A Full Blown Bumpy Train Track in Burma

 Happy Dale - she wrestled the windows to the floor and got the fresh air...

Happy Dale - she wrestled the windows to the floor and got the fresh air...

The runaway train came down the track and she blew… 

I hadn’t thought of that song since childhood but it flew into my mind as we rattled along on the train to Mandalay.

I was travelling in Burma with my daughters Dale and Alice, and Ben, Alice’s friend.  We arrived early at the station in Rangoon. I said I’d booked sleepers…  Oh well, my mistake, I must have booked reclining seats…  Surely?

I wanted to do this trip because my grandfather, Jimmy, did it in 1908. I'm sure he managed to organise a sleeper - I imagine him in a spartan but clean and comfortable teak carriage with brass fittings and plush curtains. He wrote precious little about it except that there were any amount of pagodas and rice paddies to be seen. That hadn't changed.

The carriages were gloomy and dilapidated, the seats decidedly fixed, but with nice clean seat covers.

I jumped when Dale unclicked her window and pushed hard to slide it down with a resounding bang. I shouldn't have been surprised - the first thing Dale does entering an enclosed space is make for any aperture and wrench it open as if she'd just entered a vacuum. I'm nervous with her in lifts in case she spies the emergency hatch.

The train took off with a hoot and a barrage of rapid-fire tortured metal crashes. The small neon tubes stopped flickering once we got going, the old-fashioned fans did an excellent job and the slip-stream quickly filled the chewing-gum-green polyester curtains and made them flutter madly; a theatrical touch as the train gathered speed - clickity-clack.

This was no pottering old train, we charged along, rolling and rattling, shaking and bouncing.

The doors at the end of the carriages alternately flapped open and banged shut the whole journey. The engine tore ahead, but the carriages were not letting up the chase. A change in engine tempo brought ear-shattering bangs and bonks as the carriages careened together. The carriages are old Chinese rolling stock originally made for a wider rail gauge which is why there is so much play and swing.

 This was our upper class carriage. Chewing-gum-green is a local favourite. It was the colour of the curtains in the trains and of the squashy synthetic matting in pagodas.   

This was our upper class carriage. Chewing-gum-green is a local favourite. It was the colour of the curtains in the trains and of the squashy synthetic matting in pagodas.

 

Heave-ho! Smokers Go!

Clouds of pungent smoke curled over us from the thick cheroot of a portly local gent sitting behind us.  We pointed indignantly to the no-smoking signs and he signaled just one.  A little later the motion got to him and he was desperately in need of the sea-sickness pills that I'd read passengers sometimes needed on this trip. I wondered if we should have let him carry on smoking! Ben and Alice rapidly decamped to another seat.

Other than the woes of the poor old fellow behind, our fellow passengers were delightful. A monk watching boxing on his mobile-phone made us smile.

Dale likened it to flying on a wobble board.

I gave up trying to take photos or read my book.  Even more reason to admire the girls that cat-walked up the carriage with tin salvers of rice-filled wraps on their heads, calling out their wares. The food sellers changed at each station and brought different specialties. Durian, huge, spiky fruit bound up with pink ribbon for ease of handling; water and soft drinks. Little roasted birds on skewers made us all qualmish yet cellophane-wrapped strips of dried fish splayed out from the tail fin didn't evoke the same emotion. Huge lumpy guavas; rice and crayfish wrapped in bamboo leaves and hot cobs of corn.  A man with an enormous thermos waved sachets of Nescafé and others hawkers bristled with plastic pods of biscuits and chips.

 Ben juggling hot corn cobs and a plastic bag with butter which was getting beyond its use-by-date.

Ben juggling hot corn cobs and a plastic bag with butter which was getting beyond its use-by-date.

Sleep wasn’t easy, we all had restless legs, whatever position we took up.  We got on the train drenched from monsoon rain and the question was whether to keep our soaking shoes on or reveal our water-logged feet, pale and creepy.  I recalled that it was terribly rude to point with  feet in parts of Asia and felt going to sleep with bare feet in the contorted positions we are adopting, we could easily make a cultural faux pas.

Yet even as the train bucked along - and at times I swore it left the track altogether - the clickity-clack beat a lullaby rhythm and rocked us to sleep. We woke now and then to stretch and peer into the darkness at a floodlit golden pagoda keeping watch over the flatness and blackness outside. Each body-stir excited the food vendors who never gave up trying.

 Ben and Alice said they got no sleep.................

Ben and Alice said they got no sleep.................

Once daylight had woken everyone up, two monks appeared at the front of our carriage. The first held before him a white and silver Buddha – the head sparkling with a battery-operated casino of led-lights -  blue, green and red. The monk stood, strangely still as the floor pranced beneath his leather sandals, and then began to walk slowly up the carriage, while his side-kick behind clanged rhythmically on a metal symbol.

“I think we’ve been blessed,” said Ben. 

Spot on Ben. I hope none of us had feet pointing his way.

The runaway train came down the track, her whistle wide and her throttle back, And she blew, blew,
blew, blew, blew.

 

Wet Lips and Wet Feet in Rangoon's Monsoon

 Fabulous flower stalls in Rangoon shine however much mist and monsoon rain tumble down!

Fabulous flower stalls in Rangoon shine however much mist and monsoon rain tumble down!

Delight’s guaranteed when I get to travel with any one of my daughter quartet. A couple of months back in Myanmar I scored a double - Dale and Alice joined me, as well as Ben, Alice’s boyfriend.

 My travel companions, Alice, Dale and Ben

My travel companions, Alice, Dale and Ben

Our itinerary?

Our touring options were limited by the monsoon season and compounded by a dearth of planning. Dale wanted beaches, Ben the Himalayas and I, the Irrawaddy. We did none of these.  Alice didn’t want collision course road-trips in clapped-out cars, night buses and hiking.  We did all of those.

Footsteps

One reason I’d suggested we meet up in Burma was because it was one of the few places my maternal grandfather Jimmy had visited that I had not already, albeit inadvertently, visited too.

It was only recently that I re-read the letters he wrote home to Glasgow from a round-the-world trip in 1907 and realised how many times our footsteps had crossed. I thought it would be a great deal of fun to make them a connection point and continue to put my feet in his shoes, observing the then and now, associating events, paralleling and distinguishing experiences. It has led to a great deal of conversation with the dead man… which is rather nice, as I never got to know him when he was alive.

 My materal Grandfather, Jimmy

My materal Grandfather, Jimmy

His father’s firm in Glasgow made bronze and brass marine and engine fittings for customers all over the British Empire and beyond.  When Jimmy visited Rangoon all he wrote was that he bumped into an old acquaintance in the lobby of his hotel and that there were "any amount of pagodas..." One was so large that, "covered from top to bottom with gold it can be seen from a great distance sparkling in the sun."

Rangoon

We only had one full day in Rangoon which the military junta renamed Yangon. I continue to call it Rangoon as do many Burmese as a way of thumbing their noses at the Generals and it sounds more musical to my ear. 

Rangoon in a monsoon - slippery pavements, downpours sheeting off conical bamboo hats, the scattered petals of rain-smashed flowers and business as usual. Every day rain drums on tin roofs, puddles on the top of plastic shelters and washes across the streets, heaping debris into low barricades and gurgling down the gutters. 

We walked the streets lined with crumbling colonial-era buildings. (I have to admit to being as fascinated as I am embarrassed by the remains of Empire.) 

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Jimmy's visit coincided with the city's colonial heyday when its infrastructure and public services were every bit as good as in his Scottish home town.

Hundreds of buildings from that era survive near the river downtown. Survive is the operative word; many are abandoned and while the roots of the banyans smooch the sidewalks, disrupting paving stones and dismantling drains, above their branches curl up the once-stately buildings, creep through ruined window frames and finger crumbling balconies. Spongy emerald moss sneaks up another brick in the wall each day of the monsoon hosting the creeping decay.

We’d barely reached halfway on our colonial walk when the rain came sweeping in, swerving off the Bodi trees to pour its libation over the streetwalks. The locals have their umbrellas primed on a hair-trigger and, with an ageless hitch to their longyis, can, in a flash, flap open plastic tarps with a rewarding crack and drop them expertly over their market wares.  

Some shelter!

We made a mad dash for shelter and found ourselves under the portico of the Strand Hotel.

 Alice trying to shake the rain out of her ear in the shelter of the Strand's portico.

Alice trying to shake the rain out of her ear in the shelter of the Strand's portico.

First opened in 1901, like Raffles in Singapore and The Peninsula in Hong Kong, it was dubbed the finest hostelry east of the Suez. Jimmy? There’s little doubt that’s where he stayed – it was where every well-heeled business traveller headed.

The Strand Hotel

The iconic Strand Hotel has recently been renovated in a classic colonial style with an acquired panache which outstrips historic reality. Yet there is enough heritage to fool the gullible creative like me.  I loved the black rattan chairs and striped upholstery, the white marble flooring, ceiling fans and chandeliers. I asked the concierge in the Grand Lobby if the hotel had records going back to 1907 but of course they didn’t. Nothing much survived the WWII Japanese occupation and neglect thereafter.

 Dale and Alice in the Strand lobby.

Dale and Alice in the Strand lobby.

We were all jet-lagged and outside it still poured. So we repaired to the hotel’s legendary Sarkies Bar where adventurers and explorers have hung out for over a century. There we sank into comfortable chairs and took delight in our own company amid the carefully crafted teak-edged opulence.

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“A toast to Jimmy is required.” I said.

“Cocktails,” said Alice.

 Alice with the cocktail menu in Sarkies Bar

Alice with the cocktail menu in Sarkies Bar

We spent a decadent afternoon working our way through the Strand’s Cocktail menu: Negroni, Margarita, Russians various and Ben’s tipple, Expresso Martini.

Next day we just got wet feet

It continued to pour when we visited the Shwedagon Paya – the pagoda that Jimmy mentioned that dominates the city. It is one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites and, legend says, the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. It has survived divine and human insult, although the earthquakes and invaders took a toll. The British dug down attempting to turn it into a gunpowder magazine. Then they made it a military HQ for almost a century. And when they allowed the Burmese to return to their iconic site, European visitors and the British troops posted at the pagoda refused to accede to removing their shoes. What were the British thinking? I cringed and hoped Jimmy had removed his brogues.

 Wet and shiny ...

Wet and shiny ...

The rain lashed the marble terraces and we squelched the circuit around the golden stupa on soggy foam mats spread over white marble slabs. It was hard to be reflective, with the paper pages of the tourist map disintegrating in our hands and creepy chewing-gum green sponge beneath our bare feet – but we stuck pretty closely to the route as going off-piste was fraught with danger for the wet marble was like a skating rink!

 Clockwise from top left: Backs to Buddha - and another convert to social media. A more traditional interaction between a monk and a young girl and I stand by while Alice reads all about it before the paper map finally falls to pieces. All cycles!

