Demystification Guru

Just because we don't understand something, doesn't mean it isn't understandable.

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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Friday, June 13, 2008

France 2008 - the Camargue, May 18

Sunday, we went on a safari.
We bought our tickets on Saturday, while we were down at the market. We went over to the info booth and asked about seeing the Camargue. One of my stated goals on going to Provence was to pet one of the white horses in the Camargue. We had seen pamphlets about going there but there seemed to be many variations on a theme and it was a bit confusing. We asked the woman at the info place to choose for us and she said she wasn't allowed to but then she did suggest we try the one called "Gallon". We got our tickets and she phoned the company and we heard her say there were two "Anglais" to pick up Sunday morning at 9.

We arrive at the meeting spot at 8:40 and wait for 9, watching the young "gypsies" (I'm not sure if they really were gypsies or just young people hanging out) with their four large black dogs. It looked like they had spent the night in the relative shelter of the large public bandstand or gazebo near the Info Centre. One young guy take three of the dogs, one of them not on a leash, and walks over to some bushes where they can relieve themselves. The dogs seem friendly and the one not on a leash is older and wags his tail a lot. I figure how bad can these folks be, with such nice dogs?
Camargue horses
Right at 9 am, a Land Rover shows up and this man, older than we are, climbs out wearing leather pants, a leather jacket and a neck gaiter. He later explains that he had been running late so he just jumped on his motorcycle to get to where the LandRover was. His name is Alan, he is 61, he used to work for a pharmaceutical company and he speaks English, French, German and Farsi (at least).

It turns out we are the only people on this particular safari and boy are we glad because, although there are three seats on each side of the open back of the Land Rover, the only way you could fit 6 people in there would be if they were small children. We take off for the Camargue in a clash of gears, with Alan talking to us by turning right around to look at us sitting in the back of the Rover. It's a little nerve-wracking to start, with him not looking where he is driving but he isn't really driving that fast and he seems to know what he is doing. He reminds me of Lee Marvin with the short white hair, Hollywood smile and attitude.

After our initial wariness wears off and my bullshit meter dies down, we find him entertaining, straightforward and honest. He explains about bulls and bullfighting and the horses and birds but most of all, about the rice. Rice fields, rice paddies, crop rotation, wild rice, NOT organic ("biologique") rice, etc. etc. We make a detour to see a real monastery and come upon a monk in robes and rope belt, strolling down the road. I like to think it was not on cue. Alan stops to talk to him and by the conversation, it is far from a silent order and they do seem to know each other. A farmer approaches them and he has a large herding dog with him - the same size as an Anatolian shepherd but hairier. That breaks up the conversation and we move on.

Around the next bend, we see a large flock of sheep and one lamb looks right at us, its ears pink with back lighting. We travel mostly off-road but on the paved roads, we are asked to not stand up in the back and at least to pretend to have our seat belts on. I put mine on but Peter's is all tangled and he doesn't worry about it. The dirt roads are rough, with plenty of large potholes from Saturday's rain storm. I wonder if we have an accident, will he have the presence of mind to try to dive out of the open roof, or will he try to save his camera at the expense of his own life? I can see the headlines: "Canadian man killed in road accident while on holiday in France, widow has lots of nice pictures to remember him by."
Camargue horses
Alan stops at the first white horses we pass (all animals are fenced in - we never saw any real wild bulls or horses), and fetches a large bag of really stale baguette slices out of the Rover and the horses run right up to the fence looking for the familiar treat. I get to pet two of them and feed them bread and they seem completely tame and domestic. A couple of horses hang back in the field but they have foals with them. Like the Lipizzaners, the foals are born dark and turn white as they get older. I am so pleased that I got to pat some horses that I had not thought about how filthy my hands would be and how I wouldn't necessarily have access to any place I could wash. I try to keep my hands away from every other part of me.

In a little while we pass a herd of the black bovines and Alan stops to explain about bulls. The Spanish bulls weigh about 500 kilos and the horns go downwards. The Camargue bulls weigh about 300 kilos and the horns go out and upwards. The neutered ones are oxen and can be used to keep the bulls calm when they are moved from one field to another. A lot depends on the manager who rents the bulls out for the fights. He gets a reputation for more entertaining fights - or less entertaining - depending on which bulls he chooses to put in the arena. And they rent bulls because most of the bull fighting in southern France tends to be bloodless.

It's an expensive business, with matadors getting 100,000 Euros for the fight and bulls costing 10,000 Euros (or rented at 1,000 Euros for the 15 minutes of the fight). Reputation becomes everything. One local bull named Rami was particularly famous and when he died, his owner buried him on his land with a stone obelisk and a marble plaque with gold lettering. Alan took us to this grave and we saw the owner's own grave a few hundred metres away with a less ostentatious headstone than the bull.

We went to a "domaine" where they had what Alan called "an ugly arena" made of aluminum (bleachers, really). It existed for tourists and they had a little but real train to tour you around the property. We didn't go on it. They also had plenty of white horses to rent but we didn't ride them either. I wasn't concerned that we didn't ride any of the horses - I have ridden horses and prefer to do it with proper gear. All the horses we saw looked well cared for, and the bulls too. They had public washrooms and here is where I finally got to wash my horsey hands.

We stopped at Les Maries de la Mer church on the Mediterranean. It is named for the four Marys that were expelled from the holy land after Jesus died. It is another lovely Romanesque church with a lot of history. Many gypsies live at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and beg for money or offer to read your palm or sell you things. Alan told us to beware of the gypsies stealing things and told me to wear my little backpack on my front, which I did. But we were only approached by one old woman and she only persisted through several "non, merci" with lots of smiles on our part. For all that they criticize gypsies around here, there is a monument to the 700 of them rounded up in the Camargue in the early 1940s, who were then sent off to die in Hitler's camps.

We passed quite a few other tourists and bird watchers, stopped by the side of the road. Alan would roll his window down and call out the window in an American accent, "Bone jur, bone jur, c'est tres beaucoup jolie!" He was always greatly amused by himself when he did this and frankly, it was pretty funny for us too. I finally asked him why he did this and he said he wanted them to think he was a tourist who had stolen the Land Rover.

We didn't get back to Arles until about 2pm so we surely got our money's worth from that safari. It cost 48 Euros per person for what was described as a four hour tour. I suppose with a less entertaining guide and poor weather, we might have thought it not worth quite so much but we had a great time.

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