow travelers – 14 others, all Americans and had an orientation and dinner.

February 19, 2014

Dateline: Rabat

We started our day with breakfast, one of the highlights being freshly squeezed orange juice, but of course this being a Muslim country, we had to forgo the bacon, but this being a former French protectorate, the pastries were excellent. We had a brief Arabic lesson in a few basics: good morning is sabah el kheer, and good evening is massa el kheer.  Hello is salam aleekum, to which one should reply aleekum salam, which is sort of “hello back at you”.  We also learned to say thank you which is shukran, which along with a warm smile goes a long way here.

The Medina Walls Rabat

The Medina Walls Rabat

Rabat is now the capital of Morocco, moved here from Fes by the French when they arrived. The other three of the four Imperial Cities (places where the reigning king has declared his capital) are Fes, Meknes and Marrakech, which we will also visit. An imperial city is an architectural complex to house and protect the king, his courtiers and members of the royal household. The city of Rabat takes its name from the word “ribat” which is a fortified monastery.

 

 

The Anadalusian Wall - Rabat

The Andalusian Wall – Rabat

Rabat is an ancient city, dating back to the 10th Century when it was established by Berbers from the Atlas Mountains.  The Berbers are more or less like Native Americans before the Europeans came, but in the case of Morocco the “newcomers” were the Arabs and Central Africans, such as the Tuaregs from Mali. Unlike in America, the original people, the Berbers, are still a large portion of the population.  There was much more assimilation than annihilation here in Morocco.  Berber is still spoken, but the official languages are Arabic and French.

 

The Gate of the Royal Palace

The Gate of the Royal Palace

Our first stop was Rabat’s Royal Palace, where entered the grounds via the Gate of the Ambassadors.  This palace is one of the current king’s (Mohammed VI), but is used more for ceremonies than as a residence. We did not get to go inside, in fact Morocco is not geared up for Palace tours for the most part, but we did admire it from outside. In perhaps a small concession to tourism, we were able to photograph the guards to the palace, but were cautioned this is verboten at other palaces and government buildings and we were further cautioned to keep our distance, so as not to be confused with extremist tourist/terrorists. They still refer to their local policemen as “gendarmes”, a hold-over from the days of the French Protectorate. We also saw a few of the “King’s Men” who were not guards, but could  be distinguished as employees by their clothing.  They wear a white jellaba, which is a long (like between mid-calf and ankle), loose fitting  robe/shirt over white trousers with a yellow fez and yellow Aladdin-type slippers.

Rabat is a walled city at least three times over, with walls built by a series of conquerors. The first was around the kasbah (which is a fortified residence whether a simple house or palace).

The Moroccan Treasury

The Moroccan Treasury

There are walls around the city center called the medina (pronounced Mah-deen-ah) and what is termed the Andalusian Wall since it was built by Spanish Muslim refugees. It was built to better defend the medina and it separates the newer part of town from the old medina. We also did a drive-by of the treasury their version of the Pentagon which is called the Ministry of Defense, and we saw one of the most impressive gates in the city called the Gate of the Winds (Bab ar Rouah).  Bab is the Arabic word for gate.

 

Ruins of the Chellah Necropolis

Ruins of the Chellah Necropolis

From there we traveled a short distance to Chellah, a 14th Century  necropolis (a.k.a. mausoleum), used by  the ruling dynasty at the time called the Merinids, but Chellah was built on the ruins of a First Century  Roman town called Sala Colonia, whose scant  ruins can be seen if you know (or are told) just where to look.  The first Merinid Caliph (king), started a mosque here along with a burial site for his wife which more or less got the necropolis started, but the mosque was never completed and began to deteriorate over the years. It was further damaged with  a catastrophic earthquake in 1755 (the same one that

 

Ruins of the Roman Baths at Chellah

Ruins of the Roman Baths at Chellah

destroyed Lisbon).   There were ablution facilities here for the ritual washing required before the 5 times a day prayers.  The ritual is to dip your right hand into the water and wash your face and hands 3 times, head and ears 1 time and feet one time. The left hand is never used since it is reserved for other things sometimes not so sanitary, so dipping this hand is not allowed.  Strict Muslims also only eat with the right hand as well.

The necropolis is also the site of several marabouts which are shrines to holy men that are scattered about the gardens. It was abandoned at the end of the Merinid era and was ransacked

 

A Marabout in the Chellah

A Marabout in the Chellah

several times over the centuries and the ablution pond morphed into a Fertility Pond of sorts.  Legend had it that barren women could bathe in this pool and feed eggs to the eels who had somehow taken up residence there and it would somehow make them fertile.  If you should have found yourself at the fountain with no eggs, they could be purchased from young boys selling them nearby. We decided there might be something to that fertility business since it was certainly working for the cats.  There were kittens and pregnant cats everywhere.

 

The Fertility Pool at the Chellah

The Fertility Pool at the Chellah

There was also a medersa a (religious school for Koranic studies) here, also now in ruins.  Chellah is a beautiful site, built on a terrace of land on the Bou Regreg Wadi ( a wadi is a river) with vegetation running riot among the ruins, some wild, some cultivated and now gone wild, including an  interesting plant called Jewish Myrtle, also known as Butcher’s Broom.

The highlight of this stop for us was seeing and hearing the nesting storks, which come down here for the winter from Europe. As we walked the grounds we heard a tremendous clacking that

 

Nesting Storks

Nesting Storks

we soon ascertained came from the storks banging their bills together as part of their mating ritual.  It was apparent from the noise that “love was in the air”.  Looking up, we saw there were hundreds of pairs mating and nesting in every nook and cranny among the ruins.

 

 

 

The Mausoleum of Mahammed V

The Mausoleum of Mohammed V

We visited the very elaborate Mausoleum of Mohammed V, the grandfather of the current king. He is considered the Father of Independence for Morocco, sort of a Moroccan George Washington. It includes a solid marble sarcophagus, a tile work fountain, stained glass windows and intricate designs and calligraphy in marble and plaster.  The 12 sided carved mahogany dome is one of the highlights, featuring painted muquarnas, which are carved appendages that hang down from the ceiling like stalactites.

 

 the Ruins of the Hassan Mosque and Prayer Hall


the Ruins of the Hassan Mosque and Prayer Hall

On the same stop we visited the Hassan Tower dating from 1196. It was intended to serve as the minaret to a huge mosque, but was never finished and everything but the minaret was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755. It was from this tower that Mohammed V conducted the first prayers after independence was declared.

We went back along the city walls to the medina, through the Bab Oudaia and to the Kasbah of the same name (which is pronounced Owe-dye-yah). This one was built in the 12th Century to garrison troops to defend the city against rebel tribes.

 

The Lighthouse at Rabat from the Oudaia

The Lighthouse at Rabat from the Oudaia Signal Station

We took in the sweeping view of the Atlantic at the Oudaia Signal station, built by the ruling sultan in the 18th Century and then took a stroll in the kasbah The houses of the kasbah today are from the 17th Century and are all lime-washed in blue and white.  We spent a few minutes exploring the narrow lanes, where walking two abreast takes up the whole street and then we had wonderful fish-kebabs at a beach front restaurant called Borj Eddar.

 

 

 

The Streets of the Ribat Casbah

The Streets of the Ribat Casbah

We had the afternoon on our own and so we headed to the medina, now that we knew where to find it, and this was much more rewarding than our stroll from yesterday. We were seeking the exotic and we found it in spades. We found a rather mild protest in progress across from the Moroccan Parliament, and the subject, we gathered, was the lack of jobs. Leaving the civil disobedience behind, we stopped at a patisserie, another holdover from the French, and bought some excellent cookies.

Once in the medina we found the narrow streets of the souk (market)  filled with life. We stopped to marvel at an orange seller

A doorway in Rabat's Medina

A doorway in Rabat’s Medina

who had a small pickup bed attached to his motorcycle.  We asked to by a few oranges and he put a dozen in our bag for approximately 40 cents.  We would find that souks  thrive in every city and town throughout Morocco. Everything imaginable was for sale here – both goods and services. There were spices, olives, sunglasses, pastries, shoe repairs, haircuts and all manner of household goods. Gary bought a baseball cap with the Moroccan flag on it with a red background with a green 5 pointed star – and began wearing it, and this gesture seemed to generate an endless stream of smiles and welcomes. One young man we met, whom we assumed did not speak English merely touched the hat and touched his heart and smiled, letting us know, or so we assumed, that he appreciated our embrace of his country. We found this warmth and gracious welcome repeatedly in the days that followed.

There was an elderly blind man walking along chanting what we took to be Koranic verses and taking donations, which we would assume would be readily given since charity to the poor is one of the 5 “Pillars” of the Muslim faith.  Many of the men in the souk were wearing jellabas,  and with the late afternoon turning chilly, we noticed for the first time a particular feature of the Moroccan jellaba and that is the hood. We suddenly saw hooded men everywhere, and not just any hood, but a pointed Ku Klux Klan kind of hood. Fortunately they were not white, faces were not covered and there were no burning torches at hand, but seeing the silhouette did give us pause. The fabrics ranged from very rough brown nubby  cloth to fine wool in the more upscale hoodies.

On the way back to the hotel we met a group of Maroc Telecom employees selling mobile phone service out on the sidewalk of their building. Again the Moroccan hat started the conversation.  Finding out we were Americans, they all came over to practice their English and to welcome us to Morocco. To a person they all said they love Americans and their dream is to go there someday, and they gave us all sorts of tips on what to see and do in their country.

We met Jaafar for drinks at a local bar before our Welcome Dinner. A bar is an oddity in Morocco since most Muslims don’t drink for religious reasons, but it is not against the law. This wasn’t really a cocktails kind of bar – there was mostly beer and wine.  The wine was Moroccan, all red or rose  and it was quite good – again we see the hand of the French at work. Wine vineyards were  here during the French Protectorate and have been brought  back,  given the more relaxed laws regarding wine consumption that exist today. The beer was also local, with a choice of  Casablanca or Speciale, and the beer drinkers in our group pronounced it tasty. Jaafar told us that women in a bar such as this would be assumed to be “loose”,  but we assumed that because we were so obviously foreign, we might just be considered odd. We also stopped at liquor store (another oddity in a Muslim country) to buy some wine to have for the Saharan part of our journey. The way it was explained to us, it is not illegal for Moroccans to drink, but wine shops and liquor stores cannot sell wine to Moroccans 3 days before Ramadan or during the 40 days of Ramadan. They can sell to non-Muslims at any time.

A Colorful Display of Olives at a Local Souk

A Colorful Display of Olives at a Local Souk

We had another walk through the souk to go to dinner and we noticed there was even more activity than we saw that afternoon  with hundreds of people thronging the narrow passageways.  There were rolling carts mounded with fresh strawberries, artichokes, eggplant, pastries, and  dates.  Makeshift shops sold clothes, shoes, toys and cell phones. Butcher shop business had really picked up since the afternoon with fresh sides of beef and lamb quarters hanging in open doorways amid a flurry of slicing and chopping.

Our welcome dinner was a four course extravaganza at a restaurant in the medina. It started with a vegetable appetizer featuring carrots, eggplant, pumpkin and zucchini. The second course was a giant calzone sort of thing filled with chicken seasoned with honey and cinnamon. The third course was lamb served with apricots and plums and then the grand finale was a baklava type pastry, liberally laced with honey.  We waddled back to the hotel and more or less collapsed under our own weight.

February 20, 2014

Dateline Volubilis, Meknes and Fes

Latitude at Fes 34.16 Degrees North, 5.0 degrees West

The Countryside Near Meknes

The Countryside Near Meknes

We left Rabat right after breakfast driving east toward Meknes, another of the Imperial Cities. We made a stop to see a grove of cork trees and had a brief tutorial on the product. The cork is taken only from the bark which is cut off the trunk in slices and corks are cut out much like cookies. The cuts are made parallel to the length of the strip of bark since they need to be much longer than wide in diameter. Trees are harvested in 9 to 12 year intervals.  They only use the lower part of the tree since the cork (bark) gets thinner the higher up the trunk you go.  We re-boarded the bus and passed one of the king’s country residences, one where he actually lives at least part of the time. There was not much to see except miles of wall. The countryside was beautiful with the Rif Mountains to the north. In the valleys we saw sheep herders with grazing flocks amid yellow and orange wild flowers. We travelled through eucalyptus forests, vineyards, olive groves and apricot, almond and plum orchards in bloom as we approached the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains. Four major rivers flow north from these mountains that keep this area verdant.

Yemena, Our New Berber  Friend

Yemena, Our New Berber Friend

We made a stop at a roadside stand selling eggs, jujuba beans, and olive oil with live chickens and turkeys milling about. We visited with the proprietor, a local woman named Yemena , who invited us into her house just across the road, where she made, along with a helper from our group, an omelet from fresh eggs, seasoned with thyme for us to sample. It was beyond delicious. We also met her granddaughter who is in college studying to be a lawyer. One of the things we like about OAT is that they make arrangements for us to meet so many local people and really do expose us to the culture. Jaafar said he wants us to use our 5

 

Yemena's Kitchen

Yemena’s Kitchen

senses to explore Morocco – and we certainly did that here. Yemena’s  house was understandably modest, but impeccably clean. She was recently widowed and had sold her cow because it was too much work for her alone. When we left she hugged each of us and waved to us from her roadside stand until we were out of sight.   We felt this sort of warmth and hospitality of the Moroccan people everywhere we went.

 

 

 

Ancient Walls of Meknes

Ancient Walls of Meknes

We drove to Meknes, the center of agriculture in Morocco, a UNESCO site, through the Thursday Gate, one several huge gates that control access to the walled city (the medina) finding streets lined with orange trees and awash with activity, one of many scenes we would see in the coming days that could have come right out of the movie, Beau Geste . This city was established in the 10th Century and was only an insignificant village until Moulay Ismail came into power in the 17th Century. He built it into a magnificent royal complex, now called the Dar el-Kebira Quarter. The term quarter (hawma in Arabic) describes  a loosely defined area within the medina, similar to a neighborhood, most often with either an ethnic or nationality designation.  Here the moulay had double defensive walls, gates, cisterns, ramparts, mosques and his own walled kasbah within the city walls. Despite his  his 55 year reign, it still was not completed.   His casbah was 4 times the size of the medina, but today it is in ruins and shanties have taken over where the sultans reception rooms, harems, kitchens, mosques and living quarters once stood.

Gates of the old Medina in Meknes

Gates of the old Medina in Meknes

The sultan allied himself with King Louis XIV of France in hopes of help with  getting Spain out of Morocco, although the French King declined to get involved.  Ismail also requested the hand in marriage of Louis XIV’s cousin, but that request was denied as well.  Perhaps sensing this alliance might not prove useful, Ismail also maintained a large and powerful army recruited from native tribesmen, Christian renegades and black slaves and mercenaries called abid. The latter were formed into a regiment called the Black Guard whose only duty was to protect the sultan.  The English word, “blackguard” meaning a scoundrel or disreputable persons comes from Ismail’s special guard. Ismail also brought in 16,000 black African slaves and married them to local Berber women.  The sons of these unions provided soldiers for Ismail once they reached 15 years of age. There was once a large population of Jews here, but according to Jaafar, many of them emigrated to Israel once it was established. There remains an old school and cemetery, but there are not many Jews left here.

The Stables of Ismail Moulay

The Stables of Ismail Moulay

Our first stop was to visit Heri es-Souani, the huge granary with 29 aisles and thick walls, and the 12,000 horse stables built by the sultan Moulay Ismail, as part of his fortified capital complex.   Granaries were the prime site for pillaging in those days, since often attackers were looking for food. Ismail’s intention was to store enough grain for a 35 year siege. Construction was on a huge scale requiring the labor of thousands of slaves and Ismail’s brutal tyranny was legendary.  It was said that he vigilantly monitored workers and if he perceived any to be lazy slackers, he would personally lop off their heads and have them sealed up in the walls.  Sometimes when he wanted to send a message, he would have the lopped head of his latest offender hung at the gates of the city. His architect, Mansour, who designed the beautiful city gates met this particular fate when Ismail asked him if it were possible for him to build a more beautiful gate than the ones at Meknes. When Mansour answered yes (wrong answer), Ismail lopped of his head to ensure that there would be no gates more beautiful than his.  The granary and stables suffered extensive damage in the 1755 earthquake, but have been restored.

Tagines for Sale at the Meknes Souk

Tagines for Sale at the Meknes Souk

We enjoyed a short walk through the souk, prior to which we were warned against “teeves”, which we eventually worked out to mean  thieves or pickpockets. While we had no criminal encounters,  the souk  was anything but dull.  We figured this walk would do little to work up our appetite since we noticed that at the butcher shops, there are no parts that go to waste and nothing is too grotesque to  display.  There is something about seeing a skinned cows head that you would think would suppress the appetite; on the other hand, there were some very artfully displayed spices and the fruit and vegetables looked very

 

Spice Art at the Meknes Souk

Spice Art at the Meknes Souk

appetizing so we were able to put aside the less tasteful images and enjoy our lunch in local restaurant called the Hotel Salma and ate heartily of soup, kebabs and mint tea. Tea was introduced in Morocco by the British in 1854 and is now ubiquitous, even in the most remote areas of the country.

Walking back to our bus, we noticed a lot of maintenance work going on about the walls of the city, but in a very low tech way. Concrete is mixed by hand with not even the benefit of a wheel barrow.   Instead the workers  made a depression in a sand pile, added water to create a pool and mixed in a little lime and combined all ingredients with a shovel. Then they carried it to the spot where it was needed in  the shovel and spread it around with that same shovel.  It looks like job security will not be an issue for these workers –this project could last their entire lifetime.

Asphodel in Bloom at Volubilis

Asphodel in Bloom at Volubilis

Leaving Meknes  we drove north to Volubilis, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of best preserved Roman archeological sites in North Africa, despite looting of building materials by Moulay Ismael to build Meknes. The name “volubilis” means morning glory in Latin, and while we did not see any of those in bloom, we did see acres of blooming asphodel  which gave the ruins a quite pastoral look.  We met our guide for this site, Rashid, who gave us an extensive and very interesting tour.

 

 

The countryside Around Volubilis

The countryside Around Volubilis

The Romans called this area Mauretania Tingitana and found it to be a veritable Garden of Eden and proceeded to set about farming to provide massive amounts of food for the Empire. Volubilis was first built and settled in the Third Century BC, and was occupied for the next several hundred years. In 45 A.D. Emperor Claudius granted the Volubilis the status of municipia (free town) and it thrived until Rome withdrew from the area in the Third Century A.D.  We set out on foot to explore the extensive ruins. Volubilis was built in the classic style with a forum, a basilica, temples, a  covered marketplace called the macellum

 

Among the Ancient Ruins of Volubilis

Among the Ancient Ruins of Volubilis

and capitol with a wide main boulevard called the decumanus maximus, linking the Tangier gate to a huge triumphal arch built in 21 A.D. to honor Emperor Caracalla. It beautifully frames the fertile fields and olive groves beyond.  The forum was the center of public life and a meeting place to conduct business. The basilica was the meeting place for the Senate, known as the curia. In the capitol public rites were performed to honor the Roman gods.

 

 

Mosaic at a Well-to-do Roman's Residence

Mosaic at a Well-to-do Roman’s Residence

The large number of elegant residences with intact mosaics of classical scenes are indicative of a wealthy and aristocratic populace. The houses are named for the most prominent existing feature, most often a mosaic on the floor, such as the House of the Bathing Nymphs or The house of the Labors of Hercules. There is also much evidence of daily life such as bakeries, an oil press, aqueducts and public baths and toilets. The walls of the city encompass a huge area, 4.3 million square feet, but only the center of the city has been excavated.

 

Village of Moulay Idriss

Village of Moulay Idriss

There were panoramic views in every direction and we particularly liked seeing in the distance the holy city of Moulay Idriss, with its pure white buildings spilling down the hillside to the south and the Rif Mountains and Mount Zerhoun to the north.

Leaving Volubilis we continued driving east to  Fes (a.k.a Fez like the hat). It was dark when we arrived to check into our hotel which is called a riad, which is a style of building constructed around a courtyard with a fountain. Our riad had been a  Moroccan home refurbished into a hotel, comparable to a B&B.

Tea at the Riad

Tea at the Riad

Our riad was not handy to any main roads and so we walked up,significantly up, to it along narrow lanes, twisting and turning several times. Once we found it, the Hotel Riad Fes Bali was thoroughly charming. It was a 72 year old house which at one time housed 31 people, back in the days when multiple generations live together, and those 31 shared two bathrooms.  It has since been remodeled into 24 guest rooms, each with its own bathroom. Each room had its own name – ours was called Zorah.  We had dinner at the riad and had an interesting conversation with the owner’s daughter and 2 other young girls about to graduate from high school – all very proficient in English.

February 21, 2014

Dateline: Fes

Hauling Propane in Fes

Hauling Propane in Fes

We left the hotel to walk to our bus for the day’s activities – the same path we followed last night, but in the morning light there we could see far more details. The directions would be ”Proceed through charming narrow stone streets downhill through various twists and turns to the overloaded dumpster and turn right at the dead cat. Can’t miss it – just follow your nose.” Our mission was to explore Fes ( we pronounced it “Fez”, but Jaafar pronounced is “Fess” ) and, dead cat notwithstanding,  the city was charming.

 

Mohammed at the Souk

Mohammed at the Souk

We met our local city guide, a gentleman named Mohammed, one of countless Mohammeds we would meet in Morocco, dressed in the ubiquitous jellaba of Morocco with the pointy KKK hood. However, since the morning was warm and sunny, the ominous hood remained folded in the “harmless person” position.  We did see several non-hoodie garments, more like tunics for sale in the markets   and were told these are called caftans. They are generally worn by women, the plain ones for wearing at home and the fancier ones with lots of embroidery or bling for wearing on feast days. The kaftan may be accessorized with velvet slippers called

Local Ladies Shopping at the Souk

Local Ladies Shopping at the Souk

cherbils embroidered with gold thread, and with the curved and pointy Aladdin toes. The lady might further accessorize with a mansourya, a light transparent garment to be worn over the caftan ( a scarf-like effect).  Feast days are usually religious, such as the Muslim New Year  or Mouloud, the anniversary of the birth of Mohammed.  The Muslim calendar is 11 days shorter than ours and thus the celebrations are not on a fixed date.

 

 

The Medina Walls of Fes

The Medina Walls of Fes

The center of the city is the ancient medina – another UNESCO World Heritage site and the religious center of Morocco, dating from medieval times and it is  very well preserved.  This, however, is not the oldest part of the city. That honor goes to two separate towns built on the hills above the current medina in 789 A.D. These towns later united under the name Karaouiyine and grew rapidly by taking in hundreds of Muslim families expelled from Cordoba, Spain, thus becoming the center for the “ Arabization” of Morocco. In 1250 Fes became an Imperial City when the ruling sultan chose it to be his capital.  It kept this honor until 1666 when the infamous Moulay Ismail came to power and decided to move the whole royalty gig to Meknes.

The Souk in the Medina - Fes

The Souk in the Medina – Fes

The medina is densely packed and has a maze of narrow streets and alleyways, reportedly numbering 9,000. It is one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world and would be a challenge even for a Smart Car. Every one of the 9,000 streets are full of unusual shops, bizarre bazaars, tiny cafes and fascinating people. Every inch of space is utilized for something. It is laid out in the typical medina pattern which calls for protective walls, gates and watchtowers encircling it, a few relatively wide avenues leading from the gates to the heart of the medina where the most important mosque is located. Houses and workplaces are not co-locaated

The Doors to the Royal Palace at Fes

The Doors to the Royal Palace at Fes

We first strolled to Fes el-Jedid which was primarily a Kasbah (fortified residence) in its day, built in 1276.  We stopped at the Royal Palace to admire the ornate doors, but there are no tourists allowed inside and so we moved on to the endlessly fascinating sights, sounds and smells of the medina. Jaafar treated us to Moroccan doughnuts called sfenj at a stand just outside the city wall.  They were delicious – a fried dough with an egg (sort of an Egg McDonut) , more like the fried dough at the State Fair than Krispy Kreme. We explored the Jewish quarter called the Mellah which is filled with Andalusian architecture  dating back to the 14th Century,  and what is termed the New Quarter, even though it dates back to the 13th Century.  We noticed an array of colorful djellabas here, not just the drab colors we observed in Rabat, often worn with the hood back replaced by a baseball cap for headwear. For footwear, the women in particular don  colorful to downright garish socks worn with chunky, Croc sort of shoes.  Not much Prada or Jimmy Choo can be seen on the streets of this Moroccan city. We would return later this afternoon for a more intensive exploration.

Above Fes

Above Fes

We took a drive on a road up above the city to get a panoramic view of the city sprawled out in the narrow valley below us and the old ruins of the ancient cities and tombs up on the hill tops across the valley.  Fes has two million people, 25% of which live in the old medina amid the souks and 320 mosques.

We then visited a local ceramics workshop –where everything is done by hand from the potter’s wheel to the painting to the firing and they also make hand-cut and hand-laid mosaics.  We bought

 

Craftsmen Making Mosaics

Craftsmen Making Mosaics

a modest size piece of pottery for our library at home and then it was back to the medina for more exploration of the souks and lunch.  We walked a circuitous path through the various souks, grouped by products or services, and located with a particular hierarchy determined by the value placed on their craft and/or goods for sale.  The most prestigious is the kissaria which is at the exact center of the souk which offers high quality jewelry, fine silks and brocades and other luxury items.  Many of the shops are highly specialized selling, for example, only slippers or henna or spices.  None of them would you mistake for  an American mall store.

The Karayouine Mosque

The Karaouyine Mosque

We also got a peek at one of the most iconic mosques in Fes, the Karaouiyine, just the faithful were answering the call to prayer. Well actually we saw the courtyard and ablutions fountain. The doorways to the interior are protected by mashrabiyyas (wooden screens) to protect those praying from the prying eye of the gawking tourists. The mosque is located in the very heart of the medina and was established in 859 A.D. with funds provided by a wealthy Muslim woman. It is considered to be one of the chief centers for spiritual and intellectual learning and is the site of the Muslim University of Fes. Mosques as a rule are both civic and social structures and can serve as a center for learning, a tribunal, a place of asylum or simply a meeting place. This mosque is quite large in that its prayer hall has 14 entrances can hold 20,000 with 16 aisles lit by 12th Century candelabras, but they are often much smaller and more humble.

Fondouk el Najjarine

Fondouk el Najjarine

From the mosque we had a quick look at the Fondouk el-Nejjarine and its elegant fountain out front.  A fondouk is a structure also known as a caravanserai which provided food, rest and shelter to caravans of traders and their animals passing through. Since the traders frequently had both money and expensive goods, the fondouks provided a secure place to spend the night.  We did not visit, but were told of a place now called the American Fondouk which is now a veterinary hospital.  It was an old fondouk bought by a wealthy American woman in the 1920’s who loved donkeys (the much over-worked beast of burden of choice in the medina), and decided to set up a free clinic to take care of them. Her clinic still serves the medina today.

Leather Goods at the Souk

Leather Goods at the Souk

We stopped for lunch in the medina at the Nejjarine restaurant and had an excellent tagine (the name of the contents and the serving dish) of a stew made of meat  and vegetables along with mint tea and fresh fruit.  We would grow tired of tagine in the coming days, but at this point, we still found it wonderful. After such a large meal, a nap would have been good, but we still had more souks to see and so we pressed on to the Chouara, the Tanners’ Quarter. Our first stop was a fabulous leather shop with the most wonderful jackets, purses and other leather work imaginable.

 

The Tannery in the Fes Medina

The Tannery in the Fes Medina

We were to go see the tanneries next, which we understood would have the most awful smell imaginable and so the thoughtful shopkeeper gave each of us a large sprig of mint to hold up to our noses. Our tannery host told us that they call them Moroccan Gas Masks.  We initially thought that was really unnecessary, but it proved to be entirely necessary.  We climbed probably 4 steep flights of stairs which took us to a vantage point to see down into the tannery below. Here animal hides underwent the process of removal or hair and flesh  and a softening soak,

 

Drying Hides at the Tannery

Drying Hides at the Tannery

followed by drying, rinsing and dyeing (all natural from plants and minerals, mind you)  before being  handed over to leatherworkers.  We saw it all – a series of stone vats full of colorful dyes and series of pits full of something malodorous that we were told involves pigeon poop where the skins soak to soften them.  (Although the guide books simply refer to  a “fatty solution”  and mention the use of tree bark in the tanning process – which sounds at little more appealing).There were piles and piles of all manner of corpses skinned and  ready to be skinned – camel, cow, sheep, goat – alongside stacks of hides stripped of fur ready for the vats.  The drying areas can be anything from rooftops to hillsides to cemeteries – anywhere there is a surface large enough. It was amazing to behold and quite an eye-opener for those of us who love our luxurious leather.  It is not something you want to think about while you are fondling a butter soft leather jacket.

Souk Teamster in Fes

Souk Teamster in Fes

From the tannery we had a quick stop at the El-Attarine  Medersa, built in the 1300’s by the ruling sultan at the time. It is a typical Muslim school with a courtyard, an ablutions fountain, a prayer hall and student rooms looking onto the courtyard.  The medersa was primarily a religious college, which at one time was restricted to religious learning, but was later expanded to include law, science and the arts. The medersas of Fes were considered to be the Ivy League of Morocco, whose alumni include the greatest scholars of the country.

 

Weaving with Agave Silk

Weaving with Agave Silk

Our last stop was a weaver’s shop.  Rather than using silkworms, they derive silk from the aloe plant and make beautiful scarves and  fabric for clothing. It makes a lighter silk than silkworms and takes color beautifully and our group made a flurry of purchases.

At this point we felt we had been drinking from a fire hose with entirely too much to take in and so we were looking forward to a relaxed dinner. We had a home hosted dinner where we split up into groups of 4.  Our host (another Mohammed) was a farmer with 300 acres who raised cattle grew several crops including olives.  He gave us samples of his own olive oil from his trees.  We are accustomed to tasting olive oil with a chunk of bread, but he  gave us spoons and we downed it like cough syrup, but it was much more tasty. We thought it interesting that his wife did not join us – she was very cordial and served us, but did not eat with us. For dinner we had a tasty soup with noodles, rice with beef meatballs and flan, which is also called junket.  We learned that OAT provides the menu and the grocery money so the guests can be assured of getting a meal they can deal with (e.g. sheep brains might send us running for the exits).

It appeared almost all of the artwork on the walls of our hosts was Arabic Calligraphy.  There was a verse from the Koran which Mohammed  translated for us (it is amazing how Biblical it sounded) . In another frame was the nation’s motto: God, Country, Family.  Islam forbids all figurative representation (e.g. humans, animals, anything created by God) and so calligraphy is employed for decorative purposes, as well as for Koranic manuscripts.  A popular calligraphy project is to undertake the writing of the 99 different names of Allah. Calligraphy, as opposed to more common handwriting is considered to be in keeping with the stature of Allah.

