Dining Blind

dans le noirI’ve been meaning to take my husband to Dans le Noir, the London restaurant where everyone is on a blind date.. The idea of relying on taste, smell and feel alone as I find my way through a new menu, thrills me. But perhaps more importantly, it would give me an opportunity to prod at the unconscious mind of my man.

For Jed, dining in the dark could possibly be the biggest challenge of our 19-year marriage. Our relationship is based on a vive la difference kind of philosophy; he’s an urban dandy, I’m a country girl who’s lived in the city too long. He’s trawling the back waters of the web for new music; I’m happy with Radio 1. He wears the Star of David in his earring and I drag the kids to a carol service once a year. You get the picture.

And then there’s food. I grew up in a peripatetic family where food and storytelling were the only consistent things on the table. We picked up recipes from around the world and the smells of Malaysia filled my childhood homes from Germany to South Wales. The feel of baking and making is part of my muscle memory. Jed, on the other hand, may just as well have spent his entire youth never eating a thing. His interest in food is more about the markets than the meal, the old blokes selling the bamboo rizzlas next to the durian stall rather than the custardy-onion taste of the world’s smelliest fruit. He likes stories rather than smells. And he likes his food simple.

battle of bloggers 013 So when an invitation to a Battle of the Bloggers’ blind supper party at Brighton’s Dirty Blonde popped into my inbox, I pinged back my RSVP for the two of us. In the interest of journalistic enquiry, I would drag him into the dark until his senses had nowhere to run.

Among the bloggers, he would have to be a grown up rather than the ‘primitive child’ who psychologists say would only trust the food he has seen his parent eat. Afterwards, we would ponder on the 50 year legacy of his mother’s refusal to eat with the kids, and the food terrors would flood back, finally able to find a rational, mature mind to make it ok.

So I was a bit cross when he said he was busy that night.

I would take a real child then. Ok, so Loulou at 15 is already a foodie. She works in a gastro pub on Sundays and cooks three course meals for the family without biting a lip. But she’s still a child. Surely she couldn’t be blindfolded and fed who-knew-what? without at least a squirm. If she batted an eye, I couldn’t see it.

battle of bloggers 009 To be honest, Dirty Blonde isn’t really Dans le Noir. It’s more floaty gold muslin, glitzy chic beige and Made in Chelsea bling; being seen is probably more important here than taste. That’s ok; this is Brighton after all. And inviting the city’s bloggers to be blindfolded and served a taster of their eclectic menu was a genius way of getting us to write about the food.

Course by tincey-wincey course, we were spoon-fed morsels of meat, fish, even shots of cocktails and asked to guess the secret ingredients. By the third mouthful, we had mistaken rye for ciabatta, Southern Comfort for vodka and were heading for six courses of meatballs, scallops and an Asian fusion salmon that were designed to trip up the blind.

Loulou and I couldn’t even chat with our blindfolds on, let alone guess at the bacon jam and tomato concasse sweetening the scallops. We had been disabled, deliberately confused and dumbed on every level.battle of bloggers 021

But it was fun. We tried to remember the name of that smoky, gooey vegetable… ‘AUBERGINE! ‘ .. and fell about as we waded through grassy herbs before landing on fennel. Actually, it was sage.

But isn’t that that what eating out is all about? Playing with the senses? Having a laugh? If it’s about spotting the truffle oil in your macaroni cheese, kill me now.

So we couldn’t tell our mirin from our Furi Kaki. So what?

Will we go back? Probably not. Come on; Terre a Terre and Indian Summer are next door. But will I tell people about dining in the dark at Dirty Blonde? Yup. Will I go to Dans le Noir? Yup. Will I take my husband? No way. I’ve got a new dining companion who, after a childhood of making and baking, is happy to play with her food. What have you got for us next then?

The law of the jungle

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I thought I knew what Eco tourism meant. I thought it was about low impact on the environment, refilling water bottles and feeding the community, both with western money and English language. Choosing companies or individual hoteliers with the same values is a no-brainer these days; why not help a country develop its tourist economy with the kind of philosophy that ticks everyone’s boxes? Long haul travel once a year is way better for the environment than loads of short haul city breaks, and if my money’s going towards teaching village kids English so that they can grow their country’s economy by taking their place on the world stage, I’m happy to sip another beer for the cause.

