No Early Start From a Moroccan Gite

Just outside my gite...

Just outside my gite...

A Very Nice Gite

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

A Very Early Start

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

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

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

A Very Scary Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Very Avid Woman... The Story Goes

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

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

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

Keeping Solo in the High Atlas

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

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

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

Tabant to Zaouit Ahansal

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

Tabant and the local petrol station...

Tabant and the local petrol station...

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

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

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

Ait Bougomez Valley

Ait Bougomez Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

I snatched it away and took a few steps back.  

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

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

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

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

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

“Kissy, kissy?”  

“No kissy, kissy!”

“Kissy, kissy?”

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

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

The Tizi'Tirghist Pass

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

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

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

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

Nomad Tents Made of Camel-Hair

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

Eggs never tasted better

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

Making it Plain in a Pretty Gite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delightful Zaouiat Ahansal

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

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

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

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

Homeward Bound

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

Ahhhhhh....!

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

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

“No, well not really.”

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

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

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

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

Going It Alone in Morocco

It was hard to tear myself away from Fez!

It was hard to tear myself away from Fez!

Tricks for Travelling Solo

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

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

Morocco by Grand Taxi

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

Gite d'Etape

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

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

Très Jolie - On Closer Inspection - Très Terrible

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

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

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

“Très jolie!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Little Bits Were Très Jolie

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

Ahhh!

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

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

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

Forget the Breakfast

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

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

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

I Set Off Down the Road

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

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

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

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

Hitch.

I’ve never hitched.

Hitch.

In Morocco?  Are you mad?

Hitch.

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

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

So I Tried Hitching

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

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

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

It was the next day before I started to itch.

 

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

Setting Off Travelling Solo in Morocco

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

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

My space was a little hollow without Alice

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

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

Travelling Solo At Last

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

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

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

Yet I Just Felt Wobbly and Wonky

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

Pets Make Good Travelling Companions

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


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

Escaping Immediate Decision Making

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

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

I didn't have to look far for inspiration.  There I was surrounded by straws.  I pictured a little shop in Sydney; tiles, textiles and 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. 

An Accidental Journey with Alice

A London Stopover

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

Mum we'll just cuddle up and watch TV


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

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

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

I Wanted Some Alice Time

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


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

Come Fly With Me

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

So Mum...  aaaaaaaa

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


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


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

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


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


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

Redemption

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


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

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

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

 

Josephine's Dar El Hana

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

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

Some tiling from Fez

Some tiling from Fez

Buying a Dar in Fez


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Alice - inside without the sungassses

Alice - inside without the sungassses

 

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

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

Marvellous Moroco

Marvellous Moroco

An Ideal Travel Companion... 


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

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


Alice Knows About the Finer Things in Life

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

Next time...


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


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

Market produce and no gladwrap!

Market produce and no gladwrap!

Stirring up a blue day with red paint

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

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

We all have our blue moments

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

How to own the blue days

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

I’m a lifelong runaway.

Decision time

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

The Fix

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

Red is the King of Colours

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long leaky week that ended in champagne and hugs

Bit of a rattlebag of a week!

Bit of a rattlebag of a week!

I was almost rendered blogless...

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

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

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

Have you noticed that tradies come in matched pairs?

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

That, I add, "Is why I called you." 

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

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

They identified the problem - the four googes

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

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

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

To avoid double-garage Armageddon...

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

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

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

Enter left DIYIT

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

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

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

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

“What time does Bunnings Hardware open?”

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

On my return...

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

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

Thank Goodness and Goodnight all...

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

“Where are you now?”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Gill, your host.”

“Ah I am not the girl.”

Followed by a staccato of messages:”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Salt-of-the-earth saves the day

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

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

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

White panel van on approach...

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

We all hug - a triple hug-fest. 

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

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

 

The next day is another day...

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

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

   Every girl needs both!

 

Good news spurred me on to write about Africa and I'm lost for words.

I'm digging up Africa photos - there is Mike - the tall handsome one - my soulmate.  Some photos don't need many words or any translation.   We were lost and all those damn cotton fields looked exactly alike. 

I'm digging up Africa photos - there is Mike - the tall handsome one - my soulmate.  Some photos don't need many words or any translation.  
We were lost and all those damn cotton fields looked exactly alike. 

Good news spurred me on

I started my second manuscript in January when I opened the Africa letters.   I’ve been dragging my hands a bit, but last week, I got a literary agent, Brendan Fredericks, who has taken on my first manuscript - one I wrote about living in Hong Kong.  It takes me a step nearer publishing.  It's an absolute delight to have Brendan on side and it’s having a galvanising effect. I’m writing like crazy, loving it and cursing too.

It's bloody hard work

This writing is no superficial retiree diversion, it’s as challenging as any physical marathon.  Long hours hunched over the keyboard give way to long nights when words play the devil with me.  I sleep with a writing pad at my bedside.  Not so much to catch my midnight inspirations as to empty my head of words. 

By night there are too many, yet by day there are never enough.  

Only a million

There are about a million words in the English language and once you take away the chemical, technical and scientific words...

So less than a million.  I feel I’ve gone through them all and am still left wanting; I might need more…

Monolinqual or Monoglot?

Then I remembered a young Afghan friend who shook his head when talking to me one day.  “It must be awful only to speak one language.”
 