February 22, 2014

Dateline Erfoud

Latitude   31.26 degrees North, Longitude 5.0 degrees West

The Sanitation Donkey

The Sanitation Donkey

We are leaving Fes today with some regret, having found it charming in every respect, even at the overflowing dumpster that has assaulted our nostrils each morning when we boarded our bus. Today we saw a donkey laden with baskets of garbage, being led forward to the trash heap to unload.  The garbage would have been tossed into the dumpster had it been empty, but since this was not the case, it was tossed more or less at the dumpster. The garbage men had bright orange and yellow jumpsuits so they are easily visible, but the poor donkey has no such protection.

One of the things we had noticed about the cities we had seen so far is the abundance of partially finished houses. Jaafar told us that many people here do not get home loans, and so they build as they can afford it. Many people work in Europe and come back with money to continue building, but they are only allowed 5 tax-free years to complete their homes – after that they are taxed.

Snow in the Middle Atlas Mountains

Snow in the Middle Atlas Mountains

We left Fes for our 9 hour trip, heading south to Erfoud, billed as the Gateway to the Sahara through rolling hills filled with apple orchards. A note here: many refer to it as the Sahara Desert, but this is redundant since the word “sahara” means desert already.  The road ran across the Middle Atlas Mountain range, (there is also a High and a Low Atlas Range)  where we were amazed to see local kids sledding and having snowball fights as we wound through densely wooded groves of pine and cedar. While we were not expecting mountains comparable to the Rockies, this beautiful scenery was not at all expected in our musings on

 

Ifrane - the Bavarian Village

Ifrane – the Bavarian Village

Morocco.  We crossed over a pass at 6,000 feet to descend to the edge of the Sahara.  The scenery on this route is really breathtaking.  We made a brief comfort stop in the town of Ifrane which was built by a Frenchman in 1929. It was designed to look and feel like a Swiss village– another unexpected sight in Morocco. Ifrane appeared to us to be spotless, and we decided this must be something introduced by the Swiss, since the Moroccans seems to have a rather laissez-faire attitude about litter.

In the center of the village there is a park with a sculpture of a Barbary Lion, now extinct in the wild since the last one was killed in 1922. There is also a royal palace here and a large university, but on this day, they both had to be vastly outnumbered by tourists, all wanting to take a “selfie” by the Barbary Lion. This is also a popular destination for hunters, who cannot bag a lion, but  can perhaps get a Barbary sheep, a Barbary stag, a wild boar or a partridge. This area is also where the Barbary macaques (monkeys) are found, although they are

Berber Shepherds in the Middle Atlas Mountains

Berber Shepherds in the Middle Atlas Mountains

captured to amuse tourists, rather than being killed.  We had noticed a number of small flocks of sheep with nomads in attendance.  We were told the nomads do not own the sheep, but they are generally owned by wealthy people, Typically a herdsman will get 2.5% of the newborn males. This is just enough for them to have something to eat and perhaps sell at little wool and mutton for a few dirham here and there.  The donkeys here seemed to be much furrier than their city-dwelling counterparts, seriously increasing their adorability factor.

 

A Berber Home with a Ski Slope Nearby

A Berber Home with a Ski Slope Nearby

We stopped to visit the home of a Berber nomadic family on the high plateaus of the Middle Atlas, with patches of snow still on the ground, but the morning was crisp and clear. There were two women at home, sisters-in-law, each with a 3 year old toddler, and their husbands were out with the sheep or perhaps in town for a haircut and a hammam (steam bath).  We weren’t clear on this.  Home for them was a lean-to of sort,s built with a seemingly disorganized amalgamation of stone, wood, plastic and rugs. There were turkeys and chickens milling about, and a scrawny dog with new puppies in one corner of the yard.  In stark

 

Our Berber Hostess and Her Child

Our Berber Hostess and Her Child

contrast, it was directly across the road from a ski resort with a rather modest hill, but with a parking lot full of expensive cars. It was only 17 miles (and about 500 years) away from the Alpine Village of Ifrane. Some of the shepherds here are semi-nomadic, meaning they only live here part of the year and live in a house the rest of the year.

Two out of three Moroccans are Berber or part Berber, but they do not make up a homogeneous race. They have in years past retreated to the Atlas Mountains to escape a succession of invasions.  There are many tribes and many dialects and the

In the Berber Tent Getting Dressed to go Outside

In the Berber Tent Getting Dressed to go Outside

various tribes wear distinctive clothing and jewelry and have their own beliefs and customs. The dress of the women in the villages in each place we travel often reveals their ethnicity.  For example in this area, the hendira, a distinctive woven  striped cape woven or  black worn with bright colors signifies a Berber woman of a certain tribe.  A woman wearing all black signifies an Arab woman.  Despite varying customs, many Berber women use henna tattoos to ward off evil spirits.    Another custom of Berber women is the attendance at a religious Moussem ,  which is held as sort of a retreat  for women to travel to be with other women and get away for a few days ( a girls’ weekend of sort, . ) Moussems  are often held in conjunction with other festivals such as  a Camel Fair or a Marriage Fair, where many betrothals are made.

The Kasbah Restauarant - Our Lunch Stop in Midelt

The Kasbah Restauarant – Our Lunch Stop in Midelt

We stopped for lunch in the village of Midelt, which started out as a ksar, a self-contained  fortified quarter,  somewhat comparable to the series of forts built in the Old West to fight the Indians. Ksars were originally community strongholds built near an oasis to protect people and their harvests from bandits and nomads. Over time ksars expanded to become a village with a mosque, a medersa and granaries. The Ziz River valley is full of old ksour (which is the plural of ksar).  Midelt became a French garrison town in the early 20th century during the French Protectorate. Here we had the most delicious trout we have ever eaten, very simply baked in aluminum foil, but give the dearth of refrigeration, they were likely swimming in the river only a few hours before.

The Dry Side of the Middle Atlas Mountains

The Dry Side of the Middle Atlas Mountains

From Midelt we crossed the Tizi-n-Talrhemt Pass at 6, 259 feet and  followed the path of the Ziz River as the landscape became more arid. The scenery changed to look remarkably like the Big Bend area of Texas with hot springs all along the river below massive cliffs of red sandstone, with a major difference being that along the river gorges there were a series of oases with thousands and thousands of date palms growing in profusion for miles. As many dates as Morocco produces, they still import from other countries due to high demand, particularly during Ramadan.

 

The Oasis in the Ziz Valley

The Oasis in the Ziz Valley

Below the canopy of dates, other crops are grown as well. Every palm is owned and harvested by a person, family or corporation.  The Phoenicians introduced dates into Morocco in the 6th and 7th Centuries.  The average tree can live around 150 years and they  are harvested October through December. They are cut and laid on the ground on drying terraces that are cut into the hillsides to complete ripening which takes about two weeks. Each terrace is marked by rock borders to delineate which terrace belongs to whom. Alongside the drying terraces, were old cemeteries marked with small markers and stone cairns.

 

A River in the Almohada Desert

A River in the Almohada Desert

In the Sahara, the river goes underground for miles, but it remains close enough to the surface for use in irrigation and thus many farms appear along its course until it disappears into the sands of the Sahara. The road seemed a little perilous in places, ripe for a rockslide or plummet off the narrow winding road. We also noticed bamboo sand fences along the road which are intended to keep blowing sand off the highway.  We were amazed to see assorted individual meandering all along our journey, no matter how remote and wondered, who are these people –   shepherd, a crazed nomad, a tourist who missed the bus?  We did discover at one scenic overlook a series of caves which appeared to be inhabited so the answer might be just a local resident commuting home after a day’s work.

The Hotel Pool at Erfoud

The Hotel Pool at Erfoud

We learned that there are 127 dams for hydroelectric power in Morocco. The country is attempting to go green in so much as they can get independent of foreign oil, particularly Algerian oil. They have had long running disputes, up to and including wars, with Algeria, their neighbor to the east over border disputes and some issues still exist today.  Algeria for their part would like to have an Atlantic seaport and are often accused of encouraging separatists that want to be independent of the part of the country north of the Atlas Mountains.  We passed through a large military town called  El-Rachidia,  with a tank base whose sole purpose is to deal with any Algerian incursions. It has little claim to the exotic flair of our other destinations, but it does have the symbolic gates at the entrances to the city.

Sunset at Erfoud

Sunset at Erfoud

In the late afternoon we arrived at the village or Erfoud (pronounced Err-Food with the accent on “food”) which bills itself as the gateway to the Sahara.  The hotel , the Belere Erfoud, was lovely with beautiful landscaping and a great looking infinity pool, but it was only slightly warmer than a bucket of ice cubes, so we satisfied ourselves with a glass of wine to watch the sun set on the far horizon silhouetted by date palms. We had a nice change of pace at dinner tonight with Italian food.

 

February 23, 2014

Dateline: Rissani and the Sahara

Latitude at Rissani  31. 26 Degrees North, Longitude 4.16 Degrees West

 

Sahara Fossils Embedded in Granite

Sahara Fossils Embedded in Granite

Before we left Erfoud, which also bills itself as the Fossil Capital of the World, we had a brief stop at the Usine de Marmar workshop across the road from our hotel where slabs of marble with fossils embedded are cut, polished  and shipped all over the world. This region is very well known for a wealth of a wide range of fossil specimens,  originating back to the days when the whole region was a sea bed. In addition to marble slabs, they also have thousands of smaller pieces  (trilobites and the like) and we brought a few mementos home. The joke on the bus was that Erfoud has more fossils than the average tour group. Erfoud is also host to the annual date festival (the edible kind), which gave rise to many jokes along the lines of “Morocco is the easiest place in the world to get a date”.

Getting Suited Up for the Camel Adventure

Getting Suited Up for the Camel Adventure

We travelled to the town of Rissani , a former ksar (fortified quarter) which is literally where the road (or at least the paved road) ends, just west of the Hammada de Guir, a stony desert with notorious sand storms. There are still some of the ruins  from the old ksar which we saw briefly before a visit to the mausoleum of Moulay (Prince) Ali Cherif. It was built in the 1600’s at his death, but had to be rebuilt in 1955 after a flood. We had a shopping opportunity to buy the special turbans called tagelmust  that are worn by the Tuareg  people in the desert for a modest 50 dirham (about $6) and our guide and the salesman got

 

The Hanging Post for a Beast at the Feast

The Hanging Post for a Beast at the Feast

everyone properly attired. From there we visited the home of a local Berber family for tea.  We were hosted by Zahra, the mother, Fatima, the daughter and Mohammed the son.  The son and daughter both spoke English so they did the majority of the translating.  We all sat on low benches in what would be their equivalent of a living room and asked questions about their daily life.  One of the most interesting tidbits was the purpose of a large beam in the center of the room with a drain below it.  We were told this is for the traditional once a year slaughter of a lamb or goat for a feast at Ramadan. We were a little squeamish about the idea, but traditions are traditions all over the world, so we try to be broad minded.

Our Home in the Sahara

Our Home in the Sahara

Here in Rissani, we traded our bus in on four  4×4 vehicles and with our driver, Ali, we literally drove on the desert floor, weaving our way among the Erg Chubbi Dunes which are approximately 19 miles long and achieve heights of over 800 feet.  We then proceeded to our personal camel train where we each boarded our own hump backed beast for an hour long ride to lunch – a tent in the desert.  A note on camel humps:  The camel in North Africa and the Middle East are one-humpers called Dromedaries.  The two humpers are found in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert and are called Bactrian Camels.  The Dromedaries have

Saddling Up

Saddling Up

broad soft feet so they won’t sink into the sand, but the Bactrians have hard feet for their rocky desert environment and they also grow thick coats for their frigid winters.  It is said that the two may mate and their offspring would have something like a single mega-hump, but this could be desert legend.  And speaking of humps they are made of fat and tissue to store food and water.  You can always tell a hungry or thirsty camel because his hump goes flat. It firms up when he fills up.  They can drink 26 gallons of water in 10 minutes so they fill up quickly at the watering hole. Our camels were well fed and hydrated and their humps were a

The Camel Trek in the Sahara

The Camel Trek in the Sahara

little hard to sit on for an hour, though the ride is very smooth though and there is no jolting in their gait.  We ambled over the desert sands with wide vistas of dunes in shades ranging from honey and terra cotta and a bright blue sky with the merest hint of clouds in every direction.  The horizon seemed limitless with the occasional camel train appearing from time to time. We envisioned the intrepid Silk Road traders and caravanserai coming north from Timbuktu as in days gone but, in truth, these were probably other tourists doing what we were doing.  Nevertheless, the ride provided what we like to call a “defining

 

Dunes in the Sahara

Dunes in the Sahara

moment”, something so exotic, so iconic, so extraordinary, the memory of it will stay with you for your lifetime.  We are always looking to find defining moments in our travels.

Lunch was in a ceremonial Berber Tent facing some of the highest dunes in Morocco. Here I learned a new phrase which was Berber, not Arabic.  Instead of shukran, you can say “saha”  to thank someone in the Berber language. From lunch we went to our tented campsite near the village of Merzouga. We were so impressed by the silence of the place.  There were no roads, no

 A Camel Lot

A Camel Lot

people, except an occasional nomad and course, no cell service or wi-fi either.  We arrived late in the afternoon and claimed our tents and gathered for tea. The tents, roughly 12 feet x 12 feet,  have nice soft beds in them and rugs on the floor.  The toilet, while en suite so to speak, was a little rustic. It was like an outhouse, but with a toilet seat and we were to flush with a scoop of fresh water out of the bucket. Shower accommodations were equally rustic with a series of tents with plastic containers on top, supposedly providing water heated by the sun. In reality – it never got that hot this time of year.  We also visited the kitchen

Some Sunset Wine in the Sahara

Some Sunset Wine in the Sahara

tent and met Hamid, the chef and an array of Mohammeds (the chef’s 4 helpers really were all named Mohammed) and had time for tea and nap before dinner. Just before sunset, we took a walk to the top of a nearby dune and enjoyed a glass of wine as we watched the sunset.

At dinner Hamid gave a talk on specialties of the Sahara including couscous – crushed semolina or durum wheat typically cooked by steaming and harissa – a fiery red sauce made from hot peppers, garlic and olive oil.He showed us his collection of tagines– a skillet like bottom and a domed top with a little knob

Hamid and the Mohammeds Welcome Gary

Hamid and the Mohammeds Welcome Gary

for lifting and anything you cook in it. He described a b’stila which is a squab (pigeon) pie made with 100 layers of flaky dough, plus eggs, almonds, lemon, sugar cinnamon and saffron. We had b’stila for desert, but it tasted too good to have pigeons in it so Hamid might have omitted that ingredient.  Once the sun went down it got cold and really, really dark.  We had to use flashlights to get back to our tent, but that darkness allowed us to really appreciate the stars here which are every bit as spectacular as we imagined them to be.

 

February 24, 2014

Dateline:  Sahara near Merzouga

Latitude 31.55 North, Longitude 4.00 West

Tea with the Tuaregs

Tea with the Tuaregs

Today we explored the Sahara around our camp in the 4×4’s and on foot.  The people in this area include Tuareg nomads. We visited the home of a Tuareg family which was actually a camel hair tent. The lady of the house was carding wool to spin into yarn to make the famous Berber rugs that we saw for sale in the various souks we visited. Jaafar was explaining the carding, spinning weaving process when we looked out the tent flap to see a fully loaded donkey peering in and went outside to investigate. There we met a 26 year old Spaniard who was walking the Sahara (for fun so he said) with Chico the donkey,

Chico the Rental Donkey

Chico the Rental Donkey

which he had rented in Rissani several days ago and was doing what the Australians call a “walkabout”.  He had loaded up with water and supplies and planned to spend several weeks exploring including a stop in Erfoud to buy some food.  However he said Chico is not a one-way rental and he had to turn him back in at the donkey rental counter in Rissani in 6 more days so his schedule might have been a little ambitious. He says Chico is quite lazy and likes to stop a lot and it slows him down quite a bit. He said the hardest part is running out of good things to eat so we loaded him up with M&M’s and granola bars we had in our backpack.

The Village of Ghaoua Khamlia - Home of the blue Men

The Village of Ghaoua Khamlia – Home of the Blue Men

We learned about the famous Blue Men of the Sahara, a very dark skinned people in contrast to the Moroccans,  who look much more Mediterranean or Arabic than African.  The Blue Men are descendents of a group of nomadic Tuareg camel herders who originated in Timbuktu which is in the current day country of Mali.  Locals will tell you they come from Sudan which is not Sudan as we know it, but they refer to everything south of here as “Sudan”. There are several theories of where the name originated – the indigo dyes they use for their robes seems to be the source.  As the story goes, the dye from their blue robes

 

The Blue Men Drummers

The Blue Men Drummers

wore off on their skin as they sweated and tinted them blue. In another version they rubbed indigo on their skins to act as sunscreen as they rode in caravans across the desert.  We also stopped that the village of Khamlia where we listened to and danced with the local Gnawa Gnaoua  musicians. We could have bought their CD, but passed on that opportunity. One of the purposes of their music, in addition to entertaining is to exorcize demons (or jinns as they call them). They reportedly do a brisk business in this endeavor and probably make more money at that  than on their CD’s.  The music is very rhythmic, heavy on percussion, but it does make you tap your foot whether you intended to or not.

A Memento and Headstone at the Muslim Cemetery

A Memento and Headstone at the Muslim Cemetery

We had lunch at camp and we visited an old Muslim cemetery. The place is quite desolate, not much fanfare here, with the only sound the cooing of doves, who find nests anywhere they can. The families sometimes place something valued by the deceased or an otherwise meaningful object on the graves by the head stone (using the term loosely) which is more like a jagged rock sticking up.  There are no names and all are buried on their sides in a plain shroud, facing Mecca. With our free time we elected to go to a hotel and have a hot shower and sit by the pool.   The shower only got hot if you let the water run a really

 

A Tented Camp in the Sahara

A Tented Camp in the Sahara

long time and the towels were more like a loofah, so we didn’t spend much time luxuriating in the particular amenity. The pool was absolutely frigid so there was no refreshing plunge there.  So we mostly relaxed and poked around the hotel.  It was interesting to see a pair of old Kneissel snow skis on the porch, just like we had back in the 70’s.  We always wondered what happened to those skis.  And now we will wonder what anyone is going to do with them there –  sand skiing  perhaps.

We aren’t sure that the cold shower was to blame but Gary came down with a fever and took to his bed.  He missed not only

The View from the Terrace at the Hotel Yasmina

The View from the Terrace at the Hotel Yasmina

dinner, but an interesting talk at dinner about Islam and the life of the prophet Mohammed. We learned that the word “Islam” in Arabic means “submission”, meaning the true believers are to submit to the will of Allah. There are 5 Pillars of Wisdom that are the core of the Muslim religion that were given to Mohammed by Allah (seemingly parallel to the Ten Commandments of Christians and Jews).   The Pillars are (1) Chahada – the profession of faith  and belief that there is only one God ( 2) Salat –  the faithful shall pray 5 times a day at prescribed intervals r  ((3) Zakat –  Each person shall give alms to the poor (4)  Ramadan – the observation of the holy days with fasting and prayer (5)Haj –  each person shall make a pilgrimage to Mecca.  Some pillars, e.g. 3 and 5 are based on the ability of the individual  to do so.  E.G. the very poor do not have alms to give, but can still be holy.

Prayer Hall at a Mosque

Prayer Hall at a Mosque

The faithful are called to prayer by the muezzin (pronounced moo-eh-zin with the accent on “eh”) from the minaret by the mosque. Men kneel in rows, with no assigned places and recite a series of prayers prostrating themselves at  prescribed points in the prayers. Women have a separate sanctuary. All face toward Mecca, which is called quibla. (which means “direction” in Arabic). In the mosques there is a niche called the mihrab which shows the correct direction of Mecca. If it is time for prayer and you are not in a mosque,  yes there is a Smart Phone Ap for that.  In the mosque the  imam leads the prayers kneeling in front of the group, also facing Mecca. Muslims have prayer beads(  33  to touch 3 times each   or 99  to be touched 1 time each) to use in reciting the 99 names of Allah. Friday is the holy day and Muslims gather at midday to hear a sermon called the khutbah, delivered by the iman in addition to the regular prayers. However, unlike Christians, they close their businesses for the hour or so that it takes for the service, rather than taking the whole day off.

Waves on the Sahara

Waves on the Sahara

That night the haboob struck. Well maybe not a haboob, but definitely high winds and a lot of blowing sand. A haboob is a wall of dust that can stand hundreds or even thousands of feet high. It is the result of high winds that blow down and agitate sand and dust, which causes the debris to blow up into a tall stacked wall. An average time span of a haboob generally ranges from 10 to 30 minutes. Haboobs typically occur in dry areas, particularly the Middle East, the Sahara, North Africa and the US state of Arizona, where there are large amounts of sand and high temperatures.

 




Morocco Part 2: The Sahara to Marrakech

Morocco

Part 2: The Sahara to Marrakech

February 25, 2014

Dateline: Teneghir

Latitude at Teneghir 31.30 Degrees North, Longitude 5.31 Degrees West

 

Leaving Our Sahara Camp

Leaving Our Sahara Camp

We took a brief walk in the desert this morning, which was cool and crisp at this time of year. We then boarded  our 4×4 vehicles to head back to the village of Rissani for a stroll in the local souk. One of the most unusual sights we saw here were the snails for sale in the souks.  They are tiny – maybe the size of a pinky fingernail and people eat them for snacks. Merchandise was brought into the souk with hand carts which were pickup truck beds with traces for an animal or human to pull it where the cab and engine used to be. We continued on to Erfoud to meet our bus.  Our destination today is the town of Teneghir, known for its

 

The Rissani Souk

The Rissani Souk

artisan workshops, gold, fig trees and date palms.  We crossed the J’bel Sahro Mountains and dropped down into a valley where we got our first glimpse of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains to the north. The landscape was still quite barren and scattered with the marabouts, (the term applies to both the holy man and his tomb) built as places for reflection and inspiration for the pious.  We also stopped to see an ancient irrigation system, called a khattana along the way – sounds boring, but was anything but.  It is a series of wells dug into the desert at regular intervals which tap into an underground aquifer dating from the

Our Tour Guide at the Kittana

Our Tour Guide describing Irrigation in the Desert

11th Century. However these are not the typical wells where you lower your bucket and get water.  While there is a hole going straight down, there are tunnels that channel the water toward the kasbah.  That way, you don’t draw your water and have to schlep it into town. You just let it flow to town and draw it there next to your house.  Townspeople were allowed to draw water for irrigation of their crops and gardens based on how many hours they worked at excavating the tunnels. They had to keep excavating to keep the flow going in the desired direction.  The landscape is dotted with small mounds of dirt resembling giant

 

A Kittana (Desert Well)

A Khattana (Desert Well)

termite mounds that are the tailings of the various excavations.

This area is rich in minerals, particularly phosphate and magnesium, and fossils and geodes.  It was interesting to see the geode sellers along the road who had taken liberties with Mother Nature by coloring the stones every garish shade from magenta to turquoise.  The herds here were camels, sheep and goats which can survive on scrub brush, the dominant flora here.  We saw no horses, nor cows, since they need to eat grass and hay which is nowhere to be found in this part of Morocco. Jaafar told us that this area was the site of a number of uprisings by the Berbers that had to be quashed by the French Foreign Legion in the 1920’s. With the occasional oasis featuring a grove of date palms, the occasional mirage in the distance, you can almost picture the action, particularly if you have seen the old 1939 movie, Beau Geste, starring Gary Cooper and Ray Milland.

Desrt Oasis near Teneghir

Desert Oasis near Teneghir

We had what was billed as a picnic lunch – fresh mandarin orange juice and cold chicken, cheese and bread at a small café near a hillside that spelled out the country’s motto God, Country and King in white rocks on the hillside in Arabic.  We arrived in Teneghir in mid-afternoon. It is a modest sized city built in a river valley oasis. The buildings were brown adobe, surrounded by brown rocky mountainous terrain.  It is considered a wealthy town in that there is an abundance of silver in the surrounding mountains, but of course that wealth doesn’t trickle down a whole lot. Many of the houses had decorative metal garage doors, most

 

A Typical Teneghir Garage

A Typical Teneghir Garage

often padlocked, which we found interesting since so few people own cars here. We noticed that many of the people here wear white toga-like garments, but without any bare shoulders (or any bare skin at all for that matter).

We stopped to let a funeral procession go by, a casket carried by several men and a procession of people following it. Jaafar pointed out that we would only see men present.  The women traditionally do not attend funeral services since it is believed they would show unseemly emotion.

We also learned a theory about the religious ban on alcoholic beverages in the Muslim religion. That is that Allah was displeased with the excesses he saw among the people that often began with excessive drinking. So it was decreed that there should be no drinking before prayer, and since prayer is mandated 5 times a day – it essentially evolved into a ban.

The Todra Gorge

The Todra Gorge

Before going to our hotel in Teneghir,  (pronounced Ten-ah-heer with accents on the first and last syllables) we drove north to visit the Todra Gorge with its 900 foot cliffs, carved by the Todra River which emerges onto the desert, having traveled underground from the Atlas Mountains. Snow melt fills up an aquifer and the water eventually comes to the Todra River. Today, as it has for centuries, it provides water for an extensive grove of date palms, forming an oasis along its banks. The road is narrow and steep with multiple switchbacks. The rock formations were both beautiful and dramatic with boulders seeming to be teetering above our heads.  They have likely “teetered” there for centuries, but it seemed as if they would plummet at any moment, and given the boulders scattered on the ground and in the river, it was apparent that it had indeed happened before. We wondered if any tourists had experienced mishap here and more than once looked for evidence, like maybe a pair of sneakers peeking out from a boulder crater. The gorge runs for 7 ½ miles and there is a path to walk along the river for much of it. At one end is the village of Teneghir and an

Bandoned Casbash of Teneghir

Bandoned Casbash of Teneghir

extensive date grove  and at theother end is a stony track leading to a small village. All along the wadi (the Arabic word for river) there are a number of abandoned ksour, (the plural of ksar) where up to a hundred families lived at one time. To the west of Teneghir is an abandoned kasbah and to the east is the old Jewish mellah (neighborhood) called Ait el-Haj Ali.

In the oasis along the river there are a number of seguias, or channels, that were dug to take water from the Todra River to the palm groves and fields. Today many of those have been replaced by clay pipes, more efficient, but not nearly as picturesque.

The View from our Teneghir Hotel

The View from our Teneghir Hotel

We had the opportunity to go to the hammam (Turkish bath) but we passed on that since we had been in Istanbul. Several of our group went and reported it was a most unique experience.   We found our experience in Turkey to be unique as well – the opportunity to take off all your clothes and get scrubbed down in a room full of strangers – yep, unique pretty much describes it.  We had dinner at the Hotel Kenzi Saghro, and while we appreciated the great hot showers, we found it way too close to the minaret and this particular muezzin, (pronounced moo-eh-zin with the accent on “eh”) whose job it is to call the faithful to prayer 5 times a day, must have had a tin ear.  In fact one of our tour group members thought it was, no disrespect intended, a donkey braying.  We have noticed in our travels in Muslim countries that the tone and pitch can vary greatly. Sometimes it sounds almost musical – but with this particular muezzin – not so much.

 

February 26, 2014

Dateline: Teneghir

An Oasis Farm in Teneghir

An Oasis Farm in Teneghir

Today’s adventure is billed as “A Day in the Life” and the goal of our tour operator is to showcase what a day in the life of someone living in Teneghir is like.  We stopped at an ATM (Jaafar pronounces it “ITM” since the long “A” is not found in the Arabic language. It took us a few days to understand that “ITM” was not some separate entity. We then visited a farm where we watched local women (who do most of the heavy lifting in the Berber community while the men sip tea), were cutting alfalfa by hand.  The farm was irrigated from a local river and all the trenches were dug and maintained by hand.  They build small dams by shoveling mud when they want to divert water, and this is a daily activity – sort of the way we might move a sprinkler, only with their system there is a lot more manual labor involved.

The Old Medersa in Teneghir

The Old Medersa in Teneghir

We visited the ruins of an ancient medersa ( Islamic School) and then walked through the Jewish quarter of the medina where craftsmen were creating tools and assorted hardware such as bridle bits on small forges and bellows.  We saw some little girls playing virtual jump rope, as opposed to actually jumping rope, since they didn’t have one and had to pretend.  Gary immediately went from stall to stall in the souk looking for a jump rope for them. He finally found one, but couldn’t find the children again so we gave it to Jaafar for the school we would visit in the afternoon. There are many empty deteriorating buildings here. The Jews who once lived here migrated to Israel in the 1940’s 1950’s (some not necessarily voluntarily) . Some, it was rumored, had ties to Israel’s Mossad and that, along with opposition to the King, was grounds for deportation.

Our Local Guide in Teneghir

Our Local Guide in Teneghir

From there we went to a Berber market – cash only – to buy food for our evening meal.  What an adventure this turned out to be. We were given 150 dirhams by Jafaar, our tour guide, and divided into purchasing groups – one group for vegetables, one group for fruit, and one group for chickens – live chickens that is, all to be obtained there in the market. This market,  like all the other souks we had visited,  also had a vast array of spices that were introduced into Morocco by the Arabs when they came hundreds of years ago. They included ginger, saffron, coriander, cumin, cinnamon and cloves.  We ended up in the meat hunting

 

The Chicken Corral

The Chicken Corral

group with 3 other people and set off on our mission, which was to buy 3 or 4 live chickens, get them butchered, pay for them and bring them back to Jaafar.  After floundering a bit and listening intently for chicken clucks and squawks , we met a young man named  Said who was not only fluent in English, but also knew the location of the live chicken market.  The chickens were kept discretely lodged behind a large metal door. Since the goods looked a little scrawny, we decided to buy 4 and so by pointing and holding up 4 fingers, we made our desires known. The chicken man quickly caught the slowest 4 in the flock. With two

The "Processing" of the Chickens

The “Processing” of the Chickens

chickens upside down in each hand, with wings flapping and throats squawking he strode up the street to his (open air) butcher shop.  I was interested to see if he would do an old fashioned Southern neck wringing, but he used a large knife and it was all over for the chickens before they, or we knew it.  Well perhaps the chickens were a little more aware than we were, but still it was quick. They were unceremoniously dumped upside down into 5 gallon buckets for the blood to drain and then plunged into boiling water.   Just as those of the Jewish faith adhere to the rules of kosher, the Muslim faith has their own similar rules, which are called hallal. One of the key principles of hallal is that in butchering meat, every last drop of blood needs to be removed. From the drain buckets, the butcher plunged the chickens into boiling water and from there they  went to a surprisingly modern convenience – a chicken plucker – which was a big drum( it spun  like a clothes dryer) that literally  knocked the feathers off the chickens. We had to supplement the cash we received from Jaafar to close the deal, but we felt that most Moroccan dishes we have had don’t have enough meat in them, and that tonight we would feast, if not like kings, then at least like Americans.

