Returning to Morocco

January 2016

The New Gate, our initial entry point into the town. Viewed from the inside.

A section of the walls with an ornamental garden planted outside it. The countryside didn't look like this.

My room in La Maison Anglaise and a typical dinner spread.

Another view of the walls, by the main gate into the town with its fountained pool.

A road leading out of the town.

The calesh from our tour and the fancy carriage from the Palais Claudio Bravo.

A very mature Argan tree in the Anti-Atlas Mountains.

A threshing circle in the Anti-Atlas Mountains.

Village mosque, Imaridane in the Anti-Atlas Mountains.

The dining (& dancing) room in La Maison Anglaise.

A village shopkeeper and two shops inside the Berber souq.

Claudio Bravo's studio, preserved as he left it.

The ceramics collection in the mausoleum at Palais Claudio Bravo.

Ornamental pool with the Atlas Mountains in the distance, Palais Claudio Bravo.

Stalls in the Berber souq.

Hiking in the Atlas Mountains.

Part of the big Sunday market just outside the town. It was huge!

Working animals in & around the town.

Typical Taroudant buildings, in a very quiet part of town.

Deliveries at a small row of shops just inside the wall.

My return trip to Morocco nearly didn't happen. Or, to be more accurate, the trip was all set up but it didn't seem like my life was destined to take advantage of it. Circumstances led me in all sorts of unexpected directions but despite everything I found myself heading off to Africa to teach another week of Circle Dance at La Maison Anglaise in Taroudant, southern Morocco. How had this finally come about?

Things had started off smoothly. After teaching a very successful workshop there in November 2014 Jane, the organiser, had asked me to return in January 2016. I marked it in my diary and mentally put it aside - I was in the process of settling in to my newly built home and 2016 was a long, long time away. Time enough to get organised before then.

It didn't quite go as planned. 2015 turned out to be a strange year as my work situation deteriorated and I ended up unemployed (or at least inactive) for most of it. Relations with the developer & builder of my house took a similarly downward turn as the remaining work was carried out slowly & poorly (if at all). On top of all of this I hadn't been dancing and had done virtually no promotion of the workshop. At some barely acknowledged level I assumed that it would be cancelled and as the year crept onwards it became my own taboo subject, to be brushed aside with increasingly embarrassed haste.

Finally, with the end of the year approaching I couldn't avoid it anymore and reluctantly emailed Jane to see how things were going. Despite everything I hadn't done there was a small number of participants booked and she was fully expecting me to turn up and teach. Having just started a new job I figured that it would be good for me to have a holiday even if it didn't pay for itself so I set to booking my travel, finding that although I'd left it to the last minute the fares were surprisingly reasonable.

There was another emotional gauntlet for me to pass. Early on Jane had asked me to move my workshop by a week to fit in with another teacher's availability. I'd changed the date everywhere but in my day to day diary and when I went to book my flights I realised that my band had a high-profile gig on the weekend I was away. Oops! Very sheepishly I admitted my mistake and lent one of the guitarists a bass and my rig to take my place - the band were cool about it but I was wracked with guilt.

The flight to Agadir left at 7 in the morning so, like the last time I made the journey, I booked into the Yotel 'pod hotel' for the night before. It's not as cheap as the other Gatwick hotels but I love the convenience of waking up in the terminal and just strolling to the bag check desk. After going through the security checks - quick & easy at 6am on a weekday morning - I treated myself to a cooked breakfast, sauntered to the gate and was soon high above the ground and heading for Africa.

Easyjet, like most airlines, have got pretty good at filling their flights but not only did I end up with an empty seat beside me but the other passenger in my row moved off to sit beside his friend, leaving me with lots of space and a window seat to boot. As we approached Agadir I watched the Atlas Mountains rise majestically below me before dropping away to the wide expanse of the Souss valley, dotted with what at first looked like lakes but soon revealed themselves to be plastic sheeting over greenhouse crops.

