The Marrakesh Express – Two Weeks in Morocco Pt 1. Maudlin’ Musicians and Metal Miners

I must have been in my teens when “Marrakesh Express” came out (1969). Those were heady days. Before Hendrix (1970) and Joplin died (1970). The Lizard King was still alive (died 1971). We were still trapped in Hotel California. Barclay James Harvest would play at our school a year or two later, followed by Genesis. We paid them £200 and a year later they were playing in Brighton for£2000. There are some music pundits that say that Marrakesh Express is among the worst pop songs ever written. But we didn’t care because to us it represented something totally different from the school environment in which we were trapped.

I can remember, to this day, singing the lyrics of the CSN song and fantasising with my teenage mates about heading off to Morocco – before we even really know what drugs and sex were. Instead I made it to the Costa del Sol, with two other school friends, where we got drunk on cheap champagne and risked imprisonment by hiring a car on a provisional licence and then driving around the Pyrenees with no insurance. That was the limit of our budget, nerve and time.

Had we met any women in Spain, I know that I, for one, would have had no idea what to say, let alone anything else. Being brought up with two brothers and attending an all male school for all but two of your school years will do that. It took me another 15 odd years (odd being the operative term) before I got over that handicap in life and, I’m sure, some of my female friends will argue I never got over it.

So, I guess, Morocco had been on the proverbial bucket list for somewhere around 50 years before I finally landed in Fes, earlier this year. A trip taken somewhat wiser about things like drugs and sex (or at least I like to believe so) but just as profoundly ignorant about Morocco and most of Africa.


Marrakesh Express

Whoopa, hey mesa, hooba huffa, hey meshy goosh goosh

Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
Traveling the train through clear Moroccan skies
Ducks and pigs and chickens call, animal carpet wall to wall
American ladies five-foot tall in blue

Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead bring us back to where they’ve led
Listen not to what’s been said to you

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
They’re taking me to Marrakesh
All aboard the train, all aboard the train

I’ve been saving all my money just to take you there
I smell the garden in your hair
Take the train from Casablanca going South
Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth

Colored cottons hang in the air
Charming cobras in the square
Striped djellabas we can wear at home
Well, let me hear ya now

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

They’re taking me to Marrakesh

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

They’re taking me to Marrakesh

All aboard the train, all aboard the train, all aboard


And so I boarded my RyanAir flight. As any wise traveller knows this, in itself, was my first mistake. Non Gaelic speakers may not know it but Ryan is the Gaelic word for “complete shite”. And if it’s not it should be. If you don’t have a bad back when you board you will when you are carried off. The seats are made from some form of indestructible rigid plastic and, far from reclining, are actually set in a bolt upright position.

RyanAir. Almost impossible to find anything uglier or less comfortable

The décor is what you imagine they’d put in Guantanamo to torture the inmates. And all this before you even get to the booking process and charges which if you have any self-respect, you’d never put yourself through twice. People say “Oh but it’s a budget airline”. I mean, Aldi is a budget supermarket but no one would go there if they behaved like RyanAir. Can you imagine? Want to walk down the aisles? That’ll be $5. Basket? $5. Customer assistance? $20. Pay for your goods? $5. Use the toilet $10. Still at least we got their alive albeit with a stiff neck and sciatica.

My second mistake in Morocco was breaking rule 2 (the first being don’t travel RyanAir) – which is don’t try and cram a four week itinerary into a two week period. One would imagine any Idiot Traveller would know this after 60 odd years of travelling. But no. So Morocco turned out to be like the proverbial curate’s egg, I.e good in parts – meaning of course that a revisit is required to make amends.

This is a country which is fundamentally Muslim and traditional in it’s Berber culture. It’s population is about 75% Berber and about 25% Arabic.

Morocco hasn’t been overly corrupted by tourism, and is also a relatively modern in ways that many African countries are not yet. Good public transport, good drinking water, great food, good accommodation and remarkable accomodating to tourists. So it’s really the best of both worlds. Politically is is relatively liberal and socially and religiously it falls somewhere between a historically liberal and secular muslim society, such as Turkey (perhaps was), and the more conservative societies of Iran and Saudi.

On the road to Merzouga, Morocco

My two week trip took me on a circuit via Fes, to Volubilis the ancient Roman city, to Merzouga, in the desert, and then on through the Atlas mountains to Marrakech before finishing my trip in Casablanca and then flying back out from Fes.

It’s a day long trip into the desert but it’s a trip that should really take at least two days and once you are there it’s a full day trip back to Fes or onto Marrakech. In the ideal world this should be a week’s circuit at minimum. A couple of days out. Three or four in the desert and a couple of days back. And even that is scratching the surface.

On the road to Merzouga

My first AirBnB was in the heart of the Medina, which is reputedly the largest and oldest in Africa. Morocco greeted me with freezing weather and the tail end of a few days of rain. And it turned out that the AirBnb, I’d selected, while having many redeeming features, not least it’s location, could well have doubled as the site for the winter Olympics.

Absent any heating the only solution, after about 4 pm, was either to go out or to bury oneself in bed wearing every possible scrap of clothing. Still the food  cooked by our friendly hosts was good and his brother, usefully, also owned a cafe about 50 metres up the road which allowed for evening entertainment and supplies not normally available  in the Medina.

I shared the paid bit of the accommodation with two other guests, an Australian woman, Tiffany and a French woman, Alex, with whom I would visit the desert out near Merzouga.

Mohamed and the monkeys at the ski resort

The Idiot Traveller rule for all new places is to have at least a half day, if not a full day. for organisational purposes. Work out where you are going to go. Find the teller machines, the railway and bus station, the best cafes, the interesting bars, the live music. Work out the timetables, plan your route, make your bookings if necessary.

Fes (Blue gate, Mosque, square outside Medina, pottery shop)

Then a minimum of two days to put that plan into effect. That’s the theory but often the first day turns into a sort of desultory blob of a day where you get up late, have a brunch, get some money out, study your map over a coffee, stroll around a bit and climb up the nearest hill (if there is one) where you can buy a wine and look at the city below. That then becomes your spare day so you need four days minimum instead of three. So that was day one in Fes. Meaning the first part of day two is taken up doing what you should have done on day one.