Lunch with the Technical Students

Lunch with the Technical Students at Dar Et-Taleb

From the market we went to the Dar Et-Taleb Education Center – a residential facility for rural students around Tenghir that is supported by Grand Circle Foundation (the parent company of OAT). The academic students were on holiday, but we had lunch with technical students (learning accounting, sheet metal working, carpentry, etc.). The Berber language, Tamazight, is not spoken or taught in schools, but it still survives. We had learned a few of the letters of the Berber Alphabet, which all seem to have “Y” sounds.  E.G. what looks like the Target logo is pronounced “yas” and what looks like an upside down Q is pronounced “yass”. Then there is the right side up Q which is “yar, the U looking character that is “yaw” and the upside down V which is “yad”. If Berber toddlers learn the Alphabet Song, it’s got to be a real assault on the eardrums. It was fun listening to the  plans and goals of these students, all very practical – no aspiring  movie stars, models, race car drivers, sports stars or astronauts here. Another new Arabic word we learned during out time was “yallah” (pronounced just like it looks) which means let’s go. We had lots of “yallahs” from Jaafar since almost everywhere we went, someone in our group wanted to linger, but it was indeed time to “yallah” since we had a day packed with adventures.

Muktar the Rug Saleman and Raconteur

Muktar the Rug Saleman and Raconteur

From here we visited the Taib carpet cooperative and were greatly entertained by Muktar, who was a former Peace Corps worker, which is where he learned English, including English slang, and also we think developed his delightful sense of humor.  He baptized 3 birthday people including Gary with rosewater to kick things off.  He showed us a long flat carved board that he identified as a camel tongue depressor. He says if camels eat oleander or anything else poisonous, the camel drivers have to grab up this device and gag the camel to the point of throwing up.  There were some believers in this Camel First Aid, but I thought it looked suspiciously like the tent stakes and pannier holders we had seen in the museums.)  They were selling antiques in the basement and we were shown and antique and bejeweled “camel tongue depressor” for $700. We decided to pass on this particular treasure.

Tea Ceremony at the rug Store

Tea Ceremony at the rug Store

After the comedy act we had the rug show, preceded by a special ceremony for mint tea  (Muktar calls it Berber Whiskey). Two costumed men brought in an elaborate tea service complete with coals and a tiny bellows to keep coals hot in order to keep the tea hot. We sipped our tea as the rugs were brought out for our inspection and appreciation – sort of like a fashion show with Muktar rhapsodizing over each one. We learned a new word from Muktar as he gave us his spiel. It is “waha” which means “do you understand” or “capisce” as the Italians would say.

 

Berber Rug Sale

Berber Rug Sale

The rugs were indeed beautifully made and very attractive. These rugs are hand woven by Berber women and Muktar takes camel trains all over the Sahara to buy them.  No two rugs are alike, and there are no established patterns. The women make them up in their heads and weave them as they go.  These rugs are all of very fine silk or wool and are really exquisite, and quite costly since many take years to make. Muktar did well with our group, selling 7 rugs to our 15 people.

 

Zahra and the Henna Tattoos

Zahra and the Henna Tattoos

We went back to the hotel to get ready for our dinner out at the Kasbah Amarani restaurant. Prior to dinner we had Zahira, (her name means “flower”),  a henna artist, talk to us about how paint made from the henna plant is used for decorative designs on faces hands and feet. The tattoo mixture is composed of henna, hot water, and lemon into sort of the consistency of mud. A fixative made of garlic, pepper lemon and sugar is applied after the design is completed.  Henna designs supposedly bring closeness to God and/or protection from evil spirits, the evil eye and so forth. Traditionally a new bride will have her hands and feet painted. We all got our henna tattoos and proceeded to smudge them immediately.  (note – do not get a henna tattoo anywhere skin will crease such as the wrist)  My bracelet turned into a blob that looked like a skin disease – fortunately it doesn’t last more than a few days.

The Berber Birthday Band

The Berber Birthday Band

We had a big feast of a dinner under a huge Berber tent. Berber tents are typically woven from camel hair but this one looked to have some not so traditional elements. We ate the food we bought at the souk and then had 3 birthday cakes for Gary and 2 other people on our tour – all with the same birthday.   We had some raucous Berber music, not so melodious we thought, and danced into the wee hours (if you call 10:00 p.m. wee that is.)

 

 

February 27, 2014

Dateline:  Ouarzazate

Latitude at Ourzazate 30.55 North, 6.53 West

We left Teneghir and started the drive to Ouarzazate. (pronounced Or- za- zah- te with the accent on the first and third  syllables)  where we would spend the night.  On the drive, Jafaar told us a little bit about jinns (supernatural entities with supernatural powers) that many believe in. Some also believe these  are ghosts from the dead. There are good and bad jinns – e.g. Lucifer was a bad jinn who asked Allah to give him the opportunity to win souls over.  Allah agreed and that is why there is evil in the world, but Lucifer only gets to do this until Judgment Day.  Islam is a way for people to learn how to get on and stay on the straight and narrow path of goodness.  Jinns occupy empty places like drains, empty buildings, etc.  It is believed that some people are afraid to pour hot water down a drain for fear of angering a jinn, who might otherwise be napping.  Humans can thus inadvertently harm jinns and bring down their wrath unawares.  Jinns can come into the body via the nose or ears or any other opening in the body.  They can also take other forms such as insects and can also come up through the toilets (very crafty these jinns). There is a belief that shooting stars are jinns being punished. Fortune tellers can be influenced by jinns, so you have to make sure you are not misguided in that respect. The bottom line is that adherence to the Koran is the best antidote for evil jinns

Our route took us via the Rose Capital of Morocco, a place called El-Kelaa M’gouna which means fortress. The altitude here is almost 5,000 feet and certain types of roses flourish here, dating back to the 10th Century when pilgrims returning from Mecca brought a variety called Damascus Rose.  Petals are harvested each year and taken to distilleries where rosewater is made and the excess is exported for the perfume industry. There is a Rose Festival at harvest each year and it is the largest shindig in the Dades Valley. The Climate here is Arizona like – hot summers, mild winters, and much colder in mountains. There is construction everywhere – we assume a certain level of prosperity, but suspect a small middle class, even smaller upper and a large lower on the economic front.

The Dades River Gorge

The Dades River Gorge

We are on a highway called the Road of 1,000 kasbahs and indeed they seem to be everywhere, now largely abandoned and in various stages of disrepair. We also would pass through the town of Dades and visit the gorge of the same name, carved by the Dades River. The storks are here for the winter and just about every minaret is host to a nest. We noticed that here, like in Teneghir, the women seem to do all the manual labor, particularly farming and hauling. The man’s job is to buy food and goods from the market and drink coffee or tea. Men do hold the construction jobs, but other than that they are pretty much “house husbands”. Women also do the cooking and childcare.  A hard working woman is prized much more than a beautiful one.

 

The Road to the Dades Gorge

The Road to the Dades Gorge

We drove to the Dades Valley Gorge, which is also known as the Valley of the Dead. All along our route were abandoned kasbahs with fortified granaries ( ksours) to keep the nomads from raiding their harvest. There was a narrow winding road, so much so that we had to park our bus and take other smaller vehicles. The scenery was breathtaking. There were giant rock formations that  looked like dominoes that had been knocked down in a chain reaction.  We drove along the Dades River,  lined with poplar, almond and walnut trees and the canyon narrowed as the walls rose around us.

 

A Berber Pizza Oven

A Berber Pizza Oven

We had a snack of Berber Pizza, which was a mixture of spiced hummus  in the middle of pita bread and continued up the canyon. The houses here are all shades of terra cotta, even when painted  and the way they are situated among rocks creates  a monochromatic look  to the landscape– very pleasing to the eye. The kids here are our most enthusiastic welcoming party yet, hanging out of windows and waving.  There are many campers here (called caravans) of vacationers – almost exclusively French.  There are plots of crops watered from river – no pumps – all gravity fed, creating green fields all along the Dades River. There are watch towers with guards to ensure that no one pulls out too much water.

We had a home hosted lunch in Kelaa  M’Gouna at the home of an imam, and we learned about local wedding customs and even had a costumed reenactment. The ceremony resembles a real estate closing much more than American weddings.  If it were not for the unveiling of the elaborately costumed bride, you might not know it is a wedding at all.  The unveiling in olden times would be the first time the bride and groom saw each other, so there were undoubtedly a more than a few rude shocks.

The Imam's House

The Imam’s House

We had several surprises at the iman’s lunch (probably remembering the bad old Iranian Hostage days). We entered through his very tidy garden with fruit trees in bloom along above hedges of the famous Damacus roses of the area. Parked outside the door was a somewhat weather-beaten bicycle.  The imam, whom we first mistook for a houseboy/waiter type since he served us tea and lunch, smiled and welcomed us most graciously. We found him to be very humble, congenial and friendly. Jafaar interpreted for us and for him. And that bicycle outside the door – that’s his primary mode of transportation.

Jaafar told us a little about the Imam and then he answered our questions. We learned that his salary is paid by the Ministry of Islam and his is a government position. He is married with children. He has not been to Mecca yet, but of course wants to go. They have a lottery to see who gets to go so he is waiting for his chance. The older people take priority since everyone’s chances dwindle as they age.  Our group gave him presents we had brought from home (Georgia Peanuts from us) and we had our pictures taken with him.

The Berber Wedding Re-enactment

The Berber Wedding Re-enactment

We then watched a mock wedding ceremony so we could see how it is done. Prior to the wedding the bride’s family often rents a big house for 24 hours for celebrating the wedding.  This imam’s house could certainly fill the bill there.   Brides prepare for the wedding be getting “decorated” with flowers and henna tattoos. Traditionally she gets one on her own hand called the “Hand of Fatima” which, when held aloft keeps any bad juju away. The groom in the meantime is getting ready at his house, gathering gifts in a donkey cart, and then he proceeds along with musicians and family to present them to the bride’s family

To start things off there is the unveiling where the bride’s face is covered with a veil that the groom cuts away with a knife. For the ceremony, both bride and groom are ceremonially costumed, wearing fancy caftans and sitting in facing chairs. They are wearing  special yellow slippers – something akin to Big Bird Feet for those with larger feet  (like most Americans)They sign a contract written by the fathers of the bride and groom, and the couple is considered married when it is signed with 2 witnesses and the wedding is a done deal.  Then the celebrating starts.

Closing the Deal at the Wedding

Closing the Deal at the Wedding

Once the contracts are signed the bride changes into a traditional costume of yellow and red or green and there is a large dinner.  In olden times the meal was provided by neighbors and the women and men celebrated separately and it lasted several days, but today, the family provides everything and it only lasts  a mere 24 hours.  Also in the olden days if a marriage did not work out, either person in the marriage could utter the words “I divorce thee” three times and that would be that, but today, they have to go through the legal process with a 40 day waiting period.

We learned that imams do not do counseling or give advice the way Christian priests and ministers do. They have strictly defined roles, i.e., lead daily prayers and deliver sermons which are lessons from the Koran on Fridays.  He does not get involved in anything secular or relate his sermons to current events. The imam’s clothing is typical for the area and imams dress like everyone else in their region. Here it is a white jellaba over a shirt and trousers. Imams usually have a second job (e.g. carpenter, waiter, sheik).  They are appointed by the Ministry of Islam and vetted to weed out extremists and nut cases. (the latter is my phrase, not his).  His salary is 1500 dirhams (about $125.00)  a month. He is not at the mosque 24 x 7 – he comes when he hears the call to prayer. He has 25 students to whom he is teaching the Koran.

We resumed our journey passing by a lake created by a dam where the King has one of his Royal Palaces complete with jet skis and  a golf course. The amount of water required to keep the greens and fairways grassy is something that is not really popular in these parts. We could see the High Atlas Mountains in the distance, along with miles of ruins of abandoned kasbahs, as we travelled to our stop for the night, the oasis town of Ouarzazate (pronounced War-za-zah-te with accents on “War” and “zah”.

The High Atlas Mountains

The High Atlas Mountains

Ourzazate was originally created by the French as a garrison outpost (think French Foreign Legion) and is today the largest city south of the Atlas Mountains. The women here all wear black,  unlike in the larger cities where bright colors are popular. There are bars on many of the windows so the children don’t fall out – we were thinking to stop crime, but Jafaar says that’s not a problem here. He said there is very little crime in Morocco and what there is is drug related, although prostitution is a problem here as well. He told us they have a TV show on once a month that features a crime committed in Morocco (true crime) and some months they have to have re-runs. We concluded our day with another tagine dinner at our hotel, the Ibis Moussafair Ouarzazate.

February 28, 2014

Dateline: Casablanca

Latitude 31.37 Degrees North, Longitude 8.0 Degrees West

Atlas Studios Ouarzazate

Atlas Studios at Ouarzazate

Today we traveled northwest over the High Atlas Mountains  (the highest mountain in Morocco is  13,600 feet) which stretch for over 500 miles, running southwest to northwest from the port city of Agadir in the west into Algeria to the east.  These are ancient mountains formed in the Devonian Period, shortly after Continental Drift took place (short being a relative term) They vary in width from 30 to 60 miles.  We were enjoying some of the most dramatic scenery yet. It is that scenery along with the light and the absence of rain that has attracted several movie makers to the area. There are two major studios on our route just outside Ouarzazate where many well-known films have been shot and .  We stopped briefly at the Atlas Studios, whose gates were “defended”  giant stylized  faux Egyptian figures that were sort of a combination of Ramses, King Tut and the Sphinx.

The River at Ait Benhaddou

The River at Ait Benhaddou

Our next stop was the iconic Ait Benhaddou, (pronounced Ayt Ben ay-do with the accents on  “ayt” and “ay” ), built on top of a mountain above the Wadi (River) Mellah. It is a UNESCO site and a great example of very well preserved Southern Moroccan earthen architecture.  It is built of pise which is essentially compacted , compressed and molded clay, the same building material we have seen across Morocco. While a ksar is a fortified city, a kasbah is a fortified dwelling (anything from a house to a castle) and it is always built in a square). In the case of Ait Ben Haddou, there are several kasbahs within the walls of the ksar. It

 

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

also contains an igherm which is a communal granary. This ksar was the setting for scenes from the films, Lawrence of Arabia and the Man Who Would Be King as well as many others. We crossed the river and hiked the 400 steps to the summit.  It was fully loaded with character and charm at every turn.  Most of the residents of  Ait Benhaddou have moved across the river,  but  a few families still live there.

We crossed the mountains with several stops at scenic overlooks.  The roads are lined with stalls (or in some cases just

A Tight Squeeze on the Mountain Roads

A Tight Squeeze on the Mountain Roads

blankets) with local people selling pottery and mineral rocks whose colors are way too bright to be found in nature. We were stopped from time to time by gendarmerie (traffic police more or less), but are mostly waved through. Our lunch stop was above a narrow green valley at the Palais de Tichka. We have noticed they play fast and loose with the word “palace” in these parts, but it may be all relative. Here we dined on soup and bread followed by a Berber Omelette made of egg and goat cheese, which was served a bit on the rare and runny side. This was followed by kebabs and fries which were quite tasty and a welcome break from the ubiquitous lentils and chick peas. We saw one of the waiters drop and break an entire tray of glasses and throw them over the railing down the mountain side.  So much for environmental, safety and aesthetic concerns   – issues that generally don’t perturb anyone but the tourists.

The North side of the High Atlas Mountains

The North side of the High Atlas Mountains

As we continued downward, having crested the Tichka Pass at over 7,000 feet, we could see more people, more vegetation and more agriculture, including the famous argan trees, found almost exclusively in Morocco.  The oil from these trees is enjoying a lot of popularity now for hair and skin care products. While the sights and sound were becoming increasingly more modern, there were still women washing clothes in the river by hand. There are 3 tribes of non-nomadic Berbers in these mountains (and of course many more in other parts of Morocco speaking as many as 300 dialects) including those from the Glouai Tribe, who

 

Houses in the High Atlas Mountains

Houses in the High Atlas Mountains

under the supervision of the French are responsible for building the road. The hillsides were dotted with huts and houses built by Berbers called Schluh Tribe who tend livestock herds grazing nearby. They also farm and are largely self-sufficient. Perhaps the best known    Tribe of Berbers in the Western World is the Tuareg, made famous by Volkswagen which made an SUV by the same name.  I am thinking other candidate names such as Schluh probably didn’t make it through the focus group studies. The Berber are indigenous here and they consider Arabs to be immigrants. Berbers have their own hammams, often adjacent to their homes, even out here in the country. It is not unusual to see a teepee like structure made of bamboo covered in adobe that serves that purpose.

Countryside Near Marrakech

Countryside Near Marrakech

Leaving the mountains and foothills, we emerged on the plains which are considered as the granary (we would say bread basket) of Morocco. It is quite striking with the snow capped mountains in the distance.  We continued to Marrakech, which we learned means “Go Quickly” in Arabic and it is speculated that this came from the days when bandits roamed freely in this area and you needed to move out right smartly to avoid them. It was interesting that within an hour we went from seeing nomad huts to seeing luxuriant golf courses as we entered the City of Marrakech.  We checked into the Hotel El Andalous in a very nice

 

The Hotel Andalous

The Hotel Andalous

quarter called Hivernage (French for hibernation) which was a neighborhood where many Europeans would spend the winters and it definitely had a old money, colonial flair to it. Upon our arrival here, we would bid adieu to our driver Samir and his assistant Abdrahim ( an Arabic version of Abraham)

The mayor of Marrakech is called the pasha.  I always wanted to use that word, but until now lacked the context for it.  I am expecting than in the next two days, it will come up countless times, along with such exotic titles as sultan, concubine and grand vizier.

 

March 1, 2014

Dateline: Marrakech

The Walls of Marrakech

The Walls of Marrakech

Marrakech was founded in 1062 by a group of warrior monks from the Sahara called the Almoravids. In the ensuing years, they created an Empire that stretched from current day Algeria into Spain. As the power of other tribes waxed and waned, Marrakech languished in decline from 1668 onward as other cities were made the capital by the latest ruling party, until it once again flourished under the French Protectorate in the 20th Century. Today, there are many distinctive quarters, both beautiful and exotic and we resolved to make the most of the few days we had here. The main street is a beautifully landscaped  wide boulevard called the Avenue Mohammed V only a block from our hotel that we would use repeatedly to find our way around. .  Both strongly traditional and drawn to the modern world, the city embodies the words of King Hassan II: “Morocco is like a tree whose roots lie in Africa, but whose leaves breathe in European air.

A Caleche of Marrakech

A Caleche of Marrakech

We were picked up this morning at our hotel in a traditional horse drawn caleche that would trot us around town. Our tour included the beautiful wide avenues of Gueliz, the modern part of the city built by the French in the early 20th Century with its fountains and walled gardens. Each caleche was drawn by two horses and carried 4 passengers. Our first stop was the Koutoubia Mosque where we left our caleches and proceeded on foot through a horseshoe arched gate with elaborate designs molded into the walls. Here we saw the ruins of the old mosque right next to the new  (or actually newer)  mosque. The old mosque was ripped

The Foundation of the Old Mosque

The Foundation of the Old Mosque

out in 1147 when a new dynasty came to power (the Almohads drove out the Almoravids)  because the qibla (the niche than indicates the direction of Mecca) was not properly oriented toward Mecca, plus the sultan at the time wanted to build the largest mosque in the world with a suitably proportioned minaret. In order to make it as high as he wanted (about 230 feet) he had to build per a proscribed formula: The height must equal 5 times the width.

The stones of the old mosque were reused to build the new one and the stone supports of the foundation are all that remain

The Koutoubia Mosque

The Koutoubia Mosque

today.  Jafaar says he used to play soccer here among the ruins as a child before UNECO came in to preserve the site.  They actually had to excavate the site because the foundations had become buried over the centuries. Each side of the minaret has a different motif of floral designs, inscriptions, and arched windows with molded terra cotta design.  The minaret is topped with merlons which are small squared off humps that rim the top and it is capped by 3 gilt bronze spheres.  The minaret is the tallest structure in the city and affords great views so we are told. Only Muslims may go up in the tower to see it.

 

The Bahia Palace

The Bahia Palace

From here we took our caleches to the Palais Bahia ( Bahia Palace), one of the few palaces in the country that are open to the public. The name means Palace of the Favorite (that would be favorite wife/and or concubine).   It was stared 1866-67 and  later added on to by two father and son Grand Viziers ( which means they are  more or less the right hand guys of the reigning sultan, with varying degrees of influence).  The palace was built in two distinct parts. The dad Grand Vizier, Si Moussa , built  a very architecturally pleasing suite of apartments  around a courtyard in the riad style.  The son Grand Vizier, Ba  Ahmed

The Courtyard of the Bahia Palace

The Interior of the Bahia Palace

went for a much larger and more opulent design and brought in the finest materials and craftsmen to decorate it, but without so much of a unified plan. When Ba Ahmed was Grand Vizier he assumed the role of regent to the then 14 year old sultan, with pretty much free access to the sultan’s piggy bank.  Ba was reportedly quite obese so he had almost all the apartments built on the ground floor.  He had 4 wives and 24 concubines so he needed a lot of space.  The size of each wife’s or concubine’s living quarters was commensurate with their importance. And of course with 28 women living together and competing for the

 

The Courtyard of the Bahia Palace

The Courtyard of the Bahia Palace

attentions of one chubby Grand Vizier, things were always interesting at the Palais Bahia . When the Ba Ahmed died in 1900 there was a mad scramble for his stuff among wives and concubines and assorted other acquaintances and persons unknown to him. Some  of the ladies of the house escaped with their goodies, but those left behind got tossed out with nothing by the new king. When the French Protectorate was established the first Resident General,  Marshal Lyautey chose this as his residence.

 

The Spice Shop

The 100,000 Spices Shop

We were scheduled to visit the Saadian Tombs dating back to the 16th to 18th centuries, which we arrived at though a series of narrow alleyways, but it was so crowded, we opted to go first to the Moorish Spice Market  Shop  which was blissfully air conditioned with chairs for all. The name of is is the 100,000 Spices Shop.  We didn’t count, but they did have a lot, plus they had a wide selection or Argan Oil products and a very entertaining Moroccan Spice Girl hawking the products. Our whole group loaded up on assorted spices as well as argan oil products.  It comes from kernels found on the argan tree and, and of course, we are guaranteed that we will look fabulous once we use it. I also bought some Berber lipstick which involves wetting your finger and applying a stain to your lips.  The verdict – it is colorful, but not glossy and doesn’t moisturize much.

Entrance to the Saadian Tombs

Entrance to the Saadian Tombs

After the Spice Shop we tried the Saadian Tombs again and were somewhat impressed with the ornate funerary architecture of the mausoleums there, but after the Bahia Palace, it didn’t seem to offer too much drama. There are 166 tombs here, but only 12 of the most exalted royals are inside the mausoleum.  The rest are outside and are the tombs of servants and soldiers who served the Saadians. The entire complex in within high walls erected several hundred  years ago when the tombs were sealed off by a succesive dynasties. And even though they are in the middle of the medina of Marrakech , they were only discovered in 1917 and restored.

Streets of the Medina

Streets of the Medina

From there we walked around the medina (which is really the only way to see it). The area is completely encircled by ramparts built of pise and the walls change colors throughout the day in shades of terra cotta and ochre. These walls are 12 miles long, 6 feet thick and 30 feet high.  Access to the medina is through elaborate gates (Babs in Arabic) of carved wood and stone which could be closed in case of attack.

 

 

AGame of Chance in the Place Jemaa El-Fna

A Game of Chance in the Place Jemaa El-Fna

We stopped and had to simply gawk at the most iconic square in Morocco, the Place Jemaa El Fna (pronounced  Plass Ji-mah-el- fin-nah,  with accents on “plass”  “mah” and “nah”).  It has a carnival-like atmosphere day and night with games of chance, (e.g.  using a ring on a string on a long pole to place over an upright coke bottle to win a fabulous prize).  There was also a vast array of entertainers – musicians playing assorted exotic instruments, dancers, acrobats, mimes and so forth. There were all sorts of vendors including water sellers, fresh orange juice vendors and souvenir merchants. Here we also saw  fortune

 

Jemaa El Fna Vendors

Jemaa El Fna Vendors

tellers reading palms, snake charmers with live cobras sinuously ascending out of woven baskets, and men with tame hawks  and costumed macaques (very tiny monkeys) ready to clamber on your head for a photo op in exchange for a modest (if you could negotiate it) fee. The bane of their existence is the smart phone with tourists snapping away and wandering off before they can collect for the goods (the goods being the digital image captured on the phone).  This collection business actually becomes part of the entertainment. Picture the snake charmer cramming his cobra back into the basket and taking off after the offending

A Caleche in the Place Jemaa El-Fna

A Caleche in the Place Jemaa El-Fna

tourists in hot pursuit.  But there were so many, and they have gone in different directions.  If he does catch up to one, there is a lively exchange and sometimes money changes hands, sometimes not. At this point the snake charmer has to make a business decision. His internal dialog may go like this (expletives deleted – feel free to insert your own): “Should I try to collect from this pilfering deadbeat at the cost of losing revenue from other people who want a photo op? Oh there are people taking my picture now creating this scene with a tourist – can I collect from them?  Oh here come the tourist police who are going to drag me off for harassing the tourists which is not allowed. Oh crap someone is lifting the lid of my cobra basket back at my blanket and everyone will see my cobra is a fake” . . . and so forth.

Tea Sellers offering Photo Ops

Tea Sellers offering Photo Ops

The Place Jemaa El-Fna has not always been so much fun. Until the 19th Century criminals were beheaded here, sometimes as many as 45 a day. Their heads were pickled and hung on the city gates. Talk about a photo op. The souks of Marrakech  branch off the Place Jemaa El-Fna in all directions, and are generally grouped by craft. For example, there is the Souk Chouari for baskets and wood crafts, fabric and finished leather goods are sold, the Souk Smata for shoes and belts, and the Souk Kimakhin for stringed instruments . Some shops are mere open air stalls, but the Kissarias are more upscale shops in buildings with lights and doors.  One of the most interesting (and seemingly disorganized) market places in the medina is the Rahba Kedima (Old Square,) selling everything from rugs to healing potions to live chickens in lively open air chaos.

La Mamounia Hotel

La Mamounia Hotel

We had lunch at a great Italian place.  It was pizza – thankfully not Moroccan which we had grown tired of after 2 weeks of a steady diet of it. We followed up quite appropriately with a most delicious gelato. We had some free time so we did a little shopping at the souk, which is the largest one in all of Morocco, and explored the medina and square on our own for further entertainment.   We walked back to the hotel which turned out to be a major trek, but we treated ourselves en route to a peek at Winston Churchill’s favorite hotel – the most luxurious La Mamounia Hotel and Gardens, formerly the home of an 18th Century  sultan. It opened as a hotel in 1923 and has hosted a vast array of personages of note ever since.

Sunset in Marrakech

Sunset in Marrakech

For dinner we walked back to the Jemaa El-Fna Square for the night’s entertainment. We found it to be wall to wall with people.  The walk itself was akin to being among a horde of people heading into a stadium for a major college football game, or perhaps more apt in the case, a Barnum and Bailey Circus. En route, one of our fellow travelers found a horseshoe, quite worn, that had apparently been “thrown” by a local caleche horse at some point and she gave it to Gary.  Shortly afterward a few of us did have a narrow escape from a caleche being driven at a gallop through a red light down one of the  streets we were

Finding a Lucky Horseshoe

Finding a Lucky Horseshoe

crossing,  but we promptly scattered and scampered out of his way and remained unscathed, no doubt we felt, due to the finding of the lucky  horse shoe. We started out from the hotel with about 12 people from our tour group, but ended up with only 6 since some were not as enchanted by the mob scene vibe as we were.

The snake and monkey people were replaced by street vendors selling all sorts of food, although the games of skill and chance remained and some magicians had cropped up and the familiar scent of popcorn was in the air. The venue had morphed into

 

Food Seller in the Place Jemaa El-Fna

Food Seller in the Place Jemaa El-Fna

something like a State Fair with probably 10 times as many people, with a few extras not found at State Fairs such as tooth pullers and barbers. There were literally thousands of people eating and drinking – (tea that is), laughing and having fun at food booths and tables that had been set up for the evening.  We found it reminiscent of Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but no guns and no booze, which with this many people present, cannot be a bad thing at all. We are told that this gathering happens nightly, but on Saturday night it is always the most crowded. We found it to be endlessly entertaining, and apparently the Moroccans do as well, although I will say this is something travelers will enjoy, tourists maybe not and the faint of heart should really not attempt it.

Place Jemaa El Fna at night

Place Jemaa El Fna at night

We went into one of the local restaurants (in a building versus and tent or stand) to take in the view on the second floor terrace that is designated the Terasse Panoramique, which was indeed panoramic and afforded us a great view of the goings on in the Square, which proved to be so much larger than we could imagine down below amidst the throngs of people. We enjoyed a Fanta Orange while taking in the spectacle before us since our first choice (wine) was not offered at the Terasse Panoramique.  We rejoined the crowds on the square and strolled among the food stalls trying to decide where to eat. Each stall had its own

 

Dining Among the Throngs of People

Dining Among the Throngs of People

“barkers” who entreated us to come to their establishment for the most fabulous meal ever. If a party agrees to sit at their tables for dinner, the staff,  (chef, cashier, waiters)   at that particular place breaks into spontaneous applause. We settled on  a place for dinner  at the intersection of two  “thoroughfares”  in the rows of vendors to maximize our people watching amid our own thunderous applause from the staff. We continue to be impressed with the warmth and hospitality of the Moroccans.  It is not the least unusual, and in fact hospitality is part of their religion, and they definitely walk the talk.

 

Kebabs and Fries For Dinner

Kebabs and Fries For Dinner

Seating was family style although we ordered individual dishes. At our table we had 2 Brits, 2 Japanese, 1 Moroccan and 6 Americans.  We had mixed grill kebabs (lamb and chicken),  French fries and more Fanta, all for only $13. The whole experience here may best be described as an assault on the senses, almost all positive, but I must say the music was really  quite a cacophony of sounds – interesting, but not so melodious that you’d want to get the CD.

Back in our hotel room, Gary took the horseshoe out of his backpack and placed it on the dresser. As we were getting ready for bed we detected a most distinctive odor that we immediately diagnosed as horse poop. Sure enough, there in the grooves and nail holes was the offending substance. After some soaking and scrubbing (you never know when those disposable back up toothbrushes will come in handy) we got it clean and left it on a towel to dry.  I can only imagine what the hotel maid must have thought when she cleaned our room the next morning.