Passport control, usually a long & tedious affair, was speedily dealt with and I was soon reunited with my hold case and with some of the dancers coming for the workshop - I hadn't had a participant list so it was nice to see some old friends had come along. We made our way out of the arrivals hall and queued up to change money only to be told that the bureau de change had run out of cash! The cashier redirected us to another counter where, after some nervous moments as the businessmen in front of us loaded themselves up with thick wodges of notes, we changed our pounds for dirhams. Outside we were met by Said from the guest house who ticked us off his list and shepherded us out to the minivan for our hour-long drive to Taroudant. Before we drove off we had a curious encounter with one of the porters who was trying to exchange the pound and euro coins he'd been tipped with into notes which he could then exchange for dirhams - the global economy in action! Finally we were on our way and while the surfers & sun worshippers turned left towards Agadir and its beaches we headed east into a more traditional Morocco.

Along the road the countryside changed from plastic-clad banana plantations and ranks of closely packed citrus trees to open land covered with small Argan trees. The soil was often tilled but showed no sign of a crop emerging. The villages and small towns we passed through were filled with boxy houses, usually in terraces with container-style metal doors on the ground floor that, when opened, revealed a variety of small shops. We shared the wide & well-paved road with small pick-up trucks, cars ranging from ancient Peugeots to shiny 4x4's, long distance taxis painted in the green or blue livery of their respective companies, trikes piled high with produce or fodder, and pushbikes of all kinds, from solitary old men on rusty relics to crowds of schoolchildren swarming along the roadside, often riding hand in hand with their friends.

After an hour's drive we arrived at Taroudant, entering through the New Gate on the north side of the walled town and zigzagging through the narrow streets until we drew up outside La Maison Anglaise. The cool, fresh air and tiled walls were a welcome contrast to the dry, dusty streets and after washing & changing I went up to the roof terrace to let myself settle into my new abode and take in the Taroudant skyline. The evenness of the rooftops - most of the houses seemed to be three or four stories high - belied the warren of streets beneath us and the mixture of orange-brown clay and breezeblock grey gave a harmonious wash to the town's colours. White satellite dishes dotted the houses, mosque minarets pushed higher into the sky and beyond all of this rose the High Atlas mountains as backdrop. It was quite a sight.

After unpacking I set off for a stroll around the town. Taroudant isn't very big - the city walls enclose a square of about a mile on each side and although the town has spread beyond them most of the interesting sights are within - but it's surprisingly easy to get lost in the tangle of streets & alleyways. None of the streets are signposted (in Arabic or colonial French) and few have distinctive features, at least to my tourist eyes. The larger roads had small shops on the ground floor with two or three pale brown stories above them, as the roadways got smaller they became narrower with plain doors (but hardly any windows) replacing the shopfronts and in the purely residential areas they would often end in blunt cul-de-sacs. Despite the square shape enclosed by the walls the streets themselves went in all sorts of directions and often subtly curved, making navigation by dead reckoning a very uncertain prospect.

After two previous visits to the town I'd built up my own internal map of the larger streets and was pleased to discover that I could find my way between the major landmarks with relative ease, even when this involved twisty alleyways and a shortcut through the labyrinthine maze of the Arab souq (covered market). In theory I could always take a cab home if I got lost - all of the drivers seemed to know the "English house" and the fare was negligible - but it was good to feel that I could take care of myself in these exotic surroundings.

Dinner was a traditional tagine with veggies & salad (the food was excellent throughout the week) and after a short digestive pause it was time to dance. It had been over a year since I'd last taught and although I'd done some solo preparation before setting off I felt alarmingly rusty & unready, especially with a group who I'd (mostly) never danced with before. The dances I'd chosen for this first session were 'easy but interesting' ones which (I hoped) would give me a chance to assess the group while keeping me safely within my comfort zone. After a short lesson on operating the sound system I tapped the Play button and we were away.

My insecurities faded away (mostly) as we started dancing and I soon found myself happily leading the group through the evening's programme. I'd managed to curtail my habit of putting too much in and as we learnt, mastered & repeated the dances I got a good feel for the abilities & preferences of the participants. As the week progressed we added new dances but did lots of repeats, often with new pieces of music to explore different aspects of each one. The format of two hours dancing each evening gave me time to plan out a progressive programme that was very satisfying, both for myself & the other dancers. My anxieties retreated and I found myself relaxing into and enjoying the rest of my holiday time.

