Saturday, 17 October 2015

Morocco: Chapter 4 - A Marrakesh Marathon

Friday 9th October - Marrakesh 
Just one of the many market streets
I am writing this with the soothing background music of my boiler being replaced which while is rather noisy hopefully I will have both heating and hot water by the end of the day. This will be great as I can stop having to shower at other peoples houses or at work and Chloe (the cat) will be happier as she doesn't like the cold snap we are having. Chloe has hidden but unfortunately her bolthole is in the kitchen where the boiler is... I will have to be extra nice to her this evening because she will blame me for the scary noises.

So Marrakesh! We literally did so much this day that each time I tell people what I did, I forget to mention a couple of things because it seems impossible that we did this much but we really did! Another local guide picked us up at 9 in a different bus (I missed our bus driver already) and off we went into the city. First we arrived at some Royal tombs. The actual tombs are rather plain following tradition however the rooms themselves were decorated beautifully with carvings and intricate tiling. It was very peaceful and cool in the morning air as not many places were up yet. It seems strange that a hot country culture only start their day when it's already hot but I guess they start late because they use the cool of the evening to get things done instead. Anyway the stillness and quiet of the place despite the fact we were still very much in the midst of the city made the tombs feel very peaceful but mildly eerie in that way that cemeteries only can.

An archway in the Palace
Next we went to another palace. I think this is the bit that I usually forget about because we had seen so many by this point. I'm sure to the trained eye they are all significantly different but unfortunately my eyes were bored by this point and although very pretty I was getting bored of pretty fountains in white tiled courtyards surrounded by rooms with elaborately decorated high ceilings. Also by this point a lot of the other tourist tours had arrived and it felt very much like shuffling through on a conveyor belt which detracted slightly.

Apparently one of the tallest Mosque towers in Africa!
Next was probably one of my favourite parts of the whole trip. We were taken on foot through many different winding side streets with wall to wall stalls and shops that were just sleepily opening despite the fact that we had already seen two places already that morning! But we arrived at an apothecary!  We were taken upstairs and all the different products were explained and we were allowed to test them. All of this was explained by a man who had an uncanny resemblance to Omid Djalili (Although he's Iranian isn't he? Maybe not then) and was just as loud and charismatic. He explained the ways they use argon oil and the difference between the raw oil used in beauty products and the eating oil used for cooking and dipping. He also came round with a small bag of black seeds in a muslin and invited us to inhale deeply from it. He came to me first and I was a little apprehensive so I only sniffed the tiniest bit -  too much! Instantly my eyes watered and my head swam as what felt like a menthol brick hit my brain! Sort of like how I would imagine a pan galactic gargle blaster does, only with menthol not lemon. Menthol isn't the right smell here but I don't have a description for what it actually was. The rest of the group saw this reaction and all laughed however each and every one of them did the same thing when they had a smell! Goodness knows what they are! Ah according to google they're cumin seeds! Well now you know. He also had many creams and oils and herbs and teas, all for sale and with the tagline "You buy two and one is gift" and all able to test apart from the hemorrhoid cream "we don't make demonstration". 

Me with a lot of carpets!
After our little shopping spree we went for lunch and I had tagine and frites in a weird Moroccan type of Nandos! Afterwards I went with another lady and the guide to a carpet shop. It took us a little while to walk there but I didn't mind as I could have walked through the little streets for hours without getting bored at all! There were so many interesting things on offer and so many.... interesting (lol) looking salesmen. Come to think of it I actually saw very few women in the whole trip! There must be some because there were lots of children but I don't know where they were all hidden. That's a shame. The carpet shop was epic. In every definition of the word. The owner wasn't in when we arrived so we were invited to explore and there were so many carpets rolled folded and stacked floor to ceiling in the side rooms and then the central room was 3 stories high with carpets hung out of the balconies covering the entirety of the walls in a crazy sort of patchwork blanket. There was one so large I'm sure it could cover my whole apartment and then some! The owner arrived and was suitably gracious with excellent English and a small army of men to send off for carpets and unfurl them onto the floor for viewing. I thought it was great fun! After a little time working what I wanted I decided on a Berber design carpet (as apposed to the Arabic ones - I am now surprisingly well versed in Moroccan carpet designs.) and it is being shipped to me as we speak. I was hoping it would arrive this week as I have been at home however it looks like I will be receiving a  "We missed you" card and will have to pick it up when I bribe someone to drive me to a depot. 

