Hesperornis

At around eight o’clock in the morning, the sun isn’t quite all the way up yet and the beaches around Arenal d’en Castell are, for the most part, empty of swimmers. A few Speedo-wearing junkies hug the shoreline, and the running girl is back on the boardwalk as she was yesterday, same time, same place. Other than that, the beach is empty – except for one unexpected bather out for a morning swim.

The Mediterranean Shag – perhaps more appropriately dubbed in Spanish as the tufted cormorant – is a diving bird that one normally associates with the rugged cliffs and seabird colonies of the north. The last time I saw these odd-looking snake-necked seabirds I was standing atop the windswept cliffs of Inner Farne, where the birds had built their messy nests mere inches from the footpath. The Farne Islands are magical in their own right with their denizens so fearless and so close at hand, so I suppose I assumed the Farne birds to be a braver sort. In most other parts of the world, birds (and other animals for that matter) know well enough to steer clear of the capricious hand of man. The Great Auk didn’t – and is consequently no longer with us.

Before the tourism industry boomed in the Mediterranean, sea turtles and monk seals swam into the sandy coves to give birth and plovers nested on the shorelines. The human demand for a place in the sun has pushed many of these creatures to local extinction – the Mediterranean monk seal is now one of the rarest mammals on the planet – but some species have decided the only way to cope with the summer surge of noisy humanity is to simply go about their business as though nothing had changed. The shags of Arenal d’en Castell do not appear to mind the presence of their human neighbours in the slightest. The waters of the bay are still teeming with fish, and for this master fisherman, the presence of a few hardy toe-dippers is no obstacle to a morning’s hunting.

There are at least three shags in the bay, not counting those that haunt the rocky cliffs of the headland to the northeast. Like many “urban” animals, they lack the lustre of their wild counterparts. The shining bottle-green feathers of the Farne birds are absent here: Phalacrocorax aristotelis desmarestii dons a more humble suit, with a touch of the sandy-grey “pardel” colour that flecks the coats of all Spain’s beasts, from its mice and rabbits to its bears and wolves.

Or at least, this bunch of townies do.

They really are masterful swimmers. This youngster did an entire length of the bay in a matter of minutes, displaying incredible agility as it darted through the shallows, oftentimes passing within a few feet of the day’s first paddlers, and avoiding what obstacles it encountered with incredible dexterity – with one exception. Perhaps age will bring wisdom.

Every once in a while, nature, that ancient mechanic, finds a form it likes and seems to say to itself ‘yes, that’ll do – no need for further adjustments’. Sharks and sponges and jellyfish have filled an ecological niche since time immemorial, and there is much in the shag that harks back to some of the earliest birds, not least of all the fearsome Hesperornis, a seagoing avian dinosaur with sharp teeth on its beak. There are no teeth on its descendant, but as it floats along the surface of the water, snorkelling often and propelling itself along by its back legs, it seems an ancient creature; and when it finds what it was looking for, it kicks with its powerful legs and dives. And if it looked a capable swimmer on the surface, that is nothing compared to what it can achieve below the waves.

Would that I had an underwater camera and could show you just what I mean! Swimming around the headland this afternoon, I ran into the bird again, paddling only a few metres away without a care in the world. When it dived, I went under and followed it on its underwater hunt. Such speed! The bird moves like a torpedo through the water, powering ahead with powerful kicks of its bright yellow feet. I could only keep up for as long as it allowed; when it had enough of the lumbering tag-along, it kicked harder and took off through the depths. Were the sea calmer I might have watched it go, but the high winds stirred up the sand on the seabed and within seconds it disappeared into the gloom.

It’s moments like this that I wake up for. The flycatchers hawking around the climbing frame in the garden. The hummingbird hawkmoth that visits the hedge every day, the turtle doves that purr from the Aleppo pines, and the blue rock thrushes that warble from the cliffs of every rocky cove – and all of this within five minutes of the flat. Menorca is wild and, for the nature lover for whom a casual swim is simply not enough, it is a truly beautiful place to explore.

The high winds of the last few days are finally on the wane; the waves are not crashing upon the headland as they were this morning. Tomorrow I make for Fornells to explore the reefs on the northernmost cape of the island. I hear there are moray eels to be seen, though I should consider myself more fortunate if I should have the chance to swim with the shags once again. It was a real RSPB moment, up there with the vultures in the mist and the saltpan harrier, and I shall treasure it for years to come. BB x

Entitlement

I didn’t make it to Spain.

