Friday, 21 July 2017

'Early Morning Run in... Casablanca'

“I heard a story once - as a matter of fact, I’ve heard a lot of stories in my time. They began with the sound of a tinny piano playing in a parlor downstairs…” Bogie (aka Rick). The movie, the one and only, the brilliant, Casablanca. A city named after a movie?
Hello, everyone. It’s been a while. We’re reunited and ready for a fresh caper.
Same as Rick, I have a couple of tales for you. My first story comes from a Moroccan massage establishment. The second from a bar/casino called Rick’s Café. There’s also a 12-km run to squeeze in.
Scene one. Concerns pushed aside. I’m through the multicoloured beaded curtains. Immediately I'm lost in the fog of instruction. Some French. Some Arabic. Fast forward ten minutes.
... I'm perched on a heated marble bench in my soggy green boxers, alongside my Moroccan shipmates in various stages of undress. Look over there, a fellow wearing a bright red fez and a modest wrap. I glance down at my props; a tub of black tar soap and a blue spiked oven glove. The large room is like a Vegas casino. No windows, no clocks.
I'm quickly sweating like a teenager whose mum has just borrowed his laptop. The famed Hamman massage. It's what one does in Morocco and Turkey.
When in doubt, observe the locals. As a rule, I'm not happy with chaps applying sun cream to my back. Here, teamwork. Everyone helps each other. A little pouring of cold water here; a little communal scrubbing there.
Oh, oh my shipmates are scrubbing each other. The fellow with the red fez and a broad smile is particularly energetic. Meanwhile, I'm messing about with my soap and half-heartedly patting myself. A member of staff, from nowhere, starts scrubbing me. Now it's a Japanese game show. He removes my tan. If I had tattoos, they'd be gone as well. He’s brutal. I look down. There's dead flakey skin everywhere. Who knew?
Another staff member collects me. Cold shower time. Now, massage time. This fellow has thumbs like steel rods. I plead, “Monsieur, prenez-en plus easy, je suis suffering.” Custom dictates I give a small tip to the people who’ve assaulted me, some MAD (Moroccan Dirham’s). Here’s a tip, ‘ease off will you’…  
Mind you; I’ve never felt this clean.
After the recent 'Tumble in Tunisia' and they're ‘Playing our Tunis’, it’s back to N. Africa. A three-and-a-half-hour flight north from Freetown, courtesy of Royal Air Maroc. 
'Air Croc', often as reliable as a cheap Persian rug spectacularly arrives on time. It’s Easter weekend, 2017. I’m on R&R for a few days.
Run this morning? You know the drill. 0600 hrs. A pleasant 16c. Allez. A ten-minute stretch on the beach. 
We’re in the largest city in Morocco. A cosmopolitan port on the Atlantic. Basecamp is Hotel Val D Anfa on the corniche, in Anfa District. Let's head east along the ocean's edge. 
First stop, four km away. The pace is comfortable. It's still dark. Mostly beach clubs, cafes, and restaurants in this area. A wedding party convoy pulls over for the sunrise photo call along the rugged coastline. They’re all so young, courteous and happy; everything life can offer ahead of them.
In the UK, I’m not sure the average wedding party would be in this sort of shape at 0615 hrs, at least a couple of guests might be worse for wear. Are you kidding, an Anglo-Saxon wedding? As I dodge around the laughter and the taffeta, I’m remembering Uncle Terry’s big day and his latest wife, Daryl. What a wedding.
I can make out Morocco’s largest mosque coming into view. Let’s lift the pace. I’ve timed the mosque photo for first light. I’ve read this is the tallest minaret in the world. 210 metres high topped by a laser directed towards Mecca.
The mosque sits beautifully, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. 105,000 worshippers can gather for prayer; 25,000 inside and another 80,000 on the outside grounds.
Next stop, the famous Rick’s Café. We’ll have run about 6.5 km when we arrive. We’re heading south and into the port area. 0630 hrs; it’s quiet. A Sunday morning. In fact, Easter Sunday. Here is Rick’s, unremarkable from the outside.
