Archive | August, 2011

One Night in the Sahara

20 Aug

“Thief, thief! Someone has stolen my camel!” cried Nasrudin.

Finally after the commotion was quietened someone observed, “But Nasrudin, you have no camel.”

“Shhh…” said Nasrudin, “I am hoping the thief is unaware of this and the camel will be returned.”

This is my camel, eating my hat. Her name is Nasruda, and when I say she’s my camel, I mean she was my camel for one morning. I would gladly have taken her with me when we left, but Ali the camel man might have noticed me trying to cram her into the car.

I can’t remember what Bunty’s camel was called.

We were guided into the desert south of a busy little town called Tagounite. The sun hung like a huge peach, and one could look directly at it through the haze of dust. We tried to photograph it dipping behind the dunes, but night falls quickly here, and by the time we had stopped the car and pulled out our cameras, it was nothing but a glow, and the stars were coming out.

As we waited for our evening meal of tajine, a casserole baked in clay pots, everyone gathered on rugs and cushions outside the tents for a jamming session. Daouad, in the blue djellaba, told me they do this every night.

There was a group of Eastern Europeans staying there too, speaking a language we couldn’t identify. When the Berbers had finished singing, they handed over their guitar and drums, and the Eastern Europeans played and sang gypsy songs from their own country.

What else do the Berbers do to while away their time in the desert, you might ask. They might play on the internet, that’s what.

Bunty and I turned in early, because we were to be rising at dawn to ride the camels into the dunes. Although we had a Berber tent, we followed the example of the Berbers: we spread rugs on the ground outside and slept there, wrapping our faces in cloth against the blowing sand. In true nomadic style, Bunty read himself to sleep by the light of his mobile phone, which was plugged into the car.

When he saw this photograph, he feared that he looked like a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Perhaps he should have opted for an ochre djellaba instead – then he’d have looked like one of the Sand People and could wear it to Star Wars conventions.

The sun rose as swiftly as it had set. We gathered ourselves together, mounted our camels, and Ali led us away into the dunes.

I found riding a camel to be easier than riding a horse. With horses, you have to place your feet in the stirrups just so, grip with your knees, rise to the trot, and hold your hands in the correct position for the reins. When you have M.E., this is exhausting. I can’t stay on a horse for long.

On Nasruda, I found my centre of gravity and remained secure and comfortable for the whole hour. I could spend a day on a camel, if I had to. I regretted that I didn’t have to.

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Donkeys of Morocco

20 Aug

Once you stop thinking of Mirleft in terms of streets, and start thinking of it as a desert on which groups of houses are scattered like nomadic tents, you stop feeling lost. You just drive or trot across the open areas from one stretch of track to the next.

The roads being what they are, donkeys are a common mode of transport in Morocco. Some pull carts behind them. Others trot along with clusters of small children on their backs. Others carry panniers or impossibly large stacks of harvested greenery.

I took a lot of photos through our sand-encrusted windscreen during our road trip.

The first time I saw this foal, she was assisting two adults in emptying a bin of its contents and strewing them between the buildings of Mirleft, eating anything tasty that she came across.

The following day, she was tethered to a rock. She was none too happy about it.

There was no food, water or shade nearby – but then, there never is. Even when untethered, the donkeys don’t appear to seek shade, and like the sheep and goats of the area, seem entirely capable of obtaining nutrition from the barren soil.

Up on a clifftop overlooking Aftas Beach is the shell of a disused house. I found a donkey here too – can you spot it?

That’s not a homeless person lying there. The Moroccan climate is such that it is often more comfortable to sleep outside than in, and it is common to see people settling down any old where to snooze away their hours of Ramadan deprivation.

Sea Dogs

16 Aug

I stepped onto the balcony of Aftas Beach House an hour after dawn. The mist had rolled in, and the only other person was a woman walking on the sand, her purple djellaba billowing in the sea breeze. She sat on a rock at the edge of the water, unwound her headscarf, removed her sandals, and gazed at the surf.

Under the cliff at the far end of the beach, a large group of feral dogs were dancing in and out of the water and tussling in the sand. Their excited woofs were brought to me in gusts. I could barely make them out through the mist, but my camera’s telescopic lens managed better.

I went downstairs and out onto the beach, hoping to get some closer shots, but the dogs moved like a mirage. The farther I walked towards them, the farther they drifted away, so that the distance between us remained the same. Gradually, they disappeared up a dry river bed.

I followed the river bed for a few twists and turns. The thunder of the surf was quieter here, and I realised how accustomed I had grown to its sound. What had seemed very loud when we first arrived in Mirleft is now a hypnotic background rhythm we are barely conscious of, that drowns out the muezzin’s cry and lulls us into deep slumber at night.

The scent of spices reached me from the plants growing on the riverbanks. A fig tree grew from the middle of what would have been a waterfall, had there been any water. I could no longer hear the dogs, and was sure I would never catch up with them. Feral dogs can roam a long way. Towns here can be twenty miles apart, with nothing between but sand and rocks and desert scrub, but Bunty and I have seen dogs padding along the roads from town to town.

Returning to the beachhouse, I met two of the other guests. They were about to leave, but there was something they had wanted to do on the beach first.

“We were saying goodbye to the puppies,” they said.

“What puppies?” I asked.

“Next door,” they said. “Outside the building with the dolphins painted on the wall.”

I went and looked. All I could see was an empty verandah and a stored rowing boat. Then, from behind the boat came some playful yaps. Ignoring the lure of the open road, the puppies had found a bone, and a length of rope to play with.