2017 Grateful 8

I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve met my fair share of people in places I’ve visited, lived, and worked. Many of them are but vague memories from a distant past. Others are permanently etched on my brain. Some I hold close to my heart. And a few, a small few, have taken a sliver of my soul and called it theirs (they’re my soulers). All have contributed somehow to making me the woman I am today.

You might think that the soulers are the ones I’m closest to. Not true. I might have met them fleetingly, in passing, friends of friends. I might not know their birthday or their dog’s name, or even if they have a dog. I might know very little about them other than that one thing that resonated with me and made me look at the world in a different way.

I heard this week that one of my soulers had died. He fought an eight-month battle before waving the world adieu. I have no doubt that he’s gone on to bigger and better things and that the world’s loss is truly heaven’s gain.

I met J when I was visiting South Africa a few years ago. [I think of him as Big Mac, his email handle :-)] He and his lovely wife E took me to visit the township of eSizameleni. When they retired around 2005 and moved into a retirement village, they tithed money from the sale of their house and committed, through their foundation, Smiley Families, to helping the resident gogos (isiZulu for grannies) and the kids they’re rearing. That middle generation has been all but wiped out by AIDS – and those healthy enough and lucky enough to find work often have to travel to it, leaving their parents at home to mind their children.

What impressed me most, during that brief time, was Big Mac’s empathy. He wasn’t blinded by grandiose thoughts of doing good. He wasn’t prescribing what he saw as a fix for what ailed the people or the township. He wasn’t out to convert the world to his way of thinking. His lot, as he saw it, was to try to make their lives a little less bleak.

He wore his religion lightly. He was a man of faith with a staunch belief in his obligation to help, to do what he could for his fellow man.

Our core function is to hold a monthly service to provide spiritual support for some of the grannies and the 60 women-headed households in eSizameleni township here in Wakkerstroom. Together with a religious service we provide a nourishing soup for all those who attend. A local baker provides fresh bread for each meeting and everyone gets at least one loaf of bread together with about three litres or so of soup to take home.

I saw videos of these get-togethers. The happiness. The joy. The smiles. And all from a people with little to be happy or joyful or smiling about. Inspiring stuff.

I asked him once about what would happen when he and E were no longer up to the task, not knowing then that it would only be a matter of years. He said they were planning to send four of the younger adults (18-28) on a Christian Leadership course which they hoped would:

…equip them to someday take over from us when we can no longer do things and thus ensure the future of Smiley Families when we are gone.

I really hope this happened.

When I had it, I sent money. He asked me once what I wanted him to spend it on. Up to you, I said. Your call. You’re there. I’m not. One Christmas, he bought the gogos some hampers but instead of the usual groceries, he told me that he’d included

…special treats that would help take their minds off the grinding poverty of their daily life.

Another time, the local lads wanted to play in the soccer league and needed kit. My money helped suit up the team. He sent me this photo – one I look at periodically when I feel as if nothing I’m doing matters a whit. It never fails to make me cry and remind me just how lucky I am to have been born into the life I live. There, but for the grace of God and all that…

He was in the UK a couple of years back and I made it my business to be there at the same time. We met in Durham. He was a little older, a little slower perhaps, but he still had that glint in his eye. He still radiated the same pragmatic goodness that drew me to him. That evening:

I had the privilege of sitting around a dinner table with four South African friends with a combined age of 270+ years. Talk was not of pains and aches and pills and potions. There were no complaints, no regrets. Instead the conversation was futured with new opportunities, new travels, and new friends. No one was even close to being ready to sit back and retire to suburbia. Aging gracefully is truly a case of mind over matter.

Just when I can see the light at the end of my dark tunnel, others are about to enter theirs. My thoughts and prayers go out to Big Mac’s family and friends. I will be eternally grateful that through his ministry he gave me the opportunity to help, to do some good, to make a difference in someone’s life, however slight. He did so much for so many without expectation of anything in return. He helped me build a yardstick by which I measure goodness and served as a constant reminder that something as simple as a bowl of soup and a box of groceries can make a difference.

