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 7

Posted by Ted on Nov 2, 2007 in Travel

Woke up with the rustling of the rest of the camp, and just made it to the nearest dune to watch the sun rise over the plains beyond. A desert sunrise to match the two sunsets that we’d shared in this magical place. We came down for breakfast; the usual bread, jam, la vache qit rit, and tea. After a somewhat rushed meal, it was time for the mass exodus of all of the tourists. We got ushered into our respective 4x4s, and had a very tired drive back to M’Hamid.

We arrived in town, changed, and failed to get on the first taxi out, as we got ourselves sucked into Ali’s cousin’s shop next door for tea. On the upside, a slower exit meant that we got to say proper goodbyes to Ali and Nezha. But, we did lose about two hours of precious time. Finally, we caught a very slow and very packed “grand taxi” to Zagora. This taxi was more of a passenger van with very tiny seats, and by the time we reached town, they managed to fit 23 passengers inside. While a taxi would have been a much nicer and more comfortable experience, I it was an interesting glimpse into local life; this was a very valid means of local transportation, and everyone just shoved in, and personal space was abandoned, and that’s just the way it was. An old man gave me his seat, clearly the outsider, and he did it in such a way as to avoid any argument or question.

Once in Zagora, I tried to ship the big mirror that I had purchased two days before but apparently the local post office couldn’t ship internationally. Thankfully, it was wrapped exceedingly well for easy and safe transport, so I ended up just carrying it throughout the rest of the trip, and right onto the plane. We had tea with Ali’s friend, who tried to tempt Liz with jewelry, but in the end traded her ill-fitting cargo pants for a broken mirror. We barely made it to the bus station to catch a 5p bus to Marrakech. It was better than the packed van we’d just taken, but it was not up to the CTM standards of the bus we’d taken here. The ride was very, very, long. The seats were broken, and there were annoying girls behind us listening to loud music. I barely slept, but Liz managed. Her ability to sleep anywhere amazes me; it comes in very handy for traveling. We finally got into Marrakech around 3a, and tried to go to Dar Soukaina where we’d discussed previously showing up late and catching a few z’s on their roof terrace, but apparently it was just rudely late, and they didn’t let us in.

Defeated and determined, we went back to the bus station, and caught a 4a bus to our next destination; Essaouira. This ride, our 4th of the day, was the worst. It was not only slow, but COLD.

Day 7 was a bit of a wash.

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Morocco, Day 6

Posted by Ted on Nov 1, 2007 in Travel

We woke to the sounds of other people milling about for sunrise. We peeked out of a hole in the tent to find that the sun had already risen, so we went back to bed and got up a little while later. Everything in the tent was covered in sand. The wind had picked up during the night, and the morning was extremely windy. After a nice breakfast in camp, we set out on our camels back to M’Hamid. On the return trip, I was mesmerized by the sand flowing like smoke over the dunes and into the air. It slithered on the ground like snakes. The desert looked alive.

We learned that there were several types of Saharan terrain. As westerners, our image of the desert was the dunes themselves, called ergs, however they actually constitute about 20% of the Sahara. Much of it was flat and rock-strewn. After a couple of hours, we returned to the resort just outside of town.

After waiting for the other tourists to arrive, we all were driven to a nearby kasbah for some “local culture”. My first impressions were that it seemed like a large apartment building, built out of clay and bits of palm, and subject to the same labyrinthine design seen in the medinas. We were guided through, and had tea with one of the residents. Unfortunately, it mostly just felt staged for our benefit. We were embarrassed on behalf of the Swiss tourist who tried to insist that the guy sing for us. Then we got a tour of their rug shop, and we decided we didn’t need to be there, and so got a ride back to town. We waited at the cafe, paid for the next excursion, and went to the internet kiosk across the street to check our email. Back at the cafe we had lunch and met dinner. Literally. A hogtied lamb lay in the shade, waiting to be taken out to the desert camp as a sacrifice for the evening meal. We also made friends with the Sahara Services owner’s well-fed black cat, and were introduced to a Canadian tourist who had come South through the mountains. He had been to Chefchaouen, a city that we had hoped to visit, but would later decide to save it for another trip.

Finally, the 4x4s were ready, and we piled into one of them with the Canadian, a French, and two other Europeans, with the still-alive-and-barely-kicking lamb strapped to the roof rack. Not only that, but one of the Moroccan help climbed on top of it, and rode across the bumpy terrain, hanging onto the roof. We drove through and out of M’Hamid, first across hills with shrubs, and then very flat desert with rocks similar to what we’d seen the day before. At some point, the guy on the roof got off, and we acquired another lamb rider. We stopped briefly at an oasis with a brook filled with frogs.

12km further, we arrived at a camp at the foot of Erg Chigaga. It was absolutely stunning. The majestic dunes were tall and beautiful and stretched for miles. After dropping our gear, we hiked up one of the nearer dunes to watch the sunset. It was a hard climb, not unlike trying to walk on the beach, uphill. We shared the top of the dune with Reed the Canadian, and a couple of English girls. With no clouds, sunset was again simple, but what wasn’t reflected in the sky was around us as the sand itself changed colors with the dying sun. We stayed out until Jupiter became visible, and then made our way back down to camp. We had tea, and sat around a hookah with strawberry-flavored tobacco, talking and laughing with other guests and some of the Moroccans. As it turned out, our friend Belaide from Prends Ton Temps was the guest musician for the evening, and we were delighted to see him and hear his voice again.