Wednesday was a quiet day for me, most of the group were off to the hammam (traditional Moroccan communal bathhouse) but I'd been to one on a previous visit and it wasn't much fun on your own - I was the only man. Instead I went for another stroll around the town, mostly to just be out in the sun and take some pictures rather than to buy or see anything specific. There were many more people around in mid-morning and I soon headed outside the walls to find some peace & space as I slowly acclimatised to Moroccan crowd density. The walls were as majestic as ever but just outside was a reminder one of the darker aspects of the culture - treating public space as a rubbish tip. The (currently dry) riverbed to the north of the town had piles of trash & plastic bags cascading down the banks and the stench, although surprisingly localised, was a gagging mixture of rot & shit. The persistence of plastic certainly exacerbates the problem of litter, especially in a dry climate, and it was a shame to see so many potentially scenic sites blighted with trash. Maybe tourism will provide a spur to clean things up?

Retreating back inside the walls I meandered in the general direction of the guest house but despite my seeming mastery of the town layout I missed it completely and ended up at another section of the wall on the far side. I tried using the map app on my iPhone but although it showed the streets none of them (or any of the other landmarks) were marked, leaving me with just a general idea of my location within the town, something I could work out for myself from the wall and the angle of the sun. I vowed that if I returned to Taroudant I would write an app showing the positions of La Maison Anglaise & the main attractions in the town along with the main thoroughfares.

One of the more touristy things to do in Taroudant is to take a late afternoon tour in a calesh - a horse-drawn carriage. I'd done this on my first visit but thought it might be nice to repeat the experience, especially as this time we'd be accompanied by Said from the guest house as our local guide. It was nice to see the town from the height, comfort & safety (from other traffic) of the calesh, especially with Said's explanations of some of the historical & current aspects. One of our party wanted to buy some fruit so we dismounted and were led through the dark passageways of the Berber souq - the market for food & day to day objects, the local 'supermarket' in its most literal meaning. Time slipped away as we wove through the stalls and we needed to make a hasty retreat to get back home in time for dinner.

Thursday was an excursion day - a hike though villages in the Anti-Atlas Mountains. On the way out we stopped to take pictures of goats climbing the Argan trees to reach the tastier higher leaves - a sight that still takes me by surprise. We'd brought childrens' clothes to offer as gifts to the locals in exchange for having us walk through their villages but the shepherd wanted money instead, a sign of how the economy is changing perhaps? We were way off the normal tourist routes and Said seemed outraged that this (relatively) well-dressed shepherd was demanding cash.

The first village we stopped at was high on a ridge and offered spectacular views across the Souss valley to the High Atlas Mountains to the north. There was a real sense of being on top of the world with red-brown earth dotted with Argan trees spreading away in all directions and a wide, crystal blue sky overhead. As we wandered through the village distributing the clothes we'd brought with us we gathered a crowd of onlookers - at first a group of small boys, then lots of women (most of the men were apparently working away from the village). Our visit was obviously a fascinating break from the regular routine. The villagers were generally very friendly but there was an awkward moment when I took a picture of the group and one of the local women said I should pay for including her in the picture. Said deftly defused the situation but it was a reminder to me that I was a participant in these people's lives, not just an observer.

On the way out of the village a local man presented each of the women in the group with a small sprig of basil, a token of goodwill & good wishes that was apparently inappropriate for men. Sigh! When we got back to the guest house we brewed a pot of tea with it that was delightfully refreshing, a nice reminder of the generosity of these very poor mountain people.

There wasn't a hiking route to the next village so we hopped back into the minivan and drove there. All was quiet there until we came across a small village shop where, in exchange for taking pictures of the smiling proprietor, we bought some pens which could be given as small gifts to the local children who were emerging from school. As news of this spread dozens of people, again virtually all women, emerged to enjoy the spectacle of exotic visitors to their village.

For lunch we stopped off at the Pigeon House, a family-run enterprise exploring new farming ideas and restoring a traditionally built mud & straw house (this was by no means as primitive as that sounds). After a splendid meal we had a tour of the plants being grown and a look around the eponymous house (with its pigeons) before sampling some of the Argan products that they produced.

