Wednesday, February 14, 2007

in which we visit famous film settings in Morocco and then cross to Spain

from John:

Bonsoir, or should I say Buenas Tardes, as I write from Granada, freshly bathed and laundered, fed and watered. We arrived here on Monday afternoon after a "fast boat" across the Straits of Gibraltar and a comfortable bus ride from Algeçiras. Not wishing to break from all things Moroccan, we thought we´d check out their legacy here in Spain. However, we draw a line at Tagine.

From Marrakesh we had headed west to Essaouira on the coast - a small fishing port with old Portuguese fort walls and now a quiet touristy little town. Orson Welle´s Othello opens with a scene shot on the ramparts here, and a small square has been named in his honour. We were pursued into the old town from the bus station by two touts - one an older woman who had a room in her nice house, and the other a young fella in a bright red hoodie who had a room in his nice house. We blanked them completely, but they took it in turns to accompany us on the long walk until they finally turned on each other. We left them having a screaming match in the souk. Having so bravely fought them off, we then got hooked by a smooth talking boogaloo who took us to his cheap hotel, which turned out to be a room in someone else´s nice house. There is an art to touting, and you´ve either got it or you haven´t.
After a restful few days walking the windy beach and windy plazas and windy streets we went north to El-Jadida, another old Portuguese port which now serves as a snazzy resort to Casablancans. When I say snazzy, I mean by Moroccan standards. The old walled town still has great ramparts and a wonderful vaulted cistern for water storage, which also features in Welles´ Othello. The rest of it looked like a slum, full of children playing. In the evening we promenaded with everyone else, ate and shopped in the large souk. In the meat section we came across two cow´s heads perched at the foot of a counter, their tongues lolling out of the corner of their mouths. Above them hung their feet. We watched someone buy a chicken: she picked it out as it scratched around the floor of the shop. The man weighed it, took it to the back to kill it and dip it in scalding water to remove the feathers. Although we´ve had the odd ropey chicken (in one restaurant we could´ve tied them together and dropped them out of the window to make our escape), most of the time they´ve been remarkably good - now we know how fresh they are.
Casablanca was described to us by an enthusiastic Moroccan as something akin to New York. There is lots of traffic, true, and neither of us have visited New York, so he gets the benefit of our often applied doubt. We didn´t stay. It is famous for having one tourist attraction - the enormous and splendid Hassan II Mosque. It is the 3rd largest in the world, built by 25,000 craftsmen working 24 hours non-stop in 6 years, with a capacity of 40,000. Or was it the 6th largest built by 24 craftsmen working 3 hours in 40,000 years with ........? To be honest I didn´t really listen to the tour guide, since I spent most of the time wandering around face upwards admiring the tilework, stucco, marble and woodcarving. It is quite remarkable from the outside alone - sat on a slum clearance site at the sea´s edge, away from the sludge of the city. Moroccans had to contribute to the construction of this stunning building/ despot´s folly (depending on your point of view), and I am quite sure our guide didn´t actually say how much it cost to build. Having seen some of the poorer south, it did appear rather extravagant - reminded me of the great gold-encrusted cathedrals of South America.
The same day we moved on to Rabat - calmer and cleaner. The coastal plains here are covered in green fields - kinder on the eye and a relief after the dry south. The fields roll down to the beach and many are still farmed by hand, ploughed by cows or mules. It made us think of what Highland crofts might have looked like (on a sunny day). It´s our second time in the capital and we explored some of the familiar streets. Although it´s been two years, the same people are serving in the same restaurants or stalls, as in Marrakesh. We feel like time-travellers. We swap our guide book for two penguin classics. Who needs a guidebook second time around?
Onwards to Meknes, the country´s third Imperial City - built by a sultan who had to murder 83 half-brothers to safeguard his right to rule. He ransacked Marrakesh and Fes and the nearby Roman remains of Volubilis to build his new capital in the 17th century. Nice man, by all accounts. We popped in and said hello at his mausoleum. We also visited a huge granary - an arched warehouse basically, most of it now ruined - built to store the grain to feed his 12,000 horses. This apparently was used in The Last Temptation of Christ. And then onto Volubilis, out in the lovely green hills. Not much left of it, and UNESCO have labelled it a World Heritage Site, which doesn´t stop the ticket seller trying to short-change the excitable and inattentive tourist. It´s main feature is the large number of mosaic floors that have survived and remain in-situ. They filmed some of Carry On Cleopatra here. It was a lovely day out, by all accounts.
We had taken an en-suite room in a hotel that could not deliver hot water - it took us 36 hours to be told that hot water was only available after 9.30pm. We knew it had to exist because the foyer, lift shaft, corridors and rooms were constantly filled with the smell of woodsmoke. On occasion it billowed past our bedroom window. Sure enough at 9.30 prompt, the water was boiling.
From Meknes we took the comfortable train to sad Tanger and revisited a funky hotel near to the docks. We had the same room and I had the same sensation that I´d felt last time when we went to buy our ferry tickets - a combination of relief and faint regret. For despite all the wonderful sights, the film sets, the street scenes and kind people, there is the knowledge that all the other travelling hassles will not exist in Spain.........................

