Double-Edge

The Christmas holidays have come and gone. I’m back in Durham once again for what is beginning to feel increasingly like the last tilt of sand in the hourglass. Last term went by like a bullet as I found myself thrown headlong into a heavy workload once again, but yours truly must have learned his lesson over the last year or two, because I can’t think of a day when I let it get me down. The troubles and traumas of the first two years of academia and extra-curricular pressures wanted and unwanted were very much absent from last term; if they were there, they were buried deep beneath a veneer of simple satisfaction. Satisfaction with my course, satisfaction with my extra-curricular commitments, satisfaction with the direction my life is taking me.

That’s not to say I’ve got it all figured out. I don’t. I’m still waiting on a crucial reference to secure my post next year – without it I could end up in hot water. I’m surrounded by people who are powering ahead with their dissertations at a remarkable rate, whilst I content myself with reading leisurely around the subject before I even think about the process of putting pen to paper. The Lights are also taking me forward at considerable speed, and it is this last which is eating into my timetable more than anything else at the moment. After three entire days of pitch-punching and choreo workshops, it’s easy to forget that university is a place for the pursuit of knowledge.

That’s something I’ve been thinking about recently: what does a university mean?

Over the last few years I’ve met a lot of people from different walks of life who have very different attitudes to university. There are many for whom it is simply the next stage in their studies, a means to an end, an expensive-but-necessary qualification to hack into the job market. I find it a little heartbreaking that this is what university has become for so many, the semi-obligatory next step in the road and one that we are all too often pushed into without even thinking. University should be open to everybody, of course, but does that necessarily mean that everybody needs to go to university? I’m not so sure.

Then there are those who accept that first notion and proceed to enjoy their time at university with their eventual degree very much subsidiary to their overall experience. They’re the ones who couldn’t care less if they land a 2:2 at the end of three years of lectures and under-prepared seminars, just as long as they had an amazing time and met some life-changing people along the way. Granted, it’s a point of view that suits the wingers and the daddy’s-boys more than most, but it’s not too uncommon. And at the end of the day, you can’t criticise the stance too harshly: it’s a very good example of making the best of a bad situation.

What else can a university degree offer? Networking, for one. It’s a fantastic way to meet new people and, by default, make important contacts in the outside world. It’s a good way to hone the skills you learned at secondary school to perfection, or to stay immersed in a subject you enjoyed. Some just don’t like to leave the school environment behind: the routine, the structure and the linear timetabling make for a familiar existence (and I include myself shamelessly in that bracket).

There is, of course, another important reason people decide to go to university: in pursuit of raw knowledge. That, for me, is the very essence of university. It’s what it’s all about: seeking new truths, dispelling old beliefs and walking into new worlds. What saddens me most is that this is so rarely the primary motivation. I wonder whether it’s more than a little big-headed of me to say such a thing, but I guess I expected to find more people with this kind of attitude when I rocked up a fresh-faced, idealistic fresher a few years back. I wasn’t exactly popular, and with an attitude like that, it’s really not hard to see why. Since then I’ve mellowed a bit, but I still feel a little happier than I should when I encounter somebody else who has nothing but unbridled passion for their degree. Perhaps that’s just the nature of an undergraduate degree; the Masters students all seem to be wholly absorbed in their studies. I guess I’ll just have to return to this world a few years down the line.

Perhaps it’s because I want to be a writer that the simple pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is so important to me. How can you profess to write for people if you don’t read? It’s little banal thoughts like that that kicked me back into reading fiction two years back. The effect that reading fiction has had on my overall enjoyment of academic research is surprising, to say the least. I wonder whether the two were supposed to go hand-in-hand from the very beginning.

More and more these days my degree leads me and my stories into worlds and places I could never have found on my own, and likewise the years of research I have carried out for my books gives me insight into my degree that features nowhere in my course. I have been torn from Spain, from the land that bled life into my tales like veins to a beating heart, but with a little hard work, I have found a survival mechanism in the university effect. Whatever one’s motivation for going to university may be, the result is a hot-pad of intellectuals of all walks of life. It is a place for bringing together great minds for the bettering of the nation, in pursuit of new truths and new ideas. Just the vibe alone of such an environment is reason enough to throw oneself into academia. That, I think, is the real purpose of university.

