Morocco: This Post is Brought to You by the Essaouira Tourist Board and Polycystic Kidney Disease

Morocco: This Post is Brought to You by the Essaouira Tourist Board and Polycystic Kidney Disease

Today’s ramble is mainly just an excuse for a few more photos of this extraordinarily photogenic place; there is a photo opp round every corner. The blue sky contrasted with white buildings is so aesthetically satisfying. We only have a camera phone, so quality is not great, but you get the idea.

Despite the business it will bring, not everyone here is so chuffed with the direct Easyjet flights as they feel it will spoil the place even more than tourism has spoiled it already. This is a double edged sword or employment, improved local facilities – this is hugely obvious from the years I have been coming here – tempered with the town being turned into some kind of Moroccan Disneyland of men in fezs and snake charmers (I have never seen a snake charmer in Essaouira – its too cool for that). You can see why local people would take the tourist route, perhaps changing their shop from selling saucepans or couscous to selling spices or slippers, but they may destroy their community in the process. And community is one of the overriding things you notice about this place, and Morocco in general; its all about family and people. Eating, drinking and chatting. The streets are always full, especially at night, when everyone seems to come for a wander. It is a highly social lifestyle. With a risk of appearing idiotically patronising and making sweeping generalisations, my perception is that, one the surface at least, these are a happier lot than we are; less stressed (in a western sense of the world). More about people; less about things.

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We wandered round the port with its boat building yard and numerous blue fishing boats of all sizes. Due to the Atlantic winds, the sea is usually choppy outside the bay of Essaouira and you can often see these boats appearing and disappearing amongst the waves.

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I have always found Morocco a very safe place to be and have never felt in any danger, even late at night. Obviously, there are places not to go at night in any city, but for me, the general absence of alcohol – you can buy it but most Moroccans don’t drink it – makes an evening out far more pleasant than in the UK. The atmosphere is completely different. Plus, as an added bonus, there are no Wetherspoons. Not one.

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Shopping is a slow mooch round shops selling different individual items; one shop only sells bottled water, nothing else. Many shops these days have set prices and shopkeepers appear to have largely abandoned the hard sell tactics of the past. I recall hearing years ago that the government had carried out some research where they found it that 85% of first time visitors to Morocco said they would never return due to the constant badgering. Huge amounts of money was spent on tourism and on TV advertisements explaining that European shoppers just like to be allowed to look. When I first came 13 years ago, the guidebooks would warn of harassment and scams to the point of making you terrified before you arrived. Morocco is nothing like it was, especially in laid-back Essaouira.

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Beyond tagine spices and saffron, the spice shop sell a range of cures for all known ailments, including diabetes, weight loss and kidney stones. I am not convinced that these jars contain anything more than some sticks and dust off the floor, but the older generation particularly, swear by them. On the top shelf is where the black magic lies, should you wish to put a curse in your neighbour for forgetting to put the bins out. Bats and hedgehogs feature in these recipes.

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Oranges are around 12p a kilo. Fresh fruit and vegetables are incredibly cheap – a week’s worth would cost less than £1.

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Late night shopping is every night,although it seems more of an excuse to see and be seen. Snails, pyjamas and live chickens are but a few paces away.

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I hear that there’s something called Christmas going on in the western world. From friends posts on Facebook, it sounds stressful. We have escaped this final week to wander around in the winter sun. Christmas shopping? Slippers and tagine spices. Sorted. Here in Morocco, this is Christmas. One stall, selling a few inflatable Santas. That’ll do.

