… with anxiety is no easy feat!
Even Adam- a non-sufferer- summed up our experience as “exciting” but was “glad it was over”.
It was a visit we only managed once over the four days we spent in Morocco, but was certainly an encounter that we were thrilled to have experienced (and surely will again), especially since, as Adam contemplatively pointed out, there was no way I’d have been well enough to experience even a fraction of it at the height of my illness only a few months previously.
Departing the coach included in our hotel package, we are immediately pounced on by men informing us that we would be collected by the bus from the same spot later that evening.
“Ah Merci” we reply quickly, before one has chance to latch on as our unofficial “guide” to the main square: a journey that is easily negotiated alone. Despite their seemingly helpful information, which clearly suggests otherwise, they are nothing to do with the hotel, nor the minibus that has transported us the fifteen minutes from our personal paradise to the central hub.
Ambling towards the impressive Koutoubia Mosque, we drink in the impressive walkway, lined by fruit-laden orange trees. By the time we reach the end of the park, the call to prayer is already echoing out across the gardens and we’ve already hit our first ‘stalls’.
We steel ourselves.
Maybe we’d heard exaggerated stories? Maybe we were wrong about the sales techniques of this stunning city’s sales men and women? Maybe this would be more relaxing than we’d prepared ourselves for?
As soon as we pass the incomplete foundations that sit in the shadows of the imposing mosque tower (abandoned- as it was- after they realised halfway through construction that the Mihrab was not actually oriented towards Mecca), we hit confusion and our first hurdle: the road.
Despite heading to a pedestrian crossing, there is no familiar green man indicating when it is safe to walk. Only chaos. People are walking out in front of eight lanes of traffic, apparently oblivious to the perils that lay in wait. Attaching ourselves to a local looking couple, we step out and are immediately met with honks and roaring engines, as the traffic lights turn to green almost in unison with our feet hitting road. Meeting the central reservation, we decide not to follow our companions, using our own common sense, as the pair once more takes their lives into their own hands!
The Jemaa el-Fnaa bombards our senses as soon as we enter its vicinity, the Adhan call now drowned out by women intercepting us from the left offering henna; by men appearing from the right, blocking our paths offering watches, prints, wooden camels, knockoff sunglasses and the ever-controversial ‘selfie sticks’; and by chiming bells, chirping flutes, and authentic African music.
We also observe the sad sights of monkeys dressed up and paraded around like child beauty pageant contestants and plastic-looking snakes swerving from side to side. One man approaches, brandishing a serpent, teeth first, as if to entice us. Naturally, it has the adverse effect!
One hand is tightly intertwined with Adam’s, serving as my rock in the pandemonium; the other grasps my phone in a bid to capture our first moments in the madness.
Naively, we have not formulated any clear plan of action, our aim being to simply ‘wander around and soak up the atmosphere’: normally a wise plan for such a fleeting visit, but one that lead to a full two hours of being informed “we were going the wrong way” as more ‘guides’ attempt to attach themselves to us and steer us towards their shops or seek payment for their ‘assistance’.
Slightly overwhelmed, we initially skirt the edges of the central bazaar, attempting to observe from the outside whilst we acclimatise to the insanity.
Soon we are around the opposite side, and we decide to get intentionally lost (Adam has wisely downloaded an offline map of the city for our reference) and soak up the atmosphere of the streets.
It begins well…
We admire stunning scarves; avoid menacing mopeds and meandering mules; and inhale succulent scents of beautiful breads and pastries often adorning basic wooden tables or carts.
Our first encounter seems friendly (and it is), but it is also tinged in manipulation. A man behind us kindly advises us to “always keep to the right” in Marrakech: lest we befall the boisterous bikes that zoom and zip along even the most narrow of alleyways.
We look down. We thought we had been? We certainly seem to be on the right, but we had been transfixed, mesmerised by the colours and noises and smells that surrounded us. Maybe we’d been mistaken This would not- by a long stretch- be the last time we were warned of the perils of walking on the left (often when we were, in fact, on the right already).
The man continues talking and we enjoy the chat, as he advises us that the square is back the way we came (we know… we’ve just come from there) and that this is the way to the tannery. He tags along beside us until we reach a closed shop:
“This is my shop” he informs us, “see, it’s closed; I’m not trying to sell you anything.”
He’s just helping. As if from nowhere appears an elderly gentleman pushing a bike, the men greet each other and we are seamlessly passed from one to the other, who would ‘show us the tannery’ as ‘he was heading that way’. Convenient. Adam and I smile at one another, aware of the set-up, but content to make conversation with the man before going our separate ways, informing him- when he reminds us about the tannery: “maybe tomorrow”.
