Monday, April 6, 2015

The river is flowing, flowing and growing.

Lucha Britannia
I'm yelling and you're yelling and large men in spandex are flying through the air.

The East London crowd surges forward and a man in a mohawk wins beer for looking like a small Viking. Lucha Britannia showed me a good night, even when I was supposed to be packing to run away with the Faeries.

I stuff things into my camping pack, and fall into bed for a few hours. The Megabus to Newcastle leaves in the wee morning, and I'm surrounded by Scottish women offering me various tea biscuits.

Not bad for twelve quid.

In the thick trunk of England, my bus caterpillars towards the North. Before it all becomes Scotland, pastures and sheep uncoil for 6.5 hours.

In Newcastle, I wander along the Tyne river with a coffee until it's time to ride into the sunset towards Haltwhistle. The towns are named things like Angel of the North, Quaking Houses, Folly, Heddon on the Wall.

We bump down country roads so narrow that each time we encounter anything going the other way, the bus slows to a scraping crawl.

The town of Haltwhistle claims to be the geographic center of England if you balance it all on a pin.

I'm dubious, but dusk falls, a faerie car yoohoos at me, and I'm whisked off by Sprouty to Featherstone Castle right before dinner is served that night.

Front door of our home for the week!
I'd traveled more than 300 miles that day, but as soon as I walked into the castle, I knew it had been worth it. The organising faeries had arrived two days before, and all is sparkles, candles, and blankets.

I'd only met the Albion Faeries two weeks ago at a full moon drum circle in a Vauxhall church, but now I was in the midst of faeriespace.

I was Wombat again, and it felt like home. Modern living makes it hard to believe in people and things in a vulnerable way, and relearning how to do this is important.

That and Faeries know how to throw kickass parties.

There's a disco that night under garlands of starlight on rough blankets, the incense on the altar smoking.

In the drag barn, we crown each other in light and furs, and I'm swirling in an emerald sari until we fall asleep with sunrise.

Better when filled with candles and faeries
By Sunday, my middle finger hurts like someone tried to wrench it backwards, and I have other bruises I don't remember.

I creep up the turret to the roof and everything is pink but cold.

We walk along Hadrian's wall, clattering up small gullies rising into the air and using kissing gates like it says to do on the tin. Reading and yoga in the sunlit ballroom becomes a daily ritual for me, and the faerie fire is ablaze by 5 pm.

Theoklymenos feeds me the pale hearts of carrots as I dice cukes for massive salads.

We have meetings where the goddess hisses with approval.

I fail miserably at fire poi.

I've lost track of the days in faeriespace. I just know that I wake up feeling restful, satisfied.

After the blaze of Saturday, we seem to just wheel and swoop through in the thermal wake. Walks in the hills by the old prisoner-of-war camp, toast and tea throughout the day.

My right toe nails are still painted a dinosaur green a week later, and it makes me smile each time I see them in the shower still. Pixie did a bang up job.

Princess and I bake a caramel banana tart for 45 people, and I'm a model for the auction goods. I sell a capoeira class that I teach later in the week, and it's something I haven't done since college really, but muscle memory is there. Practicing for this while Qweaver played the piano was lovely, and I like the idea of holding onto this lighted holy space.

Fresh garlic bread!

I do manage to make it to meditation in the am as the schedule slumps throughout the week.

Heart Circles leaves me humbled and I forget how much you can learn just from listening to people opening up.

Trapdoors open, and I take deep breaths of forest air with my eyes closed. Baby sheep stumble towards their mothers, and om baa lamb ewe ram.

Ferrero Rocher pyramid atop our altar
It's surprising how cozy hanging fabrics can be.
Campfires and faerie fires look similar sometimes.
Just a deck of various goddesses, no big deal.
I didn't sleep at all the night before I left, and at 7 am, we're hugging down by the river, and I take one last look at the castle from the roof. Breakfast of champions (and shamans) is yellow corn, a single dried blue corn kernel, tuna fish, and the sweetest grapes I've had in a while.

I'm walked to town by lovely Faeries (props to Miqs and Turret!) and others see me off from Halt. I resist greeting everyone in town and especially nobody on the bus, just reading my journal entries from the week, smiling and remembering.

I'm leaving before the No Talent Show and three days before gathering's end, but David flies into Heathrow the next morning, and I can't wait to see him.

(After a week of vegetarian meals, I briefly considered the veggie life, but Newcastle's roast duck in Chinatown beckoned.

I mean, look at it.)

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The first girl is always named Fatima.

How else do you celebrate the Saharan sunset?
One of my shoes rolled 400 feet down the dune after my cavorting, but let's start back in Rabat.

For a dollar, a man hands me a molehill of snails and a bowl of the spicy broth that killed the little beasties. I had passed so many ghoulal vendors on the street in Rabat, and finally couldn't resist the curiosity cat.

Food poisoning can be a worry for another day.

