Sunday, 24 November 2013

Coastal Slovenia - small but perfectly formed

I seem to have spent a lot of time talking about Slovenia recently. But, as I said in my last post, it is a country that gets under your skin. The last few weeks have been busy ones, with a work trip to Rome, a lot of networking, and a whole lots of shining up the CV. We have even gone as far as to start up our own teaching websites in order to best sell ourselves to the European market. We must get back there, and the closer to Slovenia the better.

So, why the obsession? We have been to beautiful places before and not had a desperate need to up sticks and move there. Rather than one big draw, it seems like there are a whole lots of small things that add up to something rather unique in Slovenia.

To get to Slovenia from Morocco we flew into Milan Bergamo and rented a car. It is about 400km along highways which should make it easier than it is. Driving in Italy, where everyone thinks they are a racing driver makes highways more stressful even than back home in Morocco. A four hour journey takes it out of you, especially when you get lost in Trieste's remarkably ugly industrial zone, in the dark, just 20 km away from your destination. Leaving the hulking shapes of factories and warehouses behind, it is calming to cross a barely noticeable border into Slovenia, where you are instantly in peaceful, rural surroundings and small spread-out, dimly-lit villages.

For our first night we were staying in Marezige, a tiny town in the hills overlooking the industrial port of Koper. Arriving late on a Sunday, very tired and somewhat irritable, we were dreading the prospect of having to make the inevitable journey down the hill and into Koper to find somewhere to eat. There was little sign of life in any of the villages we had passed through on the way up. We got to Marezige and passed a vineyard, instantly making things look more positive. Then, rounding a bend we came upon a small restaurant, twinkling with fairy lights and looking very much open.

For our first experience of Slovenian hospitality, we probably couldn't have done much better. We were met by a broadly smiling waitress who led us to a cosy table. We sipped cold beers while studying the enormous menu. European cuisine is always a pleasure after living in Morocco, but this menu was fabulous. Nick opted for the highly taboo ham cooked in red wine sauce, and I went for the lighter option of pork on pork with the mixed grill. 


Slovenia produces up to 90 million litres of wine a year, yet exports very little of it. Slovenians love wine and drink nearly all of it before it can leave the country. They sell it by the litre. We ordered a litre of white produced just down the road. This arrived with a free aperitif for me. This was not going to be a quick meal.

The food arrived. One thing I have learned from this trip, the Slovenians have big appetites. The portions are enormous. From main meals to cream cakes, you will not be finishing your plate. When in doubt share.

A whole lot of pork and a portion of profiteroles later, we were just about ready to roll ourselves down the hill to Casa Oasa where we were staying, but not before trying one of the many digestifs at the back of the menu. The aperitif had been lovely, so we had high hopes. If there is one thing I would recommend avoiding when visiting Slovenia, it is the tasting of random spirits. Instead, just spray a can of hairspray quite liberally into the air and then walk through the resulting cloud. This way you at least avoid the extreme chemical burn going all the way down to the stomach. We found we needed to leave quite quickly after that, so paid the remarkably cheap 40 Euro bill and stumbled home.

Taking a break from stumbling home.
  The next day started somewhat delicately. The hangover a lot bigger than we had intended. The plan for the day was to go and have brunch in Piran, Slovenia's prettiest town, before driving up the country to Lake Bled. Dating back to the Napoleonic Wars, Piran has a distinctly Venetian feel. Beautiful cobbled alleyways, colourful and ornate architecture, and a wonderful Café culture. However, unlike it's grander more touristy counterpart across the Adriatic, Piran has crystal clear water, is free from stagnant lagoon smells, and has coffee that doesn't cost 6 Euros. 

Hairspray spirits the night before aren't the most motivational ingredient to add to a day, so we explored a lot less than planned, and spent a large part of the morning eating. Just in case we didn't reach our P.I.G (pork intake goal) the day before, we started the day with a ham and cheese sandwich and coffee on the waterfront. We took a short walk along the promenade, round a church or two and then down a few narrow alleys. It was here that we stumbled across our next hidden gem of a restaurant.

Tempted by the seafood but still a little full, we decided to share the seafood platter for one, washed down with delicious grapefruit beer. When the food arrived I had to suppress a gasp of surprise and with a hint of panic at the bill, and confirmed what we had ordered. The 11 Euro seafood platter for one. This thing was enormous. Fried potatoes, fried fish, deep fried calamari rings, grilled calamari, and our personal favourite, and something of a revelation to us, calamari stuffed with cheese and ham. We shared one and were still unable to finish. Something a little unheard of when it comes to seafood. The couple on the next table ordered two, after having appetizers. I did mention people in Slovenia have big appetites.


