To Hel and Back :: Edit your Template To Hel and Back: January 2006

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Scared of the white stuff

(There's much less snow than this!)
Can you believe I was scared to go out of the house?! I mean it's not even that cold, I can see ground as opposed to snow, and I have a window open. But I was nervous. I think it was the symbolism of leaving the comfort zone or some rubbish.

Anyway I was pleased to realise that outside it felt as warm as it looked, I didn't need gloves on a trip to a shop and the beanie was an afterthought . Walking on some of the old ice was a little tricky, and trying to use my Electron card for the first time even trickier. The whole thing was in Finnish and I was stumped. Perhaps I should have tried the trick of the man in front of me, who shouted vitu a lot and thumped the wall. Ah Maunula...

Instead, I waved the card a lot at the check out chick and tried to chip and pin but at least I remembered to bring my own shopping bags even if I didn't weigh my pastries myself.

I smiled as I unpacked: spinach soup / pinaattikeitto, karelian pastries / karjalan piiraka, and meatballs / lihapullat. Sadly the the shop was out of my favourite reindeer ready meal...

Finn at heart?

Back in Suomi

I woke up to brilliant sunlight and a thin layer of snow. My house was as warm as a sauna. There were wine glasses on the floor and the crumbs of devoured chocolate chip cookies and baklava, the radio DJ is speaking Russian. Ahhh it must be home.

My friends organised a surprise welcome reception. I surprised them by arriving half an hour earlier than they expected (Finland is effecient if nothing else), despite a narrow connection time, sub-zero temperatures at both airports, an extensive delay at Heathrow and leaving my jacket on the plane at Vantaa (handed to me as I walked out the airport - see Finland is terribly effecient!).

Kati was folding my bedding as I arrived. She nearly had to be restrained, so intent was she on making hospital corners and leaving a chocolate on my pillow. She's either very nurturing, or was under pain of death from Nina, who was the previous bed dweller, and unable to get here to tidy herself due to self-inflicted injury! Arabella and Sonja brought additional sunshine, Papu made sure I got home safe and well fed, and Ahmet stayed on to to tell me what to do, having been directionless without my Turkish husband for so long... !

Of course, I am very very sick. So much so that I can't even lie down in bed because my coughing is so violent that I hit my head on the low roof. A trip to the chemist beckons... I am scared of having to put that much clothing on, going outside, walking on ice upright and speaking Finglish...

Friday, January 27, 2006

Aunty Anti-Social

I've had enough of even pretending to tolerate people who I don't really know or care about.

Anyone who I've spent less than 24 hours with, you don't really mean anything to me! Hah, shock revelation, get with the real world!

Anyone who I've known in a glorious moment that can never in life be replicated, put a box around it, enjoy it, and stop trying to replicate it. Watch a European arthouse movie or something...

Anyone I mistakeningly gave my phone number to while drunk and you are still calling - please get the message, you're only humiliating yourself now.

Anyone leaving messages that go on for so long I lose track half way through listening, don't.

Anyone of my clients who uses the words paradigm and dichotomy and then wants me to illustrate that, please jump.

Anyone sending me messages in another language declaring undying love, you've got the very wrong sheila.

Anyone even thinking of sending an email to me saying "is that me?" then please go directly to jail.

Yeah yeah I don't care if this is my fault, my personality, my errors. I am just venting my evil anti-social side... And I love it.

Ha ha evil cackles.

Photo of the day: Diva reunion

Here's the story, about a lovely lady
Who was living in Finland with her guy.
They were happy together for a while, but wanted to give single life a try.

Here's the story about two Aussies
who were living in Finland all alone
They couldn't speak a word of the language, but wanted to make this place their home.

Till the one day when the three girls met each other
And decided that life would be more sweet
If they sang and laughed, and got drunk together
And danced to their own diva beat.

The diva beat
The diva beat
We are three girls walking to the diva beat.

Apologies to the chap who wrote the Brady Bunch Theme song and clearly spent a longer five minutes than I just did composing a ditty.

More diva pics here...

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Photo of the day

In my last days in Inglestan, I am doing a lot of boring things: packing, working, tax returns and cleaning up my old laptop to name a few. As I do, I come across stupid little mementos of years gone by. So a photo a day is now the subject until I get back to Finland's fair frozen shores.

This, for those of who you don't recognise, is me. Obviously it's me some time ago, around the time I wanted to be an air hostess, was still chasing boys, and thought badger watching on a Friday night was fun. I also had a penchant for carnations...

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Life's only other certainty...

You know that saying there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. Well having had enough death last year, it's time for tax...

I received a big red letter from Inland Revenue saying I have three weeks left to pay my tax bill. What tax bill? How do I work it out? What what what? In Australia you got sent a nice tax pack which had the forms you needed to complete well in advance of any deadlines. In this country, I seem to only have a bill...