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The photo at the top of this page is of my land. Crazy, eh? It’s near the beach in a little place called Moulay Bouzerktoun, about 20 minutes drive north of Essaouira. It’s known only for windsurfing, kitesurfing and such and has a significant swell in the summer (so they tell me). In Europe, this hectare (2.5 acres) would be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, here it cost less than the price of a second hand car (I don’t even remember how much). You could live on it in a little house, spend your life shifting rocks, counting tortoises and live on very little money. Morocco is full of such opportunities; for the medium brave. We thought about what adventures we could have building a house on the land overlooking the Atlantic; something we’d never be able to afford anywhere much else. We talked about lots of ideas and things, but then we found out that my Polycystic Kidney Disease has caused high blood pressure for the first time in my life (it’s the first thing to cause a problem for most people with PKD). Apart from back pain and almost constant headaches, it’s not affecting me too much so far. A health and fitness regime begins 2 days before Christmas in an attempt to get it under control (weight loss and excerise help lower blood pressure) before I have to give in and tell a Doc who will put me on medication for the rest of my life. I’d like to delay that as long as possible. I may be well for decades, I may not. We just don’t know, but we’re not taking any chances and wasting healthy time thinking we have plenty of it. We weren’t too sure about Moroccan medical facilities and we also remembered that we’re not very brave, so we went home and put an offer in on a little cottage in Portugal that we viewed some time ago. That’s a more sedate kind of adventure that we can handle. With hospitals. And they said Yes.

We have a couple of Help Exchange / Workaway volunteering trips organised for the next few months, but after that, we’ll be being not very adventurous in The Algarve for many years to come.

Morocco: Essaouira Revisited

Morocco: Essaouira Revisited

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We’re lucky enough to be staying in a beautiful riad owned by Andy and Tim, two Brighton friends who set off on their own Essaouiran adventure. Their house, Dar Sabon is wonderfully managed by Agne as a B&B. €35 a night and worth every penny (cent).

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You know when you’ve eaten too much when your host says: ‘Haven’t you done well’ on seeing that you’ve scoffed all the breakfast. Put it in front of us and we’ll eat it.

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Today we shopped with old friends. Unis is our slipper man who has kept my entire family and friends in babouches for 13 years. This time the grandtwins get their inaugural pair. Unis’ shop is on the edge of the spice market off the main street.

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We also found my oldest Essaouiran friend, Talib, who I met when he was 17 in 2001. He is now 30. Despite a gap of 5 years since we last met, he welcomes us with open arms and genuine pleasure. Talib has been to England for the first time this year to work on Moroccan markets in Peterborough and Burgess Hill – he was only a few miles up the road from me and I didn’t know. Talib says he liked Primark!

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Like many Moroccans, Talib speaks multiple languages; I have read that they have a particular knack for it. He’s also a fantastic cook and has made me many a tagine. Again, like many Moroccans I’ve met, Talib has a fantastic sense of humour and a really silly, playful nature. People here often seem very willing to have a joke with you. This is especially true if you learn just a few basic words of Arabic and ask people what things are in Arabic. So few people bother, but it is hugely welcomed. I learned the word for bread from a street bread seller and ended up selling bread with him from his barrow. Keith and I have been going to our local Co-op for almost two years and have yet to crack a smile from most of the staff there. And not a diagnosis between them as far as I know.

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I made friends with a very cheeky cat who put his paw in Keith’s tagine and ate a home made jammy dodger. I also made the mistake of drinking mint tea, which has caffeine in it as well as a truckload of sugar. I know this because I drank some the other day. As a person extremely sensitive to caffeine this makes me a particular idiot. A very talkative and panicky one at that.

We wandered around La Skala, the walled, sea facing part of the city where artists and craftspeople sell their stuff.

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Today’s bargain dinner was a delicious sardine stew in a bread loaf: £1.30 – for two of us. Eating well on a budget is so easy here.

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Morocco: Jimi/Sarah Hendrix Woz ‘Ere

Morocco: Jimi/Sarah Hendrix Woz ‘Ere

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Yesterday’s post about looking for estate agents was written in jest, however today we found out that Easyjet will be flying direct to Essaouira as of May 2015 and that I own a hectare of land up the coast. This might change everything. I knew that I owned this land of course but had assumed that it had kind of gone along with everything else from my past time here. I had just put it down to experience never having planned to return for these years. Turns out it’s still mine. It has lots of rocks and tortoises on it. And a tree. Keith having done his dry stone walling course could be entertained for months building a wall around the land with all the free rocks and training tortoises. I can fly home to work via Easyjet and we can live on 12p doughnuts. I cannot see one single flaw in this plan. Keith is yet to be convinced.