If only the UK could follow the Scandinavian example and make a university degree a realistic option for all, with no respect for money or background. The way things are going, such an aspiration is little more than a pipe-dream at the moment, but if we might try to take a step in the right direction, I’d implore the powers that be to rethink the idea that everybody in this country should be going for a university degree by necessity. University should be encouraged, of course, but no more than an apprenticeship, an equally admirable path by all respects. Higher education should be for everybody, but’s it’s not. An option, not a necessity.

I may be little more than another one of those liberal, meritocratic millennials, but I’m not alone. I think there’s something very wrong with the way we’re monopolising higher education, when it should be nothing more than that: an education.

To make good on my words and dispel a few old beliefs. A university degree is not meant to be the three best years of your life. It’s not meant to be a government-sponsored ride of wild parties and last-minute essays. And it’s not meant to be a long slug of soulless study either. But it can be immensely worthwhile and should not be abused.

But what do I know? Students are, after all, noisy creatures that are happy to live in hovels and live in close-knit cliques of their own. What do I know about the world? x

Not the End of the World

If I let the events of the last few days go by without a word, I’d be failing as a writer.

The hysteria is real. Donald Trump is the next President of the United States. Social media has exploded. Race hate is on the rise. Politics has, after so many predictable years, suddenly got very interesting indeed. The UK’s decision to leave the EU is old news: there’s a larger finger on the big red button. The race for the White House may have split the States, but everybody would agree that America’s new president can mean only one thing: change.

In one of the strangest turns of events I’ve ever witnessed, the man widely heralded as the most laughable of all of the presidential candidates of the campaign has defied all expectations and, despite a slew of racial slurs, misogynistic remarks and just about anything and everything else that might have destroyed any other runner-up, Trump has surged into power and we must now accept the fact that, like it or not, the controversial tycoon is now one of the most most powerful men on Earth.

That is, as long as there is an Earth for him to police. There’s no denying it: so many of us believed that a Trump presidency would be the forerunner of the apocalypse.

But is it really?

Now bear with me, as I’m going to do something very radical and very out-of-character, and I’m going to suggest that a Donald Trump presidency may be exactly what the world needs right now.

Now, why on earth would I say something like that? How could a see-sawing, prejudiced, misogynistic, arch-capitalist with his hands on the nuclear codes ever be a good idea? Well, for starters, I never said it was a good idea, nor that it sat well with me at all. However, I’m slowly coming around to thinking that it might not be the travesty it first seemed (Or maybe I’m just disillusioned with reality after Brexit).

I’ll do my best to explain. Firstly, the mere fact that a firebrand like Trump managed to beat the system and defy all expectations means that the status quo has been given a serious shakedown. The slump of pendulum politics is officially over. Granted, Trump was no saint, but Clinton’s track record made it difficult for the Democrats from the very beginning. Bernie might have been our hero, and it’s easy to believe that he would have led the Democrats to victory, but something tells me that the United States would have sooner seen a certified bigot in the White House before electing a socialist. Old habits die hard. But it’s this desperate adherence to the status quo that has brought us to this. People are sick and tired of the ways things are, the way things have been for so long. Trump offered to give them that change. Clinton had a tried-and-true dustpan and brush, Trump was offering a Dyson. It’s as simple as that.

In that sense, the election of Donald Trump ought to be seen as a triumph, not just of prejudice, but of change. Maybe next time the Democrats will provide a more idealistic individual, one unmarred by scandal and unfettered by the chains of regularity. In the interests of good politics, let’s hope so.

So why now? Here’s the sticky bit. Think back to the last time there was ever all-out war between the world powers. I’m not talking Cold War meddling, I’m talking boots-on-the-ground assault. 1945. That’s over seventy years ago. Since then we’ve meddled with countries across the globe, but it’s been all quiet in the Western Front. And seventy years is a very long time to go without war by Western standards. Meanwhile the US, the UN, the EU, all of these ‘peace-keeping’ bodies have been policing the world, trying to resolve conflicts left, right and centre – and, in many cases, deliberately capitalizing on them. But the clock is ticking. If history tells us one thing, it’s that nothing ever stays the same forever.

