Sunday, July 22, 2012

Desert Trek Part 2

Now dressed for the desert we were ready to meet our camels. At least, we thought we were dressed for the desert until Said appeared in a bright blue caftan with a 14 foot scarf. He wrapped his own turban while Jason watched, his ten-year-old self dripping with envy (and probably his 32-year-old self as well).

Our camels were sitting outside the auberge. We had three - Bob Marley 1, Jimmy Hendrix, and Bob Marley 2. Jason was led to Jimmy and was soon hefted and ready to go.

Then it was my turn to board Bob Marley 1:

Food, water, and drums were loaded into Bob Marley 2, the camel warden took the rope leading from my camel, and we were ready to go!

The ground around us quickly changed from gravel to soft, orange sand and it didn't take long for the entire landscape to become nothing but orange dunes, river-like strands of black, and the occasional scrub.

The camels were incredibly docile, and I was surprised at how easy it actually was. Without any background with horses, the closest I've come to this sort of thing was my elephant ride in Thailand. Jason has more experience with horses, and he took to this like a camel takes to sand.

We were both snapping pictures left and right. The rolling gait of the camels made a few of the shots go askew:

and the strong winds kept me dressed like an Arab woman (according to Said anyway). Still, I couldn’t get over how beautiful and serene the landscapes were. The colors, the curves, the complete lack of life…I soon put my camera away and just slipped into quietly, almost meditatively, enjoying the ride.

About halfway through the camel warden offered to take our pictures. We handed over our cameras and got this shot:

and then he waved his arms in the air shouting “Africa!” His vocabulary, we discovered, was somewhat limited, but we got the point and raised our arms too:

(I like how my interpretation of “Raise your arms” is “Whee!” while Jason’s is “Don’t cry for me, Argentina!”)

Before handing us back our cameras, the camel warden also posed for us with Bob Marley 1:

And then it was back to the quiet plodding. Soon Said branched off on his own path, going ahead to the camp.

If it hadn’t been so impractical for camel riding, I totally would have worn my long blue dress so I could set off colors like that against the sand.

We followed the camel warden, who occasionally checked in with us by asking “Okay?” We’d answer “Okay,” and he would respond “Africa!” The sun made its way slowly down as we walked and between the clouds in the sky and the constant breeze, it was actually pleasant, and soon we crossed over a dune and saw our camp set up in front of us:

There was a large tent lined with bamboo for the kitchen, plus two Bedouin-style tents for sleeping in. In the center of the grounds there were a few mats set up with plastic mattresses and cushions positioned around a low table. We set down our stuff, and Said led us up a nearby dune with a sandboard in tow. Jason took him up on the offer of lessons, the videos of which I’m sure you’ll be able to see on his blog. As we watched the sun setting, Said asked me how to spell my name. As I told him each letter, he wrote it for me in the sand, then when I asked him to stand near it for a picture, he chose quite the pose:

He wrote out all of our names, including his other name, Adi. Said is Berber and grew up in a Nomadic family. When his father went to register him, the government told his father that Said needed an Arabic name for the paperwork. His father chose Adi, and also selected January 10 on a whim for his birthdate. Said has no idea when his birthday actually is. In fact, when we asked him how old he was, he said that his paperwork says he is 23, but he is actually probably 25 or 26. He has no idea for certain.

To have such an uncertain grasp of dates and time is so strange to me. Said had been talking about Ramadan often on our tour, but he didn’t know if it would start Friday or Saturday. It’s based on the start of the new moon, and he said he would figure it out either by looking at the moon or his family would call him. The first day turned out to be Saturday, the last day of our trek, which also meant that the clocks in Morocco were set back an hour. This caused a bit of confusion when Said said the camel warden would wake us up at 5:20 to see the sunrise. “5:20 now or 5:20 with the time change?” I asked. Said shrugged. “I don’t know, we’ll see.”

