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.

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A Winter’s Tale

This is the last day of November, very shortly we will slip gently into December. We are truly in winter now, in Scotland.EFCE0354-D83E-43AC-AEC5-383012B4A0CD

My transition is progressing, if slowly, from tropical climes and times, to the Scotland of my roots. Reflection is helpful in this process. The other day soft, tiny flakelets of snow floated in the air. This was a teasing little  flurry, a promise of blizzards and heavy snow which will surely come soon. I realised that the last time I actually lived in a country where it snows, there was no such thing as Facebook to share the news.

The days have been shortening rapidly, and this feels like quite a trick to my senses. I cannot rationalise the fact that it is not yet 4 pm and the sun has already set below the horizon. I cannot relate the time on my watch to the colours of the sky. The sun barely rises above the rooftops all day, and my shadow is long even at midday.

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The trees are now bare, leaves on the ground slowly decaying and the birds gathering the berries on the bushes and branches.

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Temperatures have been dropping and these past nights have been well below zero. There is a daytime covering of ice on the nearby pond. A little robin has been chittering around in the branches, as I try to capture his picture on my phone. I feel too cold to attempt to take my camera out with me, my fingers too chilled to function.

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The bus drivers are wearing woolly bunnets, and on the street folks are wrapped up in cosy jackets, woollen hats and soft scarves. Still their faces are pinched in the sharp wind, as they quip about the weather and that “the nights are fair drawing in”.

While I have been adjusting to these shortening days, I have become fascinated by the variation in days up and down the lines of latitude. Long ago learned facts about polar winter and memories of St Petersburg’s white nights of midsummer encourage me to delve deeper into what this looks like. My trusted weather app has told me that the days in Tromsø (northern Norway) have been shortening speedily through autumn. I learned that the sun rose for a fleeting 2 minutes on 26 November, before it sank below the horizon, not to rise again until the middle of January, when it will peep over the horizon briefly, starting its path towards constant daylight just after the middle of May.

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It is hard to imagine two months of darkness and this makes me thankful for the few hours of daylight that we have in Scotland. My body clock has become so used to the equinox days on or near the equator that no matter how much I rationalise and understand the behaviour of  natural light, it still puzzles me daily. I am still childishly surprised that when the daylight fades, it is only mid-afternoon.

Here, in central Scotland the days will continue to shorten for the next three weeks, and we will have daylight from just before 9 am until after 3 pm. It will be a number of weeks, a couple of months before we feel the day stretching again as we edge towards the long, light days of midsummer. I cannot remember the last time I saw the tiny green shoots of spring, snowdrops, crocus and daffodils peeping up through the snow and grass. I know that they will greet me once the days begin to lengthen. I wonder if they have forgotten me too?

Scotland is a contradiction in many ways. Achingly beautiful landscapes at times hidden in a gloom of rain and damp mist, other times glowing in magical sunlight. I am constantly surprised by forgotten tiny details of many-coloured berries and the beauty of a leaf dusted with frost, as well as the iconic images of castles, lochs and highland wildlife.

I am being generously, gently and kindly welcomed back.

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Back in Time

This weekend the clocks went back, and we moved from Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time.

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This clock changing phenomenon happens twice a year in many parts of the world, but it doesn’t happen at all in many others. In fact, this is the first time in over a decade I have changed my clock whilst in the same country. No borders, no flights or travel to another time zone, but the time zone change comes to me in the middle of the night, and I wake up with a bonus hour.

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Clocks change between 1 am and 2 am

When I left Scotland in June 2000, we were in Summer Time which took us an hour closer to the places where I would subsequently live, without this clock changing twice a year. Only once in that 17 years did we have to change our clocks – and that was in Mongolia which was further north and therefore would benefit from this minor rearrangement of the daylight hours. Interestingly, though it did prompt some puzzled conversations in Ulaan Baatar amongst my South Asian friends who had come from lands where there was only an hour so difference between winter and summer months. It was only as the daylight hours started to stretch that the purpose of the clock changing became clearer. I realise that I have taken the rationale for Daylight Saving Time (DST) granted, and tried to explain to those nearer the equator that this is the practice of setting the clocks forward by an hour from standard time during the summer months, and back again in the autumn. This is in order to make better use of natural daylight and align it with the working, farming and school day.