My bags were packed. I had my lightweight hiking clothes laundered and folded and neatly placed at the top of my rucksack. My flights were booked, hold luggage inclusive, my tent rolled up and my roll-mat tucked in along the side. I’d even learned a couple of lessons from last time, and I had stocked up on plenty of mosquito repellent, sunscreen and up-to-date maps. In short, I was readier than I’ve ever been before. But I still didn’t make it to Spain.

In the end, budgeting was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Five weeks ago, when I’d bought myself a decent tent at last and was eager to put it through its paces, it seemed perfectly logical to book a return flight to Spain and see what happened. I had a tent, so this time I could camp out in the wild for free and have a cheap trip. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in fact, so much. The more digging I did, the more dangerous a notion it became. Wild camping is a legal grey area – that much is certain – but as the economic situation worsens, those countries hardest hit hit harder. Where there is money to be made, the freebooter and the vagrant are unwelcome. Whilst a local farmer may take no issue to you setting up a tent on the edge of his property, a passing local just might – for a quick buck. For a simple denuncio, one might expect to receive a small cut of the fine meted out by the police which, depending on the whims of the officer in charge, can be hefty. I’ve heard of cases of campers fined up to 600€, which is a good 590€ more than what you might pay in a campsite, if you can find one. If Spain didn’t still cling on to such legacies of the Franco era, it might not be so risky a venture. But as it stands, when a local shepherd stands to make more money by turning you in to the police than in an entire week’s work, it gives him little incentive not to do so.

My girlfriend’s mother passed onto me a keen insight on my last visit: we see a lot less danger when we’re younger. At eighteen, it didn’t occur to me that by setting up camp in the middle of the woods on the slopes of the Guadarrama I might be putting myself at the mercy, not of hungry wolves, but of hungrier shepherds. I just did it and moved on. Now that I’m older and wiser – and more wary – I find myself second-guessing a little more.

It’s just a damned shame that Spain does not have as many campsites as England does. Northumberland, for example, has over a hundred campsites. Extremadura, which is more than eight times the size of Northumberland, has twenty-two, with twelve of them concentrated in one mountain range in the north. Perhaps the Spaniards don’t enjoy camping as much as the English do, but they’re missing a trick. Spain is absolutely stunning, with scenery – in the very biased opinion of this author – second to no other country in Europe. Without campsites, or the option to wild camp, they’re missing out on the chance to reconnect with their supreme natural beauty.

When you can put a name to something you see, it means so much more to you. Your friends matter because you know them by name, just as the pupils whose names you recall stand out in your mind. Neglect to know the world around you and it will never mean as much to you as it will to the naturalist, the tracker or the mountaineer. It’s a natural connection we sorely need as tech takes over the world. Going camping offers that connection to the next generation. Or at least, so I believe.

Part of the reason I so hastily splashed out on flights to Spain which I now can’t make or change without incurring heavy surcharges (thanks a bunch, Easyjet) was a disgusting feeling of entitlement that I just couldn’t shake. Having been up to the Edinburgh Fringe for one last, loud fling with the Lights, I needed to get out. To be myself. To travel. Isn’t that what everybody else does in the summer? Instagram certainly seems to say so, as does Facebook. You can hardly move for photos of Cuba, Malaysia, New York City, the French Riviera, German markets, Polish cafés, Incan ruins and Thai elephant baths. It’s a storm of what-a-wonderful-time-I’m-havings and wish-you-were-heres that build and build until you ask yourself why you aren’t out there seeing the world. A FOMO more potent than any shot, and one that, like a bad drink, leaves a bitter aftertaste. Sooner or later, the travel bug gets to be like any other addiction, and after mowing through the next barrage of Phnom Penh sunrises and Carribean bikini lines you get itchy feet. I want to be there. I want to see that. What about me?

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It’s not the Inca trail, but it’s still bloody gorgeous

Let’s not kid ourselves. Travel is not for everyone. It’s just not. It can be done on the cheap, but it’s never free. Time is money, and if you’re not spending one, you’re spending the other, which means you can afford to spend it. Now that’s a privilege few of us have.

