Thursday 30 December 2010

Finally an Update!

December 21, 2010

This morning I looked out the window at 6:30 am and saw the beginnings of the full eclipse of the moon. Nan told me on the phone last night that they would see it on the west coast that evening depending on whether the skies were clear, and I might see it in the morning in the UK, but of course it would be light by then and probably not visible. I don’t even know what made me look out the window at 7:00 am – I’m never even up at that time normally. But there it was – and just beginning. I watched as the earth’s shadow passed in front of the moon, completely obliterating it. I’m a sucker for “signs” and this was one seemed overwhelmingly significant. The last time there was a total eclipse of the moon was the night Geoff died - May 4, 2004. I was leaving in just a few short hours for Morocco – going somewhere I had never been before. It was a comforting sign somehow – that it was taking place again for the first time in six years, and that I should happen to see it.

 I got packed up and left the flat for the ten-minute walk to the train station, dragging my wheeling suitcase through packed snow. I was wondering if I’d get out of Norwich without catching a cold. Walking through the supermarket the day before, all I could hear was the sound of coughing and sneezing. It reminded me of what it must have been like during the plague (I don’t know why I obsess about that darn plague). I knew I was just feeling paranoid. But this morning, when I got on the train, there was a family of sneezing, snotty kids sitting in a group. I went as far as I could to the end of the carriage, thinking I was safe. But then, when we stopped at Colchester, more people got on board. A woman and a small boy of about seven sat down opposite me. A sweet blond-haired cherubic-looking boy. His mother phoned someone on her mobile and said it was a shame, but Jamie had a flu. What could she do? She had to bring him along, it’s Christmas after all. I put my sleeve against my nostrils and breathed through the fabric. Then a man asked if the seat opposite me was taken, and I said no, so he sat down. Someone called him on his mobile, and he said to the person on the other end, that yes, he was feeling much better, this first day out of bed in a week. If I escape this germ box without getting a cold before getting to Marrakesh, it’ll be a bloody miracle.

I distracted myself by looking out the window at the beautiful snowy scenes - Christmas card perfect. But I’m glad I’m heading for warmer, un-Christmassy climes.

Got off the train at Liverpool Street, then grabbed a man out of the crowd at the station and asked him to point me to the Farringdon underground train. “Through there, up the stairs to your left and you’ll see the platform – Metropolitan Line to Farringdon.” I don’t know why I can’t do what normal people do and get all this straight before I leave home. It’s available on the internet, so there’s no excuse. Anyway, as soon as the tube stopped at Farringdon, I got off, and not knowing which direction I was supposed to be going in, looked around and right in from of me was a sign saying “Trains to Gatwick.” There was one sitting at the platform, waiting for me, so I jumped on, and it left immediately. It was only then that I thought to check with my fellow passengers to confirm that this particular train was actually going to Gatwick. One nice man said he thought so, although he wasn’t sure, as he was going to Brighton. I checked the map on the wall (given all the other passengers were talking on their mobiles - or pretending to be). Sure enough – this train was going to Gatwick.

There was a two-hour delay leaving Gatwick for Marrakesh. Once aboard though, it was only a three-hour flight and the pilot came on with the cheerful news that we were flying over Casablanca.

Arriving in Marrakesh at 10:30 pm, I looked around for Nancy’s friend “Ali,” checking all the men holding up signs with names on them. None of them said “Phillips.” Thank god I had his card. A nice young woman saw me circling around and asked if she could help. I showed her Ali’s business card and told her that’s where I needed to go, so she took me outside where there were taxis waiting and asked one of the men how much it would cost to take me into the Medina. He said 200 dirhams (20 Euros), and she said that’s too much, but he wouldn’t budge.

