Tag Archives: Morocco

marine-induced-semiotic-delirium

IMG_5359 Oh, ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea
– Keats ‘On the Sea’

Kupang is not Kupang: it is Tangier, Barcelona, Venice, Castellorizo, Istanbul, Kas rolled into one. Day 500. Day 9 at sea. Nothing is itself anymore. Under the solvent influence of the sea memories and vistas are breaking apart, dissolving. They’ve lost their crystalline objective quality. Physical form is detached from meaning. Signifiers bear no relation to signified. Places have lost their peculiarity. Everything is the same.

To my eyes, vexed and tired as they are, everything is composed of common attributes. Nothing is unique. Even the people I meet are not themselves anymore, they remind me of people I’ve met in other places. I glance about me at the boats, the shops, the cars lining the foreshore of Kupang and I’m confronted by a queer sensation. Places have lost their unique aspect. One is the other. One stands for all. Everything is familiar and strange. I’m neither here nor there.

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75 nautical miles northwest of Kupang we pass a village in the Solor Archipelago that, for all appearances, could be my Yiayia’s birthplace on Castellorizo. The Solor village convenes in a crowded fashion around the nucleus of mosque and marina, but substitute mosque for cathedral, coconut palm for plane tree, satay for soutzoukakia, and it could be Castellorizo, could be Istanbul, could be Tangier. The configuration is different but the elements are the same: trees, shops, houses, roads, parks, schools.

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The outcrop of rocks on the foreshore of Kupang is to my eyes, Sydney Cove. The sinuous camel-hump profile of Banta Island is the Olgas. 9 days prior , off the East coast of Lombok, we passed the Wallace line, the ‘faunal boundary’ between Asia and Australia, so it’s conceivable that the coastline here was once part of the Kimberley, part of the landmass I call home. None of us are strangers. All of us are kin.

Approaching a city from the water smooths out the differences. Buildings, objects and people come into focus slowly. There’s time to recollect. As Lea steers the boat headlong into the breeze and Keith drops the pick I hold on to Richie, hoping his presence will anchor me to the moment, preventing me from drifting 14,000km to Tangier, where 16 months ago we strolled along a seafront promenade not unlike the one here at Kupang and found ourselves seduced for the first time by the grace of mosques, palms, and the heady piquancy of anonymity.

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One Year of Faces: Part 2

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One Year of Faces: Part 1

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On the 23rd of this month Richie and I celebrated one year on the road! 365 remarkable days! If there’s one thing that has characterised the experience for us, it’s the people. As a tribute to the places we’ve been and the friends we’ve made, I offer a gallery of faces: each one beautiful and unforgettable in its own way.

These are people with whom we’ve couch surfed, Wwoofed, played, partied, wept, worked and dreamt. Thank you, each and every one of you, for the inspiration you’ve offered us; the chance to mingle our life journeys with yours.

Thank you… شكرا… спасибо… σας ευχαριστώ… gràcies… 谢谢… tak… merci… მადლობა გადაგიხადოთ… תודה… grazie… ຂໍຂອບໃຈທ່ານ… با تشکر از شما… mulțumesc… ¡gracias… teşekkür ederim… diolch i chi… Ake Issrebeh Moulana… tanemmirt…

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The Tao of Travel (Part 1)

 “It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are.”

– Alain de Botton The Art of Travel

Richie and I have been on the road for 115 days: long enough to begin observing the natural cycles and rhythms of our journeying – the emotions, the needs that arise, the types of experiences that we enjoy, and the edges of our personalities that rub uncomfortably and bring us into conflict with ourselves and one another.

As well as being a joyful process, travel is painful. The frequency with which we find ourselves in difficult and unfamiliar situations puts constant pressure on our ability to respond in open, loving and creative ways. Decision-making in particular is a fraught exercise, with wills and egos doing battle to win supremacy. Essentially, what we want is the same thing: to be happy and not suffer; and to find a route overland from England to Australia that will hold the most abundant opportunities for self growth and good times.

