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

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.”

 

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!

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!