Monday, August 27, 2007

Mountain bikes and markets

My cousin, Michael, and I decided to rent a couple of mountain bikes as he had done so in the past and enjoyed the experience. Being an avid bicycle rider (in the distant past) I was liking the idea and pictured a leisurely ride along the coast checking out the sites and shooting some pics, after all that´s why I am here. Michael obviously had other ideas when he pointed to a distant mountain top almost obscured by haze and announced ¨that is where we are going- Cape Formentor¨. I first thought he had said Cape Tornmentor which seemed the perfect name. Now I am well known for my enthusiasm and somewhat foolhardiness but very soon, I seriously doubted my ability to mount the peak so to speak and I spoke my words of caution but they fell on deaf Welsh ears (thank goodness this quality is one welsh trait I was not born with). So what the heck and not being a quitter, we headed off.

The coast ride was nice despite Mike´s need to race ahead. I simply sauntered behind at my own pace evaluating where the pains were going to first appear. My legs I guessed would be the first to go, perhaps my heart considering my advancing age, no maybe my neck from being hunched over with my head held up by neck sinews. I got it all wrong as it was the slowly developing blisters on my back end that started to shout for mercy- the screaming would come later.

We made it to the next village and I stopped for a chocolate croissant- fuel you know. I offered Mike one and he showed me his small apple and smiled saying ¨this is all I need mate!¨ I wished I could be like him as I devoured the freshly baked, chocolate oozing delicacy. Fueled up we started up the hill that went forever. Again Mike was soon far ahead and I was in the highest gears the bike could achieve and still I continued to slow. It then came to me that I could walk faster than I was pedalling and it would save my derriere as well. So off I got and got into my Pembrookshire rhythm and was soon making good time up the hill. Apart from the fear of cars racing up behind me and the sweat that was making my entire body a walking bath I was doing all right plus I had the added bonus of being able to easily stop for photos. Other bicycle riders would occasionally pass me with friendly hola´s and the occasional bus would also pass me coating my wet body with oily exhaust but what the hell, I am on vacation here and enjoying it.
Miles and hours later, or so it seemed I made the first lookout where Mike was waiting. The plan was to go on to the next and he kept asking me if I really wanted to go. Like as if he really did not want to go because he had practically killed himself doing the first leg but needed me to say no, I am too tired, just to y¡take the pressure off him. I played along to make him feel better and we then hiked up to the lookout with the other couple of hundred refreshed looking tourists to the lookout over the sea and coast. Incredible views and an amazing coast line. What a treat!

The ride back down was at high speed, pedal free, hair in the wind breathlessness. I loved it and managed to break some land speed records doing it. Coasting back into the village we stopped for some fresh zumo- juice and cafe con leches. Then back on the road to home. I manged to develop a new style of riding on the way back, one that allowed me to avoid placing my blistered butt on the wood (or so it felt) seat. Back at the apartment it was time for cerveza´s, a swim, and some bragging to anybody that would listen. The best part was the fact that Michael still complains 3 days later of sore everythings, while I am pain free.

The market in the old town of Alcudia is a site to see. Two days a week the parking lots and city streets fill with stalls, hundreds in numbers. Everything from vegetables to the imported beach vendor useless things is on sale. Mixed in were artisans selling their wonderfully crafted wares. The streets and aisles between vendors is practically impassable at times and I am soon covered in free suntan oil from rubbing up against so many people. I have become a potpourri of oils and smells. Despite the variety and opportunity I buy nothing as I am overwhelmed by variety and people but it has been fun to experience.

The Alcudia beach is another story of crowds and colour. The best time to experience it is late in the day when all the tourists have left and the Spanish take over. It is also cooler and quieter. My daily ritual is a walk along the beach with frequent stops at the cafes for some liquid fortification then on again. Once I have gotten as far as I think necessary for the days efforts I turn back again seeking liquid refreshments to keep me liquidated. Sometimes a veer into the ocean and walk7swim out as far as I can go and then float on back with the added buoyancy of the salt water. Then I slowly swim acroos the beach coming into land at my starting point. Not the greatest adventure but sure feels good. Again I have to celebrate this good feeling with another cafe visit to rest from my vigours.

Walking back home from the beach or from the cafe later in the evenings I am continously struck by the colourful display of the tourist´s beach paraphernalia hung on the high rise hotel balconies and every other possible place to dry for the next day´s use. I take photos to illustrate the some what whimsical efect of this tourist art.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Majorca, Spain

I arrived in Palma on the Island of Majorca, without my luggage. It seems that the airline forgot to put it on the plane! This was kind of a drag especially after reading lots of lost luggage horror stories in the British tabloid press (is there any other kind of British press?). Already tired on arrival from the previous night attempting to sleep in the airport waiting areas built-for-discomfort chairs, it wasn´t long before my patience wore thin especially after an additional couple of hours searching and lining up for info about my lost pack. Finally my turn at the wicket and I was told it would arrive at 1am the next morning. Great! I took a taxi into Palma, got a hotel room and then lit out on the town.

The Island of Majorca is legally Spain but once here it feels more like a separate country. In many ways it is a seperate country with it´s Castillian roots and long, colourful history. After the poverty and insanity of Pakistan, the remoteness of the Welsh coast, and the the English lifestyle plainness, Palma, the largest city, was a visual and aural treat. Everywhere there was beauty, life, music, people, and art. Tons of art. One museum I went to had Picasso´s and Dali´s. Outdoor sculptures abound, many of them huge and many of them quite challenging for the artist within us to accept. Take for example a miniature version of an upside down, half-built house or a row of huge, alien-like, Russian doll figures made of steel. One open-aired building, almost a sculpture in itself, has been built strictly to house ongoing exhibitions of outdoor art.