I started reading on the internet, registering, adding etc etc. It looked like my bill was about 4000 sterling. I was gutted. The 10K plan had received a serious kick. But who am I to evade tax? Everyone else pays it so why shouldn't I? Fair enough, I just didn't plan to pay it in 5 days time in one lumpsum.

The next day, I had come to terms with getting 4000 pounds from somewhere and started to do some more research. Reading about tax on the internet only served to panic me further so I scurried quickly to the only accountant who would take me. It got better. Because my tax bill is so high, Inland Revenue would like half of next year's tax bill in advance. The 4000 rose to
6000. And even though I have been diligently paying my National Insurance contributions, there is apparently another category to pay - add another 8 per cent. The bill rose higher and I am now looking for some 7000 pounds. If I don't pay by Tuesday, I am fined, and charged interest.

An apartment in tax-free Monaco is looking like such a good thing...

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Diary of a Monagasque Diva

  • Board flight for Nice, Cote d'Azur. Sit with the voice of British Broadcasting, who bellows beautifully, and one of the sport's finest technical writers, who has been drinking (well it is afternoon).
  • Collected from airport, driven direct to the heart of Monaco, right in front of the casino, with its lights and palm trees, and water features.
  • Immediately hed to the port, for the launch of the new Subaru. Am given furry hat and other PR presents.
  • With cap in hand, we proceed to the more upmarket yacht club for the launch of the Citroen team. Girls with tight tshirts and LCD displays saying Kizz Me hand out energy drinks and cigarettes. Men in suits hand out delicate pastries and pour wine with deft flicks of the wrist. The place bustles, men talk into cuff links, the prince pushes me, and his bodyguards glare. It's my brush with royalty. Amidst much air kissing, I poke someone in the eye with my glasses, step on a mini-eclair, and drool over a new photographer.
  • We lose our car in the carpark. I wait 58 minutes for a train rather than pay forty Euro for a 11 km taxi ride. I take the wrong directions for hotel and walk noisily with the pesky Samsonite on wheels through tiny backstreets of Beaulieu sur Mer at one am.

  • I wake to bird song, blue skies, orange trees, the sea, and men renovating pale yellow houses with faded shutters. It is bliss. I breakfast on the beach, smooth stones underfoot, the sea spraying salt in the air, the mountains looming impossibly above me, the gentle ting ting of yacht masts in the background.
  • Much air kissing, greeting and meeting, Welsh TV crews, Russian press officers, Hungarian photographers ...
  • Lunch catered for at the port. Dinner with too too young boys.
  • Breakfast is rich almond croissants in the sun.
  • Coffee at the famous Cafe de Paris.
  • Shopping in the Metropole Plaza; the world's gliziest centre commercial.
  • Lunch catered for.
  • Much strutting around wearing sunglasses and perfecting the enigmatic smile.
  • Aperatifs on the port, speaking Italian.
  • Two sumptuous baths
  • Long walks through empty streets looking for a restaurant where it won't be noticed that I am alone.
  • Dinner in an alley way scoffing Thai food from a container. How the mighty have fallen.
  • I watch three episodes of Sex and the City (a programme I loathe but it's more tolerable in French) and cry when Samantha gets cancer.
  • Shopping in Zara and FNAC (practical but certainly not decadent)
  • Lunch catered for.
  • Superfluous strutting, pouting, sunglass wearing. Both the 'bored and disinterested' and 'eyes-right through your soul/heart /clothing' stares are perfected.
  • Drinks in local bar, drunk on two wines. Phone number given out to local boy in heat of the moment, who sneaks a cheeky bisous.
  • Dinner at the well known Bambi's.
  • Late night laughs with Germans, Norwegians and Swedes. Rejecting calls of local boy.
  • My room buddy snores. It ain't all Diva...
  • 9am meeting in a well-kitted motorhome.
  • Press conferences.
  • Lunch catered for, Italian.
  • Afternoon nap.
  • An hour of pampering and preening. I walk out, hair fluffed and draped, in slinky satin, and kitten heels, lips glossy, stare both dis-interested unless interested, pout perfected. Even the doorman at the Metropole turns his head. Until I stop at the bus stop. I don't pay 12 euros for a two km ride no matter what city I am in.
  • Dinner at the Marriott.
  • Private function at Stars and Bars with the events winners.
  • Dancing and drinks with the boys.
  • Get home at 5am.
  • Get woken up at 8am.
  • Feel like shit at every hour.
  • Lunch at Tip Top with the Finnish mafia, surrounded by old school Grand Prix posters.
  • Coffee at the Cafe de Paris surrounded by Ferraris we don't know the models of and Porsches that look tacky in contrast.
  • Panadol from the Airport pharmacy surrounded by ringing in my ears.
  • Sunset over Nice as the plane takes off.
  • Rallye Monte Carlo; the last one for me, over. Sentimentality is evaded by hangover. Good move.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Do you really want to know??

Do you really really want to know where I am today... ?

Monte Carlo, Monaco.

Playground of the rich and famous.

And the owners of small dogs.

