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.

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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!

Outskirts of Agra: More Time Travel and Amber That Shines Like Gold

There were two stops this day. The first was somewhere between Jaipur and Agra. Abhaneri was a 30-minute pit stop that time travelled our little tour bus back 1000 years. The village itself looked like a step back to medieval times if not earlier. There are no paved roads in these villages, and the dust that settles everywhere creates an ancient aura to this seemingly cow dung-caked town.

The Chand Baori (step well) is a carved marvel, flanked by squawking parakeets and the occasional monkey. Even 2 weeks into my trip to India, it still astounds me that even common utilities like this well were so intricately-carved, with decoration and images of every Hindu deity imaginable; prayers going out for health, wealth, water and prosperity. This is a farming community after all; the deities still revered even though Muslim factions decimated the temple and the images of the gods here centuries ago.

Onwards, towards Agra, to the city of Amber (Amer).

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I’m learning as I visit the palaces and fortresses throughout Rajasthan, the Rajput royal families lived in quite grand fashion. So the Amber Fort did not disappoint. Smaller than Kumbhalgarh, yet larger than the Red Fort that was on the itinerary for Agra, this castle-cum-palace-cum-fortress boasted double moats (for crocodiles, then hungry tigers, should an intruder get through…) Amer Fort, as it is called, has 4 courtyards…each slightly higher into the clouds, and from each a view of the pink city below. More terra cotta than pink, the view is a step back in time almost 1000 years. Semi-ruins sit beside newer mud and clay and more cow dung structures, and life is carried out as if it were still 1433. Here, I really do think the pictures do the site justice.

The Hidden Fortress at Kumbhalgarh

December 25, 2014: Christmas day at Kumbhalgarh Fort.

Kumbalgarh. First, the facts: this hidden fortress sits at an amazing 1100 metres, and is built of stone and marble. It is jaw-dropping and there are not enough words to describe the largess juxtaposed with its intricacy (every surface is hand-carved) and relative invisibility (you do not see the fort until you are at the gate). The surrounding wall is the 2nd largest to the Great Wall of China. There were 7000 cannons in its day and 8 galloping horses could run side by side across the width on parts of the wall. Immense and humbling is an understatement. Lonely Planet tells me that it is possible to walk the entire wall, and that there are 360 temples within its bounds – some dating back to the 2nd century BC. This place is old and breathtaking. I don’t think the pictures will ever do it justice.

These fortresses were the strongholds of the kingdom as well as regional castles. Hence, within the walls lie smaller palaces, residences and temples as well as the main palace with its multi-level courtyards, intricately-carved and stunningly-decorated living spaces, purdah palaces (women’s chambers, dining halls and more courtyards), kitchens, sleeping chambers, entertaining halls, king’s quarters and those special chambers optimally configured, blessed and decorated for the creation of next-generation Rajput kings.DSCF1992

From the top of the fort you can see the rolling Aravalli Hills unfold, revealing temples and humble abodes that still appear to be working homesteads all these centuries later. This is the spectacularly simple beauty of Rajasthan, a 1000+ year old state that functions in the 21st century as if the greater universe does not exist. Or is it that when you enter the gate of Kumbhalgarh, you are time-travelled to the land of princely kingdoms and the outer world indeed ceases to be?

I was introduced to a fruit today called the custard apple – it is like lychee meets artichoke and is delightful. These we hoard on the bus, then we travel onward to Udaipur: city by the lake. We check into the Hotel Mahendra Prakash, another haveli and I feel a sense of warmth and comfort in the tile inlay walls, the curtained window seat…this hotel has a wonderfully inviting lobby, garden-lounge and even a pool. There is a cultural show this Christmas evening featuring Rajasthani dancing and puppetry. From the description, I fear that this is the kind of tourist attraction I’ve been dreading, but I am so relieved that perhaps 97% of the audience is Desi (Indian!). It is a holiday week and who doesn’t like dancing and puppets? So we watch the cultural show at Udaipur’s Bagore Ki Haveli on the lake. I want to stay in this city forever.

WiFi and Skype are much appreciated this Christmas night, and thanks to the time difference I am able to wish family and friends spread across the globe a happy holiday in their respective time zones. Deeply grateful for the voices across the magical interweb, I go to sleep with a smile on my face and think I’ve made the right decision coming here.