But enough of Sri Lanka; this year, we’re in Malaysia and I’m rethinking the whole thing. Malaysia is busy selling itself to the world as the Eco destination of choice in 2014, and number one on its list of eco adventures is white-water rafting, Asia’s answer to getting trolleyed on the Sunset Strips of Majorca and Corfu; leave your inhibitions in the day job and get high as a kite as you tumble down ancient waterfalls before gliding through jungle-lined rivers. As a family, you’re not going to find the Novick-Smiths on either the Sunset Strips of Europe or the white waters of Asia, and between you and me, I can’t see this doing much for the economy. Sure the gappies, those modern day hippy-trailers carving a new path through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, will be there like a shot, but they’re not going to make much of a bulge in the government coffers. No, it’s the new Eco chic resorts like Banjaran Hot Springs in the caves above Ipoh and The Dusun hidden in the hills above Seramban that are the kind of places where people with money will fall in love with Malaysia. Even the old resorts like Club Med which has been geeing its guests into a hand clapping, side stepping euphoria on Cherating Beach in Kuantan since the early 80s is scooping up the Eco creds, with five Green Globe awards in the last five years. >20130412-191310.jpg

Tours to the local kampongs and markets are extra, as are the moonlit boat trips to see the fireflies which could teach the tourists more about Malaysia than the rest of the two weeks of sailing and circus skills put together. No-one stops the Chinese tourist trying to catch a curious firefly to take home to Bejing, but the rest of us are silenced by the beauty of the liquid mercury waters and the strange little creatures lighting up as we glide through the dark night of the jungle. I can’t decide whether it’s an episode of Star Trek that I’m reminded of, so alien are these tiny chemical reactions, or whether the gentle humming of the boat’s engine providing a threatening bass line to the chorus of the crickets is more Apocalypse Now.

Leaving the East coast, we head back towards KL, stopping in the hills above Seramban to spend just a little more time sitting before city life and then home. There’s plenty to watch from the verandah of one of the Dusun’s simple villas, perched almost on the tops of the durian and mangosteen trees in its 12 acre orchard but very little to be done. We toss up whether to swim in the salinated or ionised infinity pool and trek through the jungle with one of the country’s last orang asli guides, picking off leeches, spotting ancient medicinal plants and calming panicking teenage daughter before swimming again, this time in the cool, only slightly white watered river.
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But the effect of it all is deeply relaxing; even the mosquitoes can’t be bothered to bite. Jed pops into Pantai, the little village from where their staff and produce comes, to pick up lunch with Cee, one of our hosts. They bring back several delicious curries of chicken, fish and squid with perfectly steamed rice, banana fritters and kuih koci, an unspeakably gorgeous toasted coconut and palm sugar pancake wrapped in banana leaf. The bill? 15 ringgit. That’s about £3. For Jed who wins most bread in our household, bills like this strip more layers of stress than even a Malay massage could do. If it means we contribute directly to the locals with no tour operator to be seen, he’s happy to tick that Eco box.

Psychologists might suggest to the Malaysian government that classical conditioning is the key to its success in Eco tourism. Instead of bringing a list of shoulds and shouldn’ts along with the sun cream and tiger balm, tourists experiencing for themselves the deep calm of the jungle will not only respect the environment but associate its motherland with the luxury of profoundly letting go. It’s the new wave of Eco tourism; it doesn’t replace the ‘refill’ philosophy but goes further, inviting the early hippy trailers and those they inspired to travel east to remember what they first loved about Asia – the undiscovered, profoundly exotic and utter beauty of the jungle.

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Cutting the ties that bind

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Crossing the new 13km bridge across the straits from Pulau Penang to the Malaysian mainland, we headed south to Ipoh. Unlike Kuala Lumpur and Batu Ferringhi and many other towns in Malaysia, Ipoh has quietly slipped under the radar of high rise development, becoming a millionaire’s paradise while keeping its own character. We forget that with the rise and rise of the Asian economy, tin mining brought riches to Malaya long before the Brits or any other colonials wafted through.

