This was a trip in which everything that could go right did go right. Serendipity sat on my shoulder from first to last. There were good days, great days, strange days and surprising days but there were no bad days.
Its genesis was an impromptu invitation from my friend Klaudia to visit her in the charming hill town of San Miguel de Allende, roughly four hours drive from Mexico City. We would meet intermittently in London through our mutual friends Jim and Ali and one spring evening sitting in their kitchen she revealed that, after many years dovetailing between New York and London, she was returning to her roots in Mexico. Klaudia is a very warm, sociable and direct woman and she got straight to the point. What was I doing over the summer? At that precise moment, I was doing nothing and my fate was delightfully sealed. I must come to San Miguel and I did.
The trip started to take greater shape when I recalled I had a standing invitation from my friend Tony to stay with him in Wyoming. Tony is in his early sixties, a notably shrewd, successful and urbane man with a range of global business interests, and spends a month every summer in his secluded home in the shadow of the mountains outside Jackson. Wyoming was a part of the world with which I was as unfamiliar as Mexico. I knew it was in the north of the country and that it had a funny name and that the bison ran free but I’m perhaps pushing it a bit there. More importantly, I knew that Tony would be a terrific host and that I would have the freedom to explore as I saw fit. Was the invitation still open? Absolutely.
I had long been intrigued by Mexico City. Frankly, any city with a population of 20 million or thereabouts commands attention, an immense melting pot of humanity. Mexico City seemed so dominant, so dynamic and so disordered in the context of the country as a whole that I concluded that I would be completely insane to travel all the way to Mexico and not embrace its throbbing, chaotic capital. I had read mixed reports about kidnapping, drug cartels and street crime but I was not unduly perturbed. My faith was rewarded. It was fabulous. Room for improvement? Oh yes! Cause for optimism? Even more!
Back at base camp in London, meantime, a little preparation was required. My outline plan was to fly from London to Mexico City and then make my way to San Miguel a few days later. Thereafter, I would head for Wyoming, via as yet indeterminate means, before spending the final weekend in San Francisco. My transatlantic arrangements were much the easiest to establish; everything else was a bit more complicated. But can there be such a thing as a good complication? I only say this because serendipity first introduced herself to me in a most unexpected way.
A presumed benefit of credit cards is that a slew of points may be exchanged for affiliated products and services. It’s not the worst idea I’ve ever seen and many people swear by it but, regrettably, my head just isn’t turned by crates of wine, gardening equipment, golf clubs or sensible weekends away. The only obvious benefit to me was the ability to redeem points for hotels and flights but the process of registration, authorisation and activation was so slow and laborious that I never had the patience to complete it. However, some 200,000 points couldn’t be ignored indefinitely so I took a deep breath and called American Express. I knew it as a professional and efficient organization but I hadn’t appreciated hitherto its emphasis on customer service. They guided my faltering steps with a benevolence normally only bestowed on the very young and the very old.
The bottom line was that Amex, as my de facto project manager, set me on my way. I discovered that I could use my points tally to fly economy from London to Madrid, business from Madrid to Mexico City and first from San Francisco back to London. And, to top it all, some bright spark suggested that I could combine my remaining points within a sort of cash and kind hybrid. So it was that I spent a week at the new W Hotel in Mexico City for effectively £50 per night. All material costs had been met and I had barely heard the flutter of notes.
I always travel light, accompanied by my commodious brown bag, its robust constitution belied by its mottled skin and middle age. I never overpack as, typically, one can acquire supplies along the way and I want to be as unencumbered as possible. Anyhow, off I went, at a preternaturally early hour, to Heathrow, caught my connection to Madrid and thence on to Mexico City. The flight was the flight, pretty predictable and vaguely on time. My first glimpse of the capital was a bit of a shock though. As we descended towards the urban sprawl, the sheer vastness of the city hit me and then its flatness. There are no skyscrapers in favelas.
The other thing that surprised me was the weather. Rather foolishly, I imagined I would be wreathed in sunshine but a proverbial hop and skip from the tropics. I actually arrived in the aftermath of a brief storm and the view from my seat was misty, bleary and wet. The drive from the airport to my hotel was uneventful, aside from a cacophony of horns, and so I finally graced the W with my presence around teatime local time. I had previously stayed at the W in the US on a couple of occasions and it was something of a departure, so to speak, from the mainstream luxury hotel brands. Sleek and chic, aspirational and confrontational, it’s a bit too stylised for my taste but, hey, for 50 big boys a night I wasn’t complaining.
