Release the River

I’ve been known to set out on the odd ridiculous adventure from time to time. Traversing Spain from north to south was one. Dana was definitely another. If the truth be told, I’m frankly surprised it’s taken me until my third week to get up to any hijinks out here in Morocco. I guess my sense of duty to a host family that would rather I spent more time with them than adventuring got in the way.

Nonetheless, the heart wants what it wants. And today what it really wanted was a decent ramble. And that’s exactly what it got.

The plan – if there ever was one – was to take a taxi as far as Martil and follow the coast to the hills to the south. Maybe we’d make for the mountains, or maybe for the coastal road. A man with a plan would have known. Fortunately, I had in my companions, for the first time in a long time, two such people for whom the total absence of a detailed itinerary was not a problem at all, if not a cause for celebration.


Tetouan isn’t exactly a village, but it does have some gorgeous views


We were in Martil for half seven in the morning. My host family had tried to dissuade me from such an early start the night before, claiming that there would be nobody up and about at such an hour on a Sunday morning. As it happens, there were plenty of taxis bound for Martil, and we had a full cab; truly, as there were eight of us crammed into that 1970s Mercedes at one point.

Martil proved to be a false start, not because of the enticements of the Mediterranean, but because of the river. After passing a minor tributary, a mere feint of the Oued Martil, we found our way blocked by the real deal. It was much too deep to ford ‘Vietnam style’, even for brazen adventurers like the three of us, and despite making eyes at a lonely fisherman and his boat on the spit of sand that was just not quite long enough to be a bridge, we eventually had to accept the fact that we had nowhere to go but backwards.


Checking a decent map beforehand wouldn’t have been such a bad idea…


Down, but definitely not out. We tracked down a grand taxi that could take us to Azla, a short distance down the coast. That the taxi had to return to Tetouan to get to Azla – the only bridge for miles being a stone’s throw from my street, of all places – was a little facepalm-inducing. But our cheery taxi driver set us down in Azla without a catch, proving that they’re not all of the bad sort Arch and I encountered in Oulad Berhil, and, choosing the dry riverbed for our guide, we set off inland.


Dry rivers are and always will be the very easiest of roads


The first half hour was nothing short of a Boy Scout adventure. The dry riverbed made for easy going until the bamboo walls that lined its fringes crept in and over and we ended up trekking through a bamboo jungle. Alex made the smart move to turn this to our advantage, taking a long and sturdy cane for a makeshift hiking pole. If we hadn’t followed suit, I suppose the going would have been significantly more difficult further on. Thank goodness for boyish tendencies.

The river took us deep into the Riffian countryside, well away from the beaten track. The river valley itself was an explosion of colour for late June: the glittering stream came to life after a couple of kilometres or so, where great bushes of flowering pink lined the water’s edge and dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies of all descriptions flitted about the water, including some of the most beautiful pennant-winged specimens of the latter that I’ve ever seen. The locals – we met with just a few on the road – were cheery enough, though more than a little bemused, I suspect, at the sight of three wayward adventurers heading deep into the hills with bamboo-cane poles. The scenery was suitably African, at least, and it was really rather hard not to whip out the camera at every turn.


‘Man is in proper Africa, fam.’


We stopped here and there where shade allowed. Man can’t tan like a boss all day, not even with a regular lathering of sun lotion. The valleys of the Rif, it should be said, are a great deal kinder on the shade front than Wadi Dana. After following the river and the road for a couple of hours we reached a turning point and – bravely or foolishly, who knows – cut across country to keep our westward bearing. Keeping west meant a very steep climb in the burning sun, but where in Dana we were long since out of water reserves by the time we began the ascent, I still had a two-liter bottle and a half to myself this time, and the going was a good deal easier for it.


Alex and Victoria – and, in the distance (that little white strip to the right), the road


The mountains, our waymarker, turned out to be a great deal closer than we’d thought once we got to the top. In another couple of hours we could have made it to the slopes. But we were already halfway through our supplies by this point and Tetouan, visible in the distance, seemed a much more sensible destination. We did nab a killer panorama from an abandoned watchtower of some description sat atop the hill we’d fought so hard to summit, which made the climb all the more worth it.


See that massive expanse of white in the haze? That’s Tetouan


From there, it was a mere two hours downhill to Tetouan and a well-deserved shower. The family still couldn’t really take it on board that I’d walked home from Azla – I like to walk, OK? – but I guess they’re getting used to it by and by. It’s been almost three weeks since my first day at Dar Loughat and I haven’t used a taxi since day one. Like I said, man likes to walk. Man will always like to walk. Man was born to walk. And if man gets the chance, man will walk his way to Cape Town one day. BB x


I’ve deliberately waited to pen this one. Being both out of the country and out of WiFi meant that I didn’t get the news until I got to class this morning, by which point I’d already forgotten yesterday’s referendum buzz. I had more important things on my mind, like how many men were really killed at Covadonga, and what kind of a world would Spain have been had Navas de Tolosa gone the other way. Stuff like that.