 

March 2, 2014

Dateline: Marrakech

The Jardin Marjorelle

The Jardin de Marjorelle

We awoke to another beautiful day to the sounds of doves cooing and horses’ hooves clopping.  Today’s plan started with a tour the Jardin de Majorelle. (Majorelle Garden) in what is called New Town or Gueliz which is northwest of the medina,  The builder of gardens was a French painter named Jacques Majorelle who came to Marrakech in 1919 and found the light to be exceptional for painting and moved here. He built a villa and lived here until his death in 1962. His chosen colors to complement his garden where he planted specimens from all over the world  were rich shades of deep blue, dark red and

Garden Grounds

Garden Grounds

emerald green.  The gardens are quite luxuriant with fountains and ponds and all sorts of plants including giant clumps of bougainvillea that tower over all the buildings. Majorelle had gathered plants from all over the world to create this beautiful green oasis of peace and quiet in the middle of a very raucous city. The villa and gardens were later bought by French designer, Yves St. Laurent and there is  a tribute to him in the gardens.

There is a small museum on the grounds referred to as the Berber Museum, which contains Moroccan crafts ranging from

The Berber Museum at the Jardin de Majorelle

The Berber Museum at the Jardin de Majorelle

rugs to ceramics and Berber doors as well as 40 engravings of villages and casbahs created by Majorelle.  We also briefly visited the Marrakech Museum, but by this point we were feeling quite overloaded with Moroccan museums so we had a rather cursory look. I did see a quote on the wall  by Voltaire that  I felt worth noting: “ I choose to be happy because it is good for my health” Amen to that.

We visited the  Ali Ben Youssef Merdersa , a Koranic School with a capacity to house 900 boys  in its 18,000 square feet.  It was established in the 14th Century, along with a mosque by the

The Merdersa Ben Youssef

The Merdersa Ben Youssef

same name which was once attached to it.  It is a riad, in that is has an interior courtyard, built around a fountain and is very elaborately decorated with intricate zelijj (fired clay, colored and glazed) tile work, carved cedar,  plaster and marble. The lodgings for the boys were cell-like arranged around the courtyard.  Here we had the ablution (washing) ritual explained to us. Washing before prayer is required by the Islamic Religion to achieve Purity. God saw that people were dirty and it displeased Him and so he decreed that people should was before prayer and thus there is water at every mosque. If there is not any

 

A View from a Student's Room at the Medersa

A View from a Student’s Room at the Medersa

water, there is still a ritual that is used in lieu of it called Tayammum which involves earth or sand.  There is the Big Ablution called Ghusl which involves washing  the whole head, then the Left Side and the Right Side of the body and all other parts in that order.  The Small Ablution is called Wudu and it involves washing the mouth, nostrils, hands and feet.  You would perform the Big or the Small based on what you had been doing before prayers.

We then  again re-visited the souks of the medina  and found it not the least bit repetitious.  The medinas of all the places we

In the Streets of the Medina

In the Streets of the Medina

have been were fascinating, but the Marrakesh medina is more or less the crown jewel of medinas and defies adequate description.  In the narrow alleys of the souks there are mostly pedestrians, but there are a sufficient number of donkey carts, human powered push carts,  bicycles, mopeds and scooters to keep you on your toes. The merchandise is seemingly endless – not just tourist kitsch, but things we would buy in supermarkets and department stores – all in a glorious apparent hodgepodge, despite knowing  the craft groupings such as leather goods, metal goods, clothing, spices, jewelry, shoes and so forth.  The trick was finding your way to the section that sold the things you were looking for with going in circles, but the locals are always obliging and willing to help.

The Shoe Souk

The Shoe Souk

We started out in the leather goods sections with seemingly acres of shoes and belts for sale. Not only did they sell the goods here, they made the goods here. There were stacks of tanned leather hides piled in every conceivable place, even draped over a motorcycle. We were not sure whether it was running and if the driver would have to move the hides to take off on it, but it did provide rather distinctive storage. We were stunned by the vast array of merchandise and wondered how it is ever all sold. Jaafar told us that the merchandise that does not sell here goes to people out in the country to sell, and is thus the source for all  of

The Silver Souk

The Silver Souk

the inventory that pops up along the roadsides and at tourist attractions. Also the big souks funnel merchandise to the lesser souks in the small towns – another version of trickle down economics.

One of the most interesting stops here was a special bakery where local people who do not have ovens bring their bread dough to be baked into loaves.   A baker typically bakes for the whole neighborhood.   The specialty bread here is the round loaf called khobz (to pronounce you would drop the “k” and “h” to

 

At the Local Bakery

At the Local Bakery

pronounce it “obz”). These are not conventional ovens as we know them since no electricity is involved. They are made of clay, wood fired and shaped like an igloo. For fuel the baker uses scrap lumber collected from various building projects around town. The baker brands a mark into each loaf so he can distinguish one customer’s loaf from another. We tasted samples right out of the oven which were mouth-wateringly good. If they had fresh butter to smear on them, we might still be there.

 

A Little Hammam Music

A Little Hammam Music

We also stopped at a local hammam (steam bath) which didn’t have any customers at the moment to see how it was done in the olden days and is still done today in the poorer quarters of the city. The proprietor was quite a character who demonstrated how he uses straw from old mattresses as fuel for the fire to heat the water to make the steam. He also plays music on a strange guitar looking thing (but with not so many strings) and twirls the tassel on his hat in time with the music. He offered us the opportunity to try it, but no one could spin a tassel like he could.

 

Lamb to Go in the Medina

Lamb to Go in the Medina

We stopped for lunch at a place that roasted a whole lamb and chopped it up and slapped it on a rickety table on a sheet of butcher paper. The presentation was a little lacking, but this was the most delicious lamb I’ve ever had (and I don’t even like lamb as a rule).  It had been cooked whole in a pit in the floor of the food stall. They skewered it with a really large skewer and lowered it down to cook for hours. Then they chop it up and serve it in the restaurant (using the term loosely) upstairs.

We had free time this afternoon so we visited a government run

 

Donkeys and Drivers for Hire in the Medina

Donkeys and Drivers for Hire in the Medina

artisan’s market.  Our timing must have been off since many shops were closed so we decided to walk to the train station (Gare) to buy our tickets for tomorrow. We were thinking of  the Marrakesh Express  which was the title of a 1969 song by Crosby, Stills and Nash. We got a lot of blank stares, when we mentioned it so we suspect some artistic license was taken – plus this was way too far back for the average kid in Morocco to hear and the local adults our age, well they weren’t listening to American Music back in the day.

 

There was an interesting queue to purchase tickets at the train station. Instead of a single file line, it was more like a scrimmage with people crowding in from all sides.  We finally got to the ticket window and found the seller spoke little English so I tried some Spanish on him, with a smattering of French words that I know thrown in for good measure.  Somehow he understood what we wanted and we got a reservation and tickets (cost was $280 dirhams – ($23.00) for the following morning to Casablanca.  Not totally trusting our success, I had Jafaar verify that we achieved our mission successfully and were not accidentally ticketed to Timbuktu.

We had a Farewell dinner at La Jacaranda, a very nice French restaurant and bid our traveling companions and guides farewell. Our fellow travelers were flying out early the next day, but we were going back to Casablanca by train for an extra night.

March 3, 2014

Dateline:  Casablanca

The Gare du Marrakech

The Gare du Marrakech

We were awakened just after dawn by rather loud cooing and pulled back our drapes to see two plump doves on our balcony providing us with a most melodious send-off from Marrakech.  Under cloudy skies we took a taxi to the train station for our 11:00 a.m. train trip – 3 and 1/2 hours to Casablanca. The city could definitely use the rain, not only for the vegetation, but for the streets. The caleche horses wear poop catchers, but when they otherwise relieve themselves,  it splashes right on the street where it accumulates until  it rains. Our destination on the ONCF  (the French abbreviation for Office National des Chemins de Fer)  train today is the Casa Voyageur (not Spanish – casa is short for Casablanca).

On the "Marrakech Express"

On the “Marrakech Express”

On the train we passed through very non-exotic countryside – farms for the most part, with much more modern farm equipment than we have been seeing, but there was the occasional donkey hauling somebody or something. We took a taxi to the hotel with a very entertaining cabbie and a very exciting ride. It seems that while they have wide streets where cars can drive 10 to 12 abreast, there are no marked lanes and few signal lights so it is pretty much like a cavalry charge. Downtown Casablanca seems much more cosmopolitan than other Moroccan cities, with high rise hotels , office buildings and banks,  but you can still see the stray chicken strolling the sidewalk and apparently there is no cable TV since there is a satellite dish sprouting on every roof top (and not the little inconspicuous ones either).

Hardware Shopping in Casablanca

Hardware Shopping in Casablanca

We checked into the Hotel des Almohades which was just a short walk to the old medina (they actually have an old and a new. The old medina dates back centuries and new means built in the 1930’s in an attempt by the French to spread people out a little. Prior to the arrival of the French, the entire city of Casablanca was contained within the walls of the Old Medina.  It started to rain and we had no umbrella so we stopped in a small shop and bought one. Not 5 minutes later the rain ceased and did not come back the rest of the day. It remained cloudy, but we were glad for the cooler temperatures it afforded us.  We also needed to buy a nut and bolt to repair a wheel on Gary’s duffle which had suffered a mortal injury on the train trip. We went into a lamp shop and tried a little sign language and we  got a bolt but that was all.

Mickey D's in Casablanca

Mickey D’s in Casablanca

We ran across a McDonald’s on our way to the medina and greedily wolfed down burgers and fries and Diet Cokes, which tasted fantastic after two weeks of exotic dishes. It was filled with local people in all manner of dress. The younger ones, say 40’s and under, tended to wear Western dress. The older ones were more traditional with head coverings called hijabs. It was not until we went through the gate of the  Old Medina that we saw the women in really traditional dress with caftans, jellabas and hijabs, but very few covered faces.  And speaking of faces, we saw several older Berber women here with facial tattoos just below their lower lip. It looks kind of like a skinny soul patch, but I understand it is a tribal symbol called siyala and was believed to provide protection from evil spirits.

At the Hardware Store with Omar

At the Hardware Store with Omar

We met a sign painter named Omar who, having no work that day, sort of latched on to us and ended up giving us a free tour. His English was quite good and he was able to understand the nut and bolt dilemma right away. He proceeded to shepherd us through the souk to a stall of sorts which happened to specialize in hardware odds and ends. Within minutes the proprietor came up with a nut and a washer, and even a tiny wrench faster than you could say Home Depot.

We then walked with Omar through the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Jewish Quarters. Omar said that Jews and Muslims have

The Old Souk - Casablanca

The Old Souk – Casablanca

lived side by side for centuries here with no problems.  In fact he pointed out a doorway that is shared by a mosque and a synagogue – sort of a duplex arrangement. Omar says the fighting between Muslims and Jews is both economical and political – not cultural or religious. We have heard this said throughout our Middle East travels as well.

We saw several tables where the services of letter writers could be obtained, and Omar explained that there are still many older Moroccans who are illiterate. We also stopped at the shops of

 

The Alabama Sandwich Shop featuring Omar's Handiwork

The Alabama Sandwich Shop featuring Omar’s Handiwork

several of his friends in the souk, including one vendor who had interesting crafts from the Atlas Mountains and we bought a mask to go in our collection. Omar pointed out along the way various signs that he had painted (a tour highlight of Omar’s Tours), many of which were in dire need of new paint.   One such highlight was the Alabama Sandwich Shop, named for the U.S, Navy ship that the owner had served on at one time. He introduced the son of the owner who gave us samples to taste.  He also showed us one of the commercial bakeries where everyone brings their dough to be baked and again we had more samples.

 

Inside the Spanish Church

Inside the Spanish Church

He showed us around the souk, plus several historical sites including the Spanish Church, and the Fortress, which overlooks  the shipyard and harbor. He also showed us the derelict house where Marshal Lyautey (France’s first Resident General)  reportedly discretely rendezvoused with several gay friends. Marshal Lyautey played a major role in France’s ruling of Morocco as a Protectorate for over 4 decades. The happenings in this particular house were considered quite scandalous at the time, and thus the house has been largely ignored by UNESCO and other organizations dedicated to preserving history (At least

 

Marshal Lyautey's Hideaway

Marshal Lyautey’s Hideaway

this is the inside scoop from Omar).

From there we went through the Bab el-Marsa which translates as the Gate of the Sea on onto the grounds of the sqala, a fortified bastion build during the 18th century which afforded us a view of the harbor. This gate also marks the spot where the French  landed in  1907 to establish the Protectorate outlined in the Treaty of Algeciras, and of course they kept right on “protecting” Morocco until the mid 1950’s.

 

In the Old Medina

In the Old Medina

We came to the conclusion that Omar apparently knows everyone in the medina. We also noticed that almost all people in the medina that we encountered were locals and thus we were fairly sure we were off the beaten path, which is one of our favorite places to go.  Everywhere we went there were smiles and greetings and warmth and out of the hundreds of people we encountered, there was not a single grouch in the bunch. We found this re-enforced our belief in the warmth of the Moroccan people – i.e. they hadn’t been coached on how to treat tourists – it just comes naturally to them.

Omar's Signs on Display - Ready for a Touchup

Omar’s Signs on Display – Ready for a Touchup

Omar, himself, was a very interesting person – He is an army veteran who is one of 18 children and now has 5 of his own children. He is small, quite gaunt and only had 2 teeth that we could see, which along with his Arabic accent made him kind of hard to understand, so we had to listen closely. We were stunned to learn he was in his 40’s since he could pass for late 60’s on a good day, but he was such a serendipitous find and we ended up spending 3 hours with him.  He did not ask for any money, but we gave him 90 dirham (about $7.50) for the “tour” and he  was so excited. He said he was going to buy a chicken and some fresh vegetables at the souk for his family to eat that night, so we gathered that he is having trouble making ends meet.

Walking back to our hotel we heard multiple calls to prayer by what sounded to be dueling muezzins (as opposed to dueling banjos). We had been told that all muezzins use the same words, but there are certainly  differences in the quality and musicality of their voices.

We went back to the hotel for a little Wi-Fi time to sort of ease our way back to the First World. Then we went out to buy some chocolate and have dinner. We ate at the neighborhood Kentucky Fried Chicken. It tasted good to our taste buds that had been awash in tagines for so long. We found it to be good, but a little goes a long way. Sometimes you just need to eat some fried chicken.

We were surprised at how many people are out on the streets at night mostly socializing and strolling, even in this urban high rise neighborhood. This is in stark contrast to so many suburban Americans (like us)   who often insulate ourselves in our homes.  We have always found it enriching to get out and about and experience new things and meet new people.  We certainly have been afforded that opportunity here in Morocco.

 

March 4, 2014

Dateline: Atlanta, GA

We took a taxi to the airport in Casablanca with no shock absorbers and lots of squeaks, and lots of thrills too as we darted though traffic. Taxis in Casablanca are almost all ancient Mercedes Benz sedans (35 to 40 years old) and painted beige. This is the luxury cab. You can get what they call at petit taxi, all of which are red, for a cheaper fare, but we had luggage and we wanted a touch of luxury ( a very small touch) on our last morning in Morocco. The price should be 250 dirhams per the hotel which was about $20. The cabbie, we assume having given us such a thrilling ride, thought  we would want to round it up to 300, but we said no and paid him the 250 which he took with a shrug and a sheepish smile. We had left the hotel at 7:30 for a 10:25 on an Air France flight, again connecting at Paris DeGaulle, so we had time for croissants and last minute shopping to get rid of most of our leftover Moroccan money

We had a 3 hour flight to Paris, a 1 and ½ hour layover, and then caught a 4:10 flight bound for Atlanta which should have taken 9 hours, but due to a powerful jet stream, turned into an uneventful 11 hour flight. Things did turn “eventful” however when we landed at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard time and our luggage failed to appear.  We learned that it apparently has missed the connection in Paris and after two days in Paris, it came home to us, none the worse for wear for its French sojourn.

 

 

 




Tunisia Part 1: Tunis to Tozeur

 Tunisia

 Part 1: Tunis to Tozeur

 Saturday, February 10, 2007

Dateline: Tunis, Tunisia,

Latitude at Tunis 36.56 N, Longitude 10.17 E

 

Back in the autumn of 2006, I was perusing the usual collection of unsolicited mail (a.k.a. junk mail), when I happened upon a brochure from Vantage Travel touting an exotic adventure in the Sahara with endless vistas of sparkling desert, palm fringed oases shimmering in the distance, exotic markets brimming with bargains. I yelled to Gary, who was several rooms away “Hey, you want to go to Tunisia?” to which he replied “Yeah. Where is it?” After consulting the atlas, we took the plunge and here we are. Where exactly is “here”, you may ask? We’re at Latitude 36.56 North and Longitude 10.17 East, but if that doesn’t ring a bell, it’s on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, 80 miles southwest of Sicily, nestled between those two hotbeds of international intrigue, Algeria and Libya.

 

We should have had a clue that we were heading off into the unknown when we attempted to exchange currency – dollars for dinars (the Tunisian currency – pronounced “dee-nahrs” with the accent on the “nahrs”) at the international concourse at the Atlanta Airport. The cashier at the Amex Currency exchange said “Say whut?” After we indeed repeated “whut” a few times, the next comment was “spell that”, followed next by “don’t have none of that.” When we finally did get some of “that” the exchange rate was 1.3 Tunisian dinars to $1.00.

 

Tunisian currency notwithstanding, we caught our overnight flight to Paris to make our connection with no excitement (I’m a huge fan of boring flights) and with 2 hours to spare at Charles de Gaulle Airport, we figured on scoring some dinars there. However, we didn’t count on 3 bus trips, 10 flights of stairs and two security checkpoints as part of our connection. The airport has gate ramps, but apparently Delta doesn’t have one of them for some reason. I’ve spent less time on a guided tour than we did just getting from one plane to the next.  It seems to me that if you’re going to spend that much time in a bus in Paris, you’d at least get a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.

 

Anyway, two and half hours after takeoff, we made our approach into Tunis. Our first impression from the window of the plane was of a sunny Carolina blue sky, white buildings on a hilly khaki landscape, grey-blue pewter colored seas with towering white capped waves breaking on a rocky shore with date palms swaying in a fresh breeze – well actually the breeze was quite strong and they were doing more “whipping” than swaying, but whipping palms just sort of kills the imagery, doesn’t it?

 

Our local guide is Kamel (pronounced Kah-mel with the accent on the “mel”) and is of Berber extraction. Our program director is Roberto and is from Siena, Italy so I shouldn’t expect a local name I suppose. I think I had envisioned someone named Habib leading us into the desert, as I am quite intrigued by that name, so intrigued in fact, that I have dubbed Gary “Habib” for the duration of this trip. Roberto is half French, half Italian, grew up in Tunisia and speaks 5 languages, so I suspect he will do nicely. Our bus driver is named Munir, (pronounced “Moo near” with an accent on “near”) which has a nice exotic ring to it, except that he has red hair and looks more like a Mike or a Paddy than a Munir. Arabic is the first language here and French is the second (both mandated by law), with English being the third, mandated by the economy and the tourist trade. There is a trick to pronouncing the words here. So far I’ve found a D in front of a J is silent (Djerba is pronounced “Jer-bah accent on Jer as in gerbil.), a H after K is silent (e.g. the name of our hotel is Khamsa, but is pronounced with no “h” sound).

 

Tunisia is perhaps the most prosperous country in Africa, with the middle class being around 75% of the population. Close to 100% of homes have electricity (nomads in tents don’t count) and 75% have running water in the home so they’re still working on that. However 84% of the homes have television sets so that those with TV’s, but without water, might have to run down the street for it during commercials. A sign of the times is that only 26% of homes have telephones,  but cell phones are everywhere and so that  other74% may never get wired. Car ownership is low – only 17%, but mopeds make up for a lot of the difference.

 

There are many French customs – lots of man-to-man kissing going on here, which is also big with the Arabs. Protocol calls for sort of an air kiss three times, on alternating cheeks. The local people are very warm, courteous and friendly with a ready smile and a bon jour being the norm.

 

Government District of Tunis

Government District of Tunis

The population is 10 million with  2.2 million in metro Tunis, the capital. Tunisia has been a Republic since 1957 and has 24 “governorates”, (comparable to our states). They have a President (now selected in elections), but also have an elected Prime Minister and legislative branches, political parties and all that. The Islamic Fundamentalist Party is outlawed in Tunisia. The government is considered secular, but it does support the mosques financially. Imams are actually appointed by the government so church and state aren’t really separated here, but in this case the government is controlling church vs. other way around. Tunisia is very close to Europe with ferries going to Marseilles, Sicily and Genoa regularly. Tunisians are overwhelming Muslim (98%), with 1% Christian, 1% Jewish, but everyone seems to be tolerant of everyone else. Of course this hasn’t always been the case. Northern Tunisia is not at all 3rdworld, although the Bedouin in the south certainly fit the bill there.

 

Over the centuries there have been a lot of invasions, some in the name of religion and some just for power or wealth. The history of Tunisia, consists of a long list of conquerors taking over the country, leaving their mark and moving on. The invasions (some subtle and some not so much so) went something like this:

 

The Berber Period: the oldest known inhabitants were here as far back as 10,000 BC. The North Coast of Africa was home to an ethnic group called the Berbers (ethnic group meaning they have a common language, religion, fixed territory and so forth). Bedouins are nomads and are not members of any particular ethnic group (They can be Berber, Arab, Egyptian, etc.) and can roam anywhere in North Africa or the Middle East.

 

The Punic Period:  The Berbers, were living here minding their own business when along came the Phoenicians in 814 BC from current day Tyre in Lebanon and various parts of Syria. Queen Dido of Phoenicia founded Carthage in 814 BC after having had a dispute with her brother, Pygmalion, the King and took all the treasure she could lay her hands on, rounded up her followers and left. (Actually it was more than a mere squabble. Her brother killed her husband out of concern that he might try to overthrow him and Miss Dido seemed to see the handwriting on the wall). They called the people they found here “babaroi”  a terms used to identify anyone who did not speak Greek, and the word eventually evolved to Berber. The first Phoenician settlement was a trading post called Utica (yup they had it first before New York named their town that). They set up second trading post at Sousse and a third  at Carthage, which seems to have gotten all of the historical headlines – primarily because it developed into a magnificent city and the heart of a powerful empire, until they tangled with Rome of course. The Phoenicians were termed “Punic” by the Romans and since the Romans won all three of the Punic Wars over a period of 118 years from 263 to 146 BC, their name has stuck. The central issue between the two superpowers was control of Sicily and control of trade throughout the Mediterranean

 

The most famous warrior of Carthage was Hannibal. Our guide pronounces his name “Honey-bull”, but then who are we to contradict? Maybe that’s how the guy pronounced his name himself. Any way Honey-bull led his countrymen against the Romans in the 2nd Punic War with the unusual strategy of invading Rome in 218 BC by shipping 37 elephants across the Mediterranean and driving them across the Alps. He did invade Rome, but was eventually driven back to Africa where he was defeated at the battle of Zama in 202 BC. Back at home in Carthage,  Hannibal tried to introduce some democratic reforms, which the ruling class always thinks is a bad idea, and was subsequently forced into exile. Hannibal killed himself in despair (no money, no empire, no glory, and no Prozac) in 182 BC, but Carthage lived on to fight the Third and final Punic War.

 

The Roman Period This period started in 146 BC. The Romans decided to take Carthage for their own, along with a lot of other locales around the countryside after the 3rd Punic War. They settled the previous two wars by forcing the Carthaginians to pay tribute (not the flowery words sort of tribute, but rather in the form of gold, silver, slaves and so forth). However, they finally decided after the 3rd Punic war that if they didn’t wipe them out, there would just be a 4th Punic War and it could go on and on. So they destroyed Carthage and set up shop – Roman style. Things went swimmingly for the Romans for around 600 hundred years until the Empire began to crumble and those pesky Vandals swooped down from the north and of course “vandalized” Carthage in 439 A.D. The Vandals as it turned out were more inclined to pillage and well, vandalize,  than colonize or build an empire someone else would want to pillage and vandalize. Once they cleaned a place out, they tended to move on, and thus there isn’t a Vandal period per se and Tunisia was pretty much ripe for takeover with the door left wide-open for the Byzantines.

 

The Byzantine Period: In the wake of the Vandals, Emperor Justinian of Byzantium did some swooping in himself in 533 AD and set up his own empire, but the Byzantine rule was relatively short-lived and they began to lose ground to the Arabs

 

The Arab-Islamic Period: Then next period began in 647 AD as the Arabs began moving in and establishing control through their religion, Islam, and gradually taking over Byzantine held territory. By 698 AD their mission was complete. Islam proved to have some serious staying power as the Muslims fought thousands of Crusaders, including King Louis IX of France in 1270 in what proved to the 8th and Last Crusade. It went badly for Louis since he caught the plague during the siege of Carthage and died. Of course went badly for the surviving Crusaders too and they packed up and went home to crusade no more.

 

The Ottoman Period: The  Ottoman Turks came along in 1574 AD and brought what is today Tunisia into the Ottoman empire with the help of the corsairs (a.k.a. Barbary Pirates made famous in modern times by Errol Flynn, swashbuckler extraordinaire), including the famous Barbarossa (which translates from Spanish as “red beard – no doubt some of those Vandal hair genes emerging, along with that Vandal attitude). They were called Corsairs which was roughly equivalent to the British privateers–who were doing the same thing. Basically it’s a case of pirates receiving a license to steal from a sponsoring government, enabling them to attack any ship flying under the flag of another country, enemy or otherwise. This resulted in many governments paying protection money to Tunisia to ensure their ships would not be attacked. The US however sent in the Marines which gave rise to the lyrics in the Marine Hymn which reference “the Shores of Tripoli”.  Under the Ottomans, Tunisia had a long fairly stable and prosperous period (much easier to achieve when the pirates are on your side, with only occasional outbreaks of the plague and other inconveniences. However, due to increased pressure from other nations, piracy was finally outlawed by Tunisia in 1819. But then the French moved in.

 

The French Period: Under the guise of providing protection to the Algerians, the neighbor to the west of Tunisia, the French in 1836 sent 30,000 troops, set up foreign legion posts and eventually colonized Tunisia. There was a local “bey” (ruler) appointed by the French, but he was clearly a ruler in name only and France was calling all the shots. French Foreign Legion posts were set up across the country, much like the one featured in the old movie, Beau Geste, but with a lot less drama and romance no doubt. Tunisia was struggling to become independent and France very graciously offered to help out by becoming a “guarantor” of Tunisia’s independence. Becoming a guarantor of freedom very closely resembled colonization, a pretense kept up for about the next  90 years, until they made it official and set up a protectorate in 1881 and put an end to all pretense of freedom for the locals.

 

In WWII Tunisia was a major battle site (you may recall a TV show called Rat Patrol that portrayed events here and across North Africa). There is a British Military cemetery here containing the remains of 9,000 soldiers, a German one with close to 8,000 and an American one in Carthage with around 3500. Tunisia was occupied from November of 1942 to May of 1943 by the Italians and Germans. When the Americans came into the war in Europe after Pearl Harbor, North Africa was their first real engagement with Germany at Kasserine Pass on the Algerian border. Unfortunately the Germans were well trained and well led by Erwin Rommel (a.k.a. the Desert Fox) and decimated the U.S. troops here in January of 1943. Only after the combined efforts of troops under Generals Patton and  Montgomery, were the Germans pushed back. If you’ve seen the movie Patton, the first half hour or so takes place in Tunisia, and in fact one of the opening scenes is his surveying the losses at Kasserine Pass.

 

The City Gate of Tunis

The City Gate of Tunis

Independence: Due to a number of circumstances, including fighting a very costly war and needing to rebuild after the peace treaty in 1945, France was gradually releasing her hold on colonies all over the world and Tunisia was one of them. In a bloodless revolution, Tunisia became free of France in 1956. In 1957 Habib Bourgiba (their version of George Washington) supposedly became president-for-life, but he was eventually forced from office and elections were held. In 1987 a new president was elected and true democracy began to take hold.

 

The Tourist Invasion: Nowadays the only invaders are the tourists, and the occasional film crew, taking advantage of the local desert scenery and associated exotic ambiance.

The overwhelming majority of tourists are French (1.5m) or German (.8m). The US is in the  “Others” category with only 59k visitors per year.

 

We got settled in our room at the “5 star hotel”, the Khamsa Corinthian in Gammarth, a beach resort area just outside of Tunis. One of the first things we learned about Tunisia is the answer to the question “When is a star not a star?” The answer is when it’s used to describe a hotel in Tunisia.  Something gets lost in translation. The hotel is very striking, quite Moorish in design with a lot of marble and it is spotlessly clean. The setting is lovely – I’m looking out on the infinity pool and the Mediterranean beyond as I write, but it would probably only rate maybe 3 stars in the US. (no fluffy robes, no hovering staff, no obsequious concierge sucking up to you.), but it is quite adequate as a place to sleep. Tunisia is a developing country and among the things they are developing (or should be) are effective plumbing, accounts payable (i.e. having cash on hand to make change) basic hotelier details (like providing  towels in the bathroom). As a place to eat, well that is another story. But having said all that, it’s still a fabulous country.

 

We did have a lunch of sorts in the restaurant downstairs called Le Bistrot (a silent “T” this time) and unfortunately it left a lot to be desired. It’s a good thing we fancy ourselves as travelers and not tourists or we’d have a hard time seeing the humor here. My husband Gary,  not a picky eater,  had an onion soup which he said he would not order again, which in his parlance is tantamount to gagging. We split a club sandwich which had some sort of bologna-like substance on it which I refused to eat and Gary picked off the sandwich as he ate the remaining bread and chicken. But to be fair since we’re in a Muslim country, I guess I shouldn’t really have expected the bacon, but I really have to wonder, what was that faux-bologna stuff? This trip could be a real boon to my perpetual weight-loss program, except that I brought a lot of snacks (the high calorie type – many of which have chocolate as a main ingredient) in case the local cuisine is not to my liking. However, the trip is young and I will reserve judgment until more meals are consumed.

 

Tonight we had dinner and belly dancing. and yup, the tourists danced too, including Habib. The belly dancers were quite talented, but extremely well-fed, which I have to say makes for a much more interesting belly dance than you see with those hard-body girls.

The dinner specialty was lamb stew cooked in clay pots and Tunisian salad which includes tuna fish. Gary pronounced the stew as okay, but I only nibbled around the edges of my dinner and hit my chocolate stash back at the hotel room pretty hard.

 

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Dateline: Tunis, Tunisia

 

As we drove to our first stop, Kamel and Roberto shared some Arabic lingo with us, which I will share for your future reference and personal edification:

 

Yes = iyeh

No = la

Thank you = Shukran

Goodbye = Bislama

Hello =  Aslama

And most importantly when dealing with vendors of tourist wares

Go away = imshee.

 

Our first adventure was a walk through the Grand Souk (market) and Medina (old city). Medina is pronounced mah-dean-ah with the accent on “dean”. I thought it would be pronounced like Medina Ohio, but we Americans we have apparently changed the pronunciation to suit ourselves (I think we got this habit from the Brits).