Clockwise from top left: Backs to Buddha - and another convert to social media. A more traditional interaction between a monk and a young girl and I stand by while Alice reads all about it before the paper map finally falls to pieces. All cycles!

We did not see the Shwedagon Paya sparkling in the sun as my grandfather encountered it, nevertheless, when we looked up the mist gave the gold a soft luster and it glowed softly biding its time yet again until the monsoon was over. 

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And from there we went to catch our train to Mandalay... a tale for another day.

 

Photo Credits: Thanks Dale, Ben and Alice for sharing photos!

Threads of Hong Kong's past renewed

 Neon Light - Courtesy of the artist Wattana Wattanapun. www.wattana-art.com.  On display in the Wattana Gallery, Chiang Mai, Thailand.  I found this portrait of a girl in neon quite haunting. It reminded me of a side of Hong Kong that I am glad is past, but it seems perhaps although the neon lights of the girlie-bars in Hong Kong have gone, the exploitation of young women continues relentlessly on.

Neon Light - Courtesy of the artist Wattana Wattanapun. www.wattana-art.com.  On display in the Wattana Gallery, Chiang Mai, Thailand.  I found this portrait of a girl in neon quite haunting. It reminded me of a side of Hong Kong that I am glad is past, but it seems perhaps although the neon lights of the girlie-bars in Hong Kong have gone, the exploitation of young women continues relentlessly on.

I just been visiting Hong Kong with my daughter, Dale...

I lived in Hong Kong in the 1960s. The Vietnam War was at its height and droves of American servicemen on R&R - Rest and Recreation - visited Hong Kong on furloughs of a few days. Snatched from the battlefield, hours later they were high on hormones, booze and pills in hedonistic Hong Kong.  As one patron explained to me, it wasn't that there was not sex-for-sale in Saigon, but the choice was much broader in Hong Kong; White Russians, Americans and Brits joined girls-on-the-game from all over South East Asia. There was no curfew either and no war to wake up to.

That clientele has long disappeared. The demand will always be there, but now the sex industry is heavily regulated and operates so discreetly I thought it really had disappeared. But of course it hasn't.

Nevertheless, another wave of exploitation followed after Vietnam. And again, the exploited were young women.

Uncomfortable meeting places...

In a pedestrian underpass in Central, Hong Kong’s CBD, Dale and I came across hundreds of women, sitting on sheets of cardboard, lining both sides of the long tunnel. We thought that there must be some kind of protest underway, but the groups were obviously social, centred around thermos flasks of tea and snacks. Nearby young women were handing out evangelical pamphlets.  

Further on, under a flyover, we found groups of young Muslim girls intent on studying religious scripts.  I was very surprised at the number of hijabs and headscarves I had seen around.  I just didn’t remember Hong Kong having a noticeable Muslim population. 

 Original trams, KFC and a young girl on the streets of Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

Original trams, KFC and a young girl on the streets of Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

A friend gave us the simple explanation...

The girls were imported domestic workers with no-where to go on their day off. 

In the late 1960s, a good Chinese amah was highly sought after. Competition from factories that paid higher wages was depleting the pool of domestic workers while the demand was rising as more well-paid women entered the workforce. My friend said that in the 1970s, the situation became critical and Hong Kong started recruiting young girls from far away as household maids. The first wave was from the Philippines - many were evangelical Christians. The second wave was from Indonesia. The ripples continue on with new generations of girls arriving. All are on short-term contracts and are not subject to Hong Kong’s labour laws. Stories of exploitation and abuse are rife.

The girls come to Hong Kong, full of hope and optimism - with expectations that are seldom met. They need to work for a couple of years just to pay off the debts they incur getting the job. And often they are kicked out before they have a chance to reap any benefit at all. In any case, any savings are remitted to their families.

No home to go to...

I felt saddened. The Chinese amahs I knew were part of the fabric of the family. Tough old birds who to a certain extent ruled the roost and certainly joined in the gossip. They had homes to go to – family members strung out over the Colony and the mainland.

For these new girls, it is very different.  They have no family, no homes to go to, nowhere to spend time off and they don't have enough disposable income to meet friends in comfort in a cafe. 

So they gather in the gloomy concrete underworld of an inhospitable city. 

They have a dream...

My friend told us it is said the girls dream of falling in love and being spirited out of their predicament. It virtually never happens yet folklore fuels the hope that a wealthy foreigner – unlike Hongkongers who give the girls a wide-berth - will fall for them.           

“It can happen, a young amah from the house of my great-grandmother married the son of a French diplomat,” my friend said. Anecdotes like that keep the flame alive.

Connections to The World of Suzie Wong...

A book published in the 1950s - The World of Suzie Wong, told of an improbable fifties romance between a penniless English artist and a Wanchai bar girl.  It became an iconic, though twisted, representation of Hong Kong's girlie bar culture.

In the 21 Century, religious house-maids imported into in a grown-up and rather prim Hong Kong share the same dreams.

Synchronicity...

I started writing this blog once I reached Chiang Mai, Thailand where I am staying for a couple of weeks.  Without any idea of the collection on view, I visited the Wattana Art Gallery, built especially to house the collection of Wattana Wattanapun, a Thai artist with an international reputation. I went, on a hot day, simply because it was around the corner from where I was staying, it would be air-conditioned and it was en route to a cafe. I was entranced from the moment I entered the door; no more than that: I was blown away - cool marble floors, natural light and a building that the artist himself designed to house his work certainly showcased it perfectly. 

Much of Wattana's art explores the beauty of women and the inherent vulnerability that goes with the appeal. I found it almost impossible to look at the images without also a fear that they were too exquisite to survive.

Wattana wraps the female form in traditional textiles. Somehow this heightens the tension. The textiles so perfectly compliment the beauty of these young girls yet we know that they are not enough to protect them from the ravages of modern greed and gratification. It is as if once stripped of these gorgeous textiles, they will be stripped of traditional values, skills and artisan-ship, youth and community and laid bare and wasted. 

I felt deeply moved by Wattana's work. I felt a sense of loss and a sense of joy. He contrasts painstakingly painted textile patterns with free bold brush-strokes for gorgeous sensual bodies. Both under threat and yet both offering some kind of redemption. The fragile culture of dress and textile diversity is hanging on by threads and the exploitation of women engulfs us all. Both need our help.  His work is a call to arms. 

I have used Neon Light by Wattana Wattanapun at the start of my blog. It is acrylic on paper. The image was unlike his other work and it seemed to encapsulate the waves of exploitation that are the sad side of all the other positive aspects of the legacy of Hong Kong.

www.wattana-art.com

Hong Kong Revisited

 Hard to get my bearings in Hong Kong! The Law Courts and iconic Bank of China building look like toy-town nestled in the middle of all the skyscrapers.

Hard to get my bearings in Hong Kong! The Law Courts and iconic Bank of China building look like toy-town nestled in the middle of all the skyscrapers.

I landed in Hong Kong last week, to take a trip down memory lane

I’d lived there half-a-century ago.  It wasn't that I wasn't prepared for change but I was travelling with Dale, my daughter, and initially there was nothing I could show her, it was all bloody gone.

The years had wrought havoc. Like a botched facelift, Hong Kong was stretched and shiny with a touch of zombie. For a start, they’d shrunk the harbour! 

I couldn’t work it out until someone explained The Star Ferry Wharf had moved, rebuilt on the edge of reclaimed land.  Dale asked me how land could be reclaimed if it wasn’t there before.  I said I didn’t know, but I thought it made everybody feel better to call it that, as if it really was theirs in the first place.

In another fifty years it is doubtful whether there will be a harbour at all… 

I remembered chickening out of the annual cross-harbour swim in 1969 as it looked a bloody long way, but the way things are going, I’ll be able to come back and swim it when I’m a hundred years old and I’ll smash it. 

Who needs a harbour anyway these days?

Why bother... tunnels burrow under it, bridges connect islands to the mainland, flyovers do their thing. The harbour, my quintessential Hong Kong, has become emasculated. The last of the old junks have long gone along with the lighters, water taxis, sampans and all the other craft that constantly plied back and forward between the island and mainland; the waterway reduced to a bland irrelevance.

I took a deep breath...

Actually Dale told me to take a deep breath.  She could see I felt overwhelmed and it was all new to Dale so she felt a magic that still lingered on. And I mused that was the real change, you could take a deep breath - no Hong Kong pong, although like an idiot, I put my nose in the air trying to scent that awful smell as if I was missing some elixir from my youth!

We took the Peak Tram. That was familiar and so too was the restaurant at the top. We stopped for lunch and my old love affair with Hong Kong rekindled - it is still stunning.

 Lunch on the Peak

Lunch on the Peak

 

A friend took us out to Sham Shiu Po by the MTR - a rapid-transit underground system that was new to me.  He also said Sham Shiu Po was one of Hong Kong's poorest areas although there were more Westerners than any other area we visited because of a new art college. So that put my nostalgia in its place - the poverty and the foreigners making it familiar!

I started to feel more at home

On the second day, I spotted the iconic Bank of China building, albeit now dwarfed by skyscrapers and bereft of its spooky Red China cloak and dagger atmospheric. And I found other familiars: in Causeway Bay where we stayed, air conditioners lodged in high-rise windows above, still dripped onto the pavements and onto our heads, Chinese girls still loved to wear pink and I still wondered why. Hong Kong still wakes up late - I always liked that - a lull before the frenetic activity of the day. It's a grotty bleary time of half-shuttered doors; sudden sloshing water- buckets; hawking, horrible spit and absolutely no polish. If it's all too much, look up and still there is one of Hong Kong's wonders - bamboo scaffolding.

 Dale and I watched these guys for ages...

Dale and I watched these guys for ages...

And on the far side...

We took off for the other side of the island.  The bus twisted past Deep Bay and Repulse Bay on narrow roads that I drove so often in my beat-up cream-coloured mini – a car that would be very out of place in present day affluent Hong Kong - and at last we reached St Stephen’s Beach at Stanley and most of it remained steadfast to my memory.

I walked out along the old pier looking over the bay where I learned to swim, water ski and sail in quick succession. All the capsizes, all the immersions, weekend races and even a half-hearted attempt to train for that damned cross-harbour swim.

The clock is ticking for Hong Kong again

In thirty years the agreement that maintains Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region will end and finally, it will be integrated into China. The Hongkongers I spoke to were resigned to that. The clock cannot be turned back they said. When I lived there it was thirty years until the British left the Crown Colony of Hong Kong. We could not believe that the clock would move forward.

And in thirty years, I’ll be back for my cross-harbour swim!

 

Baby – the new millennials most popular name

Is it just me? 

Or is it a generational thing?  As soon as I got pregnant, Mike and I started thinking about names.  Boy or girl?  We hadn’t a clue. We just knew whatever the sex, we'd need a name.

Some thought we were ahead of the pack when we choose unisex names, although Kim and Dale have suggested a certain laxity, convinced – incorrectly – that we economised.

Our girls were named at their first gasp and hit the breast identified – names penned on pink wristbands. 

Whereas...