The lily pond in the garden
A quick fresh squeezed orange juice later (4 dirham which is about 27p or you can splash out on a grapefruit and pay 67p) the two of us decided to get in a taxi and go to the Jardin Mejorelle which is the #1 on TripAdvisor I'm told. So not to argue with the great wisdom of TripAdvisor (which by the way is not coming up as an incorrect word and just shows how universal it is if it's accepted by spellcheck!) we walked to the taxi rank. One driver came up to us and said he would take us for 100 driham which was a joke as we expected to pay about 30. Our conversation went - 100, 30, 70, 30, 60, 30, 50, 30 (clearly negotiation was not his skill) and then a different driver came and said he would take us for 30 straight off the bat and poached us. We were dropped off at the side of a very busy road with a vague hand wave that the garden was in that direction which didn't fill me with confidence but then I saw a sign that confirmed that so we paid the man and set off. Conveniently we bumped into a few others from our group just getting out of a horse and carriage (fancy) so we all stood in the queue (yes queue for a garden?!). Inside it was lovely, apparently Yves Saint Laurent had part owned the garden so it was suitable stylish and had a little exhibit of his posters. It also had a Berber culture museum although having spoken to those who paid the extra to see it; we knew it all already thanks to our excellent guide! 

We went back to the hotel and I intended to have a swim. Having got up to my knees and realised it was even colder than the first one, I decided against it and went back to my room to have a bath. Having read about 50 work emails (I'm going to guess that took at least half an hour) my bath was only 5 inches deep and that's with me in it. So I had failed again. I gave up and had a shower instead! We went to dinner somewhere fancy! There was booze and everything! I had a great steak, a half bottle of wine, and a yummy chocolate thing. Om nom nom. We managed to thoroughly embarrass our guide when we said thank you - I didn't know the Moroccan complexion could blush so much!

Back to the hotel for bed and an early start as the transport to the airport was booked for 7.40.

Saturday 10th October - Marrakesh to Casablanca to UK
Some of Yves Saint Laurent's original posters
I'll keep this one short because it's entirely anticlimactic after Friday. We were picked up in a taxi and the girl who has only just been on time for every pick up, was only just one time as per the norm. However I got thinking about this and realised I used to be the girl that was only just on time for everything and therefore the fact that someone else was meant that I must not be any more! When did I become punctual and vaguely organised?! I might have done some growing up and that scares me a little to be honest! 

Some of the brightly coloured pots in the garden
One delayed flight and queuing for check in, security, passport control, the gate, and the bus, (Heathrow all is forgiven) we had no time to do anything other than board which was irritating given that we arrived 2 hours early and our flight was delayed by 30 mins! We said goodbye to a girl on her way to Canada and picked up 3 more at Casablanca who had got an earlier flight there. Another relatively short flight with slightly better food but pervier male flight attendants later we were back in England's green and pleasant land and a mere 12 hours after I started traveling I was back with my parents at their place for the night. Sausage casserole and wine later (yay not tagine or cous cous) I was asleep.

All in all an excellent whirlwind tour of Morocco! Having crammed cities, country, mountains and desert into just 6 days is remarkable. While not exactly relaxing it has been great to see another country and get to know the culture as much as possible.

I hope you've enjoyed my ramblings on my ramblings :) I wonder where I'll end up next?!

My trip (the * is the finish)

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Morocco: Chapter 3 - Mountains, Mules, and Musicians

Wednesday - Ait Benhaddou to the Atlas Mountains

The view that came with breakfast
So not feeling great after my night of very little sleep I went down to breakfast and while food didn't make me feel better, the view was amazing! The balcony overlooked one of the oldest settlements and it really was beautiful. 

