Africa, Travel

Salaam Aleikum, My Lover: A Guinean Experience

This piece was first published in the Intrepid Times.

“So, why do you want to come to Guinea?” the man at the border said, fingers intertwined and settling back in his chair for a long explanation.

“Just to see it, really. For tourism”

“Ahh, tourism”, it seemed he was not overly familiar, or at the very least not satisfied with our explanation.

“But why?”

My boyfriend and I shot confused looks at each other. We were well-practiced in denying bribes and shaking off the most persistent of street hagglers, but explaining the concept of tourism to an immigration official was an exciting twist in our daily routine of shit-talking.

“To see…(I struggled to think of a particular sight mentioned in Lonely Planet’s guide to West Africa), the waterfalls?”

A smile flickered on his lips, and quickly disappeared. “You don’t have waterfalls in your country?”

“Well, yes we do. But your waterfalls are different.”

“So you just want to see the waterfalls and then go?”

Panic set in, our Guinea visas, already paid for and sitting proudly in our passports, had been the most expensive of all the West African countries by a long shot. Were we about to get turned away over the intricacies of waterfalls?

“We want to meet the people of Guinea as well.”

A clear mistake.

“I’m from Guinea, you’ve met me. Now you can go”

The tiniest tease of a smile again. Was this guy for real? Ticking boxes and stamping passports was clearly too easy a job for a young, university educated man like him. Was all of this just an antidote to the endless boredom of sitting in a tin shack under the relentless sun waiting for drug traffickers?

“I see white people coming through here, Chinese people and what do they want from Guinea? To take pictures? To look and go home? What is the point? Why do you do it?”

It was not a bad-natured question, he wasn’t angry, but he was….perturbed. Why did we want to come to Guinea? Why did we want to go anywhere? Why are humans hard-wired to feel unsatisfied by the comfort and routine of home to the point where people travel to the other side of the world, look at things for a bit and then go back to the comfort and routine they so despised just a few weeks or months previous? The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous it seemed.

No answer, or at least not a succinct one came bubbling to the surface of either of our heat-addled brains.

“We need to go through Guinea to get to Côte d’Ivoire” we said, defeated.

“Ah, I see” the official said. And with a few ticks and stamps, he shook our hands, wished us well and sent us on our way.

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The jungle, Guinean highlands

In a way, it was the best possible introduction. Guinea doesn’t seem to get much credit as a travel destination by either foreigners or people who live there. Although, admittedly, Conakry might have something to do with that. The writers at Lonely Planet, whose job it is to convince people that even the most diabolical cultural sinkholes are worthy of a visit, describe it as a “mess of crumbling buildings, pollution, rubbish and traffic jams”, which to be honest, is putting it mildly.

There’s nary another African capital that gets as much of a bad wrap as Conakry, and on the surface, it’s easy to see why. Smoke rises lazily from veritable volcanos of burning roadside rubbish. The sound of generators and heavy bass from the city’s many nightclubs reverberate down the streets til the early hours. Power comes and goes as it sees fit, and even high level office buildings and embassies have to deal with the constant strobe effect of the tempestuous power grid. A simple drive around the city is a test of both driving prowess and mental fortitude as you weave your way in and out of traffic jams, past toppled trucks and run the gamut of bribe-seeking gendarmerie. In saying that, it’s an awful lot of fun.

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A rare spot of cleanliness in Conakry

Guinea was the epicentre of the catastrophic 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak.  Now the country has recovered, you get the sense that while people might still feel like things are a bit shitty, it could be a hell of a lot worse. It’s a joy in any country to walk the streets alone as a woman and feel safe, and in Conakry I did. No one tried to drag me into their shop, no one made lewd gestures, I received several jovial ‘bon arrivees’ and a very discreet marriage proposal at a phone shop and that was it. Delightful. At night, the streets of Conakry come alive as people spill out of the myriad nightclubs and start their own parties in the street, sucking on shots of bitter cola, served (like everything in West Africa) in tiny plastic bags. We went for a late night stumble to a burger bar and were swamped with jolly, slightly pissed locals wanting to translate for us. The French word for hamburger is, helpfully, hamburger, so we didn’t really need the assistance, but we appreciated it all the same.

