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Photo Friday: Off into the desert

Posted by Ted on Jun 17, 2011 in Photography

This week begins a new series, Photo Friday! Every week I’ll highlight one photo that tells a particular story. Enjoy!

Our guide leads us into the Sahara

Back in 2007, we had been going to Burning Man for several years. From Boston (to a barren salt flat two hours north of Reno) is quite an undertaking, requiring lots of money and coordination. We decided to trade the Black Rock Desert for the mother of all deserts — the Sahara.

We went to Morocco, and spent 12 days there; roughly split evenly between Marrakech, Zagora, and Essaouira. Zagora (and the even smaller town of M’Hamid) are on the very edge of the vast desert. Camping among the dunes, watching the sand change colors with the sunrise and sunset, and sitting by the fire at night listening to nearby Berber nomads was one of the most magical experiences of our lives.

This photo was taken as we rode our camels out into the desert for first time, led by our guide Abrahim.

It is now almost 4 years later, and we have since been to Costa Rica, Fiji, Mexico, China, and Southeast Asia, but the Sahara pulls at our souls every day, calling us back.

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A trip to the Post Office

Posted by Ted on Jun 18, 2010 in Memories

This afternoon I biked down to the Post Office. Usually not a notable activity, today was different. The package was special.

It all started in the small bus station in Marrakech, where we made friends with a tout named Ali, who worked for a desert camel trekking operation in M’Hamid. We rode the red-eye bus together over the Atlas Mountains. Bleary-eyed and slightly battered from the ride, we arrived at Zagora in the morning. We enjoyed a delicious avocado shake and purchased some Tagelmusts for our desert journey, as well as a beautiful hand-made mirror with henna-dyed bone inlay which I paid too much for.

Before setting out for M’Hamid by taxi, Ali insisted that we spend the early afternoon at Camping Auberge Prends Ton Temps. We were greeted by the camp’s Tuareg owner, whose warm hospitality was characterized by his deep voice – a mix of Bobby McFerrin, James Earl Jones, and Louis Armstrong.

After lunch, Belaide brought out his Oud and sang a folk song for us. “Mama Afrika Zina” is a simple song, but it made our hearts weep with joy. Two nights later, we would find ourselves sitting around a fire with him into the wee hours of the night, deep in the Sahara desert at Erg Chigaga. Being in the desert under the stars with music and fire and conversation, Berber nomads partying even later into the night just a few dunes over, that was the defining moment of our trip – ‘magical’ only begins to describe it. All the best moments must end, and so we packed up in the morning, left the desert, and slowly made our way west towards the Atlantic coast, to spend a few days in Essaouira before returning home to the States.

Three years later, the Sahara is never far from our thoughts. We were changed by the desert, and we can always feel its pull. So much were we moved by the experience, that the backdrop for our wedding ceremony was a Moroccan chill gazebo that we envisioned, and our friends created.

It was in that gazebo, on our wedding night, that I presented my wife with a gift that I had been working on for months. It started via email exchanges with Belaide after we had returned home. As English is neither his first nor second language, we use French. And since I am not nearly as fluent in French as I’d like to be, I use the help of translate.google.com. (actually, I started off using Babelfish.) I write what I want to say in English, translate it to French, and then feed that French back into an English translation. I then tweak the original until the re-translation matches. In January of ’08, I wrote the following;

J’ai une faveur pour vous demander. Je ne sais pas s’il est possible, mais il signifierait beaucoup à moi si nous pourrions avoir n’importe quel enregistrement audio de “MAMA akrika zina”. Nous nous marions en Juillet, et je voudrais beaucoup étonner Liz en jouant cette chanson à notre mariage.

