Marrakesh

 

Marrakesh,  with its ochre-coloured buildings, towering minarets and bustling souks is quickly becoming a distant memory, the joys and delights of roaming its streets being progressively replaced by a sense of having returned to drudgery. Although the three weeks of work I have gotten under my belt since my return have provided fertile ground for that feeling to fester, the seeds were sown in Marrakesh, everything from passport control and its lengthy queues, an hour and a half spent waiting for a bag to turn up and even more queues at the body scanner as we waited to exit the airport all setting the tone for what seemed like running a gauntlet.  Once through all of that bedlam and outside the airport, the smell of smoke – somewhat like the linger of the remains of a thousand spit roasting fires – was a warm welcome of sorts.

Having gotten to our hotel – the Movenpick Mansour Eddahbi  – quite late on the Saturday we arrived, we spent the next day getting ourselves familiar with our surroundings, mainly to work out where dinner could be had close by, and where we could get bottled water – thankfully the Menara mall was handy for both. On our first evening out we had the good fortune of running into an English woman, her daughter and her Moroccan son-in law, who were kind enough to suggest a few lower priced places close by.

The days went quickly with visits to various places, all on the beaten path. The in-house botanist at the Argan oil factory we stopped at as part of the Ourika Valley tour impressed with his knowledge of a number of herbs and their use in alleviating various maladies from diabetes to psoriasis, albeit as a precursor to a hard selling session. There was also the hike up a precipitous rock face towards some water falls which at various times felt like flirting with death; no regard for health and safety one of the quintessentially English – and aged – couples on the climb pointed out as they dropped out halfway along the climb. The Yves Saint Laurent Museum was one of the most sought after places, lengthy queues guarding the entry on both days we tried. We braved the consequences at the second time of asking, being rewarded by what was a truly fascinating experience centred around the YSL oeuvre and his connections to Marrakesh.  Elsewhere there were pit stops at the Koutoubia Mosque and the gardens close by, various places in the old Medina, including a tannery, the Saadian tombs and the Bahia Palace.

We opted for a trip to the Chez Ali fantasy show on our last night, joined by a motley of other folk – an Italian couple, an Indian family of five, an older French couple and a trio of dark skinned French speaking folk. The facade of the venue was imposing, framed as it was by a large gate, ochre-red walls and a guard of horsemen lined up either side. Once through body searches and then allowed to go in, we were seated around round tables in a tent for the meal – a legume based soup as a starter, lamb dates and nuts as a second course and then a bowl of couscous to wrap things up. There were tricks by the horsemen, what looked like a demonstration of military tactics in which the mounted riders charged at the crowd and set off their guns into the air, and then a belly dancing session. All of that made for a far more sedate experience than clambering over rocks in the Ourika valley just a few days ago. The weather was much warmer – and drier – than London, the low twenties and high teens being a welcome escape from the sub-zero temperatures in the Northern England city we would have been in if we hadn’t gone to Marrakesh. Here are more  pictures, hardly done justice to by my iPhone.

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I found shades of Lagos in everything; the relentless, in-your-face hustle of people trying to sell everything from tours to bottles of Argan oil, the laisser-faire approach to driving and diving through junctions, roadside bus stops with people spilling into the roads and the police checkpoints a few of the more obvious similarities. That mopeds were everywhere, and more than a few ancient Peugeot cars didn’t help ameliorate that festering feeling of being on edge, of always being only a few misaligned bits of Swiss cheese away from a monumental cataclysm. I suspect I was far more concerned than I should have, but on these travels I am finding that rather being away from home, I carry shades of home with me; warts, joys, near dystopia and all.

#2 – Weathered


Aberdeen’s City Centre is a panoply of old, weathered buildings, seasoned – as Yusef Komunyakaa so eloquently puts it in his poem, Ode To The Drum – by wind, dusk and sunlight. To that trio of elements, one would have to add snow and rain, given they are hardly ever in short supply in this corner of the world.

Before oil – and some would add, the EU  – there was fishing and an entire industry of fish processing in and around the harbour area. These days, gleaming buildings – and car parks – share the skyline, a curious juxtaposition of old and new, brick and glass and perhaps the reinvention of a city.

