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 tagine, 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.   


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.


I’ve never hitched.


In Morocco?  Are you mad?


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 tagines.  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. 

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!

Go get the gone days

I was twelve when I saw the photo

The photo was of my maternal grand-mother, Mamie.  She was sitting at a dinner table, laughing out loud, her head thrown back a little.  The meal is over,  napkins careless on the table.  The laughing woman adds joie de vivre.  My mother looked at it for a moment and said, “Mamie gave wonderful dinners.  She was the heart and soul of the party.” 

My grandmother as a party animal was totally unexpected.   I’ve described Mamie recently in my memoir as a thrifty, tall and vitreous stick of a woman.

I was not a favoured grandchild  

Mamie seemed never pleased to see me and I steered clear of her.  So I saw an opportunity.

“Mamie’s in the garden; I’ll show her, the photo,” I said.

“NO, no.  Don’t do that, you will upset her.”


Mum tried to explain. The past was a place adults didn't like to visit for the present
didn't measure up.  

Years later when I was twenty-one and just about to leave for Hong Kong, Mum uncharacteristically snapped at me for endlessly crooning the hit song Those Were the Days

Russian folksong goes down well in Russia

Days after that exchange with Mum, I was rolling across the starry steppes of Siberia, singing the song with great gusto to Russians on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  They loved it because they were drunk as Tsars and because it was originally a Russian folk-song.

Recently, and now in my sixties, when I started
to write memoir

I thought of my mother, my grandmother, that photo and that song.  Revisiting the mopey, self-indulgent lyrics of Those Were the Days, I have to wonder what were we thinking!   But I also thought about messages that the past was a place to visit with trepidation.

Bullshit, my friends

Like life itself, the past is what we make it.  How we imagine the future is seldom objective, how we remember the past isn't either.  With hindsight we can use perspective and examine life and celebrate our success, for survival is success; warts and all!   My generation has even earned the right to sing that silly song, unlike Mary Hopkin when she first sang aged eighteen!

Are you reticent about looking back?   
Does it make you melancholy? 

Days of Freakish Luck and Preposterous Happiness

Edmund Dulac - Gerda and the Reindeer - I think she was having a day with a white mark.  I always have loved the surprise on the Reindeer's face - maybe it's him that's having the day!

Edmund Dulac - Gerda and the Reindeer - I think she was having a day with a white mark.  I always have loved the surprise on the Reindeer's face - maybe it's him that's having the day!

I've been digging out my poetry books this week.  I used to read it in the bath, but now I take a shower!

No one reads poetry anymore, too busy reading tweets

Is this true?  What a terrible bargain we've made in the 21C.  Can't we tweet poetry?  Or is tweeting
the new poetry?

I am neither poet nor philosopher, but when a poem really resonates, I stop breathing.  

A finger on my pulse stays time and the lines take residence, stirring only when there is a crack
in the right moment.

Do you have days with a white mark?

I first read The Day with a White Mark by C S Lewis, when I was in my thirties.  The years gone by have amplified the pleasure, for now when I awake to a day with a white mark, I greet it like an old friend. 

Do you know what Lewis means?  Days when you are whirled in a preposterous happinessDays when you could kiss the very scullery taps

They arrive unbidden and, as Lewis says, arrive even on days when in the dark ahead only the
breakers are white.

Reading the poem will make you smile, and maybe, like me, ever after you’ll have an elf in the blood or the bird in the brain.

The Day with the White Mark

All day I have been tossed and whirled in a preposterous happiness:
Was it an elf in the blood? or a bird in the brain? or even part
Of the cloudily crested, fifty-league-long, loud uplifted wave
Of a journeying angel's transit roaring over and through my heart?

My garden's spoiled, my holidays are cancelled, the omens harden;
The plann'd and unplann'd miseries deepen; the knots draw tight.
Reason kept telling me all day my mood was out of season.
It was, too. In the dark ahead the breakers are only white.

Yet I--I could have kissed the very scullery taps. The colour of
My day was like a peacock's chest. In at each sense there stole
Ripplings and dewy sprinkles of delight that with them drew
Fine threads of memory through the vibrant thickness of the soul.

As though there were transparent earths and luminous trees should grow there,
And shining roots worked visibly far down below one's feet,
So everything, the tick of the clock, the cock crowing in the yard
Probing my soil, woke diverse buried hearts of mine to beat,

Recalling either adolescent heights and the inaccessible
Longings and ice-sharp joys that shook my body and turned me pale,
Or humbler pleasures, chuckling as it were in the ear, mumbling
Of glee, as kindly animals talk in a children's tale.

Who knows if ever it will come again, now the day closes?
No-one can give me, or take away, that key. All depends
On the elf, the bird, or the angel. I doubt if the angel himself
Is free to choose when sudden heaven in man begins or ends.

~C.S. Lewis, Poems, Edited by Walter Hooper, (1964)


 More recently I discovered Jan Zwicky

The second piece is a fragment of a poem that I came across only a couple of years ago.  It’s very different, but again time paused and I read it without a breath.


From Transparence

Only in fairy tales,
or given freakish luck, does the wind
rise suddenly and set you down where everything
is safe and loved and in its place. The mind
does not expect it. But the heart,
                                                        the heart -
the heart keeps looking for itself.
It knows and does not know
where it belongs.

~Jan Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, (1996)

I'm writing memoir

It's like squeezing a whole harvest of citrus, sweet and sour, into a liqueur glass.  So I find the economy of
Jan Zwicky’s lines exquisite. 

