Sunday, March 26, 2006

Back To Reality

I always do one of these in the sand. Every holiday. Paul did this one though.
I’m feeling a bit sad today. Yesterday was my last proper full day in Morocco.

Today is just a day of travel back to life, back to reality.

This time we are woken up by the sound of the call to prayer. Mainly because our room is on the opposite side of the hotel from when we first stayed here and I swear that the mosque’s speakers are directed straight at our room!

It’s really annoying that although Morocco is less than three hours flight time from the UK that here we are heading off at half seven in the morning to catch a connecting flight to Casablanca and that we won’t make the UK until early evening.

Weirdly, today, once we have started to head back I just can’t wait to get home. The travelling bits in between origin and destination points are just plain boring for me. My brain just disengages and then switches back on when I’m walking in through my front door.

Right now, I’m switched off. I suppose that I don’t want the week to end but, of course, it has to. I feel ever so slightly broken, a bit frayed at the edges. There are things that I want to say to someone but never do before I walk off into the distance at Heathrow. I metaphorically kick myself all the way home.

It has been a great holiday though, tiny bus and dodgy guide aside. The group had some cool people and though I don’t feel that I spoke to everyone in the group as much as, perhaps, I would have liked to, the group was a contributing factor in making the holiday a good one.

Ma'al salâma & shukran - Goodbye & thank-you (everyone)

Saturday, March 25, 2006

A chilled out last day

It's yet another blue skies and sunshine day in Morocco! So that makes it a T-shirt and shorts day too!

We decide to start off with a stroll along the beach. Our target is the half-submerged ruined fort in the sand at the far end of the beach that I seem to recall a holiday programme a few weeks ago mentioning was the inspiration for Jimi Hendrix's 'Spanish Castle Magic.' I've no idea if that is true but it gives us something interesting to aim for.

I'm not really one for lying around on a beach doing nothing all day long. I can manage for small spells but will generally get restless and have to be doing something.

As we walk I think back over the past week and the diversity of the places we have been too. We've slept in the desert, stayed in the mountains, wandered around bustling Marrakech and now here we are, on a gorgeous day, chilled out walking along the beach with a refreshing breeze. So cool!

seeing that it is a Saturday, there are a lot of families out on the beach. We pass a section where there is a basketball court being used to play a frantic game of football by the local lads. Further along we come to a section where we spot our first sunbathing Westerners. It's only a small section, obviously associated with a hotel or resort behind the beach on the other side of the road that runs alongside. But thankfully this isn't a resort town, so no high rise hotels along the beachfront to spoil the view.

It's all a very laid back place. Everyone seems happy to be here and it's easy to see why. We pass a few other people out for a stroll, just like us. There are also a few hordes being ridden up and down. At one point we reach a guy who's trying to sell camel rides along the beach. Well, it certainly makes a change from donkey rides at Blackpool! It was all a bit too touristy for me though and with the memories of the bruises from our rides in the desert still fresh in our minds, we politely declined.

We eventually reached the end of the beach to discover that the only way onward to reach the ruined fort would have been to wade across a small peninsular to reach the beach on the other side where the fort was. Oh well! We didn't really fancy getting wet as we has already checked out of the hotel, so I settled for a few long shots of the fort from where we were.
We then strolled back, politely declining an old geezer on his camel with two baby camels wanting money for photos of his "bebe-s." Instead I take a sneaky one as we walk away with my camera facing behind me!

It's still rather hot and we are a bit parched so we sit outside a cafe by the beach and I get text updates from my mate who's at a Liverpool-Everton game that I was supposed to be at but hadn't realised that the date clashed with my holiday. Suffice to say, the weather was a lot nicer where I was!

We then head back to the main part of town and wander through the narrow streets taking the odd photo here and there. Paul mentions that there is a slightly dodgy part of town with a bit of a drug-related problem (according to Lonely Planet) so we try our best to avoid this. At one point we do spot someone rushing past us obviously completely stoned, his eyes saucer-like in shape and gibbering to himself. Later on, looking at the town map we realise that we had in fact walked straight through the area that we had intended to avoid. So much for sense of direction!
We then visit the small fort overlooking the harbour. It's something like a pound to get in and you get some great all round views from the top. There appears to be a school trip visiting at the same time as us so we have to jostle our way past hordes of kids who are trying to grab all the best viewpoints.

After all this, it's nice to sit down and grab a light lunch in a local cafe watching the world go by.

Then, once again, it's time to ascend the steps of our compact and bijou mini-bus and the journey away from paradise into the mad hustle and bustle that is Marrakech.

The journey back appears to go faster to me but Sarah, who is sat in front of me, still succeeds in doing a really good job of falling asleep in places where nobody else could. I correctly guess that her head is going to loll to the left first.

We find ourselves back at the same hotel that we left a day earlier (though it now seems longer than a day) but not in the same rooms, which is a relief as I won't have to be wrestling with the fold up camp bed anymore. In fact our room even has a small suite attached with a sofa and armchair pushed into the corner. Thankfully we also have hot water (some people didn't the last time we were here) though the toilet is in a separate room from the shower and sink, which is a bit unusual.

Before the sun sets we head off to the main square. It's even busier than it was the last time we were here. There are a lot more events going on too with crowds around each. We watch a boxing match, see snake charmers, acrobats and performing monkeys. We avoid taking pictures of any of the animal-related entertainments as we have read that they all have sad, cruel lives and we don't want to encourage that type of tourism. Unfortunately lots of others in the square have no such reservations.

