To mark my new found freedom, I went out to Morocco for a week. This subjected me to near forgotten double-digit degree temperatures, caused by the presence of an old friend, the Sun. It was an amazing trip, which garnished me with some interesting experiences…
On leaving the airport, my first visions of Morocco saw an 80 year old man (with a genuine colander on his head) zip past my bus on a motorcycle with 3 metre planks of wood tucked under his arm. He also overtook a scooter, ridden by a burka clad Muslim lady (with her baby strapped to her back like luggage). Behind them, a donkey powered three-wheeled trolley, complete with driver shaking fist at the 80 year old man, who almost took his donkey out with the wooden planks. Must be peak hour.
My efforts to cross the roads in Marrakech were full scale missions. Crossing the roads here must pretty much void any travel insurance policy you might have. One man, carrying a live lamb, somehow walked across a busy road without blinking an eye, but he had to wait on the other side for his goat, which was having less success negotiating the traffic to join his master/prospective devourer. Even so, I ended up following the goats lead (he was the local after all). Say what you want about goats, but they make excellent traffic navigators.
Being fleeced, aka creatively robbed, is part of inauguration for Morocco, or at least I like to believe that after ‘The Incident’…
I was walking around the main square in Marrakech, exhausted and dazed from a lost night of sleep (from an early flight). I am observing the usual stuff, like monkeys, snakes, men in happy pants, orange juice vendors, and all the while mesmerised by the snake charmers ear piercing music.
All of a sudden, a man puts a snake around my neck, and two on my arm, and grabs my <pause> the way this sentence reads at the moment, I guess it could have been worse <un-pause> camera.
The Snake Charmer proceeds to slam his hat on my head, and take a photo of me. In my sleep deprived state, it takes me a while to identify with reality. I exchange the snakes for my camera, and turn to leave, but there is something keeping me. This would appear to be the firm grip he has on my arm, as several of them surround me.
He insists I pay 300 Dirham (the exchange rate of which I am still unfamiliar). I realise this is the ‘haggling moment’ people have told me about, so I engage in some strategic negotiations. I get down to 200 Dirham (being very keen to get away from these creeps). I look at the photo. He has produced a 3 second, out-of-focus video of me (in which I am essentially a stunned/confused mannequin). Not even the snakes move…nothing moves, nothing except outrageous amounts of money from my wallet to his hat.
I finally figure out the exchange rate, I just paid $50 for essentially nothing. I curse about it to myself for the next 24 hours…including, in my sleep…I had been fleeced.
Souks and Prayers
These are the market laneways that twist and turn all around the city. They are amazing, and sell anything and everything. The storekeepers always try and get you into their shops, singing out ‘Mohommad, Mohommad, come here, we talk’. But in most cases I just kept walking, leaving a trail of broken hearts behind me no doubt…until the next wallet…I mean tourist, walks by.
Being a Muslim country, you hear men wailing on megaphones five times a day…and by wailing, I mean praying. With so many Mosques you get a surround sound effect. Men will just roll out a matt, and prey, even if they are behind the counter of their pistachio nut stall, or throwing snakes on another gullible tourist. At one stage I was waiting to be served at a stall whilst the bloke was praying on his matt. A little awkward.
I cruised out to the coast to Essioura, a town where Jimi Hendrix once lived. It was nice to be reunited with the ocean and the beach. My time on the beach involved warding off an old man (complete with dodgy smile), who kept trying to sell me “hash” cookies, and another character, with a garbage bag full of sunglasses. I had a look at one pair, and pointed out a scratch. He made a remark and stormed off…success…until he came back with another pair of “Raibandds”.
It was a great little town though, with a bustling fishing industry. It works well, the men fillet the piles of fish, the mangy cats clear the fish guts, and the seagulls…well they have no real role here, but contribute to the sea-side feel of the place…all ten million of them.
On the Road to the Dessert
A few of us at the hostel decided to venture out to the Sahara Dessert. There was 800 odd miles between us and the smooth red sand dunes however…..which meant ROADTRIP!!!
As we left the city, it soon became apparent that loitering appeared to be a favourite past time in rural Morocco. Men and women will stand in the middle of no-where, splitting their time between watching nothing, and counting stones. This can either be through standing, or squatting, or for the slightly wealthier, by sitting on a two and a half legged chair.
The halfway point of the road trip was a town called Ouzazette (which I am sure was named by someone with a stutter). We found a $10 a night hotel here, which was run by four men, each called Mohommad. There was Little Mohommad, Creepy Mohommad, Surly Mohommad, and just plain old Mohommad, like Cher.
