Catch the Wind: Marrakech

Thursday 15th January
As we drove back in to to Marrakech rush hour seemed to be in full swing though there weren’t any traffic jams just a lot of beeping of horns and chaos at the roundabouts. In reality it was no worse than any other city and certainly not as noisy or crazy-busy as Cairo or Delhi. The only real difference was a lack of crossings for pedestrians and as zebra crossings were ignored by drivers most just stepped out in front of cars as and when they needed to cross. Unfortunately as we drove on it appeared this general chaos had caused a fight between a truck driver and a motor cyclist but it was unclear what it was about as no one looked injured and neither vehicle was damaged.

We arrived back at the hotel we had stayed at on the first night and as I knew I had two nights I let my bag explode open causing myself to wonder why I’d packed so much or rather how I’d travelled around Australia with so little. I suppose 6 thick jumpers were always going to take up a lot of space but the 3 unused t-shirts and sun hat were an optimistic waste of space.

That night we had free time to get our own food but as we were a small group that had all got on well we met in reception to find somewhere together. I’ve loved Moroccan food but I was glad when I saw the restaurant we chose did pizza, pasta and burgers. After dinner we made our way back to the hotel where unfortunately the WiFi kept cutting out as it had on the first night. After a while I gave up trying to update the blog and just went to bed in a slightly grumpy mood which in hindsight I acknowledge was a bit of a pathetic thing to get grumpy about though it highlighted how flawless everything else had been.

Friday 16th January
I had woken up 15 minutes before i had to be and I felt a bit lethargic when I finally got up. I made sure I was packed for the whole day ahead before going to breakfast. It did however look like everyone had finished by the time I arrived. For our final day we were having a guided walk around the city to the main sites within the Medina and then in the afternoon I planned on having a massage and a Hamman experience. Getting a massages on holiday is slowly becoming one of my traditions though I’m pretty sure the Russian one will never be beaten in terms of uniqueness.

As we walked towards the Medina (the old city) our guide explained he had lived in Marrakech all his life and that the city had changed a lot in his life time. He told me how many years but I’ve forgotten and I never clarified if he felt it had changed for better or for worse. I was surprised at how close our hotel was to the Medina and once we were through the gates to the old fortified part of the town our first stop was outside the La Mamounia Hotel. This is where Winston Churchill regularly stayed and a night in his suite apparently costs €8000.

We carried on towards the Koutoubia Mosque and once there we could see the ruins of an old Mosque. This was the result of a war in the 12th century between the Almohads and the Andalusians. The Andalusians were eventually victorious and so demolished the old Mosque building a new one next to it in a symbolic gesture. This style of Mosque was the first of its design and the style was copied in Rabat and Seville. It has always had its name due to a souk selling books outside.

One of the laws the French had introduced during the urbanisation of the city was that no building must be taller than the Mosque. It is therefore a constant reminder of how important Islam is to the daily lives of those in the city. Our guide also explained about some of the Islamic traditions, for example the flag pole on top of the minaret which pointed East to Mecca and which had 3 Orbs symbolising the current life, the judgement and the after life. He also reminded us of the 5 pillars of Islam

After leaving the Mosque we made our way to the Palaus de me Bahia which like Ait Benhaddou was also used in films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Unfortunately the part used is currently closed for renovations however the part that was open was still pretty impressive. The palace was built in the 19th Century by Si Moussa and named after his favourite wife. Later it was used again by Abu Ahmed who had 4 official wives and 24 unofficial wives. There were 4 sections to the palace and in the ‘entertainment’ section we were told he’d pick one to be with every day on rotation until he died in 1900. The palace was then abandoned until used by Pasha Glaoui in 1908 and then by the French as a garrison in 1911.

We finally made our way to the central square the famous Djemaa el Fna Market. I had seen pictures and film footage of this and if I’m honest had prepared myself for an experience I wasn’t going to enjoy. Thankfully a mix of it being out of season, mid day on a Friday and poor weather meant it wasn’t very busy. We passed through the square towards the souks and our guide pointed towards where my Hamman would be.