As it's our last night together as a group, Mohammed books dinner for us in a restaurant by the main square. It's basically an eat as much as you like buffet affair but the food is good.

We realise afterwards that weirdly, given that it's the last night, nobody thinks to get a group photo. The streets bustle with activity. It's a warm, muggy evening and we slowly stroll back to the hotel after to walk off the food.

Unfortunately, it's going to be a relatively early start the next day as we need to get to the airport with a few hours to spare.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Marrakech And Essouira

My earplugs do their job well in the morning as Paul tells me that he was woken up early by the call to prayer at the mosque just across the street. I didn't hear a thing!

Mohammed has arranged for a local guide to give us a brief city tour after which our time is free until two in the afternoon when we need to head off on the bus to our next stop, the coastal fishing town of Essouira.

Our guide, Mustapha, turns up and is a bit of a character. He's a large man wearing a traditional long djellaba over his regular clothes. He starts by telling us that he won't be using the microphone on the bus as he is frightened by the sound of his own amplified voice! He laughs a lot, especially at his own jokes.

First stop on our tour is the main mosque. He gives us a quick history lesson in how the original mosque collapsed because it had been built on a waterway and how the sultan subsequently ordered that the architect be executed and his head preserved and displayed for all to see. However, when the sultan started a search for a new architect, not surprisingly, almost over night, there suddenly wasn't one to be found in the city! He laughs a lot through his entire story, his large belly wobbling up and down throughout like a jelly.

We visit various places and end up with a whistle stop tour of the souks. "This tour is just for
looking not shopping." he jokily warns us. And boy wasn't he kidding! He scarcely pauses for
breath as he rushes through the tightly packed streets of the souks. If anyone pauses to take a picture or look into a shop they find Mustapha vanished off into the distance or even more worryingly out of sight around a corner.

The packed bazaars are colourful and make perfect photo fodder so loads of us get left behind at various stages of our tour. The narrow streets are packed with locals, speeding mopeds, men pulling huge wheelbarrows and even the odd mule or two! All the twists and turns that we have taken leave me feeling a bit lost but I always make sure I pay attention to the next turn that Mustapha takes ahead of us so as not to be left behind yet again!

The tour ends with us being ushered into a local chemist where we're told of all the herbs and spices that they sell and how each can be more effective than Western medicine. The little shop has a hundred brightly coloured jars lining shelves on all the walls and is a photo opportunity in itself. They have medicines against acne, herpes, spots and other infections of the skin alongside spices to cook fish, vegetables or meat!

Or how about: Infusions for the loins and bladder - Acts to reinforce the musculature of the bladder reduce calculations in the loins?! (sic)

Well, almost everyone bought something. I got a three for two deal on mint tea which came in packets of something that looked like you would smoke them rather than pop in hot water!
Thankfully the smell was quite obviously minty so a situation where I would have to answer awkward questions in customs shouldn’t arise!

We leave the shop with bags laden with all manner of weird and wonderful goodies. Well, to be honest it wasn't too expensive and like items in the UK would probably cost a lot more but the chemist would have been a happy man and I wondered if Mustapha would be getting a commission!

We were then shown back to the main square and that was basically the end of our tour. My stomach was rumbling so we all decide to find somewhere on the square to eat. Mohammed and Mustapha recommend an air condition restaurant on one of the side streets but really fancy eating something a bit lighter somewhere where we can do a bit of people watching too.

This turns out to be a lot harder than we had at first thought. The waiter at the first place we try beckons us upstairs into a cramped low-ceilinged room and when we walk out sits us by the kebab cooker outside which ends up grilling anyone who is sat by it too!

Then six of us sit down outside a more promising venue two to a table only for the owner to grumble about us using up too many tables and threatening to take one of them away from us. We counter-threaten to walk and he seems to back down for a minute or so before stupidly taking the table away from us and leaving us cramped around two. That's the last straw for us and the group gets up in unison with the owner looking on dumbfounded.
"Well we told you we would leave if you took the table away, so why are you looking so surprised. Now you have no customers!", I tell him as we walk off.

The whole group splits up at this point and Paul and I end up going back to the first place and enjoying a nice sandwich washed down with a coke whilst watching the world go by. After this we explore the souks and Paul haggles to buy a fez for what we both think is probably too much but it's for a friend for whom we always buy silly hats on our holidays.

I'm on the lookout for a nice rug, so before heading into a shop that I spotted on our earlier tour, I take off my watch, sunglasses and cap to remove any obvious signs of wealth that will make getting a good price harder and then manage to persuade that seller that I'm a poor student who can't go much above the budget that I have set myself.

I think that I got a good deal at the end and the seller looks on annoyed as I take out my credit card to pay. "You pay credit card?!" he says, "That will cost you more!" I don't really budge much and I leave with him not even offering to shake my hand at the end. Thinking back, I have no idea whether being annoyed was just a ploy by him to make it look like I had got a good deal or whether or not I had indeed haggled well and got a better deal than most!

But I like my new rug and I guess that's all that counts in the end!

We still have a bit of time to kill and we reward ourselves with a tasty three scoop icecream each for under a pound. Yum!

Then it's back to the bus and our three hour journey West towards the coast and Essouira. We will spend one night there before heading back into Marrakech for our final night and then the flight back to the UK.

It's early evening by the time we get there. We glimpse a long beach, port and the high city walls that surround the town. A hot shower later we head out to explore further.

