Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Haggling in Marrakesh

"Español? Deutsch? Français? English?"

He must have noticed the fractional shift in my body language.

"You are from England?" he asks.

"Scotland," I say, then silently chide myself for replying and falling for the tactic.

"Ah, Braveheart! Come! Take a look! I give you very good price!"

I don't know what the newer part of Marrakesh was like, but we (see paragraphs 4 & 5 of the previous post, Camels in The Sahara) were based in the Medina - the older, original, walled part of the city - where the streets were narrow, labyrinthine, and often very crowded. Hundreds of small shops - some no bigger than the size of a double bed - spilling out from the walls, selling everything from toothbrushes to tourist tat. Fruit and vegetables were often laid out on sacks on the ground

A music shop - it might not be big, but the owner will give you a very good price on any of the instruments. It's a shame I didn't have a bigger luggage allowance for the flight home.

Presentation is everything.

Presentation isn't everything

Along these streets moved pedestrians, bicycles, hand carts, donkey-drawn carts, mopeds and occasionally the odd taxi or 4x4. It was surprising how quickly you developed a 6th sense for approaching vehicles. In fact, even on the actual roads there are precious little priority signs - the boldest muscle their way forward, while the adventurous dive in front of them. At first it seems chaotic and perilous, and yet despite the constant expectation of imminent collisions and bloodshed, I saw no accidents while I was there. Everyone's road sense appears to be heightened - the lack of imposed external rules meaning each person is responsible for their own safety, rather than relinquishing it to a bunch of give-way signs.

Who needs a moped when you have a donkey?

Then there were the souks, or markets, many of them all selling what appeared to be exactly the same thing. There were rows and rows of shops selling shoes, or entire areas dedicated to jewellery, or lampshades, or scarves, or olives. And if you wanted chicken for dinner, then they would take a live one from the cages behind and butcher it for you. In a warm climate where a culture has developed without refrigeration, leaving meat lying about for any length of time isn't a good idea.

Several different shops selling the same thing - no idea how you chose which one to deal with

And nothing had a price on it.

When you are used to browsing, lifting things off shelves, moving from shop to shop to compare prices, and only interacting with someone when you take the items to the till, this can be pretty confusing.

Can you see a price tag? Anywhere?

First of all, you have to express an interest. Having said that, expressing an interest can be interpreted as just walking within 20 yards of a place. If you glance even fleetingly at something the eagle-eyed shopkeepers will immediately pick up on it and try and engage you in conversation. And if you pause to look at something that might be of interest, then the shopkeeper will immediately become your best friend, love everything about you and the country you are from and insist they will give you the very best of deals.

They will be extraordinarily attentive and helpful in finding something you might like, from using long sticks to lift something hooked high up the walls to rushing to the shop next door to borrow back their stepladder. They want to make sure that what is eventually in front of you is the very thing you now cannot imagine living without.

So now you have to ask the price. They will give you "a very good price" based on the fact you are a tourist and have an expensive camera on your shoulder. And so the game begins.

You laugh at their outrageous presumption that you are a rich tourist who doesn't know you never pay the asking price, and tell them you would never pay that much.

They ask what you would pay for it.

You give them a much lower figure at which point they looked shocked, and will immediately tell you this is not some cheap imitation. If it's leather or stone jewellery, they will whip out a lighter and pass the flame over it to show you it is not plastic, but will knock up to 15% off their original asking price. (This can, occasionally backfire - one shopkeeper was so keen to demonstrate the Berber necklace I was looking at was not plastic that he forgot the stones were threaded together with a nylon string, which melted and the whole thing scattered across the floor. He insisted, however, it would only take him a moment to string it back together, as he was gathering up all the pieces...)

You tell them it's not worth that much to you, thank them for their time and hand them back the goods.

They ask what you would pay for it back in the country of your origin.

You either ignore the comment or tell them you are not in your country of origin, but perhaps you increase the amount you are prepared to pay.

They look pained and offer a further discount.

