Thursday, 16 May 2013

Marrakech - A Journey to the Red City

I was feeling a little restless in Valencia recently; it rained for a few days solid and I was obviously outraged. The chance of a spontaneous trip to Marrakech came at just the right time. As I was the only one of our group without copious amounts of work to do, I wound myself up researching the city in the few days between deciding to go and getting on the plane. My head was filled with tales of the various tourist scams, street harassment (all three of us were girls) and aggressive market sellers.
As soon as we got off the plane we were hit by the heat - at 20h local time it wasn't oppressive, but it did add to our fatigue and it would have had pink Brits scorching themselves on roundabouts in England. In front of the airport was the most beautiful smoking shelter I've ever seen - a black wrought-iron gazebo, and a whole host of taxi drivers waiting to rip us off.

My advice for the first couple of days there would be not to buy anything. You're especially vulnerable when you haven't got used to the currency or the usual prices of things, and they are very good at swizzling tourists. Morocco's main source of income is tourism and they have had centuries to fine-tune their haggling skills. Even with my WikiTravel print-out and knowing that a taxi ride into town costs the locals 20 dirham (2 euros) and 50 is a good price for tourists, we almost agreed to share a taxi with some Swedish girls for 30 dirham each. That's 15 euros for about a 10 minute ride.

Luckily, the express bus came at 22h (the schedule stopped at 21h30) and dropped us off at the main square. We then had to navigate our way to the hostel in the dark, through throngs of people, using the bare instructions we had been given.
Place Djemaa El-Fna at night. Dodgy camera phone shot.
I'd seen Marrakech described a number of times as an 'assault on the senses'. I wouldn't go that far, but it was disconcerting and incredibly exciting to be suddenly plunged into such a different culture, particularly at night and with no idea where anything was. The square was lit up by the food stalls and we dodged caleches, locals selling trinkets and henna, donkey carts and many, many motorbikes. Snake charmers' music flooded the square and we were distracted by the shouts of the orange juice sellers and the smells of roasted meat, spices and tagines. I was struck by seeing a woman in a niqab and gloves mount a motorcycle with a baby on her back and accelerate away through a crowd of people.

Eventually we asked a shop owner to point us out the cafĂ© that should have served as a landmark in the square. It turned out we didn't see it because it was covered with a big white sheet that we assumed was for building works. Later we discovered it was the site of the Marrakech bombing in 2011. Nevertheless, Marrakech is considered completely safe to travel to, and it felt that way. 
We expected to schlep straight to bed when we got to our hostel, but we were given mint tea and cake instead. We were always given free tea whenever we wanted there, so I was drinking almost as much as I do in England. The hostel staff at Waka Waka went out of their way to make us comfortable, coming to find us all the time to bring us tea and answer all our questions about Arabic, Morocco and their lives. 
On the last night, the guys dressed in their djellabas so we could take photos and taught us to make mint tea. Abdessamad had forgotten it was his birthday until his mother called him and was very apologetic that he hadn't cooked us anything. We had tea and cake together and he told us all about his life philosophy - don't smoke or drink, be nice to people, don't worry about money, work hard for your family.
We took the first couple of days to wander around the souks - the labyrinth-like markets - and go to a traditional hammam. It was 1 euro to go in and 5 euros for the gommage (scrub), which was totally worth it. We followed two women (only one francophone) in, in just our bikini bottoms and were exfoliated hard with the gloves and black soap that we'd bought. It's good to do this on the first day because it took off all of our tan, and then made it easier to tan during the rest of the trip. 

There's no room for body issues or British squeamishness in these baths and I was really glad I'd spent two hours last term wandering around a Russian banya naked. The women scrubbing you don't care if your hand keeps banging against their breast, they rest your leg on their upper thigh to scrub you better and are prone to pulling your bikini bottoms down unexpectedly and then hiding them. To be honest, I don't see why it's traditional to wear anything at all since they scrub you *everywhere* anyway, or why I had a bucket of water emptied over my head ten times in a minute, but who am I to question their ways? It was hilarious and strange and extremely refreshing, as well as a great insight into one aspect of Moroccan life.
Koutoubia mosque
Saidian tombs
Badi Palace - rare photo with no storks
Rabbi's house - the Jewish quarter
It's impossible not to take everything at a slow pace in Marrakech. The locals famously step out to post a letter and spend the whole day having tea and cous cous with anyone that they run into on the way. We took a day to do some very relaxed sight-seeing and get lost. The only disappointment was that we tried to go to the Jewish cemetery on Shabbat, which was obviously closed. A local teenager heard me (very shakily) reading the Hebrew letters on the sign and offered to show us around the Jewish quarter. Although it had all the makings of a tour guide scam, he was lovely and just wanted to practise his English, and although he showed us his friend's shop before leaving us, there was no pressure on us to buy anything. Apart from the Rabbi's house, nothing in the area seemed very Jewish and my bagel lust went unsatisfied. Our guide told us most of the Jewish families had moved to Israel, which I can completely understand.
By Sunday, we were desperate for a swimming pool. Unfortunately we mixed up a swimming pool with a fountain called 'le Jardin des Jeunes' and ended up walking almost to the airport in the baking midday sun. However, some Moroccan boys who were walking just ahead of us ran and picked us a rose. We got some lunch and went back to our hostel to sunbathe on the terrace. The one weird point of the trip was a kid who was peeking at us from the neighbouring roof and his adult male relative who stood openly staring at us and smiling. We covered up but it was only when we asked him, 'Do you want something?' that he went out of sight, only to return about half an hour later. The next day, the kid came back and we sent Hossein to tell him off. 