Guinea isn’t big on sights, there are no impressive monuments to tick off, and many of the best things to see are hopelessly under-advertised. (A visit to the Keita Fodeba Acrobatic Cebtre is a guaranteed unforgettable experience, yet the centre receives barely any funding or publicity, definitely check it out if you go). The singular museum we visited in Boké consisted of two rooms, a handful of empty and cracked glass cabinets and some wooden carvings. There were no signs or labels but there were several stickers plastered around the place indicating that the museum has been created with financial help from a German organization, which presumably hadn’t visited for some time. As such Guinea’s real allure is in the highlands, but once you’re there it’s hard to imagine a more idyllic place.

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A performer at the Keita Fodeba Acrobatic Centre

The driving in the highlands is slow. Ruts and potholes are so deep they scrape your side mirrors, but the deep red of the long dirt roads against so many layers of green is pure perfection. Mango trees hang heavy with fruit, villagers nap in the shade of palm-thatched lean-tos, and giant yellow school buses shipped from America reading ‘DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA’ trundle past neighborhoods of traditional round huts.

You’d be hard-pressed to find friendlier or more genuine people than those in rural Guinea. The religious tolerance is such that it’s not uncommon to see a woman in full niqab carrying her shopping past a group of topless breastfeeding mothers. It’s live and let live, an advert in acceptance the West could well learn a few lessons from. If you go, stretch your waving wrist at the start of the day, and prepare to say dozens of bonjours, ca vas and salaam aleikums an hour. People often yelled “les blancs!” or the local phrase for ‘white people’ at us, but it was more out of surprise than anything else. Need to pull over and stretch your legs? Get ready to shake the hand of everyone in a half kilometer radius. Fancy a quick local restaurant meal? Fix that grin on your mug because you’ll be posing for approximately 500 photos with the restaurant owner, who may or may not mistake you for another white woman who visited seven years previous. No one wants money, everyone wants hand shakes, fist bumps, a chance to practice their English, or just to share a joke. It feels like an olden day Africa that barely exists on the rest of the continent, and it’s fabulous.

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Highland hitchhiking

There are half a dozen beautiful waterfalls scattered around the Fouta Djalon region, but we went to the Chutes de Saala. It was at Saala Falls where we met Razak, the joint-puffing, dreadlocked son of the local Imam. Razak had two wives, one in his village, and one, inexplicably in Philadelphia.

There were a few other overlanders parked up while we were at the falls, and one night an acoustic guitar appeared. It soon fell into the hands of a gleeful Razak, who didn’t know a single chord, but was such an enthusiastic musician and on-the-spot lyricist you really couldn’t fault his performances.

There were many songs stretched over a couple of nights, but the most memorable  was a rousing rendition of ‘Salaam Aleikum, My Lover’ a repetitive but highly theatrical 17 minute experience.

It went something like this:

We are the white people. We are the black people.

I have a wife. What is the business.

I gotta get my money baby! You gotta get your money baby!

Salaam aleikum my lover, aleikum salaam.

Razak said he caused a minor scandal in his fathers village every time the two of them were spotted in the same car, conservative elderly locals shocked to see their religious leader sharing airspace with an unapologetic Rasta. I wondered what Razak’s father would have thought of the rasping, jaunty musical masterpiece that was ‘Salaam Aleikum My Lover’, a song which is still stuck in my head to this day.

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Razak with a polaroid of the Saala Falls gang

There are so many experiences to be had in a place like Guinea that you simply can’t put in a guidebook or rate on TripAdvisor. Generally, ‘washing your undies in the river while the locals laugh at your appalling technique’ does not slide gracefully into a listicle, and yet it’s those experiences on any trip that far outshine any museum, monument or slickly organized group tour.

Why did we want to come to Guinea, and why exactly did we enjoy it so much? I’m pretty sure I still couldn’t sum it up elegantly enough to satisfy Guinea’s most diligent immigration official, but that’s all part of the magic.