Fes

My second day in Fes involved a side trip to Volubilis, the ancient and former capital or Roman Mauretania. Not that I was aware that the Romans even came this far south-west but clearly they did since just an hour from Fes is bloody great Roman ruin, estimably well preserved.

This was an Idiot Traveller instant decision – the sort you make when you haven’t been forced to make decisions of any importance for so long that you can no longer remember how to make them. Shall I go, shan’t I go, shall I go, shan’t I go…for about four hours. With the result that by the time I actually headed for the station it was already about 11 am.

So you jump the train omitting to note that one should get off at the second stop in Meknes. As a result you descend at the first station in town thus finding yourself marooned several kilometres from the “grand taxis” which you are supposed to share to go to Moulay Idriss, the nearest town, and then on to Volubilis.

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The holy city of Moulay Idriss

Here I encounter Chloë Mayoux who has made the same mistake as I but hasn’t yet realised that she has made that mistake. Chloë is a half French, half British being. She can’t decide if she is French or British and thus was a sort of Brexit before Brexit ever existed.

Cat Brexit

Chloë says she feels more British than French even though she exhibits every sign of being psychologically about 90% French and prefers to speak French. She is being cajoled by an elderly Moroccan who is trying, illegally, to sell her an unofficial tour of Volubilis.

On seeing me he determines that I shall (a) be his second victim and (b) by persuading me he will also be able to persuade Chloë as the cost to each of us will be halved. Unfortunately for him I perform the Scots gambit, a tourism form of a chess move which prevents one being checkmated by a clever tourism operator and saves a lot of money.

So I persuade Chloë, clearly against her better judgement, to share a petit taxi to where we can get a shared grand taxi. 

Chloë’s protective alarm systems are at Code Red. I can sense the hackles rising on the back of her neck as she tries to decide if I am (a) an axe murderer (b) a sex slave trader (c) merely a dirty old man who is likely to annoy and harass her. Having made the judgement that the latter is the most likely and reasonably benign outcome, but clearly still being very doubtful, we set off.

Communication is sparse as Chloë follows the female strategy of “don’t think I’m going to encourage your interest in me by speaking to you”.  This is a sort of partial inverse of the female complaint about being sexually invisible after about age 50.

strangers

In fact the same sense of invisibility applies to older men but, not only that, one is burdened with the perils of being perceived as a potential serial molester of young women if one is the least bit friendly to any female stranger under the age of 30. It is perhaps poetic justice for several thousand years of patriarchy.

Arriving eventually at Volubilis I can tell that the last thing Chloë wants is to be forced to do the tour of the ruins with me. Which is fine because I feel the same way. For me being forced to undertake tours as part of a group, however small, is about as satisfying is it is for my partner to be forced to take me shopping. It ruins the entire experience.  Still we bump into each other a few times as we tour the ruins and by the time we come to return it appears that Chloë is no longer at code red.

Volubilis itself is a delight. It’s large and well preserved as Roman ruins go. It sits high on a mini-plateau with spectacular views all around – especially good for sunset viewing – and it has a plethora of well preserved buildings, mosaics and bath houses.

This was the ancient capital of the Roman-Berber kingdom of Mauretania and, as such, was full of grand buildings. Historically this was also the capital of numerous empires. Built in and occupied since the 3rd century BC, Volubilis had seen its share of residents – Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans – before being taken back by the locals by 285 AD.

The city remained occupied by Latin Christians, then Muslims, then the Idrisid dynasty, the founders of modern Morocco. In the 11th century, it was abandoned when the seat of power moved to Fes. The ruins remained substantially intact until they were devastated by an earthquake in the mid-18th century and subsequently looted by Moroccan rulers seeking stone for building Meknes.

The buildings include a massive arch to the Emperor Caracalla. It was built in 217 by the city’s governor, Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, to honour the Emperor and his mother. Caracalla was himself a North African and had recently extended Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of Rome’s provinces.

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The Triumphal Arch of Caracalla

By the time the arch was finished both Caracalla and his mother, Julia had been murdered by a usurper – perhaps a warning against misplaced vanity. Other major buildings include the Capitol dedicated to Juno, Jupiter and Minerva and the Basilica . The Capitol was built under the obscure (at least to me) Emperor Macrin (the ancestor of the current French President, perhaps).

The Arch, Basilica and Capitol, Volubilis

Volubilis is sufficiently intact that, wandering around the ruins, in and out among the baths, houses and mosaics one can almost imagine the footsteps of a thousand years ago, echoing down the stone streets. In winter this is exploration of the past at its best. There are few places in the world to see better examples of Roman mosaics, in situ.

Volubilis. Every step a joy

Our return trip to Fes is more relaxed and somewhat hilarious, or at least the first part. Our “grand taxi” is an old Mercedes which is already completely full save the front passenger seat. This means that Chloë and I have to share that seat and I make the mistake of not insisting on being in middle.

Being a manual car this means that every time the driver changes gear Chloë has to perform a feat of yoga practice combining a new move, known as upward dog, combined with a right hand twist in order to avoid getting groped by the taxi driver each time he changes gear. This is repeated about 40 times on the trip becoming increasingly hilarious as time passes. Maybe it was the Roman air. Our return to the station is made easy by a Moroccan woman who goes out of her way to accompany us the 500 metres to the station out of the goodness of her heart and we finally arrive back in Fes around 8 pm.

I have another day in Fes. The Fes Medina has allegedly over 8000 streets and lanes and venturing out into that maze of alleys to find a particular location is a bit like looking for ethics and values in a modern day democracy. They are out there somewhere but finding them is somewhat tortuous with no guarantee of success.

In my view better by far just to set off blindly and hope that, by chance, good things will happen. This was my plan if you can call a plan with only unknown unknowns a plan. But the advantage is that you stumble across all sorts of interesting little side alleys and cafes populated only by locals where you can either have good conversations or get mugged and robbed.

