Thursday, 22 September 2011

Mama Afrika

Cascadas Douzoud
The Moroccan Rasta Said wants us to stay and bang out another tune on his box shaped guitar. The goat stomach strings are stretched taut by the sun and begging to be plucked, but it’s time for us to leave. So with heads still cloudy from home-made date-schnapps (shudder) we shoulder our packs and puff back up the dry, red valley leaning towards the promise of Cascadas Douzoud's sweet breathe, a thundering waterfall where local kids plummet head long off slippery rocks while tourists strike adventurous poses in the foreground. 
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.
 Of course there is a considerable North African influence left from the 800-or-so years when Spain and Portugal were controlled and ruled by the Moors. This history is evident in the architecture, the food and, at times, the language, but when we dis-embarked from the ferry in Tangier we stepped out into another world completely. It was evident straight-away that travelling here would be different to Europe, there was a looser grip on the rules; important details like prices and distances became hazy making everything negotiable.

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.

That day as usual we found a shady spot to play cards while Mohammed prepared lunch. Before long we heard the whispers and stifled giggles of children, it was the farmers kids; two boys and a wee girl, come to check us out.
Sam produced his Frisbee, as it turns out a fantastic thing to take to an erg, and tossed it their way. To squeals of delight, mainly from the kids, we threw that thing around for what seemed like hours. Looking at our surroundings outside the garden we could have been on Mars, but to these kids that was just their humongous sand pit. The three of us with our sunscreen, blue eyes and strange flying disc were the extra terrestrials. It was the surreal, almost otherworldly moments like this which really marked our trip through Morocco.

So I say good-bye to Lenny and Sam, together we have swayed and rocked on camels backs watching as giant Saharan sand dunes swallowed the sun whole, we have peered through rounded doorways into houses painted deep blue like igloos sculpted from the sky a call to prayer echoing through the winding streets around us, we have passed under the great Blue Gate of Fes and lost ourselves in the smelly, dirty, chaotic maze of that ancient city. We have taken what Mama Afrika dished us and come out the other side smiling. I wish them well on their trip through Europe. I am continuing to Marrakesh and then proving once again that I enjoy self torture by climbing Jebel Toubkal (4167m), the highest mountain in North Africa. I'm not sure what I will find when I get up there but I do know thing Mama Afrika hasn't finished with me yet.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Two Worlds.

Central America, a sliver of land bridging two massive continents, acts like a bottleneck for bio-diversity. A kaleidoscope of colour, life and opportunity for adventure is condensed within its slender figure. One day I am 30 metres under the ocean exploring a ghostly shipwreck splashed with yellow and red starfish, and plastered with crusty barnacles. Parrot fish flitter in and out of skeletal forests of white coral. A yellow snapper eye-balls me through my scuba mask as a big bronze lipped grouper cruises past scattering a shimmery cloud of tiny silver fish.  

Fast-forward four days and I am standing 3000 metres above sea level, on Honduras’ highest point. Stiff gusts pepper my cheeks with cold flecks of rain. Around me the saturated green environment of Central American cloud-forest hums and drips. Tree ferns bloom and spongy moss spreads over every available space. Mist entangles itself like hair in the branches of ancient trees from where unseen birds ping and chime like cell phones. Strange shapes lurk in the shadowy background - Dr Seuss trees hanging like puppets.  In the bush clogged valley far below me a waterfall thunders incessantly. The view from the peak is mostly obscured by tattered curtains of clouds which occasionally part revealing layers of forested ranges stacked to the horizon. I think back over the last three days and about my journey from the Caribbean to where I stand now.

After two weeks fully submerged in the world of scuba diving on Utila, one of the Islas de la Bahia (Bay islands) off the coast of Honduras, I began to feel a growing urge to stretch my legs. I felt like climbing a mountain and diving into an environment of a different kind. Although I was enjoying the blue skies, bluer water, hammocks, parties and coconut palms, I was becoming restless. Not to mention the life of a rum soaked dive pirate was taking a toll on both my body and my wallet. I decided it was time for a change of scene. It was also time for Raul and I to part ways. We were headed in different directions and I welcomed the chance to travel by myself again.

