Wee Bus Trip to Oxford

Wasn’t really feeling the tourist vibe today and would have happily taken a day off but when there is so much to see, I always feel really slack if I take a ‘sea day’ when I’m travelling.  So it was about 0900 when I got motivated to see when I could jump on a bus to go to Oxford for the day.  Checked the timetable, X60 bus was at 0917.  Right, up and at ‘em – I can make that.  Quickly dressed, grabbed sunscreen, hat etc and went to the bus stop which is about 1 min from Stephola’s front door.  How unexpected?  The bus was late… but anyway, got on the bus and admired the landscape and scowled at the unmasked, all the way to Buckingham Tesco where I had to change to the X5 to Oxford.

At the interchange, things didn’t improve, the bus which should have been 4 mins, failed to materialised and the following one which was 23 mins behind it was running late. So I stood around for a good 39 mins.  Yay.  Onto bus two… and now feeling like I needed lube: £21.40 for the round trip.  Ultimately ended up in Oxford; what should have been a 1hr 20min trip was closer to 2 hours, but c’est la vie – what can you do?

Decided to wander around to the Bodleian Library via the Covered Markets (much of which was closed, because Monday!), to have a look about only to find that you can no longer go into the library without a tour guide.  Hmmm… things have changed. And again, being a Monday, tours were limited and therefore all sold out for the day.

Oh well – I wasn’t too disappointed as I have been here before and I still got to admire the beautiful architecture which is so unlike anything we have back home.  The Radcliffe Camera is also closed to everyone except Readers, unless you’ve booked on a special tour that takes you in when the library isn’t in use.  This is certainly sounding like tourists had become too disruptive over the years and they’re desperately trying to keep the libraries useful for the students.  Unsurprising really… before the pandemic, *I* was finding the sheer bulk of rude, ignorant and noisy tourists fucking annoying (and I am one!), so I can’t imagine what it must be trying to maintain a quiet contemplative library environment when truckloads of selfie-taking tourist are flocking through the book stacks.

Right next door is the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, which is one of the oldest working churches with a place on worship having been on that site since the 11thC and parts of the existing church build in the 13thC.  Absolutely stunning… though there was a rather weird exhibit inside which I am still uncertain as to its purpose.  There was an enormous balloon/orb with a projection of the earth on it, and audio track which appeared to be of early astronauts talking to each other – it seemed rather out of place being in the old church, and I had no idea what they were selling/promoting, but felt obligated to take photos of Australia when it spun towards me!  *shrug*. She says she doesn’t know!

On the way out I realised I hadn’t had breakfast and that it being now midday, I should probably stop and have something to eat and more importantly drink. I saw the Vaults and Garden Cafe (which is no doubt why entry to the church is free) and saw a lady having a scone and a cuppa in the garden and thought that looked terribly civilised and followed her lead.  Popped in ordered a pot of tea and a plain scone, complete with homemade strawberry jam and clotted cream and found a table outside, which turned out to be in the middle of an medieval cemetery, and promptly remembered why I hadn’t had a clotted cream tea since I was St Ives with BigSal and BluddyMary in 1995… it’s soooo bloody sweet!  Tea was lovely though, and I did manage about half my scone.

After breaking my fast thusly, I decided to head to the Oxford Natural History Museum to see the dodo, which I do not recall doing last time I was here. Now, back in proper tourist mode, I googled to check they were open on a Monday and happily found they were. Not only are they open, but entrance is free.  The building itself is spectacular and the first things that greet you on entrance are enormous dinosaur skeletons, one of which is an enthralling T-Rex skeleton that just dominates the enormous space even in such a huge building, along with other massive whalebone on display and huge elephants skeletons etc.  I wandered around for quite a while up and down the various levels looking at all sorts of interesting object and thinking ‘where is this famous dodo?’  Only to look it up and find out that it’s right beside the T-Rex!  If I had been a normal tourist and turned my back on the T-Rex for a selfie, I probably would have seen it immediately but instead I was just so taken by the enormous skeleton, I walked right past the modestly proportioned dodo.  😛

There were many other animal specimens in here, all stuffed to the gills with sand, but of course the only other one that captured my attention and gave me a good giggle, is this stuffed platypus.  It is the second late 19thC taxidermied platypus that I’ve seen and you can tell quite readily it’s been prepared by someone who has NEVER seen a live platypus… the last one I saw which BigSal and I have been laughing about for years was at Blair Castle in Scotland – he was so stuffed he looked like a blowfish and his little feet didn’t even touch the ground.  God bless those weird little 19thC aristocratic gentleman naturalists, and their cotton socks!

Right behind the Natural History Museum is the Pitt Rivers Collection which is a crazy arse collection of STUFF from all over the world that belonged to some altogether too-monied and too-bored aristocrat named August Pitt Rivers.  He had some 20,000 weird anthropological and archeological objects that he had collected over his lifetime and he bequeathed them to the museum on the proviso that they appoint a Head lecturer in Anthropology.  This collection is full of weird and interesting stuff – but the arrangement by ‘Object Type’ did my head in.  The cabinets are named ‘Body Forms in art’ or ‘Tribal Face Masks’ or ‘Pottery Objects’ or ‘Bows and Arrows’ or ‘Opium Pipes and Equipment’ and you’ll look in the cabinet and for example see ‘Tribal Face masks’ from twenty different cultures across several hundred years!  So if you’re interested in say, Anglo Saxon objects you might see one object here, another two over there, and maybe three more somewhere else.  It’s really quite disconcerting when most of us are more accustomed to going through a museum that will have objects sorted by period and culture, eg: ‘Japanese Edo Period Gallery’, an ‘Aegean Artefacts Gallery’ or ‘Ancient Egyptian Gallery’.  So much so, that I found it thoroughly impossible to take in.  It was overwhelming given there are now some 500,000 objects on display from Inuit totem poles to bark textiles to flensing knives! It kinda broke my little brain and I knew I’d need about five weeks to comb through to make sense of it so gave it a unfortunately cursory once over knowing I couldn’t take it all in.

