Its difficult to tell how long it took to write Twenty-Two Eighty-Four.
Looking back at the date of my History of the World document on my trusty old memory stick its 2004. That would suggest ten years, but there have been huge gaps. Looking at one of my old hard-backed notebook, this one is so old it is foolscap; I’ve discovered all the preparation notes written in pencil. There are descriptions of various locations and characters and the family tree of the central family, the Kuceras. Then theres a loose sheet of paper, also written in pencil with a time-line of what happened on various continents around the world. Theres no orderly system in this notebook, and a few pages further on I come across notes from the Genes and Society Festival dated 26/4/03, so I must have been thinking about this for a while. Now Im looking up my old diaries and find a.m. writing entered on 23 & 24 May with Gay Authors Workshop on the 25th. The first time I attended Gay Authors Workshop however, was on Sunday 22 June according to Dairy.
In July I’ve got more Writing in Diary, but this is for the Espresso Writing weekend with Mark Ravenhall. We wrote a play in a weekend! A week later I was sitting in shock getting feedback on my play from Mark. My Mum had died the night before and I was off to New Zealand for a funeral. I missed the next GAW meeting but managed to make the August workshop. Theres nothing now until November in the Diary because Im on tour with storyteller Rangimoana visiting Village halls around the country. Then with a long planned family holiday in New Zealand December and January, its not until February 2004 that I settle down and begin to write seriously and attend the monthly Gay Authors Workshops. I would read a chapter a time, which gave me an incentive to keep the copy flowing and also do re-writes and corrections. Theres nothing like reading out loud to spot mistakes and typos. I seem to continue attending intermittently on Sundays throughout 2005 and early 2006.
Things keep cropping up on Sundays in 2007 and often if I havent written anything I dont go to the workshops. I must have had a New Year resolution to write more as in January 2008 Ive written Writing day and Half Day Writing in my diary. Clearly this is another creative spurt and Im back doing the workshops. By early 2009 the writing is on the wall for creative funding and I decide to take a part time job as a doctors receptionist. This leaves little time for writing and when in 2010 Phillip & I go travelling around the world, I swap to travel bloging and writing 2284 stops. Ive left my characters stranded in Istanbul where they stay for almost two years.
The travel blog is a great success and when I return to London late in 2011, I have it published. I immediately solve the problem of how to rescue my characters in Istanbul and complete the book quite quickly over the winter months by going twice a week to the newly opened and heated Dalston Library. Most of 2013 was taken up with rewrites, edits, travelling to Norfolk to do a photograph for the cover and yet more edits, critiques from friends and colleagues followed by more corrections, until I know just about every sentence in the book by heart. I dont of course, and have to rehearse my selected bits in advance of the launch last Wednesday at Housmans book shop in Kings Cross. Theres a certain significance launching a book about a sex-worker in this part of town, even though the regeneration of St Pancras and Kings Cross stations is transforming the area. I also agonise over what to read as its quite difficult to avoid frequent sex scenes albeit described quite clinically. My teenage kids will be in the audience. In the end I decide not to worry. The story is what it is and friend, colleague and avid reader Jo has already told me its a page turner. Another friend, Ros says its well written, and thats a relief, but what will my friend from the gardening club in her late 80s make of it?
Theres over 30 people attending and the long narrow shop seems crowded with friends, relatives and members of Gay Authors Workshop and the publishing co-op, Paradise Press. David Gee goes first with an excerpt from his book The Bexhill Missile Crisis. This is set in the early 60s so its a rather large leap ahead to the year 2284 and my three pieces where I introduce sets of characters from different locations in the book. It all seems to go down well and David returns to read from his older publication Sheik-Down. Set in a gulf state and foretelling the possible outcomes of an Arab Spring. We have a short question and answer, the only one being from my friend Phil, who wants to know about the transition from being a playwright to novelist. Its good, having taught playwriting for so many years to realise that Ive taken my own advice, particularly about setting up the landscape and characters, so that the story almost tells itself. Whats even better, I sell copies, so with my insulated rucksack/picnic bag on my back, packed with un-drunk white wine and juice, surplus snacks in a bag for life and the remainder of the books in a small travel bag on wheels, its home to eat and have a glass of wine.
I could never answer GAW questions, How many words or pages will it be? I always think that a piece of writing is as long as it needs to be. How long did it take to write? It took as long as it took, in spurts, maturing in the pauses and gaps for mulling and reflection.
This gay event meets alternate years in Amsterdam and Vienna. This year five of us from Out to Swim have signed up to go to Amsterdam. Were each allowed to enter three events plus relays and its fallen to me to organise these but first theres the challenge of getting there.
Im told to leave work early so I can get to Heathrow on time. This means that cycling home, I avoid the torrential deluge predicted and which arrives on cue as I leave the house for the tube. I pause to collect an umbrella on the way out. The Underground runs smoothly, what could possibly go wrong as my flight is scheduled to leave before the worst of the wind hits London. Were delayed, and delayed until two hours later the gate is announced. Theres more waiting as there are queues of planes waiting to take off as those landing in cross winds are having difficulty. We wait in the plane for permission to start the engines. This flight from Amsterdam was delayed because the catering van damaged the plane, which had to be replaced. Eventually were moving and now that the landings have been diverted, we can take off. Its hairy on the way up and I fear its going to be like this all the way. Things calm down and its not raining n Amsterdam.
The Season Star Hotel has only one advantage its three minutes walk from Central Station. Even for a three star place, its very basic and over-priced. At least its got clean sheets and towels. Its non smoking, but you can tell that was not always the case and there is a faint whiff of historical smoke, probably coming from the pre-ban carpet. Im very late checking in but the room has been kept. I was here only last November so landmarks are still familiar. I make my way to the Dam area a few streets away and splash out on a rib eye steak. There are English couples everywhere here on a Valentines weekend trip. In the Restaurant the waiter keeps saying No worries, antipodean style to everyone. To the couple opposite he suggests that just for this weekend, they could have sex on the table and he wouldnt mind. The woman behind keeps asking her bloke what he would like to do tomorrow. Hes unenthustically replying I dont mind. He says theyve been on the go all day and hed like to go back to the hotel. That reminds me that I have been up since six and am too knackered to go on to a gay bar, so its back to the dreary room to sleep.
Theres a morning to be filled in after stoking up with breakfast carbs. I set out for a wander, but its suddenly cold and time to take shelter in a coffee/deli place. There are the other sorts of Coffee Shops selling dope, but this might not be so clever just before an afternoon of races. Ive got to get the number 9 tram to Pretorius Straat, but its too early. I get out at Oostpark and as Ive got thirty minutes to fill, take a brisk walk around. Its barren and soggy, so theyve had lots of rain here as well. A Chinese man is leading a small group of five in exercises. They are doing squats, bending at the knee with feet flat on the ground. The only woman in the group doesnt bend very far and also looks incredibly bored. I get back on the number 9 tram and it takes ages to find my day pass which could be in any of six pockets and is eventually found in the middle of my passport. Some time later, I ask how far to Pratorius Straat. Its back the other way we passed it while I was looking for my ticket.
The pool at Sport Fondsenbad Oost is lovely, but looks very short after the 50 metre pool at Crawley two weeks ago. The place is suddenly crowded with men looking for the changing rooms and then queuing up for lockers. Theres an ATM like machine which, on payment of 20cents allocates you a locker and you put in a pin number. A very nice local woman helps me, but in the end its easier to change the logging in machine to English. The seating is already filling up but I mange to find a small space for out team. Quite soon they begin to arrive: Terry (with partner John), Martin & David and then David F. I spot Bill from Northern Wave – Manchester (hes wearing a Warrington t-shirt). Hes seventy and is pissed off that none of the others from his club have signed up. Hes the only one in his age-group and claims to be the oldest at the meet. (There turns out to be someone in the 75+ group) I console Bill with the fact that its all gold for him today, but hes more interested in his times.
