Monday, 29 December 2008

A teardrop on the face of eternity

We saw another of the wonders of the world today (I'm still grumpy Christ the Redeemer made it in over Angkor Wat) when we and thousands of others visited the Taj Mahal. Ninety percent of the visitors were Indians and in a reversal of us snapping the locals, Lauren twice got asked to pose for pictures. Must have been those un-Indian bare calves, the saucy vixen.
What can you say about the Taj, the world' s greatest (and most extravagant) monument to love and arguably the most beautiful building ever created, that hasn't been better said a hundred times already? Bugger all, so I'll just leave it to the pictures.

India in a nutshell

Yesterday Tane and I travelled from Delhi to Agra. During this trip we saw snake charmers, dancing monkeys, an elephant walking down the road, cars with approximately 15 passengers, women wearing saris of every colour in the rainbow and horses weaving between cars (and cows) as they raced down the motorway. "Wow, India is amazing, I love it here!" I thought. Five minutes later we stopped at some traffic lights and an old man with deformed hands came up to my window and starting scratching his hands on the glass. He left, leaving my window free for a teenage boy to come and suck on the window while making kissing sounds. "Wow, that's gross" I thought.
Tane doing his "I'm not paying attention to you beggars and touts so stop pestering me" walk through Agra

Based on our experiences in India over the past few days I think that's India in a nutshell - everything I see either repels or amazes. There doesn't seem to be any in-between here, nothing to be indifferent toward. So far I love India, but if I have many more experiences like today when I was poked repeatedly in the rear by a young beggar I might revise my opinion. Whether we leave India having enjoyed it or not, one thing's for sure though - travel in the West is going to feel pretty boring in comparison after this.
Sacred cows near our hostel. While Tane was taking this photo I got surrounded by four men wanting me to ride in their rickshaws.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Christmas in Kathmandu ... with monkeys!

It's quite cool spending Christmas in a non-Western country. To be sure, they did celebrate the festival here. There was a banner across the main street of Thamel (the tourist-focused area of Kathmandu), jingles in the restaurants, and they closed Thamel to most motorised traffic for a festival - but that was really all for us visitors. The local teenagers loved walking around Thamel without constantly having to dodge motorbikes, but otherwise it was life as usual.
We had a nice relaxing day, calling home in the morning and then heading off to Swayambunath, a hilltop Buddhist/Hindu (Nepalis often combine the two) temple.

It's an impressive site, with sweeping views of the city, but it is most famous for the hordes of ...


Lauren's not the only one who loves mango juice.

There were children shrieking, adults looking scabby, everyone was pigging out on unhealthy food and there were screaming rows between families that finished with one lot running off.

So yeah, not at all like a normal Christmas.

First we take Kathmandu, then the world.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The roof of the world

A couple of days ago, I threw a sook. It was a big one.

As great a time as we'd been having in Nepal, the daily power cuts and cold showers were grinding me down. But what really made me throw my toys out of the cot was the haze that has covered the country since the first day we've been here. I was worried the only sight of the Himalayas we'd get was on the plane in. But yesterday we headed up to Sarangkot, a hill near Pokhara, and the last traces of my grump (much to Lauren's relief) well and truly vanished. Even with the mist the view was fantastic and at dawn, the skies cleared. It was one of the most breathtaking experiences of our lives.

After that we spent a few hours walking through the villages in the hills with our guide Raj. The sun was out and, except for buffalos groaning, locals chatting away and kids asking for sweets, it was wonderfully quiet.

The mountain in the background, Dhaulagiri (8167m) is the seventh highest in the world.

Machhapuchhare, 'Fish Tail', a sacred mountain that has never been climbed.

All together now ... awwww

Along with rhinos, langurs, rhesus monkeys, eagles and the laid back atmosphere, one of the highlights of our stay in Chitawan was our visit to an elephant breeding centre. We like elephants. Especially as one of the mothers had month-old twins! We were told they're the only ones in the world.

A not-so-cute elephant.

A dirty old wild boar trying to sneak up and steal some of the elephants' delicious molasses-coated hay. A bit of stamping and he took off.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Crocs and tigers and bears, oh my!

