Two Men Skilled in Climbing Mountains

We did it. We conquered Ghorghez. It’s been staring us in the face for all of six weeks but now I can put my hand on my heart and say with all honesty that the beast has been vanquished. Call it the human desire to tame the wild in me, but I could never have left Tetouan with my head held high if I’d never managed to tackle that mountain.

Fortunately, Alex was of a similar opinion, so at nine o’clock this morning we hailed a cab and off we went.

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King of Tetouan (or that obligatory tourist photo)

We didn’t have the best of starts. My host father very kindly gave me the use of his topographic map and took me up to the roof to explain the route we could take; he would have come with us, if his wife was not still hospitalized from the accident. But when he asked how many of us were going, I had to lie and say five. If I’d told him the truth – that Alex and I alone were going – he’d probably have tried to stop us. The last time he went on a fossil-hunting excursion up in the mountains, he was attacked by a group of thugs and severely injured.

In that knowledge, Alex and I arrived at Ain Bou Anane and set off on our journey.

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Don’t be fooled… It wasn’t anywhere near as easy it looks

For the first ascent we had it easy, as there was a reliable, well-trodden path to begin with. Emphasis on ‘begin with’; after a hundred metres or so it vanished into the sea of thorns and scrub that covers most of Ghorghez and we were forced to resort to free-navigating the mountainside, cutting from goat track to goat track with the occasional wayward boulder as a bridge between the paths. And just as well: the tracks often vanished into thin air like fireflies in the night, leaving us stranded in the scrub.

The mountain wasn’t entirely wild. What I took at first for bird calls turned out to be the Ghorghez shepherds out on the slopes with their flocks. I’d quite forgotten how far sound travels in the mountains. More than once I thought we’d been followed, only to see the source of the noise sitting atop a boulder watching over his goats on the far side of the valley. I must admit, due to my host father’s tales, I was more wary than usual around these hill-folk. Seeing their silhoettes appearing and disappearing between the rocks set my teeth on edge. More than once I let slip that we might have to make a break for it if they ‘came back with reinforcements’.

But they didn’t, and Alex smiled and waved at them, and some of them waved back. I think we could all do with a reminder from time to time that, at the end of the day, everybody’s human. A smile and a wave could change everything.

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Now that’s what I call a hike!

As for their fences… Seriously. Fuck fences. The amount of backtracking we had to do to find a way around the vast sections of the mountainside that had been cordoned off was unfair, unhelpful and unnecessary. Who even builds fences on a mountain anyway? I guess they’re for the few cows we saw munching through the scrub, but what kind of a sadistic individual drives their cattle up into the mountains and then fences them in with barbed wire and brambles? Fuck those fences.

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You’ve got to hand it to Maroc Telecom. Fully functional 3G up in the mountains is impressive

Delaying our hike by one day was one of my better decisions. Not only was Alex fully recovered from his late late Friday night, but the weather couldn’t have been better. The sun shone out from behind the clouds all morning, and the wind, though strong, was cool and refreshing. Compared to the Azla trek, it was a much easier ascent. Which is jammy, for double the height.

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Ghorghez’ summit in the clouds

Alex had a run-in with a rather large snake on the way down. I know because one minute I was powering ahead with my trusty bamboo cane, and the next he was racing past, raving about snakes and putting about as much distance as he could between the cliff and himself. ‘I don’t like snakes. No one likes snakes. There isn’t a culture in the works that likes snakes. There’s just some things that nobody likes. Donald Trump, snakes… Oh, it was more than a metre long, easily.’ Ladies and gentlemen, Indiana Jones. ‘We don’t even have any antidote’. True, when I was packing this morning, I didn’t really think about preparing for a snake attack. I was too busy filling up five water bottles.

Five. I’d like to emphasize that five. Ben’s clearly learned his lesson from last year’s Dana disaster (you can read about that here).