We wander around a bit and find our ways onto the city walls and catch one of the most amazing sunsets that I have ever seen! The colours of the sky, sun and the contrast with the dark rocks and splashing surf below are extraordinary! Paul starts snapping away on his compact camera whilst I rue the fact that I have left my more bulky SLR back in the hotel. I can't take it much longer and run back to the hotel to just about make it back in time to catch the end of the sunset. The pictures are still amazing, though I do wish that I has simply taken my camera with me in the first place.

We walk down to the port where locals are selling their fresh fish and see the hundred or so
seagulls flying above trying to get a piece of the action hoping that none of them feels like relieving themselves at the moment that we are walking past!

Paul and I check out the local cafes and restaurants for somewhere nice to eat but are turned away from the place that we decide upon as we are told that it is by reservation only and they are full up. I end up having a cheesburger (of sorts) in the restaurant outside of our hotel whilst Paul has some calamari which he also liked.

Then we make our way up to the rooftop terrace of the restaurant that we had originally tried to get into. Up here there's just a bar and we start to wonder where everyone else in the group had got to as we hadn't bumped into anyone else on our travels. Reading the entry for this bar in Lonely Planet afterwards, we find out that this was the trendiest place in town. It's a bit chilly so high up though so we have a few drinks and are just about to leave when four of the others turn up. It turns out that they had been eating at the restaurant below and they'd had two spare seats that we could have taken. Oh well! They even had a belly dancer down there! *sigh*

We natter on for a few more drinks, (though it’s all a bit much for one of our group, aged 31, who naps off!) and knowing that we all have enough alcohol in our systems to fall asleep straight away we all head back to the hotel ready to explore the town and beach further the following morning.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

From the mountains into mad Marrakech

Despite the bedding in the gite being relatively basic, I fall asleep quickly after finding that the best way of keeping warm is to keep a large blanket on top of the sleeping bag. This was so effective, in fact, that I woke up in the early hours of the morning, with a hot flush! It wasn’t just that that had woken me up though. There was a loud noise akin to having a jet plane taking off next to me!

My ear plugs were in so I was quite surprised that I could hear anything and tried to ignore it as best as I could and get back to sleep but to no avail. The bass tone of the noise was vibrating the room and my ear plugs weren’t blocking it out. *sigh* I look up trying to figure out what is going on. It’s Stephen! We shared a tent with him in the desert and he didn’t snore then but tonight he most definitely is!

I contemplate chucking a cushion at him when I notice that Paul has also been woken by the noise. In the end I decide to pop out for the call of nature hoping that the Stephen naturally stops snoring. It’s cold outside the room but I pause on the way back to go out onto the terrace to check out the stars. They’re beautiful but my feet feel like they’re turning blue so I hurry back and find that peace and quiet has returned to the room. Phew!

We pack in the morning and find that breakfast is last night’s bread with various spreads to make it seem just a little less stale. I manage to find a few of the softer pieces but supplement my energy levels with a Twix that I pickup from the chocolate stash in the main entrance along with a Mars bar for later on today.

We have an optional three to four hour trek up and down the mountain range that rises behind the gite. I welcome a bit of exercise so look forward to it. Mohammed warns us that it will be cold at the top so the group wears fleeces and some take gloves.

We are lead by a guide called Abdul who I later find out is sixty two. I don’t think that he speaks English though he does seem to understand French. He leads us up the trail with the ease of someone who could hop up the mountain…. blindfolded!

It’s a clear blue sky and the sun is shining. Within a few minutes most of the group have discarded their fleeces and we huff and puff our way up. We pause now and then to drink water and rest. Abdul, of course, is enjoying his morning stroll with not even a bead of sweat on his sun darkened brow.

We have to be careful as some of the rocks are loose and I get the fleeting thought that this climb is going to be a lot harder than I’d first thought. Luckily after about half an hour the trail becomes less steep and turns into more of a long winding one. We are in fact following a mule track up the side of the mountain, something proven when we spot a man and his mule coming up from below and eventually overtaking us!

We eventually reach the top of the range to find that our fleeces, gloves, hats etc were all redundant as we are batched in beautiful sunlight with a pleasant breeze and it’s not cold at all! I munch on my Mars bar and we take turns getting our photos taken in front of the spectacular mountain vista. A bit further down we get to meet a dog whose bark is definitely worse than his bite and who’d be no cop as a guard dog as he runs away as we approach. He appears to be guarding a goat pen. We peer in and there are loads of cute kids bleating at us. Abdul climbs in and hands one to Sarah. It turns out that she’s a natural with baby goats. It’s always useful to have a backup career skill! Her kid like here so much in fact that it carries on trying to jump out after the pen has been closed up. Arrrrr!

The journey down takes about as long as there is a lot of loose shingle and we have to be careful. I let Paul go in front of me as my early warning system as he has a knack of revealing the loose bits of rock quite effectively. Thanks Paul!

A few of us slip up now and then and I’m sure that I annoy a few by starting to give scores out of ten for how spectacular the slip ups are! Sarah won with a 9.5 but was okay afterwards, so I hope no harm done.

We are all glad that we did the walk afterwards and we head back to the gite for a nice lunch of couscous, salad and fruit on the upstairs terrace.

