Jun 14, 2011

Red hot Atlas mountains

Once settled in a hotel, we haggled half a night over an overpriced map that we didn't want to buy anyway. Neither of us had any intention of paying 15€ for a map dating back to 1994, a year before a natural catastrophe washed away most of the paths drawn on it. Keeping a straight line is not all that easy when a gang of hardened locals does its best to discourage you from walking in the mountains on your own. Too hard for you! Very difficult! was the reaction of most people we talked to. It wasn't easy to explain to all the eager mountain guides that even if we wanted their services, we wouldn't pay anything near their price, which was equal or greater to our whole trip budget. It was even harder to elaborate on the concept that being British is not necessarily the same as being obscenely rich. These are the moments when I can smugly pull out the trump-card from my sleeve - slapping pesterers with the name of a strange foreign land called Estonia that nobody has ever heard about promptly ends 99% of arguments and unwanted pre-mapped conversations, be it in Morocco, India or under the Eiffel tower.

Luckily both of us already have solid experience in ignoring all discouraging advice, because there it couldn't have been further from the truth. While the aforementioned map was hanging on the wall, I wisely took a photo of it, which served as a reference when asking locals on the road to point us towards this or that unpronounceable and unmemorably named village. No professional guides needed.

Tourism is a big business there - actually the only business these days that gets the mouthes fed. But in my opinion that does not take away anyone's right to walk freely in the wilderness. No guides needed does not mean that they are easy to avoid. If a path goes through a village, which it often does, everyone suddenly becomes insistingly helpful and most unwanted help starts or ends with asking for money. Or chocolate. Or a pencil. Or whatever else they see, as in a case of two so small children that they hadn't even learnt enough French to call me Madame instead of Monsieur when alternately pointing at my GPS watch and then their mouths. These two had been sent off to hassle us by their mother as an educational passtime. Not to mention the little boys that ganged up in a berber village to guide us down to the river and across it with many a gallant gesture and sentences made up of a combination of yes, no and madame: "YES, Yes, yes, yes, yes, NO, No, no, no, no, no, YES, Yes, yes, madam, no, No, NO, YES!" There, I lost it.

Their help was a horror we had to endure and couldn't escape. It cost us an extra hour and for me personally, another one of my nineteen lives when I managed to turn a nearly fatal fall into landing on the safe side and getting another major bruise next to the almost gone purple giant from the ski slopes. The little bastard scurrying between my legs and disturbing my safe movement across a dodgy surface made me explosive. One of the main ingredients in the steaming mixture was probably hunger. I badly needed a snack already an hour earlier when the bunch gathered too closely around my bag the moment I had stopped on a rocky path to open it and pull out something edible. So I closed the zipper again in the hopes of finding a more private stopping spot soon. Because, if a tourist stops to open her bag, it is obviously to give a gift to anyone who might be within visual range. Eventually we got rid of them with the help of a professional guide walking in front of a group of slow overequipped hikers who had caught up with us when we had been slowed down by the swarm of kids. Grateful for help, we got to stop, I got to eat (and Alice got to watch me eat and feel the nasty stomach bug laugh inside her) and then we got to run past the group once more.

We did two long day-hikes in the beautiful red Atlas mountains that were very slippery with loose gravel and suitably for Africa, hot and dry - at least until the afternoons when the clouds started gathering. The paths wound through the bright green fertile valleys, taking us up to the yellow sandy mule paths zigzagging on the lower hillsides and to the higher red rocky mountains, all the while the glistening white summits standing on guard high above everything. Sometimes the path would climb up the river valley, forcing us to hop on the rocks for an eternity, followed by a walk on the high edge of an irrigation channel, then leading us to stroll through someone's back yard, rush through minuscule village streets and creep in the dark tunnels under the kasbah.

Starting from the altitude of 1740m, we reached the passes at 2200m on the first and 2400m on the second day, following the path down into the river valleys at midway only to climb back up again later. If I normally don't feel the difference that the three months in Val d'Isère has made, then here it became apparent: being used to Alice running far ahead of me while I'm gasping for breath and feeling a hundred years old, then this time it was the other way round. The 20% less of oxygen had no more effect on me, I was simply struggling with the uphills, which was a fight on it's own on the second day. Slugging painfully slowly up, only faintly confident that the direction picked would take us home and that the top of the hill was where we supposed it to be inside that thick mist, we were surprised to see an old man in flip-flops practically run past us - on the same slope we were busy dying on! He generously waved us back onto the right path, then ran ahead again and waited around the corner to see us coming the right way. We couldn't even shake him off with a lunch stop, because he would wait for us somewhere, lying on his back and leisurely chewing on a straw. This was one of the few occasions when we actually met someone genuinely nice, all the while being scared shitless that they are going to ask us for money in return for their services of accidentally having walked in the same direction. When we had reached the pass and recognized where we were, he simply smiled, waved and took off downhill after a short break to admire the amazing view.

Jun 13, 2011

Lets talk about your gazelle

Having already covered a considerable distance, we both realized about at the same moment the potentially insane setup of the situation: two European girls shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip with five big Moroccan men crammed inside a car that claims to be a taxi driving us to Imlil. We had even fought a few hard battles for the right to pay a fair enough price to get a place in each of the dubious vehicles that we had to take and that some random dude loitering nearby pointed us to. All of them might equally have been waiting for just such an opportunity to kidnap a bride for personal use or for exchanging on a camel fair.