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The coolest overhang in geology (or possibly the Wall from Game of Thrones)

Not sure about the snakes, but the cicadas were absolutely massive. Blood-dripping-from-their-fangs massive, as my parents would put it.

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Who needs Pokémon Go? I found a Ninjask without my mobile, thank-you-very-much

Besides the creepy crawlies, the mountain was spectacular for wildlife. That’s probably my favourite thing about mountains: the wonderful creatures it brings you into contact with. Mountains are some of the last truly wild bastions on the earth. Especially for birds, and birds of prey in particular. For a city, Tetouan’s got its fair share of wildlife, namely the local kestrels and cattle egret colonies, as well as the flyover storks and kites, but if you want a really wild experience, you have to go out into the sticks. I watched a pair of booted eagles wheeling and diving and whistling overhead from the summit, as well as clocking a flyby peregrine, a couple of kestrels, a few buzzards, five or six kites, ten ravens and an Isengard-level swarm of choughs. Saruman the White couldn’t summon such a flock.

The scenery up at the top might have been taken from that very scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, strewn with jagged rocks and sparse bushes. But if Saruman was indeed watching our passage south, he must have tired of his vigil before long and gone for a coffee break because, as is the way with mountaineering, coming down was three times harder than going up.

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‘Let’s not throw ourselves to our deaths just yet.’

Finding our way up the mountain had been easy enough, since the next crest was always in sight. You’d think that the same might be said for the descent, but mountains are fickle. Not only do they play with sound, they also throw your perspective off frequently. More than once we followed the latest road/path/goat-track/dry river to its end only to find ourselves staring into abyss as it plunged fifty feet down over the edge of a cliff we’d never seen coming.

The resulting backtracking led us back into bramble country, which didn’t bother me and my long sleeves too much, but it ripped Alex’s exposed limbs to shreds. By the time we made it to open country again he looked as though he’d been mauled by a particularly savage beast. We couldn’t even use the wild boar we’d seen as an excuse, as it took off into the scrub as soon as it heard us coming. Nope, that’s just the bush at work.

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Ain Zarqa at the feet of the Great Pyramid and Saddle Mountain

Seven hours since setting out from Ain Bou Anane we found our way back down the mountain to the village of Wargane, completing the arc that had taken us around most of the Ghorghez ridge. I left my trusty bamboo cane at the side of the road (again) and Alex flagged down a cab to take us back to Tetouan. Three mountains in one. All in a day’s work.

Ghorghez is down. Mission accomplished. BB x

When ‘No’ is a Cultural/Moral Faux-Pas 

Of all the misadventures on this earth, I didn’t expect to wind up in the cardio ward of a general hospital during my stint in Morocco.

No, don’t worry. It’s not me. It’s the mother of my host family; there was an accident involving a police car and now she’s hospitalized. I’m just sitting here to show face, typing this up on the old iPad (and, if I might be so selfish, feeling very hungry). The entire family were here a couple of hours ago, but they’ve all filtered out and left one by one. It’s just the old guard, now. The old guard and me.

And of course, it’s Dārija on all sides. My posts from Jordan from last year imply that within two weeks I’d tuned unto 3mia. Not so with Dārija. It’s just too different a sound. Some of the words are the same but the accent is just too strong. I guess it’d be like studying the Queen’s English and then being exposed to Cajun. 

The trouble is, I was asked if I wanted to come along. I certainly could have stayed at home and got some more of that essay done, but what was I supposed to say? No, thank you, I’ve actually got a lot of work to do? How soulless is that?

But then, this is exactly how I’ve ended up in these scrapes before. I went to a funeral in Uganda once, for a family member of a former member of staff. We’d never met her, but one of my companions got it into her head that it would be kind of us to go along. That meant a five-hour drive out into deep country, far away from the English-speaking hub of Lira, to attend a lengthy service in a language none of us understood a word of for a woman none of us had ever met. That I spent the entire journey there and back wedged between the two fattest women in Africa didn’t help matters.