It isn’t often that I feel bitter about the affluence of the world around me, but it’s at times like this that I realise with a nasty jolt that it’s nothing short of madness to expect the same luxuries as one’s contemporaries. Life would be an awful lot easier if we stuck to telling people face-to-face about our adventures rather than bombarding them with photos twenty-four seven, and even then, do we have to yell? The blogger in me says yes. The writer in me isn’t so sure. I’m just a student fresh out of university with a modest job already on the cards, and that’s a luxury I can’t overstate highly enough. It’ll be many, many years before I can afford annual transatlantic summer holidays, and by the time I can, I don’t suppose I’ll want to.

Fringe, I accept, was my holiday. It was expensive, more than any holiday I’ve ever had, and I was a fool to think I could afford another, summer job or no summer job. In the end I was saved by the budget and, more poignantly still, saved by the bell. A couple of friends of mine are getting married in a couple of weeks, and it’s because of them that I had to return from Extremadura before flying back out again. The folly of making two trips to the same place became apparent only once I’d decided not to go.

I still have my dreams. I still dream of South Africa. But I can wait, until such a time as I have the time, the money and the maturity to go and to really make the most of it. For the time being, I’m going to focus on the humbler side of life. I have plenty of books to read and lessons to plan. I, too, am privileged to be where I am and how I am, and I should be grateful for that. Autumn is here, and autumn is always such a beautiful time of year in England. I should be making the most of it. BB x

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Sloth Break

My time at university finished almost a week ago, now. In light of the rather hectic run-up to graduation, and the even more hectic month yet to come, I unashamedly spent the last three days in total idleness. After a year of trying (and mostly failing) to squeeze productivity out of every spare minute, I squandered the first few days of summer and am now fully recharged. It’s that time of year again when I rediscover my inflexibility, when I yearn for a bike and reconsider another shortlived exercise regime whilst the sun still shines, before I accept my fate and return to the world I know best: reading, writing and procrastinating, none of which require the ability to touch one’s toes or do a one-leg squat.

It’s a beautiful summer’s day here in Sussex. There’s a pastel dusting of white cloud in the blue, but otherwise it’s a rare blue sky overhead. I lay down in the garden and almost immediately I spotted the far-off shape of a buzzard circling lazily towards the south. I might have missed it if I hadn’t chosen to look up at that moment. Life is full of instances like that. I wonder how many such creatures simply go by unnoticed every day? It must be in the millions.

I’m currently absorbed in the annoying process of filling out the usual admin tide for next year’s job. Frustrating, but more tedious than rage-inducing like it was the first time. If anything ever puts me off teaching, it just might be all the paperwork involved – though I appreciate that, as professions go, it’s probably a generous one.

Whilst I have the time to be idle, I’m finally making a dent in the large pile of books I’ve accrued over the year, starting with Aimee Liu’s Cloud Mountain, a fantastic find in a tiny old bookshop in Edinburgh that had me hooked from the comparison on the jacket to M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions, to this date still my favourite book of all time. If I can learn to write a novel of such brilliance, I’ll know I’ve made it as an author.

Work begins in a week’s time. If it’s anything like it was three years ago, I’ll be up to my ears for a full fortnight. Busy, however, is the best thing to be. It should be said, five days down the line,  that I certainly prefer the idea of free time than the reality of free time itself. BB x

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

Tetouani Wanderings

It’s another regular Saturday in Tetouan. I’m chilling on the roof of Alex’s hotel doing sweet F.A. in the afternoon sun with a book and a blog and a map for tomorrow’s hike. Today’s a day for doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it. The others went to Chauen en masse. The Alegría music festival is on and they went to check it out, though I don’t half wonder whether they spent most of the day admiring the town itself. Apparently it’s shot from obscurity to one of Africa’s most visited municipalities over the last five years. Oh, to have visited it before the boom…

Tetouan’s Hotel Reducto has some simply gorgeous rooms…


I’ll keep today’s post short. Just a few observations I’ve made over the course of the day in elaborated bullet form. That ought to keep the ideas concise.