Today we walked to Diabat, reputed temporary home to Jimi Hendrix in 1968. Diabat is a tiny cluster of houses along the beach from Essaouira with no other, however tenuous, claim to fame, so it milks it well.

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Café Jimi Hendrix

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Hotel Jimi Hendrix

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Aside from a few people, Diabat is home to a number of goats which wander freely and an extremely out of place golf resort featuring manicured greens in the midst of scrubland and mangy dogs.

Goat Jimi Hendrix

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Golf Jimi Hendrix (not really)

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The walk to Diabat from Essaouira is almost entirely along the long sandy beach except for the final section which is over a newly built bridge, which, it has to be said, like the motorway, is not getting quite the usage one might expect.

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The beach here is spectacular and mostly empty apart from the odd camel.

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Away from the town the beach is backed by sand dunes where you can play at being in the Sahara whilst only being a short walk away from orange juice and chips.

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Or alternatively find a tiny tortoise on an epic journey. This (below) has to be one of my favourite photographs of all time.

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No voyage into the ‘desert’ is complete without the obligatory return to civilisation orange juice and chips (blowing the budget at £3.50) at Ocean Vagabond, the original surf café in Essaouira.

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Followed by a 12p doughnut. Street food in Morocco has a strict schedule and rotation according to time of day. There is a limited doughnut window and today we were lucky enough to make it. Otherwise, it would have been a sardine in this photo, which wouldn’t have had quite the same effect.

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Dinner tonight was in local’s joint (as opposed to the many tourist restaurants. One chicken and vegetable tagine, one chicken couscous, bread and water for £4.60. Date nights just got very cheap. The ambience was somewhat lacking, but the food and price made up for it. Total day’s food bill £8.22 for two people. Could easily do it for less, but we don’t need to.

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Our evening ended with a stroll round the town taking weird photos. Another good day in a very special place.

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Morocco: Trying Not To Buy A House in Essaouira (Again)

Morocco: Trying Not To Buy A House in Essaouira (Again)

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Today we leave the peaceful and tiny kitten filled Les Jardins des Lilas set in the midst of the madness that is Marrakech medina to catch a bus to the seaside. The rain is gone. The sun is out, the sky is a particularly Moroccan shade of blue and we’re on our way to Essaouira or ‘Home’ as it was once destined to be (I am building intrigue here, can you tell?).

A final taxi ride to the train station to catch the bus (yep) made me thankful that I hadn’t checked my blood pressure (I need to keep an eye on it due to the kidney disease). Today was not a good day for blood pressure. As a person who experiences a lot of anxiety which relates to things that are not really worth worrying about, it made quite a refreshing change to be actually genuinely terrified about something concrete and real. How do these people not kill each other? The taxi driver seemed to love the constant within a whisker of serious injury life he had. His almost continuous use of the horn and derision of anyone travelling with less speed and more caution delighted him. Must be the mint tea, which is loaded with more sugar than is good for anyone (serious note: Morocco, like many other nations, has a serious diabetes problem).

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The Supratours coach to Essaouira costs 80 dirhams, takes 3 hours and is driven by another candidate for Shittest Driver Of The Year Award. As Keith said: ‘This man has received more phone calls during this journey that I do in a month’. And he wasn’t hands-free, although, bless him, he did try to untangle his headphones whilst overtaking a truck at 120km an hour. Credit where its due. Here he is. Untangling. In the outside lane. Shame you can’t see the truck.

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He subsequently gave up and returned to hands.

Apart from the fear of death, its a great ride west to the coast. The snow capped Atlas mountains run alongside for part of the way (camera on phone couldn’t do it justice) and then the landscape flattens right out.

