Monday, February 18, 2008
Christmas 2007 grandchildren (not all of them)
Today I got my cavity filled
But really it's my cavity wall. Young men splattering my walls with machine gun drills, noises which sound as if my entire outside wall is collapsing, then a weird spirty sound as they fill the gaps with their squirty white foam ...
Mmm, I feel fulfilled - and obviously a great deal hotter....
Strictly Come Dancing
I'd seen an ad on our village 'notice board' - a length of fence in the high street. Off I went to a school in the next village - a class for beginners. I haven't done any for years, so this will be just right, even though I'm a few weeks late. There are plenty of other people there that evening - I join in, introduce myself, pay my fiver, and I'm in luck! There's a new man that evening - J - who hasn't done much, and makes me look good! Pretty soon, we're trotting round the room, getting hotter and hotter - I wish I'd worn less than a thin jumper and soft woolly skirt. Next time, loose summer clothes, I think!
It's a great evening - waltz, foxtrot and cha-cha-cha with variations. I'm away next Wednesday, but they have another class in my village on Tuesdays - tomorrow night!
It'll be the tea dances in Cambridge next.
It's become a habit ....
I haven't finished with Morocco yet. While I'm drinking a cup of coffee, a man approaches - oh dear - he has an official badge, but I'm now rather wary. 'Are you Rosemary?' he asks. It's my middle name, but I say no ..
A while later, I hear my first and middle names broadcast clearly over the loudspeaker, look around for my passport, kick myself for a fool when I can't find it, trail over towards the information desk, and am accosted by the now-stern looking official again. I look suitably apologetic, idiotic (no change there, then) and chastised and accept my passport and boarding card back again. I'd left them at the cafe counter...
The flight back was a rewind of the flight out, and all too soon, I'm landing at Gatwick, and then there's the tiring and tiresome journeying back to Cambridge, finishing with the languid bus trip to my village in frosty wintery sunlight ... I drag my case through the front door to the enthusiastic barking of my dog.
An Arabian Night
On my way down the alleyway to the outside world, I'm about to pass the bloke in the cloak, standing outside a nondescript door in a dark corner. We'd seen him on the two previous nights, when candle lanterns had also been placed from the arch over the alley entrance down towards the door. I had wondered what he was doing there, swirling his black cloak impressively, and returning our 'bonsoirs' courteously. And then the brain clicked - the Riad Alida was said to be opposite the restaurant Dar Marjani, of which there was no sign...
'C'est un restaurant ici?' I asked the bloke in the cloak, who immediately opened the door, and ushered me into .....
Well! No - far more than just a restaurant!
I walked into a massive courtyard, dark, lit only by myriad candles. There was a colonnade around a great circular marble fountain, pink and white roses floating at its edge. White divans were arranged around tiny tables. Beyond the candlelight, rose the thick trunk of a palm with huge overarching fronded leaves, and surrounding it, fruiting orange trees. And above me, way above, was the night sky. It was dark, mysterious, oriental. I'd walked from a tatty back alley, literally into a 19th century Arabian Night palace.
Waiters walked around softly in loose-fitting, deep red, black braided uniforms. And presiding over everything was an impressive woman in a kaftan, quite heavily made up, not young, her long hair unusually loosened around her shoulders. I was ushered to a seat at a low table and invited to have a drink - in a muslim country? Yes, again they're quite relaxed, at least for visitors. Beer? I asked - and was given Moroccan beer. At the next table were a Japanese couple, resolute in not catching my eye - but they were drinking something pale blue, and I asked for a glass of this, too - a cocktail on a fig liqueur base. As I listened to a musician sing and play his stringed guitar-type instrumet, and nibbled on olives, walnuts and popcorn, another couple were shown in to the divan beyond. They smiled at me and shortly after, invited me to join them for dinner - well, yes, of course! I don't mind my own company, but they looked fun. The only thing I was really sorry about, was that S was missing this astonishing experience!
P and F are Australian - obviously my weekend for Aussies! - and it's their 30th wedding anniversary. They've lived in various parts of the world, including Shanghai - and as my eldest daughter is about to go there, I'm interested in what they have to say - all very reassuring, as it happens, which is excellent news.