Waiting has also meant that you’ve been spared the knee-jerk, bloody-hell-it’s-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it attitude that I spent most of this morning suffering from. In fact I was so shocked by the news that I could hardly talk for the first twenty minutes or so of class. And whilst I was a little tongue-tied for the first two weeks, the last few days’ confidence boom has brought out the chatterbox in me, and therefore it felt quite odd being left with suddenly nothing to say.

I’m talking, of course, about Brexit. About my country’s decision to ignore sanity, common sense and all basic human emotions besides fear and to rally behind some of the most sinister British politicians in living memory.

It smacks of Weimar. It smacks of Trump. It smacks of the start of pretty much every slow run-up to fascist mind-control. I’m not going to start spouting nonsense about the end of the world – it’s really not – but it was a knock I was certainly not expecting this morning. 

And that’s the strangest thing of all. I simply never saw it coming. It always seemed so… laughable. Oh, I’d be the first to confess that I’ve barely looked into the consequences or the data. I got most of my updates from Have I Got News For You. In the end, if the truth be told, I simply let instinct and common sense decide my stance on the matter. Perhaps that makes me no better than anyone else. But if my Facebook page is anything to go by, the Brexit voter is a very rare beast indeed – at least, amongst my generation. I’m told it’s the fault of the older generation; they voted for Leave in their droves, apparently. Personally I have no idea. I have no grandparents, no great uncles or aunts, and therefore no contact with that generation whatsoever. I don’t have the foggiest how they live, or how they think. Therefore I refuse to buy into rumours or make claims about what I don’t know. If only some of my countrymen had done the same.

It still shocks me, though. How did it happen? It was just a joke, right? Everyone and their tabby cat was against it: Patrick Stewart, Alan Sugar, Ryanair, James Bond, David Attenborough, the Prime Minister… The list was endless. Who was supporting Leave? I mean, apart from Trump, Kim Jong Un and IS, who naturally all want what’s best for us, of course. I was baffled enough by the Trump campaign. How could a man faced with such a fierce backlash ever get to be the Republican candidate for the President of the United States? And yet he did. It was tempting to think ‘only in America’… and yet, here we are. Severed from the European Union by another silent majority who – if the rumours are true – won’t have to live with the results for even a breath of the time that we will. We, the generation who came out so strongly in defense of the Union… Ignored.

To say that it swayed my mind on moving abroad after university would be heresy. I’d already made that decision many months ago, and I’m proud to say that I made it out of love, not fear. My decision stands. Only, perhaps now there’s a sense of urgency, a feeling of Cortés landing in Mexico about it. My plans were laid, but somebody went and burned the boats. It may take all of ten years to obtain my Spanish citizenship, or – if that old Hispanic obsession with blood still stands – it may be less, but the way things are going, I’m bound for exile no matter what happens. BoJo and Farage and their silent worshippers have made it just that little bit harder now, as my road is now fraught with VISAs that had never been necessary before, but I won’t let that stop me. They can try, but they’re not treading on my dreams.

The way some of us Brits have reacted to this – myself included – you’d think that war had just been declared. That’s the worst part of it all: the fear. It’s fear that has got us in this state. Fear of what? The unknown? The migrant crisis? I would pay handsomely to send the average Leave supporter to one of the refugee camps in Jordan or Greece for a couple of months, if just to see if there really is a right answer. Familiarity: that’s the obvious solution. Once you know that which you’ve only seen and heard in the news, it’s suddenly a great deal more than a number on a piece of paper (Would Stalin have sent so many to their deaths if he’d had the chance to get to know them all?).

Of course, I’d go for the laughter route myself. Laugh at your fears, laugh at the world and especially laugh at yourself. I almost walked into the same lamppost twice today, and I had to count the hours between nine o’clock and twelve just to be sure there were three of them. And yes, I just did it again to confirm. Yours truly has some remarkably oafish tendencies. But I revel in my bouts of stupidity. It’s what made the Greek gods so much more interesting than the Abrahamic belief in perfection. None of us are perfect, nor ever could be. We’ve as much hope of being ‘perfect’ as a Jack Russell has of explaining quantum physics to a nursery group. But we try. And that’s kind of funny. We should laugh at that.

 J.K. Rowling had it down: laughter really is the best cure for fear, but familiarity is the next best thing.

Where am I going with this? I’ve literally just got home. My phone wouldn’t make the connection to my host family for some reason so I ended up sitting in the doorstep for an hour, as I’ve done in one way or another so often in my life. I’m quite used to it by now. Waiting is no bad thing. It gives you time to think, to muse, to watch the world go by. Life goes on. Britain may have decided to leave the European Union and we may or may not be headed for troubled times, but it’s business as usual in Tetouan.

I’ve been waiting my whole life in one way, shape or form: the right girl, the right moment, the right place, the right language. Patience: birdwatching taught me that. I can wait a little longer. One day, when of all of this fear and hostility has blown up and/or over, we’ll look back and have a good, long laugh. No matter how dark it gets. BB x

Fast Breaking

It’s funny, the difference a day can make. Twenty four hours ago I’d have been tempted to title this post ‘Man vs Food II’ and it would have come across as a rather negative, Ben-gets-defeated-by-dinner-again sort of post. Right now I’m a little groggy, having just woken up from a much-needed afternoon nap, but the high that’s kicked this post into action has taken Monday’s negative finish and given it a firm kick out the door.