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Since my last visit, they’ve built a motorway with a toll. What this means is that no one uses it. Completely empty. Pity the poor fella at the toll booth. What does he do all day?

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I have mixed emotions about coming to Essaouira, but as I also have alexithymia (look it up) I don’t know what they are (autism joke). The next bit is a bit of potentially dull and self indulgent back story, so please skip off if you just want to know that if you order jus de pommes in Morocco, you get apple milkshake rather than apple juice and it is bloody lovely. The same applies to jus de bananes but not jus d’orange. They also offer avocado juice but I’ve never been brave enough to see what turns up. Why don’t we do apple milkshake in England? It could catch on.

Anyway, the back story: I first came to Morocco in 2001, a few weeks after the 9/11 bombings, a time when Arabic countries were not the most popular of holiday destinations. I’d been fascinated by Morocco for years and always wanted to go, but money, kids and bravery had got in the way. My sister in law and I got a cheap package deal to Agadir, just used the flight and set off on buses around Morocco for a week. She was a seasoned worldwide traveller; I was a wimp who’d never been further than Torrelmolinos. Sounds perfectly feasible so far, but there is a back story to the back story. During the few months prior to this trip several major things had happened in my life: my mum had died (second parent), my marriage had ended, I’d ended up living in a tent at the age of 33 with my two children and I’d had a bit of a breakdown at the top of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (with hindsight this was undoubtedly the result of the accumulation of previous events) which was due to affect me in many ways for the rest of my life so far (panic attacks, agoraphobia etc.). In short, every piece of certainty in my life had disappeared. These cheery events were to form the basis of my first and last Edinburgh Fringe comedy show in 2013. It was funnier that it sounds (‘The thinking person’s Sarah Millican’ – Three Weeks review). The autism was a distant future discovery waiting to happen.

To cut a very long story short, I came to Morocco (fairly tanked up on Diazepam in order to get on the plane – at this time I needed it to get on a bus, get in a lift or go to the cinema), went to Essaouira, loved it beyond measure, and feeling extremely strongly that due to everything that had happened, I needed a tiny corner of the world that no one could take away from me. I couldn’t afford one closer to home (single parent, renting, working part time in a college), so here it was gonna be. I planned to move here when my kids had grown up. It felt possible, affordable and weirdly, somewhere I felt I could fit (some fabulous bonkers expats end up in Morocco). I brought my brother and his wife over and convinced them that this was a good thing to do, I took out a bank loan (credit was easy in those days) and so between us we bought the house for £16,000 in Essaouira medina that was going to be my home one day.

To cut a long story short again: fast forward lots of wonderful holidays, ongoing problems with the house, higher than expected building costs, more loans, crippling debt, huge stress, ill health, up for sale for 2 years, sold for a pittance, thought we would never get the money out of the country, more crippling debt. The money turned up randomly in bank account over a year after the sale, haven’t been back for 5 years. All too much to face.

So, apple milkshake.

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So, we’re here. This is Essaouira. An ancient fishing port and town on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, long since been a hangout for kite and windsurfers due to the almost consistently windy and yet protected nature of the bay. I once went windsurfing here with a friend. We hired our wetsuits, handed to us by a gentleman in the shop and made the long walk across the sand to the sea. Someone took a photo: two people in wetsuits, one with a large ‘M’ on the back, the other with ‘XXXL’. Bastard. It was way too big for me. Honest.

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Inside the medina is a crazy bustle of life, but a laid-back, kind of friendly one (as opposed to the more cut-throat Marrakech version). It’s strange to be back in a place which holds so many emotions and experiences. I’ve changed, but Essaouira hasn’t; and nor has the way I felt about it 13 years ago.

Now, all I need to do is to check that they have a decent dialysis clinic and a requirement for autism training. In English. Then, we’re sorted. I’ve written books you know? Don’t you know who I am? Now where’s that estate agent?