Wish you were here...?

Smell of nostalgia

Have you ever walked down a modern city street, a narrow lane perhaps, and smelt a bad pipe, a damaged sewer, an instead of your nose curling and shrinking, you are transported to ....

fresh durians being cut open
sweat on the back of your cotton shirt
a river that is the wash room, the playground, the sewer
throwing buckets of cold water instead of a shower
mango fibres between your teeth
listening to thunder shake the grey sky and lightening crack the heat
loud cicadas against the hum of an ineffective ceiling fan
lizards that run on stone walls
the morning ritual of hearing spitting and hoiking through open windowed bathrooms
dodging fat heavy raindrops that hurt your skin
lying under a mosquito net, listening to that sound, that sound
watching shy grass curl at your touch
eating satay from a road side seller
driving in monsoonal puddles that washes well over the car bonnet and onto the windscreen
stepping over blood in a wet market
in a traffic jam watching the goats on the roadside verge
watching barefoot children in identical uniforms laugh their way homes

and just for a moment, you are "home".

For all the ex-tropic TCKs.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Morocco through the lens

In true Rowena style, I snapped happy in Morocco, where appropriate. In fact I even used the old film camera too for sentimental purposes (I didn't bring a large memory card!) though it took some time to get used to looking through a viewfinder!

Highlights include:
Oujda (top left), where I felt local, wandered virtually into people's front doors and felt carpet under my feet.

The tanneries of Fez (top right), where dead animals are turned into handbags.

, a small mountain village, on the day of the Berber market. (top left)

The colourful markets of Fez. Yep, that's a camel head at the butchers...

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Back in the UK

I'm back. In the closest thing to home, which is very homely. Alyssa loves her princess dress and the flashing pink high heels I got from the 100 pesata shop in Almeria. Jacinta has already projectile vomited on me. Ah yes, home.

I met with the Christmas Elves and hinted that I really wouldn't mind some contract work with them. More news to follow. In other work related news, I turned down the job of Media and Publicity Manager for the Australian rally. It's an honor to be offered, and means that after 12 years, I have gone from student journalist at that event to the top level media position. It's something to be proud of. I didn't accept because the package wasn't right for me. It was a big call to make but it was in the middle of the COC, so I didn't have a lot of tolerance!

Yesterday I went to the Adventure Travel Show and spoke to VSO as well as a few other organisations. VSO looks right for 2007. On the application form, I need to declare my personal life... it will be fun putting dates to divorce, singledom and other significant moments!

The biggest issue with VSO is having to kill that debt. Ten K in 12 months... If I knew where the next lot of money was coming from then I would be able to at least put my Euro savings into it. But for now, the pound eats away at everything. I might actually have to push the consultancy a little. That consultancy whose website is sitting there stagnating while renewal notices that I can't afford come rolling into the inbox. I have to think hard to remember what I even call my business...that's bad.

I bought a guide book to Azerbaijan and for the Trans Siberian. I will do one or the other as my big trip for 2006. I like the idea of working at Rally Japan and then taking the train home to Helsinki! I'm also toying with doing a short placement overseas to make sure I really can do VSO. If not, Azerbaijan or hours on a train speaking Russian will be a good lesson in isolation...

In addition, I've booked flights to Monte for the first rally of the season and I am not that interested in a) going b) spending that much money c) talking motorsport...

There's a lot of planning to do. I need to make my laptops operational, get an accountant (first self employment tax return is due!), get the WRC calendar in front of me and get organised. But I haven't had the chance to lie-in a comfy bed for so long... In fact, I'm currently writing this from bed. Creature comforts, might as well enjoy them while I can, right?!

PS photos of Morocco now going online

Turning Point

Back in Europe. Lost. My mind can’t decide what language to speak. Spanish falls clumsily.

I cling to the Moroccan side streets around the port. Oujda Bazaar makes me smile.

I am overwhelmed by my hotel; toilet paper and hot water at all hours. My room is over furnished.

As I walk the streets they feel familiar but… was it only ten days ago?

I call a friend who recently jetted between Communism and Capitalism. “How do you do it?”

We talk about lives making a difference. As if to punctuate this, a fellow Australian screams out of us dead from the papers in the Dakar Rally, Morocco.

That night, I dream of giving back to every country that made me smile. I decide to leave rallying. I make a plan to see VSO. The world turns.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Leaving Morocco

4AM. My Nokia beats the call to prayer. The hotelier can´t speak French at this hour, and I can´t handle locks and keys at any. I fall into Avenue Mohammed V for the last time.

Women sweep the street outside the cafe and we exchange bon matins. As the taxi pulls me away, we are all smiles and bon voyages. The driver sees I love Oujda as my own and says I will be back, inshallah.

The bus station is a small gathering of huddled masses, sleeping, sitting, drinking. It´s one and a half hours of waiting in the foot stamping, teeth clenching cold before the bus leaves, Moroccan time. A young man I accidentally smiled at clicks his fingers at me. I ignore and he hisses viens ici. In the cold lack of sleep, I am very close to standing up and shouting that I am more than animal, more than woman, and he better learn some respect if he wants a decent relationship. It´s going to be a long day...

