It’e been hard trying to figure out what to write about lately, after all this is mostly a blog about my travels and I’ve been home now for two months. I’ve been out of a job for a few weeks now and I’m beginning to get the old feelings of apathy and ambivalence creeping up again. So I’ve decided to start a few projects to give me a sort of goal.

The first is called the 365 Project. Basically, you have to upload a photo for every single day of the year. A photo taken during your day. You can see them on my flickr.

The second is forthcoming, it might be a while…

I had an amazing time in the desert and I did the best piece of writing that I’ve ever done about my time there. Which you will never read. The only thing I will say about it is this:

Before I left for the desert, I was talking to a man who told me, in smiling, broken English “Maybe you find yourself…”

And I did.

I’ve tried a couple of times to explain this place, but the first attempt became a mass of details no one could possibly care about and the second was self serving to the extreme. I’ve given up trying to desrcibe the trip from Portugal to Morocco as the memory is completely overridden by the deluge of sights I’ve seen since. Don’t get me wrong, I still remember everything, but it’s difficult for me to capture the feel of something that’s seems so distant.

I’ve been in Morocco for just over a week now and it’s hard to overstate my satisfaction. This place is incredible and it’s difficult for an inferior wordsmith such as I to really capture the feel of it. I’ve been to four cities/towns so far and each has been incredibly different. Tetouan is notorious for the swindlers and crooks of a town close to the border which is the first stop for so many naive travellers. Caught unawares it’s easy to see how someone could be taken in by a confidence man. I managed to escape without too much damage to my wallet … and a couple of rugs.

Chefchauoen was next. Hash capital of Morocco (and maybe the world). Grown in the Rif mountains it’s impossible not to visit here without smelling it on the air. For the first day you get approached by all the dealers, after that they know your face and don’t bother asking again. Most are making an easy living bringing it down from the mountains and selling it to tourists, but there are scams to be aware of. Oh, so many scams. When you see how many people have to scrimp and scrape every day just to earn their daily bread, it’s hard to begrudge them an illegal drug trade. Surely the benefits far outweigh the effects and yet it still carries a harsh sentence if your caught. Despite being a drug capital (and it’s main pull, evidently), Chefchauoen is a beautiful place. The whitewashed houses are tinged with blue, unlike the rest of the country. High in the mountains this faintly azuelean town rests amongst peaks, the medina stretching away up the side of a mountain.

From Chefchaouen I took the five hour bus journey to Fes. It passed through many other places on the way, any one of which would have been at home in the landscape of Fallout. This is a beautiful and interesting country with many magnificent sites, but the level of litter and rubbish just discarded along roads and shanty towns makes it seem far dirtier than it is. Every object is used to it’s last degree, but once it’s finished with it’s simply put down and forgotten. Pits of rubbish show where once a shanty town lived until it became too polluted for even the homeless.

Arriving in Fes, I headed straight for the hotel but could immediately tell this place was unlike the other two. The largest and most densely packed of the three so far, Fes was a mass of people coming and going constantly. Pushing through the tiny streets of the medina, I made my way to the hotel. With a tiny veranda above a restaurant it was perfectly situated five minutes from the bus station outside of town (ten for a fully laden traveller). I had dinner across the (tiny) square on a terrace looking down on it all. Walking around Fes I managed to finally snag a taxi to take me to the Ville Nouvelle. A place so completely different from the medina that it’s stands apart from it’s medieval sister like another city.

Transport from Fes was a very comfortable journey on a sleek modern train. A double decker coach as operated by the French company ONCF. I’ve never seen a double decker train in England, but they are everywhere on the continent and since so much of Morocco was French territory (at least for a while), it makes sense that they should be here too. Despite it being the equivalent distance as getting a train to Edinburgh (from home, of course) it still cost less than £8.00.