This was the first foray by W outside the US and they were keen to make a splash as did I in fairly short order. My room was spacious, comfortable, cleverly designed and ergonomically sound. It even had a hammock in the bathroom, no doubt to absorb the city with a greater sense of contemplation, alongside a fantastically complicated shower that I struggled to master. It certainly looked good, suitably sleek and chic, but as I stood there naked, grappling with every button and knob, the water shot out in all directions. I must have simultaneously turned on the foot shower, power shower and regular shower plus the sprinkler system for good measure. The bathroom was drenched, let alone me, but, as I peered out and surveyed the endless city, I thought to myself that this trip, this tale of the unexpected, would lure serendipity from her lair to sit squarely on my shoulder.
Having mopped up most of the deluge, I got dressed and popped out for a bite to eat, armed with some magazines for company. The lift was slow to ascend so I had a quick gander, as you do, and spotted a sign beside the exit exhorting guests to take the stairs in the event of an earthquake. Earthquake?! I didn’t see that in the guidebook though I did recall mention of the volcano above and beyond the city which evidently contributed much to the steamy conditions in the air and the instability underfoot. I headed straight to the restaurant downstairs but supper rather came and went for me. I was dog tired and the subdued lighting, chimed for courting couples, just about finished me off.
I awoke refreshed, if not energised. I was excited to just get up and out, a man without a plan, curious and intrigued. The hotel was located in quite a swish neighbourhood called Polanco which I ascertained contained the greatest preponderance of synagogues in the city. As it was Saturday morning, I thought I might hook up with a few of my brethren, while offering prayers for my safe arrival and a dormant volcano. The concierge helpfully pointed out a dozen synagogues on the map, the nearest of which was no more than a few hundred yards from the hotel. This particular house of worship was actually a shtiebel, a small gathering of conspicuously orthodox Jews that, typically, occurs in private residences rather than communal buildings. This service, however, was conducted in an annexe of a big synagogue. I don’t imagine the congregation was ever of a size to fill the main hall but perhaps they just craved the intimacy of their tight and claustrophobic world. These were frummers, paid up members of the black hat brigade, and I found them both fascinating and discomfiting. I think they felt similarly towards me. Once they had reassured themselves that I was not the messiah, albeit my Arsenal tee shirt did cause a moment of consternation, they relaxed and welcomed me in. I had no idea what they were saying but I took a pew and enjoyed the view. The service rattled along with a few faintly recognisable prayers and songs. They all participated, some in highly animated fashion, some mumbling into their beards and some while in apparent slumber.
Yet my overriding thought was that this scene was a reenactment of a thousand other scenes 250 years ago on the steppes of Eastern Europe. Inward facing communities, still a little terrified of the world around them, desperately clinging to a belief system that, somewhat perversely, they share today with zealots of other persuasions. Moreover, they represented the very antithesis of Mexican manhood, scraggy, pasty, unhealthy. I truly felt an island within an island. I was invited to the kiddush where I spoke to a few younger congregants who I recognised from the service. They were all brothers, so consumed by their Judaism that it was difficult to imagine any life beyond. Yes, they said, we have been to London, to Golders Green, do you know it? Yes, I replied, I do know it. Where else did you go? They looked at me blankly. Time to go. I thanked them for their hospitality and emerged into the street, squinting in the sunlight. I was pleased I attended the service and observed the Jewish experience through a different set of eyes but felt little or no affinity with these people who so resolutely shunned the world around them. I just don’t understand that kind of blind, unquestioning faith, whatever its religious hue.
I promptly moved from one extreme to another as I stumbled across a street market just around the corner. I say stumble as there was so much action on the ground, it was difficult to circumvent the tightly compressed stalls. Packaging, goods, small children, construction of a variable nature, animals, all crossed my path. It was loud, bustling, multicoloured and followed no obvious pattern. It was the complete reverse of the shtiebel and I loved it. I didn’t linger excessively though as I wanted to get a bit more of a feel for my immediate neighbourhood. I wandered around the sidestreets and saw at close quarters for the first time the extraordinary racial mix of the Mexicans, the indigenous Indians with the exogenous Europeans and more variety within than Heinz could ever wish for. I didn’t dally, however, as I had a rendezvous at 2pm and I wanted to quickly freshen up at the hotel.
A rendezvous? Perhaps that would be a slight exaggeration. I was meeting someone I had never met before and it was quite conceivable that it might be over before it started. When I originally planned this trip, my motherlodes were Klaudia and Tony, in San Miguel and Jackson respectively. I had no roots, no friends, no nothing in Mexico City but two interesting connections developed before I left London. The first was rather slender but the second was tenuous at best. I mentioned my trip to an associate in London over lunch, indeed somebody I didn’t know especially well, who suggested I get in touch with an old friend with whom he had studied for his MBA in the US. He said that Franz was now the CFO of Coca Cola in Mexico which was a very big deal. Coca Cola is revered in Mexico, rather like Marks & Spencer in the UK, a byword for solidity, respectability and a management training programme that every graduate aspires to. Anyhow, I made a mental note and treated Sean to the lunch by way of thankyou. The second connection, however, was so vague that I had no expectation it would yield anything at all but serendipity was, yet again, lurking just around the corner.