Either are, of course, interesting experiences but one is less stressful than the other. In addition you escape the majority of the other tourists who tend to stick to tried and true routes. Still since I was close to the famous blue Gate and the tannery these were included in my itinerary.

The trip to the desert was like Gordon and Speke’s search for the source of the Nile. We knew, ostensibly where we were going, but beyond that we had little information about the how, when, why or who with.

Lake Victoria
Lake Victoria, Nile source

This was a variation on my Fes Medina exploration, this time with some known unknowns as well as unknown unknowns. I was to travel with Alex, a young Frenchwoman just about to return to France having finished her studies, who was desperate to visit the desert before she left.

Then there was Mohamed the owner of the AirBnB, his cousin Salah and there was the driver who was apparently anonymous and who tried hard not to smile or communicate during the entire trip. 

Prior to leaving I knew only Mohamed and Salah among the group and they were the known unknowns.  Alex, Mohamed and Salah had known each other for a while, so I felt a bit like the third wheel.

Alex and me, Mohamed and me, the two boys and Alex and the road trip crew

Alex and Salah, in particular, and Mohamed to a lesser degree apparently had a form of love hate relationship going on where which felt like some form of asexual codependency where Salah spent the entire trip trying to touch and fondle Alex, which she accepted and appeared to even like until such time as it went beyond some unwritten and unspoken boundary at which point a shouting match would start and Salah would sulk off in a passive aggressive way until the entire sequence started again.

The trip to the desert passes through the nearest ski resorts and through many kilometres of semi-desert with the shining Atlas mountains in the distance.

It’s a fascinating trip broken by a few stops to visit villages and desert oases en route.

Each of the stops and where we go next is a bit of a magic mystery tour because Mohamed’s idea of being a tour guide is to just to go and not really tell anyone where the tour group is going, or when or why. The exemplar of this was arriving in Merzouga where Mohamed and Salah just mysteriously disappeared leaving Alex and I abandoned with no information and, more importantly, no alcohol.

In the morning we pile into the van and are driven out to Khamlia to see a performance by a group of musicians from the Gnaoua – about whom you can read more below.

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The music and performance are worth going for but for the sense that The Gnaoua musicians feel like a cross between circus performers and sweatshops labourers in Bangladesh.

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The Gnaoua – maudlin musicians

There is a distinct sense of ennui which makes watching the performers a tad uncomfortable for the onlookers – in fact some look so sad at being there  that you feel that they are about to start weeping – . You know you will be shuffled out the door and in another half an hour the performers will perform the same songs for another group of tourists. It’s the sort of thing that makes one want to avoid anything organised of this type.

From here we drive further into the desert to look at a semi-traditional Berber settlement – where the inhabitants are still on the margin of our technological society but are no longer nomadic and then onto a desert mine where a couple of miners scrape a living extracting a variety of stones for jewellery via a semi mechanised small scale mine.

Metal miners in the desert cold

Being winter the conditions are harsh, cold, with a biting dust laden wind. My sense of discomfort at being a spectator of other peoples’ lives is repeated. No matter how hospitable the people are or how interesting the places are the sense of intrusion is overwhelming.

Berber desert dwellings. How to feel intrusive

The sense of exploitation soon becomes a sense of the ridiculous. We are to go into the desert to camp overnight at a desert camp. These are specially constructed for tourists to give them a better sense of being in the desert. Which, in itself, is fine but it’s the way we get there that is somewhat hilarious. We are to go by camel about which I don’t have a particular issue until I discover that while Alex and I are to ride the three others, our camel guide, Mohamed and Saleh are to walk alongside.

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And the poor shall walk. While Alex and I perched precariously on our ships of the desert, like Lord and Lady Muck, the poor people walked

So, there we are perched precariously on our lurching ships of the desert to go to somewhere which is close enough to walk to, while alongside us the serfs are required to walk. Not only that but they are doing so in a wind which constantly lifts sand into all our faces and much so for those walking. It’s a neat encapsulation of modern day capitalism where the rich ride, metaphorically, on the backs of the poor (who cannot afford a camel ride).

Nevertheless the night is entertaining with good food, wine and music….unlike the previous stops the workers at the camp appear to be enjoying their work and the evening jam session is a delight. That combined with the beauty of the desert night and dawn make a Moroccan Desert experience of sorts a must do – just not the way this Idiot Traveller did it.

Alex and Salah desert camp
Dinner in the desert

Music in the desert camp. The locals do the jam session

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Ai am the Wei and the truth and the life -inside Ai Weiwei’s Istanbul exhibition.

“Life is art, art is life, I never separate them.” Ai Weiwei (AWW)….and everything is political.

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If you take the view that I do, which is that even drawing breath is a political act, then Ai Weiwei’s exhibition, in Istanbul is a great expression of the philosophy that Art is Life and that everything in life is political.

I slipped, almost literally, through the front door on a rainy, slippery, Istanbul day. For a cultural illiterate, such as I, who normally can’t tell the difference between Mahler and Wagner or between a Rembrandt and a Vermeer and who thinks a Concerto is a brand of Honda car, an Ai Wei Wei exhibition is perfect.

You don’t need to know anything about art or about Ai Weiwei. You just need to know something about life and politics. Everything else is explained.

Vases as columns against a backdrop of scenes depicting refugees, emigrants, prisoners and other similar groups

The exhibition is eclectic ranging over the Sichuan earthquake, Palestine, tigers, refugees, freedom of speech, the destruction of his studio,  attitudes to power and authority, Chinese labour camps, beatings, stone age tools, war, iconoclasm, still life, traditional art.

For those who haven’t been to an Ai Weiwei exhibition here is a virtual tour……

Countries as art and political statements – as you enter you are greeted  by a map of China in ceramic, it’s a form of jigsaw in a way, and it’s really reflective of the rest of the exhibition which binds together art and political statement – with interesting cultural bits of information about the use of iconography as political dissent.

