Thursday, August 16, 2007

Le Sable d'Or

Well, the train from Casablanca to Meknès was a stand-up affair with nicotene air conditioning. The second day I was in Morocco, I got this taxi ride from a guy that went in a bit of a circle. We got to talking about lunch, which naturally led to his wife's delicious delicious dejeuner fare. I propped myself up on silken pillows of many colors as a vast garden of one thousand tiny plates paraded before me, vying for testebud time. Then there was the bread, and the main bit, and the dessert of melons, unfathomable orange juice and incomparable pomegranates. I've been here now for two weeks, and the memory of that face-stuffing event resurfaces daily.

I was persuaded to take some free lodging and another meal (oh....ok...) before trying thrice to correctly wrangle a bus 'ticket' into the middle of nowhere, where I would find some kind of conveyance to take me farther towards emptyness, which is half delusion. By the time we returned to the station, we discovered that one man had cleverly misspoken an extra thirty minutes onto the departure time in order to sell the ticket twice, leaving me, incidentally, in the dust. Abde the taxi man wouldn't stand for such treatment since he had been trying so hard to prove that Morocco was great, so after the loud guttral Arabic discussion of the liar's shortcomings, we took off after the bus with some other guy in the back seat while I held on to my pack and guitar and juju beads wondering whether ticket-losing was appropriate Karmic insurance against some swerving form of 90 KPH third world vehicular homicide at the hands of this admirably experienced cabbie.

We met with success, and I boarded the bus. I joined a seat that seemed to be full of yards of periwinkle blue fabric and lace, which turned out to be a woman. She spoke Arabic, and I spoke French, and we got along great. Her little boy sat between us and sipped water from the nose of an elephant shaped water bottle, and by the middle of the ride he stood in my lap to better see the evergreens and the barbary mcaques of the Middle Atlas.

We crossed those mountains and descended into the desert. I was watching the dusty mirror of Appalachia, rocks all folded and creased, through the heat of of that big window on top of some howling diesel under sun. That big box wasn't miserable, just nearly so. I started to think we were way out there, and I asked the Royal Maroccan ex-army guy next seat over, and he says still 200 K to Er-Racchidia. Well that town was the end of the ride, and the beginning of the next 90 K I was going that day.

I took a grand taxi, which is always a dollar seat in a Mercedes with 7 people inside, to Erfoud from there. If you've seen sinks made from squid fossil rock, or coiled-shell nautilus water fountains, or handsome Devonian flatware, or trilobites 5 a dollar, it all comes from here. The real edge of the desert is the Oued Ziz, a river of garbage that flows down into Erfoud tiny and sparkling clean from the vast Utahesque canyons full of date palms to the north. If you've been to Africa, you know that the most common around-town flower in dry places is the Flimsy Black Plastic Bag. They multiply like weeds along watercourses and in windshadows, and that's how I knew we were there.

We came into town around sundown while people were starting to go about the second half of their day. Things kick up again when the sun stops trying to kill you. Black pillars of billowing cloth turned out also to be women whose eye color seemed to count for much more than anything else you might be tempted to acertain about appearances. Veils were fast hoisted shyly as I passed, a constant salute to the stranger.

I got the main part of town down around the souq (market). I had a place in mind, the Hotel Palmiers. ''Oh, c'est trop loin...tu as besoin d'un taxi.'' Maybe white people everywhere think everything is too far, but I would walk, I don't need no stinkin' taxi I told him. And it was a good thing too, because the next corner I turned had a door with a sign that said 'Hotel Palmiers' and some other stuff in that great squiggly language of thirsty people everywhere. I looked back and saw my would-be driver sort of shrug. This is the same place where you can hire 2 guides and a big four-wheel drive to get you to the next town on the well-paved road 30 K away, only 200 bucks.

