Monday, May 24, 2010

Exotic, exciting, extreme and Essaouira

One of my favourite books is a big photography book called Travelogues. It's published by Taschen, whose books I greatly admire for their high-spec production, beautiful photography and content that is full of wonderful places and people. The book chronicles the traveller, Burton Holmes, who journeyed around the globe in the first half of the twentieth century and funded his trips by telling his stories and showing his photos to a paying audience. Near the end of his life he reflected on his life and travels and on the difference between his memories and those of his friends who hadn't travelled. This is what he said:
'I, too, have nothing but memories but I would not exchange my memories for theirs. I have a secret treasure upon which I can draw at will. I can bring forth, on the darkest day, bright diamonds of remembered joys . . . a little journey made, an expedition carried to success, several circumnavigations of the globe accomplished.'
Burton Holmes was an extraordinary traveller travelling in that age before globalisation began. Travel wasn't easy and it wasn't cheap. It required months of planning, long sea voyages, and real culture shock. It's rare these days to go somewhere that you have never seen footage of. In these days of the internet and TV and a proliferation of books, we often have a sense of what we'll see before we see it. Global brands penetrate every corner of the earth and it's surprising in most countries not to meet other travellers or a local that speaks the same language. For someone like Burton Holmes, travelling to other countries must, at times, have been as foreign as going to another planet. 
When I first read Burton Holmes's great insight into travel memories, it really resonated with my own. I have been thinking the past few days of Essaouira in Morocco. I was lucky enough to travel to Morocco in 2006 on a three week trip with my husband and mum. We got to see a lot in that time and all fell in love with so much of the landscape - from the breakthtaking Sahara desert to the labyrinth alleyways of Marrakech and Fez. I'd really only read about Morocco before going there so for me it was a great culture shock, which I loved. I found it to be a wonderful assault on the senses. The culture was very exotic, the liveliness of the marketplaces very exciting and the heat extreme. I'd rarely had Moroccan food previously so the spices were tantalising to my palette, and I found the people fascinating to talk to.
Essaouira is on the Atlantic coast and known as Africa's windy city. It's set on ramparts overlooking the ocean and is picture-perfect with its whitewashed buildings, sea walls, and fishermen's boats. When we were there, there was a luminosity of light with the bright white of the town set against the blue sky. Compared with the cities, it was very laidback and charming and was a beautiful town to explore. 
We met an old man selling ceramics who had no voicebox and could only tell us about his wares in raspy whispers, we saw children sitting in the street grilling fish on coals, there were cats everywhere, we read books on our riad's windswept rooftop terrace, and we drunk a lot of mint tea with carpet sellers. I have a beautiful handwoven silk throw rug that I bought in Essaouira. It has reds and golds and greens in it and it's currently draped over my couch as a memory of such a rich place. 
Whether you're travelling to somewhere very different to what you know in your own culture, or just exploring locally, travel can change the way you think, make you look at the world differently and expand your horizons in ways you never knew.

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