I pop back into our room to stretch out my legs and find myself napping off. I wake up and go downstairs. It’s awfully quiet. I head out front of the gite to find Mohammed packing our bags into the back of the petrol-driven mule.
“Where is everyone?” I ask. “Everyone is walking back to the bus,” he replies. I’m a bit shocked. I wonder if I had fallen asleep whether anyone would have noticed that I was missing until they all got to the bus?!

I grab my rucksack and start jogging down the trail to catch up with everyone. At one point the road splits and I start to panic. But I know that I have to pick one way and luckily go in the right direction as a few minutes later I spot the tail end of my group as little dots off in the distance. I switch to a brisk walk and catch up easily. It’s just one of those things and not worth getting angry about, especially on holiday but I am annoyed.

We make it back to our spacious(!) bus in one piece and commence the three hour journey to our next destination, Marrakech.

On the way we stop off at a small café (obviously for tourists) and an old man by the roadside squeezes some fresh orange juice for me using four oranges for something like 50p.

We make Marrakech late in the afternoon and find ourselves in a no frills hotel. Paul and I have three beds in a row in our room and Paul bagseys the far one so I go for the nearest. I collapse down on it to find myself sagging through almost onto the floor!

I peer under the bed and find that it’s just an unfolded camp bed with a thin mattress on top! A bit of room rearrangement is called for! I whisk into action, fold up the camp bed, prop it up against the wall and pull the middle bed along instead. This is much more comfortable. It’s probably just as well that I won’t be around in the morning to hear what the maid will have to say though!

In the evening we head out to brave the city and its bustling main square. Marrakech is a complete contrast to anywhere else that we have been on this holiday. It’s definitely a lot more hectic. The wide roads are a challenge to cross as we try to make sense of the pedestrian crossings (when there are any!) and we see a lot more local people walking around dressed in a more Western style.

We approach the square and all I can see is a huge mass of people throughout with clouds of smoke coming off from one side. It turns out that these are the food stalls where locals and brave westerners can come to eat whatever they desire. I spot a few pigeons hanging up in the distance at one stall and keep a wide berth. There also appear to be rows upon rows of stalls selling oranges, each identical (how would you choose which to go to?!) and garishly dressed water sellers walk around with huge red hats with bells on letting everyone know where they are at all times.

Alison, Sarah, Paul and I have a nice meal at a restaurant, recommend to us by Mohammed and in the Lonely Planet guide, overlooking the square.

Afterwards, we decide to brave the souks. These are narrow streets with shops or stalls overflowing selling just about everything that you could think of. The streets are packed with people and mopeds constantly rush us from behind too, which is a bit disconcerting in such a tight area. I find it all very cool and feel safe though some of the others less so.

We walk in a large circle but find that most of the places are closing up for the night. No late night haggling for us tonight! We finish off on one of those horse-drawn carriage affairs that you see in a lot of cities. The driver is very accommodating and gives us a tour of the square and parts of the city, whilst honking the horn on the side of his cab. Alison can’t stop giggling every time that he does this which just makes him do it all the more. Thanks Alison!

Our tour includes the local five star luxury hotels and casino (obviously for the westerners and not the non-gambling locals?) and ends with us being dropped off at our hotel, and all for a very reasonable charge too!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

You Gite!

This holiday is starting to surprise me a bit. In Peru and a few previous holidays that involved touring around a country, you had to accept a certain inconvenience. The early start...

To fit something like the amount of places you’d want to see into a one or two week holiday necessitates an ingrown acceptance that you’ll be travelling a lot and that the only way to get somewhere early enough to see anything is to head off at an ungodly hour.

Peru was wonderful but it was physically demanding and involved a lot of early starts. I mean can something be called a holiday if you're getting up earlier than you would be if you were at home?

Morocco is a massively pleasant contrast to this. Each day we are in a new place but each day we pretty much get to wake up in our own good time.

Take today as an example. It’s a beautiful day. The sun shines in a blue sky. We go up to the terrace of the restaurant next door and are served croissants, freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee whilst we have a view that could literally take your breath away. We can see the snow-capped Atlas mountains in the distance whilst in the foreground is the impressive looking and picturesque hill all over which the clay kasbahs of Ait Benhaddou are built.

After breakfast we have a bit of spare time, so head off to conquer the kasbahs and climb to the top of the hill to take a few pictures. It looks a long way up and could be an arduous climb. My fleece is off in no time as the sun starts to take it toll. But then we find ourselves in the cooler narrow streets between the crumbling clay buildings, zigzagging our way up the hill. It turns out not to be as hard as it looked at all and we are up to the top in less than twenty minutes.

Once again it’s an amazing view. I fiddle around switching from wide for the landscapes to my telephoto lense to take a picture of some storks nesting at the top of one of the ruined towers.

Did I mention? It’s a wonderful morning!

We stroll back down in plenty of time to grab our bags and get back on the bus to head off to the Kasbah of Telouet. It’s a half renovated, half crumbling to bits mini labyrinth of rooms. To be honest, I’m a bit underwhelmed. The only bits we get to walk around are the renovated parts which don’t really have that much history. Perhaps I should have read the Lonely Planet to get a bit more of a background so that I could truly appreciate the kasbah’s past but I find myself just enjoying the holiday and not really getting much beyond skimming through my guide book during the week at all.

We have a little rest in a café by the Kasbah where a boy tries to persuade me to buy everything in his shop in return for him trying to scare some local storks that I am patiently waiting to photo.

The café also has the largest radio that I have ever seen (the size of a desk) and seems to be tuned in to a station playing old eighties hits which is a bit surreal.