The Pitt Rivers Museum is also very famous for having a ‘shrunken heads’ collection which they very respectfully no longer have on display.  They also have som information placards about which make it clear they are working with many different stakeholders regarding repatriation and/or sensitive display of tribal objects that were just rampantly taken from various places and cultures around the world over the last several hundred years.  I hope it’s not just lip-service and that they are doing serious consultation.

After the weird and kinda curious mindfuck of the Pitt Rivers, I made my way over the the Ashmolean Museum, which I left for the late afternoon because I knew once I got in there I wouldn’t want to leave. This place is a wonderful museum full of all those beautiful things the British are famous for pilfering since pampered rich men first needed something to fill their under-employed days with. Egyptian sarcophagi,

Albarello (drug jar/s) lustred, Italian, c.1450-1500




Testa di cazzi, Francesco Urbini, Casteldurante, c.1536, Maiolica plate.Lustred dish with Cupid  Workshop of Maestro Giorgio Gubbio c.1525-1535

14. Frankish Bottle, wheel-throne ceramic c.500-650. Marchelepot, France.
15. Biconical jar, hand-thrown, Frankish or Anglo Saxon, c.450-600. Waben France.
16. Cup, hand thrown ceramic. c.500-700 ceramic form of German palm cup.
17. Bell beaker, glass c.500-700. Palmero Sicily.
18. Globular jar, wheel-thrown ceramic, Late Gallo-Roman c,450-550. Waben France.
19. Globular jar, wheel-thrown ceramic, c.500-650. Beuvais, France.
20. Squat jar glass, c.450-600. Amiens, France.
21. Biconical jar, wheel-thrown ceramic, c.450-600. Cologne, Germany.
22. Cylindrical beaker, glass, c.500-600. Andernach, Germany.
23. Carinated jar, wheel-thrown ceramic, c450-600. Cologne, Germany.Brooches from Andernach Germany
73. Disc brooch, c.500-600, copper alloy, silver and garnet
74-77 Two pairs of radiate headed brooches, silver gilt
78. Disc brooch, silver and gemstones c.600-700. Rhine Valley, Germany.
79. Appliqué (?) gold and gemstones. Rhine Valley, Germany.

40-42 and 44. Gotland Sweden, c.400-700
40. Open work disc brooch, copper alloy.
41. Disc on bow, gilt copper Lloyd and garnet.
42. Disc brooch, copper alloy.
44. Annular brooch, copper alloy.
34. Radiate-headed brooch, silver gilt and garnet, c.500-600. Italy
35-36. Radiate-headed brooches (park) silver gilt, c.500-550.  Thennes, France.
37. Buckle, silver gilt and garnet, c.500-600. Belluno, Italy.
38. Buckle, copper alloy, c550-600.  Kerch, Ukraine.

Huntsman Salt – gilt, and painted silver, and rock crystal, c.1400-1450, unprovenanced.
One of the most important survivals of medieval plate in England.  It belonged to Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, who founded All Souls College, Oxford.  In 1438, it may have been a gift to Chichele, who led a number of diplomatic missions to Rome (between 1406 and 1420). Equally plausible that it may have been made in London by a continental goldsmith.

12th C Ivory Mirror case

Rune stone, granite. 1100-1150 Andersta, Uppland, Sweden.
The runic inscription states that ‘Lidsmod had this stone carved in memory of Julbjorn (his) father’.  The stone was presented to the Ashmolean from the Swedish King, King Karl XI in 1687.


Flight of the Vestal Virgins (tempura and gilding on panel) and detail below.
Biagio di Antonio Tucci (1446-1516)

Saint Nicholas of Bari Banishing a Storm (tempera and gilding on panel)
Gucci di Lorenzo (1373-1452)


Master of the Ashmolean Predella (c.1350-1400)
The Birth of the Virgin Mary (tempera and gilding on panel) and detail below.
The Virgin and Child (tempera and gilt on panel) and detail below.
Bernardino Pintoriccho (1452-1513)
Anon Riding on a Dolphin – Arion charmed a dolphin to safety in Ovid.
Attributed to Francesco Bianchi Ferrari (1481-1510)


Christ among the Doctors – oil on canvas (detail below)
Jacobo da Ponte, called Bassano (1510-1592)

Assyrian protective spirit front he Northwest Place, Nimrud, (modern northern Iraq).
c.875-860 BC.  This supernatural spirit with a human body and the head and wings of an eagle is carved in relief on a huge slab of gypsum (approx 8’ tall). He was one of a pair of spirits that guarded a doorway into the royal throne room at Ninrud, capital of Assyria providing magical protection against evil and welcoming in good. The cone and bucket he carries were symbols of fertility and purification. Across the middle of the slab is a cuneiform (wedge-shaped) inscription naming King Ashurnasirpal II (c883-859 BC) and recounting his achievements. (Detail below)
I lost myself in the Ashmolean in the most delightful way possible, and next thing I knew I realised I had better try and navigate the buses (oh the sense of impending horror!) back to Whitchurch before my phone battery was completely dead – for without the aid of Google Maps I feared I would end up in Stratford or somewhere… not a bad outcome, but not the desired outcome (for today anyway).