So far, we have met the challenges of the road with greater and lesser degrees of grace and good humour. In my experience, how willing we are to speak truthfully to one another about our fears and hopes, and how willing we are to address unhelpful/inharmonious behaviours and habits of mind, has a direct and proportionate bearing on how quickly we are able to return to a space of grace, goodwill and openness.

Finding ways to make long-term-travel meaningful and sustainable – in every sense of the word – is a challenge. We know we’ve found the right balance when we can raise our eyes to the horizon once more and smile at what we can’t see is coming… every moment like this is a joy and a homecoming. Releasing the ego’s grip on the self and surrendering to the intuitive wisdom of the road – the dao – or whatever it is you want to call it, is a rare and fleeting thing, but well worth it for a look in on an adventure of a lifetime.

Lessons from the Roads no.1
One of the most frequent patterns I’ve observed in myself over the last 115 days is the frequency with which I fall in and out of love with the process of travel. Disenchantment follows hot on the heels of elation, and no sooner have I convinced myself that I want to be a gypsy for life, than I begin to feel that life on the road is repellent to me, and must be brought to a speedy conclusion.

The initial phase of disenchantment usually coincides with our departure from a cherished place and our arrival in a new, unfamiliar location, or, being brought into contact with a particularly unwelcome reality or set of circumstances – for instance being deprived of a comfortable place to stay or a good square meal.

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Killed with Kindness

I’ve heard about the legendary hospitality of villagers in countries such as Greece, Iran, Pakistan and China, but never having experienced it myself, believed it was the stuff of myth. Turns out it’s true… ‘xenia‘, the tradition of stranger hospitality is alive and well in eastern Morocco in the Valley of the Roses.

Richie and I arrived in the the village of Bouthagar in the Valley of the Roses off the back of 3 hectic nights in Marrakech. We hoped to find a quiet spot where we could be alone in nature and observe rural life, unmolested by the type of banter that made Djema El Fna (the central square in Marrakech) a tiresome place to be.

As well as checking out the local traditions of agriculture we hoped to undertake a trek or two in the nearby villages and gorges. Our friend, Mark, had been there a few months before and told us that the scenery was impressive and fairly unspoilt.

In Bouthagrar we were thrilled to chance upon a gorgeous guest house with a terrace overlooking a valley: rosy adobe dwellings, abrupt cliffs, clear river, pebbly shores and verdant terraced gardens lined with the ghostly silhouettes of silver birches, figs and olives cold be seen from every window.

When we asked at our guest house about the possibility of taking part in a day of natural building to observe the traditional technique of rammed earth construction (‘tabout’), our host Youssef wasted no time connecting us with a local builder. His name was Brahim and he had learned the tools of the trade in a 16 year apprenticeship to his father.

By 7am on day two of our stay we were accompanied to a construction site in the nearby village of Znug. On our way there we took a shining to our long-legged companion, Mohammed – the only one in the team of 5 builders who spoke French. We spoke considerably less French than him,  and not a word of Arabic or the local Berber dialect. It was going to be an interesting week of learning…

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Port Life

Both my mother’s and father’s family have an intimate relationship with water. I share their love of the sea – so it was a great joy for me to be by the ocean in Essaouira, Morocco for a couple of weeks in February.

Richie and I arrived in Essaouira off the back of 3 hectic days in Meknes. Within a day or two of arriving we had imbedded ourselves in the local community: found some hole-in-the-wall places to eat and drink. Richie caught up on his Permaculture Diploma work and I took long walks on the beach.

During those walks I learned to put my head down and ignore the local touts whose aim it is to get your ass into their camel/horse’s saddle (all for a price): “Bonjour. Hello Madam. What are you thinking?”

When the state of the beach got me down (plastic everywhere) I wrote a letter to the council. The locals must have thought I was mad, trailing sacks of refuse behind me, tugging plastic bags and yoghurt pots from seagulls’ mouths. I became an angry walker! It didn’t stop me from enjoying the fresh air and the sand between my toes. I even considered having  a swim (I didn’t – sorry Aunty Zeny).