Very full and somewhat over indulged, we had completed our coastal stage of the Slovenia trip. Now for the 173km journey that would take us from the bottom to the top of the small but beautiful country.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Slovenian Dream

Slovenia. A country of warmth and hospitality. A country where the size of your host's smile is dwarfed only by that of the plates of food they are serving. A country of endless green forests and spectacular mountain vistas.

We have been waiting to visit Slovenia for a very long time. Six years ago Nick and I visited the small French village of Praz de Lys, and fell in love with the alpine life style. Small villages full of quaint chalets, and tiny bistros serving local wine. This was the life we wanted. Someday, somehow, we would make it happen. We would become the clichés; buy the run down shack in the hills, renovate it slowly and haphazardly, and find some way of scraping together a living. Heck, I might even have tried writing about it.

It was not long after, that some clever soul convinced us to go back to uni and get our teaching certificates. We had never really intended on becoming 'real' teachers, but with a quick search of available jobs showing us just how much we could make in the Middle East, we thought, 'this is it, this is our way to the chalet. Five years of working hard in the desert and we could be living the dream'.

The plan was simple. We would find that run down wreck of a home, for a fraction of what it was worth. We would do those haphazard renovations, that would cost us next to nothing as we would cunningly source our materials and skilfully do everything ourselves (even though we have no hint of such necessary skills). We would then open our doors to guests who would return year after year for our effortlessly warm hospitality, expert ski guiding skills and summer photography courses. Simple.

We searched high and low in the French Alps for that perfect place. We were nowhere near ready to buy anything, but it never hurts to look and dream. It quickly became apparent that all those run down wrecks in France had already been snapped up. That was not, after all, the place for us. The search expanded. Our search technique consisted of looking at Google images and real estate websites. It was this that lead us to the small central European country of Slovenia.

I defy anyone to Google Slovenia, and not want to live there. Don't take my word for it, go have a look. Stunning, isn't it? To top this off Slovenia does have lots of affordable properties. Affordable properties with all the mountain views and quaint features you could ask for. So this was it, we had a plan. Slovenia it was.

Now those who know us well, know that we do little without extensive research. We had never been to Slovenia, but this was a small issue. We would go at some point. However, while I have worked in hospitality a reasonable amount, we had very little understanding of how to run a hotel. To rectify this we started watching as many reality programs as we could. It soon became apparent that there are few jobs that are more demanding or likely to fail. Dependent on the seasons, and taking near constant work, the hours are long and the market fickle. Being teachers we are used to over three months' holiday a year, this was possibly more of a commitment than we were able for. As teaching became more enjoyable, and the long holidays more appreciated, it dawned on us that perhaps we would be better sticking with what we know, and instead of taking care of people when they go on holiday, we just get to go on more holidays and have people take care of us. The dream of a Slovenian chalet is still out there, just on a distinctly smaller scale.

So as you can understand, Slovenia had a lot to live up to during our visit last month. Six years of longing and anticipation. While I’ll save details for a later blog, I will happily share that it not just lived up to expectations, it surpassed them with ease. The outstanding food and wine, the colourful streets of Piran, and the hauntingly beautiful Lake Bohinj all added up to something rather special. Never have I left a place and so strongly felt I need to go back. This feeling being so strong that for a while all plans for our next holiday were put into jeopardy.

With all this in mind, we returned to Morocco, and after a little thought realized that holidays there are not quite enough. We do need to live there after all, or as close as we possibly can. The time has come to dust off that portfolio and spruce up the CV.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

More Flying Fun and Games

So... fingers flexed, and it is time to start writing again. It's been a while since I put 'pen to paper' as the saying goes. Therefore to make this task a little less daunting I’m going to break our recent trip down into more manageable 'bite-size' pieces.

This year for our fall break, we had originally planned to do a tour of Northern Italy, stopping off at different International schools in the hope of making friends and potentially finding a job for next year. This idea morphed a little when we thought of maybe taking a day trip into Slovenia. There are just so many things to do there, that we decided to spend most of our time there.

The excitement started before we even left Morocco. Those of you reading this who used to frequent this blog regularly, will know that few journeys within or originating from Morocco, are without event. Whether it is driving to the shops or flying home, some eyebrow raising event is usually guaranteed to happen.

