Monday, 29 November 2010

Snow Business...

I know, give me a bloody medal for that title right?!

Mount Seymour

So my last few days in Canada have all been about snow. Truth be told I was pretty crestfallen when I heard you guys back in England (if you are reading this from the UK, for all my other international followers, no snow for you!) have been getting shed loads of it, and it is in fact about ten degrees warmer here now than it is there. Suckers! But you have stolen my glory of bragging about the beautiful snow fall. But I have mountains. One-up-manship.

A snowy street in Kitsilano,

On one of my last days in Vancouver I got a holla from a friend of mine called Brad who lives in North Vancouver. I met him whilst travelling last year in Europe, Prague to be precise. As it turns out, Brad has a huge motherfudging truck, a truck he was planning to haul up to Mount Seymour that day and had invited me along. How could I resist?! That day, I saw the most snow I had ever laid eyes on, the mountain was truly beautiful. So whilst Brad and his girlfriend were collecting their ski passes, I ran around like a child, jumping in snow up to my knees. (In hindsight, an error, as I was wearing leggings. But screw hindsight, I never really liked you much anyway.)

Over the next few days we got even more snowfall, and my hostel was full of Australians who had never seen snow before. The nice thing about their excitement for it all was that it reignited my own memories of loving snow as a kid. One of them told me she didn't even knew that it floated down from the sky, she presumed it just fell like rain. She was the most excited of them all I tell you!

In recent years, snow has not been my best friend, especially when British civilisation just seems to crumble at the sight of a single flake. It was impractical at best. But hey, I'm not out here to live in the real world, so I got stuck in (as much as I could do with non-waterproof boots that soak up every single drop of water...which along with the leggings incident made me realise how hideously unprepared I am for this trip) and we headed to the make a snowman. On a beach you say?! A novelty indeed! In fact, we made a snow-WOMAN, just to blow all those stereotypes out the water. She had missing teeth, was called Patricia, and was the pride and joy of two boys who snowballed all over the beach in order to make her bigger and more impressive than the rest.
Dan, Matt and Patricia

I got to think about what it is exactly which excites everyone so much about snow, considering it is just weather. No one gets excited about a particularly strong wind do they?! But seriously cold rain and peoples go bananas. However, I've taken so many great pictures of snow, and none whatsoever of a decent gust of wind, so who am I to talk.

I have to say, my favourite thing about snow is the incredible way water forms into it. Whilst on top of Mount Seymour I took a look at some of the snowflakes close up, something which you can't really do with English snow as it melts too fast. So with these indestructible flakes which stick around in the colder temperatures, I wondered how on earth it is that when rain freezes, it makes such an utterly beautiful shape, of which no two flakes are the 100% identical. It is just one of those things about the world that blows my mind, and because of that I can forgive snow for all it's other flaws.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Curl My Bitch Up

I am pleased to announce that I now have a laptop for my further posts...Hooray! Got far too frustrated having to walk to the library every day to use the internet (albeit free) so I splashed out a little.

Truth be told there isn’t a huge amount to report from my last few days, I feel like I’ve been completely inactive. Most of my time has been filled up with hanging out with Australians (as it turns out, these people like to escape from their nice warm weather and hop over to Canada to do a ski season in the freezing cold. Make sense? Nah. I didn’t think so either.) But hey, most of them are friendly enough and I will for sure have some awesome people to stay with when I eventually do make it over there someday.

Having done all the tourist attractions (or most of them anyway, hanging out in a park when the temperature is below zero or raining isn’t so much fun) I started to sign up for some daily trips in the hostel. I’ll stay away from the slightly unsavoury activities which my parents might not want to hear about (that sounds like I sold myself for money, it wasn’t that bad) and tell you about a more honest day out I had.

Yep, that’s right, we went curling. I met a guy called Paul (Aussie, of course) in the common room of the hostel one day when he asked me what I was reading. We got chatting and he said in a very dejected tone that he was the only person on the sign-up sheet for curling in a few days time. After a few beers and a bit of convincing, I signed my name. It was a pity sign really...(sorry Paul) but a pity sign I did not regret nonetheless.

And I have to say, it was one of the best trips I’ve been on so far! A very strange sport indeed, and I begin to wonder whether the people who invented it were on something. Someone gliding a 45lb granite stone across some ice to reach a target, and several people wielding brooms to help it on its way is pretty bizarre (and dull) to watch. Once you give it a shot though, it becomes really quite entertaining. Be warned though, frantic sweeping can become tiring!

Our curling game, come on the blues!