The Argan tree grows everywhere in the Souss valley and nowhere else. The oil extracted from its nuts is an important local resource, especially now that it's in wider demand as a base for cosmetics and is more often exported than used in the valley. I was in the market for some as a culinary ingredient - it's wonderful in salad dressings - and put down an order for two litres to be delivered in the next couple of days.

Before heading home we called in at the Busy Bee Centre, a group who support & educate people involved with beekeeping in the area. They had honey, beeswax candles and other bee-related products to sample & buy but also some bottles of culinary Argan oil. Jane suggested it would be better to buy these ones than wait for my order - they were already prepared and the glass bottles would make transporting them easier - and so began a series of phone calls as the arrangements were changed. This led to a couple of days of confusion over who owed how much to who but was eventually resolved when another payment to the Pigeon House was covered by my original oil order. You could tell that trading was a deep tradition around here.

On Friday a small group of us went to visit the Palais Claudio Bravo, a small estate just outside Taroudant. After negotiating the inevitable gravel track off the main road we arrived in a courtyard where two very smartly dressed young men - one in all white with a burgundy fez, the other in blue with tall yellow boots - encouraged us into a fancy horse-drawn carriage and took us along a palm tree-lined driveway through citrus plantings to a very impressive building with wide open doors. Entering the house we met our guide and were shown around the Palais.

I'd never even heard of Claudio Bravo but I learnt that he was a Chilean artist who had become successful in Europe in the 1960's before moving to Morocco in 1972, living in Tangier and Marakesh before building the Palais. He had died fairly recently (2011) and the house was now being run by his assistant, who's daughter was our tour guide. Apparently there was a plan to develop the house as a luxury guest house / hotel but it was unclear what the timescale would be for this.

The house was gorgeous, expansive without feeling oversized, filled with art and beautifully furnished while retaining the feel of a home rather than a museum or gallery. The division between indoors and out was blurred and the (relatively) harsh climate was tempered by lots of trees, walled gardens and pools. The rooms had very different colour schemes and characters but somehow it all came together into a harmonious whole. It reminded me of the house of Caesar Manrique that I'd visited on Lanzarote, another example of somewhere an Artist should live - quirky & exotic but comfortable & homey. A place to work but also somewhere to be surrounded by friends & family.

Our tour ended up by a wide ornamental pool (complete with pedalos) where we were served tea & biscuits with the Atlas Mountains as our distant backdrop. Ahhh. Actually this wasn't the final stop, after being driven back to the entrance in our fancy carriage we were given a tour of the stables with their championship Arab horses. This was a sharp contrast from the peace & beauty of the main house but the stable master - an almost toothless old man with wild hair who spoke in a stream of barely-comprehensible French - was so enthusiastic it was hard to pull away.

Friday is the Holy Day of Islam and on our way back to the guest house we passed a group of men gathered in the street outside the nearby mosque, all kneeling aligned towards the East. It felt strange to drive past this group of worshippers in the minivan but nobody seemed perturbed by it.

At the evening's dance session we were joined by a new participant, a German woman who had arrived to stay at the guest house but who had done some circle dance before and asked if she could join in. Not only did she enjoy the evening but she decided to stay for the rest of the workshop. A nice boost to my self-confidence.

Another pleasant surprise was using the app I'd written for dance teachers. Since releasing it I'd done hardly any teaching so it was reassuring to find that it did just what I wanted in a simple & easy way, just as I'd intended. Using it with my iPad Mini gave me a nice, large display with convenient controls, a huge improvement over the fiddly CD buttons I'd used in the past. And it automatically kept track of what I'd played. It's so nice when work done in the past pays off in the present.

Saturday's excursion was a hike in the high Atlas Mountains. As we rose through the foothills it was the usual surroundings of bare earth and Argan trees but as we got higher we reached a level filled with greenery and terraced fields. The villages grew larger and more substantial, spreading along the mountainsides in contrast to the tightly packed houses in the Anti-Atlas. The air felt cooler & fresher, very nice for walking.

