Archive for January, 2010

Cirque Des Fées Episode 6: Weeeeelcome to Morocco… I do your Laundry? Veeeeeeery good, nix problem!

I remember when I was five or six my mum explained to me that Egyptians were no longer building pyramids, wearing snakes or worshipping the goddess of cats. Afterwards I had secretly cried in my room all day. I really, really wanted to see those things and it seemed rather unfair to be born too late. Twenty years further on I arrived in the UK, with similar wide-eyed naivety. One of my crazy Kiwi plans had been to camp out alone in Sherwood Forest for a few months. I could keep chickens, grow my own vegetables and no one would be able to find me except on horseback. How disappointed I was – you can now walk from one side of Sherwood Forest to the other in 45minutes! Right outside the main entrance (!) are a collection of B&B’s, the YMCA Youth Hostel and pubs with logos like ‘Tuck-in at Friar’s’. Pants!
Morocco, on the other hand, is not a place that will disappoint or make small children cry. It really is full of ancient stone Kasbahs, wild snowy mountain ranges, scorpions, monkeys, camels – and of course – in the South the vast Sahara Desert. But the wonder that fascinates me the most here is not the dancing cobras or shops full of jaw bones and cow skins dyed to look like tigers. The most intriguing thing here is the Moroccans people themselves – they are all absolutely, gorgeously, wonderfully – mad as hats!

This lovely boy’s name was Cappuchino!

My first example is our friend Marjshi who we met upon arriving at a broken-down campsite at Larache. In the morning he was outside in torrential rain sweeping a shingle driveway and ranting delightedly. “Welcome, weeelcome to Morocco. Everthing here nix problem, nix problem. Where are you from? Where are you from?” and continuing without giving us time to reply. He seemed lovely (though hard to comprehend) and two days later he roped himself into the problem of our ever-piling laundry. After a week of constant downpour we had bags of the stuff and not a clean sock to be found. Marjshi loaded all of this ceiling high in his tiny 30 year old Renault and, through a cloud of cannabis smoke, explained he was driving us to a Laundrette. “Nix problem”.
Traffic in Morocco has no law, even unto itself. Donkey carts, trucks, and women in wheelchairs cram the roads with the odd goat standing in the way to watch. I was concerned all of these crazy drivers got their licences from cereal packets until I learnt you had to purchase one. No test or instruction but by paying you were officially registered. Oh. Well that’s OK then! ???

The Poor thing. Donkey Carts are everywhere in Morocco. They have no lights in the dark so you have to be carefull!

Marjshi drove with exquisite Moroccan style. Using both hands to roll another joint on the steering wheel he chatted animatedly to Oli next to him, swivelling about to include me in the back and occasionally glancing at the road. No, really. I exaggerate not! Obstacles were greeted with a burst of extra speed and horn honking. Oli looked a little terrified but I was having a fabulous time. It was awesome to be amongst this vivid clutter of people and chicken feathers without a worry about our dinging up our van for once! At a road block created by a pile of vegetable crates I thought we could go no further – but flooring the little car Marjshi managed to manoeuvre over a stack of rubble and though a muddy stream to skid to a halt outside not a Laundrette but a Dry Cleaners. Damn! Marjshi haggled the bloke down to £35 for the lot, but not wanting to spend more than half our weekly budget, even for clean socks, we contented ourselves with a visit to a café instead – possibly responsible for my later food poisoning.

Laundry Day!

My second example of gorgeous Moroccan Madness takes place at the campsite just outside Marrakech, where finally it had stopped raining. After sharing a tiny bit of Christmas cake with the blokes in a Landrover next door, Oli & I spent Christmas and Boxing Day cranking our hand-turned washing machine. The workers at the site, used to posh types in campers with three rooms and satellite dishes, thought this was hysterical. In between siliconing the leaky roof (again!) and poking out rust around the windscreen with a screwdriver we were invited to down Moroccan Whiskey with a lovely man named Abdul. Moroccan Whiskey, it turns out, is what they call a seriously strong cup of tea. It’s brewed in a tiny metal kettle and served with about four sugars in a shot glass. Sitting on the crumbling boards of an oil-stained caravan glass in hand, in mime and broken English Abdul told us many tales. His brother had a tragic love story with an Italian; his own marriage broke up after 3 months when he discovered his wife was a cocaine dealer; but his best story was a simple one about German tourists and… laundry.