The warm-up is a very crowded affair as there are only six lanes and 2-300 people. Theres just time to get the measure of the pool for turns and try a couple of dives of the starter blocks. First up its the 4 x 50m medley relay and were presenting a combined age of 200+. Ive got to start because backstroke is my number 1 stroke but the other backstrokers look younger and turn out to be faster. David F is following me with breaststroke and requests that I give him a clean finish. He makes up the ground and Terry, who swims butterfly, holds the place. David D, swimming freestyle last is spectacular and wins the heat to give us a silver medal for the age group, a great start. Fifty metres breaststroke is next and David F is magnificent. The rest of us do 50M freestyle. Im usually in heat 3 at meets, but today its heat 9, which means that there a loads of guys slower than me. People have just come to participate and have fun OTS members take note. The team say my race went well, especially the second length where I apparently overtook the front swimmer to win the heat by a touch to win the heat and my age group. Next its David F, in the last and fastest heat of the Individual Medley (IM) wow, hes swimming with guys 20 years younger. Hes also doing 50m fly next. I spot 70 year old Bill in heat 4 of the fly doing well. Martin and Terry are also doing 50 fly and then we go into the 4x50m freestyle relay. Its all go, go, go. I swim second this time and we come in two seconds under my estimated time. Were second in the 200+ age group more silver medals!
Time for a break. Upstream Amsterdam have organised this most magnificently. There is free food and drink for all and interestingly all the announcements are in English. This is not just for our benefit as English is the language of communication and commerce between the Europeans. This event really does feel like a community. Some of the team meet up with old friends some of whom swam with OTS and have moved to live/work in other countries. The Europeans are disappointed that so few of us have come from the UK, so OTS swimmers, you were missed. There are also very few women competing, so loads of medal opportunities for OTS here.
During the break, Upstream Amsterdam give us a dazzling display of synchronised swimming, a routine especially choreographed for Valentines weekend and two years in rehearsal. Theres a team of 12 men and women doing fantastic formations. Early on the scull into a heart shape and then form a row boat. Theres a pas de deux with male and female swimmer in a nod to Heterosexuality (we can all be inclusive). Unfortunately I just remember my phone has a camera too late and they are putting the lane ropes back.
Session two begins with the 200m freestyle and Bill from Northern Wave is looking good in heat 2 with 45+ swimmers. Our David D is in the last heat and does a strong finish to win gold. My 100m Backstroke goes well with a respectable time, but as Im the only one in my age group, theres no one to beat. The 100m free is the last official race and for some reason Ive put in a slow time and the woman in the next lane is faster on paper. Once in the pool, she doesnt seem to be ahead and I think I come third, enough to get silver in my age group. The final event is a fun 10 person relay 25m each. The five of us, according to the programme have been joined with two other clubs, one possibly Spanish. Were in heat one with the Copenhagen Mermates and another combination team. Theres no sign of the other five swimmers, so we will have to swim two lengths each. David F & David D go to the other end. Something stops me from following and no one is sure about the maths. In the end its fine and no one has to run down the other end except that I end up swimming last. Fortunately the others have put us in the lead enough for us to win the heat. In the end we came in 5th out of 14 teams.
Weve had a fabulous afternoon swimming and weve all won medals, so in addition to the 8 silver medals for the relays, we snatched 5 Gold, 2 silver and 1 bronze. Not bad for a small team of 5. Now were all rushing back to change for the dinner and the number 9 tram is packed. I try to check in for my return flight using an available wifi spot on my phone. Its not going well and I cant find my room key in any of my pockets. Thinking Ive left it in the room, I ask the hotel man to open up. Its not there and eventually I find it in the lobby where I was checking in. Its only a 3 minute walk to the St Olafs chapel inside the Barbiron Palace Hotel, just opposite the Central station. This huge space, now a ballroom, is in the old palace. Its amazing and buzzy with heart shaped balloons hung on the pillars. We buy tokens for our drinks and food is brought out by waiters, starting with a glass of hot fish soup. Each dish is meticulously presented: A small tray with salad and pate, a paper cone of Mediterranean vegetables, chunks of roast potatoes and salad, soft brown seeded bread with a dip, then a box of noodles with chopsticks and finally pudding is ice-cream and crumble. Its always a worry with this way of serving food, but in the end we all get enough to eat and all the while the music is varied and fantastic. As the evening wears on, were all dancing in between the entertainment. First up is one of the guys form the club in a huge red afro wig and a black fitting gown covered in sequins. He sings a good medley supported by two acolytes similarly attired.
Later theres an amazing Bowie Tribute trio who sing and dance amazingly. We all think they would go down well in London. I havent danced like this for 20 years, Phillip & I didnt dance and I cant remember why. Theres lots of fun going on and a couple of chaps in their late 50s are getting quite romantic. Suddenly Ive had enough to drink, Ive run out of blue tokens and my boots hurt. Time to sleep, once again giving up on the idea of a nightcap in a gay bar.
Its a slow start to Sunday morning hotel breakfast, pack, check-out and sit in the lobby, blogging. Then for a change of scene, coffee at Blooms and more blogging. The waitresses what to know if Im writing a book. Now it is brunch time back at the Barbiron Palace Hotel for a sit-down self service meal. Ive somehow lost my ticket but its OK, they believe me. Salads, scrambled eggs & bacon, potato cake, fresh fruit, cold meats croissants and bread are available. Its a highly recommended weekend. Next year its Vienna.
It’s a long dull drive to Casablanca through a flat terrain of fallow fields. The city is busy, modern and traffic choked, so it takes ages to get to the Hassan II Mosque.
This gigantic piece of modern Arabic architecture juts out into the sea on what looks like reclaimed land. It is truly breathtaking with the tallest minaret in the world and taller than Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. There is nowhere to park, so we are dropped off and hurry to catch the next guided tour. We are too late and Hotoman is summonsed by mobile phone to collect us and we spend time walking along the sea front.
Our second attempt at the mosque is successful and a very well informed female guide tells us that the place was build by a French architect. The roof can be rolled open and I think that must be a tremendous sight, but it’s not going to happen today.
The scale is huge and underneath there are vast washing facilities – men and women separately. The faithful must wash before prayer. Further down there are great pools and hamams one for men and one for the women. These however have never been used and remain only on show for the tour guides. We think it’s a waste.
We return to the seafront to have lunch. Mary Sue & I decide not to stay in the restaurant we’ve been herded to as it’s a bit dingy and instead head over the road to a place with an outside table and a sea view.
The food is fine and only marginally more expensive. It’s time to check in to our hotel which, in spite of the alleged difficulty is fairly standard for a four star, though Garry doesn’t think it is up to scratch. We have a free afternoon but are given a time to be back for dinner. Mary, Sue & I are off to find Rick’s Café. We know it is down by the docks and briefly consider walking, but decide a taxi might be more sensible. The first problem is flagging one down that’s free and the next is that none of the drivers seem to know where the place is. No one has heard of Rick’s Bar or the movie ‘Casablanca’. Eventually and with the help of a local man in a suit we find a taxi who thinks he knows where it is. Miraculously we are delivered to Rick’s Café only to find that it is closed. Mary and Sue are devastated but I notice that it will be opening in thirty minutes so we decide to hang around. It’s not a very trendy neighbourhood with road works around the docks and suburban flats around a square on the other side. We sit in the garden square and watch people: families, mothers with babies and children playing. Suddenly there’s a man acting strangely with a ritualistic aggression. He seems oblivious to those around him and people eye him wearily, beginning to move away. We also move to the other side of the square and watch children playing until opening time.
Inside it’s a traditional Arabic building with upstairs balcony looking down on a courtyard of tables. There are booths around the wall and immediately I see that the bar is long and curved with a grand piano to one side. This seems wrong according to the film, which had a straight bar and ‘Sam’ played on an upright piano. ‘Casablanca’ the movie of course was not filmed in Morocco at all. This is a homage created in 2004 by an American called Kathy Kriger, who had a dream. Unlike the café in the movie, this is a classy joint with atmosphere and upstairs the movie plays continuously so that even if this is not the place you get the feel of it.
We are the first customers and it’s late enough in the day to order gin & tonics. The place is now filling up with tourists and there is a large coach outside – time for us to get a taxi back to the hotel. The doorman calls one and we have to haggle to lower the price as presumably the doorman has to get his cut of the fare.
We get back to the hotel to the news that we are eating in the Hotel as the traffic is horrendous and it will take us too long to get across town and back. We have the dining room to ourselves as this is our farewell meal. The food is fairly average and Anthea declares the pastille not fit to eat. They make better ones back in Christchurch. This is a fish and prawn mix parcelled up in filo pastry and sounds delicious in the recipe book.
Mary brightens things up with an impromptu feedback session where everyone has to say what their favourite food and place is. Quite a few things which were not on the schedule score highly. I stick to the trout lunch, the city of Chefchouen, the Mosque and Rick’s Café.