On my way back to the bus stop I realised I had spent barely £15 going to the Natural History, Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean museums as they have free entry but they do provide a ‘tap and wave’ £5 Donation pay point, which I happily waved my credit card at in each location.  It’s clever, hardly anyone is carrying cash since Covid and the perspex donation boxes looked mostly empty.  I hope most visitors do drop them a Fiver so they don’t have to start implementing structured entrance fees for upkeep.

Completely OT: I’ve noticed that many of the red phone boxes around the place now have defibrillators in them and a ‘Call 999 to get access’ sign on them, which seems like a great use for these iconic phone boxes seeing no one uses public phones anymore…

Right!  Back on the buses and I managed to find the correct X5 bus that was heading to the exciting transfer point of the Buckingham Tesco Bus Stop B.  Again with the lack of masks on the bus, even though every ticket has a request for patrons to wear one,, *rolls eyes*.  And found myself being ferried along with a driver who was driving like he fucking stole it!  I swear this guy was doing close 120kph on these windy two lane country highways.  I was constantly bracing myself for when he was braking for the huge roundabouts that break up these routes.  Mad bastard… and so stress inducing.  There are no seats near the driver except the one priority seat and I had no idea where my stop was or what it would look like as we got near to press the bell – and there was now way I could steady myself (I’m still only six weeks post carpal tunnel surgery) enough to walk up a speeding bus that felt like it was hurtling through the countryside, trying to break the fucking sound barrier!  Eventually I asked some lovelies on the bus if knew when the the Tesco was coming up and one of them hit the bell for me immediately or I would have missed it!.  So much fun.  Then the wait for the connection… there is a handy sign that counted down the minutes until the X60 turned up, and I was watching it counting down from 12 to 4 mins and then just stay on 4 mins for a while.  Eventually a man who was also waiting for the X60 got up and ran off down behind the bus stop.  I thought, ‘maybe he’s got an alternative route home’?  Nope.  Guy had run off to a nearby bottlo to grab a couple of tallies and then settled himself back in for the wait.  He said one day last week he waited nearly two hours for buses that just never came.  😐  and I thought BCC buses were bad.

After about 40 mins of waiting for a bus that was 4 mins, 4 mins, 4 mins away… Stephola called and said she was in the car from the train and she decided to meet me in Buckingham for dinner.  So it was with glee that I abandoned the bus stop and found a bar serving cold ciders.  It was ridiculously hilarious but only because Steph magically provided an out!  Dinner was had in a strange chain steakhouse (whose namesake BBQ sauce had weird hints of curry flavour!) and then back to Whitchurch where we had a few civilised G&Ts.  I am ‘Le tired’… and likely tomorrow I won’t feel so compelled to ‘make the most’ of the day!

Post Pandemic Transit Time

Well, I’ve finally made it out of the country and back on the road. Travelling feels both intrinsically different and yet inherently familiar at the same time – as oxymoronic as that sounds.

I’d been watching the travel nightmare stories on the news over the last few weeks and armed myself with very low expectations of a) arriving anywhere remotely near my scheduled arrival time and b) my suitcase managing to make it to the end with me. Those pictures of the ‘Heathrow Luggage Carpet’ were a bit hard to ignore and did not exactly instil confidence. In an attempt to ameliorate being left standing around a baggage carousel waiting for luggage that no one could locate, I have picked up some AirTags and popped one in my suitcase. At least I’ll know whether or not it is there and be able to decide to leave without it or not? *shrug*

First leg was a domestic hop BNE to SYD because business airfares to London ex BNE were $2-3k more than going from SYD when I was booking. The plan to fly business was in part because I’m nowhere near travel fit! Two years of being stuck at home, and recent surgery on my hands meant I am trying to take it easy as possible. I got a message saying to be at the airport 90mins before my domestic flight due to ‘peak demand at this time’ only to get there at 0930 for a 1100 flight to find a completely concourse, both at the check in, and security screening. Either I am the only idiot who was doing what they recommended or the recommendation is an overreaction. Meh… just popped into the Qantas lounge wait.

Boarding call to head to the gate and there I found ALL the people and barely 2 in every dozen people were wearing a mask. It feels awful to be surrounded by maskless people coughing and sniffling when you know Covid cases are still around 5000-6000 each day in Qld and you know 20 people died from Covid yesterday and another 19 died today. People have just given up. There is a mask requirement in place, but no one is policing it at all. The flight to Sydney was uneventful. While everyone was reminded repeatedly to wear their masks on the plane when they’re not eating – I’m getting the feeling the policy is an effort to protect the staff more than the passengers at this point. Don’t care, whatever makes everyone keep their mask on while we are stuck in the plane!

