Arriving in Rabat in calm conditions

I’ve noticed that sometimes borders between cultures can induce a concentration of cultural characteristics, making differences more stark.  This is certainly the case in the area south of Maastricht, where the Dutch and French areas of Belgium come together.  The Flemish villages on the border are more stridently Dutch than in the Netherlands, and the French villages are almost like film sets in their Frenchness.

Bouregreg river between Rabat and Sale
In Rabat one sees this in the relatively few bars in this predominantly Muslim city.   The bars are markedly different to life outside – you walk through the door and enter into another world … rather like the magic realism bar in the Transglobal Underground song Stoyane/Male-Le.    Each bar is different, and each in their respective way has turned the dial up to 11, whether it be a shabby drinking hole that feels like it could get violent or a get-lost-in-here-and-never-leave softly lit womb of warmth.   El Trianon manages to pack three different bars into its two rooms, each with a different atmosphere.  The lighting is low, the TV plays movies silently, the music is great – really great – and the bar staff friendly and mostly female.  The clientele is male and Moroccan.  At the times I’ve visited in 2010 and this year we’ve been the only foreigners there, and the only women not working there have been those in our party.  It’s a bar that would be memorable in any city of the world.

The Medersa in Sale

Arriving there one night in November we sat at one of the bars and asked a few questions about drinks in my schoolboy French.  The bar server didn’t understand my shabby pronunciation, and the Moroccan gentleman sitting next to us tried to help.  After our drinks were served he continued the conversation:

“Vous etes Francais?”  (rather obviously not!)

“No, je suis anglais”

“Ah, then you speak English”

Searching for the spirit of William
Burroughs at Cafe Hafa, Tangier
His English was excellent – very proper, well enunciated, not English learned from a book.  We talked about our respective lives, travel, Morocco, sailing.  Aziz was a Moroccan diplomat who was in Budapest for several years, 2005 being the year he left and the year I arrived.  Reminiscences about Hungarian life, restaurants, places, people, politics.  We knew people in common.  He went on to India, then to Dublin, and is now back in Rabat sipping whisky at Le Trianon.

Desert music in the evening
The desire to enjoy, the pursuit of pleasure in these bars, brings to mind the words of the teenage protagonist in Vernon God Little, who, having participated in an evening of extraordinary debauchery in a Mexican roadside bar involving iguana impersonations, muses on how something in America seems to stop people really partying.  I think the same is often true of Europe too.  The falling-down-drunk tedium of Magaluf in the summer or Cancun at spring break doesn’t come close to the real thing.  The crazy bars of Rabat are a little closer.

Sand dunes near the Algerian border
We went exploring the desert close to the Algerian border during a visit from Annamaria.  We hiked sand dunes for sunset and sunrise, tried snowboarding down them (Annamaria, an excellent snowboarder, fared better than Maret and I), and saw amazing landscapes … reminiscent of the US desert southwest, but with different architecture, and very different clothing.  Most of the houses were build from adobe, and when these are not scrupulously maintained they slowly melt away.  In one town we saw a whole neighbourhood that looked biblical in age.  Our guide told us it was the old Jewish quarter, and that the residents had moved away “to build their country” in 1950s and 60s … just 50 years without maintenance and the houses already looked like ancient monuments.   I loved the gentle way he talked about the Jewish residents leaving “to build their country”, and commented on it, which led him to explain the Berber approach to religiosity – how the berber flag symbolises Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and how Berber villages had historically been viewed as safe places for people of all religions.  Would that it was this way everywhere.
The old Jewish quarter, abandoned in the 1950s

Annamaria snowboarding down to our camels
On the train to take Easyjet to the UK for my mother’s 80thbirthday celebrations, we’re sitting in a compartment with a middle aged Moroccan businessman, shoes off, quietly chanting religious devotions that he is reading from his tablet PC propped up on the table.  Although dressed in western clothes, the dark thumb-print mark on his forehead tells that he is a devout Muslim.   His gentle sing-song verses are interrupted from time to time by the aggressive chirping of his mobile phone, which he answers immediately, seamlessly switching from Allah to Mammon for as long as it takes, and then back.

Morocco is modernizing everywhere.  That is its right, of course, and it’s not a bad thing.  My impression is that the government is trying to pull off what Japan has achieved: to become a completely modern place, while not losing their own culture, as all too often modernising equates to westernising.  The results in Morocco are generally good, but there are exceptions.