At the campsite there was the occasionally arrival of these wheeled monsters calling ‘Rolling Hotels’. Oli was lucky enough to be shown around one – the jumbo jet of tour bus towing behind it an equally huge trailer including 3 stories of pigeonholed bedrooms and a canteen. I couldn’t imagine anything more cramped and miserable but according to Abdul the Germans love them. I think we had got onto the subject by me asking Abdul what work he did around the site. He was saying the ‘Rotel’ buses were great because they paid well – especially for laundry. He explained how seating 42 people, the ‘Rotels’ always unloaded huge sacks of dirty clothes for the site to sort out. “Good money, easy, easy money”, he said. “Socks, jackets, trouser, your under-pants, we look for stain, we wash off”, then he mimed a bit of dabbing. Dabbing! Thinking of those unsuspecting Germans wearing their newly sponged ‘clean’ underwear I burst out laughing. Abdul really couldn’t understand why. I think he really had no idea! Just the cultural gap I guess – best to do your own washing here. Weeeelcome to Morocco!

Tune in to our next Episode when you may hear a crunch! Merde!

Cirque Des Fées, Episode 5: Bridging two continents by the skin of our teeth

As the dusty vineyards of Catalunya gave way to the lush orange groves of Valencia, our race against winter seemed to be turning in our favour. The sun shone as we sped southwards and when we turned the heat up full blast in the cab we were happily able to kid ourselves that it was a hot day at the end of summer. The shadows lengthened and, whilst I dodged and weaved round the potholes, motorbikes driving on the wrong side of the road, taxis parked half-on the central reservation and other assorted hazards typical of rural Spanish highways, Flame scoured the map for a likely place to stop for the night. And nearly pissed herself laughing.
“Peniscola Castle!” she guffawed. I kid you not. There really is a place called Peniscola. Do not ever attempt to purchase a soft drink with a name like that. Well, we couldn’t really not check it out could we?
So that was all fine and dandy and we spent a happy couple of days hanging out by the beach and exploring the old fortified town on the peninsula. Except that it was there that our gas bottle ran out again. This is just one of those things that happens every few weeks and generally causes a bit of hassle. Every country has its own bottle and regulator, totally incompatible with every other country’s, which requires the unfortunate traveller to fork out a hefty deposit (that never seems to get returned). It is particularly troublesome in our Beastie as the clever-clogs guys we bought him off had built the gas cupboard exactly three centimetres too small to fit a large bottle inside, so instead we have been forced to use the small bottles which cost almost the same for half the gas. Often, depots don’t stock the small bottles and we end up driving in circles for ages until we find one that does. To add to the fun, with Flame’s current knee-fixing diet of no wheat, dairy, salt, sugar, cooked oils or artificial additives of any kind and our budget of just 50 Euros a week, not being able to cook to make our staple rice and lentils is a bit of a problem.

So, late on Friday afternoon we set out on a mission to find a place where we could take out a deposit on a Spanish gas bottle. We found a guy with a truckload of the big bottles that don’t fit our cupboard but he said we had to find some office in town to make a contract. Well, we think that is what he said but neither of us speak a word of Spanish so most of the communication we have had with the outside world involves lots of wild, silent gesturing and looks of incomprehension. We drove round town for about two hours being sent in all kinds of wrong directions to find the office, until everywhere was shut. Hoping to have better luck the next day, we parked up for the night and dined on stale rice cakes and canned sardines.
Next day of course the office was closed for the weekend even though most places in Spain seem to be open on Saturday. By this point we were totally sick of Peniscola, which is frankly a bit of a slum. Figuring we might as well get further south, we hit the road and drove hard for the Costa Del Sol. Arriving in Almeria late on Sunday evening we had used up our supply of stale rice cakes and sardines and were in dire need of a shower (for which we heat the water on the stove when it is operational!) We did spy a petrol station selling small gas bottles though and excitedly awaited the morning when we would be able to eat some food and get clean.
Monday morning saw us up early and getting perfect directions to the new local gas bottle office. Which was blinking closed. It turned out that it was national bloody Spain day or some crap like that and nowhere opened their shutters. So we sorrowfully expended some of our new weeks’ budget on more sodding rice cakes and returned to our little windswept parking spot by the sea to sit, reeking and hungry, until the morrow.