 

Save

Save

Save

2017 Grateful 28

I was born asking questions. Seconds after I popped into the world, I opened my mouth and screamed whhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyyyy! Nothing much has changed in the intervening years. I particularly like when I get to meet people from countries I’ve never been to and (almost embarrassingly) places I know very little about.  My geography is atrocious. I went to Costa Rica last month thinking I was going to South America. I was utterly confused when, driving in to Istanbul from the airport a few years ago, I saw a sign welcoming me to Europe. And sure didn’t I move to Hungary thinking it was by the sea. The mind boggles. I’ve long since come to terms with this failing and have accepted that I’m missing the geolocation gene that might just help me figure out where I am and where I’m going.

In Geneva this week as part of DiploFoundation’s CD Multi programme, I’ve met people from 17 countries I’ve yet to visit: Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Malawi, Benin, Cameroon, Uganda, Cabo Verde, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Guyana, St Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Suriname, Fiji, and Cook Islands. I’ve met people before from everywhere except Cabo Verde and Benin, so of these two countries I know even less than usual, if nothing at all. Apart from a vague notion that they’re in Africa, somewhere, I was clueless.

In conversation one evening, I got to ask about Cabo Verde.

I was right in thinking we were talking about what I knew of as Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony about 500 km off the west coast of Africa. But what I hadn’t realised is that it’s not one land mass but a series of 10 small islands  with the main airport in Praia on Sao Tiago (Santiago). All but Santa Luzia are populated. The islands don’t have much going for them in terms of natural resources. What land there is not suitable for crops, and drought is a challenge. In the last century, 200 000 people died as a result of droughts which gave rise to mass emigration so that today, more Cabo Verdeans live outside the country than inside, with a sizeable diaspora in Portugal, the USA, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Luxembourg. Reminiscent of Ireland in the famine days, and indeed countries like Romania today, emigrant remittances play a huge role in the local economy.

Back in 1975, when the country achieved independence, there was talk of unifying with Guinea-Bissau, but a coup in G-B put paid to that idea. Classified as an LDC (least developed country, i.e., a country that exhibits the lowest indicators of socioeconomic development, with the lowest Human Development Index ratings of all countries in the world) it was upgraded by the UN in 2008. A poster child for political and economic stability, this upgrade seems to me to be something of a poisoned chalice. Once out of the LDC bracket, many sources of funding dry up. Better off countries who actively support LDCs in their efforts to develop divert their funding to those still in the group. There is (and I could be wrong) a three-year transition period, a weaning off, after which the stabilisers are removed and the country is left to its own devices. But is that long enough? I wonder.

Cabo Verde, now classified as a SIDS (a small island developing state), is feeling the pinch and the pressure of going it it alone. Yet increased efforts to attract the tourist dollar and develop the infrastructure that goes with this are slowly paying off. In reading various reports, it would seem  that there is huge potential for start-ups, for young entrepreneurs who have a vision for the future. With an 87% literacy rate (considerably higher that of sub-Saharan Africa at 61%), there is cause for optimism. And as a tourist destination, something tells me that I’d like to see it before it makes the popular list of places to go and is overrun, swallowed up by sameness.

Black sand beaches. White sand beaches. Volcanoes. Great creole food. And the music…. I’m a few years too late to see the great Cesaria Evora live, but the national music genre, Morna, is something I could listen to. It’s a fusion of Portuguese, African, Brazilian, and Cuban – a form of blues. Nick Mayes did a great piece in The Guardian on it a few years back. Worth a read.

I’ve been trolling the Net, looking at pictures, reading blogs and articles – a first for me. I don’t plan. I go. But now, I’m planning. And to show I’m serious, I’ve done the unthinkable and added a travel category to this blog before visiting. What a great start it would be to 2018.