I believe that we’ve been living through a Pax Romana, a necessary ceasefire. As long as everybody did as they were told, the peace would hold. But this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Humans are naturally belligerent, and we’d be fooling ourselves to believe otherwise. We have so much capacity for love and compassion, but instinct cannot be denied. Conflict is one of the most natural elements of existence and we’ve been stemming it for so long. It may not have looked like it until recently, but we’ve been sitting on a volcano for a long time now. The pressure is mounting and it’ll blow before too long, with dire consequences for us all.

How could that ever be good? Again, it’s not. It’s terrible, and when war comes, I will be just as distraught as the rest of us. But, sooner or later, it is necessary. Resolving conflict by removing it from the equation can only work so many times, just as taking painkillers is no substitute for a cure. In the end, perhaps the best thing to do is to fight it out, to let it all come to a head. The rise of terrorism, the refugee crisis, pitifully low voter turnouts and the wave of race hate that’s sweeping the West… These are all the signs of a world that’s bristling for a fight. Between who, I cannot say. But it’s in the air.

Previously, wars have not only brought long periods of hostility and dissatisfaction to a decisive end, but they’ve resulted in massive social upheaval, often with various positive side-effects. In that one instance, war may save us all. I dread to think what may happen to this world if things go on the way they are.

Trump might not be the one to start the War That Is To Come, but you could interpret his election as the first of many thrown stones. Of course, it could all be a storm in a teacup, and the Mexican Wall and the ‘complete shutdown on all Muslims entering the United States’ may be as likely to materialize as UKIP’s £350m pledge to the NHS, but if we’re due a decade of change, for good or ill, this seems like the obvious trigger.

So what can we do? For starters, we can try to learn from our mistakes. The Democrats lost because they believed their idea of democracy would work. It didn’t, and now the age-old system has failed. It’s time to search for a new way of doing things, before it’s too late. I don’t pretend to have even the first idea what the new way might entail, but I can see plainly enough that holding to the status quo is no longer a reliable option. 

We should also get learning languages. Now. Obviously as a linguist I have more than a touch of bias here, but I mean it. In the current climate where nations the world over are becoming more and more insular as ‘us and them’ politics take the floor, it is more important than ever that we learn to interact with the world outside our own. Whatever you think of Trump or his policies, blind, beer-touting isolationism is a one-way road to destruction in the long run. So the EU has failed? Don’t walk away from it. Work on it. Change it. I’ve met so many non-Europeans who fell foul of the EU and had little love for it, so – despite espousing the Remain camp myself – I can see why people think it has failed them. But we could do so much more by working together. It’s just a question of time. English may be the world language for now, but there’s no reason to believe that’s the way it will always be, nor should it.

When Trump takes office next year, it’s difficult to know exactly what will happen. The bookies have been wrong time and again this year, so it’s hardly worth consulting them anymore. But if war comes, in ten years or in twenty, don’t say I didn’t warn you. BB x

Change and Progress

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about growing up. A lot of people say that you do a heck of a lot of it when you’re made to stand on your own two feet for the first time. Gap years, years spent abroad, traveling solo… You develop fastest when left to your own devices, it seems. That makes sense. I remember walking out of Heathrow Airport one cold December morning to see my family again after nearly three months in Uganda, the longest I’d ever been away from home. One of the first things my mother told me was that I looked so much older. Well – what might a mother say? But it’s stuck with me.

