We stop at a store that sells fresh camel milk, and are invited to the pens out back. Catherine tries her hand at milking a camel, while I watch a jealous baby camel trying to get his share. There's a blue-eyed camel here, which Doug says is fairly rare.
While Doug and Catherine are talking shop with the owner, I step back inside and find an open door, and step through to a 'dinner and a show' place that has Berber tents set around the center courtyard. I snap a few shots before we head out. Photos of this tent are here, starting at the photo of the drum.
Further down the road we start to see large flat pyramid shapes in the desert, and learn it is a system of deep wells for water. One of the really great things about this trip is that Doug gives a comprehensive picture of the culture here, a nice mix of new cities, old sites, everyday life and agriculture. We pull over at a point where you can follow a staircase below ground to see the well structure. He reminds us of the aqueducts we had seen earlier in the trip, and how the systems all tie together to support this agricultural center of the Maghreb. I will devote a blog to agriculture a little later on in this series.
After our brief tour, Doug walks us over to a Berber tent, and introduces us to his friend Youssef, who has already ordered pizza for our lunch. It's a delicious affair, built like a 12" calzone but with very thin crusts, stuffed with kefte, egg and almonds. Youssef pours the obligatory tea afterward, and then takes out his drum. His tent is divided in half at the ridgepole, with half of it serving as a restaurant, and the other half as a gift shop. I shoot more photos (starting after this photo in my Desert Tents album) and then stop to admire the wares. I buy an indigo dyed length of cotton, and, demonstrate to my travel-mates how to fashion it into a turban. "Moha showed me," I respond when they asked where I learned how to do that. I sit down and make a comment about the fun things for sale on the other side of the tent, including a hash pipe that I'd like to bring home but thought I would not be able to get it through the airport. "You can't get anything through the airport," Catherine responds, and everyone laughs at the reference to my still lost luggage.
Back on the road, we arrive at our next stop, the Hotel Tomboctou, converted into a hotel from a kasbah that was built in 1944. Unlike most kasbahs that were built as fortifications, this one was built as a reception hall. You can read more about the history of this kasbah here.
Catherine and I visit a local hammam, which turns out to be quite a bit different from what I experienced in Istanbul. This one is small, very noisy, and more utilitarian than spa-like. We change in a common area and are given a bucket for our shampoo, and are taken to another common room where a bucket of hot water is thrown onto the floor. We lay down on the heated tile floor for a steam and a scrub, but there's no massage or cooling bath that follows in a Turkish hammam. After about 45 minutes we are sent back to the changing room, and after tipping our attendants, we leave, cleaner but slightly deaf...
Dinner tonight is at the home of Said, another friend of Doug's. We drive up to a wall with a huge metal door, and pound the ring as you would to gain entry into a castle. Inside the gate we walk to the building that is his home. The single room is enormous, with couches lining all the walls but grouped in a way that partitions the room into about five distinct seating areas. The walls are pale and bare, the ceiling bordered with heavy, ornately carved crown moldings and a central medallion from which a lantern is suspended. The couches are multicolored, and the floor is completely covered with Berber rugs. We turn to meet Said.
What can I say other than Doug has the coolest friends! Said is tall and thin, with sparkling eyes shadowed only by his large turban, and a smile that takes up half his face. He's the gregarious poster child for "Happiest Man on the Planet." He seats us and pours tea, offered with plate of wafers and nuts, and then leaves to check on dinner which is being prepared in another building. A short time later, his sisters arrive with kofte tagine, which Said follows with a huge platter of chicken skewers. Just when we think we are done, another sister brings in a massive tagine filled with enough couscous, eggplant and carrotsto feed 20 people. "Eat, eat!" she says. We take turns going around the table, taking a spoonful of couscous, which I think we do in 3 rotations before we protest that we have truly eaten our fill. In comes a large bowl of apples, which she peels and quarters and hands pieces to each of us to eat with our tea.
After dinner, the usual participatory drumming commences as a competition between Said and Doug, who can really play a mean drum. I am handed a drum at one point and I do my best to keep up. Mohamed whips out his flute. Mama and Sister bring out fancy dresses and turn Brenda and I into Berber brides. There are so many smiles here, and after four hours it is hard to leave...
We return to Said's home the next day for mid-morning tea, and to visit his camels which are tethered as a road side attraction and photo op for passing tourists. His home offers a beautiful panoramic view of a patchwork of fields in the valley, overlooked by one of the many kasbahs in this area.
After saying our goodbye's, we set out for Todra Gorge, with its red rock canyon walls soaring 1,300 feet above your head. It's a magnificent geological site, popular with tourists and rock climbers. There's a hotel nestled at one end, and merchants set up along the other side, some with locking cases. The river runs down one side, and on the other side are concrete canals that carry crystal clear water down into the irrigation system below. I reach the end of the paved road and take a goat trail part of the way back, putting me above the merchant stalls but below caves with stairways carved into the rock, that appear to be inhabited. There are two nomadic tribes who rendezvous at Saturday market here ... the Haddidou and the Merghad. The area was also once inhabited by a Jewish population.
We backtrack to Tingher, for a tour of farm fields on our way to the Ikelane mosque and medersa. The ruined mosques are the only ones non-Muslims can visit here, so we take our time exploring. It is not a very old mosque, thought to have been rebuilt during 19th century but abandoned in 1998. It was destroyed during heavy rains and flooding in Decemer 2006. I was thrilled to find out later that the Hotel Tomboctu is involved in its restoration.
Next stop - Skoura and the Kasbah Ait Ben Moro, and a carpet shop that I will be hard-pressed to leave ...