So I got into this dusty old Renault with its prayer rug on the dash and we sped into town. We got to the top of a narrow lane and the driver abruptly stopped, got out and took my bag out of the trunk. He then gestured for me to get out. There were a few men lounging around the dark lane and I started to feel a little nervous at this point – it was almost midnight. Another young man with a cart came forward and the taxi driver put my bag in the cart. I asked where we were going and the taxi driver somehow got the point across to me that the young man was going to take me the rest of the way to the riad by cart. So we headed off down the narrow lanes, deeper into the souk. After about ten minutes we came to a door, and the fellow indicated the address to me, which matched the address on the card. A brass knocker hung on the door and I rapped it a few times, but there was no answer. Now I really was starting to get worried. Where would I go from here and how would I make myself understood? I rapped again, harder this time, and shouted “Ali”! Finally there were footsteps inside and a wide-eyed young man answer the door, looking like he’d just woken up. I explained that Ali was supposed to have met me at the airport but didn’t turn up. The man, Khalid, as he introduced himself, said that Ali was in England and that he, Khalid, and his friend were staying in a room upstairs. If I wanted to come in, he would call the man who was looking after the riad for Ali. This was a huge relief. I didn’t know how much to pay the cart boy, so Khalid said to give him 50 dirhams ($5). He wasn’t happy about it. I tried to explain that I was sorry, but I didn’t yet understand the money and I didn’t have any change, which wasn’t a lie. He left, and Khalid led me into the riad, which was rather nice, but seemed a bit neglected. The potted orange trees in the tiled inner courtyard were dried out and faded. Khalid phoned the man who was looking after things – Kamal – who spoke with me and said not to worry, I could go and pick a room and he would arrive in about half an hour. He was good to his word and arrived shortly later, a clean-cut young man in his thirties. By this time, Khalid and his Spanish friend, a woman in her late 40s, bleached hair and rather plump and slovenly, were sitting at the table. She was idly browsing through a book and Khalid was drinking beer. Kamal said he would make me some Moroccan tea. He was also preparing his hookha. I didn’t have a good feeling about Khalid and his friend, but felt safe with Kamal, who seemed genuinely honest and kind. He apologized that Ali had let me down and said it wasn’t the first time he’d screwed up. A couple of months earlier he neglected to collect a French woman as originally planned, and left her in a tight spot too – at the Marrakesh Airport with no real idea of where she was going.

The tea was delicious – sweet and minty – and I realized I was hungry as well. It was now well after midnight and I hadn’t had anything since breakfast except for a G&T and some pretzels on the plane. I asked Kamal if it was possible to get something to eat and he said he hadn’t eaten either and would take me into the market to find something. It was another hour before we headed out through the alleys, back to the souk, past groups of turbaned men in shadowy corners. We found a small hole-in-the-wall place that served food – there were men eating what looked like chicken and vegetables and I thought I’d have that, but thought it might be too much food for the late hour. Kamal ordered a plate of sliced cake for himself and asked me what I wanted. I said I wasn’t sure, so he went ahead and ordered something, speaking Arabic to the owner. In a few minutes we had two large mugs of something pale green and frothy put in front of us. I asked Kamal what it was and he said avocado. I said is that all, and he said just avocado and sugar. I was about to take a sip when he added…and milk. I said I was sorry but I couldn’t have milk and he looked like he felt bad about it and asked if I’d like some orange juice. So that’s what I had for dinner that night – freshly squeezed orange juice. Kamal managed to finish off both jugs of avocado shake and we headed off back into the souk to the riad.

Once there, Kamal started to talk and he went on and on, about his problems with Ali and the business arrangement that wasn’t working. I looked at my watch – it was 3:00 am. I told him I needed to get some sleep because the bus left for Dar Sidi Bounou at 11: 45 am. He said that I should call him at around 9:00 am. He had taken a room on the main floor. I slept badly, not sure about the couple in the room next to me and not entirely sure about Kamal. I must have drifted off at one point because I dreamt there was a goat in my room. He had been at the door and then slipped past me and was in the corner. I shooed him out and he went quite happily, which I thought was a good omen. It wasn’t a scary dream – just amusing and lighthearted. I felt like I was being told to relax, that all would be well.

At 8:30 am, I got up, sort of washed, although there were no towels or face cloths, just a towel hanging on the door which I thought others had used. I went downstairs and there was a young woman preparing breakfast – a kind of fried flour tortilla served with jam. It was delicious, especially given I hadn’t had much to eat for twenty-four hours. The woman brought me coffee, and Kamal appeared with fresh orange juice he had just bought for me in the market. I then asked him about getting to the bus station for the ride to Dar Sidi Bounou, and he said, “Do you like motorcycles?”

