Let’s begin with the packing, because that’s how one starts a holiday. With visions of brilliant warmth and sunshine, I realised that I could only take my plain red and plain black t-shirts, because all the others were emblazoned with phrases such as ‘You call me a bitch like it’s a bad thing’ and ‘Good girls go to Heaven, bad girls go to London’: somewhat inappropriate for wearing in a Muslim country. However, in a fit of optimism, I packed my bikini.
We stepped off the plane into glorious warmth and sunlight. I had slept through the entire flight because I had to get up at 5.20am (‘Come on Jess! We’re on holiday!’ H* had beamed, and unfortunately she hadn’t been prepped on my propensity for surliness in the mornings, especially mornings when I’ve had inadequate sleep, for I told her to fuck off), but woke in time to see the desert, the snow on the mountains, patchworks of irrigated crops and the honeycomb of houses. H barely glanced out of the window because he was engrossed in my novel.
J met us as the airport and negotiated in French with the taxi drivers to take us to the hotel in their dilapidated Mercedes Benzs’, and they refused to give H his change when he paid, but fortunately J stepped in and rescued us. The hotel was lovely: an atrium with tables and chairs and palms surrounded by the rooms. In the afternoon we wandered through the souk, the market, and ignored the vendors stepping out to invite us into their shop. This is easy to do if you’re deaf. H and I then lost the others and drifted into a spice shop, attracted by the jars of coloured liquid lit up by neon lights, and rows and rows of spices. H chatted innocently with the vendor and I fretted, knowing that he would take H’s interest for a desire to buy. We extricated ourselves then went next door to a place selling lots of wooden boxes, which were charming. It transpired that the same man owned that shop and this time I was interested in buying something, but the man was too pushy and H started feeling faint so we made a rapid exit and sat down on a ledge. We got lost on the way back and approached a white couple with a map, asking ‘Do you know where the big square is?’ and they said ‘Slow down, we’re French, our English isn’t very good’ and I felt ridiculous for being such an Anglo.
Dinner that night, for J’s birthday, was in a gorgeous restaurant, with huge curves of fabric pinned to the ceiling by an enormous lamp that was enclosed in tin perforated with designs. The glass windows looked out onto the square, the walls were patterned with intricate mosaics and rose petals were scattered in the bathroom. The food was excellent, and we were introduced to pastilles, which were pastries dusted with cinnamon and sugar enclosing pieces of chicken. There was also a display of ‘local colour’, being some bellydancing by nubile young things (and a more ancient woman), but it made me distinctly uncomfortable. However it was probably the only overt reminder during the whole trip that I was existing in a man’s world. Oh, and the fact that men always looked past you when you asked for the bill. Apparently only men are allowed to finger coins and bills.
The next day we had a look at the government stores which set a standard price on goods so that you could get an idea if you were paying too much at the souk. The places were evacuated of character however, for they were catering solely to tourists. It felt like this in the main square too, and J said that there had been a government crackdown on hawkers and people who pestered the tourists. At times people were almost ridiculously respectful to us and I didn’t like it, though I have to admit it was better than being harassed all the time.
H and I left the others and walked further on to find another store that was listed in the Lonely Planet as being like an Aladdin’s cave. We passed a school where the kids had just been let out, and it was a bit hairy trying to cross a road crammed with children, mothers, motorcycles and cars. Down the road a bunch of kids were clustered, like bees to spilled honey, around a street vendor selling sweets from his cart. When we stopped at a corner to consult the map, a young boy with cracked glasses asked if we needed help and led us to the store. He expected money but H had no coins, and on the way back we encountered him again and he castigated us for not paying him. ‘Did he look upset?’ I asked H, not having heard or been aware of the exchange, and he replied, ‘Not particularly, he’s probably just waiting for the next hapless tourist to come by.’ At the store we stepped through a door in a wall, into an enormous room lined with carpets. It felt hushed and strangely lovely, until we laughed as we saw a cat sharpening his claws on the carpets and clambering up them to search for creatures in the rolls. The carpets weren’t what H wanted though, and we contemplated buying lamps as a present while a nice lady brought us heavily sugared mint tea, but the price was too high and I started feeling a bit nauseous, so we left.
In the afternoon we set off through the streets to investigate a tannery, despite having read ominous reports of the stench in the guidebook. Somehow a tracksuited man with a growth over his eye found us and led us into a tannery. He gave us bunches of mint to thrust under out noses, then led us to a landscape of vats, scattered with rubbish, hides and sacks of chemicals. The guide began a rendition of the tanning process, most of which I didn’t hear, though D later explained to me that it involved lime and guano to strip off the hair and soften it. The smell was truly appalling and I breathed vigorously through my mint. Then the tour was cut short, because the workers wanted to pray and didn’t like to do it when Westerners were around, so we were led by the guide to a shop selling rugs, jewellery, satchels etc – obviously a flytrap for tourists. The man had his sales pitch down pat, and began with an ‘explication’ of the tanning and carpet weaving processes. His assistant, already castigated for being slow with making the mint tea, threw down one carpet after another for our perusal. ‘At the end of weaving this one,’ said the salesman, ‘the woman went blind.’ We looked at each other dubiously. Continuing his sales pitch, he pulled down a yellow silk rug and announced that it wouldn’t burn, flicking a cigarette lighter flame against it. H* later bought that rug and there were jokes that she’d taken his display model, and that all his other silk rugs were flammable. Then H somehow found himself buying a rug after the man finally came down to his price, and we went on our way.
