Morocco, Part II: A tour, the Milky Way and a Berber fortress.

[Morocco Part I]  [Morocco Part III]  [Morocco Part IV]

The 6am wake-up came trop tôt, but it was written: quick brekkie then onto the bus and into the desert for a 4-day, 3-night adventure in Berber-land. I navigate the labyrinth with help (compris), then out into the bustling morning to be assigned a spot on my tour.

I’ll reiterate that I’m not a fan of tours, so this one, slap-dashedly herding me onto a bus, has me peeved far too early in the morning. It’s loaded with millennials chattering in Spanish, a quiet German woman and two Russian girls. Everyone is friendly-enough, but I find out hours after we’ve left the city walls that this is a 2-day tour and I’ll be switching to another bus tomorrow. Fun times.

Atlas and the pseudo-desert.

Some hours into the ride, we wind our way through the Atlas Mountains, where sparse, snow-capped peaks peek out, piquing my interest in hiking here in warmer months. Lunch is in the Moroccan version of Hollywood, Ouarzazate, about half-way between Marrakech and the Algerian border. The area has a fair share of movie studios; films like Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, The Last Temptation of Christ and even some GoT episodes were filmed here. There’s a tour of a small Kasbah, where it seems life goes on as it has for centuries, and I’m as captivated by the architecture as I am the storks nesting atop the minaret. I learn that a Kasbah must have three things: a mosque, a madrassa (Islamic school) and a public fountain. There’s even a character actor here who has built a small museum to himself, containing nothing but framed photos of his walk-on roles in films shot in the area. But there is no time to see more of the town, as we’re half-way to Zagora and need to meet some camels before sunset.

After a couple more hours of driving, and like a well-oiled machine, the driver drops us at a place in the road, barren, flat and seemingly uninhabited but for a pack of camels (of the dromedary, not carcinogen, variety) and our Berber guides. Thus, we trek out into this mini-version of the desert, flat and crunchy underfoot, some small dunes visible in the not-so-distant distance. We ride into the sunset and arrive at our desert camp for a Berber dinner (tagine), campfire songs (Russian folk and Brit pop), and an attempt at shooting stars (cameras).

This is what travel is about, I think: I’m in North Africa, in the Sahara Desert (or the outskirts of it, at least), with a passel of people I didn’t know yesterday, representing 7 different countries on 4 continents, and we’re listening to songs around a campfire, sung by a Russian girl playing ukulele.

The next morn is camel caravan in reverse, then a visit to the exceptionally cool 17th Century UNESCO World Heritage site ksar Aït Ben Haddou, a fortress-like compound where some families still live. I’m something of a castle freak, tho this construction is red stone walls and desert floor, adorned only modestly, but with prominent carved-into-stone Berber symbols of freedom that look something akin to two Greek psis stacked on top of one another, or a man with outstretched arms. It’s the last letter of the Tifinagh alphabet, yaz, or ⵥ and this shape was also used in ancient wars as a weapon. Ironic, that. There’s no electricity or running water here, so most families have moved to other accommodations because it’s a 3km walk just to get water.

It’s like a miniature kingdom (they filmed Gladiator here, among others), small castles and dwellings mish-mashed together, steps and pathways leading you through the place, and when you climb to the top of the highest landing, you’re rewarded with a panoramic view of the sprawling desert below. The night sky from this place must be breathtaking. Small shops dot the base, where locals hawk their wares and artisans paint with saffron and tea.

It’s a pleasant hour and a half, as the uber-chatty millennials have boycotted the tour on principle due to the 25-dirham fee (at the equivalent of 2,5€ it really is their loss). So it’s me, my new German friend (pediatrician and fellow solo female traveller/photography buff), the Argentinian future Médecins Sans Frontières provider, and a couple of other stragglers. We’ve got ample space to wander without the conspiratorial giggling and selfie-mania. Just hours earlier, I was feeling a tad old as I watched in wonder as one of the Russian girls missed the desert sunrise in favour of getting the perfect selfie angle, and then again in astonishment as she did acrobatics on the back of a camel, selfie stick in hand – I’m not sure if I was more appalled or impressed by that stunt.