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Europe, Travel

8 great reasons to get your ass to Albania

Long skirted women catch rides on the back of their husbands pushbikes in the rain. Farmers use scythes and wear suits to work. Everyone waves at everyone and people don’t lock their doors. You can’t buy a Big Mac, a Whopper or a skinny frap’ at Starbucks but you can buy hard liquor at a petrol station.

Thanks to prolonged and vicious bout of communism that finished only relatively recently, most of Albania feels like the rest of the world probably felt in the 50s, but the vintage vibe is no bad thing. There are dozens, but here are eight excellent reasons to get yourself to Albania ASAP.

The nature

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Lake Koman

Small but perfectly formed, the Albanian landscape has it all, and is bound to make you wonder, often and loudly, why there aren’t a million other people there exploring it with you. Nevermind, the lack of camera flashes and fanny packs en masse makes the lakes, springs, beaches and mountain passes all the more serene. Catch a boat trip around untouched Lake Koman, it’s a guaranteed gasp-at-every-turn type situation, firstly because of its incredible beauty, and secondly because there’s a goat farmer waving at you from an perilously located clifftop cottage. How did he get there? What does he eat other than goats? It’s all part of the mystery. Theth, with its silence, grazing horses and mountain villages is storybook perfection. Prefer the beach? Head south along the Albanian rivièra and park up at one of the dozens of rustic (read: slightly abandoned) beach towns. Find the right spot and you might only be jostling for sand space with some friendly stray dogs or the occasional cow. The water is so clear you can see the flicker of a gill from 10 metres. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?

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Theth

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The Albanian Riviera

The people

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That time we were invited to a 30th birthday party on Lake Koran

If you’ve been served by one too many French waiters, you’ll know the value of feeling truly wanted in the country you’re in. When the Albanians say ‘welcome’ they really, honestly mean it. Cops pull you over just to shake your hand and tell you to have a nice time. Farmers invite you in for coffee if they find you camping in their paddock. From cities and towns to the most remote locations, the warmth and generosity of Albanians is such a constant you might find yourself questioning whether there’s a catch, there isn’t. Sit down with a glass or seven of raki (grape whisky that tastes like fire), hit the hardwood d-floor to some Albanian folk music and get to know some of the most memorable characters you’re likely to encounter in your travels.

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Sick dance moves on display

The price

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100 Lek to visit the Blue Eye Spring

Albania is outrageously cheap. Tourism is still a developing industry, which means shiny new hostels in the cities will only set you back about €6-7 a night, and guesthouses in the regions will be even less. A fancy, several dish dinner with drinks? €6-8 per person. Entrance to most museums and historical sites peaks at an outrageous 200 lek (€1.50). We hired a car from Shkodra for €11 a day, and the guy from the company dropped it off for free (told you they were nice).

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200 Lek to visit the stunning Rozafa castle in Shkodra

Freedom camping

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Setting up camp in Theth

Albania is one of those rare and delightful countries where free camping appears to be either completely legal, or at the very least people simply don’t care whether you do it or not. Pitch up at the beach, in the mountains or on the shore of a lake, you might even get some curious young visitors and their goat herd thrown in as a bonus. The hospitality of Albanians can’t be overstated, so if you’re wandering around looking lost, expect to be invited to camp on someone’s driveway or stay at their house.

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Glamping(?) in Borsh

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Seat for two near Lake Koman

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Campfire time in Theth

The food

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A €12 meal (including drinks) in Shkodra

The phrase ‘cut off from the world for 50 years’ isn’t one that usually gets your tastebuds tingling, but trust me, the food in Albania is delicious. It’s a country of farmers, so expect plenty of protein. You might struggle to find a two inch thick rib-eye, but what Albanian meat lacks in quality is made up for in quantity, marinade and a shitload of charcoal. Albanian cuisine is also greatly influenced by Greek and Italian food, which means you’ll be able to enjoy delicious souvlaki or a moon-sized pizza for a fraction of the usual price. Love coffee? Prepare for the inevitable but worth it onset of insomnia while you sip your 5th €1 cappuccino in the sun.