I must admit I am not a fan of the various social networks that have proliferated over recent times. I have no particular desire to join Facebook or Twitter and share my random thoughts with a bunch of strangers. I prefer to meet real people in real life. I cannot deny that these networks do have value and provide platforms for disparate individuals to share passions and interests but there is no quality control. Any shmo can join and post any old rubbish. I cannot imagine why the network presumes some passing comment about a transient celebrity can grip attention but there it is. I do belong to a couple of networks myself but one, LinkedIn, is substantially business orientated. Rather corporate, a bit po faced and earnest and definitely in need of a site redesign but quite useful, nonetheless, as a stepping stone into various market segments. The linkage, moreover, is via personal referral so you have some grasp of the value of an individual connection. The other network is a curious animal called A Small World which is only accessible by invitation but does throw up a motley selection of people and places.
This closed network essentially combines business, travel and pleasure. It is very international in scope, city centric and encompasses a fairly eclectic bunch. I was introduced to it many years ago by my friend Ned but I am not the most assiduous online networker. Some people join these platforms and within five minutes have 493 connections while I, by contrast, have been on ASW for the better part of a decade and have reached the storied heights of perhaps fifteen. It’s useful and diverting to browse through various listings, reviews and recommendations if only to get an idea of who and what you can safely avoid. Certainly handy if you need a good dentist in Mumbai or to charter a yacht out of Sydney but less so if you are not mesmerised by the prospect of a 24 hour shindig in Ibiza.
I looked up the Mexico City forum and posted a brief message to the effect that I was due to visit shortly and would appreciate a few insights into the capital. Respondents were variously residents, business travellers and the like. All were helpful but one missive stood out. It was sent to my personal mail box on the site by a charming lady named Lillian who stated that a friend saw my message and suggested she should get in touch. Lillian declared herself a very proud Mexican and said she would be delighted to show me round the city. She had lived there a number of years, knew it intimately and was around that first weekend. I thought that was a result in itself but it got better. Her photo revealed an attractive woman, albeit my ability to enlarge the image for closer inspection was betrayed by my technological incompetence. No matter. I asked her for her mobile and we provisionally agreed to meet at 2 pm on Saturday afternoon.
She turned up at the W at the appointed hour and, in suitably effusive fashion, greeted me with a hug and a kiss and told me how thrilled she was to meet. I was pretty thrilled too. Lillian was, indeed, very attractive, not too shabby at all, her Latina blood spilling in all directions, a rather intoxicating mix. Anyhow, we get in the car and she tells me that she is taking me to San Angel for lunch, it is very pretty, very Mexican, there is a lovely market and a bazaar, you will like it very much, I am so pleased to see you. San Angel was, I suspect, once a little town in its own right, now subsumed within the outskirts of the metropolis, but right now I am much more interested in Lillian. She is talking nineteen to the dozen while I am peering out of the window, trying to get my bearings, seeking some sense of my surroundings. I am absorbing as much as I can but there are distractions and one of them is Lillian whose conversation, a bit like the traffic, veers off in all kinds of directions, sometimes without any warning. Anyhow, she is yabbling away on this and that, as I concentrate manfully on her accented English and the nature of her undergarments, when a name starts to crop up with some regularity, a fellow called Vicente Fox. And, I think to myself, I know that name, I have seen it in the newspapers, on the web, whereever, but I am jetlagged, sidetracked and quite unable to coax my memory into gear. Luckily, my chaperone is well placed to fill me in. It transpires that Vicente Fox was president of Mexico for seven years and Lillian is his ex wife. I have been in the country for less than 24 hours. Whatever next?
Lunch is next. I am starving. Lillian, naturally, knows everywhere in San Angel and we pootle in and out of craft shops, galleries and hidden courtyards until a sharp shower sends us scurrying inside to a nearby restaurant. It is busy so we sit upstairs and eat and talk. Rather, I eat and she talks. The food is good and the mood is good. We wander around the market thereafter, umbrella aloft, linking arms, laughing and pointing and chatting. Does it get any better than this? I’m not sure it does until Lillian says she has put the following day aside for me too and wonders if I would like to accompany her to Teotihuacan. I have never heard of it but, with all the nonchalance I can muster, I say, of course, absolutely, always wanted to go there.
So it is, around noon on Sunday, that Lillian collects me from my hotel and we drive to Teotihuacan. This proves a fascinating journey. Lillian has much to say on many things and I have a sensation I am the perfect passenger. I am interested, a good listener and from a land far away. I observe numerous shacks beside the motorway, grinding poverty all around, helpless and hopeless, shrivelled lives, a savage contrast to the affluence of Polanco. Lillian tells me that people in these communities work hard, they do their best but the machinery of state is unwilling or unprepared to invest in the infrastructure that will give them a chance to escape the scrapheap. Ambition for most runs no further than earning enough to feed their families, avoiding the inevitable temptations of petty crime and staying alive until tomorrow, whereupon the same cycle of daily survival continues. There are parts of the city into which you just do not venture. You must not go there says Lillian. Even the armed police do not go without trepidation. She is very firm. I listen quietly and carefully and gaze upon the steepling mountains looming ahead on the hinterland.