Coming around one corner - the road snaked back and forth as we climbed - we were faced with a collapsed section of the roadway. A man operating a big earth mover was tipping the collapsed soil off the side and tamping down the surface but it looked like it was going to be a long job. Not in Morocco though - after a few minutes work and with the assistance of a small steam roller a 'good enough' temporary surface was created and we gingerly drove across it and on our way. None of the Moroccans seemed even vaguely fazed by this although it caused some nervous moments among us tourists.

Reaching the starting point for our hike we waved the minivan goodbye and set off on foot. The walk led through the fields & houses of the village rather than open countryside but the soft greens made a pleasant change from the unrelenting earth tones of some of our previous outings. On a couple of occasions local women directed us onto the right route - one sudden outburst of Arabic required no translation to be understood as "I wouldn't go that way if I were you" - and we gently made our way around the fertile bowl of the village towards the bare slopes rising on the other side. After a picnic lunch in the shade of some conifers we climbed up to the the village school - apparently schools are usually sited on land unfit for farming - and descended on the other side of the ridge, following a dusty road down to where we rendezvoused with the minivan for our ride home.

We'd been told that a local band rehearsed on Sunday morning so several of us made our way to the town square but it turned out that we were out of luck. Instead we settled for a drink at one of the cafés that flanked it - a rather nice expresso in my case. While sitting we fended off the entreaties of a calesh driver and a very persistent beggar who's strategy seemed to be based on playing a very loud flute until we paid him to go away. This was definitely the exception rather than the rule, lots of people would approach obvious tourists with offers of goods or services but most of them would leave you be once you'd said no. In fact I'd made it a point to not just say "No, no, no" when approached but to engage in conversation - in a couple of cases I found myself talking with people who just wanted to practice their English and chat with a visitor.

With no music being played I decided to have a look at the weekly market held just outside the town. On the last time I'd gone there I'd not made it past the animal section - they weren't being visibly mistreated but the plaintive wails and pungent smell had sent me into retreat. This time I entered via a side gate and made my way to the much more extensive vegetable stalls which stretched away into the distance, each under their own large set of sunshades and awnings. The size of the market was impressive but it felt like a scaled-up version of the food shops & stalls in the souq and around the town - not particularly exotic. Or was I just getting acclimatised to life in Taroudant?

Monday was a free day for me (apart from dancing in the evening) so I spent a lot of it wandering around the Arab souq - the marketplace for crafts & artisan goods. Sadly, despite my twitchy wallet I couldn't find anything that called out to me and as the afternoon drew on I found myself returning home empty handed. My only holiday purchases were two litres of cooking oil, hardly the treasures of the Dark Continent and a sad reflection on my touristy prowess. It was nice to not burden myself with junk but it felt like I was somehow missing out on what this exotic location had to offer.

The final dance session was a recap of (most of) the dances we'd done through the week. One of the highlights for me was Ibraim Odža, a tricky dance in a very unusual rhythm (17/8-ish) that I'd rarely had the chance to teach to a level I was happy with. The group had embraced the complexity and on our final run through we performed it wonderfully, moving as one even with music that sped up as it progressed. A very satisfying moment for all of us. The other dances were equally well received and there was a real sense of achievement for both teacher & students.

When we took a break halfway through the session the participants took turns giving feedback on the workshop & my teaching. This was overwhelmingly positive and left me quite overwhelmed. Jane had already asked if I'd come to West Wales (her UK home) to teach a workshop there and I was thinking that a return to Taroudant would be nice in a year or so. At the end of 2015 I'd been wondering if my dance teaching was coming to an end, maybe it won't be for a few more years yet?

My final morning passed very quickly - breakfast was early to allow time to get to the airport but as I was the only person returning to England (the others were all staying on in Morocco) I ended up being driven there alone, an abrupt transition after a week spent with the rest of the group. The journey back was mundane & tedious, Moroccan passport control was as inefficient as always and although UK immigration was surprisingly quick it was followed by a very long wait for the luggage to come through. Stepping out onto the platform at Gatwick station was a shock - I wasn't ready for frost! - but the train journeys passed uneventfully and before I knew it I was back home, waiting for the heating system bring the house up to a comfortable temperature.

Despite the unpromising build up I'd had a really nice holiday and had rediscovered my dance teaching skills & enthusiasm. With luck I'll be returning to Morocco before too long.