Monday, March 3, 2014
Next time you are in London, make a point to stop off at Kings Cross Station. Go to the Western Concourse, past all the people staring up at the train timetables, past the information booth, past all the cafes, and keep walking until you see the queue of people, shuffling forward, chattering excitedly, digging in their pockets and purses for cameras. Chances are they'll be mostly adult, sure there'll be one or two children, but on the whole expect the crowd to be 20 and up. As you get closer you'll see them donning long flowing scarves and rushing forward to have their photographs taken with half a trolley, half a suit case, half a birdcage and an owl. Welcome to Platform 9 3/4.
If ever there was an example of a happy place, this is it. Tourists (and I'm sure plenty of Londoners) flock to Kings Cross Station for the chance to live out one of their Harry Potter fantasies. The experience is completely free - you can buy one of the officially taken photographs but there's no obligation and you are welcome to take your own - and it is supported by staff who hold aloft your scarf to create that blowing-in-the-wind effect. It really is a lovely experience, and the chance to see kids spot the trolley for the first time, is absolutely priceless.
If I was JK Rowling, once a month I'd don dark sunglasses, hat and trench coat and I'd make a trip down to the station. I'd stand and watch children and adults alike, laughing and joking and leaping in the air as they pretended to push a pretend trolley through a brick wall. And I'd think "Yep, this is why I write."
Sunday, March 2, 2014
I first read The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, ten years ago. I have no recollection of how it came into my life, but it was a transformative experience and has been a constant fixture on my bookshelf (in one form or another) ever since.
The book has sold more than 65 million copies and has been translated into 56 different languages. If you aren't to be counted among the 65 million, The Alchemist tells the story of Santiago, a young shepherd who has a dream that inspires him to go to Egypt in search of treasure. It is an allegorical tale about pursuing one's personal legend and the wisdom to be found in one's own heart.
I packed this book to take with me to Morocco. I figured it would be cool to reread a story about a boy crossing the desert, whilst sitting on the edge of the desert. What I had forgotten was that a large proportion of the book actually takes place in Morocco. When Santiago leaves Spain he arrives in Tangier before heading out into the dunes. It proved to be a far more personal reading experience than I had expected. I reveled in the chance to read and experience at the same time. It brought a relevance and a vibrancy to the story that I hadn't previously experienced.
I also began experimenting with a rather sacrilegious undertaking of not only underlining passages, but also writing in the margins of the book.
It's been an interesting process and I've found that what I write in the margins is very different to what I otherwise write in journals. It makes me see differently. Whilst I certainly don't advocate drawing in library books or other people's books, I see no problem with writing in your own, if that enhances the experience for you. I know librarians for centuries have been drilling good book etiquette into the minds of the young and impressionable, but many of us now live in countries where books are accessible and cheap (and not hand transcribed by monks) and how we interact with them is changing rapidly.
If you haven't read The Alchemist, please do. And if you feel so moved (and it's your own copy), write on it and bend back the corners and read it in the bath and leave it lying open upside down...I promise, I won't tell.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
|Dinner prepared for us in a nomad camp in the Sahara.|
I've been told by well-meaning souls that people like us shouldn't travel, that it's all too hard, and that we should rethink our "lifestyle choices" (for the record, with the exception of being vegetarian, the rest are health necessities rather than choices). I will be the first to admit, that there are times when catering for our lot does feel overwhelming but it's not insurmountable, and our recent time in Morocco has taught me some valuable lessons about travelling with dietary restrictions.
1. People are Kind.
I'm normally nervous about telling people about our food issues. It's bad enough taking out meat, but taking out bread is a whole other ball game. On this trip, however, I decided to take a different approach, and declared our issues up front. I let every hotel and tour guide in advance that this was what we needed. And in every single case it worked brilliantly. Everywhere we stayed, people went out of their way to come up with solutions. From hotels to side-of-the-road restaurants, we managed to come up with a good and tasty plan. People will go out of their way to be helpful, especially when given a bit of warning.