Keith, why are you making that face? Do you have sand in your eye?

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Morocco: Bruce Willis and Umbrella Entrepreneurs

Morocco: Bruce Willis and Umbrella Entrepreneurs

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Keith on the Moroccan music piped through our riad: ‘Do they actually like it, or do they just put it on for the tourists?’

We just missed the International Film Festival with esteemed films from across the world being shown in various venues across the city, including an open air screen in Djemma el Fna, the famous main square in Morocco. As part of the programme, Die Hard 3 was shown in this screen, complete with guest appearance by Jeremy Irons. Missing the experience of watching several thousand Moroccans watching Bruce Willis with a backdrop of the Atlas Mountains and the Koutoubia, a 1000 year old minaret is something I may never recover from. Marrakech has a cycle lane. For anyone who has been here, you will know what a ludicrous concept this is in a city with rubble for pavements and a traffic system which allows mopeds to travel down alleyways barely wide enough for a person. Driving is terrible; its hard to work out whether you are safer inside of a car or out. I have difficulties crossing roads in the UK due to struggling to process all of the moving information quickly enough. Out here its a piece of piss; its a waste of time even attempting to work it all out, so I don’t bother: do as the locals do and just step out. I find this entirely liberating. Marrakech is also wheelchair accessible, although only for crossing one road as far as we could see, and each side of the road beyond this island is made of rubble. Someone somewhere ticked a diversity box on the day this paint came out.

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We also saw the local version of Costa. Charcoal burner, coffee pot and a bucketful of plastic cups. Coffee costs 1 dirham (about 7p). Most things in Morocco cost 1 dirham.  Another highlight of our day was being offered drugs. This is a regular event in Morocco and only goes to show that local client profiling skills are not very sophisticated. Keith and I are the least likely looking hashish buyers on the planet. Keith doesn’t touch anything stronger than tea and thinks cannabis smells like rocket and thus accuses every salad eating person he meets of taking drugs. We didn’t want any hash, but its always nice to be asked.

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It was another rainy day today and Marrakech was suddenly filled with hoards of umbrella salesmen armed with multiple parapluies. Even our riad got a bit soggy.


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How we laughed; we come from England, you think a bit of rain phases us? Ha! You’ve got to admire such a quick response to climatic change. Tomorrow the weather is set to return to its blue skies norm and all these young men will revert back to selling sunglasses and watches. Other such inventiveness was in the shape of this fella (towards the back of the picture) who walked up, sat down and got out a set of scales. One can only assume that either scales are beyond the budget of the average Moroccan or the average Moroccan has an exhibitionist tendency to desire being weighed in the middle of a packed street.

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We made two visits in between downpours today. One was to the beautiful Majorelle Gardens and the other to the Carre Eden Shopping Center (sic). Both peaceful and relaxing in their own way, if only because in both locations no one tried to ‘help’ us, being convinced we were lost. Just because we’re looking at a map doesn’t mean we’re lost. Well, we might be lost, but we might like being lost and not want to be found. I guess that may be a strange concept to some people, many of whom never have the luxury of a holiday and of happily getting lost. Life is too busy and too tough for such frivolities.

There is plenty of information on the Majorelle Gardens elsewhere, but here are a few photos. It was established in the 1940s by a French artist and now belongs to a foundation owned by Yves St Laurent and kept for the benefitof the city. The colours of the plants, tiles and pots complement each other perfectly. Its a relief for the eye and probably the least chaotic and ‘scruffy’ place in the whole of Marrakech. It costs 50 dirhams (£3.50) to get in and is a shady oasis in the burning summer heat and a shelter in the torrential winter rain.

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The Carre Eden Shopping Center was an odd experience and one indicative of the huge disparity of lifestyle, income and opportunity that exists in Morocco. In the medina, water is collected from public taps and transport is via donkey. In the shopping centre there is Burger King, Dominos, Spongebob and adverts for £45,000 Jaguar cars. What is the Arabic for Spongebob, I wonder?

