16 September 2010

Lost in the Souk - Marrakesh [Day Eight]

I had a flight to catch at 10am, so I was up and out the door at 7. When outside, one of the girls had mixed up the date of her flight. She had been out all night, got in and checked her details to find that she was due to fly at 9am that day. She had called a cab and was in a panic because she needed cash. I pointed her in the direction of the nearest cash machine, and said had a bit of time to kill and would wait for her cab to come. She got cash, came back, the cab arrived, and she said 'why don't you just come along'. Why not I thought. We got to the airport, the damage was €30. She hands me €15 and goes to get out of the cab. Ummm, I thought I was just coming along for the ride, I had plenty of time and was quite happy to take the metro. Anyway, being the good person I am I ended up paying half for the cab. On a travellers budget, that's about a days food budget, or 4 beers. 4 BEERS!

So I had a loooong wait at the airport. One observation about the Madrid airport - they have areas for smoking in the departures lounge. But these are not sealed in any way, so all the smoke just wafts out. The whole departures lounge stinks of smoke. I managed to find somewhere that I could actually breathe and chilled out for a bit. While sitting on the floor contemplating life, I got thinking about my time in Spain. I had such a good time, but I couldn't help feeling a little regret that I went with a group. After the La Tomatina fiasco, I didn't really see much of the staff at all. They didn't get everyone together as a group to do anything, which is one of the main reasons people travel with tour companies. I was OK because I quickly found some awesome people to hang out with, but others in the group weren't so lucky. One girl did not have a room-mate, and being hotel accommodation with no communal area, there is nowhere to meet people. She literally spent half of the time in her room alone. To be honest, I probably wouldn't have gone to this festival had it not been for the tour company - I didn't even know about it until I saw it on their website. But now YOU know about it. So just go, book yourself flights to Madrid, accommodation, and have a killer time. And you can do it for half as much as I did.

A few hours later I was touching down in Marrakesh - the gateway to the Sahara. Stepping off the aeroplane felt like stepping into a hair-dryer. The heat was immense and I was covered in sweat within seconds. Having spent the last four days getting by with hand gestures alone, I cautiously approached the information desk and said 'English?'. The woman spoke better English than me, I was blown away. She told me where to catch the bus to town and pointed me toward the closest ATM. On the bus, and again I cautiously started speaking to the driver. And again, fluent English. Impressive.

It was a short but interesting journey. The roads were chaotic; cars, trucks, scooters, bikes, horses and people everywhere. Scooters and motorbikes seemed to be the preferred mode of transport, most with 2+ people hanging on the back. Others had huge loads, I saw one with a enormous stack of trays of eggs held on with a bungy cord. There were also these very strange motorbike/cycle hybrids, that had a small engine as well as pedals. I guess they would be pretty handy if you ran out of gas...

I jumped off the bus at Djamaa El Fna, the main market square in Marrakesh. I felt as though I had landed on another planet. The square was absolutely massive - one of the largest in the world. While searching for a specific cafe - the starting point for directions to the hostel - I first came across a guy sitting under an umbrella with a monkey. Both just sitting there watching the world pass them by. I then heard a high-pitched noise, some kind of musical instrument. It got louder the further I walked - and then I saw... there was a guy sitting on a rug charming a snake! I was blown away. I quickly decided that Marrakesh was awesome!

After wandering around for a while and not finding the cafe, I was approached by a young guy trying to get me to stay at another hotel. When I told him I wasn't going to, he was very polite and even showed me where the elusive cafe was. I was a little cautious, as you can never tell what people are going to be like, but this guy turned out to be genuine.

The hostel was located through a maze of narrow alleyways, all with small stalls and houses on each side. They were all a dull orange colour, and looked like they had been standing for 100 years, blasted with sand and dust. That was apart from the buildings beautifully decorated with intricate coloured tiles. The alleys were all brimming with locals, as well as scooters and bicycles darting through the crowd. The hostel was a riad - a house built around a central area. The hostel was three floors high, but the central area on the ground floor was completely open to the sky. The interior was beautiful, with patterned tiles covering the walls, large areas filled with couches and bright, soft pillows, and a completely relaxed atmosphere. On the roof was an open terrace area, with more couches to laze about on.

As soon as I entered the hostel I got talking to a few of the guests who were all going out to a Hammam (a traditional type of steam bath). I dropped my bag off and decided to join. We first ventured into the Souk (market) to pick up scrubbers and soap. We found the place without much trouble, and the girls were called in first. The three other guys and I relaxed with some sweet tea. The girls returned about 30 minutes later looking refreshed, then it was our turn. We were shown to a changing room where we were told to strip off (to our shorts) and get into a robe that was provided. We were then lead down into a small room that had a large basin with running water on one side. The room was really hot and full of steam. Two woman proceeded to wash, and then scrub us (vigorously) down from head to toe. It was an interesting experience, a bit painful at times, but I came out feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.

Early afternoon and we headed out for some lunch. We found a place on the edge of the square that had nice fans (important!) and took a seat. I had a beef tagine and a coke - the tajine was amazing, it came out to me still bubbling. If you are ever in Morocco, or have the chance to go have Moroccan food, order tajine, you will not be disappointed.