Shall we go inside and magically rewind the clock eight hours? Come on!
It worked. Easter Saturday. 2200 hrs. I’m enjoying a fabulous dinner, aided by some rather splendid Sancerre. A starter, hang, even a pudding this evening.
I’m chatting with the owner, an ex-US Diplomat, who opened this venture 13 years ago. An interior lovingly restored. She has stunningly captured the essence of the 1942 Californian movie set. She tells me she lives in an apartment upstairs, just like Rick. She informs me Rick’s has a roulette wheel. I should see it. 
Blackjack is my preference but, if I had one spin of the wheel? I’d chose 22, every time. My favourite number. 22 seldom lets me down.
I visit the upstairs lounge bar for a nightcap. The movie plays continuously on a loop around the space. The waiter, resplendent in his red fez, brings over a JD on the rocks. I glance at the movie. It’s coming to the casino scene. The husband is playing roulette and trying to win to pay for the young couple’s transit visas to Lisbon, and out of German-occupied N. Africa. He’s losing.
Bogie, the old softy, whispers to him to place all his chips on 22. The man wins. Bogie tells him to let it ride, on 22. The man wins. Bogie tells him to take his money and leave.
I have a strange feeling. Call it fate. There can be only one outcome. One spin. Round and round she goes, where she stops no-one knows. I do…
The little white ball jumps, cracks, and settles. A sharp intake of breath… you won't believe this...
You’re thinking no, hang on a minute; this is like a big bottomed German lady in a purple ski suit, a bit of a stretch. I kid you not, ta-daaa…
Bum... 36, red. Scheisse, I need a new lucky number...
Time to hit the hay. I might be outside in about eight hours taking a photo for the blog. A quick pose with my superb server, Mohammed. A final look at the pristine architecture, the arched doorways, the sultry lighting and the mosaic floors as a Moroccan fellow (I think his name was Sam) on the piano gently begins to play a familiar medley. He plays it superbly.
"It's still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die
The world will always welcome lovers 
as time goes by."
OK, Rick’s Cafe is a pastiche. But, what a pastiche. Cheesy? Hokey? Depends on your outlook, your frame of mind. I loved it. I’m still humming as I push through the thick black curtains…
Daylight. Easter Sunday again. 0637 hrs. I want to take you to Habous. It’s five km away. I’m exhausted. A combination of a lively evening in Rick’s, a brutal massage and the early hour. We’ll have a quick jog through Habous and take coffee and a warm pastry as the cafes open. Refreshed we’ll take a taxi back to Anfa.
Here we are. 12 km. Habous quickly lifts the spirits. Built by the French in the 1930s. It has a beautiful mix of European and Moroccan-inspired architecture.
Most of the area is a huge souk. Alleyways, courtyards and cubby holes abound. Later these traditional streets will come alive with local traders selling everything; from traditional clothing, like abayas, djellabas, and kaftans. To the renowned babouche slippers (I bought a yellow pair, I'm not sure now!), fez's, olives, herbs, spices, oils, handicrafts, ceramics, and Persian rugs. You’ll haggle; I was here yesterday.
I like leafy Habous, the cafe culture, the people watching. Talking of coffee; two choices, strong coffee (think espresso plus) with water on the side, or local mint tea.
Casablanca is crammed full of Instagrammable backgrounds, especially in this area.
Oh, forgot to mention, I had planned for a guest runner this morning. A local Moroccan clairvoyant, a charming fellow called Mustafa. Unfortunately, he cried off last minute due to unforeseen circumstances. Taxi...
The next 'Early Morning Run' comes from Gambia. It’s already in the can, as they say. My guest runner is a top A-list celebrity in Banjul. No more clues. Codename ‘Cameo’. A few of you might even recognise these short fat hairy legs? Can they move? All to be revealed, soon.
