A grandmother, a rusty old key, a missing suitcase and the winding lanes and souqs of Marrakech

I am not quite sure what brought me to Marrakech. But somehow, there I was, two nights before Christmas, in a peaceful haven in the the midst of the old medina, sipping mint tea and lamenting the loss of my belongings.

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Escaping the dark and cold of the Scottish winter had been undeniably attractive. Over the previous weeks, I had been harbouring a nasty seasonal lurgey which was refusing to shift, and the thought of a day which provided a full three hours more of daylight than the short days and long nights of Scotland’s winter was irresistible. Add to that mix, a friend who owns a magical riad in the city and a short haul journey it seems that a decision was made without my even knowing it. Christmas in Marrakech. A healing, creative time of retreat and restoration. Indeed, impossible to resist.

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It was only that morning that I had closed the door behind me in Scotland a good three hours before sunrise to head to the airport. The snow capped high Atlas mountains were already turning a deep shade of pink from the sun low in the sky, when I landed much later that day in Morocco. I was eager for this break, and keen to become acquainted with Marrakech and settle in the Riad which would be my home for the coming days.

Immigration was smooth, and I waited patiently for my familiar suitcase at the carousel so that I could step into the Morrocan air and meet a new country. I became less patient as grandmother’s suitcase failed to appear. The minutes ticked past until eventually the carousel emptied. I was alone at the belt, and clearly would remain so as grandmother’s suitcase was nowhere to be seen. As I reported my missing belongings, I found it rather concerning that the baggage handlers were not able to clarify what had happened to the case and there was no indication in the system of where on earth, quite literally, it might be.

Reluctantly, with the “lost baggage” paperwork completed, I moved through into the arrivals halls and out to the night air and the transport to the riad. The Marrakech air was cool, but not cold and I looked out of the window as we drove through the streets, with curiosity for what the daylight sights would be like, while trying to stifle an underlying irritation and concern. My suitcase contained important and less important belongings – in addition to the usual clothes and toiletries I had Christmas gifts, some mince pies and items for my friend, cough and cold remedies for the lingering lurgey and a precious notebook amongst other random bits and pieces.

After a drive of around half an hour, latterly alongside the old wall of the medina, we turned into the medina itself and its narrow streets. It was only a few moments before the car stopped, and the driver opened my door. I stepped into the immediate bustle of the lanes of the old town, and my little backpack and heavy winter jacket were bundled into a handcart and the driver waved me off as the handcart and its owner trundled off into the lanes. I had to weave around people, past stalls and avoid donkeys as I tried to make sure that I kept sight of my handcart and remaining worldly goods as they continued through the lane towards a mystery destination. We soon turned into a quieter, small lane and round another couple of corners before stopping at a door, the handcart porter rattling on the door knocker. A few moments later, the door opened, my belongings handed to me and I was ushered into another world. I was immediately in the courtyard of an exquisite riad, which was welcoming me with twinkling lights, candles, large wooden doors, rose petals, the aroma of mint tea and exotic promise. I had arrived.

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My plan had been to spend a few days replenishing my health and then take a few ventures out of town – to the coast, the mountains to see more of the country as well as soak in the creative atmosphere of the riad and spend time writing and reflecting. But I found that when I arrived, I did not want to venture far. This was partly because I was more exhausted and weakened than I had realised and partly because the food was so fresh and delicious that it was easier to stay close to the riad. And on a practical level, it was also because I had to spend quite a bit of time trekking out to the airport to try and locate the suitcase, heading to the new town to buy some essentials as I had only the clothes I was standing in when I arrived and filling in forms and sending never ending messages about the lost case.

Once it became apparent that the case had no intention of coming to Marrakech and was intent on enjoying itself on its own private holiday, I found myself settling into a gentle routine. Sunrise was fairly late, which meant that breakfast also started gently. Outside my room, in the courtyard the birds would let me know when sunrise was on its way, and when I opened my tall wooden door a little tray of tea would be waiting for me.

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Soon afterwards, I would venture to the rooftop, where the sun would now be warming the terrace and encouraging the bougainvillea to bloom and where my breakfast was being prepared. This was a leisurely process, for me at least as I would feast on finely chopped seasonal fruits – strawberries, apricots, raspberries, figs, oranges and walnuts nestling on fresh yogurt. This would be followed by a Moroccan treat of a lightly spiced tomato, pepper and egg tajine (shakh-shukh), chopped avocado, omelette, or other delight. This whole process should not be rushed and could last until lunchtime as I read, reflected, chatted with and watched the bird families and slipped between shaded and sunny spots sporting a practical straw hat to protect my head and face from the sun.

At some point in the afternoon, I would prepare myself to head out to the souqs and the outside. This world outside of the riad was in complete contrast to the tranquillity of the riad. I soon learned my way through the little lanes to the main souqs, only a few minutes away.