It’s been a busy week. Lots happening. I’m grateful for the education, the conversation, and the inspiration. And to anyone who would limit travel, curb immigration, or advocate a stay-at-home policy, to you I say stop – and think. Don’t deny me the opportunity to meet, to learn, to experience. So much of the world’s attraction lies in its diversity; we just need to get out a little more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The gods must be crazy

When I stumbled across South African writer Damon Galgut, I was well impressed. I’d just been to South Africa and as is my wont, had visited a local bookshop to sample some national authors. This is something I’ve been doing for years and it’s paid off in spades. If you’ve not read Galgut, put him on your list. My personal favourite is The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs.

godsBattened down by the Kis-Balaton on Day 2 of 2017, after a lovely afternoon in the outdoor hot springs at the fab Kehida spa, we’d eaten well. It was movie time and my first time to see the 1980 South African movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy. Others in the room had seen it multiple times. They promised me slapstick comedy but the opening, documentary-style gambit threw me. Wait, they said. Just wait. Be patient. A couple of hours later, I’d made up my mind: If the world was ending and I had a choice of just one movie to watch for eternity, this would be it.

Curious to know more, I did a little digging. Back in 1980, writer/director Jamie Uys (I wonder if any relation to my old mate, L?) raised enough money to make this low-budget movie, one which would turn out to be the most commercially successful in the country’s film history, grossing $100 million worldwide. The fab Nǃxau, who plays the Kalahari bushman, is said to have been paid anywhere from $300 to $2000 for his role, depending on what you read. The gods must indeed be crazy.  Apparently, it broke all sorts of records in Japan when the original Afrikaans version dubbed in to English was shown, and it was this best-selling foreign film in the USA that year, too. Can’t think of where I was that I missed it…

nxau_2003The film, with its multiple story lines, is set in Botswana. Before he was cast in the role of Xi, Namibian farmer Nǃxau ǂToma had seen just three white men in his life. He would go on to make six more movies before returning to farm in Namibia, dying of TB some time in his 50s. A bushman himself, he had little experience of the modern world, something the movie makes the most of.

Xi’s path crosses those of Andrew Steyn (working on a PhD that involves lots of stool sampling) and Kate Thompson (the newly arrived school teacher). Steyn is played by Marius Weyers, who might be better known for his role as Rudolf Van de Kaap in Blood Diamond.  His bumbling ineptitude around women is so real it’s easy to forget he’s acting. It’s a laugh-out-loud gem of a movie with layers of depth to it. It can be as light or as a thought-provoking as you want it to be, depending on your mood. It has good guys, smarmy guys, and bad guys. It’s genuinely funny with no special effects, bells, or whistles. And in its simplicity lies its beauty.

Xi and his fellow Ju’/Hoansi bushmen are living it up in the Kalahari. The gods have given them everything they need. They have enough. All goes well until one day, a glass bottle falls from the sky. Innocent as they are, the bushmen assume the Coke bottle is a gift from the gods and put it to all sorts of uses.  But there’s only one bottle and soon, it starts to cause problems. The tribe decides to rid themselves of this evil thing and Xi volunteers to throw it off the end of the Earth. The movie is his journey.

Highly recommended.

2016 Grateful 51

It’s been a long time since anyone scrubbed me down and washed me. The last time was most likely during a hospital stay in Cherry Orchard some 20 years ago. But, as is more usual that not, I hadn’t done my research and had little idea what to expect from a Hammam. I had some vague notion of a steam room followed by a massage, but didn’t think much beyond that.

Do I bring a swimsuit? Would they care? Surely there’ll be towels involved? Using various sign language she made it clear that I could strip to my birthday suit but men needed to be suitably clothed. Then it was in to the steam room where I was doused in water and told to sit and wait. So sit and wait I did.

Now, for someone for whom the thought of a long bath is far more enjoyable that the bath itself, I was soon getting antsy. I find it very difficult to sit and relax unless there’s a couch or a bed or some sort of wait involved. Just to sit for the sake of sitting with nothing to sit for – that does my head in.

After about 20 minutes, she returns with some black soap and proceeds to exfoliate me thoroughly. It was dark. I don’t know if I blushed. It was all very clinical anyway. Then I had to sit some more. Wait some more.

And then I was rinsed again, and oiled. And instructed to lie on my stomach to be massaged. It was grand though I’d have liked it a little stronger. But it was good. Then I had to lie and wait some more, while the steam room steamed and my pores opened and the magic hammam stuff happened. And I got even more antsy. I couldn’t lie so I sat up and even that was tedious.