Also, do you remember Olly, the young guest runner from South Sudan last year? Well, he’s written a guest post from Mogadishu. Banjul published first, then Mogadishu.
I’ve enjoyed Casablanca immensely. 
See you in Banjul…  

Monday, 3 July 2017

'Early Morning Run in... Tunis'

Spotting fellow westerners around these parts nowadays? Rare. I see few. The State of Emergency remains in place since a shooting 18 months ago killed 38 foreigners, 30 of whom were British holidaymakers. A radicalised 23-year-old ran amok in a beach resort. The Foreign Office currently advises against all but essential travel. Tourism has collapsed.
Not totally. We're here to help. People seem open and friendly and pleased to see us. I'm here courtesy of a short consultancy assignment.
Arriving from Sierra Leone was arduous. 27 hours’ door to door. Travelling from west to North Africa is seldom a breeze.
The route? Freetown... Conakry... Dakar... Casablanca... Tunis. We (me and you) are standing at the northernmost bulge of Africa. We are in Tunisia, where Africa juts out toward Sicily marking the division between the eastern and western Med. To the west Algeria, to the east Libya. To the south, the Sahara Desert. A 1300 km coastline is the northern border.
It's late January 2017. 0625 hrs. Still dark. Will there be any surprises on the morning run? Pink flamingos, perhaps? A hands knees and boomps a daisy moment, maybe?  Who was it who once said, 'adventure before dementia'? Damn, it's gone. I can't remember...
Reveille. Much needed. A decent sleep. The top photo is from my hotel window. The Hotel Ambassadeurs, functional but value for money. Tempting to use the Ferrero Rocher tagline from many moons ago, "Ambassadors you're not spoiling us." However, it’s fine, don't overthink the reviews on Tripe Advisor.
The plan for this early hour? Well, we're going to head south-west towards the heart of the city. Then, circle back to the old quarter and finally run through the nearby Parc du Belvedere. 
An hour’s steady run. It's chilly. I haven't been warm since arrival. There's no heating anywhere; including my bedroom, coffee shops, restaurants or hotels. The locals are wearing boots, hoodies, blankets, head scarves, thick coats, and that's indoors. While it's hardly a Siberian winter, I've come dressed for the beach. A short-sleeved T-shirt with a short-sleeved polo shirt as the outer layer, and that's outdoors.
No foreigners and I'm blending in like an excited dog's dangly bits. In my defence, I came from the peak of the hot season in West Africa at short notice. After brekkie, I'm buying a coat and a hat. The odds of bumping into someone I know in Tunis?
The city wakes slowly. The streets are quiet; there’s little traffic. I run on the roads; the pavements are not the best. Some cities are beautiful; this one? Maybe it's the winter. 
A few businesses are stirring. Mostly spartan smoky coffee stands, filled by seasoned males. Large ancient coffee machines are coughing into life. Some men stand, some sit in white plastic garden chairs. Three-legged stools are serving as tables. Everyone looks cold. Everyone smokes.
Here’s what we're looking for; the tram lines. Let's follow these to the centre. 
The side streets open into more of a French boulevard feel. Let’s push the pace to the big clock. Either side of the main street is wall to wall coffee shops and restaurants. There's plenty of armed security; it feels safe enough. 
Time to jog over to the old quarter.
Tunisia has witnessed six tumultuous years. It shows. The Arab Spring was a series of democratic uprisings that quickly spread through the Arab world. It all began right here, in little old Tunisia.
These revolutions ultimately brought down Mubarak, Gaddafi, with the first domino to fall Tunisia’s own hard man, Ben Ali. 
The catalyst? Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit and veg seller, who set fire to himself in protest following mistreatment by police. He died. It was January 2011. The first mass demonstrations against the Tunisian government began.
What followed was a remarkable chain of events no-one could have foreseen. The world learnt three things; first, the real winds of change in N. Africa; second, the power of social media. And, third, despots could no longer control the agenda. 
