Category Archives: Morocco

Atlas Mountains

Saturday we took a drive into the Atlas Mountains. Well, actually, Saturday we were driven into the Atlas Mountains, because neither of us have our International Driver’s Licence and because neither of us have a death wish, which anxious, lacking-in-confidence Western drivers would have to have in order to attempt tackling the Moroccan roads (not because of the roads themselves, but because of the seemingly lack of road rules the drivers on the roads abide by – it’s like driving in France with less cars but more tailgating).

 

Atlas Mountains 1

Atlas Mountains 1

Our driver was very polite and pointed out various attractions along the way, filling us in on various facts of Berber culture (Berbers are the native people of Morocco – they have a different language, culture and religion to Muslim Moroccans, from what I can gather, though I intend to do some more in-depth reading on the history of the country). He mentioned that we might take a 2 hour hike once we got up to the mountains, which we expressed mild interest in, but thought to make our final decision later in the day and when we had actually seen what the hike looked like (we were both dressed in little dresses and sandals – not the most appropriate gear). Our first stop, however, was at a little Women’s co-operative, where they made cosmetics, mainly out of the famous Moroccan argan oil. We were shown the process of making the oil: several older women sat, breaking open the nuts, getting out the kernels, crushing them and then grinding them to paste. We were then shown a variety of miracles of Moroccan cosmetics like the green lipstick than goes on clear and then turns a beautiful pink on your lips and the blackest black kohl eyeliner. We spent far too much money on skin products (well, ok, I spent far too much money on skin products, Liz was comparatively restrained) and then I was invited by the older women to try my hand at making the argan oil myself. It was, again, like the pastry-making, an oddly satisfying experience, but then again I only broke open one kernel and ground the oil for two minutes or so. I can’t pretend to know what that would be like, hour after hour, day after day. The women sang together, encouraging me by clapping along with the blows of my rock as it gradually broke open the seed and got out the kernel. I suppose this sense of community and fun really would be the way you’d be able to work happily all day long. It makes our own stereotypical office work situations – isolated in cubicles, no talking or sharing or laughing – seem all the more ridiculous and inhuman. But, like I said, I did it for two minutes. It’s probably another matter at the end of a 12-hour workday of breaking open kernels with rocks.

 

Atlas Mountains 2

Atlas Mountains 2

We got back in the car and drove on. Our driver was very accommodating and stopped whenever Liz made little sighs or groans of delight over the scenery, or even when she just moved her head backwards to catch something she hadn’t really seen properly. ‘You want to take photo?’ He’d ask and we would sheepishly nod and jump out of the car and start snapping away. At one stop, there was a man selling the most beautiful rocks and fossils from the Atlas Mountains and desert. I knew my father (who would have been a geologist in another lifetime) would have gone crazy for all this stuff. As a child, I spent a lot of time feigning interest in these rocks for his sake (it also made family holidays that much more bearable, as we were often off in deserts, or fossicking for sapphires, or down in caves or completing various other rock-related activities and you could either choose to be miserable or choose to participate), but this time around – maybe because I was older, maybe because it was MY choice to be there, maybe because something my father had said had finally sunk in, maybe because it had been so many years since I’d been forced to admire a rock – I found myself genuinely interested in the names of the rocks and their different formations. Of course, I appeared far too interested and the minute we walked away from the stall without buying anything, we had the stall-holder following us, holding up various rocks and demanding we offer him a price for his wares. I felt guilty, but, hey, I usually feel guilty.

 

Atlas Mountains 3

Atlas Mountains 3

We finally made it into a town right at the foot of the Atlas mountains, where we could see many tourists (both Moroccan and from further afield) dressed in hiking gear and ready to set off on hikes in the mountains. Our car slowed down and a man jumped into the front passenger seat. Our driver said, ‘this is your guide’, which caught us off guard, but we shook hands and tried not to look too perturbed. We knew our hotel manager had made a lunch reservation for us at the Kasbah Toulok, which sat perched up on a small peak and we had assumed our driver knew this too. As the driver and the guide chatted up front, we muttered under our breath about whether or not this guide was included in our tour or if this was another surprise add-on. It soon became clear. After being let off at a nearby restaurant to go to the loo (we hadn’t requested this, we were just told to go) we were informed that this guide was going to take us on the 2 hour hike we had been promised earlier, and that all it cost was 400 Dh each (about $45 Australian). We said no, we didn’t have the money. The cost then went down and it was 400 Dh for the both of us. We still said no and the price went down again to 200 Dh for both of us. It was a ridiculously good price (they were at pains to tell us), but we were in no way dressed for hiking, it was the middle of the day and 37 degrees outside and our hotel manager (who we trusted) had given us a recommendation and that was what we wanted to do. This 2-hour hike had once again blind-sided us. We had no idea where the hike was going, what it would be like, if it was going to be enjoyable or who this guide-person was (all our manager had organised was the driver). We were so confused that we ended up saying no on principle, saying again that we had no more money. We asked the driver to take us to our lunch reservation. He was now fairly grumpy with us and informed us that lunch was going to cost us 300Dh each, which we had known (and budgeted for. We also knew that the place supported a local girls education charity, which kind of made us feel fine about spending that much – contradictory? Perhaps), but he clearly thought we were insane. Then again, we thought he was insane for suggesting a two-hour hike in sandals in 37-degree heat, so at least the feeling was mutual. He dropped us off with a restaurant employee, who would walk us up to the Kasbah (you couldn’t drive there). He took pains to tell us that this was ‘free’ several times over, just to highlight how cheap he thought we were being.

Atlas Mountains 4

Atlas Mountains 4

Anyway, once out of the car, we started walking up the mountain and felt very happy about our decision. It was cool under the canopy of trees and we couldn’t get ‘Rock the Kasbah’ out of our heads. Once up the peak and at the kasbah, we were even more certain of our decision. Several members of staff met us at the front door and offered us rosewater to clean our hands. We were then offered dates, which (by an old Moroccan tradition) you dip in milk and then eat. It was all very refined and I realise that it’s a safe, cleansed version of traditional Moroccan culture specifically made to appeal to Western tourists, but, hey, I did feel safe and happy and was enjoying myself, so really why should I complain? We were then taken up to the very top of the Kasbah (which was actually a hotel with a restaurant on top) and shown to our table. The table was snugly tucked into the corner of the hut, sofas all around the edge. The hut gave 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and because it was completely open, a cooling breeze blew in from all sides. We had a wonderful view of the tallest mountain in the Atlas range, which was also the highest mountain in North Africa – well over 4000 feet and almost as tall as Mt. Kilimanjaro. I couldn’t think of a more perfect place to sit down for lunch.

 

Rock the Kasbah!

Rock the Kasbah!

Our waiter was a very polite elderly gentleman who spoke halting English. We explained that we needed a vegetable tagine for me, which brought on the usual confused looks, but we thought we eventually got our point across. We were then provided with a beautiful little salad, bread and a jar or mayonnaise. After all the pastry I had been eating, these fresh vegetables couldn’t have tasted better. We over did it on the bread, unfortunately, because then out came our tagines (confusingly describe as ‘lamb’ and ‘beef’ – though the beef one turned out to be vegetables) and they were enormous. We polished them off, only to be told a third course would be arriving, a vegetable cous cous plus chicken in spices and hot sauce. It was all topped off with fruit for dessert. We ate so much and still hardly made a dent in the third and fourth courses. But they were the nicest meals I’d had in a long time – so nice I even ate all the onion in my tagine.

 

We sat up at the kasbah for a good three hours (the slower you eat, the more you can fit in), enjoying the breeze, enjoying the mountains, taking photos of everything. We eventually decided, sadly, that we had to head down. We found our driver no problems (though he was still clearly grumpy with us – no talking on the way home, no stopping for photos). It was now 40 degrees outside and we felt we really had made the right choice about the hike. The heat and the food and the moving car sent us to sleep and before we knew it, we were back in Marrakech for our last night in Morocco.