Rabat was next. After deciding that Meknes could be missed I headed for the capital. A little bit further south and on the coast, Rabat is the capital of Morocco. Again, it’s as unlike the previous three places as anywhere could be. A modern city with a high street as close to being European as any I’ve seen here yet. However, just a short walk down the main thoroughfare brings you to the medina. As well as the traditional maze of side streets it has wider than normal avenues where the sellers ply their trade. Dozens of outlets and stalls mixing the modern forgeries of fashion with the traditional Moroccan goods as well as. Many legitemate businesses have baskets out front with hundreds of pirated films in, it’s not fought in any way, it’s just a way of life. There is no industry to export modern cinema to Arab countries so it’s pirated and subbed and sold at fifty pence a go without impunity. Contrasted with this are the traditional wares of a Moroccan merchant. Handwoven rugs, jelabas, sweaters, silks and sundries covering every facet of the shops they inhabit, every piece different and unique. Every ten feet I see another item I know would be perfect for someone I know and wish I could buy it. The limits of my endurance only stretch so far however, and my backpack can only take so much stuff strapped to it before it becomes unwieldy.

I sit writing this at a desk in my hotel room listening to my £150 mp3 player blaring Rob Zombie’s Dragula (recently released on Rock Band!) whilst below, a purveyor of goods offers his wares to the patrons of the cafes in the square. The waiter gives him the leftovers in a doggy bag in passing. It might be all he gets today. I think of my ever shrinking bank account and consider it a fortune to the beggars and denizens of the street. Walking twenty feet through the medina means facing men with misshapen legs from birth defects and women sat motionless, hand outspread (one woman in Chefchaouen merely repeated “Ola! Dinero!”, meaning “Hello! Money!” to anyone passing).

I’m in Casablanca right now, and it’s just as disapointing as everyone said. No moodily lit bars with light jazz in the background, no smart talking, chain smoking English rogues with an attitude (well, maybe just one). You’ve seen Casablanca, right? Well it’s nothing like that. It’s just North Africa’s biggest port town. It’s ok for a stop over, but not much else. Tomorrow I head on to Essaouira, on the coast. I’m gonna crash there for a few days.

I’ll be out of touch for a while.

I sit here, the very image of Spider Jerusalem (albeit, considerably hairier). Hopped up on painkillers and dope, a beer fresh from cooling in the river by my side, a roll up between my lips and a tiny computer in my lap. Music from an album released six days ago warms my ears as I sit, not in a sprawling Metropolis (ala. Spider), but in a clearing behind an old Roman mill. If it wasn’t for the music, I would be able to hear the sussuruss of water as the Rio Sever, through the trees behind me, idly floats on.

Rio Sever

I sit amongst ancient terraces in a hammock set up between a Cork Oak and an Olive tree. Ahead of me the terraces go up until topped by a ring of trees. From my view they seem to stop suddenly as though there is nothing behind the top terrace. All I can see through the trees is sky. It’s like sitting at the top of the world in The Garden, before the fall. I can picture a snake appearing from a tree with temptations (which I wouldn’t/shouldn’t/couldn’t resist in my current Jerusalem-like state).

It’s late in the afternoon as I sit here. The tiredness of a job well done and time well spent relaxes me as much as the intoxicants (almost). Most of the day slogging a ton of stones (literally and backachingly, I’m not exaggerating) into cement mixers to make a solid platform for a “shed”. The base of which was bigger than the house I use to occupy. This all took place a at a neighbours house (who lives about ten kilometers away). The three of us, Richard, Pete (another helpexer) and I, went over and, with three others, all helped this guy build something. I’ve never experienced that kind of community in England, and yet all these people helping out were English. An expat community that is more generous and open than any street in Britain.

Auf Wiedersehen Pet

When I think of everything I left behind, at home and at work (yeah, right), the friends whom I miss, the duality of simple and complex possibilities of everyday working life. I remember all the good things I miss about back home and still, I am happier to have left it behind to pursue this. It was totally worth it.