We have learnt, through repeated painful experiences, that when flying Ryanair into and out of Morocco, the 10 pounds for reserved seating is money well spent. The mad dash for the gate is worse here than I ever saw in Asia, So many sweet little old ladies have mercilessly perfected the art of negotiating the smallest of gaps, armed with the juxtaposed tools of the sharpest of elbows and a very innocent expression, to squeeze their way to the front.

This trip we were flying with Ryanair from Fez to Milan. It was early morning, but we had had our coffee, negotiated the passport control without incident, found a child-free section of the departure lounge, and had our reserved seating tickets. Having got up early, and made Shannon and Nate get up early on the first day of their holiday to drive us to the airport, we were then a bit dismayed that the flight seemed to be delayed without announcement. But no matter, this is all part of the holiday after all. When the boarding was announced, we shuffled our way forward to the 'Priority Boarding' line. This is always something of a rewarding experience, as the attendant patiently, then not so patiently explains to pushy people that they do not have priority and must join the back of the other queue. If you are a person who wouldn't pay for priority boarding then yes, we are those annoying people, the ones who get to go to the front of the queue. But after ten flights this year alone, we're done dealing with the annoying line jumpers.

Well, this time the joke was on us. The plane was delayed even further. When we were called to board it had not even landed. Instead we had to stand with the sun beating through the window, right onto the priority boarding line, wilting in the heat for almost an hour. When boarding time finally came, our line was ushered out and on to a bus. This is not usual practice, normally we walk, but we figured they just wanted to move us somewhere, due to the fact that we had been waiting so long. It became the airport version of a holding cell as we sat for another 5-10 minutes on the tarmac outside the gate. When the plane was finally emptied and our bus began to move off, the boarding gate was opened and everybody else was instructed to walk to the plane. This seemed a bit strange and worse, incredibly frustrating, as all on the bus realized that we seemed to be unable to go faster than about 6 miles an hour. The people walking also seemed to realize this, and all of a there began a sudden insane sprint to the plane. The racing business men, djellaba or high heel restricted women, and towed children was quite a sight to behold. The bus did make it to the plane first, but to everyone's further frustration the door remained closed and seeing their chance the sprinters increased pace.

While this farcical situation was annoying, none of this worried us too much, we did have reserved seating after all. But for those who had opted instead for Priority Boarding it was incredibly frustrating.

When we finally reached our seats, we breathed deep and tried to bring an illusion of calm upon us, after all, we were on holiday. We tried to ignore the overhead locker chaos, the increasingly irate instructions of the flight attendants, as they try to get people to find a seat, or actually secure that child instead of letting it climb over the chair in front. We even tried to ignore one flight attendant's mad dash up the aisle as the plane increased speed down the runway to instruct some deaf/ignorant person that they should really “SIT DOWN!”. We tried to ignore it and think of the holiday ahead, but as they dash past with an oxygen bottle you start to get a little distracted.

Just another day on the Ryanair Fez route.

We are lucky enough to be off to Rome for a week next Sunday. I wonder what surprises we'll get on the Fez Rome route.  

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Thank you for checking....

Life has well and completely taken over.
Well, a bit of life and a lot of mental block. It seems that ideas are few and far between as life in Ifrane settles down and there are fewer local places to explore, and there are only so many times I can share my thoughts on local driving habits and extreme weather.
Maybe some day soon, when I am consistently winning the battle with my new students, maybe then, I'll put my writing hat back on. In the meantime, thank you for visiting.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The New Year...

Hi all, thanks for thaking the time to visit the blog. The new year has been busy with work and changing classroom programs. We are also saving for exciting holidays to come so haven't been off exploring too much.
Hopefully something worth sharing will happen soon.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Happy flying...

Flying Ryanair is never going to be anyone's greatest aviation experience. Famous for more bad than good reasons, it is most known as the airline that finds ways of charging for every small thing. At one point it looked like you'd have to 'pay to pee', thankfully someone somewhere saw sense. Europe's 'favourite''low cost airline is also reported to have once treated a man suffering from a heart attack with a sandwich, and then charged him for it. This is an airline with a very bad reputation, deservedly or not.