The sun dipped below the horizon as we headed back to the camp. Jason and I sat at the table as Said went to check on dinner. The winds started to die down, and as they did the clouds finally started to clear and we got our first glimpses of the stars. This was also the time that Said helpfully came out with a candle in a holder he had constructed from a 1-liter water bottle and a lot of sand:

He went through such effort to make it and to get it positioned just right for us that we felt bad about the fact that we actually didn’t want any light – we wanted to see the stars. The wind obligingly blew it out a few times, but we only got a few minutes of darkness before Said or the camel warden would come back out and light it again.

It was well past 10:00 and I was starting to doze off when the beginnings of our dinner appeared. First off? Mint tea of course, with a bowl of peanuts to munch on.

We took a few photos of ourselves on Jason’s camera and then, sometime after 11:00, they served us rice and a chicken and vegetable tagine. It was basic and delicious with melon and oranges for dessert.

As we wrapped up dinner, Said, the camel warden, and the cook came out from the kitchen tent where we had heard them chattering and laughing all through the evening. “Now music!” they announced, sitting down across from us with two sets of drums and a set of Moroccan-style hand cymbals.

They played several songs for us, taking turns playing the different instruments, singing, and stepping away to take cell phone calls. At one point, they stopped mid-song and looked over at the candle outside one of the tents. All three started exclaiming in Arabic and then crossed to the tent. One of them took off his shoe and started beating at something near the candle. I had asked Said earlier what kind of animals lived out amid the dunes, and as I mentally reviewed the list to try to figure out just what they were trying to kill, I hoped it was from the rabbits or mice categories instead of the scorpion or snakes. When they sat back down, Said said, "Spider." For reasons I couldn't quite understand, everyone seemed very calm about the fact that there was a spider big enough for them to spot by candlelight from several feet away. They resumed singing while I tried very hard to replace the pictures of giant angry desert spiders my mind kept bringing up with pictures of furry rabbits or charming foxes of the Petit Prince variety.

After three songs Said announced it was our turn to sing for them, “American song!” Caught off guard, we gave them a quick rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Satisfied (and perhaps a little disappointed) they took back over the music. The camel warden played a familiar beat and called out, "Wocka, wocka Africa!" then, chuckling, confirmed "Shakira."

Halfway through the next song he stood up and called, “Dance! Dance!” while holding out his hands for us to join him. Soon he pulled us to our feet and led us in a dance around the table while the other two played and sang. He taught us a few moves, African-style, and we joined him in hopping on one foot then the other in the flickering candlelight.

After the last song (and a failed attempt on my part to play the drums. Jason, the former drum major, had issues with my inability to keep a steady 4-4 beat he could counter in 3-4 time), we fell into a contemplative silence until the camel warden cleared his throat meaningfully and asked, "How do you put camel into fridge in three moves?"

Ah, joke time. Jason asked Said earlier whether Berbers told stories around the fire at night like we do. Said said no, but they do tell jokes and he promised we would see for ourselves.

The camel warden clapped delightedly when my guess was pretty close to right (Open the door, put the camel inside, shut the door!), and he nodded at me, "Wocka, wocka, Africa!"

This kicked off a round of joke telling, most of which were camel-themed. When we ran out of jokes, we switched to riddles. Some were new, some were easily guessed, some came from Tolkein via Jason. Said stumped us all when he asked, "The lion threw a birthday party. All of the animals were invited, but one did not come. Which one and why?"

Jason and I repeated it to ourselves, trying to figure out the answer. Finally, the camel warden chuckled. "Camel!" he said.

Said smiled. "Yes, camel. Why?"

"Because it's in the fridge!" We laughed and the camel warden said, "Africa!" shaking his head.

Said invited us to take a short walk while the other two men set up our beds. He led us back to the nearby dune, but I did not do so well with the walk. Although Said used his cell phone for a flashlight, I was certain that at any moment I was going to step on a giant angry desert spider or, worse, that the one they had chased off would come back for revenge and launch itself at me from the darkness in a hissing, venom-dripping sneak attack. That, and I kept sliding in the sand. Said took my hand and tried to help me along, but when I sank up to my knee on my next step only halfway up the hill, I called it good enough. Said and Jason continued up to the top, then came back down to join me where I was sitting, watching the clouds cover up the stars and looking at the lights of Merzouga in the distance.