I wonder how much I’ve changed over the course of this year alone. As years go, it’s been a colossal upheaval. When I set out, I was still reeling from a year of juggling too many things at once, not least of all my heart, and full of ideas of my own as to what the year was going to bring. I’m not sure how much I’ve changed since, but I know that I have. I find it hard to imagine exactly who I was back then, because something tells me that the Ben that left Durham last summer (with all sixty-three kilos of his possessions on his back) and the Ben returning there in September are two very different persons. These days I’m often the Ice Breaker, the one with all the games and ready to turn my hand to just about any conversation, and yet I don’t even blink at turning down invitations the way I used to. Where once I resorted to obscure ASMR and Guided Meditations of middling quality on YouTube, these days I read (reading has taken over my life somewhat). And politics – that ghastly, age old enemy of mine – no longer scares me off. Ben could always speak, but it looks like this year he learned to talk.

A useful development for a budding linguist, don’t you think?

But these little details don’t necessarily constitute growing up. Growing up, in the strictest sense, is moving out, getting a job, having a family of your own. At least, that’s how I’ve always seen it. A better definition, perhaps, would be the stage in your life when you start thinking seriously about the future. Not just next week, or next year, but five, ten, maybe twenty years down the line. When you’re a kid you don’t have to worry too much about that. As an adult, you’re on your own. Over the course of the year I’ve seen the fog of war blown away and the next ten years of my life made clear to me. Spain is where I want to be, Spanish is what I want to be speaking and teaching is what I want to do with my life. The revelation wasn’t shocking; it’s as though the plan was always there, just waiting for me to find it. So growing up is all about thinking ahead, right?

Not exactly. As far as I’m concerned, that definition is only a half-truth. I’ve always been a thinker. I read a fair few blogs on the subject before penning my thoughts on this one, and one writer opined that being grown-up meant leaving the constant search for excitement of adolescence behind and looking instead for long-term relationships. Flawed logic: in that sense, I’ve been an adult since I was five years old. Somewhere down the line my development went a little awry and I’ve never been able to consider a relationship as anything but a long-term thing. The whole ‘bit of fun’, ‘casual’, ‘fling’ thing… It’s never made any sense to me, as distant and intangible as quantum physics or the Zodiac Killer. Oh, I know we’re supposed to go through all that in our teenage years (the casual attitude, that is, not the quantum physics). It prepares us for later life. But I couldn’t then, and I can’t now. It just doesn’t make sense. How do you even begin to describe something you physically can’t get your head around, no matter how hard you try?

This year I’ve met a lot of people who’ve changed my perspective on the world in little ways. Andreas, the old soldier with the big heart; Tasha, the fun-loving Texan; Victoria, the brave young polyglot; Alex, the forward-thinker. The Andalusian with such an honest passion for India, the Israeli in Plasencia who spoke of his love for Coelho, the New Zealander in Rabat who traded for a living. All of them made me think in one way or another; none of them will be forgotten.

Travel broadens the mind, that much is true. I might even call it steroids for the soul. I wonder how each and every one of these individuals remember me, if they remember me at all?

Growing up is more than just a birthday. It’s a series of chance encounters. It’s a sequence of experiences, good and bad, that mould you into a brand new shape. There are plenty of books about it. The genre even has its own name: Bildungsroman. One of these days I’ll look back and be able to tell you which was the younger me and which the adult, but as for the exact point of divergence, I think that will always be a little foggy. That’s completely normal. Twenty-first century Europe doesn’t exactly present us with the life-changing, coming-of-age scenarios that stories and histories regale us with. Growing up is in the everyday, tedious as it seems. What you do with that everyday, however, is another matter.

Adulthood is out there somewhere and you find it without looking for it. It’s only when you look back that you realize, I guess. Certainly, the Ben that stepped off the plane at Heathrow four years ago was no adult, just a happy, healthy individual, fresh from the happiest time of his life. The same Ben that walked out of Gatwick’s South Terminal in June, safe in the knowledge that he’d found heart and home and purpose at last and would be going back soon. Maybe all this time he was only sleeping.

As for me, I’m still very much in the works. Michelangelo’s put down his chisel and gone home for the night. I’m working on my Arabic homework with The Avener’s Fade Out Lines playing. Maybe I’m grown up or maybe I’m still just a kid. The truth is I don’t really care either way. I still spend most of time thinking, but I’m not so caught up in worries and anxieties anymore. The road ahead is clear enough and I’m on my way. Maybe it’ll turn off in directions I’d never imagined, and maybe I’ll find Her along the way, and maybe – at the end of it all – I’ll know for sure what it means to be grown up. For now, I’ll stick to this Arabic homework.