Much of the exhibition utilises common place objects as a link between the everyday and the political and cultural. A coat hanger as the basis for a portrait and car window winders to demonstrate the absurdity of totalitarianism which attempted to prevent protests from moving vehicles over Tiananmen Square by removing all the window winders from cars.

Between 2008 and 2011 Ai Weiwei became the subject of political persecution by the Chinese Government, a process that began with his investigations of and blogging about political corruption that had allowed shoddily built buildings to kill tens of thousands of people during the Sichuan earthquakes in May 2008. The dead included 5000 schoolchildren killed by poorly-built schools throughout the region. AWW named each of the dead children.

There are echoes of history in his subsequent detention. His father, the famous Chinese poet, Ai Qing, who was exiled to the Gobi Desert, said in 1946: “I believe that art and the revolution must go together; they can never be separated. We are political animals, and sometimes we write as political animals. If the revolution fails, the art will fail, but in as far as is possible the artist must be a revolutionary. As a revolutionary and as an artist he must represent his times.”

Left: the earthquake zone, centre: ceramics recreating twisted metal reo from the buidings

Ai responded to the deaths in Sichuan with a series of angry blog posts, and by the next year had set up the Citizens’ Investigation on Sichuan earthquake. The police responded by making a threatening visit Ai’s home, and a few months later, when Ai was in Sichuan to attend the trial of an earthquake activist, police broke into his hotel during the night and beat him. He was left with a cerebral hemorrhage and required emergency brain surgery.

AWW filmed part of the earthquake zone and superimposes a series of negative responses from officials that he received when he tried to get information on the impacts of the earthquake and who was responsible.

A part of the exhibition uses the beating and the brain scans that led to surgery as as the basis for two ceramics using a scan of his brain.

It was during this period that AWW was arrested, as he was boarding a flight to Taiwan, and then detained for 81 days. Subsequently he was barred from overseas travel and the studio he had been invited to build was torn down by the Chinese Government.

In literally 24 hours the entire building was demolished, razed to the ground and the rubble trucked away so that not one shred of evidence of the buildings existence remains – a sort of instant re-writing of history (at left, below, the building before demolition and then the paddock shown after the building’s removal at right, below). AWW documents the process in a video.

 

From here the exhibition moves on to document a series of images of AWWs response to authority in a very simply and symbolic series of images of iconic buildings which in some form or other represent wealth, power or images of a society’s culture…such as, in the case of Australia the opera house. In each AWW stands with finger raised as we all wish to do to authority figures, much of the time.

Similarly he uses images such as those of massed crabs to document mechanisms of secret protest against authoritarian regimes. Chinese people use the word for the crabs as a synonym for censorship as it sounds similar to the Chinese word for “harmonious” and refers directly to Chinese attempts to create a harmonious society via censorship.

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Massed crabs

Following AWW’s arrest and detention he was put under house arrest and then had his passport removed so he could not travel abroad, specifically, in the beginning, to prevent him receiving his nobel prize. His resistance to the removal of his travel rights is documented in a series of images of flowers (perhaps resonant of the famous 1967 images of George Harris and Jan Rose Kasmir using flowers in the face of the rifle barrels of National Guardsman.

Jan Rose Kasmir (left and centre photographed by Marc Riboud) and George Harris (right photographed by Bernie Boston) – at a rally of 100,000 against the Vietnam war

Over a period of 600 days Ai Weiwei placed flowers in the basket of his bicycle to protest against the loss of his passport. His use of flowers as a symbol of protest is repeated in a number of works in the exhibition and the centrepiece (centre, below) is a wall-papered room showing each of the bunches of flowers that were placed in the bicycle basket.

The rest of the exhibition follows similar themes using a variety of artistic mechanisms to document his views on Palestine through his videos of the last tiger, starving in Palestine’s zoo following the Israeli blockade (the tiger was later saved) and documenting the treatment of refugees and other groups around the world (bottom images).

 

All these images on Flickr here

Pinara: In the Valley of the Living Dead

Sometimes, when travelling, one comes across extraordinary and special places. In this particular case not just because the place is, in itself, extraordinary and special but because it was empty. As I walked through the streets of this long dead city, following the footsteps of people who live 2000 years ago, there was an utter stillness, amplified only by a very gentle breeze and the distant sound of goat bells.

There was, literally, not a single other person in the entire city. Even the ticket office was deserted. It was empty of tourists, of noise, of crowds, of a single reminder of the crowded world we live in. Despite this you have no sense of being in a tomb. On the contrary one has the sense of being surrounded, everywhere by the Lycians and memories of their lives.

Pinara was settled when a group if Lycians decided that Xanthos, the largest of the Lycian cities was becoming overcrowded. It’s about 20 kilometres as the crow flies from Xanthos. The place they chose is one magical location.

(For more detail about the Lycians read this post)

Drive up over the crest of the hill and the whole of Pinara is laid out before you. Not in the sense that you can see the remaining buildings but, there, laid out before you, and completely surrounded by escarpments, is the bowl, in the mountains, which the entire city sits.

It’s impossible to know what the city would have looked like in it’s heyday, whether it would have been largely devoid of trees, but today it’s an enchanted circular valley full of fallen buildings, great rock tombs and pines.

Pinara

I arrived in Pinara, on December 5. It was a glorious winter’s day. Sunny. 20ºc. To get there you drive up the valley below, turn off the sealed road and go a further 2 kms along a roughish dirt track.

From the car park it’s about 800 metres to the Roman theatre. Above along the main road through the city lie all the main buildings, or what are left of them, scattered in among the pines. And, surrounding the city, the famous rock tombs, some hundreds of metres up in the cliff faces.

At this time of year the sun never gets high and at 2 pm it is starting to dip towards the escarpments which surround the city. As you walk through the fallen stones the sun pierces through the surrounding pines which, themselves, are being stirred by the faintest of breezes. You have that sense that you sometimes get, in a suddenly deserted house or building, of the original inhabitants being just around the corner.

