Monday, January 23, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: Walk-on Roles

The smaller of the two riads that make up Equity Point Hostel, Marrakech.
That evening I paused for while on the top terrace of the Argana to drink more atay. In the orange half-light of dusk, Jemaa el-Fnaa, with the adhan for Maghrib prayer being called from the Koutoubia mosque and a wave of other smaller mosques following suit, was transformed into something almost otherworldly. 

Whilst locals dashed to the multitudinous mosques squirreled away down every narrow passage of the medina, and tourists lazily continued their sun-beaten wanderings, I took out my red Moleskine notebook and thought about the assortment of people I was beginning to unearth in the hostel.


Arriving in my shared dorm room at Equity Point Hostel that afternoon, there was, who I assumed to be, an American couple canoodling on the bottom bunk of one the beds. Upon reflection, she sounded more American than him, and I suspect that he may be in possession of one of those Americanised accents that many young Europeans have when speaking English.

Feeling a little guilty for breaking up their 'moment', I asked them which of the bunks was free. The guy had his own bed, but was now sharing with her. I realised that their relative youth and slender frames would make this possible, along with the fact that they were next to the air conditioning. There was one other bed with a neatly folded pair of green swimming trunks laid on top of it.

After a few minutes, another dorm mate arrived: enter, Grouchy Frenchman. He was around forty years old, was in possession of a portly belly and wore a trilby hat.

Gathering their stuff together, American Guy asked me, “Would you like the door left open?” 

Before I had chance to reply, Grouchy interjected. “Non!” he cut in, “fermé la porte because the AC will otherwise not work!” He then continued to mumble something under his breath that sounded very grumpy and exceedingly French.

American Guy looked awkwardly at me and retired backwards out of the door, as if edging slowly away from an angry dog. I was worried that they may have had a 'cultural difference' already and imagined my peaceful night’s sleep ebbing away over multilingual invectives. 

I tried, albeit falteringly, to engage Grouchy in a little small talk about the weather, failed miserably and decided to sleep off the early afternoon’s unplanned ramblings


Later on, I was already beginning to feel a little less isolated, a little livelier and my annoyance over being fleeced by guides was fading.

Outside of dorm 108 at the hostel, set on the ground floor of two interconnected riad style courtyards, was a swimming pool. This was a definite draw for this hostel when compared to others I had researched in the medina

When I had fully awoken, Grouchy was in the pool swimming some short lengths – I was half-trying to avoid being in his company as he really behaved like a localised cloud of doom. Luckily, the moment the big toe on my left foot hit the water, he jumped out and I had the water, and the last remaining spot of sunshine in the courtyard, to myself.

A short while later, a young Dutchman in his second year at University got in. We talked a bit about where he’d been around Morocco now that his trip was drawing to a close.

He had actually come into Morocco via Spain with his two friends, and had worked his way down the country by coach: Tangier, Rabat, Fez, “But avoid Casablanca whatever you do!” he said. I didn't enquire why.

He was studying Business Administration and wanted a future career in logistics management. Not overly exciting, but at least it didn’t have to pay anything near to what his UK counterparts have to pay in terms of tuition fees. In fact, even with reduced government funding in Dutch Universities, he was still only paying €2000 he said.


Looking down at the pool and dorm 108 at Equity Point Hostel, Marrakech.
After returning from Argana, I lay on the roof terrace of the hostel staring up at a whole load of empty nothingness. The sun had long gone down, but the warmth still permeated the air and I was fighting off the urge to ask myself for the tenth time: “What the hell are you doing here alone?”

I had been beginning to think that travelling to Morocco, alone or otherwise, might be a young person’s game; young Dutchman and his mates, giggling hordes of young French women in abayahs bought from the souk and the canoodling American-sounding couple all stood as stark counterpoints to me and Grouchy Frenchman.

Sat crossed-legged on the one of three semi-circular seats was an American woman in her late 30s and an Irishman in his late 20s. Clearly they hadn’t been travelling together, but they were having a major existential heart to heart about where they were in life – lolling around on the planet somewhere between lost and listless.

It seemed the woman was trying to escape the fallout of a relationship breakdown in New York and was now trying to find some peace, albeit by disturbing the peace of the Irishman. His responses seemed to hint that he may have just been humouring her and her woes, but he seemed to be sharing a bit of his recent challenges too.

She was having her very own 'Eat Pray Love' moment, but in a manner that was desperate for someone to overhear it all. I was curious as to whether everyone here around my age would be on the run from something.

Heading back downstairs, I went into the dorm to find another new arrival: Théo.

As I walked in, I casually said, “y’alright!”

He leapt up, looked at me in shock and said “yes” with a heavy French accent. At first, when I saw his eyes I was concerned that he may be under the influence of something very strong; there was something wild about the way his eyes appeared. A few minutes later, I realised what it was about him – he just had a really strong prescription in his glasses and the lenses magnified his eyes rather spectacularly.