These days Ipoh cares not a jot for the Westerner. Our one day in the city before heading to our jungle retreat was spent sheltering from the rain and observing a typical Saturday in mid Malaysia. The culture we found was Starbucks and cinema in the kind of mall where most of the world lives on a Saturday afternoon these days. As we sat among the latte drinking iPadders before watching ‘The Host’ and monsoon season settled in outside, no one shouted ‘where you from?’ in that sing-song question that’s more about finding a way of making a few dollars from the white man than any real interest in the difference between Brighton or Berlin. Even as we wandered through the little lanes in search of my old home (and found a new office development on the site of 156 Gopeng Rd), the middle class neighbours showed no interest. We may have blagged our way into the Ipoh swimming club, once the domain of Australian and British Army wives and kids, but the mothers here today were far more interested in little Li Mei’s 25 yards front crawl than the giant white family sipping their Tiger beers and Lilts on the terrace.

I heard the whispers of my parents suggesting a pink gin at to The Ipoh Club, scene of many a glamorous expat party. Donning our least crumpled clothes, we headed into town. The receptionist and waiter looked as though they may have been there since 1965, and our drinks took almost as long to arrive but again the welcome was underwhelming. An Indian wedding took central stage while we gazed out across the Padang, sipping bad vodka and tonics, and imagined a time gone by. It was time to look for the Malaysia that wasn’t about the colonial past but about a new Asia, one that had cut its apron strings from the Empire and grown up with a more confident philosophy carved from ancient traditions and futuristic vision.

We left my parents wandering through the corridors of The Ipoh Club and the next morning headed to new Malaysia. They wouldn’t have been interested in The Banjaran Hot Springs Retreat, one of the new Eco-chic resorts selling the country’s ancient treasures to a moneyed, younger generation from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bejing. There’s no nod to colonialism here, just minerals from its underground springs and old fashioned Asian smiles that are more calming than any temporary rejuvenation session in the spa. This resort has been carved out of caves which had only been used by Japanese soldiers in WWII until three years ago when Malaysia’s own Richard Branson, Jeffrey Cheah developed it into an eco-retreat. Their etchings are still in the caves, now used for meditation, steam and a fabulous bar and cellar for Jeff’s wine habit. Sumptuous villas with their own pools and jacuzzis dot the cleared jungle landscape and mists rise from lakes of hot springs. The dipping pots of 40 degree mineral-rich springs vie with the garra rufa fish to heal the hard skinned, stressed-out guests. The fish win as a steady stream come to offer their feet for a free nibble.

Jed begins to fret at the offer of nothing but time for the next two days and looks for a way out, while the kids can’t believe that they have their own pool in their own villa. I interview the rather gorgeous French chef and ideas are buzzing for articles for Gourmet Traveller and a book on spa cuisine. Back in the villa, an email arrives from Monash university in KL inviting me to deliver a seminar next week on my academic research on TV chefs and the construction of taste. This is my world; food, chefs, journalism and academia – preferably global – and suddenly that little girl looking for her parents has gone. I can feel my apron strings coming loose and my hand finding a new one to hold as I turn 50 at Banjaran.

It’s been a big couple of years with the loss of both my parents. It’s been a big trip home to Malaysia, and as we leave Ipoh on the ‘ Ekspress bas’ to the east coast, and the terminal turns out to be opposite the site of our old home on Gopeng Rd, I hear those giggles again. I’ll leave my lovely old mum and dad to look around their old haunts and take my own family on an eight hour trip, traveller style, across the Genting Highlands to the crystal waters of Kuantan. Yes, it was where we went on holiday in the ’60s but as my own kids’ gap years come into focus and Jed and I talk about how to combine work with more travel, I’m going east with an eye on the future and less in the past. A bit like Malaysia, perhaps.