My grandchildren, their sex no secret, date of arrival perfectly pinpointed,  are just “Baby” for days or, in the case of our first grandchild, for weeks - or maybe it just seemed like that. 

So that painful business of tossing names around; recalling ex-romances, nasty friends at school, suicides, embittered relatives or business partners, takes place AB – after birth!  

I don’t get it – how can you expect a child for nine months and not have that organised!

My girls hoot with laughter at the thought.  How, they say, could anyone name a newborn before meeting him or her?  How could Mike and I have done that

It seems to me that if everyone did that, there’d be a sudden increase in names like Ginger, Scarlett, Angel, Beau, Hello Sailor, or maybe Hello Tiger, and Holy Moses.  Or if the name rolled off the cuff too early, perhaps a whole new lexicon like Ouch, Hallelujah or Never Again.

When I had Alice in South Africa, a lovely Zulu nurse told me her own name translated to English was “Enough” and it was her Dad that named her!  She was the eighth and last-born in her family.

Well done Emily and Tom – and welcome Ashton Fox – our 5th grandchild - that only took ten days!

 

WWOOFing to Nepalese Bean Time

 Every turn in Nepal has the promise of delight

Every turn in Nepal has the promise of delight

When I first read about WWOOFing - Willing Workers On Organic Farms, I thought it sounded like a fun way to volunteer

When I read that the program was operating in Nepal, I was hooked.  Dale, my daughter, was joining me on my travels and she loved getting her hands into the earth and I'd peel a few vegetables... or so I thought. The farm we chose was near Lion's Choke, not far from Chitwan National Park.

Our host farmer, Barun, greeted us at the bus stop. Before he started using WWOOFers his children had to skip school to help him plant and harvest.

I could see he was disconcerted

He sized us up. Dale, young and lithe, passed at first muster, but he wasn’t at all sure about me. I wondered if I should snort, stamp my foot or maybe show my teeth?

Eventually he said it, “You are very old. I have never had anyone as old as you.”

 Dale and I in Nepal   

Dale and I in Nepal

 

Barun walked us out through the village. We talked on the way and he confided that the farm was organic simply because he couldn’t afford pesticides - Barun was knee-deep in debt.

The pressure was etched on his face as he spoke, but when we turned into a grove of bamboo, Barun’s daughters burst through the greenery, dancing with excitement and he broke into a wide grin. In the small clearing was their mud house.  A lean-to where we would sleep had a bed of wooden slats resting on an earth floor.  

I find a friend

Barun’s wife greeted us.  Mama was sturdy and cheerful, the perfect foil for Barun, the thinker and worrier. But for me, the warmest welcome came unexpectedly.

I could see that Grandma was surprised when she saw me. Her eyes lit up.  She was tiny; all superfluous flesh had vanished leaving sinew and features, big eyes, big nose and mouth and one solitary big tooth.  She wore gold earrings, but had lost her gold nose-ring working in the fields. She kept the hole open with a splinter of bamboo in the hope that one day she’d find it.

An early start

It was chilly and just light enough to see how thick the mist was when we turned out the next morning. Through the gloom loomed Barun’s oxen trailing a wooden plough. Barun halted the great beasts to drill us in bean-planting 101. With a sack under one arm, we were to scoop handfuls of slippery beans and drop them one-by-one into the fresh furrows.  Too close and we would run out of beans, too far and we’d have beans left over. Each bean was precious and the bloody things bounced.

By lunchtime, Dale and I were beat and we passed out briefly in our stifling lean-to before Barun roused us to get back to work.

 Who me?  You are seriously suggesting you want me to plant another ten thousand beans... 

Who me?  You are seriously suggesting you want me to plant another ten thousand beans... 

Dale was infuriatingly proficient and I was not

The afternoon shift was worse; the heat made me dizzy and I wanted to throttle Barun who tailed me, muttering as he remedied my irregular spacing, hunting my errant bouncing beans.

Planting needed a lop-sided sway which made my body ache; even my ankles balked from walking barefoot on uneven ground. Dale fared much better; up ahead she sashayed, a gilded nymph sowing to the beat of an ancient rhythm, her beans perfectly spaced.

When school finished, Barun’s daughters joined us, giggling with infectious good-humour, joining Dale in making the job look effortless. At last, every bean was bedded. 

 Dale was definitely an immediate hit with the family.

Dale was definitely an immediate hit with the family.

Relief at the day's end followed by magic...

We left Barun to finish painstaking watering row-by-row and joined the village women walking a humpy narrow path between the fields.  An ancient stone cistern, fed by a gurgling stream, was a place to bathe. The soft water soothed our tired muscles in the day’s warm afterglow.

As we strolled back, Dale stopped and grabbed my arm, “Look Mum,” and I turned to see in the distance the snow-capped massif of the Annapurnas tinged with molten gold. “It was all worth today just for this moment,” she whispered.

It got easier

Over the next week, we spread smelly chicken shit on the fields, cleared old crops and planted out vegetable seedlings. The work got easier as we fell into a rhythm with the family.

At the end of each day, we'd eat curry and rice for supper, sometimes followed by honeyed pancakes and a jug of warm buffalo milk brought straight in from the byre. We sat together on the earthen floor and ate from a communal bowl with our fingers.

Afterwards, we’d pull chairs into the little clearing in front of the house and relax. Everyone had daily tasks, but once done, each one stopped. So while it bothered me when one of them was still working and the others relaxing, I realised that while their lives were hard labour, yet down-time was well demarcated too.

Laughter rang out easily, transcending the lack of material possessions and Barun’s anxiety.

Time out ...

And then there was Grandma...

The first time I went to fetch water from the outside stand-pipe the handle was so stiff I could scarcely move it.  I put the bucket down and tried two hands and my body weight - then to my chagrin, out flew grandma who whacked it with one hand, water flooding out in a torrent along with her laughter.   

Grandma talked to me non-stop. It mattered not that I didn’t understand a word. She showed me her herb patch, her room and her shrine. She tried to teach me how to separate husks from beans; tilting and pitching her round wicker tray with the skill of a juggler, the speckled ovals gathering together at her command.

 Grandma with her grandson - I did say she was tiny - but hey, what a dynamo!

Grandma with her grandson - I did say she was tiny - but hey, what a dynamo!

We learned so much and admired so much

Barun had excellent English and he explained the beans were first harvested with their stalks and sun-dried before being spread on the ground so his buffalo could trample them bursting open the thick, hard pods. Any pods that had not opened were collected by Grandma and she opened them by hand.  Once separated, the husks were kept for kindling - nothing was wasted.

The family was almost self-sufficient; only flour and sugar were missing. They couldn’t grow wheat because it attracted rampaging rhino from the National Park. Near the house they planted mustard-seed, turmeric, ginger, chili and basil for seasoning, marigolds for festivals and neem to make insect repellent.  In the monsoon they grew enough rice for themselves. 

At the end of the week...

Barun said if Dale and I finished everything, we’d have a day off at the end of our week. He kept his word. Dale rode his son’s bike and I perched on the pannier rack of Barun’s, bouncing over the ruts, through grassland and thick bamboo.

When Dale shouted for joy, Barun joined in and I hung on for dear life.

He showed us his bee-hives - he was the first in the district to sell honey - and we walked through woods alive with butterflies.

But when we reached the river, Barun was suddenly sombre and pointed to an island. Some years before, his sister had gone across to cut bales of long grass for fodder, but wading back she’d stumbled under the heavy load and been swept away. “Drownings happen every year like that,” he said.

Dale took these pictures when we were making our way up river to Lion's Choke - so we knew immediately how Barun's sister had died.

We watched the sunset over the river that turned all to gold before we cycled home in the dark.

And too soon...  it was time to go

We had a grand send-off the next evening: Grandma wrapped us in saris, Mama marked our foreheads with red tikkas and the girls garlanded us with lais of marigold. Barun performed a traditional Nepalese stick dance, leaping high while twirling stout bamboo poles.

Dale said it was collective amazement when I took the poles from Barun, crossed them on the ground, and did a Scottish sword dance – once my father’s forte.

I don’t know if I still hold the record for being Barun’s oldest WWOOFer, but I do know Grandma was sad to see me go. She was ten years my senior yet had eclipsed me in every task – except perhaps, the Highland Fling!

 OK, so it's not that flattering, but I think I was channeling some kind of warrior spirit.

OK, so it's not that flattering, but I think I was channeling some kind of warrior spirit.

And Barun?  “Goodbye big sister. Goodbye daughter Dale. Safe journey home to Australia. I want you both to come again.”

 

A hundred years on from Hong Kong’s most calamitous typhoon ever

typhoon 1906 2.PNG

A hundred years ago...

One hundred years ago on the 18th September, 1906, Hong Kong was hit by a typhoon: “…the most appallingly destructive visitation of the kind that the Colony has ever experienced.”

The 1906

By the time I arrived in Hong Kong in 1968, that typhoon was almost forgotten.  I would never have heard about it except for a lie.  My boss lied about her age.  The idea that she was born on board a ship mid-typhoon, appealed to her compulsion for melodrama.  And any old typhoon was not good enough – she told me she was born in The 1906 - the most calamitous typhoon ever.  

When I came to write my memoir about Hong Kong, I found she had been born in 1904, a year not notable for any severe tropical storms.  I laughed - the 1906 suited her much better.

Typhoon warning systems were well established

By 1906 Hong Kong had a good early warning system for typhoons. During the season, several would pass the Colony.  A signal was hoisted in the harbour when one was in the five hundred mile range.  Often it was lowered as the storm blew itself out over the China Sea.  But if the typhoon did close in, a second signal went up indicating that it had moved to within three hundred miles.  Then everyone prepared for the worst.  The final signal was the typhoon gun which was sounded when the storm was about to hit.   

At the signals, the Colony swung into action.  Steam launches towed chains of big flat-bottomed lighters into shelters, while smaller sampans scudded off to find safe havens.  Sails and awnings were reefed and everything was battened down.  Ships at anchor prepared to get up steam and either made for the open sea or paid out more cable to safely ride out the storm in the harbour. 

What made the 1906 so deadly was not just its intensity, it was its speed.  There was only half-an-hour between the first signal and the final gun.  Nothing like it had ever happened before.  Usually there were several hours between each signal.

Never before had one hit with such speed

Captains who’d spent the night ashore were astonished to be woken by the sound of the typhoon gun.  They tried desperately to get back aboard their ships, paying motor-launch skippers enormous amounts to take them out on the harbour.  Even then it was too rough to go alongside and crewmen had to throw lifelines into the water and drag their officers aboard. 

Noise exploded around the Colony.  The wind blew at a hundred-and-fifty miles an hour howling along the shore, shrieking through the streets and roaring up mountainsides.  The roofs of godowns – huge storage sheds – flew off and their walls collapsed. Everywhere signs were falling, shutters banging, glass shattering, rickshaws overturned and sedan chairs were thrown about “like feathers”. 