P.S. okay, I was kidding about Carry On Cleo

Moroccan conversations - a Blue Peter post

from John:

Gayle tells me my posts should be more pithy, which reminds me that the oranges here are just fabulous - sold with their stalks on, and dusty looking, but inside juicy and sweet and all for the bargain price of 25 pence a kilo. Anyway, here´s one I prepared earlier............

We've had an interesting few weeks here, but struggled daily with the good ol' Moroccan ways of over-charging or short-changing. There is no sign of crime here against tourists in the form of mugging, bag-snatching or pickpocketing, which is quite remarkable considering the huge differences in wealth within society and between the tourists and locals. There are many people begging: children, mothers with babies, old ladies and tramps - a country that should prepare us for the poverty of India, but quite shocking so close to home. As a visitor, we are frequently subjected to minor hustles, especially at the bus stations, but even in posh cafes. We have resorted to always checking the price of everything everywhere before purchase to avoid being scammed. However, for each time we have been over-charged or short-changed there are 5 or 6 instances where we have been indulged for our lousy french and treated kindly. We can't drop our guard though, which means that we treat anyone who approaches us as someone who is out to make money from us. As someone wrote - it's as if we are covered in dollar signs and have the word 'swag' emblazoned on our bags.

There have been a couple of times when we've been able to chat to locals without hassle. The first time was with the hotel owner and super bad cook, Hussein, from the Todra Gorge. After our evening meal, which was an effort in itself, we talked at length in French, leaving us quite exhausted. We asked lots of questions and he was eager to talk - the French satellite TV programmes made Channel Five look good. Hussein is Berber, as are about 70 per cent of the population, although many see it as a stigma - the Arabs have always looked down on Berbers as hillbillies, and their culture has been gradually eroded. Berber names were banned many years ago, and only arabic and french is used in schools. However, the current king is half-Berber, so things may change. Gayle asked Hussein about marriage across the two racial groups, what would he think if his daughter wanted to marry a Frenchman, and about women's rights. He loved these questions - said he had an arranged marriage, but these days things were different, people married for love, or occasionally money. He knew a young man who had married an old French woman, but returned to the area after a couple of years. He drifted on to the new consumerism that had his family in its grip - too many mobile phones, a TV, "la femme chez nous" (Her Indoors) no longer wanted to look after the cow and tend the fields, but wanted to buy jewellery and makeup and a washing machine. (Where were the cows? We hadn't seen a single on. Kept at the house apparently, so they wouldn't eat everything in the fields). Gayle also asked about the migrant workers working in Europe - did they prefer Europe or here? Hussein explained that he loved his simple life here, no pressures, a comfortable life in the country, not like the long hours in awful jobs that his neighbours had left to do.
However, on a bus journey to El-Jadida we met a Moroccan who was working in Spain, and had been for some years. He got chatting to Gayle at a stop in Spanish (he spoke little French), and when we got off at the same place (once again dumped at a roundabout) he suggested we share a taxi to the bus station. At first we were a little wary, but he seemed genuine. So we piled into a Peugeot 106 with our rucksacks perched on the roofrack, and the taxi screamed off..............and stopped about 150 metres down the road, rather embarrassingly. Said paid the fare and insisted we have a tea with him at the station café. But they had no tea, so I had a coffee and Gayle and he had lemon verbena, which is fairly common round here. We chatted in our rusty Spanish - Said was home for a month visiting family. Gayle got stuck in straight away and asked him how much he earned in Spain. "Mucho mas que aqui!" Much more than here! He worked in construction and said that the average daily income in Morocco was 5 euros. Did he like Spain? It was much better than here, here there was nothing for him but family. He pointed at the grotty street, the broken pavement, the porters with their wheelbarrows, the dirty buses belching exhaust - the usual city landscape - and told us it was better in Spain. But how were the Spanish with Moroccans? Ah, well, there was quite a bit of racism, from all but a few. He'd heard from a friend that Switzerland was a nice place to live, so that was his aim. He insisted on paying for the drinks and we bade him farewell and suerte.
