Marrakech Express

“Give me back my debit card!”

“Non!”

“S’il vous plait?”

“Non!”

My schoolboy French negotiating vocabulary exhausted, my conversation with the cash machine just up the road from the hotel in Marrakech ended in defeat. I wasn’t quite penniless, thanks to the friends I’d met on the trek who all offered to lend me local currency. But I was afraid to use my credit card lest it go the same way, and I wondered what would happen to the debit card now it was in the bowels of some machine in Morocco. For the sake of literary tension, and to encourage reading the whole blog, I shall now time travel back six days to my arrival in Marrakech before telling you the outcome.

I hate the actual, mundane physical travel part of ‘travelling’. If you read a recent blog ‘Travel Fun’ you’ll get a few of the stories. Getting to Marrakech was no different. I flew from Gatwick and I have to say I preferred the experience to that at Heathrow, thanks largely to it being a smaller airport and having better transport links to the local hotels. A slight delay due to armed police confronting and arresting a man on the outskirts of the airport aside, the journey to my seat on the plane was straight forward.

The plane set off for the runway, and 5 minutes later was still taxiing. I decided that we were clearly going to drive to Morocco and I wondered who we’d get through the Channel Tunnel. But eventually, the plane found the right bit of the airport and, in an effort to put aside any more fears of hesitancy, the pilot swung on the the runway and accelerated without first pausing. We were off. There is always a moment as I’m pushed back into my seat that I wonder what on earth I’m doing subjecting myself to man made flight. But it soon goes as I look out of the window seconds later to see a live version of Google Earth below me. Today was slightly different, in that someone had painted the ground a slightly grey white colour, similar to the colour of clouds but no matter. I was soon chatting to my neighbour, a geography teacher from London, and we quickly found a common interest in trekking when I explained where I was going.

The flight was relatively short, about 3 hours plus taxiing time, and Marrakech was warm and sunny when I arrived. The following extract from ‘Travel Fun’ sums up the airport transfer:

“After a mix up with the transfer arrangements, I was taken in a car to the hotel. The driver was clearly under orders to get there and back as quickly as possible and so we shot off at high speed. My attempts at conversation were hampered by my lack of Arabic, my poor schoolboy French and the drivers need to concentrate on the road lest he hit something. Except he didn’t really seem to mind about the impact side of things in his mission to get to the hotel in record time. We sped across pedestrian crossing barely missing people who were already half way across the road. I watched in horror as the face of one man, mouth agape, passed by inches from the side window. We overtook on corners, undertook on other corners, undertook on roundabouts, forced motorcycles out of the way and generally sped through the busy streets to finally arrive outside the hotel. To be fair, we hit nothing, knocked no one over and got to the hotel in half the time it took to transfer back at the end of the trek.”

The mix up involved a second group of people, a group of Cypriot cyclists on a biking tour of this part of Morocco, and the transfer bus. It sounds like the start of a complicated joke that inevitably won’t live up to the promise. It was, in a roundabout way, as the group were in the same hotel as my group, and we had our briefing immediately after them. It turned out they were not a happy bunch as they were expecting a better hotel (there was nothing wrong with the hotel), and they let their guide know in no uncertain terms. When we saw him after their briefing, he was clearly stressed. “They are definitely not from Britain,” was his cryptic remark to our guide as he left, probably for a mint tea and a lie down.

Marrakech is a beautiful place. It’s called ‘The Red City’ because most of the buildings are painted with an ochre wash, which glows pinky red in the sunrise and sunset. The French, in an act of wisdom, developed a new city around the old town and left the ancient settlement alone, preserving the style and culture of Marrakech in the process. The old town, or Medina as it is known, is surrounded by a mud brick wall and a number of towers. Within, the narrow streets are lined with little shops, restaurants and pavement cafes. On our last day there, we had a tour of the southern part of the town in the morning and I explored the northern part of the town walls in the afternoon. Our morning tour, led by Mustapha, was interesting and frustrating at the same time. Interesting because he took us to all the right places to get a flavour of the old town in the limited time we had. I would not have know to go to half the places he led us, and we managed to avoid the crowds (it was a local school holiday) because of his timing. Frustrating because his English was poor and heavily accented and it was hard to understand what he was telling us. It was a shame because he clearly knew his stuff. But by concentrating hard to understand what he was saying, we risked missing the sights, and sadly we concentrated on the sights and not his narrative.

