big buddhas and go-go girls

Hop on a train bound north from Bangkok and in just over an hour and a half you’ll find yourself in what was once the thriving capital of Thailand. Nowadays Ayutthaya is a little more sedentary, by Thai standards at least, but the reminders of a proud past are visible at every turn. The town is technically an island being surrounded as it is on four sides by waterways and these channels are protrolled by long-tail boats and water monitors alike. 

Many of the boats offer the chance to dine afloat and a turn at karaoke whilst other offer a whistle-stop tour of some of the biggest, most impressive wats in the area. But stick to your guns and take a wander, if there’s one thing Ayutthaya isn’t short of its shrines. From the small and ubiquitous kind you see scattered through every avenue and shop front right up to those that stood as the pride of the Khmer civilisation.

One of the many, many long-tail boats.
One of the many, many long-tail boats.
I visited in early February at the peak of the Chinese New Year. You could be easily believe the whole town had turned out to pay homage to its strong and shared Chinese heritage. Directly outside my hostel in fact was a marching band of local school children happily tooting and banging for the whole world to hear.

I was told at reception that these celebrations were ongoing and if I wanted to be involved I should head into the local Chinatown later and then on to the night market where the festivities would make the marching band outside seem positively low-key. Something I would surely enjoy but first a cold shower and another liberal coating of DEET.

Typical long-tail boat landing. Mind you step or go for a swim.
Typical long-tail boat landing. Mind you step or go for a swim.
By the time I reached the market in Chinatown the celebrations had clearly moved on and the stalls were packing down. Undeterred I found a small street-food vendor and sat down to eat some of the best sticky rice and sweet chilli chicken I’ve enjoyed so far. As I sat soaking up the local atmosphere I began to reflect on the difference an hours travel, from the light and sound show that is Bangkok, can make.

That was until everything on my plate began strobing from neon green to pink and back again like some long-delayed acid flashback. Fortunately this wasn’t the case, I had just been caught off guard by the travelling light show that is the local bus route. All six exhausts and carnival airbrush paint job of it. As bizarre as it often is, Thais certainly know how to put on an eye-catching, or should that be eye-watering, show.

A waterside residence in Ayutthaya.
A waterside residence in Ayutthaya.
Now here’s the funny thing; I couldn’t help but be impressed by the show but little did I know what yet awaited at the market. Bang Ian night market is in a different league and boosted by the New Year celebrations it borders on sensory overload. Thousands of people pack the street and wind en-masse between the hundreds of stalls selling everything from bunny rabbits in tiny dresses to household furniture. Need a new pair of pants and a fried scorpion? Bang Ian has you covered.

Blind singers and local school groups compete for donations whilst small children turn tricks antagonising boa constrictors for your entertainment. There are overcrowded and overly dangerous fairground rides, there’s a motorcycle wall-of-almost-certain-death and every fairground game from darts and air-rifles to dunk an aggressively gyrating go-go girl. All of this is to a background of thumping Thai electronic dance music. It’s fantastic.

Who doesn't want to play dunk a go-go girl?
Who doesn’t want to play dunk a go-go girl?
The next morning, in search of something less stimulating but equally pleasurable, I hired a bicycle and headed off the island to visit three of the larger wat in the surrounding area; Wat Yai Chaimongkol, Wat Phannan Choeng and Wat Chai Wattanaram.

The first of the day, Wat Yai Chaimongkol, is now a temple and the grounds are home to a great many monks and statues of Buddha. This particular wat managed to escape destruction by the Burmese owning purely to the fact it acted as their base of operations. In such good repair is it that you can gain access to its main stupa to appreciate the eight bronze buddhas that sit within its alcoves or peer down at monks collecting the coins that have been scattered into every nook and cranny of its central wishing-well like cavity.

Wat Phannan Choeng is a different story altogether. A huge and chaotic complex of shrines an merit-making ceremonies all watched over by a nineteen metre tall Buddha surrounded by 84,000 smaller images. The effect is really quite something but the strange mix of devout symbols and the opportunity purchase food or keepsakes can’t help but seem a little jarring.

That's a big Buddha.
That’s a big Buddha.
From here, and luckily enough, just in time for sunset I headed to the opposite side of the island for Wat Chai Wattanaram. Built in a design purposefully imitating Angkor Wat this seventeenth century ruin is magnificent to behold. It’s thirty-five metre central prang towering over everything in the immediate vicinity as a proud monument to the mother of King Prasat Thong.

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morishly moorish

Picture special.

No depthy story of local interest or tale of calamitous ill preparation to tell here. Just a few simple photographs of a place so rich in history, art and architecture it would be a criminal shame not to share.