Back in Marrakesh we had also been treated with unbidden hospitality by a stranger - a young woman whom we sat next to at a fish and chip stall in the main square one evening. Gayle got chatting to her (where does she get it from?) - she came from Rabat, where her baby was being looked after by her mum, whilst she worked in a good job at a posh hotel in Marrakesh. (We later looked it up in the guidebook - it was the author's choice!) Her husband worked in Ourzazate during high season. We munched our way through our food and then she offered to pay so that we didn't get overcharged. But when we left, she refused to take our money! We carried on talking and she took us to a posh cafe and we bought her a coffee in poor return. Ikram was wearing a headscarf so Gayle asked her what she thought of the women who didn't. She didn't care, and had only begun to wear hers after marriage, before that she didn't bother. One advantage was you didn't have to bother with your hair. She had grown up with French neighbours in Rabat, and her middle sister was completely westernised. She only went home on her "weekend" - she couldn't find such a good job in Rabat. (Most of the tourist money was being spent in Marrakesh we thought.)
We finished our drinks and I paid. The waiter not only tried to pass me a euro in my change, but also short-changed me. We had mentioned this to Ikram, so it was quite funny it actually happened. She said it happened to her too, but then she was a very kind woman. To our embarrassment she asked us how long our holiday was for - when would be home? That took a bit of explaining. She offered us accomodation if we ever visited again, and after swapping e-mail addresses we parted.

Afterwards we ambled around feeling very glad to have talked with her - this really makes the travelling more rewarding - and perhaps we felt a little more self-concious about ourselves and having the opportunity and wealth to do this. Perhaps we really are carrying that swag after all........

a tout a l´heure

Friday, February 2, 2007

in which we cross the High Atlas and return to Marrakech

from John:

We had asked about buses from Taroudannt to Ourzazate the night before and were told 10am in the bus park at the city gates. Could we buy a ticket? Get it on the bus, came the reply. We duly arrived 15 minutes early and waited at the appointed spot. Various blokes wondered past, looked us up and down and asked "Ourzazate? Ten o'clock." Ten o'clock came. And went. We spotted two more gringos also loitering in the vicinity and looking equally abandoned. Groups of Moroccans sat waiting in the shade. No sign of any buses actually going anywhere. And then a creaky old bus pulled in sudddenly, belching blue fumes and dust, and some of the men hanging around burst into life, waving and shouting at us:"Ourzazate!Ourzazate!Ourzazate!" People struggled to get off the bus and beyond an eager clutch of porters with wheelbarrows, whilst we zoned in on the Bus Man, all the while tugged and pulled by these men screaming in our ears "Ourzazate!Ourzazate!Ourzazate!" We purchased our tickets from the Bus Man, as the touts who had attached themselves to us clamoured for their cut. Our rucksacks were slung onto the roof while Gayle shoved aboard to find two seats at the back. The Bus Boy responsible for baggage demanded money for the rucksacks. I pulled a face and gave him half the asking price and climbed aboard. A few more boarded, searched for seats, got off, got on again. Bus Man and Bus Boy walked down the bus, checked every seat was occupied, shouted to the driver and we roared off in a bigger cloud of fumes and dust. Bon voyage!