After I piled on with my bags and clung to his jacket for dear life, we headed off through the narrow alleys, whipping past donkeys pulling carts and people making their way to the market. It was wild to say the least. We dodged buses and taxis and passed other motorbikes with only centimeters to spare. Kamal yelled out and asked me if I was okay and I yelled back I thought so. He laughed and yelled are you spiritual and I yelled back yes. And he said good, but not to worry because he’d had only one accident in this whole life. I yelled when, and he yelled last year, and I asked him if it was bad and he said no it only hurt a little bit. Kamal, to his word, got me to the bus station in plenty of time for the 11:45 am bus, which left at 12:30.

The bus ride is one I wouldn’t want to repeat if I don’t have to. Of the ten-hour ride, a minimum of eights hours were extremely winding. The man next to me threw up in a clear plastic bag, and the man across the aisle also threw up but without the benefit of a bag. I was trapped in my seat and just kept my eyes focussed on the horizon out the window, breathing into my scarf.

After a few hours, the bus stopped outside a small cafĂ© and everyone piled off. It seemed like a good opportunity to go to the loo and eat something, so I ordered the tagine, which came to me hot and delicious. A small stew in a pot that looked like it had cooked a million small stews, its blackened sides and bottom I avoided scraping. It was served with the typical Moroccan bread. I wasn’t offered anything to drink, but had a bottle of water in my bag on the bus, so satisfied myself with just the food. There were other passengers eating as well, some with small children, and everyone seemed happy to have a break from winding road. After half an hour we all piled back on and resumed the torturous journey.

It was after 10:00 pm before the bus finally stopped outside Dar Sidi Bounou. A man came aboard who I knew immediately to be Daoud. A sincerely charming, handsome man of forty with dreadlocks and a wool touque. I understood why Nancy has thrown up most Western ways to be here in the desert with her young man. The couple in front of me on the bus were also welcomed by Daoud - Aysha and Tim from the UK, both thirty-five years old and delightful intrepid travellers.  We stepped off the bus into the warm Moroccan desert, under a canopy of bright stars, and headed down the driveway to Nancy and hot mint tea.

It’s hard to believe I've been here a week now. The days have blended together. We’ve been without internet almost the whole time due to the sandstorm that hit just the day before I arrived. There was sand everywhere. I had to shake out all the blankets on the bed in my hut. But somehow it doesn’t matter. Yesterday the washing machine broke, so today I washed my clothes by hand in the shower. The people are incredibly sweet and kind. When I was spotted carrying the basket of wet clothes on my way to the clothesline, it was immediately whipped out of my hand and carried for me. The cook is a large soulful woman called Rakia who greets me each morning with a smothering hug and firm kiss on each cheek. Her smile fills her whole face. They have nothing, and yet they have everything.

I’m usually up by 9:00 am and head over to the open-air dining area where fresh orange juice, coffee, fruit and a Moroccan crepe are served. Then, a long chat with Nancy (with me making discrete notes so I can remember what she’s said when I come to write my dissertation about her this summer). After that I meander back to my hut and grab what I need to take to the shower. Lunch time follows soon after and then a walk down the long straight road towards the dunes. We walk past the camel stables on the side of the road, which is a lovely sight – the wonderful desert beasts all lined up at the feeding trough eating fresh hay, so much like llamas. And there is always a donkey pulling a cart going down the road. I’ve felt a familiarity with this place since I got here, and realized this morning what it is. It reminds me of the farm at Keats in the summers during our heydays there. People, music, great food, the animals – it really was my favourite time during the past fifteen years – that and being on the boat. A relaxed, simple rhythm that marks the beat of your day. As I write this I hear a donkey braying somewhere out on the dunes. There are dogs too – Cambo, George, and Dick – wild, desert dogs who are so very affectionate and come in for a bit of food and some petting, then head off again into the desert. I woke up at around 2:00 in the morning to hear one of them howling like a wolf. There are cats too – a bit shy and skittish, but they come and hang out by the kitchen door after dinner and enjoy leftovers.