Alahambra, the crown of Granada. A predominately moorish fortification sitting against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada.
Alahambra, the crown of Granada. A predominately moorish fortification sitting against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada.
One of the many ponds within the sculpted gardens of this ancient fortress.
One of the many ponds within the sculpted gardens of this ancient fortress.
A typical Moorish arch overlooking overlooking the terracotta roofs of Granada far below.
A typical Moorish arch overlooking overlooking the terracotta roofs of Granada far below.
Courtyards within the new palace feature more modern, Spanish style architecture.
Courtyards within the new palace feature more modern, Spanish style architecture.
Stunning water features within the walled garden known as 'the maze'.
Stunning water features within the walled garden known as ‘the maze’.
The 'stalactite' dome within the palace.
The ‘stalactite’ dome within the palace.
Stunning detail of the Arabic calligraphy that covers nearly every square foot of the interior palace walls.
Stunning detail of the Arabic calligraphy that covers nearly every square foot of the interior palace walls.
Intricate and colourful tessellation of tiles that purportedly influenced M. C. Esher's work on the subject.
Intricate and colourful tessellation of tiles that purportedly influenced M. C. Esher’s work on the subject.
A stunning example of the beautiful calligraphic architecture on display.
A stunning example of the beautiful calligraphic architecture on display.
This vaulted ceiling shows a beautiful fusion of Moorish and later European designs.
This vaulted ceiling shows a beautiful fusion of Moorish and later European designs.
Even Fibonacci would be impressed by this curved staircase within the central plaza.
Even Fibonacci would be impressed by this curved staircase within the central plaza.
Unique terracotta-domed ceilings of the main bathhouse.
Unique terracotta-domed ceilings of the main bathhouse.
Intricately detailed stone trough within the on-site museum. Received my first warning for taking this photograph.
Intricately detailed stone trough within the on-site museum. Received my first warning for taking this photograph.
Perhaps the most beautiful case in the Alahambra collection. Received my final warning for taking this photograph.
Perhaps the most beautiful case in the Alahambra collection. Received my final warning for taking this photograph.
Fortuny favours his right side. Part of an exhibition dedicated to the man so inspired by the Alahambra.
Fortuny favours his right side. Part of an exhibition dedicated to the man so inspired by the Alahambra.
Part of a Christian religious art exhibition currently running.
Part of a Christian religious art exhibition currently running.
The magnificent view from the fortifications back across Granada.
The magnificent view from the fortifications back across Granada.

the blue pearl

‘Head straight up the hill and past the Spanish mosque, don’t talk to anyone until you reach the village.’

That was the advice anyway.

At least, I suppose, this was a new variation on the guide scam. One that we’d have to acquiesce to if we were to score that sweet Chefchaouen kif at an even sweeter price. Our man, Kahled tagged on to the group as we headed uphill from the mosque and integrated himself with that same soft, easy kind of conversation that pulls in the unwary like a riptide. Of course he knew the two Germans from Hostel Aline, he had shown them around his family farm himself. Of course he would take us on a tour, no obligation, for the mountain people are nothing if not hospitable.

The ever visible Spanish mosque.
The ever visible Spanish mosque.
This particular farm was situated a half hour of steep, twisting paths and shoe-destroying rocks further up the hill side than the mosque but still patently short of any sort of village. A ramshackle combination of corrugated tin, clay bricks and recycled plastic containers, rather than being ushered inside we found ourselves in a half-built shed with three sacks of weed that could have doubled as sun-loungers. Chickens picked idly through the detritus which had drifted in through the open roof and I watched in bemusement as one ate a piece of hashish easily big enough to make for an entirely different kind of roast chicken.

From the very start our host seemed disengaged to the point of being cagey. Any questions were answered short in form and ever shorter in content. Soon a second host appeared, a man who was introduced to us as the owner but bore scant resemblance to Kahled. Armed with a pair of tights, two sticks, tiny enamelled bowl and a carrier bag we were informed these were are tools of the trade.

The older man proceeded to build himself a small stool from the flat, clay bricks before using the tights to put a double layer of gauze over the bowl. This ‘special filter’, we were informed, would separate the kif from the plant and with that a handful of cuttings were thrown onto the tights and a plastic bag wrapped around the whole set-up. Once set up correctly the process is simple; take the sticks and beat the contraption like a ginger stepchild. A process so easy in fact that it could be handed over to us as the host heads off to make tea.

Blue-washed streets of Chefchaouen.
Blue-washed streets of Chefchaouen.

Whilst we took turns to hammer out a beat I took the opportunity to ask a few simple, or at least I thought so, questions.

‘So this is your farm?’ I started.

‘It is family farm,’ Came the first of many stunted replies. ‘We plant many small fields in different places to keep away from thieves and junkies.’

‘And have your family been growing hash for long? Many generations?’

‘Many.’

‘I see. And how many crops do you harvest a year?’

‘There are many grades. Best in summer, we call it ‘grade 00′. This,’ He motioned idly toward the sacks. ‘This is last crop, not so good.’