Coming back from Rabat and a more relaxed attitude to fasting has thrown the first two weeks’ routine off the rails, I confess. Apparently one of the various excuses for not abiding by the fasting laws – besides illness, pregnancy and being on one’s period – is travel. As a non-Muslim I’m under absolutely no obligation to fast, and it was only because it seemed the logical thing to do that I started fasting in the first place, but it has since occurred to me that there’s no shame in backing down over a light lunch here and there. 

There’s a lot of misconceptions about Ramadan. It’s a bit like the phrase Allahu Akbar: people tend to take it on face value. Here’s a really eye-opening insight I picked up today from a friend of mine. The Akbar part can be comparative or superlative, and if you let the media and its endless portrayals of gun-touting rebels carry you away, it’s easy to assume that it’s a gesture of defiance; ‘Allah is greater than any other (false) God’. In truth – or at least, in this interpretation of it (which I fully endorse) – it’s a simple reminder to the faithful that God is greater than whatever it is you’re doing right now. Harmless, right? Now that’s a pretty effective call to prayer. Better than a couple of church bells, at any rate.

Back to Ramadan. As far as I can tell, Ramadan isn’t about denying yourself food; it’s about getting closer to God. Fasting is just one way of focusing on such matters, reminding you daily of your obligation to the man upstairs. It’s that drive that gives believers the strength to persevere. I’m not a Muslim, so it’s little more than an act of respect or cultural appropriation on my part to act like the world around me. Fasting isn’t easy: I challenge anyone to try throwing their daily routine amiss with that two o’clock suhūr and still trying to get up for seven for that fifty minute walk to class. Faith is a greater fuel, however, and it’d be foolish of me to fight on without it. One day, I hope, I will find my way to God, but until then I would only be going through the motions, playing at mimicry. I’ve always been frustratingly stubborn, but on some matters the light, I find, is a little easier to see. Faith is one of those areas.

So without further ado, it’s out with the false scruples and in with the £2 tajines.

Now that the shackles are off, I’m going to tackle the meat of this post (there’s a knee-jerk reaction in pun format, if there ever was one). After a solid two hours’ research on the Barbary pirates, I ducked out of Dar Loughat this afternoon with comrade Alex to investigate our options for lunch. For the first time in two weeks I actually felt really rather hungry today, not to mention nursing an odd, woozy feeling in my head. In the latter I wasn’t alone; there were a fair few complaints about fatigue today across the board, even more than might be considered normal during Ramadan. The only difference is that the Levante has been blowing warm and strong all day, that westerly wind that’s supposed to dull the senses and even drive men mad. Believe what you will, I was tired and hungry. Alex offered to show me a local joint he’d uncovered and I was game.

Over lunch – a ridiculously cheap and delicious kofta stew – Alex shared a little of his knowledge of Egyptian Arabic with me. Something clicked upstairs, something that’s been dormant for a long time. Here was a guy who had had just as many years at the Arabic game as I, but one who, like my Parisian classmate, had beaten the language into submission over the course of time through a combination of drive and maintained interest. I found myself inspired to go home and study, and that takes some doing. Between the two of them, they’ve shown me that it’s not impossible to get to grips with the grammar. I’m no pessimist, but I do need reminding of my own capabilities from time to time.

It’s taken two and a half weeks to get to this stage. Two and a half weeks out of eight and only five remain. But I’m here at last. That’s what matters. And I haven’t even started the culture classes yet.

Watch out Arabic. I’m going to take you down. Just you wait and see. BB x

Life on the Road

Oh thank heaven. The air con has just come on. I’ve been sitting here on the bus for the best part of an hour now, under the mistaken belief that it was the 11:30 CTM service to Tetouan, but of course it’s the local equivalent, complete with irregular timings, sleazy touts and the train of peddlers, preachers and beggars, all of them out to make a quick buck to a captive audience. This was an unexpectedly cheaper alternative, but right now I’m wishing I’d walked that 150m more and made for the pathetically-small CTM station just down the road. Rabat may be Morocco’s capital, but it’s bus stations are about as inconveniently located as its humanely possible to be.

Rabat this weekend. The opportunity presented itself and I took it, motivated more by my desire to see the old pirate republic of Salé than anything else. Sadly, despite its dark and fascinating past, there’s nothing to tell you about the city’s pirates. No museums, no street names, not even an information board. Just a few scraps of evocative graffiti.


I might have known. Google didn’t turn up a thing. I was inclined to disbelieve that, but as is so often the case, Google was proved right. No sign of Murad Reis or his pirate republic anywhere. And there was me hoping that it was still possible to view the Web as a pack of lies. Perhaps that’s human history.


Salé itself is a pretty seaside town. I’d say it’s a welcome antidote to the bustle of Rabat, but even Rabat isn’t a very hip-and-happening place. And that’s good. Maybe it’s antidote to Marrakech or Fes, then. The capital of Morocco just seems to shunt along at its own pace, unhurried, unharrying. True, Ramadan could have something to do with that, as ever, but compared to Amman, it’s a relaxing city break. And I’ve learned a fair few things for the book just from wandering around, so that’s good. It’s what I came for.


