Tag Archives: travel

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.


piss de résistance

Another fine mess.

When you’re looking for somewhere quiet to reflect on life. Away from the pressures of western society and all its associated navel-gazing Morocco is as good a place as any to start. If you find yourself in search of a break from the unscrupulous, the incorrigible and the downright nefarious then Marrakech might be less than ideal. Should it be that  you need some calm refuge from the hassle of the outside world, the chance to move at your own pace, to breathe. You should stay as far from the medina as humanly possible.

What on earth was I thinking? As I’ve mentioned before, life in the centre of that wonderful city is as frenetic as it is frantic and, often depending on your mode of transport, it’ll occasionally dip into frightening too. Now combine that with the resultant hangover of the sort that can only truly be brought about by far too much rum and you’ll understand why I lasted two days. 

You’ll also understand a lot more about my first day back than I possibly ever will. On inspection my notes descended past their usual illegibility at roughly the same time as my plane into Menara airport. Any budding graphologists are welcome to try their hand at deciphering my lost night on the strict condition they never tell me about it. On the bright side, I’m yet to have my hopes and dreams dashed across the porcelain by the local water – you’ve got to appreciate the little things.

Morning of day three finds me in Gueliz, the new town, one-way coach ticket to Agadir grasped in sweaty palm and beginning to melt in the already rising heat, all the charm of rendered tallow. Fortunately the air-conditioning is good, the place names translate hilariously and the scenery is as stunning as ever. 

Heading out of Marrakech the scenery expands on either side, dusty red fields crisscrossed with irrigation ditches and lattice work demarcations. Then, depending on who is fucking around with which particular curtain at a given time, you begin to see the High Atlas range rising in the distant haze.  

The next couple of hours are a bit dry so I suggest a touch of eye-spy-a-serious-safety-hazard, chuckle at the unfortunate nomenclature of the passing settlements or maybe just pray to the heavens as any reasonably minded Moroccan passenger should do.

As the ruddy, scree-banded landscape draws in and the ubiquitous, spiky green shrubs become more abundant you’re afforded brief glimpses, between the surrounding hills and curtain-botherers, of the staggering snow-caps that lurk behind.

Distant kasbahs blend almost perfectly with the surrounding valleys. Squat blocky pertrubances built from same rough-hewn, red rock about them with only the occasional minuret or football field to distinguish them.

The best way to tell the current gradient on Maroccan public transport is by the whining of the brakes. And as the pitch increases towards screaming, but hopefully not terminal, crescendo you expect the Atlantic to make an appearance, if only a distant one. What you get is anything but a disappointment; stretching off to the south as far as conditions allow is perhaps one of the most breathtaking vistas Morocco has to offer. 

Hills interlocked by truncated valleys give way to each other in ever increasing magnitude like some impossibly perfect Mandelbrot set. Even the colours hold true in this fractal masterpiece of nature. Those nearest are speckled with a close pattern of the familiar dark green shrubs that peter out as altitude increases along with the snow cover.The immediate valley is rust which becomes mustard as the hills grow, then hazy green-grey and finally a deep slate of unimaginable age and grandeur. This, you realise, this is a place you cannot help but reflect.

Agadir bus station is, typically in terms of Moroccan civic planning, a long way from anything else and the on-site Taxi’s run to a staggering tariff. Two hundred dirham for the 15km ride to Tamraght seems laughable when you’ve just travelled from Marrakech for half of that. Chat to a couple of the cabbies and they’ll begrudgingly knock a quarter off the price and put you in a taxi that will make you wish you’d payed full.

Each major city seems to have a different colour scheme and preferred model when it comes to taxis; Essaouira is full of blue Dacia sedans whilst Agadir seems to prefer dinky red Peugeots. My taxi however was a mustard yellow Mercedes-Benz, clearly of ex-Marrakechi stock, and wouldn’t have passed a visual check by Stevie Wonder.

