Wednesday, 3 October 2007
Les Dossiers de Marrakech - Day 1
I almost missed my flight, you know.
Well, i technically almost missed my flight. I actually almost missed my train, because i almost missed my cab to the train station, because my alarm clock did not go off. But i won't bore you with the details. All i will say is "the devil is a liar". This holiday that i've been looking forward to for months, i will now come and miss my flight? Iro ni, it's a lie.
The flight was the usual humdrum. The in-fligth movie was Ocean's Thirteen. I read a book instead. As we approach Marrakech, we've almost touched down, when all of a sudden the plane gathers speed and takes off again. After 5 minutes the Pilot announces that its too windy to land from the east so were going round to the west runway to land. On arrival, we have to fill out a form which is basically a visa for EU citizens. You don't have to get one beforehand.
I arrive at the Hotel and check in, but not before filling out yet another form *yawn*. The Hotel's 'public relations' lady comes over and introduces herself to me. I ask about day trips and she informs me of/tries to sell me what they have on offer. I decide to go for a day in the Ourika Valley, between the first foothills of the Atlas Mountains and about 1hr30mins outside Marrakech; and a trip to Essaouira, a seaside town about an 1hr outside Marrakech for Saturday and Sunday respectively. I haven't got any money on me so i tell her i will pop out later, once i've settled in. After unpacking and a short rest, and much psyching up of self, i venture out on to the mean (rather clean, actually) streets of Marrakech.
The Hotel is located in Gueliz, which is Marrakech's new town and was built by the French during their occupation from 1912 to 1956. The new town is as different as can be from the old town, the Medina (see below for a movie clip of my trip into the Medina). Gueliz is home to the business district i.e. banks, hotels, restaurants serving western type food, a McDonalds, bars and nightclubs.
The streets are very wide and as i stand at the zebra crossing trying to get to the other side for 5 minutes hoping someone will stop and let me cross, it suddenly hits me that that just ain't gon' happen. Taking a deep breath, i step out and manage to make it to the centre of the road amidst angry horn tooting from the oncoming scooters and cars. Heart pounding, i realise i'm going to have to be assertive here, so i take a step forward. More angry tooting occurs, but i give the scooter driver a look that says 'ok. You're either going to let me pass, or you're going to run me over'. Thankfully, he lets me pass.
I follow my nose and stumble onto a busy road with aforementioned McDonald's and several banks. Yippee. I withdraw the cash for my day trips and return to l'hotel.
Venturing out - again...
"You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes".
Morpheus to Neo (The Matrix)
I'm one of those people who enjoys watching local television stations when abroad, so i shun BBC News 24 and flick through the other channels. There's a German one, Spanish one, French one, Al-Jazeera and a local Moroccan one. My highlights so far have been watching the Spanish version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and German The Weakest Link. Great fun!
Later in the evening i literally have to drag myself away from the TV, but somehow, i manage it. I step out again, intending to find the Place Jemaa al Fna, the main square of Marrakech. At night, it's meant to come to life with food stalls, dancers, musicians, story-tellers, henna tattooists, and lots more. Definitely worth seeing, so i retrace my steps from my earlier trip out. At the busy road, i notice all the non-Moroccans heading in a particular direction, so i make like i know where i'm going and i follow. I'm like a man in that respect - i never ask for directions unless i have to, which usually turns out to be when i have become hopelessly lost.
Hardly anyone is out and about on the streets as it's the middle of Ramadan and everyone is at home, breaking their fasts. I stop to take a picture of something that's caught my attention, and that one simple act changes the course of my holiday. I reserve judgement as to whether for better or for worse.
A scooter swoops down on me and the driver rattles something off in rapid fire french-arabic. I reply with something to the effect of "me no speakie frenchie". Hey, Mr Oguchi my JSS french teacher was narcoleptic and spent 45 minutes of our 1 hour lessons asleep on his feet! He asks if i'm going to the Medina and i make the mistake of saying yes. He offers to take me. I say no, because i'm sensible. I do not know this man from Adam. There's no way i'm going to get on the back of his scooter and allow him to cart me off to goodness knows where in a strange, unfamiliar land. I remember that i was actually heading towards Place Jemaa El-Fna and i say so (turns out he speaks Anglais). He says there'll be no one there at this time (it was around 7pm). He's very persuasive and my resolve starts to crumble as i ask myself the point of coming to Marrakech on my own in search of adventure if i refuse to take any risks. "Oh, ok", i say. "Let's go".
The red pill...
I clamber on to the back of the scooter and away we go. My driver's name is Mustafa. Occupation - okada driver and part-time tourist guide (so says he).
"Take me", he says suddenly.
It turns out he means i should grab hold of him. Now, if he was Josh Holloway on a Harley Davidson, he wouldn't have had to say it twice. Alas he is not, so i choke back my laughter and politely decline. "I'm fine, thanks".