Now because my hands are still lacking in strength, I had decided to jump into a taxi to get from the Domestic to the International terminal, rather than taking the free shuttle and having to heft my bag about and possibly end up standing and having to hang on. I planned to give the driver a generous tip for the convenience to me and the pain in the arse I knew it was for him to return and go to the back of the cab queue. I told the cabbie that I only needed to go to the International terminal and he loaded my bag and I got in the car and he started driving and then said “The meter isn’t working ma’am, it has technical problem, but you can still pay by credit card and I can still give you receipt, ok?” Now I’m immediately doing that internal sigh thing you do when you know someone is about to try and rip you off… and I said to him, “Legally you’re required to have a functioning meter – should this car even be on the road if the meter doesn’t work.” He started pfaffing with it saying “It sometimes work, sometimes not, ma’am.” He then logs into his system and surprise the surprise the meter is working. I watch as he clicks a few buttons and it says $9.90 and then turn to my phone, I look back up as we are nearing the end of our three minute drive and it says $35.40. I said to him, “Excuse me, why is the meter saying this trip is $35?” He replies: “It’s the airport tolls, ma’am.” We’ve driven <5km I argue with him saying we haven’t gone through any tolls and definitely didn’t drive under any toll gates, so please break down the fare for me. He claimed it was $5.50 flag fall, $4.40 airport fee and then the three minute drive and the tolls. I responded by saying: “What’s your cab number, please?”, as I leaned forward to photograph his meter and ID. He said “4116, ma’am.” Followed by a pause, then says “Why?” And I responded by saying I work for a transport consultancy and we work with taxi companies all the time, and that his company is one of our main clients. That I didn’t appreciate him trying to rip me off like this, that the fare should be barely $15-18, and that the last cabbie I reported for trying to rip me off got fired. Well, didn’t he back pedal… He spent the remainder of the drive into the International Terminal apologising and saying he won’t charge me the tolls and saying over and over, “Please don’t report me, ma’am. I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I said I’m not paying more than $20 for this trip and that is being generous, I gave him both barrels about ripping off tourists and giving a bad impression to the city and our country, and landed on blasting him on, “You wonder why everyone prefers to use Uber now!” He just kept saying “Please don’t report me, ma’am. I’m very sorry ma’am.” … meh, by that point it was too late, he’d already been reported to his head office. Why does shit like that keep happening? I swear I don’t have single good cab story in the last six years (come to think of it since the market became saturated with ride share options).

Anyway, I leave the sad cabbie and head into the terminal to find the Sri Lankan Airline checkin counter – and it’s not open. :/ I arrived in SYD about 1300 and my flight had been scheduled to leave at 1630 but I had received a notification that it was now leaving at 1825 so the check-in counter wouldn’t be manned until 1530 which is a pain in the arse and there is zero seating on the public side of the terminal. It was then that the one staff member who was at the counter said, “Your flight isn’t leaving until 1955 now.” *ugh* I managed to go for a wander and find a seat near a family who were at least pretending wear their masks and figured I just had to wait it out… Eventually, 1530 rolls round and I’m (yay, business class) in a very short queue, I check in and head towards security, where that was an enormous hidden queue as 3 out of a possible 17 security points were open. Staff shortages were evident everywhere. Eventually get through security and get myself settled into the Qantas Business Lounge – but not before a ‘discussion’ with the front desk who was “sure we don’t have reciprocity with Sir Lankan Airlines”. Oh yes, yes you do! Another long wait ensues in the lounge but at least this time there is a comfy chair and free alcohol… what are you gonna do.

Eventually we are loading onto the plane and I gotta say, I don’t like the attitude of my fellow passengers with the business seats – they’re literally pushing people out of the way and barging through the crowd to make sure everyone knows they’re the ‘not like them’ waiting around for economy rows to load. One guy was tut tutting the whole time as people were trying to get their tired and confused children to comply and get out of his way and they just seemed boorish… I was trying to fade into the walls and not be all forward. I mean, I’ve flown business plenty of times before but obviously not often enough to be all pushy and entitled about it.

Sri Lankan business class is all of 28 seats or so and there was about 10 of us in the cabin. So I have to say the service was excellent. By the time we got boarded and champagne’d (and I use the term lightly, as they serve some hideous sparkling white wine from India which I did not want a second glass of!), I could feel the days ‘hurry up and wait’ fading away and I settled in for our 11 hour flight to Colombo, leaving only four hours after the originally scheduled departure. Meal service was swift and polite. Food options were excellent and the meal I chose was very tasty. The inflight entertainment was neither here nor there as I had my iPad loaded up with TV shows and movies. I watched about 4 episodes of This Is Us and then lay my seat down to go to sleep… and jesus titty fucking christ if that isn’t the best thing on a long haul flight ever, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle! The seat reclines fully flat and you can roll and sleep on your side comfortably if you want to.

Next thing you know, I’m being woken for the inflight service prior to landing. We were originally scheduled to arrive in Colombo at 2300 local but instead were arriving at 0130… not sure how that works, leave four hours late and arrive barely two and a half hours late, but I do know we were at 40,000 for most of the flight and the pilots seemed to have the hammer down. All good, we get to Colombo at the appointed ungodly hour and I silently thank Mr K for suggesting that I book an in-airport hotel for an 8 hour stay as my flight didn’t leave until 1300… until that is, it got pushed forward to 1215 and then pushed back to 1400. I don’t know – but this time I’ve given up on the schedule and am just hovering about hoping the staff don’t let me miss my flight. The Serenediva Airport Hotel was nice and tidy, their fancier rooms being all booked out, I found myself in a lime green abomination with a comfy bed and a clean hot shower. I managed to get to sleep around 0230 and didn’t wake up until 0800.