Back again for more rinsing and oiling, I was then handed a bath robe and  told it was over. An hour all told. For about €20. No complaints there. And yes, I slept well afterwards and felt good.

BUT… and isn’t there always a but…

I discovered later that there were public Hammams (separate bathing for males and females, of course) where you can rent a bucket and buy some black soap and a mitt and even hire a woman to rub you down. But you also get to watch everyone else, listen to the gossip, and experience what it’s like to be Moroccan. Apparently everyone goes once a week – it’s a ritual. And they can spend up to three hours there (mad).

IMG_2566 (600x800)IMG_2570 (600x800)When we were up in the High Atlas, I saw a home hammam – and it reminded me a little of an American Indian sweat lodge made from clay. While I get the idea of detoxing and appreciate the need to relax every so often, for me it will take work.

I’m grateful, though, on two counts: that I got to finally experience a hammam, even if it was not quite the real thing; and that I now have a note to self to add ‘learn to relax’ to my list of things to do this year. It’s time. I’m old enough. I’m ready.

Opened or closed?

The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live. So said Flora Whittemore, an American woman who lived till 103 and so no doubt knew a thing or three about life.  I have had a fascination with doors for as long as I can remember. At various stages in my life I’ve wanted them open, always open, even into the bathroom. At other stages, I’ve wanted them closed. More times I didn’t care much one way or another. I never stop long enough to wonder why. I just accept. I go through phases.

One phase that has been pretty constant though is wanting to know what lies behind the various doors I’ve wandered past, down various streets, in various villages, towns, cities, and countries. And for a door lover, Morocco is door heaven, the town of Essaouira in particular.

IMG_2748 (588x800)IMG_2747 (577x800)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2746 (600x800)

IMG_2745 (600x800)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The mosaic tiling. The carved stone. The metal studs. The doors, in various stages of repair or disrepair, all lead to other worlds, to God knows what. The blue that is somewhat universally associated with Morocco is vibrant no matter how faded it is.

IMG_2743 (578x800)

IMG_2791 (600x800)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2172 (600x800)

IMG_2742 (600x800)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And even when you add the ubiquitous graffiti, they still leave so much to the imagination. Perhaps it’s the colours that I’m so taken with. Or the sturdiness. Or the fact that they suggest former days of glory. Perhaps they’re some sort of analogy for aging gracefully, of shabby chic, of a slow but beautiful wearing away of glitz and glam. Even doors that aren’t doors at all front a story. I have no clue why they fascinate me so.  But fascinate me they do.

IMG_2741 (600x800)IMG_2738 (600x800)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2739 (600x800)

IMG_2792 (600x800)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morocco wasn’t ever really on my list of places to go. Well, not high up there, anyway. And I still have a smidgin of trouble getting my head around the fact that it’s in Africa. And while I have often thought I could never live in an Islamic society – and still could never, ever, live anywhere that enforced Sharia law – a door, once shut, has now opened. Morocco changed my mind.

PS. Check out Steve McCurrry’s photos of doors – spectacular

Sleepy or stormy?

After the hustle that was the souks of Marrakesh, it was a refreshing change to wander about the souks in the medina in Essaouira where ‘no thanks’ was accepted as a polite rebuke, only occasionally met with eyes thrown to heaven or mutterings underbreath about what I assume was the equivalent of ‘bloody foreigners’. And in Essaouira, the mix was surreal: carcasses of meat hanging between the latest designer knockoffs.

IMG_2800 (800x600) (2)

IMG_2731 (600x800)Sunshine during the day was lovely. Lots of cafés to stop off in and watch the world go by. Plenty of mosques to create a cacophony five times daily, including one just across the street from our blue-shuttered flat. The couple of days I spent in bed, sick, were interesting to say the least. I really should have paid more attention to the list of restaurants the landlady left for us. Her note beside one saying it was okay to eat the salads there should have rung an alarm bell and made me realise that it might not be okay to eat the salads elsewhere. Add that to taking over-the-counter antibiotics and overdosing on the paracetamol and it was a recipe for disaster.