The road ran parallel with the distant mountains of the High Atlas through a dry flat valley, everything looking brown and dusty. The driver put on a tape of someone half-singing a recitation from the Koran. It suited the landscape.

Ourzazate is a fairly sprawling new town that has boomed with some government investment and money from the film studios that operate here. Numerous Hollywood films have been filmed here, from Lawrence of Arabia to Gladiator. Not much for the visitor to see, but a good place to break our journey. We carried on the next day to Tinehir, further east. It was cloudy and chilly and Tinehir had a shabby look about it. North of here lies a green fertile valley and the Todra gorge, formed by one of the rivers coming down from the mountains. We spent a quiet day pottering about the town, and finally headed up the green valley the following day. There were villages alongside both sides of a thick green band of palm trees and fields - a visual relief amongst the endless brown. We stopped at an empty hotel and then set off up the valley on foot through the palmery before lunch. It was sunny but not too hot, which was a good thing because our little walk turned into something of an epic.

The palmery was divided up into small plots of land, separated by irrigation channels. There were date palms on the edges and clover being grown in the fields. Higher up the valley it opened up a little and there were almond trees too. It reminded us of some of the valleys we had walked in Nepal - a very peaceful place. We passed through a couple of villages, threading a way through their labyrinthine streets until we came to the gorge, where the valley walls almost touched. They were maybe two hundred metres high and not much sun seemed to get in. Unfortunately it is spoiled by two hotels where coach tourist disembark for lunch. Stalls were set up selling all the usual Moroccan tourist goods. I think I preferred the palmery. We'd had an egg butty and then followed a brief description from our guide book for a two hour walk, climbing out of the main valley, looping back round over two high passes and returning to one of the villages we had passed. The description was a bit vague and once we'd reached the top, with great views across the rocky ridges all around, we dithered about the route down, but found a path that seemed well-trodden and stuck to that. We passed a couple of nomad tents, nestled high up in the crannies. These people were goat herds and had temporary shelters in quite high and very dry places. We finally reached a dividing point in the path and could see the descent down to the village. However, the other path was going in the direction of where we thought we would return to the main valley by our hotel, so we took that instead. The path had been marked with stones and there was evidence of mules i.e. mule shit, so we felt fairly confident. We descended a small valley for a while on a path above the dry riverbed, where we spotted some other gringos descending. Our path crossed the valley and climbed around a bend, finally reaching a pass appearing to go in the wrong direction. The path onwards seemed indistinct. We hummed and hawed. Down below us in the dry riverbed we could see the others, so we decided to drop down and follow them. We caught up with them trying to descend down a dry waterfall. There were two fellas and two women, and the women refused to climb down. I didn't even want to look! We talked, they looked tired and we were all conscious that the sun was dropping and we were running out of time. We suggested that we should climb back up to our path and have a look over the pass. The men were doubtful, but they hadn't even been on the path, so they weren't as confident as us. From the pass we looked down a steep drop to a wide flat dry riverbed. We did a quick reconnaisance, spotted the path continuing alongside the dry river and heading in the right direction so we took it. Eventually, after a long walk out, we emerged onto the road of the main valley right beside our hotel. It was six o'clock. The others had another three miles to walk to their village, but at least they were no longer lost.
Unfortunately out tagine that night did not do justice to the appetite we had built up. The chicken was one of those yellow rubbery comedy affairs. The hotel owner was a nice talkative man but in the morning we decided not to have breakfast and he looked as relieved as we felt at the decision. I guess cooking wasn't his thing.

We returned to Ourzazate where the grey clouds finally turned to rain. It rained for a whole day and night, and it left a layer of snow on the mountains to our north. After a day of pottering we then took the bus back to Marrakesh, on a road that wound its way up to a high pass through the snow covered valleys that looked beautiful in the morning sunshine. We then descended a busy and rather hairy stretch until the valley opened out onto a huge green basin. The bus finally reached the plain, and we trundled back into the big congested city. It felt lively and busy after all the small towns we had visited, but the familiar sights and sounds were also welcome. We returned to our little hotel on Cheap Hotel Alley, ready to recuperate.

Au revoir