All too soon, we're all ushered through a pair of tall dark wooden doors on the other side of the fountain, into a smaller, high ceilinged room. This is where we are to dine - on padded, circular, cushioned sofas around large round tables. On each white clothed table red rose petals are strewn, and the initials of the customers are spelled out in scarlet sequins ... Again, it's lit by candles. I'd been told a couple of times, rather anxiously, it had seemed to me, that the menu was fixed, rather than a la carte - which I'd said was fine. What I had completely failed to realise was that a fixed menu meant course after course, wonderfully presented under conical straw hats! I can't remember the order our food was presented - it just kept coming! There was beautifully fluffy couscous with vegetables, melting lamb, pigeon under thin pancakes, a crispy-grilled fish, chicken, circles of filo pastry with honey and ground nuts, sprinkled with milk, and to finish, delicious palate refreshing wafer-thin orange slices in syrup and cinnamon...
And all the time, we are entertained by a couple of musicians playing and dancing (yes, I was pulled up to dance with them) the mystical gnawa music of the mountains. Finally - this makes the men sit up - a smiling belly dancer - the most beautiful young woman in gold-sequinned bra and diaphanous skirt - able to articulate parts of her body I could never dream of attempting .. Several of the men, P included, slip money into the low waistband of her skirt, which she transfers deftly to her bra, without interrupting her dance. In that atmosphere, of good food, good local wine, pooled candlelight and dark shadows and mesmeric music, we are all entranced...
I bid goodbye to P and F, thank them for their great company, and the bloke in the cloak escorts me along to the front door of my riad. I knock, and it's opened by the porter, who assures me a taxi has been ordered for 4.45 in the morning. The evening has been the most astonishing, unexpected finale to a truly foreign country.
And so to bed.
Later that afternoon ...
Marrakesh is noisy - the roads are full of cars, scooters and bikes weaving between them, donkeys pulling little carts, tourists being paraded in caleches (open horse-drawn carriages), people walking anywhere except on the infrequent pavements, perilously crossing roads, shouting, talking, importuning, staring, jostling ... Women and men wear kaftans over trousers, and many women wear a hajib. Some, especially the older women, wear veils - from an under-the-nose job, to a full black veil, floating around the head. Given the amount of attention I receive, I could see an advantage in copying the local costume - and it would make my nosy habit easier... Morocco's quite relaxed about all this - I also see young girls with heads uncovered, wearing western-style clothes and it appears to bother no-one. Good to have the choice, I think. I wander on.
Oh, bother - or words to that effect.. I'm bloody well lost again, aren't I? I turned off the main road by the city wall, and it's that dreaded maze effect all over again ... I haven't even a clue which direction I'm walking in, and I'm not even sure that the little 'Riad Alida' pencilled cross marked on my map is actually in the right place. Which is up, which is down? It's overcast, so I've no idea which is north ... I'm really tired, my legs are grizzling, and I've now got blisters from the flipflops. Ooo poor me!
The narrow claustrophobic alleyways open out into a small square - oh, I recognise this! It's the Place d'Epices, the centre crammed with people selling piles of slippers, hats, carpets, toys - ha! One's being demonstrated - a circular plastic railtrack with two pushalongs. The one in front is Osama bin Laden on wheels. The one behind him - very close behind him! - is a Yank in a tank.
Having been unable to hesitate, let alone stop, to consult my guide book, to avoid being suffocated by potential 'guides', I fall into the Cafe d'Epices and ask directions. Oh, I give up - in the end, of course, I have to rent-a-guide - but at least he's from a relatively known source. Off we charge - he's young and very fit - and dodge and dive through such a twisting selection of alleys, it's like that childhood game of being blindfolded and twirled around - my head spins - or it would if could even think that far. Eventually, we are spat out on to a road I recognise slightly - but it's nowhere near my riad ... The chap assures me it's just down the road. I look sceptical, but he's done his job, yes, yes, this is the road, grabs his money, and vanishes. The trouble with recognising places slightly, is that you never quite know where you've seen them before, nor the context ... I set off in one direction, turn round, and set off in another. Aha! This is it! Triumph! The pink wall, of all pink walls, that leads to my riad! My blisters stop their endless moaning - the end is in sight.
No, it's not. It's a pink wall, alright, but it's not the one I thought it was...
