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Musings About Family, Travel And Gardening With Allen Martinson.



THE NORTHSIDE SUN has allowed me a lot of freedom to write about all things agriculture in my life. Whether the story has to do with time spent in my backyard oasis or time spent in an actual oasis in the Sahara. It seems like every day of my life is shrouded in agriculture. Maybe I’ve made it that way because it is what I notice more than anything. Certainly every day of my work life is about agriculture from a retail garden center, a landscape company, a growing operation and now I am working as a consultant for a larger greenhouse facility in Mississippi in preparation for the medical cannabis program that is being developed.

Even in my non-work life I am either in my yard doing what I enjoy most or I am driving somewhere in my truck noticing landscapes that need some help or walking through a parking lot wondering how some plants can survive and even thrive under some very abusive situations. When Mimi and I are on vacation we usually base our trips around a visit to some garden center we’ve heard about or a botanical garden that we love strolling through.

I have told the story of my starting a job in Amsterdam in the tulip fields and winding up on the African side of the Mediterranean ocean. There were some places that I wanted to go back to visit but this time with Mimi. After we were married but before we had children we went back to Morocco and bee lined it down to Marrakesh on the actual train called The Marrakesh Express. This is no luxury train, just ask the goats and chickens and desert nomads and shepherds who rode with us. We were down to the bare necessities. We had wooden benches and open windows to get any breeze possible to flow through.

We were in the Sahara Desert heading farther south (about 10 hours) in August. You know that thing they say about the Sahara desert in August, it’s true. We jumped on that circus of a train in Casablanca and didn’t come off until Marrakesh. The scenery was mesmerizing. It got more and more arid every hour of the trip. There was less and less plant life. I think every bit of fodder was picked clean for the animals and everything burnable was burned since they cook on fire. It was pretty stark but the scenes close to the railroad tracks usually are pretty grim no matter where you are.

The farther south we got the more we began to see trains of camels with their handlers and huge herds of goats. The plant life was completely spiney cactuses so even a goat would have a hard time munching on. We could see that goats can climb trees. The only signs of edible vegetation were high up on some scrubby bushes where humans couldn’t reach. So there they were on the tops of trees grabbing what they could — survival of the fittest.

AS THE OLD TRAIN pulled into the Marrakesh town center we could already smell the spices being cooked in their famous tajines. A tajine is a dish that is cooked long and slow in an earthen clay bottom with a dome shaped clay top. The clay pot is set on the edge of a fire and allowed to cook for six hours. Usually the dish will be made of chicken or goat or ox with lots of root crops and vegetables with their wonderful spices. I have never had food that was more up my alley than the food served in Morocco.

We have been through a few tajine pots at our house because we use it so frequently. We like to give them as gifts to our nieces and nephews because it’s so simple to use and creates wonderful meals. If a person wants to eat a tajine that night for dinner they would place that order sometime in the morning to give the preparer time to gather everything it takes to make it good. You show up at an agreed upon time and they pull it off the fire and set it down on your table. The server then pulls the dome shaped lid off with great ceremony. They will get you a spoon if you ask for one but the customary way to eat it is with a flat bread and your fingers. The bread is hot out of the fire and dangerously good with the soppable meal.

After a meal Mimi and walked around the huge town center. At night the place is lit up with crazy Moroccan music wildly playing while acrobats with monkeys perform, storytellers draw crowds and there is even some street boxing going on. It’s like a sunshine daydream going on, I couldn’t dream a crazy scene like the one that goes on every night in the Jemma El Fna, the famous town center in Marrakesh. The street food being served is so good we just picked a different place every night, then walked around and enjoyed the show.

We decided to let ourselves get good and lost one day. We decided to walk into the labyrinth of mazes they call streets which are covered by woven palm fronds to make it even more confusing while trying to find your way out of there. We saw more than a few surprised faces upon seeing tourists so deep into the old city without a guide. We also got plenty of offers from people wanting to guide us. We just weren’t too sure about where they would be guiding us to. We had heard plenty of stories about people getting guided in and then the guide not getting you out of there until you’ve handed over your wallet so we kept on declining. No one got a bigger thrill seeing the lost tourists than the children. They would laugh hysterically when they saw us wandering around knowing we would never find our way out.

What they didn’t know is we were purposely lost and were enjoying ourselves. It was a little scary, to be honest, to think that everything looks so much the same that there really is no rhyme or reason and that a person can get turned around so easily. We knew if worst came to worst we could pay someone to show us the way. We had all day to figure it out and it was nice and cool in the shade.

After a few days of wandering around lost and eating good at night we decided to head deeper into the Sahara. We were headed into the area that looks like the iconic photos of the dessert where there is nothing but mountainous dunes as far as the eye could see. To get to that area we had to cross over The Grande Atlas Mountain range. These mountains are the tallest in North Africa and we intended on climbing right up to the snowcapped top. It’s pretty ironic to be standing in the sand of the desert floor while looking up at snow capped mountains. We knew it would be a nice break from the lowland heat so we were excited for some fresh, mountain air.

WE DIDN’T EXPECT the wind to be blowing as hard as it was when we reached the summit of Mt. Toubkal at 13,600 ft. We stayed up there as long as we could take it and began our descent back to the base camp for a peaceful night. The next day we jumped into the back of an army truck full of people and rode to the next town down that had buses that could take us deeper into the Sahara. We stopped off at one other place I had visited on my first journey there that I wanted Mimi to see. We stayed on the roof of the same hotel where I stayed before and the owner was still there. We recognized each other and cooked and dined together for two nights.

The next day we were on a pretty long hike through some incredibly beautiful gorges when we experienced my one and only sandstorm. The day went from still and hot and sunny to a sudden wind storm with sustained winds of 50 MPH with gusts up to 70 MPH. Sand was flying so fast we had to lay down as flat as we could behind a boulder to prevent the sand grains from embedding into our skin. When it was all over in about 20 minutes, we were both a mess with sand and dust in every place that sand can get. That was a weird moment we still laugh about today. It is easy to find oneself unprepared when exploring the outback.

We made it home three weeks later having made the decision to become parents as our next adventure and what an adventure it has been.

Mimi and I have been thinking a lot lately about where our next adventure will be. I think we may be headed a little farther south into Africa to a place neither of us has been before. We believe when it’s all over and done the memories created while exploring are the ones worth remembering. There are all kinds of exploration that don’t necessarily include traveling to dangerous places. Everybody has their limits, we still want to explore geographically while we are healthy and able and while the world opens back that option.

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