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Delicious gyros in Berat

Old stuff

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Berat Old town

If like me, you love a crumbly building or two, Berat and  Gjirokaster are the spots for you. Wind in and out of antique shops in the old town of Berat, and marvel at the driving skills of Gjirokaster locals as they manoeuvre up cobbled hills so narrow an overweight donkey would struggle to get through. You can watch a 360 degree sunset over Shkoder from Rozafa castle, or bike to the city outskirts to check out the Mes bridge. It’s just a bridge, but the ride takes you through a bit of countryside, and the myriad cheerful greetings yelled from the roadside or passing cars makes for a guaranteed 24 hour smile on your dial. If you’re after some not so ancient history you can head to the compact but excellent Site of Witness and Memory Museum in Shkodra to learn about the brutalities of communist Albania, or Bunk’art in Tirana – one of the thousands of underground bunkers built by paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha, which has been turned into a gallery/museum.

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Berat

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View from Rozafa Castle, Shkodra

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Mes Bridge, Shkodra

New stuff

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The Pyramid, Tirana

While much of Albania’s charm lies in the fact that it’s a bit of a time portal, you’ll still be able to get your cosmopolitan on in the big (ish) cities. Like a lop-sided muffin or one of those weird hairless dogs, the capital Tirana has an ugly but endearing charm. In an effort to make the admittedly hideous Communist apartment blocks look more appealing, Tirana’s former mayor set about painting them in more cheerful colours. The paint has faded a bit in some spots, meaning you can pass peeling pastels as you stroll from The Pyramid (the graffitied hangout spot for Tirana’s teens) to the flashy ‘New Market’ square. There are guys with twirly moustaches there, so you know it’s the real deal. The second biggest town of Shkoder also boasts a pretty cobbled pedestrian street where all the cool young things go to eat and drink.

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Pedestrian street, Shkodra

(Mostly) undiscovered 

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Lake Koman

For the greedy traveller, the best part of all of this is that you’ll barely have to share Albania with any other tourists. The rare lots of visitors won’t come in gigantic tour buses meaning the all-important photo album won’t be full of hats with neck-flaps. The lack of tourist dollars, of course, is not that great for the economy, and the Albanian government is putting a lot of effort into getting the numbers up. Metallic beachside resorts are starting to pop up in the south, and the fact many young Albanians speak excellent English will surely be a drawcard for those terrified of four syllable greetings.

Albania has transformed itself in just the last few decades, and it’s bound to change even more, so you’d better get there before everyone else gets the same idea.

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Theth

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The Blue Eye Spring

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Butrint

 

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Africa, Travel

7 must-sees in majestic Morocco

It’s vibrant, stinky and beautiful. Its captivating and frustrating in equal measure. It’s also got a hell of a lot more to offer than souks and sand. For most, the mental image of Morocco is really an image of Marrakech, but the temperature and the people get a lot more pleasant outside of the biggest city. Here are my favourite spots from a one month driving tour around the land of mint tea, tagines and terrifying driving.

Essaouira

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A hippies paradise, chilled out Essaouira definitely isn’t the tourist-free zone it once was, but if you like sea breezes and taking it so slow you’re barely moving, it’s the place for you. The hub of Essaouira is it’s seaside medina, and if you’ve been staying in a comparative firepit like Marrakech for a while a good slap to the face with a fishy gust of wind will do you no end of good. GOT fans can walk in the footsteps of the Mother of Dragons at the old ramparts, or you could spend your days bartering at the 1001 market stores. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that you don’t get verbally abused if you choose not to buy anything, and you may even find yourself purchasing a charming watercolour from a local artist who claims to know Cat Stevens (there really are a lot of hippies there). Those with a car can take a 20 minute drive out of town to check out south-west Morocco’s famous tree climbing goats, which are just as comical as they sound.

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*side note – Essaouira has tried to market itself to the surfing crowd, and while the wind makes it a good spot for kitesurfers, those who like their water more blue than beige might be disappointed. Head to Taghazout if you want to hang 10.