The future is a wonderful place, full of uncertainty and bright ideas, but for living, there’s no place like the present. BB x

Tetouani Wanderings

It’s another regular Saturday in Tetouan. I’m chilling on the roof of Alex’s hotel doing sweet F.A. in the afternoon sun with a book and a blog and a map for tomorrow’s hike. Today’s a day for doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it. The others went to Chauen en masse. The Alegría music festival is on and they went to check it out, though I don’t half wonder whether they spent most of the day admiring the town itself. Apparently it’s shot from obscurity to one of Africa’s most visited municipalities over the last five years. Oh, to have visited it before the boom…

Tetouan’s Hotel Reducto has some simply gorgeous rooms…


I’ll keep today’s post short. Just a few observations I’ve made over the course of the day in elaborated bullet form. That ought to keep the ideas concise.

  • The wind governs life in Tetouan. Seriously, it exercises a power greater than the beloved King himself. When the Levante is blowing, and it almost always is, the world slows down. People sit out the sun and the maddening wind. The minute the wind changes, the city is suddenly full of joggers and movement. I’m serious about the joggers. That one afternoon when it rained back in June, every other man in town was out running.
  • Tetouan’s a great place to be in summer, even during Ramadan, but this place must simply shut down in winter. With the King out of town, and no tourists, and precious little commerce, not to mention the total absence of desire for the beach… why, it must be like Durham in summer. Or Mérida in winter, perhaps.
  • The Turkish First Army staged a failed coup in the early hours of the morning. Erdogan crushed it. It may not look like it, but the world is chomping at the bit for a war. All these proxy wars, migrant crises and terrorist attacks are the signs of a world that’s been held back from all-out war for too long. Globalization and the atom bomb might have saved us from further conflict, but it’s been over seventy years now since the last global war: seventy years removed from something that has been our oldest and most persistent tradition as a race. There’s a slow creeping back towards the far right across Europe. Britain has severed its ties with the European Union. Trump is within a few months’ reach of being allowed a shot at the nuclear codes. And all the while the terrorist strikes are increasing, striking randomly at civilians the world over like sharks biting at a whale. The centre cannot hold. It’s only a matter of time.
  • Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm… and yet, I have absolutely zero interest in getting in on this fad. And that’s despite being a PokéNut until I was twenty-one at least. I caught them all, all 720 of them – twice – and I must have spent several months’ worth of my life staring gormlessly at those little pixelated monsters along the way. I was just playing at David Attenborough, I guess. Pokemon was perfectly suited to a budding, obsessive, studious little naturalist like me. It’s less that I’ve grown out of it now so much as reading and the novel have taken its place. A well-deserved revenge, perhaps, since they were both ousted for hours of Pokébore when I was ten. No, I’ve already got a world of my own to jump in and out of, and it requires no technology whatsoever, thank you very much.
  • The girl behind the counter in the stationary shop is kinda cute. Buying a couple of 2B pencils and a pen turned into a scene out of one of my novels where I wound up talking to this lady through the glass as we picked out the right kind of pen. That was also a lot of eye contact for a little transaction (I tend to get to know the stationary shop staff far better than the people who work in cafes or restaurants. Hey, I have an insatiable appetite for a certain kind of pen and a certain kind of notebook, alright?). I do wonder, though… If I don’t find Her on the road, or in a park or concert or wherever, I might just end up finding Her in a bookshop. There’d be a kind of divine justice in that.

That’s all for today. Early start tomorrow. After weeks of staring up at those peaks, Alex and I are finally going to tackle Mount Ghorghez. And none too soon; another two weeks from now and I’ll be back in England and all of this will be a thing of the past. Fa3lan, time is running out… BB x

Lose Some, Winsome

I’ll pick up from right where we left off two posts ago with the dissertation.

I didn’t get it.