It’s been a rather human weekend. What do I mean by that? I mean that I’ve spent most of it talking and making new friends, so much as is possible on the road. They’re always fleeting encounters; most of the travelers you find in Morocco are the spit-and-sawdust kind, the ones who bought a flight out and are musing along at their own pace; free spirits without a care in the world. One such wanderer, a New Zealand trader, had been wandering around the country for five months and more, learning Dārija, trading his belongings and doing odd jobs here and there to get by. The social skills of the Gods, truly.


People often have me down, falsely, as a die-hard globetrotter. Perhaps that’s because of my self-professed love for the world more than my aspirations for a life on the road, per se. A firm knowledge of the world and its people is a great start for any adventure. But in truth, I’m nothing like these shaggy-haired, baggy-pants free spirits I so often meet on the road. They’re the ones who are quite happy to let go; to set out from home with no desire to return. There’s a fair amount of that fire in me, I guess – at least one of my ancestors was a merchant sailor – but I know where I belong. Some people spend their lives looking for home, a place that calls out to them, a special space. A sanctuary.

For me, that’s Spain. I’ve known that for years. I think I found my home too soon.


Ignorance is bliss, but if I could look into the future, I might just risk that knowledge on a whim. Will I end up in Spain? Or will the hurricane of life carry me elsewhere, far from the lighted path? I’m my very good at putting my heart and soul into something and then watching it sail away on the waves, quite beyond my control, sometimes through no fault of my own, and sometimes so. Clubs, dreams, relationships… So many of them float away on the tide. Perhaps that’s what’s so captivating about sunsets: the end of one dream, the beginning of another.


The air con has got me musing all over the place; the  air con and my frustration at the speed of this bus. Travel at one’s own leisure is a wonderful thing, but when you have a time limit it’s such a stressful endeavor. Here’s to that day when I find myself on the road again with no plans to return, at least for a month or two. Here’s to freedom. BB x

Take Me to the River

The world doesn’t look particularly different at twenty-two. So much has happened since last year, but what’s changed? I’ve been so busy for most of the year that I’ve hardly had time to look. I’ve been binging on Doctor Who lately, and with all of that timely-wimey stuff in mind, I thought I’d pen down a few things that I’ve seen and heard over the last 365 days.

Paris got hit by an earth-shattering terrorist attack, and then a flood six months later. Brussels got attacked shortly afterwards, as did numerous other cities in the Middle East (most of which overlooked, perhaps because Europeans weren’t directly involved). IS obviously wasn’t satisfied with all the fear and blew up Palmyra. It’s a rough world we live in. The migrant crisis is deepening, UK is currently considering leaving the EU and mogul, ‘kill the women and children’, human-seesaw Trump is genuinely the Republican candidate for the US Presidential elections. That may or may not have something to do with all of this. There’s also another plane vanished without a trace, this one flying between Paris and Cairo. We lost a lot of actors to cancer, including Alan Rickman, and also the West African black rhinoceros to boot – but in all the xenophobic madness that’s plaguing the world right now, that’s a loss that most people will have ignored.

There’s a change right away: Ben’s been reading the news this year.

Yesterday was my first shot at getting out and about in Morocco and I seized it by the horns. It was also the first real day of summer, pushing 36°C from 11 o’clock onwards. Summer Ramadan is a challenge on a whole new level. Thank goodness the plan was to spend most of the day in the shade of a canyon.


Now if Wadi Dana had been this lush and green…

The Moroccan north is nothing short of spectacular. In truth, most of Morocco will blow you away, but the Rif is rather special, even for a seasoned Sierra-trekker like me. Imagine the Pyrenees, sprinkle them with red earth, plant them with cedars and remove the high-rise ski resorts and you have a basic idea of the Rif. You might also care to throw in a few monkeys if it’s to your fancy, though a surprising number of folks wouldn’t.


Thank God I brought my trunks on a whim

Turn off the road near Talambote and you’ll find yourself in a breathtaking valley of cedar woods and stark, red cliffs, set against a blue, blue sky. Heaven incarnate. There’s a small car park and a couple of bathrooms at the point where a river tumbles out of the mountains, carving its way through the rocks over a series of waterfalls. Akchour and the Bridge of God lie just a couple of kilometres upstream.


Talassemtane’s pretty amazing, but the party starts south of Tetouan!

The route there is not exactly what you’d call linear; you have to ford the river at least two or three times. And whilst the weather might be sweltering at this time of year, the water rushing down from the mountains is anything but. There are a couple of stepping-stone paths and a few lines of conveniently-placed sandbags,but unless you feel like risking the adventurous, straight-out-of-a-Conan Doyle log bridges, it’s sun’s out, guns out, shoes off. I usually need a seriously good excuse to strip, being white bread through and through, even though I tend to tan pretty well, thanks to the Manchego in my blood (mmm… manchego). Well, a swim is as good an excuse as any.


Throw me the idol!