“I’m embarrassed and I wish I’d learned more,” I said truthfully, “But I get by.”  

“I can't imagine it.  Isn't it dull?  I mean there are words in Farsi that express things that you don’t have in English and words in English that Farsi lacks.  Farsi is so poetic.”

It really struck a chord with me.  Surosh was only a teenager at the time we had the conversation. 

I did feel deprived, but it was entirely my own fault.

A Polyglot

Recently I heard about a young American, another teenager.  Tim Doner, a well known polyglot.  He spoke 23 languages (probably he's added another half-dozen by now) and said Farsi was his favourite.

Both young men can quote Hafez, the 14th century Iranian poet - impressive.  Because I know they'd just as easily quote Shakespeare.

Imagine...

Imagine if polyglots had time to write books.  Picture them: chewing their pens, rubbing their temples, contemplating which word from which language best to express the required sentiment.

Mind you, they might need to self-publish…  Or to start an elite club.

So I'll just have make do, after all others have managed...

Oh well I can take some solace in the historical beginnings of English, it’s a bastard language: German, Norse, Danish, Dutch, French Latin. And I’m too busy writing to take up languages, so one million words will have to do. 

I leave you with a line by Hafez

“Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.” 

Now I’m sure a lot gets lost in translation, but I’m glad there was someone there to try.  

 

When I read poetry, I feel the words lift of the page and spin, suddenly more flexible and closer. 

When I read poetry, I feel the words lift of the page and spin, suddenly more flexible and closer. 

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/06/14/american-who-speaks-23-languages-says-persian-is-his-favorite/

http://www.languagemonitor.com/number-of-words/no-of-words/

Vodka, Kasha and the Russian Chapter

Two Babushka Dolls given to me by two Russian doctors almost fifty years apart, one is a peasant, the other a bit of a hussy!

Two Babushka Dolls given to me by two Russian doctors almost fifty years apart, one is a peasant, the other a bit of a hussy!

Imagine my delight  

Writing a book was a lot harder than I imagined.  I have a new-found admiration for anyone who gets their work onto the shelves.  My first memoir of two years I spent in Hong Kong got bogged down at the beginning when I wrote about my journey East from England on the Trans-Siberian railway.  I struggled, my words totally inadequate against the Russian front.

Then right in the middle of my epic battle with the Russian chapter, I hosted a Russian, an Associate Professor from Siberia.

I pestered him with questions, he looked disconcerted.  His Siberia was a vibrant spot, he enjoyed living there.

My Farewell Invitation

The months flew and it was time for his farewell.  I sent round the invitations.  We’d send the Professor off in Russian style: drink vodka, eat kasha and sing the Volga Boat Song.

The Professor came to me.  He had printed off my email.  “Vodka?  I prefer Australian white wine.”

“That’s OK,” I said brightly, “I’ll get wine.”  Me and the bottle of Vodka would have our own party, I thought.

“You can cook kasha?” he said doubtfully, “Do you want me to buy the cream?”

Why would I want him to buy the cream?  My kasha was from a The Pauper’s Cookbook by Jocasta Innes, and sure had no cream.  (It upset Mike when I bought that book at a time when we were financially challenged.  He had a Scarlett O’Hara moment, “As God is my witness, we’ll never be poor again … I don’t want to eat like a pauper.”)

I said to the Professor, “No, no, it’s fine, my recipe does not have cream.” 

He looked doubtful.  

Then we had an discussion

His finger moved to the last item, “What is this Vulgar Boat Song?” 

“No, Volga.  You know, ‘Yo heave ho.  Ay-da, da, ay-da.’”

“No, I don’t know this song.”

“Yes you do!”

“No I don’t!”

Thank God for You Tube

So I found the Red Army Choir on YouTube singing the Volga Boat Song.  Since every second and third line is Yo, heave ho, I thought my earlier rendition should have sufficed.

“Oh, this is a very old song.  This is about slaves!”

It was a good party nevertheless

So, the kasha was as the Professor had never tasted it, Australian wine flowed and the Professor led us through some strange song, a romantic lament of cold and snow.  It is always winter in Siberia.

A lesson in Russian history

The professor said how much he had enjoyed staying.  He was a little embarrassed at not being able to answer all my questions about Russia.  He’d attended high-school, just after the collapse of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  The Russian history curriculum was suddenly redundant and it took time to pump out a new one. 

Just as well he was going.  If only I’d known, I’d have rectified that!   What a golden opportunity wasted. 

And the Babushka?

Yes, the Prof gave me a very shiny Babushka doll.  I was truly delighted because in 1968 on the Trans-Siberian Express, another Russian doctor had given me a Babushka doll.  That doctor had liked his Vodka - very much - and I'm sure from memory, we together gave a splendid rendition of the Volga Boat Song.  Yo heave ho.

Ma Wan Then and Now - a Hong Kong memory

The pier where I landed at Ma Wan is deserted today and junks like the one I photographed live on only in replica for the tourists.

The pier where I landed at Ma Wan is deserted today and junks like the one I photographed live on only in replica for the tourists.

Shards of Glass Industry

Reading an article in the South China Morning Post that traced the decline of neon factories in Hong Kong,  made me think of another little glass industry I once visited there which has totally disappeared.