Little Mohommad took us under his wing, and spent an hour of his time showing us the finer points of making Moroccan tea (which involves pretty much 2kg of sugar per cup). He was rapt to be practising his English with us. He showed us the hotel's famous Panoramic View, which shows a 30 degree view of an abandoned service station, and a 24 hour chemist. Here we were, on a wild Friday night, sipping tea and discussing Morocco with our favourite of the hotels multiple Mohommads.
Driving on the Incorrect Side
Driving on the right side, let alone in Morocco, is an interesting experience. Firstly, I was constantly overtaking donkeys, avoiding road hugging hitch-hikers and going around cyclists loaded with buckets, trees or rolls of carpet on their backs. Then there were the times when you were behind a van, filled with twenty people (either inside or on the roof), all gawking at us. Of course this calls for the tooting of our horn and a wave…which promotes a return gesture.
I did get pulled over by the police, twice. One was a random check, and one was for speeding (65 in a 60 zone...they must have got me when I slowed down). In both instances we were waved on. I was unable to speak Arabic or French, and they only offered us five words of English…two of which were hello, and goodbye, and that suited me fine.
Picking up a Hitchhiker
Whilst trying to make a left hand turn, into traffic mainly consisting of giant wooden wheelbarrows, scooters and people, we somehow collected a hitch-hiker. I am still unsure at what exact point Abdul joined us in the car, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise (well, in hindsight). He was a half Mali, half Moroccan chap, who described himself as a “mixed salad”, and a “coffee with milk” (his words so it is PC).
It turned out that he worked at a hotel, and he was able to organise camels and camping for us on the way (something we had given up on doing given the late time). It was a gamble, particularly when we were directed off road to get to the place. The whole drive I had scenes of Wolf Creek running through my head, but I was also countering that by recalling some crafty moves from Karate Kid just in case.
It then emerged that he knew Little Mohammad from Ouzazette, who had made tea with us. He showed us a photo of Little Mohammad on his phone, after wading through the hundred Mohammad’s he had in his contacts list. An amazing coincidence, as Little Mohammad offered to set us up with Abdul anyway for Camel rides.
The hotel was monstrous and plush. It is right where the Paris to Dakar rally passes, and has been in
many movies, and catered to the likes of Brad Pitt, and people with names such as Bill and Joan and Im sure many other people with names too. We were treated to a Moroccan banquet, before boarding our camels outside for the next adventure…
Camelling the Sahara
So there we were, in the Sahara, riding Camels under the moonlight. It was so peaceful and fresh, or at least it would have been if the camels were not so flatulent. I am certain Gertrude, the camel ahead of me, needs to look at her diet.
I named mine MC Hammer due to the rhythm it jolted my body in. For some reason I had an Egyption re-mix of ‘Stop…Hammertime’ playing in my head the whole ride.
After a couple hours on the camels, we reached our camp. The men of the dessert (who spoke no English), tried to entertain us with banging drums, but ended up joking amongst themselves as we drank tea. There were some solid bouts of awkward silence that can come from two different languages interacting with each other. This was the second night on the trot that we were on a Moroccan tea binge...quite the bender for a Saturday night really!
Sleeping in the dessert is not the walk in the park all of you constantly think it is! For one it is ridiculously cold, the camel’s flatulence and belching is constant, and finding a snakeskin on your bed is not all that re-assuring! But a six inch thick blanket makes it alright, and it is worth it in the morning, where we got to see the sun rise over the dunes…first light in the dessert is an amazing sight that I will hold onto.
Returning to Marrakech
After dropping Abdul back into his posse, in the town that we somehow picked him up from, we were back on the road. We stopped in the gorges on the way, and had a rooftop meal at a restaurant/some dudes house. Somehow the bloke managed to climb a rickety ladder to the top with all our meals, without breaking his back. He celebrated this with a cigarette, and some broken English…which as always revolved around weather.
The last leg was on the bus, through the Atlas Mountains. After having clear blue skies and warmth the day before, it was now below zero and bucketing down with snow. A warm Tagine in the mountains steered us away from hyperthermia, and we were again on our way back to Marrakech.
The after a relaxing night in Marrakech, in which we broke a shisher pipe in the hostel bar, and ran away to hide from the moody receptionist, we returned the next day to a snow covered London. Back to reality…midday television…