 

Many of the people living here in centuries past were Jews and Muslims, expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella during the Spanish Inquisition, and thus the Andalusian influence is in much of the architecture. The souk is closed on Sundays (Tunisia kept the French custom of closure for government offices and banks), but a few shops operate on the Walmart model and are open when ever there are customers. The medina was once surrounded by fortress walls and gates which is called the Kasbah.  And thus was exposed as false another long-held misconception of mine.  I thought a Kasbah (a.k.a. Casbah) was a sinful, Prohibition sort of place where Bogart would slip in with Marlena Dietrich or maybe Mae West for a night of debauchery. They did have the little peepholes that they would slide open like in the speakeasies from Prohibition days to see who is requesting to be admitted, but that’s about where the similarity ends. The city gates (called “bab” in Arabic) are all that is left of the walls. It seems all of the wall’s stone ramparts were hauled off for other needs such as building houses and mosques. The “babs” all have names that translate as Girl’s Gate, Green Gate, French Gate, Honey Gate and so forth.

 

We saw a number of mosques, with two different shapes of minarets (towers) The traditional Tunisian minaret is square, but the Turks introduced the octagonal shape.  The government supports the maintenance for the mosques, and pays the imams, funds the medersas (Islamic schools a.k.a. madrassahs). The muezzins call the faithful to prayer and the imams lead congregations and serve as “teacher/preachers. A note on the medersas – one can only attend after graduating from secular school at the high school level – no religious browbeating or brainwashing of youngsters is allowed here. They attend Koranic school only if they want to be religious scholars or leaders (e.g. similar to a Christian seminary school) otherwise they attend a regular college as we know it, or they go to work or into the military.

 

We strolled by the Olive Tree Mosque which is the oldest in Tunisia, so named for an olive tree that formerly grew in its courtyard. We also strolled Avenue Habib Bourgiba, sort of Champs Elysee wannabe with a very western European feel – a wide tree-lined boulevard with sidewalk cafes and elegant shops. We heard the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer around 3:00. One of our fellow travelers (but I think this one is actually a tourist) said “Hey Hon, listen to that prayer music they are playing”. I have to say it’s interesting to hear the muezzin call, but I think it’s really a stretch to think of it as music. This same couple also didn’t quite get the hang of the word “dinar” and kept calling them “dineros”, but to their credit, the locals just smiled pleasantly and made change.

 

Habib, the American

Habib, the American

One shop that was open in the souk was a hat store, and of course Gary (Habib) became the first customer of the day. He bought a hat that many of the locals wear called sort of Chechia (Pronounced “Shah-shia”). Gary bought red one for 10 dinar, perched it on his head, and immediately, of course blended right in with the locals (a Hungarian Tunisian look). The locals all smiled and waved greeting him with “Allo, Ali Baba”.) The chechia is different from the fez which is Turkish (Ottoman). The fez is a taller hat with a tassel (worn by Shriner’s at their various functions) whereas Chechias are more like pill box hats that are made by knitting a big cap, soaking it in hot water so that it will shrink, dyeing it and shaping it on a form to size it. It is then brushed to make it slightly fuzzy. Red is commonly worn in Tunisia and black is worn in Libya.

 

Another shop that was open was one for locals which specialized in wedding baskets for sale. They are frilly little Easter basket sort of things decorated with white tulle and all sorts of lace. Grooms-to-be send these to their fiancés as a gift during the courtship.

 

We had free time so Gary and I stopped at a café for cokes. I was the only female present, but I was still made to feel welcome. In traditional Tunisia (and other Muslim countries) the men go to the cafes as a social outlet and women stay home. Today the women get out a lot more, but still don’t go to this type of café so I figure they are sort of like the pool halls in the US. There were a lot of tiny cups of mud-like coffee and a few chicha smokers. (It’s pronounced “shi-sha” and is a type of water pipe or hookah – no hash, no opium, just apple wood, which I don’t think offers too much in the way of a buzz).

 

En route to the Bardo Museum, we saw a piece of the Zagouan aqueduct built by the Romans in the second century to bring water to bring water to Carthage during Hadrian’s reign. But I’ll have more on this later.

 

A Roman Mosaic Sarcophagus at the Bardo Museum

A Roman Mosaic Sarcophagus at the Bardo Museum

The Bardo is named after the city by the same name and was founded in 1882 to house many of the treasures from the Roman era, particularly mosaics. It was formerly a bey’s (king’s) palace, built in the Moorish and Andalusian style. There were really some fabulous mosaics in museum, with Romans doing the best work by far. By comparison the Christian mosaics were somewhat amateurish and to make matters worse, they (the Christians) removed faces from the mosaics the Romans did, because they represented “false gods” in their view. They also did the same thing as Egypt – it’s that “graven image” thing. While the museum was the bey’s palace during the Arabic era, when the Ottomans took over, it became the palace of the pasha, a sort of governor general who reported back to the sultan in Constantinople.

 

There are a lot of Roman era statues, many headless, as we have noticed is the case in many of our travels, but now we know why. We learned an insider sculptor’s secret – that is, often the heads of statues were made to be interchangeable – you know those wacky Romans were always running through emperors like they were water and it took quite a bit of time to get the drape on that toga just right when you’re working in marble. Therefore, they only had to sculpt the head when the old emperor died or was otherwise indisposed or perhaps disposed of. Off came the old emperor’s head (the marble version anyway) and on went the new emperor’s head and bingo, you have updated statuary  – same body, same toga, brand new head.

 

After the visit to the Bardo, we went to the quaint waterfront area called La Goulette Harbor for lunch at the La Victoire Restaurant.. Lunch was a series of Tunisian specials – some less appetizing than others.  We had “brik” which is a raw egg mixed with seasonings and other ingredients and fried in phyllo pastry. This actually wasn’t too bad, although a little on the greasy side and the egg didn’t get too well done in the process so there was a lot of yolk action.  The main event was fried fish (small with bones, head and tail, and thus even smaller once those were removed) and rice and vegetables spicy enough to make Gary break out in a sweat and me to pass my plate over to him. Desert was a delicious flan. I liked the brik and the flan and Gary liked the entrée and veggies so we both actually had plenty to eat.

 

After lunch we visited Carthage – old and new. New Carthage is quite posh –colonial and Moorish-Andalusian style and home to most of the embassies and wealthy locals. Streets are lined with date palms and orange trees. The Tunisia “aristocracy” are still referred to as Andalusians (purportedly descendants of those expelled from Spain’s region by the same name.)

 

The Tophet Sacrificial Site Carthage

The Tophet Sacrificial Site Carthage

Our first stop was Tophet where Carthagenians used to sacrifice small children – boys ages 4-12 to appease the gods, much like cultures in other parts of the globe such as the Aztec and Mayan. No one is quite sure where the idea first came from, but somehow they associated all bad things that happened to them – earthquakes, storms, lost battles – with the “gods” being displeased. The two primary Carthaginian gods were a husband wife combo, both associated with fertility.  The goddess Tanit, was believed to be the personification of the sun and the moon. The husband Baal Hammon, whose name means “lord of the incense altars” – presumably those altars where the sacrifices were made)  had the body of a man and the head of a lion.

 

Stellae of Carthage

Stelae of Carthage

The sacrifice business was sort of a Catch 22. If they made a sacrifice and things turned out well – that validated the need to sacrifice. If they sacrifice and things went sour – that only meant they didn’t sacrifice enough small children. In fact after losing one particular battle, they were certain the gods were really pissed at them and they sacrificed 400 boys in a single day. Mothers had to turn their son (if selected) over to a priest and only the immediate family could attend ceremony. It was considered an honor to have your child selected for sacrifice, but musicians were hired to play loud music to drown out the screaming from mother and or child in case the thrill of the honor abandoned them at the last minute. The priest would slit the child’s throat and burn his body and the family would collect the ashes and bury them in a special sarcophagus and mark the site with a stelae (which is pronounced stell-lay with the accent on first syllable.) which was a short column like a mini-obelisk. Girls’ blood apparently would not work, but then boy’s blood didn’t work too well either since the Romans kicked their butts 3 times in a row in the Punic Wars. All that is left of the sacrifice site are the altar steps and lots of foundations of ruins, but many stelae have remained intact.

 

En route to our next stop, we got a glimpse of the Roman theater where in 1942, the British General Montgomery (a.k.a. Monty) spoke to his troops to rally them against the Germans. His speech must have worked better than the slaughtered children angle since his army did go on to defeat the Germans at El Alamein in Egypt.  The theater itself was a marvel of engineering (as was most things the Romans undertook) First of all,  just the fact that it is still standing after 2,000 years  is impressive, plus it will hold 13,000 people and has excellent acoustics. This theater is a horseshoe shape. Many theaters scattered around the former Roman Empire are mistakenly called amphitheaters, but in truth they are only theaters. The Romans did build an amphitheater here which is oval and was like the Coliseum in Rome. We stopped at the site of the amphitheater, but all that is left of the one that was here is the area below the arena where all the action took place – action including the slaughter of Perpetua, who later was named to sainthood. St. Perpetua’s death reportedly came about according to historical accounts after being injured on the ”horns of a vicious cow”, but today I think we’d just call them “bulls”. A Roman soldier then performed the coup de grace with his sword. Another martyr, Father Cipriani was supposedly fed to two hungry lions on this same site.  This of course was during the Roman heyday, and we all know they later got their comeuppance, albeit too late for many of the Christians.

 

We made a brief stop at Carthage Cathedral (a.k.a. St. Louis Cathedral), large, but not monstrous as cathedrals go, built in the Moorish Gothic style atop Byrsa Hill, which is one of the highest hills in the area.. It was built in 1890 to commemorate Louis IX, the King of France, whom I mentioned earlier and who died of the plague in Tunisia in 1270 A.D. while leading the 8th and final Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the infidels. It’s interesting to note that nowadays, the Christians are called the infidels. Our stop was brief because the cathedral is no longer open. Technically it is still the private property of the Roman Catholic Church, although it was deconsecrated in 1964, but due to complications we lay people can’t quite grasp, the Cathedral no longer receives funds from the Catholic Church and has fallen into disrepair, particularly inside. The Church will neither pay for repairs nor allow Tunisian government to pay for repairs so it continues to decay.

 

This is not the first time Tunisians have run afoul of the Church of Rome. In the 4th Century AD, the bishop of Carthage at that time, named Donatus, decided that the leaders of the church in Rome (that would be the Pope and the Cardinals) weren’t properly defending Christianity from the Romans (too many in the “loser” column vis-à-vis  the lions, one would suppose) and rather than “regime change”, he and his followers just split off and converted to their own brand of Catholicism which became known as “Donatism” and the rebels were called Donatists. They built churches of their own, often only yards away from the Catholic churches.

 

Runis of Roman Carthage

Ruins of Roman Carthage, built on ruins of Original Carthage

We then visited the ruins of Carthage, but unfortunately not much is left thanks to the Romans. They simply dismantled buildings, walls, whatever and used the stones to build their own stuff, often using the foundations of Carthaginian buildings.  You can still see the remnants of two magnificent Carthaginian harbors, one merchant and one military with two entrances, so no matter which way the wind was blowing, the ships could get home.

 

 

 

Runis of the Roman Baths at Carthage

Runis of the Roman Baths at Carthage

The Romans (in the pre-Vandal years) had three gathering places – the basilica (long before the Catholics borrowed the name) which was a market place, and the forum where they talked politics and the baths where they essentially dished dirt (so to speak). We visited the Baths of Antonine, quite impressive and quite ingenious, which were built of granite, marble and grey sandstone by the Romans in the Second Century. The baths consisted of huge rooms with vaulted ceilings supported by massive columns. There were different chambers in the baths for personal hygiene and overall relaxation. They had the caldarium which had hot water – heated with wood burning furnaces from below which were constantly tended by slaves. Then they had the tepidarium with tepid or luke-warm water, also heated by furnaces, but more on a simmer than a low boil. And then of course there was the frigidarium where you could go to cool off. It was filled where with cool spring water brought down via the aqueduct from the mountains (As smart as they were, they hadn’t figured out how to create cold without Mother Nature’s help). They also had two toilets (big toilets) which had 100 seats apiece. The slaves had to clean up at the end of the day, which provided still one more reason to escape. They also had large solariums built in open air courtyards (no tanning beds back then) for sunning themselves and working on their tans. They also had large gymnasiums and massage areas as well. Women used the baths in the AM and men used them in the PM. While this was a place to wash up and take care of personal needs, it was much more than that – sort of a Roman country club and a place to see and be seen and trade gossip. Unfortunately when the Vandals invaded in 439 BC, the Baths were largely destroyed. It seems the Vandals didn’t indulge the same leisurely pursuits of the Romans – they apparently much preferred vandalizing to soaking in the hot tub.

 

A Street Market in Sidi Bousaid

A Street Market in Sidi Bousaid

Our last stop of the day was a visit to a delightful village called Sidi Bousaid (Sidi means Mr. or Sir and Bousaid is the name of a holy man who lived in this village. When he died, they renamed the village in his honor. It is a storybook town which calls to mind Fira on Santorini, with white buildings trimmed in blue, but this blue has more turquoise tones. It is a mix of Greek looking structures along side Moorish-Andalusian architecture which somehow seems to work. There are steep cobblestone streets spilling over with shops and restaurants high above the harbor. In times gone by the town was occupied by aristocrats, but now an artist colony has sprung up. At the turn of the century (19th to 20th that is) the French literati hung out here, including Du Maupassant, Gide, Flaubert, Dumas, de Beauvoir. The streets are lined with orange trees – not good eating, but they make orange blossom water to use in cakes and as a cure for headaches. My camera battery decided to take a powder since it had been working hard all day so I only captured a few photos here out of the hundreds that suggested themselves…

 

On our trip home, Roberto shared some tidbits about things Italian. Roberto, instead of “eh” we hear from our Canadian neighbors utters a very Gallic/Italian “anh?” to emphasize points.  He told us that Margarhita Pizza was made in honor of and named for an Italian princess. The tomato sauce cheese and basil signify the red green and white of the Italian flag. I don’t know what the brown crust signifies, but then Italians are never concerned with minor details. He also told us that pizza came from Greek Pita bread (Greeks once controlled Southern Italy where pizza started.) He pointed our that there are no meatballs in Italy, no garlic bread, no pepperoni – all are American interpretations and in fact “pepperoni” in Italian refers to peppers.

 

Monday, February 12, 2007

Dateline: Tunis, Tunisia

 What a day we had today. We had a quick breakfast of the usual stuff (eggs, cheese, bread oranges) and hopped on the bus to head out into the countryside of Central Tunisia to visit two ancient Roman cities that are UNESCO World Heritage sites. We crossed Lake Tunis which is a natural brackish water lake which separates the city center from newer parts of the city. There is a Turkish fort on an island built in the 16th century in the middle of the lake to defend against an attack from the lake. It was also used for dunking female adulterers in the 15th and 16th centuries as punishment. We didn’t hear what happened to male adulterers – maybe they got a virgin or two subtracted from their heavenly reward of 72, but suspect that with the double standard solidly in place, nothing much happened to them. A note on the 72 Virgins – Scholars of the Quran say the 72 virgins are an invention of certain sects of Islam and the Quran says nothing on this topic.

 

Zagoura Roman Aqueduct

Ruins of the Zagoura Roman Aqueduct

We continued on toward Jebel Zaghouan (jebel in Arabic means mountain so that’s Mt. Zaghouan to us) which is 4,000 feet above sea level. We didn’t actually reach the mountain, but the main attraction was the miles and miles of the Roman aqueduct built in the Second Century AD to provide water to Carthage, 77 miles away. Roman engineers had to figure it out so the aqueduct was all down with no ups because they knew about gravity, but they didn’t know about pumps, and thus it took significant skill on their part to make running water available at the various “ariums” down at the Baths.

 

Tunisia is self sufficient agriculturally and is not required to import any food except rice, which is a relatively late addition to the Tunisian diet. They export a lot of food to desert countries with little no agriculture (e.g. Libya) including olives, grains, cous cous (the national dish of Tunisia) and meat. Strangely enough, this is the first country we have been to (with the possible exception of Oman) that has no McDonalds or KFC or Starbucks. Roberto says Tunisians just prefer their own food, but as they get more and more Western influence – I don’t think they can hold off Big Mac for long. He said McDonald’s failed in Italy until they added pasta to the menu and got rid of the plastic furniture, which apparently offended Italian sensibilities. A personal opinion here, I’m sad to say I’m not sure the meat in this country would meet McDonald’s standards, which is saying quite a bit. But actually, I think the meat probably starts out okay, it just goes bad over the many hours (or days) of the cooking process.

 

Most plants here in the countryside are native, but they have imported some such as agave, eucalyptus and prickly pear cactus which they find useful for fences, and in a pinch you can always get liquid from them if you’re thirsty.  One of the more charming sights in this area is the shepherds with their flocks, looking quite looks biblical, especially when they wear traditional dress, looking like they just stepped right out of the manger scene. More often than not, however, the shepherds have on blue jeans and sneakers and a baseball cap and are talking on a cell phone.

 

The mountains in Tunisia are part of the Atlas range which starts in Morocco and stretches across Algeria and peters out in Southern Tunisia. The highest peak in Tunisia is on the Algerian border above Kasserine Pass. We saw in the distance a tomb of a holy man called a marabout (pronounced just like the marabou stork, the “t” is silent). The name refers both to the man and the burial place. The drive is beautiful with whole groves of almond trees in bloom with carpets of yellow and purple wildflowers seemingly on every hillside. We are traveling through the Mederja Valley which is sort of the breadbasket of Tunisia with beautiful country side and lush green fields – sort of like Ireland without the rain.

 

All of this scenery was seen en route to Thuburbo Majus (the latter meaning big Thuburbo, apparently there was a little Thuburbo also. The H is silent so it’s pronounced Two-Burbo and the “J” is silent so that part is pronounced My-Us, with the accent on “Two” and “Us”. This has to be the second most fabulous place I’ve never heard of. I’ll have more on the most fabulous place  later in the day.

 

Ruins at Thuburbo Majus

Ruins at Thuburbo Majus

Thuburbo Majus is a Roman settlement established in 27 BC close to a Punic town of the same name. In 128 AD, Emperor Hadrian of Rome visited and granted it the independent status of municipium (which was quite a big deal) and in 188 AD it was granted colony status (an even bigger deal). There were approximately 3 centuries of growth and prosperity with building of homes and public buildings, one of the most impressive of which is the Capitol Temple, dedicated to Jupiter and other gods and goddesses. There are smaller temples and forums surrounding this main temple (Or I suppose I should say there were since it is in ruins today, but even so, you can still see the grandeur that was once here – elaborate mosaics, original roads laid of stone, huge columns still standing over the centuries and of course the elaborate baths, much along the lines of the ones we visited in Carthage yesterday. Those Romans did love their luxuries. You have to imagine the missing statuary including a gargantuan one of Jupiter in his personal temple where only the toes remain. Many of the other parts of it are now in the Bardo museum and archeologists have been able to piece together enough information to know that the original statue was 230 feet high. One must also imagine completed mosaics (many were removed to the Bardo) on the floors and interior walls covered in marble. Unfortunately, here as in other sites of antiquity, people have felt free to pilfer stone to build their own edifices at will. Still there are vast rooms, courtyards – all very symmetrical and artistically conceived.

 

From Thuburbo Majus, we made our way to the village of Taborsouk for lunch at the Hotel Thugga (pronounced Too-ga which is an alternative spelling of Dougga, our next Roman city, where we are going this afternoon) The have Barbary figs here which are actually a cactus product, versus a real fig, which was not nearly as tasty as you would find in a Fig Newton. On the way here we observed the increasing aridity of the land, but still we pass orchards, vineyards, big flocks of fluffy sheep with new lambs, with shepherds in native dress, donkeys clopping along dirt paths with bundles wrapped in sack cloth – looking quite Biblical indeed, but again there are also those blue jeans and Nike sneakers which sort of kills the ambiance. We finally saw sheepdogs as we drove into a drier area where it takes more acreage to graze the flocks and thus they need the dogs to help keep them rounded up, along with more of the prickly pear cactus fences. This part of Tunisia reminds us of southern Spain with flavors of Provence , both of  which are just across the Mediterranean. More women are in the traditional dress here (more covered up) than in Tunis and it looks much more 3rd world than 2nd and is thus much more interesting to see.

 

The Countryside around Dougga

The Countryside around Dougga

The countryside is wooded (more Texas Hill Country than North Georgia) and hunters come here from Europe for the wild boar. It was a strange lunch – a Tunisia salad with the obligatory tuna fish right out of the can, a cold quiche and then more stuff for lunch which included rice which we recognized and wild boar which we did not. It was another “interesting” if not delicious meal and Gary had the opportunity to taste harissa, the local treat on behalf of both of us.  Harissa is a hot paste made of tomatoes and peppers which Gary pronounced it extremely hot after eating a bit about the size of a microdot and he would partake no more.

 

Temple at Dougga

Temple at Dougga

We arrived in the most impressive place I have never heard of, Dougga, in the early afternoon. Dougga, like Thuburbo Majus, was a Berber-Punic city originally, also colonized and actually made a province of Rome after the Punic Wars. While the Punic people built here, the Romans were the ones who really built all the good stuff, much of which you can still see today (or at least visualize how it was). Of course in fairness to the Punic builders and architects, the Romans destroyed a lot of their “stuff” to build their own “stuff”. All the houses had elaborate mosaics on the floor and often are named for the themes of those mosaics. While many have been moved to the Bardo Museum in Tunis,  there are still plenty here to enjoy. Dougga had a population of 8 thousand people in its heyday and is considered to be the best preserved Roman city in North Africa. As in Thuburbo Majus, the surrounding hills and valleys are also incredibly green.

 

Dougga Amphitheater

Dougga Amphitheater

We stopped first at the Roman open-air theater which still has fabulous acoustics. I actually climbed to the top row of seats and could hear everything Kamel was saying from the stage area. One of Dougga’s most striking features is the Capitol, built in 166 AD. A capitol was a building which all provinces had, and it served as a seat of government. It and our own capitol buildings, both state and federal, are named after the original government building on Capitoline hill in Rome. The Byzantines built a wall in a misguided effort to “protect” the capitol, and they used a lot of fallen stones for it, so it makes restoration difficult. The temple pediment (the triangle shaped part in the front) is still intact and is supported by four columns (all still standing) and features a relief carving of Antoninius Pius who funded the building. He is portrayed as Ganymede (a handsome youth with whom the Roman god Jupiter fell in love, and subsequently sent an eagle swooping down to earth to grab him and bring him up to heaven for his own lecherous purposes). You can still see most of the detail of the eagle in mid-swoop. It apparently was common in those days for humans with a few coins to spend to pander to their own inflated egos by substituting their faces for those of favorite gods and goddesses.

 

Adjacent to the Capitols is an impressive courtyard called the Square of the Winds which is courtyard with all the directions of the compass accurately laid out. This was quite a feat since they didn’t have compasses in those days, yet they still knew their directions. There were 12 winds in total including those such as NNE, SSE, etc. We also saw many intact segments of the Roman road which in its day would take you all the way to Carthage. It was hand hewn and hand laid. The stones are still in place, and you can see ruts worn by chariots, as well as grooves carved by the stone masons on sloping sections to ensure traction.

 

There are a number of villas here, many private residences, but one of the best preserved was a public building called the Trefoil House. This structure is believed to be a house of ill repute since it had 24 bedrooms, which historians assume are for working girls, and an arrow pointing to it in the shape of the human male “apparatus” There was a fancy entrance with a niche for, it is believed, a cashier of sorts and also a private entrance for discreet entrances and exits. We also saw some graffiti here from WWII left by Nazi soldiers, but the ladies were of course long gone.

 

Lycinian Baths at Dougga

Lycynian Baths at Dougga

One of the most intact structures at Dougga is the Lycynian Baths which had to be fabulous in their day because the ruins were just magnificent. Our guide took us into the baths via the slave entrance tunnel still very much intact. At one time the baths had walls encased  in marble, but like so many other sites, they were long ago stripped for other building projects. They very much resembled the baths we saw in Carthage, but these baths still have one of their 12 seat toilets available for viewing. Kamel, explained this as a place where you can “make your business” and he demonstrated the process (although he kept his pants on of course) To make your business, you would go in, select your seat, lift your togas, and proceed to answer the call of nature.  You could use the opportunity to reflect on the day’s business up at the forum or perhaps  chat up your neighbors to get the latest gossip. The seats were carved in stone and consisted of standard opening you’d expect in any latter day outhouse, but that’s where the similarity ended., The toilets were built above a trench with running water (dry now) to carry waste away. One of the interesting aspects was a slot carved just below the “bowl”, perpendicular to the ground, It is believed that they would put toilet paper (or whatever substituted for it) on a stick and lift the hem of the toga, and slide the stick though the slot, just enough to wipe their behinds – all the while never missing a conversational beat. The toilets were invented by a Roman Emperor named Vespasian and were often referred to as “vespasians” –  sort of like John Crapper and his device we still use in modified form today and refer to as the “crapper”. All things considered, this strikes me as a rather unsavory way to make history.

 

The baths also had a gymnasium for exercise ( Roberto calls it a “gim” nasium vs. a “jim” nasium). Supposedly the Greeks used them for exercise of the mind and body, but the Romans seemed to use their gymnasiums for physical fitness, so they must have saved all their thinking time for the Baths. However, schools in several European countries today are called gymnasiums.

 

 

We made our way back to Tunis, which was a long trip with a lot of traffic but we had some “malouf” music  to keep us amused. It’s reminiscent of the music you hear when you see snake charmers – very tinny, very monotone with not too many notes on the scale. I’d say it’s like Tabasco sauce- a little bit goes a very long way. However the music in the hotels is very Lawrence Welk. It’s always American, always incongruous with some Elton, some Elvis, some Gone with the Wind soundtrack , but always instrumental.  We saw a local bank whose name we liked called The Amen Bank. We figured the customers must pray that the bank doesn’t fail with their money inside. We also noticed hundreds of kids walking home from school, most in small groups who smile and wave to us, with many talking on cell phones or listening to their IPODS..

 

We had the opportunity this evening for a Cultural Connection, which is Vantage’s term for an opportunity to meet local people, observe cultural customs and so forth. We met two professors – Munir and Waffa, both of whom teach English and American literature at the local university. They spoke of a local crisis in their country in the form of a “Brain Drain.” Their top students and scholars usually emigrate either to Western Europe, Canada or the US because they can make so much more money than they can by staying in their own country. They also gave us a feel for what Tunisian youth is like, i.e. very preoccupied with things American, particularly the music and the movies and couldn’t care less about Iraq or other current events. They love their DVD’s, videogames, Ipods, cell phones, etc. As a rule they are much better dressed than American kids (more skin covered, shorter hair, but girls typically do not were the veil, particularly in Tunis). American companies are reportedly targeting Tunisian youth, believing this is the best way to penetrate the market. Between juicy Big Mac’s with fries for us starving carnivores and Happy Meals for the kids, McDonald’s may have a chance here after all.




Tunisia Part 2: Tozeur

 Tunisia

 Part  2: Tozeur

 February 13, 2007

 Dateline: Tozeur, Southern Tunisia

 Latitude at Tozeur: 33.54 N, Longitude 08.07

American Military Cemetery - Tunis

American Military Cemetery – Tunis

Today we leave early for our trip south to the Sahara. Our guides made special arrangements for a surprise stop at the American Military Cemetery in Carthage where over 3,500 military men and women killed in North Africa or off the coast of North Africa are buried. The USA has 24 such overseas cemeteries from both WWI and WWII, and like our embassies, they are considered US soil and are staffed by US personnel, in this case a retired Marine officer. We arrived on a eucalyptus lined street with a walled park covered with white crosses and Stars of David to a carillon playing America, the Beautiful, (if that doesn’t put a lump in your throat, nothing will). There was a short service at the chapel courtyard where the bells played the National Anthem and Taps and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. We actually have 3 WWII veterans in our group, one of whom served in North Africa, and they were asked to sign a special guest book and while they were very modest about the whole thing, you could tell they were pleased and flattered. The cemetery was beautifully landscaped , with a sea of white gravestones inscribed with each individual’s name and date of birth and death. There is one Medal of Honor winner buried here, but many of the graves hold unknown remains and bear the words, “Known only to God”. Approximately a third of those honored here were lost at sea in U boat attacks and their names are inscribed in marble on a wall on what is called the Tablet of the Missing. There is a classical statue of a woman representing Honor with the inscription: “Honor to Them That Trod the Path of Honor”. (Grammatically speaking I think that should have been “ those who” not “them that”, but I was too moved (and still am) to quibble over the small stuff. There is also a row of manicured trees along the wall of names that is referred to as the Walk of Honor which, when you walk along it and hear God Bless America softly played,  reminds us all of how young our soldiers and sailors were (and still are) and how far from home they were when they died.

 

On a much lighter note, we stopped at the cisterns that the Romans built for Carthage, which was kind of an anticlimax after the drama of the military cemetery, but interesting nonetheless. These are huge cylinders – on the ground, not upright and small water tower size in circumference – that had to be built higher than the city they supplied because they were gravity fed from the aqueduct and had a gravity fed distribution system. They’re in pretty good shape considering they’ve been here almost 2,000 years.

 

We’ve noticed that Munir our coach (a.k.a. bus) driver has red hair and a red beard and we wondered whether he may be descended from Barbarossa, the famous pirate. However, Munir seems to be able to avoid the urge to pillage while left alone on the bus with our personal possessions, so unlike red hair, maybe those pirate personality genes are recessive. The countryside at the beginning of our journey is rolling hills, with olive groves with sheep grazing below them, which give way to plains, with mountains in the distance. The scenery changes a few hours into our journey from olive and almond groves to brushy desert. It looks a lot like West Texas, or perhaps Eastern New Mexico, covered with scrub brush,  with a substantial amount of irrigation going on. The further we travel, the less sophisticated farming seems to be, with lots of donkey carts (two wheel affairs, often with car or truck tires) and not too many horses. We are told they need too much water and have trouble finding suitable grazing in sufficient quantities. We American tourists are learning to identify with that problem as we graze the daily buffets in search of edibles.

 

As we head toward the Sahara we learned several things about several things:

 

Berbers and Bedouins. The term “Berber” describes an ethnic group that is believed to comprise the original inhabitants of North Africa in an area referred to as the Mahgreb, which stretches from current day Morocco, across Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. They do make rugs, but the Berber rugs we have at home seemed to be borrowed from a pattern, as opposed to being made by Berbers. The rugs here are both patterned and brightly colored rugs. The term “Bedouin” describes a lifestyle – that of the nomad. Bedouins range across North Africa and into the Middle East and can be of any nationality. They are not homeless, as we in the USA know homeless people (American Bedouins if you will), but I suppose there are some parallels, such as when they move, they take their worldly possessions with them on camels or in horse carts as opposed to shopping carts.

 

Love and Marriage: In traditional Tunisia there wasn’t much (like zero) interaction between boys and girls of marriageable age (which was as young as 11 or 12 for girls, slightly older for boys,  which tended, of course, to put a damper on dating. Only boys went to school, and the men bought anything the household needed including food, and of course they would hang out in the men only cafes. In the olden times many women only left their homes twice in their lives – once to marry when they move from a parent’s house to there husband’s house (who by the way they have never laid eyes on before the wedding day) and when they’re carried out to be buried.

