Marriage Proposal… mais c’est le Souk ici ;)

My boyfriend turned to me and laughed. ‘See’, he said trying to ease my fears, ‘I told you that they would want to trade you for some camels’. I tried not to look so pleased.  So many people had told me that this happened or had happened to them or their pretty friends but it was nearing the end of our trip and no one, not even the ugliest buck toothed peddler had offered up anything in exchange for my love. wasn’t I worth even one lousy camel? Not even the oldest most haggard one?Did I smell, or was my face getting too red walking about under the midday sun?Perhaps my perfume had expired and so my pheromones were going haywire but maybe  I was just having a few “off days”, who could tell? One thing was for sure though, it just wasn’t happening with me in the Moroccan love department, that is until now…

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We had spent 20 minutes bartering for a bracelet.

-“If I had a woman like you I wouldn’t argue over 50dhs. I would buy you this bracelet for 150 dhs”, said the owner of the next door shop as he grinned broadly, knowing he was in ear shot of both his friend the seller and my boyfriend. “In fact, if I had you”, he continued, “I would give you diamond and a detached house with a villa!”

-“See, I told you that they would want to trade you for some camels”.

-“No, not camels, diamond! Big diamond”, he answered.

This was enough to break my boyfriend’s concentration. Moroccan suitors were no longer to be underestimated it seemed. Love like everything else in Marrakesh had moved into the 21 st century and apparently camels were now just a thing of the past. His family had two houses, one in Wimbledon, the other in Kensingon and he had lived there for over 10 years… Was this just a final last resort tactic, the straw that would break the camels back,  the thing which would get my red sweating denuded boyfriend to pay the 150 dhs and whisk me away before I could think twice about the life without work, the free house, the huge rock and a life time of goat skin shoes? Most probably. Did it work? Of course it did. Does this take away the fact that I got a proposal? Of course not! Was I disappointed not to get offered loads of camels? A bit…

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We had come a long way since my first attempt at bartering, where I was lectured in the leather shop on the etiquette of Moroccan shopping- apparently you can’t keep lowering your offer once someone has accepted it as I was doing  :/ With my sails a bit deflated I entered the souks up North close to the Madersa Ben Youssef – I mean what a way to rain on my shopping parade with an angry accusation of dirty dealing!

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We negotiated our way through the maze, away from the tanneries and down towards Place de Jemaa El Fna. It was a journey filled with wonders: the artisans and their studios, the burrows covered in goat hides, the metal workers and the old man who carved beautiful chess sets with his feet. Then, closer to the main square we found the more sumptuous shops selling soft babouches and colorful carpets. Sometimes it was hard to know where to go and so whenever we found a few tourists we would surreptitiously follow them down, that is if we didn’t get waylaid by some treasure or shiny object. It was very dark in the main souks, darker than I had imagined and in some places dyed material and animal hides hung from the rafters . Bamboo had been laid across the passages to protect the bustling world below from the harsh gaze of the sun. A few lucky little shafts of light did manage to seep through though and when a person walked through these pools of gold they were lit up as if they had been chosen by God himself. We could see where we were going, but not because the sun was high in the sky, but thanks to the warm inviting glow of the shops and the thousands of lanterns and glass lamps on sale in the thousands of Alibaba caverns dotted along our road to openness. Along the main arteries of the market these lanterns shone bright and lit up the darkness like tiny stars. Down narrower streets the lights were off but on our arrival sellers illuminated their caverns and turned them into glorious caves filled with precious metals, gem stones and genies and in this way the darkness parted as we moved forward into the maze.

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We had to barter for everything and shopping Moroccan style was hard. Every person wanted to show us something or sell us something else. If they didn’t have it, they knew someone else who did. When we looked it would take time to leave especially if trying not to be too rude, and when we wanted to buy we had to mentally prepare ourselves that the deal could take a good 1/2 hour to negotiate. They were so much better than us though and we had to resort to communicating with them in Spanish instead of French to try to put them at a slight disadvantage. We had artisans make us sculptures to take away, give us guided tours of their work shops, we were offered tea and humoured and really every time we fell for it, enjoyed it and bought their products (which I may say were lovely anyway, so win win all round!).

