Thursday, August 20, 2015

Tomboktou - and Beyond...part 2

We had quite the conversation while waiting for Maloud to gain us entrance to Hotel Tomboctou.  I secretly hoped no one would answer and we might be able to upgrade to a better place.  Alas, the gate swung open and we were welcomed into the Kasbah.  A Kasbah is a sort of fortress, or enclave outside of a city where a local tribal lord might reside in a defendable dwelling.  Our adobe fortress was stunning inside the ugly outer walls.  I later learned it had been built in 1944 by Sheikh Bassou Ou Ali.  The rooms were high ceilinged and decorated with a fascinating array of African art.  My heart beat a little quicker as I explored the nooks and crannies of the place.  After settling in we all climbed to the rooftop to gaze out over the Tinghir oasis and to watch the rising moon.  I was a happy traveler, chagrined at my lack of faith.                                        

Dinner was served in a traditional tent and I had the chicken pastilla, a wonderful savory, slightly sweetened pastry with almonds, saffron and cinnamon and other assorted ingredients.  I LOVE this dish.  Oh, and the Tomboktu served wine.  Always a plus in this part of the world. My companions ordered tagines.

After a good night's sleep we had an early breakfast (negotiated from 7 AM to 8 AM) and we were off on a tour of the oasis
which is a co-op of agricultural crops that are intentionally planted in a manner that is mutually advantageous and supports the soil and the community.  The land was lush and the irrigation system completely organic.  After our tour we headed to the old city where Berbers and Jews once co-habited peacefully.This village was labyrinthian and very old.  There were dusty rivulets of dried blood in the passageways, left from the previous day's sacrifice which is an Islamic/Arabic tradition and not originally a Berber concept, though one can argue it is a Jewish one.
The Berbers are a complex indigenous people whose history is somewhat shrouded in a conglomeration of mystery and mythology.   I find their ways of life and their stubborn matrilineal configuration encouraging in this day and age.  The doors of many of their shops and alleyways were adorned with the symbol for the "Free People"which they are not in reality any longer... perhaps in their hearts and minds, but politically not....but one can hope.  It is complicated.   We were headed to another cooperative, this time a woman's rug making operation.  We were greeted by a traditionally clad man ( I am certain this is for benefit of tourists, and not the way he dresses most of the time, though I might be wrong).  Our host, the husband of the rug maker answered questions about the continuation of Berber traditions and nomadic movement to the Sahara in the winter. He told us with a sad look and the shake of a head, that the young people have all fled to the cities and small are the numbers of tribal people who continue the lifestyle in it's purest form.

Of course we had to look at rugs, and of course, I bought two after the requisite haggling, which the husband does.  One of the rugs brought up some emotion when I saw it, dyed a vibrant blue embellished with symbols for family and fertility, which was exactly what I was looking for ... a gift for my son and his new bride.  The emotion came from thinking of the grandchildren that would issue from their love.  The other.... oh my... made of cactus silk, thin but sturdy with oranges and reds and browns and would look wonderful in my living room.  I later sold it to my friend, but only because I want a reason to go back and visit with this couple again, and to buy another one of their rugs.  Or two.

I must note here that I find many similarities in these people and the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  If you study patterns in the weaves, (and I noted this in Turkey as well) you will find similar, if not identical symbolism.  One could argue that this comes from living so closely to the processes of nature and being intimately familiar with that spirit.  Indeed, pre-Arab Berbers were animists and the flavor of that religion remains in much of their culture in spite of the pervasive insistence that they convert to Islam.  Their were a number of Christian Berbers who lived peacefully with their semitic neighbors for many years, but they were summarily annihilated by the Islamic missionaries.  My readers know that I am a committed Christian, and I do not by any means advocate a mingling hodgepodge of all world religions.  I do however often ponder if there is not some truth in other ways of life that we might learn from. I would like to see more Christians for instance, develop a renewed respect and care for creation and become more aware of it's interconnectedness and our need to be care full with it.  And I would like for Muslims to develop also an understanding that animals and the land are to be cared for and treated with the respect and the kindness the Creator intended.