‘So different grades mean different prices, yes?’

‘Yes, but now is time for tea.’
With this abrupt sidestep our second host reappeared, battered tray in hand to dole out the refreshments like half-time oranges. After a short dialogue in Arabic he retrieved the bowl and headed back inside. Then with all the faux charm of a seasoned salesman Kahled effortlessly slipped into his well-worn spiel.

A traditional cemetery.
A traditional cemetery.
‘Now friends, you have seen the tour and enjoyed tea, we must talk business for he is very busy and must get back to work.’ He smiled.

‘Yes, of course, it’s what we are here for.’ I assured him. ‘But how much will it cost?’

‘Five grams, plus payment for the tour.’

‘I was hoping to get more than five grams. I’d like a quite the reasonable amount. How much would five grams cost?’

‘How much do you want? You can have five grams, you can have more!’
After a couple of minutes of this fruitless back-and-forth it was clear the conversation had become cyclic. Our new best friend, eyes alight with the thought of profit, was no more willing to commit to a price anymore than I was willing to show my hand.

So it was, with a mixed feelings of impatience, annoyance and a rapidly growing suspicion we may have chosen the wrong farm I mentioned the maximum I could possibly part with would be four hundred dirhams. But for that sizeable amount of cash I’d be looking for a whole lot more than five grams. After all, the proffered five grams was by no means a standard quantity but instead the amount we had managed to beat out ourselves.

Farm or not a farm? Who knows.
Farm or not a farm? Who knows.
It was at this point Kahled fell into a second dialogue with the owner. A conversation heavy in sharp words and irritated gestures in our direction. Prices and weights began to fluctuate with out rhyme or reason but never fell to something even resembling a good deal; ten for five hundred, six for four hundred and fifty. The owner meanwhile became ever more irritated, first packing away the tea set and then making it abundantly clear we should leave but not before paying for the pleasure of being shouted at.

This was unlikely to say the very least and we left to muttered comments about Europeans and how we take advantage of the hard-working common man. On reflecting, as we made our way back down to the blue pearl that is Chefchaouen, it was clear to all that the setup was an imitation of the real experience, a facade to take advantage of the gullible and easily intimidated. Khaled had even mentioned during the course of conversation that most of the people they see were Asian tourists and I shudder to think how many unwary groups have fallen foul of this aggressive tout.

Mustapha's. Always worth a look.
Mustapha’s. Always worth a look.
Fortunately not only was this the single negative experience I encountered in nearly two weeks in the town but hashish is ridiculously easy to source in this area especially. Still the bitter taste remained and three days later I found myself, after a chance encounter with Kahled, once more explaining that it was his greed that had spoiled the deal and not some European agenda to stiff the locals and alight with the toils of their labour.

The next day I recounted the sorry tale to my friend Richard and a local man, Malek, whilst sat the sun-dappled patio of Mustafa’s. A place amongst the orange trees and along side the babbling brook where it is, if anything, too easy to wax lyrical on the problems of the world.

‘In Morocco,’ Malek chipped in. ‘We have a saying; your face is your price. Once you have been seen, once your nationality is known, the price is set. Even for me, as a local, if I arrive on my own I get a good price. But if I arrive with foreigner, even if they are my friend, we all must pay different price. It’s not good.

When assumptions such as these abound it’s hard not to question who is right or wrong. Perhaps it’s a question of perception when it comes to contributing to the local economy. Who is to say who’s fair is the correct fare? Certainly not me but what I will suggest is there is a better, and smarter, way of going about skinning this particular cat.

Days later, whilst sat at a viewpoint overlooking the port of Tangier, I was approached by an elderly gentleman. Dressed in fresh white linen, skullcap and traditional jellaba. He introduced himself as Abdallah, a son of the Kasbah.

‘Where are you from?’ He asked. ‘Ah England. I have worked in England. 1974, two years after Germany. I toured with a famous circus.

‘I was an acrobat. I would swing from the ceiling, do jumps, flips. I was the best. One day, when we make the pyramid, I am the smallest so I am at the top and the strongman begins to shake.

‘He had a younger brother who he wanted to take my job. I fall and break my bones from seventeen metres. I spend eighteen months in hospital and never go back to the circus. Instead I come home to the kasbah.

Abdallah insisted I take this photo. I still have no clue what he's staring at.
Abdallah insisted I take this photo. I still have no clue what he’s staring at.
‘The kasbah is very famous, many famous men live here. Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger. You know them?” He asks as he begins pulling out small squares of faded paper from his wallet. ‘I worked with them both.’