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Not a Tesco in Sight

In the four weeks we’ve been in Morocco we’ve barely seen a supermarket let alone shopped in one. Of the many things we miss about the UK supermakets are not one of them.

Life on the streets of Morocco’s medinas is a far cry from life on England’s high streets. They’re brimful with people flogging their wares, naming their price and pausing to shoot the breeze. At times it can be hectic but on the whole people are friendly and don’t mind a banter and a haggle.

Whereas in the UK people tend to do their shopping once maybe twice a week, in Morocco you’d be a fool not to shop 4,5,6 times a week. Strawberries, oranges, carrots, beetroot, fennel and herbs all arrive fresh on a daily basis and more likely than not have been grown within 50km of where you’re buying them.

In the streets of the medina there’s a preponderance of carts, small stalls and ‘pop-up’ vendors who flog there wares from the side of the road and on the footpaths. There’s no telling where they’ll appear or how long they’ll stay. There’s every chance that the man from whom you brought your walnuts yesterday will be gone tomorrow, and in his place, someone selling sardines or golden piles of fenugreek.

As Richie can often be heard muttering with amazement as we tramp through the dusty streets, “Everyone’s got a shop!” While this observation might not seem strange to Moroccans, or to individuals who grew up in countries like India or Thailand where there’s a strong culture of ‘backyard commerce’, to someone who grew up in England this is truly remarkable.

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Volubilis

Unless you’re ancient Roman, or you’ve studied Latin, the word ‘Volubilis’ sounds strange in the mouth. Richie and I tried it on for size as we made our way on foot from Moulay Idriss to the ruins; spitting the word out, drawing it back in our mouth, gargling it with laughter and chewing it up with irreverence. No matter how we said it, it didn’t sound right. “It’s like a combination of ‘globule’ and ‘voluptuous’.

Our first glimpse of the ruins was from high on a ridge above the valley. From up there on the plateau the site looked extensive but not significant: a pile of toppled rocks (‘crumblies’ – as our friend Milton calls them). As we drew closer it became apparent that what had appeared at first as a diffuse and haphazard collection of buildings was in fact a large and concentrated area of dwellings, paved roads, temples and civic buildings. In its heyday, Volubilis occupied a space of 42 hectares and was home to some 20,000 residents. These days, however, the only beings who live there are a handful of storks and a family or two of house martins.

As there are no grande taxis from Meknes, the best way to reach Volubilis is to catch the bus to Moulay Idriss, a small town some 30km north of Meknes, and disembark at the junction where the road to Moulay Idriss leaves the N13 – which is what we did. From there, it’s a pleasant 3 kilometres walk. The approach is through olive groves and hedges of cacti.

In our stubbornness we refused to adopt a local guide, preferring instead to make our own baffled inspections of the stones and mosaics. Richie was fascinated by the remains of a vast system of drains, baths, aqueducts, fountains and cisterns, whereas I was drawn to other details: a faded mosaic of sea animals, a lone Corinthian column, and a highly polished stone phallus!

The foundation stones of several olive presses lay exposed among the ruins. Minus the perishable components of the apparatus the stones looked incomplete, dumb. Deep channels designed to draw away the precious fluid lay dry and inanimate. They hadn’t flowed in centuries. No balm. No grease. No oil. Continue reading

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The Sultan’s City

After the blue somnolence of Chefchaouen, Meknes was a shock. It felt more like a ‘working’ city than any we’d passed through in Morocco. Dusty, car-ridden and noisy, it dragged us kicking and screaming back into the real world.

After 12 days in Chefchaouen we’d become happily ensconced in our daily routine: coffee, flaky bread (‘msammen’) and bananas in the market square; diploma by day; an afternoon stroll in the ville nouvelle; and in the early evening, a cup of tea in the busiest ‘boys only’ salon in town.