Going in with the intention of upholding England’s gold medal in the Winter Olympics, I’m happy to say that our team won. I was told I have a natural flair for curling(!!) but I have to say, it was all luck. At the end of the day i was still on my arse at the end of my shots; not so professional.

If there’s a curling club near you, go for it!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

My First Rainy Days in Vancouver

I shall start off by warning you all that $1 for 30 minutes of internet will limit my posts on's irritating. But hey ho, here we go.

I woke up on my first day a bit fuzzy after still not a lot of sleep, to a tonne of rain. Ohhhhh good, thanks clouds. So truth be told I was pretty low. I just wanted to get out there and see the city, however (as I have proved today and will tell you in a few paragraphs time) my coat is far from waterproof. But someone up there heard my prayers and sent the sun a shinin' my way.

So I was off! And just walked. And walked. And walked. The beauty of walking is, of course, that the use of your legs is free! And being the budget backpacker that I am, I have little or no money to spend on luxuries like the bus.

So I get down to the waterfront and grab my first real view of Vancouver. Ever the tourist, I get my camera out, hit the button, and nothing. I try again...nothing. Oh good, my battery is flat!

After heading back to the hostel to put some juice back into that baby, I bump into my friend Jimmy, and he proposes a trip up to North Vancouver for some Lynn Canyon action. After popping our Seabus cherries (amazing!) we make our way north and my goodness it was sweeeeeet! This is Canadian wilderness and it was so incredible to see something like that on my first full day when all I was expecting was city skyscrapers.

I would for sure recommend a trip up there if you're ever in this area. Take a little trek into the forest, breathe in the fresh, cold, crisp air of Canadian autumn, and for goodness sake don't fall off the suspension bridge to certain death amoungst the most powerful waterfall I've ever seen. Just peek over the side and soak up the views. If anything, it truly makes you feel alive...

Day two and there is a rain forecast yet again. I pop to the front desk to ask the (British, hooray!) guy what on earth I could do on a day like this. He basically said anywhere, as long as you're ready to get wet. It's either that or stay in. So, I took my English arse out onto the street and plodded down to Granville Island. I'm not sure what my expectations were but they were completely exceeded. From the outside, or on the Granville Bridge where I got my first glimpse of it, Granville Island looks a little dull. But once you get there, you realise it's a hub of activity.

In one building there's a little burrow full of handicraft and local artisan shops to feast your eyes with. I could have literally bought presents for all of my family and friends and a million for myself also, but I resisted. It just screams of local, honest business and is so refreshing to see in a big city.

Then I got peckish, so walked round the corner to find the market of my dreams. Literally anything you could possibly want to eat all under one roof. Fresh fruit and vegetables and rich and colourful, and the breads delighted my little nose. I picked a few things from a couple of stand and made myself a little feast whilst taking in the view of the harbour (albeit a very wet harbour).

Then I made a slight error and decided to walk the entire length of West Broadway down to Main St then home. In the rain. This probably takes about two and a half hours. Like I just said, my coat is certainly not waterproof, and by the time I made it half way down Main St I was soaked to the skin. I will say however that I enjoyed my long walk, a great way to see the city. I did eventually give in a take the Skyline train back home, sheepishly walking into my hostel and diving past the guy at front desk, avoiding the 'I told you so!'

There we go, a quick whistle stop talk of my first few days here, more to come...

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Hello Canada, nice to meet you.

A quick little note to notify you all that I am finally here in Vancouver, hooray! Although my journey didn't come without it's slight hiccups.

There I was bumbling through check-in and security, still weeping slightly (I got some funny looks...) from saying goodbye to George when he dropped me off, overwhelmed by the thought that I wouldn't see a familiar face for two whole months. It wasn't until I was sat in the Departures lounge and heard my first ''aboot'' from this little Canadian lady when I thought I was probably in safe hands.

 Everything seemed to be going fairly smoothly, until we got through boarding and were told on the plane that we'd be delayed by two hours. Bloody foggy London town being too foggy for planes to see where they're going!! However, things could have been worse, it wasn't too much of a delay and we were off.

After not sleeping a wink on the flight (Oh how I tried, drinking several complimentary beers in very little time to encourage sleep still didn't work) I got to Vancouver with a very addled little brain thinking it was the middle of the night. And then the angriest passport control woman came into my life. She didn't seem to comprehend why exactly it was that I wanted to be here, tourism was not a good enough answer...! So i was made to feel like a criminal and sent to the Immigration offive to explain why I'm such a scoundral wanting to visit another country just to see the sights.