After lunch I had my first real chance to explore the Djamaa El Fna. There were lines of carts lined up all selling orange juice, all for four durham. They were basically identical, I could not tell the difference between any of them, and wondered how they all survived. Each of them would call to you as you passed, trying to get you to come and buy from them. I saw the monkeys again, this time getting a little too close and one jumped on my head! It then took my glasses off, all the while the owner saying 'photo, photo, photo'. I was very quick to say nooooo. I had been told to be very careful of these guys. They get you to take a photo, then demand some ridiculous amount of money. So if I took a photo, it was going to be on my terms.

All the locals were carrying around these squirt bottles filled with water. I guess they were just as hot as we were. It was actually ridiculous. I have never been so hot in all my life. So hot in fact that any wind just burned your skin and stung your eyes. Apparently while there it hit 52 degrees. I think we can all agree, that's HOT!

We dove into the narrow alleyways to find the palace. When we finally did find it, it was closed! An older guy saw our disappointment, and decided he was going to lead us to one of the Souks. He told us he didn't want any money or anything like that, so we decided to follow along and see where this would lead. He took us to a spice shop, where we were again offered some sweet tea. The owner then spent a good 15-20 minutes explaining pretty much every single thing he had in the store. There were five of us, and two bought something, so not too bad. One guy bought 100g of spices for 80 durham, which we later found out smelled nice, but actually weren't very good. He had pretty much just bought potpourri. We also found out you can buy the authentic stuff for about 50 durham per kilo if you know where to go. Gutted. We saw the old guy who lead us there as we left, and he said goodbye, not demanding money. So I guess he must take a commission or something. Either that or he is just a nice guy that likes to show tourists around.

Just as the sun was beginning to set we made our way to Kasbah Mosque which dominates the Marrakesh skyline. Unfortunately not open to tourists, we got a quick peak at the amazing interior - a huge open area with deep blue and green carpet, and hundreds of marble white columns with gold trim. The exterior was not quite as impressive, but still very cool - a large brick structure, with a huge tower at one end decorated with blue and white tiles. As the sun set it changed from a dull brown to a spectacular golden orange. We also tried to visit the city gardens which were just across the road. Again, closed. Not surprised.

An afternoon in the sun and we were buggered. We made our way back to the hostel to relax with some sweet tea and shisha. I had a quick shower, which was almost pointless, as five minutes later my fresh clothes were again drenched in sweat. It was while chilling out I found out about the tortoise that lives on the terrace. He doesn't have a home as such, just wanders around the terrace and sleeps wherever he feels like. I HAD to see him, but after hunting every nook and cranny on the terrace I couldn't find him anywhere!

Later we ventured back out into Djamaa El Fna for dinner. The huge square is sparsely populated during the day, but at night it comes to life. Stalls move in covering a large part of the square selling all sorts of food, story-tellers and street performers draw large crowds of locals and tourists alike, and others display their wares for sale on small mats under the light of the markets. I had been warned to be very careful where we ate - as Moroccan stomach was quite common among travellers. But you can't spend your whole life being careful, so I decided to eat at one of the stalls in the market square. Just walking through the 'dining' area is an experience - there are at least one or two guys at every stall whose sole job is to try and get people to sit down at their stall. They are friendly enough, but don't give up easily. And making any kind of eye contact is a very bad idea, they take that to mean you are going to eat with them, you just need to be convinced of it. We sat down at one that looked semi-clean and ordered a mixed plate of sheep head, lung and tongue. While some of it was not so good (I think it was the bits of lung) other parts were actually really tasty. We got chatting to one of the guys there who was really friendly. He spoke at least five languages fluently, and another five or so at a basic level. Yeah, I felt pretty stupid. It just blew my mind that this guy could speak 10+ languages and was working at a stall in Marrakesh, he could have a job almost anywhere in the world, earning amazing money. But whether this was a lifestyle choice or he had no choice, I'm not sure.

After dinner we dove into the Marrakesh souk, a massive maze of narrow alleyways, stalls filled with anything and everything you can think of. It is like another world, with plenty of people crowding the alleys, stall owners trying to convince people to buy, scooters horns blaring and crazy drivers almost running people down, even horse drawn carts brimming with tourists just squeezing through the narrow streets. Originally this was like the local supermarket. Of course over time it has become more and more touristy, but you can still find anything you might need for day to day life. The stalls are tiny narrow rooms, all overflowing with interesting things you can buy, pottery, antiques, slippers, tea sets, all kinds of food, spices, carvings, jewellery, precious stones... though my favourite were the beautifully detailed and colourful lamps. The owners were friendly, but extremely skilled in the art of taking you for every durham you have. Barter and haggling are king, and those who do not have the nerve are bound to pay five, ten, sometimes twenty times as much as they should. They are quite sneeky too; often they will ask you what you are looking for. If they don't have it in their store, they will tell you to wait there, go down the alley to their mates stall and bring it back. That way they can take a cut on whatever they sell you.

After a couple of hours we had had enough, but as soon as we made the decision to head back, we realised we had absolutely no idea where we were. The maze of alleyways had left us completely disorientated; we were lost! With the help of friendly locals, through countless dark alleyways and what looked like Moroccan suburbia, we made our way. We didn't actually make it to the square, instead after about 30 minutes we bumped into a couple who were also staying at the hostel, and followed them back.

That night I had a huge fan pointed directly at my bed and was still ridiculously hot. The problem is when it is that hot, the fan only moves around the hot air and doesn't really provide much relief. But after a huge day I had no problem getting to sleep.

Next Post - 'Dodgy Snake Charmers'

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