A sheep digs its feet into the earth in defiance before being loaded into the boot with my backpack. Children attempt to mimic the plaintive cry; baa baas abound. Later, I hear a roost of chickens being added. The cock crows dawn mid-route despite being in the belly of the bus.

Sheepman sits next to me. I wind my scarf around my head, blowing and stamping to keep the cold out. The scenery is beautiful but I can´t look for the draught of having the curtian open is painful. We are in a 1920´s American-style school bus, all metal, no modern. I can see glimpses of the sunrise, red.

When Sheepman gets off, National Geographic Girl sits next to me. She takes more space than unspokeningly agreed. She fidgets and is all bismillahs. I am close to snapping point.

Eventually I sleep until Nador, which I don´t recognise at first. In cold automation, I stamp over to the cafes I know for heartening harissa. I wish that I don´t have the wishbone. I have my first and only mint tea and choke on the leaves while the five sugars seep into my veins.

The petit taxi driver won´t take me to the port, but will charge me ten dirhams for driving me around the block to a grand taxi that will. I spit the one euro equivalent at him, and mutter abuse, which he understands. I bundle myself into the Merc with 6 others. There is no sheep.

FerriMarroc insists on filling out my exit form in painful Roman lettering. I am escorted alone across the port. Several times my passport is checked. Each time I am asked "you are leaving today?" in surprise and I keep checking my ticket. It seems Eid has diminished the exodus. There are five of us on foot, three in cars for a boat of 3000.

Standing on the edge of Africa, I contemplate the geography. Customs breaks my revelry. "You are a journalist?". I am terrified. "...comme journaliste..." I answer the preceding questions in polite ignorance. All ends well. Everyone is just intrigued; who is the Moroccan girl who doesn´t speak Arabic? I soon know all the port staff in this manner.

The boat leaves on Spanish time, and I still don´t understand it. We wait for an hour amidst the mountains and clouds. Africa at my one side, and the Spanish port of Melilla on the African contintent, confusingly on the other.

There are more staff than passengers, more cockroaches than staff and four sheep for tomorrow. Shoes line up outside the prayer room, it´s the only facility on the ship in use. The staff are sad to be working tomorrow. We all watch Morocco slip away. On revienne. Inshallah.


Oujda exists at the very east of Morocco. Hours and hours from Fes, piles of cream dessert-like rock that folds in deep and deceptive wrinkles like the fur of a bulldog.

There is nothing to break the sepia tones; a tree in darker brown, a house in caramel mud, a man in muted rust. To punctuate the train window scenery, a mosque, in fresher rock. Its square minaret, fawn or white against the mountains, brushing the lowest of the day´s clouds.

Oujda´s approach is signalled by black plastic bags. Urban detritus cast aside and blown into the desert until caught on previously unnoticed tufts of spiky grass.

Oujda begins with red.

The sun sets as a the train begins to slow, stains the buildings like blood orange juice. Train tracks take us past the heavy industry into the poorest backyards. A street game of football stops to watch the train´s faces against the window.

We stride the streets; an odd couple, I with Moroccan colours and features but backpack and she in neat Muslim dress but translucent skin and European details. "You are attractive," she says but before I can blush she adds, "to these men who see you carry so much and see you are strong." They are practical, if not romantic, the Moroccans.

Alone in my room, I dance and giggle at the hard wearing felt carpet underfoot and the promise of a reliable hot water timetable. I carry my dance outside, dismiss a Bollywood feature film for being too gory and follow the Hindi music instead to the heart of the medina.

The streets are crammed with practical items and blinking wall decorations of Mecca. It is all the sensual allure of Morocco without the hassle. I feel safe blending in with the people, the scenery. I wander the tiniest back streets, fall into dead ends, find myself in front of people´s front doors. Tourists are infrequent here. We´re neither a nuisance nor an interest.

In the morning I walk the same area, different streets, before the crowds begin to bustle. Children´s hard-soled shoes hit the clay with a noise like donkey hooves. But the mules themselves are still, overloaded, or shuffling, bearing the day´s tomatoes or oranges. Sleepy-eyed, gentle ears revolving, blocking the alley crossroads at awkward angles.

Over lunch I hear the call to prayer. The TV is turned down. My harissa steams in front of the open doorway. I watch the last men scurry to the mosque, the others shuffle by; men in tweed suits, women with black plastic bags. The sick and the poor, eyes downcast, face shielded, hands in crippled outstretch.

Full-bellied, I force through the labyrinth and find tiny Medina mosques. Boys with salesman voices offer charcoal for the poor, jiffy lighters cut to small pieces for the rich. Necklaces of dried figs sit alongside impossible piles of peanuts, carefully balanced olives. Off the main street, I peer into dark doorways and catch for an instant, sleeping donkeys, rows of chickens forcing eggs. Men at lathes send woodchips wafting into muddy puddles while the knife sharpeners sends arcs of tiny fireworks into the air.

