One notable feature of The Gambia is its unfinished hotels: concrete skeletons resembling multistorey carparks from the 70s, their separate floors held up by a forest of wooden poles. Here the situation is similar: the wooden scaffolding is gone and the buildings seem to have progressed a bit further before being frozen in time, but there’s an awful lot of bare concrete showing amongst the many finished hotels.
As we walked towards La Vallee des Oiseaux yesterday, Sonia and I wondered to what extent the tourist industry here has been affected by events in other parts of the Arabic-speaking world. Judging by the rather doom-laden reaction of some friends at home, it may well be suffering.
One of the benefits for me of Morocco is that – though I have no Arabic at all, apart from one or two phrases – French is so widely spoken that communication is not a problem. Or where there is a problem it’s due to a mistake in my French. And of course most of the workers in the tourism industry speak English, as do many of the local residents to some degree.
The walk to the bird park was pleasant: almost no hassle from “bumsters”, though the area is not really photogenic. The park itself was interesting, though rather down at heel. The animals – not just birds, but also llamas / alpacas (no signage in that pen, so showing my ignorance), wallabies and ibexy things – have less space and freedom than one would like to see and some of the fauna seems to show the effects. As we sat beside a fountain that was in need of a good scrub, Sonia was befriended by a cat whose constant attempts to sit in her lap we had to thwart not just to reduce the likelihood of fleas but out of respect for the cat we have left at home.
The return to the hotel saw us buying some fruit and also having a coffee on a terrasse. This was accompanied by a Moroccan crepe each. These were made with semolina and not much cop if I have to be honest.
The hotel made a big effort for New Year. All the residents were invited first to a cocktail party and then to an 8 course gala dinner. The cocktail party was partly marred for me by my opting to try the Moroccan wine: the first glass was not too bad, but the second had all the lees in it and was undrinkable. Sonia liked her non-alcoholic strawberry thing and we both enjoyed the acrobats who put on quite a show at the poolside. They managed to involve some of the children who were watching as well, so that was good. Fire-eaters are always impressive too.
The meal was very good, though a bit slow: I think they were stretching it out to end at midnight. There was more entertainment. A guy on a keyboard and a chap on a drum machine kept up a steady rendition of well-known hits from yesteryear. Sonia, with her music teacher’s hat on, pointed out that the keyboard-player wasn’t really playing at all: he merely fingered the keys in a way meant to look convincing, whilst the electronics did all the work. The keyboard player also sang, so we had “The Boxer” – one of my favourite Simon & Garfunkel songs – amongst many others crooned in a strong French accent.
From time to time groups of itinerant artistes turned up to perform for our pleasure. The standard varied considerably. One guy in a very heavy-looking skirt did a lot of spinning round and just as it began to lose its appeal the skirt lit up with lights, divided into two parts – upper round his head and lower in the usual position. He resembled a human Catherine Wheel and was quite impressive. The keyboard-player acted as a sort of unofficial mc and tried to hype up the “Berber music” which was something of a low point. I can’t judge the quality of the music: it was performed by two percussionists and a guy with a string instrument played with something that looked like a bow saw. This actually sounded like a wind instrument and I spent some time looking for a trombonist. However, the dancers – a group of buxom middle-aged ladies – were the main object of interest in this act: they looked as though they’d been brought together specially for the evening and showed neither skill nor competence, let alone any even manufactured pleasure in what they were doing. They kept looking at each other in the hope of working out what the next steps were.
In case I sound too critical, there were some very good acts, particularly the magician who gave an excellent performance of clever tricks. Sonia got dragged onto the floor to participate in one dance act and acquitted herself very well. I wasn’t very taken with the belly-dancer: she was one of those young ladies who spend too much time on her eyebrows and whilst I’ve no objection to a bit of sexy-dancing, I just tucked into my panacotta with raspberry coulis.
We decided to slip away before “the bells” and had just tucked ourselves up in bed when the fireworks started. They were mercifully brief.
In case I sound unduly sarky, critical or detached, I should say we enjoyed our meal though our early departure meant we missed out on the New Year Cake. Having had a close encounter with local wine, we stuck to something more conventional during the meal and managed to sink two bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon. As the waiter was very attentive, Sonia got her fair share.
It’s funny how things turn out. Today (1-1-16) was to be a quiet day of rest, but Sonia mentioned to reception that she was interested in looking at local musical instruments and before we knew it we were in a taxi and heading to the “instrument shop”. It was a bit of a disappointment: true it a variety of instruments – mostly either cheap local simulacra of the real things, or else American imports – but it also sold combs, fridge magnets, cigarette lighters and the whole gamut of other stuff. However, we liked our taxi driver – Mohammed – and agreed on a city tour with him and are glad we did. He took us all over the place: the harbour, strangely quiet on a Friday, the old Kasbah, an argan oil pressing place, and a tourist-milking station in the form of a large craft village called Medina. On the way we chatted about all sorts of things – mostly Moroccan – and I learned a lot.
Some of you will be better informed than me, so forgive me if I’m teaching granny to suck eggs…
In 1960, just two years after gaining independence from France, there was an earthquake in Morocco and 15000+ people in the Agadir area were killed. In those days, most of Agadir was an old walled city on a nearby hill and was almost completely destroyed, along with the inhabitants. The new city was built on the plain, which explains its relative modernity. Only the old city wall – built by the Dutch? – remains, but the hill has a large Arabic inscription of “Allah, Country, King”, visible for miles, laid out on the slope facing the new town.
Argan oil is the product of the argan tree. The tree is endemic to a very limited area of Morocco and apparently grows nowhere else. Depending on exactly which information board you read, argan oil cures hypertension, cholesterol, varicose veins, baldness and all known ills. If I seem to have a spring in my step from now on, it’ll be because of argan oil.
The tourist-milking station is named after the place where Mohammed is buried. It’s qquite impressive as a source of locally-made stuff: pottery, scarves, metalwork, woodwork etc. all to a high standard of craaftmanship.
Well, I’m sounding like a guidebook, so I’ll stop now.