When we made our way back to camp, we found that the others had pushed the mattresses together to make a queen-sized bed on the ground. When we asked, they nicely fetched a second set of sheets and helped us pull them apart into twin beds. I'm sure they are baffled by this strange couple who travels together, drinks mint leaves covered in hot water, and who don't touch each other, but they didn't ask any questions.

Said showed us the nearby tent and repeated that we were welcome to sleep in there if we wanted. Jason had scoped out the tent earlier, reappearing after only a moment an announced that it was a million degrees in there and smelled like goat. The night was warm, the breeze was gone, and we decided to sleep outside.

First, however, was the part I was dreading the most. I needed to use the bathroom. Like a good boy scout (and really, Jason's scouting instincts were kicked into such high gear by this trek that I halfway expected him to give me a pair of beetle earrings), Jason asked Said where the latrine was. Said waved his hand generically and said, "Anywhere. Just dig a hole." Jason went first, disappearing behind the tents. When he came back alive and all, it was my turn.

Armed with a packet of tissues, my cell phone for light, and with my bottle of Purell ready on the table for when I returned, I headed into the darkness and scraped as much of a hole as I could with my sandal.

Now, I have a hard enough time... releasing, let's say, when I know someone can hear me. Add to that the fact that I was squatting, trying to keep my pants and feet out of the way, in the dark, with the very audible and not too far off conversation in Arabic that I kept thinking was going like, "Hey, did you hear a noise over there in the dark behind that tent? Let's go see what it is!" and with the knowledge that somewhere close by were giant angry desert spiders and you may understand that the only reason I could make use of the natural facilities was a dire and desperate need. I did it though, although, as I announced to Jason upon my return, "That was one of the most disgusting things I've ever had to do."

True campers, we then crawled into (well, more accurately onto. It was hot and there was no need for a sheet) our beds and tried to sleep.

It was not so easy. Said had taken off to go back to the auberge after reminding us one more time that we were welcome to sleep in the tent. The camel warden and the cook were staying behind with us for the night, and they were in the nearby kitchen tent chatting. The utter silence of the desert seemed to amplify their noise, and I was also very aware of the puddle of sweat forming between my back and the plastic mattress. I was dozing, not quite sleeping, an hour or so later when I felt a few drops of rain.

"Excellent!" I thought, stretching out with my eyes still closed and yearning for the coolness of a rain shower. Strangely, though, I heard Jason sit bolt upright, rustle with his bag, and then run for the nearby tent. I had no sooner sat up to look to see what he was doing when the seven or eight raindrops were replaced with a massive wind that pelted me with sand. Instinctually, I dropped back to my mattress, curled into a fetal position, and pulled the nearby sheet over my head as the winds kicked up stronger, hurtling sand at me that I felt in a thousand little stings on my exposed legs.  I tucked myself into a tighter ball, wondering how Jason had known there was a sandstorm coming and why the heck he hadn't explained that to me.

The winds kept coming, and I heard a bang near my head as the lantern from our table crashed to the ground. Over the wind I heard the camel warden and cook shouting and the sounds of many metal objects hitting the floor of the kitchen tent. I tried to look, but couldn't even shield my eyes enough from the storm to see where Jason was. With my hand over my eyes, I groped for my bag and any fabric I could grab. As I stood up with my backpack, sheets, and shirt in tow then two Berber men came running up and Jason emerged from the tent. "Tent, tent!" they called, and I ran for the tent while they ran after the mattresses.

The floor mats in the tent had blown over Jason's stuff in the few seconds the flap was open for us to run inside, and the men dragged the mattresses in there, looked around, then dragged them back outside. We waited for just a moment before they called for us to follow them into the other tent. Back into the storm we went clutching our few belongings, and I pressed my face into my bundle of fabric as I ran to keep the sand from my eyes and mouth.

