Tuesday 8 March 2005

but the stars we could reach were just starfish on the beach

Turning 31 has so far worked out okay.

I don't know quite what I was expecting would happen, but I didn't turn into a pumpkin at midnight (as far as I can tell...) Thanks for all your comments though, as Aravis said, it gave me a warm fuzzy feeling having your wishes flying in from around the world. It was a good day: some nice prezzies in the morning, a tolerable day at work and a nice meal out with C. at Punchinellos in the evening. I didn't drink all that much (just a drop of champagne or two and a couple of glasses of red wine), but it's funny how much more you notice it when you are at work the next day, and not sat on the sofa reading the paper and watching tv after a nice long lie in. I didn't feel sick or especially hungover or anything like that; I just knew I'd had a drink, that's all... And of course I had an 08:30 meeting with the customer today.

A good day though.

Over dinner I was reminded of a particularly memorable birthday: one that I spent in Morrocco in 2001. We were there to do a bit of trekking in the Sahara and the Anti-Atlas mountains, and it was wonderful. We went with a company called Equatorial Travel, run by a guy called JP from his shop in Ashbourne. Equatorial is a fair trade company, and to a large degree the holiday was made by the fact that JP's partner in Morrocco, a berber called Brahim, was the most wonderful guide.


We went over the snow-capped High Atlas mountains and down across the Draa Valley to Zagora and the edges of the Sahara itself. We then spent a week walking through the desert with some camels. It's an amazing place. Walking through it like that and you really get a feel for how it teems with life: lizards, gerbils, scarobs, birds... loads of stuff. You also get to see how varied the landscape is, from constantly shifting dune seas through dazzlingly lush oasis to completely flat hamada stoney desert absolutely packed with fossils. We camped under the stars, got caught in a sandstorm, drank gallons and gallons of hot, sweet mint tea, baked sandbread in the buried embers of the campfire and spent an afternoon sampling the hospitality of some nomads in their tent. From there we took a 4x4 across the saltflats, stayed in a hotel where the proprieter sat and puffed happily on his hooky pipe whilst we ate our breakfast, and then headed on into the Anti-Atlas mountains. Our starting point for the hike here was in Brahim's village, where we had the most fantastic tagine amongst the olive groves before picking up the donkeys and heading into the mountains themselves. The colour of the rock is amazing and the whole place is bleakly beautiful. It's so unearthly that it felt a bit like walking on Mars. We walked in a big loop through the mountains and after three days worked our way back to the village, where we had a lamb slaughtered for us as part of the muslim festival (Brahim called it "La fete du mouton" but I can't remember the proper islamic term for it).

On the way back to Marrakesh, we spent a day with Brahim's wife and family. This was my birthday. We were taken to a proper Hammam for the best cleaning and pummelling I think I have ever had (and to be honest, after all that walking, I needed it - that sand gets everywhere). We then went back to the family home, where we were fed and where I remember clearly we watched the Milan vs Galatasaray in the Champions League. At the end of the game I was presented with a totally unexpected surprise: they had baked me a birthday cake (with candles, icing and iced lettering proclaiming I was 27 and everything). It was brilliant. It was all topped off the next day when I was summoned down to the father-in-law's shop, which was below the house. I had wanted to get a jelaba as a souvenir of my trip (it's a jedi thing), and as this chap was a retired tailor, he had (without telling me), sized me up with a glance, and gone out and rustled up some of his friends in the trade. When I walked into the shop that morning, I was presented with a selection of the most gorgeous jelabas I had seen (and all of which fitted perfectly), and chose a beautifully woven grey one, with some fantastic embroidery. It was then sold to me (well, to C. as another splendidly thoughful gift for me) for something less than £30. Amazing. Brahim explained that this was a without profit price, because I was a guest in his house.

I'm gushing a bit about it now.

It was a wonderful, wonderful holiday, and it came to mind when I was thinking about having a nice day on my birthday yesterday. I don't know what pre-conceptions you might have about taking a holiday in a muslim country (albeit that this was pre 9/11), or indeed what preconceptions you may have about muslims themselves, but this was a delight. Lovely, warm-hearted generous people. We didn't even share a language with Hussein, one of the guides in the desert, but over the course of the week we communicated just fine - jokes, games, stories, songs. He found us fascinating - on the first night in the desert, he had walked in the darkness back to a village, picked up another camel and walked back. When we asked him if he had navigated using the stars, he just looked at us like this was the craziest thing he had ever heard, and laughed fit to burst his sides... "he knew the way" was how Brahim explained how he had navigated through the miles of desert in the pitch black. Another time he told us how he had picked out his wife - men and women meet only rarely in the desert, and when they do, the women will be covered up from head to toe, with only their eyes showing. Through Brahim, Hussein told us that it had been love at first sight. When asked the not unreasonable question of HOW this could be the case, his eyes twinkled and he told us it was the way she moved.

Totally different culture, but some things are the same the world over, eh?


I got asked by a colleague (Hi Dave!) this morning to tell him the first lyric I thought of about sunshine. I could have come up with "Here Comes the Sun" or "Who Loves the Sun" or a million other songs. But what popped into my head?

Don't blame it on sunshine
Don't blame it on moonlight
Don't blame it on good times
Blame it on the boogie....

Dear God.

Did you do any better than that?

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