But once I reached the maze of the covered souqs, the landscape would shift and change. Left would become right, straight would become windy and twisted and I would find myself in a completely different place to where I thought I was or planned to be. Lane after lane of little shops selling pointed baboush slippers, lanterns and candle holders, exotic fabrics, nomadic and traditional jewellery, metal signs with your profession painted onto them, carpets and more carpets, spices, tortoises, Manchester United football tops, leather goods and all manner of imaginable wares each in its own little Ali Baba’s cave with a smiling, welcoming merchant.

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When I would eventually emerge onto a wider lane, it was never where I intended to appear or thought I was, and the mystery of where I wanted to head to would appear, requiring to be solved.

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It was in one of these magical little lanes on Christmas Day that I happened upon a tiny shop with a jumble of objects under a glass topped shelf. I spotted a rusty old key and asked the shopkeeper if I could look at it. As he reached into the case, through a little curtain, he drew out a few old keys and invited me to rummage and look for more. There were all manner of random objects, including keys and I scrambled around to see what I could find. I ended up with a selection of very rusty old keys, and began haggling with the owner without looking too keen to own what was essentially a worthless piece of metal. We finally agreed on a price for one of the old keys, and I had my Christmas present to myself. This key was symbolic, and had been an image which I was drawn to a couple of months earlier while on the mindfulness and writing retreat. That key embodies a great deal – hope and promise of a future, unlocking thoughts of optimism and hope, releasing those negative thoughts and feelings which I have found difficult to shed and locking them in the past in order to move forward. The shopkeeper hid any puzzlement he might have had about my interest in such a strange object, but given he had them in his tiny shop there must have been some idea that one day an eccentric grandmother would come along and be taken with his keys.

As the days passed, the daily routine established itself comfortably and I felt my strength return. The lurgey was finally easing, without doubt thanks to the rest, warmth, healing environment and wholesome fresh food.

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As we crossed from the old year into the new, I realised that I would soon need to gather my strange assortment of new belongings, buy a little bag for them, and prepare to return to Scotland. The break had been incredibly gentle, and provided a chance to truly disengage with the stresses and intensity of the previous months, although it would have been nice not to have been caught up in the worry about grandmother’s suitcase and its wellbeing.

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My return to Scotland saw me in a far healthier state, both physically and emotionally and when I close my eyes I can imagine myself back in the riad, sipping tea and reading, or wandering through the souqs in the lengthening shadows of the later afternoon.

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And I remember how, no matter how many times I became lost, and wandered through these lanes seeking to find my way again, I would pass many familiar shops. The merchants would call out to me, remembering my meanderings of another afternoon and try to tempt me to buy their lamps, their spices or pottery. However, I never did happen upon the little shop with the keys again. I still have the key though, so I know it did exist. At least it did on the very day that I was seeking a sign of hope and optimism.

Unlocking the door into 2019 with a three word mantra

As I look into my well-thumbed notebook where I have kept a note of the sets of 3-word mantras over the years, I realise that this is the tenth time that I am embarking on this exercise. It is a bit of a puzzle since it is only nine years since my diagnosis but that is the mystery of numbers and one which I will not pretend to understand.

This past year has been one of continued transition, with major tasks to work on to help me to settle. It has involved a great deal of searching and energy, guided by my mantra of Search, settle and weave. The searching has seen me find a renewed purpose, closely connected to my overseas work and an area which inspires and motivates me. I feel connected again. I am considerably more settled. Thus there has been considerable progress and the various threads of my life are slowly weaving together. A picture is gradually emerging even if the tapestry is still to reveal its full picture.

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And as the year comes to an end, and I attempt to rest and heal after many weeks of intensity and poor health, my mind has been quietly working away to clarify the best words to guide my path ahead.

In the final hours of 2019, I put my current words gently in their place in my notebook, alongside their predecessors. As I look at each set, I can identify each year clearly through each mantra,

The year I discovered this practice was Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) of 2009. Looking back, “recovery, discovery and laughter” firmly tells me “yes, that was 2010.” That was the year I moved through the months of chemotherapy, radiation and follow up with those guiding words and their reminder that a sense of humour is an extremely useful tool during times of challenge. “Harmony, vitality and adventure” and my quest to gain strength, confidence and healthy and balanced life very accurately tells me that was my 2011, and the mantra “focus, treasure and design” tells me immediately that I approached 2013 knowing that the year would be a tough one as my father’s health failed. Indeed, that year as we said goodbye to him was indeed one with cherished moments and heartache to hold on to. The last three years have been characterised by enormous change and upheaval in every area of my life – professionally and personally. “Reorient, nurture and crystalize” tells me of the guide I had set out for moving on from so many years in Asia and says “2016”. Just as clearly, my mantra for the past year “search, settle and weave” whispers “ah, that was 2018,” to me. When I first saw the prompt in the final hours of 2009 that shaped my first 3-word mantra, I had no idea that this would become such an important part of my emotional and spiritual essence.