Tuesday morning. The lazy bastards at the gas bottle office treated themselves to an extra day off. By this point we were totally out of clean undies and had been having ‘babywipe showers’ for four days.
Wednesday morning. The office was actually open and the woman there spoke a little English. She gently explained to us that in Spain you take out the contract for the small gas bottles in the petrol stations that sell them and don’t need to go to an office at all. Sometimes this is just life on the wrong side of the language barrier. Well, at least we got ourselves clean. Clean-ish anyway. There was nowhere in town for us to fill up with fresh water so we stole old yucky water out of the fountain on the roundabout to have showers and do laundry with.

Meantime, the van was really falling apart. We discovered that the water tank was not properly sealed and had been sopping onto the floorboards whenever we drove. We pulled out a load of rotten, moulding wood but fortunately the actual base flooring of the van was wet, but intact. The roof was also still leaking badly in spite of us fixing the full-on hole which I wrote of previously. And we had noticed a worrying amount of rust coming through on our front wheel arches. Flame, die-hard DIY Kiwi that she is, spent several days diligently wire-brushing the rust off the metal and the skin off her fingers whilst I fannied around with a hacksaw making a new shelf for the water tank.

Still, with it getting colder daily, we sped west to Algeciras where we could catch a boat to Morocco. And then it really started to rain. We had a thunderstorm that lasted for two days. Enough water came through the roof that it overflowed the pots we put down on the floor and totally soaked all our towels. The only time we were dry was when we were in the little ticket office where we bought our passage across on the ferry. The cranky old dude who ran it unceremoniously plonked down our tickets on the counter along with a Marzipan cake and a bottle of cider. There were crates of these two items piled along the back of his office and he was clearly desperate to be shot of them. He poured two glasses of Baileys from a bottle, snarled “Feliz Navidad” and glared at us until we drank them (this being 9.30 in the morning). It was clearly going to be one of those very strange days.
Our ferry didn’t sail at 1pm as planned. The storm in the straits was delaying everything. At 5pm we had been moved through three different queues of angrily honking Spaniards. At 7pm we were admitted through passport control. Then the hydraulic door system on the only ship sturdy enough to cross the waters, broke down. At 9pm we boarded and spent two hours staring at the dock. We pulled into Tangiers, groggy and confused, at half one in the morning. We had been instructed three things about the port at Tangiers:
1. make sure you get all your documentation back from the Customs officer
2. buy insurance for the van
3. get out of town as fast as you can before you’re done in by some hustler
So we did that. Well, the insurance place was shut of course, but we did the other two things. At least, we thought we did. But the next morning when we returned to the port to buy the insurance, we couldn’t find our ‘temporary import of a vehicle’ form. “The bloody Customs guy didn’t give it back to us!”
Flame was livid.
Hell, this was bad – possible fines, unable to take out insurance, we might not be able to get the van out the country again. My French is improving with practise, but it took a lot of explaining to an impatient police officer before he understood the problem. It turned out that we hadn’t been registered into their computer system as arriving in the country either. Seconds from being arrested under suspicion of illegal immigration, my French – and Flame’s eyelash-batting – improved drastically. Four hours ensued of queues, arguments and the thunderstorm continuing on this side of the strait too; finally we had a nice new green form and went to buy our insurance. Which turned out to cost £450 – nearly three times more than we had expected. Yeah, Ouch. That is five weeks’ worth of living funds that we are now going to have to cough up from our ‘F*?$-Knows-Where’ budget. Getting back into the van with heavy hearts and light pockets I spotted the original green form, which the Customs officer HAD given back to us, lying under a seat. Damn.
Cooking breakfast the next morning we ran out of gas again. This time I got the hacksaw, cut a sodding big slice out of the middle of the cupboard ceiling and we bought a large gas bottle. My clothes live in the cupboard above it and all my socks now fall through the hole every time we drive, but hey, what the heck, we made it. We’re in Morocco.