 

If I head back to Morocco, the Atlas Mountains are where I will be going. My plan is to do the full hike across the mountains. I can’t imagine anything more wonderful.

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Filed under 29, Morocco

Hammam

So, one of the things that you are supposed to do in Morocco (and I had no idea that you were supposed to do it in Morocco until I got to Marrakech and everyone started offering me the opportunity of doing it and telling me I HAD to do it when I was in Morocco) is visit a Hammam. Hammam is kind of like a spa. Well, traditionally, I guess its quite different to what we would call a ‘spa’ – the whole family goes down to the Hammam together, and they all get naked (divided by gender, of course) and shower and soap up and then everyone scrubs you down and exfoliates you and then you sit around in the steam for a bit. But, of course it also has a really great effect on your skin and an opportunity was spotted to create something similar (yet different) for people who didn’t have a Moroccan family to exfoliate them and who would happily pay for the privilege.

We booked in for a two and a half hour hammam and massage, starting with the hammam. The first hurdle that needed to be gotten over was stripping. We realised with a bit of a jolt that we were going to be doing our hammam in the same steam room, which we hadn’t quite considered before. I mean, when you think about it it makes sense – how else would they be able to steam and scrub that many people quickly and efficiently? Of course they’re going to throw together the people who already know each other and are comfortable with each other. I was surprisingly ok with the prospect of nakedness, but Liz was… well, lets say she was a tad hesitant. In fact, she made me promise to not look at ANYTHING below the neck, which I dutifully promised, though was a little uncertain how I would ensure this was adhered to. We took off our clothes and bras (which Liz had also not been planning on) and then were informed we also needed to take off our underwear. Liz refused point blank, which the ladies at the Hammam found very amusing – they kept pulling at it and she kept grabbing on for dear life. I surprised myself by happily stripping down and feeling pretty darn comfortable about it. We headed into the steamy room and I suddenly realised I quite like nakedness. I don’t mean I’m about to become a nudist, or run around flashing people at football games or be filmed in ‘Girls Gone Wild’ or anything, but it was kind of nice to be in a situation when nakedness was not a big deal. It was just… nakedness. It was completely ordinary nakedness. It didn’t mean anything. There was absolutely nothing good or bad about it. It was somehow a ‘neutral’ naked body and I liked that.

The women started out by washing us, then soaping us up and leaving us to sweat it out in the tiled room for a bit. I had been thirsty before we went in, but was told there was no water in the Hammam for drinking, which seemed like an OH&S hazard waiting to happen now that I was sweating out my body weight in a steam room. Just when I thought I couldn’t handle it anymore, the women opened the door again and let some cool air through. They exfoliated us everywhere (and I mean, EVERYWHERE) with again, a no-fuss business-like attitude, which I found oddly comforting. You’re just a naked body, like hundreds of others and that is neither good nor bad, it’s just what it is. They oiled us up this time and left us to sweat it out some more.

We did NOT look this elegant in the Hammam. Found at: http://www.tunisia-tourism.org/hammam/

We did NOT look this elegant in the Hammam. Found at: http://www.tunisia-tourism.org/hammam/

We lay in the heat, our muscles slowly relaxing (it wasn’t so much a conscious choice as a necessary action to avoid any unnecessary exertion in the freaking extreme heat). It was when I started to tell Liz a story about a play I had seen at the Edinburgh Fringe the year before, which was about a guru who had killed several of his followers by keeping them in a steam tent with no water and no air, that things started to get a little bit dicey. I got quite dizzy and I wasn’t sure if it was the heat, the dehydration or the story. Also, I couldn’t remember if the guru was in Utah, Nevada, Arizona or another American state and so I just started rattling off state names slowly and uselessly until Liz interrupted and said ‘I can hear my heart beat.’ I mean, this isn’t very different from the random, delirious conversations we usually have, but we thought it was probably better to be safe than sorry and we crawled towards the door and told the women we had had enough. They came in and splashed cold water all over us, cleaning off the oil and shocking our bodies awake somewhat.

We were dressed in very stylish terry-towelling gowns, a towel thrown over our heads and lead into the massage rooms. I wasn’t given the opportunity to dress again, so down I lay on the massage table, completely naked, face in a pillow. A few minutes later, Liz started to giggle and said, ‘I guess we’ve figured out who’s the prude then’. She was lying on the table next to me and had already covered herself up entirely with a towel. I thought I’d enjoy the naked moment a bit longer. Eventually the masseuse came in and covered me up with a towel and our massages started.

It was a very gentle massage, which I have never really enjoyed before. In fact, I usually find them incredibly stressful and annoying – like being tickled by bloody fairies or some such. But this one was so sensual that I actually didn’t mind it. I keep using the word ‘sensual’ and I know it sounds dirty, especially in regards to a naked massage, but I can’t think of another way of describing it. It wasn’t about getting knots out of muscles, it felt like it was about gently waking up your entire body one nerve ending at a time. It was sensual because it was all about touch and sensation, it got you out of your head and into your body.

At some point, I turned over and the masseuse massaged my breasts, which was a whole new experience all on its own, something I’m not used to doing with someone I don’t know very well, or at least my doctor. I wasn’t entirely certain how to deal with it, but I made my face placid and said nothing. It was about this point the masseuse decided to introduce herself to me. She asked my name and if I was American. When I said I was Australian, she thought about it and then said… ‘Oh, Nicole Kidman! Nicole Kidman!’ I agreed that Nicole Kidman was also Australian. My masseuse lifted her chin with her hand and said, ‘Very very beautiful, very very beautiful.’ And then she moved her hands down to underneath her breasts, pushed them up and said, ‘Very very beautiful, very very beautiful.’ At which point she then pulled up her own shirt and showed me her breasts and pointed to her bra and said, ‘Nicole Kidman, no worries, no worries.’ I am still not completely certain if she was saying her bra was the same one as Nicole Kidman wore, or if it was giving her breasts like Nicole Kidman, or if her breasts were named Nicole Kidman, or if it was all simply an elaborate ploy to get us both to stop thinking about the fact that she had just massaged my breasts. Whichever it was, we both broke out into hysterical giggles and she assured me, ‘Don’t worry, I’m just a bit crazy.’

Despite all the unexpectedness, we walked out of the spa feeling melty, soft and deliciously happy. You definitely HAVE to do a hammam when you go to Morocco and I suggest you go in completely naked. Its awesome.

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Filed under 29, Morocco

Pastry Pastry Pastry

So, we’re back to the ‘new thing per day’ blog posts and I obviously have a lot to catch up on. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. Agh.

I also HAVE to do Thu, Fri and Sat individually because the new things on these days were really excellent and they deserve their own blog posts and even if I tried to shove them into one post, it would get so long, no one would ever read it. Sun, Mon, Tue I’m going to shove altogether into one post and I’m going to have to do it all before tomorrow because tomorrow I am going to a ball at Cambridge and OBVIOUSLY that is a new thing that deserves its very own blog post too.

AGH AGH AGH.

So, on Thursday in Marrakech, we had decided to do a half-day pastry course at our hotel. We were terribly excited about the idea. Not that I really do any cooking at home these days (I’m too busy and it’s too hard cooking for one every night) and not that I have EVER displayed ANY interest in cooking pastry (IT’S TOO FREAKING FIDDLY), but something about this really appealed. I was all, ‘hells yes, let’s get my stereotypically Stepford Wife femininity on, I don’t do that enough.’

I pulled on a white, lacy dress that morning, which left half of my brain thinking, ‘Really? A white dress? For a COOKING class? This is just courting disaster…’ and the other half of my brain thinking, ‘Oh, look how lovely and pretty and delicate I look! JUST LIKE ALL THE LOVELY LITTLE PASTRIES WE ARE GOING TO MAKE! Besides, all chefs wear white!’

