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.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Marrakesh in pictures

Tane and I have just returned from a fabulous trip to Morocco. Morocco is a stunning destination. While on the surface there are definite similarities to the other Islamic countries we have visited due to the heat, dry landscape and the ever-present Islamic call to prayer, it is without a doubt the most picturesque country I have seen. Marrakesh, where we spent about half of our time, was also a lovely city that I would thoroughly recommend to anyone else that is a little over European city breaks (as we are).

We'll write more about the details of our trip later, but in the meantime I give you Marrakesh in pictures.

The souks and shops:The Islamic architecture:

Outside one of the Saadian Tombs

The main square

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

1066 and all that

On this day 958 years ago, a bunch of guys with swords fought another bunch of guys with swords on a hill near Hastings, in the UK. You might of heard of it.

Thanks to her Norman History paper and freakish knowledge of dates, Lauren remembered about the battle last Friday, and decided to see what Google could tell us about how the British mark one of the most important dates in their history.

Turns out they commemorate it in some style. Hundreds of medieval enthusiasts from England, Wales, France and Italy gather to dress up and spend the weekend recreating the battle on the site - which is at a town called Battle, funnily enough.

There's more to recreating a fight than just whacking people with swords - the recreators went the whole hog and brought tents, cook fires, etc.

Incidentally, Battle might beat even Bulls (unforgettabull, dependabull, etc) for best use of cheesy puns on the town's name. Where else would you find the cafe Taste of Battle, or Battle Stationers.

The weather was gorgeous and there was a great festival atmosphere, with medieval knick-knacks, craftwork and ironmongery for sale, hordes of visitors, archery and falconry displays, storytelling and historical exhibits. Lauren, Lucy, Renee and I wandered around then brought some overpriced fatty food and sat down to watch the main event.

Hooray, it's Team Saxons!

The battle, which lasted for something like an hour, was brilliant. There were bannermen and women, priests, knights, archers, hundreds of footsoldiers armoured in chain mail and a commentator to keep us up to date with what was going on, as well as lead the cheering.

Proving that the British (and Kiwis) love a gallant loser, everyone cheered for the Saxons and booed the Normans. Apparently the Saxons chanted "oot, oot, oot" at their enemies - we all joined in, doing our best Canadian accents.

Alas, it wasn't enough.

The din of mock battle.

The dastardly William the Conqueror leads his men to victory. He was probably Australian.

The final score: Normans 1, Saxons 0.

Lauren's half marathon

Here's some more pics of Lauren's epic run around Hyde Park and central London. While she was breaking through the pain barrier to the gentle sounds of Rammstein and Muse, I did the good husband thing - sat in the sun with a paper, took photos and cheered.

Before. Not sure where Lauren finished in relation to Mr Cow Head ...

... but Mr Badger Head had the edge on her.

Hyde Park in its autumn glory.

Check out Lauren's blisters. Yum!

Sunday, 12 October 2008

21 km and still standing (just)

Today I completed my first half-marathon. It was a lovely scenic run through one of the prettiest parts of London, passing Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Temple, Trafalgar Square, and most importantly, my work. Even later in the run when I felt like I had found myself in some cruel alternative reality where time stands still and all you can do is run, I was able to appreciate the loveliness of Hyde Park in autumn.
A do run run run ...
The Half was put on by the Royal Parks Foundation and had something like 12,000 participants ,which was fabulous - lots of participants means lots of supporters, and lots of supporters means a massive crowd that I was too ashamed to walk in front of, so I was able to push that little bit harder. I put more than what I had into crossing the finish line and as soon as I did my body totally gave up and Tane claims I was staggering like a drunkard. In fact, I was approached by this kind official who wanted to make sure I was OK.
Him: Are you OK? You don't look OK.
Me: Water!
Him: Do you need to sit down?
Me: Water!

In spite of that, the blood blisters on my toes and the feeling that I will never walk like a normal person again, I loved it. A few of us are enrolled in a second half marathon in Bath next March, and I am looking forward to beating my time and crossing the finish line looking like someone that has finished a crate day rather than run 21 km!

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

A Year in London

This month is Lauren's and my anniversary of living in London. It's been a great year. There's no place like home of course, and we do miss the land, family, friends and kumara chips. But London's probably the easiest place for a New Zealander to live in overseas, outside of Australia. After all, there's probably more Kiwis living in the west of the city than in Masterton, as well as the stream of family and friends passing through on their tours of Britain, Europe or the world.