The only photo I have of Raul, checking out a plane crash site on Utila. Random, I know.
I really enjoyed the time I spent travelling with Raul. He is a great character and travel companion and if it wasn’t for him I would have never visited Belize. I consider myself lucky to have met a friend on my travels, someone to laugh with, jam with, drink with and camp with, but there’s something liberating about travelling solo. Of course that freedom comes at a price – loneliness - a feeling which was waiting for me on the road.
After I left Utila I caught a rattly old chicken bus inland towards Lago (lake) de Yojoa where my guide book told of a microbrewery/ hostel owned by a Belgian man. I got off at a Honduran highway village – an assortment of stores lining both sides of the road selling everything from cell phones, fresh fruit, hand-tools and, just what I was looking for, fried chicken. As I munched through a greasy wing a child peered at me from behind her mother's legs, a conflict of shyness and curiosity. My guide- book advised me to catch another bus from here, but there were still a few hours of daylight left and the hostel was only 7kms out of town so I decided to walk. Wandering out of town I soon came to an intersection. One sign pointing straight ahead said Lago de Yojoa, the other sign pointing to the right had no familiar names on it. I considered looking at my guidebook again but recalled that the hostel was situated on the lakes edge and so I continued straight ahead, following the sign to the lake. 

The air was warm and thick with the threat of rain. Dark brush strokes blurred the tops of a distant mountain range while in the foreground white, hump backed cows chewed mouhtfuls of lush grass in vibrant green fields . As I approached they raised their heads to study me casually, apparently unimpressed with what they saw they returned to their glorious munching. Tall hedges occasionally lined the road side behind which simple houses sat, their gardens full to overflowing with life. I passed a lady taking her washing off the line, offering her a smile I got a wary look in return as she scurried back indoors.
After a couple of hours there was no sign of any hostel and I began to wonder whether I would ever reach this Belgian man and his home made beer. I was sure I had walked more than 7 km’s. I finally stopped to pull out my guidebook. I read the directions and realised that I should have taken the turn which I passed just outside the village. I let my hands fall looked to the sky and let out a groan. Good one. I had two options then, another hour to the lake, or two hours backtracking to town and a bus to the hostel. By now my feet were starting to ache and my pack hung heavy on my back, so I decided to keep going to the lake, my Belgian beer bubble well and truly burst.

As I continued fat drops of rain began to plop on the dusty ground around me. Slowly the pitter of the patter quickened until the individual drops blended into a constant roar. Before I knew it I was trudging through a downpour with my hood up and head down, my feet were sodden and my trousers soaked through. With the weather, so worsened my mood. I couldn’t help but think of that empty hammock back in Utila. I could have been kicking back, sipping a rum punch with my new friends, watching pelicans swoop and splash into the crystal clear water as smiling girls in bikinis biked barefoot past. A drop of rain ran down my spine, Why did I trade that for this?

Finally the rain began to ease and I reached the lake only to be greeted by a stern posse of No Camping signs. There was an old jeep parked with its trailer backed into the water amongst the reeds. I saw a lone dinghy in the distance, one fishermen inside seemingly marooned on a concrete lake the oppressive granite sky pressing down above him.
I decided to play it safe and wait until the fisherman had left before setting up my tent – a bright orange tent is great for being spotted if you’re lost in the mountains, not so great when you want to go unnoticed. I found a tree to shelter under, sat down on my pack and looked out over the lake. One thing about being by yourself is you have a lot of time to think, sometimes this is a good opportunity to reflect on all the things you can be grateful for, at other times however this is a chance for your mind to take a wander down darker alleys. This was one of those other times.
Why do I constantly distance myself from people? I’m on holiday I should be enjoying myself on the beach with friends like I had been for the past two weeks. Why do I always have to take the hard road? These thoughts swirled and stormed under my hood as the rain fell before my eyes. The fisherman returned, loaded his boat on the trailer and drove away without a glance in my direction. I watched as his tail lights dissolved into grey then set my tent under the darkening sky. I climbed in, crawled into my sleeping bag, closed my eyes and tried to sleep.
The next morning I woke from a restless night, the bottom of my sleeping bag was soaked from being pressed against the wall of the tent, and my feet were freezing and wrinkled. I opened the door to a morning drained of colour. After a quick unsatisfying breakfast of soggy crackers, oily tuna and rubbery cheese I packed my things and returned to the road where I managed to hitch a lift on the back of a truck to the next town. I sat shivering on the tray as the scenery flashed past my eyes in a blur. My mind still longed for the beach, while my body floated down lonely roads towards the mountains.