Lost beyond the side streets, I am in the larger roads of rich residential areas. Strong stone structures with gardens for courtyards. Men sleep in front of the gates, feet bare, swollen, scabbed. Cats poke heads under iron fences or stroll confidently alongside me.

I walk the same road twice, remembering the puddles and oil spills to avoid, the table legs of European-style cafes and Coke ads in Arabic. Finally, I find the centre ville. The clock tower always showing 1150, stains red as the sunsets.

The colour falls onto minaret and minaret. The tomato donkey passes me. The shout goes up to sell faster as the sunset deepens.

Oujda ends in red.

Photos of Oujda

Monday, January 09, 2006

Princesses and Poverty

I have just spent the most satisfying past few hours. I’ve eaten a great tagine; using my hands in case anyone from Saritas blog comes over and reads this. And then I went down into the belly of the median and souks. The markets here beat Fez hands down. There are so few tourists here that it’s not even assumed that I am one. And I am dressed a little more Moroccan and a little less Atomic Kitten today. It’s the end of the trip and all I have clean is denim jeans and jackets.

I saw the most gorgeous princess outfit; which I bought. Not for myself but for the long established Princess Alyssa, 4 of Chesterton. I wanted to complete the purchase with Moroccan style princess shoes but it would seem that being a princess isn’t high on the agenda for children’s shoes here.

There is such a bustle in the markets; that I can’t even begin to describe or capture it in any way. It’s impossible to get a camera out and take a photo and you get so swept in the movement of the crowd it’s difficult to stop and take it all in. Smells include roasting chestnuts mmm and chicken faeces not so mmm. Sounds include the cries of market sellers; most of which are young boys with these incredibly booming and adult voices. Sights include piles of dried fruit amidst the sparks of knives being sharpened on stone wheels.

It’s not all consumerism. Outside the medina mosques; the streets are lined with beggars. The worse case of elephantisis I’ve ever seen even in photos and an array of malformed or absent limbs. In the backstreets behind the medina; runny nosed and watery eyed children play with sticks and little girls with matted hair clomp the ground in too big hard soled shoes. Families gather in the more spacious crossroads of the narrow streets. Open doors reveal courtyards; tiled entrances; the smell of lunch cooking and of communal bathrooms.

I write this off a side street. The boy running the shop has put on Santanas Oye Come Va and I am transported back to a village in Mexico. Another village where children played in the streets amongst puddles and fetid cats. Another place where I realise how lucky I am to see the world; how blessed I am that I do not have to live in poverty.

Zritten zith qn Qrqrbic French keyboqrd qnd using the find qnd replcqe function to turn it into English: If you cqn understqnd this co,,ent; you zill knoz zhqt I q, sqyng1 Qpologies for lqck of punctuqtion1

How to...

Instead of travel guides, travellers should be issued with little laminate how to cards for tricky situations that are not covered in guide books. For example in Finland, I managed to find the only pharmacist who didn't speak English and went on an elaborate mime for a condom. It was before I lived here okay... Likewise in the Middle East, I've watched some interesting charades indicating to a toilet keeper that 2 sheets of paper will simply not suffice on this occasion.

My laminate card for Morocco would have to be how to buy sanitary products in an Arabic country. (Apologies to English readers who can't handle this kind of honesty.) I'm guessing here that tampons are seen as Western virginity snatchers (which would lead the advertising folk to have a field day). And anyway the word tampon in French means of the rubber stamp kind, the kind I was supposed to get in my passport on the boat here, but that's another story.

So I started strolling the streets and peering into the shops for some clues. Shops here are very deep and dark. The counter is at the front, and you tend to yell in Arabic in a way that suggests you hate your shop keeper, and they gather the kilo of dried figs and ten kgs of washing powder and pass it to you in a little black bag which then goes to blight the landscape. This makes it impossible to window shop or browse. I got a few strange looks as I peered intently towards the back of each shop and no doubt several shop keepers shouted at me in Arabic, hey lady would you like some figs while I am out the back getting some as I am not going back there again. But alas I didn't understand.

I eventually hit success, saw something potentially useful, hidden under the hairspray and amongst the steel scouring pads. Of course I didn't know the word in French for the item I wanted, or anything next to it. The packet was turquoise. Damn my ineffective French vocabulary that gives me every colour under the rainbow bar turquoise. The closest translation I could think of was I have a ruler which only made me have fits of giggles at my poor French. We managed to gesture correctly via a series of left a little, down a row, no up one and to the right, where I almost got passed a packet of Pampers nappies and finally hit the jackpot. The shopkeeper was far more embarrassed than, scooped up my purchase into the evil black bag and was gone to the back amongst the figs before I could query anything.

