Travel Journal: Lost in Morocco

A young man in a football shirt spotted me wandering slightly farther out then any other tourist and offered to take me to the tanneries, in Marrakech’s leather district. We walked for 15 minutes or so, through a maze of narrow streets, turning corner after corner, in and out of different doorways. Suddenly it dawned on me that there was no way back without his help. A momentary panic coursed through my veins and I started to curse my sense of adventure. There I was with my camera, passport and wallet, being led god knows where.

I was way out of my comfort zone. I tried to make conversation but the man’s English was poor, so I resorted to offering him a cigarette. The thought crossed my mind that if I were to make friends with him, perhaps he wouldn’t rob me. Every now and then he would shout something in his native tongue to a group of men or boys who were gathered on the street. My heart raced. When we did finally arrive at the tanneries, I felt foolishly relieved. He sold me some hashish that had traveled down from Morocco’s mountain regions and paid a young boy to lead me back to the main square once my tour had ended. Shame on me for having such little faith in humanity.

I had arrived in Marrakech that morning. As I lit my first cigarette in the back of the taxi, a wave of nostalgia washed over me and I smiled to myself. Driving into the ancient city, through the time-worn ramparts, I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of horses hooves tapping on the paved streets and the constant toots of mopeds zig-zagging through the dis-organized yet fluid traffic. No sooner had I jumped out of the taxi, my bags were loaded into a wheelbarrow and were on their way to the riad, a traditional townhouse, now a boutique hotel. I jogged to keep up with the old yet spritely baggage handler as he weaved through the crowd shouting in Arabic at those in his way. I love Morocco. I’m lucky enough to have been here before, although no two visits are the same.

The Medina, or old Arab part of Marrakech, is a cluster of small streets, some less than a meter wide. Sounds and smells here remind me of a world lacking in modern sanitation, and yet there is a certain charm to it. I walked around taking photos of angry old men who demanded payment. It amazed me that even the children had been instructed not to allow tourists to take their photos. At the Tanneries, a handful of mint leaves was thrust into my hand and I was told to keep them close to my nose. We entered a vast courtyard full of well-shaped holes in the ground, containing various chemicals. Lime, pigeon faeces and acid are all used here to treat the hides of camels, cows and other animals. The end result: bags, slippers and various other leather goods. As the luke-warm rays of the late afternoon sun, dipped below the buildings, I made my way back to the riad’s roof terrace to drink mint tea and listen to the early evening prayers. On my return, Mila assured me that tomorrow had been reserved for shopping.

The souks are an aggressive sales platform and not for the faint of heart. After quite possibly the best breakfast ever – coffee, fresh orange juice, a baguette with various jams and butter, a chocolate croissant and an omelette – it was time to face our retail destiny. You can get lost in the vast infrastructure of tunnels and turnings. Every few feet someone is trying to rip you off, with no lack of charm. I have developed relatively good haggling skills, so I held my ground and did the best I could to purchase an array of Christmas gifts at reasonable prices. Beautiful cloths, linens, silks, silver, spices, boxes, pipes, golds, lapis lazuli and other rare stones fill this wild bazaar with beauty and customers. When we finally left, it felt as if days had passed. Hungry and tired, we returned to the riad.

The food in Marrakech is superb. We overheard some tourists inquiring about the produce and where they might find some "organic" food, which made me laugh. You can taste it in the chicken tagines, baby goat stews and vegetable cous cous. Everything is fresh and "free-range." There’s also a huge choice of restaurants – everything from a kebab cart in the square, ten feet away from a snake charmer, to luxurious Asian fusion bar/restaurants such as Bo-Zin, where we were wined and dined by our good friend Fred and his beautiful wife Sophia.

The following morning we drove west. The road to Essaouira is long and straight and as you near the coastline, the terracotta brown of Marrakech’s buildings become white and the doors and windows a deep blue. Halfway there, we came across a tree-full of goats, with two herdsman sleeping beneath it. The goats climb into the tree to graze on its branches and as they get farther and farther toward the end of the branch, it breaks and they fall to the ground. Then after dusting themselves off, they climb back up to continue grazing. As Mila picked up a baby goat, an adult goat fell out of the tree, waking up the herdsman and so haggling over the price of a photo began.

We rented a tiny apartment in the center of town, for a slightly more private experience. This city has been made famous by visitors such as Orson Welles, Jimmy Hendrix and Cat Stevens. Rumor has it that whilst Orson Welles was staying at the Hotel des Iles he met Winston Churchill. It is a far more bohemian environment than Marrakech, with open offers of opium and hashish in the streets, as well as a more relaxed view on Western women and their beach-wear. We ate a delicious lunch at Elizir, which offered French cuisine in an apartment decorated with classic ’60s furniture. To finish the day, the walls of the Portuguese fort, built in 1506, provided stunning views over the small city and a great place to watch the setting sun melt into the sea. It is easy to see why Essaouira makes for such an enamored destination.

It was the end of a short but action-packed adventure with beauty and intrigue at every corner. I cannot wait to return to Morocco.

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