The next morning we are anxiously waiting for Hotoman to take us to the airport. He’s late and stuck in traffic. Sue has to make a connection to somewhere in Italy and others are in the same situation. I’m on the same flight to London as Jennifer, but she disappears the moment we get to the airport. I catch up with her in the departure lounge briefly – she’s in business class and we meet up again at the luggage carousel at Heathrow.
Over the next few weeks I dive into Peta Mathias’ book and try the Pastille which is a success. I grind up my spices to make Ras al hanout and entertain friends to lamb tagine, I make preserved lemons (quartered and pushed into airtight jars which are then filled with salt then topped up with lemon juice) so simple to make and ready in a week. These I use in a lemon chicken casserole with cumin, turmeric and fresh coriander leaf – delicious. I’d bought a postcard with the recipe for Medfounna – the bread stuffed with meat we had for lunch in Erfoud. It’s in French, so I have to get out my dictionary. I’ve bought Turkish flour for this thinking it might be similar to Moroccan flour. It’s not but the result is good with a much more tasty filling that the Erfoud version. My great success however is beetroot salad. I cook the beets, slice them into sticks and sprinkle rosewater over with a bit of olive oil and seasoning – everyone raves. It seems that some of the ‘Savours of Morocco’ have been achieved after all.
So, here we are in famous Marrakesh, sung about in the 70s by the popular singers of the day. Anne has brought her huge Macbook-pro down to the pool where there is wifi, to prove that she was right in thinking there was a Beatles song. We listen. Also there is a Crosby Stills & Nash number Marrakesh Express which has been going around in my head. I recognise the LP cover as we listen to it, I still have it in my collection.
Today we have a tour in the morning and a free afternoon as there is a change to the schedule. This has been talked about for several days, the problem being that our flights out of Casablanca would necessitate leaving Marrakesh at 4am in the morning to get to the airport in time. Were told there is a conference in Casablanca which has made booking a hotel difficult. Im not sure why this hasnt been anticipated earlier as the agents have had our flight times for some months. Mary was hoping to take a day trip to a seaside place called Essaouira tomorrow and is disappointed. Im happy to have a look at Casablanca and in particular the great Mosque and to get to the airport without a rush.
We walk to our minibus to meet our guide for the morning and with Hotoman at the wheel, are whisked off into the countryside to look at an irrigation scheme. This isnt on the schedule, but we neednt worry as some government official is visiting the site and we cant see it. Instead we go and look at the outside of the main mosque we are not allowed inside and join a number of large coach parties also looking. Next we pile back into the Medina to look at Medersa Ben Youssef (Islamic School) which is beautifully tiled.
Simos boys think its a cool place to go to school, but are unsure about the small Spartan rooms where the students used to live. We move onto the 19th C Mnebhi Palace which is now a museum. It has a large tent over the courtyard casting a yellow light over everything.
Theres an art exhibition mostly still life, which Im not usually attracted to. They are strangely similar to the European Masters, for example, a painting of sunflowers in five panels. They are rough, exuberant and I like them. I overhear one of our party saying what poor quality they are, but Liz agrees with me. We move on to the DarSiSaidMuseum of traditional crafts. This is dull, poorly lit and badly curated. One couple can be seen shining their mobile phone on a gloomy glass case in order to see its contents.
Next theres a visit to a contemporary artists gallery or shop. Im not that interested and after climbing the stairs, find it all tourist rubbish. The afore-mentioned person however is enthusing loudly. I descend to the street and wait, waving away the sellers of leather wallets. Fairly soon others form the party, who have seen the light join me and the wallet sellers return like flies. Our last organised retail opportunity is to a spice market. Its not the sort of market where heaps of colourful spices are displayed but a highly organised business on several floors. We are herded in groups of about twenty into one of the many presentation rooms painted pale green to look pharmaceutical. Cabinets around the room house jars containing various substances. We have an entertaining lecture from one of the staff, promoting herbal medicines, spices, oils and creams all made from natural products, allegedly. I can see how this is going and at the end of the lecture the list of products are gone through and people agree to buy. I cant believe Mary and Sue, who are buying up large. In the end however they drop the Agane oil as it is the same price in New Zealand. I can buy all of these spices in East London and prefer to make up my own blends and dont want to be laden down. I note the Gary and Willy are also not buying. I slip out though the crowds and wait in a narrow and equally crowded alley-way while our group collect and pay for their purchases.
We now have free time and for once can choose where to eat lunch at our own expense. Mary, Sue and I have our eyes on an arts & craft school weve passed several times and there is the Jardin Majorelle, otherwise known as the Yves St Laurent garden. But first, lunch. Theres a modest looking café on the square which will do, but Mary is not well and only Sue & I eat. In the end Mary goes back to the Riad leaving Me and Sue to get a taxi to the wonderful gardens. The taxis are reliable and cheap, though the first one we hail doesnt know where it is.
The next one knows and we find a gathering of coaches and taxis at the entrance to Jardin Marjorelle. Its a riot of colour with brick red paths, cobalt blue buildings, green and blue tiles and brightly coloured pots. Green and blue should never bee seen the saying goes. What nonsense, the colours vibrate against each other to stunning effect.
We spend our time oo-ing and ahh-ing at vistas and exotic plants. The garden was made by French furniture maker Marjorelle in the 40s. After he died, it was acquired and restored by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge. There is a tranquil area dominated by a ruined classical pillar, a suitably phallic memorial to Yves. There is also a Berber museum, which we didn’t go into but instead look at the high quality and beautifully designed Moroccan garments on sale in the shop, at a price.
We decide it is too far to walk in the heat back to the Arts & Craft centre and engage a cab. Which one do we want to visit? We just know its near the Mosque and in the end we are dropped not at the school, but at the Main outlet for the graduates. Its all very intricate and not really to my taste, but interesting to see nonetheless. We attempt to get a cab back to the main square, but a kindly driver points out that we are literally around the corner. As we walk back to the riad, theres time for me to do a little last minute shopping. I find a pair of red leather Moroccan slippers (my black English ones are a disgrace) at a good price. Next its rosebuds, which I need for the making of Ras el hanout. This is a North African blend of many spices which I use in tagines. I last bought rose buds in Tunisia years ago. Im on the look out for the actual buds as much of the pre packed stuff is mostly petals. I find a self service place and pick out the buds. Lastly, a traditional check scarf for my daughter which I think needs to be grey. Success at the last hour as I haggle the price down for a bargain.
Our evening event is out of town, a dining experience followed by a pageant performed by local people on a grand scale. When the originator of the place died, his family wanted to close it down, but the King intervened and insisted it be kept open, providing employment for the local people. We arrive at a Hollywood style Kasbah with a large parking lot for coaches. People are piling out of vehicles and we join in the queue passing musicians and dancers on the way in. These local people are supposed to create the atmosphere, but its pretty half hearted. Inside is a huge rectangular area boarded by stone seating. Set further back are dining booths. Its all enormous. Theres a donkey running up and down and a camel giving rides. Liz jumps at this chance and one of her dreams has been fulfilled. It is clear that the place not well subscribed this evening. We are in one of many large dining areas and served the usual salads. This is followed by the most sensational slow roasted shoulders of lamb flavoured with cumin. Throughout the meal musicians and dancers invade the space and we give them coins, although were not supposed to as they are all paid. Now it is show time and we move onto the tiered seating and wait for the performers to appear. There is a procession of dancers, musicians and people in costumes all looking very bored with what they are doing. At one point Aladdins flying carpet slowly crosses the stage on a wire and various floats go past. The show climaxes with cavalry charges where the riders, dressed as Lawrence of Arabia freedom fighters gallop past and fire their muskets at one end. Various acrobatic tricks are performed by the riders and theres a comedy run made by a man on the donkey. I cant help thinking that the family may have had a point wanting to close down this tacky Hollywood style event.
Our drive back is somewhat alarming. Hotoman has been stopped twice by police here, once for talking on his mobile phone while driving (hes always doing that) and another time to check something else. Were told that there is a log of speeds and such like built into the minibus. Everyone is in high spirits after the evening and Hotoman decides to weave back and forth across the road and then go round a roundabout 4 or 5 times. Im a bit alarmed but some of the party are having the time of their lives. Im just hoping that we dont get spotted by the police. Who would drive us to Casablanca tomorrow?
I wake before dawn and take my camera onto the flat roof of the hotel to wait for sunrise. It sort of makes up for the missed sunset in the desert. At breakfast, Jennifer & I continue to struggle for a British cup of tea. Meanwhile Simo is making a big show of distributing maps of where we are going today. They are free hand-outs from the hotel showing the local area and where to find other hotels in this chain.
