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Published: October 3rd 2008
There are some places that one has such a clear picture of that it feels as though one has already been. In my mind, Marrakech was one of those places. I knew what it would look like; I knew what it would sound like; I knew what it would smell like. I could not have been more wrong. I had a very romantic notion of it. My guidebook describes it as having the pros of cons of both Africa and the Middle East. In my limited experience of both of those places, I have to agree.
My trip did not start well. I had decided, in some moment of weakness, that I would take the early flight out of Luton -- early being 6.00 am. What this meant was that I had to be at the airport by 5.00, so the taxi would have to pick me up at 4.00, so the alarm went off at 3.00. Let's just say that I was cursing myself as I stumbled into the shower. I did, however, arrive in time. I joined the queue only to have the woman behind the desk, just as I was at the front mind you, tell me that she was going on break and that everyone in my queue would have to join another one. I was not the only unhappy person, I'm here to tell you. Got through that trauma, boarded the plane and like 99% of the rest of plane, tried to go back to sleep. Oh no. Right behind me were three women (all of them of a certain age) who were off on a girl's weekend. So, they were drinking (before 6.00 in the morning!!) and laughing. Again, I was not the only unhappy person, I'm here to tell you.
I survived all these traumas to then hit Moroccan passport control. Huge queues with the gentlemen manning the desks taking their sweet time. I went into travel/chill mode and waited my turn. I kid you not -- as soon as I got to the front, the guy decided that he had worked long enough and took five minutes to have a chat with his mate. The best part? When he finally got to me, he looked through every page of my passport, looked at his computer, but never once looked at me. If I had more courage, I would love to try it with a fake passport. I swear I would make it through.
The good news is that my bag was waiting for me, so I was out of the airport relatively quickly. I got into a taxi and was told that it was going to be 150 dirhams to take me to my hotel. As this is about £10, I thought that was reasonable, so agreed. Driving into town, I had my first look around. Sunny and warm, olive trees and palm trees and loads of people milling about. Very nice. My taxi driver stopped to pick up a policeman who was trying to get home. I was charmed by that.
OK -- that didn't last long. My taxi driver dropped me off at the end of the street, told me that he could not go down it and handed me off to one of his mates to walk me to the riad. Which he did, and I was glad he did as I would never have found it, but it cost me another 100 dirhams. Now, I'm pissed off.
I walked into my riad where I was led to the courtyard garden and given hot, sweet, mint tea and a plate of goodies while they finished getting my room ready. I was not feeling my best. I was angry and tired and generally feeling sorry for myself. After about fifteen minutes, I realized that I was having an experience and I shouldn't miss it. I was in a beautiful garden, water was running and music was playing, women in the next room were chattering in a mixture of Arabic and French and I had something to drink. I took a deep breath and decided to start over. I was shown my room. Lovely old canopy bed, a bathtub that is the deepest I have ever seen and cool. I decided that perhaps things were not so dire after all.
As part of the process of breaking out the Old Me shell, I had decided to do things a bit differently on this trip. I wanted to experience a place firsthand, not through the lens of a camera. So, I decided that for the first two days I was here, I would have to leave my camera in the room and just look at things as they really are. It is interesting, however, for I found myself framing photographs throughout the day.
I walked all through the old town, the souks and the main square doing what every visitor to Marrakech must do once -- got hopelessly lost. It was an interesting day to be walking around. Yesterday was the last day of Ramadan so today is Eid, or the Muslim equivalent of our Christmas. EVERYTHING was closed. But, lots of people were walking around in large groups and it was fun to observe all the celebration. By the afternoon, things were picking up a bit, but it was still relatively quiet.
My first impressions of Marrakech are: (1) there is no such thing as health and safety here. You see people riding around on scooters, carrying three or four kids at a time -- none of whom have on helmets. (2) There are loads of men sitting around, but few women. The men are not shy about trying to speak to you. (3) There is an enormous amount of poverty. I saw many, many people actively begging. (4) Men here are brought up very differently than in the West. They greet each other with kisses, they walk around with their arms around each other and they walk down the street holding hands. I quite liked it. (5) This is, actually, a very small place. I saw no fewer than a dozen people who had been on my flight with me as I was walking around.
Eventually, I found my way back to the main square. I sat down at a cafe, ordered iced tea and a tajine of chicken and lemon. Both were out of this world, and I enjoyed them while I watched the square come to life. Deciding that I needed a bit of a rest, I headed back to the oasis that is my riad and took my book up to the rooftop terrace. After a bit of a read and a bath, I realized I was too tired to head back to the square and decided to have dinner at my riad. What a treat! Great food and I met an Italian couple, a Spanish couple and a French couple. Talk about using all my languages! We had a lovely time trying to communicate and laughing at the mistakes we made in each others' languages.
About halfway through the meal, some musicians began to play and a belly dancer came in. Oh my! She had a figure like mine and was barely dressed. But the woman could dance. After she did her bit (managing to get all the men up with her), the musicians continued to play. The Spanish couple got up and did a tango. They were magnificent. I stayed awake as long as I could, but finally had to admit defeat and head for bed.
One thing about countries that have bright sunlight -- they certainly know how to darken a room. I woke up this morning and thought it was the middle of the night. I decided to check my watch just to see how much time I had left to sleep -- it was already 8.00! Guess that would be no time left.
