Friday, 28 October 2011

Morocco

Where We Went.

Morocco. My sister and I took my mother there for her 70th birthday, a place she had wanted to go since she was 15 years old so it was going to be a really special and memorable trip. My sister could only come for 4 days, unfortunately, so the rest of the time it was just mama and me. Friends of mine had shown outward displays of horror at the thought of traveling with their own mothers but I felt I knew what I was letting myself in for. I knew all of Mother's quirks and oddities. Or so I thought.

Bags
Our family affectionately refers to my mother as The Bag Lady. She has an unusual obsession with plastic bags, the "king of bags" being the zip-lock... oooohhh. In everyday life she usually has a lipstick, hand cream or something in a plastic bag inside her handbag. Sometimes these items might be double bagged "just in case one leaks". I have sat through excruciatingly embarrassing minutes in theatres whilst she rummages around her bag for tissues or cough sweets, lost in mountains of plastic.

Traveling, however, The Bag Lady comes into her own. Obviously the dangers of things spilling or leaking reaches dangerously high levels and so the use of the zip-lock is increased. I explained (the night before our flight) that any liquids, lotions or gels over 100ml would have to be packed in her suitcase and anything under 100ml could go in hand luggage but have to be shown to security in a clear zip-lock bag. I gave her 3 zip-lock bags from my own stash which she looked at disappointedly! As we approached security the following day, I nudged my sister and we both giggled and rolled our eyes as mum grabbed a handful of the airports' zip-lock bags. When she caught us looking she laughed and said "you never know".

Once in Marrakech, I noticed that mums "everyday" bag was a big, drawstring, Indian hippy bag. "Didn't you bring your backpack?" I asked. "No, this is fine darling, much easier" she said. Only minutes later, as we walked down the narrow alleyways of the Medina, did we notice that every time mum needed anything from her bag she had to take it off, put it on the (God knows what!) ground, undo the string, rummage around for a few minutes, find the opening of a big nylon bag inside the hippy bag, rummage again for a few minutes and then possibly produce a camera, sun hat, money (in 2 different purses for safety) or sun lotion (in one or two bags). It was unbelievable. Every single time took about 5 minutes. Of course it didn't help she only had one hand (the other was still in a brace for her broken wrist). To replace the object took just as long of course. This bag rummaging happened on average, once every 10 minutes and Kathryn and I were completely exasperated and got the giggles every time. Not only the constant stopping and starting of the whole thing but the fact she sometimes didn't tell us she was stopping and we would turn around to find her fifty feet away, bent over with half of Marrakech looking at her bum! When we reached Essaoira, the bloody hippy bag had developed a big hole in the bottom, therefore the bags within bags within bags were essential. One morning mum went on a stroll through the town and returned with a big grin. "Tah dah" she said proudly and held up the bag which now had a big patch over the hole. She had (somehow) asked a tailor to patch up her bag for her, and very nice it was too.

Rules
I felt very responsible for protecting my mother and sister in Marrakech, a city renowned for hassle. Having traveled many times on my own, I tried to instill in them a bit of "street smarts". Maybe I went slightly overboard but my basic rules were:
If a man approaches you either trying to talk to you or to sell you something, simply ignore him. If that doesn't work, say "non, merci". If that doesn't work and the man tries to get closer, shout "shooma" and walk the other way. "Shooma" is Arabic for "shame on you", a sure fire way for others around to know there is a problem. I also told them not to make eye contact with anyone, do not smile at anyone, do not buy anything and keep your bag close to you at all time because there were pickpockets about. Ha, ha, it was if we were going in to a war zone, not the streets of a market town!!!

The first night we went into the famous Jeema al Fna Square. Being tall, I looked over the heads of the crowd and it was like a rock concert.... there were thousands of people. Fires, mopeds, singers, drummers, food stalls with lamb heads and piles of snails, snake charmers, acrobats... hardly any space to move. I made sure Kathryn, Mother and I held onto each others' hand, bag strap or sleeve at all times. I asked them every few minutes "are you ok?". At the end of the evening, Kathryn had been body rubbed a few times but I was the only one that had been groped 4 times! During the day, however, it was mum breaking all the rules. She smiled at everyone and said "Bonjour". We would turn around to see her stopping to look at ceramics or rugs and then start to be hassled or suddenly have someone following us. Kathryn was hilarious and would go up to her and say crossly "Mummy, don't make eye contact". I would regularly stop and say "Mummy, just say non merci". One day we all fell for the charms of a student who ran a herb stall. We even entered his dingy room behind a curtain and he proceeded to do the hard sell before we realised what was happening. He gave us gifts, made us smell stuff, made Kathryn drink a flu potion (in a herb shop, how trusting!) and even put some odd looking cream on mums cheek (hilarious photo of that!). It was only after he rubbed it off that mum suddenly disappeared outside. We only found out later, after we had escaped that he had goosed her as he rubbed the cream off!!! She thought it was hilarious!