All aboard the Deri-Vica

It was November 1969 when I boarded a swish motor launch at Queen’s Pier for my first jaunt on Hong Kong Harbour. 

We drank Pimm’s as the Deri-Vica, polished wood and gleaming brass, hustled with tankers, lighters and ferries along an ugly industrialised foreshore.  But once we cleared Stonecutters Island, the change was swift; a green and pleasant coastline and a seascape shared with great old wooden junks, still under sail.  These were ‘out of China’ and it was a thrill to glimpse anything from the mainland, then in the grip of the Cultural Revolution.   

Thermos Flasks on Ma Wan Island

Our destination was the little island of Ma Wan where our host, Mickey Mok, Hong Kong’s premier stockbroker, took us to visit the local thermos flask factory which kept the island going together with shrimp fishing, some farming and handicraft.

The blowing of the glass was mechanised, but each one had to be twisted off and finished by hand.  It was a family concern with the children happily engaged in the packaging shed and running errands.  

The inner and outer flasks were separated by small asbestos disks and outside sat a very old lady straddling her workbench; a huge tree stump.  She had a round punch and a hammer and moved a sheet of asbestos around cutting out each disk one by one. 

 

Shrimp paste, fish, baskets and rice paddies

Mickey Mok walked us on from the factory; there were no cars or even bicycles, just an undercurrent of dogs, cats, chickens and kids. Outside each small house was a rack of fish hanging up to dry. 

Mickey beckoned me to look in one doorway to where a grandmother was making a basket, her hands busy while her feet rested on a flexible bamboo foot pedal that joined a pole suspended between two rafters where a basket hung and rocked her grandson gently as she worked.


On the edge of the village were homes made out of old sampans raised up on stilts, mended and extended with planks from wooden packing crates disporting foreign brand names and logos.


We carried on past rice paddies and vegetable gardens to a sandy beach and then back through the second village on the Island which Mickey claimed was the oldest one left in Hong Kong.  He also said the large TV set mounted in the village square was the Government’s idea of birth control!

And Now?

It's hard to comprehend the change.  The slate is not quite wiped clean, a deserted village by the pier and some old timers attest to that but the thermos factory is long gone. Ma Wan now houses thousands and thousands of families.

The island became a pylon stop in the mid-1990s for the Tsing Ma suspension bridge to the new international airport on Lantau.  It sports a Noah’s Ark theme park and Park Island - a huge gated apartment complex. 

Noah's Ark Theme Park, Ma Wan from the air, the Tsing Ma Bridge by night and by day from the island. Photo credits include Ming Hong and HK Arun

Noah's Ark Theme Park, Ma Wan from the air, the Tsing Ma Bridge by night and by day from the island. Photo credits include Ming Hong and HK Arun

A kindly host

I was only 21; Mickey Mok was a generous host, keen to show visitors around.  It was much more fun on the Deri-Vica than on the boats of foreign Taipans because of his local knowledge.  I admired his immediacy; he engaged villagers and boat dwellers with genuine curiosity, affection and respect - they would have known from the boat that he was a wealthy man, but just how wealthy, I doubt!

Lawrence, Hemingway - each pillaged at Christmas

Samples of their writing, just so you can check - clockwise from bottom left, T E Lawrence, Lawrence in Arabia and Hemingway as a young man

Samples of their writing, just so you can check - clockwise from bottom left, T E Lawrence, Lawrence in Arabia and Hemingway as a young man

A vintage valise or a battered briefcase?

Even today, every op shop or garage sale, I look out for them.  Battered vintage hand luggage.  It’s been that way since I was a small girl. A persistent image - a dogged fixation.

One day I think, someone might… someone might find a bundle of papers and they might be… Of course the chance now is so remote its laughable, and yet…

 

It started on my mother's knee

It could have been a lesson in perseverance or about being careful, but I don’t think it was either, it was my mother’s admiration for everything Arabian - and for a contemporary hero of hers, T E Lawrence. He'd died in 1935 when my mother was twenty-two. 

It wasn't that she knew him personally, but he was up there with other Arabists she admired, Sir Richard Burton, Gertrude Bell and Wilfred Thesiger.   Lawrence had a mastery of language, a fascination with archaeology and his account of the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule in his epic Seven Pillars of Wisdom was full of thrill, pathos and daring.   And he looked pretty damn amazing in his Arab garb!

Mum owned a copy of the first trade edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom and I had to handle it carefully.  It was thick and heavy to hold as my small fingers traced its marbled end-papers, smooth to the touch, and the indent of the title and twin scimitars stamped in gold on the cover.

 

Each time the book came out, so did the story

With each outing of the book came the story of Lawrence changing trains and leaving his briefcase with the original manuscript on Reading Railway Station.  It was around Christmas 1919.  He boarded his train and as it pulled out, he realised his loss.  He telephoned as soon has he reached Oxford, not that far, but it was gone, someone had nicked it. 

In the New Year, he sat down and for the next three months rewrote his manuscript from memory.  He no longer had his notes and drafts, he'd destroyed them in his enthusiasm for finishing the manuscript the first time round.

 

Christmas time three years on...

Three years after Lawrence left his briefcase at Reading Train Station, on another winter's day, another case, also full of manuscripts, was stolen at another train station.  This time it was Paris.

Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, excited that he wanted her to join him in Switzerland, gathered up all his papers and packed them in a small case.  I can picture her dashing about their tiny apartment getting ready to set off for the railway station.  With the valise safely under her train seat, she stepped off to get a newspaper and when she came back, it was gone. 

Hemingway tried to put a brave face on it, but he'd never asked her to bring anything. 

The papers on the desk, OK; but why the ones in the drawer and off the shelves?  Surely not everything?

Poor Hemingway.  Poor Hadley. 

Yes everything, everything.

 

Similarities linked the two men

Hemingway and Lawrence were born a decade apart and both lived lives of adventure, made their names writing about war and influenced later generations.  Lawrence was frustrated when Britain contradicted promises of independence made to the Arabs and in the prelude to the next war, Hemingway seethed that the Allies would not help Loyalist Spain in its fight against the fascists.

Hemingway read Lawrence and had him in mind as he set to his famous novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, describing the Spanish landscape in much the same way as Lawrence described Jordan.

 

Misplaced Disappointment!

I wonder what the petty crooks who lifted those cases thought when they opened them?  Irritation?  Disappointment and annoyance?  I expect they barely gave it a thought as they tossed the lot, or did they…  

 

So now you know why I always look at battered briefcases!  Either would do.

It's also in my mind when I have to start all over again because I've lost a document I'm working on or messed up an art project.  Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a big thick book to write twice.  If he could do it, any of us can.

 

 

A Hong Kong character; Horace Kadoorie, looked-up in the Jewish Cemetery

Letters, Shanghai, sign at the Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai, the Jewish Cemetery in Hong Kong where the Kadoorie brothers reside and the best hotel east of Suez.

Letters, Shanghai, sign at the Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai, the Jewish Cemetery in Hong Kong where the Kadoorie brothers reside and the best hotel east of Suez.

Before Networking

Once upon a time you were given letters of introduction when you travelled; to someone older or wiser who would smooth the way.  Quality notepaper, a signature in ink, silver salvers, kowtows and honourable obligations. 


Of course that was all bullshit by the time I set off for Hong Kong in the 1960s; instead I was given some names to ‘look-up’.  It was never going to happen.  Without the formality of a letter and before networking was a known mantra, I was in limbo without the confidence or courage to go cold turkey.

 

It's never too late!

I’ve been thinking about some people I never ‘looked-up’.


For my first night in the Hong Kong, I’d booked myself into The Peninsula Hotel.  It was 1968 and it was the hotel in Hong Kong.  Still is!

I didn’t just have delusions of grandeur, I’d been working at the Grosvenor House in London - it was terribly infra-dig to add the word 'hotel' - if someone needed to be told Grosvenor House was a hotel, they didn’t belong there.  I worked for the manager, Mr Merryweather, and he suggested I stay at The Peninsula and told me to lookup Horace Kadoorie - whose family owed it and a lot more besides. 

 

My new employer vetoed a night of luxury

It was not to be, my new Hong Kong employer, Mrs Church, vetoed it, making it quite plain that on the pittance she was going to pay me, I couldn’t afford it.  She cancelled my hotel booking and telegrammed me that I would stay at her house.


“Why on earth did you book a room at The Peninsula?” she said.


I told her about the connection.


“Oh Horace? I go to him every New Year at The Peninsula, I will ring him on Monday.”


I heard no more about it and by the time Mrs Church marched me to The Peninsula Hotel for eggnog on New Year’s Day, I knew it unlikely that any friend of hers would be a friend of mine, but in any case Horace Kadoorie didn’t join us, just a wave across the room.  In retrospect,  he gave us a wide berth.

 

It's never too later for an introduction

So it has taken me until now to look-up Horace Kadoorie who died in 1995.  I really missed out more than a free meal and a chat. By all accounts he was a fascinating, compassionate and generous man.

From the grave he took me back to the Spanish Inquisition and on a journey with the Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula to Constantinople and Baghdad, India and Shanghai where the Kadoorie family eventually settled in the 1800s.

 

Wartime Shanghai and a clever rabbi

The Kadoorie family was well established in Shanghai when an influx of European Jews arrived fleeing the Nazi horror - mostly by Italian ship but some via the Trans-Siberian Railway. 

With twenty thousand Jews in Shanghai, Germany put pressure on Japan to hand them over.  The Japanese Military Governor of the city sent for the Jewish community leaders and asked why the Germans hated them. 

The rabbi was nobody’s fool.  He said it was because the Germans regarded Jews as oriental, short and dark. 

The Jews stayed put and the Kadoorie family were able to help the new arrivals survive the war, albeit in the Shanghai Ghetto, and when refugees were funnelled through Hong Kong for resettlement, Horace and his brother threw open the doors of The Peninsula Hotel and turned the ballroom into dormitories.

And you?

Have you anyone you could have met but didn’t? 

Why didn’t you look them up?  Do you regret not looking them up?

Can you look them up now?  Do the Chinese thing - talk to them in the grave!

 

Further Reading:

I really enjoyed this article by Hong Kong journalist Sarah Lazarus

http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1661441/role-jews-making-hong-kong

Fabergé’s Very Unusual Egg

The Fabergé Trans-Siberian Egg   Easter 1900

The Fabergé Trans-Siberian Egg   Easter 1900

It's nearly Easter for some of us

I live in Sydney and it's nearly Easter.  In Orthodox Russia, it'll be another month before they celebrate and exchange their eggs.  It was the same gap in the calendar in 1894 when young Nicholas, destined to be the last Russian Tsar, was visiting Germany, and couldn't join the earlier festivities.  He wrote in his diary:  "It is not very convenient to keep Lent abroad and I had to refuse many things." 