Anyway, I made it. And then drunk beer until midnight with a Canadian guy named Jimmy, who kindly listened to the drunken ramblings of a sleep deprived crazy zombie me.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Marrakech Part Four: The Art of Haggling

So, as a final segment, how could I possibly overlook the main attraction and simultaneously a dramatic downfall to the beautiful city of Marrakech? This of course being that if you want to take away any souvenir or memento from your trip, you’ve gotta be prepared to haggle.
Some fancy bags
hanging in the

I’ll start by informing you all that I must admit, I hate the whole bloody charade. The majority of my comrades with which I was travelling just couldn’t get enough of the whole excitement of it all. I couldn’t help but think ‘Can’t I just buy the damn thing at a reasonable price and be done with it?!’

My hatred for this silly act probably boils down to the fact that I’m just so rubbish at it. If I see something I want to buy, I’m the kind of person utterly consumed with this object. I must have it, I cannot possibly leave this country without purchasing this item, and if I don’t, I will sit on the plane and daydream about how I left this item behind, abandoned but its one true owner. I am so transparent in feeling this way that the shopkeepers believe they hit the jackpot in the customer lottery, and without assistance, I pay far too much in the end.

The real secret to the haggle, which several of my companions were exceptionally good, at is to pretend like you don’t really want it (which in itself to me seems utterly ridiculous). But my goodness does it work like a charm. As soon as they see the little glint of disinterest in your eye, the shopkeepers instantly consider lowering their price at the thought of losing one dirham of business.

Some beautiful fabrics
stacked up the ceiling
It’s all about a competition of wills. The customers and shopkeeper battle it out to test who is the strongest. Who wants this more, the customer or the seller? And who is more willing to sacrifice their pride? It must either be the customer paying far more than the shopkeeper knows he is will to reduce is price to, or the shopkeeper making one final attempt and producing an absolute bargain price for a very happy customer. I know which one I’d prefer anyway.

But as well as it being a test between customer and proprietor, the tradesmen have so much competition between themselves also. If you look interested in a scarf, the likelihood is that you will then be approached by a number of different sellers trying to lure you into their shop. In this case I’d say stick to your guns and one seller, the others will probably be too consumed in finding their next potential customer to care. You have plenty of time to browse them all and a lot of the products around the markets are much the same anyway.

If you know you’re not a fan of arguing (on a mostly friendly basis you must understand) with strangers over the price of things, than I suggest you go to Marrakech with someone who does, otherwise you’ll end up being seriously out of pocket. As long as you take the whole thing pretty light-heartedly, and don’t name a price too low in case of offended the shopkeepers, then it can be a fun experience, and something you just have to try at last once whilst you’re there. I myself will always have Jenna or Helen by my side!

A view of the infamous square by night

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Marrakech Part Three: Community

Marrakech isn’t quite like any other city I’ve ever been to before. Of course, architecturally speaking it is nothing like the cities we know, with no high rising tower blocks to speak of, and even the telephone masts are disguised as palm trees to blend in with the foliage.

When you hear the word city, along with bright lights and corporate suits running around trying to make it to their next big meeting on time, a sense of danger pops into your head, especially a city in a foreign country. Hustle and bustle brings along with it pick-pocketers, scams and swindles. Adding to this, Marrakech is all one colour; if you can’t stand the sight of terracotta, don’t go. It’s so easy to get lost and disorientated, and at night, if you don’t know where you are and by yourself, it can become a scary place.

A carpenter who looked a
little disgruntled to have
 his photo taken...
It occurred to me however that it only really becomes threatening as an outsider. As British people we immediately stand out to the locals as foreign, on holiday and with money to spend, so of course they target us for these kinds of things.

For the people who actually live in Marrakech however, it seems not like the kind of city we are familiar with, and the sense of community is incredibly strong considering its size. Around every corner there seemed to be children playing out on the street with no sign of parents or guardians watching over them. Several people I was with pointed out how it seems a shame that it doesn’t quite work like that over here in the UK.

With stories hitting the papers every so often about missing children, stories which the public hold onto for years to come, the simple charm of children just being allowed to play unattended in the surroundings of their homes is tainted and becomes more and more scarce. Groups of children who do this in cities become gangs, loitering in dodgy areas and are often linked to violence.

Whilst I’m sure this does happen on occasion in Marrakech, it still seemed like a much safer environment for children to play in. It felt like the whole community was in a sense looking out for the people around them, and I guess also with their religion (almost exclusively Muslim) hurting children wouldn’t even be thought of.