Sure enough the worn but well preserved clippings and Polaroids show a younger Abdallah alongside two of arguably the greatest musicians of the modern era. A fact hard not to be impressed by. As I hand back these treasured bit of paper he continues. ‘How about Jack Kerouac? William Burroughs? He used to live next to me whilst he wrote Naked Lunch. He was a drugs man. Perhaps I could show you, is only two minutes walk…’

Had it not been for a departing ferry I would have taken his arm off at the elbow and still marvelled at the skill with which he’d pitched his stall. This, I believe, in a country that relies on tourists to the point of near desperation, is the right way to do things. Instead, wanting to give a little something at least, I enquired as to wether he was a smoker, handed over my pack of redundant Marlboros and asked for directions through the twisting streets of the kasbah.

He insisted on showing me the way and gave a small tour in the process introducing me to hunched old ladies and cackling children alike. In the space of five short minutes this old man reminded me just how wonderful Morocco can be even when it wants something for it’s trouble.

inshallah

‘Fucking mafia!’ I called to Malte across the stationary quad.

‘Fucking mafia!’ he grinned back.
The phrase had become a byword for any problem, predictable or otherwise, that arose in this sandy outpost on the Morocco-Algeria border. First uttered by our host, when explaining the issues facing Amazigh people under a Moroccan-Arab government but subsequently used for everything from faulty laptops to blown light bulbs.

We had first gotten wind of a new year shindig in the Sahara desert whilst still in Essaouira. After countless, pointless hours debating the merits of hiring two cars to drive the near 750 kilometres ourselves we instead decided, by majority, to take the coach. It turns out that the car hire companies who happily throw about free damage collision waivers also command excess fees in the range of 25,000 dirham. Which is their prerogative, I guess, but as any learner driver will tell you; it’s not what you do on the road, it’s the other idiots. 

A gate to the Sahara.
A gate to the Sahara.

Simply take a wander through a metropolitan area of any major Moroccan city and you will see there is no shortage idiots. I strongly doubt anyone who has done so would happily wager two-and-half grand sterling on those odds. Either way our journey via coach was cheap as it was as uneventful and our overnight stay in Marrakech was as predictable as it was overpriced.

In no time we were skirting the edge of Erg Chebbi, a sand sea of enormous dunes visible from 40 kilometres. Well, in daylight that is. Stepping from the coach into the crisp night air invoked a bizarre feeding frenzy of touts, taxi drivers and restauranteurs. A sight only made stranger still by the otherwise empty streets of the two-lane town that is Merzouga. Thankfully the hostel was but a literal stone’s throw away from the kerb that serves as Gare Merzouga and the owner was soon on hand to direct us through the melee.

The new year festivities, rather predictably after such a long and poorly planned journey, were cancelled. Or perhaps even non-existent, I never did look into it. Instead opting to spend the time wandering amongst the dunes or chatting with the and staff about local culture, minerals and meteorites all whilst smoking far too much hashish to do a great deal else.
It was during one of these conversations that Mohammed mentioned his day job. Having completed his education as a mineralogist at the nearby university he returned home to work, and hopefully find his fortune, in the mountain mines of Tadaout. As anyone who knows me will tell you this piqued my interest in no small way. For whatever reason shiny stones and dark, cramped spaces tick a lot of boxes for me. Why they don’t for everyone else is utterly beyond me. Strangely, the only enthusiasm for my idea in our shrinking group was from the effervescent Malte.

Initially we had contrived to convince Mohammed to reveal the secrets of the mountain but when we failed to mention the specifics, or any part of the plan whatsoever, he vanished on a day trip to Erfoud. In turn we turned to our host and less than hour later we were handed the keys to a distinctly well used four-wheel-drive quad.

Nothing to see here. Probably.
Nothing to see here. Probably.

The dents, dings, cracked bodywork and externally-wired battery, all secured by tattered nylon webbing were easy enough to overlook, this is Africa after all and the dusty mud-paved side streets act as a near constant reminder. This said, we really should have paid attention to the manually-controlled cooling fan and bottle of water jammed haphazardly under the front rack. Directions to the mine were also, on reflection, perhaps a little to simple; ‘Head to Taouz and take the dirt road on your right into the mountains’.

Three-quarters of an hour later we found ourselves on one of the myriad dirt-tracks that wind across the gravel strewn planes between the mesas. Undeterred we poke around a couple of open shafts and ramshackle shacks left over from previous mining operations. After a rather fortuitous check of the tank told us that further exploration would be an exceptionally risky idea we head back towards the village in search of petrol. Or at least we hoped it was petrol. As luck would have it this is a deceptively easy task when you consider the nearest station is more than fifty a kilometres north. Instead of a pump our petrol came from a barrel in the garage of some kind stranger with no English and not much more French.

Luck, the fickle mistress that she is, must have gotten off in Taouz because as the village faded into the hazy distance so did any semblance of pressure from the single cylinder engine. So it was, with a slow-rolling shudder we found ourselves at the side of the road with too much time on our hands and zero appreciation for the stunning sunset that dragged long shadows across the desert around us.

Mine shafts. Deep, dark, claustrophobic and lovely.
Mine shafts. Deep, dark, claustrophobic and lovely.