IMG_2796 (800x600)IMG_2750 (800x600)IMG_2752 (800x600)Moroccan flats are bloody cold in winter. No heating systems. Twenty-four degrees outside and four degrees inside. I had plenty of time to wonder what I’d do were I to move over and I’m still none the wiser. That said, I think I still want to give it a go.

The view from the flat looked down over a
row of shops, one of which was kept going into the small hours of the morning, whatever it was he was selling.  The rooftops are covered with satellite dishes. Internet is cheap – just €2 for 400 MB and about €12 for a data card to IMG_2737 (800x600)make your own home wifi. It’s all a little at odds with the other-worldly feeling that permeates the place.

And much and all as I like to drive, being in a world within walls where no cars are allowed was very IMG_2736 (800x600)therapeutic. The whole place is a Unesco Heritage Site and so well it should be protected. A bolthole from the madness that lives just over the parapets.

My wish for 2016 is that I somehow find the money to buy a flat somewhere, just so that I can come back to Essaouira and furnish it. The carpets. The sconces. The leather. The pottery. The bedspreads. The choices. Truly a shopping heaven and so very very different from the proliferation of sameness that has beset the highstreets of Europe.

IMG_2785 (800x578) (2)But outside the walls that enclose this sleepy haven, the tides push and pull, fighting to make themselves heard. The surf rages. The seagulls compete with the muezzins come prayer time. It’s all in such stark contrast and from the inside looking out, quite spectacular. A fitting place indeed for Jimmy Hendrix to have written When the wind cries Mary.

IMG_2860 (800x600) (2)IMG_2858 (800x600)IMG_2904 (800x600)

Surf or turf?

I’d be hard pushed to choose between a day by the sea or a day at the races. So any day that I can have both (of a sort) is a good one. Essaouira, a fishing town on the west coast of Morocco, about 3 hours by bus and €7 from Marrakesh, is famous for its surf. The Alizée winds are strong, the waves are high, and the thrill is there for the taking.

In the distance you can see the Island of Mogador, which now requires special permission to enter. It was once home to a massive open-air prison where pilgrims from Mecca would stay for 40 days to see if they were sick or not. And it had a mosque (where doesn’t?)

IMG_2676 (800x600)This late eighteenth-century fortified town is quite something. The town itself has been trading since the fifth century; it’s the fortified walls that went up some thirteen hundred years later. Outside the walls, a crescent-shaped beach wraps around the town adding even more strength to the fortification as the waves pound the rocks and spray the gallery of tourists who gather on the ramparts to watch the sun go down.

IMG_2875 (800x600)IMG_2640 (800x600) On any given day of the week, the musicians are out in force. Sit for a while at a beach café and it won’t take long for them to find you. Essaouira is far more relaxed when it comes to beer than Marrakesh – perhaps something to do with the sun? Or the surf? Or the type of tourist it attracts. IMG_2655 (800x600)IMG_2654 (800x601)Who knows? Whatever is going on, the rules in this Wind City of Africa seem a lot more lax and certainly the hassle factor is far softer.

It was here on New Year’s Eve that the culture of the country went on show, starting with horseracing of sorts on the beach. Saddles of Berber soldiers rushed at the promenade brandishing their muskets, screaming their war cries, and then letting loose their final volley. It was quite the spectacle with riders young and old alike, and some too cool for school.

IMG_2669 (800x600)

IMG_2677 (800x600) For the princely sum of €3.50, you could rent a sunchair and a pair of eyes to keep watch on your stuff. But the tide was out and the water was miles away. The sun was warm but the wind was biting. Getting wet would be no problem but drying off would certainly take some time. The tourists were in various stages of undress and no one seemed to mind. But it was interesting to see the locals well wrapped up – the complete opposite of how it used to be in Alaska with the locals in shorts and tshirts on days that the cruise ships docked and disgorged teams of hatted, mitted, and scarved tourists.

IMG_2689 (800x600)
IMG_2684 (800x600)IMG_2695 (800x600)At 3.30, the parade started. Groups of different types of musicians, presumably different clans or tribes, lined up to take their spot under the watchful eye of a suited and booted official. Most of the instruments were variations a theme. Drums, bugles, more drums, more bugles.