A short bus trip after this rest has us being told to leave our bags behind to be carried by donkeys whilst we take a one hour stroll away from the main road into the foothills to find our accommodation for the night. A gite! A gite, we’re told is a series of rooms in which you both eat and sleep arranged around a courtyard. Unfortunately it also happens to be an alcohol-free zone. No!!!!!

Everyone had visions of the group climbing a winding trail with mules coming up the rear carrying all of our day packs. In reality it turned out that the mules had long since been retired and a mule of the petrol driven variety was used instead.

The walk into the foothills was pleasant and very picturesque. Our only moment of hesitation came when we had to cross a stream by jumping from stone to stone. Thinking back it was all a bit silly as it was more about keeping our shoes dry than anything else. It's not as if we were in a rush anyway and we could have easily taken our shoes off and walked through the stream barefoot.

We passed a few small villages on the way. We hear the local children uttering their now familiar cries of either "stylo" or "bonbon" towards us rich westerners and then hiding away if we tried to take any pictures of them without the obligatory gratuity.
After about an hour we made it to the gite. It's a two floor concrete construct with a series of rooms that can accommodate a number of groups at any one time. A group of French travellers is milling about when we arrive and there is already another Exodus group there too.

We're shown upstairs to the simple, unadorned rooms. They all connect off from a central corridor and some are large enough to for six to eight people whilst others just three. I'm the first up the stairs and claim one of the three person rooms. A long communal sink lines one of the ends of the corridor and Paul finds the hot shower, with a French girl still inside using it (!) along with the toilets, one of which is an "Asian" style (yahoo!) just around the corner from our room.

It's pretty chilly due to the thick walls and it looks like our sleeping bags will definitely be needed here. I just about remember to pull out my sleeping bag outside of the room and give it a good shake to discover a small pile of sand still hiding within. Unfortunately it also still smells a bit of camel! It’s with great relief that I realise that tonight is the last night that I'll need to be using it!

We all head out to the balcony on our floor overlooking the entrance and watch the sun set over the mountains. Life feels just great when you have a view like this!

After sunset the temperature noticeably drops and I start wishing that I'd packed my ever trusty woolly hat! We head down to dinner wondering what delights are in store for us. The dining room is pretty cold so Mohammed and I hunt around and find some blankets upstairs which we bring down for everyone to huddle under. Paul’s is a lovely pink one!

We’re all slightly surprised when Mohammed presents dinner to us. Spag Bol, Moroccan style! It’s actually rather tasty and though I do like Moroccan food, it’s still a nice change for the day.

After dinner the local guides attempt to liven up proceedings by merging the two tour groups together and entertaining us with song and dance. The songs sound just like the ones we heard in the desert mainly because we have no idea what they are singing about, though, sadly, no songs about Bob Marley this time.

I start to get itchy feet after Mohammed tries to get me to get up in front of everyone and dance or sing or play the drums. Okay, so I had no idea what he wanted but after seeing how badly one of the guys in the other group had danced (something that reminded me of Trevor & Simon’s “swing your pants” technique mixed in with inappropriate and uncoordinated hip thrusts.)

I start to realise why the UK has a “drink problem”, if this is what goes for entertainment when there is no alcohol available! Perhaps we can’t let our hair down without having something messing about with our internal chemistry. All I can say thank God for booze!

So some of us less brave souls scarper back to our rooms (rather abruptly) and I retrieve my PSP from the bottom of my rucksack and stick some 80’s music on for the escapees to listen to. A few of us make use of the shower whilst the shower is free.

I realise, with great dismay that I’ve forgotten to bring a towel and have only a flannel. I don’t relish running out of the shower with just a flannel covering my modesty. Besides it wouldn’t have been big enough! A shower will have to wait until we get to civilisation tomorrow.

It turns out that whilst we get ready for bed, some of those that stayed behind are getting high downstairs! So weirdly, no booze but smoking substances is fine?! Oh well!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Sheltering Sky

Here’s something that I know you’ll all be wondering. I forgot to mention how wonderful the toilets were in the desert. Okay, so they weren’t exactly wonderful but they also weren’t just a hole in the ground either. They’d rigged up proper toilet seats with a pump mechanism and a biological liquid that you squeezed in and then kind of flushed. This is surrounded by a small metal frame and plastic sheets to keep the wind out. Imagine how much fun that is to do in the middle of the night, pitch black with a torch making the plastic frame see through!

Now isn’t that a great way to start today?! Haha. So it wasn’t really sooo bad, just smelly but if you’ve ever been to a music festival, or spent your Summer holidays on a farm in Hungary with no plumbing and lots of flies, then this experience wasn’t really any worse.

Anyhow, we packed up our stuff. Unfortunately, everything smelt of camel and sand was bloody everywhere. I had great fun putting my contact lenses back in with what felt like a sand dune worth of desert in each!

I spent so long, in fact, sorting out my eyes and having a wrestling match trying to get my sleeping bag back into its wrapper that I missed the moment of sunrise, though I still managed to get some great shots with really long shadows across the sand as the sun was still so low over the horizon.

So it was back onto the camels for the journey back out of the desert to Zagora. I opted to walk instead on the pretence that it would allow me to take more pictures and I needed the exercise. Paul switched camels onto the one that I rode the day before and boy did he regret that decision afterwards! So there was me feeling a lot better but the fun was only just beginning for him.

“Whoa! Your camel was a lot taller than the one I was on and that bloody boney hump!” He complained. “Don’t I just know it(!)” I empathised afterwards.