The harbour was obliterated in a terrible fog of driving rain fused with scud and spindrift whipped from the wave tops.  All along the seawall, sampans and lighters were dashed to pieces. Piers and wharfs started to collapse one after another… “like a house of cards.” 

Eyewitness Account

An extraordinary eyewitness account was written by Captain Outerbridge of the China Naviagation Company’s steamer Taming, which came safely through the ordeal.  He crouched behind steel plates in the bow of his ship with two other officers.  They peered through blinding rifts of mist, desperate to gauge if their mooring was holding. 

“Every now and then a ship dragging her anchors as if they were of wood, slid past us, fortunately clear.  Until they were right upon us we had no warning and they passed in a flash…

But the worst feature of all was seeing the small boats go flying past bound for what we knew was destruction.  There was nothing we could do.  Our own fate was in the balance that trembled with every squall that came down heavier than the one before...  In the sampans, where entire families of Chinese live their whole lives, women would hold out their children to us begging in mad appeals that we could not even hear, only guess at from the expression of their faces, as they were whirled along the side of our ship, in much the same way that a piece of sea weed is hurled by the crest of the sea.  We could only look at them and pity them, and there we crouched for more than an hour and most of the time the tears were streaming down the faces of the three of us as we looked at the poor creatures going to death and could not lift a hand to save them.”

And then it was gone

The typhoon left almost as quickly as it had come.  Within three hours it was over.

It was calculated that half of all the Chinese craft in the waters of the colony were lost.

Ships entering the harbour over the next days brought in survivors plucked off floating pieces of wreckage but mainly it was the dead that the sea gave back.

The number of people who perished was never established, but it was in the thousands and may have been as many as ten thousand.

Tales of gallantry, extraordinary rescue and random luck were rife afterwards, but most never had the chance
to tell the tale.   

 

 

The full account – The calamitous typhoon at Hongkong 18th September, 1906, published by the Hong Kong Daily Press, 1906:  http://ebook.lib.hku.hk/HKG/B36228084.pdf

A Merry Laugh in a Tangier Hideaway

International Tangier

Between the 1920s and 1950s, Tangier was a tax-free international zone isolated from the rest of Morocco and controlled by France, Spain and Britain, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Portugal, the United States and finally the Soviet Union!  

It quickly gained a reputation for everything naughty, wacky and exotic.

I felt like a glass of wine...

Even now, it’s zany chords remain.  Early one summer evening I decided to go for a drink at the Bar Pilo. The Guide said, unlike most bars, it wasn’t a brothel.   I could have gone back to Caid’s Piano Bar at the Hotel El Minzah, but swank hotels are so passé.

The Bar’s frontage was low-key and there was a minder on duty.  I had a flashback to a revolving vinyl 78 RPM my brother played when I was a kid.  I loved the line:  Just knock three times and whisper low, that you and I were sent by Joe…

The door opened a smidgeon and in I slid, holding my breath
and there I was:

I know a dark secluded place,
        It was shady, with a long marble bar.

A place where no one knows your face,
        Well that was definitely the case.

A glass of wine a fast embrace,
        Wine, yes – but the only other patrons were a very tall handsome woman, heavily made up in a long dress with lots     of lace and I mean lots, and a feather boa; a short, middle-of-the-road man, well oiled, who I took to be deaf and dumb as he was miming madly at the bartender; and occupying the end seat, an inflatable lifesize Santa.

It’s called Hernando’s Hideaway ole!

Some places need time to absorb

My eyes rolled along the bar again, skirting the plastic flowers.  Behind a wall of mirrors, glass shelves were stacked with every conceivable liquor.  Wine came by the bottle,  accompanied by a bowl of warm chick peas with some…  tiny feet.  Hooves actually.  The barman, a small wizened man in a waistcoat and bow tie was quite jolly… “Baaaaa Baaaaa.”

“Lamb’s feet?  Really?  How tiny were the lambs?”  Let’s not go there Gill, I answered to myself.  Besides there were olives marinated in oil and lemon, more olives in harissa, crudities and crispy grilled fish.  A feast without the feet.

The large lady in lace was standing with one foot on the bar rail.  She moved closer and sat down.  I fancied the round red-topped bar stools some counters in a game, but didn’t make my move – we smiled and established a rapport in minor key.   She moved four stools back.

I looked around. The walls were deep, dark pink and the whole place was decked with Christmas decorations.  Fairy lights,  chains in coloured foil, tinsel, hanging stars guiding shepherds, a plastic Christmas tree, and best of all, the rest of the set of blow-up Santas each one smaller than the other.  On a mirror, etched with outlines of a mosque, a painted Santa paused - seemingly impaled on a minaret.

After my third glass, the sinuous Arabic music wove the bizarre seamlessly into ardor and ecstasy.  Forget the fast embrace, this would be a long drawn out affair.  There was a TV tuned to a news channel with no audio and as I drank, I could have sworn the singing voice started emerging from the perfect agile mouth of the presenter who was swaying to the melody.  Even the slightly soft Santa at the bar started to look interesting, well, really he was the only option. 

It was time for me to go – just as the night was about to start.    

Home to my hostel

I wound my way back to the Medina singing softly,
“Just knock three times and you will know, that you’ve arrived at Bar Pilo.”

 

 

PS:

Hernando’s Hideaway is a tango tune from The Pajama Game 1954.  I love it!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLuwyTzAQH8

As Time Goes By

Real Life Romance

It was 1971 when I met Mike in Zambia and fell head-over-heels in love. 

But when he said, “… Here’s looking at you, kid,” I had no idea why. 

I don’t think anyone of our generation escaped seeing Casablanca (1942, Humphry Bogart and Ingrid Bergman), but not all of us memorised the whole damn script.

Remember Snuggling-Up at the Drive-In? 

A month or so later I thought I was on track when I took Mike to Gone With the Wind (1939, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh).  It was showing at the Lusaka Drive-In.  But he went to sleep until the interval when he sat upright, fired up his beat-up Ford Falcon and said, “OK. Let's go!”

It took a lot of persuasion to make him stay for the second half.  He didn’t believe that any film could be that long and or that turgid.  It was almost the end of a beautiful relationship!

Penance

Over the years, I made amends.  I sat through Casablanca at least three times, maybe five….  Not only that but our four daughters have indulged Mike too.

Yet as Time Goes By

I can come clean now;  I never did, and still don’t, get it.  

Ilsa tells Rick she can't think straight and he’ll have to do the thinking for both of them and Rick knows what’s good for her and packs her off without an explanation.  Sexist?  You bet!  What is the appeal?

But still...

A wave of nostalgia did hit me though when travelling solo in Morocco for I learned that the original gin joint in Casablanca was modelled on Caid’s Piano Bar in Hotel El Minzah, Tangier.

 Hotel's picture of Caid's Piano Bar

Hotel's picture of Caid's Piano Bar

I was travelling out of a back-pack and covered in a rash, but did my best to smarten-up and sauntered into the El Minzah, a sophisticated old-world hotel overlooking the Bay of Tangier. 

Think palms, orange trees and Moorish archways; courtyards and teak lattice.  The hotel was the brain-child of an English aristocrat and first opened in 1930.  It has welcomed many celebrities over the years and appropriately enough, those old Hollywood stars of the 1940s; Rita Hayworth and Rock Hudson.

It was mid-morning and the hotel was deserted but I found a waiter, ordered a glass of wine and sat in the main courtyard and enjoyed a 'life is absolutely bloody marvellous moment.' 

 My picture of the table where I unashamedly took a delicious white wine mid-morning... all to myself alone.

My picture of the table where I unashamedly took a delicious white wine mid-morning... all to myself alone.

Then I tiptoed to the door of Caid’s Bar, pushed it open, and heard Mike’s voice so clearly: “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”

Which is why my picture of the Piano Bar is a bit shaky...

 My picture of the Piano Bar

My picture of the Piano Bar

A Century Ago Tangier Attracted Artists from All Over the World

 Moroccan loggia, 1912 by Hilda Rix Nicholas and Quarazazte Morocco by James McBey

Moroccan loggia, 1912 by Hilda Rix Nicholas and Quarazazte Morocco by James McBey

Journeys into Art in Tangier

It’s the journeys within journeys that I love.  My own personal discoveries of history and politics, of art and authors and of music.  Each new destination, a place to pick up strays; arty people either home grown or blown-in, who I have never heard of and may well be long forgotten in the rolling coast of life.

 SELFIES:  Mrs George Mason Nicholas (Hilda Rix Nicholas) 1917 and James McBey

SELFIES:  Mrs George Mason Nicholas (Hilda Rix Nicholas) 1917 and James McBey

Two of my Favourites

Many European artists worked in Tangier in the first decade of the twentieth century.  New to me in Morocco was James McBay.    He was a Scot and his work reminded me of that of Hilda Rix Nicholas, one of my favourite Australian artists.  They were born only a year apart, and I could not but wonder if they had ever met.  They were both in Morocco around the same time, shortly before the outbreak of World War I.   

Both captured the colour and light of Tangier through intimate portraits, street scenes and the market place.  Both gave us unforgettable images of the First World War.  Both had endured great personal tragedy. 

 Camoflage by Hilda Rix Nicholas 1914 and Arab Man with a Child by James McBey

Camoflage by Hilda Rix Nicholas 1914 and Arab Man with a Child by James McBey

A Pause for Rememberance in Tangier

A Tear in Tangier

I’m not a sentimental soul so get surprised when something maudlin, corny or schmaltzy triggers a sniff.  Let’s try that again: when something nostalgic, tender or passionate brings tears to my eyes.

These occasions are not rational or even legitimate, but they signal an aliveness within us, part of our emotional heritage but part primordial I think.  We surrender to them or suppress them at our peril.

 
St Andrew's Church

 St Andrew's Church, Tangier

St Andrew's Church, Tangier

Ambling around Tangier, I came upon the charming St Andrew’s Church built in 1905.  With admirable grace its design engages with the local culture.  It has a Moorish interior, ornamented with the Lord’s Prayer engraved in Arabic together with quotes from the Koran.  

Buried in Morocco

The graveyard is almost English, lush green and shady; in it there are are buried a dozen or so downed RAF airmen.  I was caught short by five of them, an entire aircrew, their headstones lined up, side by side.  The youngest was nineteen and the oldest twenty-one. They crashed on 31 January 1945. At least sixty million people, some say eighty million, died in World War II.  So why did these graves, well-cared for in a sunny spot, make me cry?
 
Because they were so young, the end of the war only months away - they were probably already talking about what they would do after the war - and they were on a routine patrol; engine failure or weather perhaps.  

We don’t know how to mourn millions and millions, so we mourn the few and that’s all we can do, and do our bit for peace - keep trying to hold Government to account that keep wanting to make war.  That’s all we can do. 

 Lts W M Allison & J H Buxman both South African Air Force, Sgts A J Boyles, H J Hutchinson & F E Turner all RAFVR. They were lost when the 22 Sqn SAAF Ventura serial number 6455 (ex RAF FP683) crashed during a routine patrol on 31 January 1945.