Fortunately this is a tale of poor planning rather than survival and rescue was a thirty second phone call and a thirty minute drive away. In no time we were en route back to Merzouga in a Nissan pick-up, listening to Touareg music and watching as our recovery driver knocked back Flag Speciales like a recovering alcoholic on an off day. After pushing the knackered quad to its home for, at the very best, the next few days we made sure to buy our rescuers a few beers. Surely even Moroccans couldn’t bring themselves to overcharge such generous beer benefactors, could they?

The following afternoon, as both Malte and I craned over the open engine block in the heat of Saharan midday sun, neither of us were half as confident. Once the cylinder block was open it became painfully clear the head-gasket had blown due to overheating and better still both the owner and mechanic were claiming they had warned our host of the risk. Which was, as we both agreed, irrelevant.

Owing to the fact the quad was the best part of two decades old and Merzouga lacks any sort of dedicated, well-stocked motor factor it was suggested the best course of action may be salvage. But where to find another twenty-year-old Suzuki clone here on the edge of the desert? With that enquiries were made, a throughly make-do set of tools stowed and, as Moroccans with time on their hands are wont to do, we headed for a coffee.

The mechanic, Abdul, was a small man in his sixties from Rabat with a sunny disposition and numerous, fine laughter lines at the corners of his eyes. He was on holiday but had been drafted in for what was now looking like an inevitable engine rebuild. In between messages from a girlfriend in Strasbourg he mentioned his time as a head mechanic on the long-line trawlers sailing from Essaouira.

‘The boats go out for anything from four days, a week.’ he began. ‘Captain, co-captain, mechanic, co-mechanic and twenty crew. Perhaps.’

When Malte enquired wether sea-sickness was a problem the reply was an immediate and emphatic yes. A great number of the crew would suffer this first time on the ocean but with the help of a little alcohol they were soon ‘reborn‘.

‘On the boat everyone drinks,’ he grinned. ‘The captain drinks, the sailors drink. But the captain must not know the sailors. And sailors must not know the captain.’

The old man smiled at this thought but even as it lingered in his eyes he stared out across the red sand-sea of Erg Chebbi.

Would this have fared any better?
Would this have fared any better?

‘I don’t work the boats any longer,’ he confided. ‘Two years ago I lost my best friend to the ocean.’

Abdul, by his own account, had seen and survived storms and ten metre swells without issue but this loss had come, as so many do, out of the blue. ‘We were working the lines, letting out the nets and we had to jam the spool with an iron bar,’ he reminisced. ‘I was standing next to my friend, my brother, and he asked me to pass the bar. I turn to fetch it and when I turn back he was gone.’

‘The line caught his clothes. Dragged him away and pulled him under. I tried to jump in to help but the crew pulled me back. “Is it better to lose one man or both?” they asked.

‘Inshallah.’ he shrugged. ‘I cried but I did not follow him. To turn the boat around we would have had to take in the nets. That would have taken a half hour. We didn’t even look for him. The Atlantic, fuck.’

We met again the next day to see what, if any, progress there had been. A replacement gasket had indeed been located – in Casablanca. We were informed this would take at least a couple of days to arrive, seeing as this was undoubtably a massive understatement being, as we were, in Africa. Having both agreed on a contribution we were happy to pay and began to plan our now overdue departure.

Had the owner demanded payment rather than ask for a contribution we would have gone with our host’s original advice on the matter; ‘If is small problem, you help. If is big problem with engine, fuck them.’ Instead, not wanting to see Abdul out of pocket for his help, I left my part with the hostel and laid the issue to rest in my mind.

If that was the conclusion of this little tale it would have restored some of my faith in Morocco. Yet unfortunately I found myself hounded onto the bus with demands of the original rental fee on top of the wedge, by local standards, I’d already handed over. This, I suspect, is the fundamental problem with Morocco – the country has a lot to give and is happy to do so but make no mistake it expects something, often a disproportionate amount, in return.

drop dead gorge us

The Englishman who went up a hill and found another bloody hill.

Todgha Gorge is a stifling, beautiful tourist trap just a few kilometres upstream of Tinghir on the river that bears the same name. Here the river has cut a swathe through the land a thousand meters at its widest and a mere three at its narrowest.

The cliff walls, or wadi, tower over you to a neck-straining height of more than 150 metres. Unfortunately the orange limestone isn’t the only thing bound to cause neck pain, turn up after eight in the morning and the tourists will have already begun to swarm.

The glacial Oued Todgha winds through the gorge that bears its name.
The glacial Oued Todgha winds through the gorge that bears its name.
I headed out early one morning specifically to avoid the milling masses and had been doing well. The local Berbers were setting out their stalls, quite literally in fact, and colourful, over-priced scarves fluttered in the cool breeze. A small flock of what are perhaps pigeons fly past, dwarfed by the sheer scale of their environment.

