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.

***
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.

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***
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.

***

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.

Weekly Photo Challenge – Waiting

36.Waiting

The downside – or some might say it is an upside – of having family on three continents is I spend quite a bit of time in airports waiting; to board, for baggage, to be picked up or sometimes to catch my breath after what can sometimes be a battle to get through immigration and customs, no thanks to the power of my passport.

The interplay between costs, stopover lengths and distance sometimes mean that only the very earliest of flights are workable for me, which is how I ended up at the airport at about 6.00am on this day. All in a day’s worth of waiting, I guess.


For the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge, Waiting.

Weekly Photo Challenge – Bridge

A reminder of transitioning from full time study to full time employment at the back end of 2009, the Forth Road Bridge a symbol of hope of sorts on the journey from Newcastle in the North East of England to Aberdeen in the North East of Scotland for interviews.

In the end there would be a fair few trips but in the end with December came the set of interviews that led to a permanent move up North. The rest as they say is history.


The Forth Road Bridge, for the prompt Bridge.

Nine Fridays of Summer: Notes from Vienna

0-Arriving

As far as first impressions go, my first ones of Vienna – shaped as they were by images seen from my window seat as my flight in from London drew to a close – were largely pleasant ones; green fields and the Danube snaking away into the distance being evocative of chilled weekends and evenings filled with coffee and cheese cake, not hard work. I suppose those who have to live and work out here must necessarily see the city differently, their perspectives being rightly more functional and less head-in-the-sand romantic than mine. Over the course of the weekend, I would gain a more nuanced view of the city, the good significantly outweighing the bad and the ugly to such an extent that if a role worth which was worth my while came up, I wouldn’t think twice about upping sticks and moving permanently.

Coming in, my biggest worry related to how I would manage to communicate given my nonexistent German, this being the first time I would be traveling alone into the non-English speaking world. I needn’t have worried so much, as between gestures and the passable English of a lot of the people I had to deal with in shops and elsewhere, I managed to do just fine. It did put my lack of language literacy in context, and has left no doubt in my mind that one needs the ability to engage in meaningful conversation – at least at a basic level – in a language other than English. Being in Europe at the moment, French and German spring to mind as two which would be of most use to me. The Chinese are poised to take over the world, but given my limited interactions with financial heavyweights and the low likelihood of my upping sticks to move to China anytime soon, I suspect Mandarin will remain low on my priority list. My experience did also raise a question in my mind about how the typical Aberdonian coffee shop barista or MacDonald’s employee might fare if they had to deal with non English speaking folk. London is a different matter although given that said employee is as likely to be French, German or Polish as English.

01 - Chaos

The sense I got of Vienna was one of a well organised city – bar the small matter of a trying to get through passport control at the airport. The long walk from where we disembarked and where we had passports checked made me wonder if there wasn’t a more efficient way to do this. In the end, in an overheard conversation, it transpired that several flights had arrived at the same time which complicated procedures at passport control. Before leaving the airport I made to sure to grab a Vienna card which offered free transport across the public transport network within the city as well as discounts on a number of attractions I was keen to visit.

A surprising number of ambulances and police vehicles blasting their sirens managed to insert themselves into my consciousness over the cause of the weekend. I am not entirely sure if this was typical, or if they were more obvious to me because I was coming from Aberdeen which is comparatively smaller, and sleepier.

***

Two open bus tours and plenty of walking later – I walked 9 and 16 kilometres on Saturday and Sunday according to my Fitbit – I got the added sense of a city actively looking to own its (checkered?) past, building a modern, egalitarian narrative around it. For what it is worth, counting Hitler, Stalin, Freud and a host of world renowned composers including Beethoven, Strauss, Vivaldi amongst other equally noteworthy ones amongst people who have lived and worked in the city at various times is a burden of heritage to live up to.

As to my actual itinerary, Friday was about settling in and getting to know the layout of the part of town I holed up in (the area around Mariahilfer Straße), Saturday was about the bus tours and exploring the museum quarter. Sunday surprised me with how many shops and places in the shopping district were closed, at least by the time I passed through in the afternoon, a stark contrast to Oxford Street to which it was often compared in the various commentaries on the bus tours. Early on Sunday morning, I did manage to make it across town to the Vienna Christian Centre’s International (English Language) Service.  The message was an interesting one, the most memorable section being an interesting analogy for melding faith and works as part of one’s spiritual practice  – a bicycle with two pedals.