I swear I shall never leave my riad again.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
On my own
I spend the first hour or so up on the roof terrace of the riad - overcast, but warm. I read and doze and read and contemplate how I'm going to spend my day without the protection of a companion. Really, such a drip! I think of the indomitable woman we met last night, gird my loins, don sunnies, cover my shoulders and the magnificent bosom with an all-enveloping pashmina, and sally forth into the souks. I'm determined not to lose my way, and rather in the way of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, I make mental notes and turn round to see what it looks like in reverse. Within a minute, I'm completely lost ...
Two hours later, I totter the long way round along a very main road, check the guide book map, find out roughly where I am, five minutes later, find I'm not where I thought, and so it went on - until again by chance, I happen upon the big pink wall among all big pink walls which I do recognise - and gratefull stagger down the alleyway, into the riad, and flop on my bed.
The Sardine Tombs
Oh, they're Saadian Tombs...
Boiled sheep's heads
As it's his last night, I tell S he can choose whatever he wants - and of course he calls my bluff, and opts for the sheep's heads, and after a bit of stamping my feet, I ....
Then I give in, and say OK...
So then it's his turn to absolutely refuse... hahahahahahahahaha!!!
We're plagued by the touts, who try and find out what nationality we are - for me, their selling points are Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver and the Marks and Spencer of food stalls. When they squeeze out of S that he's from Oz, they're in overdrive: G'diy, mite! Put another shrimp on the barbie, dingo baby, Neighbours is shit!!
We end up at the M&S of outdoor restaurants, bearing a startling resemblance to the rest, and order brochettes of mixed meat, chicken and vegetables. The bill is already building - bowls of salads, and flat bread appear while we wait - and again, you can't refuse them - and again, why should you? The night is warm, if overcast, and it's wonderful to be eating outside under the flaring lights, especially in February.
After a while, we're joined on our bench by a real throwback to the days of Empire. My earlier thought is manifest in a particularly stalwart English lady, of uncertain age and income, a well-seasoned traveller, with suitably exotic tales to match. I never did ask her name, and she's so garrulous, she makes me look as if I've taken a vow of silence... Very entertaining, a right ole cheapskate, totting up her bill several times before admitting defeat, yes, a little of her went a long way, but someone you wouldn't want to miss.
A VERY smooth scam
Back outside, we're wandering around aimlessly again. I remark that there seem to be rather a lot of people in wheelchairs around, when we turn a corner and find ourselves in a small square outside a mosque. A passer-by wags his finger to indicate we aren't allowed inside, which is fair enough - I doubt I'd have been allowed inside any mosque, and it doesn't bother me. The guide book says this mosque is a Lourdes-type equivalent - people come here to be cured. They attach a padlock to the gates, and if/when they're better, they remove the padlock.
The passer-by is quite a cheery fellow, and tells us about the tanneries - just round the corner, he says. Sounds interesting - might just wander by. He then cycles off - how pleasant! Someone not out to fleece us... After all, he didn't ask for any money. So we stroll off round the corner - it's all high walls, narrow streets, and there's our chum and his bike outside a doorway - Hi, he says again, this is my house - just keep walking and you'll get to the tanneries - up that way - he points ahead. Then again, he says, here's my friend who's going that way - he'll show you. First time in Morocco? We nod. His friend looks a decent chap, striding off at quite a rate, hardly caring if we follow him.
After ten or so minutes, round the corner seems to be a rather elastic distance, and we call out to the friend - Not far, not far, he assures us, as we trudge along unmetalled streets, getting, it must be said, rather bored with this. S wants to bail out, but each time he's about to duck down a side alley, so the new best friend turns and beckons us on. It seems rather churlish not to follow such an obliging guide. I warn S we'll have to give him something for his efforts.
And then suddenly, we're inside an open gateway - our passing friend of a friend just happens to have delivered us right into the tannery. We're greeted by the tannery guide - oh, yes, the penny's well and truly dropped by now - pressing much needed bunches of mint into our hands - the stench is truly appalling. Looking round for our guide, he's disappeared - and no money handed over - awww, he was doing it out of the goodness of his heart after all!
