A Not-so-Rough Guide to Morocco

It had been my dream to visit Africa. Any place would do as long it was classified within the continent. So much mystery and reactionary opinions surrounding a region. Add to it the socio-political connections between India and several African nations, a shared history of trade, immigration, decolonization and freedom struggle. I wanted to go to South Africa because of its connection with Mahatma Gandhi, Kenya to see the annual migrations, Botswana because of Precious Ramotswe, Namibia because Mad Max: Fury Road was shot there, Egypt because of the pyramids, Mali because of Timbuktu, the list is endless. Despite the increasing emphasis on India-Africa relations, it is not easy to fly into the region. Air connectivity is so unsatisfactory, it almost seems like a conspiracy to prevent tourists. Not that hordes are lining up to go. Many in India, a developing country aspiring to first-world status, believe that no country outside western Europe is worth visiting. Tell someone that you are travelling to Africa for fun, out of your own volition, and you will get looks of pure bewilderment. Fortunately for me, my family is game for all my unconventional suggestions and the three of us (my mum, brother and me) soon planned an 11 day trip to Morocco.

Why Morocco? Three reasons sealed the deal for me:

  • Fascinating mix of Arabic, Berber, French and Spanish influences
  • Good weather for travelling in October
  • It was in Africa

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Our flights landed and took off from Casablanca which is why our itinerary was a circuit starting and ending with Casa. Our first night was spent in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, which is 1.5 hour train ride from Casa. From Rabat we travelled to Tangier and onwards to Fes, via Chefchouen. From Fes we went on to Marrakech and then back to Casa. We didn’t plan a trip to the desert due to paucity of time. Travel itineraries of Morocco are usually divided into a northern circuit and a southern circuit, and it was a conscious decision on our part to combine elements of both.

For accommodation we primarily relied on Couchsurfing. We found unbelievably generous and welcoming hosts for four of the five cities we stayed in. In Marrakech we booked a room in a riad near Djemma el-Fnaa via airbnb. We actually had a CS host in Marrakech too but she, unfortunately, suffered an injury in a paragliding accident. Ouch!

Public transportation is a really good way to get around in Morocco. It is extensive, easy to use and really convenient. Most people take and recommend the trains run by ONCF. The other option are buses run by private companies. Most will recommend the buses run by CTM or Supratours. We sampled all but travelled predominantly by buses run by local companies. There is a steep price difference between the local company buses and the CTM bus/ONCF train, and not much of a difference in comfort. My mum found the local buses way more comfortable than both the train or CTM bus. I feel the advantage that local bus companies enjoy over CTM is that they usually take the interior roads so you get to see the Moroccan countryside that is not accessible from the highways. Also, CTM buses are filled only with tourists and I prefer to travel the local way. The advantage that travelling by bus offers over taking the train is that you are assured a seat and some form of air-conditioning. The disadvantage is that buses usually take two hours longer to cover the same distance and you have to pay extra for luggage. The downside of taking the local buses is that they are harder to figure out, primarily due to lack of information. Their service is less frequent and the bus stations are not always located in central spots.

For travel prep I read the Lonely Planet and lots of travel blogs. The Sheltering Sky and The Man Who Knew Too Much were the movies watched while my book choice was Tahir Shah’s In Arabian Nights, an account of the author’s travels in Morocco collecting stories. I didn’t get a chance to visit Dar Khalifa while in Casablanca though.

Should you visit Morocco? Absolutely! The people are amazing, food is delicious, it’s a wonderful, enchanting mixture of Africa and Europe. Long after you are back home, your heart will be wandering in a medina in Morocco.

