Arriving abroad….

The tower of the Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech.
The tower of the Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech.

Don’t you just love that moment when, having left behind a dull and breezy spring day in the UK, your flight Captain announces that the local temperature is 39 degrees?

We landed in Marrakech-Menara airport at 8.40pm. It was already getting dark, but the heat that hit us as we stepped off the plane was almost tropical. The muffled voices echoing around the Arrivals hall were mostly speaking French, and signs in French and Arabic added to that lovely feeling you get when you’ve just arrived somewhere new and exciting. After the compulsory visit to the loo, we joined the queue for passport control (had my passport stamped – yay!) and went to collect our suitcase from the carousel. Then changed British money into Moroccan Dirhams, and headed out to our transfer driver, Faisal, who had been waiting patiently.

The roads of modern Marrakech are wide and busy; while Faisal told us all about the trips he would be happy to arrange for us, we watched as modern buildings, billboards and palm trees sped past in the dark, and we clung on to our seats as Faisal cut up every vehicle that tried to pass us on either side. Marrakech – so far – looked nothing like I expected, until Faisal pointed out the approaching walls of the Medina (the old town) looming in front of us. We pulled into an entrance to the city at exactly the same time as about 3 other vehicles, all with horns blaring, but Faisal, un-phased, just continued his commentary, narrowly missing a parked donkey cart. This was the Marrakech I’d imagined: increasingly narrow streets, tight corners, roads lit by lights radiating from tiny shops and stalls, boys on bikes, old men sitting on the pavements, dark doorways, and noise – everywhere, noise: car horns, bicycle bells, cart wheels, motor bike engines, shouting…..

Suddenly we stopped, and in the same breath as pointing out his ‘Travel Agency’ close by (“…where I will meet you first thing in the morning to book all your excursions…”), Faisal was barking instructions and passing our luggage to a teenage boy who turned and started walking off down a smaller lane, among several cyclists and people pushing carts along through the dark alleys.

Tiny alleyways to get to the Riad...very strange in the dark!
Tiny alleyways to get to the Riad…very strange in the dark!

We hastily tipped Faisal and followed after the boy, turning into smaller lanes and then yet smaller and darker ones. A group of young children crouching on the corner watched silently as we passed.

 

The doorway to our wonderful Riad.
The doorway to our wonderful Riad.

Finally we were at an impressive, open doorway. The sign above showed we’d arrived at the Riad El Youssoufi, and a young man of about 27 was standing in the warm light just inside. “Welcome,” he said, “and mind your heads!” Julien took our luggage from the boy and stood back to let us stoop carefully down into the calm, cool oasis that was to be our home for the next 6 days…..

A typical alleyway in the Medina of Marrakech
A typical alleyway in the Medina of Marrakech

There’s something very magical about that first couple of hours when you arrive at a foreign destination. Something extra special about that first sniff of foreign air, that sensation of being in a different climate, the sound of a different language being spoken; seeing signs in different alphabets, faces with different features, cafes serving different food. As you leave the airport for your hotel in a car, taxi, minibus or coach, you see different shops, different brand names above petrol stations, unfamiliar road signs and place names, buildings that could be schools, clinics, libraries, police stations. Or you take the metro, watching locals get on and off, immediately recognising you as a tourist with your map and suitcase, as you pass through stations with unfamiliar names.

The beautiful central courtyard of the Riad El Youssoufi.

Then you arrive at your hotel or lodging with a feeling of trepidation. Will it be as nice in real life as it was in the photos? Have they given you a decent room? All the other guests know their way around and look at your untanned skin and travel-crumpled clothes (flight socks under sandals – good look!) with curiosity as they amble through the lobby on their way to the pool/the nightclub/dinner.

The view from the bathroom.
The view from the bathroom.

You spend half an hour unpacking the essentials, finding places for everything, checking out the bathroom, reading any guest information, logging on to wifi, locking and unlocking the safe (if you have one) – not sure how much cash to keep on you for your first night, not sure where to keep your camera/ipod/documents….Within a couple of days, it will all be familiar; your room will feel like home, and you will know exactly where to go for a bottle of water/the best spot by the pool/some great local street food.

But for now, it’s all out there, waiting to be explored, waiting to be discovered…..exciting, uplifting, exotic; and you relish that tingle of expectancy that runs through you as the adventure begins.

 

Where did my wanderlust come from?

We never had lots of money when I was young – we certainly weren’t poor, but family holidays tended to involve staying with relatives, or in a caravan on the south coast. I never felt I was missing out as a child; until I was in my teens, I didn’t really know anyone who went abroad on holiday.

I'll never get tired of this view....!
I’ll never get tired of this view….!

When I was very young, we lived for a few years in my grandparents’ home. This was great – I had wonderful aunties and uncles around who spoilt me rotten – and a Nana and Grandad who were EXACTLY what a good Nana and Grandad should be; Nana would take me to the bottom of the garden to feed the chickens and collect the eggs, and Grandad would sit me on his knee, and tell me about his travels. He smelt of tobacco and I used to love looking at the tattoos on his arms.