Then it was dinner, which was actually underwhelming given our experiences thusfar. We got just skin and bones of the lamb, barely any meat in the tagine, not enough veggies, and too much couscous. Afterwards, everyone retired to the fire pit, burning bright and hot in the night. I camera-geeked with Reed for a bit, and then I watched goat belly dance in front of the fire, encouraged by the music of the Moroccan musicians, and emboldened by the spirit of the fire. Belaide named her Fatima Couscous. the former meaning “pretty woman”, and the latter being a reference to the stars in the night sky. I was so proud and thrilled to watch her dance by a fire in the middle of the Sahara, knowing that she was mine, being admired by Moroccan tribesmen as an unexpected surprise; a white woman dancing like an Arab. Belaide had given us other names as well. By day, she is Fatima Berber, and I was nicknamed Chuck Norris, presumably for my fair complexion, beard, and sense of adventure. Other Moroccans throughout the country called me Ali Baba.

As the fire and music died down, we relaxed beside it with Belaide and Reed, talking long after everyone else had gone to sleep, and eventually, so did we. That night was utterly magical. We were both giddily happy, lying beneath the Saharan stars.

(This entire travelogue can be viewed here.)

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Morocco, Day 5

Posted by Ted on Oct 31, 2007 in Travel

We woke up, gathered the laundry that we’d done the night before, showered, packed, and headed into town. As we walked, we became increasingly surrounded by school children. We met Nezha at the cafe, and ate a simple breakfast of tea, bread, La Vache Qui Rit, jam, and hard boiled eggs. We chatted as we waited, purchased a case of water, and then after a bit we got driven to the outskirts of M’Hamid, where our camels and guide were waiting for us. Liz’ chameaux was L’Habir, a friendly white racing camel. Mine was L’Segal, bigger, brown, and the designated cargo camel, carrying our change of clothes, food, and water in two large straw baskets. The harnesses were very different than for horses; leather straps and saddles are replaced by ropes, rugs, and a simple metal T-shaped handle. Despite many warnings of ornery attitudes and a rough ride, they were actually quite comfortable. The worst part was after getting on and before getting off, when the camels would stand up or sit down, pitching us forward or backward.

We then began our desert trek, led by our guide Abrahim. The first part of the journey was through the lush palmerie, the area near the road and where the resorts were built. Next we passed into rolling dunes, scattered with desert shrubs and exposed rock. Abrahim pointed out many tracks in the sand, of people, camels, rodents, and birds. At one point he drew a picture in the sand, probably of a mouse, but it looked more like a kangaroo. We also saw evidence of lizards, which Abrahim informed us were called ‘Desert Fish’. It was so quiet that every sound was amplified by the silence of the desert. The soft plodding of the camels walking across the sand, flies buzzing, the creaking of the leather and wool of the saddles, the whistling of the wind that would sound at times like a busy road, and occasionally the idle singing of our guide. While I’m sure he sang more for his own benefit than ours, it was wonderful to hear, and made the trip all the more magical.

After a couple of hours, the shrubs ended, and there was an area of mostly loose rock where dozens of camps were set up. We went past the first set by another half hour to the edge of some bigger dunes where we stopped at another camp. We had some tea while we waited for lunch in a private tent of typical Berber design; square, divided into two or three rooms, with a larger living and eating room, a room for the preparation of food, and a storage room. Liz relaxed, and I went outside to explore and take photographs. I sat on the nearest dune and played in the sand. Mesmerized, I watched the fine sand flow like both smoke and water. Abrahim finally brought lunch, a simple meal of meat and couscous and fruit. Afterwards, Liz napped and I walked around some more, hiking farther into the dunes, away from the visibility of the tents. Surrounded by nothing but sand and sky was indescribably peaceful.

Finally it was time to return to camp, wake Liz up, and get on our way. The late afternoon sun caused our camels’ legs to grow longer and longer. Shortly before sunset, we arrived at the next camp, a more elaborate dining tent with several smaller sleeping tents. We watched the sun set over the dunes, and with no clouds to diffract the light, the sunset was quick and without fanfare. As night fell, candles and lanterns were lit, giving the sand a warm glow. Then we sat down to dinner with two couples from London and Switzerland, and we traded stories of shopping in Marrakech and camel riding. Apparently they had a much more difficult time of the latter than we did. After dinner, a campfire was lit, and everyone gathered around. The Moroccans sang and played drums with water barrels and clapped, and we joined them. There seemed to be “us”, the locals and ourselves, and “them”, the other European tourists. One by one, the other guests retired, and we stayed out by the dying fire, talking with the Moroccans about America, names, and the desert.

Finally the fire was nothing but embers, and we went to bed ourselves, and enjoyed each other in the pitch black of the tent, in the silence of the Sahara. At one point in the middle of the night, we got up and were rewarded by a moonlit desert, with Orion high in the sky. We saw many shooting stars, and even a satellite. It was so wonderfully magical.

What a great way to spend Halloween.

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