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!

 

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 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 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.

 

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!

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. 

The Ease Of Late Career Change

  My daughter, Emily,  kindly made a collage for me when she read my blog.

My daughter, Emily,  kindly made a collage for me when she read my blog.

A Jack-of-all-trades

I was born a Jack-of-all-trades.  Blessed with an optimistic disposition, I set off on a peripatetic journey through life, qualifying for, but never practicing, a profession.  

I'm of the age where people ask me what I did, rather than what I do.   I sweep a broad brush - 
“business administration", I say. 

Business Administration?

Have you ever heard anything more boring in your life?   Can you imagine any two words that conjure up a worse fate? Roll out the coffin, tip her in, she’s crisped and dried out. 

Jack shouts in my ear, “No, no.  That’s not right”.

“Shut up Jack, it’s too hard to explain.  And in any case the fat lady has not yet left the stage.”

I didn't necessarily choose careers either, some were foisted upon me.  An American watched me with fabrics, designing, sewing, trialling colours, making a quilt.  She said, “How long have you been an artist?”  I said, “No, no I’m not an artist”. 

Never mistake a blush

Jean-Paul Satre said modesty is the virtue of the lukewarm.  My friends, I’ll own up to business administration sounding boring as batshit, but not to being lukewarm. 

Shortly afterwards I was back on the road.  I filled out the forms at the airport and when it came to occupation, instead of Retired Business Administrator, I wrote, with a flourish, Artist.

Forget, What Colour is my Parachute, mid-life career-choice blues, just book an overseas trip.  Then you can instantly be anything you ever wanted to be.  You can adopt the persona just for a trip or make it permanent.  Go joyfully through the barrier, exchanging your hat as you go.   Once I’d made it official, Jack said, “Oh.  Of course, that’s what we are…  I had been wondering”.  That whole trip, I saw images, constructed new artwork, for after all, I was an artist on sabbatical.

Two years later

It was the next overseas trip, two years later, when I changed professions again and I became a writer.   As I travelled, I filled notebook after notebook. 

And that is how you find me now. 

Jung said, “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become”.

I had to think about this one.  I have always felt I became what happened to me, but once I fixed on the idea that I wanted to write a memoir, I made a choice and magic happened.