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Stray thoughts:
1. The Moroccan embassy in New Delhi is not located in Sarvapriya Vihar, the address listed on its website. We found out the hard way after turning up at the aforementioned address, only to be told by the guard to go to Vasant Vihar.
2. In case of any doubts while filing in the visa application, feel free to email the embassy officials. They almost always reply.
3. Be prepared to have a lot of people shout Namaste at you as you wander about. This is the power of Bollywood. Also be prepared to have aforesaid persons sing really old Hindi songs for you. Example: Ram Jaane.
4. Communicating with people will be a problem if you are not fluent in Arabic or French. Not everyone speaks English. However, you will always find friendly people using a combination of English-French-sign language to help you find your way.
5. I read Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Happy Marriage during this trip.
6. Unlike in India, fellow passengers will freely share and accept food during journeys.
7. Haggling and bargaining should be a breeze for anyone used to the Indian system.
8. Tap water is potable.
9. Vegetarian options are available at almost all eating joints.
10. I was apprehensive after having read a lot of blog posts about female travellers being harassed but fortunately, we had only positive experiences.
11. Agent Vinod and Jagga Jasoos are the only two Indian movies to have been filmed in Morocco.

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The Banned Santhal

I hadn’t heard of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar until the Jharkhand state government’s decision to ban this book. Like most bans on books, this one too is inane for many reasons. The book was published in 2015 to critical acclaim. Most Adivasis, whose sentiment are supposed to be protected by this ban, are beyond the reach of this collection of short stories written in English. Many people, including me, hadn’t heard of the book (or the author) and this ban helped us discover Shekhar and his works. It piqued my curiosity enough to read a book that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

Adivasi is a collection of ten short stories, featuring Santhal women and men going about their lives. Most of the stories are written from the female point of view and shines a light on those who face double discrimination, by virtue of both their caste and gender. The prose is light and breezy, so much so that the atrocious events taking place don’t sink in until after long, because of the prosaic tone used to narrate them. Maybe this even, dispassionate tone is a ruse to help us swallow these hard truths easily, without choking on them. Most stories end abruptly and you are often left wondering about what happened next. It’s almost as if they exist in a vacuum, with no defined beginning, middle or end.

Shekhar’s stories are about ordinary people living extraordinary lives without realising that their lived experiences are not that of the mainstream. Or maybe the point Shekhar is making is that there is no mainstream; there is a Santhal reality and a very different urban Hindu reality. Our communities exist in isolated bubbles with hardly any meeting ground.

My favourite story is November is the Month of Migrations, which also happened to court the most controversy. It packs the most punch despite being only four pages long, and symbolises Shekhar’s style of calmly depicting the most heinous of atrocities. They Eat Meat! is surprisingly positive in an otherwise bleak milieu.

We outsiders are the real audience of Adivasi. It is our sentiments are meant to be hurt, our illusions of a free, progressive India that are meant to be shattered. This book shows us in a bad light, for turning a blind eye to those on the margins, for pretending that everything is good and normal. Read this book if you want an honest, authentic account of those you might have not thought about before.

Book: The Adivasi will not Dance
Author: Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Location: Jharkhand
Language: English

Home stay in the Himalayas

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A beehive inside a wooden cabinet at host Anoop Singh Rana’s house

A light drizzle started as our Traveller came to a halt at the side of a mountain. I groaned inwardly as I realised that we would be making the ascent to Bhangeli village in the rain. It took us close to an hour, with multiple rest stops in the middle, to cover the 1200 m distance over a steep but manageable stone paved path. All sixty odd members of our group took shelter in the primary school compound of the village. One by one we were introduced to the families that would be hosting us for the night (I stayed in the house of Mr. Anoop Singh Rana’s parents). After changing out of my wet clothes, and assessing the damage caused by not waterproofing myself and the backpack, I joined everyone, back in the school compound, for the dinner that had been prepared by the villagers. It was an organic, locally sourced, simple and yet simply delicious meal of rajma (red kidney beans), chapatis made of chaulai (amaranth seed) and mandua (finger millet), and mixed vegetables (beans, pumpkin, potatoes among others). I can’t remember the last time I had such a wholesome and satisfying meal outside of my own home.  Soon we were briefed about the next day’s program and then retired for the night. As I lay in bed, under three layers of blankets, I thought how we were midway through the trip and the real work was yet to start.