The trouble is, I guess, that I’m just very bad at saying no. I think a lot of Englishmen are. Maybe that’s why we have the word awkward and so many other languages don’t: we need it. What does that say about us as a nation? I’m just throwing ideas about here. Anything to take my mind off this Dārija.

Everyone’s off now, except the father, of course. One of the family took the car with them, which means I’m stuck here, I guess. Stuck in the general hospital with no power in my phone and a missing pen. For how long, I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The good news is that the mother seems to be recovering. Also, food has arrived in the form of biscuits and a Danone yoghurt drink. I’m even feeling a little guilty for venting like that back there, I guess that’s what hunger does to you. Thank goodness Ramadan’s over. In a while, crocodile. Let’s hope it’s not all night. BB x

Time Lords and Holy Water

Two seasons of Doctor Who in as many weeks. That’s getting dangerously close to an addiction. Fortunately, it was as much a memory run as it was a time-filler; the buck stops with the last of the Tennant episodes. For some reason I never got into the Matt Smith series. Maybe I grew up.

Yeah. Like that’s ever going to happen.

If my last post made it sound like Eid was one long endurance test in the kitchen, this one ought to shed some light on the matter. If the truth be told, I spent both Eid itself and the following day very much out and about, purposefully burning off any and all calories gained over the weekend. With all those sugary Ramadan sweets, I had plenty of energy to burn.

True to form, I messed up. The calories got burned, well and truly, but so did my back, my neck and my legs. Talk about splash damage. But when splash damage comes in the form of an entire day on the shores of the Mediterranean, who’s really complaining?

I confess, beach days are not really my idea of a day well spent, but for once it was nice just to kick back and relax by the sea, happy in the knowledge that last week’s conundrum was, finally, resolved.

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Spot the Italians (hint: it’s got something to do with the Sun)

The Dar Loughat team has exploded from six to eighteen over the last week. The result is that the gatherings have got louder, cheaper and perhaps a little less personal. And perhaps for that reason I’ve been pulling away a bit this week, loner that I am. Curiously enough, that led me to spend the day after Eid with the Host. I didn’t have much of an idea as to what, where or why. The father simply knocked on my door in the morning and asked if I was coming with them. He didn’t say where. But aren’t they the very best of plans: the one that you have no idea about?

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Hello Africa!

The destination, as it turned out, was Moulay Abdessalam, a holy site and place of pilgrimage for the Sufis of Morocco, sat high atop a mountain in the Bouhachem range. If I hadn’t twigged that I was in Africa yet, I certainly did when I saw the shrine. At the top of a flight of rock-cut steps, the shrine – a small white building with a green door cut into the side – seemed to grow out of the rock, sheltering a huge cork-oak sprouting from its centre. The floor, too holy for human feet, was nailed down with smooth cork-oak bark, and men walked to and fro across it barefoot, chanting and praying and bowing before the tree. It was mystical enough a spectacle, but add to that the swirling mists, sometimes thick enough to obscure everything ten metres away and more from sight, and it was almost otherworldly.

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Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

I suppose cameras aren’t particularly acceptable in such situations – I’m still stinging from that run-in with a couple of camera-fearing Chaouenis back in May – so I contented myself with a distant shot and resorted to sketching it instead, though how that is a less offensive practise than photography continues to escape me.

Continue up the mountainside a little way and you come to a telegraph mast, from which one of the locals willingly leads you to a metre-long fissure in the rock. According to local tradition, the rock is a test: those who can pass through the fissure will be blessed, and those who cannot will be cursed. Something like that, anyway. The words bendito and maldito were clear enough. As for the test itself, it revolves more around technique than skill: the nature of the fissure is such that there is a way to get through, though it requires keen observation and no small amount of manoeuvring.