I promised Tane months ago that if he joined me in Nepal we could go to Chitwan Park, an area near the Indian border that has all sorts of beasts hanging out in the jungle. I regretted that promise as soon as we booked into our guest house and realised that I was sleeping a mere croc-infested river away from about 80 tigers. A worker at the guest house told me not to worry, he's only seen tigers in the guest house area twice. And, a guide went to great lengths to reassure me that I'd be perfectly safe as it had been a full two weeks since a tiger had killed anyone in Chitwan. Needless to say, I did not feel much better.

This morning we travelled along the croc-infested river in a dodgy canoe. The canoe rocked (perfect for tipping me out into a croc's mouth), the river was in mist (perfect for croc's hiding ready to attack) and the guide told me not to worry as the man eating creatures only attack the canoes "sometimes". He then went on to list the things the crocs eat, such as fish, humans, dead bodies etc. I did not enjoy the boat ride at all after that.

We then walked through the jungle back to camp. The guide said that we were safe, the person attacked by a rhino 15 days ago didn't die, and he had been mauled by a bear and was fine now. I armed myself with a stick just in case, and felt true fear when the guide pointed out a set of fresh tiger prints in the dirt. Ug.

Tane hung around to take this photo of the prints. I on the other hand moved as fast as I could in the opposite direction the prints were facing.

We didn't see any tigers or crocs, but did see lots of monkeys, some rhinos and elephants. It was awesome, once I got over being terrified it felt quite cool hanging out somewhere where tigers and rhinos do and seeing animals in their natural habitat.

A monkey chillin' in the jungle

The highlight of our time in the park was a trip back through the jungle on elephant back. We were closer to the monkeys and higher than the rhinos, which enabled us to get really close to them. Elephants are cool, although seeing ours bash through the jungle I still wouldn't want to meet one in a dodgy alleyway on a dark night.

Rhinos as seen from elephant back

Friday, 19 December 2008


Us in Kathmandu, me feeling a little silly that I am in Kathmandu with a bag that says Kathmandu

In some weird alternate reality, there must be all of the places as I imagined them rather than how they are. There is an Istanbul where everyone wears a fez, and some small English towns that look like the BBC adaptations. There is also a Kathmandu which is chilled out, clean and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. I have never, in all my travels, been so wrong in my impressions of what a place is like than Kathmandu.

Two men dressed in the traditional Nepalese garb looking over some sacred cows. I couldn't take the photo any closer, alas, or else they would have charged me. Note to self: get better zoom ...

Kathmandu has mountains in the distance, but is smoggy, busy and dirty. Tane and I were initially taken aback by this, especially as our first few minutes in the Kingdom of Nepal were spent being mobbed by touts. Once we got used to the idea that Kathmandu wasn't a haven of peace and mountain air, though, we found we liked it so much we were there all of half a day before deciding to change our flights back to India to allow more time in this fabulous country. Kathmandu isn't clean or calm, but it's a really neat place that we look forward to better exploring when we return there next week after our foray into the Himalayas.
A stupa in Kathmandu

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Abu Dhabi

When Tane and I found out that our flight from Abu Dhabi to Delhi was delayed by about 8 hours, we were gutted. We'd already travelled from London with zero sleep, and felt about as fresh as a tin of mould- covered baked beans. That was until we realised that we had enough time for a look around the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Woohoo!
Having been in Abu Dhabi's more famous neighbour Dubai last year, we were unsure what its capital would be like. Dubai was a fabulous few days, but was so overwhelming, hot and dripping with wealth it was hard to imagine a similar city existing anywhere in the world. Abu Dhabi was different than Dubai in many ways - greener, cooler (as it was winter this time) and calmer for one. It was, nonetheless, similar in that it appeared to be dripping with wealth. The mall felt like the lobby of a posh hotel, and the hotels themselves looked like this.
We liked Abu Dhabi, it has a lovely waterfront and we spent a happy few hours there in the sun. It meant that by the time we arrived in Delhi we felt even more rotten, but I don't care - it was totally worth it.

