What is a dromedary anyway?

2 09 2015

I arrived in Fes, Morocco about three weeks ago. Dropped into what one guidebook described as an “assault on the senses” – brightly coloured textiles, ceramics and leather wares, often indistinguishable food smells, sometimes the smell of urine from the tanneries, horns honking and people yelling in an indiscernible language, or worse, calling out to you in hopes of luring you into their shop. At first glance, it looks dirty and chaotic. My stomach remained unsettled for the first week, and three weeks later, it still gets unsettled from time to time, like today. Fes, in particular, is notorious for its confusing, disorientating medina – the old city which consists of a network of narrow, winding streets and alleyways. The culture shock arrived in full force, then gradually dissipated as I eased into the discomfort of this unfamiliar place and way of life. In Fes, I enjoyed having my skin being scrubbed like a dirty floor in a public hammam, learning about leather tanning with a visit to the tanneries, getting lost in the medina, learning to eat Moroccan style – with my hands, learning how to properly brew a pot of mint tea and cook couscous, and enjoying panoramic views of the city from the Merenid Tombs.

Mohammed helped us navigate the countless medina streets. Here is a local uses donkeys to transport goods - a familiar sight.

Mohammed helped us navigate the countless medina streets. Here is a local uses donkeys to transport goods – a familiar sight.



Overlooking Fes' largest and oldest tannery, the Chouara Tannery, which is almost 1000 years old. Here animal hides are first soaked in cow urine, quicklime, water and salt for a few days to break down the leather, then a few more days in a pigeon poop mixture, then kneaded by hand to soften the leather. Then, the leather is dyed using natural vegetable dyes (like saffron, cedar wood, indigo, henna and mint) and then dried.

Overlooking Chouara Tannery, the largest and oldest in Fes which dates back almost 1000 years. Here animal hides are first soaked in cow urine, quicklime, water and salt for a few days to break down the leather, then a few more days in a pigeon poop mixture, then kneaded by hand to soften the leather. Then, the leather is dyed using natural vegetable dyes (like saffron, cedar wood, indigo, henna and mint) and then dried. You can imagine the smell.

Wood-fired oven in Fes bakes bread in minutes. Most neighbourhoods have communal wood-fired ovens where women can bring their already made dough to bake.

Wood-fired oven in Fes bakes bread in minutes. Most neighbourhoods have communal wood-fired ovens where women can bring their already made dough to bake every morning.

In the midst of chaos and uncertainty, fortunately, one can find comfort in Moroccan hospitality. In this regard, a cup of mint tea, or Berber whisky as they call it, is never far away. People on the streets are friendly, sometimes too friendly, and it’s difficult to discern their intentions and very easy to be skeptical. Nonetheless, upon entering a shop or riad, you’ll often be warmly greeted, “You’re welcome.” Last week, I was even so lucky as to be hosted by a local family in Rissani. A friend who had worked at the auberge where I stayed in the Sahara Desert invited me to stay with his family. While his family members only spoke Arabic, I immediately felt the warmth of their welcome and we exchanged smiles and hugs – they were constantly feeding me (tagine, some of their own goats, and the first goat’s milk) and offering tea. I slept with his brothers and sisters on their roof terrace, also where their four sheep were kept. I taught them some basic English words, played the ukulele for them and shared photos from home.

Prior to this, I had spent almost a week in the Sahara Desert, right next to the Erg Chebbi Dunes. I had brought an overnight bus from Fes to Erfoud, where I was greeted and picked up by Abdou who worked with the auberge/kasbah hotel that a friend in Fes had directed me to. With my flexible travel plans, I was able to do a work exchange with them – helping them with some online marketing and a simple promotional video in exchange for room and board. I travelled around the area by 4 x 4 and journey out into the dunes often, either by foot or camel. Well, technically speaking, here in Morocco there are Arabian camels or dromedaries which only have one hump, as opposed to a Bactrian camels which have two humps and are native to Central Asia. Here I even picked up some Arabic.

The endless Erg Chebbi Dunes, just beyond is the closed Algerian border

The endless Erg Chebbi Dunes, just beyond is the closed Algerian border

The beautiful species of interest...the dromedary, or Arabian camel

The extraordinary species of interest…the dromedary, or Arabian camel

Me riding the said species of interest

Me atop of the mentioned species of interest

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Ali leading me & my dromedary to the bivouac camp in the dunes for an overnight

Can't get enough of these camel photos

Can’t get enough of these camel photos

One night we travelled a couple hours by dromedary to a traditional nomadic bivouac camp, had dinner and spent the night there. But rather than in the tent, I spent this night sleeping atop one of the highest dunes, right under the stars and even caught a few shooting stars. And in the morning, we were already perfectly situated to see a stunning sunrise.

Lively traditional Berber music was a feature of almost every night in the Sahara

Lively traditional Berber music was a feature of almost every night in the Sahara

And where there is music, there is dance

…And where there is music, there is dance!

Of course photos can only express so much. Check out the campfire video here

But of course photos can only say so much. Get a glimpse of the action here

Let's be honest...I grew up on a peninsula, so I'm no desert creature. This kept me cool and sane.

Let’s be honest…I grew up on a peninsula, so I’m no desert creature. This kept me cool and sane.

After a week in the desert and a night with the Moroccan family in Rissani, I board another night bus to Agadir on the Atlantic Coast and then proceeded 20 km up the coast to Taghazout, a small fishing village and renowned surf spot. Here I re-met some friends who I’d met in Fes and made another attempt at surfing. I won’t go so far as to say I was surfing, but I tried. This seemingly simple activity continues to leave me humbled and sore.

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Moroccan pizza in Rissani – my favourite of Moroccan cuisine so far! Hopefully I can replicate when I’m home!

Today, I arrived to Essaouira, another 150 km up the coast. Here I will be doing another work exchange, or HelpX, at a hostel for a few weeks. Essaouira is a port city characterized by its coastal wind and ocean air. The Daily Mail refers to Essaouira as the “Malibu of Morocco” with “its combination of French sophistication, the hot African south, geometric Arab designs and the romance of the nomadic Berber tribes.” Discovered by European hippies back in the 1960s (and even frequented by Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix), it has developed a lively art scene. Also, as the “wind city of Africa,” it has become a windsurfing hotspot. So here I am.

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