In that first reading I was pitched headlong into the Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham illustrations of my enchanted childhood days before I was swept up with the Wizard of Oz, which is a short synopsis of my life.  I know I am not unique!  

I felt tears prick when I read the words, the heart keeps looking for itself.  It knows and does not know where it belongs.  And then I read again and felt found, not lost,  as if suddenly I understood what I had known all along.

 Jan Zwicky

Jan Zwicky is a Canadian philosopher, poet and musician and she originally published these lines in 1996 in a book called Songs for Relinquishing the Earth that she hand-made for each customer.  At first each book was individually sewn for its reader between plain covers, harnessing an extra dimension of intimacy between the reader and creator.  Although the book is now published by Brick Books and available on Amazon, that idea of a gift from the hand of the author remains in my head and connects us all.


Arthur Rackham - Girl beside a stream .....       the heart keeps looking for itself

Arthur Rackham - Girl beside a stream
.....      the heart keeps looking for itself

There Is Seldom A Dream Run

Mike and I at home with our four daughters, Emily Dale, Kim and Alice.

Mike and I at home with our four daughters, Emily Dale, Kim and Alice.

In my early sixties, I had a life changing moment when I declared a Unilateral Declaration of Ownership

Next, I got cold feet and had to light a slow fuse.

Declaring Unilateral Declaration of Ownership, gives one a rush of blood to the head - not the deep, gutsy,
sustainable valour required.  That needs camaraderie and unity.  I was flying solo.  So I played a trick on myself. 
I lit a slow-burning fuse.  I organised to lease our house out and gave notice at work.  That gave me
six months to come up with a plan for where Mike and I would go.  Fait accompli.

That was five years ago

Today, back in our house in Sydney, I have:

  • an income stream from international travellers who know of us through Sabbatical Homes and Airbnb;
  • found my niche as a writer of travel memoir.  I have recently finished my first book which is now  
    doing the rounds of agents;
  • started on my second book;
  • travelled extensively in the last few years and made a host of new friends and acquaintances. 
  • journeyed halfway round the world to the Azores.  These islands that are the furthest landfall
    from Sydney.  Any further and you are on the way back!
  • most importantly, four girls that all still talk to me …
  • Mike, who also still talks to me, just ... 
  • an idea, a vague idea for a new adventure …

So it all went according to plan? 

Are you kidding?  Absolutely nothing went according to plan.  I questioned my sanity.  Mike certainly questioned the wisdom of being homeless.   The original problem looked trite compared with the problems I created for myself and everyone else.  The "F" word became my mantra.  UDO was the stupidest thing I ever did and yet…  it worked! 

In a tortuous, devious, ambiguous way …  it worked!   

And Mike?

Well he might not admit it, but I think he did enjoy the brilliant, brazen and sometimes beastly
adventures that beset us.

My blog will embrace stories of how writing, travelling and opening my home to guests has
helped me live more comfortably than I could ever have imagined.



It’s Never Too Late For A Volte-face Moment

I was glad I changed course and one of the places my volte-face moment took me to was Spain.  I loved this lady, I reckoned she'd had a head banging moment too!

I was glad I changed course and one of the places my volte-face moment took me to was Spain.  I loved this lady, I reckoned she'd had a head banging moment too!

Dad, I think Mum's serious

It was late 2008 when my contemporary life began.   It happened a year or so after my sixtieth birthday when I sank to my knees, drummed the floorboards with both fists and howled with rage.

I'm a nice, quiet, refined kind of gal normally so my behaviour was unparalleled.  The girls rushed to pick me up and I heard Kim say to Mike, “Dad, I think Mum’s serious”.

Are you kidding?  My bum up in the air, banshee curdles and a fist tattoo.  A ridiculous, undignified spectacle.

But I was serious.  I was seriously mad as hell. 

My plan had been vague.  But I hadn't expected Mike to thwart it on the grounds of reason; we couldn't afford it, he said.   Something deep down within me recalibrated and my knees gave way.

Changing course

Fury brought clarity.  Delicate negotiations with Mike; the convincing and the compromises, were not the stuff that I was made of and the raw energy of impulse had floundered.  So I made a decision there and then to declare Unilateral Declaration of Ownership (UDO).   It was a decision of unitary selfishness, but I preferred a title.  Unilateral Declaration of Ownership has a ring to it; an absolution. 

I had rung the bell, whoever wanted to come my way was welcome, but I was changing course.  I would own the situation and own the solution.


I recognised the feeling; I’d recalibrated before, but then I had been single; much simpler.  I had wept into my pillow for weeks, until a flash of insight suggested to me that actively cultivating mildew in my bed, in the high-humidity of a monsoonal Hong Kong, was staggeringly unimaginative.  I've just written about that in my forthcoming memoir. 

The Trigger

The trigger is either the boredom of a depressive wallow or someone telling me I can’t do something.  
The first is a slow, deliberate and satisfying clamber out of the slough of despond, but the second is a wilful,
wicked, wonderful rush to the head.

As I write this I can see the head-banging spot.  It and I have a special connection.  I wonder sometimes if I should paint a little star there or put a brass plaque which reads, Life after 60 started here, or just a cryptic, UDO.

What about you?

Have you had a self-prescribed U-turn, life-changing, volte-face moment?  I don’t mean when life dealt you a
whack in the guts, tragedy or drama, I mean when you reached a dead-end and thought, Stuff this! 
There has to be another way