Mrs E and me decided to go to Marrakech because it was somewhere we’d never been, somewhere completely different and because we ‘needed a break’. Funny expression that, when you think about it. Not many of our ancestors downed tools and nipped off to a different continent for a few days because they needed to think about something other than the daily grind, I’m pretty sure my parents never did and I’m absolutely sure their parents didn’t. But it seems to be all the rage for us lot.
And so we set off at 2am on Friday morning, leaving the smaller kids and the dog in the charge of the larger kid, who, rather worryingly at that time still hadn’t returned from a night out, but we tried to put this to the back of our minds because we ‘needed a break’. And things would be ok at home. They’re always pretty ok at home; when something does go wrong, like an exam, or someone’s ill, or we run out of dog food, we just go and get it fixed. And then, on the way to the airport, we get a message from #1 son and he’s home, and he’s sorry he was late but he had a great night out and we should have a great time away for a few days because he knows we need a break.
Stansted at 0400 on a Friday is a lot busier than we thought it would be. A frightening number of stag parties, all bright and breezy, waiting for a few days of outrage to fuel their lad stories for years to come. Most have matching T-shirts with an embarrassing picture of the groom-to-be on the front, and occasionally full instructions for the stag party on the back (all drinking to be done with left hand only, your beermat must be used at all times, fines will be issued without exception at the 8pm meeting) which suggests that whoever is organising the event may well have appeared in scout uniform at some earlier part of their lives.
Mrs E lives in fear of Ryanair flights with stag parties on board, after some very long journeys in the past, the lowlight of which was twenty grown men singing to their fellow Budapest-bound passenger, Beryl, to whom the captain had just wished a very happy 70th birthday. No doubt wanting to surprise Beryl, our friends eschewed the obvious choice of ‘Happy Birthday, Dear Beryl’, and went for the more modern ‘Beryl, Beryl, Beryl, Takes it up the ar**, takes it up the…’, and so on. More disappointing was that this was their full repertoire for a four hour flight.
Anyway, one of the advantages of travelling to a devout Muslim country is that you’re not really going to mix it with too many stag weekends, at least, not those organised with any Baden-Powell like precision. And we didn’t, really. We chatted and dozed and thought guilty thoughts about leaving the kids behind while we jetted off and enjoyed ourselves, which is exactly the sort of thing that you should think about on this sort of adventure.
And I read a great book by Anharanand Finn on Japanese running, and in it he talks about needing to travel to Japan by rail (with his wife and three small children) so that they could all get a sense of the size of the planet. My immediate thought on this was that he could have saved himself a lot of bother by just buying a globe and teaching his kids the difference between small and far away, but before I’d really thought this through we’d landed, and I realised that he was pretty spot on. Because you do all of this without thinking – you drop your bags off, show some people some documents, hop on a plane, and three hours later you’re on a different continent, with no sense of any transitional space, where it’s 42 degrees in the morning, where not only the language but the alphabet is different, where people are still sleeping eight to a room without power, water, or plumbing, and where over 99% of the population share a common religion.
And we have three days of beautiful scenery, people who are far too polite than they have cause to be, and ways of living that we just can’t get our heads around. We secretly hide ourselves away to eat or drink during the day, because it’s Ramadan, and then when we mention it, we’re told not to be so silly. And we ask about how the fasting works, and while we’re there it’s about halfway through the 30 days, and the temperature is in the 40s and you not only can’t have anything to eat but nothing at all to drink between 0500 and 2000. And, possibly because we’re gormless westerners we say things like ‘isn’t that really hard in this weather?’, and we’re told, no, because it’s the best month of the year, because it purifies the body, and because it celebrates their feelings. So we stand outside a mosque at prayer time one evening and there are thousands of people being called to prayer, and each one as they cross the road looks relaxed and serene and just incredibly happy.
On our last day we travel up to the Atlas mountains and we talk to the guide about different cultures, and how he’s able to manage, practically, to pray five times a day. And he asks how many times a day people pray in England. And I fumble around for an answer, which eventually turns up as an apologetic mumble, and if you were to believe some of the press at home, this is the point at which he’d be muttering about western infidels, but that doesn’t happen. A bit of confusion, and perhaps a bit of sympathy and that’s all.
And before we know it, it’s time to travel back, and we hop on the same plane back to Stansted. And in the seats in front is a family of six who, at 0900 in the morning, are ordering the Ryanair hot dog special, the cheese and ham paninis and the chocolate croissants, and across from us are a couple who are incessantly complaining about someone having taken ‘their’ luggage rack, while they take it in turns to take their e-cigarette into the toilets. Behind me, someone is tucking into fries and a hot chocolate. Someone else tells us that their hotel was ‘supposed to be five star, but fell a little short in some areas’. It’s a three hour flight, and we appear to have got back to Britain two hours early.
We needed a break, and we got one. We hardly talked about work, or the minute problems of our near-perfect lives. We parachuted into North Africa, spent some money that, in relative terms, had come fairly easy to us, and which may, or may not, help the development of a beautiful country full of fabulous people. At the moment, that doesn’t feel like a very fair swap.