And so it goes, back and forth, until either you refuse to go any higher or they refuse to go any lower. And if you're lucky, then you reach a price you are both happy with.

Don't expect to purchase anything in less than half an hour.

Sometimes they look at you with a mild disgust that you have forced them to sell the item at such a low price - as though you are now responsible for the fact their children will not be able to eat anything other than bread for dinner tonight - although I think that has more to do with making you feel like you got a bargain, because you always leave wondering if you've just paid more for it that you should have.

But what is the right price? There are a few places which are "fixed price" shops - you pay the rate on the tags and no haggling - designed for tourists who are terrified of the process. But they are inevitably more expensive, taking full advantage of that fear.

Ultimately you have to go into any negotiation not wondering how much the item is objectively worth - how much it cost them plus an acceptable profit margin - but with a sense of how much that item is worth to you. Is that scarf worth £10 to you, or £5 or £20? Does it really matter if they are making £1 profit or £19 profit, if you have the item you want for a price you are prepared to pay?

In a way it's much like going to an auction - you have to be clear how much an item is worth to you, feel pleased if you got it for less, but not get caught up in the moment and end up paying more than you were prepared to.

It's a different world, a different culture, but that doesn't make it wrong.

Of course, to begin with it's scary - you don't know the rules and fear being ripped off. But once you start getting into it, it's strangely addictive and can be quite a lot of fun - provided you're not in a hurry...

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Camels in the Sahara

It would be 3 days before I would stop being aware of the bruises every time I sat down, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

In some ways it was just a slightly more sophisticated version of the childhood experience of riding a donkey on the beach. And it couldn't help but cross my mind that it was such a touristy thing to do. But there I was, riding a camel over sand dunes in the Sahara Desert - and it was awesome.

I don't usually do selfies, but I needed to record this

Increasing discomfort aside, there were times when I was at complete peace. Moments when I had fallen into the rhythm of the camel's stride, the talking from the others had paused, and the only sound was the movement of the camels on the sand and a slight breeze. Moments when the monkey chatter in my own head subsided and I was completely in the now. If it wasn't for the chaffing, I could have continued for weeks.

Back at the beginning of the year Laura Hudson Mackay [] joined the Galloway Photographic Collective, a group of professional photographers I'm a part of. It transpired that she and her husband, Scott, had a 3 bedroom Riad in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Riad Romm'an in the heart of Marrakech - a wonderful place to stay

We jokingly said we should have a GPC meeting out there, but Laura's response was one of enthusiasm. It wasn't long before we had organised a week's trip for the group out to stay there in early November, when the temperatures were more manageable. All but 3 of the members were able to go.

Although there is quite a bit of desert in Morocco, a lot of it is the barren, rocky kind. The dunes that come to mind when you say the word, "desert" were 2 days drive away, on a route that would take us through the spectacular Atlas Mountains, over high passes and through deep gorges.

Driving through the Atlas Mountains

We travelled in two 4x4s, with Scott driving one and Ismael, who looks after Riad Romm'an for Laura and Scott, driving the other. On route, Ismael showed me how to create a Berber turban for the desert.

We would be staying in a camp about 2 hours camel ride from a hotel on the edge of the dunes. The plan had been to arrive an hour or so before sunset to catch the last of the sun's rays skimming across the desert. As it turned out, we arrived just as it was starting to get dark and it was completely overcast.

All aboard!

Heading off into the dunes as it starts to get dark

We set off and it took quite a while to get used to the movement of sitting on top of a camel. Going up the dunes wasn't too bad, but coming down them was tricky, with much more fear of the chance of toppling off. It got steadily darker until all I could make out were the silhouettes of the riders in front of me set against a dark, bluish grey gloom.

Every now and then, a flash of light appeared off to one side. Holly was concerned it was lightning, but I attempted to reassure her it was just car headlights back from the road. She wasn't convinced, but I couldn't hear any thunder and besides, we were in the desert - it doesn't rain in the desert, does it!