And then it was a little weird. Just as I’m revelling in the novelty of it all, I’m whisked away on a moment’s notice to find my 2nd bus so I can continue the desert adventure. Hasty goodbyes are said to my bus-mates and to the short-lived new friendships.

Travel is comme ça: fleeting connections made over foreign food and new experiences. If we’re lucky, some of these become people to visit across the globe. If we’re really lucky, some of these become lifelong friends. I’m fortunate to have some in both categories.

Next up: Morocco Part III: Gorge-ous terrain, Sahara proper, a declined proposition.

Go back and read [Morocco Part I] if you missed it. And also [Morocco Part III] and [Morocco Part IV]. Cheers!

Pushkar: Holy City By The Lake

Pushkar is this quirky little city, and it is revered as one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in India. Pushkar Lake is said to have formed from a lotus flower dropped by Lord Brahma. He built temples to his two wives, Savitri and Gayitri, in Pushkar. Savitri temple is the highest because she is his ‘true’ wife, and should be worshiped first and foremost over Gayitri. Read a snapshot of the story here. Pilgrims flock to the lake to bathe in its holy waters, to be blessed by Brahmin priests, to picnic on the ghat steps and renew.

It seems an oddly contradictory city, which sweetly grows on you the more time you spend here. There are fake sadhus and gurus who will take your money. These pseudo-holy men wait by the lake or in the throngs at the market and befriend, then extort, an innocent would-be pilgrim who is just there to find peace. Yet there are pilgrim’s (read: tourist’s) rules to abide when just walking in the streets. No public displays of affection. Women must be covered. No shoes within 30 feet of Pushkar Lake. No drinking. No drugs. All veg, all the time.

The market streets of Pushkar are like a flea market on a Sunday afternoon. With cows. And camels. And dogs. And chai wallahs. And monkeys. There are hawkers of every color in the rainbow, selling every possible trinket imaginable: Rajasthani swords and puppets. Bangles and tinkling anklets. Holy texts and scarves and spices and camel jewelry (and people jewelry) and prayer beads. There are tourists and pilgrims and wandering cows by the dozen in this sacred city. Women in the market sell bunches of grass to feed the cows as a karmic offering. One wonders whether the offering becomes less sacred when it’s a commodity.

The chanting in the background prevails at all hours of the day and thus provides an ancillary soundtrack to this city. There is the buzzing frenzy of the market, yet by the lake it is a veritable oasis within a city altogether. The buzz fades and the vibrations of myriad oms resonate deeply. It is mesmerizing, enchanting. The monkeys are as reverent as the pilgrims, making their offerings to their deities (or perhaps reaping the pilgrims’ spoils) and bathing in the lake’s holy waters alongside the pilgrims. Marble tiles lead to the terraced landings of each of the 52 ghats (the marble steps that lead down to Pushkar Lake), each ghat carrying its own spiritual significance, character and style. I was transfixed by the light at different times of day as it hit the lake. Here, lake-watching beats people-watching, as observing the comings and goings of devotees is a soothing meditation in itself. I partake in a morning blessing ritual by the lake, honouring ancestors and willing wishes to come true. Orange good luck threads tied to my wrist serve as fraying soft cotton reminders of the light on the lake and the Sanskrit blessings bestowed by the Brahmin priest.

The climb to the top of the Savitri temple revealed a meh-worthy sunrise through the hazy morning sky, though the chai served by the temple attendant at the top was worth the early wake-up call. Monkeys posed for photos in the breaking morning light. It was lovely.

A trip to the desert is not complete without the ultimate tourist act: a camel ride. So into the desert we ride, culminating with dinner, gypsy dancing and a magic show in an open corral in the middle of the desert. Dressed in gypsy clothes, we ate and laughed and danced into the cool desert night.

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