 I am certain this will be the case when eternity is at last recognized.

We we were off next to explore some interesting geological and historical anomalies in the area...  Monkey Fingers and the magnificent Todra Gorge awaited.... as well as Morocco's own version of Jurassic Park.  Places that definitely reflect both time and timelessness.  Stick around.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Traveling The Sahara - Part 1 - Casablanca to Marakkesh

Time for something lighter.  I am reverting to a trip I took October of 2014, but my last post was so heavy with questions and sorrow, that I felt a need to go back to the roots of this blog and write about a lighter recent adventure, albeit one I embarked upon 9 months ago.

One of the first things on my list of "To Do's" for Morocco was to go camping in the Sahara desert via a camel ride of epic proportion. I also wanted to spend time in the stillness and quietude of the desert, to contemplate life and eternity... and to see the desert sky. These really were the only things I expected from the trip, and I wasn't disappointed, but I encountered much more.

Many, many years ago I had read "TRACKS", a story about a women who transversed the Australian outback with a small team of camels.  The book has since been made into a movie which I have not yet seen, but the romantic notion of camel trekking did stick with me throughout these many years, and now I was in a prime position to test the idea.  Several of the teachers new to this Moroccan school where I now work were keen to get out of the country.  They had plans to fly to Italy, ferry to Spain, flee to France, but not I.  The first year I spent in Turkey I purposed to explore the country of my residence and those journeys proved to be memorable, sometimes challenging, and on occasion life changing.  Morocco would be the same I assured myself.

There were two other teachers who also liked the idea of a desert sojourn, and a camel ride.  I had only known both women a few weeks. Traveling can rattle the nerves like nothing else if the company is wrong... but we threw our lots in together and began planning the trip which would commence on the bloody first day of Qurbani Eid.... when people throughout the city of Casablanca would be slitting the throats of about a million sheep right about the time of our departure.

Sure enough... outside of the confines of the church walls on the Sunday of our departure... were men walking down the street soaked in blood, carrying the knives & machetes of their choice.  Horse and donkey drawn carts were rolling by stacked with freshly stripped sheep skins, and makeshift fires could be seen everywhere in every neighborhood we drove through, the cursory horned rams head barbecuing in the flames.  I speak with frequency in my blogs about the differences and similarities between Islam and Christianity. One of the differences is the law based requirement to slaughter and bleed a sacrificial lamb for sins.  I most likely need to write no more as most of my readers will understand the analogy and comparison. At any rate.... I DO NOT LIKE THE FIRST DAY OF Qurbani Eid.

Still and all, our train was booked for travel to Marakkesh, and we made our way in sort of unison to the CasaVoyager train station.  We needn't have worried about time as it turned out.  The first train was so lightly booked that we ended up waiting for the next train, which finally arrived a good two hours later.  The trip to Marakkesh was quiet and uneventful, each of us sort of lost in our thoughts while journeying on the famed  Marakkesh Express.

The plan was to spend the night in a nice Riad in Marakkesh, and meet up with our tour guide early the next morning.  That night we went for a lovely walk and ate a fantastic dinner.  There was live music and had we not all been so keen to be in bed early for our adventure, it would have been fun to stay and listen and watch.

The walk back to the hotel was fraught with "storming" moments for our little group.  We got lost first of all.  Our ages ranged from late 20's to 40's to 50's and each of our ideas about the value of marching around lost in the city of Marakkesh differed greatly.  I was a bit...adamant... about my need to be back at the hotel in a nice comfortable bed.  Our middle partner was fine either way, and the youngest of us was all for stomping about on an adventure all night if need be to find our way back.  We shared a few words, built up some uncomfortable tension, almost had a deserter... but in the end we made peace, apologized to one another, and found our way back to the Riad intact, and before midnight. Breakfast the next day was sublime, and we packed excitedly for our journey toward the Sahara.