Many men in Marrakech do believe Western women are brazen hussies and therefore we deserve a quick grope!! To counter that myth as much as possible you try to respect where you are. You dress in loose, non revealing clothing. You certainly do not show your shoulders or cleavage or tattoos and you do not smoke (the only women who smoke in Marrakech are the prostitutes). Most tourists know this and behave accordingly.... but we could not believe some of the sights we saw. Women in bra-less halter tops and shorts; mini skirts and vests... and to be honest most of them should not have been wearing that on a beach let alone in a Muslim country but heh. I was horrified one night though. Mum and I went for a wander and I was wearing loose trousers and a loose top, but one that stopped at mid buttock rather than mid thigh. I got some really nasty comments and was hassled quite badly from a few teenagers. And that was from showing, sin of sins, 2 inches of my bum! I had to be calmed down by some mint tea and chocolate.. didn't take much!

Speaking French
All three of us studied French at school but we were different levels of rusty. Having memorised our area, I was in charge of getting Petit Taxis (small fiats that zip around inside the Medina walls) and haggling a price. Kathryn sensibly stuck to what she knew... everything you need to get around but when mum had to ask for something or get information, she would start off well but then either try and mime the word or just make noises. Instead of thinking about an easy way to ask for something, she would try and translate something really complicated. We went to the Marjorelle Gardens one day, a beautiful Moroccan garden previously owned by the designer Yves Saint Laurent. All was fine until we went into the museum. There was some amazing jewellery and mum wanted to know where they mined the silver. So she began by asking the guard "Excusez moi, ou est le argon...." and then, not knowing the word for "mine", she mimed a drill with all the sound effects. They looked baffled and Kathryn and I got hysterics. But she kept going, rephrasing it and doing different mimes. I was laughing so hard I started snorting. The guards then got the giggles but persevered with her, bringing in different people to try and work out what she was saying. She then pointed to a jewelled orb and asked "oeuf de Ostrich?" I lost it completely.... an Ostrich egg? The guard laughed, shaking his head and said "No, wood". I had to leave the room I was crying so much. This sort of thing happened constantly on our travels. If Mum didn't know the word she just made a noise in a French accent. If someone asked her "Ca va?" out of the blue, she would respond "Oui, merci... ooh heee hmmm hmm". Brilliant!

Snoring
Sorry mama, but if I didn't mention the snoring then half the trip wouldn't make sense! Whilst Kathryn was with us in Marrakech we were booked into a triple room in a beautiful Riad, north of the Medina. The Riad was stunning with a swimming pool, gorgeous roof terrace and a wonderfully helpful, stylish, French owner. Our room, however, was quite small for the three of us so as I am of the theory "If you don't ask, you don't get" (inherited from my mother who has lived her life like this) I asked the owner if she had another room we might "have". She kindly gave us another beautiful room, free of charge and we spread out, Kathryn and I rotating who had the spare room each night. Mum happily wanted to stay in her double bed in the first room. Everyone was happy and slept well. I had noticed mum snoring a sort of quiet snuffle but nothing to disturb too much. After Kathryn left though, we moved to another Riad. Suddenly the snoring went from the snuffle of a sweet small animal to a giant lion roar! Even with ear plugs, it was so loud I had to gather my bedding and sleep in the hallway and then on the roof. That would have been pleasant enough until the call to prayer began at dawn.