All of the places we stayed were brilliant about finding food for us to eat - Dar Fes Medina (Fez), Riad Yasmine (Marrakech) and a huge shout out to Cafe Tissardmine (Erfoud) where not only did they come up with vegetarian dinner options, but all the lunches are veg! Also Travel Source - the agents who put together part of our trip - did a great job warning people we were coming!
|The entree portion of a meal prepared for us in a Riad in Fez.|
Nine Moroccan salads, just for starters!
Where possible, cooking for yourself is a simple solution. For the first month of our time in Morocco we had a flat with a very good kitchen which was great, because Moroccan markets are a vegetarian paradise. The range of fruit and vegetables is incredible and very cheap (around $2 for a kilo of vegetables). And it's hard not to get excited about huge mounds of fresh herbs. Lentils, chickpeas, rice, split peas and beans are all available in bulk. Add to that being able to buy olives in bulk (around $1.50 per kilo) and you're on track for some pretty impressive meals.
My initial stumbling block, however, was shifting out of the mindset of relying on the basics I used at home - like tinned tomatoes, which weren't readily available in the area where we were staying. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but realising that I could actually grate tomatoes and achieve the same effect was a revelation. If you're willing to improvise you can go a long way.
If you're not likely to have easy access to the internet along the way, I suggest bringing along three or four basic recipes that require all fresh foods and a minimum number of spices. With some basic recipes to fall back on, you take the pressure off shopping and meal preparation. It also makes it easier if you have a list of ingredients that you can ask for advice on finding, rather than simply wandering aimlessly through markets wondering where the hell things are.
3. Leave Room For Peanut Butter
Don't let all those pictures of sand dunes and ruins fool you, Morocco is not short of huge, well stocked supermarkets. One of the best things we did was to buy a jar of peanut butter and a jar of honey and stay well stocked with packs of rice cakes (readily available in major supermarkets). With those in our bags we always had breakfast and snacks covered. While bread is a staple at every meal, with a pack of rice cakes under your arm it is easy to adapt. We managed twelve hour car trips armed with rice cakes, avocados, boiled eggs and La Vache Qui Rit cheeses! In one tiny town the only vegetarian lunch option was a grilled tomato, onion and cheese sandwich which we accepted gratefully and then executed a neat transfer onto rice cakes. Having a jar of peanut butter on hand also means that you can boost those protein levels in a hurry - ditto with hummus. Being able to provide basic substitutes like rice cakes also takes a bit of the pressure off people you are staying/travelling with. I confess we were almost sad to say goodbye to our trusty jar of peanut butter!
As an aside, it's worth packing a knife. We ended up buying one (well three actually, because we could only find them in a set) so that we could make snacks wherever we were.
Bonus: Do Your Homework
All the articles I'd read about being vegetarian in Morocco complained a lot about having to eat nothing but vegetable tagine and vegetable couscous (the latter is not an option if you're gluten free...) While it's certainly true that you end up eating a lot of tagines, those are not the only vegetarian options. Other great options include bessara (split pea soup), loubia (white beans stew), harira (tomato, lentil, chickpea soup) and berber omelettes to name a few. Knowing in advance what other options are available makes it easier on you and on the people trying to find something for you to eat.
Oh, and last but not least, enjoy!
*For the record, this was a Ghanaian waiter, not Moroccan!
Monday, February 24, 2014
I met a woman who walked naked in the desert; skin stained blue. Later, flecks of blue still staining her nails she spoke of the man she would soon marry in Marrakech, away from her family and those who disapproved. They asked me to change my name. She never mentioned whether her husband to be had suggested the same.
I met a man who walked barefoot in the desert, sand swallowing his toes at every step. He spun the studded ring on his finger and laughed. No, no wife, no children. Too young!
I met a woman whose sandaled feet echoed on the rocks in the darkness. She spoke of the man in Paris in the flat they once shared and the life she was leaving behind. If a woman has come alone to the desert she can only be looking for change.
Those around smiled and nodded.