But there's still a lot of differences between the colony and the Mother Country. Here's a few I've noticed during the year.

Bricks. Pretty much the first thing you notice when coming in from the airport at Heathrow is that wow, they really do have lots of terrace houses. As our latest visitor Laura put it, you expect to see Mary Poppins popping up over the rooftops at any minute.

Cricklewood, in north London

And all those houses - plus most other buildings - are made of little red-brown blocks. It's said that Augustus found Rome brick and left it marble. The Georgians and Victorians seem to have found London wood and left it brick. Having grown up around wooden and stucco houses, it's one of those small differences you really notice. I guess building flexibility is not much of a worry when your equivalent of a powerful earthquake is one that rattles the tea cups.

Diversity. You're taking the Tube and the guys sitting next to you are peaking Polish. Opposite you are some teenagers cursing in Italian. Down a bit is someone in a turban, next to the couple whose parents came over from the Carribean. Back home, the plumber who's come to fix the loo is from the Seychelles. His boss is called Cyrus - his family's Persian.

London is the most ethnically diverse city I've ever seen. It's brilliant.

Public transport. Speaking of the Tube, much of your time in London - certainly before you get the chance to orientate yourself by walking around the central city - is spent like a groundhog. You disappear into the tunnels, pop your head up to see something, then duck back under again. You could be in five kilometres or 50 metres away from where you started, for all you'd know.

Being a true Londoner also means being able to have conversations like: "Take the Central line down to Bond then change to the Jubilee, that's quicker than the Picadilly" and not be thought weird.

Everyone moans about the Tube and the train system fairly often - the stuffiness in summer, the suffocating commuter crowds, the delays. But for all of that, you can get everywhere in the city without having to drive. It makes you realise just how terrible Auckland's public transport system and urban planning are.

These crisps are well good, yeah. It's English, innit?

From palaces where Henry VIII chopped and changed, to pubs that Shakespeare might well have had a pint in, history is everywhere in the UK. It's quite easy to get blase about it, but geeks like us love it.

Elizabethan era pub in Stratford-upon-Avon

Foxes. They're like really timid little dogs, or big cats with pointy noses and bushy tails. There's dozens around where we live, and, though you only ever see them for a few seconds, we love them. Even if they do scream like banshees.

Watch enough British tv or movies and you'll realise that they're obsessed with class. And it really does tint everything, from the paper you read to the supermarket you shop at. The snobs are snobbier, the yobs yobbier. People seem to take more pride in their 'station' - you'll see a lot more ostentatiously expensive cars, floppy-haired public school boys and thuggish men with shaven hair and gold chains than back home.

Countryside. England has the prettiest countryside I've seen. Ireland runs it close, as do parts of rural New Zealand, but England is the best. Before you bring up the magnificence of the Rockies or the bush, I'm thinking about farmland, not wilderness - though parts of the Lake District do rival the South Island for rugged splendour. There's rolling hills, pockets of trees, fields of rich green grass and - the key factor - hedgerows. Hedgerows are great. Every farm should have them or, just as good, dry stone walls. They may not be as cheap as wire fences, but they're a heck of a lot nicer to look at.
Troutbeck valley in the Lake District

Books. When you get millions of people spending hours on trains, buses or tubes getting to and from work every day, you get a lot of folks with little to do but read. Which means books are really cheap relative to what you earn - £8 for a new paperback vs $NZ22 back home. By way of comparison, a pint of beer is about £3.30. Lauren's in heaven.

We're closer to the pole, which is great in summer, but means in autumn it gets really dark really early really quickly. Going to and coming back from work in the darkness isn't fun.

I think the litmus test for whether you'll like London is how you deal with crowds. There's eight million people in Greater London and does it show. At peak time every main street and transport hub is like Lambton Quay at lunchtime - but often worse. Oxford Street on the weekend is madness.

The centre of things. If all the big events and big gigs didn't give you a hint, then looking up on a clear day in west London would tell you that you're in one of the world's hubs.
Vapour trails above the Thames, near Hampton Court

It's a small world after all.
For all of London's teeming hordes and being on the other side of the globe from home, you do get frequent reminders that it's a small world. There was the bus tour to the Costwolds where we sat behind two women that were in my university hostel. Then there was the former colleague I bumped into at Paddington Station. At times like that London kind of feels like a suburb of Hamilton.