Palma has a rich and long history well illustrated in it´s architecture. It´s central feature is a huge cathedral surrounded by lesser, but equally impressive heritage buildings. Fountains, waterways, and statues of ancient warriors and gods fill the architectural gaps. Outdoor cafes , and street buskers fill every inch of available sidewalk creating a daily street carnival of the likes that I have never seen before. Around every corner is a new show, different food, and a thousand faces from all corners of the globe. I spent a lot of time sitting in the shaded outdoor cafes just watching the world parade by.

The joy of all this was lost to me when I returned to the airport at 2am to locate my missing luggage. After a couple of hours arguing and lining up again I managed to get back into the luggage arrivals area and found my pack sitting lonely and abandoned on an empty carousel. Thank goodness it wasn´t stolen as airport security, despite all the hype, is notoriously lax when it comes to departing luggage. Then back to my hotel room to sleep for what was left of the night.

After a few hours sleep following the early morning airport adventure I continued to explore the alleyways and back streets of Palma before returning to the airport again, this time to meet up with cousins arriving from wales and travel with them to Alcudia on the far side of the Island. We learned very quickly that the law in Majorca is 4 to a taxi only (no such thing as a mini van- at least not at the airport), so it was 2 taxi´s and a very hefty price tag for the 5 of us to Alcudia.
Alcudia is a strange but beautiful place. Beautiful because it sits beside the Mediterranean Ocean, the warmest body of water I have ever experienced. Strange because it is just like being in England except hotter.The Spanish are hard to find due to the thousands of Brits that flood the Island every week or two. British pubs, British fish & chip shops, stores with British papers, and British tele shows flicker on hundreds of screens on the main drag. You can keep score of a big football game by the roar of the crowds and the proliferation of England football shirts out on the day of the game. Signs often read: English owned; fried toast available here; full English breakfast; Guinness on tap; and so on. The beaches are full of very white, or very red, British bodies occasionally mixed with the deep browns of the Spaniard. The smell of sun tan oil smeared on very burnt skin seems to be the national smell of the Island.

The weather in Alcudia is very hot during the day and humid at night. While here the rains came a couple of times and the traditional uniform of the tourist- football shirt, designer T shirts and baggy shorts, was quickly replaced by cheap raincoats- multi-hued plastic bags with tight little hoods. The humour of it could not escape me and I had a large smile on my face as I watched the procession of pastels paraded by me as ducking in and out of the tacky tourist shops featuring cheap wares from all over the world. The rainwear colours were actually quite beautiful on the beach where I watched some brave souls wading colourfully in the afternoon rain.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Pembrookeshire Walk

I arrived at Newgale midday ready to walk 50 miles up the famous Pembrookeshire Coast Walk, a 186 mile walk along the wild Welsh east coast from Cardigan to near Tenbigh. My pack had been packed and repacked several times with the goal of lowering my carry weight. This was critical due to the weight of my camera equipment and I wanted success not crushing defeat.

After being dropped off by my cousin I looked at the trail climbing dramatically from the beach. I immediately started to question the fun of this venture but doggedly started on my way. Fortunately, being a photographer, I had the advantage of stopping every few feet to shoot a photo of the unfolding drama below. In reality I needed to catch my breath. I finally made it over the first hill only to find a long walk back to a beach level and then another climb, even steeper. This became the rhythm of the day till I arrived at the port village of Solva, a picturesque collection of buildings and pubs at the head of the bay. I gratefully quaffed 2 pints of reverend James Real Ale and devoured a plate of prawns. Refreshed I headed out for the next leg to Caerfi Bay which I arrived at, exhausted and sweaty, early in the evening. I was lucky to find a campsite, and luckier still that it was located next to a pub- the Welsh are so civilized!

Next step in the program was to set up my newly purchased ultra light, ultra modern tent. Being a reasonably bright man who always refers to instructions I learned that the first step in setting up this tent was to set it up at home first to get familiar with the process. Obviously I did not due this and paid the price in time and comments from passing campers (on their way to the pub of course). A typical comment I heard was "you shoulda set it oop at ome afore ya tried to do it ere yu know!" After an hour, Success. In my opinion it would have helped if the instructions were a little more clear but what the heck. The good news is that I made it to the pub with time for a meal.

Caerfi Bay is only a mile into St Davids City, the smallest city in Britain and home to the magnificent St Davids Cathedral named for the patron saint of Wales. Arriving in town I decided to spend the day to take in the sights and do a bunch of photos. The real reason was aching muscles and feet from the previous day. I found a B&B for the night figuring one night in a tent was already suffering enough and it was time for some well deserved pampering. I soon found the best cappuccino in all of Wales and I was happy. I explored St Davids cathedral and walked the town taking lots of photos. Also found the Farmers Arms, the city's most popular watering hole. Life was now complete. I then walked a couple of miles out to St Justinians on the coast where I took a jet boat ride around Ramsey Island, a bird sanctuary. Saw amazing landscapes, some of the highest sea cliffs in all of Britain and deep sea caves going deep into the cliff walls. Returned at dusk for a long walk back into town and my soft bed.