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On the trail of the lonesome pine

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I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for when I promised my father that I would take the family to Penang for my 50th birthday. The last thing we did before he died in November was to put together the family photo album of our posting in Malaysia from 1963 to 1966, and it was his last chance to tell me – again – stories of snake temples and jellyfish, monkeys and timmy tigers. In a country where king cobras lived at the bottom of our garden and where he and my brother nearly died from tropical diseases, I don’t remember ever being afraid; those timmy tigers lurking in the jungle just up ahead from where we swam in a local beauty spot were probably nothing more than a couple of lizards parting the huge fronds of monsoon-watered palm trees. We would squeal with delight and shoot them with our pop guns.

After my parents’ last laugh in steering us to the E&O’s new wing built on the very spot where our first home once stood, we headed north to find our family beach waiting for the next cosmic joke. Lone Pine Beach; the name alone still feels like warm water lapping at my toes. Two paintings of it hang in my parents’ (still unsold) home and have followed us from country to country since we left Penang. The very last photograph of our family before we were posted to Germany was taken there. I’d seen on Trip Advisor that there was a Lone Pine Hotel in Batu Ferringhi and guessed that the beach wouldn’t be far away, but when the E&O told us it was its sister hotel and that it offered a shuttle service for guests, I heard the familiar giggles. Of course it would be the first hotel to be built in Batu Ferringhi and the beach scene of choice of the colonial expats. Of course we would be given a free pass despite staying at a dive by comparison.

As we watched the sun set on Lone Pine Beach, we all tried to picture the paintings on my parents’ walls. None of us could remember the detail. Jed remembered the unusually large rocks while the kids fought over the position of the island in the background. We’ll have to wait until we go down to Wales next to see the real thing, but it doesn’t matter; as the sun slipped behind the clouds and set fire to the horizon, the warm water lapped against my toes and I knew we’d found our beach.

But it was Monkey Beach where I found what I had been looking for on this trip back in time. Although for most people on this strip of sand it’s a £60 boat ride to paradise, Monkey Beach is for me the unspoilt, undeveloped fishing village of my Penang memories. I don’t know if I went there with my parents, but my Penang, my Malaysia, has always been, in my head at least, Monkey Beach. The Jurassic leaves, the dense jungle, the mists rising from its heights, the monsoon rain and lunch of barbecued fish and steamed rice, the monkeys jumping out of trees to steal anything they can, and the silent beach – these are my Malay memories. These are the hot and humid, childish and carefree feelings of being with my family. Kids of three and under don’t take in the sights; their language is about smell, touch and feel. You can show me hundreds of old Chinamen cycling trishaws but give me the smell of jungle and I’ll tell you I’m home.

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The Ghosts of Georgetown

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Georgetown, Penang, a place so full of the ghosts of my past. From Chinatown to LittleIndia, Love Lane to Rope Walk, the travellers may look the same as they did – and I did – 28 years ago when I was last here to try to remember the Penang of my early Army childhood here, but hard as I try, I can’t find my town.

For a little girl of under three, Georgetown’s stories of jostick makers and copycat tailors were less interesting than the scent of my mother and the crush of her silk as she kissed me goodnight and left me for an evening at The Farquar Bar at the glorious Eastern and Oriental hotel. I swear I caught the smell of her Chanel no.5 as we sat outside the same bar last night, sipping a Planter’s Punch and drinking up the atmosphere of a thousand colonial ghosts, from Noel Coward to Somerset Maugham and the officers and wives of The British Army of the late ’50s and early ’60s. There’s something rather comforting about them settling here in my dreams as I raise my glass to the memory of my dashing, glamorous, adventurous trail-blazing parents. The E&O is one of the grand hotels of the world, a stop on the tour of life lived only by the curious super-rich who would parade the colonies from Raffles in Singapore to the Taj in Bombay and The Galle Face in Colombo. The British and Australian Armed Forces followed the tea and rubber planters and settled with the writers and artists who preferred their pink gins on verandahs cooled by punkah wallahs and later, the helicopter fans that bring back so many hazy memories for me now.