Lts W M Allison & J H Buxman both South African Air Force, Sgts A J Boyles, H J Hutchinson & F E Turner all RAFVR. They were lost when the 22 Sqn SAAF Ventura serial number 6455 (ex RAF FP683) crashed during a routine patrol on 31 January 1945.

Finding Cafe Hafa in Tangier

 Cafe Hafa, founded in 1921, a Tangier icon that has avoided the dreaded developer!

Cafe Hafa, founded in 1921, a Tangier icon that has avoided the dreaded developer!

The Hafa Hunt

One of my first stops in Tangier was Café Hafa.  It’s wasn’t a long walk from the Kasbah, but far enough to get lost.  I felt foolish because a generational succession of writers, musicians and rock bands had found it without difficulty and I was stone-cold sober.  

Help at Hand

I realised I was being stalked by a women wearing a hijab on a electric mobility scooter followed by a posse in wheelchairs.  She was winning.  Why I found the combination of hijab and buggy incongruous says more about
me than her, but there was a sense of deja vu. 

My husband also uses a mobility scooter and if you get to meet him, give him a wide birth. 
It’s red and he is exceedingly good-looking, even with the beard he insists on sporting
these days.  I think he's had his scooter souped up.

In Prague he mowed down a whole covey of Japanese tourists, in Sydney, he pinned a Chinese business man
to the wall and he has caused grievous bodily harm to almost every family member.  I hasten to add he is
neither xenophobic or guilty of domestic violence, just slow on the brakes. 


So when the good woman hailed me, I kept a safe distance hoping to outpace her. 

I need not have worried - without me saying a word, she knew exactly what I wanted.  She pointed me in the
direction of Café Hafa.  

Sheer Delight with Mint Tea

The café was founded in 1921 and is a Tangier icon.  But the really special thing is it hasn’t just stood the test of time,
it’s just stayed there unmoved by time and fame. 

Well truthfully given a few rows of terraces painted blue and white cascading down a steep hillside spotted
with gnarly wind-blown trees in a stunning position overlooking the Bay of Tangier, what is there to change?

My delight was that locals still hung out there, the chairs were cheap plastic, the terraces swept peremptorily, the
service problematic.  No one had resortified it!  No plaques, nothing on the menu, no Hey Jude Orange Juice or
Brown Sugar Mint Tea.

House of Joy

 Entrance to House of Joy - a Cheshire Home in Tangier

Entrance to House of Joy - a Cheshire Home in Tangier

On the way back, I went looking for my friend.  She’d gone but I and found a few wheelchairs clustered round the entrance to the gates of a beautiful house - a Cheshire Home.  I walked in and gasped at the beauty of it - the sea blue beyond a profusion of flowers.  It was called House of Joy.  I went to Reception and left a small donation but the young lady said, not unnaturally, that I could not go further.  As I left I spoke to a lovely lass who was wheelchair-bound and had lived there for thirty-three years.


Leonard Cheshire was an RAF Group Captain who started the charity in 1948 and has left a marvelous legacy. 

All Over Tangier in a Rash

 Watching the world go by in Tangier   

Watching the world go by in Tangier

 

Normally...

Normally I read travel advice on health and am sensible because I’m reluctant to miss out on anything, waylaid by some avoidable affliction. 

Had I read it, I’d have known that sand-flies and ticks and fleas run riot in Morocco.

A Mighty Rash

When I left the Atlas Mountains, the rash that started after I was accosted by tiny black mites in a filthy eco-gite in the Mid-Atlas, became ferocious.  It ran, not just across my cheeks and forehead, but over my eye-lids, across the bridge of my nose making it difficult to wear my glasses, around the edge of my ears and all over my hands, especially along the sides of my fingers.

Sand-Fly Central

I changed my travel plans because I seriously doubted if immigration in Spain, my next destination, would let me in.  Instead I got the night bus from Marrakesh and, in the early morning, arrived just outside the Medina in Tangier.   I avoided the Petite Socco, once notorious for pimps and hash, but now a tourist hub, and walked further into the Medina until I found a simple and clean guesthouse.

I spent the first couple of days sitting on my laptop increasingly terrified by the list of diseases I might have picked up: Leishmaniasis, Tick Bite Fever, Sand Fly Fever, Mediterranean Spotted Fever, West Nile virus, Filariasis, Typhus and Scabies.

 A rash of signs in Tangier!   

A rash of signs in Tangier!

 

The Ancient Landlubber...

I presented at every pharmacy I could find.  They all asked me if I had had a fever, did I feel dizzy, and when I said no temperature, only supreme anxiety, they sold me creams and seemed remarkably unmoved by my plight - although keeping their distance I noted.

No matter what I applied, the rash persisted.  I was embarrassed to speak to anyone,  swathed my head in a scarf, keeping out of the sun which exacerbated the itch and mooched around shoulders hunched, so even the hawkers avoided me.

Some days I'd blink back tears, imagining I’d slope around Tangier evermore, never to return to the bosom of my family, some kind of Ancient Landlubber, accosting Aussie tourists with my tale.  They’d shrink back in horror and I’d beg them to take messages to the other side. 
 

Tangier; a City Not To Be Missed

 My early morning cafe outside the gate to the Medina in Tangier

My early morning cafe outside the gate to the Medina in Tangier

I have a fairy godmother, celestial patroness or maybe my muse is some male diviner.  Whoever.  Lady Luck is on my side when I pack my bags and invoke the traveller in me to come to the fore.

For without that damned rash I’d never have visited Tangier, now on my short list as one of the most delightful cities in the world.  In the end I didn’t want to leave. 

Within days I had my favourite early morning cafe just outside the Medina.  It was frequented exclusively by men, the elders.  I might not have sat there had the owner not smiled and welcomed me.  Each morning he'd see me coming across the square and my coffee would be ready at my table.  I'd take my book but seldom opened it.  It was a rare spot for me; a place where I just sat and, with a sense of supreme contentment, watched the world go by.

 

No Early Start From a Moroccan Gite

 Just outside my gite...

Just outside my gite...

A Very Nice Gite

After my epic journey to the Atlas Mountains with Kissy Kissy, I stayed at a gite run entirely by five young men.  I was just a bit weary and so my heart sank; I could have done with some female company.  I need not have had any reservations; they were courteous and charming and I had a relaxed, happy stay.  I'm not so sure though what impression I made...

A Very Early Start

I paid my bill the night before I left and told them I was leaving very early, but when I got up at 4 am to catch my bus, I found the establishment locked like a fort.  I couldn’t get out.  I tried getting through the kitchens to the back.  Everything was locked.  I ruffled through keys behind the reception desk, but with no luck.  So I took off my backpack and decided on a window escape.  Nope.  This was locks and padlock country and not draw-bolts and mortises.

 Moroccan doors serve their purpose!  Aren't they gorgeous - I collected them on my journey and have a whole folder of Moroccan doors.  Just don't try getting in or OUT!

Moroccan doors serve their purpose!  Aren't they gorgeous - I collected them on my journey and have a whole folder of Moroccan doors.  Just don't try getting in or OUT!

A Very Scary Moment

I headed for the roof where I thought the young men slept.  I did not want to raise the whole house so crept up the wooden ladder and pushed the trapdoor above my head.  He’d been lying with one ear up and padded quietly to the hatch, no doubt with his head on one side. 

As I arose through the opening into the moonlight, I heard the chink of a chain behind me and swung my head.  We met eyeball to eyeball.  Breath to breath.  The Hound of the Baskervilles on a Moroccan roof.  I dropped the door as it lunged at my head.   The resounding bang restarted my heart which was going like a hammermill by the time I slid down the rungs like liquid and hit the ground. 

A guard dog on the roof had never occurred to me. 

I stood shaking, waiting, listening to the barking, the scratching and the clinking chain.  Well, no-one could sleep through that commotion I thought.  Someone did wake.  They shouted at the dog, but it kept on barking.  Suddenly there was a thud and a yelp and it stopped with a whimper.  That was it.  Nothing more. 

My bus came in a few minutes.  I flew down the stairway remembering I’d seen an old man shuffle through door at the back of the reception area.  I knocked gently, then harder and called out that I needed him.  A man groaned and grumbled.  I hammered some more, my voice rising.  He shouted.   "Bugger-off,” -  unmistakable in any language.  Had there been a question in his voice, I could have persisted.  Bugger off it was.  No way was he getting up for me.   

I’d missed the bus but was too agitated to go back to bed, so sat down on my pack, lent against the front door and read my book until my jailers sleepily emerged. 

They were of course terribly apologetic and flagged down every car outside until hours later they found someone they knew and trusted to give me a lift.  They also made me the most beautiful breakfast and refused to take any money for it. 

A Very Avid Woman... The Story Goes

It was only later when I heard that mature English women travelling solo were infamous for their single-minded pursuit of Moroccan men that I wondered what stories would be told in the gite after my departure...

 This was a house near my gite - I just loved the veranda - but not for too wild a party.

This was a house near my gite - I just loved the veranda - but not for too wild a party.

Keeping Solo in the High Atlas

One of my most memorable trips travelling solo
in Morocco was into the High Atlas Mountains
by Grand Taxi

On the lower mountain slopes, exuberant swaths of green and pink oleander bushes traced the paths of numerous streams and rivers; lustrous against a backdrop of biscuit-coloured mountains. 

Higher up the bare-rock cliffsides swirled, tilting and tumbling.  Gigantic scribblings that diarised colossal upheavals.  A work that echoed still with latent power.

Tabant to Zaouit Ahansal

My destination was Tabant, a small town with a school for mountain guides, that served hill-walkers and climbers. 
In the town I hired a guide with a car as I wanted to visit a woman’s cooperative in the village of Zaouiat Ahansal
some distance away.  

 Tabant and the local petrol station...

Tabant and the local petrol station...

It was one of those rare journeys where I truly shifted to a spectator’s seat; the backdrop so endowed, it took on a cinematic quality.

The first part of the journey took us along the Ait Bougomez Valley, past many Berber villages and the towers of ruined kasbahs that looked as if they had hatched out of the mud. 

Irrigation schemes instituted half-a-century before had transformed the valley floor and it was gorgeously banded with orchards and fields of bright green and gold.  On the hillsides above, ancient mud-brick terraces were abandoned - built with so much effort, sweat and tears, they were gradually returning to the earth.

 Ait Bougomez Valley

Ait Bougomez Valley

The car made heavy work of the climb and we had to stop frequently to let the engine cool

My troubles didn’t start until we were far above the villages, when Mohammad pulled off the road to take a last look over his valley before we swung over the Tizi’Tirghist Pass. 

“Let us look at the view,” he said, but Mohammad had something else in mind for our stop.   “Kissy kissy now?” 

I looked at him in amazement, primly adjusted my headscarf,  and stared him down.  “No.  No kissy, kissy."

He was an agile little spiv, his verdant mustache fanning with his enormous grin.  He was agitated and hopped
from foot to foot.

“Just little kissy kissy,” he repeated, reaching to take my hand.