But it was yer man with a cake pan on his head that took my fancy. He was fascinating. Keeping balance and keeping time. What talent. Him I could have followed, had I not had places to go and things to see.

IMG_2707 (800x600)

IMG_2694 (711x800)IMG_2687 (800x600) (2)IMG_2692 (800x600)

Pop culture or traditional culture?

The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock’s 1956 thriller, with Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart opens in Marrakesh. Ten years later, in 1966, Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! with Tony Randall and Senta Berger, is part comedy and complete guide to what’s worth seeing in the city.  Even the Absolutely Fab pair spent an episode there. Spielberg filmed Raiders of the Lost Ark in the city in 1981; Scorsese followed in 1988 with The Last Temptation of Christ, and Stone topped it in 2004 with Alexander.

Walking through the narrow, windy streets of the Medina, I half-expected to see someone running from someone else. Car chases would be mad. Motorbike chases  a possibility. But the old reliable on foot dodge-em would be perfect. It’s hard to get a sense of city scape. But I’d imagine that viewed from above, it would be a different story entirely.

Kasbah Mosque

Kasbah Mosque

The Saadian Tombs date back to the sixteenth century, but lay hidden for years and years and years until 1917 when they were rediscovered during an aerial survey of the city by the French. Located in the Kasbah, next to the mosque, a pathway was built to access them and the grounds reclaimed. Architecturally, they are a fine example of  mosaic work and inlay.
IMG_2220 (800x600)It’s thought thIMG_2226 (600x800)at they were sealed back at the turn of the eighteenth century when Moulay Ismail was in power. Having destroyed the Badai Palace next door, word has it that superstition intervened and rather than destroying the tombs and risking the wrath of those who had gone before him, Ismail just sealed it all up leaving just one entrance, a well hidden one, open from the Kasbah Mosque.

For two hundred years or so, the dead rested in peace, undisturbed by clicking cameras or littering tourists. Today, it’s a sight to be seen if you’re in Marrakesh – and, in fact, it was the only one we visited on purpose. [I have a thing for cemeteries.]

IMG_2231 (800x754)IMG_2224 (600x800)Sixty-six tombs are housed in the two main mausoleums with another 100 or so graves in the gardens, including, interestingly, a few Jewish ones. The dead are mostly princes or members of the various royal households, their elevated status probably reflected in the brilliance of the mosaic and the intricate carvings of excerpts from the Qu’ran. It’s quite something really. And while you might be shoulder to shoulder with someone as you try to get a peek inside, it still manages to retain that sense of quiet, that air of solemnity.

It’s an ongoing restoration, a painstakingly slow one, a lot of which is done by hand. Just last month I saw something similar going on with tombs in Hyderabad – hand chisels and hand work. And even watching that process is fascinating, in and of itself. It made me wish that I had paid more attention to pronunciation in French class – I might have been able to ask some questions. [Are mosaic artists good at doing jigsaws?]

IMG_2219 (800x600)

IMG_2234 (600x800)The walls outside, the shared walls with whatever is next door, are a maze of pigeon nests. It’s hard to know whether they are old bullet holes or mortar holes or whether, as in Malta, they were made with pigeons in mind. I’d be interested to hear if anyone knows more? But perhaps as much as anything else, I was impressed by the tri-lingual write-up in the square outside, written in the first person, as if the square was talking about itself and the sights around it. A new one for me and one that I’d like to see catch on.

IMG_2217 (600x800)

 

 

2016 Grateful 52

There’s a saying at home that you can take the man out of the bog but you can’t take the bog out of the man. I’m not sure what’s in me. Urban or rural? City or countryside?

When I moved to Hungary, I wanted city. I wanted noise, life, chaos … anything that would take me away from the quiet, somnolent, comatosed life I had had in Chichester. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter I spent in Valdez, a small Alaskan town of about 4000 people. So I suppose it depends very much what I’m in the mood for and given that my moods can last years, it’s little wonder that I’ve stayed in Budapest as long as I have.