I had to walk three kilometers to get to the nearest internet in order to post this. It happens to be in a bar (thankfully,after that walk, in that heat) which does the delicious little chickens pies native to Portugal. So I sit here, with a beer and a pie, and give you this, a slice of my life.

And now I go back, to collect wood, for the stove in my room. The day ends reading by candlelight with a fire crackling gently away, lulling me towards sleep.

Candlelight

This place is beautiful, and I love it here.

And now your asking yourselves, how much of that was true?

It’s been a while since the last real update on what I’ve been upto and I’ve almost forgotten what to write about. I’ve had a little over three weeks on the farm here and it’s been incredible. I’ll give you a run down of a typical day…

I get up between seven and eight depending on what we’re going to be doing that day. We start off with a breakfast, which usually takes about half an hour, then we’ll work till between ten and eleven when we have another coffee/tea break. After the break we work for another couple of hours until twelve or one, depending on how hot it’s getting. Once the afternoon heat kicks in around that time, we stop for lunch. Lunch is almost entirely made of home grown stock (about ninety per cent of the stuff we eat is grown on the property). After lunch we take a siesta which can last for the rest of the day if there’s nothing else to do and it’s too hot (the highest temperature here so far has been forty degrees, but it’s usually about thirty six to thirty eight degrees Celsius). Siesta’s can last until dinner time in the evening (we usually eat at about nine when it’s a lot cooler, temperatures are still in the twenties at night). Sometimes if it cools down enough we do another hour of work before starting the evening meal. Occasionally we’ll have to go out to one of the local towns to get something in particular on the afternoon but even more frequently we’ll be invited to a social event. I’ve been told it’s usually only the summer months that Richard and Cathy are invited out so much, but in the last three weeks I’ve been to a ton of parties and gatherings of their friends.

I keep referring to this place as a farm, but a more accurate descriptor would be “smallholding”. Quite simply, Richard and Cathy bought a huge property (which is actually in a Natural Park, though that’s not the same as a National Park, there are restrictions on what you can do on the land) with ancient buildings on it and are renovating them while at the same time becoming more and more self sufficient. Richards main project at the moment is working on an old Portuguese mill (it could possibly be Roman or Moorish but no one knows for sure as the whole area contains a ton of ruins from both periods). Cathy mainly looks after all the crops and animals on the property. There are four Hens (for eggs), three chicks,(raised for meat), two Guinea Fowl (for eggs and eventually meat), three Geese (to mate and then for meat), two dogs and two cats. In the past they’ve also kept pigs, which were raised for meat and are planning on buying more piglets soon. Up until a week or so before I arrived they also had a donkey called Morris, unfortunately it fell and impaled itself on a spike and had to be put down.

As far as amenities go, there is everything you might expect. However, it’s slightly different here. The only electricity comes from some solar panels at the cottage which is at the top of the hill and quite a walk from where we currently work and eat. There is no electricity at the mill and once it starts getting dark we sit by candle light until bedtime. They have no internet, but do have a phone line down to the mill (which is currently broken for some unknown reason). The bathroom isn’t finished yet, so the shower and toilets are outside. There are two compost toilets on the property, which is literally a toilet seat set over a wooden box over a hole in the ground. Eventually, as it decomposes, this is used on the garden. The only shelter from the elements is a wooden structure set up for privacy. The shower is also outside, but since there is no electricity to heat water, it is a solar shower. Basically, there is a rather long black pipe which snakes it’s way around the property from the water tank (also used to water the garden and for washing up etc) which heats up during the day as the sun is on it. This may not sound effective but it definitely is. If you try and have a shower the sun is at its peak you will get scalded by the water. You have to wait until early evening when it’s cooled down a bit to safely take a shower.