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This part is for those of you who are interested in our purchases and the prices that I paid. 10 dhs = approx 1 euro. We bought domino sets (80-100), a leather pouf (180 dhs) and hundreds of pairs of shoes, (100 dhs for the best quality handmade leather babouches is a good price, but if you are buying many then you can get them for 90dhs each). We also bought 8 pairs of earrings ( 80 dhs), a leather hand stitched camel (10 dhs), 2 his/hers leather wallets (80 dhs for the pair), leather rucksack (180 dhs), natural perfume (1 dhs a gram), key rings (10 dhs each), hand painted tagine (150 dhs).

And…Don’t forget you can now stay up to date with our adventures, travels and  outfits on my  social media 🙂

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Snakes, Monkeys and Spicy Sunsets at Place de Jemaa el Fnaa

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I will never forget the first time that I saw a monkey wearing a nappy or the weathered man who lifted up a large basket to reveal a big fat python. Women offered to draw henna on our hands and glided under billowing dark blue robes, following us like large phantoms with piercing eyes, across the wide expanse of dryness. The acrobats, the pipe sounds and the mounds of dried fruit being sold off the burrow must be considered the most “normal” of activities conducted at Place Jemaa el Fnaa, with the rest essentially being a real mine field of weirdness. The square is wide and the punters are strategically placed, or at least it feels this way. Place Jemaa el Fnaa makes you stop and gaze but you must do so at your own peril. Everything ugly is but a large trap and you will have to shell out to try to extrapolate yourself. The beauty of the atmosphere, the stalls of perfumes and wicker baskets, the men waving and gesturing to you behind the rows fruit juice stands, the horses and carts gracefully clip clopping over the warm wide expanse of Africa’s biggest square will all, if you gaze too intently, hypnotize you much like a flute hypnotizes a cobra.

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It took us a while to get there even though we weren’t too far away. Having dropped our bags off we stepped back into the heat of the day. We left the comforts of our beautiful hotel and made our way into the heart of the Medina. Crafts, jewels, pottery and leather goods poured out it seemed from cracks in the walls. Carpets and clothes lined the yellow walls of the Mosque and apothecaries decorated their shops with piles of saffron and pigment.”Where do you come from?” “Come and have a look!” We were greeted and encouraged to browse by all. Men pointed us towards Tombs and Palaces and some told us they were closed, helpful information, although our destination wasn’t to be there that day. We continued our journey onwards, thanking as we went, politely refusing advances from all sides. It wasn’t threatening but it was quite tiring. We got out our map and having refused instructions from a number of people we were befriended and eventually followed a kind young boy who took us rather a long way round through the Jewish quarter and via his father’s shop, where we got to smell fantastic natural perfumes, teas and spices. It wasn’t part of the plan but it was fun.

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As the day grew long and the sun began descending low into the sky we sat down at a local restaurant opposite Cafe de France. Local Moroccan families sat patiently next to us, their food delivered to their tables but left untouched for what seemed like hours. Little boys ran back to their mums with full bottles of freshly squeezed orange juice and women with sun glasses and gold earrings produced pastries including pancakes and french pains aux chocolat for their families. The shadows grew longer and the blue sky became stained red and the market was engulfed in an orange glow.

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More people were now out, and mopeds sped up and down the main square. The whole sound of the beeping vehicles, the ephemeral pipes of the charmers and the cries of the sellers rose higher and higher and merged with the buzz of the sun. Then a cry rang out, a chant on a tanoy, the Call to Pray – this one although sounding like all the others we had heard throughout the day was particularly special as it marked the end of the first day of Ramadan, where devout Muslims of all ages go without food or water for 17 hours. Bottles were opened, tea was poured and glasses were downed. We wished our neighbors “bon appetite” and with smiles on all of our faces we ate our tagine in the glowing evening, side by side with those families breaking their daily fast with their Ramadan breakfast, a very spiritually powerful moment which we had the privilege of witnessing.