After five months of communicating via email, and even after a friend of Belaide’s put an audio recording up online, I received this package in the mail. Package from the desertNot just an audio recording, but video of Belaide and friends playing the song, as well as a panoramic view of Prends Ton Temps itself. There were also two decorated votive candle holders, and two necklaces to ward away bad spirits. I was blown away by the generosity of this Tuareg musician and campground owner that we’d met only briefly. And so it was a few weeks after that when I played the video for Liz in the gazebo, with a handful of friends and family who were with us at the time.

We vowed to send Belaide a thank you box, with favors from the wedding. As months turned into two years, we picked up a few other odds and ends from our travels that we thought he’d enjoy.  Yesterday I finally put everything together in a box, and today I rode down to Fruitvale Station with the box on my back, filled out the customs forms, and sent it on its way to the Sahara.

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Morocco, Day 10

Posted by Ted on Nov 5, 2007 in Travel

This was our last full day in Morocco. We could easily have spent a month or more here in this wonderful country. Not only would we have spent more time in the dessert, but we did not venture into the mountains or up to the Mediterranean coast. We will be going back.

The day didn’t start well; we both had bad dreams, and woke up before 7am. We had OJ and coffee on the terrace, but skipped out on breakfast in order to try our luck elsewhere. One of the only places open that early was Cafe L’Horloge, where we had a typical breakfast, but better than what we could get at our riad. While we were there, they got their daily mint delivery. We knew that the national drink was mint tea, but his blew us away. A man showed up pulling a 4x6x2 cart filled with mint.

Afterwards, we went back to the riad for the final time, to pack up and head out. We walked to the bus station to drop our bags until the evening, and then walked through the medina stopping to visit our music seller and have a pot of tea. We stopped at the fish market and had some grilled fish, and then walked along the beach, and found a nice place to lie down and take a nap. We relaxed on the beach, and watched the sun get lower and lower, finally setting behind a lighthouse.

Then we saw something completely unexpected; a camel in the ocean. From a distance we saw a lone rider, going for a sunset stroll through the surf. Finally, we packed up and made our way back slowly towards the bus station. We found our way back to the scarf shop and chatted with our friend Rachid, where we saw this absolutely beautiful purple blanket. Our funds were dwindling, and we were determined not to take out any more cash. We bargained hard, and got the blanket for a steal. We could tell that he was pained to let it go, but at the same time, there was a respect for how well we negotiated. More than that, we made yet another friend whom we are still in contact with. Our very final purchase was a beautiful ceramic bowl as a gift, and a spice cellar that has room for salt, pepper, and cumin. After 10 days, we had finally learned how to haggle the Moroccan way. To be willing to get up and walk out, being dragged back in for that “final” price. We would more frequently be called ‘Berbere’ for our shrewdness, and we took that as a compliment. It seems that feigning pain at seeing their wares go for a low price is all part of the game.

As we left, we also met our last street haggler; a boy, about 5 or 6, selling packets of kleenex. We bought one for 2 dirhams, and then relaxed in a deserted plaza having tea before heading off to the bus station. Our last bus took us up the coast back to Casablanca, where we then caught a cab to the airport, and back home.

Morocco was one of the most amazing places that we have been. It is a country as varied in landscape as it is in its people.

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Morocco, Day 9

Posted by Ted on Nov 4, 2007 in Travel

We slept late, and then had a mediocre continental breakfast, sharing the roof terrace with the English guests. When they left, we stayed and enjoyed the warm sun and salty air. We looked out over the rooftops, which hinted at the maze of streets below. More residential terraces had the morning’s laundry drying in the sun in a clear blue sky. The white buildings of the medina were all about the same height, about 3 stories, and we could look across them to the blue Atlantic ocean to the west.

After breakfast we window shopped our way down the street, past numerous shops selling mirrors, spices, wooden and ceramic bowls, fabrics, lanterns, and leather goods. We got to the main plaza, and went to the ATM to take out some more cash. Only then did the cost of our vacation start to dawn on us. We were looking at having spent about twice as much as we had planned; Morocco was full of shopping temptation. Then we had lunch on a second floor restaurant, overlooking the plaza, and we were visited by a white cat. Afterwards we walked back down the street, and stopped in at a music shop. We found two CDs from Tinariwen, the band from Mali that we had heard in the chill tent at Prends Ton Temps. We sat down with the proprietor for the traditional pot of mint tea, and he introduced us to even more music.