At around 6:00 pm, Nancy looks at me and says, “Isn’t it that time again,” meaning G&T time. I brought a bottle with me from the duty free shop at Gatwick and it’s now almost half gone, a week later. It’s the only alcohol I’ve had since I got here – one weak G&T before dinner. It’s just right though. Then out comes the freshly baked Moroccan bread and hot, mostly vegetable and pasta and lentil soup. Following this we have a tagine of meat and vegetables, then oranges and dates to finish up. Rich Moroccan coffee is also served, but I opt for the lemon verbena tea (which they call Louisa), a better option if I want to get a good sleep.

Tonight it was cold, so the boys built a fire on the dunes and we all sat around listening to their drumming and singing. Cambo the desert dog joined us and seemed happy for the warmth of the fire and the people. I retired to my cozy hut and piled on the blankets to fend against the chill air. At least I’m not in the UK with all the snow, but I do wish it would warm up a bit.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Busy Week at UEA

The week has flown by and I haven't had a chance to post anything, but it's all been good. Last Sunday I got on my trusty steed, after a break of several weeks due to cold weather, and cycled to Mousehold Heath. I didn't know about the heath when I set off, but following my nose, ended up there quite by accident. I seem to be always drawn to open, grassy spaces and this place is certainly a destination when one needs to get away from the hustle and bustle. The heath has an amazing history, which I found out after I got home and visited Wikipedia. Since the 12th Century there's been a murder, several uprisings, and the scene of artillery training during the Second World War. The bombs left a huge depression in the ground, which has been turned into a small pond. Today, it's a peaceful woodland where people cycle and families walk with their dogs.

On Sunday I went with my new friends (introduced through Nan), Chris and Mary and their enchanting daughter, Bronwyn, to the Cathedral for the annual Medieval Christmas Fayre (as they spell it). First we went for lunch in wonderful cafe near the Cathdral. Then, fortified with delicious food, walked to the Cathedral just blocks away. It was an amazing event complete with a fire eater - something I've never seen first hand before. 

The man, dressed in a black Monk-like robe, stood in the grassy centre of the cloister, filled his mouth with some kind of flammable liquid, then put a flaming torch to his lips and blew. It was quite spectacular, the flames shooting about six feet into the air. Every time I tried to photograph it, I missed by milli-seconds. I should have taken the shot while he was filling his mouth and I might have caught the action. We walked around the cloister and looked at all the amazing stuff on sale, but I was good and refrained from buying any of it, tempting as it was. Feeling chilled to the bone, as if the stone walls had pulled the heat from our bodies, we went to the cafe in the Cathedral and had tea and cake. The highlight was a five-piece musical group singing 1940s songs and some carols. The four men and two women singers were excellent and I wanted to sing along, but no one else was so I restrained myself. I remember years ago when Kayla and Courtney were young, going with Mickey, Dennis, Luke, and Mariah to the Van Deusen Gardens' night-time Christmas festival and wanting to sing along with the carols that were being piped through the colourful lit gardens. I started singing along with O Holy Night...when Kayla, who I was carrying in my arms, leaned her head towards my ear and whispered, "Please don't sing, Nana."

Monday was the last class for the Biography course and we celebrated with a party at Thea's house, one of my fellow students. The house she shares with her partner, David, is small and crammed with books - they're both serious students. He is a lute maker and has a workshop out back where he spent most of the evening. A lovely man, and when I mentioned this to Thea, she said, "Yes, isn't he nice." Very touching. They're both in their late sixties, intellectually thirsty, and a joy to be around. The meal was incredible. We sat at a long table in living room, enjoying Moroccan dishes all prepared by Thea (with not a smidgen of dairy!). We were asked to bring only olives and homous and some wine. She'd prepared a mildly spicy beef tangine, another of chicken, couscous and a fresh green salad with romaine and pea shoots. She said it was in honour of my trip to Morocco next Tuesday, which left me quite speechless (unusual for me). There were ten of us all together, everyone from the class but two, who had to travel too far by train. Even Helen, our effervescent module leader, came and added to the laughter and repartee. The lively evening ended with tea and orange cake, and at 10:00 pm we were driven home by those with cars. Everyone was happy to have had the chance to celebrate the end of the semester. It's good to know that most of us will be going into the same modules in January, so it's not goodbye yet.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

An Early Christmas Present

Yesterday we had author Philip Hoare come and speak to our little group of ten. He's a great talker and sparkles with enthusiasm for his craft. His latest book "Leviathan" is a biography with a whale as its subject. This is of course a wonderful jumping off point to discuss whether that really fits into the genre of biography - to have an animal as your subject. It seems anything goes in this post-post-modern world of biography. I like it when people break the rules and get away with it. His book is a huge hit and he's laughing at his detractors all the way to the bank.