After the mountain heights of Chefchaouen, the seaside warmth felt amazing and I stripped down as soon as I got off the bus. With the sun in my face, I just started walking towards the Atlantic, passing terraces filled with Rabatians lounging with espressos. I was splurging on my own room that night, but that just meant paying $10 for some sleep without the sounds and smells of other people.

I finally found Bab Laalou, and after mint tea and peanut cookies with my hostess, I exit the standard medina maze and wander past a sprawling cemetery that dips into the sea.

With squishy sand between my toes, lunch is a smorgasbord of fried fish and eggplant by the Rue des Consuls, and a fresh beignet for dessert.

Hey, nobody goes on holiday to maintain their three abs.

The souk here is the classiest I've seen in Morocco so far, no traces of Christian prisoners being sold into slavery.

I spend the day poking around Rabat, reading under Hassan Tower, and getting grass stains in the gardens facing Salé. It's Rabat's ancient rival, the oldest city on the Atlantic coast, dating back to Phoenician times in the 7th century BC.

Salé was known to the Romans as being infested with elephants.

The animal below in the Kasbah is not an elephant.

The mosque adjacent to Hassan Tower
I wake up again before sunrise for the train to Casablanca, and Zakia has laid out bread, marmalade, shreds of butter for breakfast. When train tickets are $3.50, you can't really say no.

Casablanca is a fancier coastal town, but it's still sleepy when I hop off the train. A bakery tries to charge me ten times the price for a pastry, and I laugh before asking them if it's packed with gold. They don't budge, and I walk out.

While it's tempting to walk east for a few miles on the coast for the shrine that's accessible only at low tide, I'm feeling lazy, even if people with bad spells on them can be cured there.

I'm already crisscrossing Casablanca to see the Hassan II Mosque rise out of the ocean, and it's the only mosque in Morocco that lets non-believers past its doors.

Not a screen cap from a Blizzard game trailer.

Capacity is 25,000 in the main prayer hall, and 80,000 outside. The roof retracts to let in the ocean air and sun, the tide flows through basins in the floor, and there's even a laser at the top that blazes a green path to Mecca.

The whole place looks like Act II of Diablo, and the design is intended to echo cathedrals and synagogues (with a mechitza that splits off two suspended chambers for 5000 female worshipers).

One of two floating chambers filled with women

Tours are offered in six languages, and there are only two Polish guys in the English tour, so I'm offered the option to join the French contingent. The trip has made me a lot more comfortable speaking French, though my listening is still better (cheers to you, Christine Ockrent on the Affaires étrangères podcast!). The guide is super friendly, and I didn't even mind his ribbing about me being Jackie Chan.

Somehow one of the French couples on my mosque tour in Casablanca end up checking into my AirBnB in Rabat, one of those magical coincidences of wandering.

So more French practice over mint tea, and I'm trying to explain counter-terrorism while the guy tells me about his company designing missiles.

And then I'm on my way to Marrakesh. The train configuration is different again, and I'm in a comfortable six-seater bunk like the compartments that take kids to Hogwarts.

I'm catching up on the latest season of Girls, chatting with David, and life is pretty swell.

The train rolls across green pastures with patches of ochre red soil, the Moroccan flag deconstructed across the landscape. Sheep flocks wander up to the train, and the scrubby hills are crowned in pink coral and prickly cactus groves. Closer to the little villages, the cactus grows in straight lines to mark off land.

I've had the cactus figs this week for a dirham, fresh bloody bulb deftly plucked out like an eyeball on a stick. Watery surge of vitamin C, and my mouth was full of seeds until I saw an open sewer. Another two hours to Marrakesh, though I'm ready to tuck into something right now. I should have snagged another warm pastry from the medina bakery, but I barely had time to dunk bread quarters in marmalade before Zakia told me, "Bon voyage et n'oubliez pas de commenter."

Sharing sweet little oranges with Moroccan dudes in my train car, they chat to me in French and ask me about Japan. "Je n'y suis jamais allé, en fait...", and they waggle eyebrows.

Little girl plays peekaboo with me and when she works up the courage to stay in our carriage, we roll an orange down the train corridor to each other, and she giggles each time it bounces.

The older guy asks me if I'm learning Arabic, and says that after four months in Morocco, I'll have mastered it. It is an easy language, after all, he says with a dismissive hand gesture. Boys run up to the train when it stops with armfuls of herbs.

Once in Marrakesh, I walked to the wrong Dar Sekkaya, swarmed by fawning boys with the same script as every child in Morocco: "This way is closed, I can take you to big square?" I ignore them like they're ghosts, losing most of them in a triple mule collision.

The hostel is barely a month old and after the usual mint tea chatter about how I look like Jackie Chan, I pick my way past motorbikes and Americans having transcendent experiences with the natives towards Jemaa al-Fnaa. The snake charmers are already set up and there are drum circles for everyone.

I sit down for another bowl of snails, though my virgin one was better, less grit and more flavor. Bouche amused, I find a table half covered in decapitated sheep, their brains glistening.