We started the morning off with a tour of the local spice and food market with our hotel manager, which was probably one of my favourite things we did all trip. He took us round to all his suppliers and explained a great deal about the local culture, cuisine and various other things. He showed us the public ovens, where the poorest people in Marrakech come to bake their bread (because they don’t have an oven to do it themselves). He told us the history of the Jewish people in Marrakech (surprisingly long and peaceful, at least until the French arrived) and showed us how, in the old city, if a building has windows facing onto the street, we know it’s a Jewish area (traditional Moroccan buildings only had windows facing onto their private courtyard). He showed us the public hammam, where the Moroccans go every week with their families to scrub themselves down properly – a very different experience to the luxurious Hammams set up to cater to us Western tourists. His fish supplier showed us how to check if the fish is fresh (important in a desert city like Marrakech) – by throwing it against the tiles on the wall and seeing if it would stick. He offered us a fresh and uncooked prawn, which neither of us were game enough to try, so one of the local ladies had it instead. We got a rose each from the flower supplier and we were shown the difference between caged hens and free-range hens (as well as the difference between their egg colours). We saw chickens being plucked and traditional wafer-thin bread being cooked (so difficult it takes several months of practice for each new apprentice to make it correctly – some very famous chef had tried to do it recently and failed miserably). The spice merchant was probably my favourite. He offered us special Berber tea, made with no sugar, but miraculously sweet and full of flavour anyway. He then dropped the tiniest amount of eucalyptus crystals into the tea, which did such a good job of clearing out our sinuses, throat and eyes that we were left with tears streaming down our faces and coughing uncontrollably. We went through most of his stall, being shown dried ginger, unground cumin, proper sandalwood and frankenscene (it’s a rock! A rock that you burn! And then you can smell it! SO AMAZED). He gave us a little terracotta pot of lipstick made from dried poppy flowers – you put some water onto it and then transfer the colour to your lips, which looks more like a stain you get from eating too many berries than the paste from lipsticks we are used to. We constantly showed ourselves up to be naïve little city girls, used to everything being in jars at the supermarket, pre-prepared and labelled, which our hotel manager found very amusing. We could hardly identify anything. He teased us endlessly.

After the tour, we headed back to the hotel kitchen. Our manager explained that the cook we would be learning from had begun learning how to make these pastries at the age of 5. This was because she had come from a very poor family and they would have intended to sell her off as a cook to a rich family around the age of 12. So, she was very happy to be working in the hotel and to have a salary and regular working hours. The only thing we had to keep in mind was that she spoke very little English. And we spoke no French or Arabic. So, it was going to be a very interesting cooking session.

We were taken straight into the hotel’s kitchen – no separate, sanitised cooking area for us. Some of the other staff were standing around too – maybe to help us, maybe just for the entertainment value. And there was guaranteed to be entertainment value. We were given crisp, white cooking aprons (I KNEW it was a good colour to cook in!) and taken to the sink to wash our hands. Then, it was straight to work. Liz took notes whilst I got to put my hands into the egg and sugar and flour. I mixed it all up in a large, flat cooking bowl, rolling the pastry around and around. It felt like being a kid again. Some of the other staff would translate directions for us, but a lot of the time they would simply watch and laugh. We spent a lot of time giggling. In fact, we had to be told to hurry up several times.

We made one batch of cookies called ‘Cow’s Eyes’, which had a drop of orange jam in the middle of them (hence the ‘eye’) and covered, alternatively, in coconut and sesame seeds. When these were in the oven, we started on the next cookies, which I don’t remember the name of, but they are covered in Orange Blossom essence and icing sugar and are particularly delicate and heavenly.

At some point, our hotel manager came in and offered us a glass of wine each, which we refused (it was 11:45am and we had eaten SUCH a large breakfast only 2 hours previously), but he was so shocked (he IS from Bordeaux) that we quickly changed our minds. I don’t know if the wine helped the pastry making, but it certainly helped the giggling.

As we moved through the pastries, they got more and more complicated. The next challenge was baklava – but a Moroccan twist on the version that I am most familiar with. It used almonds and peanuts as opposed to pistachios and whatever else is in the Greek baklava (I’m such a connosieur). This was hard, yet oddly pleasurable work. Instead of just opening a packet of unsalted, skinned roasted peanuts, we did it ourselves. We roasted them in the oven for 5 minutes, then broke them in half with our hands and fingers, and popped them out of their skins. It took ages and our hands ached. We then flipped the tray to get all the skins away from the peanuts and blew them into the rubbish. These were then ground up in the food processor (something we WERE familiar with!) Meanwhile, a large amount of almonds were being blanched on the stove. After they were suitably soft, we took them out of the water and popped them out of their skins (an incredibly satisfying experience, even better than popping pimples). There was something nice about doing these jobs, which would normally be avoided (even when cooking) through the purchasing of prepared goods at the store. If I was in a rush, I may not have enjoyed it so much, but when we had the whole day ahead of us, well, it was just calming and pleasant. It was also pretty funny, especially when you squeezed an almond too hard and it went flying.

Almonds were very important in all of the pastries – apparently they are a real luxury in Morocco and you only get them for special occasions. Our hotel manager said that at weddings and other special occasions you can always see a large pile of pastries on the table and one or two women filling up their handbags surreptiously with the delicate little things.

Our final pastry was the hardest – the Horn of Gazelle. It involved making what appeared, to us, to be tiny little turds (rather unfortunate – but they were the right consistency and colour), wrapping them in wafer thin pastry and then shaping them into a a kind of half-moon wall thing (I’ll see if I can find photos).

Then we stood around the kitchen and admired our handy work, as the horns cooked. Our hotel manager asked the cook if we were good cooks and she very kindly said yes. He, however, told us that if we wanted to get married in Morocco, we would have to cook a full 10 course meal whilst being watched by our future mother-in-law (including pastries) and he felt that we probably needed a bit more practice before we would have been welcomed happily into a Moroccan family…. Meanwhile, some of the other staff had started cooking dinner (for the staff and for the guests) and they kept giving us bits to try. Our hotel manager explained that in Morocco you only don’t eat meat if you are very poor (hence their confusion over my vegetarianism), but it was still very expensive for some people. So, he tried to make sure he gave all his staff a meal including meat when they were working.

There are so many pastries in there!

There are so many pastries in there!

We finished up, thanked our cook (kisses on both cheeks) and headed back to our room. The final delightful touch was receiving a box of the pastries we had made, wrapped in ribbon and decorated with a rose. We then proceeded to attempt to eat a box of pastries each over the course of 4 days (and not all of them looked terrible and they all tasted pretty darn good, even if the horns were a little undercooked), by replacing most meals with pastries and then having desserts of pastries after every meal. I attempted to rationalise this by having the ‘least sugary’ pastries for meals and the ‘more sugary pastries’ as dessert. The upshot is I think I’ve probably eaten enough pastry to last me a lifetime and I never, ever want to see those delicate little things, or almonds, or honey or anything sweet ever, ever again. Hooray for vegetables!

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Money Money Money

I have so much work to do. I have an entire play to re-write and learn by July 12th. I am possibly going to Ireland to sing for a night. I have to try and re-write my mammoth (possibly racist) full-length play by the end of August. I also have to, you know, go to that work they actually pay me real money for.

And, yet, here I am, sitting in Starbucks (there was no Caffe Nero around) committing more disjointed thoughts to the blogosphere as if it MATTERED. As if this were somehow IMPORTANT. As if this were in anyway USEFUL.

Ugh. But I can’t help it. Its like a compulsion this blogging thing. Like Facebook. Or cable TV. Or popping pimples. The minute I make some sort of daft resolution like, ‘I’m going to blog about a new thing I do each day!’ I somehow feel compelled to keep to it. If only I had the same dedication to exercise. Or diets. Or… anything else aside from my useless useless blog.