Been There, Doon That? is Dehradun-based group that organises heritage walks around the city and neighbouring areas. In mid-September 2017 BTDT organised a two day trip to a remote village in Uttarkashi district, Uttarakhand. This trip was part of a workshop conducted for the villagers of Bhangeli, introducing them to the concepts of homestays and responsible, sustainable tourism. We were to be the guinea pig tourists who would stay in their homes and who would be taken on treks around the village under their supervision and expertise.

Bhangeli is situated at about 8000 feet in the Garhwal Himalayas and is the starting point for the trail to the Gidara bugyal*. The trail itself, from Bhangeli to Gidara, is 8 kms long and the plan was to walk about one km of it. The first day was spent in reaching Uttarkashi from Dehradun. We were put up in Shri Kailash Ashram in Ujeli and spent the evening by the banks of the river Bhagirathi. Meals were provided by the ashram mess and we ate a dish made from raw bananas for dinner, something I hadn’t eaten before.

The second day started with a heritage walk around the city of Uttarkashi. It was ekadashi (the eleventh day of the lunar phase) and a fast was being observed at the ashram. Breakfast, therefore, comprised of a dish of potatoes and peanuts, another first! Our first stop on the walk the Kandar Devta temple. Kandar devta is the protector deity of Uttarkashi and hence this temple is located at the head of the marketplace. Incidentally, the old name of Uttarkashi was Bada Haat (big market) because it lay on an important trading route to Tibet. After the Kandar devta and Parshuram temples, we came to the main temple of the city, the Kashi Vishvanath temple. This is the important link between the cities of Uttarkashi and Varanasi. Both temples are dedicated to Lord Shiva and it is believed that if ever Lord Shiva has to leave his abode in Varanasi, he has a place to stay in this temple in the other kashi, Uttarkashi. Our next stop was the Ekadashi temple, built by Rajput kings. We then made our way to Manikarnika ghat (another similarity with Varanasi) on the banks of the river Bhagirathi and ended the heritage walk with the customary group photo.

After leaving Uttarkashi we travelled up the mountains and reached Gangnani, the nearest town to Bhangeli. Gangnani lies on the route to Gangotri and is a popular tourist spot because of its thermal springs. Two concrete tanks have been constructed, for the separate use by men and women, which collect the hot water from the spring so that people may bathe in them. After lunch at one of the river facing restaurants, constructed on stilts so that they were level with the road, we got back into our 12-seater Traveller and drove to the access point for Bhangeli village. Day 2 of the trip had started with the morning arti in Uttarkashi and ended in the quiet night of Bhangeli.

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Hot water spring at Gangnani, Uttarkashi

After a comfortable night’s sleep, we woke up bright and early and assembled in the school compound. The house I was put up in was almost the last house on the slope and it would take more than five minutes to cover the twenty or so metres to the school because of the gradient. We were divided into groups of 10 and assigned a guide belonging to the village. Thus began an almost two hour ascent, winding through the village and along the mountain side. Our guide pointed out the village temples, native medicinal plants and trees (walnut, rhododendron, banj oak) and chaulai cultivation. We came across a tribe of langurs and faced some competition with donkeys while crossing a small stream. To cross another stream, we had to take off our footwear and walk across the chilling water. Water from this stream was used to run the gharaat, a traditional water-powered flour mill.

What can I say about the views that hasn’t already been said before?

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It took us close to four hours to complete the circuit back to the village. We were then served a brunch comprising chaulai halwa (another first!) and a potato dish. Long after I have forgotten details about this trip, the one memory that will always come back to me is the wonderful food that I got to eat here. After our plates were cleared away and we had brought down our backpacks, came the sound of two drums beating. The village women interlinked hands and started dancing the traditional raso dance, joined by the menfolk in a line behind them. Some of us joined in the dance too, men and women, villagers and city-dwellers, dancing together as one big happy family.