P.S. We are in Kathmandu now and will blog about that soon, as I have run out of time as my guest house curry is nearly cooked!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Top five moments of 2008

2008 has been a great year. I have seen interesting things, read great books, and gotten to know my corner of London well. Deciding on my top five moments of 2008 (as at today, of course!) wasn't easy, as in many ways it was the day to day moments like eating my lunch in St James's Park every week day over the summer months that made this year such a good one. But, this is my best attempt of my top five moments of 2008:

1. Hearing the call to prayer while riding camels at the Pyramids, May 2008.

2. Realising in the last 500 metres of my Half Marathon that while I hurt, I had finally done one, October 2008
3. Showing Ngaire around London, 13 July 2008
4. Cycling around the Arran Islands, Ireland, 25 July 2008
5 = Arriving in Luxembourg City, 1 February 2008. I was just really excited to be there as had wanted to go to Luxembourg ever since I was about 12.
5 = The trail run in the Lake District, 16 April 2008. Running down hills through in beautiful scenery was great fun.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Chillin' in London

It's been a long, cold winter in London - and it's not even officially two weeks old. We've been fighting the gloom by spending a lot of time with museums and friends, but it's still been a bit grim. However, this weekend London gave us a reminder of just how great it is. The weather was wonderfully clear and, for a couple of hours in the middle of the day, almost warm.

The Thames in Hammersmith, at low tide

On Saturday Lauren and I went our separate ways, with she and our friend Stephen off to the Florence Nightengale Museum and I off with English friends Lewis and James to see Britain's greatest obsession - The X Factor!

Kidding. It was actually Britain's second-biggest obsession - football. We went to a Premier League game, Fulham versus Manchester City.

Craven Cottage, Fulham's ground

Both are mid-table teams, so they're not quite up there with Chelsea and Liverpool, but the quality of the game (1-1) was WAY higher than the last top-level match I saw - Auckland's rubbish Football Kingz playing in 2000.

That night we had a lovely evening chilling out at Lucy's and Amar's house - and, um, watching The X Factor. True music lovers will be fascinated to know that ethnic minority boy band JLX, much to my surprise, weren't completely crap this week. But if Alexandra doesn't win, there's no justice in this world.

It was chilling of another kind on Sunday, when we visited Regent's Park. It - and the surrounding Georgian villas - are gorgeous, but boy, once the sun started dipping over the buildings (3pm) was it cold.

Still, despite having to walk around wearing almost every piece of clothing we own, it was one of those weekends that recharged our liking for London. Though I must say that a trip to a New Zealand beach sounds pretty good right now!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Google Street View

Last night I had my first look at Google Street View. It's amazing, sitting in my cold London flat and effectively walking around Cuba Mall in Wellington. We looked at the Harbour from Oriental Parade, checked out Metro New World, and saw that Ashhurst looks much more derelict than when I lived there. By contrast, the flat I lived in on Queen St in Dunedin appears exactly the same.

It was remarkable, Tane Stephen and I stood open mouthed as images from home filled the screen. It's not unrelated that Tane and I had a lengthy conversation today about when we want to move home, and that I rang a travel agent to get a rough idea of how much our proposed trip back would cost.

The question is, though, where can technology go from here? Already the disc man I had in 2001 is dated, my first mobile phone a brick and film cameras and VHS machines almost obsolete. Having said that though, in my opinion mobile phone technology seems to have plateaued unless you are a technology nut, and computers are faster but I (and I assume many others) have reached a point when they don't feel the need for an upgrade. I was reading recently about how much the refrigerator and washing machine changed life for women especially in the 1950s, which indicates that our children will probably take for granted the fact that you can carry an entire CD collection, your camera and the Internet in your pocket.