The kitchen (again, currently unfinished, they’re looking for a wood fire stove before they can finish it off) is in a small room in the mill. It’s basically a larder with a gas cooker in which is used for most meals. However, outside there is also a permanent barbecue and an old style bread oven which is occasionally heated up for making bread, roasts, pizzas, stews etc. Every meal had been incredibly good so far, having home grown vegetables at every meal is amazing.

So far the work I’ve been involved in has been incredibly varied. While two other helpers were here (Tine and Conner, an engaged couple) we spent nearly two weeks working on restoring an ancient water channel to bring water from the river to the gardens. The channel is half a kilometre long and was full of holes, which needed filling and silt, which needed clearing before the water could be let in. The channel itself was originally Roman at the start, but was extended by the Portuguese later on to bring the water further than the mill it originally served. All up and down the river are ruins of mills which were originally Roman but were still used up until a hundred years or so ago. In fact, one mill on Richard and Cathy’s property was used as recently as about twenty years ago by the old owner’s grandfather. Unfortunately the roof caved in on it a couple of years ago and it’s currently inaccessible.

The rest of my work has been watering the crops using an old irrigation style where the water is made to flow along worked channels, oiling the frames of the windows in the mill, using a strimmer with a two stroke engine to clear areas of overgrown plants, digging out a wheelhouse (where the wheel of the mill would be) to turn into a compost toilet, moving an electric fence (powered by a solar panel) and geese enclosure, pruning olive trees and grape vines as well as other little things here and there.

The area of Portugal I’m in is so rural that it is reported to have one and a half people per square kilometre. The local town of Marvao holds the title of being the highest inhabited town in Portugal. On visiting the castle, which is slightly higher than the town, Richard took us up to the highest point of the highest inhabited town in Portugal. The view was amazing as you could see for miles around, as well as into Spain, which is only a few miles away.

The people here are also amazing. Most of the local Portuguese are of the older generation and they’re fantastic, nothing like the old people you find in England. There are seventy year old men who still walk a couple of miles to their gardens (which are rented, which is why they aren’t on their own property) and spend a few hours watering it all, before carrying sacks of produce home again. Then they repeat the whole thing again in the afternoon. These are hard working people who have spent their entire lives working this way and would be astounded at the kind of laziness exhibited by most English. The older women still go to the local washing place to wash all the clothes by hand and gossip with each other. There is an incredible air of community about these people that is sorely missing in Britain. Every greeting is effusive and heartfelt and goodbyes are long affairs with much kissing of the cheeks and hand shaking. It’s hard to adapt to after years of English stoicism. I’ve also been introduced to a lot of Richard and Cathy’s friends from the area who are a fantastic bunch of people. Some of whom are English, but there are a mix of nationalities in the area as it seems quite a popular place for ex pats of a number of countries.

If I’ve missed anything out that you want to know, leave a question in the comments and I’ll answer it when I can …

Just a quick update. I’m living on an amazing farm in Portugal at the moment with an English couple. Along with another couple of helpers, we’re working on clearing an old waterway that’s half a kilometer along to get water from the river to the farm. The food is nearly all homegrown and it’s always fantastic. I’ll try and get some pictures of us hard at work and upload them later but it may be a while as they have no internet and only electricity in one building from solar panels.

More updates in a month or two … probably…

I got the opportunity to watch some French television in a hotel the other night (after being stranded in a little place and going nowhere). I basically watched the music channel alot and strangely they showed some old Dragon Ball cartoons on it too. Not even Dragon Ball Z. The original one with the really bad animation. Anyway, there was a few songs I really enjoyed and thought I´d share them.

Martin Solveig – Boys and Girls – I dunno if this one is out in England too, but it´s like a better version of Calven Harris´s stuff.

Psy 4 De La Rime – On Sait Mais on Fait – This is a french rap group, I dunno what the lyric mean but the beat is good and the video is exceptional.

113 feat Jamel Debbouze – Celebration No one else will probably lke this one. It´s a rap group again, with what I think is a famous French comedian. I enjoyed it anyway, and it´s very popular there.