Taghazout

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In a country that’s often so hot it feels like your vital organs could melt out of any given orifice at any second, it’s a relief to find somewhere you can spend the whole day in the water and enjoy it. Morocco has countless beaches, but very few of them benefit from being clean enough to swim in without worrying you’re going to get tangled in fishing wire like an unfortunate seagull from a Greenpeace ad. Paradise Valley is a 20 minute drive from the small surf town of Taghazout, and it lives up to its name. Turquoise waters, private lagoons and cliff jumping spots to cater for all levels of insanity. There are multiple ways of getting there – some hostels in the area can take you out for the day, you can get a taxi where the drivers waits while you take a dip, although the best option is driving yourself. Pack a picnic and between the shuttle loads it’s likely you’ll have the place all to your little old self. Like the beaches, it’s not pristine, and if you come from a place where simply leaving an entire tagine at a waterhole isn’t commonplace, you might find it a little frustrating. The solution is to always take your own rubbish out, and if you can manage it, a bag of some other people’s rubbish too. Be the change you want to see and so on. Some people only do a day trip to Paradise Valley from a far away city, but I’d recommend booking a night in Taghazout to really make the most of it. It’s a tiny, colourful village where the water isn’t beige and the waves are surfable. Adventurekeys Hostel does a cracking breakfast and dinner, and does surf + yoga packages if you really want to zen the heck out.

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Tizi n Test Pass

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If you’ve been to Morocco and didn’t get hopelessly lost, did you really go? This rule applies to both the sprawling medinas and the roads throughout the country which do not correspond all that well with the easy-peasy instructions provided by Google maps. The Tizi n Test pass was the road we found ourselves on while lost on the way to Marrakech, and I don’t regret a second. The pass is a glittering example of Morocco’s highly unenthusiastic approach to health and safety. Overloaded trucks teeter along the edge of a 50 metre drop, the road is walled in some parts, in others it crumbled away some millenia ago and at certain corners the construction of life-preserving barriers was clearly just going to be too much hassle. Compete for road space with herds of goats that scamper to scale up the cliff face (watch your head, they might start a mini avalanche), and stop for tea at one of the cafés that looks like it’s balancing on the edge of the universe. If you have a crippling fear of heights, don’t worry, all that bile in your throat will disappear when you reach the next lookout. The view really is that good.

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Cascade d’Ouzoud

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Ok, the water is brown, and the sign says no swimming, but that’s probably just the dirt at the bottom and since when does anyone in Morocco read signs. Multi-levelled and glorious, Cascade d’Ouzoud, or Ouzoud Falls to tourists, is quite the sight. It’s a short walk down a mud track to get there (don’t pay a guide to take you or park in a paid car park, you don’t need to) and it’s likely you’ll meet a few cheeky macaques (tail-less monkeys) on the way. Once at the bottom take a moment to enjoy the thundering rush of water before jumping in yourself. You can swim behind the falls, or pay a guy on a boat to take you if you really don’t like muddy water. Then sit back and watch the locals fling themselves from the highest point. Unlike Paradise Valley, the climb up to the jumping spots is extremely slippery, and probably only worth doing if you have toes like a macaque. Get there before midday and it’s likely you’ll be the only tourists there. The falls are pretty amazing from every angle, so it’s worth walking up and down the stairs to get that perfect ‘gram.

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Atlas Mountains

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Another ‘thank god we got lost’ spot if you’re silly enough to drive through it is the Atlas Mountains. It’s a famous hiking destination, but if you’ve got limited time, or you’re just lazy, driving guarantees the highest number of jaw drops per hour. Crawl your way down gravel roads lined with mud houses. Wave like royalty as the kids in off-the-map Berber villages trail behind you on their donkeys. It’s not often you feel truly alone in Morocco, but sitting on the peaks of the multicoloured mountaintops that stretch for miles in each direction may well have you feeling you’re the only person left on earth. That is until a friendly local appears out of nowhere offering tea. Due to the state of the roads it is very unwise to do this drive in anything other than a 4WD, we did in a Fiat Punto and only just made it out alive.