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As night descended upon the square, Place de Jemaa el Fnaa came to life. We walked through throngs of people and passed the many food stalls which had been assembled quickly just before the Call to Prayer. Music played, shops which had been until then closed, opened and so it was then under the gaze of the moon that we set off into the souks of Marrakesh. But that I’m afraid, is another story 😉

The Red City and the Heart of Africa, the Heart of Life

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 We reveled in our success at bartering with the taxi driver at the airport, lowering our fare down from 150 Dhs to 120 Dhs. Was it really worth ten minutes in the backing sun to save 3 euros (1.50 per person) and risking heat stroke even though this car was almost the only one available? Probably not…but hey we were in Marrakesh and we were here to do business local style!

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The earth was dry and the houses and walls red. Palm trees lined boulevards, everything looked really smart. New mansions and apartments were being erected next to lush green gardens and new roads. We laughed and joked and exclaimed that really people had exaggerated. It sounds condescending but we felt that things looks better than we had imagined. Marrakesh we mused after all does have its own film festival now reaching the heights of Cannes itself and is being described my many as the new St Tropez. We passed Mamounia Hotel where the King himself stays when he comes to the city, its massive grounds sprawling out into the distance. Other Golf Courses, large hotels and Beach Clubs all loomed ahead. Had we flown 3 1/2 hours to see a slightly shabbier version of the South of Spain? Had we come too late? Has globalization, tourism and the property boom managed to finally sanitize even the wildest of mythical cities? We tried to ask the driver a good place to eat, but he mumbled 120 not 150 and remained silent :/ Perhaps bartering was now a thing of the passed? Anyway whatever what is done is done! We had arriiiiived and I wasn’t that hungry anyway so he could just sulk and go away.

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Impressive large red walls loomed up ahead. The rich colors of the houses really made the architecture that much more special. I felt like I was in a desert city and in this respect things started to differ from Europe. We passed through a large ornate door, one of the many separating the new town from the Medina and it was then that the world turned upside down.

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The car slowed down as vendors and people filled the narrow lanes. Donkey carts laden with melons, shops with spices piled up high in pointed mounds. Baskets spilled out of shops, jewellery and carpets adorned the ocher walls. Women covered from head to toe and young men exchanging banter, mopes, more people and cars blocked our path until we crawled along at snails pace. Then came the sounds, metal against metal from a tiny crack in the wall: a man crouching low in a cave under hundreds of broken bicycle parts, his hammer working furiously working away. A beautiful tower loomed up ahead, yellow stone with an ornate design. It was tall so I thought it must be the Koutoubia and I pointed to it and gazed in awe. But then in the distance I saw the peak of another Mosque this one higher and I realized that this was just one of the many that sprang up around the old town. Clang, Clang, Clang went the hammer. It felt medieval with so many artisans, animals and what seemed like so little order.

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Just a few minutes later the car stopped and we were directed down a side street, the name of which was written in Arabic. It was narrow and this was as far as the car could go. We were out of the tiny vehicle, out of the protective shell which separated us from this crazy outside world. From in there it has seemed so wonderful, but now it was a bit scary and the tiny weaving streets disorientating. The taxi left and we looked around us and had no idea if having not paid the full price we hadn’t been taken the full way.

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We were already walking down the little alleyway that the taxi driver had hastily instructed us to go down before leaving, when a group of young kids passed us and waved us on in encouragement. We had found the right way, but they would take the credit and the money for leading us there. Round a few bends we were hot and somewhat ruffled, not to the point of panic or intimidation but because to show hesitation in our navigation meant intervention – perhaps friendly but perhaps not, we couldn’t tell yet. A few more twists and turns and like wide eyed gazelle we gaped with relief when we arrived at the ornate door in the side of a normal red walled house. Hotel Calipau 5* the sign read. We had arrived at our destination. The big thick doors creaked open and beyond the shadows we saw the oasis.  A wave of calm, serenity and protection washed over us as we passed out of the sun and into the cool shade of the Riad. From the crazy world which we had just briefly entered into into very sumptuous surroundings with the sound of motorbikes replaced with that of birds chirping and the light trickling of water, like a babbling brook.