Or have I stayed so long because I leave so often? Because I go to places that are far quieter than Pest? Places where traffic in a given day is counted in donkeys and not cars? Places where kids still play in the street and all five families in the village know each other. Places where you stop and wonder what in God’s holy name do people do here all day?

The High Atlas are something special. Yes, the valleys and the rivers are spectacular and the scenery is jaw-dropping, but it’s the Berber villages that left me awed. You can do lots of day trips from Marrakesh,** there’s something for everyone – be it overnighting in the desert or visiting the beach or four-wheeling through the Sahara. Me? I wanted to see the villages and the people – the Berbers. What’s not to like about an ethnicity where the women get to choose their husbands?

IMG_2393 (800x600)IMG_2476 (800x600)IMG_2409 (800x600)We visited three valleys in the High Atlas, each one different in its own right. Ourika Valley is very popular with the Marrakeshis – a weekend retreat from the heat of the summer where they come to wallow in the cool waters of the Ourika River. Imagine taking Szimpla Kert or any other ruin pub in Budapest and plonking it outdoors beside the river … then you’d have Ourika and the village of Setti Fatma. It’s all a little bit mad really. Seeing sofas and dining tables and chairs set up on the banks of the river and even mid-river is quite something.

IMG_2416 (800x600)IMG_2422 (800x600)Our end goal was a waterfall. A waterfall at the back of the village and up a few stoney ridges. Our Berber guide reminded me of the young MT. While the rest of us were huffing and puffing and trying to find our feet, he was bouncing along up and down the rocks like a goat. We’d been IMG_2426 (600x800)warned to wear flat shoes and we were first that morning. On the way down, it was mayhem. They needed the  flag ladies out to direct traffic …  and some of those heels !!!! Mad. The lower part of the path was lines with artisan stalls selling all sorts of Berber handicrafts and once again, I was cursing the luggage allowance on Ryan Air and making a mental note to myself for next time.  There were plenty of cafés along the trail for those who dropped by the wayside and tempted though I was to let the others go on ahead, I’d never have lived it down. God bless those who have to hump in the cans of Fanta and bottles of water. It must be a thankless job. Gotta love the natural refrigeration though.
IMG_2436 (800x600)

One of the IMG_2444 (600x800)most remarkable things about Morocco is its colour. It is so vibrant. So not what I’d have expected from a society that is 98% muslim.  I don’t know why I expected sobriety to match with somber shades but I couldn’t have been further from the truth.  The waterfall, when we got there, was lovely. But beside Horsetail Falls or Bridal Veil Falls in Valdez, it would have looked more like a dribble. Then that’s life, though – a mishmash of perspectives that vary with time.  But I didn’t give up. I made it to the top. I persevered.

IMG_2514 (800x600)IMG_2532 (800x600)berber2 (800x450)The next valley over is Oukaïmeden Valley, distinctive because of its tricolour ridges shaded by basalt, copper, and iron oxide and famous as one of the premier ski resorts in Africa. No snow this year though – it’s been unseasonably warm. Many of the rivers we passed by were dry and the farmers are feeling the pain. The terraces hewn from the mountain faces that should by now be full of wheat were empty. It’s worrying, especially for a largely subsistence people who depend on what they can produce.

IMG_2487 (800x600)There aren’t enough schools or classrooms or teachers to go around so the kids go to school in shifts from 8 to 12 and from 12.30 to 5, older ones in the afternoons. There are two secondary boarding schools, too, and all education, what there is of it, is free. French is taught from 3rd class onwards and most kids are trilingual – French, Arabic, and  Tamaziɣt (Berber). Juxtapose this with women still congregating by the river to do their laundry and you have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming. 

IMG_2575 (800x600)We were booked in to have lunch at one of the village houses in Tachedirt, the highest village in the valley. Home cooking has never tasted better. We’d been on the road since 8.30am and I was hungry enough to eat a Berber bag, buttons and all. With tagine and couscous on the menu, we weren’t IMG_2565 (800x600)disappointed. Such is globalisation: this woman and her daughter catering lunch for some Austrians, Irish, Americans, and Australians, each of whom was marvelling at the simplicity of it all and no doubt a tad envious, too. The view was stunning. The food spectacular. And the air – so clean you could smell a blade of grass growing. Not for the first time this week I found myself wondering what it would be like to come back and stay a little longer…

IMG_2578 (800x600)

The third valley, Asni, is by far the most developed. It’s here that the rich people have houses and where Richard Branson has a hotel, with a swimming pool and room for a few ponies. I wonder what the locals make of the choppers flying in and out and whether the residents ever leave the poolside?

