Hash-Hash & Hammams

‘We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.’

Foreword to Wanderlust (2000), a collection of travel writings, quoted here from a piece by Richard Boyle http://himalmag.com/blogs/blog/2010/07/12/no-matter-where-you-go-there-you-are/

I woke up on Christmas Day two thousand miles from home, as far away from any idea of Christmas as I could be. As I began to type this post the last call to prayer for the evening has just been sung from the Minarets of Fes.

I sit on a velvet sofa next to a fountain inside a stunningly beautiful Riad in the old City of Fes, alleys and Bazaars unchanged in a millenia, no cars in the city. I am pleased I have run away from home, if it’s only for a few days. Christmas for me has always been so intrinsically linked in my head to family, to being together with loved ones. This is my first Christmas where this is not the case, I planned to be as far away from any reminder as possible with my Son.
The sites and sounds of Fes re-jig your mind it’s not possible to be in my London head here, it just doesn’t work. I walk down narrow alley-ways dodging donkeys laden with goods, or old men knarled and bent carrying loads too heavy for comfort, but managing heroically. Christmas has no meaning here, Allah is all, not a Christmas Tree in sight, not a star of Bethlehem, no sign to be seen of Christmas, and that feels good.

We visit the Madrasa, the Muslim religious “University”, the oldest in the World, we visit a decaying Synagogue, and most poignant of all a Jewish cemetery, both now relics of a time past when Muslim & Jew co-existed, once Morocco was home to more than a quarter of a million Sephardic Jews, now just a part of history. We go native, wandering the Bazaar sampling the delights of another world.
We played the game today, making Hash-hash, the chancer, our guide for an hour or two around the city. Hash-Hash promised to show us Fes, he was in his mid-twenties, a Berber, a good looking fellow, with a little of the Rogue about him, but charming in his way. He took us to the tanneries, a stinking mesmerising place where men up to their torsos in freezing water clean putrid animal skins, their toil and labour turning filth and pelt to beautiful coloured leathers. Hash-Hash as his name implied was keen to fulfil any desire we might have of the herbal variety, finding we were not interested in the pleasures of weed he took us to his “relatives”, the idea was that we would buy blankets or rugs, much to the disappointment of the shopkeepers I wasn’t in the market for a Rug or a Blanket. Hash-Hash took us on to a little Berber camp on the edge of the City, here there were Tin-Shack workshops of the Berbers, mountain people, making sandals and musical instruments, metal working, pottery, dirt poor, dirt laden and scraping a living, Hash-Hash tells me there are two peoples in Morocco, Berber and Arab, the Arab has the power and the money, the Berber has the pride.
Hash-Hash tells me another pearl of wisdom, that in Morocco the women don’t work, the men do, the women stay at home and look after the children and the home. This is good he tells me, the only thing is, that the man must make money, if not ” No money, then the wife not kissy-kissy in the night”. I suppose that makes sense, lack of work and in turn money becomes a natural contraceptive?

In Fes I meet other travellers who also spark my thoughts, Jayne, a Researcher working in TB. She is an American, in her late fifties, from Washington DC who spends 80% of her time working on TB projects in “epidemic” areas, she has just been in Lake Baikal in Siberia, here in the hospitals she tells me that TB is endemic, drug use, shared needles, alcohol, poor diet and sanitation give TB a thriving base to work from. We talk about Pakistan, Tanzania & Bangladesh, other fertile TB breeding grounds.
I ask how on earth she can feel safe in Pakistan as an American, she tells me that the Pakistanis are wonderful people who are happy to talk to her, indeed they seek her out and have long conversations with her about American foreign policy. She feels safe here and in Tanzania, Bangladesh she says is just a fascinating place, just the best place in the world if you work with infectious diseases. Jayne talks a good deal about places that I would not have considered safe to visit, if a woman approaching 60 can go to these far-flung places, then perhaps I should think of being more adventurous.
I met a Dutchman who lives in Addis and convinced me I have to visit Ethiopia, a Buddhist from Indonesia who sparked my thoughts of travel in south-east Asia, a Shrink from New-York, on his holidays. I noticed him in my Riad thumbing through an English translation of the Koran and engaged him in conversation. We talked about his work, I assumed he would be one of those shrinks who just pandered to the insecurities of rich Americans, but he soon put me right, no-no, I work with acute cases, Schizophrenia is an area I specialise in, my M.O. is that if I work with somebody who pays me for counselling and therapy then its likely they are pretty ok to begin with. They could be say, 90% of their potential, for me on a personal level maybe I could get them to 95% of their potential, that’s not a good payback for me, if I work with somebody that is really challenged, maybe with severe dysfunctionality, that is unable to work or operate on a day to day level, maybe a 30 or 40% of potential, and I can get that person to 70 or 80%, get them able to hold down a job, get off welfare, support themselves, then I feel I have done something worthwhile, so that’s how I work.
I liked the way the Shrink talked, then he told me he was a Buddhist, I seem to relate well to people that are drawn to Buddhism, I like the way their brains work, I like the way they think and I like to talk to them, I have started looking at Buddhism as a practice and have always felt drawn to it, I think I will be continuing to explore it.

In my opulent Riad there was a Hammam, I don’t know how I managed to treat it as such as fantasy, perhaps it was the luxury of the place, but I fantasised about massages by a dark eyed beauty from Morocco, arriving at the Hammam I knocked at the door at the appointed time, the door was answered by a black man in his underpants, he ushered me in, made me lie on the marble floor of the steam room and poured boiling water over me, next he tried to pull every limb of my body out of its socket, he then had me lie on my back and sat on me, took my hands and got me to grab his inner thighs and did some weird stretching movement, I have no idea what it was all about. An hour later I left the Hammam 700 dirhams lighter. The next day I saw the same fellow in the Riad, this time in a boiler suit. He explained that he was also the boiler man for the Riad. The romance of the Hammam was gone………………………..

The final night of our little jaunt to Morocco was spent in a Western style Hotel close to Casablanca Airport, in the entrance stood a Christmas Tree, the reality hit me pretty quickly then, whatever my ideas were, I had only displaced myself for a few days from my London life, but it was enough.
Enough to spark thoughts and dreams of a world wider than my little West-London life, it’s a great big world out there, there’s much to see and experience, beauty, lives being lived, not always brightly, but life in all its colours and passions, travel does indeed change you, you cannot ever go back unchanged in some way.

I indeed do travel to lose myself, to open my heart and my eyes, and most definitely I travel to find myself and become a young fool again, in love with life in all its colours.

The Fool heads of to Rajasthan later this month, he’s looking forward to it very much.

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