I always approach the final weeks of the year with a touch of trepidation, unsure as to whether I will find the right words for the coming year. Each year, I reflect, think ahead, look at the areas I want and need to shape most and somehow the words come. I seem to be more finely tuned to the meanings of words at this time, often picking up on a word I read or hear as it is spoken, and draw it into my evolving thoughts. This year has been no different. In my notebook, I have ideas, priorities and thoughts, jotted down, linked together and explored.

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And from this jumble of letters and scribbles, incredibly the 3-word mantra for the year ahead has emerged.

As I sit on a warm rooftop terrace, on a sunny New Year’s day far from Edinburgh, it is time to put my new mantra into the world, and set out my intentions for 2019:

“Script, nestle and nourish”.

These are the words which will inspire, motivate and guide me through the coming year.

Script

Script is an important word with several meanings for me. I love different scripts, and in Mongolia was especially fascinated by the sweeping, curved pen strokes which would start from the top of the page and work downwards.

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I was able to read modern Mongolian as Cyrillic is now used, with a couple of extra letters, my days studying Russian at university providing me with the key to at least sound out the Mongolian words, but with little or no comprehension of their meaning. In fact, in all of the Asian countries I lived and worked in, there were different scripts (Devanagiri in Nepal, Tamil in the part of India where I worked, Singhala and Tamil in Sri Lanka and the beautiful circles of Burmese script in Myanmar.

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I am fascinated by the relationship between these configurations, their pronunciation and their meanings. I would need to live for many centuries to begin to unravel some of these amazing puzzles.

Script also obviously relates to the practice of writing, and is important to me because it has been a neglected area of my life for too long as I have been working through practical tasks. This will remind me to set aside time and energy for writing, and to be courageous and regain confidence. I need to follow through the various writing goals I have set before they wither. I will find a creative space which will remind and encourage me to write.

There is another, important meaning to this word though. I am conscious that over the past months and more, I have been reacting to events which have happened. My work finishing earlier than planned, a return to Scotland which was abrupt in the grand scheme of things, and health glitches – these are all things which need to be dealt with. Of course I cannot change what happens, but I can take control of how I deal with it. I want to script my own story, to manage the various practical tasks in a constructive and appropriate way so that the tapestry is one which I believe in and own.

Nestle

This is taking forward the idea of settling from 2018. After so many years on the move, and with life plans changing, a priority is to find a place where I can nestle down and be cosy, where I can unpack my weird and wonderful bits and pieces from my life in so many corners of the globe. I want to find a little space where I can plant some seeds and watch them sprout, and where I can put a little bird feeder for the Scottish birds I am getting to know again. Where I can make tea and build a hearth to welcome family and friends. Where I can “coorie down”, – a wonderful Scottish expression for tucking yourself in, making yourself cosy and protecting yourself from the cold and outside troubles. It is linked in my mind to nesting which is also an important part of what I am eager to do. The long term fallout of cancer and divorce play mayhem with previosuly established long-term plans and bring a sense of uncertainty and vulnerability. Nestling seems to be the perfect way to create a sense of belonging.

Nourish

My third word for 2019 is “nourish”. This is also a word which encapsulates many meanings. The most obvious relates to a nourishing approach to maintaining and rebuilding health. I miss the seasonal and fresh foods of recent years, with local markets and variety. This winter and a persistent bout of seasonal ill health remind me of the importance of eating nourishing foods and natural resilience. I am also reminded to nourish the soul as I have access now to sources of reading, writing and inspiration on my doorstep. In Yangon, I had developed over the seven years, a lively creative life with a writing group, book club, photography club and regular film nights. Focusing on this area will strengthen my sense of belonging and connectedness as well as nourishing the creative self. This will help me to nestle as I also nourish those little birds, and seeds to establish a peaceful and inspiring space around me.

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As I gently place my 3-word mantra into the big wide world, I reflect especially on a weekend in early October. I was fortunate to be able to join like and inspiring minds on a mindfulness and writing retreat, run by friend and fellow blogess Audrey and poet and writer Helen. We were welcomed to the perfect space, tranquil and surrounded by a lifetime of gathered treasures and mementos, trees changing and shedding their leaves and a busy woodpecker. Far distant from the chaos of the outside world, set right in the outdoors. At the start of the retreat, we were asked to select a picture from a number of available images. I was immediately drawn to a key, which spoke to me of a childhood fascination of old keys as well as the notion of unlocking doors to the future. As the weekend drew to an end, we all made a pledge for the future. My own pledge featured an old rusty key and a box, to lay to rest my anxieties and harboured tenderness from the unexpected transition and encourage me to move forward in a positive space.

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As I move forward, I know that I have many untold stories which I am eager to script. Stories of the singing fishermen of Lake Kivu, of trailing my little travel bag around the Galapagos and of humming birds under the shadow of Mount Tunguruhua with its rumbling Strombolian promises of fire, tales of Rwandan weddings, African sunsets and safaris and many other adventures.

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And perhaps first, will be the tale of a little Scottish grandmother, trailing around the souqs of Marrakesh, haggling over the purchase of a rusty old key with absolutely no practical use, yet with enormous personal significance and optimism…