Grandad

My Grandad, and his eldest son (my Uncle Dave), were both in the Navy, and the house was full of special treasures from all over the world: carved ivory (I know, I know – not something any of us would want to buy now), dark wooden tribal masks, and my favourite of all – a tiny, delicate Chinese tea set, made with china so fine that it was almost transparent; when you tipped it up, the face of a Chinese lady appeared in the base of the cup!  Grandad must have told me about the places he’d been to buy such treasures, and although I don’t remember any stories in particular, I think he must have unlocked something deep within me.

I was also an avid reader, and my favourite books of all were tales from other lands. Tales from Scandinavia, where it was always twilight and the silent, snowy land was ruled by evil Ice Queens. Oriental stories of dragons and pagodas, and Folk tales from central and eastern Europe, full of tiny villages nestling among forested mountain sides inhabited by wolves. Stories from Africa or South America, where witch doctors danced around fires, and concocted strange herbal potions; and tales from the Middle East, where a dusky-skinned princess gazed out across endless deserts, waiting for an Arab prince to come galloping up to her marble palace (on a jet black stallion, of course), where he would summon a Djinn to create a magic carpet and whisk her away to a sultry oasis (I particularly liked this scenario…!). In my mind I would imagine myself there, the warm breeze playing through the leaves of the date palms, a subtle hint of incense carried across the sand, and the dark sky pierced by millions of the brightest twinkling stars….

A typical alleyway in the Medina of Marrakech
A typical alleyway in the Medina of Marrakech

At junior school, my somewhat romanticised view of All Things Foreign was brought down to earth by a series of geography programmes on TV, which we watched occasionally during lessons. They showed us what life was like for children living in dusty villages in Africa, in jungle clearings in South America, and in Inuit communities in the Arctic. I was fascinated by how similar – yet how different – their lives were to mine. I wondered what it would be like to have to catch or gather your food each day, to wear heavy animal skins to keep warm or to wear as little as possible to keep cool. I tried to imagine having to keep an eye out for tarantulas, snakes or polar bears all the time. Their lives were worlds apart from mine, but I found every detail and every difference fascinating.

The Great Big World Out There suddenly came within my grasp when a schoolfriend’s next door neighbour, who was a teacher at another school, was taking a group of pupils on a trip to Paris. My friend and I were offered places on the trip to fill up the seats, and this meant that I would leave England for the very first time in my life. For a 13-year-old with a serious motion sickness problem, the journey (by coach and ferry) was horrendous. But every second of heaving into paper bags was worth it as we drove along the Peripherique – the Paris equivalent of the M25 – and I experienced a life-changing moment: there, in the distance, if I craned my neck and squinted through the sunlight, I could – just – make out the iconic shape of the Eiffel Tower….

THE EIFFEL TOWER!!! I had seen hundreds of photos of it, seen it represented in paintings, and watched programmes on TV about it. But this was the Real Thing – I was in France – in Paris – without anyone else from my family – and I could see the real, actual, proper Eiffel Tower!

It was a great trip, full of little experiences and discoveries that completely overwhemed me: they call chips ‘frites’! Their money is different! They drive on the other side of the road! Their policemen wear funny hats! Everything about Paris impressed me so much that when I returned home I announced to everybody that I was going to live there when I was older…

In the seventies, package holidays offered a relatively cheap and easy way to visit the sun-drenched beaches of the Mediterranean, and suddenly people we knew were jetting off to Spain, returning with suntans, sombreros and almost life-sized straw donkeys. My parents seemed to be determined that we would continue with our annual family holidays to a beautiful seaside village in Devon, a little slice of English heaven called Branscombe, which I will always love;

but I was beginning to realise that there’s an awfully big and exciting world out there, and I desperately wanted to explore it. A family holiday abroad would cost more than my parents were willing to spend, but I saved up money from my Saturday job and put it towards another trip with my fiend’s neighbour’s school (this time to Belgium, with day trips to The Netherlands and Luxembourg), and then a Spanish exchange trip organised by my own school. Having now visited France, Belgium, Holland (we never called it The Netherlands in those days!), Luxembourg and Spain – and all without my parents – I felt like a regular little globetrotter!

Cocktail time!
Cocktail time!

When I was growing up, there was a TV advert that just got to me. It showed beautiful people arriving at the rooftop of a castle by hot air balloons, where they watch the sun go down across a beautiful landscape as they sipped their Martinis. The song hinted at a lifestyle full of the promise of luxury in special places: “Any time, any place, anywhere…there’s a wonderful world you can share…”. That was the life I wanted. There was an even better ad for Martini showing at cinemas – instead of balloons, the Beautiful People were meeting for sundowners on a secluded, rocky beach by seaplane. You saw the seaplanes skimming across a sparkling azure sea and soaring over a little archipelago before bobbing gently on the darkening water as the Beatiful People clinked their ice-filled Martini glasses and the sun slipped lower in the sky. Oh, heaven! This is how the Jet Set live!

I never had a hope in hell of belonging to the Jet Set while (a) I was still at school (and my Saturday job at the local greengrocer’s didn’t quite give me the millionaire’s lifestyle I wanted), and (b) I had never yet been on a plane! And then….”Why don’t we all go on holiday?….” said one of my friends, “….before we get to our final year and have loads of exams to do..?” So then we all started saving, all six of us – all girls; and we started planning The Best Holiday Ever…..(but that’s another story)!