We set out for what the schedule says is a five hour drive to the Todra Gorges, only is isn’t and we are ahead of schedule. Simo (or is it the driver?) decides to stop at a fertile valley and take a walk through fields.
Having engaged Hamid, a very handsome young man to guide us we scramble down a bank. Jennifer declines and stays with the minibus. Hamid’s English is excellent and, having just left school, is planning to go to university. We are walking through fields of alfalfa or lucern, which the women are cutting by hand. I spot a huge pile of corn stalks on legs and tell Mary to come and investigate. She can’t believe that there’s a donkey under the load. We engage with the farmers and photograph the loaded beast, who is contentedly chewing on a leaf sticking out of the stack on its back. Next Mary befriends some little boys and gets them to do cartwheels in return for ballpoint pens. Simo is initially alarmed, telling us not to encourage them, but Mary has managed these situations before and it’s clear that they have to work for any reward and not just get a handout. It’s been an interesting and unexpected interlude and as we walk though the village, we see the minibus with Jennifer waiting to pick us up.
Our morning coffee stop is at Tinejdad, an unremarkable place. Further on, at Tinerhir, we turn off to the Gorges du Todra. Their dramatic red cliffs remind me of China and the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River.
As it’s around lunch-time we cross the shallow river into one of several restaurants nestled under the over-hanging cliffs. Although lunch is always at our own expense, we never get a choice and are herded to a particular establishment. The driver gets commission for bringing us and the same goes for any craft and retail opportunities we visit. The restaurant has a corrugated iron roof which is attractively lined with traditional fabrics. It’s hot under the corrugated iron and several people are not eating lunch today. Others are sharing dishes, so the restaurant is not making much. After the first few days of eating three meals a day, there had been a growing rebellion over lunches. Some people are opting not to eat at all. Jennifer often brings a banana from the evening fruit bowl. Gary and Willy don’t like fixed menus and often order one dish to share. Sue and Anne are gluten intolerant and save their breakfast cornbread for lunch. Liz, Mary and I eat everything. The exceptions are when one of us has the runs and we all have a turn at that. As time goes by we get used to the over abundance and no longer feel guilty about not eating everything on the plate as we were brought up to do. Variously, we discover we were fed ‘The staving millions of: India, Biaffra or Russia’, depending on which decade one grew up in.
It’s a relief to paddle in the river on the way back to the minibus, an opportunity to wash the desert form my sandals.
Our hotel at Dades is a modern version of a Kasbah with spectacular views of the town from the pool terrace.
I make for the swimming pool as it’s long enough to do nine or ten strokes before turning, but it’s very cold and doesn’t warm up as I swim. So much for doing half an hour and I escape to the jacuzzi which has warm bubbles. Mary and Sue arrive, but don’t swim, choosing to have a beer instead. Dinner is another buffet with the usual dishes, salads tagine and fruit. It’s all getting a bit samey.
Day 8 The Atlas Mountains
Our quest for a decent cup of tea escalates, joined by Garry, who is also a morning tea drinker. The chain hotels here and in Erfoud do Liptons tea bags on strings. In Erfoud we put the bags in small cups, bringing another cup of cold milk (essential) to the table to add to the brewed tea bag. This has to be repeated for each new cup of tea (I need three) with hot but not boiling water. In the past, Jennifer has asked in vain, in her best Arabic, for a teapot and milk jug and one morning I arrive at breakfast to find that she’s got her tea in a large glass tumbler. I try it and we agree it is the best solution so far. This morning she has again asked for a teapot as there are no tumblers. Garry joins us at the table and orders a teapot and to our great astonishment it arrives, albeit with only one teabag. Jennifer immediately stops a thin faced waiter who nods and disappears. I notice that he has he’s re-appeared without the teapot. I remind him and it does arrive. Hooray!
Our first stop is Ouarzazate and the Kasbah de Taourirt. This is a four-hundred year-old castle/palace which had been partially restored. It’s a fine piece of architecture and has been used for locations on several movies.
Of particular note are the painted wood ceilings. At each of these stops, Simo organises a local guide. This one has quite good English and is very informative. Simo tries to contribute information but his accent is no more accessible that the guide’s and he doesn’t really have anything to add.
We take a walk through the streets before continuing our journey to the Atlas Mountains, passing the ‘Hollywood’ of Morocco. In the distance we can see film lots and sets representing other African and middle eastern locations.
Some of the others suggest that this might have been interesting to look at. Personally I have no need to look at film sets. Lawrence of Arabia was filmed around here and I imagine loads of horsemen galloping over the desert behind Peter O’Toole. At least there is a herd of camels to look at in the arid landscape.
Road to Atlas Mountains
Our journey through the Atlas Mountains takes us up steep winding roads with precipitous drops to the valleys below. We climb at least three major passes, the highest of which is closed in winter. Someone has an altitude meter and records the highest point. The grandeur and colours in the mountains is breath-taking as is our speed.
Hotoman passes scores of heavy lorries winding their way up and down. Fortunately there is not too much traffic in the opposite direction, but there are pleas from the back not to swing around corners so much. Along the way, on wide bends, lone men have set up their stalls of rock crystals and craft-ware for sale. I can see there’s nothing I’d want to buy, but the shoppers and browsers would like to stop. However, time presses, no commissions have been arranged and the lorries we have passed would catch up and have to be re-passed.
Mary and Sue are on about Argan oil, the latest ‘must have’ in New Zealand for hair care and cooking. I’ve never heard of it and think that these uses are a strange combination. On reflection, coconut oil has many uses.
Argan oil comes from a berry on a tree which grows in the Atlas Mountains and goats famously climb these trees to graze. At our coffee stop Mary spotted what she thought might be one of these trees, but Simo says no, there are no Argan trees in this area. On our way down the mountains, Mary and Sue see a sign for a ‘Woman’s Collective’ selling Argan oil. They ask the driver to stop, but no, he’s not going to. We suspect he doesn’t have an arrangement with the collective. Later we find out that it’s not really a women’s collective but a marketing ploy to attract women customers. It almost worked.
The drive to Marrakesh passes through agricultural land and at this time of year the crops have been harvested. Olive trees still bear fruit and there are a few patches of cabbages newly planted for the winter. Our riad in Marrakesh is Le Pavillon Oriental, but it’s in the Medina and we can’t just drive up to it. The manageress meets us and boys with carts load our cases and trundle though tortuous alleyways to and unmarked door. As we have come to expect, this opens onto a tranquil courtyard and there’s a pool. It’s been a long uncomfortable and sweaty journey so I make a bee line. It’s possible to push off the steps and one end, swim two or three strokes before doing a tumble turn, then back to the steps. It’s not much exercise, but it’s cooling.
‘It all happens in the huge town square at night’, we’re told and Simo says it goes on until dawn. It is indeed buzzy when we get there. Great avenues of stalls have been set up selling all manner of street food. You sit at a trestle table and eat your food off a piece of paper. There are some gruesome options such as sheep heads, lungs and other offal. Several stalls sell hot snails. Some of us don’t fancy eating at these stalls, which makes Simo cross. Apparently they have been feeding tourists for years with no reported side effects. We are offered a choice and divide into two groups. Six of us go to a restaurant with tables, chairs, cutlery and napkins. The rest (including Simo’s two sons who have joined us for a family holiday) go for the street food. We spot a very nice looking place and Simo pops into the kitchen on the pre-text of checking its cleanliness. He emerges to suggest a special offer of chicken with preserved lemon. He’s done a deal with the restaurant. Garry spots a roast lamb dish on a neighbouring table and asks the diners what it’s called. Simo is furious and thinks this is inappropriate. I think the chicken sound good but Garry is determined on the lamb. Once again I have to intervene and tell Simo to go as we are all adults and can look after ourselves. Actually, all of us at this table are very experienced travellers and Marrakesh has the reputation for being one of the safest places in Morocco.