The next day I explored and photographed the empty town in the early morning before a full English breakfast at the B&B. The breakfast room was full of grey haired couples who all seemed to know each other. It turns out that the men were all members of the famous Welsh Men's Choir in town for their annual performance in the cathedral famous for it's acoustics. They gave me a cd as I could not make the performance as they reminisced of their past visits to Victoria. I left, full and replenished and walked back to St Justinians to rejoin the coast walk. Five minutes up the first hill something made a funny twang in my right calf and I was soon hobbling along the rail with a badly pulled muscle. I crippled my way into the next campsite at Whitesands Beach and set up my tent there. I spent the day walking the damage out and limped back into St Davids for a revitalizing cappuccino and dinner. I also got lucky and got to hear the Welsh Men's Choir doing their rehearsal and now appreciate the famed accoustics of the cathedral. Then another walk, slowly back to Whitesands.
Day 3 I left the camp set up at Whitesands and walked slowly back along the coast between Whitesands and Caerfi Bay arriving in St Davids exhausted and hurting badly. Reverend James generously provided some excellent medicine and I walked back in the dark to Whitesands.
Day 4 I again left the tent set up and walked the wildest part of the coast from Whitesands to Trevine stopping only in at Porthgain Harbour to meet my old friend R James. This was an 11 mile hike up and down some of the most rugged hills. My arrival in Trevine was heralded by rain and major exhaustion. Every muscle ached and getting up from the pub table was equivalent to raising the dead. I now what it will feel like when I am 100 years old. Fortunately there was a bus back to the campsite and an oncoming gale that had emptied the site of all my neighbours apart from a very drunk group of youths who generously sang me to sleep.
I woke up on my final day to grey skies and slugs in my tent. Four buses and 8 hours later I completed the last 100 miles of my adventure back to Ammanford and the welcoming soft bed of my cousin's house.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Back to the sixties

England for me represents my past, my childhood. It seems so strange to hear the crack of a cricket bat and, in my mind, feel the weight of the hard ball as it hits the English hardwood. Same goes with smells as a particular tree fragrance takes me back to the parks of my British youth.

To continue the theme of memories I attended an outdoor festival in a soggy farmers field outside of Wickham in the south of England. The occasion, me bruva's 50th birthday, whose wifely gift was concert tickets to the headliner at tonight's performance- Jethro Tull. The show is under the big top of old travelling circus times, a massive tent held skyward with 4 columns and hundreds of guy wires stretched taut. It is huge and the over capacity crowd is dwarfed by the structure. The stage is close and brightly lit. Nearby is a long tent occupied by 20 mini-bars and long lineups, with cold beer (can you imagine) the beverage of choice. Standing next to the bars, in typical British organized fashion, are the porta potties with equally long lineups. A uniqueness that I have never seen before are the large 'Gents' portas that can occupy ten at a time, much like a revolving door- in one end, out the other, and back to the beer lineup for more.

The festival grounds are much like our own folk festivals, dozens of vendors hawking everything from JT T shirts to typical ex hippie paraphernalia and clothing. The track between the displays is churned mud and it wasn't long before the inevitable mud started to climb the inside of trouser legs. The rain had just ended and, in a god-like fashion, the bigtop was blessed with a huge rainbow ending above the highest point of the tent, the pot of gold waiting for us all inside.

Jethro Tull were phenomenal, Ian Anderson outstanding as he contorted, danced, and slithered across the stage making the finest music with his trademark flute. One old favourite after a another caused time to speed up as the performance raced to it's climatic end and a huge outcry for more. The crowds cacophony was quickly rewarded with the return of the band and an even more rousing rendition of Aqualung. Following the song, Jethro Tull exited with hands held skyward in Churcillish Victory signs and the crowd exited ever so Britishly into the nights darkness. A great evening for all, and the happiest of all was me Bruva.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Streets of Rawalpindi

I am back in the saddle again after a week of home rest in the Islamabad Diplomatic Compound, recovering from what I discovered to be an intestinal infection, likely brought on by lunch in Mansehra, where I ate some (freshly washed!!!- should have known better) tomatoes. After 6 days of suffering and hardly eating, I was invited to one of my new friends, Dr Shaukat Malek, an eminent cardiologist, for a going over. After a quick visit to his house on a Sunday (try that in Canada) I left with a prescription and a recommended diet (all on the same piece of paper). I went to the Chemist's, had the prescription filled in a matter of minutes and was again happily on my way. One day later- Cured! Unfortunately my remaining days, since I had shortened my trip due to the 'troubles' including a suicide bomber close to our compound area, had been sucked up and all I had was one day left to take advantage of Shaukat's, and another new friend's, Syed Kazi- President of the Photographic Society of Pakistan, offer of a tour of neighbouring Rawalpindi.