The other problem with this ‘new-thing-a-day’ thing is that whilst it is excellent at inspiring me when I don’t know what else to write about, when I do have plenty of other ideas of things to write about, it just kind of gets in the way. Because one part of my brain is all, ‘But I have to write about the new things!’ And the other side of my brain is, ‘No, we want to write about the serious, thoughtful things that may have been inspired my any number of experiences and cannot be so neatly packaged into new thing = new thought=new blog post.’ And then both sides of the brain argues for a while until I end up in an anxious puddle on the floor having come to no decision about which side of the brain is right and having written NOTHING. On top of this there are some new things which really deserve a whole post all to themselves but if I don’t write the post on the day the new thing happened, then there’s this enormous backlog of things I want to write about and things I need to write about and oh good god kill me now I’m so anxious and there’s not enough hours in the day and I think I will have to stop eating/sleeping/bathing if I have any hope of getting it all done in time.

This post is not about new things. This is another post on my general impressions of Morocco and Marrakech. And I’m going to write it and then I’m going to go to work and I’m not going to worry too much about the enormous workload I have given myself (NOT going to, NOT going to) and the fact that in spite of this workload I seem to not be able to stop coming up with new schemes and plans and ideas to make it even larger.

Marrakech. Well, Marrakech. The theme of Marrakech is money. A hell of a lot of money. You may think this is odd. You may have heard that Morocco is a poor country. You may have heard that it is a cheap country. These may well be true in places that I did not visit. Areas far outside of Marrakech. Perhaps somewhere in the desert it is very cheap. But my main impression of Morocco is that you arrive, they hook you up to some kind of intravenous device and they then proceed to suck out all of your money. I felt like I was haemorrhaging money. Vomiting money. Whatever painful analogy you would like to use.

There were a couple of things that contributed to this impression. Firstly, this is the first holiday I have ever gone on that I didn’t go on with some kind of budget in mind. So, it wasn’t until I watched the money flowing out of my hands like water that I started questioning whether or not I could afford things or genuinely needed them or wanted them. There’s nothing more stressful then getting all your shopping home and then thinking, ‘now, hang on, did I really need $28 worth of dried fruit and almonds? Perhaps I would have preferred to spend some of that money on food from the other food groups.’ Secondly, I did next to no research before arriving in Marrakech so was unaware of how much things *should* cost or how much things might cost if you went certain places, or what what things were worth and what things were necessary and what things were rip-offs and yada yada yada. Thirdly, I’ve been incredibly lucky recently whereby whilst I’ve travelled a lot, I haven’t actually spent as much money as you would think. This is because of a combination of factors – staying with friends and family; having my travel paid for due to a variety reasons; having specific reasons for travel (eg conferences), which take up all my days and don’t leave me wandering, unsupervised, amongst brightly coloured markets and shopping centres. This has given me a warped idea of how much money  someone might spend on holidays and so this past week I’ve been having little heart attacks as everything piles up. And also annoying Liz no end with my endlessly new and inventive justifications for things that I had spent money on (‘If I keep this for 10 years I would have only paid $15 each year for it!’ ‘I once spent a lot of money on a holiday when I was 17 and it hasn’t yet financially crippled me for life.’ ‘These were all things I was planning to buy in the UK at some point – I just hadn’t planned on buying them altogether on the same day.’)

It wasn’t all my fault or just my naivete, however, that lead to the near  immediate vaporisation of my money after it was taken out of the ATM. See, the thing about Marrakech is that the city is very enthusiastic about the idea of you giving it all of your money. ALL OF IT.

I’ve written before about the fact that everyone is trying to catch your eye, everyone is trying to get your attention and get you into their stall. If you do take them up on the offer of coming inside, they will be very friendly, pointing out different things, telling you the good things about their products, bringing you new ones if you don’t like the things you are looking at. However, it all changes once you start to leave the store. They will get very grumpy with you. Or, they will start lowering their prices. They will follow you out. They will demand you give them a price for the things you have been looking at. They will wrap things up you have said you don’t want. They will pull you back inside and show you the things you have refused once again. They can’t quite believe that you would have seen things, liked the look of them, asked about the price, but then decided (probably rationally) that you don’t actually want/need the thing anyway. There is this attitude that, if we liked it, we automatically want to buy it and its just a matter of settling on the correct price. This is an idea that makes me very uncomfortable – the price has always been a big factor in determining whether or not I want something and the fact that ‘it’s a bargain’ may actually sway me towards buying something that I may not have previously. In Marrakech I found the opposite happening. I would give a price that would be refused and I would be encouraged to give another price and another until I found myself shaking hands with someone and agreeing to pay a much larger sum than I would have ever considered paying if I was back home. What I’m trying to say is I’m terribly bad at bargaining and I’m fairly certain it cost me (but I’d rather not think about how much it cost me).

Of course, this a large generalisation and there were some stall-holders around who would still smile at you as you left the store, or once you had explained that what you were looking at was not quite right, they understood and said no problem and let you leave. But, because these experiences were few and far between and because they are only what I would have expected, they don’t stick in my mind as much.

The other thing that seemed to happen quite a bit was the unexpected costs. The sudden add-ons. You would agree to something, some kind of service at a certain price and then things would keep getting added on and on and on and the price would go up and up and up. We only worked out later in the week that the only way to stop this was by backtracking and saying you didn’t want the service anymore, or asking about where exactly all the add-ons where coming from and then, miraculously, we found out that all the extra services weren’t strictly necessary. Or, at least weren’t as expensive as they had first been presented.

Alternatively, you would be given no choice of service. Choices would be made for you. The most expensive and involved service would be chosen for you and a flat rate given and it would only be later on that you would realise that there were many shorter, less involved and cheaper options available that you hadn’t been aware of. Perhaps this, again, is my fault for being naive or not questioning things or not researching enough or not just saying ‘no’ (no was a very difficult word to say over the course of the week and I’m still not entirely certain why it was so difficult. I mean, ‘no’ is usually difficult for me, but not usually this impossible)

What I look like as a tourist. Found at: http://myzerowaste.com/2008/07/zero-waste-and-saving-money/

What I look like as a tourist. Found at: http://myzerowaste.com/2008/07/zero-waste-and-saving-money/

My favourite scenario was the ‘didn’t-even-know-it-was-a-service-service’, which was when someone would assist you in some way and then after the assistance had delivered, a fee would suddenly be demanded. A similar cousin of this is when you refuse a henna tattoo (or similar) and then the person grabs your hand and puts a tattoo on you without your consent and then demands you pay for it (because the tattoo is already there now and you can’t get it off).

Believe me, I do understand why these things happen. And it’s as much the fault of the wealthy tourists who have come before me setting a precedent as it is anything else. I’m also sure it must be a bit ridiculous/irritating to many of these Moroccan stall-holders and tour guides when white, middle-class Europeans dripping in expensive technology and clothing cry poor and say they can’t possibly afford whatever it is that is being offered them. But, there is also a limit. There obviously has to be a limit, because… well, because obviously at some point you do have to have money to live on when you return from your 5 day holiday. And, besides which, lets say I do give away all of my money (ALL OF IT) to various Moroccans for various reasons. It’s not actually all that much money. It wouldn’t actually go that far, when you stop and consider how many people were trying to get at it. And it wouldn’t make any long-lasting different to anyone’s life.

Nevertheless, I spent the week thinking a great deal about money. Feeling anxious about having it, feeling anxious about giving it away; feeling conflicted about why I had it and someone else didn’t; disliking all the different ways people had at getting at it and then disliking myself for disliking those ways and every other possible emotion you could possibly think of – unless of course it was a positive emotion. I didn’t track many of those. But, hey, when do I ever?

Jokes!

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Culture. Shock.