As we wondered down the narrow winding streets I had three troubling thoughts. How do I find the Hamman? As its general location had only been pointed to me and I knew it was downstairs I wondered if I’d walk in to the right one (I had no leaflet on me to remember the name). Next I was so disoriented by all the walking I wondered how, even if I found the Hamman how I’d get back to the hotel alone. Again I had failed to mark it on a map or to keep the address on google maps. Perhaps the most immediate thought though was how I’d make it through the souks without being hassled.

It actually turned out I didn’t need to worry about the latter. The shop keepers weren’t pushy and it wasn’t as bad as the Aswan markets in Egypt. Again perhaps visiting out of season on a Friday helped because some of the industrial sections were closed and it was much less busy than I’d expected. The streets are narrow so it must be horrendous when it’s hot and busy especially as our guide told me it was as popular with locals as it is with tourists.

Carrying on in to the depths of the souks we stopped off at a Berber Pharmacy which with the big jars full of various products reminded me of an old Victorian sweet shop. Some of the creams and oils even smelt edible due to the fruity flavours. The cooking spices were particularly nice however ultimately I didn’t buy anything.

We passed a section of tin crafts where the guide explained the symbolism was of Berber origin (predating Islam) and which is meant to protect against the evil eye. The symbolism is not celebrated and is now more for decoration. I’d have easily got lost in the souks alone as there is no organised planning to it. I wonder if tourists just wonder around aimlessly until they happen to stumble upon a stand selling something they like or they get tired of walking. As it was I’d done over 10000 steps by the time we emerged back out in to the Djemaa el Fna at midday.

After leaving the others the guide kindly led me to the Hamman. I was early so I went up to the men’s waiting room where I had a Moroccan tea and waited for my massage. My lack of other language skills always makes me feel awkward. This is particularly true if the person I’m talking to speaks English very well, doesn’t quite understand my English and then apologises for theirs. This happened here and I used my ice breaking line “your English is better than my *insert relevant language*” which made us both smile and laugh.

My hamstring has really been causing an issue for over a year now when it rotates in certain motions and because the physio wasn’t concerned and whilst running/stretching appeared to have resolved the issue a few months ago it hadn’t in the long term. I hoped a massage using the Argan oil would help. The guy giving the massage was certainly very strong and It was all going along without anything dramatic or particularly funny. The only thing I found remotely unusual was my hair (not head) was occasionally massaged/ruffled but I assumed that this was meant to be relaxing.

When my back was done I was told to roll over which i did obediently. As he started to massage my stomach he started to (what I can only describe as) jiggle my belly before saying “cous cous”? I laughed with humiliation as I realised despite my attempts to hold my stomach in it was still undeniably obvious that a lack of exercise due to the hammy, December and a week away had given me a food baby hump. “to nice and to much” I agreed.

Leaving the massage area I went to the Hamman, and was covered in a black soap substance before again being told to roll over where I somehow managed to move my hamstring the one way it doesn’t like and unfortunately it instantly reminded me it was not healed. I was then led in to the steam room where I couldn’t see anything.

It wasn’t long before I started to wonder what I was doing. What if I was forgotten, would I just assume I was meant to stay in there and that i would slowly steam to death without realising it? I started to feel like a animal does when it knows it’s been fattened up and is ready for slaughter. These thoughts didn’t make it the relaxing experience it was meant to be.

Eventually I was fetched and had a bucket of cold water thrown over me before I was covered in the black soap and given a thorough scrubbing that meant two slight recent scars disappeared completely and one I’ve had since my Grandparents cat scratched me roughly 25 years ago also pretty much vanished. My skin had never felt softer. Sadly the scrubbing experience had not removed my belly nor sorted the hamstring.

I was put back in the steam room and this time I enjoyed it slightly more but I wouldn’t say I was ever relaxed though I was perhaps more energised as a result. After I was collected the second time I was given more Moroccan tea and told to lie down and relax which I was doing very well before I was suddenly told to get changed quickly because it was women’s hour.