The Year in Reading

After many years of having thoroughly enjoyed the annual parade of opinions of books over at The Millions, I decided to have a go myself this year. Far from being a celebration of a year in which I read deeply and widely, it is a light reflection on all the things I managed to read this year. Enjoy!

Of the myriad of things I most deeply wanted to achieve this year, two loomed large in the personal development domain; to read more and write more, which was why I entered the year clutching my copy of Patty Dann‘s The Butterfly Hours close to my chest. In my head, writing more  – and by extension, better – required tools for tuning my craft, which was why this book, with its promise of personal memoir married to prompts, seemed the perfect fit. It helped that all nineteen reviews on Amazon were 5*. I did enjoy the book, albeit more an an example of easy reading memoir than a collection of prompts. I suspect that had a lot more to do with me than the book.  If it is any consolation, I returned to it several times over the course of the year, it along with Dinty Moore‘s Crafting The Personal Essay being fine examples of the sort of creative non-fiction I would like to churn out.

Next up was Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, which I finally finished at this third time of asking. On my two previous attempts, I had found myself bogged down in the tedious beginning, but ploughing through this time brought me to the delights of the end. What I never quite managed to suss out was just how autobiographical the novel was, given that like the Sais Taiye has dual Nigerian and Ghanian roots and is also a twin. So thoroughly did I enjoy this that I went hunting for her seminal essay from 2005, Bye Bye Babar. Well worth the read, if I say so myself.

The grudging, reluctant engagement with books which dogged my interactions with both books was something I found recurred over the course of the year. The list of unfinished books is extensive with Andrea Lucado’s English Lessons and Adam Gopnik’s At The Strangers’ Gate  being the more notable.  The books I did finish fell mainly into four main categories; ones I read as guides for my #100DaysOfCreating project (Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines and Robert Smartwood’s Hint Fiction), annual anthologies which have become regular fixtures on my reading list (such as the Jonathan Franzen edited 2016 edition of The Best American Essays), personal essay collections (such as David SedarisLet’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things) and books inspired by media I consumed during the course of the year (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes a useful counterpoint to binge watching all five seasons of Elementary, and Walk On – Steve Stockman’s attempt at providing insights into the faith that underpins U2’s oeuvre).

I had a late spurt of three books to thank for reaching fifteen books this year. All three were really good reads:  Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson’s We Have No Idea (a reminder that for all we know about quarks, leptons, and the material universe, the vast majority of what is around us is unknown), Dame Elizabeth Anionwu’s Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union (a deeply personal story of growing up mixed race in the United Kingdom of the 50’s and 60’s and eventually connecting with her Nigerian heritage) and Diego Torres‘s The Special One: The Secret World of Jose Mourinho (a no-holds barred look at the behind the scenes behaviour of Mourinho, particularly his Real Madrid sojourn and how super agent Jorge Mendes towered over his transfer dealings).

All told reading more widely  – and more consistently – has to be one of the objectives for the new year. Braced for the challenge.

The Diary: The Paphos Files

The first bits of Cyprus we glimpsed as our flight began the descent towards Paphos were wind turbines slowly turning in what must have been a slight evening breeze, and houses which from the height looked like small, matchboxes  pressed into the sides of the hilly terrain below us. Although it was only 5.20pm local time, it was quickly growing dark, which at first seemed odd until I realised just how much closer to the equator we were here, than in England from where we were arriving. This trip to Cyprus was at the instance of S, ten days in Paphos being her idea of a honeymoon. The hope was to get the chance to catch our breaths after what had been a whirlwind three weeks in which we had managed to get hitched without losing our minds; the pressure of a large Nigerian wedding notwithstanding.

Having the main events on the other side of town in rural England – as far removed from our usual haunts as could be – added a layer of complexity to everything, that in retrospect we could have done without. The miracle in all of that was that friends and family rallied – some at particularly short notice, and braving the worst of the M25 and Dartford crossing traffic on the day – to be part of the events and support us. As we headed into Paphos, the overwhelming desire was to kick back and de-stress from all of that.