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Chefchaouen

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If you ask a Moroccan about their favourite place to visit in the country, most will say Chefchaouen. Turquoise-tinged and visually stunning, Chefchaouen also has a refreshingly relaxed vibe most probably due by the enormous amount of weed grown in the region. If you’re there for a couple of days, spend the first wandering around the bright blue medina and snapping to your hearts content, then head up to the Spanish mosque on the mountainside to watch the sun go down. On day 2 head to Cascade d’Ackchour. Depending on the season, you might not see a waterfall, but there’ll still be crystal clear pools to take a dip in. Taxi vans regularly make the trip from the centre of Chefchaouen to the falls and if you’re lucky your driver will swing by the vast fields of marijuana the Rif Valley is famous for. There’s so much of it you could grab a handful as a souvenir, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

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Erg Chebbi Desert

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It’s a cliche, but a camel trek in the Sahara really is a must do. Watching the sun reflect off dunes the size of a small town while your camel farts and grunts it’s way to the next camp is truly surreal. If you can, do a 2 night trek with some sandboarding thrown in. As previously mentioned, health and safety requirements don’t appear to exist in Morocco, so your guide will have no qualms about shoving you down the side of a 100 foot dune on a pair of old skis. You’re guaranteed to remember the experience because a) it’s really fun and b) you’ll be picking sand out of your scalp for approximately the rest of your life. By night sit under the stars and share bad jokes with your guide. Moroccan men love their hash, so if your guide has bought their own stash for the trip (highly likely), it’s bound to be a memorable night.

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Other ramblings

Thinking

Today I started thinking, which in itself is a relatively benign thing to do, unless of course you are a woman with a tendency to overthink. Thanks to my own informal research I’ve found that that is most of us. I thought about how maybe I’m not writing enough, a guilty, lingering sort of thought that crept up my spine like a particularly persistent weed. That thought led to another, am I writing less because I haven’t got enough time to do it, or because I’m getting stupider? Is stupider even a word? I don’t know because I’m obviously getting stupider. A stupid person with not enough time to work on being less stupid.

Then I thought, perhaps I should make more time for writing and less time for watching repeats of Girl Code, which is almost definitely a major contributor to the stupid problem. But then when would I actually relax? Surely even the greatest writers have some down time. Their minds cannot be a constant whir of synonyms and sibilance and so forth or they’d go mad and end all of their stories with the protagonist waking up and realizing the entire plot was a dream and other such shite. But what if they do do that? I wouldn’t know because great writers probably don’t watch Girl Code.

In fact they probably don’t even have a television. Great writers tend to think that popular television is puss. And while I’m in almost complete agreement, I watch it anyway. Should I get rid of the television? I thought, until realizing the television is not even mine because I’m poor. Great writers often tend to start out poor, so perhaps I’ve already taken the first step.

Then I thought, perhaps I should read more. Great writers also tend to read, but that leaves less time for writing. Perhaps they sacrifice other parts of their day, bathing perhaps. I imagine great writers to be disheveled. They take their fortnightly bath with a cigarette and a well-worn Dickens. They have a yellow spot on the ceiling from the smoke and Marlene Dietrich echoing down the hallway. This means in order to really become a great writer I shall have to take up smoking, baths and Dickens, all of which I think are a bit rubbish, Dickens in particular. The smoking would also be tricky because by the time I’ve bought a years’ worth of cigarettes I won’t have enough money for a bath. I imagine smoking in the shower is neither glamorous nor particularly successful.

But what does it matter if I don’t have the right look? We know writers by the way of a tiny thumbnail and a line dedicating the book ‘To Larissa’ even though we’ll never know whether Larissa is a former flame, a grandmother or a cat.

Maybe I need to get a cat, they seem like a writers animal. Happy to lounge all day while you tearfully destroy Page 1 for the 23rd time, indifferent. They don’t need you but you need them, that is the stuff of great writing. Torment, pain, longing. I’m allergic to cats though, so maybe I’ll just have to write something another day.

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