If you get a chance to visit this magical ancient city, do so. But go in winter or when there are few crowds.

The full set of images of Pinara and other Lycian Cities can be found below:

 

Travel Oddities: The Turkish Cult of the Renault 12

Did you notice that every Renault twelve in the known universe had disappeared? Are you worried that some black hole had appeared and was sucking matter into its vortex? You might be next? Fear Not. Every Renault 12 ever produced is, apparently, hanging out, doing its thing, in and around Fethiye, Turkey. The Black hole, if it exists, is disgorging matter in and around Fethiye.

So if your Renault 12 has gone missing – it’s in Fethiye. Having a good time like some sort of large gnome.

You know that feeling of something not being quite right? For example, you are driving along and a Renault 12 goes past. Odd you think, I could have sworn the last one was put to death in the 2000’s. After all they stop producing them in 1990 so even the youngest is 27 years old. But then another appears, then another. In fact a veritable plague of them.

So many, in fact, that I was forced to take photos just to prove the phenomenon. In just 30 minutes more than 60 Renault 12’s assaulted my senses. So bizarre was the congregation of Renault 12’s that I almost died taking photos of them, as I swerved to take another picture. There were so many Renault 12’s that within 30 minutes driving (yes, seriously) I managed to take 39 photos containing around 45 Renault 12’s.

And, mind you, this is not counting, at least, the same number which I couldn’t take photos of because I was going too fast, I was overtaking at the time, to do so required a death stop or u-turn in front of a truck, or the target car was hidden by a tractor or a similar large object.

In all, at least another 40 Renault 12s. So 85 Renault 12’s it total – & that’s just those visible. In 30 minutes, on a 20 kilometre stretch of road. Never mind the fact that I had to make a quick escape on numerous occasions when people set their dogs or guns on me because they saw me lurking taking photos of their Renaults, So I missed many opportunities to record and report on yet more Renault 12s.

If you work on the same principle as letters to politicians (they estimate for each letter of complaint another 100 people feel the same way) – then for each of those 85 Renault 12’s there are another 100 lurking, loitering and secreting themselves in the bush, on farms, up side streets. Up to no good. That’s 8500 Renault 12’s in 20 kilometres.

Extrapolate if you will. Let’s say in the 60 kilometres surrounding Fethiye there are 1000 kms of roads. That’s 425,000 Renault 12’s just within 60 kilometres of Fethiye. Never mind the rest of Turkey. Presumably all because one old bugger bought a Renault 12 around 1980 and it didn’t break down. So his brother bought one. And then 3 for the kids. And then the neighbours got in on the act. Eventually the entire town had Renault 12s. Like some sort of virus. Sheeplike impulses are strong, clearly.

Now we are not talking the odd dozen here, or even hundreds but thousands of cars. In fact pretty much, I reckon every Renault 12 ever produced is living quietly up some side lane in Anatolia. Or even more – perhaps there are also Renaults from some parallel French universe. They are scattered along every conceivable road for miles around, on every farm, driving along every freeway at 60 kms per hour. Not singly, but often in clusters like some sort of car cancer. In one case four in row parked, together, on the main road into Fethiye.

It’s some sort of febrile madness that has led Fethiyans to lust after a car that only French people and francophiles could love. The French made 2.8 million of the little buggers and about 2.79 million apparently exist in some sort of time warp near Fethiye.

These 27, plus, year old cars are not dying a quiet death curled up in some corner of a foreign field. No, they have been turned to every conceivable use. People transporters, farm cars, beasts of burden, jazzed up hipster machines. You name it. It’s here. In Fethiye. I kid you not.

The Art of Nothing

Nothing: nothing to do, nothing to fix. No work to go to, no garden to tend. No meetings to go to, no dance classes…absolutely nothing to do except watch the world go by.

It’s perhaps the greatest indulgence of travel, especially travel where you hang out in a place or places for a long time. Sit on the great meeting place of the Bosphorus, the great melting pot of Istanbul and watch the people and the ships go by.

Such is my pleasure, at least for now. I can stand or sit in the autumn sun and watch the leaves fall. Watch the gardeners in Emirgan Park planting the bulbs for the Spring Festival. Just ahead a single worker is marking out into which areas which colour bulbs will go.

Planting out bulbs for Spring

Up the hill a couple are practicing for their wedding day, this coming weekend and the photographer is taking a few pre-wedding photos. Other wedding couples walk the paths.

The fishermen cast their lines as they do every day along the Bosphorus, hundreds of them line the water catching God knows what from the murky waters below.

Into the distance a line of ships shimmies up the Bosphorus heading for the Black Sea just an hour away. At this time of day they are all heading north. In a few hours the line will reverse and head for the Mediterranean. Oil, bulk carriers, containers.

The cafés are full. The men play backgammon. Families pass, soaking up the autumn sun. The call to prayer starts, the sound flowing up the hill from the minaret framed by the Bosphorus Bridge.

Just nearby a group of older homeless men are listening to four young Turks playing guitar and singing

Each five minutes a ship from a different country passes along the Bosphorus and under the bridges linking Europe and Asia while, if you stand and listen carefully, you will hear a dozen different languages in 30 minutes. The main road is a melee of traffic, Mercedes and BMWs mixing with the ubiquitous scooters. Traditional Turkish cafes sit just up the road from a mess of McDonalds and Starbucks. Across the road Ai Wei Wei is hanging out his latest exhibition in the local museum.

The park is a blaze of autumn colours and sunlight peopled with walkers, sitters, basket ballers and the emptiness of the off-season, absent of tourists.

Turn left out of the park entrance and head down past old Ottoman buildings.

Just on the left part of that past is being redeemed – an old Ottoman building – forbidden from being knocked down is being renovated at huge expense. Right takes you up the cobbled street past the car wash and the hairdresser, along past the giant old plane trees and past a bit of the old Ottoman past boarded up and yet to be redeemed.

Finally the last 100 metres and it’s back to the flat. All in a walk of just a kilometre, easily strolled at quarter pace in just 30 minutes.