We stumbled through a Franglais conversation about Africa for half an hour or so. As he disappeared into the en suite, Grouchy Frenchman shuffled back into the room after what seemed like his twentieth swim of the day. He grumbled something about the AC again. This time Théo bore the brunt of the mumbling, I ignored him and the Americans lay feigning sleep.

I didn’t know what to expect from staying in a hostel, especially as a thirty-something, but what I found on the first night was that it is just a bit like an alternate version of Big Brother, peopled by a cast of equally divergent characters. Your prize may be that elusive inner peace, your motivation may be to get discovered, or may just be to discover yourself, but it’s generally all harmless fun.

Lessons Learned
  • Argana is the ideal people watching spot at Maghrib prayer time in Jemaa el-Fnaa – unless you’re meant to be praying.
  • Always shut the door if you have the AC switched on and a Grouchy roommate.
  • Embrace the strangeness of any potential roommates. You are probably equally as weird to them – or they be long-sighted.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: Lost and Found in Marrakech

A beautiful labyrinth that should be respected: Marrakech, Morocco.
I arrived in Marrakech in late July 2016 too tired to deal with humanity. I’d slept for about one hour and fifteen minutes overnight and only caught two 45-minute bursts of sleep on the tightly packed Ryanair plane.

Anyone who knows me knows one thing about how I travel: I prepare well, but pack last minute. Last evening I had decided it would be better to go to Women’s Equality Party event in Islington with a friend, visit a bar and then head home at 1am. Not very wise.

Despite being a little worried about being alone a long way from home, I stepped off the transfer taxi on Boulevard Fatima Zahra. It wasn’t able to get up the tight streets of the medina, and with the relatively light backpack that represented my worldly possessions for the next two weeks, I started to walk under the gateway.

A youngish man with sleepy eyes, dressed in a shiny blue djellaba and pink crocs called out to me, “Equity Point?”

“Yes,” I mumbled.

“It is just here,” he said with sincerity, “I’ll show you.”

“It’s okay. I’ll be fine from here.”

“No. I’ll show you,” he insisted.

The perfect trap; he was already locked on and leading the way. A trap very neatly sprung.

At this point I had no dirhams, so hastily came up with a plan to offload a €10 note. After a confusing conversation with the unimpressed guide, which involved looking at a forex app, I ended up paying him around €5 for his services and I left with around 50 dirhams in change. It is fair to say that both of us felt a little ripped-off, but neither party was in the mood for an argument.

❦ 

It was still too early to check-in, so I dropped-off my bags at the Hostel and went in search of a padlock, an ATM and lunch.

At the end of Boulevard Fatima Zahra, a short walk outside of the medina, I came to a slender three-storey café-restaurant called Café Kif-Kif. Here I ordered a kefta tagine – meatballs in a rich, mildly spiced, red sauce with two fried eggs on top. To wash it down I had a pot of the essential Moroccan drink, atay (mint tea), to mock the already intensifying heat.

The food was served in the traditional clay Moroccan cooking pot that gives the dish its name, the tagine. It was both incredibly tasty and obscenely photogenic. I resisted the temptation to Instagram it, opting to annoy a few Whatsapp contacts with the image of my lunch instead.

After whiling away a little time people watching, talking in bad French and amazed at the ferocity of a niqaab-wearing, motorcycle-riding woman shouting at a shop owner, I headed off in the direction of Jemaa el-Fnaa with a view to looping back the hostel via a back route to check in properly.

Passing through the square, which at this time was quiet save for a couple of snake charmers and the juice bars, I managed to miss the turning back through the souks and ended up walking in the vague direction of the tanneries.

The narrow alleyway leading to Equity Point Hostel: Marrakech, Morocco.
A few guide books had suggested that visiting a tannery is an interesting thing to do, so when a Berber guide said he’d show me one, I thought, “why not.”

As it was a Thursday afternoon, the tannery workers were packing up early. My tiredness crept back suddenly, and I ended up feeling like I was essentially walking around some rancid concrete troughs, literally full of crap, holding a sprig of mint to my nose and looking to see how many other tourists were being duped into a grand tour. I just wasn't awake enough to appreciate it.

This wasn’t everything though; having to exit through a leather shop meant I had to dodge a sales pitch for my least favourite form of material.

After some gentle persuasion (basically me saying: ‘I don’t bloody like leather and I’m not carrying a carpet around Morocco for the next two weeks like a substandard Aladdin impersonator’), I thought I’d escaped. No such luck – my guide reappeared and demanded his 200 dirhams fee. I’d fallen into the trap of not negotiating a price up front - again.

I thought back to a conversation on the plane with a Belgian man who’d said, “They call tourists walking cash machines.” He wasn’t wrong, but like any tourist location, simple mistakes like not agreeing a fee up front had been my undoing – along with an unhealthy lack of sleep.

Following another unplanned outlay of dirhams and some poor directions from a youth, I wandered off in the wrong direction and did so epically. Stopping to check Google Maps, I realised that I had somehow arrived outside the city walls near Bab Aylan to the east of the medina. I was lost, irritated, tired and disappointed that my usually faultless inner navigation skills had let me down.