The water is cold. It’s not as cold as that pool in the riad we stayed in over in Chaouen, but it’s still bloody cold. After about fifteen minutes in the river my jaw is shaking uncontrollably and I’m having to bite my tongue to talk, which is hardly the most efficient way of going about it. But the water is so clear you can count the stones on the riverbed two metres down. And somewhere up in the trees high above, troops of macaques patrol the cliffs. I only had a fleeting glimpse of them this time, but I’ll be back. Hey, I can’t help it; I lived with two anthropologists last year. It did my obsession with primates no good whatsoever. Get up close and personal with our distant family and tell me you don’t feel some kind of connection on a deeper level – it’s in the eyes. You can tell they’re thinking.


Barbary Macaque in the Cedar Forest, Ifrane National Park, Morocco (2015)

They must be. If you aren’t buying it, visit the Rock. The Gibraltar macaques know all the tricks to relieve tourists of their munchies: smash and grab, puppydog eyes, even a rudimentary pincer movement. But here they’re free, unfed (and thus unspoiled) by tourists and wary enough to be considered natural. And that’s beautiful.

The car ride home was nothing short of a dream. Why? Because Omar, our guide, spoke Spanish. As did Mika, as did Jennifer. As did I. I can hardly tell you how amazing it felt to be speaking Spanish again after what feels like ages, even though it can only have been ten days, tops. It made returning to Arabic on Monday morning all the harder, but it was worth it for the high. Send me back to Spain. I can see the blue skies, I can see Paradise.

The Corrs have a new album out. White Light. I’m in a very happy place. And now I’m not booked out this August, I might just get to see them after all. BB x


Gave you all a bit of a fright with my last post, didn’t I?

Since Wednesday’s minor breakdown – the apotheosis of a very shaky start – I’ve eased in at last. It’s as though somebody’s holding up a mirror to last year, when the first few days were whimsical, light and carefree… Well, I’ve bounced back. It was only a matter of time and effort. I owe that to several factors, not least of all the Corrs, C.J. Sansom and a very inspirational young lady – and, of course, to my dear friends for all the support they’ve given. Thank you.

I’ll start backwards. I mentioned a couple of posts back that my Parisian classmate was streets ahead of me in linguistic and thinking ability. From her wealth of vocabulary, maturity of thought and clear sense of direction in life I had her down as at least a couple of years older than me. That’s a major sin right off the bat; false assumptions. The revelation that she was actually several years my junior took the wind out of me. I’ll not say how much… just that for her age, to be equally comfortable in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Russian, English and French (and goodness knows what else) is nothing short of inspirational. Age really shouldn’t have anything to do with it, of course, but it’s always a wonderful thing to find someone so young so very keen, and I’ve always been a sucker for charismatic individuals. And this one’s a real star. I guess I could learn a lot from her.

Jeez, she’s just come back with a newspaper and is reading it as though it were in French. Life goals right there.

Concerning C.J. Sansom… I’ve had Dominion on my bedside table for the last three years but never got around to reading it. It’s like Pavilions or just about any Stephen King novel: the writing is brilliant, top-notch even, but would it really hurt to write a little less? (My brother’s the Stephen King fan in the family… the rest of us use his books as highly convenient door-stoppers). That’s where iBooks came to the rescue. Much as I am loath to accept them as a genuine substitute for the feel of a good hardback book, their convenience as far as travel is concerned is second to none. Especially when the book concerned is over six-hundred pages. I’ve not gone a week since being awarded my iPad last summer without having at least one book on the go, but it’s been a long time since I could hardly put the damned thing down for the quality of the novel. Dominion‘s had me putting off sleep during Ramadan, it’s that good. To write with his grit, his flair for realism… More life goals.

The crux of the matter is the book’s firm focus on England and the spirit of British independence. Churchill. That sort of thing. I needed inspiration and I found it: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts“.

Thanks Winnie. I owe you one.

Lastly, what I really should have done sooner was to pick up my iPod and treat myself to some serious music therapy. It’s a failsafe I always forget to fall back on, provided I’ve got the right track. And the Corrs’ Forgiven not Forgotten – every song on that album, in fact – is always the right track. I’m not sure what the first album I listened to was. I suppose it may have been Spiceworld, but my parents are both music teachers, so the scope there is enormous. Certainly the first one I remember clearly and the one I associate most with my childhood is Forgiven not Forgotten. I still have the cassette, stashed away with other precious mementos of my childhood: the Jubilee medallion, a vulture feather, a bundle of love letters…

The Corrs were, and still are, my favourite band. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s a serious hustle for that top spot between Beyoncé, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and James Brown, with the latter usually taking the top spot purely because of his legendary stamina on stage, but there’ll always be something special about the Corrs. I grew up with them. I listened to them on the way to school and every time we went on that long car journey to the Lake District. I think they even had a hand in giving birth to the novel; Erin Shore, in particular. And after all these years, I still treasure that album above all others. There’s just something about it that never faded.

If it weren’t so expensive (comparatively speaking), I’d up sticks and travel to Ireland every time the songs come on. Forgiven not Forgotten, Someday, Erin Shore, Runaway… There’s real Irish magic in there. Green hills, glassy lakes and stark cliffs. Gorgeous accents and black hair. Resilience. The north. Oh, to be Irish!