My plan to grab a quick photo of the abandoned hotel, devoid of milling tourists in gaudily coloured down-feather jackets.

Alas my hopes, much like the kitchen of the Hotel Yasmina, were soon shattered as I rounded the corner to find camera-wielding simpletons approaching me at a jog.

Failing to break pace even whilst their shutters clicked furiously, what they were running from one can only guess. I’d like to think it was their conscious.

What could possibly go wrong?
What could possibly go wrong?
In possibly the most exterme example so far of my new obsession, Moroccan civic planning, The Yasmina had by all accounts been one of the most popular hotels in the area. That is until a boulder the size of a small house decided pay a late night visit from the rather precarious overhang above.

Fear not, the building is currently undergoing repairs. The boulder has vanished and the hotel will soon be perfectly set for an wholly predictable repeat in the near future.

Thankfully the tourists are easy to escape by simply taking one of the myriad, old mountain paths to the top of the gorge. You won’t find many tourists which ever route you take due to two simple facts; the area is deceptively large and the trails are more bracing than waking up in a freezing room with no power and an even colder shower.

If I had known what lay ahead when we set out at ten that morning this article would be half the length and finished much, much sooner. But instead I found myself scrambling up routes only fit for the mountain goats that dot the distant cliffs like aphids.

Precious shelter high amongst the wadi.
Precious shelter high amongst the wadi.
Even though I will not be trying it again in a hurry, I’ll happily recommend a trip to the top irrespective of how much of a ball-ache the walk, stumble or frantic scramble to get there is. Give it three hours each way and a litre of water and you should be laughing, albeit maniacally.

At least the scenery is stunning, the obvious comparison being to that of the scree-lined table landforms so familiar from western films and tv. The path of spring meltwater is visible even during the dry seasons, demarcated by gullies of rock whitewashed by calcium carbonate deposited over the span of centuries.

Around two thirds of the way to the summit plateau look very closely and you’ll begin to notice small dwellings built into the rock-face. Closer inspection shows they currently only house the wandering livestock but in times past they would have provided shelter for the local shepherds and travellers attempting to cross the range.

The scree-strewn plateau is anything but flat, in reality it’s just another rolling hill to conquer or be conquered by. I chose discretion, the part better and easier part of valour. Not that it matters because here, amongst the rocks, the view is simply incredible.

The verdant path of Oued Todghe.
The verdant path of Oued Todghe.

The path of the Togdhe as it emerges from the canyon is obvious as the desert becomes an oasis of palms, olive groves and alfalfa paddocks. Supposedly the finest oasis in southern Morocco it cuts a vivid green scar as far as the horizon through an otherwise ruddy and featureless expanse.

From a distance, across the plateau, you may notice large piles of a light yellow soil, these are the tailings of modern mining operations to extract quartz and other minerals for the tourist trade. Yet again, they might not be here but their influence is.

Mines dot the surface in a line above the rich mineral seams below and the workers build crude stone shelters in order to work for days on end.

It is undoubtably tough work with minimal reward which begs the question; why would anyone choose such backbreaking labour in a country that is currently building the worlds largest solar farm?

But that is a question for another day.

Disused mining shelters and tailing piles dot the landscape.
Disused mining shelters and tailing piles dot the landscape.
In case you’re wondering the route back down, when you account for the scree, is even harder. I chose a scramble down the water courses – better a short, painful fall than a long, terminal slide.

Back on firm ground and even more firmly in the tourist snare I was ravenous. But still not hungry enough to pay tourist prices for tourist dishes. Luckily in the penultimate shack before you’ll find Chez Kinni.
The ramshackle little bamboo lean-to with its cardboard packaging walls and palm frond roof is a refuge of real, Moroccan hospitality. The food is as simple and honest as it is honestly priced.

What’s more the owner, Kinni Abdelouahed, is a host whose talents extend far further than fantastic chick-pea soup. After a tour of his modest kitchen he was proud to speak of his qualifications and achievements.

The indefatigable Kinni.
The indefatigable Kinni.
‘In 2013 I was fastest man to climb Jebel Tubkal,’ he told me. ‘I know all mountains, all people here. If you need anything, I help you.’

In spite of my natural disposition, I believe him.

ali berber and the forty sales-pitches

Or a fool and his money.

The Berber people, or at least those I’ve met along my travels, have been by and large exceedingly effervescent. Seemingly predisposed to a certain charisma, playful natures and an almost sardonic humour.

Combine this with a Moroccan education in at least Arabic and French and you have yourself a truly formidable salesperson seemingly made for the tourist trade. When talking to them it quickly becomes clear that Berber is a byword for quality in everything from camel-wool djellabas to Clipper lighters.

Many things in Morocco seem, to the pessimist, to run on commission or gratuities. At least that would be a nice way to say it. I prefer to think the wheels are greased with back-handers.

