I decided on Morocco for my first trip away since returning to normal life. I simply wanted to go to Morocco, the vibe felt right being warm, a little hectic, and middle eastern with a twist. On reflection, I found the Islam countries I visited some of the most interesting, and wanted to continue this exploration. When I saw the return flights to Marrakech from Gatwick were £55 the plan was solidified.
Total cost - £565 (excluding souvenirs)
Beds slept in - 6 (of hugely varying luxury!)
Places visited - 3 (Marrakech, Imlil, M’hamid and the Sahara)
I landed into Marrakech at 9pm. I had the usual back and forth with the passport officer over his surprise that I was travelling alone. Less usual was when he asked for my phone number. Finding it amusing, and considering it may be a useful connection to have if anything did happen, I nodded and wrote it down on the piece of paper slid through the passport slot. Leaving the airport I took out some cash (you really never need to exchange money before you travel) and caught bus number 19 to Jeema El Fna, the main square. Disembarking, Marrakech hit me. I walked through the park leading to the square, peering down at the carts of unknown food. Ahead I could see a large opening a huge sea of people. It was hazy and bustling. As I crept through the crowds the large square became evident, filled with performers and accompanying gatherings of people, like islands across the expanse. The performers were mostly musicians. I caught a man’s eye and he gestured for me to take his stool, so I did. I became part of the circle, right next to the drummer, and breathed in the night. The man took my hand wanting to dance, but I decided that was too far for tonight, still ladled with my bags. I dropped a coin in the dish and continued on my way to my Riad (a guesthouse). It was the other side of the Medina (the old town) and it turned out the streets of the souk (market) were in between. I took my time walking there, stopping to look in the shops that were still open. I found the shopkeepers to be very friendly. I bought some mint tea from one, after a long tour of all the shop’s offerings and warnings from the men that if I went to the mountains alone as I planned, I would die. Interesting… On leaving the shop I realised how late it was and hurried through the rest of the now almost deserted market. Men crouched in the dark and tiled the walls in places. I got to what seemed a dead end until I saw a cat sneak through the crack in the door. I pushed it open gingerly, scaring the cat, and also snuck through. A man appeared and spoke to me in french, clearly saying the gate here was now shut and to follow him down a dark alley. Dubious I thought, looking over my shoulder at the welcome sight of approaching people. Together we followed the man down the alley and then under a tarpaulin sheet and out, laughing away feeling safe in numbers. We stuck together and gathered more lost souls as we escaped the market. I wished them goodnight and headed down another deserted street to my Riad. I started to feel slightly concerned when I passed the location on google maps and there was no sight of it, until there the door was - ornate and blue. I knocked and met the lovely family, taking in the two gorgeous terraces. I sat on the top one and took in the view before going to my very nice room to sleep.
The colours of the terrace were even more gorgeous in the morning sun. I began each morning here by breathing in the cool air and doing yoga overlooking the city. I ate a traditional Moroccan breakfast in the calm downstairs room, with its water feature and no roof. The breakfast is most similar to a Turkish breakfast: several types of bread, triangle cream cheese, small bowls of honey and jams, an omelette. All washed down with the infamous Moroccan mint tea, which was very delicious.
I spent two full days in the city initially, spending the time wandering around the endless streets of the Medina and just observing the life. I loved the orange colours of the buildings, the blues of the pottery, the sounds of arabic flooding the streets. I spent half an hour watching two old men play draughts on an upturned cardboard box with bottle tops, until one man touched a piece he shouldn’t have and lots of shouting ensued before the game was angrily packed away. I stumbled upon a tannery and was given a tour with the assistance of a sprig of mint to cover the smell. Here they made leather (not just tanned it as I wrongly thought from the name). The animal skin was placed in vats of different substances (lime water, pigeon poo, water) to remove the hair and residue. It was dried in the sun and the top layer was removed by hand in cool rooms around the edge of the open tannery. As I was expecting, I was shown to a leather shop after my tour. As I did actually want to buy a bag this was fine by me and I haggled away. When I later googled the tanneries to learn more I discovered the “tannery scam” and it seems I may have been their most willing victim ever! I suppose it’s not really a scam if you actually want to do it, but it makes sense why the young boy touring me around seemed surprised by my encouragement to continue the tour and willingness to give him some money afterwards. I made friends with two neighbouring shopkeepers on a street by the Marrakech museum. We drank tea and laughed together, and they invited me back for lunch the next day. I returned to the Jeema El Fna square, having to avoid streets adjacent to mosques which were filled with men praying, spilling out on the holy Friday. The square was unpleasant in the day. It was too hot and too big and too open. Umbrellas were dotted across it with snake charmers and henna ladies crouched underneath. I shuddered at the thought of it in the summer. Even now I squinted in the full glare of the sun, eyes watering, and hurried across the space. After an afternoon doze in the serenity of my Riad, I accepted the offer of the daughter (Reina) to accompany her to the hammam.