These days, the E&O’s brand new Victory Annexe, with its chic tope and off white decor echoing the Malay bamboo browns of the colonial era, is still big on memories. Its salt water infinity pool nudges the original hotel’s elegant heritage into a futuristic Malaysia, but unlike the shiny sky scrapers of Kuala Lumpur which have rewritten the capital’s history with barely a nod to its Malay or colonial past, The E&O celebrates it with a social history room that seems to be excavating the same stories as me. The bars and cafes, foyers and doormen are all from another time, with white socks and pith helmet. Whisky in hand and sitting at the bar, if I listen hard enough, I can hear the strains of jazz and the echoes of laughter from the bar. And suddenly there’s my mother in her silk and Chanel and my father telling his stories of Keenya and Benghazi.

20130404-094509.jpg As my teenage daughters eye the golden back packers stopping off in Georgetown on their own rather grimier tour of life, I know that they’ll be off soon too. The heat and bustle already calms them. Last year in a tin roofed roadside cafe in Sri Lanka as we listened to the thundering rain and the toots of the tuk-tuk, Ellie, then 16, sighed ‘It’s so peaceful here.’

I ask Jed to take a picture of me, new Georgetown’s own skyscrapers lining up against the the distant hills. I look at the horizon and compare it with a picture my mother took 48 years ago of my brother and me on the sea wall at the end of our garden. It’s the same – bar the skyscrapers. Could this Victory Annexe have been built on the very spot where we lived when we first arrived in Penang? I ask Kerana, the doorman. He remembers that there were flats here when he was a boy. Australian nurses lived there, he recalls. I have no-one to ask anymore, but I listen to the giggles of the ghosts and I know that this place was once my home.

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A Eulogy

And then he was gone, my giant of a father who filled our lives with his stories and his energy for life. He left with everything said, everything sorted and as I watched him pass away, it was with the easiest of breaths, no pain, no struggle. He had an amazing life and an amazing death. He was an amazing man.

My dad believed in legacy and his stories of Army life will live on through his book Khaki Shorts, his many articles for the regimental journal and his blog, Regimental Stories; soldiering is fun. An interview with my then 89-year-old grandfather about his experiences in the First World War is in the Sound Archives of the Imperial War Museum. His beautiful calligraphy still tells the stories of Rorke’s Drift in the Regimental Museum in Brecon 20 years after he left. As I speak, he’s probably telling St Peter about the time he was in Keenya.

But more than this, his stories will live on in our hearts; every one of his friends will have a favourite Bob Smith story that won’t just have made them laugh but which will have changed them in some way. For his fellow officers, he was – and I’m quoting from the many lovely cards we’ve received in the last week – ‘without doubt one of the Regiment’s greatest characters’; a ‘ truly remarkable man’; ‘ a raconteur, bon viveur, writer and humourist, an extremely loyal and highly respected member of the Regiment’.

For Ellie, his eldest grandchild, his stories of exotic lands and different cultures have inspired her to travel the world, and it’s no coincidence that it’s anthropology that she wants to study at university next year. For Loulou, his youngest grandchild, it’s his love of food and the stories behind every recipe which will be her grandfather’s legacy and he loved watching her master the family curry recipe in his very last week. For my cousin Claire it was his endless enthusiasm for the next big adventure, for Helen, his daughter-in-law, it was his stories of romance, of proposing while intoxicated by the scent of a jacaranda tree. For Edward, his middle grandchild, he showed him the importance of respect and how any goal could be achieved. For Jed, his son-inlaw, being with Bob was a masterclass in how to be a grandpa.

For me, it was the quality of his friendships. His stories about his friends were full of detail, evidence of how well he observed the people around him. In his last years after my mother died and he had recovered from the grief that almost killed him, it was this quality which rebuilt his life in Crickhowell and gave him new happiness with Lucy. It brought him new and deep friendships with his neighbours, and meant that his last months were filled with people who loved him through the many chapters of his life.