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Some stray thoughts:

  • Garhwali cuisine gets a bad rep for being insipid and under-cooked in big cities so I’m glad I got the chance to sample the authentic version.
  • This trip was a massive success from the culinary point of view: raw banana, chaulai roti, halwa, potatoes and peanuts!
  • I was apprehensive that I would be contributing to the open-defecation menace for the time that I was in Bhangeli and was beyond relieved to find pour-flush toilets.
  • We had come over-prepared with our own steel utensils, sleeping bags, mats and what not.
  • There is no telecom reception but electricity is available in a limited manner.
  • “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”

* Bugyals are grasslands situated in the higher mountains. Villagers typically take their cattle and goats to these meadows in the summer and leave them there for 3-4 months for grazing while they return to their homes. Once autumn starts approaching, they again make the trek to the bugyals to bring the animals back to the lower elevations.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

This is not a happy book, but it is not a sad one either. One can read it is as a guide map to the major civil and political movements taking place in 21st century India. The Kashmir insurgency, the 2002 Gujarat riots and the left-wing extremism in central India form crucial plot points in this story. Other political movements, the ones against big hydroelectric power projects for example, make cameo appearances. I was slightly surprised to find no mention of the insurgency movements in North-east India, considering the wide scope of this book.

The most remarkable aspect of this book, for me, was Anjum; the presence of a transgender protagonist. Not only does Anjum transition from male to female, but also she belongs to the minority Muslim community. By no means can I claim to have read a lot,  but a quick Google search reveals no mainstream book featuring a transgender protagonist. Definitely not in India. And you can’t get more mainstream than Roy, Man Booker Award winner who also features in this year’s longlist.

The action is divided between Old Delhi’s Chitli Qabar and the Kashmir valley. While the Delhi section is concerned with Anjum’s journey to find peace within herself and her world, the Kashmir section is a story of the insurgency. Tilottama, the second protagonist, writes a Reader’s Digest Book of English Grammar, a macabre documentation of the atrocities committed on the civilian population. She also devises the Kashmiri-English Alphabet to show how the warped the idea of normalcy can become if one gives it enough time.

This book gave me a lot to think about. I kept wondering, while reading the Kashmir portion, about the line between truth and fiction. The bit about the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen is true, and so is the practice of men being paraded, during cordon-and-search operations, in front of jeeps with their headlights on full beam, forming a kind of one-way mirror where they could be (mis)identified by informants sitting next to the driver. But is it also true that army men sell weapons and ammunition to the very militants they are supposed to be fighting? Or that the 2014 floods were used by the army as a photo-op and they didn’t really help the Kashmiri civilians if the media weren’t around to broadcast it?

Another sentence that disturbed me was in the preface to the book, about how the vultures are dying to satiate urban India’s appetite for icecream and milkshakes. I have been thinking long and hard about turning vegan and reading this line made me feel even more guilty for continuing to consume dairy products.

This book is not an easy read and it isn’t meant to be. A less charitable title could have been A Litany of Sorrows. It’s meant to make us think about where we are heading. And we have Roy’s beautiful prose to carry us through.

“The moment I saw her, a part of me walked out of my body and wrapped itself around her. And there it still remains.”

 

Book: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Author: Arundhati Roy
Location: Delhi, Kashmir
Language: English

Reading Around India

Sometime last year I came across a book review of Ann Morgan’s Reading the World. Morgan spent the entire of 2012 reading a book from each of the 196 countries of the world and then wrote about her experiences. Deciding which regions to consider as countries, sourcing books from remote African and Pacific nations, the challenges posed by translated texts, the cultural hegemony of authors writing in English, and North American and British ones furthermore. I was intrigued and started compiling a list of the nationalities of all authors I had read. Not unsurprisingly, it was predominantly American, British and Indian.

Sometime before this book review, I had also come across the 666 reading challenge at bookcrossing.com. The challenge requires one to read a book from six countries from each of the six continents within the span of 365 days. That means a total of 36 books from different regions of the world. I started this challenge this year and six and a half months in, have managed to read a book from each of the six continents (apart from finishing the European section and being one book short of completing the Asian one).