The walls were tied together, so I had to crawl on my knees to get through the flap the camel warden lifted for us from the outside. Inside we found the lantern, relit on the ground, and our mattresses put back together as a single bed. We took one look at it and collapsed into exhausted giggles as we set about using the sheets I had grabbed to reclaim our chaste sleeping arrangements. We started laughing anew when the camel warden reappeared a minute later in the form of a bare arm poked through the flap offering a bottle of water. We took the offered bottles and tried to figure out how we were ever going to sleep in this million-degree tent that smelled of goat with a windstorm still blowing against the walls made of woven blankets.

Absolutely exhausted and with the prospect of being woken up in three hours to watch the sunrise, Jason tied open the flap using my hairclip and we blew out the lantern. Outside we heard the men talking and the sound of metal hammering metal as, we assume, they rebuilt the kitchen tent. Slowly, eventually, and dripping with sweat, we finally dozed off.

I woke up when Jason sat suddenly bolt upright in bed. He announced that it was 5:20 just as I heard the camel warden clapping his hands outside and calling, "Wocka, wocka Africa!"

We stumbled out of the tent into the dawn. The table and matts had disappeared, along with my barrette and Jason's shirt, both of which disappeared in the storm. Jason found his shirt in the other tent, and we walked to the top of the dune to the east to watch the sunrise.

When we came back down the hill, the camel warden and the cook took up our bags and said, "Okay, let's go." As the camel warden loaded Bob Marley 2 with our bags, the cook came up to me and handed me my barrette. "Found," he said.

I thanked him as Jason swung a leg over his camel. The men offered me a hand onto Bob Marley 1 and I swung my leg over the saddle. I didn't quite get my leg over far enough, but before I could scootch the rest of the way, the Bob Marley 2 stood up. Jason's camel immediately followed suit and, as they do, my camel joined them. Suddenly I was dangling from the camel by one leg, frantically hanging onto the metal handbar. The two men rushed to my side and grabbed my sides. Gravity pulled me downwards as their hands slid upwards, and soon I was dangling from the camel by one leg being held aloft by my breasts by a Berber man on each side. Eventually I managed to talk them into putting me down on the ground rather then boosting me up by their bosomy handfuls. They lowered me, then pulled the camels back down and switched the packs from Bob Marley 2 to Bob Marley 1. I got onto Bob Marley 2, and with reassurances that I was okay and the called of "Okay, let's go, Africa!" we set off.

The trip back to the auberge was much more direct than the trip out due to the growing heat of the morning. Jason and I were both marveling at sand's new morning colors when suddenly the lead camel started. Jason's camel reared back, loosening his tie to the lead camel, and then suddenly Jason and I were galloping away from the startled and shouting Berber men. Jason's camel had made a break for it and, since Bob Marley 2 was still tethered to Jimmy Hendrix, we were both along for the ride.

It only lasted for a few seconds during which I remembered every movie scene ever where a runaway animal dives off a cliff, even though there were no cliffs to be had. We kept our seats, the camels calmed down, and the men caught up with us. The cook ran back to fetch my water bottle, which had fallen out of my pocket in the chaos, and we continued plodding our way back to the auberge.

We arrived a little after 6, dismounted with far less excitement than you might expect given the rest of the ride, and bade farewell to our camels and the men ("Africa!") before heading into our room to shower and try to scrub the sand from our skin, our hair, our mouths, our ears, and our bags.

Said showed us to our breakfast, but did not join us as Ramadan had officially begun. We ate instead in the company of napping kitties.

The ride to Fes was long and interspersed with naps, Katy Perry, and the occasional photo stop. Actually, between the short night's sleep and the Dramamine I took for the ride, I slept more than I wanted to, dozing off in desert landscapes and waking in the cedar forests of the Middle Atlas mountains. We pulled over there to see the monkeys gathered at the side of the road. It was very strange to see monkeys amid pine trees, but they were cute and cheeky, as monkeys are.

Trek Day 2

Said and Zaid dropped us off at our riad in Fes around 4:00 in the afternoon and we bade them a fond farewell. We assured them that we had a great time, and we wished them a safe journey back to Marrakech.

And it really was a great time. For all of my trepidation leading up to it, the whole trek was a lot of fun. Once again, Jason was right but, ever the gentleman, he never once said "I told you so." And I do appreciate that.

P.S.  Here's the link to Jason's version!

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