I left and successfully made my way through the souks to the mosque and because I had time decided to go around the gardens to reach the Medina gate. I successfully navigated my way there and made it to the main junction walking down the correct road because I recognised the tall palm trees that were actually mobile phone masts. Despite the long walk that morning it all seemed very close. I thought I’d done the hard part so patted myself on the back.

After walking 10 minutes I finally turned right down the road I thought my hotel was on but after another 10 minutes I hadnt seen certain landmarks I’d noted that morning. I carried on anyway because the sun had come out and I figured I wasn’t far away. Eventually by chance I was able to access some free WiFi from someone or somewhere called SMC and located where I wanted to be. To my shock it was roughly 30 minutes away and it meant by the time I arrived I’d done a big 40 minute loop out of my way. At one point I worked out I was only a block away. I’d felt safe the whole time and the extra walk had meant I’d seen more of the city than planned even if they were just mostly hotels and a new shopping mall under construction.

I had plenty of time before meeting the others for dinner so just relaxed. Eventually it was time to go down to reception and I realised it was raining again. We walked to Djemaa el Fna and then me and Keith quickly made our way through one of the souks to collect some laundry he and Margaret had dropped off. Ibrahim shortly arrived and took us to the restaurant which was outside in the square but covered which was lucky as the rain wasn’t easing.

Our final meal was a true grand finale and as big as any we had eaten any other night if not bigger. As usual we had some olives, bread and chili followed by a soup which was the best of them all. Next we had a plate each with chips, fried aubergine (egg plant), potato and spinach. I was stuffed and I still had my main to come which was the mixed skewers 2 chicken, 2 beef, 2 mince meat kebabs and 2 mini sausages. My only regret is I ordered a coke and not a lovely fresh orange juice. Sometimes when food is included you don’t always get value for money but I have always returned home a full, very content, bordering fat when returning from onthego tours.

We made our way back to the hotel and after completing our evaluation guides and saying our goodbyes it was time to admit the tour was over. Except for Jason who would be continuing to the coastal town of Essaouira alone with Ibrahim. I’d had a wonderful time in Morocco, the 30th country I’ve visited, it had far exceeded my expectations and I was sad the trip was already over.

Saturday 17th January
Eventually getting up I made my way downstairs where Alison and Jason had already started. I asked for a coffee but when it arrived I wasn’t really in the mood to drink it, the milk didn’t look that great and so I favoured the lovely orange juice.

The hotel still appeared empty and so Ibrahim had been able to extend my check out time to 14.00. In hindsight I could have returned to Djemaa el Fna to see it busy and in the sun but after 6 days ‘on the go’ pardon the pun I was ready to relax.

Unfortunately the poor room service lady didn’t know I was still around at entered the room shortly after 12 when I should have been checked out. She didn’t appear awfully pleased with the way I’d left the bed. She’d clearly spent time the day before tucking everything in as they do in hotels and immediately I’d untucked everything. Now we had the awkward moment when she got to see who it was who undid her hard work. She didn’t speak English but eventually I remembered how to say ‘departing 2’oclock’ in French and she left.

At 14.00 I went down to reception and waited for my taxi which was booked for 14.30. After about 15 minutes a man approached me and asked if I needed a taxi, unfortunately for the first time i had a proper language barrier issue as I tried to explain I’d already booked one. Eventually the hotel confirmed it was mine and arriving at the airport I dropped my bag off, went through security and had none of the issues experienced at Gatwick. We actually departed early and I was first on the plane (such was the small number of us on the return flight) both which were firsts for me. As the drinks and snacks were brought round there was an absolutely stunning sunset that even the flight attendants commented on.

My travel bug that had been simmering throughout December especially since catching up with Gabi and Keili (and meeting the latter’s Australian friends) has been satisfied for the time being I’m not ready to settle down yet. Travel and experiencing other cultures has become my escape, my second life, I even enjoy the challenging, uncomfortable, unenjoyable bits. Until next time…


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