We make idle chit chat and somewhere along the line, i invent a Fiance back home in London in response to his question, 'Are you married'? Some of the material i read beforehand actually suggested wearing a ring on your ring finger if you're a woman travelling alone. Suddenly, i realise the enormity of what i've done and i begin to speak in diverse tongues. "Father, your word says...".
Mustafa: You ok?
Me: Perfectamundo, mate! Just perfect! Never better.....Yea though i walk through the valley of the shadow of death, i will fear no evil...
First stop, the Koutoubia Mosque, the biggest mosque in Marrakech. It turns out that that day is the only day in the week on which non-muslims are allowed within the courtyard. I manage to get some good pictures, and then we resume our journey into the Medina. At this point, my apprehension that i might have hooked up with an axe-murderer has begun to dwindle and i somehow have the presence of mind to take out my camera and film part the journey. Please click here to share the experience with me.
Destination, Sahid's shop, a veritable Aladdin's cave nestled within a building in the labyrinth of dusty streets that make up the Medina. We go in and i'm invited downstairs to sit down. Sahid is a Berber Artisan who comes into Marrakech on a monthly basis to sell his silverware and other goods. He leads me down the stairs, warning me to mind my head on the door frame, but i still manage to knock my forehead. Aah well.
I ask if i can take pictures. He says fine. I take a couple. I've read that people might demand money for their pictures to be taken by tourists, and sometimes it gets ugly. I ask again and Sahid tells me they are Berber, not Arab. They don't mind. Hmm. Good to see North African tribalism at work!
No sooner have i sat down, than Mustafa swoops down with 2 bowls of soup. Oh no! I've always been squeamish about eating things whose origins i am unsure of, but do not wish to appear rude.
"What is this"? I ask.
"Vegetable soup", they reply. "Try it. It's good"
No spoons are provided so i mimic Mustafa and slurp the soup out of the side of the bowl, whilst noting to myself how surreal this whole experience is.
Vegetable soup is promply followed by mint tea, an accompaniment to every meal. "Do i want sugar"? "No", i reply, but they don't seem to be able to get their heads around the fact that i don't want sugar and proceed to cajole me. "Ok, already. Just a little". Sahid goes off and comes back with the tea. I take my first sip and it takes every ounce of self control i possess not to spit it out. Do you not understand the concept of little? The thing tastes as if it's one part mint tea, one part sugar! Disgusting!!! I manage a few more sips, but then i give up. If its a toss up between offending them and taking another sip of that goo, then sorry dudes...
Pleasantries out of the way, we begin to transact some business. What? You thought the vegetable soup and mint tea came without strings attached? Sahid begins to pull out some hand woven rugs and show me the intricate desgins, explaining how they've been hand woven with silk by Berber women in the Mountains. He whips out a cigarette lighter and holds it to one of them. I'm halfway up from my seat and about to knock it out of his hand, when he explains that pure silk does not burn. He demonstrates it and is proven right. Phew! Ok.
As you can see from the pictures, there are numerous rugs, of various designs and colours. Sahid pulls out a number and lays them on the floor, inviting me to take my shoes off and walk on them. I comply and then sit back down. They tell me the words for 'yes' and 'no', which i have now forgotten. He raises them up one by one and asks me to tell him if i like it or not. We finally settle on one rug, but i change my mind because i'm not quite sure how to fit it into my luggage. Also, the total price he gives me for the rug, a silver bracelet and another item is just too ridiculous for words. They actually have this fun system for bargaining. He takes out a little notebook and divides a page into two columns - one with my name and one with his. He then writes down his total price (which was 4,700 dirhams. At an exchange rate of approx. 15.6 dh to the £). I'm like, 'Yeah, right'! He says to not worry, just write down what i'm willing to pay. I write 500 Dh. He shakes his head in a mixture of shock and incredulity and is rendered partially speechless for a while.
Long story short, i select some smaller items as gifts for my family, and a bedspread for myself. Sahid gives me a ceramic bowl as a gift and i'm happy with the other stuff i got 'cos i know they'll make good gifts, but i still leave there feeling like i've been Punk'd! Well, i tell myself, that's my souvenir/gift budget blown on my first day.
I know Mustafa's was going to demand some sort of remuneration at some stage. As we leave, he lays it on me - 500 Dh. I laugh and say 'thou art not serious'! I beat him down eventually to 350 Dh, which i'm still not happy about but by now i'm tired and have had enough excitement for one night and wish to retire to my supposedly 4 star, but in actual fact 2.5 star hotel room, and just crash for the night.
He drives me to the cashpoint, where i find out i've exceeded the daily limit for withdrawals (£125 a day). Just great! I persuade Mustafa to come by the Hotel the following evening. He drops me off and i go to bed.
End of Day 1.