Back at the hotel, I learn that I am the owner of some super very very large sanitary pads, the girth of which I am sure there is no natural woman who matches. They are so large there are only four in a packet, which makes them only a stopgap for any poor woman that large anyway. However I am going to lay them end to end at night and see if I can confuse the incoming plane from Paris to land on them as a runway...

And no I am none the wiser on the correct words in French or in Arabic.

Moroccan toiletries

It's the simple things that make me happy:
  • Oujda: having my first hotel room with carpet (it's freezing at night)
  • Oujda: having a toilet with a seat (no paper) that flushes and hot water from 8pm to 10am
  • Taza: having a toilet with a seat (no paper) that flushes and hot water at night
  • Meknes: having a toilet in the corridor that flushes and has a porcelain rim. Having hot water in my room at night.
  • Fes No 2: having toilet roll.
  • Fes No 1: finding a toilet with a porcelain rim, that flushes. Being able to buy a hot shower.
  • Nador: finding a toilet.

Sunday, January 08, 2006


You know, this post was going to be about either a) some touristy "today I went to the medina" posting or b) some musings from Morocco, but instead takes a more sentimental turn.


Do you hear out in the back there, Suomi?!

I noticed that someone found my site looking for racing girls and when I looked to see what page of my site it randomly threw up it was from August when I was in a particularly touchy feely mood (or drunk) and extolled all your virtues. Really, see for yourself. That was written nearly six months ago and it's been five months since I saw most of you. So I CAN'T WAIT TO GET BACK HOME!!!

Two things on that post made me sniff (a little more than the tissue stuck to my coldsores). Kebab Mafia's poem. You know sometimes, arkadas, you say all the right things (and then sometimes, you just say calm down!)

And the other thing, was the small post-script dedicated to Paul and Rob, to which I can now add a list of other names... I really can't wait to get home...

More nostalgia pics here... and here.

I've found it!

I've found my place in Morocco. Or at least in the part of Morocco I have been to. It's Oujda, town to steal my heart and get my feet dancing. It was always to be on my list of must stops, in fact it was to be my first, but the guide book went on for so long about the closed Algerian border and how grim everything was, that I thought I would enjoy it better at the end of the trip. But here I am with my first hotel room with carpet (and a steal at only 15 euros), with cosmopolitan cafes lining the streets, cake stalls a plenty, a funky medina, and not the cold two degrees I was expecting. More about Oujda in posts to follow.

I have also had my first conversation in English so expect verbal diarrhoea to follow now the blockage has been cleared...

I just got chatted up by a very young man claiming to be 25. He had been growing bum fluff a long time. He told me he was yet to meet his wife. I said at 25, he should be in no hurry. He was in a hurry that we meet again, tomorrow at 12.30 in front of his scarf shop. Bless, I liked the scarves more.

There was a girl on the train who I was convinced was a Westerner in Moroccan clothing. She was so European in features and so neatly Muslim that I was convinced. When she asked with minimal French to look at my guide book, I was sure she was trying to hide some romantic intercultural liaision. It turns out she is Moroccan, an English teacher and has only been married a year, hence the romantic blushes on her part. She liked my story though.

Due to stress and a lot of colding (I have forgot how to say my English verbs) I am covered in an attractive array of nasal coldsores. Aside from looking freakishly ugly, these are very painful, make sneezing difficult and attract stray bits of tissue and scarf fibre which attach invisibly but make their presence felt with every breath. It's annoying and gross. And they don't have anything as good or as hard to spell as Zoivrax here...

This is a rule I made myself. Unless I eat in a very pornographic manner, eating a chocolate ball the size of a child's fist atttracted quite a lot of attention when I just did it. A lot of men spoke to me (women tend not to) and as I didn't know what they were saying, I hurriedly hid my chocolate ball and wiped the bits from my face. In contrast however, when I eat proper food, I eat like a Moroccan (avec les mains). Such a thing is apparently worthy of a conversation topic. I have seen many waiters discuss this and when I shoot them an accusational glare, they explain that it's because I eat like them. Yeah but they haven't seen me with chocolate balls.

Funky cold medina

I have found the success of enjoying the medinas. You need a shopping list! Not a tacky touristy one but a real one with things like socks and padlocks. This gives purpose to wandering and makes me feel very local. You also need a nice little town like Taza which stocks all these things and more. Taza has no foreigners, even less interest in the one that is here and is a functional and pretty place. I am however leaving it in a few minutes. Firstly because I'm sick and it's bitterly cold and the prospect of arriving at the edge of the desert at midnight doesn't appeal. Secondly because my shopping list has been fulfilled.

Last night was possibly one of the coldest nights of my life. I breathed steam into the night air. Only this was the air inside my hotel room. And I slept with my woolly hat on. So this morning I went straight out and bought some gloves and more socks.

Much to say, but a train to catch, and also the third reason I must now leave Taza, quite possibly the stickiest keyboard ever, amd I am having to hammer each key without my gloves on!

