Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Tea and Tuaregs

Ever since I saw my first photograph of a Tuareg, and heard about the legendary blue men who wrap their heads in indigo cloth which dyes their skin I have wanted to see Tuaregs. Hollis Chatelaine made a beautiful and haunting quilt called Blue Men. I kept running into images. I even bought Tuareg photographs from a lovely photographer in Tripoli.

I even have the beginnings of a collection of Tuareg crosses - and these shapes are fascinating. They have no relationship to the Christian Cross and actually predate it. There are many different types, and different tribal groups use different cross styles - like Aran sweaters and families from Aran Island.

We drove out one evening while in Libya from Ghadames to visit a Tuareg camp. This was undeniably a good attempt to link to some tourist possibilities by one of the local men and his family. The tents were actually more Bedouin in style but they were in the process of building small round huts with palm fronds - and they were really interesting, especially since we had been looking at exactly this in the National Museum in Tripoli. Even the axe they were using was interesting, with a wedge shaped narrow head that went right through the handle - so every blow wedged it tighter.

They drink a really unusual tea. It was heavily minted and boiled several times and sweetened, then poured from pot to pot really high so it foamed and frothed. This was poured over a cupful of peanuts - whole, and unsalted - in small glasses. Then the foam - greenish and looking like the froth on surf on a heavily windy day - is scooped onto your tea. I still haven't decided if I liked it. I had an oddness to the fact that the tea was very sweet and sugary, and the mint accent was terrific, but it was a bit like finding sardines in the bottom of your cornflakes bowl (don't ask). The peanuts were quite a nice snack, but I think I prefer mine not sogged with mint tea. There was also that uncertain moment when, stuck to the bottom of the glass by left over sugar and tea, you give it a sharp shake while hovering the glass over your open mouth with your head tilted back. Other than the fact that the glass jolts somewhat unpleasantly against your teeth there is a split second when you wonder how to stop the spray of peanuts from going straight down your throat unhindered.

They also made up bread - and that was fascinating. It was unleavened and very like damper, but coated with flour and with sesame seeds and anise seeds and fennel pushed into the crust so it was very aromatic. It was quite dense, and patted into flattish rounds about an inch thick. The whole thing - quite amazingly - was then dumped into the sand and ashes and covered with more sand and ashes. I could hardly believe that it was not full of sand. There was the odd patch of ash scraped off - but otherwise it came out completely clean, hard on the outside and soft and steamy in the centre - a dense and delicious bread. Not one tiny bit of grit was in the pieces I had. I could quite easily have eaten the lot.

As the sun dropped, Bob and Sam decided to walk to the top of the dunes that backed the camp. It was high - dune after dune loomed above us in a seriously photogenic curvilinear landscape. Even the footprints of previous tourists looked good.

I have lumped the photographs of the rest of the camp, some images of one very impressive young man in an amazing lime green (these were somewhat urban Tuaregs who see no reason to wear only blue when there are other colours available) and an image of the patchwork at the back of the tent into one Flickr set. Clicking on the images below will bring up others.

Bob and Sam stood on top of the world and watched it all change colour. I walked halfway up to a point where I could look over the top at Algeria. The dunes' shadows lengthened and went silvery mauve, then purple and blue and the tiny ripples in the sand etched with the sharpest edges in gold and the shadows in deep dark purple. It was utterly beautiful. Sam and Bob were silhouetted against the sky so far away that they were hardly visible in the lens of my camera. To cap it all two young men came charging across the desert on horses. They were so at ease on the animals that they looked like centaurs and gallped straight up the sides fo the dunes to whirl around on one of the ridges and ride the ridge as black shapes against the flaming sun. Then they wheeled around and came past me.

It was a spectacular evening.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Bawiti and the Camel Market

We spent New Year in the desert. About five hours drive from Cairo is the oasis of Bahariya, with two towns, and the larger is Bawiti. I have written about the White Desert before. While this doesn't mean that I will not succumb to the temptation to throw more photographs at you, it does mean that I am skirting the actual camping in the desert bit for another post.

I am even going to resist telling you that this was camping with a difference - the sort where you slide sideways in four wheel drive through sand and over humps as the sun throws long shadows from pure white formations like a huge yard of Rodin's cast-offs.I will not go into the fact that, unlike most camps where you have to haul everything out of vastly overloaded cars and start to pitch tents, this time it was set up. A whole line of small neat tents awaited us, with married couples sharing and singles on their own, and there was even a big elaborate and decorative tent for eating and drinking and general lounging - complete with marvelous tentmaker fabrics and mattresses, and a campfire sending plumes of fragrant smoke curling into the desert icy air. The smoke was fragrant because the cook, who had arrived earlier that morning to set up, was already grilling the chicken for dinner.

On second thoughts, I will relent and throw in a few images to whet your imagination. Don't forget that you can click on one image to open a set in Flickr.

Next day we spent most of the day exploring the White Desert and Crystal Mountain, but that you are definitely waiting for.

When we returned to Bahariya and the International Hot Springs Hotel the sensible people went to their rooms for a much needed shower and nap. The rest of us went off on a door search. I had seen one particular door - and could not for the life of me find it. Rumor says that it has since been repainted. However, we found lots of others and I took a huge number of photos while Bob did his best with a low slung white Mercedes on rough village roads.

I have always loved photographing children and old men, and managed to find both.

We spent the evening in the hot pool, and drinking beer and wine until it was 9.00pm and time to go to dinner. New Year's Eve was marvelous - good food, and local band with its peculiar combination of handclapping, toe tapping rhythm, and the overlaying drone of pipes and a strange string instrument that looked like a chair back with a strings. I have talked before about the camel dancer - and I stick with my original description of two wombats in a bag.

New Year was counted in with every guest in a manic conga line (no hands touching each other as we needed both for the Arab style dancing) which switched to a lyrical Viennese Blue Danube waltz when people stopped kissing. It was a great combination of local and expatriate celebrations.

Today we went to the camel market which is now miles out of Cairo. So far out in fact that I have no idea where we were - except that you drive to the pyramids and turn West. I found my hopes of what it would be like sinking with the Mercedes into bump after bump as we saw less and less people and not a hint of a camel.

Then suddenly there were camels. We swung through a gate, and Ashraf, our driver (Sudanese-Italian, elegant, with a cousin in the camel business)drove through swarms of camels for what felt like ten minutes, until he pulled up in front of a small concrete building. We had tea and set off to explore.

The camels are strangely hobbled. I guess you need to keep thousands of camels under some sort of control, but it looked cruel at first, Each one had the front right leg tied tightly up, with a hobble keeping the joint fully folded. It made them look like tripods, and strangely surreal, like triffids. I half expected to see molten watches drooping over ledges, Dali-like. Instead there were absurdly picturesque men, in loose galabyiehs and kaffiehs wrapped into turbans, romantic, Orientalist, and very much exuding a 'let me toss you over my camel and take you to my tent' air.

Camels are big. They loom over you, and dribble occasional lumps of greenish cud. They are surprisingly unsmelly - compared to the liquid that would have flowed out of cows in a simialar situation they really didn't urinate much, and the ground beneath our feet was dry and dusty. I would not want to know what the dust was made of, but it was not too bad. We all fell in love with a beautful brunette, with eyelashes the length of my whole hand and dark glossy curly hair. She was gentle and affectionate and all the market seemed to like her.

I am weary. It was an early start, and my bed is calling. It is now after midnight, and while there is more to tell I am going to let the photographs do the talking.

I suggest you click on the link to the side of the blog on Sam's Grand Tour and read his description. I know it will be better than mine.

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