Eventually, however, I noticed a streak of lightning off to one side. But there was still no thunder, so it was obviously very far away and probably wouldn't come anywhere near us.

A while later, there was a brighter flash and 23 camel steps later, there was a roll of thunder.

The next flash brought a louder rumble only 18 camel steps after.

Then there was a really bright flash and the whole of the desert lit up for a microsecond. 14 camel steps later the crash was loud. Then the wind picked up, sandblasting us. And then the rain began too.

A couple of thousand miles away from Scotland, in the desert, and we still couldn't escape the rain!

It was hysterically funny.

Being blasted by wind, rain and sand in a storm in the desert, and all we could do was laugh loudly. It was an amazing experience.

We must have been taking longer to arrive than planned - and confidence wasn't helped when the guide started going down one dune, then stopped, and turned back again in a different direction - but we saw some 4x4s driving through the dunes, presumably looking out for us.

I managed to fire off these shots when I saw the camels in front silhouetted against the car lights. Allan Wright has a better shot - he was further back and has a camera that is insanely good in low light (I'm not jealous, honest, no I'm not, not a bit, honestly, I'm not...).

On a camel, in the desert, in the dark and in the rain

We arrived at the camp about half an hour later, and sat down to a wonderful chicken tagine.

The electricity at the camp was solar powered, but as it had been an overcast day, the lights all went out about 8.30pm and it was torches and phone lights after that, except in the main tent where a couple of candles were used.

A fun and relaxing evening by candlelight

At 5am, lying on my bed, I could still hear the rain on the roof of the tent. It seemed that not only would we not experience the sunrise over the Sahara, but we would most likely be returning via 4x4s rather than camels. It was a bit disappointing, but nothing was going to detract from the experience of being in the storm in the desert the night before.

At 6am I got dressed, picked up my camera and wandered out of the tent. It had stopped raining and the clouds were beginning to break up. I noticed Roger Lever starting to climb the huge, 150m high dune the camp was nestled beneath, so I went over to join him. About a 1/4 of the way up we looked back and the sun was rising through broken cloud.

Sunrise over the Sahara, with no sense of what the dunes are actually like

This was where I realised I had the wrong lens.

Before we left Scotland, I decided I would only take one lens. I didn't want the hassle of constantly changing them, particularly in the desert, so had settled on the wide-angle, with the idea it would be ideal for large, sweeping landscapes. Unfortunately the higher up the dune I went, the smaller everything appeared in the camera. These beautiful dunes spread out below me were as small as ripples on a pond.

I realised I needed to be down among them, so left Roger to continue the climb alone.

The sun was now skimming the tops of the dunes, and I noticed a camel, hobbling up one. It was on 3 legs and the other was bent back up on itself. It must have broked it's leg, I thought, wondering if the guides knew. Then I noticed another camel limping up behind it in exactly the same way. This was too coincidental and suddenly I realised the legs had been tied up - and ideal way to prevent the camels wandering off in the night, and probably a technique that's been used for as far back in time as people have domesticated the animals.

The camels then stood completely still, staring into the sun as though it was some primeval worship.

Getting down low I realised it might look good if I could get a camel silhouetted against the sky, and use the curve of a dune to create a leading line up to it. It took a bit of scrambling about and quite a few photos, but eventually I got what I was looking for.

The shot I was after

With the skies mostly clear by now, after breakfast it meant we were able to do the camel ride back to the hotel after all. After several attempts I managed to do the Berber turban Ismael had shown me and it proved to be ideal head wear - stopping the sun burning my ever growing bald patch and the back of my neck. I started to think I could wear it more often, although it didn't take long to realise it wouldn't really be appropriate for Castle Douglas in SW Scotland.

And this is where we came in - on the back of a camel in the Sahara Desert, finding moments of exhilaration, wonder and peace.

Heading back, not in the dark nor in the rain

The obligatory camel shadow shot

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

1000th Blog Post

11 years and a few months ago, I began this blog.