Believe it or not, despite first appearances, this is not a blog bashing Ryanair. Before living in Morocco I had only used the airline a handful of times, and it was okay. That is apart from one ridiculous occasion where a calamity of errors made our flight from Paris Beauvais look more like a Carry On film or some silly sketch with Benny Hill music as passengers from two unexplainedly late flights comically ran from gate to gate as teasing staff pretended to commence boarding.

Living now on the outskirts of Europe we have found ourselves regular customers of this airline we said would never again use. The Beauvais experience was not limited to the Benny Hill farce and it scarred us. However, with little choice available and repeated exposure to the experience, you find that while far from perfect, if you prepare yourself for it then the Ryanair experience is everything it promises to be. Cheap, quick and no frills air travel. That is, until you fly into Morocco. This is a stand alone experience which makes all other Ryanair routes look premier class.

Having lived in Thailand for six years and travelled a great deal around Asia, I am no stranger to budget airlines and have encountered many people for whom flying is a rarity and who are nervous or a little confused as to what to do. Saying that, in all the flights I took there, I have never seen chaos descend quite like I have seen in the last two years of travel here.

By chaos, we are not just talking about the frantic pre-boarding rush for the gate when the steady trickle to the line becomes one person too many and everyone decides that it is now or never to get in the line, or the distinctively 'long-legged' striding that people use in the fruitless attempt to carry you past a few people on the tarmac in a bid to get a better seat.

This chaos begins when people start queuing up to an hour before boarding. Not that the queue perturbs those who arrive late, they just push their way unquestioned past people, using age, illness or just the inability to look up and make eye contact with all the annoyed passengers around them as an excuse.

While the 'queue' develops it becomes noticeable that nearly every family has a child. This means that as a child free traveller you are left to stand there and pray that they don't invoke the 'children first' boarding rule. If they do you might as well go and sit back down and wait for the end of the line. That hour queuing? Wasted. Have I just found a reason to have children? Not a chance. It is airport travel and the extra stress it seems to bring every parent that has cemented our resolve on maintaining our 'child-free' status.

The stress of travelling with children didn't seem to bother the parents on our last flight to Fes. They opted instead for the 'low-impact' parenting. This entailed letting their children run wild between people and go behind the departure desk and down the stairs on their own while the departure staff were desperately trying to maintain a semblance of control and work out which child belonged to whom. While dealing with this they also had to organise the first twenty people in the queue who after an hour of standing there had obviously forgotten why they are there and misplaced their boarding passes and passports.

Once on the plane the fun of getting into a seat starts. For us we have one thought in mind. Emergency Exit Seats. On our last flight, after a lot of bargaining, we were told by an Eastern European flight steward that we could sit in our desired seats as long as no one else arrived having reserved them. As he stood by us protecting the seats he got increasingly annoyed at the attempts of passengers finding seats and spaces for bags and become increasingly blunt with people. As the plane filled, greater numbers of people attempted to sit in the 'reserved' emergency seats. At first he was quite polite, telling them simply 'no, they are reserved'. As the plane got fuller it became obvious no one had reserved the seats and he needed responsible people to sit there in case of an emergency. He began to ask select people if the spoke English. Usually just receiving little more than a grunt or a blank look in response he moved them on down the plane. With some people he didn't even ask, he just looked them up and down, shook his head, muttered something under his breath and moved them on. His frustration got the better of him and by the end he was saying 'English only in these seats' in a slightly aggressive manner. This would have sounded a lot better if he had just explained that he needed English speakers to explain the exit instructions to, instead he just ended up sounding incredibly racist.

As a nervous flyer I am the first to fasten my seat belt to circulation restricting, and to turn off all electronic equipment for fear of making the plane take control of itself and steer off the runway before we even leave the ground. No such fears for these fliers, some of whom I have seen stand up and receive calls during take off and landing no matter how many times instructed otherwise. On landing women are up and in the locker before the brakes are even eased off. One friend said that on their flight last month there was even a lone child wandering up and down the aisle during landing.

To top off our last flying experience, within moments of standing up to disembark, a fight broke out within arms reach of me. This was not just a heated discussion kind of argument, but an arm swinging and shoving argument. It was between two women so there was a lot of hair pulling and face slapping as well. For some reason this made it all more unacceptable. Apparently the fight broke out as the result of one of the ladies deciding she needed to get from her seat at the front to her bag stowed at the back, right at the point everyone stood up. Shoving her way down the plane she obviously bumped into the other lady who was probably as fed up with the lack of queuing courtesy as I was, and decided she would do everything in her power to stop her. These women had to be dragged off each other and the argument continued down the length of the plane.

