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Published: March 14th 2009
Purveyors of fine freshly squeezed orange juice since... ever, probably.
One hour into my African experience I was walking down tiny deserted alleys in a slightly dodgy part of Marrakech being directed by a tall stranger who claimed to know where my riad (guesthouse) was. Having lost the directions I had printed off I really had no choice but to follow this man. It was a crossroads: either, I would be mugged or murdered and I wouldn't have a good holiday, or secondly, he would find my hostel and everything would be OK. And it was. That was a relief.
The centre of Marrakach - its heart and soul - is Djeema el Fna: a huge misshapen square that every evening bursts into life with street performers. You walk past large groups of mainly Moroccan men watching magicians, musicians and sundry other performers. There are an army of fortune-tellers and orange juice vendors. When I poked my head into one of the scrums of people watching a dancer with suspiciously large feet, a man thrust a plate up to me asking me for a donation. I said I had only just arrived so I shouldn't have to pay and he said "Oh, but she's good!" So I gave him a
coin and he scuttled off. Only then did the genuine money collector come around and I realised I'd been had.
The Marrakechi are a remarkably clever race. Virtually everybody it seemed was a polyglot. Store owners shout out to in every language until they get your attention: "Hello, excuse me! Bonjour! Hola! Bon Giorno! etc. Apparently there it's futile to try confusing them by saying you are German because they are just as likely to start speaking to you in passable Deutsch.
I am not averse to a bit of haggling, but in Morocco it is an art-form and a national pastime. One of the lovely people in my riad said that if a Moroccan is buying a major item, it is not unusual to spend two hours negotiating the price. And almost all of the time it is done with a smile on your face - which is good - and in French - which for me is not so good.
After a couple of days in the dusty chaos of Marrakech, it was a relief to head out to the Atlantic coast to the filmset-pretty town of Essaouira. It was the sort of place where
sophisticated, elegant, middle-aged French tourists like going - much like Luang Prabang in Laos or Hoi An in Vietnam. The tourists can café au lait
in outdoor cafés, eat La Vache qui rit
processed cheese to their heart's content and grow eccentric moustaches. Moroccan waiters in smart uniforms or livery will treat you with the tone to make the colonialist fantasy all the more convincing.
Back in Marrakech on my last day, I had the dissapointment of missing out on doing an organised day trip to the nearby Atlas Mountains: playing in snow, riding a camel etc. The Marrakech side of the mountains is lush and green but on the other side starts the gigantic Saharah Desert streaching across Africa to Egypt and Arabia. Showing an out-of-character fearless streak I decided to hire a scooter and go to the Ulrika valley in the mountains myself. My fearless steak evaporated about 30 seconds into my odyssey when I had to confront my first hazard: a Marrakechi roundabout. Three stilted and nail-biting minutes later, I was on the long, staight road to the mountains passing through a riotous array of red poppies and various other spring flowers.
Once I entered
the Mountain valley, every time I would stop to take a photo would have salemen on scooters swarm on me trying to sell me necklaces and fossils that I didn't want, using sophisticated Moroccan-style mind tricks.
I saved my biggest - and strangest - adventure for that night. I was walking out of Riad Messin on the way to Djeema el-Fna for another tasty stall dinner. At the same time there was party of three French Canadian girls - one of whom had married a Moroccan guy - walking in the same direction. They were going to meet up with said husband two of his friends - all of whom were in a rock band together. I fell in with them. After dinner we moved on to a bar. The French canadian girls and me were happy drinking "Especiale" lager. The three guys however were glum and staring into the middle-distance as, it being a religious holiday, Moroccans weren't allowed alcohol! Our stay at this bar therfore was short one.
Our next bar was in Nouvelle Ville (the New Town): a paradise of non-descript large buildings, MacDonalds restaurants and various other chain stores. At "Haciendia Club", amongst French
Aptly named: it was filled with free internet kiosks with Moroccan teenagers looking for a date.
Businessmen and a fair smattering of putain
(I'm not going to translate that word of you don't know it!) we watched a more-than-adequate covers band perform a distressingly ecclectic set: The Veuve, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley etc. With beers costing 80 durhams (£6.50/NZ$17.50) we opted the jaw-droppingly expensive but still better value bottle of Johnnie Walker at 900 durhams (£70/NZ$200). With a bit of Dutch courage the three Moroccan guys got on stage and performed a couple of songs themselves. They were fantastic - apart from a rather desultory intstrumental rendition of "Smells like Teen Spirit".
Next stop was the night-club upstairs. This was absolutely seething with French businessmen and a large bevvy of North Africa's putain
population . It was rather like seven quite normal people accidentally walking into a brothel. Unsurprisingly, the French Canadian girls didn't take me up on my offer for a dance. After sharing a even more eye-wateringly expensive bottle of Johnnie Walker (1200 Durhams = £95/NZ$270) quite suddenly the businessmen and the women-of-the-night pared off, departed, the lights were turned on, a waiter was demanding we pay for our bottle, Generally the atmosphere had frosted over rather badly.
After narrowly avoiding the
opportunity to be ripped off at two more nightclubs - including the Marrakech Casino - I finally ended up knocking on the front door of my guesthouse at 4:30am. Lukily, my angelic riad host Aziz was not upset that the French Canadians and I had woken him up. Actually he was quite keen to keep the party going. We ended up sitting in a tent on the roof-top terrace smoking a shesha with the sound of birds and the Muslim call to prayor emanating form every direction. A long night but a memorable one.
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