Anyway - now we're here - might as well do the tour - free tour, says the guy, as we lurch perilously around many deep concrete pits filled with noxious murky liquids. Pigeon poop, he says - pigeon poop is used in the tanning process - he points to a pigeon loft perched on a nearby roof. It's one of the melange of stinks.. And as usual, I'm wearing shoes appropriate to the event - yep, the little red leather flipflops .. through the nameless sludge surrounding the deathpits. Skins of goat, of camel are thrown into the pits, left to soak, and then some poor bugger jumps in up to his waist and wrings them out before they're dried, dyed and turned into - yes, flipflops ...
All too soon, the tour finishes, timed with the destruction of my bunch of mint, and we're ejected - what, still no money wanted? - on to the street beyond, where we meet - well, I never - but all our old new best friends again, and somehow we're wafted into a - carpet shop!! To the derisive grins of a couple of fellow tourist scammees busy examining the piles of woven carpets, we're ushered into a side room, where the floor is swiftly covered in layers of brightly coloured rugs. A very urbane gentleman in camel coloured polo necked pullover and tweed jacket (tweed jacket!!?) invites us to sit and have some mint tea - free, he assures us, whether we wish to buy anything or not - and offers his opening bid. It's sky high, and my eyes water ... S is equally urbane, polite but firm, and the quality of carpet descends from silk to 'vegetable' silk (?), to something faded, interwoven with grain husks and embroidered with little camels with red eyes. Oh, I LOVE it!! Out of the corner of my mouth, and of course completely unheard by my host, I mutter to S that I'd like to buy it. He asks about my top price, and it's agreed. We're all happy!!
We can only appreciate the whole operation, from the pick up of aimless tourists, the handovers, the lack of hands held out, and of course, the final sting ... still laughing, actually!
Oh, and the carpet looks great, draped over the back of one of my sofas ..
Gropes of wrath - well, annoyance, anyway
Away from the bright lights of the eateries, groups of men crowd round entertainers. The guide book says they're spectacular - fire eaters and so on. I manage to spot one bloke stuffing his face with newspaper then setting fire to it - I wouldn't do it myself, but actually it wasn't that amazing.. He then proceeded to spit out ends of material, and to remove endless strips from his mouth - gasps from the crowd! I pressed forward to watch, ducking round people, until I was wedged rather tightly. All round me were bodies squashed against mine, so when a hand lay alongside my right thigh, I gave it the benefit of the doubt. When it laid itself flat on the front of my thigh, I decided the doubt was misplaced. I turned to look for S - it was pretty dark - and caught sight of him several yards behind me. And as I turned, and left the crowd, so the anonymous hand caressed my bottom ...
I'm not going to cry rape here - but actually I did find it, not at all scary, but very disrespectful. I was wearing plain black trousers and quite a covering top, with a small bit of chest, no cleavage, and let's face it, I'm no chicken. I wanted to say rather sharply whether they would treat their mothers like that ... S said he hadn't noticed what was happening at first, but then saw I was definitely being crowded, and whenever we stopped or lingered, he said men would sidle up sideways and stare down my bosom. Very kindly, he took to draping his arm possessively across my shoulder - didn't stop the looks, but hey I can live with that, but it did stop the gropes. I decided I wouldn't want to walk around at night by myself, even in well lit areas.
Souk it and see
We go into the nearby souk - actually, the most impenetrable maze of adjoining souks. I guess once upon a time they were separate specialist markets, but over the years, and with the last century's influx of dissolute hippy-ish tourists, they've now become a massive souvenir-fest of small stalls crammed with tourist tat. It's great fun! But don't hesitate near a stall or catch anyone's eye - or you're lost! It's an invitation to treat, and you're lucky if you escape with your purse unmolested. Everyone is very persistent, but it's not offensive - we're most people's only source of income, after all, so who can blame a persuasive would-be seller? Shades of stout-hearted no-nonsense British empire women travellers wash through my head... I've read too many old travel books, I think.
How lucky I am to have S with me - it turns out he's a master bargainer. None of that rather nasty beat the swindling natives down arrogance - oh no - he's infinitely polite, and rather self-effacing. My favourite expression of his - now learnt by heart - is 'I don't want to embarrass you with my very low offer ...' so no-one loses face. Oh, maybe I should add here - S has lived and worked in Taiwan and China, speaks Chinese, has a masters in some area of Oriental studies and understands all about losing face. I'm in an excellent position - I can fade into the background and watch. A woman, even a foreign woman, in a relaxed Muslim country like this, isn't expected to take part in negotiations, unless she wants to - and I'm a natural spectator.