I’m having a hard time starting this post. One one level, a lot of the feelings that I’ve experienced over the past few days in Morocco really intrigue me. And on the other, I feel like that’s just because I’m a naive white-girl who spends most of her time travelling to ‘safe’ places like Europe and America. And that most of what I’m about to write is pretty obvious and uninteresting.

But, anyway, here goes, we’ll give it a shot.

Of course I knew that Morocco was going to be full on. I knew that people in the markets would try very hard to get my attention, to try and get me to buy something. I knew that there would be a lot of poverty about, I knew that wearing revealing dresses (read: my normal summer dresses) would probably bring unwanted attention and I knew that walking about without a man with me would inevitably mean more unwanted attention.

But you can know these things and still be taking aback by the experience of actually going through them and there will of course be many other things you didn’t expect to have to deal with at all. 

In my everyday life, I am usually attempting to please people and not offend them. I’ll admit it: I’m a people pleaser. It’s why I find it difficult to hold strong opinions (particularly in the face of opposition), why I find it difficult to stand up for myself, why I find it difficult to take criticism. In a culture that you are used to, it’s very easy to be a people-pleaser. You know what is expected of you to keep people happy, you know what the norms are, you know what your limits are and how to avoid situations that might cause you to be expectedd to push past them. I’m not saying it’s easy being a people-pleaser (its really not and I’d much rather be a bit more gutsy and ballsy), but I am saying that its easier to be a people-pleaser in a place that you know, and around people that you understand. Obvs.

So the main issue I’m having in Morocco is that I still want to please, but I no longer am certain of what will please people and I’m no longer certain that the things they want from me is going to be acceptable to myself. I’m uncertain of myself and I’m uncertain of how I feel about various scenarios, situations and occurrences. On top of which I’ve been confusing all these anxieties with my half-baked and completely un-researched ideas of cultural relativity. Is me doing this or thinking this ok because I’m somewhere different? Or if I’d be unhappy about this at home then should I be unhappy about this here as well?

The most obvious and easiest example was the meat at lunch on Monday. My hosts clearly wanted to give me a traditional Moroccan meal, so I could experience part of what they thought was an important part of their heritage and culture. Unfortunately, that meal was just meat and spices in a terracotta pot and I’ve been a vegetarian for 9 years now. The whole family was quite intrigued by the fact that I didn’t eat meat. The father came in and asked specifically, ‘Which is the girl that doesn’t eat meat?’ and when I was pointed out he nodded and left. We didn’t see him again. It was like I was a fairground attraction. ‘Step right up, step right up and behold the mystifying GIRL WHO DOESN’T EAT MEAT! You won’t believe the things she won’t put in her mouth!’

Because I’m a polite people-pleaser and because I could tell they really really wanted me to try this meat, because it was something special that I would never have experienced before in my life, I took a tiny sliver of meat and put it in my mouth. I said it tasted very nice, which they took as a cue to give me more meat, which I refused. In this scenario, I feel like I did right – I told them ahead of time I didn’t eat meat, on the actual day I was convinced into trying a tiny piece but then refused any more. I felt like everyone’s feelings were taken into consideration and a compromise was reached. Part of me does wonder if I’m being patronising and if I had ‘stood up’ for my vegetarianism they would have respected that and understood; but the fact of the matter is that I’m not a particularly strident vegetarian at the best of times and mostly the family’s English wasn’t great, so how would I have even been able to communicate my committed, if not so strident, vegetarian views if I didn’t even have the words to express it?

There have been other scenarios though that are slightly less black and white and which leave me feeling more uncomfortable, mainly because I don’t know what to do about them. The monkeys in the square are one for example. There are several monkeys brought into the main square in the afternoons. Their tiny cages sit beside them, they are kept on short leashes, one wears a nappy and I’ve seen another in a dress. They scamper about (as much as their leashes allow), jump up on their owners and any passing tourists that might want their photo taken with one. This makes me uncomfortable. No, this makes me furious. And the worst part is that I know these poor  monkeys are only in this situation for my amusement. It wouldn’t continue if it weren’t for the fact that it’s a sound business idea, that plenty of ‘rich’ European, American and Antipodean tourists will pay money to have their photo taken with a monkey in a dress sitting on their shoulder. And I’m expected to be delighted by it as well – it’s pointed out by the Moroccans around me, ‘Look! Look! How wonderful! Monkeys!’ If I was with a friend who did this I would explain my thoughts on the subject no problem. But when it’s strangers, strangers who are trying hard to please you, I don’t really know what to do or how to react. It’s less about the fact that I’m worried they won’t understand (who really doesn’t understand, ‘I don’t like this. I don’t think its right’) and more about the fact that I don’t want to make them unhappy. They’re trying to please me, I’m trying to please them and we all go round in circles having no dialogue of any significance and perpetuating terrible stereotypes about each other: ‘Tourists love monkeys on leashes’, ‘Moroccans don’t care about animals.’

It gets worse. The stall-holders calling out to you (everyone calling out to you) can be amusing at the start of the day, but grating by the end when you are sweaty, smelly, dirty and footsore. My people-pleasing nature doesn’t allow me to not say something to someone who says something to me, so I pretty much always answer back when someone says, ‘Hello’ or ‘Spices?’ or ‘How are You?’ This then usually means I’m walking away from a stallholder yelling after me attempting to continue the conversation, which makes me feel even ruder. I know that the stallholders are used to it and trying to engage me in conversation is not about being polite, its just about trying to get me to buy something and if I stopped and spoke to everyone that spoke to me I would have no money left (because I’m a people-pleaser and it would please them if I bought their things), but it still makes me uncomfortable having to walk away. And this feeling of guilt and discomfort gets me into arguments with myself about how much money do I have really, and really it is more than these people have and therefore maybe I should buy their ‘authentic’ products and make them happy and help them out just to assuage my Western middle-class guilt a little.

And then there was yesterday. We’d been walking around the market all day in our short summer dresses and sandals and been getting a lot of commentary. Mostly you just ignore it, because mostly its just to get your attention so you’ll come and buy something. And in the small cases that it isn’t about that, what do these men really expect you to do? Turn around and start a conversation? No. Do they really expect that this is going to get your attention so that the two of you can start some sort of meaningful relationship? Of course not. The whole point of the catcall is to shut down any opportunity of connection between the observer and the observed. It’s a superficial comment made to let a person know they are currently being appreciated superficially – and superficially ONLY. It leaves no opportunity for reply (unless it’s an angry one, which usually just makes the catcaller laugh). Whilst at home I would ignore catcalls, over here they make me laugh because they are so ridiculous and so silly and so utterly relentless. I guess the problem with laughing at catcalls is that it looks like I’m enjoying the attention and perhaps that perpetuates a particular stereotype about Western women or at least encourages the men to keep going. Anyway, we’re used to these ridiculous catcalls, the ‘wows’ and the ‘very nice’ and ‘I like’ etc. Yesterday, for some reason, maybe it was the dresses we were wearing, but we started getting much more full-on comments. Liz had her breasts specifically commented on several times. Again, a bit more offensive and unnerving, but at the same time, nothing that we couldn’t just ignore and walk away from. Until a guy reached out and touched Liz’s ass.

There is nothing about that which I will excuse away. It is completely unacceptable behaviour. The problem is, what do you do about it? Back home I like to think I would have slapped the guy, I would have yelled at him and I would have felt comfortable in the knowledge that people around me would have backed me up. I don’t know that slapping and yelling would have helped the scenario, even back home, but that’s how I would like to imagine I would have reacted. Here, I just don’t really know what the correct response is. Liz yelled out, but we didn’t confront the man, which was definitely deserved. I hadn’t even realised it had happened, I thought she had gotten upset about something else and instead of backing her up, I told her to calm down. When we got to our restaurant and Liz explained what had actually happened, she told me she thought it was her fault – she had been wearing lipstick and was dressed up. Which is not a thought that would have ever crossed our minds as being acceptable back home, but here it was suddenly something that should be considered.