  • The wind governs life in Tetouan. Seriously, it exercises a power greater than the beloved King himself. When the Levante is blowing, and it almost always is, the world slows down. People sit out the sun and the maddening wind. The minute the wind changes, the city is suddenly full of joggers and movement. I’m serious about the joggers. That one afternoon when it rained back in June, every other man in town was out running.
  • Tetouan’s a great place to be in summer, even during Ramadan, but this place must simply shut down in winter. With the King out of town, and no tourists, and precious little commerce, not to mention the total absence of desire for the beach… why, it must be like Durham in summer. Or Mérida in winter, perhaps.
  • The Turkish First Army staged a failed coup in the early hours of the morning. Erdogan crushed it. It may not look like it, but the world is chomping at the bit for a war. All these proxy wars, migrant crises and terrorist attacks are the signs of a world that’s been held back from all-out war for too long. Globalization and the atom bomb might have saved us from further conflict, but it’s been over seventy years now since the last global war: seventy years removed from something that has been our oldest and most persistent tradition as a race. There’s a slow creeping back towards the far right across Europe. Britain has severed its ties with the European Union. Trump is within a few months’ reach of being allowed a shot at the nuclear codes. And all the while the terrorist strikes are increasing, striking randomly at civilians the world over like sharks biting at a whale. The centre cannot hold. It’s only a matter of time.
  • Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm… and yet, I have absolutely zero interest in getting in on this fad. And that’s despite being a PokéNut until I was twenty-one at least. I caught them all, all 720 of them – twice – and I must have spent several months’ worth of my life staring gormlessly at those little pixelated monsters along the way. I was just playing at David Attenborough, I guess. Pokemon was perfectly suited to a budding, obsessive, studious little naturalist like me. It’s less that I’ve grown out of it now so much as reading and the novel have taken its place. A well-deserved revenge, perhaps, since they were both ousted for hours of Pokébore when I was ten. No, I’ve already got a world of my own to jump in and out of, and it requires no technology whatsoever, thank you very much.
  • The girl behind the counter in the stationary shop is kinda cute. Buying a couple of 2B pencils and a pen turned into a scene out of one of my novels where I wound up talking to this lady through the glass as we picked out the right kind of pen. That was also a lot of eye contact for a little transaction (I tend to get to know the stationary shop staff far better than the people who work in cafes or restaurants. Hey, I have an insatiable appetite for a certain kind of pen and a certain kind of notebook, alright?). I do wonder, though… If I don’t find Her on the road, or in a park or concert or wherever, I might just end up finding Her in a bookshop. There’d be a kind of divine justice in that.

That’s all for today. Early start tomorrow. After weeks of staring up at those peaks, Alex and I are finally going to tackle Mount Ghorghez. And none too soon; another two weeks from now and I’ll be back in England and all of this will be a thing of the past. Fa3lan, time is running out… BB x

Lose Some, Winsome

I’ll pick up from right where we left off two posts ago with the dissertation.

I didn’t get it.

I should have seen it coming, I suppose. 2016 has been a bit like my last Maths exam: full of wrong answers. It’s been an odd year. A very odd year. A year where Donald Trump actually became first a viable and then the only Republican candidate for the US presidency. A year that saw 51% of Britain actually give in to race hate and fear-mongering and leave the EU. A year that brought us a Pokémon-inspired traffic jam, Boris Johnson elected as Foreign Minister, and the deaths of Prince, David Bowie and Alan Rickman. And now, just to top it all off, I’ve been thrown back onto my second choice dissertation.

In perspective, mine is a very minor problem. It still smarts, though.

Granted, radically changing my modules at the last minute may not have helped matters. But after all of the hard work I put into chiseling out a wholly original dissertation topic (not so easy, when Google contains the abstracts of almost every dissertation imaginable), I’ve been thrown back on my second. Small mercies, then, that I put just as much time and effort into making my fallback as enjoyable and challenging as the first.

Oh wait, hold the phone. I’ve done a real Benjamín here. It turns out I played an old hand this time around, one that’s never failed me before: that is, I deliberately made my second module broader, a little less original and closely linked to my TLRP, so that my university would be forced into giving me my first choice. The old ‘Second-best’ maneuver.

It’s a good trick, and it’s worked before. Only, this time I was outmaneuvered. And now I’ve been put into such a position that, if I stick to my original title, it would be almost impossible not to plagiarize myself. That’s without mentioning that the dissertation I intended to write (my first choice: memories of al-Andalus in Spanish literature) was the one I’d been planning on writing since I was in Year 10 in secondary school (I was an odd kid). It’s essentially research for my novel, the best there could have been. Gone. So that’s a six-year dream squashed underfoot. And no room for maneuver either, since they’re fixed now, and also as somebody else got the al-Andalus dissertation this year. Not so winsome now.

What a diss-aster. Thanks a lot Durham. Thanks.