IMG_2571 (800x600)Asni, being that much more populated, has its markets at which most of the locals shop just once a week. Esnee has one on Saturda and some other village has one on Tuesday. Coming down from the mountains takes on a whole new meaning [anyone old enough to remember Come Down from the Mountains Katie Daly? – must be the altitude getting to me]. It’s here, too, that the majority of the fruit is grown – apples, walnuts, almonds, and peaches – as well as the bamboo used as roofing in the Berber houses. And with lots of houses going up, the urban sprawl from the city is making itself felt.

It was a spectacular day. One that will live on in the memory bank for a few years yet. I’m grateful indeed to be able to kick off this 2016 Grateful series by giving thanks, yet again, for the opportunities I have to travel, to see new places, to meet new people, to get a glimpse of other ways of life. And were I in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions, my first one would be: Travel … more.

IMG_2599 (800x600)

** www.getyourguide.com / moroccoattractivetours@gmail.com

Street food or restaurants?

I wouldn’t think twice about eating from a market stall in Dublin or Budapest or London or anywhere in Europe, but move me to another continent and the doubts set in. Horror stories from friends who have spent large chunks of their holiday wearing a path between the bed and the bathroom flood to mind. And while usually quite adventurous, I find myself erring on the side of caution.

Okay, in some places it’s the flies. I can’t eat anything that has flies dancing on it. In other places it’s the grime. The sink has to be clean. In more places it’s the greasy hair or the grubby fingernails. But in fairness, if I’ve not been warned, then I usually don’t think about it at all. And if I’m travelling with someone blessed with the constitution of an ox and a penchant for street food, it makes it all the easier.

IMG_2129 (600x800)IMG_2127 (800x600)Such was the case in Marrakesh. The food markets were amazing. The food was excellent and great value. I don’t know what they do with their eggplant – I’ve never had it taste so good. And as for the lamb – I was in heaven. I figured I could spend the week eating IMG_2238 (800x600)just like this.

I had eggplant with fish. Eggplant with lamb. Eggplant with chicken. Eggplant with just about anything I could find to go with it.

IMG_2468 (800x600)IMG_2583 (800x600)Tagines are the Moroccan speciality. Stews made from all sorts cooked in large conical clay pots (called Tagines), miniatures of which are sold by the truckload as souvenirs. In the city, they cook them on gas. In the Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains, they’re cooked over charcoal. Other IMG_2585 (800x600)than this, everything is the same, but the taste – so different. Slow cooking seems to be the way to go.

Couscous is also another staple in this carb-intense diet. The breads way too good though and the kilos could easily pile on.

IMG_2363 (800x600)We did go posh one night – to the La Pearl du Sud. And it was there that we discovered Pastilla. Filo pastry filled with savoury chicken and all sorts and covered with icing sugar and cinnamon. A different take on the old pasty, one I’ve made a goal to perfect when I get back to Budapest.

Being a Muslim country, alcohol is in short supply. In Marrakesh, it’s a rarity inside the Medina but across in the New Town, with its hundreds of new hotels, neon-lit fountain, and wide promenades, it’s available. The contrast between the two sides of the city is stark. The Medina, with its narrow, winding passageways, old riads, and suicidal scooter-riders pulsates with life. Gueliz is more like a Vegas wannabe, complete with casinos and private clubs. With more than 1000 hotels/riads in the city and 2 million visitors each year, the much-loved king – Mohammed VI – has embraced tourism and development. As you drive out of the city, the wasteland stretches for miles just begging to be built on. Golf courses and water parks offer something quite different to the riad experience. Personally, I can’t imagine coming to Marrakesh and not staying in the Medina. And eating the street food? That’s a  must.