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Claustrophobes beware

Yours truly made the cut in less than a minute. I put that down to a staunch refusal to grow fat on Moroccan cuisine than any skilful footwork on my part, though I have to say it seems a rather sexist challenge: I just about managed to squeeze through with the rocks grazing my back and chest. Any amount of gym, good eating or femininity and you’d have no hope in hell. I’m blessed, then – but at what cost, I wonder?

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Scarce Swallowtail – GOTCHA

We stopped on the way back to fill up on fresh water from for a sacred spring. To dispel any myths there, we were filling up industrial-sized plastic water bottles by the bootload, although I did suffer to drink straight from the well by means of a smoothed-out bark ‘cup’, as Moses and his followers might have done in the stories of old. Pretentious, much, but I was loving every second of it.

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How to drink, oldie-worldie style

We took a late lunch in the misty forests. I was in one of my strange, quiet moods and contented myself with watching the mists swirling through the trees. It was a pretty magical sight. This time last year I was dodging traffic, crawling into a hole with Henry Rider Haggard and steadily losing my mind in the dusty streets of 40ºC Amman. To think that at the same time of year I could be standing in a cold, misty forest with the wind in my hair and the sound of birdsong… It’s everything I wanted and more. Morocco, you’ve done me such wonders. Thank you.

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Africa, forest, mists, but no gorillas (there might be some macaques about, though)

Everybody’s heading out today; half for the mountains, half for the beach. As for me, I’ll be staying right here. Our Fes plans fell through due to illness, which isn’t so bad a thing, as I have a lot of work to do today. Essays – the bane of our lives. The sooner I’ve got some more of this work done, the sooner I can get back to enjoying my time out here. A target language research project is all well and good for assessing one’s advancement in a language, but it doesn’t half cast a shadow over your enjoyment of the year abroad. Just a thought, and not even mine, but one I adhere to. Katie certainly had the right idea there.

Well, three weeks remain. This time in three weeks I’ll be on a plane bound for Madrid, and then for home. But whilst it’s the end of the story for me, the story is just beginning for so many others (ugh, how crass a line is that). So, whilst you’re here, don’t forget to see how things are going on with fellow bloggers Alice Abroad and the dream-team at Langlesby Travels. Doesn’t everybody need a breath of fresh air from time to time? Blogging can seem a pretty solitary activity, but in actual fact it brings you so much closer to people by opening a window on a world you might never have seen before. It also keeps your writing muscles very well flexed. As an exercise, I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Which is odd, really, because I don’t go in for recommending exercise as a rule.

Until the next time, I’ll try to keep you posted as often as I can. The end is so near I can taste it, but I’m not about to lose sight of the goal with the final line in sight. Let’s smash these last three weeks, ya3ni. Positive attitude, that’s what it’s all about. That’s what it’s always about. BB x

Volver

‘What is he saying?’
‘It’s closed.’
‘Wakha. Fermé. No ferry.’
‘Closed? Why?’
‘I think he said there’s a strike… Huelga? Uh… grève? Est-ce qu’ils ne travaillent pas aujourd-hui?’
‘Ah! No lanchan ferry! Wakha, sadiqii, wakha!’
‘Pero, en serio Ben, tu te has enterado?’
‘A mí me gustaría mucho enterarme…’

You know what I was saying a couple of posts back about loving the multilingual melange that is Tangier? Well, I guess I got my comeuppance this afternoon. After a long shopping trip in the medina, loaded down with suitcases and food for the return journey, we hailed down a grand taxi for the harbour. But for the photography hiccup in Chaouen (and Booking.com refusing to refund me for a bungled payment), our four-day trip to Morocco had gone without a hitch.

So it’s only natural that the taxi driver would leave it until we got to the harbour to tell us that, due to exceptionally strong winds, the port was closed. This was swiftly backed up by both the police and the FRS office, as if we weren’t already doing a bad job of playing the trust card. If we wanted to get home, there was only really one viable option: we’d have to catch the big FRS ferry from Tanger Med near Ksar Es-Seghir, some forty kilometres up the coast.