Kathryn had come with us to the second Riad for the afternoon, before her flight home and we were happily lazing on the roof when she mentioned the call to prayer. We knew it was five times a day and we also knew that the second Riad admitted to being very close to a Mosque. We suddenly heard the call to prayer in the distance and thought "well that's not so bad". Kathryn then pointed to the roof and said "It's that one I'm worried about". I looked up and 10 feet away was a Mosque minaret with two giant loud hailers on it. As we both looked at it, it crackled into life and blared out the call to prayer so loudly we both jumped and had to cover our ears with cushions. Oh My God. I forgot about that when trying to sleep on the roof at 5am and was so rudely awakened, I thought the world was ending!

When we moved to Essaouira, a coastal hippy town, 3 hours drive from Marrakech, I thought I would give the room sharing another go. It was a beautiful big room and the beds were a good 10 feet from each other. I had ear plugs and thought the sea air might knock her out and muffle the snoring. Oh dear. I have never heard that sort of noise come from a small woman. I think I managed an hours sleep and I was so grouchy and knackered that after breakfast I had to go back to bed. Whilst I was asleep mum talked to the owner, a wonderful Swiss woman who, again, gave us another room. I say gave us... she actually gave mum her own room, in a new part of the Riad, as far away from the other guests as was possible! After all this, mum still refused to believe her snoring was that bad, that I must just be a light sleeper and unlucky. She finally believed that her snoring was bad when a German couple said they also hadn't slept the night before because someone in the Riad was snoring so loudly. Their room was the other side of building about thirty feet and two thick walls away!

A few of the things we did in Marrakech
• Eating lots of bread and olives. They serve them with every meal.
• Drinking a lot of mint tea. They serve it with about 20 teaspoons of sugar in it though and we noticed EVERYTHING in Morocco was sweetened. The biggest killer in Morocco is diabetes, which I can completely understand!
• Going on an open air bus tour. Brilliant. The best way to get your bearings in a big city, although I was constantly saying "drink more water" and "put more sunscreen on" to mum and sister. Also EVERY time Mum wanted to change sides of the bus (often) I had to re-programme her earphones to the right language and the right volume, much to the hilarity of Kathryn because all she could see was my head in Mums lap and hear her shouting "It's in German!!" or "No, I still can't hear anything, it's not working!"
• Hiring a horse and buggy. My haggling skills went a bit downhill here because I refused to pay what the man wanted so he decided to take a short cut down the busiest road in the city. The horse then slipped and sat down at a traffic light. It's not romantic. Its bloody awful!
• Taking Petit Taxis everywhere. Cheap and insane. The drivers go full speed through all the markets narrowly missing donkeys, children, food stalls and mopeds. Mum and I thought it was quite thrilling. Kathyrn was terrified, not being a good passengers at the best of times.
• Having a cocktail at the most expensive and beautiful hotel in Marrakech... La Mamounia (Winston Churchill's favourite). Very strict dress code but once in, you can wander the grounds for as long as you like. The price for one drink is £20! That was our days' budget!
• Saying "Non, merci" about fifty times a day.
• Hearing Kathryn coo over all the kittens and puppies around.
• Kathryn and I squealing at a man carrying cut off donkey feet.
• Stepping in random body parts... mainly chicken heads.
• Posing for endless photos, with frequent frozen facial expressions after waiting for The Bag Lady to find her camera.
• Drinking lots of water.
• Sweating.
• Getting odd suntans... face and forearms only.
• Swimming in the coldest pool ever with me unkindly not telling Kathryn that there was only one step into the pool before a six foot drop. Probably the only way she would have got in!
• Telling Mum that her kaftan was a little bit low cut and then seeing a cotton vest appear under it a few hours later. When asked where the cotton vest came from, she laughed and said it was a napkin. We thought she was just being weird but when we saw her getting undressed later, she had literally pinned a white cotton restaurant napkin to her bra. "So much cooler than a whole vest" she said. One of the funniest things I have ever seen (we also have photographic evidence)!
• Mother spilling some tagine on her white trousers at a restaurant and rushing off for ages to sponge the whole thing down in the bathroom whilst a sweet waitress kept guard outside.
• Having some wonderful meals... the tagines really are amazing. Beware of "poulet et plum" though, it translates as chicken and prune... and you don't want to have too many of those!
• Taking a trip to the Atlas mountains with a fabulous guide called Aziz. The most beautiful surroundings, lunch with a Berber family in their mud house and the best way to see traditional village life. Truly special. We also taught the driver to call the hole in the ground toilets, "Squat and drops!"
• Playing scrabble with Kathryn one night (very competitively I hasten to add) and have mama come inn holding her nose. She had a terrible nose bleed but was so worried about getting blood on the beautiful sofa that she tried to lie down on the smallest chair in the room. As she sprawled as awkwardly as possible and with her face covered in bloody tissue... that is when the Riad owner decided to say hello.
• Laughing at mother.
• Laughing with mother.