I had boned up on Teotihuacan overnight in my Time Out guidebook. I discover that it is a very serious number, arguably the most important archaeological site in the entire country. Mexico, lest we forget, was the home of two of the great civilisations of ancient times. The Mayan and Aztec empires were each forces to be reckoned with, cradles of much invention and not a little bellicosity. Teotihuacan was the epicentre of this region for over six hundred years and excavations have uncovered a city brimming with ideas and sophistication, culturally alive yet professionally managed. When they first clapped eyes upon it, the Spanish conquistadores were agog at the organisational skills required to build and maintain a multiethnic community of such complexity.
The modern history of the country is no less interesting. Lillian, of course, has been not unadjacent to the seat of power and some of her revelations are startling. They are startling for her trenchant opinions, her openness and the fact that she periodically raises her hands to make her point as we zip down the motorway. She tells me that every pillar of state is corrupt. Police, government, judiciary, church, they are all susceptible to the coin. It is curiously covert and overt. Who really knows who controls the affairs of state and does the dirty work? I hear that a much loved and respected friend, a senior political figure, was bumped off by an assassin on a motorbike. No clear explanation was ever given for this hit but the anguish on her face bore its own story.
Inequality can be measured in different ways. Gun law is one means of reinforcing superiority but so too is economic hegemony. I knew Carlos Slim had a bob or two though I was pretty astonished to discover that roughly 85% of Mexican GDP was controlled by just thirteen families. It’s the kind of thing you might expect to hear about some African kleptocracy but not about a country pushing for recognition as a poster child for progressive reform. I have no doubt that Slim and his acolytes are major employers and contribute to the wider economy but it is the density of influence that I find most alarming. Still, she brightened us both up when she said around 15% of the overall population considered themselves members of their indigenous tribe rather than citizens of the state. One in seven people have, evidently, voted with their feet and opted out of the system.
The traffic is building up as we approach Teotihuacan. On Sunday, admission is free and so every man and his dog is on his way, plus his wife, her mother, his kids, his sister’s family, whoever else could conceivably fit inside the minibus, car, truck or mode of transportation. We inch forward and Lillian buys a bag of fruit from one of the numerous vendors. It looks like nothing I have ever eaten before but she gives me one and proceeds to deftly peel her own. I am not quite as deft. Indeed, I am displaying all the dexterity of a man wearing a pair of oven gloves but I get there in the end, careful not to spray my juice in all directions, as one is wont to do. Apparently, it is a type of cactus fruit, slightly tart but altogether delicious. We polish off a few, park up and wander down to the entrance.
Time Out was not wrong. It is a huge site. There are temples, pyramids, burial chambers, living quarters and the like to explore. Indeed, this is only the main section. There are other structures stretching towards the horizon, some inaccessible, others subject to ongoing research and scrutiny, but there is more than enough to occupy us already. We climb up, we climb down, over turrets, around ditches. We admire the wall paintings, the native ingenuity, the urban planning. Naturally enough, Lillian has visited this important landmark before but only in an official capacity, as first lady. And how did it compare this time? The knowledge that I was the only security detail was a relief in and of itself. The thought of being followed around by bodyguards seems so intrusive but I expect you get used to it.
Was your husband particularly interested in Teotihuacan? No, that was definitely not Vicente’s thing. No culture vulture leading that administration, by all accounts. He would do the necessary, shake hands, say a few words, pose for photographs and bugger off, leaving his aides to sweep up behind him. He was a man with his eye on other prizes. By another set of extraordinary coincidences, it emerged that he had risen to power through his record running Coca Cola and set out for political life as state governor of Guanajuato, home of San Miguel, each of which I would soon visit.
I can but imagine how it feels to be continually in the public eye. My appearance has never been deemed a matter of national significance, I have never opened my front door to paparazzi (or any Italian footballer, come to think of it), never had my wardrobe dissected. Nobody seems very preoccupied about my hair, my highlights or my fringe. I have not endured endless state ceremonies with people I do not know and do not much care for. Yet there are clearly a few perks – private jets, exclusive invitations, fawning courtiers, the usual trappings of high office and, of course, never suffering the indignity and hopelessness of flagging a taxi in a crashing storm. How was she adjusting to her new life? Pretty well, it seemed. Happily divorced, she had her own place, worked in real estate selling everything from prime residential to hunting lodges, was close to her four children and was simply enjoying her freedom. Her former husband was a very controlling man, who had restricted her movements and activities outside official circles, so there was a refreshing spontaneity to Lillian, a captivating hint of girlishness and wide eyed wonder. Her love life since had been a bit uneven but, much as I was happy to step up to the plate, her staunch Catholicism proved an unexpected obstacle. I am unburdened by any religious guilt in that regard but, luckily for me, I am not a Catholic.