Europe 2017 (Episode 5): The Black Sea, the Beach and the Bosphorus

As an Australian there are few more bizarre experiences than visiting a popular European beach. Yes, there are remote(ish) beaches in Europe and beaches with surf. Some of the Atlantic beaches of France meet these criteria. But if you want a cultural experience utterly foreign to the average Australian then accept an invitation to a popular city beach or swimming spot near a major population.

This is, to the average Australian beachgoer, as instant coffee is to the Australian coffee snob or as a British national park is to an Australian wilderness area.

The key to the experience is to take every single thing one might expect from Australian beaches and invert it. Space, solitude, waves, free access, freedom, quiet, nature, walking, wind. None of these are on offer. In essence the aim is to take the urban experience and transfer it to the coast adding just one thing, saltwater.

European Beaches: no solitude, no waves, no space, no nature

We leave Istanbul at 10 am. This is the first difference. Almost nothing starts early on a weekend in Europe, whereas for me the one of the joys of the beach is the early morning light and solitude. It’s forty minutes to the Black Sea, if one is lucky. If the traffic is bad it can take 90 minutes but no one who lives in Istanbul would really care since it can take two hours to travel 5 kilometres, along the Bosphorus, on a bad day.

The aim of the urban European beach experience, it seems, is to remove almost any element of the natural. If you can concrete it, do so. An urban shopping experience, at the beach is an aim through the creation of a food court on the beach, among other things. Removal of any risk is essential. Avoidance of quiet is a critical element.

The louder, the more populated, the less natural and the more urban the better. Even better have motorised hang gliders pass over every ten minutes and, if humanly possible, offset the unpleasant natural hum of the ocean with regular passing jet skis. If they happen to mow down the occasional swimmer to provide some light entertainment so much the better. One less person with whom to fight over the beach lounges.

Is any beach complete without Pringles and the Pringle Girl?

As you approach the beach you can hear the bass from about a kilometre away. It sounds more like the average Byron Bay doof than a beach. We park and follow a stream of beachgoers, longer than the average airport security queue, down to the beach entrance. 

The first impression does not lie because, while the beach is technically public, somehow private companies are allowed to control most of the beach and charge for entry. To ensure this, fences and security guards are employed. But they are not employed to keep you and I safe from imminent terrorist threat, but to keep the food and drink franchisees safe from economic terrorists who might undermine their economic security by bringing bottled water or food onto the beach.

 

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And every beach shall have multiple cafes, bars, boom boxes and dance floors cos that’s what beaches are for

Once our contraband (water) has been confiscated we are allowed onto the sacred shore. Here, for our $10 entry fee we can fight with the hoi polloi for our share of the beach furniture. With the advent of climate change it’s about 45ºc in the shade, so an umbrella is essential.

We haven’t arrived early but, fortunately, manage to find four of the five remaining beach chairs – these are vacant because because they are immediately adjacent to the largest of the beach speakers ensuring that not only can we not hear the ocean but we can’t hear each other either. This leaves the sole remaining, non-swimming, forms of entertainment as reading and trying to re-position one’s beach umbrella to keep in the shade as the planet revolves.

Access to the beach, which remains forty metres away, is complex since it involves passing through a teeming maze of people and beach furniture (assuming furniture can teem) set up to prevent any direct route to the water. If you weren’t hot before you left your seat you are by the time you reach the water.

This is partly because you have fried your feet on the white hot sand, having failed to bring any water tolerant footwear, and partly because fighting through the crowd to actually get at the water is more difficult and sweat inducing than being first at a bargain bin at a Boxing Day sale. 

 

 

You may swim if you can fight your way to the water

Once at the water, the nanny-state regulations Australia look like a paradise of risk taking. Technically you are not supposed to go outside the restricted (buoyed) area in case you (a) drown or (b) get your head taken off by passing high speed boats/jet skis or (c) get run down by a supertanker heading for the Bosphorus. As a result you can’t actually get more than waist deep because the water depth on the Black Sea increases by out 1 centimetre for each 20 metres that you head out to sea. So you are halfway to the Ukraine before you are neck deep.

Nevertheless I take my life in my hands and, abandoning all hope of rescue should I start drowning, I head out into the 15 centimetre surf. Once I am chest deep, and thus outside the marked area, I am subjected to numerous and repeated urgings from both the onshore lifeguards, in their tower, and the surf patrol on their board to save myself from imminent death by returning to the safety of the buoyed area.

However being blond/grey haired and light eyed I am able to ignore their urgings by posing as an idiot tourist, shrugging and waving my hands about. Hopefully they think I am a north-Italian since we wouldn’t want the Turks to think badly of Australians.

Beware of rips and do not swim outside the rubber duckies, due to dangerous, large, surf

Despite both the costs and risks of visiting the Black Sea, we nevertheless pass a pleasantly indolent day doing nothing and I finish several chapters of my book Birds without Wings an epic of Turkey’s years between the 1880s and 1930s where, judging by the number of slaughters of Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Kurds etc etc, it is a wonder than anyone at all survives in Anatolia and its surrounds.

Our day at the Black Sea follows on from our sailing trip with a local group from InterNations. Had this been a commercial trip it would arguably have fallen foul of the Trade Practices Act since the promotional email advertises it as sailing around the Prince’s Islands in the Sea of Marmara, just south of the Bosphorus whereas in reality the sailing boat does not sail and we don’t go anywhere anyway but anchor firmly for the entire day off Heylbeli Island.

Sailing, Turkish style. Put down the anchor and do nothing

Nevertheless this form of stationary sailing trip has the great advantage that (a) no one gets seasick (well one person only) and (b) we don’t have to put up with a diesel motor all day. Like the trip to the Black Sea, the sailing trip allows our group to indulge the Turkish passion for socialising, lying in the sun getting skin cancer, eating, music, dancing and swimming.