My last year, in Rwanda, saw me living in a land of almost perfect equinox as Kigali nestles just south of the Equator. The daylight variation throughout the year was around 15 minutes and on a neat 6 am to 6 pm divide.

It is always lovely to return to Scotland in those midsummer days, when the light stretches throughout the late evening, and never quite disappears. The sky takes on a deep luminescent blue for the three hours of almost darkness. Of course, this means that in winter the opposite is the case, and the days are short, with full daylight coming through after the start of the working day and disappearing before home time. In those months, we feel that we live in darkness. My annual visits were almost always in summer, and it is a strange step back in time to see the days shorten. And we are only just stepping out of October, and much as I try and prepare myself for the short days I know that it will take some adjustment.

These short days can bring a soft winter light and a changing landscape with different colours and many more berries bushes that I remembered. These bushes and now bare trees are inhabited by birds which I can be reacquainted with as I walk along pathways, all wrapped up, listening out for their chirrups. I have already seen grebes, finches and even that symbol of the British winter – the red-breasted robin.

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This means that I need to keep my eyes and mind open and make the most of my step back in time.

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Morning Walks

This is a beautiful time of year – the start of the dry season, relatively cooler and drier air and disappearance of the thick clouds. Mostly. This year the rains have been teasing us with frequent reappearances, and some very heavy rainstorms. Every time we think we have seen the last of the rains, we are surprised by another downpour. Now we have had a few days with blue skies and slightly cooling mornings and evenings for a little longer. We quietly whisper to ourselves that the rains have now finally departed. The mornings are cool and dry. Perfect for early morning walking.

I have frequently said that I am not a natural “morning person” in that I always want to turn over and have a while longer in the comfort of my bed. But I know that once, I am up and especially once I am out of the door, then I have a sense of something akin to pride and appreciation that I have made the effort.

This is also a special time of year in that it is in between the full moon festivals of Thadingyut and Tazaungmon in Myanmar, which I wrote about last year here:

Throughout the wettest days of the monsoon, between the July and the October full moons of Waso and Thadingyut , there is a period which is often called  “Buddhist Lent” in Myanmar. During this period, it is usual not to begin new ventures – not to start a new job or move house and not to get married. At the Thadingyut Full Moon (usually in October) there is a great sense of festivity and the city is bathed in lights and candles. The temples are packed and shops full of gift packs of monk robes and appropriate gifts.  The night sky is punctuated with lanterns floating upwards.

During the daytime, the streets are nowadays a-buzz with post election smiles and purple-inked fingers, with the trucks with money frames and thumping music, daily bustle and most folks holding umbrellas to shield them from the sun.

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However, the early mornings are completely different in nature. The streets and lanes are misty, there are few cars but more than a few people with early morning purposes. Before the sun rises too high in the sky, the air is cool and the light is mellow. It is a very special time. I have been able to re-establish an early morning routine which replaces swimming for now, with a morning walk.

imageDuring my walk the other morning, I passed a group of young nuns, collecting alms as usual on certain days of the lunar month. In their pink robes, lit gently by the soft sunlight and with shy smiles we each walked on towards the coming day.

imageI hardly noticed the man on the bike, until I was alongside him. I did smile to myself when I spotted his wallet sticking out of the back of his lyongyi, reminding me of how many things have not changed here. It is not so easy to hold on to your wallet if it is on display in most other places.

So what did surprise me, was  seeing the reason that he had paused on his bike. He had a smartphone pressed to his ear and was in deep conversation. And that is something which is very different. When I arrived in Myanmar in 2009, mobile phones were few and far between, incredibly expensive ($1500 when I arrived) and not easy to obtain. I had no mobile phone for my first 3 years in country. We used to write phone numbers in little notebooks and use landlines. Now almost everyone (in urban areas at least) has a smartphone.

imageSo this image captures much of what I love here. My morning walk would have been very similar 6 years ago. However, while we are indeed surrounded by change, there is much which beautifully preserved.

Sometimes the richest of experiences are simple,  free and quite literally on our doorstep.