In the afternoon, I walked around the outside of the town walls and at one point ventured in to a decidedly untouristy area, which I immediately sought to leave. I had a feeling of unease and while nothing happened (other than the classic scam of someone telling me the main square was ‘that way’ when I knew it wasn’t), I was glad to be away from that bit of the town.

All roads lead to Jemaa el Fna, which translates variously as the ‘place of the lost’ or ‘the place of the dead’. The latter is most appropriate as it was hear that the heads of criminals and conquered foes were displayed many centuries ago. Now the only victims here during the day are the may tourists who are hassled for money when stopping to watch the snake charmers or Barbary Ape owners. Both are cheap tourist traps and when I was there they looked tacky and, to be honest, fake. The animals were real enough, and clearly unhappy and I wasn’t happy even being in the square with them around. I read later that the apes are an endangered species and people like those in the square only make the situation worse. Anyone who gives them money is funding the problem. There was little else to hold my interest but I knew that come sundown, the place changed it’s vibe to one more like the descriptions in the guidebooks. The previous night, as we’d waited for a bus following our celebratory meal, the exotic drumming and music, the lights and smoke bearing the delicious aroma of freshly cooked tagines all combined to make me want to return.

We made our way back to the square the following night. In the dark, it was exciting, definitely exotic and a little scary, particularly when the girls in the group were accosted by a large woman offering henna tattoos. It was quite a persistent sales pitch and when the woman finally got the message, she left saying “if you change your mind, remember Fat Mamma”. We stifled giggles, because she was quite a large lady. We did laugh, however, when one of our group pointed out that she had probably said “remember Fatima”.

There was no sign of the cheap tourist acts. Here were little groups of talented musicians playing tradition music on traditional instruments for the gathered crowd. There were dancing and whirling performers, singers, drummers and story tellers. This was what I had expected and it hadn’t disappointed. I quickly overcame my initial nervousness at the large crowds, mostly locals, and relaxed to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells. In a long line at the centre of the square tables radiated out from large stalls on which tagines were simmering enticingly. The touts for each stall were very enthusiastic but as we had eaten we didn’t partake. One waiter even told us that his prices were “cheaper that Aldi”.

We wandered around, taking in the atmosphere. On the periphery of the square were carts selling figs, prunes and other fresh fruit. Stalls sold mint tea, coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice and for 4dh (about 30p) we each had a glass. It was gorgeous. We must have spent over an hour in the square altogether and it was late enough that some of the traders were starting to pack up. While one of our group haggled over a couple of decorative metal candle holders, I took a few photos and then we left.

As we reached the edge of the square, I was suddenly surrounded by six or seven little boys, all clutching glow sticks in their hands and hassling me to buy one. In the past, I’ve usually dealt with this kind of thing by a curt ‘no thanks’ followed by completely ignoring them but it didn’t work this time, so I took a side step to try and break out of the ring of kids. By now I was isolated from the rest of the group by the kids and before I knew it, I could feel a hand dragging the zip of my left hand jacket pocket down. I slapped it out of the way and shouted “this kid is trying to pick my pockets” loud enough that the others could hear me. I pointed at the kid and he looked scared, unsure of what I was going to do. And then I felt the zip of my right hand coat pocket being undone, so I turned and pointed at that kid, shouting the same thing again. As I did so, a local man cuffed him on the head, and the kids all disappeared. My camera, in the left pocket, was safe. My phone, in the right pocket, was almost completely out and in another second or so it would have gone.