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Berber husbands Muslim wives

I've just spent four uncomfortable hours in the company of possibly the most genuine person in Morocco. They didn't rip me off or even pressure me. But I think I inadvertently auditioned myself for Moroccan desperate Housewife, hence the discomfort.

My mother always tells me not to declare my Muslim heritage when I travel but I think this has some currency, particularly in hostage negotiations!

So it was with much joy that Hamid and my taxi driver learned that I knew of the five pillars of Islam. And consequently discussed my marriage potential (plenty), what went wrong with my first marriage (Islam was not in his heart), if I will ever go to Mecca (inshallah) and what has happened to my mother's faith (lost soul). It wasn't the cous cous that gave me indigestion!

In other marital auditions, sixteen year old Abdoul Couscous (the second person I have met with this name) told me that Berber men make the best husbands (they are good at massage), that he was here for my every need, including making cous cous, and that j'ai besoin de vous (he needed me).

Apparently dowry here is some 5 million dihram. Bring it on, berber wanna be husbands and others.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Snapshots from the Medina

Sounds: The almost rhythmic thud as metal is beat into shape. The cry of balak as a donkey makes its way through the narrow lanes. The haunting sorrowful singing of a trio of women, faces covered and begging. The tapping of metal on marble as grave markers are carved and prepared. The loud Arabic and Hindi pop music blaring from stalls as you pass. The laughter of children playing hide and seek in a side street. The familiar thud of a soccer ball on bare feet, on a rock wall, on worn sneakers. The hysterical wail of a working boy - no more than ten, who has had enough and snorts tears and snot at his wares scattered on the floor. The miaow of a cat, even the toughest scaliest ginger tom, balls swaggering in machoism, still cries like a kitten for the chance of some offal.

Smells: The fish and salt water from the heaped baskets of sardines. The heavy blood and game smell of the butchers, strings of goat heads, tongues poking out, and huge sides of beef with innards atttached. Fresh skins beating treated and beaten and dyed into leather. Donkey shit off the tourist streets, where it's not caught in a neat bag but left in the middle of tiny alleys to steam dry. The chemicals used to rub gold and brass clean in the artisans souks. Fresh woodpilings as furniture and wedding ornaments are carved. Piles of hay for donkeys, making you sneeze like after a suburban mown lawn. The nose and tongue curling acrid smell of everything old, warm and putrid from the rubbish dumps, as items are overturned and disturbed in search of a saleable item. The dry fragance of powders, henna, cumin, sticks and leaves of spice. The sharp salty tang of piles of olives, soaked in chilli, in garlic, in oils. Charcoal smoke as it burns fresh meat.

Leaving Fes

The hotel staff are disinfecting my room as we speak. It's time for their little girl to leave... The housekeeping staff have been lovely and managed to work out that two coughs means "hot water with lemon please". I've even forgiven them for not telling me that breakfast was an extortionate 31 dirham. There's no such thing as a free breakfast either it would seem...

I am going to wiggle across to Meknes, which is only a 49 minute train journey. I thought I needed to get back into the habit of carrying my pack, moving without a taxi, and getting used to life without hot water again if I was to make it back to Nador.

Fes has now grown on me a little. It was something to see the other side of life here beyond the Medina full of tourist tat. I've liked being based at one hotel so that the local shops get to know me, the newspaper man who thinks my roots are Moroccan, the mat seller who wishes me good morning, the cafe waiters, and the ineffective saleswomen at the very cool but unfortunately named accessory shop BigDil.

I walked the local market this morning, which was more meat (clean cuts of beef and still unidentifiable balls or kidney attached, no goat heads in sight) and vegetable stacks alongside cut price men's socks and sad looking exotic birds. The market sellers all talk to me in Arabic and I try to nod or shake my head appropriately by way of greeting or declining a chicken, until some smart kid realises I am French (naturally) by virtue of the fact that I don't have nearly enough facial hair or kohl to be a Moroccan woman and they all start exclaiming "ah that's why she doesn't want a side of beef but wants to set the parrots free..." Exactly.

One thing before I leave, I have to walk past the very delicious road side sandwich stall which offers delicious spiced hache sandwiches in Moroccan bread, harissa, a cute yet aggressive ginger feline beggar and the most gorgeous chocolate smooth young African man I have seen in my life. His parting words to be were "I hope we meet again, inshallah" delivered with absolute conviction and eyeballing to stun the most hardcore feminist. Inshallah indeed.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Real Fes

It is one of the bizarre elements of travelling. I am sitting in a cyber cafe, as they are called in Morocco. A small terminal, a piece of cable, a few clicks and I can find and lose myself in any part of the virtual world. Less than 200 metres away from me exists the worst poverty I have seen in my life, more because of it's juxtaposition with the internet cafe and the McDonalds I know is 5 kms up the road.

It's Berber Market day in Sefrou, the village I explored this morning, and perhaps it's also the same here in Fes. This part of the market is not in the guide books, in fact I stumbled here only by accident while getting a petit taxi to the wrong place in the first place.