Some lovely woolen hats made
by some chirpy Moroccan ladies.
As well as freedom and safety, another factor that adds to their community is the trade. Whilst I imagine a lot of the items you can buy in the souks are cheap tack that comes from outside the city, you can also see much of it being made in the markets before your very eyes. Just as the food in the markets is prepared before you, there were stacks of leather waiting to be made into intricate bags and slippers, and carpenters making exquisite chess sets in a matter of minutes.

The fact that the items that these people are making are fabricated exactly in the place you buy them from really adds to the idea that this is honest trade; trinkets made in the community, and money going towards to community. When we visited the Atlas Mountains on one of our day trips, we came across co-op shops with beautiful fabrics crafted in the very villages just steps away.

As the mosques get full, men
 line up in the streets the pray.
Marrakech has a sense of community like no other that I’ve come across in a city before. These people eat together, munching away on the food from vendors on the street. They pray together five times a day, an official blasting out the call the prayer on the speaker system of every mosque so everyone in the city can hear it. On several occasions we came across groups of men on rows of tables playing cards in the street instead of some smoke-filled seedy bar above a kebab shop. Despite the intense competition, the shopkeepers all sit outside their shops together having a laugh whilst they trade. 

I have to say, I genuinely admire the dynamic that Marrakech has created, and it seems a shame that something in our world has dissolved our own sense of community. Even though the place seems so chaotic and crazy, somehow it’s held together so beautifully and it just works. I can’t quite see London making it yet, bit more ground to cover than Marrakech I guess. 

Monday, 1 November 2010

Marrakech Part Two: The Food

It has to be said that before embarking upon our trip to Marrakech, one thing we all said we were looking forward to was the local cuisine. Indulging in a ridiculous amount of food is one of those fantastic charms about being on holiday, and it is safe to say that we were not left disappointed.

Some herbs and spices
 used in cooking
We tried to eat at as many different locations as possible to vary the types of Moroccan food available to us, and being in a city like Marrakech, there were so many options around.

Now when I was in India, it was a general rule that even a whiff of the street food would give you a jippy tummy. We avoided the open plan restaurants that lead out onto the street, the boys very aptly naming the ‘death kitchens’. With this in mind, when someone suggested eating at the street markets in Marrakech, I was dubious. Due to the fact we were only there for five days, getting ill would have completely ruined the entire trip, and would have made a particularly unpleasant flight home also.

However, I was hardly going to kick up a fuss when the eight other people I was with were all up for it, so I went in with the outlook that at least we’d all get ill together! And I certainly don’t regret it.

The street markets themselves are like nowhere I’ve ever been, even before you sit down to eat. You take one step in and there are dozens of men either side of you trying to rope you in to eat at your restaurant. I don’t know where on earth they all got them from but we had Little Britain quotes coming at us from all sides to get our attention, and a ‘lovely jubly!’ thrown in every now and again, presumably Jamie Oliver’s influence from when he cooked in the markets. As much as the hassle can get annoying on the shopping streets and in the souks, it was quite a funny experience in the markets, so I encourage anyone going there to just get stuck in. As long as you don’t mind being called ‘the only gay in the village’, you’ll survive.
A snapshot of those infamous markets
All the places to eat look exactly the same, distinguished from each other only by their numberings. Eventually we were charmed over by one particularly persuasive chap who got a round of applause when he managed to rope in all nine of us. From then on you are showered with little plates of heaven. The food is all on the stall in front of you, so you can let you eyes do the choosing, point, and give them a quantity.

Morocco's gem: the tajine.
The markets are cheap, lively and as an added bonus none of us got ill. However, if you want to dine in peace they are certainly not the place for you. I’m more than sure there are some amazing restaurants to dine in dotted around Marrakech, but I don’t think we came across many of them. Even a few of the places recommended in the guidebook were disappointing. The food doesn’t seem as fresh, and even something is simple as a spaghetti bolognaise was rated by my friend as one of the most bland things she’s even tasted.

If you’re staying in a Riad with a cook, you’ve hit the jackpot, and we were blessed with our amazing chef Amina. What could be better than to experience home-cooked food in a foreign country from someone who knows exactly how it should be prepared? Never take for granted this luxury if it is available to you.

Whatever you tastes are, they will be catered for in Marrakech. But it has to be said that the best food we experienced was from the simple, humble and honest looking places. If you take away all the madness and competitive elements from the streets markets, this is exactly what they are. That or just kick back with a tajine in your Riad.