On the bright side, my dissertation supervisor is possibly my favourite lecturer, so I can’t really complain. I’ll just have to swallow my six-year pride and do the best with what I’ve got. And what I’ve got is still good. Very good. Only, it looks to be a little bit harder to spin twelve thousand words of this one. Without plagiarizing myself, preferably. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

To commiserate, we went to the Med this afternoon to soak it all off in the sun. Katie has plenty to say about her equally unfair diss-missal, but the sun and the sea saw to our anger, and a couple of rounds of Psychiatrist killed any bad feeling remaining. I’ve come to love my Dar Loughat droogs as much as I did my Ali Baba babes if not more, which is a tough task. Balancing the time between them and the host family remains a tightrope walk, and one of these days I’ll have a bad fall if I’m not careful, but for now, the peace lasts.

But that’s it for today. I’m back in bed, I’m recharged on data (5€ for 5GB is a stupidly good deal) and I’m ready and waiting for the rest of the misadventures 2016 has in store for me. Global financial meltdown? World War Three? Another friend-zoning-of-the-century? All equally possible.

Here’s to another hike this weekend. The way things are going, hiking is probably the most hassle-free activity left to me.

But then again, this is me we’re talking about. Who knows what madness I’ll get up to next? BB x

Don Quijote soup – when the rim is larger than the meal itself

A Question of Appetite

The fifth week in Tetouan is drawing to a close. Eid has come and gone and Ramadan is over. The streets are full of smiles again and I have my own key. Dobby is free. I really should have done some more posting over the last week, as I’ve been pretty busy – but there’s your reason. It’s been a rather non-stop five or six days, both in and out of class. When I haven’t been in class or tempering my Arabic skills with the Host, I’ve been wining and dining with the massively-engorged Dar Loughat student body, burning several shades of red at Cabo Negro and frittering away four gigabytes of mobile date on Doctor Who, not to mention putting a great deal of thought aside for my Target Language Research Project on Spanish banditry legends and, in the not-quite-so-long term, my dissertation – to be confirmed in a couple of weeks, if the rumours are true. The end of the Year Abroad might be drawing near, but the pressure’s not about to be released. Not yet, anyway.

The biggest headache of the last week – and probably the biggest reason for the lack of posting – will become clear in a few months’ time. All I’ll say is that it was a very difficult choice to make, and that Cortés, Tariq Ibn Ziyad and Alexander the Great would all understand.

Breakfast this morning was standard fare. Mint tea with not too much sugar, honeyed r’ghiif (Moroccan pancake) and another ticking off from the Host, who can’t get their heads around why I never ask for things.

Ben, you never change. You are always quiet. If you want something, you must ask. You never ask. When Alex was here… etc etc.

I’d love to use the excuse that I’m English and that I’d rather die of shame than ask for something, but the previous student who stayed here was also English, and by the sounds of things even more reclusive than I am, so that’s not going to work (I was also a little irked that they’d gone back to comparing me to him, which they used to do all the time a while back. I really tired of it). My reasoning was that I simply eat and drink what I need; anything else is just extra.

If you want something from the kitchen, take it.
I did, though.
What did you take?
Water. Delicious, cold water.
You have a choice. Anything you want, if you are hungry. What would you do at home?
The same. Cold water.
Just water?
Seriously, though. I love water.

There’s a cultural divide there, especially when it comes to food. Not a divide, a fissure.

This year has taught me that, for all the wonderful creations of my housemates last year, food will always be for me a means to an end and not an art. I need what little I can to get by and no more. Morocco, like Uganda before it, seems to have no understanding for the concept of a small appetite. Can you blame them, when the Arabic language itself has no distinction between vegan and vegetarian? Fortunately I am neither, which makes traveling and flitting between cultures infinitely easier, but it doesn’t negate the fact that I’m in a world where the concept of an appetite is a thing of myth. I’ve lost count of the number of times where I’ve eaten so much that my ribcage felt like it might just burst. Lailat al-Qadr – last Saturday night, and one of the holiest nights of the Islamic calendar – has become a byword in the family for disaster, as I had to wade through two iftars and three dinners, consisting of all of the usual delights, but on a much larger scale.

But Ramadan is over. No more rushing home at irregular hours for that 7:41pm iftar every night. No more six o’clock fights in the streets. No more guilty fast-breaking in Reducto. The wait is over and the smiles have returned. Oh, and no more excuses for my TLRP. It’s do-or-die time. BB x