What's next? Will we have flying cars soon? What about hovering skateboards like in Back to the Future? Where can technology go from here? Surely things cannot get much smaller and still be user-friendly. All suggestions welcome, and I'll dredge this entry up in a few years time and we can all have a giggle about it.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

30 before I'm 30

I have spent a great number of hours in the Indian High Commission recently. Getting a tourist visa for India is a lengthy and complicated process, and has involved waiting in lines, bank statements that are over a year old, waiting in lines, complicated forms, waiting in lines and then some more waiting in lines. While at the High Commission last week I had a long wait filled with sifting through my handbag, examining my passport, and make lists. One list I made was the how many countries have I visited now list, and realised that India would be country number 30.
Turkey - half way to thirty
This was exciting - a couple of years ago back in NZ I told my family that my goal was to see 30 countries before my 30th birthday. Back then, it felt like something that I would have to really work at and employ great strategy and cunning, so it was a pleasant surprise to realise that I have now almost achieved it without making conscious effort. And, I have decided to list what countries I have seen here for no other reason other than that I am in a self indulgent mood. So here they are, in order:

1. New Zealand; 2. USA. A trip to Hawaii aged 15, my first time overseas and it was so awesome I got back to NZ and signed up for AFS student exchange. I also went back to the USA to work in a country club in Wisconsin when I was 21; 3. Italy. I went to live there for a year between 97 - 98 to attend school, live with a family and learn how to cope with only being allowed one shower a week; 4. The Vatican City. Yeah, I know that sounds a bit cheatsky, but the UN recognise it; 5. Switzerland. So pretty, I expected Heidi to come bounding down a mountain. 6. San Marino; 7. Australia; 8. Tonga. I stayed with my Aunt and Uncle here and it was a fabulous experience, although I did narrowly miss being hit by a falling coconut;9. Vietnam; 10. Laos; 11. Thailand; 12. United Arab Emirates; 13. Austria. ; 14. UK, I am taking the UN's lead and counting the UK as one, that includes Scotland, Wales and Nothern Ireland; 15. Turkey; 16. Bulgaria; 17. Greece; 18. Ireland. We liked it so much the first time we went back for more earlier this year; 19. Belgium. We've been to Belgium three times now. I'm not quite sure how that happened; 20. Portugal; 21. Germany; 22. Luxembourg; 23. Hungary; 24. The Netherlands; 25. Czech Republic; 26. France; 27. Poland; 28. Egypt; and 29. Morocco.

It feels a little odd putting all the countries I have visited in a list, as they all seem to have the same value when listed when they shouldn't. I only spent a half day in the Vatican City and San Marino, yet have had postcodes in NZ, the USA, the UK and Italy. Bulgaria was a traumatic week, whereas Turkey was a glorious four. In any case I am no way done with travel yet and still do not consider myself well travelled. Maybe if I see 4o countries before I'm 40 I will be then ;)

Thursday, 20 November 2008

A rant about winter

The problem with the English winter is that the days remind me of Hobbes when he wrote about men’s lives being nasty, brutish and short. The leaves lie sodden and smelly on the ground, the backing soundtrack to my tube commute is “Sniffles and Snorts in Sneeze Minor” and it’s dark at 4pm. There is so much to see and do in the UK, but given the weather we have pretty much put all local sightseeing on hold for a few months and have been spending our weekends doing inside-things. Such as, watching Season Four of Lost (amazing!), and finally going to the V&A Museum (very interesting). I’m not bored, but I have realised that our blog entries have been a lot more about blocks of text rather than interesting photographs, and apologise for that!

As Confucius said: “He who suffers a British winter must stock up on good books and warm food and try not to get too lazy and unfit.” He didn’t say that? Well he should have! I am pretty sure that he also uttered the wise saying “If Lauren and Tane stay in the Northern Hemisphere for one more full winter they are mad. MAD”.

You know what the worst thing about winter in London is, though? It's that I know that New Zealand is probably warm. So, please feel free to leave plenty comments telling me about gale force wind in Wellington or freak December snow in Auckland as such comments will be much appreciated!

Wellington in 2007: the last summer I was there. [insert: wistful sigh]

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Leonard Cohen

What was it about the old musos? Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop and now Leonard Cohen - they're all old enough to be in rocking chairs, not rocking arenas. Maybe if you survive all those drugs you become immortal or something.