I’ll be honest. The older I get, the more attached to my home country I become. And for once I’m talking about England. The pink, fluffy clouds of a winter’s morning over a hard, frosty ground. The cawing of a rookery or the song of a lonely woodpigeon. The wind in the trees in summer. The symphony of colour in the woods in autumn. The first chiffchaffs singing from the blossom in spring. Footpaths and country lanes. Skylarks. These are things I associate with home. My choice of a path in life is destined to lead me further down the path my grandfather took, back to my roots in Iberia, but – how does it go again? – there will always be that part of me that is forever England.

My apologies for grossly paraphrasing you, Brooke. I know that’s not exactly what you meant. But the words have a real magic, a real meaning to them. And I couldn’t agree more.

I think that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned this year, above and beyond standing on my own two feet, learning to ask for help, perhaps even knowing when to shut up… No, more importantly than that, I’ve learned to love who I am, what I am, where I come from. Not in some glorified, nationalistic sense. Only, I’m no longer ashamed to be British. Quite the opposite, in fact. Perhaps I’m even proud to be so, dare I use the term. But whatever Britain stands for, what matters most is that, at last, I am happy with who I am.

World, I’m ready. BB x


Ramadan Dreams

I slept pretty much all afternoon yesterday. That’s what you get after a two o’clock suhūr, I suppose. The result was a slew of very vivid dreams, perhaps not uninspired by the few clips of Inside Out! I’d been watching (I really must see the whole film. It looks amazing). This morning I could have spun the whole bizarre sequence out for you, piece by piece, but like so many dreams it’s been carried away by the morning light. All I remember clearly is standing aboard a gigantic galleon with vast, green sails, floating high above the earth like something out of The Edge Chronicles, and hurling myself overboard with my camera bag into the sea below as an alarm sounded and the ship slowly tilted sideways, stooped and then plunged into the water. And I was mainly concerned about keeping my camera dry.

I don’t think the family were all that impressed by my walking to and from school yesterday. I was. I found my way there and back in forty minutes apiece and it felt so good to get out. After all of that palava over Moroccan table manners, I really needed to get out on my own. To think. To breathe. Homestays really shouldn’t be this tough, but I am a bit of a loner. Sometimes what I really need is just to be left alone for four or five hours to read, or to think, or just to be. That was last year’s trouble, too; always rushing about.

It’s been a hard first few days. I knew it was going to be this way, especially concerning the Arabic language itself, but I didn’t expect it to be quite this hard. Leaving behind the friendly routine of the best year of my life to march straight into a two-month overhaul was always going to be difficult. Had I not gone in so positive I’d be on the brink of tears right now. I’m so behind. My classmate takes in the stuff like a sponge and I’m sitting there leaking. Grammar goes in, gets jumbled up with a million other unconscious thoughts, mistakes come out. It was so much easier in first year, when I was ahead of the game and vocabulary was all that really mattered… But then the grammar caught up, I burned out, and like so many track events, I fell back and back and back until I found myself a whole lap behind the rest. What a joke.

And here’s the punchline. In my brief spell at home, I found a folded sheet of paper covered in red scribblings I’d penned during that five-hour church service-cum-auction in Boroboro. University plans, mostly. I wrote them just weeks before I was offered a place at Durham. In amongst the scrawls there’s a four-year plan, detailing my plan of attack vis-a-vis studying French, Spanish and Arabic.

Apparently I’d never intended to take Arabic past the second year at all. There’s a question mark by that one as it is.

The question is, why did I take this road? Jordan was trying, but then, so is this – for want of company, this time. But for that one Monday class, last year was a dream. I belonged. Just speaking Spanish made me happy. And now I’m here… It seems very silly to be doing something you don’t really enjoy, and less so when you’ve no intention whatsoever of making any money out of it. Neither use nor ornament, and that’s probably the first and only time I’ve used that expression perfectly.

I suppose… I suppose I simply followed my heart. I tend to do that. I fell so very much in love with Arabic in first year. In fact, I scored more highly in Arabic that year than in either French or Spanish; undying proof that, if you put your mind to it, you can surely do it. It was, as we say, in my interest. Then came second year, the Northern Lights, the Gospel Choir fracas, another failed attempt at a relationship and the entire juggling scenario. I fell apart. I like being busy, but that was something else. I was balancing far more than I could feasibly carry. And I was also supposed to be studying Arabic.

Arabic is one of those languages you simply have to devote a lot of time to. I did in first year – almost every evening – and hey, it showed. I only became disillusioned when the lingering gap-year cabin-fever adrenaline rush petered out and I realized that there was more to university than endless study. It was thanks to that that I made so few friends outside my Arabic class that year… and that was one of the main reasons I decided to keep going. Arabic 1B wasn’t just a class, it was a real community in the way that the seven or eight French and Spanish groups could never be. United in fear. That was the magic.

What I really need right now is to escape. To be alone, without having to worry about grammar, about the family, about what my next heinous foodie faux-pas is going to be. Fortunately, I’m in the perfect place for that.