I was a little shaken for a few minutes but soon overcame the shock. And I refused to let it taint the impression of Marrakech that I had got to that point. I don’t know what drove the kids to picking pockets. It’s simplistic to say they steal for personal gain. That may be so but its more likely that there was some threat to them if they didn’t bring back a certain amount of goods or money each night.

And the card? I phoned the bank straight away and despite having to provide details that were only on the card, I managed to get it cancelled within 10 minutes of losing it. And two days after I got back, the replacement arrived. One of my friends changed £20 into local currency and I ended up changing £30 of local currency back to sterling at the airport, which saw me through the journey home.

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16 years ago…

In December 2000 I bought my first proper digital camera. It was an Olympus C3030Z. 3.1mp, 3x zoom. 4 AA batteries. At the time it was at the top end of the consumer camera market. You could get better – Kodak were making the first DSLRs – but they cost thousands of pounds.

I remember going to the local branch of Jessops and slipping on ice on the way. In putting my hand out to (unsuccessfully) stop myself falling, I cut it quite badly on the rough concrete of a wall. I was in the shop with a bloody tissue wrapped around my hand. I don’t remember how much I paid for the camera but for the next two years it slowly took over from film as I used it more and more. It was smaller than my film camera, it showed me what I had done with it straight away and once I’d paid for it, it cost nothing but batteries. I was no longer thinking in terms of 24 or 36 exposures (or with medium format, 12, 10 and 8). I didn’t need to bracket anymore as I could instantly check the results.

The downside, of course, was that the final image quality at the print stage wasn’t as good as film. But for what I was using it at the time, which was to illustrate a website, it was excellent. And when I did start printing images, I was able to get an A3 print from the best files, as long as I stuck to ISO 100 and used the Tiff file format.

The turning point was a trip to Scotland with a mate. With were both keen photographers and both had 35mm film cameras. But during the extended tour of the North West and the Western Isles in perfect photography weather, the C3030Z grew on me and I started to really appreciate the benefits of digital photography. Eventually, it replaced the 35mm SLR in my kitbag and nestled alongside my Mamiya 645 and lenses. I found that it was useful to test exposures before committing a medium format frame.

Inevitably, I decided to completely move to digital and I sold all my Pentax film gear, and the C3030Z, to buy a Fuji digital SLR. But that’s another story.

Last week, I spotted an Olympus C3030Z in the window of a local camera shop. It looked in excellent condition and yesterday, on a whim, I went and asked about it. It was old stock, so technically not even second hand. It came with the memory card (Smart Media – no longer manufactured) but the rest of the accessories were missing. I made an offer of £25, which was accepted and the camera was mine. They even threw in a set of batteries.

Like a kid with a new toy (I am a kid and it was a new toy, so no problem there) I was off taking snaps as soon as I left the camera shop. In some ways it was so familiar – the operation and settings menu came as second nature. In other ways, it was odd. I had forgotten how big it was, though this made it comfortable to use. I’d forgotten how big the Smart Media card was. Huge compared with today’s memory cards. It takes a long time to warm up after it’s been switched on, and the LCD screen is tiny. But it has an optical viewfinder with eyesight adjustment (which many modern cameras don’t have). I’d forgotten it has auto bracketing, which means I’ll be able to indulge in some HDR photography.

I’ve put some photos I took with my original C3030Z plus some taken with the ‘new’ one below. Now to find some long lost Smart Media cards…

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Back to the past

Like many, I learned the basics of photography before the digital age. Pause while I put on the sunglasses of nostalgia. With the glasses on, I remember the thrill of unpacking the film from its cardboard and plastic containers, fiddling to load the film without exposing too much leader, and hoping to squeeze an extra frame if I was using black and white, which I would later develop myself.

Only 36 shots on a roll, so I had to make every one count. Even so, with slide film I’d bracket either side of the measured exposure which would often result in only 12 unique photos from every roll. The film speed was given but we all had our favourite adjustments to get the results we wanted. Professionals would buy batches of film manufactured at the same time and expose one roll to test the proper settings for that batch. Colour print film had a wide exposure latitude, forgiving any minor errors in exposure (which is why wedding photographers used it). Slide film, and to a lesser extend black and white film, had to be accurately exposed or compensation applied at the processing stage. It had to be a consistent exposure variation for the whole film so we had to decide in advance. Many, including me, had two camera bodies loaded with different films just in case. My preference was for slide and black and white.