Well anyway we made it back out of the desert and had a welcome rest stop at a local hotel where I quenched my thirst with a nice ice cold cola.

Onto our next stop which was a Berber carpet shop. (Berbers are an ethnic group indigenous to this part of Africa.) One feature of a trip where you are being taken around by a local guide is that they will almost always arrange for to the group to stop off at a friendly shop. (Friendly to their pockets, that is.) This particular shop was arranged into large rooms where different groups of unsuspecting victims / tourists are told all about the types of carpets, who makes them, what to look out for etc whilst being proffered a glass of the local mint tea.

After having laid out what seems like a hundred rugs and carpets onto the floor surrounding us, the Berber seller giving the talk then finishes with “We are just as happy to tell you all this whether or not you buy anything from us…..though we would of course prefer if you did buy something!” After which he smiles and the browsing/haggling can begin. Most of us just did the browsing thing. Three of our group hung around for another thirty minutes buying things whilst the rest of us waited patiently outside being entertained by the local drunk/mad person whipping out his crown jewels and showing us his polishing technique! Well that’s certainly something that I’ve never seen on holiday before and, if I’m lucky, never will again! It was funny though!

Then it was back onto the road with a stop for lunch and back to the same place where we bought our booze on the way out. I treat myself to a packet of nice choccie biccies that end up lasting me a few days when I most need them.

We end our journey at Ait Benhaddou where films such as Gladiator and the Sheltering Sky were filmed. We don’t really have time to do a guided tour of any of the studios that we pass (which to be honest disappointed me as I love the movies!) but hurry on to the hotel where we are all dying to wash the sand out of all those places where sand shouldn't really go.

Our hotel is by a large hill on the sides of which are a village of small fortresses (Kasbahs.) We plan to climb to the top of the hill the next morning to get some great pictures.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Circle In The Sand

We get up refreshed the next morning and leave ready to face whatever the trip is ready to throw at us. This turns out to be the mini bus, with the emphasis on “mini.” We discover that two people have dropped out of the trip at the last minute and yet that still leaves us with sixteen including the driver and guide to cram into the bus for hours at a time.

Our first stop, just down the road in the main part of town, is for local currency exchange and booze. Morocco is a Muslim country and whilst this doesn’t necessarily mean that alcohol is prohibited, as we discover, it does mean that various places that we stay along the way won’t sell it but have no problems with you bringing your own.

A bunch of us head into the local bank brandishing our foreign coin. I’m first in the queue behind the one local person in the bank. Waiting patiently, as Moroccans don’t rush anything, I take in my surroundings. Weirdly there is no mention of there being a bureau de change (in French or otherwise) and so when it comes to my turn I simply hand over my wedge of cash and hope that the woman behind the counter isn’t just opening a Moroccan savings account for me.

Fortunately I remember Paul mentioning that the Lonely Planet says that the exchange rate is pretty static around about sixteen Dirhams to the pound. The bank teller hands me a larger wedge of local notes than I gave her and a receipt with an exchange rate just below sixteen. So all good there then!

I pop next door and buy four cans of the local beer for about 60p a can, to be drunk in the evening where we’ll be staying in the Sahara in Bedouin tents. Others buy a few bottles of wine.

Our next stop is at a local beauty stop on the road. These stops are a welcome chance to stretch our legs and practise our “no, merci” technique as locals appear seemingly out of the cracks in the road to try and sell us things.

This time, the rest stop doubles up as a “get your picture taken with lizards hanging off you (for a small fee of course) stop.” Only in Morocco!

Next we stop for lunch at a nice road-side restaurant. It’s here that we discover the staple diet for Moroccans is salad then couscous, vegetables, potatoes all covering miscellaneous(!) meat followed by an assortment of oranges for desert.

The main course is all served under a tangine which is basically a dish with what looks like an upturned funnel on top to keep it all hot.

Two stops later along the road and we arrive at Zagora and our next mode of transportation.


We’d been asked to separate out our luggage to take just what we’d need in the desert for our overnight stay. I pack my camera, tripod, toothbrush, toothpaste and sleeping bag into my rucksack and this gets hung off the saddle on the camel that I’ll be riding.

The camels are all strung together with a local Bedouins leading us in three groups of six camels each.

One of the camel herders approvingly tells me that my camel is a “very good one” and I get my leg over and hold on for dear life as it stands up.

It’s a long way up and I do my best to imitate Lawrence of Arabia as we saunter down the road and into the desert. It’s easier said than done though as my camel has a bony hump that does no favours for the rider’s backside!

I feel my inner thigh muscles being stretched to their limits too and do my best to keep my heels up. I get nightmare visions of myself walking around like an old man with a sore ass the next day!

As we hit the desert in earnest we walk smack back into the middle of a sand storm! Keeping my mouth shut and my cap down low over my head I hold on tight. The loose top-soil sand writhes across the ground in front of us like snakes rippling up and down the dunes. It’s f**ing cool and adds a stormingly adventurous feel to our journey to the camp. Almost enough for me to forget my aches and pains.

A few hours later we hit the camp. It’s a series of flat roofed tents, arranged in a U-shape to shelter against the wind, covered in mats and blankets. We even have air mattresses which is a bit of a result considering that we were expecting to be sleeping on the ground!

We wash down our dinner with wine (I’d left my beer on board the bus, doh!) and the locals take the opportunity to get everyone around a campfire dancing and joining in with their songs, unfortunately, for us, in Arabic. At one point Paul swears that they are singing about Bob Marley!