Our driver... who was to become a fast friend... was from Morocco Explored  a fantastic tour company that I highly recommend for their pricing, professionalism, and friendliness.  Maloud picked us up exactly on time and as we headed out of town for the drive across the High Atlas Mountains. He quickly put us at ease with interesting conversation that would set the tone for our trip.  One of our group is quite curious and many questions soon filled the air. At the edge of town, we stopped for gas... and a beautiful, slightly lost, older Berber woman approached the car to beg.  I gave her money for the right to take a snapshot of her... something many Moroccans do not allow because they believe that a picture takes part of their soul.  I think the only thing this shot "took" was a picture of many years of hard living for one woman in a country and culture that can be extremely difficult to survive in.

Gassed and ready to go... we made our way through the country side, past Berber villages, around windy roads,  toward the steep climb up and over the stunning Atlas mountains range standing between us and the Sahara.  The road is twisty and narrow, shared with Berbers making their way form village to village on donkey, horse, and foot.  The wind gusts as well.  I am grateful it is fall and not winter.  I cannot begin to imagine driving over this in ice and snow.  And how do these simple villages survive?  I am informed, many move away to the cities, abandoning their hard way of life, for an even harder one.  We reached the summit and stopped for pictures and cheap roadside souvenirs.
This is a wild and beautiful and sparsely inhabited area of Morocco. It is the gateway to the desert, and we are on our way.  As we descend to the low valleys before us, there are Argan oil cooperatives along the way.  We pull over into the parking lot of one and are assured by Maloud (our driver) that this is a good cooperative run entirely by women and we don't have to buy anything, (right) but let's just take a break and go have a look.

As we walk into the entrance of the shop, I notice the crunch crunch of walking through the parking space is not rocks, but hulls of the nuts from which Argan is pressed, the look much like the southwestern piƱons.  Pretty clever.  The space smells of scented oils and wafting incense.  There is an older woman, Berber, squatting on the floor rotating a stone mill which she feeds the nuts into.  Oil is pressed into a bowl and there is a nut butter by product as well.  We have a little explanation and demonstration in halting but comprehensible English and kindly tip the smiling teacher when she is done. She invites us to sample various argan products that line the shelves, including a jar of argan nut and honey butter.  I love the lotions and hair products, particularly the scented ones.  I fill my little basket with smaller gifts for family back in the US.  Oh but when I get to the tasting table, and have a little spoonful of argan / honey butter.....  I feel as though I have discovered a culinary treasure. I enjoy nut butters and love to cook with them, but I could just eat this straight from the jar.  The whole jar.  It is that good. Yes I buy one, and my travel mates also fill their baskets.  I have to budget here.  We have only been on the road for 1/2 day and I have already made several purchases... and I am sure the best is yet to come.  We all comment on this and Maloud laughs.  He knows other stops on the way I am sure.

The hills flatten out and desert begins to emerge.  Plant life become scarce and the dirt and dust redden.  We are headed for an oasis to spend the night. We will stay in a place called Tinghir.  (NOT Tangier)  It will become one of my favorite places in Morocco, but I don't know that yet.  All I know is the land is barren and it looks much different than the Morocco of Casablanca.

As we near dusk, I can see that we are approaching a city where we will spend the night.  This is confirmed as Maloud searches for our riad.  I am excited at this point and have visions of a pleasant and lavish repose.  After driving down several streets and turns and more streets and turns we finally locate our place for the night...
Let me just say, if you follow my blog, you KNOW how important my hotel, or inn, or B& B or apartment is to me.  VERY.  I grew up in a motel, and part of the joy of traveling for me is being able to stay in wonderful places with wonderful hosts.  When we pulled up and parked in a trash ridden lot next to this "Hotel Tomboctou"... well, my heart sank.  Funny thing about Morocco... you cannot judge the heart of a matter from appearances.  I was about to have that lesson reinforced as we stretched and groaned and nervously made jokes about the name of our "hotel".  My companions eyed me suspiciously, as I had been the one to make arrangements through Morocco Explored.  We trundled our luggage to the entrance as Maloud rang the bell and passersby eyed us with curious gazes.  No one answered, and he went to work making calls.  I began to go to my travel dark place, ready to whine and complain.  We all just stood there in the waning light, waiting for an answer.