Despite the unforeseen passing of a sedentary day on the ocean waves, a pleasant, albeit overlong, day of doing nothing is enjoyed by everyone. It allows everyone to drink too much, eat well, keep cool with repeated swims and for the men to regress to being ten year olds. They do this by repeatedly jumping off the highest part of the boat much to the apparent pleasure of the women watching them from the water, who encourage the regression to adolescence.

As the day wears on the music becomes progressively louder and eventually the crew manages to persuade the increasing inebriated passengers to commence dancing, an invitation to make fools of ourselves. This invitation is stubbornly resisted by Kaylee, her nephew, Jesse, and I who all require substantially more alcohol before we can be persuaded to overcome our inherent northern caucasian inhibitions. After all one wouldn’t want to enjoy oneself too much.

 

 

Let there be dancing – except for Australians who must not enjoy themselves

As evening falls we fire up the diesel for our return to Istanbul a trip which is leavened by the entertainment of a typical day in Istanbul traffic but transferred to the water – where our skipper decides that he has been offended by another boat which has failed to give way, as required.

This allows us all the hilarity of witnessing a Mexican standoff where both boats come to a standstill mid-ocean while the two boat captains harangue each other for five minutes from a distance of 20 metres. Fortunately, not being the US, neither are armed so we all survive.

This post is the fifth and last in the series Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia – links to previous posts in the series are below:

  1. Corsica
  2. Florence
  3. The Balkans
  4. Mljet

For the Flickr archive that contains all all the images from which the photos in this post were selected click on the links below:

Black Sea

Bosphorus/Sea of Marmara

 

 

Istanbul: across the European and Asian divide…riots, Ramadan and revolution

I normally sleep well on planes; but then often I have two or three seats. There is a technique. First, check in online and book the very rear of the plane, selecting a row that is completely empty at the time and near other empty rows. Not the back row because the seats rarely recline due to the bulkhead wall behind it, but the second or third row from the back.

If the plane is not fully booked the back will always be emptier because people find it noisier and bumpier so, even though the difference is marginal, if there are going to be empty seats they will be there. The back of the plane is also safer. Invariably, if anyone lives, they are most likely near the back. This is God’s punishment for the rich and selfish and, even if you die, you can take consolation that the rich bastards died first. Even better if the rich bastards are Liberal Ministers.

In 747s and some other planes the narrowing of the planes means the seats are only two wide on the sides so you get a mass of space next to the window for books, shoes etc making this the ideal space for a long flight.

Then you must always make sure you are the very last passenger on board. Wait until the third or fourth final call…or when they actually call you name. Then board  – this gives everyone else the shits, of course since half the plane has been boarded, waiting, for at least 30 minutes. Never mind – everyone else will already be seated so you can see if there are any empty or part empty rows. Don’t worry about your allocated seat just head straight for the vacant spaces. If there aren’t empty seats naturally you take your pre-allocated seat.

On this occasion, I don’t sleep so well. Kaylee, with whom I am traveling, has discovered the joys of traveling next to someone you know, which is that you can raise the armrest and take up half of your traveling companion’s seat as well as your own. Having claimed she never sleeps on planes, she now sleeps like the proverbial log for at least half the entire journey.

I, on the other hand, do not sleep as well as normal. But there is consolation in that there are fewer complaints from the traveller in the next seat about having nearly drowned en route. This occurs, normally, as a result my standard travel sleeping technique, which involves looking like the local village idiot with my mouth wide open and drooling in a stream over the adjacent passenger

The drool as you travel technique is less problematic when traveling with Kaylee, as I can drool on her rather than a complete stranger. This leads to less embarrassment all around.

We fly Turkish Airlines that, contrary to the stereotype of Turkey as still chaotic and relatively poor is excellent. New planes, efficient and friendly service and, miraculously, a video system where the sound you “enjoy” while listening to films doesn’t sound like someone first smashed the system and then submerged it. I enjoy three films en route. One of my choices is the Book Thief. It’s a classic tear-jerker which means that, aside from being great and informative, is a bad choice because I spend half the film weeping and surreptitiously wiping my eyes since I have never managed to get over my childhood indoctrination that boys don’t cry.

The plane sweeps over the Bosphorus with a view south over the Sea of Marmara and north to the Black Sea. If one can ever say that a view from a plane is a taste of history, this is it. Constantinople is truly a cross roads which has led us to the current morass in Syria, Iraq, Iran and throughout Europe. In one glance you can see, metaphorically, where two great empires, two continents and two religions collided.

Around the Bosphorus: apparently every fish MUST be caught. And a few of the old extent Ottoman houses

Below the waters lie the wrecks of British and French warships, the  Bouvet, Ocean and Irresistible, were sunk by mines and the battlecruiser Inflexible were damaged by the same minefield.  The loss of Bouvet and two other British battleships during the 18 March attack was a major factor in the decision to abandon a naval strategy to take Constantinople, and instead opt for the Gallipoli land campaign.[10]

The subsequent defeat and break of of the Ottoman Empire then led (in its most simplistic form) onto the creation/independence of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and the establishment of the borders of Turkey and Greece and from there to the present morass in the middle east.

We land at Ataturk Airport, in European Turkey, in the very early hours of the morning and we take a taxi to our AirBnb accommodation just a couple of minutes from Taksim Square. Our host, Dev, meets us at 6am and, as we invariably found with AirBnB, gave us a great welcome including a wealth of information including a recommendation to go to the Gay and Lesbian Pride March, that evening.

After a short sleep we take to the streets walking up the Bosphorus for about six kilometres towards the Black Sea, under the bridge which joins Europe and Asia, and onto the Bosphorus-side suburb of Bebek.

The walk provides a form of Turkish smorgasbord incorporating as it does, European coffee stops, traditional Turkish tea houses, advertising for Galatasaray Soccer Club (named for the area around the Galata Tower), markets, the Bosphorus, museums, ancient palaces and a myriad other miniature experiences of the richness of Turkey, with the biggest downside being that much of Bosphorus side walk is blocked by private or Government property and buildings.