We went across to explore it and had to cross a river using sandbags which was a little difficult given how wobbly and lightheaded I was feeling but it seemed to make me less anxious and I made it to the other side fine. We wandered round the snaking little alleys and climbed the winding staircases. While exploring there are mainly guesthouses with the original families having moved nearby into newer buildings. There were also a lot of artists selling paintings and drawings to passers by. One of the things that seemed popular was taking a seemingly plain painting and putting it over a flame which made another set of designs appear. They explained it was a mix of tea and sugar so that when it dried it was invisible but you could burn the sugar to leave the dark brown marks. It was a way to send secret messages which was cool. 
Walking through the crops

Halfway up climbing to the top I didn't feel so great so I sat down in the shade with a generously provided carb gel and waited for the others to come back down from the peak. However I think sitting in the shade and people watching was probably much more interesting than the view from the top. So many groups went past and you can almost instinctively tell where someone is from just by their dress and gait. There were Americans, French, German, and other English groups having tours at the same time and I heard the locals pick up on the nationalities too and flawlessly switch between languages to try to make sales. It's interesting how a job as seemingly basic as selling drawings to tourists can demand so many skills. It made me wonder why they would chose to do this if they are clearly capable of much more given by their language skills alone? My musings were interrupted when my group returned (thankfully) and we went back on the bus. 

My noble steed
We seemed to drive for ages along twisty mountain roads which was not helping my blood pressure so I had a sleep and when I woke up we were at the side of the road seemingly nowhere with 3 mules. Stay with me, this wasn't a dream. We all got out and our daypacks were loaded onto the mules and then we set off walking. If I was well I think this walk would have been really nice! We did a bit through the rocky area and then continued through the fruit tree groves. I did start to find it difficult after a while especially since a lot of others were stopping to take photos and then storming ahead. I don't like stopping and starting so I picked a couple of songs to sing in my head and kept a steady rhythm of plodding on. After about an hour maybe more we stopped and everyone asked how I was - I guess I looked rough. Therefore I was plonked on a mule and we carried on. I think the mule owner thought it was funny that I was riding while some of the ladies more advanced in age continued to walk. I did feel bad about that too but a little while later a taxi went past and they got into the taxi which made me feel better. I decided to stay on the mule rather than get into the taxi as I was enjoying the fresh air and the view. Walking past a guy with a lot of apples, one of our group bought one but I guess she overpaid as the guy then gave apples to all of us walking by. I was rather happy by this point with the view and my mule and now even an apple! It's the simple things in life.

The view from the balcony
Arriving at where we were staying was great and lunch was not tagine! I've never seen people more excited about pasta and tinned mackerel but I was glad for pasta and tinned mackerel too. Then most of our group went off to a Hammam which is a public steam room where you go to get scrubbed and all squeaky clean. I thought steam and my head wouldn't mix well so I stayed behind. I lay down for a 20 min nap and woke up an hour later but the others still weren't back. I had a shower and sat on the balcony with a couple of other girls who stayed behind. We drank tea and discussed life and watched the sun sink in the sky. 

3 hours later the others returned having had what they described as a "group bonding experience" as apparently bikini tops were not advised and therefore our group with an age range of over 40 years had got to know each other quite well! Feeling smug that I was one of the few who's boobs hadn't been seen by near a dozen people that day I had another nap and woke up in time for cous-cous and tagine then back to bed.

Thursday - Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh
Walking down the mountains
I woke up feeling much stronger and managed an ok amount of food at breakfast. The walk back down the mountain was really nice! Being mostly downhill it was easier though harder on the knees and I was able to appreciate the scenery much more than on our way up. The bus driver was waiting for us back at the random side of the road and drove us only a little way till we arrived at the Berber King's Palace. The tour guide was hilarious and took us round many ornately decorated rooms. Apparently the King had 4 wives and 75 concubines! 