We beetle over to the car and head back to the city. It has been a diverting morning on multiple levels but my tummy is rumbling. Lillian drives downtown. We arrive outside what, superficially at least, bears more than a passing resemblance to a hole in the wall. We tiptoe round the busy counter, turn left and are guided into the restaurant. It is crowded, a roiling mass of people, eating, drinking, hollering, shouting, standing up, sitting down, banging their fists, shielding their eyes. I never realised Sunday lunch could be such an emotionally charged experience until I look above and see a television perched overhead. There is only one thing to say. Good Golly, Miss Molly! It is showing an international football friendly between Mexico and US. I silently weep tears of joy.
The Mexicans, the away team, are a goal up when we get there, two up by the time we order and proceed to score five without reply. Much of our conversation is peppered by spasmodic passages of song as the mood sways. It is a fairly tight game until the latter stages when the Mexicans run away with it. I have the added pleasure of watching Carlos Vela of Arsenal FC, true purveyors of the beautiful game, strut his stuff and chip a sublime goal of his own. The food comes a pretty close second, however. Lillian takes charge and an array of dishes appear at regular intervals. There is enough to feed a family of six but I rise to the challenge. I dip in and out, as I intermittently watch the match, nod supportively at Lillian’s tales of family life chez Fox, admire her pert and comely form and absorb the atmosphere. I believe it’s called multitasking. Game over, the fiesta spirit subsides somewhat despite sporadic manifestations of man love as the male of the species are moved to share the experience with one another, again and again. The Mexicans so love their football. Bless them all.
We settle the bill and step outside. It is now late afternoon. Lillian asks if there is anywhere I would particularly like to go next. I say that I want to check out two districts, Condesa and Roma. They are next door to one another and represent a different side to the city. Slightly raffish and bohemian, they sound right up my rue. This is the creative hub and promises to give me a real flavour for the capital. Lillian seems a bit concerned that I will be a little boy lost in a dark and dangerous hood. I reassure her that, now I am 47, I should be able to cope with any unexpected complications such as losing my compass or speaking to strangers. I have plenty of form in that regard.
Indeed, the previous year I found myself deep in the medina in Marrakech, lost beyond compare, having shaken off a gaggle of kids who variously offered a private tour of the souk, a personal introduction to their favourite street trader and all manner of earthly delights. Step forward, Mr Bobble Hat. The weather was cold and, hence, I wore my hat, emblazoned with the Arsenal crest. Football is a truly global language and the mere sight of my sartorial splendour caused a veritable babble of tongues. Although I was in Morocco, their sense of African identity caused them to wax lyrical about Emmanuel Adebayor, the rangy, mercurial centre forward from Togo, who led the line for Arsenal. It was a fine example to me of the unifying force of football and sport more generally. Eventually, still accompanied by my persistent admirers, I wound up in a bar watching a competitive, if unorthodox, game of table football. Plenty of fancy footwork was on display, explosive finishing, showboating and profuse thanks to Allah. I was tempted to put a few dirhan down as a mark of intent but mused over a hint that my powers at the table might be in gentle decline.
Some twenty five years ago, I had purchased a table football with five friends. We all chipped in £50 towards its cost but it resided in my flat as I had a bit more space. As a result, whenever we gathered to play, I was present and correct and my game, sound since childhood, improved immeasurably. Once I was married, thanks to the good grace and culinary skills of my wife, I even hosted day long mini tournaments but then kids intervened, one, two, three in pretty short order, and my dedication to the table temporarily waned. However, as soon as they were able to walk, talk and go to the toilet by themselves, I knew, just knew, the day was dawning. Once they could turn the handles and peer over the top, I was back in business. We played singles and doubles, different combinations and with a slightly random scoring system. Points were also awarded for sportsmanship, complimenting the opposition, not going into meltdown when your partner conceded yet another own goal, looking pretty, getting me a drink, all lessons in life. My daughters more than held their own but my son really took to it and, in due course, he started giving me a serious run for my money.
Rube proved to have quick hands and a competitive spirit. By the time he was nine or ten, I played him as I would with my friends. It was the first to ten; I would give him an 7 – 0 start and, without unduly extending myself, beat him but he grew progressively more determined wherein it grieved him deeply when apparent victory was snatched away at the last. Suddenly, I was giving him a four goal advantage and then we were going head to head. By the time he was a teenager, he was pushing me hard and I sensed, quivering at the margins, a changing of the guard. There were a few near misses when the intensity of his game, the flick of his wrist, my beads of perspiration, threatened to tilt the balance his way. And then it happened. He won. He beat me fair and square. I continued to hold the upper hand for a year or two more but then a perceptible shift in power ensued. He was too lithe, too strong, too focused. There goes the glory of youth I said through gritted teeth. And then there was the banter, the goading, the physical contact, the running commentary, nothing malicious but a challenge lain down, nonetheless.