I should have seen it coming, I suppose. 2016 has been a bit like my last Maths exam: full of wrong answers. It’s been an odd year. A very odd year. A year where Donald Trump actually became first a viable and then the only Republican candidate for the US presidency. A year that saw 51% of Britain actually give in to race hate and fear-mongering and leave the EU. A year that brought us a Pokémon-inspired traffic jam, Boris Johnson elected as Foreign Minister, and the deaths of Prince, David Bowie and Alan Rickman. And now, just to top it all off, I’ve been thrown back onto my second choice dissertation.

In perspective, mine is a very minor problem. It still smarts, though.

Granted, radically changing my modules at the last minute may not have helped matters. But after all of the hard work I put into chiseling out a wholly original dissertation topic (not so easy, when Google contains the abstracts of almost every dissertation imaginable), I’ve been thrown back on my second. Small mercies, then, that I put just as much time and effort into making my fallback as enjoyable and challenging as the first.

Oh wait, hold the phone. I’ve done a real Benjamín here. It turns out I played an old hand this time around, one that’s never failed me before: that is, I deliberately made my second module broader, a little less original and closely linked to my TLRP, so that my university would be forced into giving me my first choice. The old ‘Second-best’ maneuver.

It’s a good trick, and it’s worked before. Only, this time I was outmaneuvered. And now I’ve been put into such a position that, if I stick to my original title, it would be almost impossible not to plagiarize myself. That’s without mentioning that the dissertation I intended to write (my first choice: memories of al-Andalus in Spanish literature) was the one I’d been planning on writing since I was in Year 10 in secondary school (I was an odd kid). It’s essentially research for my novel, the best there could have been. Gone. So that’s a six-year dream squashed underfoot. And no room for maneuver either, since they’re fixed now, and also as somebody else got the al-Andalus dissertation this year. Not so winsome now.

What a diss-aster. Thanks a lot Durham. Thanks.

On the bright side, my dissertation supervisor is possibly my favourite lecturer, so I can’t really complain. I’ll just have to swallow my six-year pride and do the best with what I’ve got. And what I’ve got is still good. Very good. Only, it looks to be a little bit harder to spin twelve thousand words of this one. Without plagiarizing myself, preferably. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

To commiserate, we went to the Med this afternoon to soak it all off in the sun. Katie has plenty to say about her equally unfair diss-missal, but the sun and the sea saw to our anger, and a couple of rounds of Psychiatrist killed any bad feeling remaining. I’ve come to love my Dar Loughat droogs as much as I did my Ali Baba babes if not more, which is a tough task. Balancing the time between them and the host family remains a tightrope walk, and one of these days I’ll have a bad fall if I’m not careful, but for now, the peace lasts.

But that’s it for today. I’m back in bed, I’m recharged on data (5€ for 5GB is a stupidly good deal) and I’m ready and waiting for the rest of the misadventures 2016 has in store for me. Global financial meltdown? World War Three? Another friend-zoning-of-the-century? All equally possible.

Here’s to another hike this weekend. The way things are going, hiking is probably the most hassle-free activity left to me.

But then again, this is me we’re talking about. Who knows what madness I’ll get up to next? BB x

Don Quijote soup – when the rim is larger than the meal itself

Blaming the Wind

“My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing… Death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin. I coveted that wind, I suppose.”

Ganondorf’s speech, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Have you ever tried to write an essay in summer, when your friends have all gone to the beach and the humidity is fiercely high? Let me tell you: it’s brutal. I have nobody to blame but myself for the panic, having left it this late to really knuckle down and get working on this essay, but the Levante is an obstacle I confess I had not counted on. It tires you out and yet at the same time it holds you back from sleep. On a regular day when the skies are clear it might just make you a little woozy, but when the clouds push the current down to earth it acts like a greenhouse. The very wind saps you of your energy and leaves you hot, sticky and lethargic.

Not the best environment to tackle a 5,000 word research project in a foreign language.