Cirque des Fees Episode 4: Desert Rose

The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain, but the wind, the wind will follow you everywhere. Or so we discovered after chasing autumn over the Pyrenees.
Our first night in the land of flamenco was rather turbulent. We parked up in a cozy little aire, nesting alongside a rather flash collection of Beastie’s campervan brothers, but a storm was brewing. Gusts rocked us from side to side and howling and hissing poured in through every crack and crevice. Still it seemed OK until I woke up at 1am remembering my friend Kevin’s advice about parking under trees on windy nights. Something about it being a bad idea? It was at this point a hail of giant pinecones smashed against the windscreen. Bleary-eyed, Oli & I jumped into the cab in our PJ’s and drove on outta there.

The next evening’s sleeping was equally successful. At about 7 o clock the wind and torrential rain was so crazy we had to pull over or face certain death, and all we could find was a sort of parking lot near the motorway to stop in. Four hours later some friendly policemen stood outside our door in the bucketing rain to inform us that roundabouts (or whatever we had stopped on) weren’t good destinations for holiday camping. OK, yes my blue uniformed darlings, but better that than being swept into the path of a 12-ton truck!
Anyway, the next night we had run out of water and wanted to avoid the local fuzz so the thing to do was take a quick squizz at the WildCamping.co.uk, curtsey of Mac D’s and their free WiFi. Online the closest suggestion was inland. WC yes, Agua yes Parking yes …and… a mini cathedral in the middle of the desert! What more does one need! Perhaps a wind shelter? So we ended up high in the red hills, surrounded by a 360 view of the stars.

The thing that makes me a little sad about France and Spain is that the land is so, so utterly used. The vast expanses of planes and rolling hills are ploughed and walled and chewed and planted with complete precision. We drove from one side of France to the other and only saw two woods. The less farmable parts of Spain are covered with miles and miles of greenhouse tents taking whatever they can from an already low water table leaving fertile areas even more dry and desert like. There were no insects splattered against our windscreen after days and days of driving. These countries have a low population per capita in comparison to the UK and so really no excuse.
Anyway… back to this amazing desert with the 360 view of the night sky.

Here we were, parked in the garden of the Virgin Mary, outside a little church in the middle of a dusty desert of red earth and sleeping vineyards. It was cold but gloriously clear so we stayed overnight, planning to use our ‘WonderWash’ in the morning. Little did we know we were being stalked! In the dark of night a shadow patiently, longingly, keep watch over our van. At sunrise I opened the door to find her crouched alert across the road. ‘Dog’, the desert’s only other inhabitant. After being surveyed by her for half the day we realised she wasn’t a farmers dog, but must be a stray. The wee Alsatian was a clever beastie and had discovered this place, occasionally visited by tourists, was the best spot to find food. Heaven knows how long she had been living here but in the dead of winter there were surely no rabbits around now, or many kind wanderers. Of course we were willing to share though all we had was rice, lentils and blinking leeks… the cheapest vege in France! (50 Euros a week doesn’t go far for two… especially not with, oh woe, all the van repairs we needed, but Oli will regale you with that later). Mr Hubby started boiling grain and I brought ‘Dog’ out some water in a wooden bowl.

The poor girl was skinny, skittish, but frisky as a puppy. After a lot of coaxing she hopped up to sniff the water, then in a trice she tipped over the drink, picked up the bowl and carried it off into the blackened vineyard! Arggggggh! I love those bowls, dammit!!!! ‘Dog’ hung out, rolled on the road and played tag with us for the rest of the day. We feed her four portions of rice and eventually she let me give her a hug. When we finally got our bowl back (involving a very complicated manouver) there were only a few chunks missing! We had to depart but by this time Dog was following me everywhere and it really broke my heart to have to leave her. She was a beautiful girl and I can’t help but worry about her alone out there, but we just can’t afford her. I’m gutted. Though that girl was a real surviver. I Somewhere out there in the dust of dying vinyards my new friend ‘Dog’ is the Desert Rose of Spain .