Before all of that kicking back and chilling could begin, there was the small matter of navigating passport checks and customs. Although I had the requisite approvals in my Nigerian passport, it still took in excess of ten minutes – and a couple of phone calls by the fellow at the desk – for my passport to be checked and then stamped. Only then could S and I head on to the baggage area and pick up our bags; she being British had no such problems. It was a warm 22 degrees C even at that time of the day, and importantly dry, with none of the chill from the wind that had hastened our arrival and helped claw back some of the lost time from our flight from Gatwick being delayed.

Bags in hand and through customs, we found our designated driver – he had our names on a card held high above his head – waited a bit at a Costa Coffee for the rest of our party to arrive and eventually headed out into town. That allowed me take in my surroundings at the airport, the overwhelming sense being one of being somewhat pleasantly surprised by the absence of any of that in-your-face first world glitter that airports around the Western world often portray. Our hotel, the King Evelthon, was a relatively recent addition to the Paphos holiday resort scene and just beyond the city limits – sculptures of the Greek letter ρ marking these. From arrival to the hotel and then dinner took all of two hours, including the wait. Not bad, given we needed to tuck into dinner having steadfastly refused the prodding of the the cabin crew to pony up the extra cash required to buy a meal on board.

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Having finally managed to get out of our travel soaked clothes and then get some sleep, we woke up to the sight of glorious sunshine already streaming in. Looking through the doors into the pool – we had been upgraded to a swim up room – the sense was very much one of being a holiday resort, complete with all the trappings. In the distance, the lonesome hulk of a rusty brown ship loomed. I would later find out that there was some history to it, it being the MV Demetrios II. When we finally dragged ourselves out of bed for a hearty breakfast and were ready to head out, we hopped onto the 615 towards the Paphos harbour for a bit of sightseeing.

We found the harbour area a beehive of activity with buskers, hustlers and traders all keen to interest us in their wares. In the end we plumped for a glass bottomed boat ride around the harbour and picked up a flyer for the wave dancers suite of cruises from the Paphos Harbour. The glass bottomed boat ride ended up a damp squib of sorts – there was nothing of note to see besides the ruins of the Vera K – but the 90 minute trip around the harbour gave a good view of the coast line all the way up and down. Trip done, we found an ice cream place down the road where we took a much needed toilet break and three scoops of ice cream each, for the heat. We – read S – liked it so much that we returned on three other separate occasions for ice cream there. A hop-on, hop-off open bus tour topped off this first day, the whistle-stop tour putting Paphos and its size  – or lack thereof – into perspective.

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Our time in Cyprus was organised around three main all-day events; a jeep safari, a gourmet tour and an all of Cyprus tour. Being the last of the nine passengers to be picked up for the jeep safari, meant we had to make do with being sat apart, S in the middle seat at the back and me perched on the edge of the back seat alongside the others, an older Italian couple , an English couple from Birmingham and three young men from Hungary. Our version of the safari tour took in a drive through banana plantations,  old Turkish and Greek villages, as well as pit stops at a number of other landmarks. In spite of the obvious pride the locals had in their banana plantations it turned out they were neither big enough nor straight enough to meet EU export regulations.

In keeping with the safari theme, much of the driving was on bumpy, rocky roads on which we in the back seat bounced about. The trek up the Avakas Gorge was the first real physical activity I had undertaken  since my last 5k on the 18th of October; that showed in my lack of fitness. The trek itself – ours was the abridged version – took in a number of rare bushes and flowers and a number of tiny rivulets; smaller now at the end of a long summer than they would be in the rainier, wetter winter season. Other interesting pit stops along the way were the Aphrodite baths (where Aphrodite used to bathe according to local mythology), the Adonis baths and the blue lagoon where a few of the less intrepid swimmers dove in for a leisurely swim. As we made to leave the Adonis baths, an interesting exchange ensued between the caretaker and I.  He called me a chocolate Adonis, warning S to be extra careful overnight, his point being that my brush with the very essence of Adonis at the baths had upped my virility. That made for a few awkward moments between him, S and I, although no offence was meant or taken.