Went down to the lovely courtyard again for breakfast. I chatted with my Spanish friends, drank wonderful coffee and finished my book. Much better frame of mind than this time yesterday! By the way, I have decided that flights that early are not worth it. The money I saved on the flight, I have spent on taxis to get me out and back from the wilds of Bedfordshire. And, one is so tired that the first day is pretty much lost anyway. Lesson learned. And the other thing I learned this morning is that taxi rides from the airport should cost no more than 60 dirhams and that they can get right to the front door. I chose not to get angry again, putting it down to the cheating karma you've heard me talk about before. And besides, it's their Christmas.
There are things that we who live in the West take for granted. Telecommunications is one of them. For years, we all managed to get through our lives without mobiles. Now? Lost without them. My friend Tom, who also arrived yesterday, and I spent half an hour this morning trying to ring each other. We can both ring London (we were trying to get Jeremy to orchestrate a meeting!), but we couldn't reach each other. Finally, the phone fairy kicked in and we were actually able to speak to each other. We agreed to meet at a cafe on the square. I wandered up, sat down, ordered another one of those magnificent iced teas and waited for Tom. And waited and waited and waited. While I was waiting, I had a very funny experience. A young boy of about four came up to my table, grabbed the bottle of water, poured himself a drink, drank it down, gave me a huge smile and walked away. I burst out laughing as did everyone around me. Less funny was the ancient woman in rags who came begging. Even the owner of the cafe gave her money.
Eventually, Tom turned up just as I had given up on him. He had gotten hopelessly lost and finally paid a kid 50 dirhams to get him to the cafe. We had a tea and laughed about our experiences so far and the fact that we are useless without our phones.
We had a wander around the souks. These things are amazing. An absolute maze, they are a series of shops each about the size of a closet selling everything from tourist tat to top of the line carpets. The best part was the apothecaries who sell cures for everything from impotence to baldness. These cures come in all shapes and sizes, but the one that worried Tom and me was the very small turtles. We couldn't figure out what they were for and decided that we really didn't want to know.
After a dozen wrong turns and asking for directions twice, we made it back to the square. We found some shade and had a meal of couscous. Those of you who think you know this dish do not unless you've had it in Morocco. Entirely different from we know. Light, fluffy and filled with fresh veggies. To die for. After lingering over our meal, we decided to head back to our respective riads for some down time. And just in time. The heavens opened and a thunderstorm came through. I've heard about storms in the desert -- they deserve the reputation they have. Awesome, in the true sense of that word.
After a quick bath (I had fallen into conversation with an English couple and lost track of the time!), I went back to the square to meet Tom and Jeremy who had safely arrived. We wandered around until we found a bar where we could sit up on a rooftop and have a drink. The latter is not as easy as you might think in a country that is 99% Muslim. We found one and had a wonderful hour watching the pageant that is the main square come alive at night.
What a difference from the daytime. Filled with locals, one can see everything from snake charmers to teeth pullers to henna artists all vying for one's dirhams. In addition, about twenty stalls set themselves up serving food from couscous, to snail soup to the local delicacy -- sheep's head. Everything is eaten except the skull. I think I'll pass....
Tearing ourselves away from the party, we found a taxi and negotiated a ride to our restaurant for the night. It doesn't take long to fall into the Moroccan way of doing things! Driven through another part of town, we kept commenting on the fact that we would never have found have the place if it hadn't been for our driver. Tucked down one of the numerous back alleys, we walked into Dar Yacout or Sapphire House. And, what a gem it is!
When the French took over, they decided that they were too posh to live in the medina, so they would build their own town on the outskirts. Called New Town, they filled the area with huge houses for themselves, but still built around the Moroccan riad model. This place is amazing. One is led in and taken all the way to the roof for a look around the lights. Simply gorgeous. Even New Me was less than pleased that I didn't have my camera with me.
One is then escorted (thank God! The place is a maze.) down to a room where one lounges on sofas and has one's cocktails. We decided the only thing to do was to emulate the French and drink champagne. It was accompanied by almonds and yellow raisons. The tastes together were magnificent. We were overlooking the courtyard that is the most beautiful I have seen yet. A small pool with a fountain in a small alcove. It is filled with palm trees and the experience is one of peace and stillness. Truly lovely.
After a bit, we were led to our table. This room was enormous. Huge ceilings, lamps that are still lit by candles and a breeze coming through the open windows. One is not given a menu, but is served a traditional meal. We started with a meze size of mixed grilled vegetables and livers with the freshest bread I think I've ever had. We had to force ourselves not to overdo it too soon.
This was followed by chicken cooked in olive oil and lemon, surrounded by olives. This, in turn, was followed by a HUGE lamb couscous. It was around this point that I didn't think I was going to be able to get up from the table. But no, sweet after sweet followed. The boys went to town, but luckily I don't have a sweet tooth so I just drank my mint tea and watched.
At this point, it was officially Jeremy's birthday, so we decided to stick with the French theme and have Armagnac. And, if one is good, two is better. Or so I'm told. We eventually managed to tear ourselves away from the table and into taxis. I was on my own as the boys are in another part of town until tomorrow. We eventually stopped and the driver told me that he was going to walk me the rest of the way. I wasn't sure where I was and found myself following a complete stranger through the dark alleys of Marrakech very late at night. Every horrible story I've ever heard came back to me. What actually happened? He walked me straight to my front door, shook my hand and told me to enjoy the rest of my stay. The kindness of strangers.
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