The only thing more disconcerting about this particular cab than it’s obvious state of disrepair was it geriatric driver. Considering no-one over the age of 60 should be working this guy clearly had the system beaten. By at least two decades. Better still he’d been rudely awoken and sent on his way for a quarter less than his usual fare.

As we moved away from the station it became clear we both had a similarly lacklustre grasp of French. All the more time to listen to the engine tapping disconcertingly. Anything more aggressive than a course correction would bring the crunching sound of ruined bearings only too familiar to a serial car abuser like myself.

Time to buckle up you might think but not according to my driver. Who meets my attempt to grab the seatbelt with a ‘Non, non! Is ok!’ 

‘Really?’ I asked. ‘So you’re a safe driver?’

A question that seemed to amuse him no end. Whilst he continued to chuckle at this joke I turned my attention to anywhere but through the front windscreen. Fortunately the Atlantic view as you leave the city and the vantage point over the enormous Agadir Trading Port is plenty, well almost enough, to take your mind off the road.

The port itself became Morocco’s main import and export hub in the 1800’s when newer, larger vessels found themselves unable to enter the shallow waters of the traditional port of Mogador further north up the coast. From above it has an almost Hollywood backlot feel with its high walled warehouses, palm-lined streets and shanty fish stalls.

Credit where credit is due, we only came close to crashing once, perilously close albeit, but I don’t think it was our fault. Tamraght is a surfers paradise, the perfect place to slow down. There are a number of surf-centric hostels and if Lunar Surf House is anything to go by then I imagine a lot of people leave with fond memories.

Sunset on the beach near Devil’s Rock is really something to behold and the seafood is understandably excellent. As ever my grasp of foreign languages turned the simple process of ordering food into another round of roulette. This time dinner came with a face. I’ll have to admit I find fish on the bone intimidating. But as any gentleman knows; if you can’t look it in the eye, you certainly shouldn’t be eating it.

Dessert was a much easier course to navigate – creme caramel. Who would have thought?  I guess some things are universal. For instance ‘fuck sake’ seems to feature heavily in Arabic when playing games of table football. Not that all things have to be, sometimes you just need the right tone; ‘stop playing table football and pick up that fucking towel’ comes across clearly even to a Johnny Foreigner like myself.

the things we choose to do

Make less plans.

It’s early, dawn early, steam rises in the distance as light creeps its way along the Montgomeryshire canal towards the Belan Locks from the hazy and distant Briedden hill. Kev is first up, in fine voice, audibly keen to get moving. He’s confident today is the day he will finally, after more than forty miles by foot, make it into the water. Local knowledge suggests the place to do so is Pool Quay, a couple of miles north-east of Welshpool, almost a mile upstream from the plan.

Getting into the Severn is, of course, just the start. Kev, Ben and myriad supporters who will inevitably join and leave along the way have the better part of another two hundred miles to come. Mile upon mile of frigid, gradually darkening water as the United Kingdoms longest river winds from its source in the boggy highlands of mid-Wales to the muddy, tide-swept Bristol estuary.

Every step or stroke; by leg, arm or paddle, is accounted for. As the itinerary holds we are currently ahead of time and thanks to the dozen mugs of collectively consumed, excellent coffee we are in fine spirits. Breakfast consumed, the Old Station becomes a ritual to the Internet age. Spread across no less than four tables we sit in collective isolation: Jamie and Ben set to work editing yesterday’s footage; Kev and Anna, Jamie’s partner who turned up late last night and dressed as a dragon, sit quietly behind their screens and tap away diligently at what I assume to be blogs or e-mails of some way shape or form. The daily structure present is palpable and, pleasant as it is, I’m not entirely sure I like the flavour.

Although perhaps not to my taste, it is clearly an effective model; five hundred pounds of donations yesterday alone attest to this. The pace of social media doesn’t merely facilitate this mode of action as much as necessitates it. The ability to live vicariously has always been a huge draw but for the price of a voluntary donation the humble observer becomes an active part in what will most likely become a historical first. As far as business models go, in this modern age, it is hard to best.

