East of the Isar in Munich, amongst the chestnut trees on the fabled Nockherberg hill, stands the Paulaner brewery, complete with beer hall and beer garden. As far as beer drinking establishments go, it's not the most picturesque nor the best value for money in Munich, but once a year in March, this hill becomes a pilgrimage point for many a beer swilling Bavarian. Every evening for about three weeks, the space inside the cavernous beer hall fills with the tuba’s toots, the trombone’s parps and the cymbal’s clash as the crowd sways and laughs and sings along to the cheesiest ‘Schlager’ hits. Decked out in their finest Tracht they swing their giant Stein-krugs of dark, malty beer, and devour mountains of pork, chicken and Spätzle. This is Munich’s fifth season - Starkbierzeit!
Friday, 29 March 2013
Thursday, 28 February 2013
Packing my well-wrapped two month old daughter in her buggy, so only her pink squawking face is bare, we leave her sleep-deprived mum to enjoy the peace of an empty apartment and trudge into a the bluster of a grey February morning. It’s Aschermittwoch or Ash Wednesday, an important date on the Catholic calendar and so an important date in Bavaria. It means that the festivities of Fasching (Carnival) have finally drawn to a close, and the 40 pious days of Lent have begun. According to local tradition, if you wash your wallet in the Fischbrunnen fountain at Munich’s Marienplatz on this day, it will be full for the rest of the year. That’s a good enough incentive for me, so with wallet and baby suitably stowed, and a two hour window before her next meal, we start down the Nockherberg hill towards the historic centre of the city.
Tuesday, 29 January 2013
Despite its best efforts, the dusting of fresh snow is unable to conceal the evidence of last night’s festivities. Empty beer bottles and spent fireworks emerge as stubborn as chimneys, and faint smudges of ash are still visible through the thin white coat. A sulphurous fug clings to the crisp morning air. As we walk, a slightly frazzled squirrel bounds across the path in front of us and scrabbles up a nearby oak tree. Craning his head back, he inspects us warily as we pass. But he needn’t be afraid, the time for pyrotechnics has passed. The sky today is blue and still. It’s New Year’s morning in Munich.
Thursday, 22 September 2011
It is time for us to part ways, Lenny, Sam and I. It has been just two weeks that we have shared in this country but Morocco has provided us with such a plethora of experiences it feels like at least a month since we left Spain.
The night before we boarded the ferry the three of us slept on the beach at Tarifa. It was such a pleasant night we merely spread our tent and sleeping bags on the sand and lay on top. As we reclined, sipping on some beers, we noticed lights on the horizon. Fishing boats we concluded, until we realised that these lights weren't shifting, that was land we were seeing - that was Africa.
During our trip around Morocco the three of us banded together against the hustling bus conductors, the quick witted street cons and the taxi drivers with dollar signs flashing in their grins. A lot of the time it seemed that the only people we could trust were each other. Most people in Morocco are honest, of course, but the ones which gravitate towards three lanky white-boys with backpacks should be accompanied by a cello player sawing out the theme song of Jaws. These Moroccans transcend in the art of lightening foreigners' wallets. One routine which we encountered more than a few times, but only fell for once or twice, plays out as follows:
A seemingly spontaneous conversation is struck up on the street, usually opening with an enquiry into where you come from. To our reply of New Zealand, we get in return "Ahhh, kiwi, kiwi! Kia ora! All Blacks, sheep etc..." I believe they have a similar repertoire for most tourists. This is the bait on the hook. Impressed by his knowledge of your country (this works especially well for New Zealanders) you let your guard down and start a conversation; maybe he can tell you where you might find a good place to grab some lunch. "Yes, yes of course," he replies "but first you must allow me to offer you a mint tea."
This inconspicuous offer of a small glass of hot water mixed with a lot of sugar and a little mint is the the hook on the line. Of course any refusal will be taken as a great insult. You see, he explains, he is different to all the other people who only want your money - indicating at this point the less well spoken and dressed people on the street who have also been pestering you - he is interested in your culture and just wants to welcome you to his country, then later, he promises, he will take you to the perfect restaurant so you can have some food.
This cunning ploy works on the visitors wish to show respect to local customs. How could you refuse such hospitality? Nobody wants to be the culturally in-sensitive tourist and what's the harm in a cup of tea anyway? You are then lead down a dis-orientating series of alley-ways, he distracts you and charms you further with more small talk about Morocco, where you have been and the wonderful places you should go, until finally, just before you realise you have no idea where you are, he leads you into his Uncles blanket store. Stools are produced, tea is served and the sales-pitch begins. This is the fight between angler and fish.
Your joy at finally meeting a local who doesn't want your money withers and dies as young men appear and begin to laboriously unroll blanket after blanket at your feet. Despite your protests your friend asks you which ones you like.
"I didn't come here to buy anything." you exclaim, exasperated.
"Then why did you come?" he asks, incredulous.
As more and more blankets are displayed you listen to the the sad story of this small family run business' struggle to put food on the table, the cup of hot tea scalding your palm. If this prodding at your conscience doesn't produce results they may switch to intimidation. The uncle will emerge and the men will begin to speak angrily to each other in Arabic all the while stabbing dirty looks your way. This reminds you that you are a long way from home and without their help, maybe even their permission, you may not be able to find your way back to your hostel.
If their scheming works and you agree to buy something, the next challenge will be deciding what to buy and negotiating a price. These guys are experts in this game. There will be a variety of quality - the cheap stuff which, they insist, only a fool would buy, the medium stuff which is OK but what you really want, my friend, is the top gear 100% camel wool blanket, Africa's finest hand woven work sourced from a remote Berber village which has been producing these blankets for centuries, I will make you a good price. In poorly-lit shops in the back streets of a strange city or town, confronted with the crocodile smile of a Moroccan blanket salesman, you are already well and truly on the back foot. How much is a hand woven camel wool blanket worth anyway? How do I know this is genuine camel wool? Come to think of it how do you get wool from a camel in the first place? If you can't answer any of these questions then the next step of deciding on a price will be like shooting fish in a barrel. Remembering, of course, that you are the fish.
Any independent travel around Morocco will inevitably lead to situations such as this one. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It awoke me to the need to stand firm and be pro-active in business transactions. In every culture, for example when buying a used car in New Zealand, some skills in haggling may come in handy and although things may be conducted in a completely different manner, in Morocco at least you get a lot of practise. I also learnt the invaluable lesson that if you wish to buy something, first research the price.
Adding even more volts to the culture shock was the fact that we were visiting Morocco during Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast, not allowing themselves to smoke, eat or even drink from the time they wake up until sunset. For a whole month. This can lead to tense times, not to mention pangs of guilt when you realise the people preparing, serving and/or smelling your dinner haven't eaten all day.
But backpacking through Morocco is not just a school of hard-knocks. The rewards for us were rich and plenty. One unforgettable experience came half way through a four day camel trek in Erg Chebbi close to Merzouga in the south east of the country. An erg is a huge sea of sand dunes with little or no vegetation cover. On our third day in this blinding, sand swept landscape we were welcomed by a wide-smiling Tuareg farmer to his oasis-fed vegetable garden blooming like green magic out of a sun baked eternity. He filled a tank with cold water, enough for us to dunk ourselves one by one, fully clothed to enjoy a cool weightless moment in the eerie blue silence.