I picked that joint, as I learned later, because of my telepathic knowledge of its roof. I could sleep up there in the breeze with the stars all I wanted, only 8 dollars a night. That 60 Dirham also buys all the refrigerated tap water you can drink, and a come and go sort of place with your very own faucet. I staked out there for the night, and I'm staked out there again now after my time in the desert.

The next day, I found my friend in Merzouga, down around the Erg Chebbi. It's a bit of a tourist joint out there, but you can play it right and have a good time. Lahcen has a restaurant and a fossil selling gig, and a lot of other little side things as well. One of his side things is camels, and I joined this great Belgian couple for a sort of what-the-hey-I'm-in-the-Sahara overnight camel ride out onto the sea of sand.

Camels are impossible animals whose ancestors first evolved on the Moon. They have eight toes, down from the original twenty, and after they gave up on George Gaylord Simpson's Argentina they decided to stick to the Equator for good. These are the common cigarette packet one-hump jobs, the dromaderies of Arabia. They have big long bird necks and slinkies for legs. The back legs of a camel are held up by its small tail, because the pelvic bones have become vestigial due to the fact that all the appendages on one side of the beast move at once. In short, using a camel for transportation is a little bit like tying two big ducks together using old carpet, with much the same sonic results.

We didn't have proper Real Man camel saddles, but it was only a two hour ride out to the big big big dune mountains, so the handlebars were good enough. There were a lot of stars and a lot of Flemish, French, and English lessons from the Belgians, and some great ideas from our camel guy, Ali. And of course, glorious aeolian sand beyond measure. I saw a bat and asked about it. In France, they call a mouse a sourri. And if you shave something, it's cheuff. That flying rat is called a cheuff-sourri. The sand sea blooms at night, and there are even cricket sounds. A Solifuge is a non-insect arthropod that flees from sun and eats everything it sees. Google it.

Lahcen got me going with another fossil dealer named Lahcen. We used his 50 cc motorbike to tour the fossil fields and quarries together while he got some business done. The Paleozoic in this part of the Sahara comes and goes in giant bent and broken sheets. There are no trees or shrubs or grass to block the view of layer on layer of tilted crusty time. The gray Devonian is the most dramatic craggy hill builder, full of coiled and straight squid cousins. Below it and sometimes beside it is the red Silurian, full of crinoids. Beautiful swaths of rusty sand with knife edge curving tips weave around it all.

I found plenty of fossils just laying on the ground, but the most amazing work was happening below in the crinoid pits. They put square holes, one after another, down 4 meters to the sweet spot and spread out from there, looking for hints of crystallized sea lilies by the light of car battery neon and candles. Green tea is an essential part of the equipment down there. No Moroccan can be found without it, but sometimes mint is hard to come by in a 20 meter long tunnel dug by hand.

The holes stretched along strike in the anticline for 8 kilometers. Every 10 feet or so, someone had staked out a plot and was slowly bringing some old life to the surface. No one owns the desert, and Ali was coming by to buy whatever the various diggers had found lately. It's slow and tedious and cheap. Some guys decide to forego the 10 K bike ride and instead set up housekeeping in side tunnels, doors and all. Back in Erfoud, Daoud the crinoid artist shows me a vast 6x10 foot maroon slab of 30 perfect tentacled echinoderms up against the wall at his place. It is several month's difference between the things from those desert mines and the glued-up, pieced together, hand etched, acid-prepped, double reinforced glory invertebrate scene people pay for in other countries.

In the next post, I'll tell you about living on the other side of that anticline for a week.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Dans le Sahara

Morocco is one of those places where everyone wants to be your friend. And it is not just shopkeepers aand beggars either. Free food...amazing food, and funny little kids to play with. I highly recommend the Atlas Mountains, moroccan fruit, spiced olives, and mint tea to everyone who can hear me shouting now over the evening call to prayer.

Camera broken. When I find a way to turn Moroccan electricity into Canon battery power, you'll get photos. There were expeditions since the first paragraph there, much to tell.