 

The Sahara: We’re told saying “Sahara Desert” is quite redundant since the word “sahara” means desert in Arabic so I’m adopting the local lingo by calling it “the Sahara”. There are basically 3 types of desert – the hamada with big boulders, the serir with pebbly scrub brush sort of terrain and the erg – the stereotypic monstrous sand dunes, some up to 150 meters, which only accounts for 25% of the Sahara.  According to some sources, there is also a 4th type, the Chott (salt desert or salt lake, but others say no – this is just a sometimes wet spot/mineral deposit in one of the other 3.) The desert often has dry river beds which are called wadis or oeds (pronounced weds). There are also 3 types of oases in the Sahara – mountain, desert and coastal. The desert is around 5 million years old and around 4 million people live on it in 11 countries on the African continent. The Sahara stretches for 4,800 kilometers from east to west and 1,200 kilometers from north to south. (for those non-metric readers a kilometer = .6 of a mile) One of the chief tourist products of the Sahara are desert roses, found 2-3 meters (again for non-metric readers, a meter is slightly longer than a yard) below surface and hawked to tourists everywhere (and yes of course we bought some). They are usually brown or gray (and occasionally dyed some color not found in nature and I mean anywhere in nature). They are actually mineral deposits of gypsum (calcium sulphate) that crystallize from underground water in the form of a rose, although not a perfect one, it’s not too much of a stretch to envision rose petals.

 

Date Groves in an Oasis

Date Groves in an Oasis

Dates and Olives: There are over 150 varieties of dates in the world, but the very best are considered to be the Deglet Ennour, grown in this region. They are longish (around 2 inches) thumb-sized dates, a translucent golden yellow and are very juicy and sweet. They grow zillions of olives here, but our guide, Roberto revealed that the best olive oil (virgin and extra virgin – as you’ve seen at the grocery store, it appears some virgins are more virginal than others) is from Tuscany, Provence and the Lake district of Italy. It’s not an issue of virtue, but an issue of acid levels and processing techniques. The virgin oils have nothing added to change the taste and texture. The non-virgins may need a little help from added ingredients to taste good. The dry heat of of North Africa makes the olives more acidic and thus non-virgin. So a word to the wise – get your dates here, get your olives and olive oil in Southern Europe.

 

Movies: A lot of movies have been shot in this area including Star Wars, The English Patient, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pirates, and Jesus of Nazareth. Where the landscape doesn’t lend itself to the script, sets are often constructed and backgrounds can be filled in (e.g. they built galleons for Pirates with the ocean edited in later by a computer. The Japanese even filmed Madame Butterfly here, but this film was shot in the north where the countryside can pass for Japan (of course, nowadays, with all the Japanese tourists roaming the globe, almost any place could pass for Japan).

 

Doors: Many of the doors we have run across in Tunisia are brightly painted, with blue being the predominant color, and decorated with a symbol called the Hand of Fatima, a common talisman in Tunisia, believed to bring good luck, to protect and to bestow blessings. Fatima was the daughter of Mohammed and there is a local dynasty called the Fatimids who claim to be descended from her.  It’s quite a stylized hand, intricately laced with curlicues, with the thumb and little finger being the same size. Since Muslims do not believe in reproducing a likeness of the human in any form. I suppose this is as close as they want to come to representing the five fingers of the human hand. Five is a symbolic number in Islam with the 5 Pillars of Faith, the prayer 5 times a day and so forth.

 

Islam:  There are two main divisions of Islam, the Shia and the Sunni, separated by a few beliefs so basic, you can’t figure out why they spend so much time killing each other over them. The answer seems to be political control versus religious doctrine. Tunisia is 98% Muslim and those Muslims are 100% Sunni which is considered the main branch of Islam, with Shia believers a distant second, with still several more branches behind them.  Here it is the story in a very small nutshell.

The Sunni are followers of the Ummayyad caliphate who ruled Tunisia and other lands as well in the 6th and 7th Century A.D. A caliph (a title in Ottoman Empire days) was a Muslim head of state, and this particular caliph, Ummayyad, had his way of interpreting the Koran that shaped the Sunni way of thinking.  Shia regard the prophet Ali – the 4th orthodox caliph (cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, as the true Iman (spiritual leader), virtually God incarnate, who interpreted things in the Koran (or Quran as it is sometimes spelled) differently from the Ummayad. So the Shia split-off is sort of a Muslim Reformation if you will –somewhat similar to the split of the Protestants from the Catholics in a general sense. (or for that matter the Donatists, splintering off from the Church of Rome referenced in Issue 1). From a historical perspective, it seems religion has always been very ripe for splintering.

 

Another interesting sect of Islam is the Sufi, a group which does not believe the Koran is the holy word of God. You would think these would be “fightin’ words”, much more so than which prophet really has the inside story on Islam, but the Sufis don’t really control any turf or wealth so they don’t get into many fights.  Sufis are ascetics, constantly searching for spiritual enlightenment, and so the things they do (e.g. whirling as the dervishes do, walking on hot coals or broken glass, beating themselves bloody, etc) are intended to put them in touch with their mystical side. Sufis also do not believe in the veil for women. The Sufis take on lots of “Survivor” type tasks, such as eating cactus and scorpions, in addition to walking on hot coals or broken glass as sort of a mind over matter exercise as they seek to enter a trance searching for the “Ultimate Truth”.

 

Both Sunni and Shia share some of the same holidays including the Hejira which is the day in 622 A.D. on our calendar when Mohammed fled Mecca to take up residence in Medina. Both of these cities are in current day Saudi Arabia, which is to the Muslims as Israel is to Christians and Jews – the Holy Land. The Muslims use this date as the first day of their calendar so in their world, it 622 years earlier than dates on the Christian calendar. There are also only 354 days in the Muslim calendar, so they should eventually catch up to and pass the calendar the rest of the world uses (except the Chinese of course).

 

There are several different terms for Islamic leaders. Both Sunni and Shia have Imams, or spiritual leaders, which is the literal translation of the word. They all believe in submission to God’s will (in fact “Islam” in Arabic means “submission”) The Shia also have Ayatollahs (literal translation is “sign of God”) who are experts in Islamic law and philosophy as the Shia see it. The Shia also have mullahs who are religious scholars who teach in the religious schools (madrasas or medersas). Both sects also have muezzins who issue the adhan (call to prayer) 5 times a day and for the service on Friday, their holy day. Muezzins are most often lay people who take up this duty – it is more like a chant than a song or a statement and is one of the things that really add an exotic note to our explorations of the souks and medinas.

 

Still most Muslims do follow the Koran– which is a collection of suras (comparable to “books” in the Christian Bible) which detail the life and teachings of Mohammed. None of the Koran was written by Mohammed and it is believed he was illiterate. Many myths abound regarding the Koran, and seem to be just about as prolific as urban legends on the internet, including the much bandied about 72 Virgins awaiting martyrs in heaven. (I think some motivational speaker must have thought that up.) Another myth is that Koran requires women to wear the veil. In certain countries where extremists are in control, a group of fanatics (e.g. this is big with the Taliban), force it on women, but in the majority of Muslim countries today it is choice versus a requirement. In Tunisia it is forbidden for anyone who works in public to wear the veil and it is forbidden for girls to wear it in schools. Both Sunni and Shia traditionalists would like to keep women behind the veil (hajib), but increasingly in the moderate countries, women are making their own choices which are more along the lines of Levis and Nike’s, Chicos and Cole-Hahn. Walmart isn’t here yet, but I think its arrival will signify the end all traditional dress once those Tunisian women see those rolled back prices. Another myth is that Muslims collectively support Al Qaeda, want to kill Americans and take over the whole world. While that may be true of a very few wackos on the lunatic fringe, it could not even remotely be considered a widely held sentiment in any of the Muslim countries.

 

Unlike Christian churches, only prayers and the Friday service happen in the mosques. All other ceremonies (weddings, circumcisions, funerals) take place in other venues. It is not unusual for a wedding to take place at the mausoleum of a revered religious leader. At the risk of making my gentlemen readers squirm a bit – there is also a big party for the circumcision of male children. It is interesting to note how many cultures, even ones who have had no apparent contact over the centuries, as well as those who have had violent contact over the centuries, have recognized circumcision in a ceremonial or sacramental event. In Arab culture, like so many others, it seems everyone is having a good time except the guest of honor.

 

Education and Religion: Tunisia has taken the rather drastic step of banning the medersa (a.k.a madrasa) as part of a child’s education. Each child (boys and girls) pays roughly $30.00 per year for their schooling and it is all secular until they are ready to go to college. At that time, they can take religious instruction as part of a college curriculum, leading to a degree in theology, so there are none of the hate-mongering  mullahs or ayatollahs sometimes televised in the Middle East brainwashing young minds here.

 

 

Meat and religion: The eating of pork is banned by the Koran on religious grounds, but the reasons are unclear. Some believe because humans do not eat other carnivores (as banned in the Koran) and pigs are omnivores, that makes them meat eaters and thus on the taboo list. So setting the pork chops aside, there is a lot of lamb and goat, and some camel, and there is some beef and assorted poultry. What really makes the meat inedible to our Western palates is the apparent failure to take the meat from the heat source prior to the removal of all moisture, which again apparently has religious roots. Meat must be butchered in a precise way (much like kosher preparation) and drained of all blood with any remaining blood cooked out of it before it touches human lips. Gary and I are considering making a raid on the hotel grill and swiping a few lamb chops before this happens, but so far we’ve refrained.

 

The road is 2 lane and arrow-straight, but with enough bumps to prevent dozing off. Roads in Tunisia are built by the Tunisian Army. I’m not sure how this prepares them in case they neighbors (Libya and Algeria) get feisty and decide to invade, but they get on-the-job training for a career after the army. As we headed south, we transitioned from vast plains with sagebrush-like vegetation with purple blooms  to serious desert with vegetation getting even thinner as we reached Gafsa, where we stopped for lunch. The town of Ghafsa is built in and around an oasis with over 100,000 date palms. It dates back to pre-Roman times, and of course the Romans, being Romans, built some baths here which are fairly intact, but from a tourism perspective, it’s pretty slim pickings nowadays. The major modern (a relative term here) attraction is a train called the Red Lizard (or Lezard Rouge in the French translation) which runs from the town of Metalaoui (that’s “meta-la-ooh-wee, accent on “ooh”) through canyons of the Seldja Gorge,  and continuing through the Atlas Mountains for nine miles. It takes one and a half hours so the trip is pretty leisurely.

 

Jugurtha Palace - Our lunch stop

Jugurtha Palace – Our lunch stop

We stopped for lunch at the Jugurtha Palace Hotel and what a palace it was – wall-to- wall marble, stained glass, exotic carved wood, ornate upholstery, elaborately detailed woven rugs, gilt furniture, monster swimming pool with encircling moat, tropical gardens and so on. Reportedly a wealthy man who made his fortune mining in the nearby mountains, spent his entire fortune building it. Strangely enough, this mini-Taj Mahal was built in a town full of mud houses. Ghafsa is a stark contrast to the very modern, westernized Northern Tunisia and outside the hotel gates, it’s strictly third world. While it was a fabulous hotel, it was a not-so-fabulous  lunch .The food did not live up the architecture – a constant theme in the days to come. At first we thought it could be our Western palates are just not sophisticated enough to appreciate it, but nope, the food pretty much sucks everywhere. The hotel public areas were practically deserted and we suspect guests staying here may have had to take to their beds with gastro-enteritis. The rooms are quite a bargain only 80 dinar ($60 US dollars) per day and all they food you can stomach. As we left, we found ourselves wishing the sulphate magnate who built the hotel would have set aside a few dinars to hire a good French chef, but as we always remind ourselves, we didn’t come here for the food (although a little nibble on a good cheeseburger – or even an inferior cheeseburger is really appealing about now).

 

Baguette Hauling Bike

Baguette Hauling Bike

Dark clothing dominates here in Ghafsa and much of Tunisia, but is often punctuated with really bright colors. The kids look very much like American kids, wearing jeans and sneakers, but with neater haircuts and better fitting clothes, and we saw no tattoos and no cleavage on adolescent girls (or post adolescents either for that matter). There are bicycles here, but are used for transportation of people and goods, versus for recreational amusement.  The westernized dress applies to boys and girls alike, so it appears the days of the veil in this country are numbered. The question becomes how can you get them to take the veil once they’ve worn denim? The kids seem to love seeing tourists and all wave to us like we’re royalty.

 

Southern Tunisia is the poorest area of the country, but has an exceptionally low cost of living (around 5 dinars per day). The big industry here is phosphate mining, but it’s the tourists who are going to bring this area up financially, and the government takes an active role in making that happen. We saw a phosphate train chugging along, looking like something out of the early

Free Range Camels of Southern Tunisia

Free Range Camels of Southern Tunisia

20th Century (probably was). We also saw our first of hundred of grazing camels. There are no wild camels here – they all belong to someone, but they graze free range and go back to the tent when they want to. The real name for these 1 hump camels is Dromedary, but the tourists insist on calling them camels so the locals have succumbed to the idea and they call them camels too. Supposedly the real camels are the Asian Bactrian camel (2 humps). They also have another interesting creature here called the fennec (which translates as “desert fox”, which is what Field Marshall Rommel was called (among other things) in WWII. Fennecs are indeed foxes, but with German Shepherd ears, which look way too big for their little fox bodies, but like the wolf impersonating Red Riding Hood’s grandma said, “The better to hear you with”.

 

Our guide Kamel Finds a Camel Bone

Our guide Kamel Finds a Camel Bone

There are lots of signs saying “camel crossing” along our route and at a stop we happened upon a camel bone by the road, perhaps the result of an unlucky encounter for motorist and camel alike. One of our group members put it on the bus in the overhead rack saying he could make that into a lamp, however given the Department of Agriculture restrictions on animal remains coming into the US, he was persuaded to relinquish it. There were a number of Bedouin camps along our route. Although some of their structures look pretty solid, they move frequently, looking for water and something edible for their flocks of sheep and goats.  We also saw a lot of fences made of dead date palm fronds which function much like snow fences in that their purpose is to prevent drifts, but in this case, of course it’s sand, not snow. They can have brownouts here (versus whiteouts in snow country) which can totally obliterate visibility, as well as the road.

 

Oasis near Tozeur

Oasis near Tozeur

We arrived in Tozeur in the late afternoon and checked into a beautiful hotel called the Hotel Rais El Ain, just at the edge a huge oasis, with uncharted miles of the Sahara behind it. The oasis covers over 8,000 hectares roughly 20 thousand acres) with over 600 thousand date palms. Only about 50 thousand people live here with their homes built around the oasis out in the desert to avoid using valuable real estate for home sites.  There are a number of strange sights here. One of my favorites is young people still in traditional dress, but with a cell phone in one ear and an Ipod in the other. Gary hasn’t been lucky in finding any Harley shops or even motorcycle riders here. His “people” (i.e riders of two wheelers) in Tunisia seem to be the mo-ped crowd.

 

Tozeur is a tourist destination for European snow birds who come here for 5 to 6 weeks at a time. Only French or Tunisian citizens can actually buy any real estate. All other comers can only lease for 99 years. We had a few cocktails which were actually quite good, and watched a gorgeous desert sunset at the hotel pool. We later learned these were $12. quite-good

Sunset in tozeur

Sunset in tozeur

cocktails and thus we were further enlightened as to one more reason why  Muslims don’t drink. The hotel staff is nice, if somewhat inept – we think this may be their first rodeo, so to speak, but tonight we are enjoying sunset at the oasis and putting off the dreaded hotel buffet as long as possible. Our fears proved correct, but still the baguettes, cheese and oranges were good and the cream puffs were also quite tasty even though the 5 meat offerings left a lot to be desired and thus the Quest of the Carnivores continues.

February 14, 2007

 Dateline: Tozeur, Southern Tunisia

 We had an interesting Valentine’s Day morning in the hotel. While it is beautifully constructed with glass, marble, elaborate plasterwork, vaulted ceilings – the usual dazzling array of architectural delights, there are still a few things amiss. Take the shower head for example. It was mounted on the sidewall rather than the end wall and the bath tub is so narrow you risk a nasal enema if you turn the water on before you can wrestle it to one side. Gary had an interesting episode with the shower head which left him (My Funny Valentine, indeed) in a heap outside the tub tangled up in the shower curtain, the rod clattering to the floor, with water spraying like the dancing waters at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.  The Tunisians need to get those Romans back down here to show them what’s what with the plumbing.

 

And as for the service, we think they would benefit from some remedial hotel/hospitality management classes. The answer is “yes” to every question (a good thing), but I’m, thinking they use “yes” to mean I hear you, versus “yes” we have that and I will get it for you. (e.g., ketchup, towels, the check for lunch, etc.) There are also other fun experiences to be had with meanings lost in translation. This morning at the hotel Gary kept trying to turn on the air conditioner (he was quite warm after his grudge match with the shower curtain), and indeed the fan came on, but only hot air came out. He reported this to the front desk and they said they’d send someone to check it out. When we got back from our morning tour, the heater was blasting away in our room. Apparently they sent “someone” and he simply flipped the fan switch, just as Gary had done. Finally when we got one of our French and Arabic speaking guides involved, they explained to us that (A) the air conditioner is only turned on in the rooms in the summer so now it’s heat only and (B) when we told the desk clerk that our room was hot– he thought we were saying we wanted it hot – so hot is what we got. And then there was the “check please” incident. We had 2 cokes apiece out by the pool, which we intended to charge to our room. The waiter informed us that we could only charge 2 to our room because he didn’t have another check with 2 cokes on it. Those we must pay in cash. (We had to track him down to get change for 10 Dinar and even then had to tip him more than we intended (which was zero) because he only had a 5 in change and he owed us 6. We decided it was more important to get on the bus and see the country and hassle this poor overworked and under-trained waiter so we graciously said, keep the extra dinar (about 70 cents). We have experienced a valuable insight regarding the claim of “English spoken everywhere”. Well, actually it is spoken everywhere – it’s just not understood everywhere.

 

We spent an interesting morning at the Dar Cherait (Dar Means house in Arabic and Cherait is the name of the house) which is a Folklore Museum. Each exhibit has life-size mannequins set in scenes intended to covey the local customs – some so bizarre you’ll think I’m making this up.

A Bachelorertte Party Depicted at the Museum

A Bachelorertte Party Depicted at the Museum

Take the wedding ceremony. Year ago brides and grooms never saw each other until the wedding day. They had a “yenta” like person (as the Jews used to do) who arranged marriages, for a fee. Since she was always trying to move the merchandise, the matchmaker would embellish the charms of daughters of her clients from time to time, and thus it behooved potential Mothers-in-laws to visit the local hammams (bathhouses) to check out said “merchandise” (potential brides for their sons). Here the female in-laws can see the goods in the flesh (literally). Kamel tells a story of his Uncle Aboud who married a woman who was apparently not vetted by his mother. How ugly was she? She was so ugly he would only spend time with her in a darkened room.  She was so ugly that on his deathbed, after 35 years of marriage and 5 children, when she came to his bedside to see him, he turned his face to the wall. Both the bride and groom have advisers on their “duties” on the wedding night since both are expected to be virgins. Kamel tells us in the not so olden days (1950’s) it was permitted for the groom’s family to kill the new bride if she proved not to be a virgin. As for the man – well that was harder to prove and even in the Arab World the “boys will be boys” excuse seems to be in effect so he was pretty much in the clear no matter what.

 

Coloring the feet and hands of the bride with henna tattoos is also part of the marriage ritual and is intended to beautify her for her Big Day.  It is during this beautification process that she gets “the Talk” from an experienced (i.e. married woman). The groom gets his “Talk” from his barber, who also carries the title of vizier (which roughly translates as minister), who apparently has a side job of sex counseling. If the groom is unable to perform his duties on the wedding night, (which given the fact that he may likely be as young as 12 years old and has never laid eyes on a female, clothed or otherwise) his brother or father may step in and perform the honors on his behalf. Unlike the non-virgin bride, the groom gets another chance later on when he’s less nervous, more grown up, gets a prescription for Viagra, or whatever.

 

The bride also brings a dowry, as was the custom in so many Western cultures, consisting primarily of jewelry. Men were allowed typically 4 wives, so they could create quite an investment portfolio by marrying well. However, Tunisian law today calls for monogamy only and the men seem to be glad of that. Apparently having 4 wives wasn’t all fun and games despite the trunks full of jewelry.

 

Today, all this tradition has changed, mostly in the last 40 years. It was the way it was for over 1,300 years, but now women are basically on an equal footing with men in terms of education, jobs,  and roles in everyday life. Quite often couples meet in school and decide to marry and so forth. In the Berber regions it’s evolving slower than in the very westernized north, but it’s going to be a generational thing.

 

We also learned why the dars (houses) have such short doors when the people aren’t particularly short. The answer is that it forces anyone entering the house to duck his head which was thought to show deference to the homeowner. We also learned that the color of the head dress – flowing sheet like things wrapped around the head and neck, like the little pill box hats (chechias) can signify country of origin, e.g. black from Iraq or Arabian Peninsula, white from Algeria or Morocco.

 

There were also exhibits on 1001 Arabian Nights – The Arab world gives us the stories of Sinbad, the Sailor and Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, as told by  Scheherazade. The King in these times was call Shahryar and Scheherazade was the daughter of his advisor/minister called the Wazir or Grand Vizier. The King had decided that women were inherently non-trustworthy and to preserve his honor, he started marrying young brides and killing them after the wedding night to ensure they didn’t dally with other men and make him lose honor. After about 3 years, the wazir, whose job it was to find young women for the king to marry, had pretty much exhausted the supply and was in danger of getting whacked himself. He told of his dilemma to his young daughter, Scheherazade, who decided she could marry the king and solve the problem by entertaining him with stories each night, but not giving away the ending until the next night.  This worked for 1001 Nights, but on Night 1002, she apparently ran out of material or the king got bored and so he ordered “Off with her head” the next day which is why there are only 1001 tales.

 

Camel Feet for Sale at the Souk

Camel Feet for Sale at the Souk – Camel Not Included

After the museum we went to the medina (old city) and the souks (markets) with many stalls in which were sold the “Best Dates in the Entire World, the “Deglet Ennour” . We had the opportunity to buy them by the basketful from turbaned salesmen for only 1 dinar. There was a meat souk which we found both interesting and appetite suppressing. Each stall had their specialties – fish, goat, lamb and camel. Since many in the Berber villages cannot read,  written signs to advertise the specialty of a given stall are useless. To solve the problem, the locals simply take the head of whatever animal is the daily special (whatever has just been butchered) and nail it up over their counter, without benefit of taxidermy. It’s not unusual to see a whole carcass hanging up behind the counter and then being taken down to lop off a few  chops for a local patron. Probably the most bizarre “wall hanging” was a camel head with his windpipe (washed perfectly clean)  brought around and stuffed in his mouth like he was smoking a “hookah” (a.k.a. waterpipe). I think the locals have a little laugh over this, watching the tourists gagging at the scene. We were supposed to go to lunch next, but Gary and I just nibbled on a few oranges and a baguette. I mean the buffet wasn’t appealing before we saw the meat market, much less afterward.  We also bought a few desert roses (the clusters of calcium sulfate) in a buy 2 get one free deal from a local merchant. We also bought a small box that I was assured was an ancient treasure carried by a Bedouin, handed down through the generations for centuries, although I did wonder how those Bedouins had managed the liquid solder I saw at the edges holding it all together all those centuries ago. But then what do you want for 5 dinar?

 

People here are extremely friendly with liberal smiles and “bon jours” and then when they figure out we are English-speaking, there are lots of “allos”.  They have an interesting marketing technique, which we’ve noticed is somewhat universal in our travels to (A) get your attention and (B) promote their wares. You will, at various (short) intervals, hear “Allo carpets”, “Allo dates”, “Allo jewelry” “Allo desert rose” as you stroll the souks.

 

Tourist Driver for the Medina Tour

Tourist Driver for the Medina Tour

We took a horse drawn carriage tour of the medina (old city) where people still live today and then through the oasis which was really fun and very educational. One of our stops on our carriage ride was the Botanical Garden and Zoo inside the oasis. I had always thought an oasis was a little pond with a trickle of water supplied by a well, surrounded by a few scroungy palm trees. This oasis is actually naturally occurring and is fed by ground water, natural springs, although supplementary wells have been dug. The Bedouin have adapted the oases to a large degree by first cultivating and ensuring irrigation for the date palms and then planting an under story of fruit and nut trees – almonds, pistachios, apricot, pomegranate, citrus, pear and fig, and below that, planting gardens to grow all sorts of vegetables. They grow the usual stuff – onions, tomatoes, and carrots, but also semolina, which is ground up to make couscous, the national dish.

 

Even though water appears to be plentiful in the oasis, they still have to conserve water and people can only irrigate their crops on alternate days.  There is currently a big controversy at the oasis since a developer is building a golf course which will create jobs, but which will require lots of water. It looks like the developer is winning this one.

 

Achmed - Zookeeper and Entertainer

Achmed – Zookeeper and Entertainer

At the Zoo our guide was Achmed, the zoo keeper, who loves his job and is on a personal mission to entertain tourists. We saw a small pack of fennec (those little foxes with the German Shepherd ears) and Achmed actually let us into their enclosure to get a good picture. Imagine that happening in the US. There is a lot of wildlife in Tunisia addition to the fennec such as gazelles, hyenas, mountain goats, jackals. There were also several birds of prey, such as falcons, hawks, vultures. Falconry is very big in the desert and reportedly originates with the Bedouins of the Sahara

 

Achmed loves playing tricks on tourists, particularly with his collection of creepy crawlies including a scorpion the size of a small mouse that he put down on the ground right at our feet for us to admire. The scorpion has his own “garage” which was a cigarette pack in another life. He also has a pit viper whose bite will reportedly strike you dead within mere minutes. Achmed apparently revels in scaring the bejesus out of tourists, as evidenced by the revealing of his prized cobra in a rather dramatic fashion (i.e. flinging it into the crowd). Gary went from peering into its enclosure to taking refuge behind some elderly retirees who couldn’t move as fast as he could as the “Michelin Cobra” exploded in our midst. The Michelin Cobra is actually a torn rubber inner tube, but it was quite effective in scattering the onlookers. Achmed was laughing so hard he was choking and I thought we would have to pound him on the back to restore his ability to breathe and speak.

 

We also saw a Barbary (Atlas) Lion, a species which is almost extinct. It is smaller than the East African Lion with a darker mane and coat and the only ones left in the wild are in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. These were the type of lions used in the Lions vs. the Christians competitions in Roman times. You would think that this would present more of a fair fight since these lions are more the size of a grown human than their East African counterparts. Nevertheless, these small lions still amassed an impressive “Won-loss” record.

Ali Baba, the Coke Drinking Camel

Ali Baba, the Coke Drinking Camel

Perhaps the star of the zoo is Ali Baba, the Coca Cola drinking camel. He actually starred in Coke commercials in the 1980’s and is now retired in Tozeur.  I don’t know if Ali Baba notices, but I suspect Achmed actual waters down his Cokes since they are quite pale in their plastic Coca Cola bottle, but I guess with all the tens of tourists coming through, Ali Baba could get way too hyper on all that caffeine.

 

We also saw a local variety of monkey called (in English) a macaque (pronounced mah-kak with the accent on “kak”), but in Arabic it’s called “macaca”, as former Senator George Allen well knows (or at least now he does) and is in no way complimentary when applied to humans. Our friend Achmed still had a few tricks up his sleeve. After we saw the Coca Cola drinking Camel – Achemd asked for cigarettes and several were contributed. We fully expected to see the macaca smoke a few. However Achmend tucked the smokes in his pocket and told us smoking is bad for the monkey and the cigarettes were for him – he thought we knew.

 

The Brick Factory near Tozeur

The Brick Factory near Tozeur

Later in the day we visited a brick factory which on the surface sounds about as interesting as watching paint dry. However, these bricks are made by hand, 2 at a time in a process that has not changed over the last 1,000 years. We met Mr. Mabourk who runs the brick factory with his brother. He is 53 (doesn’t look a day over 75 –  brick making in the Sahara ages one rather quickly I suppose). The bricks are made from a combination of clays and are shaped by placing them in a mold by hand. They are fired in a hand-dug kiln, whose temperatures reach a couple of thousand degrees and are fueled only by burning dead date

 

The Brick Kiln

The Brick Kiln

palm fronds. The kiln is tended 24×7 until the bricks are done and then cooled. The choice bricks are white- the not so good are pink which means they didn’t get quite as much heat.  Mr. Mabourk has a government contract and sells everything he makes. The government could buy elsewhere, but they are trying to preserve the ancient crafts.  He is concerned about the future of his business since young men around Tozeur want to go to Tunis and get an education instead of firing a furnace in the Sahara 7 days a week. So what is it with these young kids and their work ethic? It looks like it’s gone to hell in Tunisia as well as the rest of the world.

 

A Cuddly Camel at the Planet Oasis

A Cuddly Camel at the Planet Oasis

For dinner we went to a place called Planet Oasis – sort of a Planet Hollywood with a Bedouin twist. Our greeting at the gate was really spectacular with a freshly groomed camel in all his finery who allowed us to pet him and have out picture taken with him, all sorts of musicians playing that snake charmer kind of music, fire-eaters and gymnasts. We had dinner in a huge tent, starting with a surprisingly okay soup (they do soup fairly well here), but the main dish was a huge cauldron of cous cous (which needed some sauce), with perhaps an ounce of some sort of meat. We were told it was beef,  but it had been cooked several degrees beyond the jerky stage. There was a painfully long show with belly dancing and more very loud snake charmer music, and believe me – a little goes a really long way. And of course they want the tourists to belly dance too, so of course we Palmers indulged their whims and were quite a spectacle ourselves. But the star of the show was Frank, well into his 80’s, veteran of WWII who danced with all the belly dancers and never missed a beat. We also noted the guy playing the Cobra Flute (he actually had a cobra he charmed and smooched – although it was lighting fast) who looked very much like John Candy’s Bedouin cousin.

 

After dinner there was a riding exhibition with 2 beautiful Arabian horses, but unfortunately one of them had a bad hoof and had to retire early. It was interesting to see the riding tricks were very similar to trick riding U.S. rodeos, but of course the costumes were very different. The stars in the night sky here are spectacular and there are millions of them. With no humidity, air and light pollution it is quite an amazing sight, and aside from the camel up close and personal, it was the best part of the evening.