I get my camera tripod out and try to take some long exposure shots of the amazing night sky. Easier said than done when I had only read half the manual and struggled to see the camera controls by firelight! As it was, I discover that shots of a black background with a few white spots look just like that when you look at them afterwards. Better luck next time I guess.

Thanks to the mattresses and my trusty ear-plugs (my number one travel accessory!) I sleep soundly this night all set to get up early for dawn over the distant mountains.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Off To Maroc

For once it was a relatively easy journey to Heathrow. Only three others in my carriage makes for a pleasant contrast from when I catch the same train in rush hour every day heading off in the opposite direction to work.

My luck continues as the check in queue is non-existent. I still have nightmares over the huge queues there were last year when I was heading off to Hungary. Just imagine spending as much time queuing to check in as your entire flight time is!

Paul spots a few Exodus tags though we’re still not sure if they are on the same tour or not.

Leg room on the flight is very generous, even in standard, non-emergency exit seats. This holiday has started well so far.

Our luck runs out when we arrive at Casablanca to find that the connecting flight is running almost an hour late. Practically all the shops are shut and an apathy caused by being stuck in flight limbo hits us. We have a pack of cards but just can’t find the will to pass the time with them.

At one point we decide to pop out “land-side” and change some of our money (as all of the exchange facilities are out there with none air side.) The woman at the information desk gives us the impression that this would be okay. The stern passport controller makes it plainly obvious, despite not speaking English, but by the raised, disapproving tone of his voice, that this isn’t acceptable. We scoot back upstairs with his eyes (and thick eyebrows) burning holes in our backs.

Bizarrely the flight information screens are located away from the seating areas but this gives us an excuse to pass the time walking up and down playing “guess who’s on our trip” which isn’t particularly hard as probably every non-Moroccan in the terminal is in our group! We realise this rather quickly when we finally arrive at our destination, Ouarzazate.

Here we’re met by our local guide, Mohammed, who speaks good English, and get a first glance at the mini-bus that will become our mode of transport for the rest of the trip. I secretly hope that it’s just the hotel transfer bus but no such luck!

A few of the girls are disappointed by the fact that the (in their words) “hunky” Exodus rep on the flight isn’t travelling with us. And I thought that Paul and I would be more than enough to keep them smiling (!)

The hotel isn’t far away and the room is “compact and bijou.” Despite this they still manage to fit a table and two chairs at the foot of our beds. It’s a bit claustrophobic and having just spent the past few hours in confined spaces (bus included) I feel the compulsion to rearrange the table and chairs into the corner of the room out of the way to make the room, in my mind at least, feel more spacious. The beds are comfy though and the hot shower works well too. We sleep well, all set to meet the rest of the group in the morning and for our trip to start in earnest.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Once Upon A Time In West London

So, just three days to go until I head off to Morocco. THREE DAYS! Woo hoo!

I've saved up my pocket money and raided my bank account for the two hundred pounds spending money that I would be taking with me after work. I probably won't need that much but better to take more than less and bring it any left back with me.

So there's me heading home, plugged into my MP3 player, with two ton burning a hole in my sky rocket (sorry just been watching Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels) when I get on a packed bus at Shepherd's Bush. It's the first stop but the bus stops a bit further down than usual so I'm nowhere near the doors when they open and what seems like a hundred people burst through the doors ahead of me.
It's one of those new long bendy buses that are unfortunately popping up all over London. They're bloody awful. Bring back the routemaster! All is forgiven!

The few seats are designed by contortionists for midgets or other contortionists and it's the kind of bus that struggles to go round bends without taking over the entire junction and blocking all traffic in the process. It's eighteen metres long ffs!

So I get on....All the seats are taken but there's room in the fun "bendy" section of the bus, the bit that connects the two halves. I hold on tight and the bus heads off..

One thing that always strikes me as funny is the number of people who get off over the next two stops. This is funny because they aren't further than five minutes walk away as the bus goes around Shepherd's Bush Green.

So the bus empties slightly and a "home boy wannabe" sidles in beside me. Way too close beside me! He's leaning against the left side of my body, where the money nestles in my pocket.

"Whoa, why is this guy using me as his leaning post?! He's way to close to all my money!" I think to myself.

The bus moves on. I look over. He doesn't appear to have noticed or doesn't care. I shrug my left shoulder to try and politely nudge him off. response!

Hey, I'm not going to stand here by some guy with attitude thinking that he can lean on me through the entire journey!

This time I don't nudge. I purposefully shove. He shoves back! He says something. I can't hear him, I've still got my ear plugs in. I switch my MP3 player off and remove the ears plugs and shove them into my pockets....slowly.

I give him an angry look.

Me: "Sorry?"
Wannabe Home Boy:"Why you shoving me man?!"
Me: "I'm not shoving you, you're leaning on me"
WBH: "There's lots of room. Move!"
Me: "I was here first."
WBH: "Nah man."

Then I had a stroke of genius:
Me: "Why are you rubbing yourself all over me?! What's that all about?"

I supposed that I've questioned his sexuality. He looks around nervously. I have no idea which way this is going to go. I tense. Then something happens that swings it my way. Another wannabe homeboy yards away adds a mocking laugh that's obviously directed at WBH#1.

WHB#1 has no reply. He looks down, embarrassed and is saved by the fact that a few more people have just got up and freed up some space further down the bus. He moves away.