It's still early on a Saturday morning. Now I'm warmed up I'm enjoying my tour through the streets. Impromptu street markets are springing up. Piles of mostly second-hand clothes on the ground. It has the feel of a haphazard car boot sale. I'll have no problem picking up a warm coat; I can pass it on in a few days. I'm feeling a big black leather jacket from the 70's with a huge upturned collar and large pockets on the front. I'll look like a German taxi driver. Maybe, an outsized grey woolly hat to complete the look. 
First light is close. Time to head north over to the park near the hotel.
Look to our right. Pink Flamingoes.
Let's run up onto the high ground for a panoramic of the city. Then brekkie back in the hotel? One mile to go, downhill to the finish, pick up the speed. Oh, oh...
Nooo... argh, an arse over tit moment. I go flying. Smartphone in my hand somehow survives. My Fitbit snaps off and lands in the bushes. Crack my elbow. Knee hurts, right on the bone. Feels twisted; scheisse, merde, shit! What happened? What a buffoon?
No one to witness this strange selfie. What happened? A hard landing happened. I guess it shows my genuine commitment to the blog; I've skin in the game. JP - thanks for the line. My original idea was to say it was my female guest runner but the fingers look too long to be credible.
Nothing else for it; hobble, feeling rather pathetic back to the Ambassadeurs. The old unshaven doorman last saw me full of cheery bonhomie about an hour ago, probably thinking, look at him in his silly running clothes. He has both hands cupped around a cigarette. He looks cold. He's probably thinking to himself, had a little tumble did we, not zipping about now, are we?
Of course, he’s not thinking this. He's not me. Tunisians are great people. He's a decent fellow who's stood outside all night. In a couple of days’ time, he'll have a new old leather coat and a grey woolly hat.
Farewell Tunisia. I do hope sanity returns, the attacks cease, and normality returns. Next time? I’ll visit in summer…

Saturday, 3 June 2017

'Early Morning Run in... Khartoum'

It was the 10th May 2008. I gaze out of the small portal window, across the tarmac, from a Boeing 777 Qatar Airways flight to Doha. Two colleagues are flying to Europe, en-route to Canada; they are two planes over.
Khartoum International Airport is about to shut down. Plumes of creamy black grey smoke swirl upwards, helicopters circle, explosions, distant gunfire. Will we take off?
A Darfur separatist group, from out west, has surprisingly entered Khartoum in force and is enjoying a good old-fashioned Mexican style shoot-out with government forces.
The last two planes to leave. Unfortunately, mine rattles down the runway first. What rotten luck. I wave awkwardly, slightly embarrassed, at the rapidly disappearing tarmac... my hand gesture, my intense gaze, are interrupted by the tell-tale rattle of the drinks trolley... "Oh, thanks, I'll have a large G&T..."
I recline my seat; I'm sure my shipmates will be okay. What movies are showing?
The very word 'Khartoum' conjures up a certain romance. The desert, the searing heat, the meandering banks and convergence of the Nile, the Arabs, the flowing robes, the tortured history. I loved this place, once. Khartoum is Casablanca without the heroes.
Fast forward eight years. October 2016. Back to a still ostracised and heavily sanctioned country. Second only to Iran. I worked here for many years, once.
"Salam El Keeni."
"Salam Mr Mark, do you like it? Please meet our driver, Mohamed."
We shake hands.
"I love it, well done El Keeni. I was expecting four wheels, but this works. Salam Mohamed. Your rickshaw should make you very proud."
El Keeni, a guest runner in the first Juba post, makes a welcome return. I've known El Keeni 17 years.
0600 hrs. We head north from the Rotana Hotel through Amaratt. Memories come flooding back. Street 53. Street 41. Street 27. Street 23. Street 60. The streets where we lived. Airport to our right. We 'speed' towards Nile Avenue. En-route we quickly visit the old apartment blocks.
We arrive on Nile Avenue. River Nile on our right, history to our left. "El Keeni, let's go..."