A similar situation happened to me when I bought my leather satchel. The man at the stall was all smiles, very charming and lovely all the way through the transaction. Then he asked for a photo with me, which he wanted me to send him. All well and good. However, as we were posing for the photo, his hand went pretty quickly down from my waist to my ass. I jumped away as soon as the photo was taken. But then Liz, who had no idea this was going, said we had to take another one because the first one was blurry. This time, his hand went straight to my ass. And not on the side of my thigh, kind of brushing my ass. No, his hand was very definitely placed on the very middle, the roundest part of my ass. And I said ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Why? Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I move his hand? If it were back home and I were dealing with a friend whose hands tend to rove when he gets drunk I would have had no qualms moving that hand away. If I were back home in a club and someone did that to me when I didn’t want them to, I would feel perfectly acceptable in slapping him away, getting angry and knowing that I would be protected/backed up by everyone else around me.

But here, in Morocco, I felt completely uncertain of myself. I didn’t know how this man would react to me asserting myself in that way and I didn’t know if I would like what his reaction would be. I’d enjoyed the transaction we’d had up until that point and I didn’t want things to suddenly be made ugly or unpleasant. So, I smiled for the photo and I promised to send it to him and I didn’t say a word.

I don’t want to make too huge a deal of any of this. I know there are worse things going on in the world and there are people in far worse situations. Also, that Western middle-class guilt is creeping in again leaving me thinking, well, who am I to complain about their treatment of me? I swan into their country, treat it like a cheap-but-luxurious playground, make no attempt to fit in with the culture and then swan off again to my extremely-privileged life in London. If some guy wants to squeeze my ass during a photo and take me down a peg or two, well, can I really blame him? Maybe I deserve to be taken down a peg or two.

But I think the most interesting thing here, across all these scenarios, is my absolute inability to voice, in anyway, the opinions and beliefs I cling to so firmly back home. Because I might insult someone. Because they may not understand entirely. Because maybe they might get angry at me. Whilst I certainly live the majority of my life in fear of these things, I guess it’s not nearly so obvious how desperate the need is when the people around you *generally* have the same belief system as you and *generally* behave in the same way as you. And I guess that’s one of those odd fringe benefits of going somewhere completely different and experiencing something completely different – it throws you and all your habits, your strengths and weaknesses into the spotlight. Suddenly every assumption you have about yourself and the world is tipped on its head. Culture shock isn’t about seeing a monkey on a chain in a nappy in the square. Culture shock is how you deal with that monkey on the chain in the nappy on the square and confronting the fact that you might not be who you thought you were.

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Two Days in Morocco

There is so much to write about Morocco and I don’t quite know where to start. There are so many new things that have happened that I could probably save them all up and write about them one at a time for the rest of year and that would be my 365 new things for my final year of my twenties. But I am not a cheater-er. Well, I’m only slightly a cheater-er. I’m only a cheater-er at the times and in the circumstances I choose.

And because there are so many new and exciting things I’m not even going to break them down into each new and exciting thing because it is just pointless. I am bundling them all together and creating a wonderful fable of numerous ‘new and exciting’ things because going through and listing them all would be boring and endless. So, without further ado: my first two days in Morocco.

Yesterday morning we got up at the obscenely un-holiday like hour of 8:20am to have breakfast before our guide arrived to take us out into the town. I would not normally complain about a start time of 8:20am, except that I had (foolishly) drunk a can of Pepsi Max on the plane at approximately 6pm. I used to be addicted to this gunk and could drink 600 mL daily, but these days I find that a single can had any later than about 3pm will keep me awake and jittery into the wee small hours of the morning. I spent the early hours of the night in a state of anxious ‘I’m-not-certain-if-I’m-awake-or-asleep’, making it very difficult to drag myself out of bed when the alarm went off. Also, our room is incredibly dark, meaning no sunlight comes into gently rouse me (the sun is my normal ‘alarm clock’ in London, which unfortunately wakes me around the 6am mark many days). This is nice for sleep-ins, not so nice when you are trying to convince your body to wake up and get ready for the day.

We headed to the rooftop terrace for breakfast and were served what we dubbed ‘heaven-in-a-cup’, but which our hotel named simply as ‘natural yoghurt’. I maintain they filled it with pixie dust , happy thoughts and sunshine (or possibly sugar), because I have never before tasted such delicious yoghurt. Our guide arrived during the end of our breakfast and we headed out into the city.

Our first stop was the Palace Bahia, so-named for the Princess Bahia it was built for. Her husband the Prince was so in love with her that he built her a palace and then carved into the walls poetry praising her beauty, intelligence and charm. He was so in love with her he built her a beautiful room adjacent his own room, separated by a beautiful, peaceful garden, so that they could wave at each other across the ferns and then meet in the middle or go in to one of the bedrooms. He was so in love with her he gave the other princesses that lived there and that he also slept with much smaller rooms and did not cover the walls with poetry praising the beauty of the second princess (Annabile… not certain of spelling). He was SO in love with Princess Bahia that he only had ONE room with 27 little rooms surrounding it, which would be filled with beautiful women who would dance for him and then he would choose which one he liked the best and then (in the words of our guide) she would be ‘cleaned really well’ and then was taken to his bedroom. Yeah, he was THAT in love with Bahia. Perhaps I am being a little harsh to judge this prince’s love by today’s standards of Western Anglo middle-class romantic monogamous love, but I just can’t help it. If my Liberal Arts degree taught me anything, it’s that we all bring our own baggage and perspective to our perception of the world and I couldn’t help but think this prince was kind of a douche. A nice douche, a reasonably romantic and generous douche, a douche completely shaped by his own culture and times, but a douche nonetheless. Our Moroccan guide told us with a twinkle in her eye that most Moroccan men still have their primary woman and then several other women they have ‘fun with’.  And they certainly do like to flatter and call out to women in the street (if only to get you to come and look at their stalls and buy their merchandise).

After a look at the palace, we headed to the museum, which we unfortunately found closed, but wandering through the streets was pleasurable enough. I think I mentioned in my last post that all the walls of all the buildings here are a beautiful peachy-pink colour, due to the colour of the earth they are made out of. Many are also beautifully smooth and cool to the touch, having been ‘exfoliated’ by hours and hours of hard scrubbing with soap. After the museum, we headed back out into the Souks (markets), where we had been the night before, but this time, everything was open and everyone was trying to get our attention.

I wrote before about the art of ‘looking but not looking’, but the stall owners are persistent in their attempts to get your attention. The main styles seem to be:

1) Flattery (‘Hi, hi beautiful ladies! So elegant, so elegant, you want spices?’)

2) Jokes (‘Hey, hey, Fish and Chips, Fish and Chips! Nice shoes here!’ They hear you speaking English and assume you are British)

3) Starting a conversation (‘Hello, how are you? Where are you from?’)

4) Using social niceties to stop you in your tracks (for example, putting out their hand to be shaken – very, very difficult to walk away from without feeling incredibly rude)

5) Trying to stop you by pulling your arm – absolutely not appreciated and in no way useful to their cause from our perspective.

6) Trying to spark your interest (‘What’s this? What’s this?’ We find this one particularly amusing, if taken literally. If the stall holder doesn’t know what he’s selling, he is obviously at a real disadvantage and, also, why does he think we will know?? Or is he trying to express the fact that someone has left a bag of things on his table and he has no idea what they or why they are there? Or is it the start of an existential crisis? ‘What is this? Why I am selling this? Why am I here? What have I done with my life???’ Poor Moroccan stall-holder)

7) Calling out what they think you want (‘Good deal plates!’ When I told one stall holder I didn’t want this, he asked me what I did want. I said, ‘Nothing’. Which is probably the first time in my life I have ever said such a thing and genuinely meant it and it was nice and so I would like to continue doing so, please. ‘What do I want? Absolutely nothing, I am perfectly content.’ Blergh, I sound like a darn hippy. But a happily content hippy!)

