Saturday, March 10, 2007

Remembering Morocco (1)

And so our trip started by watching the sun set from the plane, a fantastic sight as all the colours of the rainbow were visible around the tilt of the earth with darkness above and below the rainbow, with only the wing of the plane visible as a silhouette against the rainbow.

We landed at Marrakech airport which had no shops to speak of save for a stand selling drinks. A cat, the first of many cats we were to see throughout our time in Morocco (although we didn't know it at the time), wondered over to say hello. We changed some money and then followed the 'sortie' signs. Into a car park. Where several beige cars were parked, surrounded by a gaggle of men wearing long cloaks with pointed hoods. "taxi" they said. "Djemma El Fna". And so began a period of haggling, where they tried to make us pay three times the amount our guide book suggested, and we told them "c'est plus cher". Eventually the arrival of a German couple meant that we managed to persuade them to take us all for a price we were both happy with. And then we were off. Weaving in and out of bikes, scooters, petit taxis, grande taxis and an assortment of cars and horse drawn caleches. Each bike had two or more occupants, most with a man driving, a woman hanging on the back and a child sat on the lap of the woman. Although it was dark the air was still warm, hotter here at night than the daytime England we had left behind and the city walls glowed red in the glare of the street lamps. Benches lined the walls, each one occupied by a couple, here and there a moped or scooter parked next to them.

And then we had stopped and we were in the middle of what seemed to be a festival. People were everywhere, small children offered biscuits from baskets, others talking loudly to each other, shouting over the crowds. More scooters weaved in and out. Smoke drifted up from many stands gathered in the square, the place, the assembly of the dead. The Djemma El Fna.

Through the chaos we managed to get our bearings and began finding our way down winding narrow streets full of more bikes, mopeds and people. It was a street off the southern side of the Djemma El Fna and seemed all the narrower for the shops, wares and people spilling out from the sides. People walked down the right leaving the centre clear for mopeds, bikes, donkeys pulling carts. The air thick with the smell of hundreds of suppers being cooked, of drains, of donkeys and occasionally spices or perfumes from one of the shops. But this road wasn't one of the souks; this was a more residential street. Each even tinier alleyway off to the side had many doors opening off it. Cats lurked in every corner. Men lounged or squatted by every shop. People spoke to us in Arabic, in French. A small boy followed us, trying to ask us where we were going. "Non monsieur" repeated in ever stronger tones, and still he persisted. And then suddenly, we found the riad (guest house).
Arriving finally. Finally. But no, "c'est complete", "but we have a reservation". He comes out, shutting the door behind him. He leads us to another riad several streets away. We are shown to a room. He leaves. The new proprietor asks for more money than the reservation. We haggle. He finally relents. The room is basic but functional. The walls are red and cold. There is no hot water. We drink the first of many mint teas in the courtyard, the tea poured from a great height into a small glass, to aerate it and allow the mint and sugar to mix. We start to realise that we may be on the same timeframe GMT wise, but everything in Morocco takes its own time.

And so it goes on. Very hot by day, cooler by night. Local women are covered up, wearing more clothes than I thought possible in that heat. I buy a scarf, even in the moderate clothing I brought I feel exposed. Other tourists wear shorts and vest tops but I feel more respectful to their culture my way. Call to prayer punctuates the air five times daily, a mournful lament of a wail, broadcast over a loud speaker system from the tops of the mosques, each on slightly different and an altered tone or timing. The air is full of sound. And smells. Spices, leather, bad drains, mint, food cooking, horse pee. The sun shines through the gaps in separated rays and is full of dust. Everyone calls out to you, "lovely jubbly", "fish and chips" "only to look" "I give you good price". Each shop-owner knows these English phrases but no more.

We wander through the souks, everything you could want, many times over said Canetti, and he was right. Rows and rows of colourful shoes, scarves, carpets. We haggle for a few minutes over a small handbag. He starts high, I start low. He says I am a Berber, I tell him his price is too expensive. I start to walk away. A hand on my arm "excuse me" and he lowers his price. We finally settle on a price which suits us both. I soon learn to keep my sunglasses on, stopping only to admire things that I am prepared to actually buy. We both realise that no matter how much you think you will stick to your best price, you often will go slightly higher. We wander and admire and finally emerge in small squares, blinking at the bright light after the darker alleys of the souks. We realise that the map in our guide book is not much use. You simply have to wander and eventually come across the Djemma El Fna and our bearings can return. Everything here takes it own time.


Sarah said...

Wow ... i'm going to Marrakesh tomorrow, my first in Africa and an Arabic/Berber place. I am 26 and much like yourself - domestication escapes me, and travel drives me :) I'm from Florida, visiting Barcelona for a month, and traveling for 3 more weeks. Thanks for the glimpse of what is to come tomorrow - I too have scarfs, planning to respect the culture, despite the heat.

Rachel said...

Hope that you have a wondeful time Sarah.