Structure such as this, and especially in the context of fundraising, is nigh impossible to avoid. Adventure will undoubtedly still raise its head, but upon looking around find itself delineated by this daily routine; in considering the journey as a whole these splices will blend seamlessly into a single, inspiring adventure, but, to my mind, adventure should dictate its own pace, should be unexpected just as it is unpredictable.

Wandering blindly in pursuit of experience, however, is not necessarily a sensible approach either and certainly not a practical one at that. Instead I suggest an alternative; plan on the go. Work out where you are heading, procure transport, book your flights – but make no plans until you set foot on ground. Instead make your arrangements as the opportunities present; go looking by all means but let adventure find you.

We reach Pool Quay late in the afternoon and decide to take our chances by parking both support vehicles in a recently harvested field. As we unpack, prepare and inflate the boards a silver short-wheelbase Landrover pulls up on the raised opposite riverbank. The farmer within appears to know who we are and the exchange is short, cordial and ends with a warning of Zander fish who, given the chance, would quite happily eat Kev’s penis and, by all accounts, make short work of it too.

Pre-dawn and I wake to the sound of Bill Withers. I spend my last moderately restful minutes being assured it is going to be a belter, although, at this point, I am yet to be convinced. Ben, however, has already begun shifting the remnants of last nights wood supply onto the fire. My breath condenses in the crisp, still air and as I knock the thin layer of icy dew from my tent I come to a realisation; the cause of my primary discomfort for the preceding hours had not been a damp foot box to my sleeping bag but an outright frozen one.

The cold has made its creeping presence felt through the night and in no way is this more evident than that of the frosted cobwebs that dust thistle heads like candy-floss in every direction.

This sort of morning will bring a man a true appreciation of fire as life-giver. Against the elements in a situation such as this it becomes quite easy to identify the real necessities; basic comfort and contentment, and both are found to have been fundamentally redefined. Stripped back to the very essentials, and often without the means to readily access them, you quickly realise how little you need to feel genuine, earthy happiness. I’m certain with a little effort and experience these basics can be ensured and moreover all that is required to achieve them can be ported with ease.

An hour after the first flickering tendrils move up between the branches we find ourselves warmed, packed, and ready to set off. Kev performs, before the watchful lens of Jamie, his daily set-piece to camera, he looks somewhat less than impressed, the water is chilly and to cold bones the difference from freezing is negligible.

Thankfully, aside from shaky beginnings and endings, my ability to float on various single occupant vessels is coming along nicely. So nicely in fact that aside from the holes that pepper my current craft, apparently to aid balance, but effectively just to provide my balls with an endless supply of fresh, freezing cold water, and a brief tangle with some foliage, wherein I very nearly extract myself from the kayak entirely, our first stint on the river is largely uneventful.

Today is not a day for swimming but the memo doesn’t seem to have reached Kev and ‘I can’t feel my face’ is spluttered a number of times between strokes. Even my limited contact the water has chilled my hands to the point of being practically useless and it is not until I attempt to stagger up the steep bank in search of firewood that I realise the effect the cold has had on my lower extremities. This is not so much adventure as self-flagellation and for all my discomfort I am not willing to even contemplate the situation from Kev’s perspective, the man, I conclude, is a professional masochist for charitable hire. There is no other explanation.

A good hour later we are sat in a field alongside the Severn Way, the boards and kayak mud-bound some ten meters below, with the autumn sun bearing graciously upon us. I glance across the fire to find Kev still shivering even as he taps away at his mobile, updating his followers, keeping everyone in the loop. The conversation turns somehow to what could go awry, Jamie’s confidence is resounding, whether through belief or positive thinking is unclear, but Kev is clearly more of a realist as he tells us the advice passed on by some nameless practitioner; ‘If you’re puking and shitting, so long as you’re still eating, you’re fine. You start running a temperature, you need a doctor’. Pessimist or optimist, that is sound advice.