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We should have seen this coming just looking out from the hotel, really…

That’s how I found myself still in the same taxi some twenty minutes later, rounding the bends of the twisting coast road for the port and trying to make one intelligible sentence out of the five-language jumble of our taxi driver. His Classical Arabic, French, Spanish and English were all perfectly reasonable, but his mixing-up of all four of them mid-sentence with his native Dārija made it nigh-on impossible to understand a word of what he was saying. Speaking four languages is one thing, but trying to make sense of them all at once is a step too far for me.

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So green – but how much longer will it last?

By some streak of luck we made it to the docks in time, and for a fair price, too; 180MAD for the car from Tangier, for the record, and not quite the 2500MAD that was his first offer (trumping even the villainous Oulad Berhil cabbie in greed). Predictably enough, we weren’t the only ones caught with our pants down by the closure of the Tangier port: at least two other boatloads turned up for the 14.00h, which was necessarily shunted back to 15.00h, and then 16.00h. Passport control was, for the once, the least of our concerns; a succession of connecting buses came and went, none of them bound for the FRS service. I don’t suppose I minded too much. I spent the last hour playing Peep-O and making silly faces at a little girl who seemed only too pleased at the diversion. By the time the FRS shuttle pulled in it was coming on to five minutes to four and tempers were running short. Mufasa would have been all too familiar with the stampede that followed.

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God, I’m so evil

Despite repeated warnings from the bridge, I spent almost the entire journey out on deck in the hopes of seeing a shearwater (I’d seen a few dusky shapes in the gloom on the way out, but I needed to be sure). The Strait is also a very good place to look for whales and dolphins, so I had an eye out for them, too… whenever it wasn’t shut tight in a wince in the game-force winds, that is. The sea was choppier than I’ve ever seen it, making whale-watching a no-go and rendering photography difficult. At its worst, the ferry was tilting at a twenty-five degree angle from side to side, giving spectacular views down the deck into the ocean or the open sky at any given moment.

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Not the healthiest angle for a ferry

A sensible mind would have given up the ghost and retreated. But I’m not all that sensible, and I was rewarded for my obstinacy just short of the bay of Gibraltar by a single, chocolate-coloured seabird gliding effortlessly between the waves and a far-off but recognisable vertical jet of steam. Stubbornness has its rewards.

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The Bay of Gibraltar (plus very distant shearwaters)

Let’s just take a step back for a moment. This is now the third extracurricular adventure I’ve had with my colleagues, following Andorra and the Romanian exchange. Before Meléndez Valdés I’d never imagined life as a teacher to be anything like this. I’m completely and utterly sold on this way of life. This is my life, opening up before me: traveling Extremadura as a qualified English teacher until I have enough experience under my belt to settle for good. The oposiciones sound tough, but my colleagues here are encouraging me to come back and go for it, which makes it all the more worthwhile. Spain, you just keep winning me over. How I love you with all of my heart and more…

It’s coming up to ten o’clock, Spanish time. The sun set an hour or so ago. Eight o’clock start tomorrow morning. Ive had worse. On the whole it’s been a very good weekend, and my appetite for the summer is more than whetted. Only next time, I think I’ll catch the plane. BB x

Polo’s Bastards

With my summer plans in a near-constant state of flux, I thought it about time to set a few things straight. This time last year I still wasn’t sure what I’d be doing for the summer of 2016. By all rights, I figured I was still lumped with another two months in Jordan. Since then, it’s bottled about through three weeks in South Africa, chilling out at Olvera’s August feria, hiking the Sultan’s trail from Bucharest to Istanbul, crossing the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, ten days in Romania, another ten in Egypt and, somewhere, completing my four month minimum in Tetouan, Morocco.

Understandably, my brain is a bit of a clusterfuck at the moment. It’s partly because of that that I accidentally booked a hotel for the wrong night in Chefchaouen and had to pay an obscene 95€ just to cancel, it being less than fifteen days until our visit now. (This is why I prefer to stay in cheap-o hostels, people…) And it’s unnecessary expenses like that that make me reconsider.