A taxi back to the Hotel gets us back in time for the Pride March and we walk the 10 minutes up the hill to Taksim Square, just adjacent to Gezi Park where massive protests against a proposed shopping centre flared into riots in 2013 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gezi_Park_protests).

As we arrive at the top of the hill the march is leaving the square and heading down the road. It gets about 50 metres past us and then, just as quickly hundreds of people start sprinting the other way as a phalanx of riot police come up the road, batons drawn. The brutality and deaths of 2013 are apparently very fresh (http://tinyurl.com/ow5n4zn).

We move with the protesters back to the square that is blocked on every side by riot police. Just a month after the election in which the authoritarian Government of Erdogan lost its majority (but the Justice and Development Party remained the largest party), it is trying to assert itself by banning the rally and march and preventing it leaving the square. As an Islamic Government, it is also affronted by the fact that the rally is occurring during Ramadam – but as with most things in Turkey it’s not as simple as an Islamists vs. Secularists issue, with many of the protesters wearing headscarfs and other Islamic dress (later we were bemused at the beach to see women in bikinis and headscarfs).

Refusing to be moved on, we are all soon confronted by water cannon. Kaylee, in her wisdom, deciding the water pressure in the flat is insufficient for a good shower, goes to investigate the efficacy of water cannon, before a friendly nearby Turkish woman advises us the perhaps it would be wiser to move in the opposite direction.

At this point the tear gas starts and people start scattering and then re-grouping nearby. The rally is, apparently, also a spectator sport and thousands have gathered higher up the hill to view the action and the crowd surges back and forth, eventually breaking through the police lines on the far side of the square, a victory of sorts and it issues down the streets by Gezi Park. Now the rally begins to disperse and move into the nearby bars as dinner approaches. We take ourselves off for a couple of gin and tonics and then on to dinner. An eclectic first day in Turkey moves to a close.

 

 

 

Travelling to the Antipodes and other acts of lunacy – Act 1.

Yes, we are travelling to the Antipodes…as defined by the Macquarie being “the parts of the earth diametrically opposite each other”. So in this case Europe and Asia Minor, namely Turkey.

In this exercise, otherwise known as a holiday, we will stress ourselves to the max, dealing with the insanity of airports, border controls, foreign languages, strange customs, being confined in flying silver cigar tubes in spaces barely large enough for a 10 year old child, public transport we can’t decipher, unable to speak to 99% of the local inhabitants and generally in a constant state of stress as we try to avoid losing our passports, luggage, cameras, wallets etc. All good though because it’s a holiday.

We start at some un-Godly hour of the morning because (a) Kaylee chooses to inhabit one of the most remote parts of the planet known to human-kind from which you can only reach an airport after a trip about half as long as that from Melbourne to Turkey and, (b) , this is compounded by her last minute decision to search every known luggage shop from Tallangatta to Melbourne in an effort to find the world’s lightest suitcase – which also turns out to be the world’s most expensive piece of extruded plastic. It’s one of the contradictions of our society that they less you get (lightest, smallest, least material, least human labour) the more expensive it will be.

I have my own special contribution to travel stress. It’s called the bag with many pockets. To this I add the clothes with multiples pockets and more layers than mille feuille. This means at any given time during my travels I have more than 20 different places in which I can potentially have put any item of value.

I have never managed to allocate any specific pocket for any specific purpose which means that on any one of the 46 times per day when you need to look for one of 26 key items  without being able to find it/them this leads to panic stress of 20 x 46 x 26 stressful moments per day. Or 23,920 moments of daily panic. Or it would, except that having done this so many times, I always know that I will find my password slipped under the insole of my least used shoe at the bottom of my bag just before they decide to close passport control for the night. This annoys the shit out of Kaylee who tends to panic if she hasn’t got to the departure gate at least five hours before they first call her flight.

Arriving at Melbourne Airport we start the normal process of security farce. Every few months our great security services in some part of the “western” world test baggage security services. “We” invest hundreds of millions of dollars of our money in anti-terrorism in order to protect ourselves from a Labor victory at the next election. It goes like this: DGSE (France), DIO (Australia), MAD (Militärischer Abschirmdienst- Germany), DIA (US) or one of the other myriad agencies tries to smuggle items  through security at any given airport. In around 90% of cases they succeed.

Baggage Security Officer: “What is that you have in your hand luggage, Sir/Madam?”

Intelligence Officer: “It’s a very large tube of lipstick, officer”

Baggage Security Officer: “Is it a liquid or gel, Sir, in which case it should be a plastic bag”

Intelligence Officer: “Oh, sorry (produces giant rubbish bag, removes nuclear launcher and missile, places both in bag) and re-packs”

Baggage Security Officer: All good sir…

Despite everyone knowing that almost all baggage and other security screening is a complete waste of time and money our Governments continue to invest millions in it for, apparently, the sole purpose of annoying the shit out of all of us and making airports even worse than they used to be.

Our flight to Bangkok on Thai is uneventful. We arrive at the “new” Thai international airport, Suvarnabhumi, which opened in 2006.  Despite being relatively new it looks and feels like something out of the 1960s Soviet era. A massive mausoleum it pays tribute to the Thailand’s obsession with concrete. Half finished in many areas, falling apart in others, it is dominated by massive beams and tunnels with walls of concrete,  with no redeeming features, little signage, nowhere to sit, bad cafes and the ubiquitous duty free. It’s hard to believe that anything so new and expensive could be so awful and one wonders how much money was siphoned off into the pockets of corrupt officials?

In its awfulness it is typical of the schizophrenia of Thai society. A “friendly” Bhuddist society that is anything but Bhuddist in its attitudes, can be unfriendly to the point of fear, has a culture that in theory worships nature but does everything possible to obliterate most it, a religion that is supposed to be peaceful and non-materialistic but where the military dominates every aspect of life and where society is anything but peaceful and is highly materialistic. So just as hypocritical as most Christian societies in fact.

Next: Istanbul: across the European and Asian divide…riots, Ramadan and revolution…

 

 

 

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