Wholly due to these two reading projects, I read my first books from Africa and South America this year. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was not my first book from the African continent but it made a point that stayed with me. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. In their own way, and following their own agenda. As responsible consumers of literature, it behooves us to read authentic first-person accounts or stories rather than an outsider’s version (imagined or otherwise) of what has happened. Just as we travel to remote and offbeat locations to discover more about the world and ourselves, we should also be reading books written in and by people on the margins in order to widen our horizons, along with providing a platform for these voices. I was in my late teens when I realised that almost all books I read were authored by Americans or Britons. Thus began a conscious effort to read more by Indian authors writing in English. I am now in my late twenties when again it dawned on me that almost all of my reading is confined to the US and Northern Europe. Hence a conscious decision to stick with these two challenges and diversify what I read.

A few days I came up with another reading challenge for myself (since I obviously need to add more complexity to my book selection policy!). Why not apply the idea behind Ann Morgan’s literary exploration to the country I call home? India has 36 administrative divisions and despite being bilingual I rarely read Indian fiction. Most of the fiction books I read are based in Mumbai or Delhi. So starting this month, I will be reading a book based in each state/union territory of India, preferably written by an Indian author, whether written in English/Hindi or translated into Hindi/English, and blogging about it. I might also review any compelling book I read as part of the other two reading challenges.

Looking forward to hearing your views and recommendations.

It was a White Night—Part I

I was standing in ankle deep snow, trying to gain some semblance of understanding. The moon was hanging overhead, a luminous orb streaming light in my direction. The straps of my backpack were cutting through my shoulders but I was too cold to feel any pain. There were no streetlights because there were no streets. Just snow covered pathways leading into darkness. Not a single soul in sight. But I was not alone in this nightmare. My friend was a few paces behind me; same backpack on her shoulders, same confusion in her mind.

Self-recriminatory thoughts formed a line in my head and marched in a loop. Why did I choose to come to the Grand Canyon in end-December? Why did I not reach before sunset? Why couldn’t I be normal and book a hotel room instead of a random stranger’s trailer-couch? What if s/he turned out to be a psychotic mass murderer? What if s/he was not at home? What if s/he did not have place for us? Why didn’t I have a plan B? Why couldn’t I be normal and book a hotel room instead of a random stranger’s couch? Which idiot chooses the Grand Canyon, in winter, for the first couchsurfing experience? Why couldn’t I be normal and book a hotel room instead of a random stranger’s couch? Why was I doing this to myself?

Pushing aside the voice in my head, I tried to concentrate on the task ahead. Baby steps. Find the trailer village. Find the street. Find the trailer. Knock. Wait for the door to open. Let’s hope not to rinse and repeat.

It was cold, I was hungry, my friend was very nervous, I had the contact number on my phone but the battery was dead. Staying rooted to the spot was not helping. So we decided to move. Chose a random direction and started walking. In the dim moonlight we could make out the silhouettes of RVs and trailers. The wooden sign boards, half buried in snow, displayed an alphabet. This couldn’t be right. I was looking for street numbers. Maybe we were in the wrong trailer village. How many trailer villages were there? Will the shuttle still be running at this time? It then struck me, clear as the night sky we were standing under—what I had assumed to be a Roman numeral was actually a Latin alphabet. Armed with this knowledge and the hope that I wouldn’t end up sleeping in the snow tonight, I started walking. Though the snow, in the dark night, shivering with cold and fear of the unknown. Reached the end of the lane, made a turn, found the wrong street. Cut through the space between the trailers, frantically counting all the boxes, looking for the wooden sign boards. Finally reached the trailer we thought was The One, white and silent. Jumped the fence, managed not to fall flat on my face. Still silence. It seemed like no one was home. All I could hear was my heart hammering in my head. I took in a deep breath and knocked.

 

Written in response to the Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge-

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/weekly-writing-challenge-cliffhanger/

Reflections

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If I were to list the things I love about Chicago, this structure would make it to the top two. I clicked this photograph on the day of my first visit to The Bean. The girl in the picture is the friend I went with. It was a completely instantaneous and impulsive shot on both are parts. Like a pistol duel with cameras. If you look close enough, you can see my reflection in the Cloud Gate (official name). I don’t have the photo she took off me taking her photo but then, it can’t possibly be as interesting as the one I do have.