Do you really want to study the idiosyncrasies of the of the Moroccan economy? Book yourself into one many of the tours offered at pretty much every hostel. Or, if you’re hell-bent on propping up the tourist industry, just talk to one of the nice men who accost you in the medina.

The tours really are all the same, quite literally, I would be surprised if there is more than one or two tour operators working in any given city with a multitude of touts and hostels. One thing is for sure; if you’re told to be ready for seven in the morning, don’t be surprised when you aren’t on the bus at nine.

The white coaches, each emblazoned with ‘touristique‘ for ease of identification by the local chancers, aren’t awful. If you’re lucky you’ll get air conditioning. Less lucky and you get windows that open. If not then good luck, there is a surprising amount of open space and no-one is in any sort of rush.

When the bus does eventually stop you’ll no doubt find yourself at some dusty roadside cafe where your driver and the owner seem on suspiciously good terms. The food won’t be terrible but the price will bring a tear to the eye, be prepared to pay city prices in the middle of nowhere.

Many of the tour guides are Berber, multilingual and excellent at what they do. Unfortunately much of the charm comes from associated tradition and once you realise its cargo pants and garish, yellow trainers under the standard issue djellaba some of the shine inevitably wears off.

En route to Aït Benhaddou we collect our guide, Rashid, and stop to take a tour of his home village. An earthen-clay construction next to the river it is the very picture of a quaint lifestyle that time has forgotten. Hidden children shout and wave from behind wrought iron windows.

A traditional Berber village.
A traditional Berber village.
Paddocks alongside the river are used for growing alfalfa, primarily to be used for dye in the famous Berber carpets but also as animal feed. An old washerwoman attempts to splash us with a rock as we cross the step-stone bridge.

Temporarily sun-blinded we stumble through twisting paths, stairs and alleys that lead us over step-worn cobblestones, smooth as glass, to one of the tallest structures in this labyrinthine dwelling.

‘Now,’ announces Rachid. ‘You will be invited into our home for traditional Berber hospitality. No charge.’
The dwelling is a huge three-story affair, which, for what is essentially a mud hut, is really quite big enough. As we are led to the second floor I can’t help but notice another fifteen-or-so pairs of assorted walking boots and trainers on the first floor landing.

After taking our own fifteen-or-so pairs of shoes off we find ourselves perched on the finest Chinese, mass-produced stools that line four walls of the room. The neon coloured plastic chairs clash garishly with the carpets hung up and patently on display.

The final wall is dominated by a huge loom. Hunched in front of this ancient contraption is a wizened old woman carefully weaving wool between the tensioned weft threads and paying absolutely no heed to the tourists whatsoever. The overall effect is quite beguiling.

I take a seat closest to the loom just as our host enters. An older man clearly of Berber stock he greets us with a tray of mint tea and each a fond ‘amrehba sisswène.’

‘Welcome to our home,’ he begins. ‘You will forgive me if I speak only Berber English. We have great pride in our hospitality which is why we give everyone tea who visits!’

It’s at about this point that if you look closely you will not be able to help but notice the thick layer of dust on the loom and the fact the elderly operator is making scant progress in her task.

The monologue carries on whilst we drink and ranges from the interesting; certain colours of ink only cure properly under the light of a full moon. Through the questionable; camels only give wool once in a lifetime. Down to the outright romantic; you will only find tassels at one end of a true Berber carpet for this is where the story ends.

Tourists ruin everything.
Tourists ruin everything.
Around the halfway mark should you get a strong suspicion of where this spiel may be headed, you’re more than likely correct. Because as soon as it’s finished you can bet the carpets are coming out.

Every carpet in every style is proffered around the entire room for inspection before being piled in the centre. Only the best quality from the best materials. Feel the weight, the weave, the textures.

So there you are, tea has been drunk, hospitality graciously accepted and now it’s time for the hard sell. But these carpets are such exquisite works of craftsmanship you simply don’t have the money on you. You wouldn’t dare cause insult with a trifling offer.

‘It is ok, my friend. I offer you best price because you buy straight from me. Student prices!’ he smiles. ‘Thanks to the Bank of Morocco supporting our small village, we now accept American Express!’

But you are travelling and these carpets, these woven works of art, are of such quality they must be heavy. Far too cumbersome to lug on and off crowded busses and the additional luggage fee is enough to make you shudder at the thought.

‘Ah but yes!’ the old man assures you. ‘In modern times as we are, we also offer international delivery. All this from our little village and insured too. You buy now and carpet waiting for you at home.’

I imagine the success rate on this well executed little scheme is plenty high enough to justify the Bank of Morocco’s investment. But not this time. Crestfallen in the face of his own failure, nobody is going to blame you if you slip him ten dirham for the hospitality as you leave. I know I did.

