Features: How it all Started

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Hello from the female contingent of the team. After Neil's none too favourable descriptions of my map reading skills and general sense of direction - or lack of - I thought I should put a girlie stamp on the proceedings and tell it as it really is!

After leaving the relative cool and tranquility of Sidi Kaouki we headed back to Meknes to do a spot of house-sitting for a couple of weeks. The prospect of cooking whilst standing vertical instead of bent double in Bumble filled me with glee and the return to the heat was a small price to pay in return. On route we decided to stop and do a bit of sight-seeing - not an easy option with a 10 month old Rottweiler in tow - at Volubilis, the site of the largest Roman ruins in Morocco and about 33km from Meknes. The town of Volubilis dates back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. although excavations show that Carthaginian traders settled there in the 3rd century B.C. It is a fabulous site and you can walk around it quite freely, through the 'Triumphal Arch', the 'House of Orpheus' and the 'Basilica' although it was recently declared a World Heritage site and I wouldn't be at all surprised if restrictions on footfall are soon imposed. It was a very peaceful location and the only sound was the distant howling of Chaka who had been left secured to Bumble in the car-park. He had recently taken to 'sit-down demonstrations' which could happen any time, any place, anywhere and with temperatures up in the 40's again we decided to err on the side of caution and leave him at base.


The Basilica at Volubilis which served as their Law Courts and Trading Centre.


After spending the night at an idyllic nearby camp-site with spectacular views of the surrounding area, we set off ever nearer to Meknes but with one last stop at the neighbouring town of Moulay Idriss. Moulay Idriss is named after the great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and is Morocco's most revered saint. After fleeing Mecca in the 8th century A.D. and settling at Volubilis, he set about converting the locals to Islam and in so doing became their leader and established Morocco's first Imperial Dynasty. As with most Moroccan towns it was heaving with people and heat. We stopped for lunch and ordered a salad to accompany our char-grilled sausages. Fools, I can hear you cry! The first rule of travelling is, if you can't peel it, boil it or cook it, don't eat it. I actually didn't fancy mine so abstained however, Neil tucked in to his without a second thought. The story doesn't end there but then you wouldn't expect it to would you!


Watching the sun go down at the camp-site.

We finally reached Meknes late afternoon and made our way to the house with a feeling of anticipation. We had no idea what lay ahead however, on entering the front door we were amazed to find a large rather grand house within. It really was like walking into Doctor Who's Tardis, as the heat, noise and bustle of the Medina out-side was suddenly transformed into an oasis of peace and tranquility. It was also very cool - well, 30 degrees centigrade felt cool by comparison to the 40's outside. At 3.30am we were abruptly awoken by a gentleman singing very loudly. As our senses came to, we realised that it was the Koran being piped into the house. It turned out we were in the heart of the Medina and smack bang in the middle of 14 mosques! We lay there trying to imagine the same thing happening in the flat in Kennington - I think not! As the Koran continued, Neil became convinced the man was saying, 'I…… wanna Kebab'. I preferred to think it was something with a little more religious content.


Just 2 of the 14 mosques in the Medina.


We had parked Bumble in an adjacent street under the careful watch of 2 'Guardians' one night, one day and although they couldn't speak English or French and we couldn't speak Arabic, over the course of the next couple of weeks we managed to have numerous interesting conversations. Don't ask me what about, but it involved a lot of smiling. They also had 2 resident dogs, Max and Madonna, who patrolled their 'patch' with extreme diligence and just a touch of aggression when required. They did not take lightly to Chaka invading their territory and after a couple of near clashes we decided to stay out of their way. The night guardian took a real shine to Chaka and each day as his shift came to an end we would hear him calling, 'Chaka, Chaka' as we walked past. His friend wanted to mate him with his bitch - you my well ask how I gathered this piece of information with our non-existent Arabic. Well, when the man said in broken English, 'they go together like Tagine and couscous', I caught the drift.


The day and night guardians with Bumble.