I still had a few hours until I had to leave the room, but desperation for a cup of tea without long life milk drove me out of the room at 0930 towards the Sri Lankan Airlines Serendib Business Lounge. Best cup of tea I’ve ever had – shouldn’t have been surprised… we are in Sri Lanka! Managed to amuse myself in the business lounge for hours, aided by the recliners in the Quiet Room and the chatty ladies in the ‘foot massage’ corner… yes, the Serendib Business Lounge in Colombo has a partitioned off room where you can get a free foot massage. Damn, but this international travel on a business ticket is something I could get used to! Eventually it’s time to load again and we are advised to head to the gate. Again, some of my ‘fellows’ at the front of the plane are acting like entitled parts – once even asked someone to move out of the gate seats set aside for business passengers so they could sit down and wait the ten minutes before we board completely oblivious to the fact that this poor soul may have been stuck in that seat for literally hours between their connections.

Second leg was as uneventful as the first. Lovely service; the Purser even came and introduced himself and asked if I needed anything at all to make my flight more comfortable. I asked for some fresh masks if they had any, and he came back immediately with three… never mind I’m the only person wearing one at this point. Weirdly after my day of doing very little in the lounge, I managed to doze off and on in my flat bed most of the way to London. I was already aware that I had never done a long haul and arrived so free of back pain before – I couldn’t believe how well I pulled up when we got into London. I had sore feet, (but that fibromyalgia shit doesn’t really go away and there had been queueing on concrete, but my back felt pretty good.

Arrive in London at 2230 – again I don’t know how we leave so late and get there nowhere near as late, but I wasn’t complaining. Walked straight through to passport control, no lines, did the passport/photo thing, walked through to the baggage hall anticipating disaster and noted there was a lot of unattended luggage laying about but made a dash to the bathroom while I waited to see what horror was going to ensue. Came out of the loos and stood near baggage carousel number two feeling a bit, ‘yeah what are the odds’, and opening up the Find My Stuff app to see where my suitcase might be (half expecting it to show up as being in Colombo still!). To my surprise, I opened the app, and it showed my suitcase with ‘with me’, I looked around for less than ten seconds and spotted my bag. Unbelievable. With a small laugh, I collected it and waltzed through customs. Without a doubt one of the BEST transits I’ve even done, even though it was a full 46 hours since I left my front door! My previous record of a hideously painful 40 hour trasnit from Quetta to Brisbane left for dust.

Came out the doors to be greeted by a cheerful Stephola who sped us off proficiently through the London traffic to her little village whereupon we had a couple of calming drams of Hellfire Sloe gin and then sleep. 🙂

It’s good to be out and getting ready to see new things again – but yeah, I am so not travel fit! It’s gonna take a awhile to get back in the swing of things.

Darwin… waiting for a Train.

Arrived in Darwin yesterday – had a lovely and uneventful flight.  Business class worth every penny (well, QFF points, but same/same) for the Tall Guy who for the first time had leg room to spare.  A couple of piccolo bottles of sparkling and the flight passed quickly enough.

Darwin is quite the change from my recent cool and relaxing trip to Tasmania. It’s hot and unpleasant, and feels very deserted – literally no one was around and the streets felt eerily empty, at both 2pm when we arrived as well as 8pm when we went out for dinner. 

There’s more CCTV cameras than central London and more massage parlours per square inch than Bangkok – together these give a palpable sense of imminent violence and/or criminal activity.  With signs that say children are not allowed in stores without being accompanied by parents (and similar), the local business owners aren’t exactly doing their bit to dispel this notion either…

Had a late dinner reservation at a place called, ‘Phat Mango’ – was widely and positively reviewed as being a ‘foodie favourite’ in Darwin but actually was a bit of a disappointment.  The entire restaurant smelled of burnt olive oil from the moment we walked in, and every dish seemed to be deliberately charred.  For whatever reason, this restaurant that prides itself on local produce had exactly three seafood offerings – some barramundi (smoked and served cold; wasn’t great), some king prawns (served charred with a nondescript creamy sauce) and peri-peri Spanish mackerel?! Go figure.  There was some kangaroo sausages (which of course, being kangaroo, fell into dry crumbly mince as soon as you cut it), a Brahman hump silverside bruschetta (served with some weird pickles that didn’t complement the cold grey silverside), a beef marrow dish (which had oil drizzled all over it because marrow isn’t rich enough?!).  For a ‘local produce’ restaurant – I was curious where all the buffalo, crocodile, emu the plethora of fresh fish options were?  We tried seven different dishes and shared them tapas style. None were super impressive. All up about 6/10, chef needs to buy a sous vide and branch away from the chargrilled everything.  

After our late dinner we wandered back to the hotel for a quiet night in… lest we be caught between all that CCTV, the heightened police and seemingly anticipated criminality of those visiting beautiful family friendly Darwin!

Thankfully, some friendly travellers named Mat and Iz left themselves logged into their Netflix account so we watched a rather good mini-series called ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ (starring a rather sweary Michelle Dockery who we haven’t seen this angsty since Cousin Matthew was killed in an automobile accident).

Tomorrow… I have BIG plans, (HUGE!), for staying out of the heat while we continue to wait for our train.