We have had some epic encounters, whether best of five, best of three or a one off. There are only three explicit rules. No spinning at any time, unless you are under five and can’t quite see the action, goals may be scored directly from kick off should one get a lucky ricochet and shots struck with such venom they bounce back into play from the goal do not count. It’s the kind of game where a supposedly unassailable lead can become vulnerable and then magically or tragically disappear. It’s the kind of game where I am losing 6 – 1 and wondering where the warm up went. It’s the kind of game where, if I make a fast start and match his aggression and power, I can remind Rube that form is temporary but class is permanent. Admittedly, I don’t remind him of that too often these days but, standing at the bar whimsically reflecting upon my past exploits, I thought I could perhaps handle this, can still punch my weight, got a bit of a crowd behind me, before realising my erstwhile companions had got bored and sought easier prey.
Relieved to finally be on my own, I stepped outside. I was no longer lost, not even hopelessly lost, but hopelessly, hopelessly lost. The street was quietly bubbling, albeit tinged with that invisible frisson of menace that often accompanies the unknown. Who or what might appear next? I adjusted my bobble hat and surveyed the scene. Salvation of a kind appeared opposite the bar where a group of four or five men, loitering without much intent, caught my eye. One of them, a little more forward than the rest, spotted a copy of the Herald Tribune under my arm, assumed I was an American and started to engage me in conversation. Abdul spoke surprisingly good English for a local guy just hanging around the medina but, as he would reveal to me later, that was because he was an English teacher. More interestingly, he and his friends were openly smoking what he referred to as chocolat but my nose told me was hashish. He offered me a toke as we discussed my impressions of Morocco and the perception of his country by the outside world. And then he asked me round to his place.
This required a fairly hasty value judgement on my part. I had no reason to doubt his integrity or the sincerity of his invitation though, I must confess, deep in the old city, I did give a moment’s thought as to whether I might be bundled in, tethered to a post and corndogged, my muffled cries drowned by the hubbub of the market. However, I reasoned that, in the event of any struggle, I was much bigger than him and, besides, who was I to cast aspersions on his intentions? I duly followed him home. It was just a couple of minutes away, a modest affair indeed, that he shared with his wife and young son, his brother and his wife and their widowed mother. We sat upstairs in his living room drinking sweetened mint tea brought by his gentle, if ancient, mother, who dutifully placed a special tablecloth under the tray, while Abdul proceeded to roll a joint of impressive proportions. We chatted some more about the limitations of the Moroccan educational system that determined that Abdul only worked half days, his dreams for his son and his country, the honour he felt that I had accepted his hospitality. It was very humbling to hear him speak in these terms and I felt a bit ashamed that I had ever doubted him.
I hoped to meet his son, no more than six or seven, to give him my Arsenal bobble hat personally, do my bit for international relations, but it transpired that Nabil was at the hammam with his mother. Lucky lad. I don’t ever recall being taken by my mother to nestle in layers of womanhood, bathe amidst their fragrance, discern the various contours of the female body, develop secret crushes. Clearly, hammams were in short supply in North London in those days. I trust Nabil is taking it all in and enjoying the show; he will be dispatched to the men’s room long before the first wisps of puberty emerge. The provision of a hammam is such a practical and enlightened custom, delivering togetherness and solitude, a place of refuge and sanctuary. It purifies mind, body and soul. Moreover, when we are stripped of the veneer of clothing, it becomes a great leveller. You see people for what they really are. I am a big fan of the hammam. I am also rather partial to its cousin the steam. My first exposure was in Turkey as a young man and the pleasure has never diminished. Difficult to match the grandeur of the public baths in Budapest or the quintessential style of Sauna Deco in Amsterdam but I like to keep an open mind.
Prior to my arrival in Morocco, I had wrenched my shoulder, engaging in the rigours of a Pilates session, I kid you not, and no end of massage and physio in London had cleared the problem up. Anyhow, the moment I mentioned my shoulder, Abdul said Ah! He repeated himself for good measure. Ah! You must come with me tomorrow to my hammam. It is a Berber hammam! To which I responded Ah? … Ah? So it came to pass that Abdul took me to the hammam, via his abode, where his mother, with a weary smile, plied me with more mint tea.