I squeeze between two men and ask for the same mixed bowl of lahem ras.

The usual round of bread picks up curds of brain, meaty cheek flesh, and the fatty gristle before I pop it all in my mouth in one offal bite.

A Canadian girl walks up and orders a lentil soup, I'm confused why she's at this stand.

Sheep's head stew: Best meal in Morocco
The book souk is quiet, and I pick out Tahar Ben Jelloun's L'enfant de sable. The bookseller says it'll be 20 million gold pieces, but he'll also take 20 dirhams.

I spider through the cold innards of the cafe terraces until I get to the tippy top. Coffee is cheap and strong as usual, and I start the book while the sun sets behind the pink minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque.

Riad Douzi Bik is full of people when I'm back, Australians, Germans, and a Scottish woman who never seems to leave the place. Cakes are griddled, and I keep warm with mint tea until bedtime.

I send off my postcards before hopping on the bus towards the coast. Essaouira is a hippie fishing village three hours west of Marrakech, the source of purple dye for Rome way back when, and recently Astapor on Game of Thrones.

I'm there to read on the beach, stuff myself with fried sardines, and see some voluminous haiks. Easy trio of quests.

Sea gulls dive bomb the port as the touts do the same to our bus.

Essaouira is a gorgeous little garrison, and for 30 dirhams, I get a platter of ten grilled sardines, a baguette, a salad, and a coke as one legged seagulls fight over fish heads a few feet in front of my table.

Dudes, this was $3.
A retired teacher from Hamburg shares my table and tells me that Essaouira is his favorite city, but that the Algerian desert from thirty years ago was prettier when the borders were still open.

It's only a matter of time before I get some seagull shit on me, but I read a bit atop the crenelated walls next to a cannon.

For 100 dirhams, I pick up seven thuya boxes with the gnarly gnarl, little gifts for people in my life. I stroll through the medina again, but then I see the ocean and just head south to the sand.

Two hours of sky meeting sea later, I'm sandy, happy, and ready to nap all the way back to Marrakesh.

In the morning, I pick up a kilo of bananas and some cake for the twelve hour bus crossing of the Atlas Mountains. I love how the horizon swings wildly as the bus switchbacks through villages. Stop lengths are never announced, and riders often have to run after the bus to stop it.

We can see the snow-capped mountains now, and I have to resist taking pictures with every snowy turn. It's funny to notice how the left-hand guard rail is completely shorn off in parts, the scarring of prior car wrecks still fresh on the grass.

I love the Moroccan practice of letting phones ring through the whole jingle so that other people can appreciate how important you are. Very classy, dude.

We finally find time to scarf down a tagine berbère during a half hour stop in the middle of nowhere. Kiwi and a girl from Montana chat with me until we all fall silent as stars blow up in the desert after we leave Errachidia.

The girls scurry off at the petrol station, and I get to Merzouga proper to be hustled into the back of a van with Hassan of the flowing blue robes. The sands are black and he's telling me that his village is named after the white water of the well at the center.

The place is palatial, kittens scurrying underfoot. The usual mint tea greeting with a German couple, who quickly offer me a ride to Fez after our dromedary ride to the Erg Chebbi dunes for sunset dinner and sleep under the stars.

I wake up to bread, olives, an egg, and the two Dutch girls wander in. After coffee and OJ, I walk the two hours out to Lake Merzouga, no birds, but it's a nice walk and I can't stop smiling.

My trusty steed
I love my Dali dromedary.
Riding a dromedary is much harder work than I expected. That one hump is not calibrated with men in mind, and the swaying strides mean every slope is an opportunity to topple and tumble.

Our Berber guide Mohammed is in his sixties, but he's scurrying up dunes for two hours, setting up camp, and making dinner. We chat a bit later, and he tells me about being married for the past fifty years since age twelve.

Mohammed keeps referring to the one girl in our platoon as Fatima, and we sort out that it's common to name your first girl Fatima, then Zahra, and then so on. No such naming conventions for boys, though I've met more Hassans this trip than anything else.

I don't know how that chicken got out to the middle of the Sahara.
The day-long drive back to Fez often made the three us of feel like we were in Utah. Rainbow rock formations, tunnels on the edges of cliffs, I could have sworn we saw some friendly Mormons by the blue lakes. 

We're stopped by Moroccan police four times, each time with dubious speed guns. The final stop is a trio training a newbie, so they throw the book at us.

I have a fever all Valentine's Day, and by the time I check into the hostel, I gopher into the covers and sleep for twelve hours.

One last visit to Fez's first shopping mall, where families are taking photos of everyone zooming down an escalator. But I'm there for the Carrefour, just for ANYTHING that isn't bread or tastes of ras el hanout.

And then I'm back in London, swaddled with dim sum, friends, and endless breakfast burritos.

Martin  offering the final wave of dim sum to be eaten
Vegan chilli, mm