Then we wound our way back to our riad for a lovely nap before heading back out again to watch the sunset from a Portugese fort, built during the early 16th century. The sky was filled with seagulls, and the sun slowly approached the horizon amid salmon-colored clouds. We made our way back slowly, and stopped at a shop selling fabrics. It was small, about the size of a large closet, and we haggled with the shop owner, Rachid; 4 beautiful cactus-silk scarves for about 380 dirhams. He was one of the friendlier and less pushy of the merchants that we’d met, and he welcomed us to come back any time.

Suddenly it was getting late, and we went back to the riad to change, and then it was dinner time. We decided to see where our whims led us, and we wandered down random streets in order to find something unexpected. Along the way, we came across a box of kittens. This was notable particularly because this was the third such box that we’d seen that day. We ended up at Les Alizes. We sampled more olives, and the pink ones continued to be the ones we gravitated towards. We also had the best Harira and a goat tagine. However the highlight was the dessert. Very simple, it is one of the traditional desserts of Morocco;
finely sliced orange with cinnamon.

Finally, we returned to our riad for the third time that day, relaxed, played some Sudoku, and went to bed.

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Morocco, Day 8

Posted by Ted on Nov 3, 2007 in Travel

We arrived, cold and tired, into Essaouira a bit after 8a. At that point, we’d been awake for most of the previous 27 hours. We took a cab to one of the central squares within the medina, and had a “continental breakfast”, which was, pretty much the same bread, jam, and tea-or-coffee we’d been having, except this time it was french bread.

We waited until after 9a, and then found a phone and started calling places to find a place to stay. Every place was completely booked. This is apparently the drawback to winging it that had worked for us so well thusfar. Finally, we found L’unetoile, which was not only available, but willing to let us check in right away. Praise allah! We walked around the corner and waited by the bank for someone to come and guide us to the riad. The doorway was at the end of a narrowing road. Inside, it was absolutely wonderful, warm and inviting. Our room was beautifully decorated with moons and stars, and had numerous lanterns on the walls and bedside tables. It was a little pricier than we’d hoped, but well worth it. We took a much-needed shower, washing off quite a bit of the sahara, and then took the most amazing four-hour nap.

Then we got up and wandered around the medina, where I bought some linen shirts at a good price, and Liz picked up some bracelets from a jeweler who likened himself to Eddie Murphy. He had a wandering eye and kept muttering, “ya never know.. ya never know..” I found out that the name of the yellow crystal in the Berber tea was called l’alik which we found at a spice shop nearby. I would later find out that this is actually gum arabic, which is often seen on packaged food wrappers, used as a stabilizer. I spent way too much money in that shop on spices and teas.

We missed the sunset, and made our way back to the riad, where we had some tea and met our proprietor; a very nice woman from Zimbabwe of European descent. We talked with her and a couple of English guests for a long while about our collective journeys and local recommendations. Then we set out to find dinner. Some of the places were booked, so we ended up at Le Patio. Luck had it that we showed up at the same time as a group of 6, and together shared a large table. The restaurant had a nice, if dark, ambiance, which didn’t mesh very well with their method of presenting the menu; they brought out a large chalkboard, and set up candles around it. We had some great appetizers, but a fish dish that we didn’t like. We shared a bottle of wine, and had chocolate mousse for dessert.

We then wandered back to through the dark streets towards our final Moroccan home, and went straight to bed. Perhaps one of the most amusing notes of the day was that neither of us remembered it was my birthday until about 9p. Forgetting because you’re too tired and busy from wandering a foreign country? I’m pretty ok with that. It was a wonderful way to spend my 35th.

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