 

February 15, 2007

Dateline: Tozeur, Southern Tunisia

 

This morning we headed west toward the Algerian border where the Atlas Mountains peter out into sands of the Sahara. We abandoned our coach for 4 wheel drive vehicles with our driver Lasa. We found our vehicle with the windows down to catch the cooling breezes, but also allowing several thousand (or maybe it was only two dozen) flies to stow away, so enroute we found ourselves swatting flies and keeping score an impromptu  competition with the other couples in our vehicle. Lasa decided Gary needed to sit in front with his being a “big guy” and one couple was elderly so they sat in the backseat with the other big guy, slightly smaller than Gary so I was in the very back with the wife of second biggest guy, who fortunately was also agile enough to negotiate the climbs in and out at the frequent stops, so we were always loaded in first and out last, the only advantage being we had more time to destroy flies. A major disadvantage was that here in the Sahara, there is no turning on the engine until you are ready to move – I guess overheating radiators is the concern. So needless to say, it was often quite toasty as we were waiting for the rest of the 4X4 to get loaded up for departure.  Since Vantage (our tour company) provides water on all tours, we always made a stop at a grocery store for bottled water. Given the number of people in our caravan (39 total, plus guides) we often had to stop at multiple stores (think more like 7-11 than Publix or Kroger) to get enough.  We drove west toward the mountains, our destination being 3 mountain oases (as opposed to Tozeur which is considered a desert oasis), adjacent to the Berber villages of  Chebika,

On the Afrika Corps Road Near Kasserine Pass

On the Afrika Corps Road Near Kasserine Pass

Tamerza and Mides. In Roman times, there were forts here to guard against invasion across the desert and in later years, as late as the 1800’s, these oases were part of a caravan route between the Far East and the western coast of Africa. In 1942 Rommel’s Afrika Korps came here as well, and in fact, built the road on which we traveled for their Panzers to defend the Kasserine Pass.

 

En route we saw a number of camel herds, many with babies. Again, they are not wild, but their Berber owners allow them to roam free to forage for food. Kamel tells us that camels are much more attached to their owners than horses and thus they always come home. Instead of brands, they wear ear tags to identify them (something cattle ranchers should really consider since it is much more human I would think, but then again also much easier for potential camel rustlers to remove).  But here’s another deep thought – whereas cattle thieves could easily remove a tag, camel rustlers would have to get a ladder (or convince the camel to either lower his head or kneel for them) to remove it. And besides that, the penalty for stealing in Muslim countries is pretty severe (like anything from limb amputation to death) so theft isn’t too much of an issue here.

 

All three of the villages at these oases had been devastated by a catastrophic flood in 1969. Since all the houses were mud brick, there wasn’t much to keep them from being swept down the nearest wadi. The government of Tunisia came in and rebuilt the towns – off of the floodplain this time – and relocated everyone in new cinder block and stucco houses within 6 months (maybe we need to hire them to fix up our hurricane damage).

 

Waterfall near Tamerza

Waterfall near Tamerza

Our first stop was Tamerza where we walked along a natural stream coming out of the mountains with waterfalls – small, but especially enchanting, particularly considering the surrounding desert terrain. Several scenes from The English Patient were shot here and at neighboring Mides, which has several steep gorges that provide a dramatic backdrop. They call it the Grand Canyon of Tunisia, but it’s more of a Mediocre Canyon when compared to the one in Arizona, but scenic nevertheless. Chebika was our last stop and their claim to fame is the being the destination for the Lezard Rouge (Red Lizard) train described

Grand Canyon of Tunisia

Grand Canyon of Tunisia

earlier. At Chebika, the oasis dwellers still use an ancient, yet fairly sophisticated for its day, irrigation system to distribute water to garden plots throughout the oasis. They would use an “hourglass” consisting of 2 large jugs hung from a rope and water was poured from one jug to the other. Based on the time it took the lower jug to fill, an attendant would open gates to send water to different gardens in rotation.

 

 

Local Crafts Seller at Tamerza

Local Crafts Seller at Tamerza

The mountain oasis villages have the obligatory tourist souks, as does every town we visit and we soon learned the truth of “Same souk, different day” or however that goes. At Tamerza we did buy a small drum for our library at home made of olive wood and camel hide. As soon as we get one of the little flutes, we’ll be working on our snake-charmer routine and invite everyone over for a performance. We’ll work on getting a few memorable tunes such as “Midnight In the Oasis” and “Rock the Casbah” to set the mood. As we traveled from oasis to oasis, I couldn’t stop humming one of my personal favorites – Garth Brooks’ “I got friends in low places, Think I’ll slip on down to the Oh-whoa-asis . . .” . Of course Garth’s oasis is the name of a bar, but when you’re thirsty in the desert, it tends to all make sense.

 

We also learned that Tunisia has a gas pipeline – a joint venture between Algeria (where the gas reserves are, Tunisia (where the gas pipeline has to cross), and Italy, (the main consumer). On our way back to the hotel we saw a cloud of dust and a procession of Range Rovers approaching from our right. Our entire caravan came to a halt to let them onto the road ahead of us. Our driver gave a derisive snort, and explained they were Saudis hunting in Algeria and were driving back through Tunisia. They hunt desert gazelles – a tiny little Bambi-like animal, smaller even than the Thompson’s gazelle in East Africa – roughly the size of a large Chihuahua. (Do they have no shame?) Our driver says they’ve already killed all the gazelles in the Saudi peninsula and Morocco and they are not allowed to hunt in Tunisia, but Algeria lets them hunt their in exchange for however many zillions of barrels of oil they provide. They also apparently speed a lot and wreck their vehicles quite regularly, so the drivers in our group always give them a wide berth.

 

After lunch we took a 4-Wheel Drive Tour – Gary and I were the only ones of our group of 6 who were capable of getting into and out of the back seat so we volunteered.  We drove northwest out of the oasis and into the desert several miles, passing more “drift” fences made of dead palm fronds. Our first stop was a Berber’s home, who also happens to be a Bedouin (nomad) although his residence seemed to be about as mobile as a double-wide with the

A Nomad's Wagon

A Nomad’s Wagon

wheels gone. The home was humble to say the least, but absolutely fascinating. We were greeted by a flock of goats and sheep running toward us like trinket vendors spotting a cruise ship. We finally figured out what the deal was, which is, when the tourist show up, the local family puts out snacks for the sheep and goats so there are plenty of kids and lambs around for us to ooh and ahh over. The residents of this particular nomad “camp” were a man and woman and one of their 5 children. They had a new colt, whose mom they used to pull a two-wheeled wagon to go to the oasis for water and any thing they needed to buy or

Berber Nomad's House

Berber Nomad’s House

trade for. They also had a moped they used for quick trips (i.e. they had just been down to the oasis and picked a bunch of clover which was tied to the handlebars. I have to assume it was for the horse since they tend to be pickier eaters than goats or sheep. They also had chickens, turkeys and ducks of all things, which was pretty bizarre since it was a good 20 miles to the oasis and there was no on premise pond for them to paddle around in, but perhaps desert ducks have a different standard

of living. They had several different pens for chickens and lambs

The Day's Clover Harvest from the Oasis for the Family Horse

The Day’s Clover Harvest from the Oasis for the Family Horse

and kids too young to be on the loose. They also had a lot of loose chickens, so I think maybe the pen was for laying hens as opposed to naughty chickens in “Time Out”. The house (part tent, part date palm frond enclosures), was made up of several “rooms”. One of these rooms was where they cooked on a brazier, and as we arrived, the lady of the house brewed tea for her guests, which we felt was amazingly hospitable, particularly under the circumstances. There was an open courtyard which encircled the Bedouin tent, made of camel hair, smelling lot like burlap, but very tidy. When the nomad phase kicks in, they can move the tent and most of the animals by herding them along, except those chickens turkeys and ducks are not going to be the least bit amenable to herding and will have to be carted. Just before we left,  the man of the house brought out a newborn lamb (only an hour old and still sporting a coating of whatever that was sticking to his coat left over from being born) who was despite being something less than fluffy, was absolutely adorable, which confirms my avowed aversion to eating lamb for dinner as being soundly based.

 

Adventure at Chot- El-Gharsa

Adventure at Chot- El-Gharsa

From there we went 4 wheeling, out over a dry salt lake called Chott El Gharsa ( “chott” being the Arabic word for salt lake).  There is no water in the lake so it’s a hard salt pan with odd sandstone formations lining the banks and sticking up out of the sand. The sand is full of mica chips and in the afternoon sun, they glint like diamonds (okay well maybe rhinestones). Parts of the The English Patient were also filmed here in 1997 (for those who have seen it, this is the place where the plane crashed). We drove to mountainous dunes and climbed up and slid down hills in our 4X4. The road got quite bumpy in places so

 

The Wookie Bar of the Star Wars Set

The Wookie Bar of the Star Wars Set

we declared a spontaneous potty break and several people trekked around behind a dune to “make their business” as our guide, Kamel terms it. Our last stop was the set for the first Star Wars movie built in the 70’s. This set was Luke Skywalker’s hometown and was the scene of the bar with the bizarre inter-galactic creatures partying the night away.

 

We came back home and were having some Tunisian wine (the only kind they serve here – red, white, or rose) by the pool chatting with another couple who have retired in Florida. We had another round to gird our loins (and bellies) to go eat another meal from a 50 foot long buffet offering very little you’d want to put a fork to. We were enjoying our wine (it’s really okay, all things considered) as a whole caravan of around 20  4-wheel-drive vehicles arrived, apparently leased by an Italian company called GenArt. They had come to Tunisia to film either a documentary or a commercial, depended on whom you asked and how they translated what they’re doing into English. Whatever they were doing, they were a large group of 20-to-30- somethings,  traveling in vehicles with their corporate tag line “Only the Brave” We decided the rest of the tagline is understood by all,  which if expanded would read Only the Brave eat at Tunisian Hotel buffets. We noticed they dug into the buffet with great gusto, so it must really appeal to the younger generation or else they just appreciated the quantity. Tomorrow, we cross the desert to Douz, quite literally, the end of the road (the paved road that is).

 

 




Tunisia Part 3: Tozeur to Douz

Tunisia

Part 3: Tozeur to Douz

 February 16, 2007

 Dateline: Douz, Southern Tunisia  

Latitude 33.46 N, Longitude 11.00 E

This morning we left Tozeur for Douz (pronounced “Do’s”, as in do’s and don’ts),  but we stopped en route to visit Degueche (pronounced duh-get-chee with the accent on “get”), another desert oasis which lies 10 kilometers southeast of Tozeur. This region is called Bled el Jerid (Bled is pronounced just as it would be in English, “el” the same as in Spanish, but “Jerid” is pronounced “Jah-reed” with the accent on “reed” which translates as country of palm trees.  In Degueche we embarked on another horse-drawn carriage ride, in a 4 passenger caleche, with two passengers facing forward and two facing backward.  The horses here are amazingly frisky and trot everywhere which seems remarkable considering they’re in the desert, but maybe

Gassing Up in Degueche

Gassing Up in Degueche

in the heat of summer they slow down. Mopeds are widely used here and many of the stores have a mobile (not Mobil, but mobile) gas station which consists of a tank about the size of an office-type water cooler resting on a frame on wheels that enables the proprietor of the store to roll the whole device inside every night. It would take several visits to several stores for an automobile of any size, but these are just about right for a dozen or so mopeds a day.   One of my favorite sites from the heart of Degueche’s medina was a guy in his traditional dress – a loose robe-like garment called a djellaba (pronounced gel-ah-bah with the accent on “ah”). He had two baguettes (unwrapped) tucked under one arm, one hand on the throttle and he was talking away on his cell phone (not the hands-free type) and scooting down the road faster than a trotting horse. I could only speculate as to how he was steering the moped. I assumed he was using his knees, but with his djellaba flapping in the wind, it was hard to tell.   We stopped at a garden and were met by gentleman whose name sounded like Mr. “Kre-uhm” (my phonetic spelling –  I’ll just call him Mr. K for simplicity.), who takes care of the groves of date palms in the oasis, which are mostly privately owned by a large corporation which exports dates. Mr. K gave us a very informative talk about his “charges” – the thousands of date palms that have to be harvested by hand every year. Mr. K explained that at harvest time, (October-November) each tree is climbed by 5 or 6 men with the one at the top cutting the dates, which are then handed down the human chain so they don’t bruise. The cutter makes 15

Mr. K and the Date Harvest Demo

Mr. K and the Date Harvest Demo

dinars per day, and each man on the human chain makes 10. Mr. K then proceeded to demonstrate how it’s done, as he scurried barefoot up a date palm like a small primate, minus the prehensile tail and further entertained us with a series of mock theatrical clowning gyrations that amused all present. What was really amazing is that Mr. K is 63 years old. We also learned from Mr. K that this particular tree is a female date palm and only the females bear fruit. And like so many forms of life, they require a male of the species to do the honor of fertilization. The female date palms are quite tall and graceful, like the ones you always see on the postcards, but their male counterparts are short and squatty with lots of long thorn-like branches which flower once a year and then releases its pollen. The male date palm pollinates its whole life (just like a man), but the poor female date palms go into menopause of sorts at around 150 years old. Considering the female tree bears 100 to 120 kilos of dates per year and starts around age 7, it’s no wonder the old girl wears out before her pollen donor.   Among the things growing under the date palms (the same type of under stories as seen in Tozeur) were large patches of clover which is grown for the horses. I had a brilliant idea for some fun (particularly since the horse behind us had really been tailgating all day)  and so I

Horse Drawn Carriage at Degueche

Horse Drawn Carriage at Degueche

picked  some clover when Gary wasn’t looking and slipped it in my pocket. On the ride back to the coach, he sat facing forward in the caleche, and I sat across from him. I very stealthily placed the few springs of clover on each of his shoulders as close to his neck as I dared. We took off and sure enough the tailgating horse was right there behind him and I just about wet my pants laughing when he spied the little snack and broke into a gallop, already drooling, trying to reach it. I was just visualizing those big slobbery-wet horse lips slurping that clover off Gary’s shirt. Unfortunately, the driver of the drooling horse reined him in just when his lips were within inches of the prize. Needless to say, I thought this was a lot more humorous than Gary did. While he tipped the driver a few dinar, I gave our horse a tip in clover.

A Tourist's Marabout Chott-El-Jarid

A Tourist’s Marabout Chott-El-Jarid

From Degueche, we drove across a huge lake bed called Chott El Jerid – the translation is roughly “salt lake with palm trees” –  on a 40 mile long causeway that is built on what is for all intents and purposes a levy. That is it would be a levy on those rare occasions when there is water in the lake bed. The salt lake we saw is more of a series of saltwater canals that parallel the road – sort of drainage ditches that don’t drain since much of the “lake” is dry most of the year. When it rains the lake “fills” to a few inches deep because the salt pan is so dense, water doesn’t seep in. Along the edges of the water that remains are shimmering layers of salt that has formed as the water evaporated with the sun glinting off of it. This is an area well know for mirages and we saw several which seemed to be mountains on the horizon. Some say they see ships or trains – camel and/or diesel type, and of course the most common mirage is thinking you see water. The real water, such as it is, reflects all sorts of unusual colors including pink, yellow and green. Salt is mined here (for use on roads, not dinner tables) and Chott-el-Jerid is the largest salt lake bed in North Africa, covering over 19,000 square miles. As in Death Valley in the USA, the elevation here is well below sea level. The causeway we are on was formerly just a track across the salt bed that would not support the weight of trucks or buses, so the army had a major mission here to fix that with the causeway we are traveling.   We did stop about half-way across the lake bed at a café/souk/town hall which is called Chez Hamma, a rather ramshackle establishment perched by the causeway above a small canal of water the color of celery. The proprietor bills himself as the mayor of Chott el Jerid (sort of Foxy meets Judge Roy Bean character). He is a clever marketeer, flying the national flag of whatever tourists he expects to see next. The Greek flag was actually flying when we arrived, but by the

The "Confort" Station at Chott-el-Jerid

The “Confort” Station at Chott-el-Jerid

time he figured out that we were Americans, it was too late to haul Old Glory up the flagpole. His bathrooms –  a 5 chamber outhouse painted yellow and green and labeled  “Confort”  “Toilettes”  “Normale”. The “confort” toilet (a bastardization of the word “comfort” , I think, was billed as the premium offering in that had a toilet with a seat – no flushing you understand, but still a seat.. The “toilettes” were the “stand on these bricks and hope you don’t get your feet wet” variety, and as best I could understand the “Normale” toilet  was said to be Turkish. Although we have been to Turkey, I still wasn’t sure what that meant. I wasn’t helped by the fact that it also had the word “home” written on the door. Home to some creatures I don’t care to see in a toilet I’m sure.  Needless to say, all 5 chambers remained un-patronized by me, but Gary visited and pronounced them ghastly. And speaking of ghastly, the mayor also had an art garden with “sculpted” figures made out of pillars of salt (like the one Lot’s wife in the Bible turned into no doubt). One was supposed to be a camel and rider, the other, well, if he’d had a carrot or a nose, I would have said snowman, but I can’t really say with any certainty. They are not quite life size and. I think I good driving rain and hurricane force winds might improve the sculpture garden significantly. The sculpture garden also had a marabout, which you may recall from Part 1 is a tomb of a prominent religious figure. The mayor told us no religious figures are buried there, and that this is just for tourists (I assumed he meant to see as an attraction and not to be buried there). We bought an incense burner from the mayor’s souk made of clay. I suspect it has not been fired and thus may succumb if any incense is burned in it – so like the marabout – it will be just for show.   The highway as we travel eastward is lined with “sand fences”, like silt fences or snow fences in the US, to keep the roads clear of blowing sand. They actually have “white-outs” here (or I guess they should be called “beige-outs”) when there are strong winds where the roads can get totally obscured and visibility is reduced to zero. After leaving the salt lake, we begin to see sparse vegetation, sort of sagebrush-like stuff, as well as hundreds of greenhouses. Cisterns are widely used, but rainfall is too undependable and so the Tunisians have dug deep wells, some as much as 6,000 feet to tap into an underground aquifer. Unfortunately when the water comes out of the ground it is scalding hot (about 300 to 350 degrees F) and has to be run through a cooling tower which functions sort of like a car’s radiator, before it is cool enough to touch. It further cools in modern day aqueducts (thankfully these don’t have to be elevated as the Romans were forced to do since they use pumps) and it is channeled into the various irrigation systems. They also have to bring soil into the greenhouses because the soil in this region is too poor to sustain anything edible – for us humans anyway – the camels and goats seem to thrive on it. And lastly, they use the greenhouses to keep the plants from getting too dried out by the sun and wind on the desert during the day and too cold at night. Now you have to admit, this is one tough climate in which to try to farm, but farm they do.

Habib the Falcon Trainer

Habib the Falcon Trainer

Once again the landscape changed as we drove south and east. We entered an area of sandstone pillars, worn down by the wind, but so soft you could easily brush off a layer or two of sand simply by passing your hand over the surface. It reminded me of how brown sugar hardens into a block, but can be broken down into grains. We ran into a young boy there who made his living by posing tourists with a falcon he had  tamed, with  a leash-like cord tied to one of its legs. It  perched on Gary without digging his claws in while I snapped a few pictures and gave the boy a few dinar. Of course everyone on our bus had to have one too so this kid raked in a small fortune in a matter of 30 minutes. We also passed through the village of Kebili where a lively slave market had thrived for centuries, mostly unfortunate souls captured in Sudan, Male, Niger and Senegal. Slavery here wasn’t a black vs. white issue – it was more a question of nationality and the unfortunate circumstance of being abducted. Blacks have held prominent places here throughout the centuries. In fact one of Mohammed’s companions, the first muezzin (the person who calls the faithful to prayer) was black As far as “companion” you should  think in terms of a disciple, rather than a life partner in an alternative lifestyle. An interesting note on Islam and slavery – it is forbidden by the Koran to have slaves, but was apparently okay to sell slaves (kind of like they do with liquor today), but in 1847 slavery was abolished in Tunisia (well before it was in the US). It is also interesting to note that there were no religious squabbles in this area with Christians, Jews and Muslims living and worshiping here peacefully for years.   We arrived in the village of Douz, also at a desert oasis, shortly after noon, after driving through Fathassa (famous for its sand dunes) and through a series of oases that served as markets along the ancient camel caravan trade routes. Douz is literally the end of the road in Southern Tunisia. It is the last oasis on the northern edge of the Sahara for several hundred miles. In fact it is one of the last stops before reaching Timbuktu (now in the country of Mali), the perpetual poster city for “end of the earth” which is on the southern edge of the Sahara, with miles of nothing in between. This is big motocross country and we have seen several groups getting ready to head off into the desert – not to Timbuktu, but just out far enough to claim conquest of the vast Sahara and then it’s back to Douz to slip into a shower and a clean bed to rest up. This is not nearly as grueling as the Paris to Dakar rally – these folks are more comparable to city slickers at the dude ranch, pretending they’re on the Chisholm Trail.   We checked into a beautiful hotel called the El Mouradi with a view of the Sahara, replete with camel parking lot (yes, we did make the  Camelot pun) in the background. We were able to grab a delightful power nap by the pool with doves cooing in the background; however, in a matter of minutes, the GenArt people (the  Italians making a documentary in their 40 or so 4X4 vehicles) showed up, and thus ended all opportunities for a peaceful nap. At 5:00 p.m. we had to report

Fatima Rides Again

Fatima Rides Again

to a shop downstairs to get the appropriate camel-riding apparel.  Once costumed, I looked every inch like Fatima, (here it’s pronounced Fah-teem-ah, accent on “teem”, although Europeans tend to pronounce it as “Fat e mah” with the accent on Fat). I  wore a “sifsari” which is a headdress that is wrapped tightly around the head and draped loosely at the throat (not to be confused with a hajib which covers the whole face) –  in a turquoise blue to match my djellaba, complete with sequins and gold dangly things. The hajib is rare in Tunisia these days. Most women just cover their head or in metro Tunis go bareheaded (except to enter a mosque of course). And of course, Gary resumed his role as Habib. His outfit was a striped djellaba – a bold black and white tent-like thing topped by a black sifsari.

Habib and his Ride

Habib and his Ride

Camels (a.k.a. dromedaries) were introduced here in the 2nd Century A.D. from the Arab Peninsula, playing a major role in the economy in the Sahara, and there are over 100 different words to describe camels in Arabic. The camels found here are much easier to domesticate than the 2 hump model found in Asia. Camels also are extremely self sufficient. They can forage for their own food and can go for days without eating. And of course they can go for weeks without drinking, up to 6 weeks in winter and 2 in summer. Since a camel can drink up to 28 gallons of water at one time, the hump comes in handy for storing it. The hump also serves as the camel’s cooling system where the camel can release heat. In case you want to get one for use at home, you need to plan to spend between 1,200 and 1,400 dinars to purchase one, plus freight charges. Their feet are broad and flat, just right for walking in sand, and it is said that nomads can identify the footprints of their camels, even when mixed with a number of others. We also learned that all camels are not created equal. White camels are smaller and faster with longer legs (they use these for racing stock) while the brown models (any where from mocha to coffee) are bigger and stronger and are the heavy duty freight haulers.  They are extremely useful animals in any number of ways, such as:   Food (the meat is cholesterol free and supposedly tastes like buffalo) Camel milk is extremely rich (like whipping cream, only somewhat salty so we are told) A mother with young (only 1) will produce between 5 and 10 liters of milk per day, This milk also has certain laxative properties and is not sold in stores or consumed by the Average Joe (or Average Habib either for that matter), but the Bedouin often indulge.   Agriculture – Camels are admirable beasts of burden, performing functions such as turning a mill wheel, (no hydro power here) and hauling stuff on their backs. But of course due to their height and long legs, you never see plowing and cart pulling on their resumes.   Transportation – Camels can cover 80 km. per day although they do not gallop. (unless they are taught to do so to race, but even then it’s more like race-walking when they go around 35 km per hour)  But then the Sahara does not lend itself to doing anything fast except getting back to the oasis for a beer. Camel Caravans have been used extensively in  Tunisia in the olden days, traveling what was called the Salt Route.   Clothing, Shelter and Household goods – Camel hide is very durable and can be used to make anything you could make with leather and camel wool can be woven just like fleece. As far as household goods, they use camel hides for everything from water flasks to drums.   War – Camels have played the same role as horses in war over the centuries, but they are much more effective in the desert dunes with their big dinner-plate sized feet. Camels are still used by the military to patrol the borders. There’s not much illegal immigration happening here, so this seems quite adequate   Water finders – Camels can detect water sources from miles away and were (and are) often relied upon by the nomads to lead the way to the next oasis.   Tourist attraction – Tourist camels are almost always male since a female has one baby every 2 years, with a 1 year gestation period so she’s always either pregnant or nursing while her “camel husband” is at work. Camels we have seen out roaming around are almost always female. The males around here have to report for work everyday at the Camelot.   Before we mounted up, we learned a few camel basics, such as the Big 3 Camel Commands (you readers will find this very useful I’m sure). However, I noticed a 4th “Big” Command was missing and that would be “let me down”) The Big Three are:   Go = sar (pronounced ssshhharrrr –  we are to drag the syllable out – camels apparently like that sort of thing) Stop (also knows as “whoa camel”) = suss (rhymes with fuss, but again we were to drag out the “s”) Get up =  Ich, (this is very guttural pronounced  like “Icchhhh” – and we say it like we’d imagine we would speak German, if we spoke German   We mounted up, one camel per person, but each camel was tied to one other in a pair so we could travel with spouses, significant others, etc.  and each pair was led by a camel driver, who gave the commands and led them. Camels in training actually had rings through one nostril attached to the lead to make sure the camel driver had their attention at all times. I am pleased to report that these camels had been freshly bathed (or else newly squirted with Febreze) and were not the least smelly or cantankerous.

Obaida  with the Tourists

Obaida with the Tourists

My camel, the traditional tan camel color was named Obaida. Gary’s was a darker chocolate one, a heavy duty freight-hauler type named Aboud. Both were males –and were quite fluffy with their winter coats. Our camel driver was Fawzi – a young Berber man who asked if we were English, and I said no American and he gave me a grin and a big thumbs-up. He didn’t speak much English, but I used a well-mangled combination of a dab of French and dose of Spanish to ask him to take out picture. He had a few issues with framing the photo (i.e. we were headless or off center, but he finally got the hang of it.) A corporation owns the camels – it’s a business and what a business it is – tourists go crazy over this camel riding thing, present company included.   What an adventure  this was – an hour camel ride into the Sahara, sort of a  mini “mahari” (rhymes with safari). A real mahari, as explained to us, entails an extended expedition into the desert, traveling all day by camel, eating cous cous, sleeping in Bedouin tents, and so forth. Maybe we will do this next time or maybe not.

Caravan Shadows on the Sahara

Caravan Shadows on the Sahara

The camels make a rumbling noise (sort of like African elephants) and do this Bronx cheer sort of thing where they stick their considerable tongues out to make a blubbering noise. They actually look like they are inflating their tongues – sort of like blowing a bubble without the bubble gum.  Aboud was tied to Obaida and Fawzi led them both on foot. Aboud was quite friendly and seemed to enjoy wiping his drooling mouth on my pants leg and having me scratch his head between his ears- very dog like in what I interpreted as affection for me. (I would hate to think he was just using me like a Handi-Wipe and moving on to someone else tomorrow). Although he was quite a nice riding camel, Obaida tended to back-fire a lot and since Gary was riding so close behind, he found that to be rather, unpleasant and somewhat unsettling. A lesson was learned here – which was ride the lead camel whenever possible. We rode across the desert just before sunset with the sun casting long shadows on the dunes. These saddles had us positioned just behind the hump which was much more comfortable than the time we rode 2 per camel in Egypt where one of us had to sit on the hump (that particular hump-sitter happened to be me). Of our tour group 29 out of 39 took the camel ride including several octogenarians, who have become our role models. In fact, our 84 year old friend Katie, who we just me on this trip, asked for a fast one. Those less adventurous souls who didn’t want to ride took horse drawn caleches.

Campfire Dancing with the Bedouins

Campfire Dancing with the Bedouins

We ended our journey just before sunset at a Bedouin “camp” – set up for travelers who want to spend the night in the desert with music, a bonfire and cocktails. Of course we all had to dance – well those who would and could did.  I tried to imitate the local dancers, but I noticed Gary was using the same dance moves he uses to dance to “You Sexy Thing”, which are the same moves he uses to dance to “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog”, but if anyone noticed they were far too polite to comment. The sunset over the dunes was really magical, creating one of those defining moments we always remember.   At dinner we were joined by a zillion Spanish moto-cross riders and of course the Gen Art film crew from Italy who was at the Ras El Ain Hotel in Tozeur with us last night. There was quite a mob at dinner, and again the ubiquitous buffet was served, leading us to speculate that each hotel packs up uneaten food from the buffet and ships it in the cargo hold of the bus to our next destination, just in time to set it up and smooth over the salads and mushy vegetables to make them look like new. I was contemplating placing a small piece of tape across one, like detectives do – just to see if it shows up at the next hotel buffet.

Last Night on the Desert

Last Night on the Desert

After dinner just the two of walked out to the edge of the desert to see the stars in the night sky which were spectacular – no air pollution, no clouds, no humidity, no lights. It was a very spiritual experience and that moment alone would have made the journey worthwhile.     February 17, 2007   Dateline: Djerba,  Tunisia   Latitude at Djerba: 33.48 Degrees North, 10.50 Degrees East     Today we leave the Sahara region to drive to the island of Djerba, an island oasis in the region called the Sahel (which means coast). The Sahara is the largest desert in the world, at just under 3.5 Million square miles with many areas getting less than one inch of rain per year. The oases are the only things that have made living here possible. In the olden days it was very important to avoid being outcast from the oasis – it was practically a death sentence unless you banded together with other outcasts to survive. It’s similar to the concept of the knight errant – He’s someone who has been banned from the kingdom because he erred (i.e. got crossways with the king), versus going out on an errand (or mission) which, as a child, is what I always assumed it to be. These rogues ejected from the oasis would band together to form a clan-like tribe called a Kabila and would circle their tents for mutual protection. Another option for the outcasts of course was the French foreign legion, which also took in convicted criminals, (sometimes the judge would offer service as an alternative to prison time). There were also the clichéd, but true cases of young boys running away from home or men with permanently broken hearts from relationships gone bad joining the Foreign Legion.  The policy was “No Questions Asked” and enlistees had to sign a document whose name translates as “Paper of Faithfulness” and usually served for life.  The name Douz comes from the French word for 12 and the oasis got its name from being the outpost where the 12th Battalion of the French foreign legion was based. France and Spain are the only countries that still have foreign legions today with bases in French Guiana, Djbouti, Chad, Mali and New Caledonia. In today’s Foreign Legion, there are still criminals, but most are simply mercenaries. Nowadays, when necessary, the Legion issues a new name and a new passport, sort of like the Witness Protection Program, and they now even have a retirement plan. I was okay with the new identity part, but somehow the idea of a legionnaire with a 401K just takes the romance right out of the whole thing.   Since we’ve passed a number of marabouts, this may be a good place to share a note on Islamic culture on the subject of death. There is very little hoopla associated with the death of a run-of-the mill Muslim. They believe the deceased should be buried within 24 hours of their demise. No embalming, no headstones, no family plots and no cremation. The body is buried as is, facing Mecca and around 20 years after the dust-to-dust thing has taken place, they’ll bury someone else in that same grave. The elite of the religion of course have their marabouts, and if the person is of stature, he will have a mausoleum. Or in the case of the truly exalted – the George Washington of Tunisia, a gentleman named Habib Bourgiba, has an extremely lavish and over the top mausoleum along the lines of the Taj Mahal which we are to visit later.   Djerba is our final destination today, but of course we had an action packed itinerary en route. As we approached the coast, we left the desert and crossed the Jebel Dahar (Dahar Mountains) that start in Tunisia and extend into Libya. As we transited the Sahel Region, the landscape changed  back to olive groves, brush covered hills and an unexpected delight, meadows covered in springtime wildflowers. Our first stop was the village set in the heart of the Jebel Dahar called Tamezret. (Pronounced like it looks – Tah-mez-ret, with the accent on “mez”. We stopped at a local café called the Café Gamar which had the most delicious little pastries made with honey and almond called gazelle horns. There were men out front at a table playing dominoes, which seems to be a pretty universal game. Our guide, Kamel, and our driver, Munir went inside the Café Gamar to have a short chicha  break,  which involves a community  smoke on a water pipe which burns apple wood or other aromatic woods reduced to charcoal (as opposed to opium which would most certainly cause some alarm among the travelers.) The big attraction here was an orphaned baby camel being raised by a local man. He gave me a bottle of milk to feed her and she was about the cutest thing you can imagine, with a fluffy coat (felt just like a big poodle pompom) and big liquid brown eyes with impossibly long lashes. I was just getting ready to negotiate the purchase and scheming on how I could get around Gainesville zoning laws when I was forced to either get back to the bus or take up residence in Temezrat.