So, it’s little wonder that arriving in Meknes made us want to run for the hills. There was no Mohammed (our favourite food vendor) and no ‘idiot’s guide’ to the best cheap eats in town. The golden arch of McDonalds loomed menacingly above the main intersection. The local lads and lasses put us to shame in their stiletto heels, leather jackets and Adidas tracksuits. The cost of the hotels was frightening, and even moreso, was the sound of cats proliferating in the  back alleys at night.  Continue reading

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Rooftop Ruminations

Rooftops are magical places. It’s little wonder that travellers are drawn to countries like Morocco and India, where builders have the good sense to design buildings with flat roofs – ample spaces for relaxing, socialising, hanging wet washing, affixing satellite dishes and accommodating extra guests.

In Chefchaouen I’ve been rediscovering the pleasures of the roof and remembering the many roofs that have given me shelter over the years and provided me with a loftier view of life… 

Rooftops have always been important to me. In Australia, where I grew up, the roof of our family home was steeply pitched, clad with corrugated galvanised iron – a vernacular style of architecture known as a ‘Queenslander’. Before each major storm, when the wind blew up and the first droplets of rain flooded the veranda, Dad would duck into the shed to fetch his ladder and we’d be on the roof in no time – brushing leaves from  gutters, sending debris overboard… keeping our footing safe by restricting our footfalls to the seams of screws connecting the metal sheeting to the timber beams below.

When the opportunity presented itself for me and my partner to build a living roof in our garden in Norfolk (England), I was thrilled. Within days I was up on the roof in bare feet, treading in turfs we’d cut by hand, thinking of a time when the roof would be in bloom and bees would come to visit our lawn in the sky. One cup of tea was all we managed in the way of rooftop picnics before it was time to come away, to Morocco, the first staging point of our ‘overland to Oz’ adventure.

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Which brings me to Chefchaouen, the blue city nestled at the doorway to the Middle Atlas – 3 hours by bus from Tangier and roughly the same distance from Fez.

Like Jodhpur is to India, Chefchaouen is Morocco’s blue city. If you look out from the vantage point of the Spanish Mosque you can see perhaps one thousand blue roofs – each one jutting up like a chimney from the cobbled together hillside – each one home to its own collection of satellite dishes and drying washing. Photovoltaics are yet to catch on here. If they did, Chefchaouen would be a true blue sun trap: supplied with its own power as well as its own clean supply of water from the mountain – a transition town in the making.

In terms of rooftops, Chefchaouen leaves little to be desired. Our rooftop – the rooftop of our pension – is a case in point. It is a generous square, roughly 14 metres by 14 metres. The outer perimeter is shaded by an awning, while the central area is exposed to the sun. The undercover/open-sided design makes it perfect for escaping the heat during the middle of the day, and enjoying the sunshine during the cooler hours. A clothesline is strung diagonally between two far points – ideal for airing foisty sleeping bags. In the centre is a canopy and a grate to prevent pigeons from flying down and befouling the tiles in the central courtyard. It’s a genius way of stacking functions, harnessing the elements and making peoples’ lives more enjoyable. It’s what good design is all about.

Since arriving in Chefchaouen, I have made the roof my second home. The view of the mountains is a real drawcard, but it’s the sense of space and seclusion that draws me back again and again.

In the morning I come to the rooftop to meditate. During the day, if I’m not out walking or taking coffee in the market square, I return to wile away a few hours with a book or pen. Afternoons are for yoga, and in the evening it’s time to take the washing down and set the sleeping bags back on the bed. If I’m lucky, I’m up on the roof in time for the 6pm adhan (call to prayer); a sound that loads my heart with joy.

In the evening there’s only one place it’s better to be than on the roof – in the square: watching children jostle one another for popcorn; swapping banter with waiters whose only desire it is to seat you in their cafe; or watching couples as they cross the square, hands surreptitious brushing.

In a few days we will askew the rooftops of Chefchaouen and make for Fez or Meknes. There will be other rooftops and other cities. Other medinas and other squares. But I do like a good rooftop. Even when there’s no grass, no gutters, and no corrugated iron.

There’s the first phrases of the call to prayer: “Allah is great… hurry to the prayer…” that’s my queue to exit. I have a date in the square. Richie is waiting, and Mohammed is cooking harrira and fried fish!

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