The Imperial city of Meknes is often placed third behind Fes and Marrakesh on tourists lists of priority but really shouldn't be missed if you want a taste of real Moroccan life. It is less dependent on tourism and as such the Medina - old town - is a great place to see local people at work without being hassled. On exploring the Medina we found it to be a labyrinth of narrow streets weaving and wending their way in every conceivable direction. Tiny little shops selling everything from fruit and vegetables to men busily sewing Jellabos late into the night. People taking bread prepared at home to the local bakers to be baked and collected later in the day, donkey's laden down with provisions and people dodging the ever present lines of cotton running up and down the streets ready to be spun onto reels. It was a hive of industry. The main square was also a sight to behold with the cafes filled with Moroccan men drinking coffee or mint tea. As a woman I was certainly in a minority and you realise very quickly that although Morocco is a short trip from Western Europe, their cultures are a world apart. It is also important to respect this difference, particularly as a woman. Traditional dress of Jellabo is still very much in evidence in the Medina - old town - It is a full length flowing gown with a long hood worn by men and women alike and actually very cool to wear. My usual dress of shorts was quickly abandoned to be replaced by long trousers. I did see female tourists walking around in shorts and skimpy tops, but I personally found it disrespectful to the local women who had rather more restrictions placed upon them. At night, the square and surrounding area resembled Piccadilly Circus on a Saturday night, the only difference being the ever present heat.

Shortly after arriving in Meknes it became evidently clear that Neil had acquired the proverbial Delhi Belly or its Moroccan equivalent - could it have been the dreaded salad in Moullay Idriss rearing its ugly head? Despite my endless list of food allergies, I was congratulating myself on very rarely getting food poisoning and merrily relating this to Neil. I should have also remembered the old saying,'don't speak too soon'. Sure enough, the following day the same fate befell me and we both felt exceedingly sorry for ourselves. It actually lasted for a week and a half with a brief one day intermission whereby we became so excited that it had passed, that we went out and celebrated with chicken and chips. Big mistake!

On one of our evening walks, we decided to be a little more adventurous and as the sun's last rays receded over Meknes we made our way through the Bab el-Mansour Gate and on past the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail. The gate is a focal point of the Medina and is the main entrance to the Imperial City. Moulay Ismail ascended to power at the age of 25 in 1672 and marked one of the most gruesome periods of Moroccan rule. He sent the heads of 10,000 slain enemies to be displayed on the walls of Fes and Marrakesh as a warning to prospective enemies, but he also managed to get the whole of Morocco under his control, one of the few sultans to do so. Despite his atrocities, he raised Meknes to capital status in the 17th Century and is highly respected within Morocco. His mausoleum is open to non-muslims and worth a visit. A sharp left turn found us once again in amongst endless narrow streets and as the light faded and the streets grew narrower, we realised that we were lost. Where was the GPS when we needed it? As we rounded a corner two young men were sitting with a stall selling sweets and as I glanced across at them without even saying a word he gestured his head to the right and continued with his work. I guess it was a familiar sight to see exhausted, sweating tourists rounding the corner looking totally lost.

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Bab el-Mansour Gate.


During our stay, Chaka metamorphosized into Harry Enfield's 'Kevin', the uncontrollable teenager with a bad attitude. His dependency on me also reached new heights to the point at which I couldn't even go to the toilet on my own. No one said owning a Rottweiler would be like this. He has also found his voice - oh, for the days when we wondered if he would ever bark. He really is a super dog, a real fuss pot at times but at others incredibly cheeky and downright naughty. But we mustn't forget he is also embarking on a huge journey and at times we expect a lot of him with the heat and constant change of location. All in all he is doing very well and he is a constant source of amusement and strikes a nice balance for Neil and I. It is strange to see the reactions on peoples faces as we walk past, the young boys/teenagers think he is super whilst the young ladies pointedly move to the opposite side of the street gasping in terror as they go. It is very unusual to see a dog on a lead and the majority of dogs you do see are mongrels, so Chaka walks along resembling a prize show dog with his gleaming black coat and perfect stance. Acquiring a voice was also accompanied by a desire to bite his lead or indeed anything he could get his paws on. His lead was showing signs of wear and tear and during one of his daily walks we asked a gentleman who owned a local Jellabo shop whom Chaka had befriended, if he knew anyone who repaired leather. Later that day as I lay horizontal still reeling from Delhi Belly, Neil took Chaka out for his lunchtime walk - usually a 15 mins stint. Over an hour later, Neil returned to tell me that he had been whisked away by the same gentleman through the labyrinth of tiny streets to his home whereby he set about repairing Chaka's lead whilst Neil was invited to eat lunch with his family. They even sent a doggie bag for me. Just one example of the kindness of the Moroccan people.


Chaka with new friend who repaired his lead.


With our 2 weeks nearly up, we had decided to visit Fes before leaving Morocco and a friend had put us in touch with a possible base for a few days, the French Protestant Church in the centre of Fes. We left Meknes with a touch of sadness saying goodbye to the friends we had made during our stay. We had undoubtedly stood out from the crowd from day one with Bumble, Chaka and our western dress however, the locals had really taken us under their wing and helped to make our stay a very memorable one.


A view from the roof top of the house in the Medina towards the Ville Nouvelle and the Middle Atlas Mountains.

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