What a welcome back to Morocco. Nothing like a little travel stress to make you appreciate getting home. Well, inside the safety of the apartment at least.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Hanging out with little people

It is that time of year again; the leaves are off the trees, there is dirty snow on the ground, the students are tired and eager for the coming break, the teachers more so, the classroom is littered with part finished winter decorations and I am permanently covered in glitter. For two weeks at the end of every year I am driven to distraction by sparkles catching my eyes and stuck on the end of my nose. Regardless of the mess, the glitter annoyance, and the fact that everyone is tired, as I am wrapping up 2012 I have come to the realisation that I love what I do. It's taken nearly nine years, but better late than never I say.

This may seem like a strange observation to make, not many people can say they truly love what they do, but in teaching you often meet a large number of those who do. Teaching is not a job people usually find themselves in unless they love spending time with children. I am ashamed to say that is not the case for me.

I started teaching in Thailand in 2001. I had never really liked children and it was purely a means to an end; I was living there and needed to do something to earn enough money to survive. I found myself doing what about 80% of western people did at the time... standing in front of a class of people who barely understood a word I said, trying desperately to look like I knew what I was doing, and fighting the impulse to run screaming out the building. That first year was a baptism of fire and I’m not sure how I ever ended up doing a second year. I was obviously lacking in sense in my early twenties.

While I have always loved the perks of being a teacher; free periods, travel opportunities, unrivalled holidays and no two days the same, I never really liked the contact hours. To be honest, initially for the most part I didn't even like the children. During the first few years my fondness of the students thankfully did increase; I realised that on the whole they were quite harmless, and that the classroom actually wouldn't burn down when I ran out of ways to keep them busy. In fact, at times, it was almost fun. I still didn't really like teaching and preparing lessons, and still liked the classroom best when there was no-one in it, but as far as jobs go it definitely wasn't the worst thing I have ever done.

Finding myself still teaching six years later, having limited career alternatives available, and being unable to face the thought of losing the three months of paid holiday a year, I decided that if I was going to keep teaching then I might as well do it properly. Confident that with six years of experience I would find a training course a breeze, Nick and I set off to Australia for a high speed teaching qualification. When we started the course it quickly became apparent that apart from classroom management (teaching a class of up to 34 six year old boys has got to be good for something), we didn't know much at all. We had been doing the best possible job we could as untrained teachers, but there was so much we had missed. It was a tough year with some tough teaching experiences. Definitely not a breeze.

Last year was our first year as qualified teachers, and for those who follow the blog you'll know that for all the training and experience we had had, nothing could prepare us for the work and stress that was to come. We spent the entire year fighting hard to keep our heads above water. There were tears, tantrums and full on nervous breakdowns from me as I questioned whether it was the easy career choice I had thought.

Eight years on, my second year as a qualified teacher, and all the pieces of the puzzle are finally coming together. Now that I can do it properly, or thereabouts, the contact hours have become more of a pleasure than a chore and even planning lessons can be enjoyable. I always used to question the boundless energy and motivation displayed by some of the supremely dedicated teachers I have met. Now I find that instead of being desperate to down tools at the end of the day and get as far away from school as possible on the weekends, I find myself reading and thinking about school stuff a lot of the time, and while I wouldn't go as far to say that I look forward to Monday mornings, there are times after a weekend in sleepy Ifrane that I’m not far off.

Now... if only someone could enlighten me with a fun way to do report writing and life would be perfect.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Let it snow...

I am frequently one to rave about the amazing weather we are blessed with in Ifrane; not too hot, not too cold, and usually with a crystal clear sky. With the occasional arrival of bad weather, the old-timers would laugh and say 'you haven't seen anything yet' as we sat in the clouds and the rain whizzed horizontally passed. We heard tales of tremendous blizzards, with roads closed, temperatures as low as -27 degrees C, and snow higher than the windows. Hearing all this we were somewhat disappointed when, having brought a snowboard out with us, there was barely enough snow for one week of sledding last year. It was with this in mind that when the temperature dropped last week I urged the snow to come. Each night the clouds rolled in and it started to snow, but each morning there was barely a dusting.

Friday morning we woke up and looked out of the window into solid clouds. On the way to school there was already a light covering of snow on the ground. We were due to leave for the Spanish enclave Melilla straight after school and it was supposed to snow all morning. Saying that, we weren't too concerned as the snow that was falling was fine and powdery, looking almost like spray snow out of a bottle. We figured something that fine wouldn't really stick.