Even with our guide we were not completely safe from all of these cries (especially when many Moroccans think she is American, for some reason – she jokes about needing a sign saying, ‘I am Moroccan’ to wear on her chest). She got convinced to bring us into a basement store, being assured, ‘It is free to look, free to look.’ And it was free to look, they were very pleased to have us in the store, very helpful, very friendly, showed us everything we wanted. But when we decided to leave without buying anything, oh how the attitude changed. They were very, very grumpy with us. Our guide eventually took us to some of her friends’ stalls and shops were we found things we very much liked.

Part of the process of buying things in Marrakech is, of course, the bargaining process. I find this extremely difficult to deal with, especially when I don’t know how much things are worth or how much they ‘should’ cost (that is, how much they would cost if I weren’t an Anglo tourist). When I’m shopping, the price of something is an integral part of my decision to buy something. I don’t decide I want something and then look at the cost. I decide if I want something and part of the deciding factor, for me, is that it is a ‘bargain’ (I like to be able to say, ‘It was only 3 pounds!!!’ when someone compliments me on my clothes). There are the occasional items that I will pay whatever they are asking for (hello 35 pound 1980s Laura Ashley sailor dress), but in the majority of cases if I look at the tag and its already much more than I would pay, I either convince myself I don’t need it, can’t afford it or don’t even try it on in the first place to save myself the heartache of liking the look of it and then having to leave it behind.

In the jewellery store we went into, the manager got us to look around and pick out some pieces we liked. After we combed the whole place, we were left with a few items each. At that point we were taken to another room and the negotiations began. The manager explained that no matter what happened, we had to keep smiling. He had to keep smiling with every offer and we had to keep smiling with our counter-offers, which were to be written down on a slip of paper so everything was fair and recorded. He was clearly easing us into the process. He started with Liz’s choices. But the prices he gave us did not make us smile (did not make Liz smile about how much her bracelets DID cost and did not make me smile in anticipation of how much my necklace WOULD cost). There was much back and forth. There was much negotiation, which seemed to me suspiciously like argument, which always makes me uncomfortable. But I’m also certain that this show of unhappiness at the counter-offers is ‘part-of-the-process’ for these sellers. This manager was an expert in his chosen field, performing his unhappiness at our prices perfectly. He had well-worn phrases about the pieces being unique and high-quality, he asked us to give him a ‘democratic’ price (another well-worn phrase amongst other sellers as we have begun to learn). The whole thing is a performance – we had to reply with cries of ‘this is our final offer, we can’t pay more’ and he would reply that he couldn’t go lower. Of course, he went lower and we went higher and (I suspect) he got the better end of the deal, but I also now own the most amazing piece of jewellery I have ever seen and I know that I will wear it for years, so I suppose it’s win-win (well, I hope it is, anyway. I don’t want anyone to prove me wrong please so don’t tell or show me how much I’ve lost out by, thanks very much). I love this turquoise necklace so much that I put it on just to lie in bed in my PJ’s reading last night, which Liz found ridiculously funny.

We then proceeded to the next stall – a leather stall – because I had in my head that I would buy a leather satchel to cart around my computer in. I have always used canvas bags or my backpack, but have felt uneasy about the former and the latter made me feel like I was 10 years younger and still in high school and I figured it was time to ‘graduate’ to a proper bag. Something that would go with everything and would last me forever. So, of course, I was looking at leather (I do realise the hypocrisy of buying leather as a vegetarian. There will be another post on this and other issues I’ve come up against with soon). Again, the stall-holder was a friend of our guide’s and he was ridiculously charming, telling us we had to touch everything in his store because it would bring him good luck and whatever we touched he would sell immediately, because beautiful women were always good luck (bullshit, bullshit, but oh what fun bullshit). When I told him I wanted the bag for a laptop, but I was worried it wouldn’t fit, he obligingly got me a measuring tape to check. When it was measured in centimetres and I only know the size of my laptop in inches, he ran next door and got an ACTUAL laptop and slipped it into my satchel to show me how well it fit. I was sold. We went through the negotiating process again and before I knew it, I was the proud owner of a goat leather satchel. We sealed the deal with a handshake which involved touching our interlocked hands to his chest, then mine, then his forehead and then mine and then four kisses on the cheeks, which seemed all a bit much and I’m uncertain if its traditional or just something he made up on his own, but I enjoyed the long performance of as well. He also wanted a photo with me, which I am meant to send him (I have his email address on his shop’s card).

It was by this time the middle of the day and we were expected by our guide’s mother for lunch, so we jumped in a taxi and to her house, which is situated next to another palace. We met her mother, her aunt and her two little cousins (an incredibly beautiful young girl and the most adorable little boy of 3 years old, both of whom were completely charming and totally stole our hearts. Too shy to be photographed, but did give us kisses when we arrived and when we left). We were presented with a huge plate of beautiful, colourful and delicious salad, which was followed by a traditional Moroccan meat meal (this is only cooked by men in a terracotta pot. They take it into the desert in the morning and bring it back at 2pm). I pleased my hosts by taking the smallest bite of beef – they were all intrigued by the girl who ‘didn’t eat meat’ (and the rice salad did have tuna in it, which I chose to not be bothered by).

After waiting out the worst of the midday heat, we headed to the Yves Saint Laurent garden (part of the house where Yves Saint Laurent lived in Marrakech), which my housemate had mentioned and is on the list of the Top 20 things to do in Marrakech. It was an extremely beautiful and peaceful place, completely covered in ‘Majorelle Blue’, which is apparently the purest form of blue. Somehow calming and vibrant, it’s the blue that looks like it is made of crushed lapis lazuli – the colour that the Mother Mary is always wearing in old religious paintings, because it was the most expensive and precious of all the colours and paints. Liz and I were completely enchanted and ran around taking photos of all the flowers and trees. I spent 20 minutes attempting to get a picture of a turtle, which eventually ended up with me lying flat out on the ground, the camera sitting beside me and pressing the button. The chic French people who were mainly visiting the gardens thought I was very strange.

We walked home from the gardens via the New Medina (new city), which was not as enchanting as the Old Medina, but for me was equalling fascinating. I think most tourists would like to think of Marrakech as only being the Old Medina with its stalls of ‘traditional’ goods like tagines and slippers and leather. They don’t want to wander into the New Medina and see those beautiful pinky-apricot walls with the McDonald’s sign on top in English and Arabic. They want to pretend they are in a completely different, alien world, something out of a time machine. I find this an interesting attitude, because I don’t feel like what I see in the Old Medina as being necessarily ‘authentic’ in the way that some tourists seem to hope it is. I think it is a performance of culture in the way that many places whose main industry is tourism perform their culture in a way that is pleasing and expected for their visitors (Ireland is another example of this, or Thailand or Peru). I don’t mean to be insulting and I’m obviously part of that large group of people that travel to Marrakech specifically for the reason of ‘experiencing something different’. But, my point is I don’t subscribe to the idea that the New Medina is somehow less interesting or less worthy than the Old Medina. Seeing McDonalds and Zara in the New Medina is simply reality. That’s what globalisation and capitalism has done. I guess we can mourn the ‘death of the traditional way of life’, but does that mean we would deny Moroccans modernisation or all the things that Western culture decrees as being necessary, wonderful and desirable? The West advertised and the Moroccans bought. No different from anyone in Europe, Australia or America. We expect them to hold out when we haven’t? I mean, I don’t like this long reach of the global corporation either, but I’ve always had qualms with capitalism and globalisation. I feel like people who are usually pretty happy about the existence of Zara and McDonald’s then coming to Marrakech and complaining about finding them here have possibly missed a somewhat larger problem.

Anyway, off my soap box.