The market was at first more down to earth, literally. People had goods in front of them on the floor, not in stalls. Then the goods got thinner and it became apparent that people were selling so few items, they could only be personal posessions. When I reached the further end of the "market" the smell became so distinct. As if to make it clearer, a dump truck pulled up and outpoured its rubbish. One man's trash is another person's treasure? Possibly, but aside from a few old men poking with interest at old electrical items, there seemed to be few buyers.

It was impossible to take photos, to record poverty but not do anything about it. To marvel at the dignity each seller maintained, and then to humiliate that with a kodak moment to show the folks back home.

The food stalls were no better. The vegetables were soft colourless piles in contrast to the vivid displays I had seen elswhere. They languished in the dark, under tarpulin makeshift tents that flapped in the breeze carrying the fresh smell of the dump truck's load. I wondered too if the fruit and vegetables were rejects. I pondered it no longer when I came across an old woman, sitting alongside a rug littered with the offcuts, crusty ends and castaway sections of bread from hotel and restaurant tables, each one distinct with that soft lichen-like spots of mould.

Tomorrow, when I take breakfast and am faced with my overflowing basket of warm baguette, I know where they might end up.

For every thing there is a price, for every thing there is a want, for every thing there is a need

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Festering in Fes

What's wrong with me?? I mean aside from the psychological and the coughing up blood and orange juice?! Why am I bored in Fez? Am I precocious, pretentious thirty something who ranks countries (not as friendly as Turkey, markets not as gory as Japan etc). Am I incapable of sitting down and enjoying a good book (actually I can do this but my English supply is fast running out)? Can I only find joy in cities like Oujda, the Algerian border frontier town with ghost-town qualities and no electricity or running water (that said, my hotel in Nador didn't have that either and it wasn't that interesting!)

Perhaps I have been reading too much Jon Snow and wanting to be born thirty years ago where becoming a war correspondant was accidental and admirable...

Today's choice find / Rowena's Slice of the Exotic: A camel head in the butcher shop. Even the string of goat's heads do nothing for me. Yesterday's choice find was a cute little orange and white kitten eating a chicken head. Awww.

Too uninspired to blog. Now is the time to send me emails. I am actually replying! I am just too bored to generate...

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Rock the Kasbah with my coughing

Arrived in Fez at one am... This is beginning to be a bit of a habit! We found a friendly hotel without the use of the touts. We managed to get our bags onto the bus and then off the bus again (tricky check in and cross fingers system). We even got one and off the bus at all the right times including a stop for stretching tired buttock muscles, something which amused our bus drivers when I performed the exercises. It's the small things in which you find triumph...

I lay in bed that night with my beanie on, tracksuit tucked into two pairs of socks, a fleece on, and a lot of feather blankets. I had goose bumps and shivered for hours until I fell asleep. Yeah, just a little bit poorly. When I woke up, I had lost my voice which has now come back to the point that I can squeak every third syllable. This makes me sound like Sooty when I speak French...

I've moved to a posh hotel where I can make demands for things like blankets and where toilets are in the room, and bathrooms are not optional, in the hope of getting better or at least dropping my temperature. The hotel has a courtyard with a swimming pool, which I won't be using but expect some funny photos of me lounging by it in my woolly hat!

We're off to try and find the old town. Fez is a sprawl of new and ancient. I'm excited by the prospect of finally seeing something (24 hours in Nador just sipping and shopping has made me restless). And of course time to go buy some more tissues and toilet paper...

Monday, January 02, 2006

Coughing at the border

If a man pressing warm grapes into my hand as the clock chimed midnight on 2005 was any indication of the weirdness of the new year then present circumstances are to expected.

Bonded through grapes with an American and a Yorkshire couple, we fought our way onto the Almeria to Nador boat in a scene which can only be described as refugee style exodus. I had the comfort of my own cabin, but outside my door lay a groaning mass of humanity, bearing carpets, rugs and a disturbing number of bicycles.

Arrival in Morocco was equaly surreal; Failure to pass passport control on the boat saw us straggle out of the ferry terminal hours after the others. The money machines were not working and we were still 11kms out of town. We haggled our way in using hard currency, to find that the Dakar rally had taken every room in the town, that I had inadvertently led us to the poshest hotel in the area, and that we already had a deranged stalker who was potentially suffering from AIDS and accosting us with every step outside the hotel.

We sat under a portrait of the king, sucked the coffee from sugar cubes and formulated a plan to thwart the stalker. And so the American and I found ourselves sleeping in a half built hotel, conplete with dry concrete in the toilets and workmen as an alarm bell in what is inarguably the worst hotel in town.

She is sleeping the remnants of the ferry night awake and I have gone on a mission amongst the men clad like Star Wars extras to find cough syrup, tissues and cold killer. Yes we all knew I was due to be sick.

Signing off from an impossible keyboard, Rowena; or in the Qwerty: signing off in qn i,possible keyboqrd: Rozenq.