So this is me, reconsidering. Let this exploration of yours truly’s very own version of Polo’s Bastards stand testament to any further meanderings. The following ten countries, in ascending order, are the top ten on my hit-list. And they aren’t exactly the easiest. (Spain, for various reasons, is not included – call me easily pleased, but it’d invariably take the top spot).

Southern Morocco

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Tafraoute, Morocco

This one’s on the list despite the fact that I’ve already been because I was only there for five days or so, and it’s worth an adventure in its own right. Morocco’s south is famous for the Sahara, for Erg Chebbi and the reasonably easily-accessible camel treks that set out into the dunes from Merzouga. Morocco is such a diverse country, and merits proper exploration of each of its three zones – the Rif, the High Atlas and the Anti-Atlas – independently. It’s the south that bowled me over, not least of all Taroudant, by far the most charming city I encountered when I trekked from Agadir to Fes. It’s also the home of Abderraman Rajji, the kind old Berber who offered his house to Archie and I. Tafraoute in particular has been calling out to me ever since. The way things are going, I might even consider exploring the south some more in September…

Yemen

The Republic of Yemen

Jebel Shugruf, Yemen

You’re mad. No, seriously, you’re insane. But Yemen has been my top Arabic destination since the very get-go, being one of the contenders for both Sheba and the most beautiful country in the world in my books (it may or may not have something to do with having so much in common with the country in the top spot on my list). Since it’s been a war-zone for so very long and many parts are still tribal – the two may or may not go hand in hand – much of the country has been spared the glass-and-cement arm that has scarred so much of the Gulf. Not to mention the gorgeous, Ali Baba-esque mountaintop towns. Wallahi.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Mount Nyiragongo  tourism destinations

Mount Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of Congo

I’ve been within a stone’s throw of the DRC twice. On both occasions I had this mad urge to throw caution to the wind and cross the border. Fortunately, a crocodile-infested river stopped me the first time and a hundred miles of unchecked jungle stopped me the second. Needless to say, my appetite is whetted. This is the true African stereotype, Conrad’s dark zone, peppered with active volcanoes glowing red in the night – and at the risk of further destroying any faith you had in my sanity, it’s the danger of the place that attracts me so. Doesn’t the name alone sound so powerful?

Argentina

7

Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

A curiously mainstream addition to the list, I’ve had just about enough of seeing the same mountain range on the front of Lonely Planet, National Geographic and Wanderlust magazine – and have therefore decided that it must feature on this list. Patagonia looks so very crumpled and torn apart that it’s almost unnatural. I’ve been in love with mountains my whole life, and Argentina’ Tierra del Fuego represents possibly one of the most perfect mountain ranges in the world, picture-perfect in every way. And hey – they speak Spanish!

Egypt

6

Abu Simbel, Egypt

Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to see the Pyramids? Or the Sphinx? Or the Valley of the Kings? Egypt was my fall-back for Arabic until the Arab Spring ruined everything… now it’s been relegated to the dust of lost dreams, which is rather fitting, though it’s resurfaced from the sand of late in light of the summer flux. My only issue with Egypt is the package-y nature of it. If I could go, I’d rather backpack it – and that is the first leg of Cairo to Cape Town. That really would be an adventure and a half!

India

5

Mehrangarh Fort, Rajasthan

One word: Rajasthan. Land of desert forts, of rose sunsets, of dark-eyed mysteries. It’s the realm of the Far Pavilions‘ Bhithor (I think) and of Valmik Thapar’s Desert Kingdoms episode of Land of the Tiger. Southeast Asia may be the flavour of the month for most backpackers, but I’d eschew the Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam trail for a month in Rajasthan alone anyday. India’s so massive and so diverse that you’d need more than three months to fully appreciate the place. And some day, I intend to do just that.