Amidst the grand buildings and sense of history, it was a bit of a shock to come across people sleeping in the rough, one particular gentleman popping up a few times on a bench next to the hotel I was staying at; a regular?

***

I consider myself a world citizen of sorts, comfortably engaging with different cultures, races and peoples. What surprised me as I reflected on my Vienna experience was the feeling of self-consciousness that seethed beneath the surface for most of my stay here. I suspect this has to do with having spent my formative years in Nigeria, and then most of the last ten years in the UK with occasional visits to the US (read Houston, Chicago and Tulsa), places in which one has a fairly significant chance of running into other black people without actively seeking them out. This was not the case in Vienna, which perhaps speaks more to my need to travel more often and more widely than I have in the past as opposed to anything akin to Teju Cole’s experiences in writing Black Body (To be a stranger is to be looked at, but to be black is to be looked at especially). In a rare occurrence, whilst loading up on chicken at a KFC on Mariahilfer Straße, I overheard a conversation in Pidgin English, the tonality and vocabulary of the version being spoken meaning that the people in question could only have been from the Warri area in Nigeria. We did share a nod as they walked out, perhaps a recognition of a shared heritage of sorts.

***

Overall, I came away with a feeling that I needed to return here in the near to medium future. I suspect the next trip will be planned around a week in early spring or late autumn to avoid the nearly tropical temperatures I experienced this time. Not since my Newcastle days has a city impressed me enough to make me want to come back in fairly quick order.  Two things are certain; I will be back soon, and for longer than a weekend.

– – –
Currently listening to Vienna (Billy Joel, from the 13 Going on 30 soundtrack)

Nine Fridays of Summer: Of Heat Waves, Vienna and A Perfect Month of Sorts

02_Travel

In what can only be incontrovertible evidence of Sod’s law, the air-conditioning at work chooses the worst week possible to break down in; a week of unseasonably warm August weather. Loads of meetings to attend, lunch time walks and endless cups of water help ensure that I don’t end up too listless; not that broken air-conditioning ranks high on the list of life threatening things humans have to deal with, or should be an excuse for reduced productivity.

Thankfully, that First World ordeal is mitigated by the fact that it is a 3.5 day work week for me; a half day tacked on to this week’s summer Friday meaning that by lunch time Thursday I am putting finishing touches to all the things I have been chased on during the week in preparation for heading out into the sunshine. What follows shortly is a brisk walk back home to grab my bag and then a quick dash to the airport for my flight to London. Not until I am settled into my seat, flying away to London, does the tiredness hit me, the low similar to what I imagine users of psychoactive substances must feel after the effects wear out.

London, I find, is not much better- heat wise at least; the hour and thirty minutes I spend to get to my hotel on the DLR and then the Underground the perfect illustration of all that is bad about heat waves – people in varying stages of undress, a heightened sense of smell and the feeling of being tightly packed.  When I think my ordeal has ended, I find I have somehow mixed Hounslow Central up with Heathrow Central, which adds another forty five minutes to my commute from airport to hotel. The front desk manager at the hotel does a magnificent job of defusing my frustrations, her wry smile when she announces I have not being the first to make that same mistake on the day notwithstanding. Food, sleep and a quick phone call are all I manage before sleep sucks me in.

The next morning passes in a blur, the highlights being making the airport shuttle bus with seconds to spare, whizzing through security and ending up on the flight to Vienna with only a few minutes to spare, very much by the skin of my teeth.

***

01_Run

This has been as close to a perfect month as I have had all year. Thanks to continued pressure focused attention from the friends who keep me accountable, I managed to run three times each week this month, pushing the envelope each Sunday until by the last Sunday I was up to 5 km. Besides now being able to (barely) fit into my size 34 jeans which I was on the verge of giving away, the beautiful sunrises I catch each morning that I run make it all worthwhile.