The snow continued silently. Busy in the classroom with fogged up windows, it wasn't until morning recess that I noticed the gathering piles. By lunch, which I was hosting in the classroom for our only student/parent lunch of the year, to celebrate the end of International Week, it was so thick that some parents were stranded at the university and couldn't get through down-town due to the accidents. 

With an hour of school to go we made the decision that we would at least try to get to Spain. The old-timers said, 'this is the real Ifrane!', and 'if you can just get down the mountain to Imouzer it'll all be clear”. Nick set off to pick up Nate from the Best Western 500m down the hill. On the way back Nate had to walk behind the car and push it up the hill, getting covered in snow and taking the occasional face plant along with it. The journey took just under an hour. With the heavy weight of the week long expectation of Friday night beer and pork in Casa Marta, we decided to press on. A snow plough had gone down towards Fes at 3.00, and leaving school at 3.30 we thought we'd be long down the mountain before a snow plough led a convoy down at 4.30.

Within 500 metres of setting off we had to push two cars out of snow drifts. We figured that maybe having done good deeds that Allah might choose to ignore the fact that we were doing all this in the name of alcohol and keep us out of a snow drift. Our progress soon got halted however, when we reached the lowered snow barrier on the outskirts of town. It was 4.40 by this point and somewhat foolishly we were surprised that the snow plough hadn't been through. An hour later and we were still sitting there, by this point with little way of getting back up the hill into town and with a long line of cars behind us The thought of setting off down the hill in the dark wasn't appealing, but by that point it was too late to turn back.

The snow plough arrived at 6.00. Lights flashing and third in line in a long convoy we set off down the hill. Progress was good and the snowfall lessened. Spirits in the car rose. The snow plough pulled out from the convoy a couple of kilometres before Imouzer, and although it seemed that the snow was actually thicker we thought that as the snow plough had left us we must be through the worst. We were wrong. Imouzer was in chaos. On the other side of the closed snow barrier cars were parked haphazardly and people were blocking the thickly covered slippy road. Waving you through they stand in the way of the moving cars, which are likely to skid into them at any point. It is as if they have never driven on snow and have no idea that you need to get out of the way. Instead they stand and walk in the middle of the road and expect you to jam on the breaks, forgetting that this will just induce a slide. 

Once through the chaos of Imouzer the sight that faced us was not a positive one. Imouzer sits on the edge of a valley and the road winds down out of it with a steep drop on one side. The cars coming up the hill were sliding all over the road and into our lane at times. People were helping push them up the hill with little thought for getting out of the way of oncoming traffic. If no one went off the mountain that day then it's a small miracle.

To cut an already too long story short, the 45 minute journey from school to the highway took us four hours. The snow line was far lower than anyone expected. We crossed the border into Spain at midnight, 1.00 local time, were in the bar by quarter past, and still didn't make it to closing. By the time that we had panic drank ourselves silly on empty stomachs, we had to go home just as the real party was starting.

Our trip to Melilla followed its usual routine, and we set off on Sunday on our return journey with every nook and cranny of car loaded up with pork and booze, telling ourselves that the extra weight would act as traction to get us up the hill into Ifrane. The drive back was uneventful. That is until we reached the snowline. As soon as we hit snow there were cars parked at every angle along the side of the road, people taking photos of each other and their cars in the snow. If this wasn't annoying enough, we started to see cars making their way down the mountain with mounds of snow on the roof and bonnet, blocking the windscreen and limiting the drivers view of the chaos on the road. It took us a while to realize that this wasn't just due to the drivers being lazy and not clearing their windscreens, but it was in fact placed there on purpose. Locals drive up from the city, pull over at the first patch of snow they can find, take all the pictures they can, and maybe get out a stove and make mint tea. Then, before departing, they make enormous snowballs and pile them on their car and take it back down the mountain with them. We even saw a snowman, complete with eyes, mouth and twigs for arms on someone’s bonnet. What they expect to do with the snow I have no idea, but judging by the mounds of it that we kept encountering on the road at the roundabouts, they didn't really think the plan through. 