Ireland

4

Murder Hole, Donegal

I have absolutely no idea why or how County Donegal made it onto this list. One day it simply seized my brain and became the country of origin of my princess. I guess it all spun out from there; that, and that damned gorgeous accent they have up there in Ulster. Ireland’s a damned sight closer than any of the countries on this list (and is also, consequentially, the only European entry), but the only thing holding me back is the expense of traveling around; a fair hike compared to the others. Even so, I doubt it’ll be long before I’m drawn out to the Emerald Isle.

Cameroon

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Rhumsiki, Cameroon

As well as my madcap desires concerning Cairo to Cape Town, I have this less ambitious but no less adventurous urge to visit each of Africa’s four corners: North, South, East and West. Having seen central Africa already, I’m chomping at the bit to see the rest of it. It’s first on the list of countries I’d consider volunteering in, since I reckon it would really merit getting to know on a more human basis than backpacking could ever provide. It also has a serious bushmeat trade problem that I feel strongly about. On top of that, Cameroon has all that I love about Africa: fantastic food, spectacular countryside, great apes and a dark history. It’s also a necessary stopping point since one of my novels takes place here. Let’s just call it ‘essential research’.

South Africa

3

The Drakensberg, Kwa-Zulu Natal

Words cannot describe my love for this country that I’ve never been to. I’ve waxed lyrical enough about the land of Quatermain, of P.K., my ex-girlfriend and the Zulus before, so I won’t go on about it. What I will say is that I came with a hair’s breadth of going this year, barred only because my bank wouldn’t let me pay for both my flights and my brother’s in one go. Taking it as a message from above, I backed down. But only for a run-up. I’m not even close to the door yet.

Ethiopia

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Gelada Baboon in the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Truly, Ethopia must be the King of Africa. It’s Africa with castles, with Gods-in-the-flesh and sulphur fields. The people are – in my humble opinion – probably the most beautiful in the whole world, being a striking blend of Arab and African. I had a three-hour layover in Addis en route to Uganda four years ago and I guess it started there – there, or a few hours before, when our plane came down out of the clouds and I saw Africa for the very first time, a paradise of rolling plains that gave way to spectacular waterfalls and blood-red cliffs. The Simien Mountains also top the list for me in terms of beautiful mountain ranges… and I haven’t even got onto Harar’s hyena-men. Then there’s Erta Ale, Gondar, Addis Ababa herself, the Omo Valley… Ethiopia simply has everything – and less tourists than the other African giants. Perfection. All I’m waiting for here is another like-minded adventurer to join me and I’m there. Just you wait, Ethiopia. Just you wait.

There. When you’re struggling for an idea as to where to go next in a couple of weeks, or months, or a year, return here. These are my top ten. And one day, come Hell or high water, I’ll have seen them all. BB x

A Dearth of Music

I have to confess, the absence of YouTube in my life is doing me wonders. But it comes with a cost: the main reason I use it, for browsing music old and new, is sorely missed. Villafranca de los Barros is supposedly the ‘City of Music’. In all honesty, you’ll find more music variety in Lloyds’ Durham on a Wednesday night.

Ever since the sequence of events in February 2015 that saw my iPod disappear and reappear a month later, my laptop give out and the arrival of this highly portable but sadly much-desiring Chromebook – which is too feeble to support either my music library or even an iTunes account in the first place – my iPod’s music selection has been stuck on the stuff I had loaded onto it from January this year. All the music I’ve discovered since, from the Moroccan beach-town hostels to my music-concert escapades in Jordan, has to be consigned to memory instead. Which is fine, but as music is such an important part of my life, it’s a little tragic. I’m not umbilically attached to my iPod by any means, but on Mondays and Wednesdays when I’m faced with an hour of mutinous six-year old Spaniards, it really is an essential piece of my arsenal to go in armed with at least five minutes’ listening to my Africa playlist, or my Super-Hyper-Motivator playlist, or what-have-you. It keeps me smiling. It’s like a more short-range and portable form of meditation.