The  intent is to keep these  runs going, slowly making up the distances until I am at 5 km for each run. 10 km three times a week has been mooted by said friends as a target for year end, I think that is more a next not-quite-a-milestone-birthday target though. Fingers crossed. The most important thing is to keep walking running I guess.

In books and reading, I finally managed to finish Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before as well as starting off on Faithfully Feminist, an anthology of essays on being feminist whilst maintaining spiritual practice within the context of the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I am only four essays in, but I suspect there will be a lot to both agree with and disagree with for me. The upside I guess is that I am reading, again.

***

00_Vienna

As I write this, I am looking out from my hotel window onto the sun bathed train station across the road and an old church a name for which a search on google and google maps failed to turn up. In a round about way, this is the culmination of four years of pondering; Vienna as a destination first being mentioned to me by an Opera-loving, Birmingham-bred English man who I happened to share office space with offshore for two weeks in 2012.

It is still too early to form any strong opinions but I am already beginning to get a vague understanding for why Vienna is considered one of the more liveable cities out there. The rest of today is to rest and fine-tune my plans for the weekend.

After today, there is only one more Summer Friday left. Oh bummer!

– – –
Currently listening to the Gil Joe single – Mayo 

Nine Fridays of Summer

aberdeen summer

For the first time in a very long time,  I have four day work weeks to look forward to. The theory behind getting these nine Fridays off is that they have been earned by working an extra thirty minutes each work day. How productive those extra minutes have been remains to be seen, but I suspect their value to our employer lies more in promoting a sense of being cared for in us than anything more tangible. The first of these was spent down south, catching up with friends and reacquainting myself with Stratford and the Olympic park.

Being a creature of routine has its perks – one wakes up, does the needful and shows up at work to deal with whatever is thrown one’s way that day – but without the requirement to go into work, I suddenly have the hassle of trying to find stuff to do. The big rocks are in place already – a trip to London to catch Erwin McManus and Carl Lentz amongst others at the Hillsong Conference Europe is all planned up and good to go, as is an extended weekend in Vienna in August. It is what to do with the rest of these summer Fridays that is the problem. Of course summers in Scotland have a reputation for being wet and windy with dry, sunny spells the exception.

Doing a lot of traveling comes to mind as something to do, particularly given getting to know the West Coast of Scotland is something I’ve wanted to do for a while.  Besides the time spent in train stations and airport waiting areas this requires, it is also likely to require a significant outlay in cash. A lot needs to be worked out from a logistical perspective to make this happen but I suspect the dividends – pretty interesting pictures and pretend travelouges – might make this a compelling option.

Another option is to spend the time catching up on all that reading I’ve failed dismally at this year. In addition to the books I have on the go, Teju Cole has an eagerly anticipated collection of essays out in August which I am sure I would be keen to read. Laziness though is the greatest obstacle to this objective, one will have to see how this pans out.

I have toyed with the idea of spending my Fridays cranking out a podcast about nothing especially important. The working title for this – which is likely to only be a spoken version of the things I whine about on here – is A Bloke’s Life. Although I do have a penchant for waffling on things of interest only to me, I also happen to know a number of interesting gentlemen who – logistics permitting – I might be able to convince to come on such a show. Don’t hold your breaths on this one though. What is more likely is a return to the online radio station I’ve previously appeared on.

Movies appear to be the easiest, safest option, particularly as I still have a stash of discounted Cineworld tickets to hand, and the beach cinema is less than 10 minutes away from my house by foot. The significantly reduced movie time since May does  lend its support to this argument, not least because a rash of movies are due out in the next few weeks.

***

Star Trek Beyond – which I managed to see after a couple of hours at work – was the first of these, after habit had drawn me into work for a couple of hours first. Simon Pegg’s performances in these Star Trek movies have always intrigued me – given his attempts at affecting a ‘Scottish’ accent, and his English heritage. To his credit, he manages to throw enough Scottish colloquialisms in to make his parody recognisable. My ears have however not evolved enough to be able to say definitively that he has it nailed down. I suppose the nod to Scotland on the big screen – spot on or not – has to be celebrated and accepted?