Here I came to understand the rules of the game. Abdul showed me a minuscule piece of hashish and revealed that this was all that remained from the brick he possessed the previous day. If I were to give him a few dirhan, he would pop out and buy some more. He had an excellent source just around the corner. No sooner had I finished appreciating his sleight of hand and he was back, excitably telling me that his regular supplier was not around but that he had bumped into another source, a bit more expensive but high quality and could I cover the difference. Needless to say, I took care of business and we enjoyed a very smooth smoke with our tea. I suddenly then realised, with a clarity surely induced by my stoned condition, that I had brought no accoutrements for the hammam. Abdul had everything under control. He lent me a freshly laundered towel, robe, pair of shorts and a bar of his special soap for scrubbing. His generosity knew no bounds.
We weaved through a maze of alleys until we arrived at an unmarked building, most remarkable for the fact that it remained intact. Like so much else in the old city in Marrakech, it looked as though it was on the verge of collapse but was propped up by centuries of history, community and religious conviction. There is no sign to indicate its presence but I can sense the sweat staining the walls. It is dark and dimly lit but Abdul ushers me in, greets a couple of fellows sitting on their haunches, drinking tea and smoking hashish. I have had quite enough of each for now but, conscious of respecting my new hosts, I modestly oblige on both fronts. Various regulars wander in and out, salaam here, a nod there, the eyes have it elsewhere. The vibe is good but I am in no doubt that I am an object of some curiosity, probably one of the very few Caucasians to ever step inside their hallowed portal. Abdul aside, nobody speaks English. A few men are conversant in French but, overwhelmingly, they speak in a Berber dialect.
Meantime, one of the men we greeted at the entrance, wiry, taciturn, severe, trails off down a corridor and I peer through the gloaming. It is very rudimentary, a bathing facility for the working man, comprising hammams, running pools and areas for discourse, rest and rumination. It is decidedly men only. Abdul tells me that there is a similar place just across the street for women. I presume it is slightly more decorous than the one I am standing in, so basic it does not even have an ubiquitous photo of the king on the wall, a staple of every kind of establishment. I notice a large luggage rack above. That, Abdul informs me, is where everybody keeps their possessions. I realise I am standing in the changing room. There are no lockers, there is no customer service desk and I am certainly going to be hard pressed to get a strawberry and banana smoothie. Mr Severe drifts back into view, now just wearing a sort of dhoti, and Abdul urges me to get undressed too. I tell myself to relax. What could possibly go wrong? All I need do is peel off in front of the assembled, slip into the spare shorts and proceed like a lamb down the corridor into the steamy, murky hammam. I had seen an uncommon number of lambs in Marrakech already, feet trussed, carried overhead, cradled in arms, on the back of motorbikes, roofs of cars, triumphantly borne to their fate. It is near the end of Ramadan and, I was to discover, they were to be ritually slaughtered to celebrate the eid. They say timing is everything.
Yet, as I pass my clothes to Abdul for safekeeping, I also realise I am handing my passport, my keys, my cash, my credit cards, my phone, my life to a man I met only yesterday. I am strangely calm as I envision newspaper headlines of a naked, incoherent British man found wandering in distress through the casbah. Mr Severe leads the way and we turn into a chamber which, blinking through the thick vapours, I can see is the hammam. It is almost stiflingly hot and I notice out of the corner of my eye a furnace, stoked by burning coals. This is not quite the sizzle I was expecting.
Mr Severe points to the floor. Is there an interesting inscription I should be admiring? I smile hopefully. He does not return the compliment. He motions to me to crouch. I look as though I am under starters orders, holding my position, ready to burst out of the blocks. Instead, he gives me a sharp prod in the small of my back and, like a collapsible toy, I fold flat on my stomach. He proceeds to sit astride me, kneading me gently and forcefully by turn, loosening my muscles. He is up and down, regularly pouring a pail of hot water over me. I flinch momentarily but he continues to knead me, pinching, pummeling, cleansing, two, three, four times until he considers I am ready for my gommage.
Mr Severe is actually a tayeba, an attendant, there to wash, scrub and massage me. I am lying face down on the hot, wet floor, vaguely aware of activity above and around me, my pores opening, my circulation renewed, my impurities expelled. Once I have been sufficiently softened up, Mr Severe beckons me with an insistent finger. I am in no position to argue so follow him into another chamber, rather more temperate, and, sure enough, I am prostrate again. It seems that he will observe the same ritual but I notice he is now equipped with a few tools of his trade, a bit like an itinerant barber, brushes, creams, lotions, the full package, plus his bucket for good measure. He douses me with more water and then applies sabon beldi, a sticky black olive oil soap, all over my body, coating me with it, back, front, sides. Despite displaying all the finesse of a beached whale, flapping inelegantly in the shallows, I am starting to feel a bit more comfortable with the hammam, the heat, the etiquette, my tayeba.