How long this current batch of snow will last I don't know; it is still up over my classroom windowsill a week later. I know one thing for sure, we are avoiding all travel on roads that we can. Drivers here are accident prone in the best of conditions. With the added hindrance of slippy roads and snow tourists it's like a Demolition Derby. We'll just stay up here and enjoy the spectacular views.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

This weekend

Been away and have had some unreal Morocco experiences this weekend... post to come soon,

thanks for checking for updates.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Imlil to Setti Fatma

It's nearly the end of November and I’m not quite sure where the year has gone. I am however mighty impressed that this time in a month we will be making our way home for Christmas. The joys of teaching... never a dull day, time really flies. What with Portugal and all the exciting stuff we've been doing in school it seems like quite a long time since we were up in Imlil and setting off for our three day hike across the mountains.

Advertised as easy, the 40 kilometre walk would lead us through connecting valleys and over a 3180 metre pass, with two overnight stops in Berber gites, before finishing in Ourika Valley where we had left our car.

The morning of our departure we were met by our guide Mustapha, chef and muleteer Hamide, and our mule Bob at our Aubegre Dar Adrar. We really didn't feel that we needed all three to take us on an 'easy walk' over the mountains, but travel experiences have led us to believe in, where possible, providing opportunities for locals to earn an income. Setting off it did feel like a bit of an entourage, and I was a little concerned for our mule. We only had a small bag each but he seemed really overladen, thankfully I soon realised that a lot of the stuff was lightweight bedding for Mustapha and Hamide.

Day 1 – Imlil to Tacheddirt
The first day we set off slowly climbing up the Tamatert Valley heading east from Imlil. Initially frustrated with Mustapha's somewhat plodding pace, I soon realized that it enabled us to walk a lot further without stopping, and we could actually enjoy the view while we progressed. It was with this slow and increasingly enjoyable pace that we wound our way up through a pine plantation before crossing the 2362 metre saddle and descending slightly into Imenane Valley. Here we traveled down a long and windy mountain road. Strung out along the green valley floor were lots of little villages. Linking these villages there are are pretty gardens taking up every available space. Moroccans have to come be experts at water use, working in whole communities to build complex irrigation channels that are controlled with little drop doors, or planks of wood. At the lift of a door, water can be directed from one side of the valley to another so that everyone can water their crops. At the head of this valley, nestled against a ring of high mountains lies the small village of Tacheddirt, our stop for the night.

Mustapha looking back down towards Imlil
Villages along Imenane Valley

The village of Tacheddirt at the end of the valley
Part way along the Imenane Valley we stopped for lunch. Our mule was unloaded and the kitchen was set up. This was a very impressive sight and way more than we needed for the four of us. They brought everything. Everything that is apart from something to light the gas stove with. Unburdened and grazing happily Bob the mule bucked and protested greatly at being loaded up again so soon, so we could continue in search of a lighter. Thankfully this worked in our favour. Bob was soon unloaded again and we got to lunch on an enormous pasta salad with sardines, fresh lentil tajine and sweet mint tea, in a beautiful spot next to a stream with views of the snow-capped peaks behind us. 



It was something of a surprise to discover that our mule Bob was actually a girl. I’m not even sure she had a proper name, I think it was just a name they decide to give the guests to keep them happy. She is a working animal and not a pet, we've yet to meet a working animal that gets a name here. Interesting fact from our guide about mules... females are used in the mountains, they are stronger and have greater stamina. 

We reached Tacheddirt at around two in the afternoon. Although we climbed 1070 metres the day's 12.5 kilometres did indeed feel easy, but it was nice to arrive at our gite early to enjoy a hot shower and relax on the terrace with the incredible views. Ten years ago accommodation in Tachedddirt was limited to a Club Alpine Francais Refuge, now there are a couple of guesthouses. Our gite was the newest and was far grander than we expected, we had a clean, warm and dry room with six thick mattresses on the floor all to ourselves. 

Views from the terrace...

Day 2 – Tacheddirt to Timichchi
We had been warned that day two was to be the toughest day, but the day with the most rewarding views. We set off from Tacheddirt at 7.30 while the valley was still quite dark. Not long after we left we began to climb. This was the hard part, a continuous climb up to a 3187m pass into the next valley. Bob and Hamide set off long after us and we were determined to beat them to the top. We stopped a few times for a five minute water break but basically climbed over 1000 metres without a proper break. 