We were at this point, exhausted, but we met a few more of our guide’s friends around the place, before walking through the square again (a completely different experience to the square at night and in the morning. Mainly because of ALL THE FREAKIN’ SNAKE CHARMERS WITH THEIR FREAKIN’ SNAKES . Needless to say I was completely beside myself with fear – ‘Are they on me? I feel like there on me. Or chasing me! AM I COMPLETELY SURROUNDED BY POISONOUS COBRAS RIGHT NOW AND ABOUT TO DROWN IN A SEA OF SLITHERING, RATTLING, WRITHING, HISSING SNAKES??? THIS IS NOT HOW I WANTED TO LEAVE THE WORLD!!!’) On the way back to the hotel we were taken to our guide’s favourite Hammam (spa) to book an appointment for Saturday. We stumbled back to our hotel and, after some showers, collapsed into bed. A bit of reading, some water and we were off to sleep.

Today we’ve taken it much easier. We got out of bed around 9:30am, ate a breakfast of dates, apricots and almonds (bought in the market the day before) and then Liz worked whilst I lay in the sun on the roof terrace and read. Have I told you of my obsession with dates? I have an OBSESSION with dates. I once ate a 500g bag of dates in one afternoon. All on my own. They are like candy to me. I think they taste like raw cake dough. Over here, there are date trees everywhere and date stalls in just as many places. At lunchtime, I bought a date smoothie. A date smoothie! It was even more like cookie dough except it was cool and quenched my thirst and satiated my hunger too! I ended lunch with oily warm Moroccoan bread filled with cheese and amazing fresh orange juice that I drank so quickly the stall-holder took pity on me refilled my glass half-full again. The heat of the midday sun was getting too much for us though and we stumbled back to our hotel for more relaxing spa treatments (Liz) and a bikini-wax torture session (for me. Only my third ever and I still feel morally opposed to them – hey world, what exactly is wrong with my naturally occurring hair? But, like shaving my legs and my underarms, the instinct to be hairless is still so culturally ingrained that I still do it occasionally). Mint tea and cakes in the afternoon and then sitting around on ridiculously comfortable couches reading Vanity Fair articles to one another. I’m ending my night on the roof-top terrace, which is once again a bearable temperature and my absolute favourite place in the hotel. The lights just turned on and the calls to prayer have started. It’s magic and haunting and unbelievably beautiful.

Ok. 3400 words. Enough.

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Morocco

Well today’s post is a no-brainer. What new and exciting thing am I going to write about today? What have I done today that I can conceivably describe as something I have never done before??

HOW ‘BOUT VISITING FREAKIN’ MARRAKECH, EH?

Yep. Today, Liz and I headed to Morocco, for my very first taste of the African continent (as a side note, I now only need to visit Antartica and I will have visited all the continents on earth. Liz has already beaten me, which I am only slightly sour about).

From the moment the North Atlantic Ocean disappeared, I could tell this was going to be a very different experience to anything I have had recently. Hell, anything I had ever had ever. I don’t go to hot places usually. I don’t *do* desert. A long time ago I decided mountains and snow were the most beautiful thing in the entire world and I spent the next 12 years of my adult life seeking out the most mountainous and the most snowy of all places to take myself. Norway. Alaska. Austria. Chile. New Zealand. My father dragged me, against my will, into the Australian outback. Drove me through New Mexico to Nevada to Los Angeles and the only time I perked up was when we went through Colorado and the altitude changed. The best thing about the trip, as far as I was concerned, was listening ad nauseum to the Forrest Gump soundtrack (I know, I know, I said I hated the movie. But I still kind of loved the music from it).

But, the thing about having great friends that you like and trust is that sometimes they convince you into doing things that you wouldn’t normally do. In January, miserable from the cold and the snow and the seemingly endless bad weather, Liz and I booked impulsive flights to Morocco whilst in the middle of a writing day at the Barbican Centre. We tend to egg each other on. So, one moment we are convincing each other it is perfectly acceptable to eat Tim-Tams and killer pythons for lunch and the next we are convincing each other it is perfectly acceptable to book flights to Morocco in June, despite the fact that neither of us no anything about the place, Liz has travel booked most months of the year and I will possibly only be returning from the USA a week before we go.

I’ve been incredibly lazy about the entire thing. Liz has pretty much arranged it all – got us the hotel, arranged a local person to show us around, checked us into our flights… If anything, I have been a hinderance to the process. I printed the boarding passes and then failed to check which airport we were coming back to, so we bought return tickets to Stansted, even though we fly back into Gatwick. Due to my blase attitude, I almost got us both boarded onto a flight to Amsterdam (I maintain the staff would have realised before we got on the plane and turned us around!) I also instigated a race up the escalators that got us noticed by security. Not in a bad way. Not in a Bridget Jones, let’s cart you off to prison kind of way. Just, when they were checking our passports, one of the guys asked, ‘So who won the race up the escalator?’ with a cheeky grin. Just so we knew they were watching (Ok, to be fair, Liz started that and then I upped the ante on the next escalator). I’m still not entirely sure whether or not the security guard was on the escalator with us, or whether or not they were watching us on security cameras and just wanted us to know they had seen how ridiculous we were being. Either way, we were slightly embarrassed. I swear there were more irritating things I did, but I can’t quite remember them right now. I freaked out on the take-off and landing, but I always do that, its just usually I’m not travelling with someone who is then distressed by my freak-outs.

So, first impressions of Marrakech? I don’t know that I’m going to do it justice. Its overwhelming. So many new sights and sounds. Too much to take in to be able to sit here and record it all. I want to stare at everything, but at the same time I don’t want to show too much interest, because then the stall holders think I want to buy something. You have to perfect the art of looking whilst not looking like you’re looking. Or, just keep walking slowly and steadily onwards, so they can’t keep talking to you. The men here are very full on. I’ve been called nice and beautiful and told ‘I like you’ more times tonight than I have in the last 6 months. They jump in front of you and try to get you to come to their cafe by getting right up in your face. The orange juice sellers call out to you with big smiles and wave you over. Everyone is very friendly, but everyone wants something from you too. It all takes some getting used to.

We walked around the main square this evening, which was so busy and so lit up. Traffic everywhere (there appears to be no delineated road and footpath really, but cars aren’t allowed on the main square – only motorbikes). Stray cats all over the place. Kids on rollerblades, happily slicing through traffic. A donkey pulling a cart with a large tray of apricots balanced on top. Men in sequinned burqas doing belly-dancing in the square. Billowing smoke from the street cafes and barbeques. Colourful leather slippers covering the stalls from the ground, up the walls and all over the ceiling. Brightly coloured ceramics, kaftans, silverware, scarves, jewellery doing the same. We heard the call to prayer echo out into the night and it was hauntingly beautiful. The mosque was lit up and we sat in front of it and watched the people go by. Kids played on roped-off ruins and no-one seemed to mind.

Some of it was scary. We saw an accident – someone stepped out in front of an oncoming motorbike; the bike swerved, sending the rider flying. He sat up, shook his head, seemed distressed that he had come off his bike, but not too hurt or angry. What was amazing was how quickly everyone rushed to his side to assist. Children stopped traffic to collect his missing shoe, which had gone flying into the middle of the road. Women leaned in to check his arms, his face, to talk to him and cheer him up.

We met a friend of our guide, who came up on a motorbike, a big smile on his face and a can of spray paint in his hand (he was planning on helping a friend to paint something that night – it was 11:15pm already!) He told us that in Morocco, there is saying, if you compliment someone, you tell them they are nice and beautiful and lovely, you are ‘painting them,’ which we both liked, especially considering what he was holding. He also told us we would be coming back to Marrakech again, because we would fall in love here and we would have to come back. One of the names for Marrakech is the ‘City of Love’, for the pink and red colours of their buildings, which comes from the earth around Marrakech. I know its early days yet… but he might just be right.

 

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