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We walked under vaulted ceilings and melted into the purple arm chairs. Mint tea was served on a gold tray and as I took the first sip of the sweet fragrant drink all I could do was think about that crazy buzz which I had just experienced and like a drug I couldn’t wait to put our bags down to get back out there in the heart of Africa, at the heart of life.

Valle de Vinales and the Colours of Prehistory

It is early and the mist is still low in the valley.The plow is pulled laboriously by two white oxen. With each jerk, a new scratch appears, until finally the earth bleeds red. The dark green leaves of the palms rise out and can be seen distinctly from up high, but their white stalks are lost amidst the swirling cotton waves of air which creep along the ground.The farmer takes off his straw hat to mop his brow and looks up towards the sky.

The sun rises higher and the strangely shaped hills glow with an orange hue. They are covered in trees which have sprouted out the hard rock at different angles, sometimes overlapping, sometimes dangling. Stunted banzais, baobabs with thick trunks and skinny heads, white palm trees germinating from sheer rock faces.Roots and branches are entwined. They are what they are because the world needed them that way.

Now we travel down, down passed the thatched cottages and blue huts, down into a place where the sun doesn’t shine and the moon doesn’t wander, passed the green vines that cascade down the wide cave entrance. It is here that a little boat glides silently along in the darkness. Thousands of droplets fall, some land noiselessly but others hit water. Water versus water. Echoes, echoes, echoes. Artificial lights dance around the cave. I see the silhouettes of people.

A prehistoric mural is the newest thing somehow. Here are the people again, but this time all their features are clear. A domesticated bull is stroked and ridden and then rolls around like a dog in the grass. There are some cowboys and horses, the children gallop up the hill towards the giant animals. The rocks have been shaved and emblazoned with paint and colors.The men here are red, like the earth. Flowers bloom. Man and nature’s palettes are combined and neither is going for anything close to subtle or understated.

Finally, our journey ends in a sea of green. Big furry leaves and a large triangle thatched building. A slab of shiest is painted with the faces of five men and a star. These are Cubans but now they belong to America. A guitar adorns the side of the barn wall. The thick smell of hay wafts into our nostrils as we pass into the shadows. The doors bang slightly, shut. Whereas outside the leaves were luscious, here they are dry, leathery and pungent. This is the prize.

We huddle round. So it seems that there be gold in them hills after all.

I would highly recommend a day trip to the Valle de Vinales,  the heart of tobacco country, which is around 2hr30 minutes drive from Havana, which can be booked at the tourist office at Hotel Sevilla.

  • Visit an alcohol distillery and get a taste of typical Cuban spirits and buy cut price branded cigars.
  • The Indian Cave trip included a cocktail made from freshly mangled sugar cane and pineapple, after which we entered the cave and enjoyed a scenic boat trip.
  • Lunch was served to the sound of music in front of the Prehistoric mural
  • Next a quick stop off at Pinar del Rio, with its little church and small plaza.
  • Visit a real working tobacco plantation. Learn all about cigars and their manufacturing process in an outdoor setting with a great view. This plantation was really authentic, a proper working farm and run by locals.
  • Scenic view of the valley from look out point.

This was a very full day, so make sure that you do not go on a day when you are feeling tiered.

Enjoy the long journey back to Havana. Don’t miss the political propaganda and the palm tree forests!

The hands of time turned back and there I was standing in Havana

Touch down, the Earth is red, the palm trees Jurassic. The police women wear tiny skirts and lacy fishnet floral tights. The terminal smells of stale cigar smoke. The money exchange queue is long and moves slowly, Cuban pesos can not be bought outside the country. Cuba is an island, on its own time, in its own parallel era. The cars outside are incredible, white with tail wings, ruby red, electric blue. Trucks are full with workers returning back home to Havana.