We’ve had our salads and are waiting for the main course when Simo comes to check on us. They’ve finished their street food and are ready for the horse and cart ride around the city by night in recompense for the cancelled camel ride in the desert. He goes away and Hotoman, our driver, waits for us to finish, hovering in the door. Next there’s a belly dancer with paper money in her bra strap. Garry briefly gets up to move his hips as does Jennifer. Fortunately I’m hemmed in behind the table and concentrate on my food. Eventually she tries elsewhere. It’s late by the time we tumble out of the restaurant and make our way to the horse and carriage area. We need three to accommodate all of us. Liz is in high spirits and joins me, Mary and Sue. We encourage her to go on the top with the driver to get the best view. It’s lovely to see this first time traveller, who many years ago left New Zealand for Canada and got as far as Queensland, enjoying every moment. We drive around for about an hour past all the posh hotels. Sue is concerned that one of the horses is not going straight, he’s veering off to the right and the driver keeps using the whip. Fortunately all the retail establishments are closed at this late hour and it’s just past midnight when we are returned to the main square. By this time the crowds have begun to thin out and activity is slowing down, so much for the ‘all night party’. We’ve all taken a careful note of the way back to the hotel, so it’s with some surprise that we see Simo moving off to the left in completely the wrong direction. We all shout and point to the right. Even his wife and sons shout ‘the other way’, but he is adamant and says he knows his own country. Clearly he has a poor sense of direction and is eventually persuaded to go to the right but not without a small tantrum.
Our drive is though the Middle Atlas Mountains where the landscape changes from minute to minute. There is always a new sight to see and Anthea takes the uncomfortable back seat so she can record the journey photographically on her Ipad, alternating between left and right windows depending on the view. The front seats are reserved for Ann and Willy, who suffer from travel sickness which is exacerbated by Hotoman’s macho cornering. We try to allow a double seat for Jennifer to stretch her legs so there is a limited number of options for the rest of us to rotate places.
We stop for coffee at Errachidia. This green and lushly planted University town is also a popular skiing resort in the winter. The international University is jointly owned by the Kings of Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Our journey continues with the land alternating between arid and green until we arrive at Kasbar Russani for lunch.
We are offered a set menu of salad, main and fruit for desert or single dishes. There’s something going on with certain members of the group who don’t want to have a set menu dumped on them, but most us go for it as it offers trout as a main. It’s caught locally in rivers and lakes and likely to be fresh. They cook it in foil and it’s quite delicious – one of the most memorable dishes, flavour wise, so far.
We now enter a most spectacular gorge with amazing geology. We can see the sedimentary layers of rick which have been pushed up and bent, some at 45 degrees and others almost flat. This is fossil country and the once submerged layers are rich in marine life. The rivers continue to attract vegetation along their banks but the remaining landscape is rocky and barren. Pockets of soil host a few date palms until the bed of the river widens to an alluvial plane which is flooded with date palms, all laden with huge bunches of ripening fruit.
We stop for a photo opportunity and a retail opportunity presents it’s self in the form of a good-looking young man selling dates. We buy some, feeling virtuous in a belief that we might be his only customers all day. This, I think is unlikely as other date sellers materialise from nowhere as if in waiting and other vehicles are stopping for the same photo opportunity. There are so many dates on the trees that we can’t imagine how they can all be harvested and sold or eaten. We are following the Ziz river and the large town here is a military one. People are offered a free house and double their salary to come here. Simo says that the government is trying to encourage people to inhabit the Sahara area to bring more stability. Hmm, I wonder. There’s another coffee stop in a featureless suburban area on a busy road. The coffee is good though, which slightly makes up for the lack of ambience. We arrive at our Hotel, Xaluca Maadid in Erfoud late, and are welcomed by singers and musicians. Sue & Mary think we should respond with a Haka. We begin but are drowned out by the band who start up again.
Although the hotel is modern, it is spectacular, made out of adobe (mud & straw). The rooms are inventively furnished and well appointed. The wash basin is made from polished fossil rock, not very practical for putting toiletries on, but fun.
The floor is crazy paving and not level. This is probably not OK if you are elderly and unsteady at walking – Jennifer finds it hazardous. The swimming pool is about twenty metres long and I make a bee-line for it. By this time it is dark and I plough up and down using the underwater lights at each end as a guide. It’s difficult to gauge the ends so no tumble turn practise today. Dinner is in a huge hall where a buffet is arranged. There are lots of guests here after all. The place had seemed deserted when we arrived and the rooms are so quiet.
Day 6: In the Sahara
Jennifer and I struggle with the Liptons tea bags at breakfast. There are no teapots, only small cups, too small for the strength of the bags. Cold milk has to be poured into a spare cup from the cereal table as there are no jugs. The traditional tea here is mint, drunk without milk but with sugar. Today, there are boiled eggs. Hooray! I’ve a touch of the runs this morning, so after eating my banana, saved from dinner last night (bananas are not served at Breakfast for some reason) a hard boiled egg is just what’s needed. Jennifer reveals that she has dihorrea and intends to stay in her room all day.
It’s to be a long day out and about and I’ve packed my hoddie for the desert later as it’s supposed to get cold at night. Our first stop in town is to collect a local guide. Here they wear blue jalabas and turbans.
They are from once nomadic people called Tuareg, otherwise known as blue men because the cheap blue dyes in their clothing used to stain their skin. Our Blue Man guide takes us to a market. It’s not a full market day, only a few desultory stalls are operating so it’s quite a disappointment. Normally, we are told, there is a huge area of date stalls. Today only one is open for our benefit and as we bought dates yesterday, we’re not buying today. There are only so many dates that one can eat at a time. It’s never quite clear where we are going or what to expect but we stop at a large adobe wall in the middle of nowhere. I’ve given up consulting the tour itinerary as it often bears no relation to what we actually see. Sijilmassa is the name of this Kasbah and through the gate is a huge empty area contained within the walls.
In one corner is what might be a well. It’s a tap supplying clean water to those who live here. On the fourth side of this vast area is a grand gate and a higher wall. Through this is a series of streets and alleyways of mud built houses in poor repair. A few women are around and peer out of darkened doorways, often clutching their children. We are not allowed to photograph people unless they agree and most of them don’t. There are also wells inside and fetching water seems to be the only activity.
A Kasbah is a walled community and this was once an important seat of power. Today the people are very poor and apparently the government is trying to re-house them. As we make our way to the centre of this complex, suddenly we are in a more imposing and restored building, still made out of mud and straw adobe. It’s the rulers’ palace and a protected heritage site. This was on of the caravan stops in the trade routes where salt and spices were exchanged. Our guide shows us several large lumps of pink salt rocks much like the rock salt that we buy purporting to come from the Himalayas. A series of corridors eventually lead to a central courtyard where on each side is a room for each of the ruler’s four wives.
It’s very bare and desolate and takes imagination to see it furnished with carpets and cushions. There is a crumbling and dark hamam with the only mosaic floors to be seen in the building. On the way out there’s a friendly young woman struggling to load a wheelbarrow with empty plastic water containers.
Mary decides to help, much to Simo’s disapproval and there is much hilarity as the containers keep falling off. Eventually it is loaded and Mary pushes the light load along the street. We part ways with the woman who will have to wheel the loaded barrow back from the water tap. Mary and Sue are good at approaching the women and taking an interest in what they are doing they are both experienced tour leaders.
Earlier, we drove past what looked like a large house with carpets hanging from an upstairs balcony. I thought they might be drying, but we return here and it turns out to be a craft centre. There are several nomads’ tents woven from black goat hair and set up to demonstrate how these people lived.
The main guy is quite dark compared with Berbers and Arabs, but he and his staff all dressed in the Tuareg blue jalabas.
As we go inside the house there’s a sand storm brewing up, which Simo says will be over shortly. The central room we are ushered into is yet another carpet show-room and fabulous examples are rolled out before our eyes. It’s a well rehearsed performance and anything anyone admires is kept aside. Expressing an interest is almost as good as a commitment. Ann decides there’s a design she likes and after some bargaining, buys a small carpet.
The centre is an Aladdin’s cave of craft stuff, which includes wooden chests, crazy furniture and chunky Berber silver jewellery. Simo buys several rings for Anthea which are too large – it’s a gesture as no one else is buying. It turns out we are having lunch here which was to have been in the nomad tent but it’s too windy so we sit in a dreary side room on cushions on the floor and eat a sort of pie/burger and salads. A beef stew had been placed between two rounds of bread dough and baked in a tagine dish. Triangles are cut and passed around. It’s fairly bland but the olives with a hint of chill are sensational.
We are off to the SaharaDesert but as we drive, the sand storm gets more dramatic and we can hardly see the road in front of us. Seventeen Km from our 4×4 pick up point we turn back. Liz is disappointed as she has been looking forward to riding on a camel. I’m sorry to miss sunset in the Saharan sand dunes but have no burning desire to sit on a camel. Some of the women have heard stories of tourists paying to get on the camels and then having to pay again to be taken back. On the way back to the hotel, we stop at a fossil shop and processing factory. The pushed up sedimentary layers are full of marine fossils such as trilobites. Many have been exposed and painstakingly picked out of the rock.
