Sunday, November 18, 2007

Under the milky way

Last weekend I was in Marrakech with a troop of others to celebrate Caroine's birthday. It's very fashionable right now to celebrate your birthday by taking a trip away with friends, and the more exotic the location the more fashionable you are. Marrakech is, naturally, very exotic and very fashionable, as the following facts prove:

  • Richard Branson is building a hotel there;
  • Gladiator was shot in the desert near Marrakech (I've seen the film set); and
  • Brad and Angelina stayed nearby while shooting the movie Babel (I've visited the hotel where they stayed (they rented out the entire place while they were there, but this is less impressive when you find out that it's only got 8 guest rooms)).

But even if it were not so fashionable, the bustle and turmoil of Marrakech and the frenzied locals makes a fantastic contrast to dreary greyness of London and the bland urbanity of Londonites. Although we were only there for 4 days, we managed to pack a lot in. In order to save time (and, being realistic, so that the readers of this blog don't tune out half-way through this posting), I'll just list some highlights:

  • an amazing dinner on the first night in a courtyard of an old riad hidden down a maze of narrow streets, far away from the usual tourist thoroughfare. The setting was beautiful - all candle light and intricately mosaiced walls - and the food was terrific (the honey glazed chicken hot was a particular favourite);
  • the madnes of Jamaa el Fna (the main market in Marrakech), whcih totally lived up to the pre-trip hype. You can hardly turn around in the market square without stumbling across cobras, street kids trying to force-feed you macaroons (though our group didn't require much forcing) and grinning men with massive moustaches offering you chipolatas straight from the BBQ or boiled snails straight from the pot. A little word of advice, it's fun to look at the stall-owners cooking the food, but when you actually order it, it generally doesn't taste nice and there's a high probability that you'll get food poisoning. Luckily, we were seasoned enough travellers to know that chicken that's cooked properly isn't pink;
  • the apparently barren Atlas mountains that we drove through with our guide Hassan, where every corner brings a new amazing view. The mountains look fairly inhospitable and you'd think it's practically impossible to grow anything there, but somehow the Berbers who live in the mountains manage to get by. In fact, they seem to be thriving as there was always people hanging around by the side of the road even in the most remote of the mountain passes that we drove through. I have no idea what they were doing there, but I respect the fact that they were doing it;
  • the local Berber pharmacy that Hassan kindly showed us for nothing other than some substantial kick-backs from the owners (he was generous like that). The pharmacy was full of exotic spices, scented oils, potions, lotions, perfumes and other exotic things. The shop assistant spent a long (and fairly lucrative) time while talking us through the various products that he had to offer and we all walked away smelling quite a bit better than when we walked in. Afterwards, while the others were busy pulling out their wallets though, the shop assistant came up to me and in a conspirational whisper mentioned that he could give me some traditional Berber viagra if that's what I was after. Now, I appreciate the manner in which the guy addressed a sensitive issue, but why did he assume that I was the one in need of help and not my travelling companions? Very worrying;
  • camel riding through the desert at dusk. OK, I'm not sure that the camels qualify as a highlight, because all of my previous experiences of camels were confirmed on this trip (they are ugly, have extremely bad dental hygiene and are supremely uncomfortable). But the camels did manage to get us to a desert camp where we spent the night around a bonfire, playing drums and staring up at the most amazing display of stars that I have ever seen (I've never seen the Milky Way as clearly as I did from the Moroccan desert). Our accommodation was a tent made out of Moroccan carpets and we slept wrapped in camel hair blankets. In a word: awesome.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

And that's another Miami Dolphins FIRST DOWN!

So it's Halloween tonight (or at least it was when I started writing this post) and the streets are full of kids dressed up as devils and witches and skeletons and (rather disturbingly) Britney Spears. Luckily I live in an apartment so I should be relatively safe from trick or treating. And even if they do come knocking, I'm on the 4th floor, so it's going to take some enterprising kids to play any serious tricks on me. Of course, I'm sure they'd find a way if I took my Dad's traditional approach of opening the front door to trick and treaters and then spending the next 15 minutes giving them a lecture on how Halloween isn't an Australian tradition and they should spend their time learning a bit more about Australia's colonial era instead of scouting for sweets. Or, alternatively, I could just try and offer them something nice to eat. Unfortunately, all I've got to offer at the moment is a tub of hummous and some carrots. I quite like it, but I'm not sure the sugar content in the hummous is high enough to satisfy the kids. So, to sum up, I may just need to take my chances.

While I'm waiting for the rotten eggs to start raining down on my roof, I may as well write a little bit about last Sunday, when the NFL came to town. It was the first time that any NFL regular season game had been played outside the US and they did it in style, playing in front of 85,000 plus one (me) fans at Wembley. About 50 players from the Miami Dolphins and NY Giants made the trip over for the match and they were accompanied by a team of around 100 Dolphins cheerleaders (supposedly the finest cheerers in the league, but then I bet they say that to all the girls).

Now the weather on Sunday wasn't great - hey, this is London after all - but that wasn't going to put my little crew off following NFL tradition and doing a little bit of tailgating. Tailgating basically involves breaking out a BBQ behind your pick-up truck and sinking a few beers before the game. Well, we didn't have a pick-up but we did have a little disposable BBQ, a packet of Sainsbury's finest wild boar bangers and a couple of 6 packs of Carlsberg, which went down a treat (both with us and a couple of friendly coppers who were a little hungry and a little too cheap to buy their own sausages). We had kind of expected there to a be a crowd of tailgaters, given that that there were several thousand Americans flying over especially for the match. But I suppose they all left their BBQs at home, because we were alone out the front of Wembley. Anyway, having wolfed down a couple of lonely sausages and more than a few lagers, we finally made it into the stadium as the players charged onto the field, fireworks exploded, cheerleaders bounced and Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" blared through the stadium speakers. Americans really know how to do entertainment.

The match itself was entertaining, but I don't think it was the best football ever played. The weather was partly to blame, as the players were having a hard time getting a grip on the wet ball, which meant that both teams preferred a running game over a passing game. So, really, the game soon degenerated into something closely resembling the recent rugby World Cup final, with two teams grinding it out for field position and then knocking over penalty kicks. Still, we were a few more beers down by that stage and were happy enough watching the cheerleaders do their thing. Also, I was becoming excellent at screaming out FIRST DOWN every time the Dolphins made their 10 yards. In fact, it was a bit of a shame that the crowd wasn't a bit louder - I was half hoping that the Giants fans would start singing "are you Tottenham in disguise" to the Dolphins players, but they don't seem to have the same sense of humour as the Gunners fans. Maybe next time. Anyway, the final result was 13-10 to the Giants. But on the day, we were all winners.