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We had to both confess that we breathed an audible sigh if relief at entering the familiarity of a European style shopping centre. Outdoor Marrakech is an assault on all senses, both social and environmental and we (especially me) struggle with that. Its brilliant, but tiring.The centre has a French supermarket which is both empty and expensive – the small trader is still winning in Marrakech.

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The main deal in Marrakech is the Djemma el Fna. By day a half empty concrete expanse populated by snake charmers, henna artists and monkeys which by night transforms into a bright, steaming street food market. The stalls are largely separated into skewers, chips and soup (tourists) and cow head and snails (locals). The bright bare bulbs of the stalls and the rising smoke from the charcoal fires make it very atmospheric.

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Sometimes, despite it all, nothing beats a room picnic, especially when it turns out that Pharrell Williams was in the house after all (he’s wearing a woven bathroom toiletries receptacle).

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Morocco: Return to Marrakech

Morocco: Return to Marrakech

Keith thought he saw Pharrell Williams in the Easyjet Bag Drop queue at 5am at Gatwick. I thought this unlikely. We wondered where he might be going. On this occasion, most of Gatwick consisted of single sex (posh) school skiing parties wearing identical hoodies purchased for the trip. I watch the teachers in charge of Other People’s Children in fascination and awe. They look so relaxed and appear not to be counting their charges every 30 seconds. Not once did I hear one shout: ‘Where’s Jenkins? WHERE’S JENKINS? Ah, there you are Jenkins. Where’s Smith? WHERE’S SMITH?…’. In my 27 years of parenting I have never helped out on a school outing. The responsibility of my own child has been almost more than I could bear.

So, we’re on our way to Morocco for a pointless 8 day trip. Because we can and because I’d run out of preserved lemons (about 5 years ago when I last came). Morocco and I have a lot of history, but more of that later. We decide to buy some neck cushions as we fall asleep a lot. Keith quickly exhausted all hilarity options involving neck cushions and a human head.

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Practical details: 8 nights in mid December. £80 each Easyjet flight, 3 nights in riad in Marrakech with breakfast £72, 5 nights in riad in Essaouira on coast £120. Bus (3 hours) from Marrakech to Essaouira £5, taxi from airport to city £4.50. Food is cheap as £1 a day or as much as you want to spend. Much cheaper accommodation can be found but we figure £25 for a double room with breakfast is something we can afford, and for that you can stay in some pretty fabulous places in Morocco.

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As my grandson, Ben, said when went to Portugal: ‘It’s a bit scruffy, Grandma’, I’d hate to think what he’d make of Morocco. Morocco is dirty, scruffy, utterly overwhelming and in your face, and I love it. Well, I say I love it but I can only handle being out in it for a couple of hours at a time before needing to scuttle back indoors for a lie down. But, then I’m like that with Worthing so perhaps its nothing to do with Morocco after all.

Today its raining in Marrakech, hence the cloudy sky from the roof terrace of our home for 3 nights, Riad Les Jardins des Lilas, which is in a particularly labyrinthine part of the particularly labyrinthine medina of the city.

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On our first outing we got lost. Then we made a classic rookie error of Being Lost in the Medina, which is Don’t Look As Though You Are Lost in the Medina. Like penguins in a sea of sharks we attracted the attention of a ‘helpful’ young gentleman who offered to show us the way. Experience says that this service will cost, but stupidly we did not agree this cost in advance. A faux pas which resulted in a minor disagreement of rates of pay for unofficial guiding services in Marrakech and some phenomenal fake offence taking by the young gentleman and some impressive (given my level of language ability) French indignation by yours truly. Adrenaline increases cognitive processing. Welcome back to Marrakech!

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Despite being annoyed at ourselves for losing at Morocco, we did manage to successfully purchase our bus tickets to Essaouira-by-the-seaside for 2 days time, so we’re calling today a draw.

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