I’m turning twenty-two this weekend. Last year I spent a good deal of the day stretched out under the shade of an oak tree in the hills high above Durham, listening to the skylarks and feeling at peace with the world. That’s what I need to do. To get out. To the country. To be free. BB x

Fasting for Convenience

I never saw it coming, but the biggest challenge of living in Morocco is not the language at all. Above and beyond case-marking and getting your head around an Arabic variant that freely borrows French and Spanish words, rendering it almost four languages at once, is the challenge of eating. And whilst I consider myself reasonably proficient at keeping myself well-fed, these first few days in Morocco have rocked me to my core.

The problem, of course, is tied up with living with a family.

Before I set out on my ridiculous trans-Iberian adventure three years ago, I had the appetite of a wolverine. Always eating, ever snacking, stuffing myself with huge quantities of food that I was somehow able to finish in one sitting. Luckily for me, I remained as thin as a beanpole. Something to do with age, a penchant for going on long walks and a good metabolism. I was lucky. 

2013 changed that. The whole Santander to Almería adventure was in a constant state of flux – I don’t think the exact route was entirely clear until it was over – and in the mayhem of sleeping rough in the mountains and navigating by compass and a map dated from 1978, I forgot to eat. That Spanish adventure killed my appetite for good.

Ever since, it doesn’t take much to fill me up. Which is a positive boon, when you think about it, but a major snag when it comes to lodging with an Arab family. I expect it’d be the same just about anywhere in the world, but Arab hospitality is deservedly famous. In amongst all of the Arabic that went over my head, I’ve heard my hosts say more than once that they think I’m not eating well. Not for want of trying – Moroccan food is amazing – but I’ve yet to finish a meal. The quantities are enormous, and the whole eating-with-your-hands thing is frustratingly technical. It slows me down to the point where I’m only halfway through a meal by the time the others have finished eating. Naturally, I’m much too stubborn to accept the cutlery they offered – it’s shameful, like resorting to English abroad – but I can’t help but wonder whether by trying to adapt in one way I’ve only set myself another challenge.

And I need to learn. Eating with one’s hands is the done thing in so many parts of the world, not least of all my beloved Africa. I’ve given myself a week to learn to do it properly; after that, I may resort to a knife and fork, if only to be eating well. It’s Ramadan, after all. It would make no sense at all to be fasting and eating less than usual at the same time. That’s idiocy on another level.

The fasting thing is good, though. It felt right, somehow, getting up at two with the family to eat suhūr together. It adds a new sense of structure to the day. They were all fast asleep when I left the house this morning, which you might expect from a total of five hours’ sleep, but I had class to go to. Fortunately, it’s only a forty minute walk, and that takes you through the medina and last the Royal Palace. It’s a really lovely walk, and it feels better off the back of having fasted with the Tetouanis.

All of this is very easy to say now, on the noon of the first day. Left to my own devices, I doubt I’d make much headway. But with the family watching I’m willing to try. Ramadan helwa, as they used to say in Jordan. And anything that’s got something to do with helwa can’t be that bad. BB x

The view from Class N°5, Dar Loughat


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Predictably, my first session in Dar Loughat was a bit of a shock to the system. Perhaps even more so than my attempts at conversation with my hosts. That would be because striking up a conversation doesn’t tend to require case-marking every single letter.

As lessons go, it was superbly taught. The whole asking-you-for-the-word-in-your-own-language thing is new and a serious improvement; it put a stop to me nodding my way into ignorant oblivion from the get-go. I’m not sure why other teachers haven’t tried that in the past, I needed it bad. I guess it’s the sign of a truly capable linguist, if he’s able to field three languages at once on top of his own.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel I was trailing. The placement test landed me with a Parisian postgraduate who had taught herself Arabic alongside Farsi, Urdu and Russian. As if that wasn’t enough, she case-marked everything she said or read almost perfectly, tanwiin fatHas and mansūb endings all over the shop. Like an Archie 2.0. I pretty much gave up on cases in Year Two… and boy, does it show. Some find hardworking people like that inspiring. I just feel cowed. I spent most of that class with a weak smile on my face, like some kind of vestigial ape expression of fear. I brought this on myself, I suppose. I wanted to meet new people, to have a non-Durham class. I got what I asked for.

At the end, the teacher asked us how the lesson went. My classmate said it was very basic. I personally felt like I’d just finished the first assault course in boot camp. He laughed and said that Arabic is a bit like sports.

Great. Exactly what I wanted to hear.

I never said it was going to be easy. To make matters worse, we’re starting from Al-Kitaab 3 again. Not that that’s a bad thing – it’s pretty clear now that I’ve forgotten almost everything I learned out there, except possibly all the bird names I taught myself (escapism – because it was in my interest) – but the first topic is politics. Anybody who knows me knows how pigheaded and closed-minded I am about politics… That is to say, I hate it. I don’t like talking about things I don’t know and I know grand zilch about politics. Again, my classmate proved the yin to my yang: she loves it, takes a passionate interest in the subject and wants to pursue it through journalism.

So just as conversations at home tend to err towards the one-sided field, so too may classes here. All I have to offer is that I study books… A firm background of literature, art and music doesn’t make for an easy playing field when the subject is politics; specifically, the political ramifications of the Iranian Revolution in Islamic nations around the world. Give me the sleazy wine poetry of Abu Nuwās any day.