More twisty roads followed and I think our bus driver must have been a rally car driver at some point because he seemed to know every curve and made the bus stick to them exactly! We had lunch at probably the only building for miles around as was everyone else on the road it seemed. It was such an unusual mix of tourists and locals all in one place because there wasn't anywhere else! I slept for the last 2 hours of driving, there's just something about car travel that makes me sleepy! Although thinking about it maybe it isn't just cars that make me sleepy as I have fallen asleep on boats and planes and all sorts of different types of transport! I'm pretty sure I nodded off briefly a couple of times on the mule too, maybe not on the camel though. 

The view from the newest King's palace on the older palace (left) and the oldest palace (middle)
We arrived in Marrakesh and it was very obvious we were now in a city. There were cars and scooters all over the roads as lanes and lights seemed like suggestions rather than rules. A quick shower later and we went out to see the big markets. We took the bus there and I don't mean our bus, I mean a real bus bus. The locals looked rather confused when 14 tourists got on and started being very loud. Nevermind. We got to the grand souk and there were hundreds of little market stalls, musicians, dancers, and even snake charmers! The snakes were a little creepy because they're just sitting on the floor chilling out. Their owners will pick them up and try to put them round your neck and charge you for a photograph, I decided I didn't need a snake round my neck. we did however stop and watch some of the musicians who very dramatically acted out a family argument to great amusement of the crowd, I guess it's funny in most cultures to watch a tiny old woman terrorise her sons.

We had dinner at one of the stalls that our guide said was good to eat at so all of us squished into a tiny stall's seats. While we were there another guide and his group appeared to eat there but he only had 6 people and so our guide sat at the head of his 14 strong group looking very popular in comparison! Afterwards we split into two groups as some wanted to walk back and some took the bus. As one of the walkers we set off past the mosque tower which is one of the tallest in the world and given how old it is, it's pretty impressive building! A pleasant walk back and I was tucked up in bed both excited and sad for tomorrow would be our last day in Morocco. 

I'll tell you all about it soon.


Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Morocco: Chapter 2 - The Sahara

Monday - Zagora to the Sahara
9 hours of sleep passed very quickly with only a brief interruption from the 5.30 call to prayer. I had forgotten nearly everything that our guide had told us about today, all I remembered was camels but I was prepared to just go with the flow and see what happened!

Off we went into the dunes!
We got back on the bus and drove for a little while till we arrived at another settlement, maybe a little larger than the last but still made from the traditional materials. This is a village that is known for its ceramics so we were taken on a tour by a very colourfully dressed guide. He showed us how the clay is made and shaped and then fired with all the different colours to make the different glazes. They use indigo to make blue, mint for green, henna gives red, and finally saffron, egg yolk and pomegranate seeds make yellow! It was all very interesting. Of course we were taken to the shop and invited to browse and itially I thought I would pick up something small and useful like a key bowl but that soon went out the window when I spotted some adorable little tea pots so now I have one of those instead. I'm pretty sure you cant use it as a teapot either but its adorable none the less.

All the colours!
We were also shown the mausoleum of... urm, someone important I guess, and you could knock on the door and make a wish. Apparently this guy was very smart and had collected a great many books so we went to see his book collection too. This was sadly all behind glass so there wasn't that excellent old book smell when you walked in. However on seeing what type of books they were I can understand why they need protecting. So many of them were very old and covered the beginnings of human understanding of maths, biology, astronomy, medicine, and many other topics. There was even a copy of the Quran that was over 1000 years old and written on gazelle skin!