Large chinks and slabs of the fossil rich rock are made into polished objects. There’s a toilet bowl and cistern, hand basins, dinner plates, bowls, polished wall surfaces and even jewellery.
This place is a curiosity and I have no intention of buying anything to sit on a shelf and be dusted every now and then. The bathroom ware is in poor taste and unfortunately the place reminds Willy of their garage full of her dead father’s stuff. Even more unfortunately she articulates this feeling in Simo’s hearing. He gets the wrong end of the stick and when we are all in the bus accused her of being culturally insensitive. I’m thinking that trilobites that long ago might not have developed much in the way of culture but shouting breaks out and I have to tell them to stop as we’re all getting embarrassed. There are some quiet apologies and explanations going on but they develop into more shouting and I have to intervene again.
It suddenly dawns on me that everyone on this tour has been recently bereaved. Added to this, the trauma of the Christchurch earthquake has left, those who live there in a precarious mental state. Although they might deny it, Simo and Athea must have been affected by the loss of their three businesses and having to start again. All the Christchurch people have a negative attitude to possessions and any new acquisitions. Many lost everything in the quake and are reluctant to re-encumber themselves in fear of loosing it all again in another one. Jennifer, who lost her apartment, moved to Dunedin. Much of her rescued stuff arrived in boxes all broken. Someone spotted one of her painteings for sale on Trade Me and the seller was traced to an official involved in clearing houses in the Red Zone. Quite a lot of her other possessions never turned p so presumably that official, now living in the UK, did quite well from all the old ladies who lived in her block of flats. As I mentioned, Liz lost her brother, who was married to Anne and Sue lost her Mother very recently and hasn’t been able to go home for a funeral. That just leaves Mary and me. Our bereavements are now several years old. It’s clearly a difficult group ad everyone had different tastes and needs. Simo does not seem to be up to sorting some of the problems out, hence the title Simo’s surprise tour.
We return to the hotel having missed our desert adventure, but there’s time for a sleep, a swim and a gin & Tonic with Mary and Sue before dinner.
Garry has requested a visit to one of the major Roman remains, Volubilis. I think this excursion might be an attempt to calm the waters following the dispute about the hotel booking in Spain, it’s sort of on the way to Fes and now that we know we are on a history tour, it seems appropriate. Volubilis was begun 120 BC and is very extensive with 15 hectars yet to be excavated. We pick up an English speaking guide who describes himself as the last Roman. We have arrived in the middle of the day and like mad dogs and hardy kiwis, walk through the once crowded streets of a huge metropolis in sweltering heat. Lavish mosaics in wealthy houses (now faded by the sun) exist alongside modest terraces of one or two rooms demonstrating that the rich and poor lived together.
The aquifer still runs under the main street, bisecting the city, which was destroyed by a large earthquake and only a few of the buildings have been partly restored.
The heat continues to be blistering and I’m glad of my hat and sun-block. I offer some to the others and Jennifer does her nose as she’s left her hat in the minibus. We escape to the shade of a café and eat our picnic lunch, which Simo had purchased for us on the way out of Chefchouen. It’s made up of bread, cheese, olives, fruit and pomegranates which are not quite ripe. There’s too much food and we leave loads for the café people.
Today, the drive from Chefchouen passes through the most fertile agricultural area. Olive groves predominate to start with, sweeping up the valley sides. We pass small fields of corn and a newly planted patch of cabbages in preparation for the winter and as the valley widens to undulating arable lands, we can see where the wheat has long been harvested. The earth is covered with dried grain stalks. Some fields have been ploughed already and these black strips create a two toned patchwork over the land. This area must be so green in the spring. There is no commentary from the tour leader at this point so I decide that this is one of Morocco’s granaries.
It’s five thirty by the time we get to Fes and the driver has some difficulty finding the Hotel. He asks some motor cycle police who escort us. It’s up a small road and the minibus is too large. A small van comes down and collects our luggage and we walk up unpromising alleyways to find the most glorious Riad Norma.
This is not the Riad in the itinerary and there is no explanation, but all is well as the owner, Monique is a welcoming Frenchwoman who might be in her sixties or seventies. She used to be a hostess for Air France and several times had the opera Singer Maria Callas on her flights. Monique is an opera fan and she’s named her Riad after Callas’ most famous role. I’m allocated the room ‘Maria’ which turns out to be Monique’s private guest room up a separate staircase and next to her quarters. There’s a pool which looks cool and inviting, so I make a beeline, desperate to get some serious exercise. It’s long enough for two or three strokes and a tumble turn at each end, so that’s what I do to for twenty or thirty minutes. I feel good afterwards having got my heart rate up for the first time in three days.
Day 4 The Medina
I wake and open the curtains to find the figure of an elderly woman hunched on a low chair in the courtyard outside my bedroom. It is Monique doing her makeup in the early morning light. I carry on with my daily exercises and greet her before going downstairs to sit in the garden. Monique has no husband or family and has, by sheer will power, rescued this Riad from a neglected ruin to it’s present elegance. Paying homage to local tradition she has given it extra flair and simplicity. She began it eleven years ago and two years to do the restoration, fighting to get her own way with workman, craftsmen and male orientated bureaucracy. It has been difficult being both a woman and a foreigner. She’s insisted that her staff speak French and Mustapha, who seems to be her right hand helper has a degree in English Linguistics but can’t leave his illiterate parents who sacrificed everything for his education.
Breakfast is set on a long table in the garden. There’s melon balls and yoghurt; crepes and folded parcels with honey and jam or goat’s cheese and olives; toast and tea of café au lait, all served on exquisite blue and white crockery.
Our guide for the day is Mohamed. He’s done a degree, is fluent in English and also speaks Spanish, French as well as Arabic. He wears a Jalaba which he says he’s had specially made, having bought the material separately. His outfit includes the white baggy pants which ‘provide air conditioning’. This routine is possibly standard for tour guides as Ahmed from Chefchouen had the same patter. In this climate, underwear and trousers (particularly tight ones) cause overheating so than many modern Moroccan men can be seen constantly adjusting themselves. Mohamed’s outfit is completed by a pair of traditional yellow leather shoes. He claims to have two wives – a situation he does not recommend. ‘One is best – or three. While two of them are fighting you could be with number Three.’ Four wives, he imagines would be a nightmare. It’s all light hearted misogyny and I manage to fake a polite laugh.
Our first stop is the King’s palace (only used when he is in town). The front is a modern set of seven brass doors with a rather ugly mosaic façade. Apparently no one knew who the last King had as a wife, as she or they were never seen. The new King has married a commoner and she has the status of a princess and is visible to the people. We drive through the old Jewish quarter with the balconies facing out on the street. Arab houses have their balconies facing inwards onto a courtyard. Mohamed says that in Islam, what people are like on the inside is more important and that western beauty is external and hence superficial. He goes on to say that in England what a house looks like outside is more important than it’s interior. I can’t help thinking that he hasn’t seen any English Interiors, but don’t say anything. When Ferdinand and Isabella threw out all the Sephardi Jews along with the Moors, this is where they mostly came.
We drive over the valley to a castle on the hill to get a panoramic overview of the Medina (the area of the walled city). It’s vast and inaccessible to motor vehicles. But before we can do that, there’s the first retail opportunity in the guise of a visit to a ceramic factory.