Lauren and I went to the excellent O2 Arena to see Leonard Cohen on Friday night. The guy's 74, we thought, he's not going to be around for much longer. Even if he's rubbish, at least we could say we'd seen him.

He wasn't rubbish.

Cohen is a great lyricist and songwriter - the best description I've read of him is a "the poet laureate of high maintenance love affairs" (see Chelsea Hotel #2 or A Thousand Kisses Deep for example) - but there's one thing that really sets him apart.

The band comes on stage, followed by a straight-backed man in an elegant dark grey suit and matching fedora. A waltz-like beat starts, the three women singing backup begin a low 'la la la la', and Cohen opens his mouth to say the word 'dance'. Around the arena, thousands of people gasp. That voice.

Cohen's voice is to singing what the Marianas Trench is to nature. Deep, dark and incredibly seductive, it draws you in and floats you away. As you'd expect, Cohen didn't do a lot of running around stage, and only played an instrument three or four times, but when you've got a voice like that - and a terrific backing band - you don't need to.

What you wouldn't expect is that he'd play for two hours and forty minutes - excluding a break. It was fabulous stuff. Many of the songs were better live than, with his 80s tunes stripped of the cheesey frills and many songs infused with virtuoso playing of a double-stringed lute-like instrument (a tamburitza?). So many of the songs were wonderful, it would have been hard to pick a highlight - had he not played Hallelujah. I don't like his original version that much - it's fgot those 80s frills that make it far inferior to the Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright covers - but this version ... wow.

Lauren summed it up: "I don't think any live music that will top Leonard Cohen singing Hallelujah live".


Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Things I don't get

The other day I was listening to the radio, and the presenters were having a conversation about things they don't get that most people do. You know, the stuff that everyone seems to be into that you just aren't, or the book that others rave about that you found a little mediocre. So, I decided to compile my own list, and am interested in whether any of you also don't like these things, and what would be on your list.

Things I don't get that most other people seem to:

1. Milk. I have never liked milk - the last time I drunk it in 1998 when I was living in Italy and didn't know enough Italian to say "I would rather exfoliate my eyeballs than drink that putrid muck."

2. ABBA. It's not like I dislike ABBA, I've just never really been a fan.

3. Any rugby that doesn't involve the All Blacks. Provincial rugby feels like watching the more recent Big Brothers - you know you haven't seen these exact people at it before, and a new person can win each time, but it really doesn't seem that different.

4. Jane Eyre. I just didn't find it that good.

5. Milk chocolate. I love chocolate that covers marshmallow or has a tasty centre, I've just never really got milk chocolate.

6. Cooking. It's like the more effort put in, the less pleasure I am likely to get out eating it. When deciding between an hour for cooking an excellent meal vs 30 mins cooking an alright meal, the latter usually wins unless I am trying to impress somebody or am having an especially boring day.

Do you have any?

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The times they are a changin'

You have to smile when white conservative politicians like John Key and Britain's David Cameron talk about how similar they are to black liberal Barack Obama (I'm cool too!), but they do have a point. They all riding a wave of desire for change.

People get sick of governments and their leaders, no matter how who those politicians are or how well they have done. Irritations and scandals accumulate like barnacles and eventually voters decide it's time to get a new boat. It's different in some democracies, like Japan or Sweden, when the same power has held power for decades, but not in New Zealand, Australia, the US or the UK. Change is why John Howard went. Change was Obama's campaign slogan. Change is almost certainly going to doom Gordon Brown. And change is why John Key was playing 'The Times They Are A Changing' at National's victory party yesterday - though, as TV3's John Campbell dryly noted, Dylan probably wouldn't have cast his vote for the Nats.

Voting for change in and of itself is stupid. Giving The Bill and Ben Party power would be a change. But after a few years the urge to try something different is something many voters feel, which is a nightmare for long-standing governments and a blessing for oppositions. Comes a time when all the opposition has to do to win is look moderately competent and not too scary. This election, John Key did those things and did them well.

A few thoughts on the New Zealand election:

1) If many politicians delivered every speech as well as they do their concession speech, they wouldn't need to concede. As John McCain did earlier in the week, Winston Peters and Helen Clark brought down the curtain on their careers with grace and dignity.

