Having left the craggy heights of the Rif mountains, we now headed toward the ancient city of Fes, home to one of the most intact medieval medinas in the world. Our route took us through undulating farmland and scattered villages, underlining the value of agriculture here. At the beginning of the modern era, the Roman city of Volubilis had been the centre of the Imperial bread basket in North Africa and still fulfilled much of that role today, as the landscape became more alive with tractors and people. Large, clanking trailers were crammed with farm workers being ferried to and from local markets with produce and livestock jammed in underneath or between scarf-wrapped, dust-blown families.
One year a bunch of us, family and friends, decided that a proper overwinter expedition to the sun was just what we needed. On a previous trip to Morocco some of us had spent a few weeks in France with friends in Lot-et-Garonne, picking plums off the ground for the funds to last us over the coming months. A day’s work on the minimum wage, we calculated, could last each of us almost a week in Morocco. So plums it was, that time, bringing us plenty of stings from wasps burrowed into the fallen fruit and an agonising period at the day’s end when we tried to straighten our backs. The plums were destined to become gastronomic treats as the famed ‘Pruneaux d’Agen’ but we never wanted to see a plum again !
That phrase seems to recur surprisingly quickly around this time, and not just for birthdays. For example, it’s only a few weeks since the swallows came back here – over a month late compared to earlier years. They are one of the reasons that I’m here now, as their forbears were twittering on the roof ridge when I came with my younger sister to take a look at the house.
The first book I remember reading that involved travel to far flung locations was one written by an old colonial hand, Fred G Merfield, with the alluring title ‘Gorillas were my Neighbours’. Looking back, I now see it as the memoirs of a casual racist, (amazingly quite acceptable at the time), with caricatures of tribal rituals, cannibalism and bush meat in Equatorial Africa. However, it was a considerable eye-opener for an eleven year old boy and certain phrases from it still loiter in my mind.
Join the dots and make a picture, win a major prize !
As the caption always read in the children’s comics puzzle page I used to love, I’m a great one for connections. Searching a page of scattered pinheads for patterns drove me crazy but the lure of the (never-won) prize was of less importance than the discovery of hidden forms. It’s hardly surprising that his has spilled over into a lifetime of travel, and I wonder how widely this affliction or condition is felt. Perhaps it’s a form of synaesthesia, where a person can hear a word that overwhelms them with colour, or may be able to see the wind passing.
Few things have simultaneously puzzled, intrigued, tortured, enraptured, dominated, bedevilled and promised enlightenment and salvation to the hapless human race than religion.
When we travel, many of us will at least pay a nod to the old saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. I guess that this is generally useful advice, in particular paying attention to socially acceptable dress and behaviour, and I have heard numerous instances of people thrown out of places of worship for wearing shorts, hauled off for kissing in public, and of course being obnoxiously drunk. It seems to me rather odd, even disturbing, that so many people will demand that visitors to their country adhere to the current views, but obstinately refuse to adapt their own behaviour when abroad. However, the choices we make once out of the office and ‘into the wild’ can be surprising, even to the participants. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me ‘I’d never have dared do that before’, and am glad I was able to help them go off the rails a little, its good to get out of your comfort zone.
Hungary, through many eyes, is a country of extremes. It lies on the fringes of Europe, unlike most European countries it is landlocked, and commonly experiences scorching heat in the summer and tree-cracking cold in winter. The Hungarian language is also one of a kind with no near relations; this allows a defensive impenetrability, but engenders a cultural homogeneity almost like that of Israel.
Norway is famed the world over for dramatic scenery, with high mountains alongside a sometimes surprisingly blue sea. In the span of humankind, most of the region was beneath an ice sheet, kilometres thick, which sliced the tops from mountains, then carried the debris along in rivers of ice to the sea. Some areas in the far north and offshore islands like the Lofotens escaped glaciation, leaving a coastal landscape of jagged peaks.
I am on a sandbank in northern India. There is a full moon. The Ganges is the most sacred river of India if you speak to a Hindu for whom it is a goddess itself, bringing spiritual power from the abode of Shiva, creator and destroyer. It is a monumentally important river to an agriculturist, as its floodplain feeds a third of India’s population, to a geographer it transfers water and nutrients from the Himalaya in its flow, to an economic or military strategist it is a vital supply route, to an anthropologist is is part of the cradle of a civilisation that is twice as old as the pyramids.