Rawalpindi, or Pindi as it is known here, is the big sister city of neighbouring Islamabad. Where Islamambad has only been around since the 1960's, Pindi has been there a lot longer. A city of 4 million+ inhabitants it can be best described as bedlam spread. Intense traffic, noise, pollution, and a potpouri of smells all blend together in a urban whirling dervish except without direction.
Syed and I hit the streets just as the temperature was hitting 40 degrees, not too hot yet according to some residents. We were in the market area of the city, famous throughout Pakistan for the variety and sheer amount of saleable goods including one section, called the smugglers area where items, that had 'fallen of f the back of trucks' was openly displayed and sold. You can get anything you want...... and so on.
We wandered the market streets and back alleyways for a couple of hours shooting stalls, colours, people, beggars, anything and everything, If my camera had a barrel it would be hot to touch after a couple of hours of amazing images,. Every direction I turned their was image magic, all made better by the friendliness if the people. 'where you from', take my picture', 'how are you', and hello were the introductions of welcome as business people and residents welcomed me into their midst.
The back streets, better described as alleyways, are much like the alleyways of Marrakesh, but dirtier, rougher, and smellier as raw sewage runs in narrow culverts on each side of the elevated sidewalk. Power wires run everywhere, political posters cover the walls and the remnants of old campaigns, paint jobs are random and often incomplete as the if the paint ran out and no more was to be had. Motorcycles, donkeys, all manners of beggars, shopkeepers, and all the other myriad of humanity that is needed to create a city coursed up and down the streets like ants going to , and retuning from, their daily errands. One of my favourite memories, and one that I will likely propose to my city council on my return to Vancouver Island, is Pindi's imaginative way of resolving badly parked cars- they simply pick them up with a forklift and head off to a parking lot where the car can be reclaimed for a price. What a sight to witness, a car, 15 feet in the air, travelling along and above the heads of hardly interested shoppers. Such is life in the Pindi mall.

I was not a rare site in the streets, just a long not-seen sight, as few tourists visit Pindi anymore when compared to several days ago when the political situation was more stable and foreigners need not fear for their lives. In reality in all my time here I have never feared for my life. In fact I have felt more welcomed here than some of my travels around my own country. I am hoping that one day Pakistan's troubles will once again be over so that the rest of the world can experience the incredible welcoming warmth that I have experienced here. Alas, many Pakistanis openly do not see better days in the future.

The tour ended at the Pindi's Pearl Continental Hotel's Chinese restaurant where Syed and dined on a most amazing authentic Chinese meal, including my very personal experience with an unnoticed hot pepper (should do wonders for the tummy at risk and my 8 hour flight tomorrow), and several return visits to the vastly colourful and delectable dessert bar.
I will be back and have already stated planning for my next trip to visit again all my new and old friends that I have made here.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Mansehra for lunch

I left at 8:30 this morning fully packed for 10 days in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The plan was to visit the 11 sponsored children and then visit the earthquake restoration efforts being undertaken by Plan Pakistan. The 3 hour drive north was uneventful when one considers the near misses and averted head on collisions which are a daily part of Pakistani life on the roads. Driving to Mansehra is not for novices, it requires great skill while handling the wheel and keeping the other on the car horn. It gets even more challenging when the cell phone rings, and is answered, usually with the hand operating the steering wheel.

Most roads in northern Pakistan are 2 lane affairs with a reasonable curb lane on each side for pedestrians, carts, dogs, bicycles, and even a few chickens. While in North America this road style works well and the rules are often respected, in Pakistan, where traffic rules seem not to exist, the 2 lane/2 direction road often becomes a 4 lane/1 direction highway. It is not rare to come around a blind corner and experience 2 to 3 lanes of horn-blaring traffic coming straight at you. As you can see by the fact that I am writing today, most survive this experience and arrive home safely but accidents are common and usual quite disastrous.

I am fortunate that most of my transportation is in air conditioned vehicles or aircon as it is called here. Those, that are less privileged, count on open door aircon where passengers, and sometimes the driver, drive with their car doors swinging open and hang their bodies outside of the vehicle for maximum cooling effect.

We arrive at the Plan office in Mansehra unscathed and I receive a warm welcome from some of my old friends from last year's visit. I am then ushered into the Director's office who informs me that the political situation has deteriorated significantly in the region now that some of the children, who were killed in the recent Red Mosque attack, are being returned to their villages for burial. I am told that most Plan personnel have left the area temporarily until the situation calms down and that those staying are keeping their heads down by not leaving the premises and by travelling in taxis rather than by Plan vehicle when making necessary journeys. The end result of this conversation was that I had to return to Islamabad and that I would not be meeting the sponsored children nor would I be travelling into the villages to see the reconstruction efforts. But, all was not lost, as I would have lunch first.

The Plan Mansehra office is very fortunate to have an in-house cook who makes the most delicious meals and lunch was no exception. I chowed down with the Director until stuffed. Lunch was followed by a long discussion on Pakistan affairs particularly affairs of the NWFP and the ongoing violence in the region. It was an eye-opening discussion and I learned much about political affairs from the perspective of those living in the region. These perspectives are vastly different, and sometimes opposite to those opinions that we read daily in our newspapers and it was enlightening to hear these views.

I also learned about Plan's activities in the area, especially in regards to construction of new schools to replace the approximately 2,000 schools that were destroyed in the earthquake. I was very pleased to learn that Canada is at the forefront of the school rebuilding with the involvement of CIDA, the head of which in Pakistan, I recently had dinner with. The new schools, while slow in deployment due to design issues, are now full speed ahead and should soon improve the educational resources for children, especially for girls who traditionally have limited access to school.