A few things we did in Essaouira
• Finding it so different from Marrakech... really friendly and helpful locals, no hassling, no hostitlity or haggling.
• Stopping to see the goats in the Argon trees. Truly hilarious. They climb the trees to eat the berries and just stand there perched on the tiniest branches. You have to pay the goat herder for the privilege of a photo but I got extra and was dumped with a baby goat to carry... the softest and sweetest thing in the world.
• Were staggered by how many thousands of cats and kittens there are. Every doorway, every windowsill. If you don't like cats, don't go to Essaouira... we saw one woman (having come to town on a day trip) scream and leap onto here chair seeing a cat walk past. Little did she know there were a hundred waiting for her round the next corner!
• Walking around the port, seeing all the fishermen at work. Great for photographs, but ask them first, they can be a bit tetchy.
• Eating some of the most amazing seafood, literally caught minutes before you eat.
• Hanging out in the café's, drinking fabulous coffee and eating gelato.
• Listening to all the live music in the restaurants whilst sitting on roof terraces, high above the town looking at the stunning architecture.
• Getting caught in a hurricane along the beach, being the only tourists foolish enough to brave the elements and finding sanctuary in a local fisherman's café, much to their amusement.
• Discovering a hippy beach café a mile or so down the beach, mum's favourite. Great views of the camels, horses and surfers whilst eating great food, served by gorgeous waiters and relaxing in deck chairs.
• Being taken by Nicole, one of the Riad owners, to a hidden beach house in the middle of nowhere. Run by 2 brothers from their home, you eat what they've caught that day. One of the brothers is the local stud having notched up 18 wives. Recently single, he asked mama to be his 19th... when she told him she already had a husband and showed her wedding ring, he answered "no problem, you have two, one in England, one here". Don't worry Daddy, that's as far as it went!
• Being taken by Nicole to a huge long stretch of deserted beach where I went swimming with her dog Carlito, a big brute of a thing!
• Staying in our last Riad, an incredible place built into the Medina wall, surrounded by ocean. Incredible roar of crashing waves as they hit the walls twenty feet below our bedroom window. Only hairy moment was during the storm I actually thought the waves would reach the windows. Scary but exhilarating!
• Mum asking a dress maker if she could borrow his scissors to cut off an annoying velcro strap on her wrist brace (using mime). After he cut it, instead of saying to him "Merci, vous etes tres gentil" (you are very kind), she said "vous etes tres jolie" (you are very pretty). Ha ha, to a bearded, burly Moroccan man!
• Being groped by a 12 year old on our last night (back in Marrakech I hasten to add). He had the gaul to see us, run and hide around the corner, then come out again and walk up to me with his hand outstretched. I thought he was just being silly and about to shake my hand but he squeezed my boob instead. Quite unbelievable.
• Being given a necklace by a stall holder who said to my protests "No, English lady, is free please because you are my friend" and who then tried to mount me from behind as he did it up for me! Again, this was back in Marrakech, what a surprise!
• Laughing at mother.
• Laughing with mother.

And loving Morocco.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Walking Wounded

What we are.

Well we haven't even left to go on holiday yet but with our combined ailments we are the walking wounded. My mother, sister and I are going to Morocco for a girls only trip to celebrate my Mother's 70th Birthday. We are all very fit and healthy but as the approaching date for departure nears, things have happened.

Mother: Probably the fittest person in the whole family having enjoyed walking and yoga her whole life but she is also terribly accident prone. I had to inherit it from somewhere and unluckily, I have it from both parents! So Mama was up in the Lake District visiting an old neighbour when she walked down a particularly slippery and dark path to his cottage and slipped on some dog poo. The hand went down to break her fall and she landed hard on her bottom. Broken wrist and cracked coccyx! So as the doctor went to put on her plaster cast, she exclaimed "No.. I'm going on holiday and will be swimming so please no cast!" She has it, therefore, in a sort of removable cast, a glorified roller skating wrist guard. She also can only sit on one buttock at a time and it has to be sideways. So that will be interesting.