Armed with a smartphone and remembering photography here is involved. Paranoia everywhere, including El Kenni.
The sun slowly rises behind us as we head west along the banks of the Nile. You might recall El Keeni folded quicker in Juba than the time it takes to boil a soft boiled egg.
To our left Khartoum University, previously Gordon Memorial College until independence in 1956. The college was founded in 1902, in memory of General Charles George Gordon.
History surrounds us. This road continues into Omdurman. Over the far bank of this vast river is Khartoum North. Numerous bridges span the Nile, like this one, constructed over 100 years ago.
El Keeni goes well this morning, probably two soft boiled eggs worth. 
So many recollections. The Presidental Palace over there which we'll have to divert around. The Khartoum Sailing Club on our right. 
The Malaysians have their hotel, the Holiday Villa. As do the Chinese. My worst day's consulting experience took place right in there. I smile just thinking about it. An off colour Chinese joke to 50 Chinese fellows to open a four-day workshop. I'll save that for another day... 
Our destination, and turnaround point, this early hour is the former Hilton Hotel (now 'The Coral').
This hotel was the best back in the day. Someone described it as a Lyme Regis coffee shop from the 1970s. Harsh? One thing I remember of this hotel was providing our high ranking visitors with 'liberal' contraband. Sudan was under Shariah Law, as now. However, there was a vibrant black market. How much you paid depended on your position in the supply chain. 
The Hilton sat between the two Niles. Take a front room and overlook the Blue Nile, a room at the back and it's the White Nile. The convergence is a few hundred metres away. 
Back to contraband. Boris rang me one day from the Russian Embassy. "Mark, you want a beer? Cash deal."
"Boris, silly question."
"200 cases at $30."
I gulp. Beer in plentiful supply, coming out of the back door of the Russian Embassy. I like a beer as much the next man unless that next man is Oliver Reed. I'm in way over my head here. The black market was pushing $80.
"Boris, I could perhaps take 20 cases?"
"Mark, I like you a lot. You're funny. 200 my friend."
I pictured Boris with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a lump of meat attached to a bone in the other. He was wearing a black and white hooped turtle neck sweater. Negotiating with a hairy arsed Russian isn't easy. Phone a friend time; Rodney, in another oil company.
"Rodney, I've a great deal, loads of in-date Russian beer, I need to offset this. Help me."
"Mate, a result. Brilliant. Put me down for 3 cases."
"Rodney, I like you a lot. You're funny.
I talk Rodney up to 6 cases after about three hours. I never saw myself in the alcohol business; needs must...
To cut a long story short, I manage to offload another 50 cases at varying rates. Fortunately, the Country Manager I worked for stepped in and bought the remainder.
I telephone the hairy arsed Soviet, "Ivor, of course, I'll take the 200 at 30."
"Good. Bring the money, blankets, and vehicles to the back door of the compound at midnight tomorrow."
We assemble a posse of Canadian oil workers. I swear some turned up dressed head to toe in black with balaclavas and boot polish on their faces. Let's call them Ringo, George, Paul & John. In reality, it was more like the Wet Bandits from Home Alone. 
Joking aside, this wasn't exactly straightforward. Sudan, Ruskies, large sums of cash, Shariah Law, checkpoints, 200 cases of beer, and a nervously excited crew of helpers. What could go wrong...
Thankfully nothing. Nostrovia! A toast as we approach Christmas 2016 to everyone involved in the Sudan project over those memorable four years. 
After the Hilton, it's back the same route. 75 minutes run/walk this morning. El Keeni, a great effort. Thanks for everything.
Have we a choice for refreshments? We do. Milky tea with 7 sugars on a 3 legged stool on the street? Or coffee in a promising western chain over in Riyad?
Hobson's choice. Hawa and that winning smile all day long.
I hope you've enjoyed this morning's excursion along Nile Avenue and some memories from Khartoum. Bamako originally scheduled, will be next. 
In closing, I'd like to wish everyone a very Happy Christmas and good health and good fortune for 2017.