Weather. Sunny, easterly wind. Occasional rain showers. 22 degrees Celsius. Status. Unwinding.

To try to continue self-improvement during my ‘year off’, I took myself, at short notice, to Morocco. Not to Marrakesh, long a magnet for, how to put it delicately, ‘those seeking same-sex company’. Nor to Casablanca, supposedly a renowned film location, though I have my doubts. But instead to Taroudannt, a small town nestled in the broad Souss river valley, between the High Atlas and Anti Atlas Mountains, inland from Agadir. I should point out that there is no water in the river, all is extracted for agriculture. But the town has all the essential ingredients of Morocco, without the hassle. Big crenulated mud wall round the town? Tick. Souks selling leather slippers? Tick. Five o clock (am) calls to prayer? Tick. A perfect place for long walks in the foothills, treacly coffee under palm trees, and the odd swim in tributary rivers, naturally upstream of where all the water gets abstracted.

My old school teacher runs a simple hotel, with special rates for ex-students. She undertakes social and environmental programs. Save the tortoise, honeybee and argan tree; supporting initiatives such as soap-making, pottery and responsible tourism. That sort of thing. Signs in the bathroom exhort careful use of water, so I feel guilty every time I take a shower, despite being the world’s fastest shower-taker. Vegetarian food, not my preferred diet, abounds. Markets overwhelm. Bright sun on displays of oranges causes physical pain to the retina. The green vegetables look too green, the carrots too orange. After a week of this vegetable torture, I was several pounds lighter, but craving a burger and fries. And now I never want to see another courgette, fig or date.

aL mADER

Al Mader, a fortified compound near Taroudannt

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The High Atlas in Spring

The cultural shock is profound. I know virtually no French, apart from the schoolboy voulez vous couchez avec moi, which didn’t come in very handy. Arabic is downright opaque, with weird guttural utterances similar to Welsh. I could manage the important stuff, like hello, goodbye and thanks. (People who know me will be stunned by omission of my ‘stock phrase’.) Let’s not even start with Berber, the native tongue and its corresponding hieroglyphs. So I got by sketching on scraps of paper, or holding up a phrase book with numerals when bartering. And hand signals.

The dominant religion is Islam and this makes for a very pleasant experience. It seems that Morocco is some sort of paradise, where everybody is happy, despite what we would consider as grinding poverty. Perhaps because it has rained recently and everything is fresh. There are no graven images, which means virtually no billboards or advertising. No images of Christ on the Cross, his side pierced by spears, as in my usual South American stamping grounds. No scantily clad models. No loud music. No alcohol, except in hotels for foreigners. Dress is very conservative. Women’s heads, arms and legs are covered. It is amazing how, after a week, even a glimpse of henna-tattooed ankle started to look erotic. The young men favour a sort of Mohican haircut. But they don’t strut and there are no legs on display. There is an apparent innocence to everybody; they greet and smile effusively.

Morocco has magnificent geology, always my escape. It keeps me both sane and insane. Morocco is one of the few places in the world where the explosion of life on Earth, in the early Cambrian, about 540 million years ago, is recorded. I cycle out to Tiout, once a candidate for a prestigious Golden Spike, the hallowed, internationally recognized, locality that marks the change from the Precambrian to the Cambrian. In the event, Morocco lost out to Newfoundland for the Golden Spike (damn those Newfies, with their beavers, skidoos and world-class geology). But the strata at Tiout are still impressive, with reefs and trilobites, animals that resemble giant cockroaches. I walked for several hours along a wadi, then up into the hills, and finally down a limestone ridge. Gullies between the rocks are planted with fresh green barley, not irrigated and therefore totally dependent on rainfall. The sun beats down and it feels good to do some exercise and get a sweat on. I get lost on the way back, taking a short cut that fizzles out into a gravel strewn plain. I end up pushing my bike across pebbly semi-desert, arriving an hour late for dinner, in the dark and exhausted. After that, even the vegetables looked good.

The next day, I visit more Cambrian rocks at Adar ou Aman, seeking the oldest skeletal fossils on Earth (archaeocyaths). Under leaden skies, I am shadowed for hours by three kids, aged about ten. They are fascinated by this nutcase, on his hands and knees with a lens, peering at fossils. They hold my hand, steal my sunflower seeds, share my lunch, wear my hat and chip away with the geological hammer. The hand lens causes great hilarity as they examine with it their fingertips, coins and hair. Of course, coming from the UK, where my local newspaper relies entirely on reporting paedophilia, this feels uncomfortable. But that is me, bringing my prejudices to a part of the world that is a million miles, and a hundred years, from what passes for culture in the UK. However, eventually I get sick of them pestering for money, to buy a ‘balon’, allegedly, and tell them to bugger off in pidgin French. They don’t take offence, and leave with a chocolate each, casually discarding the purple wrappers on the hillside. Clearly, the environmental message is not arriving at Adar ou Aman.

Archaeocyaths

In transit, on my way out of Morocco, I find that Casablanca’s miserable national departure hall is dominated by another golden spike. This time, a gigantic one embedded in the cavernous ceiling, pointing down onto nervous passengers. Resembling something cast off from Game Of Thrones, it looks like it may detach at any moment. A cat strolls around, looking for titbits. Arms are missing from chairs and the atmosphere is deeply gloomy. The icing on this particularly grotty cake is a guy idly smoking beneath a ‘proud to be a non-smoking airport’ sign. Add to the mix the usual slab-faced immigration officers, who don’t even respond to a pleasant ‘Salamou Aleikum’, and Casablanca becomes just another shite transit airport. It kills romance dead and will forever stain my opinion of ‘Casablanca’, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

Conclusions. Visit Morocco, like I did, for a detox of the mind and body. Escape the 21st Century and enjoy simpler pleasures. And, don’t worry, if this all sounds too awful to contemplate, they do have decent WiFi; you can always turn to the Daily Mail Online for your fix of British culture.