We see Tagine dishes being thrown on a foot driven potter’s wheel, then a row of artists hand painting them. A large section of the factory is devoted to the cutting and placing of tiles for mosaics. Tables, fountains, columns and walls are all assembled here. The exit is, as always, through the shop and I buy a few small pieces for gifts. Now it’s into the Medina on foot, down narrow passageways which can only accommodate one person. These widen out to allow stalls of salads, fruit and vegetables. Each type of merchandise is found in the same area. In the fish zone, the stalls stink and are infested with flies. A cat sleeps unconcerned that they are clustered on one fish blood stained hind leg. The stalls of nuts and dried fruit, followed by a camel meat stall which leads into an area of tinsmiths beating out gaudy plates, large trays and huge jugs in gold-like and silver-like tin. There’s a section of knife grinders, endless jewelry stalls and jalaba makers. The kitchest of all are the wedding shops which make white satin covered couches and sedan chairs for bridal couples to sit or ride in. We stop in a carpet co-operative, ostensibly to see the historic building, but it is a sales pitch. I express an interest in kilms and with Mary and Sue, am whisked to another room. They are all too large, the wrong colours and too expensive. Eventually, by feigning indifference I manage to beat them down to half price for a small blue one made from wool and agave silk. A bid deal is made of how I’ve ruined them but they loose no time in getting my credit card processed. They pack up the kilm and swear to deliver it to the Riad but I’m wondering if that will really happen. Next it’s off to a weaving co-operative where the women in the group buy sparkly scarves and finally the leather factory where we are each given a bunch of fresh mint to hold against our noses against the revolting smell. We look down on vats in a vast courtyard below. There’s a white section where the skins are cured in a solution of pigeon droppings. Here the hair is scraped off before moving on to the variously coloured vats of dye. Sue almost buys a leather jacket, but they are not right and too expensive. Liz does well with a burgundy bag and a lime green jacket, though there won’t be many opportunities to wear it in sub tropical Queensland. I suggest it will be a good excuse to holiday in cooler climates. I have to leave because of the smell and immediately get accosted by a man selling brightly coloured leather wallets. I say no and he goes away. Gradually the others join me and the man returns to try his luck with them. Some of the women are curious, but the moment you express even the slightest interest in what’s for sale, the sales pitch becomes more urgent and it’s difficult to disengage.
All the way though these streets we have stood aside to let porters with barrows, empty or laden, to pass by. Donkeys, mules and horses have to be similarly accommodated.
We’ve been able to peek at the entrance to a very old and famous teaching mosque (non believers are not allowed in). The old Madrassa (Koranic School) does allow us in to see the cells once used by scholars to live in. In spite of all the retail opportunities (I hate shopping) it’s been a good day and far less hassle than the grand bazaar in Istanbul. I ache too much to swim for more than fifteen minutes and sleep before evening meal.
We are off to a place that does dinner and entertainment with a promise of belly dancing – not high on my wish list – but I enter into the spirit of it. The food is once again the usual salads and tagines. There’s a fabulous band up on the stage, all elderly and pumping out traditional music which is infectious if a bit loud for conversation. I take the opportunity to find out a bit more about Simo, his travels and how he came to end up in New Zealand. Women and cooking is the short answer.
The first belly dancer is pretty, dark, voluptuous and doesn’t show her belly. There’s only so much you can do with gyrating hips so she spends most of her time getting men out of the audience to have a go and be humiliated. People seem to love this sort of thing and there are a couple of tables who are all over fifty and most over sixty-five who are whooping it up, clapping and waving their arms about. Next on is a very strange looking woman in a blond wig made of straw, a yellow skirt held up with a huge bulky black and white cummerbund/belt arrangement. She doesn’t do much to begin with but when she gets her hips going the belt goes crazy. She gets a very tall blond Italian woman up who almost upstages her. Next up, it’s a magician who is very amusing and although he does all the tricks I’ve seen before with scarves and a dove, he still entertains. Lastly there’s a belly dancer/fire eater who does have a bare midriff. Her hips don’t move so well and I’m bored. The older men in the audience, however, are having a great time. Suddenly it’s time to go as we have a long drive ahead tomorrow.
The others are woken by the first call to prayer around six am. As my windows face the courtyard, I sleep through it but am still up early enough to go onto the roof and write before breakfast. Its a tranquil place with pot plants, and a view of blue houses clinging to the hills above. Anne is up there checking her emails on her cumbersome Mackbook pro. Theres a lavish breakfast in the Riad; bananas, melon, dates, apples and peaches. Cornbread is provided for the two gluten free diets on the tour, it is delicious with apricot jam spread on it. In addition to ordinary Moroccan bread there are deep fried doughy rings, pastries, teas and coffee. Mary asks if she can get up early in the morning to watch the women make the bread. The answer is no and in our briefing meeting hastily called after breakfast, theres a lecture on how this is not a cookery tour at all, but a history and culture experience. We ought to have understood that from the phrase saviours of morocco in the blurb. Well, I always understood that savours refers to taste, but perhaps were being metaphorical here. Garry brings up his complaint to the travel firm about the sub standard hotel in southern Spain which was a casino with buffet meals of low standard food and where they had to spend two days of free time with nothing interesting to see or do in the area. Simo makes some excuse but as its not my business and as Im determined to enjoy Morocco, I take little interest. It all seems inappropriate and embarrassing.
Were on a walking tour through the blue streets this morning and our guide is the elderly and erudite Ahmed, who is apparently world famous. He wears his traditional garments, voluminous pants, a shift and outer tunic or Jalaba. He lifts the layers to demonstrate claiming that they work as air conditioning. His outfit is completed with a red Fez and yellow pointed leather slippers. He claims to be face-book friends with Obama and Prince Charles and is full of wit and wisdom but not much information. We walk though the old part of this blue-painted town.
The area was originally a Jewish quarter but they have long gone leaving a great variety of people here with a range of skin colours. The Berbers here seem to be pale and sometimes with blue eyes and blond hair contrasting with the darker Arabs. Mary notes that it is a town with attitude, most embracing the oncoming tourist industry, though we are warned that some people dont like being photographed, especially the women. The walls of the houses here are all lime-washed and Ahmed tells us that they put indigo in it to create the blue shades. He says that blue deters mosquitoes and the heat. It is cool in these streets and there are indeed no mosquitoes around. I wonder why more towns and cities arent painted blue. Winnipeg in the summer springs to mind. Chefchouen is on a steep hill with fast flowing streams, not ideal breading grounds for Mosquitoes who require stagnant pools of water to breed.
Ahmed points out that all no exit streets and alleyways have the path painted blue so you dont waste your time going down them and having to turn back. Jennifer comments that this is ideal for people who cant read No Exit signs.
Many of the doors are also painted blue, very reminiscent of Tunisia. We pass artists studios which are predictably turning out blue paintings of the blue streets. Brightly coloured fabrics and carpets are for sale, camel and goat hair jackets & Jalabas. Some rooms have looms set up and weavers are working away.
Brightly cloured cotton harem pants are on sale, which Ahmed explains, allow the women to sit on a low stool with modesty. Theres the occasional offer of a good price, but none of the usual pressure to buy, buy, buy. I look longingly as some of the wall hangings, but there is no way I can fit anything else on the walls of my house in London.
The women here wear bright colours with matching head scarves and Jalabas. Older Berber women typically wear a red and white striped wrap around their waist tied in a knot at the front. There are women from the hills who wear strange shaped raffia hats with plaited woollen tassels in deep blue. Theyve put on their traditional costume to come to town. One woman stands out in a black Jalaba simply and elegantly decorated with a single diamante Yves Saint Laurent logo on the front and back with a circle of the smaller ones around the cuffs. What style in the mountains.
We pass through the city gate and Ahmed tells us that there were two gates, one to enter using the right foot and another to leave using the left foot. He doesnt have an answer for people like me who are left footed. Beyond is a stream which has been dammed and local people are washing their rugs and mats, spreading them out to dry in the emerging sunshine.
There is an outdoor laundry here and the Berber washer -women, wearing the red and white striped wraps, are hard at work pounding fabric in a series of wooden tubs fed by the stream but they ask not to be photographed. The water is clear and clean looking and Ahmed tries to persuade us to drink it. Were all reluctant and will throw away the water bottles hes filled later. I have a close inspection and find the bottom of the stream and pond covered in litter; tin cans, plastic, a broken doll and the detritus of modern life. There seems to be quite a problem with rubbish from plastic carrier bags which cover the landscape and cling to branches and rocks in the now dried riverbeds.