Moving on we arrived for lunch in a hotel that we were strangely never going to stay in! This was one of the last buildings before the edge of the Sahara! More tagine and cous-cous and then we waited for the heat of the day to die down so that we could ride our camels (!) out to the Bedouin camp in the desert where we would be spending the night. The heat however had no intention of going anywhere and hung in the air stubbornly. Eventually we were called out to meet our camels. They're much bigger than I had thought! And much lumpier in gait too. Whoever looked at a camel and thought 'That looks comfy to ride long distances' was wrong, though I suppose its preferable to walking yourself. The trick is to sit further back in the saddle behind the hump with your legs bent. However they don't have stirups so your legs hang under their own weight which makes them sore after a while. We rode out in caravans of 4 and the views were amazing and well worth the lumpy bumpy ride!

Timbuktu 52 days by camel across the desert.... no thanks!
We arrived at our camp and was pleasantly surprised to find it had little huts, loos, and even a little running water! In the desert for goodness sake. We climbed a sand dune to watch the sunset into the dunes and it suddenly hit me; 4 days ago I was running round like a mad thing at work and here I was on a sand dune in the bloody Sahara desert having ridden a camel to get there! Madness.

Dinner of more tagine (shocker) and then the party started where the tribesmen and our group playing the drums and singing and dancing round the fire. This was all framed by the epicness of the stars as, with no light pollution, the milky way was in full view as it boldly blazed across the sky. We pulled the beds out from the little huts and slept on the sand under the stars and I wished I wasn't so tired so I could stay up later to watch them and take them all in. I did see a few shooting stars before I nodded off though which was a great treat.
Dancing into the night

Tuesday - Sahara to Ait Benhaddou
Woke up just before dawn so scurried up a dune to watch the sun rise. Again just as awesome as sunset though less sweaty and more sleepy. Everything was so still and quiet including ourselves as no one seemed willing to break the tranquility.

I'd had a near completely undisturbed night apart from needing to pee at one point and being glad that I had remembered 'Turn left at Sue to get to the loo' as I didn't want to wake anyone with a torch. Thankfully the oil lamps at the loos were still burning so I didn't need a light at all!

Back to the camels for the morning ride out of the desert and it was interesting to see where people hurt! Almost everyone's inner thighs hurt but some had lower back aches and even sore shoulders! I'm guessing that since I used to ride anyway I was spared from the sore back and shoulders that come from resisting an animals movement rather than rolling with it. I seemed to get either a comfier camel or I had desensitised to it this time as I had a significantly more pleasant ride. We arrived at another hotel we weren't staying at (a bit of a theme now) and didn't even have lunch this time however our guide had negotiated that we could use the showers so in rotations of 4 we all washed as much sand as possible out of as many places as possible! Then we started on a long day of driving stopping for lunch and snacks along the way.

When we arrived at our hotel (one we were actually using as a hotel not a restaurant or shower) I wasn't feeling well so I skipped most of dinner and spend a restless night getting very little sleep with my dreams making very little sense but leaving me confused and disorientated.

Again this feels like enough for one post.


Monday, 12 October 2015

Morocco: Chapter 1 - Kasbahs and Kittens

I've been off on holiday! Those that have read my last post will know that I probably could have done with a holiday slightly sooner than this but better late than never in this case.

Saturday: London - Casablanca - Ouarazate
Well actually no I guess I should explain how I came to be in Morocco to begin with didn't I? So through a slightly unusual method (well, it is me) I stumbled across Exodus a company that specialise in adventure holidays. I had started with the Lonely Planet for holiday ideas as the general repository of all travel knowledge. From some of the tours recommended on there I jumped to external sites and when I followed some on twitter, more 'suggested' companies popped up: this is how I found them. Twitter is rapidly becoming one of my more useful apps! I wonder why I resisted it for so long; it's so much more than people giving updates about their boring lives and is a real work tool and business accessing network. Given how short notice I wanted to go away I put my preferred dates and budget in and saw what popped up. From the selection I picked Morocco! It's somewhere I've never been before and heard mixed things about so I was keen to go and make my mind up about it myself. So a phone call and a couple of emails later I was all booked onto the trip and with only a few days to go before, I set about making sure I had everything I needed.
Agrabah inspired thoughts
In the queue to board at Heathrow I was approached by a couple of women who asked if I was on a holiday tour - I guess the walking boots and day sack hand luggage gave me away - and through overhearing this conversation two more ladies introduced themselves. Comforted by the fact there were other people on the tour here and I was actually in the right place at the right time; the flight was rather non-eventful. At Casablanca (who knew that was in Morocco!) for our transfer we met two more individual travelers so now we were 7 travelers. We made an odd group ranging from age 22 to 68 but that didn't stop us nattering away. It was great that conversation wasn't forced and it quickly squashed the last of my anxiety about traveling by myself.