PS: thanks so much to the Branch Da-Gideons for their in-room bible… it’s been super useful: as a support under our afternoon snackage of washed rind D’affinois, a block out for some annoying LEDs on the TV, a door stop for the odd plastic (?) bathroom door, a coaster and as a prop/chock to hold open the fridge cabinet which seemed to be overheating.

 

Back to Marrakech

We had a lovely relaxed morning in Essaouira yesterday before making our way back to Marrakech by public bus.  I knew that this trip had some public transport in it – and initially, I was thinking, ‘Well, that could really suck’.  But turns out I was concerned for no reason… this is not Turkey c.2007 apparently – the bus driver is not allowed to smoke, use his phone and drive in the middle of the road here – so me and Moroccoan ONCF bus services can remain friends. The transit was the best type of transit. Uneventful.

Our group checked into our various hotels – most of us at the Moroccan House Hotel in Marrakech, and we checked into the Trois Palmieres, some four doors up from the rest of the group.  There was something about the very noisy electrical box in Room 45 that made us feel like the hotel might burst into flames or electrocute one of us when plugging in a phone that made us not want to stay there again.  We had informed Intrepid, but they didn’t seem to share our safety concern, so we just ended up repaying for the booking.  It was a good move; worrying about spontaneous combustion is rarely conducive to sleep (all that watching the bushfires unfold on the news back home was probably not helping).

Tonight was the last night of our tour and a farewell dinner with the group.  Across the two back to back groups, we have been fortunate to be travelling with simply wonderful groups of people, from London, New Zealand, Brisbane, California, Melbourne, South Africa, Quebec, Ukraine, Greece and Victoria, BC.  And of course, our Intrepid leader, Samirr who is originally from the High Atlas Mountains, but now lives in Marrakech.  We don’t usually do group tours like this, so were pleasantly surprised to have met such a lovely bunch of people – we have been duly warned by others who have travelled with Intrepid, G-Adventures and Peregrine a lot, that this is not always the case!  Most of them were seriously happy to have been with such a harmonious group too. We had a lovely dinner, shared contact details and there were hugs all around.  It’s weird how you can get to know people so quickly – I’m going to miss my morning hug from Chris.

Anyway, we had some work today do while in Marrakech, and then it was one last foray into the medina for some last-minute shopping. I have to admit that after our madhouse experience here just before New Years, I wasn’t really looking forward to it.  I mean, we were told that town is busy on the weekends, and it would be much quieter when we came back on a Tuesday… but even I hadn’t anticipated this quiet: Gone was the soundstage with the makeshift concert venue set up for 40,000 people, gone were most of the snake charmers, monkey handlers, watermen, spruikers, and the heaving tide of humanity that we pushed through when we were here last.  The place was just eeriely quiet.  This is 10am on a Tuesday in Marrakech’s main square!

Even once we dove into the medina, it was predominantly empty!  Which was both great – no crowds of locals and tourist to push through, and also not great – we were the lone target for the few pushy shopkeeps we did encounter.
Literally, shop after shop, empty. Guess what Dr Nick?  I have made it through three weeks in Morocco surrounded by gorgeous pashmina and haven’t bought a single one!  Not even under the pretence that it’s a gift for someone else… who would have thought such a thing could ever happen!  🙂 
After our rather quiet (and I have to admit, pleasant) trip into the medina, we went to pick up some laundry and do a few errands before it was back to the hotel to play Tetris with the luggage – that’s always my job.  Making it all fit in.  We normally make sure we don’t buy things that need to be declared when coming back into Australia – it always just reeks of too much effort when you’re shattered from the long haul, but the handicrafts here have defeated us and we have several things that need to be declared, so I have carefully packed those for easy access at customs.

Saw this sign and remembered that I have failed to mention that Morocco still has barber-surgeons… you go to the barber for your haircuts, shaves and basic dentistry etc.  Yeah… you first. Spent the afternoon getting some work underway and packing.  After that, though, we were too stuffed to go out to hunt and gather for food.  So this is what we ordered from room service at our hotel – a Scillian pizza (with way too much capsicum and missing the requested anchovies), a kefta tagine (which was very tasty) and some Moroccan goats cheese and herb briouats (little filo pastry pies).  It was extremely tasty.

I’ve found a nice looking recipe for a kefta tagine that I’m going to have to try out when I get home.  https://tasteofmaroc.com/moroccan-meatball-tagine-tomato-sauce/
After this, we managed to find a movie on the TV, (‘Man on a Ledge’, in English) and aimed for an early night.  So much for that!  Woke up at 04:17 and haven’t been able to get back to sleep which seriously sucks when I am facing a 24hr+ transit starting around 11:00.  :/

Essaouira Walking Tour

This morning we had a walking tour around Essaouira with a woman named Rashida, who was quite literally the first Moroccan woman we have really interacted with.  Generally speaking, while there are women cooking in the guesthouses we have stayed in or cleaning etc in the hotels, we have not really been able to interact with women in Morocco.  In most places all the shop keeps are men, all the guides, drivers and hosts are men, and the women are largely unseen. Rashida is also a bit of an oddity as she is a Gen X lady who has a university education and worked as a teacher for many years, so we were very hopeful of a lot of information from her. Our first port of call on our walking tour (pun intended) was the harbour where much of the local fishing industry is carried out. Local fishermen will bring in their catch here and a bustling and busy wholesale fish auction occur every morning – except this morning, which is Sunday.  Historically, Essaouira has been occupied since prehistoric times as the bay is fairly adequately protected by Mogador Island, which makes it a very peaceful and protected harbour from the strong Atlantic winds.
Essaouira has long been one of the best anchorages on the entire Moroccan coast. A Carthaginian navigator named Hanno wrote of coming here in the 5thC BC to establish a trading post, which made it a strategically important location over the following 2500 years..Boats here, like in many other countries, are female – and will have a name painted on them.  Many of the names are Spanish, Portuguese, or even English, so we could see the Christina or the Maria nearby.  The fishermen here are required to paint their boats blue, as they believed that flies are not able to see the blue colour..?