2) With the global economy in meltdown, this may have been a good election for Labour to lose. They've got three years to rejuvenate themselves and criticise National while the bad news rolls in. National have made a lot of promises and it's going to be very hard to keep them all.

3) Key has won a resounding victory, which is in a large part down to his personal popularity and rebranding of National as centrists. But he now has a difficult path to tread. He can govern with ACT, but that means a move to the right that will alienate the moderate swing voters he has done such a good job of capturing. Alternatively, he can govern with the help of the Maori Party - but a deal that involved something like changes to the Seabed and Foreshore Act or entrenching the Maori seats would be anathema to many conservative National supporters.

Helen Clark was a master of managing governments under MMP. Can Key? If not, this could be a short National government.

4) Labour's suddenly got some very big shoes that need filling. This was a bad election for them, but not a terrible one - they only lost six seats. A lot of that goes down to Clark, whose approval ratings were excellent for such a long serving leader. But she's stepped down, and soon the almost equally influential Michael Cullen will follow her. No one in Labour springs to mind as able to make those slippers fit.

5) Roger Douglas is back. It's like Wham having another No1 single. But weirder.

6) No more Winston. He's been in parliament practically my whole life. Yes, the times they are a changin'.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Some thoughts on the US elections

Though the polls have been predicting it for months, though we've been talking about it for more than a year, though it was going to be an extremely difficult for any Republican to win after the disastrous years of George W Bush, it still feels a little unreal.

The Democrats didn't screw it up. And America has a black first family.

I've been addicted to this election campaign, with its endless twists and compelling personalities, from the first primaries on. Not so long ago, the smart money would have been on Hillary Clinton vs Rudy Guiliani. And now here we are.

I'm going to miss it.

Some thoughts:

1) Obama, for all his intelligence, calmness and amazingly uplifting oratory, will inevitably be a disappointment. The hopes that are invested in him are impossibly high and the challenges impossibly huge. This is not eight years ago, when Bush came in to peace and prosperity. The global economy - and the West's in particular - is sliding rapidly downhill. America is fighting two wars, which may both be unwinnable. Iran is looking to get nukes and North Korea already has them. Africa is full of as many horror stories as ever. And, worst of all, the world is warming as resources shrink.

2) For the reasons above - plus that the next election won't see blacks, Hispanics and the young as fired up for historic change - there's a very good chance that Obama will be a one-term president.

3) But he can't be counted out. Yes, he's fairly inexperienced in government, but he also ran perhaps the best political campaign of modern times. That shows he's got the ability to assemble, direct and inspire a great team. Not bad attributes for a president.

4) You have to feel a bit sorry for John McCain. He seems like a good man and was the best candidate the Republicans could have selected, but he was running against history and was caught between a rock and a hard place politically. He's too moderate to energise the guns, guts and God crowd, so he chose Palin and moved to the right. For example, though he's been tortured and has opposed the Bush administration's sanctioning of it, he didn't stand up against waterboarding. But then he was too conservative for the moderates and made it a lot easier for Obama to paint him as Bush, mark two.

5) McCain didn't run a good campaign, either morally or politically. For example, there were some ugly implications that Obama was unAmerican, particularly from Palin. He lurched from position to position over the economy, coming out with policies seemingly at random, grandstanding over the first debate and generally coming across as reckless and impulsive. So while it wasn't a classy campaign, his concession speech was one heck of a classy finish.

6) When you see something like this video and this one, even if you're to the right of the political spectrum you'd be a hard-hearted person not to feel moved about what just happened.