The hammam was an experience. I thought the one I had visited in Istanbul was authentic but this was on a different level. In just our pants, Reina’s friend led me by the hand to the second room. It was very basic, just a tiled room with one tap. We sat on mats on the floor. The friend bathed me, exfoliating me twice, covering me in clay and removing my pants at this point. As I lay on the tiled floor completely nude, staring at the domed ceiling I smiled at the strangeness of it all and how I felt so comfortable and unexposed. It was wonderful to see Moroccan women in this light, naked and laughing and washing each other. I hadn’t had many interactions with women before this point, with them being largely absent from the streets of the city. As I was washed I spoke with Reina. She didn’t know why she came once a week to the hammam when she could bathe at home, and she did still go when on her period but others didn’t. She was muslim but didn’t wear a hijab because she didn’t pray and she noticed that Europeans treated people in hijabs differently. I wished hammams were a thing in England, I’d quite like to do it with my friends!
I took a man up on his offer of a healing massage after reading the book of comments left by hundreds of happy customers spanning years. I can’t say it was particularly life changing but I appreciated the clean bill of health he gave me and found the part where he hoisted me onto his bag like a rucksack and swang me around very amusing. Keeping my appointment made the previous day, I returned to the shop by the museum hungry. The older man had prepared Tangier, meat cooked with saffron and citron in a clay pot (called a tangier) over the ash for several hours. A small table and three chairs were set up in the nook of a ceramics shop and a large plate was taken from the shelf and placed on the table. The younger man held up a bread wall to protect my trousers as the tangier was emptied onto the plate. The heat spiralled up and I smelt the fragrance and salt of the sauce. It was absolutely delicious. The chunks of lamb so soft it could be broken a part by being pushed with the bread. The flavour so rich with saffron and orange. The three of us ate together with our hands from the one large plate. I enjoyed the confused look of other tourists as they walked past and looked in. I gave the men a cadburys chocolate bar for dessert, as a way of thanks. We drank tea whilst we digested the food in the sun and watched life in the Medina rumble on. The younger man offered to tour me around the city beyond the Medina on his motorbike. I accepted and we weaved through the old streets out into the real city. I loved being back on a motorbike with the warm wind. The streets were calm and wide. The city was modern and unremarkable. Back at the shop I drank coffee and ate biscotti-style biscuits that had a faint aniseed taste. The younger man wanted to show me the view from the room above the shop and as I climbed the stairs I knew this was a bad idea, but was intrigued. The view was very lovely, over the square in front of the old water facility, but the man did try to kiss me. A forceful “no” and a slight push away was enough to end his advances and we remained friendly. I picked up the spice pots I’d bought from them and wished them goodbye, deciding not to take the man up on his offer to go and see some music later that night!
I had such wonderful interactions with people in Marrakech. When the lady I bought a sardine from didn’t have any change she gave me it for free - although I found her again later on when I did have the money to pay her, which made her smile hugely. The stall owners in the Jeema El Fna in the evenings were friendly and good fun, letting me try a snail and laughing with me at how absurd the people fishing for bottles looked. I enjoyed lunch one day in a small grubby cafe. Here the man took great care in washing up cutlery for me to use, and giving me mint tea after I’d finished the delicious tagine and accompanying bread and salad. The other men that came in to eat all wished me “bon appetite” and smiled warmly. Some experiences were wonderfully strange. On my final day in Morocco I wandered the streets just south of the Medina before my flight, and accepted a man’s offer of tea. He showed me old photos of his home in the mountains and I told him about my time in Imlil. We drank beautifully spiced Berber tea, which he went and bought some for me to take home. He wrapped a scarf around my head to show me the mountain Berber way and when removing it, massaged my temples. He asked if he could continue massaging my head and I said yes. After 10 days of strangeness in Morocco, even this seemed quite normal. He massaged my head, neck, shoulders and arms. He bent my back in strange ways and pulled my arms above my head. I felt the tension melt, this man was very good. However, after the massage included one of my boobs, which caused me to raise my eyebrows but didn’t last long enough for me to act, I declined the offer of lying down to continue the massage! The man seemed concerned but assured him all was fine, thanked him for the tea and left. Slight grope or not, the massage had been great!
Marrakech was warm and full of life. I enjoyed my few days there, walking around and having slight feelings of being a local when I saw one of the people I recognised and they wished me hello, or picked me up on their moped to give me a lift to wherever I was walking. The food was good and cheap. The haggling was fun and without aggression. I wouldn’t want to spend too long here, but I enjoyed my short stay a lot.