Baggage transport from the taxi to our hotel
After the desert we went to the film studios of Ouarzazate, and then to the real life disaster movie called Marrakech.  Really, what has happened to this place?  Is this even Morocco?  I’ve been here a half dozen times and remain unimpressed.  It seems to me that the way to enjoy Marrakech is to stay in a lovely riad and to rarely leave it, something I did on one occasion.  The city itself has little to offer in architecture and ambience outside of the riads, and Djemma el Fna, the main square that I used to consider the reason for staying one night in town, has become such an unpleasant experience that I can’t say I want to return here again.  Even compared to 2010, the last time I was here, this has deteriorated into more of a circus.  Constant aggression from touts means you are simply unable to walk on the square now … and if you don’t respond to their aggressive interventions you get a stream of insults.  Maret was called racist more than once, I was called German (something I have no problem with, but their tone indicated it was meant as an insult).  Just so unpleasant.

High Atlas morning
Contrast this with our welcome after hiking in the Atlas mountains, arriving late at our small hotel where the owner, a mountain guide, had prepared a room for us with a wood fire to warm it up, and mint tea moments after arrival to fortify us.  We had a similar reception arriving in the high refuge on Toubkal.  Friendly smiles, caring people, almost overwhelming hospitality.

Toubkal summit – a bit chilly up there
In the Atlas mountains we had an interesting time pondering limits.  I am not much of a fan of limits, especially my own, and try to ignore them.  Goethe expressed this with an elegance of language that I lack:  “To be pleased with one’s limits is a wretched state”.   Our main hike was Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in the Atlas and in north Africa.  I’ve been up twice before, the first time on skis, the second in late summer, and was relaxed about the territory.  The snow levels were still fairly low, so no avalanche risk, and the forecast was for bluebird skies.  After hiking to the aforementioned refuge at 3200m we set off the following day for the summit, fairly quickly getting into cloud, wind and occasional snow.  By the time we reached the peak, 4167m, it was no longer picnic weather … an estimated 50kts of wind, stinging blowing snow, instant rime on our jackets, an air temperature of perhaps -5C and wind chill very much below that.  Not a place to hang around.

Half an hour off the summit – eyebrows still frozen
The limits question came up during our ascent.  Now, I might dislike limits, but in winter mountaineering you need to stay well within them … things can go from OK to serious to life threatening too quickly in the high mountains in winter, and you need reserves of energy to get out of difficult situations.  (Not wanting to overdramatize, though – after all this was a day hike up a 4000m peak, not a Himalayan expedition).   Whatever that percentage of reserve is (and in my mind it’s 25%) I certainly strayed a little into that territory … worrying for such a modest hike, and evidence of not enough running in the last year or two.  Maret went very much closer to 100% … concerning to me, and we disagreed about whether that was OK.  Ultimately everything was fine, we summited, started down, and although the inflatable santa remained packed and uninflated, 90 minutes later and 800m lower we were sitting in sunshine eating our picnic lunch.

Christmas in Rabat marina
Rabat is a lovely city, and the marina – in a new development of modernity and tradition cleverly combined – is a delight to be in.  The only real downside to the marina is getting in and out – there is a bar across the entrance to the Bouregreg river that is unpassable in more than 2m of swell for anyone not on a surfboard.  Because of the high latitude north Atlantic storms thousands of miles away, 2m or less swell is rather rare in winter months.  We therefore ended up in Rabat longer than expected (as was also the case in 2010).  The main problem with this was that we had agreed to meet some of Maret’s friends in Tenerife for New Year’s Eve – something we were unable to do.  Christmas in Rabat was quiet, as one would expect, although the Catholic cathedral in the center was well lit up, and there were a few shops selling Christmas decorations.  We had a traditional Christmas day : a pre-lunch pub visit, in this case the very swanky Club Nautique overlooking the river, then lunch on board of turkey, roast potatoes, gravy, etc, followed by a Christmas pudding brought back from the UK earlier in December with brandy sauce.   We were finally able to cross the river bar on 30th December for the 4 day passage to the Canaries, once again in almost zero wind, motoring.  Once in the Canaries we should, theoretically, be in the trade wind belt … let’s see.
The river bar on Christmas day – not a place for yachts


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