Lunch and conversations over, I said goodbye to my hosts and returned to Islamabad with my Plan driver.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Charlie Colony, Islamabad

Today was my first sponsored child visit with my hosts, Plan Pakistan. After an orientation session, and obligatory tea, at the Plan offices in Pakistan where I learned that there are over 20,000 children sponsored by Plan in Pakistan, we left for Charlie Colony, a Christian slum in Islamabad.
Arriving in the slum with an entourage of Plan workers we soon gathered a small crowd of curious people. They followed us everywhere we went, losing a few and gaining more. The most obvious observation on my arrival was that there are a lot of children and very little to do, especially considering that it is a school holiday and almost every parent has left to work in their low status jobs. It is explained to me that, if you are from the slums, then good paying jobs are not available for you. Most work in sanitation or household worker jobs. The other reason for the large numbers of children is the birth rate, an average of 6 children per family. Birth control is rarely an option here despite the efforts of aid workers.

I learned, while walking to meet the sponsored child, Adeela, that Plan works with several other on the ground aid organizations in the slum who provide front line services to the people. Their focus is on education, health & nutrition, and developing micro financing to support small entrepreneurial enterprises. One such enterprise was a stall serving hot vegetarian meals, primarily to children, who need good nutrition the most. I was served a plate while a large crowd looked on. It was delicious and I expressed my approval to the owners delight. I was also introduced to his wife who, apparently, was the brains behind the scheme and held the purse strings. You know what they say- that behind every good man....

We also stopped at one of the small Christian churches that could be found throughout the slum to meet several of the front line workers. It was stiflingly hot in the small church and I sweated profusely while listening to the introductions and explanations of the work that they were doing. Before leaving they picked up some drums and other musical instruments and did a song for me. Again the simpleness and kindness of these small gestures struck me deeply and reminded me why I have chosen these endeavours for my travels.

After walking through several dirt covered alleyways we arrived at the home of Khaleed, the father of Adeela. He was home because he had lost a leg in an accident and could not work. His wife was out at work and Adeela and her brother were there looking out for him. I was an honoured guest in their 2 room home. I was given a seat in the bedroom, about 8x8 in size, where Adeela's father was reclining on the bed and we had a chat about Adeela and her life. She is 11 years old and in grade 4. She is very striking with very intelligent eyes. Overcoming her initial embarrassment of having such guests she quickly relaxed and told some of her story with the help of an interpreter. She hopes to be a teacher of children one day. We chatted a while longer and then went outside for photos. After taking some photos she presented me with some gifts of drawings that she made for me to give to her Cowichan sponsors.

We left, back the way we came, stopping to see a Plan sponsored water pump providing fresh water to the community; a street side barber giving a local man a shave- a risky business considering the sharpness of the razor and the proliferation of Hepatitis B on the community; another micro financed business- a vegetable stand that had no vegetables this day, and a portable Ferris wheel that children could ride for 2 rupees (4 cents) a go.

After long goodbyes, we left the sights, sounds, and children of Charlie Colony.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Dateline Islamabad, Pakistan

Arriving at the Islamabad international airport after a long sleepless night I was herded into the arrivals area. Various signs directed me and my horde into the appropriate queues as per our nationality, citizenship, and gender. I was classified a foreigner and lined up accordingly. The air was sticky with humidity and soon soaked my clothing as I did the slow shuffle forward. After half an hour and an advancement of about 10 inches I realized that the signs meant nothing and I jumped ship and lined up in the Pakistani citizens column. This speeded matters up somewhat and a half hour later I was at the luggage carousel waiting the arrival of my gear. Half an hour more- no luggage!. It turns out that I had been misdirected to the wrong carousel. Moved to another one, found my bags and exited into the bedlam of the Islamabad arrivals area. Picture this- walking through the exit doors one is faced with a sea of expectant faces, 200 across and 10 deep, all wearing similar clothes and all gesticulating loudly. I heard my name above the din and was quickly whisked away by my Islamabad hosts, Michael and his son James.

Leaving the airport parking lot I was soon drinking in the sights and sounds of Pakistan. There seems to be no rules in Pakistan, especially on the roads. If it has wheels it is allowed to roll and, if it has the space, it is filled to capacity. We were quickly engulfed in a mass of moving vehicles, small scooters, smoke belching buses, vastly overloaded 'jingle' trucks, and pedestrians weaving through and dodging the motorized madness. The roadsides were full of people, mostly men squatting as is the fashion here, seemingly waiting for something that might never happen nor appear. Every couple of hundred feet stands a soldier or a police officer armed with whatever weapon was available (I have told that they have to provide for their own weapon and uniform besides being paid almost nothing).

A couple of hours after landing I was lounging beside a pool at the Canadabad Club, inside the heavily guarded international embassy's compound walls, drinking an ice cold imported beer surrounded by the sounds of an artificial waterfall cascading behind me. The incongruency of the situation almost overwhelmed me as James told me the story of a recent party at the 'club' where the guests were entertained with the distant sounds of gunfire and explosions when government forces attacked the Red Mosque and it's determined defenders.

James and I left the compound later in the afternoon to pick up his dad's car which was having some bodywork done. We were dropped off by embassy vehicle at what I call 'bodywork avenue', a street lined with bodywork stalls. Stalls not shops since all the work was done on the street and the stalls seemed to be for tea and social gatherings only. The smell of paint hung in the air as workers hammered, sanded, and painted their ongoing projects. Meanwhile others stripped vehicles for every part that can re reused when called upon. 5,000 rupees later ($100)and we were on the road back to the diplomatic compound.

Pakistan is a very troubled country at the present time, especially since the destruction of the nearby Red Mosque. The most recent development was the President's recent ruling to re-instalment an important official. As we drove near the presidential compound crowds were gathering to celebrate the news. Police and the army were also gathering in large numbers to counter any demonstrations that might turn violent. A strange welcome to a person arriving from a country where demonstrations are quite often polite affairs.

