Fréjus, France

Fréjus, France
Aqueduc Romain

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Christmas in the Sahara

The Christmas season is a challenge for me. My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving because it is full of bounty, gratitude, sharing and love. I also like that it ushers in the Christmas season full of lights and good wishes. It makes a dark and cold time of year brighter. I love dancing in Festival of Lights the day after Thanksgiving. I love how the town lights up and splurges on the electric bill for a month. I love our tree and homemade ornaments. I love Christmas music. I don’t love the gluttony and the greed. It is a tragic reflection of values when a shopper gets crushed in a WalMart stampede. I don’t like the traded obligation of cards and presents. Unfortunately I see some of what bothers me in my daughter, and I saw it this year. As Christmas approached Irie would bee-line to the glittery (junky) Christmas decorations and candy displays in the stores, asking me to buy this or that, or this and this and this. Je veux, je veux, je veux - I want, I want, I want. We knew we would be traveling over Christmas, are only in this apartment for 1 year, so knew the decorations would be at a minimum, and homemade. Our little tree came out of a trash pile on the curb and was pathetic. But after a good vacuuming and some creative bending it was ready to be dressed up. We brought one homemade ornament from home (made in preschool). I made several ornaments out of foam balls and napkins in my crafts class. But what really pulled it all together was the flowers and kukui nut leis my hula sisters sent me. The tree is really quite lovely. I let Irie buy a set of cards with stickers that she could decorate herself and she worked hard writing them all herself. Irie got a major case of the greeds when we put the presents under the tree. These were the ones that had come in the mail from the grandparents. She was relentless with begging and complaining, so after several warnings the presents were put in the closet until after the trip. I did have compassion for her--everything was different and foreign, she was being hauled off again and couldn’t spend the holiday with her best friend. But the entitlement had to stop.

In planning a trip over Christmas we usually like to go somewhere warm. We would have had to fly quite a ways for that. We considered a real winter fairyland trip--Strasbourg, Prague, Vienna--but the crazy train schedules made us unable to plan it. “Why not Morocco?” Exotic, not too far, French-speaking, maybe warm, some sun, and hey! A Muslim country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas!!! At one point during the trip Irie actually said it was her “worst Christmas ever.” great. I think she’s changed her mind. She did say it was her best New Year ever. We deliberately planned our desert trek for Christmas day. Definitely not a Christmas that will slide into the annals of “which year was that...?”

On Christmas Eve Rick picked up the rental car in Marrakech, drove it into the medina (this is a BIG deal that he will post about later!) and we loaded our stuff. We had a long drive up and over the High Atlas mountains. We made our way to Tamegroute and our hotel, Sahara Sky. This place is run by a German astronomy buff and it was here we saw our first Christmas tree. Our Christmas Eve dinner was a yummy turkey tajine. Our last minute Christmas shopping was from a Berber who set up a little “boutique” in the hotel. We bought 3 turbans for the trek. Irie got a coral necklace (the Sahara used to be a sea), Rick got a ring made out of coraline (which broke on a drum on New Year’s Eve) and I got a Croix du Sud (which I lost somewhere in Essouira and got another one I like better). The Croix du Sud (which also happens to be the name of our building in Fréjus!) has a nice story. If you are caught in a sandstorm you simply lay your croix in the sand, pointing in the direction you are going, place two stones on it, and when the storm is over unbury your croix to reorient yourself. As life can be stormy I think we can all benefit from a Croix du Sud.

Christmas morning arrived and Santa managed to find his way to Irie and brought her a very warm hat with built in scarf. We had some time before meeting our bivouac team so we wandered outside and met Mohammed, who was showing off his camel brought over from the dunes nearby. He gave us a test drive then accompanied us into town and gave us a tour of the Islamic library. This place is amazing. At the edge of the desert is housed an ancient collection of Islamic texts, including works on astronomy, medicine, math, arabic grammar, as well as the Koran and its explanatory texts. Much of the page headings are done in elaborate calligraphy in gold. Some pages are made of gazelle skin. The oldest dates to the 13th century. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside. We were then led through an ancient labyrinth of dwellings to the local pottery ateliers where we saw a demonstration of a foot operated wheel and what goes into the various glazes. In good Berber tradition we took some tea with a shopkeeper, discussed how much we were going to pay for our little green spice keeper, reaffirmed we weren’t ready to buy carpets, and declined the offer of trading Irie for 1000 camels.