My victory is tempered by the fact that I still feel that I need to spend the rest of the journey keeping an eye on him out of the corner of my eye. He never looks up once. Maybe he wasn't such a bad kid after all but had to keep up the pretence to fit in with his surroundings. I've burst his protective bubble. I almost feel sorry for him. Fear is in the mind of the beholder but it never pays to be careful.

WHB#2 (who now reminds me of Nelson from the Simpsons, right down to the laugh) takes out a permanent marker and starts tagging the side of the bus. *sigh*

PS: What a crap preachy ending eh? Well I'm tired. I might improve it at some point. Or not. But hey, this time next week I'll be in Marakesh! So who cares, pah!


Friday, March 10, 2006

Letter From Nigeria

I got this e-mail from a poor 14 year old boy who needs my help to recoup his father's riches!

I am Tony Fred Williams I am 14 years old I live in Manchester(UK) before my father die, now I live with my mother in Scotland. my father is from Manchester (UK) and my mother is from Scotland. my late father Mr. Fred Williams was a Contractor in Manchester(UK) before he die in a car accident last years July 25th 2005. he left £50Million (Fifty Million Pounds) in his account before he die. The £50Million is in (First Union National Bank UK) I have been trying to collect the money from (First Union National Bank UK) but the MD CEO told me to go and look for some body that is honest and old enough to help me collect the money.

I could have tell my mother to assist me to collect the £50Million for me but my mother and father got devoured before my father die and my father told me to not have anything to do with my mother I don’t even want her to know because what my father told me before he die was true, now that I stay with my mother in Scotland she don’t even have time for me all she do is to take hard drugs and to bring men to the house and she also hit me all the time.

I don’t want to have anything to do with her, I just want some body that is old enough and honest to help me collect the £50Million from the bank as I am too young to take care of £50Million. Please I need your help if you can assist me to collect the £50Million from the bank I will give you 40% and take 60%. I have all documentation on my name you can confirm from the bank. i am the indeed benefited Next of Kin to my late father Mr. Fred Williams. The MD CEO (First Union National Bank UK) told me to look for some body that is honest and old enough so that he can send the £50Million to the person account immediately.

If you can help me i will contact the MD CEO (First Union National Bank UK) and tell him that i have found a honest person who want to help me collect the £50Million. so when you contact him he will know i sent you.

I will give you is contact so that you can contact him to enable him send the £50Million to your provided account immediately Please help me. I will be waiting for your urgent reply so i can give you the contact of the bank and send you the last statement of account of my late father and i will also send you my picture and my birth certificate. Please Help me reply back on my private email: so i can send you all information you need.

Best Regards Tony Fred Williams

So I gave the MD CEO (First Union National Bank UK) a call and he didn't know anything about it. It must be a fraud. Well I never!

Monday, March 06, 2006

A Typical Weekend

Half day, so went to see Syriana. An excellent and brave movie.

Wandered around London aimlessly with a friend.

Went to Camden Market for the first time in a long time. The smell of 'substances' wafts across Camden Lock and everyone walks around with true or pretend attitude.

Popped into the Electric Ballroom, which is turned into a market during the day. Realised just how run down it looks in broad daylight. Paint scraped and wallpaper peeling. It's best left to be seen at night when you basically don't see it.

Wandered along to the British Museum. Strangely enough, I haven't been here since I was little. Checked out the new layout with the glass roof in the centre around the reading room.

Rows upon rows of books!

Wandered through the Egypt section but was loath to plunge right in as it was quite late in on the day and I knew that I wouldn't be able to do it justice.

It had been a long day and some people were more tired than others.

Wandered down to Covent Garden and watched a few performers.

Popped into the Sports Cafe to watch a football match but it was full of p**sed up Northern tourists on a stag do. Narrowly avoided having a pitcher of beer knocked over me. I won't be going there again in a hurry.

Headed off to Richmond to meet up with more friends in a pub there.

Drank a bit, but not too much, and spotted the actor John Hannah dressed in a rather flowery shirt, drinking with friends in the same pub.

Sprained the tendons on my left foot, somehow?!

Limped around at home and watched Battlestar Galactica episodes all day long, chilled out.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Mr. Popular

So you might be wondering "Why no updates?" Is it because:

a) I've won millions on the lottery and am now busy in the process of buying a tropical island?
b) I've found true love and now blogging no longer matters to me?
c) I've joined a religious sect where all technology is banned and we worship trees instead?
d) All of the above

Well, okay it's none of the above really. Blogging is a hard business. It takes time and effort to try not writing a load of crap. I fail but hey, everyone's a critic nowadays and we're all our own worse critics. See what I mean? A load of crap. Haha.

Well, some people still care, I guess. I checked my e-mail today and had loads of mail from women.

Christy could use some casual sex.

WILD AND CRAZY COLLEGE GIRLS (how wild and crazy?) want to hook up with me NOW. I liked that one, it was all in capitals. Shows great potential(!)

Then Alice Miller wants sex with no strings. So she's obviously not into puppets.

Not everyone was so nice though. At least a dozen people seemed to think that I needed enlargement or herbs to help me find XTC.

And someone thought that diet pills would do the trick.

To cap it all off I even got a nice e-mail in Japanese...I have no idea what it says but I like to think that it's something to do with me winning the Japanese lottery so that I can spend my money on wild college girls, Christy and Alice on my tropical island where puppets are banned.

Well.....I can always dream