Ahmed says his goodbyes and suddenly without warning, we are collected up by our minibus and, departing from the schedule, taken over the Mountains to a village market place in a place called Tanakoub. Simo says its only once a week and no tourists come here. Everything is for sale; brightly coloured nylon ropes of different diameters, hard-wear, electrical, all kinds of pulses and grains. There is meat hanging and in unobtrusive piles in the gutter, freshly pulled animal skins can be bought to cure. We walk through the market having difficulty keeping sight of each other. Simo is in a panic keeping us all together for our safety, so some of us help to keep an eye out for the others. Mary and Sue are in heaven, investigating and photographing everything. We are warned that these people dont like to be photographed but Gary finds that the young men are happy to oblige and hes developed a technique of holding his camera at waist level and shooting into the crowd, taking pot luck. This is where you can buy all your vegetables and fruit for the week: Tomatoes, beans, cucumber and melons – the list is endless. Halfway down there is a barber shaving a customer with a cutthroat razor and there is a litter of shiny dark black hair on the floor, hes had a good day. On the way back through the crowds, I stop at a stall selling cashew and pistachio nuts. I indicate that I would like some of both and the Stall holder grabs a piece of newspaper, twirls it into a cone and fills it up. I later pass it round the mini bus. On our way here we had stopped at a butcher to buy lamb for lunch which Simo says he has designed. Although hes a chef, he doesnt do any cooking on this tour. We are retracing our route to Tanakoub, passing hillsides of olive trees, some planted – others grow wild. There are drifts of cork trees with their scarred trunks from harvesting. At this time of year, everything has dried off and the bare earth shows through. Suddenly we turn off onto a track in the middle of nowhere, climb out of the minibus and walk one hundred meters to a delightful house, home of Hassan and his wife.
This is where lunch is to be cooked. Hassan says he has built the house himself. He used to make a living installing solar panels in remote areas but now that the Kings programme of building hydroelectric dams is bringing electricity to these areas, he is out of a job. They show us five rooms which, they tell us are for guests and theres a dining area set up for our lunch. In the seeming arid surroundings there is a vegetable garden some way off with tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, capsicums, chillies and herbs.
We go out to gather for the lunch. By the house water melons and beans are growing. We sit and wait under a pergola enjoying a small breeze until the food is ready.
Sue is helping to make the Kofta from minced lamb while cuts of meat which had been marinating are now grilling on a make-shift barbecue. We start with salads which are cold cooked dishes: Aubergines, courgettes and, best off all, beans. Theres bread to go with this and the barbecued meat follows. We hardly have room for the Kofta which has had to wait its turn on the barbecue. Fruit and mint tea as usual complete the meal. This has been a delightful and unexpected excursion which wasnt on the schedule. Hopefully more surprises are in store.
We seem to get back to Chefchouen quite quickly and have time to ourselves before dinner at 8.30, this time in the Riad. At this rate Im going to get fat. Its a mountain of green salad, olives and bread and yet more meat followed by Yoghurt with walnut and honey. Its time for a late night stroll in the square with Sue to buy postcards and then to find the tobacconist for stamps. A young man tires to entice us to a bar for beer or wine if only wed known about that earlier, Ive been longing for beer, but its too late to start drinking now.
Im off to Morocco to join friends Mary and Sue on a ten day tour lead by a New Zealand/Moroccan chief called Simo. In preparation, Ive read Peta Matthias excellent book describing her tour with gastronomes and with plenty of delicious sounding recipes. The schedule, when it arrives doesnt actually mention any cooking experiences, but Im hopeful that these will happen at lunch times.
I have slept only fitfully to be ready for the taxi at three am. I always check the price before starting out the office have quoted me £45 and texted the taxi driver £55. We compromise. At this hour of the morning it only takes 45 minutes to drive to terminal five and as the bag drop desk doesnt open until four thirty, I could have had another half hour of non sleep in bed. In the event our flight, the first out of Heathrow is delayed by ten people who havent turned up at the gate and their luggage must be off loaded. Theres a short stop in Madrid and a change of plane. Theres no indication of which terminal Ive arrived at but there are signs saying T1,T2,T3, so by deduction I must be in T4 and dont have to rush anywhere. Its only an hours flight to Tangier on a small plane 4 seats across. Im travelling on my New Zealand passport and the immigration chap hasnt come across one of these before and it is also brand new, un-besmirched by smudgy rubber stamps. He has to ask someone if Im allowed in. There is of course no problem. I change money, put my luggage through the scanner, only because everyone else is and emerge to greet Mary Taylor (Phillips second cousin) and Sue Walke (from the Bali tour). We have a large VW minibus (brand new) to ourselves. The driver, Hotoman and local travel agent Anise are there to greet us. Were off to collect Simo (tour leader and chef) and the rest of the group who have been in Spain. They are delayed on the Ferry, so we wait. I buy a big bag of crisps as Ive only had a couple of croissants and a banana. Dos is the price quoted by the stall holder, as he holds up two fingers. I dont believe its two dirhams but offer a 5d coin. No, thats not right.
Parley vous Francais, I say.
He is thrown in to confusion when I offer a 100 D note and has to get change. I wasnt expecting Spanish to be spoken and to be buying things in Euros. To emphasise the point, a crowd of elderly Spanish day trippers are returning as its only a 35 minute journey across the straights. Theres a rumour that the ferry has to wait for one to leave the port and make room but it turns out the it has been involved in the capture of illegal immigrants on an inflatable boat trying to get to Spain. The Ferry encircles them, the boat is sinking and the people have to be rescued, arrested and some taken to hospital. Apparently there is a steady stream of young people trying to get to Europe. Italy has a similar problem further along the North African coast.
We introduce ourselves to our group, having made a pact to mix as much as possible and not stick together. Theres Jennifer, a red headed Scottish widow somewhere in her seventies. She now lives in Dunedin having lost her Christchurch flat in the earthquake. Then there is Anne who is travelling with her sister-in-law Liz. Annes husband should have been on the tour, but he died suddenly and his sister took the place. Garry is a retired credit controller travelling with his Dutch born wife Willy. Willy has recently lost her Father following the Earthquake. Simo comes from Casablanca twenty years ago and has had a successful restaurant in Christchurch. Hes travelling with his second wife, Anthea and between them they lost three businesses in the Earthquake. These are the characters we will be travelling with.
We drive through the streets of Tunis with Simo urging us to observe its prosperity. The unasked question is then why are people trying to flee to Europe. Theres lots of building and development going on and large red flags are everywhere to greet King Mohamed the 6th. He is rumoured to be visiting shortly. Hes very progressive according to Simo and has made large, but gradual changes since the old King, who just kept a hold of all the money and didnt invest. Personally, Im not sure how large and gradual can go together. Mary asks how safe the country is which produces a passionate response that it is very safe. There is clearly a worry that the Arab Spring has made people nervous of travelling here.
We drive a short distance out of town to a village called Ifran for a very late lunch. Its quite similar to a Turkish Restaurant with grilled meats and salad all for about £3.50. Mary, Sue & I are taking turns in buying lunch, ordering different dishes and sharing. Ive opted for the spicy lamb sausages which are delicious. The other choices are Lamb Kebabs and thinly sliced chicken seasoned with turmeric, cumin and coriander leaf also delicious. There is a plate of salads made of cooled cooked vegetables potato salad, beetroot, olives, turmeric rice, baked tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and hot chick peas. We drive on to Tetouan, the WhiteCity on a hill. Its modern and unremarkable. We walk though a pedestrianised street with market stall holders displaying their wares on the pavement. Modern electronic equipment including mobile phones, western clothes of all description arranged artistically on the ground. We are being shown that Morocco is a modern up to date country. We stop to look at a pastry shop and Simo buys a selection of amazing stuff which we all share later on the bus.
We travel through a valley of high ridged mountains. In the gaps between the peaks there are spectacular clouds waiting to sweep over and down on the land. I doze intermittently in the bus starting awake to check on our progress and catch up on the conversation. Simo tells us, prompted by my question, that the main economic earner in Morocco is phosphate mining followed by Agriculture. Before the EU, Morocco supplied Europe with fruit and vege, but has had to find other markets. They are for example the 5th largest producer of olives. Next most important is fishing and Tourism comes fifth.
Its late by the time we get to Chefchouen, a blue city nestled on the side of a mountain. We are staying in a 300 year-old riad, Cassa Hassan. Its all been lovingly restored and embellished with carved wooden lintels, painted wood ceilings and fabulous floor tiles. Part of the charm is its rustic finish, but there is an eye for detail. Rooms on two floors above look down onto a central courtyard with a bubbling fountain embellished by pots of spider plants.
I meet up with Sue and Mary for a pre dinner drink, but as we dont have any tonic for the gin we make do with scotch and water. Evening meal is at nine at a restaurant also owned by Hassan a few doors up the alleyway. Tagine is of course on the menu chicken or lamb with a range of salads and a Moroccan soup which I go for as weve been warned about green salads. The soup is delicious, not unlike minestrone and my meat tagine with apricots and prunes is sweet and full of flavours. Plain fruit salad just completes the meal with sweet mint tea. Its a relief to get into the terracotta shower and wash out the travel and sleep.