There’s an orientation at half three. Lessons last from nine to twelve and it sounds as though students spend the afternoon involved in projects. Which projects exactly I’m hoping I’ll find out today. That might be the key to staying alive. There’s little use in heading back to the flat… I have everything I need here, and it’s a tad too far to walk (dammit). So just for today I’ll stick around and take advantage of the speedy WiFi.

The first class was always going to be tough. Nevertheless I’m determined not to give up, not this time. If Arabic were only vocabulary, it’d be a dream… But we must be realistic. Besides, I guess it’s like maths – another thing that floors me. It’s simply a matter of knuckling down and mastering the technique. I gave up on maths too early. As a result, I can’t do division. I never could. I won’t make the same mistake with Arabic. BB x

The First Hurdles

I knew it. My Arabic is every bit as rusty as I thought it was. Over the last twenty four hours I’ve jumbled kalimāt with ma3kulāt, completely ignored the feminine –īn ending, let sentences slide into the oblivion for lack of vocabulary and resorted to a mixture of French, Spanish and English to fill in the gaps. How people manage to stay on top of six or seven languages at once baffles me; four is troublesome enough.

And so begins the third and final stage of the Year Abroad. The afternoon call to prayer is sounding as I write, cutting over the Camarón playing defiantly from my earphones; two months in Tetouan, a small city on the northern coast of Morocco. Arabic is back with a bang in my life. It’s an early start for me tomorrow at Dar Loughat, my new school, though not so much so now that the clocks have gone back for Ramadan. Registration, a placement test and, like as not, the first class.

I’ve been here for a little over a day now, and though Tetouan is only a stones throw from Tarifa, it’s a very different world from the land across the Strait. And it’s not just the Arabic. Even mealtimes are a challenge, and Ramadan hasn’t even started yet. I’m all up for eating with my hands, but it’s a good deal more technical than I thought it was. Naturally, I made a bit of a mess of it last night. Somewhere in the recesses of my memory, I recall a similarly awkward attempt in Uganda, where the ‘natural fork’ – using your thumb and three fingers – is the done thing, but that got forgotten somewhere between the purple lightning and the mountain gorillas. Priorities.

Letting in the morning light through my bedroom window is also ‘not good’, something I hadn’t anticipated. Morocco is a long way from the Middle East, but some of the old Arab customs cling on here. 

Determined not to lapse into last year’s old habits, namely falling back on English whenever possible, I’ve taken a dive and lodged with a Tetouani family. For someone who really values his own freedom, that was a difficult decision to make. But when the other Arabists come back in October with an average of six months apiece in an Arabic-speaking country, I’ll be left floating, so as I said before, it’s my prerogative to push myself. And what better way than to live with a Moroccan family?

It’s not easy. I reckon I understand less than half of what they say to me, even though it’s in fusHa (when they speak Dārija to each other, I don’t understand a word). I tend to latch onto the first word I recognise and wrestle with that until I have some idea of what’s going on. More often than I should, I find myself using a French word coupled with a pathetic expression to make up for the words I’m missing. When it comes to conversation, which is – for now – rather one-sided, my contributions consist of a series of nods and noises of understanding. And I’m still very much at the stage where I’m constantly getting caught out by questions.

All of this is a bit disheartening after that triumphant C2 in the CEFR Spanish exam. It’s like I’ve been reset to zero, sent back to the starting line just before the end of the 1500m. No, it’s worse than that: it’s like that painful childhood moment when you’ve been playing Pokémon for five hours and then you turn the game off without saving, and after all the cussing and swearing you know you’ve no choice but to retrace your steps or give up and walk away.

I was an odd kid. Nevertheless, the spark that flared in me in my first year at university is blinking in the dark. There’s a reason I came out here alone, early, immediately. I’m not about to give up on Arabic. Far from it. I’m determined to make this work, to be reinspired. Dear Kate found inspiration in Jordan where I found only creeping despair. But this is round two, and I’m coming back fighting. I fought hard to come here and now I have to earn it. I have to show the downcast Ben from last year who’s boss. That’s easy to say now, before the course has even begun, but that’s what it’s all about: a positive attitude. And having the awe-inspiring cliffs of the Rif Mountains does help. A lot.

All this and more has been said before, so I won’t sweat it. I haven’t yet got out to explore Tetouan beyond this morning’s trip to the market, so I’ll tell you a bit about my room. It doubles as a library. There are books in at least four languages spread out across a bookshelf that stretches along the length of one wall; Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima and Ibn Battūta’s Rihla, Pablo Neruda’s Confieso que he vivido and a French history of the alliance between Moulay Ismail and Louis XIV. There are also fossils everywhere. Trilobites, ammonites, corals and seashells, sharkteeth and even a gigantic bone of some description. My hosts – or one of them, at least – are avid naturalists. You could say I’ve landed on my feet. It’s also got a desk, a luxury I was denied both in Spain and in Jordan and – heaven above – it’s got WiFi. Weak WiFi, but at least it’s there.

No bones about it: this is definitely a step-up from last year’s overpriced two-room flat with the haunted washing machine and the worksite next door. BB x