When I started, lenses were all manual focus. Film cameras had a great focusing screen with a split prism that made focusing easy in most situations. As my main interest was landscape, there was no need for lightning fast focusing. Part of the appeal for me was the slow, methodical approach and the actual taking of the photograph was almost secondary.

Then, once the snaps had been taken, there was the delay in seeing the results while the films went off for processing. Sometimes, if I was on holiday, I might have to wait up to two weeks to see the final prints or slides. Black and white film was slightly better as I’d process it myself and this could be done overnight. But then, all I’d have was tiny negatives until I printed off the images I wanted. I got good at assessing photographic potential from these tiny reversed images.

And here is where the nostalgia goggles start to leak reality.

I didn’t always develop the black and white films immediately after taking the photographs. Once I left college and the convenience of darkrooms set up and ready to go, I sometimes waited until I had two or three films to do. And then, I sometimes waited until I had more. It was all about the darkroom. At first, it was in my bedroom and had to be set up and put away every time I wanted to use it. And then I set it up in the garden shed and it was cold, damp and uncomfortable. So I started using less and less black and white, which was actually my favourite medium.

Slides came back from the processor in boxes and to view them properly I had to set up the projector. Which meant loading up the magazine in just the right way so that the projected images were the right way up and the right way around. It took time and was fiddly, so I got a smaller viewer for checking the results. And it was more convenient but no one else saw them.

The prints from print film stayed in their wallets and only occasionally got put in albums. I have some of those albums still on my bookshelf. They look impressive but I can’t remember what’s in them. I have sent for recycling more photos that I can remember.

One day, I bought a digital camera. The quality of the results weren’t the best but they were instant and that appealed to me. This meant I could retake the photo straight away rather than wait until I was next in the area. I could see the pictures on my computer and I could edit them without having to go out to the shed dressing in several layers of warm clothing. I didn’t have to breathe in chemicals and wait for the negatives to dry, all the while hoping no dust got on the wet film.

With the nostalgia goggles fully removed, I confess that I sold up all my film gear and went digital and never looked back. I have no regrets in doing this and I think it rekindled my interest in photography. I made the decision when I saw the results from a 6mp Fuji DSLR and for me, the moment when digital quality surpassed analogue quality was when I got my Nikon D300. Not only can I check the results (and for those who would never stoop to such crass activity are missing one of the main advantages of digital technology), but I can change film type and sensitivity without having to worry about rewinding a partially exposed film (and remembering where to wind it back on to afterwards). A modest memory card costs less than a roll of film plus processing and can be reused. Digital is just better.

So today, I picked up a CD with 36 images scanned onto it by the people that processed the film I dropped off to them about an hour earlier. I’d taken the photos on film that was at least four years out of date, on a camera made in the mid 70s using manual focus lenses probably made in the late 60s. And despite all I’ve said above, I enjoyed using the camera. I’d forgotten about the satisfying clunk as the mechanical shutter thumps down on it’s mounting and I’d forgotten about the big, bright viewfinder than made focusing a pleasure. The camera required me to translate the meter reading into aperture and shutter settings by interpreting three little red LEDs. I had to trust it was accurate but I also had to know roughly what to expect. And I found I did.

The images below are from that film. Some of the colours are odd and there’s a lot of grain. I suspect that’s a combination of out dated film and poor scanning from the shop. They were just test shots I took while out and about so they’re not masterpieces. But I have more film, some of which is new, and I’m sure there’ll be more posts about the old fashioned way of doing photography.

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Kitchenwatch 3 – the canine perspective.