I snatched it away and took a few steps back.  

“Absolutely not,” I said in my best English accent.  I was taller than him and I hoped, rather imposing.  A sort of Maggie Smith moment.

But I didn’t feel that confident.  I was, after all, standing on a precipice, we had seen one other car in the last two hours and in any case we were off-road.
 
I gave Mohammad a withering glare and walked resolutely back to the car.  

I was surprised and unnerved, but it didn't take much thought to know it was too ridiculous to be menacing.  I was at least twenty years his senior, a grandmother, short-sighted, seriously deaf and rather grubby - I had been backpacking for weeks - and I had a horrible rash from mites I had encountered earlier at an so-called eco-gite.  I was hardly hot stuff. 

I thought about imperiously demanding a return to Tabant, but whatever I had got myself into, I was halfway there.  Past the point of no return.

Back in the car, I talked of my husband, daughters and grandchildren.  He remained determinedly unconvinced.  The stops on the deserted road for sight-seeing were frequent and he repeated his offer at each one.  Back in the car, he’d reverse with his arm along the back of my seat, touching my shoulders.  As he drove, he constantly adjusted the car windows, pinning me back as he reached across to mine. Even tilting his rear-view mirror he managed to brush my forehead. I squirmed to keep out of his reach and pulled my headscarf tighter, my sleeves lower.

“Kissy, kissy?”  

“No kissy, kissy!”

“Kissy, kissy?”

I grew more confident too, until I just rolled my eyes and tossed my head like a recalcitrant old grey mare. 

Little did he know, I thought, focusing my glare on his mustache, how I loathed facial hair.

The Tizi'Tirghist Pass

The Pass, the highest in Northern Africa at 2,629 metres, was well defined.  The rough road was originally built by the French in the 1930s and it there that the last wild Barbary Lion, Africa’s largest cat, was sighted and sadly shot in 1942. 

Once through the Pass, mountains stretched forever, turbulent, earthy, wild and harsh.  Patches of snow were still about, shrinking in the spring thaw.  There were a few stunted trees scattered over the taupe landscape, but mostly the vegetation was ‘hedgehog’ clusters - greenery that had adapted and grew stunted, bunched together in pincushions clinging to the steep rough terrain.  Many were in flower and made a puffy patchwork of mauve, yellow and white tussocks while some remained shades of green with a velvet sheen.    

 Taupe landscape that rolls on for ever and ever...

Taupe landscape that rolls on for ever and ever...

Nomad Tents Made of Camel-Hair

At first I gazed unseeing at the spectacular and grim mountain slopes until Mohammad pointed out black camel-hair tents of nomad camps and in some places, stone built kraals and low huts. Gradually I too was able to pick out a flash of washing or a group of camels, but it was the black tents that really thrilled me.

Eggs never tasted better

We reached a mud house that had turned one room into a cafe where a smiling Berber girl boiled us eggs in a kettle.  She deftly sliced them, sprinkling salt and spices, before dousing the dish with oil.  Served with hot mint tea and flat bread, it was absolutely delicious. 

Making it Plain in a Pretty Gite

From there it wasn’t far to Zaouiat Ahansal, a village clustered around a river-crossing in a gorge.  I had specifically asked Mohammad to drop me at a gite that was run entirely by women.  He said yes, but took me elsewhere to his friend’s gite.  It was charming and clean overlooking a rushing river tributary with pink hollyhocks in the garden. 

A girl showed me to a room with four mattresses on the floor and I choose one and dropped my backpack beside it.  Within moments Mohammad was there too dropping his bag by the mattress next to mine.  

“No way Mohammad, you are not sleeping in this room.”

He feigned surprise, shrugged and said it was the only room.

“Well, you can sleep in the car.”  I picked up his bag and slung it unceremoniously out the door.

I got on well with the family although I felt the father, the proprietor, took a dim view of me.   After dinner the three of us sat in the little lounge,   With solemn disapproval on one side and crazy man approval on the other, I excused myself and took a walk up the road.

I was soon joined by my ardent friend.
 
“Kissy, kissy?’

“Fuck off!”  I growled.   I was out of patience. 

He licked his lips nervously and I wondered if I might have made a mistake.  Maybe he liked rough talk.  Istrode back to the village.

That night I stuck a chair against the door of my room, it’s back under the handle.  From my mattress, I watched the handle move up and down in the candlelight but my improvised door lock held and had it not, I was ready to do a fair impersonation of a banshee that would have summoned the entire village. 

I didn’t want to drive back with Mohammad but when I spoke to the proprietor there was clearly little alternative.

 Weaving centre and a hollyhock outside my bedroom window at the gite.

Weaving centre and a hollyhock outside my bedroom window at the gite.

Delightful Zaouiat Ahansal

In the morning Mustafa, the son of the household, took me down to see the small Atelier du Tissages de l’Association du Zaouiat Ahsal - a women's weaving centre.  I would have liked to have bought a rug but they were too heavy.  I watched the girls at work and took mint tea with them.  To my dismay were very enthusiastic about the artificial colours they were starting to use. They didn’t fade, were so bright and cheerful and easy to prepare. 

Mustafa told me about the Association he had set up to control the rubbish in the village because trekkers were discarding plastic bottles and other garbage that the village had no way to deal with it.
 
The highlight of the morning though, was not the women’s weaving that I had travelled so far to see, but Mustafa’s tour of the village’s magnificent ancient kasbah.  He led me through a dark passage, up a staircase so black, I had to feel my way slowly as he scampered ahead.  We emerged onto a precarious roof space and mounted a wooden ladder to access an imposing tower and then he took me down again by a different route, using steps which were no more than axed notches in heavy wooden poles.  Villagers used the lower rooms to stable their donkeys.  The site was being restored with money from Government; a casual process.

 The kasbah at Zaouiat Ahansalwhere the local leader lived and where the village would gather when under attack.  It is being restored with Government funds and is quite magnificent!

The kasbah at Zaouiat Ahansalwhere the local leader lived and where the village would gather when under attack.  It is being restored with Government funds and is quite magnificent!

Homeward Bound

The journey back was punctuated by Mohammad’s protestations of infatuation which by now didn’t even get a rise out of me.  I was glad to part from his company but wished him well for after all he had taken me safely on an extraordinary odyssey.

Ahhhhhh....!

A week or so later I met some seasoned Moroccan travellers who asked if I’d had any difficulty travelling alone. 
No, I said, for the Moroccans were genuinely warm and delightful hosts.

“You didn’t you have any trouble with Moroccan men?”

“No, well not really.”

“We wondered because, you see, it’s well established that mature German and English women come to Morocco travelling solo looking for toyboys. They pay good money to have a fling.”

“Not my kind of travel!” I laughed...  but then I thought about poor old Mohammad.

“Ahhhhhh……,” I added, “Well that might explain one particular encounter.”

Footnote:  I have changed the real name of my guide.  He was not called Mohammad!

Going It Alone in Morocco

 It was hard to tear myself away from Fez!

It was hard to tear myself away from Fez!

Tricks for Travelling Solo

Nature abhors a vacuum.  So without a travel companion, my psyche simply split and I could talk to my other self. 
We didn't always agree but it was nice to have someone in a tight spot.

I was nervous setting off from Fez to back-pack so I bribed myself.  Two nights of sheer indulgence - an eco-gite in the mid Atlas Mountains.  A traditional Moroccan mud-brick farmhouse, lovingly restored, with thick hand-spun Berber carpets and rich in cultural heritage.  A remote utopia where eagles soared above stony slopes crossed only by goat tracks.

Morocco by Grand Taxi

It was a long journey and I would do it all by Morocco’s Grand Taxis - shared cars that plough between regional destinations.  On the second day I was decanted on a deserted road and waited for Aqilah to pick me up.  (It wasn’t that simple, but I’ll cut to the chase.)

Gite d'Etape

When I got to Aqilah’s house,  his lovely wife brought out warm bread, olive oil and peppermint tea.  Aqilah wanted me to book mule rides, a kayak on the lake or a birdwatching expedition for the next day and it took some persuasion just to get him to take me up to the farmhouse. 

It was a stony, uphill track and, at a distance, the gite looked splendid.  

Très Jolie - On Closer Inspection - Très Terrible

Aqilah showed me where I would sleep on the upper floor.  At first glance it was pretty with fresh blue and yellow paint-work; it took a second to see the filth.    The dirty carpets and grubby mattresses; a couple of which were draped with stained sheets.  The droppings; everywhere - rats or mice - gerbils or jerboas - or all of them.  I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing, but strangely docile, I followed Aqilah down to the kitchen. Platters and bowls encrusted with leftover food, days or months old, sat on stockpiles of grimed and greasy plates.  Every surface etched with the grot of ages.

No wonder the website said no chemical cleaners; no cleaners at all

Stunned by the sleaze, I tried to see the bright side.  I waved my hand vaguely at the mud-brick fortifications behind the house, which were mellow and shapely in the afternoon sun. 

“Très jolie!” I said.

My psyche is shouting differently; très filthee…, c’est crasseux.

Aqilah was delighted and took me on a tour.  He beckoned me over to see the underground olive press and opened a chute.  His shining torch revealed a ghastly accumulation of rubbish, plastic bottles and tin cans. 

As we walked round to the house I realised much of the rubbish hadn’t even got that far, the whole place was one big tip.  I felt, by then, quite spooked to be alone on a blasted hillside with this man who thought it très jolie.  I got interrupted.

No Gill, you said très jolie.  And you just paid Euros 40 a night to stay in a squalid ruin.

I know but I'm here and there must be something good about it.

Très jolie - this guy is bonkers - he just took you to show you his rubbish tip.  

Why did I say très jolie?  It is très terrible. 

But Little Bits Were Très Jolie

I sat out on the little veranda and read, trying not to indulge my rising hysteria when up the hill came Aqilah's wife with a tangine, fresh bread and a thermos of tea. 

The warm dusk settled with her arrival, scribbling out the scruffiness, caressing the crumbling mud walls, infusing the painted woodwork. She had a strong, sun-beaten face and she patted my hand, grounding me and I could not help but relax.  What else was there to do?  What's a little bit of dirt between friends?

After dinner, with a candle in a glass jar, I wriggled into my silk sleeping bag liner and wrapped the pillow with my scarf.  I slept soon enough but was plagued with bad dreams.  I twisted hearing small scuffles in the room and brushed my face imagining things crawling over me.   

Ahhh!

In the morning my dreams were fully realised - tiny black mites were running over my cheeks, behind my ears, through my hair, along my arms, over my hands. 

I jumped up and had stripped naked by the time I hit the shower.   I turned on the tap but there was no water at all.  I grabbed my towel and flew down to use the trickle of cold water from a tap outside the kitchen.  I splashed water everywhere, combed my hair vigorously and rubbed myself with lavender and tea-tree oil.  

“Douche, Madam?  Pas de l’eau,” said Azilah.

Forget the Breakfast

He went to get breakfast but soon reappeared with his finger dripping blood.  I had no plasters, but poured tea-tree oil in the cut.  He yelped and took off down the hill.