On the way up we encountered a little old man resting with his donkey. We exchanged greetings with him before he continued on ahead of us, pushing his donkey from behind. He went all the way up the hillside, winding along the narrow paths, all the while pushing his donkey hard. When we reached the top he had secured his donkey and was sheltering from the wind behind a large rock. He had unloaded his donkey and had a handful of Mars bars, five soft drinks and a kettle for mint tea to sell to passing hikers. Impressed with his effort we bought a Coke off him. It was only then that we found out he was completely blind. He makes the climb every day in the hope of earning what can't add up to more than $5.

Having taken a couple of hours to reach the top we then had to start going down. I am quite content with up. I am not a down person. Never too sure-footed at the best of times I tend to hesitate and lack commitment in my stride, often leading to uncontrolled skids. To compound the issue our route down was much trickier than the way up. Loose footing and steep drops made it quite an exhausting descent. Narrow and slippery in places it was challenging for us with our hiking boots on let alone the overweighted mules with skiddy metal shoes that usually use the route. By the time we reached our lunch spot we had climbed a 1000 metres, and descended 1100. Not sure about this 'easy' walk classification. 

Our lunch stop was in a small town clinging to the side of the valley. There were roughly twenty houses clustered together around a mud-hut style mosque. While waiting for food we observed that the village only stretched as far as shouting distance. Every so often women would climb onto their roofs and shout up and down the village at each other. Who needs a telephone when voice projection and mountain valley acoustics will do just fine. This was one of the most rustic villages we have come across. Not a satellite dish in sight. This village can only be accessed on foot or by mule so much of the modern trimmings of the outside world has been kept at bay.

We were sitting just outside the village, close to a large sand pile. The whole time we were there children of all sizes were going back and forth to collect sand. Using any kind of container they could find, some as young as two or three, these children would walk, bent double under the weight of the sand, shuffling in sandals, flip flops or over-sized wellies, carrying the sand to a growing pile by one of the houses. It pulled at the heart strings to see one little boy help an even smaller boy try and carry his load back. This tiny little boy just couldn't get a grip on his container and kept stopping and crying. Each time, the slightly bigger boy would stop, put down his own load and try and help the smaller child, before picking up his own and continuing. They would make it about five metres before the process was repeated.

The children didn't ask for anything; help, food or money. Some were curious about us, but they were still very timid towards us. It seemed they had little other to do than move sand, throw stones at each other, or, as many bored and unoccupied children have a tendency to do, make noise. One boy on a nearby roof decided he was going to try and serenade us with Berber songs, and wailed at the top of his voice while banging a pan lid. It became strangely acceptable after a while and he was joined by a few friends. This is something they do every time tourists pass through. As we left the village we did feel when passing one group of children, that they were going to turn away from their stone throwing at each other at start throwing them at us, but Mustapha prevented this by speaking to them quietly.

Day 3 – Timichchi to Setti Fatma
Day three was supposed to be the easy day, and we were looking forward to it being so. The night before had not been quite as comfortable as we had hoped. We stayed in Auberge de Timichchi. This simple auberge was run by a friendly man who had set it up many years ago with only one room. Every year or so he tries to add on another room and now he has eight or nine he can use for guests. This is impressive progress, but the rooms are basic and the mattresses of the thinnest variety. With no sheets to lie on and a sleeping bag zip that decided to choose this occasion to die on, the night was quite cold and uncomfortable. Little sleep was had and I arose in the morning hurting all over and ready for our 'easy' day.

The map showed us that we were simply following the road that wound along the side of the valley before descending down into Ourika Valley and our final destination Setti Fatma. While the terrain was easy what we hadn't counted on was the fact that we had 14.5 kilometres, with 420 metre ascent and 900 metre descent to do all before lunch. The walk was beautiful and dramatic, but with the end in sight and the thought of the hot shower and soft sofa awaiting us in Ourika Garden Resort, we just wanted to get to the end. Our first sighting of Setti Fatma was a welcome one. The view from the top of the valley was amazing, and as the crow flies the journey there would be short, but following the dirt track that zig-zags back and forth down the hillside makes it a few kilometres further than you think. So close but yet so far.

Ourika Valley, Setti Fatma is at the far end.

Arriving to the hustle and bustle of touristy Setti Fatma was a relief to the by now descent-hammered knees. For an easy three day walk it felt like we had gone a lot further. The views we got on route were well worth it though. Combine it as we did with a few days of post hike luxury in and around Marrakesh and it's a great option for an unusual week break. Experiencing a little bit of the rough makes that soft bed in the kasbah or riad all the more rewarding, especially with the thought of the 8300 calories we had just burned.