My confidence is rudely shattered when, after lathering me with soap for the umpteenth time, Mr Severe and I engage in another game of charades. This time he enlists the help of a couple of fellows sitting nearby. I can see one mimicking a breaststroke action while the other cracks his knuckles. The latter is a great bear of a man, eyes shining, teeth glinting, arms outstretched. I want to think positively but perhaps I have seen one film noir too many. I am not sure what may follow but, in an instant, the decision is made for me and I am prone on the tiles, spreadeagled like a starfish, limbs akimbo, both men enjoined with Mr Severe as they proceed to chip and chop across my body. It is absolutely wonderful, an exquisite six hand massage, as they pull, manipulate and stretch me, individually and collectively. No sooner had my support team got into their stride and they were gone, slipping back into the shadows, but, aside from personal ablutions, it is normal practice for bathers to assist one another in the hammam. How very civilised.
Now my tayeba started my gommage in earnest. The word has a French derivation and literally means eraser or rubber. It is a process of exfoliation to remove dead skin and is facilitated by the use of a special scrubbing mitten called a kees. He worked me over in slow rhythmical movements, then sharply and vigorously, scouring my torso with the kees, but always quick to soothe and hydrate me. He continued to crunch and crack but my body by now was so tranquilised, so becalmed, so utterly immersed within this miasma of pleasure, that I absorbed the pressure without murmur. Eventually, he signaled me once more to stand up and I followed him into a third chamber, appreciably cooler. I sat down on the floor against the wall and, after confirming all bodily parts were still intact, I realised the pain in my shoulder had been scattered to the four winds. Mr Severe nodded to me, I nodded to him and then he was gone.
I drew breath. I was limber, I was glowing, I was quite unrecognisable as myself. After a solid five minutes of staring into space, which I accomplished with consummate ease, I gingerly stood up, opened the door and there, standing in front of me, was Abdul. He was about to make a presentation to me. Not an honorary membership, in case you were wondering, but my clothes and possessions. He proferred them to me, arms aloft, as if making a gift to the gods. Abdul was rather vertically challenged so, as he recited the entire inventory in his care, all I could see was a talking head. He handed everything over and then he reached into his pocket, fished around for a moment and out popped my mobile. With a beaming smile, he said here is your phone. I kept it especially safe for you. I could have kissed him then and there. I quickly showered, got dressed and found Abdul by the entrance. Where is the tayeba? I would like to thank and tip him. No need says Abdul. I have taken care of it. How else can I help? Well, I say, I wouldn’t mind a shave. Ah! he replies. A familiar refrain indeed. Ah! You must come and see my friend Mohammed, the finest barber in the whole of Marrakech. A Berber barber no less. And, guess what, he is only around the corner. Well there’s a funny thing, I think to myself.
Off we go and, lo and behold, Mohammed is only around the corner. He seems slightly around the bend too as, when we approach, I can see he is cutting one man’s hair, shaving another, engaging in a very agitated telephone call with a third while, simultaneously, conducting an argument with a man in the street. I sit down in the chair, somewhat cautiously, concerned that my request to Abdul for a shave alone has not been lost in translation. I pat my cheeks somewhat theatrically to make my point but Mohammed seems far too preoccupied to notice. My hair, despite displaying all the consistency of an upturned lavatory brush, is something of a protected species for me and, though it gradually dwindles, I would like it to meet its maker as nature intended. Mohammed stands behind me and we both exhibit puzzled expressions to one another in the mirror. He is trying to make sense of why the man in the chair is clasping his hands over his head as if nursing a baby pineapple. The man in the chair is trying to make sense of the spectacularly garbled English of the man brandishing the scissors.
We overcome our language barrier and he gets down to business. He is quick and efficient and I am soon freshly shaved, powdered and buffed, with a squirt of cologne too. How much do I owe? Mohammed glances at Abdul, as if seeking divine inspiration, and he glances at me. Please give whatever you think is right says Abdul. This is a beautiful answer for which I am wholly unprepared. I give Mohammed ten dollars and a smile and everyone seems happy. Abdul takes my arm. And a gift for me? Well, of course, I say, and I slip him a little something. He looks at me rather dolefully. He has his overheads. There is the cost of the hammam and my tayeba and, though he doesn’t quite put it as such, there is the pleasure of his company and a window into his Berber world. Quite right too. I top him up, we embrace, I give him my bobble hat as a present for Nabil and he points me in the direction of my riad which, as luck would have it, was right around another corner.
If I learned only one thing from my various excursions with Abdul, it was a reaffirmation of the fundamental kindness of strangers. But it was underpinned by the reality that man, and for that matter woman, is a social animal and that, in an increasingly wired world, people forget too readily the necessity of physical interaction at work, rest and play. The hammam provides an adhesiveness, as does the shtiebel in its own peculiar fashion. It is perhaps why I tend to gravitate towards the communal table in a restaurant, to observe, to watch and wonder, read the newspaper, gatecrash private conversations, perhaps even enjoy a spot of lunch. I am there and not there, engaged in a slightly disengaged way. I am OFFLINE.