We got through the gathering crowds safely and made it back to the compound without difficulty. Later we had a formal sit down dinner with other embassy folks, dining on Alberta beef, BC smoked salmon, and drinking Moosehead beer. Outside monsoon rains were falling and the sky was lit by flash lightning that lasted all night. Falling asleep as sat I (intelligently) decided to hit the sack. I tried to read for a while but kept dropping the book on my face until I gave up and slept the sleep of the dead.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Wales on another cloudy day

The sun came out at 8:13 this morning (and then left, again, for the rest of the day) just as I started my bowl of porridge, organic I might add. Hot and steaming, delivered to the table by my unsmiling aunt with an "all right?", the welsh 'hello'. I am staying at my aunt and uncle's house, the house they have lived in for over 40 years and raised 4 children in. My work this week is to meet all the relatives, a near impossible task considering that the Fletcher/Griffiths clan has been in the area since Celt became a feared word, and a daunting task considering that my father had 11 siblings and many of them since have also had many children. Ten of the original 12 have already left this earth leaving stories and legends in their wake. Take for example Gil & Jeryl, my uncle and aunt, and my hosts, they have spawned 4 who in turn have spawned 19 and they in turn are now delivering more fresh faced Fletcher's on a regular basis. Complicating matters further are divorces, adoptions, and so on. Many have just simply disappeared. It is an almost impossible task. One cousin, Denise, who matches me in age, and was my playmate during childhood visits, has been working on the family history for most of her life. She has now traced the Griffiths side back to the 1700's. Wouldn't you know it that some of the departed have been politicians and activists. One, James Griffiths, became a very famous British politician. His brother a well known poet. Another, Thomas Fletcher, was a local councillor. How life repeats itself!

Rhydaman, or Ammanford in Welsh, is a small town of 20,000, not unlike Cowichan in many ways. It is set in a beautiful valley surrounded by farm and pasture patchwork hills (they call them mountains here) and dotted with remnants of the coal mining past. My grandfather worked the mines here and likely most of the males before him did likewise.

Unfortunately, much of the beer here is warm and lacking in any pizazz. One brand is called Brains, go figure eh! I buy my beer in the bottle out of the little fridge that most pub's have for the itinerant traveller. I am often viewed with disdain when I ask "what's cold" and with even greater disdain when I ask for the German beer. This all passes quickly when I am asked where I am from, and I announce, Canada. Not surprisingly, I have been asked if I know so and so from Toronto. I lie and say I do, to the great merriment from those that know better. The welsh are fun loving, tough people that love a good joke. Their humour is most refreshing and easy to participate in much like our First Nation neighbours in Cowichan.

I leave Wales for Pakistan this Thursday. I am excited about visiting Pakistan again and have been asked to do a slide show for the Islamabad Camera Club a day or so after my arrival. I am looking forward to this and especially to Monday when I travel back to Mansehra to be reunited with my friends from last year. So far visits have been arranged for 9 of the 12 Cowichan sponsored children and I am hoping that I will meet all 12. I will be staying at the Plan guest house just outside of Mansehra. My hopes of travelling up the Karakoram Highway may not materialize as my Pakistan contact has not returned my emails for the last few weeks. It will be difficult to justify 6 weeks in Mansehra considering that most sponsors visit their children just for one day and then they are gone. It will be interesting what the results of this potential change in plan might result in. Also the 'troubles' are resulting in a lot of areas being closed to travellers and the embassy staff are sure to give me dire warnings about even venturing from the safety of their compound where I will be staying for a few days with my friend, the Canadian Trade Commissioner to Pakistan.

I will try to keep the blog up to date and post photos if I can find a way to do it but computers are slow here and caterpillar-like in Pakistan. I will do my best. If I do disappear for a while, it is simply due to lack of access.

Well, enough for today. Off for a latte, Welsh style (translation- awful!)

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Back In Canada

Arrived back in Canada and have had no time for jet lag but lots of time for reminiscences of a wonderful adventure. I would return to Morocco at the drop of a dime or 1 Durham. What an amazing country- a living, thriving oxymoron, happening right in front of your eyes.

The strongest memories: The hustle, bustle, and cacophony of thousands of people in the square every night; The asking of money for any service, including a simple hello; The Moroccan handover where you suddenly get a guide and he hands you off to another guy and eventually (and always) you end up in a carpet store; The Moroccan massage, a combination of deep (really deep) muscle manipulation and forced stretching- it hurts but I always wanted more; The scotch girls finding the bootlegger and scotch Bob having an uncomfortable camel ride rather than give up his box of beer carefully balanced in the saddle in front of him; Being the oldest guy on the tour bus- it made me feel wise; The constant haggling to make any purchase and then finding out afterwards that I still paid far more than I needed to; Getting misplaced (lost) in the narrow streets of the Marrakesh Medina; Learning how to twist my body into weird configurations to avoid having my kidneys forcibly removed by the handlebars of passing motor scooters; Seeing grandma flying through the narrow alleyways perched on a scooter's luggage carrier; Seeing grandma driving a scooter at breakneck speeds thru the narrow streets of the Medina; My $28 a night, 3 bedroom apartment in the windy city of Essaouira where the sand continuously blew in the open skylight; My toothpaste tasting like sand after leaving Essaouira; Laying on the top of a sand dune late at night watching shooting stars; Dancing my butt off to Arabic techno; Laying on my rooftop terrace burning the bridge of my nose; Looking over the city from my hotel's rooftop terrace, beside me is a beautiful tiled terrace with umbrella's and fancy mosaic furniture, next to it is a roof top dwelling goat.