Cuba is alive, Cuba is free, Cuba is restricted, Cuba is controversial, Cuba is  poor, Cuba is rich, Cuba is colored, Cuba is history.

The mist sprays up and catches the lovers, musicians, children, tourists and elders who walk slowly along the Malecon. Pelicans land and flutter away. The lighthouse across the sea is majestic, the new town and big hotels blocks of shapes in the distance. Colored clothing hangs across windows. The buildings of El Prado are elegant, majestic, grand. They are also faded, chipped, crumbling and decaying. Rich and brightly colored cars flash past. This is Vintage Chic.

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We go to the market by the sea and the railway. We buy many things and then we walk back, back towards the heart. Back streets and side streets, main boulevards and squares. A grid. Houses are open, Che is there and sometimes Jesus. Flowers are for sale, only a few, tomatoes are for sale but also only a few. The people smile, and speak and greet. Where are we from? Happy New Year! Do we like Cuba? They are interested in our answers and then they move on peacefully. No hassle, we are their guests and we are welcome. They are our hosts and we are grateful for their generosity.

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People work, many are old. The dogs stagger and must be avoided. The houses loom above our heads, a man offers to show us inside his home, it is dark and very dusty. Closer to the Cathedral we go, the squares get wider, the Cuban flag gets prouder. Leather books are piled high on market stalls, badges and Revolutionary memorabilia change hands. Illiteracy is almost eradicated in Cuba. Flowers bloom and hang over metal gates. It is December. The sun is hot, the court yard where we eat paella and are serenaded by a man with an angel’s voice, is cool.

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The Cathedral plaza is lively. Creole women and men with fat cigars walk around. Fortunes are told and with a flash of black and white, drinks and lunch are served. Round the corner, the street is dancing, the red, blue and white flag is swaying, people salsa, a hand grabs my hand and I salsa. La Bodeguita del Medio, mojitos, cohibas, musicians. So many people, such a small space. Mint leaves are torn, limes are squeezed. It all spills out, spills out outside. Squiggles and signatures, faces press against the wooden bars. Now slowly back to Hotel Seville, where the horses pull and strain but the carts seldom move.

          Time has stood still.  This can’t be, but it was, it was all just an afternoon in Havana.

Santo Domingo, una vida caliente

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A trip to Santo Domingo, a must do if you want to experience the real life and soul of the Dominican Republic. Remember, it is hotter in the capital, so bring lots of water, hats, sun lotion and headache pills!

The Dominican Republic in the West Indies occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with Haiti. The Dominican Republic was explored by Columbus on his first voyage in 1492. Santo Domingo became the site of the first cathedral, hospital, customs house and university in the Americas. This Ciudad Colonial, was founded in 1498 and was laid out on a grid pattern that became the model for almost all town planners in the New World.

The old colonial part of the city has been incredibly well preserved and renovated -All the streets clean, the buildings immaculate. The Ozama Fortress and Tower of Homage are said to be oldest formal military outposts still standing in the Americas.The whole area felt very safe, although apparently it was necessary to be accompanied by a security guard throughout the trip to the capital.

Among the Colonial City’s most outstanding buildings is the cathedral, constructed between 1514 and 1542. It is the oldest in the Americas.

The Panteon National. An Honor Guard stands at attention remaining absolutely still and is only allowed to move for two minutes every three hours. The task is arduous and physically draining.

Lunch A la Dominicana 😉

We drove along the promenade, and visited the newer regions of the city, including the Presidential Palace. The city was vibrant and full of life.

 

Sat behind the coach glass, cool and refreshed from the air-con, for our security, we could not explore deeper into Santo Domingo’s heart. For me the glass windows were too much of a barrier, and although I really enjoyed walking around the colonial part of the city, we were not really allowed a real experience or introduction into the everyday life of the people. As everything seemed very poor though, I think that it is understandable for proud Dominicans to prefer to show the us their beautiful buildings and world famous heritage.

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