After the session ended, one of my fellow students - the American women, Michelle - and I went across the street to the Sainsbury Centre for the exhibition of three surrealist friends - Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna. This is the last week it's on and I was determined to see it before it left. It's an amazing collection of the work of Carrington and Varo, but there were none of the photographs of Horna, who wasn't a painter. Walking through the gallery and gazing at these incredibly fantastical paintings, being the only two people in the place, was strangely moving, and I'm not actually a big fan of surrealism. The paintings are hauntingly beautiful, and Carrington especially brings in a touch of humour to hers - bizarre humour. It's clear that the two women had a strong influence over each other's work.

When Michelle and I walked out of the exhibition and towards the exit, we passed the gallery shop, and noticing we had fifteen minutes before the place closed, had a browse through. We both landed right where the hard cover book was on sale for £30 and looked longingly at the two copies sitting there. We're both very tight to the bone right now financially, but still we lingered. The woman at the counter said, "Those are the last two copies we have." Michelle said that she couldn't possibly buy it because she's been "hemorrhaging" money since she came to the UK. I one-upped her and said I didn't have any money to hemorrhage. Still we lingered. Then I finally said, "Tell you buy that copy for me for Christmas, and I'll buy this copy for you for Christmas." Settled. We walked out clutching our books, and I was so absorbed with mine all the way home on the bus, I nearly missed my stop. Michelle got picked up by her friend, but emailed me today to say she'd stayed up until 3:00 am reading it. It's strange how things weave in and out of your life, but these women were great friends of Edward James, the wealthy eccentric who built a surrealist sculpture garden in Las Pozas, Mexico, where I've never been even though my visits to San Miguel de Allende have got me close to it. Never day.

Next week, unbelievably, is the last week of classes for this semester. I'm at the halfway point with the course work. The next semester starts January 18th, and while I still have two 5000-word essays to work on over the holidays, I'm feeling like I've got a good hold on things. I've finished the 2500-word workshop piece I'll be presenting to the group on Tuesday. We have an excellent camaraderie now - essential when a group critiques each other's work - and I'm not too worried about being lacerated.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Another Sunday Walk

Yesterday I made myself leave the flat because I felt something akin to lethargy creeping into my bones. I walked into the centre of town and got quite caught up in the merriment of late afternoon shoppers, feeling thankful though that I didn't have to run around like a nut buying Christmas presents and getting stressed out over what to buy whom. I think I may be able to sidestep Christmas altogether this year. They don't celebrate it in Morocco, that's for sure. Although fellow Canadian Nancy said we could put a string of lights on the palm tree in the garden if we really felt we needed to. The camels will be enough of a reminder for me. And the bright star in the East.

As I walked through the narrow cobbled streets, I saw some very Christmassy sights though, and luckily had my camera to capture the true spirit of the shops. It really is the closest one can come to a Dicken's Christmas - the shops aren't pretending to be ancient...they are!

Today was relatively warm (3 degrees C) and windless, so I thought I'd head in the opposite director to last Sunday's walk. This one took me about two miles to the east. I climbed steadily upwards until I got to a ridge that opened onto an ancient forest called Lion Wood, which is a local nature reserve (according to the sign on the path). It's actually mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1087, and is part of what used to be Thorpe Wood - a much larger track of land, now long gone, as are the wolves and wild boars that roamed freely. It was a beautiful walk, even in early winter, and for some reason reminded me of a walk I've taken many times on Keats Island - the walk from the main road through the woods to Plumper Cove. Maybe it felt familiar because I've also made that walk in the winter, many times.