Other than that, I honestly think I experience more street harassment in Spain or England than in Marrakech. Granted, we only went out in the night on two occasions, one of those with a boy, and I obviously wouldn't understand any Arabic slurs that might be whispered behind our backs. But the cries of 'gazelle!' or 'beautiful eyes!' just feel like a joke that you're in on, rather than a jeer or insult to make you feel embarrassed and laugh at you. The men doing this will look you in the eyes and appreciate a few words of Arabic, which seems like a fair trade considering we heard: 'Charlie's Angels! Hey Charlie, get me the angels!'; 'lovely jubbly!' and 'shufty, shufty?' I also got called Jennifer Lopez at one point (it's those fatty breakfasts) and we heard Lady Gaga, as well as Harry Potter - directed at a girl with round glasses.
At no point was I able to finish this. Cake??
A nice Australian we'd befriended at the hostel suggested we go on a day trip somewhere. We'd already had the Waterfalls of Ouzoud in mind and after a bit more haggling, we signed up for the Monday. The Brazilians from our hostel and an American group of various Middle Eastern and North African descent accompanied us there. As we were driving through the Moroccan countryside looking at the large purple mountains, Berber villages and trying not to throw up (a bumpy minibus ride is not what you want after a sugary breakfast and minimal sleep), we got a proper look at a more authentic side of the country and I felt some wanderlust creeping on.
Cobweb falls
The falls we swam in
Our lovely guide Mahmoud
The waterfalls were so beautiful, with a very steep drop. Mahmoud kept warning us to be careful and stay away from the edge, which we largely ignored until he pointed out all the places where people had died:

'Over there, a girl 3 weeks ago...right here, a boy 2 months ago, I was at the bottom, I saw him hit the ground...'

After that, whenever he encouraged us to take pictures from a certain spot, we stayed well away from the edge. I didn't feel like falling to my death or standing where anyone had passed their final moments. 

Mahmoud, who spoke excellent English, French and Spanish, and had been stung by a scorpion in his house at 23h the night before and gone to hospital, showed us olive trees that were 950 years old (50 years away from dying), petrified rock that used to be tree roots, turtles, ancient Berber caves, and how not to die as we navigated the valley. He also pointed out the best places to take photographs and kept us laughing along the way:

'Britain...lovely jubbly! Marmite! Fish and chips! The Queen!'

Yep, that's everything in England! 
Listening to a storyteller
Whole/half/quarter of a sheep's head?
In the evening, we went to get dinner at one of the food stalls that pop up in the square at night. Each one has several greeters around it who try everything to get you to eat with them. We stopped to try some snails first, which were in a spicy broth and actually really good, even though their eye stalks are definitely visible on the way into your mouth.

The greeters are really charismatic and clearly appreciate it if you joke around with them. One popular joke was, 'Oh, you're from London? I'm from Wigan/Ipswich!' I told them I could hear the accent. One greeter told me that everyone in the stalls knows each other and it's just a massive game to see who can get the most people to their stall. As we stood deciding, we were surrounded by greeters promising us free drinks and olives, as the cooks in the stalls shouted and cheered. When we eventually sat down it was to pantomime-like clapping and booing. 
Caroline the chameleon
 On our final day, we headed out to tackle the souks. Having spent days practising our Arabic, researching what we wanted to buy and how much to pay for it, we were in prime haggling mode. Between us we got a teapot, some saffron, some Berber lipstick, Moroccan eyeliner (that men and women wear for its disinfecting properties in the desert), some jasmine and musk, a beautiful hand-stitched leather bag, some jewellery and a fragrant, carved box made of juniper. As we left all sellers looking unhappy, we felt pretty pleased with ourselves.
Marrakech was an entertaining, welcoming and lively window onto North Africa and Islamic culture, both of which I know next to nothing about, aside from a day-trip to Tangiers several years ago. I saw women in hijabs driving men around on motorbikes, taxi drivers held apart by their friends as they screamed at each other only to be hugging and explaining a few minutes later, Moroccans playing all kinds of games with the gullible tourists and sitting down to tea with the friendly ones. I could see exactly why Moroccan hospitality is so infamous and I wish we had time to travel to Fez, Essaouira, Casablanca...luckily we were invited to stay in our new friend's house if we're ever in Agadir, to watch his mother make argan oil. Bless.


  1. Such a mesmerizing picture you could draw with your words! I'm really intrigued by the way you see both the overt and covert aspects of our culture. Hope you did enjoy your journey here, and welcome anytime :)

  2. Thank you, that's so nice to hear! I can't wait to go back