A strong white woman, not locked up to anything and no apparent owner nearby, is not something you'd walk by on a street without at least trying to pick it up. It is an expensive trade article. "Très belle gazelle, plus que mille chameaux!" ["Very pretty gazelle, more than thousand camels!"] was a starting offer that a slightly indignant Alice got for me when she herself had already been sold by Jesus to an eager berber for mere 40 camels. In this country you will always get ripped off to the bones without an accountant in your mind, ready to jump head first into a haggling fest with a ready list of current prices. As luck would have it, Alice was once again saved by Fortuna when the men agreed on exchanging the gazelle and the camels later by post. Another point to learn from here - this is what it means to be an escort of a gazelle. In a country where everyone wants to sell you something, a gazelle is a rare valuable they would like to buy.

Jun 7, 2011

The culinary side of Marrakesh

Three days after the explosive news from Marrakesh - and after three days of monitoring the political situation - I translocated myself from Lyon to Montpellier to Barcelona Reus to Marrakesh Menara to La Place, also known as Jamaa El Fna. It was raining and it was cold and it was not what I had expected Africa to be like. Fortunately I couldn't ponder about it for too long, because a moment later I was knocked off my feet by Alice and Jesus.

Even though there was a brand new sight to see, albeit not famous for its beauty, the nightly restaurant business just in front of it went on at full speed. For starters I was basically forced by Jesus to get a bowl of slow food a.k.a. boiled snails that I bravely accepted while Alice kept gagging next to me. Deciding on the following courses wasn't as easy as one would think. Indecision, spiced up by the swarms of runner boys each one trying to throw you into his fried-fish, chickpea-soup or lambhead kitchen, often lead to choosing no-matter-which stall hassled us the least (unless it was offering freshly severed camel heads of course).

Roaming the restaurants remained the main entertainment for the next day and a half in wet, geay and freezing weather when there's not much else to do in Marrakesh besides stuffing one's belly. Wandering about the Medina, trying to please the merchants by haggling a price or two just for the fun of it was nice as an exercise but got tiring after I realized that all this haggling means that excessive brain space must always be dedicated to thinking about money. As usual, sooner than later we escaped the well-trodden paths, took a left turn here and a right turn there to sneak along the narrow passages and alleyways to see what the real old city looks like. Away from the hectic business streets just around the corner, the kasbah-style labyrinthian old town actually seemed like an exciting place in which to live out your third-world adventure movie fantasies; or simply to lead a nice quiet life - it caters for every taste. After having practiced the camel-chomp to perfection and taken the long boring walk to the big boring Menara gardens with big-mouthed greedy fish in its swimming pool, we felt that the tourist attraction of the city had given us all they had. So we resolved to return to La Place and eat some more.

It seems that all we ever did was eat. Slow food preceded by fresh orange juice and proceeded by the fruits-and-nuts smoothie that looked tempting even in its convincing disguise as the most unhygenic thing to eat on the street (as not to say vomit in a jar). To be clear, the smoothie was delicious. The smoothie salesman who worked his magic from a hole in the wall just minute's walk away from the tourist area, merited our repeat visit. We must have been an event, because we were eventually welcomed with a warm smile and a friendly handshake days later, after a good hike in the Atlas mountains. He still remembered us!:)

To name a few good names that made me want to roll like a ball and take a long siesta afterwards: pastilla or a sweet cakey thingy filled with chicken and almonds; veggie Tajine with lots of oil; peppermint tea that I would rather call sugar tea and fresh sweet yoghurt (that I would rather call sugar yoghurt) so thick that it holds a spoon upright. Take care with Moroccan cuisine, it using such amounts of sugar that on an average flight back to Europe most of the passengers seem to be trembling with sugar rush and complaining about a developing diabetes.

The very first evening in Morocco didn't leave us without a dessert. When walking back to the wonderland hotel before midnight - midnight still being a busy business time - and not paying too much attention to the surroundings, an incident happened. We were sleepily joking and generally enjoying the full bellies and the prospect of tucking ouselves up in bed soon when suddenly Alice started departing from us horizontally at lightning speed. Our first thought was that someone was trying to kidnap her! A millisecond of reflection told us it was simply her camera bag that had been targeted. The bag being well attached to her and she being well attached to Jesus, the robber's work wasn't as easy as he had expected. Our screeching and screaming during the following two seconds made a worried crowd gather and all we could witness was a slim backside sprinting into the darkness without its bounty. Half a minute later a police car had materialized from the void to chase after him and just when we had returned to our room five minutes later, there was a knock on the door.

We were guided downstairs to identify a handcuffed Moroccan dandy in white sneakers. It could have been him, but it could equally have been any other of those darkhaired boys in jeans and a leather jacket hanging out in the city. So as not to make life too easy for us, a report had to be written in the police station. The hardest part of it was insisting that we had no idea if the captured dude is The One or not. With all their hearts they wanted us to say yes, but due to a gaping hole between our ethics and theirs, we just couldn't bring ourselves to please them.

Making a habitual conversation, the officers found out that our guardian angel Jesus would fly away the following day, leaving the two girls all on their own into their country. Apparently they didn't much care for him anyway as for obvious reasons, girls are incomparably more interesting. So we were offered a city tour with one of them and got an invitation to share breakfast in the morning, become friends and so on. By that time my two friends had already spent a week in Morocco which is more than enough time to make one extremely careful about any proposition by locals, however small and innocent it may be. Nothing comes free here, not even asking directions on the street, at least not where people have a habit of interacting with foreigners. The only thing to do was to laugh, say a merry good bye and thank you to our "superheros" and flee.