By the time you do reach the ancient kasbah, and UNESCO world heritage site, of Aīt Benhaddou you could be forgiven for feeling a little jaded. Yes it remains, to this day, inhabited by 11 traditional, once nomadic families. And yes, the head of each may have up to four wives. But upon finding that the two iconic main gates were built to order by the local film-making industry you’ll feel the pessimism creeping back in.

I’d happily recommend a trip to anyone. So maybe it was just the sun or the numerous tat stalls or the prospect of yet another shitty, tourist-price potato tagine. But by the time I’d returned to the minibus a hundred miles of gawping through the window at nothing but desert came as quite the relief.

castles made of sand

The persistence of imagination.

Take a walk out of Essaouira along its flat, mostly clean beaches and you’ll have a fantastic view of the Isle of Mogador with it’s open-air prison and mosque across the bay.

Settled in the 6th century BCE by Phoenicians, one of the first permanent structure was the watchtower from which the island gained its name. Later the Romans would come to know the area as the Purple Islands due to the Murex seashells founds nearby which were processed to make the rich purple of the toga picta.

The prison itself is an imposing brutalist structure built in 1897 by Sultan Moulay Abdelaziz to house Terhala rebels. Nothing more than four fortified walls with only one way in or out and no roof. It would late become a place of quarantine for pilgrims headed to Mecca.

Further along the shore you’ll see what’s left of a watchtower, itself built upon the remains of the even more ancient Bourj el Baroud, as it crumbles ever further into the ocean. Even the locals can’t seem to set this one straight in their heads, referring to it as the Portuguese Castle. 

 The 'Portuguese Castle' and Mogador Island.
The ‘Portuguese Castle’ and Mogador Island.
What’s left of this fortification, much the same as what is now Essaouira, was built under the guidance of Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah in the 1700’s and used as a wood-burning lighthouse and watchtower. The current state of disrepair was caused by a disastrous flood of the nearby Oued Ksob in 1856.

Mohammed ben Abdallah, it turns out was a productive chap. Aside from his reviving of Essaouira with the assistance of many notable European architects, routing the French and conquering Mazagan much to the chagrin of the Portuguese he also found time to renovate Marrakech kasbah and build a palace the locals now know as Jimi Hendrix.

Before 1969 the sand-choked ruin would have been better known as Dar Soltane. Constructed by James Hoban, the very same man behind the other, famous White House, and gifted to the aforementioned sultan. This was a building that was left wanting for none of the most modern European design, everything from glass windows to gilded mirrors.

  The sand-choked remains of Dar Soltane.
The sand-choked remains of Dar Soltane.
In the late sixties this would all change. Now depending on who you believe, this is when the mighty Jimi Hendrix arrived following his love of horses or maybe local women and stayed for anything from three days to three months. The way it’s told ole Jim ate at every table and slept under ever roof.

This isn’t quite true of course, but it hasn’t stopped a whole micro tourist industry springing up around the tales. If you feel so inclined it is still possible to stop for a bite at the Cafe Jimi or rest up in the Jimi Hendrix hostel in nearby Diabat.

The reality, as is unfortunately too often the case, is far less romantic. Jimi did indeed visit Essaouira and is on record as loving Morocco but according to his travelling companion, Deering Howe; “like George Washington he slept in everyone’s house around the Moroccan countryside…

The palace itself has now seen better days. There was a time when it was protected by the local residents but time, much like the tides at the nearby Portuguese fort, has taken its toll. The walls are crumbling and sandstorms have long since buried all but the sturdiest of fortifications. 

Yet still, through some persistence of memory, you can find locals sat amongst the ruins with their acoustic guitars chasing the ghost of a man who may or may not even have been there.

If you fancy yourself as the next Jimi take a wander deep into the old Medina and you’ll find the tiny workshop of Ayoub Soudani. A fifth generation guembri craftsman and purportedly from one of the two main Gnawa families responsible for introducing the instrument into Morocco. 

Ayoub's workshop in Essaouira Medina.
Ayoub’s workshop in Essaouira Medina.
Irrespective, Ayoub is clearly a craftsman of no trifling ability. Lining the walls are some of the most handsome examples of this bass plucked lute I’ve seen whilst in the country. Inlaid with pearl and walnut each instrument can take up to a month and a half to make.

‘During the month of Ramadan I make special ones.’ He told me. ‘I need something to do with my hands. To take my mind off of eating.’

The drum part is made from the skin on the back of a camels neck and it’s three strings are made from goat gut. Ayoub has modified his own with mechanical tensioners and electrical pick-ups. The clubs apparently insist on him being able to plug into their PA systems.

‘Are you playing anywhere this week?’ I enquired.

‘Some weeks I play three, four times a week in bars and clubs. Just not this season.’ He paused. ‘Maybe I’ll find somewhere on New Year’s Eve though, you Europeans like to drink!’

Travelling the world, making poor decisions and then blaming the locals.