One of the good things about cancer is that there’s time for the big issues, and we talked a lot about what he had learnt in his 85 years. He said that he was the luckiest man in the world because he had lots of very good, very long friendships and very few enemies. I asked him what his secret was. He thought for a moment; ‘Be kind and reasonable.’ It was one of the few understatements I think he ever made. I’d add something that his long-time friend, Chris Lee told him only a couple of weeks ago. He said that he would be remembered for his ‘humour and his humanity’. That’s a legacy his family can be really proud of.

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Five days in the desert. Chapter three

The old storyteller sat up tall. He touched a thumb to his own chest.
‘It’s in there waiting’, he said.
‘What is?’
‘Your story’.
‘Waiting for what?’
Mrabet closed his eyes.
‘It’s waiting for you to close your eyes and wake up.’

Tahir Shah, ‘In Arabian Nights’.

It’s a bit like buying a Hawaiian shirt when you’re on holiday making observations of another culture, but while I’m here in the desert, I’ll stick my neck out and say that the words of Tahir Shah echo through the streets, souks and sands of this country; storytelling really does seem to be at the very core of its culture. The drumming of the Berber boys around the camp fire the other night and the prayer song that accompanied it were what Kirsch claimed as his Inheritance Track as we went around the group. It was the soundtrack of his childhood. While others chose ‘The Animal Fair’ or ‘Waltzing Matilda’ ( and not even the Tom Waits version), Kirsch’s choice, echoed by Mustapha, the kitchen boy who had joined the drumming, was more than a prayer. It would have schooled him in the ways not just of his tribe but of his fathers and forefathers. It sounds cliched even now while the Hawaiian shirt still looks ok, but things don’t change much in the desert. The story is everywhere.

So it was just the place to do a dream writing workshop before the Fez crew made their way home after a weekend in the sands. Again, the fear and anxiety turned into surprise and awe at their own creativity, and the tears came, as they so often do, at the release but also at the sheer beauty of what was being revealed by people they thought they knew. With bags already being loaded into the Landrover, the group ripped open a new seam of connections and the hugs as it split, one car heading off on the eight hour trip home and the other going back to Tissardmine for one more night, were long and hard.

The stories of these people who have shared my long desert weekend at CafeTissardmine will be ones I’ll take home with me, storing them for the moments when the small people get into my head again and try to squeeze me back into their pigeon holes: Jess and her Moroccan bling and artisan tours, Vago with his tales of Hawaii and Moroccan wife, Hannan, and Colleen and her Essaouira chic and Aussie humour. Simo, her shy Moroccan partner with his Casablanca class and gentle storytelling, Kirsch and his Berber generosity and boyish humour and Youssef with his enigmatic smile and Persil white turban. And Karen Hadfield. Not brave, she says, but yes, intrepid, who came to the desert for a holiday and came back for life, who had a vision and built a palace which even as I write, people find. A band of adventurers from Holland whose desert bug ran out of petrol rather handily just outside the house, have been scooped up and given a tent and mint tea, and will join us for our wine and tagine as if they were family tonight. Ok, so they’ll pay but they’ll see it as an oasis – as it is, and they too will go home with stories to remember of the super-tall British Australian woman they met in the desert and her band of Berber brothers who helped her find her home.

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Five Days in the Desert. Chapter two

Yesterday evening the mood changed as we headed off to the desert to watch the sun set over Erg Chebbe, the longest dune in the Sahara. It was still a party spirit as Jess and Vago, our intrepid fellow artists and ex pats from Fez climbed atop the land rover as it headed across the sands, the whoops and ululations mounting as everyone turbaned up for photos against the imposing dune. But as the group split, Jess, Vago and the Moroccans going for the peak while the rest of us tried to get our breath back somewhere in the middle, the intensity of the view calmed the mood.

There’s something so ancient about these dunes, with the occasional camel caravan – no doubt of tourists – silhouetted against the endless sky, that makes you feel very small indeed. Last night’s thunderstorm had created a lake at its feet and as we watched the sun set, tinting it pink, then terracotta, then mauve, the silence of the dunes engulfed us. Tiny pin pricks in a desert so old and, regardless of how many tourists pass through it, so untouched by time, we were nothing to it as it did what it does every evening, and will do forever.