But I’m limited to what I knew in January 2015 – which is obviously the bulk of my music, that’s a given, but music’s a transitive thing; more often than not, it’s the more recent tunes that I want in my ears, and not the old classics – though they surprise me anew and anon with Shuffle on. The Rite of Spring came up this morning and I listened to the whole thing from start to finish for the first time in a while. I’d quite forgotten how masterful the whole thing is – personal prejudice from growing up with Fantasia aside.

But it’s not just the listening I miss. It’s the performing. Bowing to the occasional whims of my students as a performing monkey isn’t the same. I miss singing and I miss the stage. Teaching is always on a kind of stage with all the spotlights on you, and so’s the dancing I tend to go in for, but it’s not the same. And that’s where my personal vendetta against ukuleles and guitarists comes in. You guys have it far too easy, and open mics are the ultimate test of proof. Unaccompanied singing just doesn’t work. I’m a singer before anything else (we’ll forget that I wandered away from Grade Six violin several years ago for now) but singing alone is more of a shower affair than a stand-up thing. Armed with a uke in hand or a guitar across your lap, you’re good to go. Me, I just feel like a fish out of water without the backing of a band or a chorus.

As such, I’ve only ever done one open mic. Shake Your Tailfeather a cappella. Never again.

There’s a Christmas concert coming up in a couple of weeks (in November… go figure) for which the music teacher and a small group of girls have asked me to help conduct/choreograph All I Want for Christmas Is You… Predictable, much. It’s the best I’m going to get for a while so I’m throwing myself into it, naturally, but just you wait until the bilingual schools’ intercambio here in February, for which we’re supposed to put on a show. I’ll be pulling out all the stops with some classics then, for sure. The only question is, do I go with Northern Lights or do I throw them some easier African numbers? Either way, I win. And either way, I’m going to end up tear-stained, as I dearly miss both my old gang and the feeling I used to get in every African Singing and Drumming performance. Jimminy Christmas, but I miss having music in my life. It’s the only killer of living in Spain. They’re big on their reggaeton, and of course there’s flamenco, but they just don’t get music in the same way. Or maybe that’s just me growing up in a family where both my parents were music teachers, and thus spending almost all twenty-two years of my life involved in one way or another in choirs, bands, musicals and orchestras of all descriptions.

On a positive note I’ve just been paid by one of my two jobs, which is a welcome relief in a time when the rest of the world (myself including) is still waiting on the all-important paycheck from the Ministry of Education, which may or may not be with us in arrears until Christmas, or so the horror stories go. I’m currently dreaming of where to go with both the time and money next August, as I’m not used to having both at the same time. Having the latter at all is a novelty, but together with time is a very new thing for me. The painful memories of the longest gap year with no job, no desire to obtain one and consequently barely a penny to my name are still vivid in my mind.

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Hooked on Africa

I’m currently hooked on the idea of backpacking in South Africa, which I’ve been toying with on-and-off for years. The first girl I ever dated was half-Afrikaner, which I suppose is where the obsession began in earnest, but it’s the music that’s the real draw. My mum and dad are of the opinion that I would be better served waiting for the Soweto Gospel Choir to tour a little closer to home if it’s the music I’m after, but I don’t see it that way. I miss the joy of the open road, the terror of nor knowing where I’m going to end up, the awkward encounters and the divine, and the host of colourful characters you meet along the way. In short, I miss a decent bit of travelling. All I have to do before August 2016 is to find somebody bonkers enough to want to come with. Not that I wouldn’t go alone, but it’d be a lot more fun with a friend. If you’re reading, dear companions, give it some thought!

I’ll leave you with the latest pox upon my heart, which is (of course) a Soweto number. I tell you, if it weren’t for my job, my degree and a certain gaditana, I’d up sticks right away and go straight to South Africa every time I hear this. Yours truly really is a bleeding heart, and if I’m not careful, it’ll be more than just my heart bleeding one day. BB x