I took another moment to get my bearings and I told myself to calm down. After all, it didn’t matter if I was lost. I had enough money to get wherever I needed and was perfectly safe.

One abortive attempt at flagging down a taxi nearly resulted in another tannery tour, but I thankfully managed to stop another taxi.

Saying a quick bismillah under his breath, the driver circumnavigated the perimeter wall of the medina for twenty-five minutes, taking me back to where I’d started my erroneous wanderings around three hours before.

I shuffled back down a more familiar alleyway to the hostel and finally checked in.

Lessons Learned:
  • Get some sleep before you arrive.
  • Always negotiate a price before you do anything, however unnatural you may find it.
  • Slow down; there's no need to rush into anything and take your time before diving down an unknown alleyway.

Monday, January 02, 2017

The Soundtrack to My 2016

There are, of course, a million expressions, phrases and clichés about the power of music to trigger memories and take you back to certain places you’d either forgotten or perhaps hoped to have forgetten. For any number of reasons 2016 was a strange year for the world and for me personally. As much as I agree with Russell Kane’s ‘Kaneing’ on how one day’s difference in the calendar won’t change the world, I am glad to be hitting the metaphorical reset button.

That said, there are a group of songs that have spent a substantial time getting played on my Apple Music account over the previous 12 months – some of them are from 2016, some older, but I have only discovered them in 2016.

Aicha by Cheb Khaled

When I arrived in Essaouira, Morocco and had found my way to the Atlantic Hostel, I was looking forward to heading to the beach, eating seafood and continuing to slowly burn my skin. What I didn’t account for in Morocco’s ‘windy city’ (as the older of two Khalids at the hostel called it) was the weather; rain and thick Londonesque fog.

On the second night, with the mood on the roof terrace a little sedate thanks to the cold fog, the chef, Couscous, declared he was preparing food for everyone. Great news. I’d had a day of eating next to nothing thanks to a fault with the all the ATM in the medina.

Around twenty minutes into a meal of couscous, vegetables and lamb, with everyone still being a bit low-key, Couscous played a song I’d never heard before that was greeted with a rousing singalong from a group of French, Algerian and Moroccan travellers.

I later found out it was Algerian singer Cheb Khaled’s 1996 song Aicha and I’ve pretty much been unable to get the song out of my head ever since, however appalling my students say my French pronunciation may be.



Up&Up by Coldplay

Since Viva La Vida I had paid little or no attention to Coldplay. One day on the Underground I saw a colourful poster for their album A Head Full of Dreams. Visually and lyrically the first couple of singles seemed a bit too ‘Gap Year’ for a 32 year old, but were catchy enough and the album played a part in keeping me upbeat about my impending travels to Morocco alone.

The highlights of the album appear at the end in the form of Army of One and Up&Up. A few days after first listening to the album, a student said, “the new Coldplay video just dropped. Can we watch it?” With crazy visuals, its chorus singalong that includes Beyoncé and a guitar solo from Noel Gallagher and a message of positivity, I found it hard not to overplay it. 





Consequence of Love by Gregory Porter

Although I had heard of Gregory Porter and even watched an interview with him on Sunday Brunch one weekend, I’d not listened to any of his music. One Sunday, driving somewhere in Essex, Jonesy put on the album Take Me to the Alley. I was struck by the warmth of Porter’s vocals and the excellent musicianship of his band.

In reality, I could have picked any song from the album to be on this list, but I went for the sentimentality of Consequence of Love. The strength of the songwriting and the slow soulful , but safe dissonance of his brand of jazz lends the music a nocturnal feel, like a late show at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho. This is perfect music for the very end of a long day, regardless of your mood or temperament.



If I had a Gun… by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

After the break-up of Oasis, I hadn’t really given either Gallagher brother much attention. I had bought Beady Eye’s first album, but had only heard a couple of the High Flying Birds' songs.

As 2016 rolled on, the fallout of the EU Referendum had swept the UK, there was a lack of clarity over the next steps, Donald Trump’s election campaign seemed to have all the momentum, life was rubbish and the world seemed a mess.

I noticed a song on Noel Gallagher’s 2011 album that had, as its title at least, a sentiment I shared: If I had a Gun…

Of course, after listening to it, you realise that it is a love song (of sorts) and seems to carry with it a message of hope for a heartbreak to end, set against a typically Noel Gallagher musical backdrop. This is why we should always look out for an ellipsis. 




The rest… 
There were of course plenty of songs that played a part in 2016 for me. A more complete playlist can be found on Apple Music here. It includes: OneRepublic, who I'd seen in concert at the Apple Music Festival, Coldplay at their most poetic (Midnight), a song that will forever haunt Yusuf (Escape aka The Pina Colada Song), a song that will forever remind me of the comedy of late night motorcycle taxi rides in Kigali (Drake – Hotline Bling) and the happy return of Empire of the Sun (High and Low).
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