Coming back down towards town, I crossed the foot bridge over the River Wensum and lo and behold what did I come to - The Adam and Eve Pub! The one I saw a few weeks back and decided to forgo because I was on my bike. This time I went in. I love the sign...notice "probably" the oldest pub in England. I opted for the vegetarian dinner which was delicious and came with a crispy lump of sagey stuffing, a thick slice of veggie burger-ish something or other, mushy peas and broccoli, and roasted potatoes, all covered in homemade gravy, which I'm sure came straight off the beef dripping (so much for the vegetarianism). I enjoyed it with a small glass of merlot (as opposed to a large glass - a choice you're always given). It was still light when I left the pub and I felt well fed and blissfully tired from the long walk and fresh air. Tomorrow's a school day, so now I have to buckle down and do some reading.

Friday 3 December 2010

Cold Winds Lash Norwich!

It's bloody cold! But not as cold as Wednesday when a real howler blew in all the way from Siberia. And there's snow too - not a lot, but enough to make the sidewalks a bit risky. Salting of sidewalks is not something I've witnessed here, but the roads get "gritted" by the "gritter" often. Those gritters don't give an inch - they dump grit on your car if you're stopped behind them, or so I'm told by one of my program mates, who knows about it first hand. Anyway, I stayed in all day and amused myself, surprised at how fast the time whipped by, like the wind from Siberia.

Yesterday I felt I really did need to venture out, lest I become a total recluse, so headed to the bus stop. One of the things I love about Norwich are the characters who get on and off the bus at various stops. After I took a seat, an old gentleman, probably in his late 80s, slowly and gingerly stepped onto the bus with his white cane tapping all around the door to make sure he was actually where he wanted to be. He was chuckling away cheerfully, thanking the bus driver for waiting. He took a seat across the isle from me and started chortling and carrying on, suggesting we all have a sing song (normally I'd jump right on that). I'm not sure if he even knew there were other people on the bus, and doubted he would have behaved any differently whether there were or not. Then he shouted, "Don't spare the horses!" and went all quiet, just muttering and singing happily under his breath until he got off in the city centre.

I arrived at the uni just in time to have lunch in one of the two eateries on campus. They do a great job of home-cooked meals, and for the grand total of £4, I had a roast beef dinner with roast potatoes and gravy, a mixed carrot-cauliflower-green-bean veggie thing, and a cup of tea. It's almost worth taking the bus in just for that. It's hard not to have any of the tempting desserts on display - always served with the familiar custard my mom used to make. But it's not worth the risk. I gave in and had a buttery cookie one day, and paid for it dearly. Why would I purposely inflict on myself a dairy-induced cold when all around me people are coughing and hacking from winter bugs?

While at the uni, I also put in a change of module for Semester 2, which I can't believe is coming up so soon. I had originally picked a course called "Post Modern Theatre" thinking it would be an interesting departure from the biography/autobiography genres. But almost everyone in my program has registered for the "Publishing" module thinking it'll be easier in terms of required reading. The one-week immersion course I took at SFU last summer covered all aspects of publishing, and I figured it would be boring going over the same material. This is the UK though, and there are differences in the publishing business between here and North America. Besides, one can never have too much information about publishing. I won't know for a day or two whether I can make the switch, but I'll keep my cold fingers crossed.

I'm adding three photos to this entry. One is a shot of my bedroom where I do quite a bit of reading and writing, and the other is a shot of the large open living space, where I eat, listen to music, and also do quite a bit of reading and writing. Working in the bedroom sometimes seems a bit confining, but it's cozier and warmer in there. I'm also attaching a shot of my Dickensian mittens which I picked up at the Saturday market for £1. A real must for these chilly winters day - and this is only the beginning of at least three months of winter. But there's the cheery prospect of Morocco on the horizon - less than three weeks away. Nancy has arranged for me to be picked up at the airport by a friend and his wife who own a riad in Marrakesh. They're going to take me through the darkest and most mysterious part of the souk (market) where I'll take photos for their website. I'll then write something that will hopefully attract tourists to their guest house - the promise of being shown a part of Marrakesh not seen by most Westerners. I just looked at the calendar - a propitious full moon will be shining over Marrakesh the evening I arrive.