Schoolboys in Tamerzet

Schoolboys in Tamerzet

Vantage, our tour operator, has adopted a local school here –comprised of a single teacher wearing a lab coat teaching 23 kids from 6 to 12, boys and girls together, in what is essentially a one-room school house. School is mandatory for all children throughout Tunisia, but this school is quite a contrast from those in Tunis which are so crowded, they have 2 shifts of classes 6 days a week. Although Friday is the Muslim holy day, Tunisians take Sunday as their day off – a leftover from French Colonial days, but it helps them function more effectively in the global economy.

Schoolgirls in Tamezret

Schoolgirls in Tamezret

The kids in the school are children of the Berbers in the area since most of the other people who may have lived there at one time moved to Tunis to find jobs and the town is now largely deserted. The kids were adorable, smart and fluent in French and Arabic and learning English. They sang some songs for us and showed us their books. They were also very well dressed, well groomed and well-behaved. The teacher had each of them tell us what they wanted to be when they grew up – lots of doctors, engineers and teachers – no lawyers no politicians and most impressively no famous rock stars or actors. It was quite refreshing to see this trend – I just hope the Internet and cable TV don’t turn them into aspiring Paris Hiltons and Justin Timberlakes. I am also wondering who they’re going to get to sue all those doctors for malpractice – maybe they’ll import some lawyers from the US.  The teacher of the school was trying to raise money for a small copier for the school so Gary and I decided to donate the money to buy one. It is amazing that the cost is so small to us and so huge for them. Many of the Vantage travelers made donations to buy things for the school, but the best ideas from the kids’ perspective came from a dentist from St. Louis who had brought the kids a soccer ball, which was a huge hit.   From Tamezrat we drove to a town named Matmata, perhaps most famous in the Western World as a Star Wars film location created by the close to 700 troglodyte dwellings in the area. The word “troglodyte” is of Latin origin and was their word for cave dwellers or people who live in holes. (In Latin trogle = hole, dyein = enter). In Turkey in the Capadoccia region, people carved houses out of limestone formations. Here in the clay hills of the Dahar Mountains, they are carved into the hillsides, now carpeted with yellow and purple wildflowers in the most picturesque landscape imaginable. We had an appointment with an enterprising lady of 87 named Fatima to tour her home. Fatima wasn’t feeling well, but her daughter-in-law welcomed us warmly.  Approaching the house from the road, we saw a door set into the hillside in a setting that could pass for the House of Snow White and the 7 Dwarves – only the door was little higher –but not by much. These Berbers are definitely fairly small in stature. There were handprints representing the Hand of Fatima in blue, painted on a white exterior which the locals believe brings good luck. Fatima was the name of one of Mohammed’s daughters and is believed to have protective powers (sort of an Islamic version of St. Christopher). There was also the tail of a largish fish above the door which also brings good fortune, or so they say. We entered through a spacious tunnel and emerged into a circular courtyard open to the sky, (It’s called a “houch” and is pronounced “hooch”). Each of the rooms – kitchen, sleeping rooms, food pantry

The Daily Grind at the Troglodyte - semolina

The Daily Grind at the Troglodyte – Semolina Becomes Couscous

– radiated off this courtyard and were dug into the hillside. The daughter-in-law showed us how she ground semolina into couscous – manually with two millstones. She invited me to give it a spin and I must say it was pretty hard work with very little couscous being produced by my labors. We did a drive-by shooting (with cameras only – no firearms) of the only troglodyte hotel in Tunisia called the Hotel Sidi Driss which was used as Luke Skywalker’s home  in filming  one of the Star War movies.   We stopped for lunch in Gabes (pronounced Gah-bess with the accent on “bess”) which is located in a seaside oasis at a local restaurant called the Parc Loisir. Again the meat was somewhat overdone – say on the charcoal briquette side and the vegetables were mushy. We figured any leather that is not good enough for purses and shoes is sold to restaurants to feed to tourists. Another disconcerting experience is fishing through whatever is served to you looking for bone and cartilage. We think they just cut it up in equal size pieces, seeing no need for all that de-boning, trimming and slicing. We did have some good soup, great tangerines and baguettes. We took a stroll around town and saw a local vendor with half a dozen rotisserie chickens on a spit that looked just about done to us, but if the food we have been served is any indication, they’ll be cooking those suckers another week or two.

The Spice Market at Gabes

The Spice Market at Gabes

After lunch we also spent a little time in the local spice market which was really fascinating with mounds of every spice available as well as all shades of henna (the better to tattoo you with) on display. Most henna tattoos are worn by Berber women who put them mostly on their faces, especially their chins as a form protection (reportedly keeps the bogeyman at bay) and have been doing so for centuries. The beauty part of a henna tattoo is that is goes away in a few days. I’ll bet Angelina wishes she and Billy Bob Thornton had used henna now that she’ with Brad and had to have Billy Bob’s name surgically removed from her arm.  We also had a few minutes to stroll around a more tourist oriented souk called Jara, built around a square where we saw more SSDD (same stuff, different day). Many of the residents of Gabes are black (unusual in most of Tunisia, but common along the coast) and are the descendants of former slaves.   We departed to drive south to Djerba passing through an historical area called Mareth where General Montgomery’s troops fought the Afrika Korps in World War II, eventually causing their retreat. There are bunkers along the road still intact from that battle which took place in February and March of 1943. The Mareth line was originally built by the French in 1938 to prevent an invasion by Libyans who had gotten cozy with Mussolini, but like the Siegfried Line and the Maginot Line, it wasn’t very effective in keeping armies from going where they wanted in modern wars. Nowadays, Libya and Tunisia mostly get along which is a good thing since Tripoli, their capital is only 205 kilometers from the border. In fact Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and Algeria have formed the Mahgreb Alliance, which when originated, was intended to be something like the European Union (EU), but they still have too many squabbles to make it effective. It didn’t help matters when the wife of their first president, Mrs. Bourgiba, was caught working on a deal with Muammar Ghaddafi with plans to make Tunisia and Libya one big happy dictatorship. This and other issues forced Mr. Bourgiba to give up the presidency (he like so many before him, designated himself President for Life, but unlike Castro, his didn’t stick, especially after Mrs. B’s escapade with Colonel Ghaddafi). The Mahgreb Alliance sounded like a good idea, but some parts were especially sticky – like the requirement that the country be a full democracy, have equal rights for women, have no death penalty and not sell stuff to the enemy, whomever that might turn out to be – so each country sort of picks and chooses which rules they chose to observe and essentially does whatever they want to.   Once we left Gabes, we were traveling on the main road leading to Libya which had a fascinating assortment of roadside shopping. Libyans travel to Tunisia to buy food, medical supplies and luxuries. Merchandise on display ranged from everything from western-style toilets to dates. They often barter these items in exchange for cheap Libyan gasoline. (roughly $1. per gallon, only here they use liters).The Tunisians in turn set up black market gas stations and undersell the local Shell and BP, plus they don’t charge tax (nor pay tax ) for it.  This is done right out in the open and the Tunisian government just turns a blind eye. The rationale is that it keeps people gainfully employed. There are literally hundred of these “stations.”, using the word loosely which typically consist of the big distributors who have the 55 gallon drums and a siphon, and the “mom and pops” who have 2-3 liter plastic bottles lined up on a board resting on two saw horses. And without exception, every gas “attendant”, again using the word loosely, had a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, throughout the whole purchase transaction, so we were always on the lookout for a big boom and the flash of an explosion.   Speaking of “lookout” we didn’t notice until we got on the open stretches of the Sahel that there were 2 men following us, stopping when we stopped, speeding up when we did and so forth. One of our fellow travelers was about to call the Al Qaeda Whistleblower Hotline when our guides informed him that those suspicious characters were our police escort and we have had one since the first day – just taking care of the tourist so they say. They haven’t had any attacks on foreigners and they want to keep it that way.

A Ksar near Metameur

A Ksar near Metameur

Our next stop was the village of Metameur where we visited a ksar (the ks is pronounced like “x” which is a special type of granary. Then you have two or more you have ksour, (pronounced x-sour) These granaries were built by the Berbers, who later used them for housing and protection. They are made of clay mud and are comprised of a series of chambers or rooms called ghorfas, (pronounced gore-fah with the accent on “gore”) built around a courtyard. When under attack, everyone scrambled inside bringing their livestock with them and scooted into the various ghorfas.  All entrances and windows are on the

Teatime at the Ksar

Teatime at the Ksar

courtyard and the only entrance to the courtyard is through a heavily fortified gate. Of course the bad news is, you could get trapped in there because the gate is the only way out as well. There are hundreds of ksour throughout this area, some dating back to the Middle Ages  The ksar we visited is now a hotel – a primitive hotel, to say the least but the rates are good. There were also Star Wars episodes filmed, not here, but in a ksar down the road a piece at Ksar Ghilane – accessible only by 4×4 or camel (We assume Steven Spielberg and company used the former).   We drove another 64 kilometers from Metameur to the island of Djerba, again entering the vast wetlands, which stretch from Gabes all the way south to the Libyan border, where millions of migratory birds from Europe spend their winters. Just as the sun was setting, we were treated to the sight of hundreds of flamingos who hang around the salty marsh areas year round. They favor a particular delicacy – tiny crustaceans and algae found only in shallow brackish water which are rich in carotenes, which in turn causes there feathers to turn pink.  The flamingoes made wonderful silhouettes against the horizon with their long curved necks and swan-like bodies on stalk-like legs. The photos we took didn’t do them justice, which once again confirms the vast superiority of the human eye over the camera lens. We crossed a bridge just at dark to arrive in Djerba and checked into our hotel for the night.




Tunisia Part 4: Djerba to Sousse

 Tunisia

 Part 4:  Djerba to Sousse

 February 18, 2007

 Dateline: Djerba, Tunisia

 Latitude  at Djerba: 36.45 N, Longitude, 10.21 E

Desert Flowers on Djerba

Desert Flowers on Djerba

The island of Djerba is very ethnically diverse. There is a large Jewish population resulting from the Diaspora of Babylon and Jerusalem when Jewish people were expelled from those ancient cities. Also many Jews came here fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. There is also a large population of descendants of African slaves since that “industry” thrived here for many years. There was also a large influx of Indians from Cochin in southern India, as well as significant Christian influence as evidenced by the marble baptistry found here, now in the Bardo Museum. Then the Muslims came along with the expulsion of the Moors from Spain and there were various invasions by Middle Eastern countries including the Ottoman Turks.  It is interesting to note that everyone has gotten along on this island for centuries. Perhaps the world should take notes on how it’s done.

 

Djerba was also home to the corsairs in the days of the Barbary Pirates from the 16th to the 19th century. Corsairs were pirates sanctioned by the government to go out and kill and plunder and bring the goodies home (along the lines of the privateers sanctioned by the British back then), with the baddest of the bad being Barbarossa (Red Beard). Today there are a number of fancy resorts all along the coast of Djerba, but there’s no chance you’ll mistake this island for Monte Carlo. The ocean views are the same but the landward view often has camels grazing on the other side of the parking lot.

 

There is a ferry to Djerba and also a causeway which was originally built by the Carthagenians and further improved by the Romans (those guys were everywhere) and subsequently named by the French the “Chaussee Romaine”. There are olive trees on the island planted in Roman times that are still alive and producing olives. The island itself is small, only 7 kilometers wide. Djerba is referenced in Greek myth as the Island of the Lotus Eaters (the belief being that lotus eaters are carefree happy-go-lucky types) and since the people they encountered in their explorations on Djerba seemed happy-go-lucky in the extreme, the legend stuck. Some historians believe the source of such happiness was rum, others hashish, rather than lotus blossoms. The other myth portrays Djerba as the Island of the Sirens, whom you may recall sang their songs to lure sailors to their deaths. They were really hideous creatures with scrawny bird bodies and the heads of seriously ugly women. Odysseus, (a.k.a. Ulysses) however was wise to their tricks, being tipped off by Circe, one of the big time goddesses of ancient myth, and he instructed his sailors to tie him to the mast and to put wax in their own ears. When the Sirens got tuned up and began to sing, Odysseus begged his men to set him free, but since they had wax in their ears they couldn’t hear him and sailed on. And of course it is well know that today men have had virtual wax in their ears ever since and to this day cannot hear what women say.

Food in Djerba is the same as elsewhere in Tunisia – yukky to moderately yukky, particularly on the meat. We facetiously commented to each other that there must be a rule that all moisture must be removed before it can be served.  Then we learned that strict Muslims believe (apparently written in the Koran) that meat has to be specially prepared to ensure that all blood

At the Souk - the last time for al dente vegetables

At the Souk – the last time for al dente vegetables

is drained out of it by a butcher called in a process called “hallal” which is strangely similar to Jewish Kosher rules. In fact Jews who keep kosher often buy their meat from these butchers who observe the same process. The vegetables are never al dente once they leave the farm and hit the restaurants. I don’t know if limp vegetables are Koranic law or not, but since they serve them fresh in salads I would suspect not. Still I have to wonder what bad things happened to those beautiful veggies in the market before they land on my plate.

 

 

An Urban Camel - Doesn't Know he is on the Menu

An Urban Camel – Doesn’t Know he is on the Menu

But of course, we didn’t come here for the food. We came for the adventure (and thus the title). They do have some good stuff to eat – pastries and baguettes for example (the one piece of French cooking that must have stuck when the French decamped in the early 20th Century. Also the fruit is fabulous – oranges especially. Both of us have commented how our clothes seem to be getting baggier by the day so I’m thinking of investing in a Tunisian Cookbook and market it on Amazon.com as a diet book. They do beautiful leather work here and we’re thinking that what ever leather gets rejected for purses and shoes is sent to the tourist restaurants to masquerade as meat. And another thing, we think meat cleavers must be big here, for as best we can tell, they just remove the feathers, but not skin, bones or cartilage of poultry and chop it into chunks. I suspect they also may actually leave the hide on all the other animals and just dice it up with a cleaver. It’s like Cracker Jacks – you never know what your prize may be in that native dish.

 

I had gone to bed straight to bed last night with flu-like symptoms and a sinus infection (too much camel dust I suppose) and Gary had the same ailment this morning. I (mistakenly) thought I was well so I took the morning tour and left him in bed. It was nice to see clouds for a change, the first we had seen in over a week. We traveled through groves of ancient olive trees, some dating back to Roman times. It was quite scenic with wild poppies growing in the meadows and underneath the trees. We visited the islands oldest living olive tree which was a young sapling some time in the 5th century AD and yet this tree could have another 500 years or so of life.

Even Dead Olive Trees are Useful on Djerba

Even Dead Olive Trees are Useful on Djerba

The tree is hollow in the middle, the trunk split, but each section has remained viable and each half grows like a separate tree. The space in the middle will hold 4 Roberto’s (our svelete Italian guide) or 1.5 not as svelte Gary Palmers. When olive trees get this old they generally stop producing good quality olives, but you have to get government permission to “put them down” since they are protected by law. Roberto tells us that Italy you can do jail time for cutting an old olive tree down. Olive harvest here is December as opposed to October or November in Europe.

 

Pottery Market at Gallala

Pottery Market at Gallala

We then went to the village of Gallala, famous for its pottery dating back to ancient times. It is the only place on the island where Berber is spoken. The name means “Big Amphora (jug) and I purchased a “treasure” to add to our collection of travel memorabilia. A camel strolled casually through the market where I was shopping, but it seemed only we camera-happy tourists took note. Another item of interest here was the pottery dog house (not exactly suitable for export), but like Snoopy the dog was atop the dog house and no doubt watching for shoplifters and hoping for the odd camel bone to be tossed his way. Leaving

Guard Dog and the Pottery Doghous

Guard Dog and the Pottery Doghouse

Gallala we saw several “menzels”, which are small self-sufficient and self-contained farms with their whitewashed walled courtyards and buildings which housed both people and animals.

 

After Gallala we visited the El-Ghriba (the name translates as “the miracle”) synagogue, one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the 6th Century BC. It is decorated with intricate wood carvings and ceramic tiles along with a beautiful Torah cabinet (which houses one of the oldest Torahs in the world) and silver and wood Hanukkah lamps.  Djerba’s Jewish community is concentrated in two villages which maintain the Tunisian architecture – palm trees, white houses with blue doors – but on the Sabbath you will see the candles lit in each of the homes, and it becomes distinctively Jewish. The synagogue is the site of an annual pilgrimage every April, with many pilgrims actually staying in the synagogue, but even today women are not allowed to pray in this synagogue. We women also had to cover our heads –  scarves provided by the synagogue in case you didn’t bring your own which I did not. I did do a careful inspection for any alien critters that may have taken up residence, courtesy of a previous wearer of the scarf.

 

Inside the El-Ghriba Synagogue

Inside the El-Ghriba Synagogue

Inside the synagogue were several men reading the Torah aloud to themselves, their voices barely audible Although Jews live side-by-side with Muslims, they are forbidden to intermarry, unless the spouse converts to Judaism. Something we learned (but is probably well known in the world at large) is that you are only considered Jewish if your mother is Jewish. We also visited the fishing village of Houmt Souk, which translates as “Market Quarter”, and which is the capital of the island as well as its port. I need to interject a comment on fashion in Djerba. There is a variation from other parts of Tunisia on the local dress. The veil here is called something that sounds like “hurdet”, but I’m not sure of the spelling. It is white with red or orange stripes and is tied around a straw hat. Women here seem to wear more jewelry and make-up than in other places which makes it a little weird to see them balancing 50 pound bags of rice on their heads (an yes it does squash the hat)  as they stroll down the cobblestone streets. As in other parts of Tunisia, the young girls go veil-less and wear jeans and T-shirts. Our guides tell us some women shave their heads and wear wigs under their veils and hats, but I’m not sure what’s up with that. This sinus infection could be going to my brain.

 

The souk (market) was thronged with local people shopping. There were thousands of shoes on display made in such fashion capitals as China, Yemen and Ethiopia. No Paris, no Milan. You may have expected the satin bejeweled pixie slippers featured in the Arabian Nights, but these sandals were pretty standard sandal fare (more Teva than Manolo Blahnik). There were also of

Fresh Market at the Houmt Souk

Fresh Market at the Houmt Souk

course truck loads of produce – onions, carrots, artichokes, turnips, apricots, melons, apples, pears, dates, bananas.  There were mounds of freshly ground spices of every sort. There were tables full of straw and wicker and racks of leather goods, clothes and low-end (and low tech in many cases) electronics. There were also a number of pottery shops selling amphoras (for home use for storing olives and wine) and special clay pots called “ajim” which are used for catching octopus and squid. We also saw a number of the “fondouks” which were built as inns for traveling merchants during the Ottoman era. Other points of interest include a fortress called Borj el-Kebir built in 1289 AD, which was taken over by a pirate (a.k.a. corsair) named Dragut in the 16th Century who reinforced the walls and expanded the structure.  Dragut also was responsible for a rather gruesome landmark, now replaced by an obelisk, called the Monument of Skulls. It was originally a 36 ft high pyramid of human skulls belonging to Spanish Christians who were killed by Dragut in 1560. Finally in 1848, sanity prevailed and the remains were buried.

 

We had the afternoon free, but both Gary and I took to our bed with our respective respiratory ailments. For dinner we got take out pizza from the hotel which amazingly enough was pretty tasty – especially considering there were no pork products on it.

 

February 19, 2007

Dateline: Sousse, Tunisia

 Latitude at Sousse: 35.49 North, 10.36 East

 

Leaving Djerba island

Leaving Djerba island

Neither of us felt up to par today but we had to drag ourselves out of bed and onto the bus for the next destination. We noticed the GenArt group had caught up with us as we left the island of Djerba on the ferry. Right next to the bus was a man astride a moped wearing a djellaba and a motorcycle helmet, puffing away on a chicha (waterpipe). Once ashore, we traveled north up the coast (the Sahel) to Gabes. We then continued north to the city of Sfax (pronounced just like it sounds – a hissing sound followed by the word “fax”) which is the second largest city in Tunisia which dates back to Carthagenian times as a commercial center. We actually had a fairly decent lunch and really good cream puffs at a hotel called Les Oliviers de Sfax that caters to business people and also had the best toilets in Tunisia in my book ( i.e. all the toilets had seats and they supplied soft toilet paper on a roll and had soap and hot water to wash your hands with. It was a nice break from the typical BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper) venues.

 

A Local Rug Market

At the Rug Souk (Market)

Business persons aside, Sfax is a traditional Arab town with a mosque at its center (medina) surrounded by souks which are grouped according to merchandise within the Kasbah walls. There are also several bath houses (hammams) which offer haircuts and massages as well as steam baths and nearby there are thriving sponge businesses selling sponges harvested from the nearby Gulf of Gabes on the Mediterranean. The hammams have separate hours for men and for women. In traditional Muslim homes, the men do the shopping and the women stay home, but as in Tunis, the city is becoming more and more Westernized. No camels, no veils, very few djellabas.

 

As we left Sfax driving toward El Jem, our next stop, we noticed one tradition in particular that still endures –  the butcher shop. If you fancy any forbidden flesh (e.g. swine) you better plan to bring your own pork chops and forget anything except well done with regard to how it’s cooked. We passed butcher shops all along the route with a freshly slaughtered carcass hanging up to drain, with live animals of the same species nibbling the greenery nearby. You’d think they’d notice the unfortunate demise of their flock-mates and bolt for the nearest open field, but they just seem to stand there awaiting their turn, thus illustrating the phrase “like lambs to the slaughter”. Once we left Sfax proper we also saw the roll out gas pumps that were popular in the more rural areas.

 

The Roman Colosseum at El Jem

The Roman Colosseum at El Jem

After lunch we traveled to El Jem, the site of an ancient Roman amphitheater – very much in the style of the Coliseum in Rome, smaller but much more intact. Our route takes us through thousands of acres of olive trees as far as the eye can see, 15 million of them in the Sahel Region (in which we are traveling) alone. A bit of trivia here: the name coliseum comes from the Latin “place where the colossus is” – a colossus being an oversized statue. It was common to put a huge statue of one of the gods, and or the current emperor on the grounds of public buildings.  This larger than life statue business is a tradition that goes back to Egyptian times when one of the several kings named Ramses ordered huge likenesses of himself placed in a temple called Abu Simbel near the Nubian border, the idea being that the invading Nubians would take one look at the statue and conclude that these Egyptian dudes are all that size and thus way too big to conquer and they would slink back home to Nubia.

 

With regard to El Jem in particular and coliseums in general, we learned some interesting things:

Ben Hur and other movies with a Christian theme made it seem that the playbill called for Christians to fight and ultimately be consumed by wild beasts such as lions, leopards and tigers. However, the entertainment in the form of fighting took place among the gladiators, either man against man or man against beast. Most of the gladiators were paid performers. There were martyrs fed to the lions and other wild animals, but it was more to persecute them than to entertain the masses. There were also no chariot races inside the Coliseum – it makes a good backdrop for a movie, but there is no room to get a good gallop going, nor get an opportunity for shearing the wheels off other contestants’ chariots. The charioteering was done at a large track called the Circus Maximus ( roughly translated in Latin – The Big Circle) although it was not so much a circle as an oval, but that is neither here nor there. (Amphi means 2 in Latin and since theaters were shaped in semi-circles, you put two theaters together, you get the elliptical shape of the coliseum).

 

In Carthagenian times there was a city where El Jem is today call Thysdrus which declared itself on the side of Rome during the Third Punic War and was rewarded by Rome by being allowed to become a Roman Colony in the 3d Century AD. The coliseum was built between 230 and 238 AD, just over 100 years after the original one in Rome. There is some evidence to suggest that it was a work in progress with some carvings left incomplete, caliper holes not filled and so forth. It is the 3rd largest Roman Amphitheater in the world and would have held over 30,000 people.

Below the Arena - El Gem Colosseum

Below the Arena – El Gem Colosseum

Unlike Rome’s Coliseum, many of the walls are still standing and the underground chambers are intact. The upper seating area actually had the forerunners of the modern day skybox where the VIP’s could enjoy the action. The arena floor was covered in sand and had vents in the floors for the animals and humans kept below. The arena walls were marble (the better to keep the lions and leopards from climbing into the audience and attacking the spectators.) The “cheap seats” were actually ringside where one might actually suffer, if not animal attacks, then certainly splatters from the action.

Parts of El Jem were destroyed in 1695 in a political a conflict between the Ottoman Turks and the local ruler and then a later in a conflict between the Berbers and the Arabs, but the most interesting event causing destruction occurred when the king (bey) at the time had taxpayers refusing to pay their taxes herded together and blown up in a cannonade at the Coliseum. Needless to say this place has seen plenty of bloodshed over the centuries. Still most of the damage has been done by the wind on the sandstone. The Italian government has actually paid for much of the restoration as a penance of sort for joining the wrong side in WWII.

 

In the late afternoon, we arrived in Sousse, a seaside city, the third largest in Tunisia, for two nights at the Orient Palace Hotel. It is a very beautiful hotel, but alas with the same food. We were hoping to maybe find a McDonalds, but learned Mickey D has not made his debut here. If and when he does, we feel certain the lead item on the menu will be called McLeather.

 

February 20, 2007

 Dateline: Sousse, Tunisia

 

No excitement today. Both Palmers are down with fever and sinus infections that are threatening to turn to bronchitis. We missed the seaside resort of Monastir where we hear there is a fabulous tomb of former President Habib Bourgiba. We also missed several other highlights, but being bedridden did afford us the opportunity to notice that on the ceiling of our hotel is a little sign/sketch pointing the direction to Mecca, just in case we needed to know. We also missed the evening’s event, dinner in the home of a local Tunisian family in our case, the home of our guide, Kamel. Our fellow travelers raved about how good the food was so we have come to the conclusion that hotel buffets are intended for the sole purpose of the torturing the tourists

 

February 21, 2007

Dateline: Sousse, Tunisia

 

The Kairouan Mosque

The Kairouan Mosque

Still under the weather, we dragged ourselves out of bed today to visit Kairouan, the first Arab city built in Tunisia and the 4th holiest city of Islam (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem). It has over 150 mosques, including the Great Mosque built in the 7th century, the oldest in Africa, although most of what exists today goes back to the 9th century. Many of the mosque building materials came from Roman sites. We were able to see, but not go into, the Prayer Room of the Great Mosque since it is closed to non-Muslims. This was the man’s prayer room. The women have separate prayer rooms, and as mentioned previously the

The Prayer Hall at the Kairouan Mosque

The Prayer Hall at the Kairouan Mosque

mosque is only for prayer – no ceremonies, no sermons. There are only 2 church officials, the muezzin who calls the faithful to prayer from the tower of the minaret, and the Imam who leads prayers. The muezzin is usually a lay person. Contrary to popular belief, prayers do not have to be said in a prostrate position. If in the mosque at prayer time, the people will face Mecca, as indicated by an altar called a “mihrab”

 

We also visited the medina (city center) which is still walled as it has been for centuries and the obligatory markets (souks) which were fascinating , with street after street filled with bargains, particularly on rugs and carpets. We also visited a carpet factory to see a demonstration of how rugs are still hand woven, but we were starting to relapse by this time so it was back to sick bay by lunch time with no more adventures to report. Unfortunately there was an aerobics style exercise class every couple of hours at the pool complete with a booming sound system, (of which we could only hear the base) reminiscent of the reverlry of Hector, the Social Director at a resort we once visited in Mexico. With little sleep and even less rest, we arose at 0:dark-thirty and dragged ourselves onto the bus for the trip to the airport for the flight to Paris and then home.

Thus our Tunisian Adventure concluded with more than a whimper than a bang, but on the flight home we were able to reflect on two of our most memorable fellow travelers including Katie and Dick:

 

Katie is a pistol of a grandmother, standing 5 foot nothing and probably 100 pounds soaking wet. She was a Marine in WWII (always will be a Marine she says) and ex-school teacher who is now 84 years old.  She has traveled literally all over the world, (journeys on yaks across Nepal, rafting in Borneo with headhunting tribes, camel trains across the Arabian peninsula, a train trip across Kazakstan – she’s done it all) but she tells me the only place she has not been is Cancun for whatever reason. She quit skiing and bowling at 80 (arthritis), but she hangs in with the youngest of the group (which happens to be us). She asked me one day whether my hair was real or a wig. I was trying to decide whether I should be insulted, but I allowed her to tug on it and she said it looks so good she thought it must be fake. Here next words were “So is that your natural color?” Here I had to confess to a little help with my “natural blonde highlights”. She also said she wants to get some young looking jeans that don’t make her butt look flat. I guess when you’re 84 you can get by with anything.

 

Another single traveler Dick (probably late 60’s) is also very well traveled, and he and. Katie compared notes one evening, leading us to the conclusion they have each individually been to twice as many places as we have. He retired from the airline industry and could match Katie story for story, whether it was stampeding Cape Buffalo, cannibal tribesmen of New Guinea, or KGB encounters in the former USSR. While they varied widely in what was the “best” in the world, both concurred that the most horrible the smell in the world is the smell of burning yak fat candles when over-nighting in Tibet.

 

As it turned out meeting these two experienced world travelers, in addition to entertaining us throughout the trip, has also further inspired us to go to those remote, off-the-beaten-path places where they have been and to have those same adventures. Okay, we may opt to skip the yak fat candles, but as for the other stuff, we’re ready.