My old friends Incognito serenaded me this morning as I packed the final few items into my bag for my next trip. I joined them “I’m on my way to the streets of Marrakech…” and then said another goodbye to my carers – Vic, Pete and Rollo who had lovingly prepared me a packed lunch for the flight. But before I could fly, I had to get to the Stansted airport!
Elizabeth and I rendezvoused at Victoria coach station with our matching wheelie bags looking every bit the seasoned travel companions that we are with once major exception – we were now a party of two and not three as we had always been in the past. It was long running joke on all those previous trips that without Matthew, the two of us would probably just get lost and die from our own incompetence. Where better to put that theory to the test than both of our first visit to Africa!
The coach ride to the airport seemed to take days although it was probably closer to 2 hours. Once there, we had to contend with the unnaturally orange staff at the Ryanair counter (their necks were white as the driven snow but their faces where identical shades of oompa-loompa. I can only assume Michael O’Leary got his ************** lot of foundation and is coercing his staff to buy it) and then proceed through customs where Liz got quite the going over and I had another bottle of contact lens solution confiscated.
In the time that I’ve been away from London, the tide seems to have turned on Ryanair. Once the much loved, low cost leprechauns of the sky, they now seems to have struck contempt into the heart of every traveler with an ever growing list of hidden charges and impossible restrictions. At one point I saw our entire queue cower and hide their bags at the sight of a man with a strange box walking by. I learned that they have introduced ‘the box’ which your luggage must fit into or else pay an exorbitant amount to check it in. The idea of standard sized carry on luggage is common enough but this box is like no piece of luggage I’ve seen – I imagine the only manufacturer of such luggage would be Ryanair itself. We escaped the wrath of the box and had a pleasantly uneventful flight (although the man next to us did feel compelled to move).
Flying into Marrakech was a genuine thrill as the ‘red city’ sprawled out below us (so called for the ubiquitous pink ochre buildings). When we got off the plane, the first thing that struck me was the heat. The second was the light which was also imbued with a pinkish hue. The third was the inefficiency of Moroccan customs which took an hour to clear. It was a relief to see the sign for “Mrs Naomi” being held by the driver we’d arranged through our riad (traditional guest house) still waiting for us. We followed him to his car and the adventure began!
It was a white knuckle ride to the edge of the city where we abruptly stopped. Although clearly not at our riad, the driver gesticulated that we should get out as he threw our bags into the cart of a toothless crone who he suggested we follow. Before we could question the wisdom of it, the ancient man was off and away at an unlikely pace, darting through a sea of humanity, the likes of which neither of us had encountered before. The mall eventually gave way to the main market square and the heart of Marrakech, Jemaa el fna.
The sea of humanity became a vast ocean and if there’d been any doubt until now, there was no more – we weren’t in kansas anymore! Luckily we just skirted the edge of the market and followed our crone down an alley leading off the square and to our riad. Our bags were unloaded, tip paid by the receptionist and added to our bill.
The riad itself is a beautiful example of Moroccan architecture with its open central courtyard, internal garden and mosaic tiling which again left us in no doubt that we were someone completely different to anywhere either of us had been before. We stopped in our room only long enough to catch our breath and exchange stories of the innumerable gropings and propositions already amassed on our way.
Without further adieu, we headed headlong back into the Jemaa el fna. Overwhelmed and enlivened, we were enveloped by the smoke filling the air and the swirling crowds. The atmosphere was festive and frenetic and despite the chaos and madness, it was a crowd we were unable to get lost in because our mere presence seemed to change the scene around us. It was clear that we two single ladies were not from around these here parts and attracted all manner of attention, most of it in a version of english gleaned entirely from Only Fools or Horses (further disclosure of our Australian roots also garnered an inordinate amount of Summer Heights High references!)
We attempted a furtive first plunge into the heart of the market and within minutes had seen more than we could have hoped to in the whole trip – snakes, silverwear, pottery, clothes, bags, slippers, spices piled high, dried fruits and nuts and so on and all of it set to a constant barrage of attention, both commercial and sexual in nature. Perhaps it was the overtness or the constancy of the attention, but it didn’t feel threatening so much as ridiculous and unprecedented.
Having not braved a full exploration, we were still close enough to the edge to find our way back to the food vendors to attempt our first meal. We took up a seat at the stall attended by the people who’d made us laugh most and which had a reassuring mix of locals and fellow travelers. We ordered a few things and were served many more – olives, salads, cous cous, tagine vegetables, skewers – more than two people could ever eat but we gave it a good go and washed it down with some refreshing sweet mint tea.
Feeling both food and sensory overload, we decided to call it a night and meander back to our riad which of course involved making our way once again through the crowds, now in full swing with night time entertainment. We passed more snake charmers, monkey handlers (who handled one right onto Elizabeths head to her horror), musicians, story tellers and a whole host of bizarre carnival games.
Safe and sound in the relative solitude of the riad, we were too electrified by this first day in a new continent to sleep and stayed up having conversations as weird and wonderful as the day that preceded them until a friendly knock on the door at 1am reminded us of our tendency to lose volume control once lost to our imaginations.
For Liz and I to have gone anywhere on our own would have constituted high adventure but to be here, in Marrakech, Morocco, Africa … hold onto your hats people, this is going to be quite a ride!