Archive for August, 2012

A Moroccan Taxi, Marrakech

You’d be surprised at how few people want to visit Morocco. Terrifying tales of abduction and a new life as a sex slave to European men abound; personally I blame it on Liam Neeson and the movie Taken. So when my best friend had to attend a psychology conference in Marakesh, I decided that this was my opportunity! I arrived at 8pm at night and was enveloped in hot air which steamed up my glasses. The sun remained resolutely in the sky and seemed to have no intention of going away as I was collected by Kirsten. We hopped into our taxi, allowing the sights and sounds of Morocco to flow in through the window, as we roared our way into the city centre.

When I booked all of our accommodation, I opted for accommodation in the medina,  the old part of town. Our taxi dropped us off at the gates and I followed Kirsten, by foot, into the rabbit warren of dirty streets and humanity to reach our first home of the trip: Riad Al Nour. My first impressions of Marrakech left me feeling somewhat despondent: the place was a tip. Alleyways were strewn with rubbish and stinking refuse, leaking water pipes created muddy pools of water and feral cats rooted around in search of food. I travelled a number of third world countries, and love the general mayhem that goes hand-in-hand with this type of travel, but my heart sank.  Two days before, Kirsten had arrived alone, and had been dropped off at the gates of the medina, left to find her own way to the riad. Looking every inch the tourist, with her huge black roller bag and little square of paper containing the address, she was of course approached by a strange man, who promised to show her the way. Her options were simple: stand there for all eternity, or put her trust in humanity, and in the fact that at 6ft she could head-butt her navigator, and run. Luckily I had her as my guide, and as was to be the trend for the entire trip, once the great door to the riad was opened, we were greeted by the Morocco I had been dreaming of. A courtyard of fairy tale proportions: mosaiced floor tiles in blues, reds, yellows and greens, wrought iron tables and chairs, lemon trees and a bubbling water fountain. Our room was on the top floor and opened up onto a rooftop courtyard. I stood, peering over the wall at the city of Marrakech, which stretched out all around me: at last! That night, we managed to secure a bottle of (warm) rose wine, and sat chatting for hours under the Moroccan sky: the medina humming around us, as we planned our trip into the High Atlas Mountains the next day.

Vomit-inducing roads of the High Atlas, Morocco

My face was truly as green as the khaki mountains, which whizzed past us, as I lay face down on the back seat of an old school Mercedes Benz, the taxi of choice in this part of the world. Our driver rocketed up and down the spiralling roadways with the same confidence and fearlessness I have only experienced in countries like Mauritius and Zanzibar, where the concept of law is relative. We were there just for the day but it definitely gives one reason to come back to Morocco and explore further; the mountains were spectacular. We made a stop at the Ait Ben Haddou Kazbah; an old fortified city on a hill, made of mud and daub with giant marabou storks nesting in the turrets. At the top we looked out over the valley, and I felt like I had been transported back 2000 years, and at any moment baby Moses was going to float by, in a basket, on the river winding past the Kazbah.

An afternoon snooze, Marrakech, Morocco

After four days in Marrakech playing at being proper tourists: getting fleeced by our guide’s family and friends in their curio shops, and people watching in Jamal ef Na square, we headed for our next destination: the coastal town of Essouira. A beautiful town: white washed walls, a maze of cobble stone streets, and, like everywhere in Africa, the smells and sounds of the market. Our host, Stu, met us off the bus and as he bobbed and weaved through the crowd, he chattered with excitement about the Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival, Morocco’s biggest annual music festival, which was to take place that very weekend. Our accommodation, Hotel Remmy, was found at the very end of a long, winding, low ceilinged street system, but once we entered the riad, we were happy. Light, airy and clean, it was the perfect little hideaway in a town which suddenly found itself overwhelmed with double its usual inhabitants.

We ventured out onto the streets, and were swept up in a river of castanets, drums and swirling hat tassels. Hypntoic chanting and swaying bodies led us down narrow passageways where news teams and camera flashes caught all the action, until finally, we were disgorged onto the promenade overlooking the sea. While watching boys play soccer on the sand, we picked up two Rastafarians who “came to our rescue”, as we were being mildly harrassed by some men. Our two “friends” stuck with us for most of the first night of the festival and while they might not drink in Morocco, they sure do smoke a lot of weed. Late that night we found ourselves dancing under a sickle moon, the sand crunching beneath our feet, to the sounds of electronic-style Berber music. Each stage had a different musical genre so we criss-crossed the town to experience them all; at one we swayed in trance-like motion, like Masaai warriors; at another Arrested Development belted out modern tunes. I haven’t really mentioned it yet, but as a single woman, you will be bothered in Morocco. Late one night we got a little lost and wandered down a particularly dark and sinister looking street. As we walked past a shop, a young man peeled himself off the door jamb and proceeded to tail us, emiting a constant stream of chatter. Finally, I’d had enough. I whipped around to face him, and I swear at that precise moment, my body was taken over by the spirit of my sister, a particularly lady-like and graceful individual, and I imperiously intoned (index finger raised in front of his face), “ We are not here to pick up men! We are here to listen to music!”. And off we went, leaving him motionless and slack-jawed in our wake.

Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival

After spending three days in Essaouira, we caught a bus back to Marrakech, and then a train on to Fez. It was a 7 hour trip but the train was clean and the scenery spectacular. We opted for first class tickets, which meant we shared a compartment with four other travellers. On the last leg of the trip we were joined by a young man from Fez, an ambassador and official guide of the city, who shared with us interesting information, and tips, on how to handle the city. Unfortunately he was not able to take us around Fez, but made a few calls, and arranged that a fellow guide and friend would look after us. We met him off the train, and he delivered us right to the door of Riad Bouljoud, where we are staying for three nights. He had tried to convince us that this was no place for two single ladies, and promptly got into a heated argument with our hosts because, if it were not for him, we would still be wandering the badly lit passageways between buildings which resembled a construction site. We left them roaring at each other in French and made our way to our room.

Our hosts, Christophe and Vincent, two delightful Frenchmen, owned the stunning riad. A skinny building of three floors, each room had large wooden shutters, which opened up to overlook the courtyard. The riad walls were intricately carved white plasterwork and the floor was covered in beautiful mosaic tiles. Everything about the open and free-flowing environment said space and light. I was in love. This feeling of love and light however, ended at approximately the same time as the computer-game like sounds of caged birds, emitted at irritating regularity, and echoing off the walls, in the wee hours of the morning.

Fez was the loveliest city we explored. The old medina was like a movie set and we wandered the tiny alleyways with our guide, visiting the mosque (which, as women, we were not allowed to enter), touching the intricately mosaic’d walls, and browsing in the many co-operatives, which the government apparently ensures have regulated pricing so that tourists do not get ripped off. Which, of course, we did, and we bought a carpet! It was sold to us at a “generous” price, because I apparently have a trustworthy face, and we could even resell it at the ICC in Durban (names and numbers provided – boy are these guys sneaky!) for four times the price we bought it for. So Carol, if you happen to read this – we have a beautiful, antique, Moroccan carpet and we’re selling it, at a “Special price, for a special lady.”

Cute little cafe in Fez

Our last night was spent on the open roof of our riad, drinking wine and listening to the interesting story of how Christophe and Vincent came to live in Fez, and how, ironically, they had found a little freedom here, when they hadn’t in France.

Our last day and night in Morocco was spent in Casablanca. I chose Hotel Central based on the imagery presented on the web: clean and sophisticated. Ah, the Internet, web of lies! Our taxi driver was horrified when we gave him the address, but his English was not very good, so the only word we could make out, regularly, was: hashish. There had been no mention of harbour docks on the website, and yet, that’s where we were: the docks. Our hotel was in fact a hostel of the worst kind: full of backpackers. Their saving grace was the most delicious breakfast of our entire stay; a pity we only got to try it out once. We got over our fear and ventured out onto the streets, looking for somewhere to eat dinner. A tall, beefy man, with a fake American accent, at a roadside café table, gave us directions to the best prawn dinner around. And that is how we ended off our trip to Morocco: seated in a horrible kitsch restaurant of white and gold décor, consuming vast quantities of prawns scattered all over a paper tablecloth. Delicious!

Top Tips:

  1. Take a plug for the basin. If you want to wash any of your clothes in the basin, then you will require a plug. Because, for some strange reason, basins in hotel come sans plus. Potentially this is a hotel trick to get you to use their cleaning service; an added expense to your trip. We did ask for a bucket once but this did not turn out well at all.
  2. Take ear plugs for your ears. Morocco is probably one of the loudest countries I have ever visited; a constant stream of sound assualts your ears at all hours of the day. In Marrakech the clanging and screeching of a wedding Mariarchi band had me standing bolt upright in my bed at 2am. In Fez, it was the constant tweeting and chattering of caged birds, and the hawking and coughing of our neighbour across the courtyard, which had me sleepless and grumpy. In Essouira, it was of course the four giant music stages situated at each end of the small coastal city which had me swaying trancelike to Berber music all night long.
  3. Dress like a local. You don’t need to dress in a burka but you do need to cover it up. For us that meant long skirts or floaty pants, tops that covered arms up to the elbow and absolutely no cleavage on display. Our hosts told us about the many women who complain about the “dirty, leery Arabs” who show no respect for Western women, yet they insist on wearing tiny, transparent white shorts with visible g-string,  and skinny strapped tops overflowing with sweaty, pale skin. Even I’d be staring at that sight!
  4. Eat like a local. By the time I left Morocco I was three kilos lighter and still have a complete aversion to the tagine. If I never see a cup of steaming mint tea again, it will be too soon. Tourists are treated like culinary idiots. If you insist on eating at the restuarants which surround Jamal ef Na square, you will be served the saddest array of Moroccan food on offer. Ask your host at the Riad for real Moroccan restuaruants that they dine out at. Our best meals were on referral and while we paid a little extra, it was definitely worth it.
  5. Take public transport. Clean, punctual and in working order. You might actually die on the way to your destination, due to the sheer lack of fear shown by your driver, but you will at least have left on time.


Other travel stories:

A Mental Mini-break (Botswana)

Hong Kong

Bound for Bulawayo (Zimbabwe)

Jesus was not born here (Zimbabwe)



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