As we sat around the camp fire later that night, nursing our goat brochettes and listening to the gentle drumming and lilting prayer song of Kirsch and Mustapha our Berber chef and kitchen hand, I realised that however much fun our little group of artists from Fez, Essaouira and Sussex via Llantwit Major, Hawaii, Melbourne and, well, Sussex may be, our mark here is temporary. There’s a reason why there’s a ‘roc’ in the middle of Morocco. It’s solid, ancient and happy in its skin, and while it may enjoy us for a while, it won’t miss us when we’re gone. Tourism may line its pockets and the storytellers of the souk may play their games with us, but the beat of the drum is the rhythm of life here, and Morocco is never going to play to a western tune.

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Five Days in the Desert. Chapter One

The Moroccan Sahara. It sounded impossibly romantic on a wet Sussex autumn afternoon as I packed my bags for a writer’s retreat earlier this week. I like the idea of not knowing quite what to expect from my travels, although packing for an early autumn mystery weekend in Florence which turned out to be in Berlin had put me on my guard as I hauled my dusty suitcase out off the attic again. Shoes: Flip flops? Boots? What do you wear in the desert in late October?

I knew there would be a party at Cafe Tissardmine. I’ve known Karen Hadfield, whose retreat it is, since she was a singer on Melbourne’s fringe arts scene in the ’90s. Even if she had given it all up for the stars and solitude of the desert, I knew that she’d have pulled together some pretty good people for a 5 day retreat. I might even take perfume.

Arriving in Marrakech for a day and a night before the 10 hour trip to the desert, I checked into a pretty little riad in the middle of the medina and realised that chic was the way to go this year. I hadn’t packed chic. I wouldn’t need it anyway; the unfeasable heat of that Marrakech afternoon is almost forgotten two days later as the unseasonal rain and thunderstorms of the Sahara has reduced my exotic wardrobe to jeans and a smock top. I even borrowed a jelaba for breakfast this morning.

But there’s something rather nice about being with glamorous artist types who are more concerned with keeping warm than sartorial oneupmanship. Ditching the lippy is more likely to attract the muse around here, whether it’s over a dinner of spiced beef tagine or an evening trip to the sand dunes to watch the sunset. The Berber muse, it seems, is into comfort as Day 2 produces a mandala created by the group, a bit of yukele playing and some serious writing already.

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Tangerine Nightmares

We’ve come a long way since Negombo’s genuine Ayuwoban wished us long life, through tales of corruption and jealousy to stories of survival and resilience, philanthropy and good old fashioned kindness after the war and the tsunami  transformed Sri Lanka’s fortunes in 2004. We’ve seen what tourism can do for a country like this, from cutting edge eco innovations in Jetwing hotels to the warmth of the Sri Lankan soul clearly visible in its staff. We’ve basked in the sublime colonial pampering at the Amangalla and witnessed its wide influence on Galle Fort’s emerging shopping and cafe economy. We’ve tasted some of the opportunities for gap year teens to help build new schools, teach English and train a new generation of back packers in what responsible travel can mean, and met some of the children whose lives they really have changed forever.  Sri Lanka is a place where it’s not only possible for the tourist pound to help, but where it’s essential for its survival.

 

So after travelling almost the length of the west coast over the last three weeks, it’s sad to see how quickly that Sri Lankan smile has become replaced by surly customer service and lack of initiative at one of the gated hotels sprawling up the coast just south of Colombo. This is often the first or last stop for tourists flying in to the country, and for an increasing number of package tourists, the only hotels they’ll ever see in Sri Lanka. Watching the interplay between guests at Tangerine Beach and its disinterested reception staff while we waited for someone to sort our irritating online booking error, we felt like we were in a different country. it seemed we had landed in a small corner of Sri Lankan tourism where a pack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap philosophy could seriously threaten this brave new world. There was precious little smile, and  Ayuwoban had been replaced by Good Morning through barely disguised gritted teeth and reluctant eye contact.  As the sun rose higher above the coconut palms outside, we wondered what had happened here to cool what we’d seen everywhere else as the warmest of welcomes.