Over our two hours in the passages of Marrakech, this first interaction is by far the most flawless and professional demonstration of a hustle. Later attempts are sloppy and blatant in comparison. From the man who follows us, despite our changing direction three times, to the man who haughtily informs us that we were heading for a dead end (something we are told [incorrectly] on numerous occasions, but on this occasion was correct- damn him), whilst loitering smugly to follow us again.
Of course, these men are easily flouted. We are steadfast and polite and part with no cash. For the most part the men are pleasant and polite, eventually drifting back into the background until the next flash of white skin or Western dress catches their eye. At worst we are simply told to ‘fuck off then’ (something that we are doing already).
It is, however, draining.
Ironically, upon finding ourselves in the Souks- the area specifically designed for shopping and bartering- the pace slows, the pestering stops and we are left to browse in relative calm and admire the breath-taking beauty of the covered lanes. Of course, you have the owners encouraging you to come in, and encouraging you to buy or make them an offer, but equally they are happy to let you browse and pass. The vehicles are also fewer down here, so fear of ending up in a Moroccan hospital is no longer such a concern, nor distraction.
I have already decided that I would like a new scarf and perhaps a leather bag (though was conscious of our lack of checked luggage, which ultimately led to me deciding against such a purchase, especially since, contrary to the norm, the first seller I spoke to refused to enter into any such negotiation!). The man from whom I buy my beautiful scarf, on the other hand, makes the process fun- a delightful tryst, almost like a salsa- and, ultimately, both of us walk away happy.
He is charismatic and plays the game well, attempting to trick me by changing the figure, even once it has been decided on and I joke about him short-changing me. We both laugh and he informs me that my game is ‘strong’.
I probably pay more than I should for the item, only halving his initial offer, but I enter into the bargain with a price in mind, and ultimately pay a price I am happy with. I am paying for the experience, as much as I am for the shawl itself.
As the sun begins to set, we position ourselves at a local café where we can watch darkness envelop the hustle and bustle that, if anything, is escalating. The sun lowers over the Koutoubia and lights begin to flicker into existence as I sip on the freshest of orange juice and Adam enjoys and endures a fresh, but painfully tart lemon juice and enjoy a leisurely sit after over two hours of walking.
Upon completion, we set off into the commotion once more. Throwing caution to the wind, we plunge into the throng of food stalls, a final “what’s the worst that can happen” falling from Adam’s lips, mere seconds before we are pounced upon by the first of many faux-cockney salesmen.
And so it begins.
Again, our pale complexion- along with my alien hair colour- is like a red rag to a bull and suddenly we are enveloped in a whirlwind of friendly but fervent patter.
“All the same shit, but mine is good”
“Remember us: number ”
“Lady Gaga, Lady Gaga”
“Lidl and Aldi price, M & S quality”
“Cheap as Chips”
“Sainsburys: Taste the difference”
“All the same shit, but mine is good”
“Remember this ugly mug”
“Don’t go there: you’ll end up in hospital”
“I’m from Cockney!”
“All the same shit, but mine is good”
And my favourite: a sudden, disembodied imitation of Joey’s (apparently) infamous line wafts over to us.
“How you doin’?”
The competition is fierce, as the connoisseurs battle it out for supremacy. They are masters of their craft, bouncing off one another whilst all the while maintaining a friendly disposition, despite such fierce competition. It is exhilarating. It is hilarious. It is exhausting…
The experience reaches its crescendo where upon, having been handed a business card from one stall, the next takes it from me, tearing it up for all to see and warning me against their competition.
We walk away, dazed and drained, feeling that we can no longer eat at any stall- as wherever we choose, we will feel like we’re betraying the rest. Is this what an affair feels like?
I wish more than anything that I had filmed the experience, though the memory in my mind has taken on a wonderful, exaggerated, comic-book visage of the whole event (not unlike this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGw3Jj0TV0w times 1000), so perhaps it’s for the best we didn’t.
By night, the city transforms: sporadic fires surrounded by groups of people playing games, chanting or fighting; plumes of smoke spiralling skywards from the abundance of food stalls; crowds more dense than before. I feel like I’ve entered a whole other world and memories of J.K.Rowlings depiction of the Quiddich World Cup spring to mind.
So… in summary: walk on the right (and ignore people telling you you’re doing it wrong!), enjoy bartering in the Souks, and embrace the madness! But make sure you sandwich your visit with doing absolutely nothing each other day.
You’ll thank yourself for it!
A/N: Photos are a bit lacking this time because they’re all phone photos. My DSLR didn’t make it with me on this particular trip!