A short-lived tradition

The most famous Easter eggs of all time were those first ordered by Nicholas's father, Tsar Alexander III, from the court jeweller, Carl Fabergé.  The first order, in 1885, established an imperial tradition that lasted only thirty-two years, yet, a century on,  Fabergé’s eggs still captivate our imagination with their decadence, extravagant charm and ingenuity.

The Imperial Eggs

When Nicholas succeeded his father, he continued to order eggs each year from Fabergé, one for his wife and one for his mother.  Each told a story revealed by a surprise nested within.

A secret ...

Fabergé conceived and developed his designs in secret, not even disclosing his patterns to the Tsar.

Perhaps not ...

But perhaps in the year 1900, Tsar Nicholas II had had an inkling of what Fabergé had in store for his wife, Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna, when he took delivery of the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg. 

Easter fell on the 9th April and a week later, came the opening of the Paris Exposition Universelle with countries from around the world displaying their art and inventions.  The Russian Pavillion’s pièce de résistance was a display of carriages from the new Trans-Siberian Railway line, inaugurating an era of luxury passenger service that would revolutionise travel from Europe to the Far East and symbolised the growing industrial power of Russia. 

Poster from the Paris Exposition Universelle promoting the Trans-Siberian                                             

Poster from the Paris Exposition Universelle promoting the Trans-Siberian                                             

 
A present for the Tsarina, but was it really to impress the Tsar?

Fabergé’s Trans-Siberian Egg was crowned with the Romanov eagle asserting the Tsar’s special connection with the railway project he had grown up with.  His first official position was as President of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and as a young man returning from a grand world tour, he had laid the foundation stone of the track’s eastern terminus
in Vladivostock.

The miniature locomotive and its golden carriages

The miniature locomotive and its golden carriages

The egg was a masterpiece. 

Engraved on the silver shell was a route map of the track, each station marked with a jewel. The enameled lid opened to reveal a miniature train.  Its locomotive, made of platinum, had diamond headlights and a ruby lantern and pulled five golden coaches. Each coach unique, ‘mail’, ‘for ladies only’, ‘smoking, ‘non-smoking’, and a chapel with miniature bells.  And if that were not surprise enough, the tiny model was clockwork, wound-up with a gold key.

The Trans-Siberian Egg                                                       Photo Credit: Kremlin Museum

The Trans-Siberian Egg                                                       Photo Credit: Kremlin Museum

Why, to me, the Trans-Siberian Egg stands out from all the rest

I'll admit bias right now.   I have been writing a book that describes my own journey on the Trans-Siberian Express.  That journey was nearly fifty years ago and sixty years after the last imperial egg, but the heavy velvet curtains, polished wood and green lamp shades of the First Class carriage suggested imperial Russia was not so far away.

Threads run through all our lives and sometimes it is left to a biographer to see them.  The Trans-Siberian ran relentlessly through the Tsar's life right to his untimely death.   

The design of the Trans-Siberian Egg epitomises an era where technology and art flourished hand in hand and it signified a period of Russian hope and prosperity. 

And it also smacks of a bizarre excess of questionable taste and a wanton squandering on baubles!  A Russian court completely out of touch with reality.

Ultimately of course...

Tsar Nicholas II missed the brief window of opportunity for constitutional change. Delusion, denial and dreadful decisions made revolution inevitable.  As Easter 1917 approached, the Tsar was forced to abdicate.  Work on that year’s egg had already been abandoned. Carl Fabergé fled Russia and escaped to Switzerland but nothing could save the Tsar.
 

 

 

 

 

More Information:

The Trans-Siberian Egg is displayed in the Kremlin Armoury, Moscow

I highly recommend a fascinating book - Fabergé’s Eggs by Toby Faber published by PAN

The Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg, Russia was set up by Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian businessman, who is the single largest owner of Fabergé eggs.  
http://www.faberge.com/news/142_fabergest-petersburg-museum.aspx

There is also a Fabergé Museum in Baden-Baden, Germany  
http://www.faberge-museum.de/index.php?lang=en


 

A Detour to the Amazing Paris Expo of 1900

To write waylaid by curiosity is a better thing than
closing the chapter

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “… to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”.  Now that I write, I’ve found a parallel; settled at my desk, curiosity drives me deeper than my story requires.  It’s seductive; the manuscript makes slow progress, but the quest uncovers destinations and kindred spirits that make it all worthwhile.

Paris Spring in 1900

Last week I paused in April 1900 for the Paris Exposition Universelle - a grand celebration of the achievements of the closing century where art and design showcased seamlessly with the mechanisms of the future; diesel engines, talking films, escalators, and the telegraphone - the first form of magnetic recording, forerunner to video, audio tape and computer hard drives, to name a few.  Fifty million people visited the exhibition.  Fifty million!