I packed and followed suit.  Bugger a bloody breakfast, I wanted out of there.  

He met me on the path.  I told him I was not staying.  He was disappointed.  He said there was no ute so there was no way for me to go. He also wanted me to pay for the next night. We had an impasse. 

I Set Off Down the Road

It started as a pleasant stroll along the lakeside, greeting a boy herding goats, then an uphill haul to the main road which was actually quite a minor one.  That took an hour.   I was hot, tired and hungry.  There was nothing on the road, no house, no shop, filling station -  nothing, and nothing for it but to keep walking and hope for a bus or a taxi. 

I practised Thich Nhat Hanh’s walking meditation.  Then I listed the reasons why the situation was good: Vitamin D, exercise...  The list was so short, I moved onto affirmations. I said out loud, "I am OK, I am strong, I am OK, I can
walk a long way."

Sweat trickled into my eyes, but without shade I just needed to keep walking.     

Affirmations are all very well, but I knew I was talking baloney; the next town was 30 kilometres away, my pack weighed a ton, the sun was hot and I didn't have enough water.

Hitch.

I’ve never hitched.

Hitch.

In Morocco?  Are you mad?

Hitch.

 This was part of the road I walked to get away from the gite!

This was part of the road I walked to get away from the gite!

So I Tried Hitching

I heard a car coming so I stopped and patted the air at waist level which seemed to be a slow down, stop, look at me sign and I thought less likely to be misinterpreted than sticking my finger in the air.   The car pulled up.  He was helpful and told me I was on the right road for Azilal.  Another car stopped and another.  They reassured me I was going in the right direction. None of them offered a lift. 

I began to think that I would skip hitching and go straight to holdup. 

The universe likes a joke, the next guy who pulled up was a policeman.  He drove me into town, took me to the Grand Taxi stand and organised the next leg of the journey.  I offered money for petrol, but he would not hear of it.

It was the next day before I started to itch.

 

Footnote:  On TripAdvisor, subsequently two people shared a similar experience - well not quite; they took one look and didn't stay but just got into and onto their respective vehicles, a car and a motorbike, and got the hell out of there.

Setting Off Travelling Solo in Morocco

 Near my Dar in Fez, Morocco after Alice left and I was travelling alone

Near my Dar in Fez, Morocco after Alice left and I was travelling alone

My space was a little hollow without Alice

When Alice left me in Fez to go back to London I felt bereft. https://gill-shaddick-xg56.squarespace.com/journey/an-accidental-journey-with-alice

I moved to another dar in the Medina, I don’t remember now how I found it, word of mouth I think.  It was more within my budget, owned by a Moroccan family this time,  filled with light, mosaics, fountains, cats galore, soft-footed family,  shy smiles and warm welcomes.  I was the only guest and each morning, I breakfasted alone with the cats, marvelling that orange juice, a croissant and a sprig of mint could look so magnificent on a blue tiled table with a shaft of sunlight filtering through the latticed rooftop.

Travelling Solo At Last

I need to say something here about travelling solo.  I am embarrassed to tell you how challenging I found it to be completely on my own.  I didn’t expect myself to feel the way I did.  After all I had craved it.  A space free of responsibility for someone else being hungry, hot or happy or not so.   

This journey had been part of my big Unilateral Declaration of Ownership.  Owning the situation and owning the solution.  And part of the solution had been to get away - right away.  Imagine that for a cure -  when family and physicians said, “Take your passport, stand not about wringing your hands, but GO!”

Perhaps it was because I hadn’t planned on Morocco.  But that was serendipity, part of the adventure.  How many other people set off for Turkey and land in North Africa?  I had stepped out of my life.  I could go bonkers, eat ice-cream, have serial affairs, write poetry, sleep in all day, party all night and no-one would know. 

Yet I Just Felt Wobbly and Wonky

All I felt like was finding a cafe and reading my book.  Where was the audacity I’d had at twenty-one?  Who was the intrepid traveller of maturity who had, in the last few years, been to Afghanistan, Laos, Tibet, Borneo?  What the hell was my problem?  I was like a child discovering again.  Of course I don’t remember what it is like to be a child discovering, but that’s the only way I can describe it.  Discovering my parameters.  I was scared, so terribly insecure.  Do men feel like this?  Ever?  And added to that, I was disappointed in myself that I felt that way.

Pets Make Good Travelling Companions

I closed my eyes.  Perhaps a four-footed companion. Travels with a Donkey.  Fez had a surfeit of those.  Get behind me RLS.  Those ideas take time and in any case Mike gave me a donkey in the Sudan thirty years earlier,  I could not get it to move in any direction even when I got off and tried to pull it along.


When I opened my eyes, the cats were all regarding me.  I could just stay in Fez.  It was a perfectly legitimate idea.  But the cats looked malevolent, squeezing their pupils as if to dislodge me from their world and my own craved security.  

Escaping Immediate Decision Making

Trying to get my stakes in the ground that first morning on my own, instead of thinking about where I would go in the coming weeks, my mind went back to another perennial problem.  How to be self-sufficient financially on my return to Australia in several months?

Like I was on a desert island and worrying about what I would do after I was rescued rather than addressing the need for water and a coconut.

I didn't have to look far for inspiration.  There I was surrounded by straws.  I pictured a little shop in Sydney; tiles, textiles and tangines.  I’d wear a caftan and Mike could grow the long beard I had always hated, wear a jellabah like he did in the Sudan, and pour out the peppermint tea.  

Clutching at a Project

I was delighted with myself.  A project.  I made enquiries and had no problem finding a manufacturer of Moroccan tiles.  He was delighted to see me.  Many people, he assured me, had made a great deal of money in Australia importing
from him. 

A container, no less, that was the only way to go otherwise it would be too expensive.  There would be no problem filling a container for my new friend had not only tiles and mosaics, but a cousin who made carved wooden doors and screens, an uncle with a good line in fountains.  It so happened his wife’s father owned the very best tagine pottery in Fez.  Over lunch we talked of family and finding out I had four daughters and unmarried at that, he said immediately he could supply husbands, maybe even four brothers.  And I myself, I was travelling alone?  He could squeeze them all in a container, ready-made, I had only to supply required sizes…

"Come back tomorrow," he said, "We'll talk some more."

 No trouble filling a container - a new business opportunity awaited me and new opportunities galore   

No trouble filling a container - a new business opportunity awaited me and new opportunities galore

 

Some Ideas Are Best Left Behind

It was evening by the time I got back to my dar.  The cats eyes shone round in the dark.
“It’s OK,” I said softly, “I’m going in the morning.” 

Somewhere on the road to total contentment in a container, I had also found courage, or at least enough of it to travel in my first Grand Taxi and after that there was no turning back. 

An Accidental Journey with Alice

A London Stopover

I was staying in a tiny flat in North London with my youngest daughter, Alice.  I mean tiny.  A house savagely sliced into pieces leaving rooms appearing taller than they were wide.  She lived there with Chris, her boyfriend. Their bedroom was a thoroughfare, you couldn’t access the loo from anywhere without going through it.

Mum we'll just cuddle up and watch TV


I slept on the sofa-bed and Alice insisted she and I watch the entire series of Downton Abbey - all fifty-two episodes within three nights viewing - well that’s how it felt.  I enjoyed the first few but now have a facial tick that manifests whenever anyone mentions the Abbey.  

 We did a lot of fun things in London besides watch Downton Abbey!

We did a lot of fun things in London besides watch Downton Abbey!

I Wanted Some Alice Time

I wanted to take Alice for a holiday and we settled on Southern Turkey.
“So you’ll go to the travel agent tomorrow?”
“No way, I’ll book everything on the internet,” I said.
“Oh, you’re such a switched on Mum,” said Alice and I purred.


As Alice disappeared to the kitchen to cook supper she hissed Chris had a limited Internet plan. Chris was extraordinarily forbearing; deprived of Alice and his TV, subject to my nighttime excursions through his bedroom, he now gave up his final bastion and let me onto his computer.  

Come Fly With Me

It was mighty stressful as I scanned the bucket-shop sites for flights and hostels in Antalya or Alanya, the kilobytes, megabytes and gigabytes flying by.  Alice would come in to see how I was going and top up my red wine.  She offered helpful alternative dates which further complicated the breathless combination of flights and hostels which ebbed and flowed before me, seats filling before my eyes, so when I finally got the combo right, I wasn’t going to muck about, booked and went to help Alice with cooking and the red wine.  

So Mum...  aaaaaaaa

“So were do we fly into Mum?” asked Alice.


“Antalya,” I said, but as the words came out my mouth, my whole body did a kind of wiggly cringe. Intuition isn’t called gut feeling for nothing.  It’s also our innate wisdom.  Ha, bloody ha, let me repeat that: johnny come-late wisdom.   


I made some excuse, got Chris to re-fire his computer and checked the confirmation. 

Ryanair were so pleased we were going to Alicante on the Costa Blanca, Spain.


“I really can’t believe you did that,” said Alice, a spatula raised in one hand.  
“I’m sorry, just too many aaaa’s - I can’t believe it either.  Never mind, Alicante‘ll be nice.”
“Mum, I don’t want to go to Spain again!”
I shuffled off back to the computer, simpered to Chris who was checking his emails.


Ryanair would only let me change tickets for another flight on the same day and the only place left was Fez.  
“Mum, where the fes is Fez?”  

Redemption

To make up for it, I booked a guesthouse beyond my normal budget to about the power of five.  An additional incentive being that reviews of my normal nightly outlay left others itchy, wanting for hot water or in some cases, any water at all.  


On arrival at Dar El Hana in Fez Medina, we were welcomed by Josephine.  My intuition had looked after me after all, if not my bank balance.  It was perfect.

 On heaven's balcony... with a good book

On heaven's balcony... with a good book

 

Josephine's Dar El Hana

Josephine had drifted into Fes some years before on the start of a world adventure, never got further, instead bought a dar, an Arab house in the Medina, and started taking in guests. 

Jammed together, without windows, dar rooms face inward and, from upstairs, have balconies that look down to a central patio.  It may be a garden or just a table and chairs; a gorgeous riot of tiles, carpets, cushions, cedar wood and greenery.  

 Some tiling from Fez

Some tiling from Fez

Buying a Dar in Fez


When a property is purchased in Fez, everything above the outline of the house at ground level is yours, but the houses have evolved in such an organic way that a winding stair-case or a burrowed cellar may well go beyond your footprint or you may find your neighbour in yours. 

That was what happened to Josephine as she told me when I admired the little coloured tiles on the kitchen floor.

“Most of them are original, I cleaned and sorted them myself.  When we lifted the tiles, the floor gave way and we peered down into the kitchen of our neighbours whom I’d greeted outside only shortly before.  It was a great surprise for both of us!”


So she had to buy and sell pieces of the house to establish her final footprint.

My journeys are always fascinating but often vaguely uncomfortable; an incentive to keep moving. 