7) We're going to see Leonard Cohen next week. I really hope he plays 'Democracy'.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Ah, democracy

Last weekend we joined a number of other Kiwis in New Zealand House, ticked a bit of paper, and deposited it into a big box to be sent homeward bound for counting. We also took some photos to demonstrate to those of you back home that we may be on the other side of the world, but voting in the New Zealand election has an orange theme the world over. Now, all that's left for us to do is get up at 5am next Saturday and try and find something online to watch the results coming through, and to rustle up some other kiwis for a celebration/commiseration lunch afterward. Yay!
Because we are resident in London, we ex-pats are enrolled in the last NZ electorate we resided in. Curious, Tane asked the electoral people what electorate most people voting at NZ House are enrolled in. Apparently, more New Zealanders move to London from our own Wellington Central any other electorate in the country, so more special votes are cast in London for there than anywhere else. That got me wondering - what electorate in NZ has the fewest number of special votes cast for it? I have no idea how to find out but would be very curious. Also, with the obvious overseas examples, I wonder what NZ electorate has the most special votes cast within it? My guess would be Dunedin North, my old electorate that is also famous for having the highest percentage of people in New Zealand identifying themselves as "Jedi" on the 2001 census. Does anyone know the answers? Does anyone else care?

Friday, 24 October 2008

Rocking the kasbah

Despite the cold (me) and stomach bug (Lauren) that Morocco gave us as parting gifts, we absolutely loved our trip there. Europe's great, but it's the taste of the exotic you get from other cultures and landscapes that we're really enjoying at the moment.

As we've got a few weeks in India and Nepal at Christmas to save leave and money for, we made just a quick trip to Morocco. We landed in Marrakesh then did a three day tour over the Atlas Mountains, to the World Heritage site and frequent movie set (including for Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia and The Last Temptation of Christ) of Ait Benhaddou, the amazing Dades and Todra Gorges and then out on camels to sleep in the dunes of Erg Chebbi in the Sahara. We rounded things off with a day wandering the souks, palaces and markets of Marrakesh.

It's a place that gives you a lot of memories. Here's some of my strongest ones.

1) Brown. It's Morocco's national colour, from the bare earth and the buildings made out of it, to the tan taxis, to the golden brown sands. They call Edinburgh a symphony in grey - Morocco is the same for that other supposedly drab colour.

2) Clothes. Perhaps it's because the background's often beige, or because there's a lot more variety and brightness in the Moroccan wardrobe than in the other Islamic countries we've visited, but the colours of clothes really stand out there.

3) Kasbahs. They rock. Many of the buildings we saw are made out of mud and staw, including the many kasbahs (fortresses). Being mostly unfired clay, this makes them warm in winter and cool in summer, but they do suffer from the elements and have to be repaired about every six years. So the trip through the Atlas and out to the desert was littered with views of kasbhas both crumbling and brand new.

Ait Benhaddou

4) Islamic art. In Islam it's considered a sin to portray people and animals in art (the whole worshipping false idols thing), so they've gotten very, very good at using geometric patterns in decoration. Morocco excels in using them in architecture, such as archways. There are some exquisite examples in Marrakesh, such as the Bahia Palace.

5) Djemaa el Fna. The crowded, narrow streets and souks of Marrakesh's medina (old town), with the crafts, knock-off European football shirts, dates and endless other wares spilling out amongst the walkers, carts and scooters, are fabulous - as are the many mosques and palaces. But it's the main square - a World Heritage site - that's the biggest jewel in city's crown.

There's zillions of tourists drinking freshly squeezed orange juice, eating cousous or boiled goat's head at the food stalls, getting henna tattoos and soaking up the chaotic and amazingly vibrant atmosphere. But happily, we are outnumbered by the locals, crowded around a storyteller or musicians, or wandering about.

Crowds gather for a performance

6) Contrast. Out in the dry lands, the river valleys are filled with trees or date palms. And beyond - desolation.

Rich tourist who gave away half a packet of chips to a boy, who then ran off with it, with about ten boys chasing after him.

7) Atlas Mountains roads. And I thought highway around the East Cape of New Zealand was windy and steep.

8) Valleys and gorges.

Todra Gorge
Dades Valley

9) Camels and other critters. Wild camels by the side of the road. Flocks of black sheep chewing on the scrubby bushes in the desert. Storks nesting on the walls of a ruined palace. A cat sleeping in a royal graveyard.

10) The desert. It was overcast (and rained on the way out!) and the riding camels for over an hour gave us a lot of pain in private places, but trip into the Sahara, where we stayed the night in a Berber camp, was still stunning.