Flamboyant Stage-Set under the Eiffel Tower

Under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, National pavilions sprung up, flaunting cultural myth, art and innovation.  Art Nouveau in vogue, the hard mechanics of new-age infrastructure were softened with flowing natural forms.  Moving sidewalks carried visitors past mock castles and pagodas and a square rigged caravel.  The Belgians recreated their Gothic Oudenaarde Town Hall.  Flamboyance and optimism heralded the new millennium.

Paris to Peking, via Moscow

In truth I never got past the Kremlin-styled Russian Pavilion, for here was exhibited the Trans-Siberian express - Moscow to Peking.  A journey time of months by sea and overland, reduced to days.  An extraordinary achievement.  To court the business traveller and wealthy voyageur, real carriages were rolled into the Pavilion. 

 

"... one was decorated with white lacquered limewood mirrored walls, ceiling frescoed with figures from mythology and embroidered curtains, another was in the style of Louis XVI with bulging furniture of gold embellished oak and a third as French Empire and a fourth imperial Chinese".  

 

The world's longest railway line and
the world's longest painting

Visitors could eat in the train’s restaurant car while canvas scenery scrolled past the carriage windows.   All the atmosphere of travelling from the Volga River east across Siberia evoked by the painted panels of pastoral life complete with changing weather.  

The young Tsar, Nicholas II, patron of the Trans-Siberian Railway, had commissioned the Russian artist, Dr Pavel Pyasetsky, to paint the panorama.  Pyasetsky travelled by train, cart and bicycle, sketching bridges and fords, hamlets and villages, railway stations and halts, working teams and depots.  He condensed the 10,000 kilometer journey onto three rolls 850 meters long.*  

Train Connections with Russian Dolls

The Trans-Siberian held me in thrall but at the Russian Pavilion was another product launch right at the opposite end of the scale.  It was the first time babushka dolls were exhibited. The designer, Sergey Malyutin, a folk artist, inspired by Japanese nesting dolls, characterised them with Russian fairytales.

Finding both the Trans-Siberian Express and the babushka dolls at the Russian Pavillion, took my writer’s dream-time to a physical shiver. 

My fascination with the Trans-Siberian began when I travelled the line in 1968 on my way out to a job in Hong Kong and the souvenir that I have of that journey is a babushka doll given to me by a Russian passenger on the train.  He bought it at a wayside station and I gave him Nivea Creme for his wife - a simple exchange of gifts - after a week of shared laughter laced with copious amounts of vodka as we rolled across the Siberian steppes.  

The carriages, Hard Class, were not quite as elaborate as the Tsar envisaged, but then a lot had happened in sixty-eight years.

 


* After a hundred years of being rolled up, the canvas scrolls have been restored and are now at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

 

Google the Paris Expo of 1900 - it is a lot of fun!  http://www.expomuseum.com/1900/

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.”

“Why?”

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? 

Sophia's Easter Treat

Ilya Repin's 19th C portrait of Princess Sophia in Novodevichy Convent- Look out that window!  She lived from 1657 to 1704

Ilya Repin's 19th C portrait of Princess Sophia in Novodevichy Convent- Look out that window!  She lived from 1657 to 1704

The fortified convent of Novodevichy

I was in Moscow in 1968 to catch the Trans-Siberian Express on my way to Hong Kong.  Although I visited Red Square - I missed Lenin - he was on holiday to see his embalmers - but from the walls of the Kremlin, we rattled off to the Moskva River and the 16th Century fortified convent of Novodevichy.

It was a visit I never forgot...

For there lingered the smoldering wrath of the incarcerated Sophia, half-sister to Peter the Great.  Her last succession plot had failed and she was compelled to take the veil and kept in seclusion at the convent; there was no other way to keep her from scheming.  

Her Royal blood saved her from the fate of her fellow conspirators who were hung.  To make the point, their bodies were strung up outside her bedroom…


“Where they hung, blackened and rigid,
turning idly in the wind,
all winter long,
their frozen boots tapping
against the windows…”


Quote from Lesley Blanch in Journey into the Mind’s Eye 


Sophia was immured in the convent for the rest of her life.  Only once a year, at Easter, was she allowed to join the other nuns in worship at Smolensky Cathedral.  This brief interlude offered little consolation to the large and formidable figure, once a patron of the convent and the first woman to rule Russia, who found herself hostage to the church that her brother, Peter, controlled and derided.   

All the magic of a Russian Easter

Sophia joined the congregation on Easter night when the cathedral’s dark interior was lit by guttering candles and a choral litany reverberated over row upon row of nuns prostrated in prayer before one miraculous icon after another.  Chill draughts wrestled with wafts of warm incense and anticipation built hour after hour, as the time for the resurrection
drew near.  

Before the midnight bell tolled

Tapers were lit and fresh incense set to smoulder on burning charcoal.  At midnight, crosses and icons were borne aloft and from the Cathedral's inner sanctuary emerged the bearded priests in ivory-white vestments heavy with gold embroidery.  As clouds of holy smoke billowed from swinging censers, the solemn procession began down the aisle of the Cathedral and led the congregation out into the starlit night.

Thrice round the cathedral under a frosted moon

Three times, the procession circled the Cathedral.  Its magnificent golden cupola gleamed above, while a river of reflected candlelight traced a path along the stone walls.   The Priest halted at the open door and waited to hush his mustered flock.  They held their breath as he walked forward, craning his neck to look inside the empty cavern of the darkened cathedral and symbolically discovered anew Christ’s empty tomb,

“Khristos Voskres!” his cry resounded out the triumphant chord. “Christ is risen!” 