In Fez with Alice I could have settled down for months and it was an effort to tear us away to backpack travel. 

Alice acquiesced with a certain stoicism, adopting the dress of an avant-garde Berber tribeswoman with a voluminous scarf round her head and lower jaw and enormous sunglasses to keep the sun off her fair skin. 

 Alice - inside without the sungassses

Alice - inside without the sungassses

 

Together we explored the Medina in Meknes, the Kasbah in Rabat and holy marvellous Moulay Idriss.  At Roman Volubilis,  Alice sat in the shade for an hour while I haggled with a dozen taxi drivers in non-existent French and I embarrassed her dreadfully when I eventually hijacked some American tourists for a lift.  

Together we enjoyed a riot of colour and donkeys, camels and cats, great food, naughty boys, friendly Moroccans, and more colour.

 Marvellous Moroco

Marvellous Moroco

An Ideal Travel Companion... 


Alice has a phenomenal sense of humour and a nose for a bottle of red wine.  She used both when we found ourselves on a windswept Atlantic beach where Lonely Planet’s, “Little visited idyllic seaside fishing village,” wasn’t the description we’d have given and where Alice woke me in the middle of the night to show me the carcass of a bedbug wrapped in a tissue and her lines of bites. 

“Move over Mum -  me and my mates are coming to join you.”   


Alice Knows About the Finer Things in Life

Back in Fez for the last two nights before Alice departed for London, she took control.  She rebooked us into the Dar El Hana, found a modern hammam for the most amazing full-body ex-foliation on hot marble slabs and on our last evening, she followed Josephine’s recommendation and a small boy fetched us and spirited us through the Medina at night to the Tourina Restaurant which was out of this world in ambiance, flavours and delightful service.

Next time...


Next time I go travelling with Alice, I am going to leave all the arrangements up to her.  I’ll just have to save up first.


Undoubtedly the opportunity to touch down in extraordinary Fez and sample the warm-heart of Morocco was the very best of accidents.

 Market produce and no gladwrap!

Market produce and no gladwrap!

Stirring up a blue day with red paint

 Red is gorgeous and dangerous, passionate and painful - what a duet

Red is gorgeous and dangerous, passionate and painful - what a duet

We all have our blue moments

Life suddenly heavy, the world extraordinarily messy, our children, the success of last resort, briefly feral or blue themselves, poverty imminent, lumbago looming.  Dangerously, the gloom has a sublime quality - a seductive wallow could follow.

How to own the blue days

Dale, my daughter, suggests meditation; my friend Karen, a glass of red; I know a walk is required.  But my cheerlessness is serious when my heart whispers again and again, “Go on an adventure.”

I’m a lifelong runaway.

Decision time

That’s when I need to keep away from Skyscanner and reconnect head, heart and hands; paint furniture or sew creatively.  Which one I choose is immaterial; the initiated steps are a highway to the sky.

 Just one foot in front of another and we can climb most mountains.  Only trouble is pictures like these whisper "An adventure..."

Just one foot in front of another and we can climb most mountains.  Only trouble is pictures like these whisper "An adventure..."

 

This time it's paint.  So I set out for the Porter’s Paint Shop clutching an old tin.  On the lid was written, ‘Aphrodite’. 

Well, the staff said, Aphrodite was long gone, unremembered, the joke on me. 

The flippant conviviality released a sentimental rush of affection for total strangers.  Revived already, I left with a tin of Medieval Red.  But on the way home, I mourned Aphrodite.  Medieval Red conjured clanking armour and testosterone usurping the goddess of love, beauty and procreation.  I spoke firmly to myself.  This is therapy, you have to see it through.

The Fix

I opened the tin and stirred and swirled, rousing a drop-dead gorgeous red that burbled up in slow, globby bubbles. Liberated, its exuberance eyed-me-up, bypassing my brain and rekindled my heart-fire while satisfying some vampire demon that wanted blood. 

Red is the King of Colours

Red is not my favourite, but it is my dear, melodramatic friend, the one I’m drawn to, the crazy-maker, full of theatre and passion.

Love, sunrise and sunset, festivities and hearts and blood-bonds, red-roses, red-carpets and Chinese good luck.  And it’s alter-ego, blood and guts, slaughter, danger, fire and brimstone, is as fundamental as blue days are to calm days, crazy happy days, contented days and fun days.

So I am still here and know if the going gets tougher, and stirring paint doesn’t cut it, I can still take off on the
big red kangaroo.

I didn’t even need to wet my brush, but put the lid back on the tin and underneath Medieval Red, I wrote
Aphrodite Mark II.  

 The paint and red things on my desk - maybe red is a closer friend than I think!

The paint and red things on my desk - maybe red is a closer friend than I think!

A long leaky week that ended in champagne and hugs

 Bit of a rattlebag of a week!

Bit of a rattlebag of a week!

I was almost rendered blogless...

Airbnb hosting has outdistanced my writing discipline this week.  Outdistanced, encompassed, overwhelmed, engulfed… 

And you are going to hear all about it...

On Wednesday the pipes blocked in the kitchen sink, the water backwashed into the dishwasher which overflowed, flooding the kitchen floor, which dripped down to the garage knocking out one electric circuit and rapping a mean beat on daughter Dale’s African drum stored below.

Have you noticed that tradies come in matched pairs?

The plumbers arrived in identical tee-shirts.  They looked genuinely concerned at pipe joints leaking into buckets.  I explained how I undid the pipes to fix the problem myself, until one under the house hosed me with revolting smelly water which meant I had to take a long hot shower and put all my clothes onto the bio-wash cycle.  

That, I add, "Is why I called you." 

I do a mean job unblocking toilets and fixing gutters but I’d had to admit defeat. 

They talk gently about needing expertise, pipe diameters, length, inclines, back pressure, expanding joints.  In other words, lady, leave this to us.

They identified the problem - the four googes

“This pipe,” the taller dark-haired one said, tapping it reverently, “Is from the kitchen sink and it is chockablock.” He wrinkles his nose. 

I get it.  That pipe is jam-packed with gunge, goo, grunge and gloop.   

He continues: a high-pressure water blast might clear it but will back up when it hits the end bend and whoosh, all that GGG&G will be atomized over the entire double garage which at the moment is completely taken up with possessions of prodigal daughters.   The two young men politely shake their heads: drop sheets, tarps will not help, everything will be sodden – a double garage Armageddon will ensue once they start.    

To avoid double-garage Armageddon...

An alternative solution, for a mere $2000 they can replace the pipe painlessly. They will exorcise it, seal it off, cut it out and take it to some non-disclosed bio-hazard waste site where the fatty remnants of three decades of domestic drippings will break down over centuries.

Since it's Friday, they can't do anything until Monday, unless I pay an emergency surcharge...

It seemed an astronomical price to agree for a new piece of pipe especially as I am so good at undoing joints.  (It’s just getting them done up again where I need help.)  I decline the emergency surcharge….

Enter left DIYIT

That evening, long-standing guest comes in from work. Let’s call him DIYIT as he is good at DIY and IT.   DIYIT is a dollars and cents man.  He’s a money-saving junkie.

“You know, WE can probably fix it OURSELVES.”  He rubs his chin the way men do when they are thinking. “If WE put a plumber’s snake down there, WE would know exactly what was up.”

I have never heard of a plumber’s snake, but my imagination is running riot.

“Less of the WE, I am leaving at sparrows for Kim’s fortieth in the Blue Mountains.”

“What time does Bunnings Hardware open?”

At 6.30 am,  we creep out to buy a snake and then I bugger off to the Mountains.

On my return...

When I get home that evening, all the guests are smiling.  The sink flows, the dishwasher works.  All for $36.30.

"No evidence of any gunge in the pipe at all," says DIYIT, "Not even any grease on the end of the snake and whatever the problem was, it's gone now."

Thank Goodness and Goodnight all...

I am in bed when a new-first-visit-to-Australia-young-female-guest calls – she had the flights wrong and has arrived twelve hours early.  She knows I have no room so she will sleep at the airport.   I tell her to get on a train while I make up a bed in my office.  I go up to the station at midnight, but she is not on the last train.  So I message her,

“Where are you now?”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Gill, your host.”

“Ah I am not the girl.”

Followed by a staccato of messages:”

“I lend her my phone to call u"
“I think she told u this is not her number”
“I think u know so why u ask me where I now”

I start to message back.  I am getting quite worked up.  Messaging strangers, responding to anything remotely controversial on Facebook and road rage are all in the same basket, ultimately self-harm.  I am saved from myself when there is a loud rap on my car window and that frightens the bejesus out of me.

A man wants to know if I am an Uber.  I pack him off to get a taxi on the Highway.  More time passes so I decide to walk around the station to make sure I have not missed new-first-visit-to-Australia-young-female-guest. 

Everything is deserted, even the highway, and there is not a soul around except; a man waiting for a taxi.  He turns round and he is very excited to see me again and starts running towards me, I flee.   

It is now 12.30 am and I am very tired despite the elation that guests can use the sink
and that I have out-run the Uber-doober man;
this is the first time I have lost a new-first-visit-to-Australia-young-female-guest. 
I wonder what I should tell Airbnb since officially she hasn't even arrived.

 

Salt-of-the-earth saves the day

Fifteen minutes later I get a call from a cleaner for Sydney Trains.  My guest emerged at the wrong station to an empty street facing a huge graveyard.  She had no sim-card, she waited but no traffic passed, no people – her introduction to Sydney just whispering trees and the peaceful dead.  So she found a public phone where a notice said IN AN EMERGENCY

God Bless her, she dialed Triple Zero.  God Bless Australia, they told her to hold tight, help was on its way. 

Fortunately salt-of-the-earth cleaner, who knows what if feels like to be a foreigner in a strange land, finds her before all three services descend on the station.

White panel van on approach...

The two forlorn figures, staring up the road are clearly disconcerted by the arrival of my clapped-out white panel van.   
I’m used to this, guests expect more up-market transport, so I have a well-practiced leap-out - full of bonhomie and unbridled delight.   If I were practicing abduction, it would be a good tactic, they stand stock still.

We all hug - a triple hug-fest. 

 See, it's a nice little white panel van, not creepy at all   

See, it's a nice little white panel van, not creepy at all

 

The next day is another day...

I get to sleep about 2 am and set the alarm at 6 am to do battle with the redundant plumbers and write my blog and I’d like to say that that day went according to plan…   It didn't but I got lots of hugs from new-first-visit-to-Australia-young-female-guest and at 7 pm, French-departing-guests were popping champagne and celebrating because they were leaving the next day…  and they hoped the next place would have plumbing... I wondered if they would take me too.  

But I know I’d miss it… the life that I have has taken a lifetime to achieve and I have learned so many skills – and one day I might find a tool to help me do up joints on pipes for now I have a plumber’s snake in my repertoire, I’m set - I think DIYIT and I will need to get matching tee shirts and if all else fails, I know I can dial Triple 000, I understand they are tremendously helpful!

   Every girl needs both!