The broad smile and endearing chin wobble of Jetwing Blue’s Suchanditha, her pretty hands clasped in prayer position, echoed across the waves of the Indian Ocean.  She had told me that children are taught  to greet each other and their teachers with Ayubowan from the minute they start school, instilling a respect for each other which forms the very basis of Sri Lankan philosophy. It takes little to keep that spirit strong in the hospitality business where warmth and kindness are the foundations for guest satisfaction, where there are no problems, only solutions, where nothing is too much trouble – not because the staff are after a tip, but because they genuinely want you to enjoy your time in their country.

What happened to the school children who grew up greeting each other in prayer position, a little wobble of the head and a broad smile, who learned their English and went into the same business as Suchanditha and her colleagues just a few hundred kilometres down the beach? Tangerine hotels are wholly owned by another Sri Lankan family, the Ondaatjes, whose fortunes rose on the back of the German tourist, then the English and have now been fattened by the package tours from Eastern Europe. Around the pool, the chat about the seafood buffet is in Armenian, Russian, Ukrainian, with the odd Mancunian smile lightening the sullen demands for more Lion beer and jumbo prawns. We’ve seen it all before; the newly moneyed the world over treat those with much less with the kind of disrespect that distances them from their own past. It’s the skit on class by the Two Ronnies and John Cleese, the story of racism, the spoils of capitalism unchecked by empathy, solidarity or plain old good manners.

 According to the beach sellers, fenced off from these all-day sunbathers in a way we hadn’t seen on any other part of the coastline, this little corner of Sri Lankan has been a haven for the Eastern European tourist for four years now, time enough for the daily drudge of serving people who don’t say thank you to wipe away that lovely Sri Lankan smile. So when the early warning system sounded the alarm for another tsunami last week, we weren’t surprised to find the gates of Tangerine Beach Hotel opening only to let its panicking guests in to seek refuge on the top floor.  For the tuk tuk drivers who had shown them around for a dollar or so, the tailors who had copied their designer clothes for a steal, the fishermen and restaurant owners who had fed them for less than they spend on a glossy magazine, there was no room at the inn. Why? Something to do with those fences perhaps? The broken glass preventing anyone scaling the 30 foot walls said it all.

When the last tsunami struck on Boxing Day 2004, the Amangalla Hotel in Galle had only been open for 11 days after three years of building what would become the former capital’s most sumptuous place to stay. Its guests are the super-rich and its service is based on being one step ahead of their every need. For the residents of Galle Fort, the three years had been full of suspicion; there had been rumours of a night club and a casino before a huge launch party for the entire community  dispelled the myths; every resident of the Fort was invited in to eat, drink and look around the hotel and imagine how it would share its fortunes. It showed them that the kind of guest who would sit on its glorious verandah sipping a G&T and listening to soft Sri Lankan live music after a day of ayurvedic massage and private steam, sauna and plunge pool would, with an Ayubowan or two, soon be browsing around the shops and cafes that would be the foundation of a new economy. When the tsunami struck days later, the locals instinctively ran to the highest point of Galle Fort and through the doors of the Amangalla. The children and elderly were invited to sleep there until the wave had done its worst. No 30 foot high walls, broken glass or gates kept them out; on the contrary, the hotel probably saved many lives that day.  Eight years on, we noticed the warmth and respect of the locals towards the tourists – all tourists in Galle Fort – a vital part of what is still a fragile economy.  

In a predominantly Buddhist culture, it’s important to remember that Ayubowan wishes long life on all living things (including surly tourists), and is a reminder of the rules of responsible tourism. Sri Lanka is recovering well from the war and the tsunami; its early warning system this time was efficient and although the wave didn’t happen, it gave people time to get to higher ground in the event of another disaster.  But if it succumbs to the bullying of the foreigner and forgets that what makes it different to other Asian countries, which sold out at the first sniff of the dollar, is the generosity of spirit behind its welcome, it may not live long at all, however many greetings it bestows on its tangerine tanned guests.