Dave’s finally lost his marble (there was only ever one in that big head of his). I was having a post breakfast doze on Wednesday when all of a sudden there were some people in the house. I barked a bit for appearances sake and went back to lie down, as Dave seemed to have it all under control. Next thing I know, there was a lot of odd noises coming from the kitchen area. I had wondered why a lot of my food was in the living room – I guess it was luck he’d moved it there before they came.

Anyway, I took Dave out for a walk and when we got back, the people had moved bits of the kitchen out into the drive. Including the cupboard where my food is kept! Dave didn’t seem too surprised and that’s when I began to suspect a conspiracy. Sure enough, for the rest of the morning Dave was quite relaxed while the people cleared the kitchen of everything. Even the fridge, that sanctuary of ham. Gone! He knew what was happening and hadn’t told me.

I had an appointment at the hair stylist in the afternoon and when Dave picked me up afterwards, we went straight off to the river where we had a splash about and then a picnic on the river bank. It was most enjoyable but I knew he was only trying to make up for the disturbances of the morning. Sure enough, when we got back to the house, the people were gone and so was the kitchen. It was just an empty space.

Thursday was more of the same. The people returned and this time they dug the floor up and dug holes in the walls. We went walking in the hills but it was all still going on when we got back. By Friday I was tired from all the walking and having to keep an eye on the people and on Dave in case he did something equally silly with the living room. But fortunately we had a lie-in and the people didn’t show up until the afternoon, after we’d strolled around Fairwood Common. After they’d gone, Dave pointed at the ceiling and went on about ‘fresh plaster’ and ‘looking good’. It was pink, and I don’t do pink. I wasn’t impressed and instead I used mind control to get him to give me more than my usual portion of ham.

This morning, I was up ready to take on the people and find out when the kitchen was going back in. But they didn’t show up and instead Dave disappeared off mumbling something about new tyres. It’s a rubber thing, apparently. Not my scene but I don’t judge. It turns out we have the whole weekend free of the people before they come back to make more noise next week.

I indulge Dave some of his bizarre whims despite not really understanding them and I’ll give this one time. But it better be good!

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Nant Tarw

Time to get out. I’ve felt cooped up recently, despite getting out now and again with Rufus. I’d decided that yesterday I would head off for a more substantial walk and see how far I went.

I’ve been interested in stone circles for years. I’ve been to lots of small, obscure and remote circles to photograph them. I’m not a stone hugger; my interest is an extension of my fascination with all thigs and places historical. Forget for a moment the famous circles at Stonehenge and Avebury. These are impressive but they lack atmosphere when crowded by tourists. Some of my favourite stone circles are tiny, and in the middle of nowhere. But it’s easy to get a feel for the atmosphere when visiting them.

I had a short discussion with Rufus and we decided to visit the stone circles at Nant Tarw, south of the Usk Reservoir. (Actually, I promised Rufus rivers and pools as he doesn’t share my interest in enigmatic ancient monuments).

I let Rufus out of the car while I got my backpack ready. But I wasn’t quick enough and I became aware of Rufus, watching me intently and uttering short whines and yaps to try and get me to speed up. We finally set off from the car in blustery conditions and followed a path through a forest to a stile. Stiles feature a lot in our walks and once Rufus grew big enough that he was hard to pick up, I’ve encouraged him to deal with them himself. Now, with scarcely a hesitation, he will clamber up, balance precariously on the top rung for a moment before launching himself from the top onto whatever lies below. Then he waits to see if I fall off before carrying on.

I’d found a map of the ancient monuments in the Nant Tarw valley and I was surprised to find that there were many more than I was aware of from previous visits. I’d planned the route to take in as many of these as practical. Areas like this are known as ritual landscapes. It’s highly unlikely that these monuments were randomly placed or coincidental, so they were probably all linked in some way, and there was some significance to their plan.

We passed a fallen standing stone, which Rufus had to conquer by climbing on top. There are a lot of boulders around the area, the results of pasture clearance or glacial action, but this one was sited on an old path, and there were smaller rocks at its base, suggesting they were used as packing stones to wedge it in place when it was upright. Its shape, long and narrow, was also unusual and ideal for an upright marker.