S buys a pair of red flip flops for me - look, free (ha!), hand made, Berber, leather - they've sorted out the keywords that will appeal - never mind they're as mass-produced as anything we now buy from China... I'm wearing them as I type this - and I look down, as the red dyes my feet, and at the sparkly decoration on the thongs - pretty! He buys a belt for himself. There are lots of leather goods, metal work, coloured glass lamps, carpets (of course), and a small sadness creeps and seeps - we can buy most of these things in the UK - the novelty is thinner ...
Oh we're lost! Sometimes, as we wander all through the afternoon, I recognise various stalls - the red pottery one, the large 'antique' metalwares with S's favourite huge copper bath outside - the sweets and patisseries stall covered in wasps.. (I buy a bag of mixed small pastries - wasps don't bother me - and munch a few - sooooooo sweet, my teeth cringe!) S decides we'll take a left turn every time we have to chose. He's poring over his guide book, but I think he's making it up - we don't know which is north, we really just don't know where we are ...
But eventually, when our legs are really tired, even with a stop for tea a la menthe - syrupy toothpaste - at the Cafe d'Epices, we stumble out of the enless maze, and astonishingly, aren't that far from our riad.
Finding somewhere to stay
We're adopted by one young boy in a scarlet jumper, bottle-bottom glasses and a delightful grin - a real charmer, astride his bike - whose second attempt down a convoluted dark alleyway, knocking on a faceless front door in a high mud wall, produces a miracle.. It's a mini Arabian Nights of a hotel - a courtyard open three floors up to the sky, a collonaded area round a blue tesselated pool, rose petals strewn over tiny tables, and the bedroom doors in dark wood opening off this beautiful enclosed area. And we're the only people to be staying here. We've changed a bit of money at the airport, but have no small change - our escort does well out of us - S says he should do a trick as well tsk - but I think it's money well spent. May I advertise? Go to www.riadalida.com.
Come with me to the Casbah
Well, of course I went ... I'd never been, the flights were pretty cheap, S sounded fun, interesting, a once and former backpacker from Oz, young enough to be my son, and appeared to have safely buried his axe collection. We exchanged quite a few emails and met up on the eve of the flight to have dinner in a public place. After all, there always was the slight possibility he might have recoiled in horror..
... but neither of us did, and spent a pleasant evening shouting over the noise of a Covent Garden restaurant. You know how it is - some people you just get on with.
I'd kind of invited myself to his place for the night (bunking on a platonic couch), as we were flying from Gatwick, and it's a pain to get there from the Eastern Counties for same day flying. In the taxi, nearly at his flat, he remarks how lightly I travel. Yep, it's something I pride myself on - but glancing down at the taxi floor, it strikes me I started the day with more than the tiny red overnight bag. Oh f**k, done it again - I see the little suitcase on wheels tucked behind the restaurant door in Covent Garden. The taxi driver is deeply upset at having to charge us so much to return, grab the bag, and drive back to Hackney...
Then off to Gatwick early the next morning. We're talking so much on the train, S wonders whether we've forgotten to get off at the right station - bit of an anxious time, as the train gallops further and further south, and oh the relief, when the next stop is the Gatwick stop. We grab ALL our luggage and jump out quickly. Up to the terminals, queue, then find the right queue, and having cut it all a bit fine, are through passport control, strip search control, and on to the not-very-full plane. Flying over patchwork greens and the South Downs of Blighty (have to explain that one to an Aussie), then out in the sunshine across the blue sea, over the west coast of France, across Spain and the Straits of Gibraltar, then greens, ochres and browns and oases of Morocco. We're heading for Marrakesh - spotting bits of the snow peaked Atlas mountains, then descending - irrigated orange trees, palms, brown buildings, new Lego buildings, snakey roads, the runway and down.. The airport is very modern - they're still building it for the millions of tourists needed for the country's economy.
We haven't booked anywhere to stay, so pick a riad at random from the guide book - the taxi drivers speak French, but that doesn't mean they're actually going to take you to where you've chosen, if it isn't one of the new hotels. We're dropped at a corner in the old, ramparted town, where he says we now have to walk up a wide alleyway full of small rundown shopfronts - very close by, 2, 300 metres... Oh, and he charges extra for my case ....