Original Blog Header

I was still in my 30s, Youtube was only 6 months old, Facebook was only accessible if you had a university email address, the iPad and iPhone didn't exist, and there were almost a billion fewer people on the planet.

Back then I had recently sold my web design business and had plans to become a writer. A blog seemed a good idea to try out different forms of writing, and a way of disciplining myself to produce something 2 or 3 times a week.

I began with short stories, but quite quickly it morphed into explorations of thoughts and ideas, along with observations of life and experiences.

My career as a writer never took off though. An inexplicable tiredness began to take over my life - a permanent feeling of exhaustion. After numerous tests I was eventually diagnosed with ME/CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). I kept the blog going, although the number of posts eased off.

During this time I started using my camera more often. Something about the ability to twiddle the dials, change exposure, adjust shutter speed and play with compositions, gave me a sense of control in a life where the continual tiredness felt completely beyond my control. And when I discovered portraiture I felt I'd found my calling.

Over a few years my enthusiasm and skill with the camera grew, which led me to tentatively set myself up as a professional photographer, carefully building the business around the times of the day when I felt less tired.

Thanks to Mickel Therapy 5 years ago, I am much improved. I wouldn't say I'm 100% cured, but I do have considerably more energy than I used to, so now my photography is full time.

Inevitably more of my blog posts became centered around photography and a few years ago I changed the name of this blog from "Ramblings of the Bearded One" to "Painting With Shadows" to reflect that shift in direction. However, finding ever new things to blog about photography is much harder than it was to write about the everyday minutiae of life, so now I post only 2 or 3 times a month.

Given that most blogs are abandoned within a couple of months, and even the top 100 have an average life span of less than 3 years, it does feel like a bit of an achievement to have survived this long.

It took me 4 years to reach 500 posts, but a further 7 to produce the next 500. At this rate it will take me another 15 years to produce the 500 after this. But there are no plans to stop anytime soon.

While putting this post together I discovered something I'd written nearly 11 years ago for a different, short-lived audio blog, that had never been published in written form. It was created in response to a call from fellow blogger, Pat who had asked people for "brief encounter" experiences - times when there had been a fleeting but intense emotional connection with a complete stranger.

So in homage to my original vision for the blog to be a place of writing about life, observations and experiences, I've included this true short story below.


Brief Encounter

“Are you OK?” I called out.

The girl wandered over to the car. In her early 20s, she looked a wreck. I’d pulled over because I saw her standing in the central reservation of the dual carriageway, crying.

It was dark, nearly midnight and spitting lightly with rain. The occasional car drove past, but the road was mostly empty. “Not really,” she said, her eyes puffy and her cheeks streaked with mascara.

I nodded.

I caught sight of myself in the wing mirror; this tired, haunted face staring back at me.

“Do you need a lift?”

She looked at me clearly for the first time, then turned her head away, lost in her thoughts for a moment. She turned back. “Where are you heading?”

A wee voice in the back of my head said I shouldn’t let a complete stranger into my car, and she shouldn’t be getting into a car with a complete stranger either. But in that instant, heart aching and weary to the bone, I saw another soul, lost in the darkness.

“Just the other side of Stirling,” I said. I was returning home from Yorkhill Hospital in Glasgow. It was half an hour’s drive from this point.

She stood for a long time in silence, plotting out in her head the potential consequences of her next decision.

“Do you know anyone out there?” I asked.

“I have a few friends in Stirling,” she began. For a moment I thought she was going to climb into the car, then suddenly she snorted with a hollow laughter; the moment was past. “No, no thanks, I won’t.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.” She sighed. “Thank you for stopping, though.” With a brief smile and a wee wave, she disappeared down the embankment and I headed home.

Perhaps if she had joined me I would have told her how my baby girl had just had open-heart surgery but was still in intensive care. Perhaps she would have told me the cause of her own deep sadness.

Perhaps it was enough for the both of us to know we were not alone with our pain.