The Levante reminded from the very first of Ganondorf’s final speech from Nintendo’s Zelda: The Wind Waker. Until then he’d been a fairly standard videogame boss with awesome power and not much personality. I don’t know whether it was an act of mercy on the designer’s part or a simple desire for a more human villain, but he was a new man in WW, and that last speech always stands out in my head. Maybe after a thousand years of imprisonment in the Sacred Realm he’d had time to mull the whole world-domination thing over. So Zelda supports cognitive behavioral therapy. Who knew?

Alright, so the Levante doesn’t exactly bring death. But lying here in the heat and the stickiness and the fatigue of the night, it certainly isn’t the kind of wind I associate with green fields.

Fortunately, at least as far as the essay is concerned, I planned well: more than 365 days later, the topic – bandit mythology in Spain – is as exciting as it sounded when I first came up with the idea on a whim last year, when my mind was likely otherwise occupied by British Council anticipation and the next Northern Lights gig. So, whilst the others at Dar Loughat spent a jolly old time at Ceuta, or Ain Zarqa, or watching Grease, I managed to bust out a decent thousand words or so; decent being a liberal term, dependent entirely on whether you can stomach my shamelessly flowery essay-writing style. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been run down to my last megabyte of data – quite literally – I might consider going for another thousand this weekend too… But that’s not what the year abroad is for. Besides, I need more data or I’m going off the grid. I think I’ll check out the Three Armies after class.

At some point over the next few weeks I’ll get around to braving new territory and filming a grand sum-up of the year – mainly because I have to, it being part of my contract with the Durham blog. Not so good for this particularly camera-shy blogger, but you never learn if you never try, and it might be a fun little break from routine, anyway. You might even call it a swan song, in light of recent events.

It’s just gone four minutes past midnight, post-Ramadan time. I’ve got the Corrs’ latest album playing as I write – specifically, Gerry’s Reel. This evening, between sweating like a pig and drinking like a fish, I’ve got a decent amount of novelling done, too. Never forget, BB, that that is the crux. University, the year abroad, Arabic… It’s all a passing phase. The book is eternal and if you don’t work on it, nobody else will. It’s really blossomed this year like never before and I’m quite excited to have the time to work on it without any guilt in September, before dissertation season and the travails of Finals year set in.

Speaking of which, we should be finding out our dissertation choices this week. Scary, much. Especially so when it’s a 12,000 word commitment. Fingers crossed, eh? BB x

Time Lords and Holy Water

Two seasons of Doctor Who in as many weeks. That’s getting dangerously close to an addiction. Fortunately, it was as much a memory run as it was a time-filler; the buck stops with the last of the Tennant episodes. For some reason I never got into the Matt Smith series. Maybe I grew up.

Yeah. Like that’s ever going to happen.

If my last post made it sound like Eid was one long endurance test in the kitchen, this one ought to shed some light on the matter. If the truth be told, I spent both Eid itself and the following day very much out and about, purposefully burning off any and all calories gained over the weekend. With all those sugary Ramadan sweets, I had plenty of energy to burn.

True to form, I messed up. The calories got burned, well and truly, but so did my back, my neck and my legs. Talk about splash damage. But when splash damage comes in the form of an entire day on the shores of the Mediterranean, who’s really complaining?

I confess, beach days are not really my idea of a day well spent, but for once it was nice just to kick back and relax by the sea, happy in the knowledge that last week’s conundrum was, finally, resolved.

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Spot the Italians (hint: it’s got something to do with the Sun)

The Dar Loughat team has exploded from six to eighteen over the last week. The result is that the gatherings have got louder, cheaper and perhaps a little less personal. And perhaps for that reason I’ve been pulling away a bit this week, loner that I am. Curiously enough, that led me to spend the day after Eid with the Host. I didn’t have much of an idea as to what, where or why. The father simply knocked on my door in the morning and asked if I was coming with them. He didn’t say where. But aren’t they the very best of plans: the one that you have no idea about?

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Hello Africa!