From here we headed south along a track before climbing up alongside an old sheepfold made using drystone walling. In the distance wa a modern version using breeze blocks; how things have changed. Above this, we came across the first burial cairn and I wondered how many other cairns had been destroyed to provide building materials for the sheepfold.

This cairn overlooks the sloping land to the north and is positioned on a direct line with the lower slopes of Fan Foel, visible capped by clouds to the south. Many Bronze Age cairns are said to overlook farmland and this one was no exception. In its day, large and covered in the light grey local stones, it would have stood out for miles, especially in sunshine. The ancestors keep watch over the crops and the livestock.

Heading further south up the hill, we soon came across the second cairn. Bigger than the first (because it hadn’t been robbed to build walls?) it too overlooked the rolling hills of Sennybridge to the north. There were clear signs of the kerbing that would once have defined the cairn. The stones were now scattered around and previous visitors had placed some of them into a central pile of stones that s the tradition on hill routes.We took a break and had a snack here while contemplating the remoteness and mystery of the place. Well, I did. Rufus just contemplated my snack (after he’d devoured his own!)

We continued on south towards the mountains. We were now heading towards a more modern monument and one I find particularly sad. On 5 September 1943, a Lancaster bomber on a training mission encountered a storm and crashed into the ground just north of Fan Foel. All 8 crew members were killed. I’d visited the place before and wanted to go back again. Please take a moment to read the names on the monument in the photo below. It’s how we remember.

We set off to the west, making for the stone circles and another cairn. By now, the sun was coming out and despite the fierce wind on the top of the hill, it was warm. I’d enticed Rufus out with the promise of rivers and pools, and we’d come across a couple, but not enough for him. As soon as he spotted the stream that gave it’s name to the valley, the Tarw, he was off, racing downhill to dive into the water. By the time I’d got to him, he was up to his tummy in fresh looking water waiting for me to throw stones for him to find. I love the way he concentrates on finding the stones I throw, or similar ones, and carefully taking them out of the water. By the time we were ready to leave, he’d lined up several stones on the bank.

We followed the stream west for a while before we came across a medium sized standing stone that marked the place where we should climb up to find the last cairn and the two circles. It’s likely this was deliberately placed to guide people to the circles as they were not visible from the stream itself. Up we climbed, past two more stones which may have been part of a row or just coincidental, and came out on a flat piece of land next to a burial cairn. This one showed signs of extended ‘horns’ which would have flanked the original entrance. But as with the other two cairns, the stones were scattered and the once proud monument was almost flat against the ground.

Beyond it to the south, two small stone circles were sited. I’d been here several times before and always enjoyed the feeling of isolation. The Nant Tarw is hidden from road and civilisation and is rarely visited because the direct route of boggy and indistinct. The stones of the circle are tiny. Most of them barely rise from the grass tufts of the moorland. Reeds grow from their bases further obscuring them. The two circles line up to follow the line of the valley and to their west is a fallen standing stone, much large than the circle stones, which has a short row of three more small stones associated with it.

From the circles, the very tops of Fan Foel and Picws Du are visible above the local horizon, which is a hill. To the east, the peaks of Corn Du and Pen y Fan are just visible poking over the top of the hills there. The valley is windswept and damp. It’s likely that the climate was different in the Bronze Age (about 4,000 – 2,000 years ago) and further on there is evidence, in the form of parallel drainage ditches, that the land was farmed. This was clearly an important place for Bronze Age man; the effort needed to plan the circle, find and move the stones (especially the large ones weighing more than a ton) would have impacted the farming that was taking place at the time.  Nevertheless, they did it. The purpose remains a mystery. And that is why I am fascinated.

We headed back to the car, over the drainage ditches and the bog they failed to drain. While I got rid of the backpack, Rufus stared longingly at the river just beyond the fence of the car park.

We ended up at the river and Rufus was delighted to dredge the riverbed for stones and sticks.

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