While we were at the dock, a small boat pulled in a 14′ shark, Rashida called it a ‘clown shark’ but with it’s very long tail fin, it looked like an endangered thresher shark to most of the divers in our group.  This shark is destined for the fish markets and will be eaten.
In the 16thC, Essaouira was occupied by Portugal, ad the King at the time, Manuel I ordered a fortress to be built here – it was called the Castelo Real de Mogador – Essaouira was known as Mogador up until the 1960s.  By that time, the Portuguese had control of six Moroccan coastal towns and had built a stand-alone fortress in each town from the start of their occupation in the mid 15thC  Most of them were short-lived, being only held for between 5-25 years… by 1541, the fortress at Agadir had fallen to the Saardians (that was the Arab-Moroccan dynasty that ruled Morocco from 1549-1659) and the Portuguese had to abandon all the settlements they had occupied managing only to hold onto Tangier, Cuta and Mazagan.

During the following century, several European powers including Spain, England, the Netherlands and France all tried to conquer the region without success and Essaouira remained a haven for the sugar exports of sugar and molasses, and as favourite anchorage for pirates.  Yarrrr. Various parts of the fortifications were built and extended on from that time onwards. The present fortifications were built in the 1700s by various French architects – Rashida tells us Moroccans know how to build things, but are not very good at maintaining them.  The triumphal arch that joins the harbour to the fortifications represents several different religions that coexisted in the town at that time – the pilgrim’s Shell of Santiago was for the Christians, particularly Spanish Catholics, below it is a Koranic verse along with an Islamic date of 1184, and further below that are crescents for the ‘fertile moon’ which lies between the Tigress and the Euphrates, and if you look closely there are some small stars of David in the flowers on the lozenge motifs.  Essaouira had a large Jewish population here, and they were never persecuted like they were in Europe.  It was the only safe haven the Jewish had ever known – however on the formation of Israel after WWII 98% of Essaouira’s Jewish population moved to Israel, leaving only about 40-50 Jewish families here now. There is an enormous number of cats in this town – they are all very well fed and very well looked after as they keep down the rat population.  Essaouira never suffered from the plague due to their harmonious relationship with cats. Here, they collect the cats and desex them, give them shots and keep them healthy – they then dock the cat’s ear. so the community knows they should feed and look after that cat.  Cats without their ear docked are to be avoided as they might be diseased.  With the rabies. The town’s cats don’t really belong to anyone, so the town is dotted with cute little cat houses where the cats can go to curl up out of the wind or the summer heat..  The old arsenal under the fortifications is now filled with shops. Looking up towards the battlements.  The design of the fortress was such that the sounds would echo through the rounded battlements so that one or two cannon could be fired and it would sound like a dozen or more.  It was a fairly effective deterrent from invaders arriving from the sea, however, if they did round the corner… invaders would be greeted by ‘real Moroccan hospitality’, according to Rashida. More fat cats – it’s hard to take photos around this area without them. Some of the canon along the battlement were made/ordered by Carlos III of Spain, others are Danish in origin The medina is much like other towns we have visited, though much more relaxed and laid back.  This has become a holiday town for Europeans and has a very European influence in the food, the shopping and the general atmosphere. The next place we stopped into was the Centre Artisanal known for its extremely fine handicrafts made from the Thuya timber. Thuya wood (pronounced two-ya) comes from the Thuya tree (Tetraclinis articulata) which is native only to Morocco…the lovely burled part of the timber is created from a tumour like grown that appears in the tree’s roots. The local master craftsman make extremely intricate pieces which have mother of peal, lemonwood, abalone shell and charred timber (to mimic ebony) in ever-increasingly complex patterns and designs.  The results are gorgeous. This round table is made of three occasional tables which can be laid out in many different ways to create a zigzag long table or a round table or lotus shape or whatever.  It goes for around 16000DH ((AUD$2700).  Needless to say, we admired them greatly and left them in the shop! The various sellers of Thuya wood tend to claim that their industry is sustainable and they are supposed to plant two trees for every one that is cut down, but according to Rashida, the reality is somewhat different and the trees are heading towards being endangered.  They take about 30 years to grow to maturity, and they live in a symbiotic relationship with the argan trees… both grow better if planted together. It’s gorgeous timber, but most of the pieces are just not things I would use or need.  Puzzle boxes, jewellery boxes, trays, bowls, desk accessories, chess sets, domino games and all sorts of beautiful things everywhere.. Outside again, we were headed through the medina towards the fish markets which we expected would be relatively quiet on a Sunday. Here, I encountered a man selling lots of traditional pigments,.. the white container with the red lid contains the royal ‘Tyrian purple’ favoured by Romans that comes from crushed sea snails – murex. Around the end of the 1stC BC, the Berber king Juba II established a Tyrian purple factory here in Essaouira, where they processed murex and purpura shells found in the rock pools in the harbour and the Iles Purpuraires. This dye was used to colour the purple stripes in the togas worn by the Senators of Imperial Rome until Caligula decreed that only Roman royalty could wear the royal purple.  The ground murex is a dark dirty green colour until mixed with water – you can see the purple colour on the edge of the container where it has come into contact with moisture from the sea air. Fish markety goodness… could be any fishmarket in any country anywhere. Next stop was to a workshop for silversmithing – this particular workshop helped deaf people get gainful employment by teaching them to do the fine silver filigree work favoured by the region’s jewellery trade. We were shown with a touchstone how real silver reacts to acid, and learned a little about traditional Berger designs – most of which seem to be about courtship rituals and symbols of fertility. This Celtic inspired fibular brooch has a large decorative triangular shape attached which is supposed to represent a uterus.  It also indicates that a woman is ‘available’… to successfully woo the wearer, her paramour needs to find/have made a matching brooch and hook them together with a heavy silver chain. Bangles:
Pendants… oh so many pendants. After we checked out the lovely silverwork, we had some quiet time to talk to Rashida about the life of women in Morocco.  We had been asking Samirr, ‘Why do we only see men in the shops?  How come our hosts in the guesthouses are always men?  Where are the women, and can we talk to them?’  A few of us really wanted to talk to an educated woman (someone with good English) who might be prepared to have a frank discussion with us about what it’s like being a woman in an (admittedly fairly progressive) Islamic state.