We were picked up in Ouarzazate by a very smiley tour guide but given that it was gone midnight by this point, I wasn't really in the mood to be smiled at. In bed by 2 to be awake by 7. About half of the amount of sleep I needed and hardly the most relaxing start to a holiday but needs must.

Sunday: Ouarazate - Zagora
Breakfast was accompanied by a troupe of kittens playing at our ankles - a reoccurring theme given the cats ambling through the departure lounge at Casablanca - and through an interesting surprise we discovered tea did not mean tea but meant a heavily sweetened mint hot drink that wasn't dissimilar from drinking the aqueous equivalent of spearmint gum. The 14 of us all got into a mini bus and set off for the day. It might be worth going through who else was on the trip; there were 4 solo travelers, four pairs of friends, and one couple; two from Singapore, two from Canada, one from Germany, and 9 from England; 13 women and one guy!

This is an Arabic arch as it has a point
We drove to the middle of nowhere seemingly and there was this little settlement of buildings with walls made of straw and mud painted in a dusty salmon pink. We were taken up to the roof for lunch. In the guide it was reported that for the time of year it should be around mid 20s in temperature however we arrived in a heat wave and spend the trip with temperatures in the high 30s in the heat of the day! Therefore lunch was warm and I was glad for the canopy. Looking out onto the view it seemed absurd. This settlement was the only thing around for miles and seemed to have no infrastructure or connection to the outside world apart from the dirt track that we drove in on. We had out first real Moroccan meal. I had beef tagine with vegetables which was very tasty! It was so much more food than I could eat though. After lunch we were taken on a tour of the Kasbah and learned all about how they work, the politics, the houses, the families, even about the types of arches and what they all mean. It was explained to us that in this village there would me a great different type of people with a mix of Arabs, Berbers, Jews, Christians, and Moors and each of these groups comes with their own symbols and type of arch. It really is a completely different culture with much more symbolism that seems to be lost in our utilitarian practical approach. It was nice to be inside the buildings where it was cooler too as the sun was at full heat by this time. We were each given a loop of hand spun and naturally dyed wool that they were weaving into carpets. I still have it round my ankle now as it stretched to be too large for my wrist.

On to the hotel afterwards and it was very nice. I went for a swim but upon putting my ankle into the water I realised it was quite cold! It took me about 10 minutes to get myself fully in the water much to the amusement of the German girl I had come to the pool with. Just after I was in the Canadian girls arrived and again put me to shame by jumping straight in. But they're used to the cold right? It was nice to have a stretch and do some exercise having been traveling for so long and the cool water meant you didn't boil in the heat while doing it.
The view from the roof of the Kasbah with the palmery surrounding it and the volcanic mountains protruding

Later that night a few of us went into the town for a coffee. Arabic culture being mainly Muslim doesn't have a lot of bars therefore coffee shops rule supreme and are open late into the night as there is still a demand and clients aren't getting drunk and rowdy like in bars! Seems like a win win situation however I wonder how everyone sleeps if you spend a Friday night drinking coffee not vodka! I had a nos-nos which means half and half so it's near a cappuccino. I was delighted to find the coffee was delicious as I was definitely needing some caffeine by then! It also struck me how similar it was to Manchester's curry mile. All the people out together eating and drinking coffee on tables on the street. It never occurred to me that the Arabic district in Manchester would be so close to the originals! Only warmer which makes it much more pleasant.

That feels like enough to have written for one post. Keep watching for the rest of my trip!