And the people- colourful, energetic, creative, lively, beautiful, and friendly. Like I said, I would return on the drop of a Durham

Saturday, March 24, 2007


The guide book said the Atlantic Coast town of Essaouira has laid claim to being the windiest city in Africa. They were right! I have just returned to Marrakech from Essaouira after having spent 4 days, mostly within the walls of the old city. The old city, which dates back to the 16th century is a small town enclosed by daunting fortifications. The town essentially runs on tourism and fishing. The fish port is a marvel in itself with about 20 stalls offering you your pick from a large variety of fresh from the sea delights. Each stall has a greeter (to put it mildly) doing his absolute best to entice you to eat at his stall. It is fish bedlam to say the least. Once enticed you pick your selection and it is cooked on the spot for you.

Tourism in the town is centred in within the city walls. Some tourists venture beyond the walls but few do as I witnessed when wandering about the newer section of town. Most tourists keep to the main streets of old town but the gem of the city, or better still, the heart of the city exists in the tiny alleyways that honeycomb the town. Many connect with other streets but one can get 'misplaced' every once in a while. No matter how misplaced you get you will always eventually find your way out, unlike the old city of Marrakech where there are legends of tourists never returning from their explorations.

The main streets are the shopping centres of the town. When busy you can hardly move. At the same time the noise level of hawkers, loud music, motorscooter buzzing,
and the general din associated with large gatherings of passionate people increases as the crowd swells. Like at Alice's estaurant, you can get anything you want. Sheep heads on planks, chickens killed and plucked while you wait- guaranteed fresh the sign says, spices ground in front of you, and everything else from rubbermaid to diapers.

The food here is similar to everywhere else- Tajines, CousCouis, or Brochettes. Most restaurants also have a complete italian menu of Pizza and other dishes. Moroccan fare tends to taste a little bland surprisingly since one would expect spicy food. Even the italian food tends to be bland, almost like Chef Boyardi with some curry throw in. They will spice things up for you but beware as the cooks often do not know their limits. It turns out that Moroccan salads and vegeterian dishes are really delicious and affordable.

Finding accomodation in Essaouira is done by reserving ahead,if you are smart, or wait till you arrive there and search, which typically, I did. The search ended as son as it began. I was picked up by one of the 'accomodation opportunists' who frequent bus arrivals. Despite the usual catastophic results of being led around by one of these characters, I had heard that sometimes they turn out all right. Luckily my guide, Jamel, was good and I was soon parked in a 3 bedroom apartment. A little seedy and dusty from the unglassed skylight, it was still pretty cool in a hippie kind of way. The best of all was the price- 200D a night which is 28 dollars, a little pricy considering my Marrakech digs that were costing me half that. As with all no-star accomodations this had it's drawbacks in addition to the sand blowing in the skylight - I did mention the Windy City tag. The hot water was an adventure in pyrotehnics, My neighbour often cooked with his porcelain bbq just on the steps outside my door, and Jamel keeps coming back with excuses to ask for some extra money. People do this a lot here- ask you for money for no real reason at all except that you will be helping their families.

The photography here has been incredible. Every new street offers something interesting. The colours, the architecture, the clothing, the stores, the life bursting around me all make up a kodak mosaic that I am feasting on. Talking about feasting it is time for me to do so as feasting is a good excuse to hunt down a beer. And in this town it is a hard hunt to find an affordable pint

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Morocco: Back to Marrakech

After we all gathered in the Berber communal tent we spent some time getting to know our hosts and each other better. Food soon arrived, a huge mountain of Couscous, large chunks of vegetables, and chicken. Being on the road for so long and the rigours of camel riding was demonstrated by our ravenous behaviour and the food was soon all gone. Dessert was the same as everywhere in Morocco- oranges. The tables were removed and we were then entertained by 5 of our hosts with Berber songs on drums and clackers. We leaned the ringy ringy ringa song, badly.

After all the festivities I left and took my camel blanket, yup the same one off the camels back, out into the desert and laid on my back watching the amazing starry display all around me. It got cold, real cold and I returned to my shared tent to sleep. Constantly cold I eventually covered myself completely under the camel blanket so some body heat might collect and sleep would come.

The next morning I was wakened by my tent mate at the crack of dawn, apparently I asked him to do this, and stumbled out into the cold desert dawn. Not much of a sunrise but it was the first time we had seen our camp in the light of day. It was a stunning location with large, no, huge dunes all around us. I wandered off to explore and photograph a little. I could see that our camels were being prepped for takeoff so I headed back to make sure that I found a camel with a rubber back bone- no more ridge riding for me. I got my blanket and made sure it was folded as many times as humanly possible so that the distance between the camels backbone and me was maximized.

We were soon off in the suns rising rays. It was incredible as the camel trains were backlit and sidelit by the sun. Shot till I could shoot no more. We arrived to a very mediocre breakfast at the oasis and then we were herded back into our bus for the 8 hour journey to Marrakesh. It was a killer ride and very exhausting. Picture 15 tired, dirty, and sore tourists being driven by a man who spoke none of our languages and determined to break distance and time records for the journey. He was nice to let us out occasionally for washrooms and a lunch break. Getting off the bus we were instantly absorbed, or more accurately, engulfed in the Marrakesh madness of Saturday night.