Sister: The hardest working person in the family with a very demanding job and two children and a husband to look after. Over the last two weeks, she has gone from having a little cold to full on flu symptoms and laryngitis. She also has crappy arthritis, gets labyrinthitis and hates flying! Poor thing.

Me: Away for work a few weeks ago I decided to go for a swim in the local pool. I was very much advised against this as I was told it was "the filthiest pool in the country!". But I was a little stressed from work and thought an hours swimming would do the trick. It was vile so I took my goggles off and swum on my back hoping for the best. The next day I developed an ear infection! The whole left side of my neck swelled up and I looked quite odd. After a week on antibiotics, the ear infection went to my throat and so I am now on my 3rd batch trying desperately to clear it up before we go away. Yesterday I yawned and heard something pop in my back. It felt like someone had stretched an elastic band over my shoulder and then "pinged" it. The only thing that seems to relieve it is to touch my toes every half an hour.

So I think half our suitcases will be taken up with drugs, pills and potions and the other half will be hot water bottles for the aches and pains. One will be armless and walking diagonally, one will be voiceless, dizzy and sleepwalking and one will be bending over and touching their toes every few minutes. Marrakech used to have a bit of a reputation for that sort of thing but these days it's probably best for me to keep that to a minimum!!!!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Mudlarking

What I Did.

Mudlarking. No I didn't know what it was either until I was ankle deep in sludge on the banks of the Thames picking up 300 year old horse bones! My friend suggested it as a belated birthday present and I thought it sounded brilliant! Larking around in mud, I thought. God, it could have been mud wrestling in bikinis for all I knew but I said "yes" anyway.

So the day of larking was last Sunday, a surprisingly scorching hot day in October. My friend, her son and I tromped off down to the river to meet our hostess Mary. Mary was one of those ageing, hippy intellectuals, an archeologist of all things river, with long grey hair and ruddy cheeks. She seemed genuinely overwhelmed that so many people had shown up for the mudlarking. "Usually," she said, "I only get half a dozen or so". She was faced with about 50 of us, all with the same idea that it would be fun to lark about by the river because the weather was so bloomin nice! I asked one lanky woman if she was there for the mudlarking and she looked at me slightly worryingly and said "if you mean the beach-combing, then yes!". Spoilsport... she obviously got her invite from the inappropriate name club because I certainly know of no beach on the River Thames! Wellies and rubber gloves were put on and we followed Mary down some precarious steps to the river bank. I have to add here that she lectured us for half an hour before handing out latex surgeons gloves, on the dangers of the Thames water, that it was full of diseases and so on. Being incredibly British though, she said "but only one person has died and that's because he stupidly jumped into Camden Lock i.e. stagnant water!" Mary and sympathy are not at home together.

By now, you all know how accident prone I am and within seconds I had stepped too close to the waters edge at the same time as a River Police boat whizzed past, sending the rotten, diseased, killer water over the tops of my boots. I was sloshing around waiting for the plague to possess me when I scratched myself on some fetid metal (probably 16th century, therefore Black Death era) and ripped my surgical glove. I was a walking contamination unit. I told Mary what had happened and she just shrugged. So I shrugged, put on my flip-flops and carried on.



Here's what I picked up and Mary's conclusion:



Lots of bones I thought were human. Mary told me they were probably a few hundred years old and probably horse or cow bones from the knackers yard or glue factory. Nice.



Bits of pottery I thought were valuable. Mary told me they were probably a few hundred years old and not much of anything interesting.



Lots of handmade nails and metalwork. Mary said there were thousand just like it.

The sole of a shoe with nails still in it. Mary made a sort of "engh" noise and handed it back.

Mary, we discovered, didn't get too excited by anything we showed her. But when I asked her about the most amazing thing she had ever found, well, blow me down, we couldn't shut her up. It was cool though because some years ago she had discovered, right in the spot we were standing, a human 15th Century skull which had shown signs of being operated on. A big hole in this mans brain which hadn't been the cause of death. Therefore Mary had found the earliest ever skull to show surgery and it now sits in the British Museum. After that story, we had a sudden burst of enthusiasm and then all meandered off for a drink and a scrub!

It was a brilliant day, fairly disgusting on my part due to failed equipment but I am not dead so that's a bonus.