Sunday was designated ‘culture day’ and we headed off to look at some museums. The descriptions were all in French so I didn’t learn much, but the buildings were absolutely beautiful – incredible mosaics, intricate carvings in marble and plaster and, in the first museum, an absolutely enormous lamp (for want of a better word) suspended over the ceiling. But it was cold and raining, and the appeal rapidly wore off and H and I went back to the hotel to wrap ourselves in blankets and read.
After I’d finished my rather interesting, but not-very-well-structured book, Ruth Ozeki’s ‘My Year of Meat’, we roused ourselves and went out to the souk to buy some wooden boxes. We found a store that we’d seen on the first day, and the man, who of course was friendly and engaging, quoted a price that was, as usual, 4 times H’s asking price. So they haggled and H got tense and so I got stressed, and H said the man’s price wasn’t worth it and reluctantly, I agreed, so we walked out, then got called back again and the man threw in a free wooden turtle – as if that would have made us any more susceptible – and we eventually walked away with three boxes at what I thought was a decent price. However H was fuming because of the emotional manipulation, and I said I would rather have parted with the money, because it meant so little to us, than have got stressed out, and this is the reason why I cannot haggle at all; it’s just too emotionally destabilising. And H said the money probably went to men like the portly rug man and his explications while his woman went blind, and I had to concede this was true.
On the way back we bought a kilo of dried apricots and began to eat them at the hotel. I started ‘The House of Sleep’ by Jonathon Coe which was rubbish - a very obvious and clichéd book - and H finished my novel which, to my immense relief, he enjoyed. However the apricots resulted disastrously in the emanation of noxious fumes - though I am sure H’s were far worse than mine - and, in the morning, an outbreak of hives across my neck, chest and ankles. Why do hives always appear at one’s extremities? The last outbreak, caused by a Holiday Insect in Perth which bit my toe, and which was far worse than this one, produced red welts that bloomed across my feet, the insides of my arms, my neck, my calves and my cheeks. I had to go to the chemist looking like a domestic violence victim, though the prepubescent Asian boy behind the counter very wisely offered a packet of Telfast for hives.
On the last day it was no longer raining, but it was cold, and my bikini remained in my suitcase. P bounded into our room at 9.30am, when we were struggling awake, asking if we wanted to go into the mountains. We ended up in the offices of Sahara Tours, and I stared idly at the map on the wall while conversations circled about me. ‘What are they saying?’ I asked H and he replied, ‘They say that if we go to the snow we’ll slip off the road and fall into a ravine.’ ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘We had better not go to the snow then.’ However we did end up going to the snow. ‘What about the ravines?’ I asked H. ‘I was making that up,’ he admitted, ‘they were talking in French.’
We rattled off to the mountains in an ancient minibus (H and I wearing our entire wardrobe to keep warm), and there was snow, and it was beautiful. The locals said it hadn’t snowed like that for 10 years. We drove slowly up windy roads and H* sat grim-faced on the back seat. There were ravines, but I didn’t look into them. We stopped off in a village for a snowfight, then drove on to another village and had another tajine for lunch. The Morrocon Atkins diet was becoming very trying by this stage, especially as I hadn’t even lost weight. We braved the local loos, and the man outside responsible for cleaning them asked for 1DH but we had no coins. When he spoke to H* she came away with the most incredible and fascinating look of disdain. Someone else repaid the man with 5DH, so all was good. A tour guide met us in this village and we drove up more snowy hairpins to reach another village. We piled out and began walking up a slippery hillside. The snow reached our knees and my feet froze in my inadequate, unwaterproofed sneakers. H joined in with some local kids sliding down the side of a hill on their backs. I unwisely shoved P and ended up being ground into the snow. And we made snow angels.
At the top we were led to a café and rewarded with cups of tea. We found an old, incomplete pack of cards and played Shithead. K discovered a copy of Heat and declared ‘I’m staying.’ Then we put our sodden shoes back on (having exchanged them at the door for draughty slippers) and slid back down the mountain. Part way down there was a half-grown dog outside a house, wriggling with delight at seeing all these people. Its shiny black coat was startling against the snow. In the van on the way home we also had some men with us from the village who needed a lift. We passed the local taxi, crammed with about ten men, one of whom was sitting on the driver as he drove.
In the evening we wandered into the market and had a glass of ‘fire water’ which had something that tasted like chilli in it, though gathering by the conversation that we’d had with one of the sellers the night before, it was probably more like ginseng. ‘Hey,’ said the seller, ‘you drink this and it will make you more manly.’ ‘Really?’ H replied. ‘I had a glass and a half last night and mine was like this,’ and he crooked his little finger and I burst out laughing. ‘You need to drink more, to make the woman happy,’ the man continued and slipped his arm around my waist, and as I gently extricated myself I knew that H was thinking, as I was, that this wasn’t the time to explain to the man that we were brother and sister. So we tried the fire water, which was scooped out of a big tub of what looked like chocolate fudge (of which H had had a tablespoon a few evenings before, thinking it was the real thing, but instead got a mouthful of flour and spices) and sat on a little bench. A small boy of about 4 with snot running out of his nose came up to us with a pack of dirty cards which I think he was trying to sell to us. D spoke to him in French and the kid was as sharp as a tack, because he was able to convey to us that Dad, who was manning the stall from which we’d bought our drinks, had had too much Jack Daniels to drink, a fact that was in evidence when Dad shouted belligerently at the bloke at the adjacent stall.
We flew out the next morning and, though I’d found the people lovely and unthreatening, the architecture beautiful, the shopping good (though stressful) and the absence of a Starbucks most refreshing, I was very pleased to get home to a cup of PG Tips.