Friday, 22 February 2013

New Year in an Old Town, Part I

“Allow me to tell you that myself, I am Antonio. And this is the lovely lady who is my wife Alicia. You are going to Djenne, no? Welcome my friend, you are number five. Now we just wait for four more. Stand here, you don’t need to move.”

I was used to being surrounded, hustled and cajoled by locals in Mopti; trying to get me to stay at their hotel, travel in their taxi or buy their artwork. It’s a busy hub of a town in the centre of Mali, a base from where people launch their trips to Timbuktu, hikes in Dogon country, or visits to the wondrous mosque of Djenne. Built on the banks of the Niger River, Mopti port serves as a centre for river transport up and down the country. Tourists get mobbed by men touting once in a lifetime opportunities, and I had learnt to deal with it.

But this Italian gentleman, Antonio, was something else. In his thirties, short and stout, he’d taken it upon himself to organise the other passengers and distribute vital information.  The guys who normally had this job were leaning against the taxi and laughing among themselves, taking a breather from their task of recruiting new passengers.

I got talking to Betty, an elder American lady who was also travelling to Djenne.

“I hate this place” she told me in her syrupy Californian drawl. “I’ve travelled through Europe, North America and South East Asia, but this place is so dusty and so expensive. The food here is so bad, but in South East Asia it’s superb. And the people! In South East Asia they’re so gentle and polite, but here they are rude – all they want is money. Can you believe yesterday a young man told me I know we don’t have much time, but I just want to get to know you better, while he was caressing my arm! I told him where to go, oh yes, I’m an old lady for crying out loud.”

Lowering her voice, and with a glance to the left and right she said “And that Antonio, he’s so bossy and thinks he knows everything. Reminds me of that air-sole I used to be married to.”

The creaky old Peugeot taxi was finally packed full enough for us to leave. I tried to ignore Betty’s chatter and focus on the flat, barren landscape we were passing through. Away from the river the land looked desolate.It was made even less hospitable by the overcast sky, misty air and gusts of wind that blew up clouds of dirt.

Close to Djenne we had to cross a river, requiring a barge to carry us over. Standing at the edge, looking into the water, I found myself chatting with Antonio. “That Betty is to me so annoying. She won’t keep herself quiet and won’t agree with anything I suggest to” he said, adding with a sly grin “yesterday a young local man told me he was interested in her, and I told him to go for it because she’s single and keen for some action!” He gave me a wink.

...continued next time...


Mopti's busy port

Ten people fit in an old Peugeot taxi. It broke down more than once. 

Monday, 4 February 2013

The Wizard of Chefchaouen

High up in the Rif Mountains of north western Morocco is a town painted blue and white. The walls of the shops and the houses are whitewashed and many then coloured blue, and from a distance the town looks like a fairy tale come true. 

In summer tourists come to breathe the mountain air and eat candy and take strolls around the marketplace.

In winter the people of the town scurry through the stone streets wearing long woollen gowns with pointed hoods, and they duck into their stores advertising spices, goat’s cheese, woollen blankets and crafts, to escape the cold and to talk to their neighbours.

I too walked the stone streets, getting lost and found again as the narrow ways wound up and down the steep hillside. The mountaintop above Chefchaouen was dusted with snow, and on one of my rambling walks it began snowing in the town. As the flakes fell gently on the grey stone pavement children ran excitedly in and out, and the adults raised their faces to the sky. ‘The first time in twenty seven years it has snowed in the town!’ an old man told me with a grin.

Leaning against a doorway a voice called to me ‘Welcome friend, from where do you hail?’

‘A long way from home friend’ he said on learning I was Australian. ‘Come in for a cup of tea, and I can show you my shop.’

‘I’d like to, but I’m travelling light and am really not interested in buying anything’ I told him.

‘Of course, of course, just come in and we can talk a little.’

I followed him into his little store which was cloistered and warm. The walls were hung with rugs of rich colour and fabric, there was candlelight and the smell of herbs and spices. He sat himself on a low lounge chair and gestured at one opposite for me. He was of middle age and of middle size and had an air of calm about him, his movements were unhurried and assured. A serene smile sat across his face as he looked over at me.

‘Australia, Australia...the land of kangaroos and Vegemite’ he said as he poured the sweet green tea and handed me a small glass full.  Steam rose from it, and the warmth of it in my hand, and the smell wafting from its surface were intoxicating on this cold winters day in the mountains of Morocco.

‘You know about Australia?’ I said. It was rare to meet people who spoke much English, let alone knew about my country.

‘Even though I myself have not ventured far beyond my town’ he said, ‘many people they come into my store, people from the corners of the globe. So it is as if I have travelled far without travelling at all.’

Sipping the tea, and feeling it fall smooth and warm down my throat I looked round the store, at his many fine crafts.

‘You like my store, no? Is there anything you like most in particular?’

‘No, I think everything is lovely.’

‘I know you, you’re backpacker, no? You carry all in one small pack and have no room for my fine things. But you have family no? You have mother and father at home maybe also brother and sister?’

‘Yes, I have a family, a good family.’

‘I know I know, you do not wish to buy. But if you were going to buy a something for your good family, what might you buy them? One of these fine rugs, perhaps?’ He gestured at the wall behind him where there was an array of beautifully crafted rugs of different weaves, colours and sizes. ‘More tea?’ he said with a smile and poured another cup full for me.

‘That blue one there is nice. And the red one over there is too, my parents live separately so one wouldn’t do.'

'Of course, of course. Excellent choice my friend, they are two of my finest rugs. I know you have no wish to buy, but just to pass the time, how much do you think you would pay for those two fine rugs?’

Gently and good naturedly the conversation wound, like the alleyways of the town, around and up and down. Never heading too directly to the end point, but circling and meandering as if there was all the time in the world and nothing to be gained by turning either this way or that.

And then with only a vague idea of what had happened, I found myself out on the cold street again with two rugs and a woollen gown of my own under my arm. I walked back to the hotel wondering how on earth I'd fit these into my pack and calculating how many days worth of my budget I had just parted with; handed over to this masterful wizard in his den on the hill, in the blue and white town in the mountains.