Later that afternoon we met Naji in his 4x4. He runs the bivouac company. Naji received calls on his cell phone while Yussef, our actual guide, helped us climb on the camels as traffic rolled by. Our camels crossed the street and headed into the outskirts of town. We departed from M’Hamid, which is literally the end of the road. In addition to all the bivouac outfits and Berber carpet merchants there is a heavy military presence as the Algerian border is only 40km away. Happily the Algerians have their border patrolled as well, and previous skirmishes have settled down. We trekked on, leaving the town behind, passing school children, working burrows and trash heaps. Once well past town the sea of bushes adorned with plastic bags stopped. Maybe in 2000 years archeologists will marvel at the remains of plastic water bottles. The desert wasn’t exactly what I expected. First it started all scrabbly, like some of those photos of Mars. There were more bushes than I expected. The sand made itself into tiny dunes along the way, you could see the humble beginnings of what may later be a massive sand dune as the Sahara grows. The further along we went, the more dunes appeared. I imagined we’d see an endless sea of dunes, no plants, no rocks, but I think we’d have to trek for miles for that. We were on our camels for 2 hours. Irie complained the last hour. My friend Melissa has a saying about a chapped ass, meaning something annoys her. Well, me and my camel know what a chapped ass really is. After we parked at our tents we had about an hour before the sun went down. Yussef unloaded everything and disappeared into one of the tents to prepare dinner. We toured some of the nearby dunes and gazed into the endless horizon as the Christmas sun went down, with no sound but Irie’s heavy breathing and the camels’ snorting. We marveled at Irie’s clothes covered in sand. The sand is REALLY soft. Yussef pounded sand out of the “mattresses” and pillows already stored in the tent and laid out our bed. We thought 5 camel hair blankets would be enough. I’ve never had Christmas dinner made by a Berber who speaks Arabic and some French, in a tent, by candlelight. We had chicken tajine and it was GOOD. It was a clear night and the stars cannot be described. Yussef built a fire and we sat around talking. We were his only clients. He answered our questions about Algeria, women voting (I think he got this wrong), desert wildlife, and he told us a joke. I didn’t have much trouble understanding the Moroccan people speaking French, but Moroccans learn French in school or on the job. Sometimes a vocabulary word could just not be found, but it was always amusing as we circled our way around a word.

Despite the incredibly clear night it was not too cold. But the mattresses were thin for middle-aged joints. Somehow we slept through sunrise.
When we crawled out of the tent Yussef had pulled the table out and set up breakfast.
He prepared the camels and we were ready to go. Rick and I had switched camels this time, and it was heaven compared to the way in! I woke up with back pain but it worked itself all out with the bobbing sway of the camel. It was a gorgeous sunny day and before we knew it we were back at our car, thanking Yussef with smiles, a tip, and Rick’s gloves. And HERE it is on video. Then in good Berber fashion we went to the “uncle’s” shop to look at stuff, hung out for an hour and a half, had some tea and discussed how much we would be paying for the 3 carpets we fell in love with and had had no plans to buy before setting foot in the shop. As we left with our carpets we were told we’d be giving a ride to someone’s “uncle” as he was going our way.

A swaying camel replaced my dancing on the Plaza, billions of stars replaced my tree, and camels stepping over rocks and sand while Yussef checked on us with the occasional “Ça va?” replaced my CDs. Irie ripped through sand instead of ripping through presents. Not much in the way of tradition this year but we had more a sense of togetherness than ever before.

In case you missed the link in the text, here's the Christmas in Sahara video.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for sharing. It sounds as if you had a wonderful Christmas. I anticipate that when Irie is older she will look back at this experience with great fondness.

I'm glad to hear that you bought some rugs. I cannot imagine being in the land of the Berbers and not coming away with at least one. I have only read about the Atlas Mountains and look forward to the vid.


William said...

Great Blog!
Sounds like a geat time was had by all and am looking forward to the rest of the blogs.

Mom & Dad Browne