I knew where I was going –a town called Gracias nestled in the shadow of Honduras’ highest peak Cerro Las Minas (2870m) which I planned to climb. It seemed like a good idea from the comfort of a hammock, but now my motivation was deflating.

Gracias is a small dusty town with short and square, flat roofed buildings.  The foot paths are narrow with high gutters, the dirt roads rutted and potholed. Street dogs sulk and sniff in piles of rubbish which the wind deftly shuffles into corners and alley-ways. As I walked down the street a mountain range loomed into view, clouds hung like a frown on the brow of the highest point, Cerro de Las Minas. At that point it seemed like the mountain was emanating an invitation, almost audible, like a rumbling bass tone vibrating through the humid air. 
I found a family run Hospedaje, offering a simple but tidy private room for roughly $10NZ. Lying on the stiff bed that night, my tent, sleeping bag and jacket hung up and drying around me, the contents of my pack spilt and scattered on the floor, I resolved to take on the hike the next day. The forecast was for rain but I wanted to snap myself out of this daze.

Early next morning I found myself bucking and jolting in the back of a moto-tuk-tuk, my backpack bouncing beside me and the engine whining determinedly up a bumpy dirt-road.
After signing in with the local ranger’s office, I followed the path into a golden morning light passing skinny shrubs and trees exploding with bright green leaves. The trail ascended quickly, steeply zig-zagging up through the forest which gradually grew older and larger around me. When I stopped for a drink of water it stuck me that I could be tramping through the rain forests of New Zealand. The colours matched, the damp rain-forest smell and the over-all atmosphere was so reminiscent of the bush back home and then, out of the corner of my eye I saw a snake uncoil suddenly and leap, quick as a fluorescent green flash through the air and disappear into the bushes. This is definitely not New Zealand I reminded myself, the image of a leaping jaguar flashing through my mind.
As I pressed on a gecko pressed flat to a tree, craned his head backwards to follow my movements with twitchy eyes.

My trusty Marmot Earlylight tent.

After a few hours walk I found a flat step on the ridge to camp for the night. As the light between the towering trees dissolved into darkness the wind picked up. I prepared my pasta and tuna looking worriedly at the branches starting to sway heavily above me, the twisting wood groaning with the strain. 
That night, it rained again. I lay in my nylon cocoon encased by the sound of a million rain drops slapping the walls around me while the trees thrashed like wild things at the night sky. Above the noise I hear a scratchy scrabbling on my tent, I shine the torch and see a mouse sheltering in the gap between my fly and the roof. Just a mouse. Later I dozed on the brink of sleep, suddenly claws grip my head, shocked into action I rip off my hat and hear a startled squeak as the frightened mouse flees into the darkness. Seems my wee friend had found a way in. A little unsettled, I noticed the wind and rain hadn’t calmed and my tent still leaned at a harried angle.
As my heart rate returned to normal I began to laugh. I laughed at the absurdity of leaving an idyllic tropical island to go camping with a mouse in a tropical storm. I realised it was pretty ridiculous, but I also realised that if I had stayed in that hammock I would have regretted it. I'm a traveller, I'm in Honduras to explore and experience all I can and, to me, that means getting out of my comfort zone and straying from the pack every once in a while. Feeling sorry for yourself or focusing on what you've already left never gets you anywhere good.
The next day the sky is a very neutral grey, the trees silent and still, appearing dignified and immovable again after their wild rumpus the night before. The forest smells fresh, birds sing, insects ring and light bounces off the leaves washed clean by the rain. Everything seems recharged after the storm, myself included. I pack up camp, hitch my pack on my shoulders and head up to the summit.