The dot points of that conversation went somewhat as follows:
– Morocco has 38% illiteracy, but if you count just the women, that nearly doubles to 65%+
– Most women don’t get an opportunity for education at all, even now, so Rashida being born in the early 70s and university-educated is quite the anomaly – she was sent to school to learn ‘not to be a tomboy’ because she had five older brothers (only three surviving).
– Girls and women are usually ‘kept inside’ from the time of menstruation, so as not to attract the attention of men.
– Arranged marriages are still common, but now women need to appear in court and demonstrate they consent to the marriage (which may or may not be genuine consent).
– The legal age for marriage for girls was increased from 16 to 18 only in 2004, but child marriage still remains quite a problem, especially in rural areas.
– Women have only recently been given the right to divorce their husbands, but men have been able to cast off unwanted wives forever.
– A man can still have three or four wives, but he needs written consent from his existing wives before marrying again… there is literally no mechanism to stop this consent being coerced from the existing wives.
– A widow may remarry but no one would want her as she has been ‘taken and used’ by another man.  A man prefers a virginal woman only, so widows tend to remain alone.
– If a woman is raped, her family is likely to offer her as a bride to her rapist.  Once ‘used’ she is effectively damaged goods, and no ‘proper family or proper man’ would want her after that.  So the only options are to charge the rapist and try to see him sent to jail, or to marry the victim to her rapist so that he might ‘make her respectable’ in the eyes of the village. (Rashida told us a story of an incidence of this occurring to a young 16-year-old victim only 3 years ago, the young girl involved was forced to marry her attacker and unsurprisingly about three or four months later, she committed suicide rather than stay with her ‘husband’ who now had state sanction to keep raping her.
– Children born out of wedlock used to bear their mother’s name either, so the children grew up with the stain of the mother’s sin (or attack) forever. Now they are required to bear the father’s name regardless of the circumstance surrounding their conception, and they have rights to inheritance and upkeep.
– Children automatically stay with their mothers until the age of 12 in the case of a divorce, but the fathers have as much access to their children as they desire – there are no custody battles, the father’s rights supersede the mother’s wishes.
– Domestic abuse is rife, and rarely, if ever, reported.
– Likewise, child abuse and child sexual abuse is never reported – partly because of the stigma and partly because education is so poor, most children are not aware of what is ‘proper’ behaviour from adults, so cases won’t come to light until an abused child has grown up.
– All male children here are circumcised for religious (Jewish) or hygiene reasons, but Morocco never practised female circumcision, ‘that is an African practise, not an Islamic one’.
– Honour killings are rare but unfortunately do still happen in Moroccan Islamic communities.

All up, our half-hour chat with Rashida was very interesting.  She was open and frank about her culture as well as her own personal experiences – she is married to a man who had four children from a previous marriage, but was unable to have any children of her own.  She is pretty much my age, but already has a handful of step-grandchildren.  We were very grateful to have an opportunity to have a talk with her and gain an understanding of the challenges that women face in Morocco… her general feeling is that things are improving, but it’s taking time, and that education and healthcare are the keys to speeding up that process of improvement.

After our chat with Rashida, I met back up with Mr K and we found ourselves a little rooftop terrace for a light lunch. We spent the afternoon doing a bit of shopping and exploring the medina.  It wasn’t as busy as we thought the area might be on a Sunday, and we had a much more laid back and friendly shopping experience than we did in Marrakech or Fez. Back at the riad, we ended up having drinks on the rooftop to finally try and get rid of the excess beers that Mohammed had bought for us, and then it was off for a slightly tipsy stumble into the medina to find a restaurant for a light dinner.  We have most of the day here tomorrow too, but other than a few last souvenir type errands, we don’t have any plans other than to finally spend a few hours of this vacation chilling (or catching up on backlog of work that is creeping up on us!).  Tomorrow, we transit back to Marrakech for the last two days of our trip.