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Over the course of the remaining days we managed to fit in two more all-day tours. The first of these was a gourmet tour that focused on highlighting the food, art and craft of Cyprus, the intent clearly to show case a rustic Cyprus where life was lived at a leisurely, laid back pace. Pit stops on this tour included a winery where we got to taste a range of locally brewed liquids, an all female factory where a range of Cypriot sweets were made and  a factory where roses were used in everything from chocolate to wine in addition to the usual suspects of perfumed body care products. Elsewhere on the tour we got to see the Holy Cross church in Omodos and fraternise somewhat with the local silver and glass makers. Also on the gourmet tour, we discovered Carob, which became the bane of my existence over the next few days, as S tried to score bottles and bars of the ostensibly healthy stuff. The other tour – an all of Cyprus tour – went along similar lines, the highlights being a visit to the capital Nicosia and the view across the green line into Turkish controlled Cyprus from the top of the  Ledra observatory and the church of Saint Lazarus (the fellow who died twice).

In between the full day tours, we managed to get three 7k-ish runs in, possible in part because S is a running enthusiast who needs her running fix, and the presence of a coastal path which we learned is a fairly recent addition. The ruins being excavated at the harbour area and the Wave Dancer half day BBQ cruise also help the time pass.

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By virtue of its position at the junction of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Cyprus has had a long and checkered history, with ownership and control changing hands several times. Greeks, Ottomans, Venetians, The French, the Romans – and a few others I can’t remember – have all at various times laid claim to the island, leaving their marks in various ways. Greek culture predominates, as does the Turkish military presence in the Northern third of the island, a self declared Republic which is recognised only by Turkey. There was an opportunity to cross the Green Line and explore a bit of it, but the situation with my Nigerian passport made me wary of crossing any more borders than I needed to.

What I found surprising was a strong undercurrent of Russian influence – like London one of our guides joked  on one of the days. I suppose the shared religious history enables this – both the Russian Orthodox and Church of Cyprus are part of the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, making it easier for devout Russians to integrate, and providing a driver for them to visit shared holy spaces – as does the official passport for investment program which provides access to Cyprus and by extension the rest of the EU for €2million.  A different guide took great joy in pointing out which of the palatial, stately homes were owned by Russians.

The British influence was more expected, and obvious, given the recent colonial history and the long running interactions with the island going back to Richard the Lion heart’s invasion in the late 1100’s. The language and the sunshine does make it one of the prime destinations for Brits looking to retire by the sun and the sea, that they’ve arrived complete with their own little micro communities complete with English and Irish pubs suggests there is some impact to the local community, particularly in a town as small as Paphos with 75,000 inhabits.

Thankfully, it wasn’t peak season so places like the beach were not filled to the point of bursting at the seams, which made me wonder how this must feel in peak season.  I doubt the locals find the influx of tourists as disconcerting as the Barcelona locals do but I got the sense of a mild irritation at times – the eye roll and shrug I shared with an older lady at a shop within the Kings Avenue Mall at a couple rowing over a can of beer at the till being one such.

For all its history, I did get the sense that some of the places we visited over the course of the ten days were not particularly remarkable or deserving of the hype (It might have to do with my lack of culture or just an overt focus on looking to chill and de-stress). That got me thinking of just how much Nigeria could benefit from a concerted effort to clean up its hinterland, make it safer and easier to travel in, and market some of the natural features and historical artefacts. I remember visits to the Obudu Cattle ranch many years ago being the highlight of a team building session at work. Places like the Ikogosi springs, the Ososo tourist centre and carnival come to mind as ones which with a little more focus could be developed further.

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All told, the ten days delivered on their promise of providing a place to disconnect from the real world and chill, which is perhaps why the enduring images of Cyprus for me will be narrow roads draped around towering mountains like ribbons – thin, flimsy and barely there, edged on the one side by the faces of the mountains themselves and on the other by vertiginous drops. The irony of this is not lost on me; without the roads, much of these parts would be inaccessible to the wider world which would lose out on all the treasures and delights we had the privilege of seeing over the past few days, but building the roads cannot have been a trivial experience given the terrain. A lot of hard, back breaking work was clearly required.

That  – the delights just out of view over the horizon and the hard work required to get there – is very much like marriage, S says, on the eve of our return to our new shared life; all the proof I need that she is indeed a wise one.

PS: For more pictures from Cyprus, go here.