The destination, as it turned out, was Moulay Abdessalam, a holy site and place of pilgrimage for the Sufis of Morocco, sat high atop a mountain in the Bouhachem range. If I hadn’t twigged that I was in Africa yet, I certainly did when I saw the shrine. At the top of a flight of rock-cut steps, the shrine – a small white building with a green door cut into the side – seemed to grow out of the rock, sheltering a huge cork-oak sprouting from its centre. The floor, too holy for human feet, was nailed down with smooth cork-oak bark, and men walked to and fro across it barefoot, chanting and praying and bowing before the tree. It was mystical enough a spectacle, but add to that the swirling mists, sometimes thick enough to obscure everything ten metres away and more from sight, and it was almost otherworldly.

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Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

I suppose cameras aren’t particularly acceptable in such situations – I’m still stinging from that run-in with a couple of camera-fearing Chaouenis back in May – so I contented myself with a distant shot and resorted to sketching it instead, though how that is a less offensive practise than photography continues to escape me.

Continue up the mountainside a little way and you come to a telegraph mast, from which one of the locals willingly leads you to a metre-long fissure in the rock. According to local tradition, the rock is a test: those who can pass through the fissure will be blessed, and those who cannot will be cursed. Something like that, anyway. The words bendito and maldito were clear enough. As for the test itself, it revolves more around technique than skill: the nature of the fissure is such that there is a way to get through, though it requires keen observation and no small amount of manoeuvring.

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Claustrophobes beware

Yours truly made the cut in less than a minute. I put that down to a staunch refusal to grow fat on Moroccan cuisine than any skilful footwork on my part, though I have to say it seems a rather sexist challenge: I just about managed to squeeze through with the rocks grazing my back and chest. Any amount of gym, good eating or femininity and you’d have no hope in hell. I’m blessed, then – but at what cost, I wonder?

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Scarce Swallowtail – GOTCHA

We stopped on the way back to fill up on fresh water from for a sacred spring. To dispel any myths there, we were filling up industrial-sized plastic water bottles by the bootload, although I did suffer to drink straight from the well by means of a smoothed-out bark ‘cup’, as Moses and his followers might have done in the stories of old. Pretentious, much, but I was loving every second of it.

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How to drink, oldie-worldie style

We took a late lunch in the misty forests. I was in one of my strange, quiet moods and contented myself with watching the mists swirling through the trees. It was a pretty magical sight. This time last year I was dodging traffic, crawling into a hole with Henry Rider Haggard and steadily losing my mind in the dusty streets of 40ºC Amman. To think that at the same time of year I could be standing in a cold, misty forest with the wind in my hair and the sound of birdsong… It’s everything I wanted and more. Morocco, you’ve done me such wonders. Thank you.

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Africa, forest, mists, but no gorillas (there might be some macaques about, though)

Everybody’s heading out today; half for the mountains, half for the beach. As for me, I’ll be staying right here. Our Fes plans fell through due to illness, which isn’t so bad a thing, as I have a lot of work to do today. Essays – the bane of our lives. The sooner I’ve got some more of this work done, the sooner I can get back to enjoying my time out here. A target language research project is all well and good for assessing one’s advancement in a language, but it doesn’t half cast a shadow over your enjoyment of the year abroad. Just a thought, and not even mine, but one I adhere to. Katie certainly had the right idea there.

Well, three weeks remain. This time in three weeks I’ll be on a plane bound for Madrid, and then for home. But whilst it’s the end of the story for me, the story is just beginning for so many others (ugh, how crass a line is that). So, whilst you’re here, don’t forget to see how things are going on with fellow bloggers Alice Abroad and the dream-team at Langlesby Travels. Doesn’t everybody need a breath of fresh air from time to time? Blogging can seem a pretty solitary activity, but in actual fact it brings you so much closer to people by opening a window on a world you might never have seen before. It also keeps your writing muscles very well flexed. As an exercise, I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Which is odd, really, because I don’t go in for recommending exercise as a rule.

Until the next time, I’ll try to keep you posted as often as I can. The end is so near I can taste it, but I’m not about to lose sight of the goal with the final line in sight. Let’s smash these last three weeks, ya3ni. Positive attitude, that’s what it’s all about. That’s what it’s always about. BB x