A wave of adulation and celebration
swept through the throng
and condemned
Sophia to another year of solitude.

Novodevichy Convent on the banks of the Moskva Ruver

Novodevichy Convent on the banks of the Moskva Ruver

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.

http://www.brickbooks.ca/shop/songs-for-relinquishing-the-earth/

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

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

Dropping off dangerous spiders!

I didn't take this photo...  It was taken in my house, in my garden ... relax!

I didn't take this photo...  It was taken in my house, in my garden ... relax!

The international guests I host through Airbnb are hardly in the door, when they ask about spiders.

“Not to worry, the spiders in the house are harmless, you have to really go looking for dangerous ones!”

They are not easily convinced.

And then one time...

Moments after I had shown one guest her room, she arrived screaming in the kitchen and threw herself into my arms.

"A spider, a spider, above my bed!"

IKEA should really not sell lamps like this in Australia:

I didn't buy it to terrify guests, I bought it to amuse my small children

I didn't buy it to terrify guests, I bought it to amuse my small children

 

Guests ask difficult questions

Although I'm reassuring, the conversation complicates if guests follow up by asking if I have ever found a dangerous spider in the house.

“Well yes, once, but a long while ago ...” 

Their eyes widen, “IN THE HOUSE?”

“Yes, but it was before we put in flyscreens and got brushy things on the bottom of the doors.”

This confirms their worst fears – the spiders are OUT THERE, battering to get in

They immediately want to know more.  “What kind of spider?  What did you do?”

“Well it was a funnel-web. I released it in Lane Cove National Park.”

What I don’t tell them is that I confiscated it from a guest who was a biology student.  He'd put it in a jar and wanted to keep it as a pet.  When he cooked, the jar sat on the kitchen bench.  Other brave guests would shake the jar to see if it was true funnel-webs jumped.    But when he told me he let it out for runs, I’d had enough. 

Neither do I tell them that I didn’t drop it at the nearest entrance to the Park but took it far away as I was terrified it might have some kind of homing instinct.

That’s why I prefer hosting graduates.  They are past keeping things in jam-jars.

Take aim, fire!

“You didn’t kill it?” is the next question from my newest guest.  It is especially Australian men that want it dead.  And they repeat, "Really, you didn't kill it?"

Last week my daughter Emily listened to my spider spiel

She watched the expressions on the faces of my guests as I moved into the convoluted story about the single funnel web ever known to have crossed the doorstep. 

Afterwards, she took me aside and said, “Mum too much information.”

 “But I can’t lie!” I say...   “I have to tell them when they ask if I’ve ever had a dangerous spider in the house.”

“But Mum, it was over five years ago.”

“But it still happened.”

There was a pause while Emily, who is very practical and solution focused, thought about my predicament.

“Mum, think of it like demerit points - spider sightings drop off after five years.”

 

 

AND IF YOU REALLY MUST KNOW MORE:

Don’t mess with spiders with your bare hands

Don’t leave your soggy towels on the floor

Don’t walk around outside at night in bare feet

Don’t touch spiders in the kids paddling pool – funnel-webs just look drowned

Don’t go poking around in my garden without gloves on

And if you find one, call Emily

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I threw the Russian chapter to the wolves

I wanted to write

I enrolled for Travel Memoir at the Australian Writers’ Centre with Claire Scobie.   She focused me and she cut to the chase.  She told me I was already a writer.  All I had to do was to write

I walked on air, and then, for long weary months through fog, snowstorms and mud. 

There is a children's book called The Bear Hunt.  Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it

Every budding author should read The Bear Hunt.  Because for many of us, the start is like the bear hunt... got to go through it.    Five starts and I was heartily sick of being a writer.  Never could I get further than the Russian chapter.  I got completely bogged down in Russia.   Of course, I knew my history, Russia did that.  

My book was about Hong Kong - I'd travelled there on the Trans-Siberian railway and I needed a Russian chapter

I got off the track altogether when I started to read about magical shaman who wore deer antlers and, at a whim, shapeshifted to travel the sky like geese or ride on airborne goats and rams.   When their bums got sore from all that flock-flying, they slid along rainbows to visit the spirit world and grazed magic mushrooms. 

Maybe I was easily diverted by spirited Russia, but Russia can serve an enormous range of distraction; the largest military battle in history, one of the largest museums in the world, the deepest lake on earth and of course the longest railway line.  It is impossible to pick up any book on Russia and not be sidetracked.  Siberian brown bears, man-eating wolves and reindeer migrations.  See?  Quite impossible and we haven't even started on the Tsars, Tolstoy or Laika, the first dog in space.  Notice too the Reds have not yet had a mention.

I put it all into my back-pack

I was still working on the chapter when Dale and I went to Europe in late 2013.   I spun her interminable tales of Russia.  I moved from mystics to statistics about the Trans-Siberian, from Imperial Russia to revolution.  A bleak and bloody tale. 

Her eyes glazed and eventually she said, “Mum, enough of Russia.  Stop researching.  You are doing my head in.” 

I knew she was right!