A welcome site, my hotel, and a warm welcome of: monsieur Paul, we thought you were not coming back!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Morocco day 8, sands of the Sahara

I am back in Marrakesh madness after spending 3 days crossing the High Atlas Mountains to the Sahara Desert. I travelled in a large mini van with 14 others from a mosaic of countries including a Chinese American university student who rode camels in the desert wearing a pin striped casual blazer. We explored many valleys and towns on our way to the Sahara and stayed the first night in the Frozen Hotel high up in the High Atlas. I slept soundly but coldly to the sounds of a winter rushing river. We are being well fed with traditional Moroccan fare which means Couscous or Tajines. Dessert is invariably oranges: We managed to get a mini beer donated to our cause and had the pleasure of half a mini-beer before bed at the Frozen Hotel.

Up the second day we continued across the mountains again exploring Berber kasbahs, ancient mudbrick villages and thoroughly modern towns: Unfortunately the bus trip is not the best for photo ops as I have watched with despair as numerous Kodak moments have passed me by.

We left the highway at the edge of the Sahara and crossed overland to an oasis beside some huge orange coloured dunes. A camel train was waiting for us and we were quickly mounted up for our one hour camel trek to our Sahara Hilton tent accommodations. We all had heavy loads especially since our driver had taken us to the local bootleg store where we loaded up with beer and other refreshments.

The camel trek was probably one of the high moments of my life that I will always remember with pleasure despite the extreme pain that some of us endured as we cheek rubbed with the camels high spine. Done properly there is a ring of blankets placed around the Camels hump so that you ride above the backbone instead of on it. A Berber blanket is then placed on top of the ring to create a platform for the widely spread-eagled rider. An incorrectly placed blanket quickly results in suffering as described above: My cheeks still cringe in memory as memories are revisited with these words.

Despite some serious pain issues we arrived at the Berber camp, a set of blanket constructed tents sitting in a valley of huge sand dunes. We had left the oasis at dusk and arrived at the camp under a vast night canopy of stars. Our shared tent accommodations were quickly sorted out and we were instructed to take a walk while food was being prepared. As the only direction to walk was straight up the neighbouring dune, we did as we were told. The climb was a killer. Imagine going up a sleep incline in soft shifting sand. Half an hour later, and after many rests, 8 of the original 15 summited the crest of the dune. What a sight for miles around. We laid on our backs and were swallowed by the incredible blackness and light of the night sky. After the traditional group photos we yahooed our way at high speed down the side of the dune to the camp.

We were then ushered into the communal tent were we formed a large circle and became one with our hosts

Monday, March 12, 2007

Morocco Day 5

The good news is that I finally found a hi speed internet place, in the old town where I stay, and with a somewhat English keyboard. Picture a keyboard that has Arabic figures and the english letters are all in different places. I am not going to even think about spell check at this point, just happy to have got this far. The bad news is serious tummy turmoil, from what I do not know. Thank god for my little first aid kit and Toms magic tummy pills. I managed a triple scoop bowl of gelato today so far and it only cost thirty cents cdn. I still remember the same gelato in Italy for several dollars in price. I expect to eat little more as the day goes on. The other bad news is that there will be no postcards. I promptly lost my little black book with all the addresses. I would appreciate some of the important ones emailed to me

Morocco, how can I best describe it?

The smells
Dried Donkey dung dust whipped up by evening winds. Endless rows of aromatic spice stalls. Incense mixed with essence of latrine. The exhaust of thousands of little scooters racing along the streets and through the back alleys. Hashish burning in late night dark corners.The smoke from dozens of food stalls that magically appear each afternoon and gone by the morning.

The sights
Beggars on every corner in the most horrendous conditions. Wealthy Moroccans in rich flowing gowns and fashionable sunglasses. Back streets lined with small stores and shops with storekeepers shouting and tugging at your sleeves. Thousands of tourists and locals of every flavour and nationality like I have never experienced before and they are crammed together into the smallest of spaces. Everything is well utilized here especially space. It is just like a ongoing movie. And cats everywhere.

The noise
Endless noise, shouting vendors, long arguments, the wailing call to prayer 4 times a day, the snake charmers flutes, the African drum troupes, the clopping of horse drawn carriages and heavily laden donkey carts, the vehicles dodging in and out of traffic, oblivious to pedestrians, the silence of a Haman spa.

The experience
Ordering food that you have no idea of its origin or taste. Dodging scooters, bicycles, carts, cars, carriages, and people in streets that are ten feet wide in places. Being offered a carpet for my fifteen year old t shirt, being offered 3000 camels for my camera. A one hour totally muscle tearing Moroccan massage. Drinks around the pool in an upscale hotel with some new found friends then back to my fourteen dollar a night room in the old town.

The Plan
I leave Wednesday via mini van to cross the high atlas mountains, sleep in a tent on the dessert, and do some camel riding. Back for a few days then off to the coast to an old historic city on the Atlantic. After that I do not know.

Meanwhile I will keep to the right, it is traditional you know, or so I have been told by the dozens of instant guides that show up beside me matching my pace and asking the same questions:

Where you from?
Ah Kebec.
No British Columbia
Where you going?
For a walk
I show you tanneries (which means their friend the carpet seller)
OK my friend I take you there anyway.
Been there, done that, got the smell, au revior mon ami