I put my books and notebook away.  I couldn't complain.  We were in Tuscany to visit Dale’s friends.  Their company arranged wine tours by Fiat 500.  Each tiny car identical except for the paintwork; blue, red, green, cream and yellow.  We drove the countryside in single file and paused at a glorious renaissance villa for lunch. 

The next day, Dale and I went to Florence.  Walking by the Palazzo Strozzi we stopped in our tracks.  The current exhibition was The Russian Avant-garde, Siberia and the East.  Dale rolled her eyes with a laugh, while mine twinkled.  Fait accompli.  

Wolves by Night

An 1912 oil painting by Alexei Stapanov, Wolves by Night, greeted us in the first exhibition room.    A century ago this dude was troubled by the spread of urbanisation.  He warned against man’s intrusion into Russia’s fabled and primitive wilderness.  His wolves are bewildered by marks in the snow; parallel tracks like those of the iron road of the Trans-Siberian.  

No escape from the Russian Chapter

The wolves were right to be nervous, Alexei Stapanov was right to be troubled.

Dale was troubled too.  Was there no escaping the Russian chapter?    

Wolves by Night was like a talisman for me.  I didn't have to hunt the bears, just to throw ninety percent of what I had written to the wolves.

 

Fun in Florence with Fiats and the Russian chapter

Fun in Florence with Fiats and the Russian chapter

Travelling in Time

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapesk, but in having new eyes.(1).jpg

I travel countries, but what I seek is to travel time

In 1960s Hong Kong the journey from duty-free shopping to imperial China only took a matter of hours. 

Off the beaten track, in the New Territories, were walled and moated villages, fortified against pirates, rival clans and tigers. 

Dawn explorers

It was not far past dawn when my friend Gerry and I explored.  The early light still thin, the sun soft, a lull before the summer heat solidified.  We had to go early because by mid-morning, we needed to be rigging our boat for sailing in a regatta. Gerry already had one eye on the weather.  A wisp of grey cloud ahead had an olive tint. 

We parked my mini tardis some distance away

In the wall of the fortified village was a plain entrance, like a door frame, and we passed through to a narrow winding alleyway that squeezed in on us.  At first we thought the village deserted, left to robust pigs rooting the rubbish in company with small-time chickens.

Curious, we wandered on, past rows of closed grey-black houses flat-facing the path. 

The crones appeared

Some old crones appeared in front and behind and blocked us in the confined space.  They started to pat my pockets and held their hands for coins, good-natured cackle rising and persistent. 

Then, from nowhere, a terrible utterance broke over us.  A shockingly deformed man leapt at our little convocation and the women scattered shrieking with laughter and melted into the walls. 

I took fright and grabbed Gerry's arm.  No part of the man was complete, his face contorted, his body twisted.  Gerry smiled and extended his hand.  The man hooked a withered arm, beckoning us through the village, past closed doors, and little temples, scruffy and littered, back to the entrance and pointed to a decrepit notice board and a money slot. In English the faded writing asked for donations for the upkeep of the village. 

Gerry had slowed his pace to match the man's gait

They talked as they went.  What about, neither of them knew, for they had not a word in common, but between them was a communion of souls that I could not enter because I could not fully overcome my horror.

The diaspora

In those villages only the old and infirm held on, scratching an existence, the young had long gone, sometimes far, far away, to America, Europe, blown off by the winds of change and opportunity.

Hong Kong's deserted villages spring to life

I thought back to that early morning expedition when I read in an article that Hong Kong's abandoned villages, deserted for decades, may be about to get a make-over.  Some descendants see an opportunity to repopulate, farm the land and create an eco-tourist opportunity - to let visitors glimpse a living history.

Some villages hadn't been lived in for thirty years

As I read, my heart beat with conceited superiority; after all I'd been there in the old days.  Then I remembered that crippled man.  

Destination heritage village

But part of me still felt irritated.  Are our imaginations so blunted that we can't just walk the ruins?  Must everything be presented hygienically to be tourist-correct?  I suspect the planning authorities will insist on a prescribed number of toilets and rubbish bins, fatuous notices about step-minding, a souvenir shop and a car park.

And yet ...

Raymond Fung, once a Hong Kong government architect, sees no need to build more tourist attractions.  "We need to showcase the quality of our city - and that's our countryside and our culture."  For an architect to say a city is overbuilt is so encouraging, but he went further.  "The quality of a city's brand is not derived from shopping."  Let me repeat that, because when I read it, I did just that:

 

"The quality of a city's brand is not derived from shopping."

 

Fung made me think.   If the choice is between another Disney Land or Water World and a revitalised Hakka or Punti village, then I know which I'd rather. What I think Hong Kong might get though is a Disney Land Hakka village in all its commercially viable glory.

 

Time travel can be a selfish satisfaction

And in the scheme of things, I have effortlessly travelled time.  Hong Kong's duty-free shopping in the 1960's offered cutting edge technology - a transistor radio, a View-Master, a cassette deck - all so coveted!  All so old hat!

 

 

If you'd like to read more, here are the articles I enjoyed:

http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/wilderness-resources/stories/hong-kongs-deserted-villages-spring-life

http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/1904339/its-nature-makes-hong-kong-so-special-former

 

 

 

 

 

Photos taken at walled villages in the New Territories, 1970

Photos taken at walled villages in the New Territories, 1970

 

 

 

 

 

I