Funky Old Medina

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Funky Old Medina
Marrakech, Morocco

Marrakech, Morocco


We started the already too hot day with a breakfast of Moroccan pancakes and fresh juice on the rooftop terrace of our riad. That was to be the last peaceful moment of the day.

With no particular agenda or pre-trip research to guide us, we headed straight back to the Jemaa el fna and although we are staying practically on its doorstep, we were each propositioned and groped several times along the way. Yesterday, it has seemed to me that Liz had been groped far more than I had (not that I was complaining). She suggested it was because I couldn’t feel it as well through the denim of my jeans. Todays more climate appropriate dress validates her theory!

As the market place was swinging into action for the day, we agreed on a good cop/bad cop routine but we hadn’t factored in the tenacity of the local operators. Within minutes, Liz was set upon by one of the hundreds of henna tattoo touts and before she could say ‘I’d like to very much but my friend here won’t allow it’, she was already decorated up to her elbow and attempting to haggle for the service she never wanted. We did our best to wipe it off but she was well and truly marked as target. At least next time we’d be prepared…

… we dared to glance sideways at a snake charmer and it was only a matter of seconds before we both had them draped around us, our cameras commandeered, smiling through the terror and then separated to extort individual payments for the experience that again, I don’t remember asking for. Although it seems to be the quintessential Moroccan tourist thing to do, I regretted it immediately after knowing that the only way to safely handle a venomous snake is to defang it. Snakes should have fangs to do what snakes do which doesn’t include posing for pictures (as seen here).

Between Liz’s stained arm, my gnawing conscience and the sun beating down at around 45 degrees, we were hesitant to take another step. But then we saw something in the distance… a familiar site that offered respite from the heat, hassle and itinerary building… was it a mirage? No, it was a double decker tourist bus. We didn’t care that it was cheating and by now, it was becoming my new thing to orientate myself in lieu of map reading skills!

We climbed aboard and sat upstairs in the shade. It wasn’t air conditioned but once we were moving the breeze was a welcome relief. I’m not going to recount all the sites we saw, mostly because I was too hot to retain any information. We stayed on for two laps, waiting for the heat of the day to abate a little before we hit the streets again on foot.

When we did, we found it as we had left it, only busier and hotter. We dipped into the markets again cautiously and being hassled all the way by male suitors. Liz, who was being repeatedly referred to as ‘Hannah Montana’ presumably being the archetypal blonde, was offered ‘free massages’ to be done personally by the tout himself, whilst I was stopped in my tracks by the simple questions ‘how much?’ – to my outraged, yet bemused response, he backed off a little adding ‘…for sex!’ to clarify the obvious misconception I had to have warranted such a response! My mind is still boggling at what he thought I thought he was offering money for!

Time for more respite… or so we thought… we headed back to our riad for a hamman (traditional massage) which we had booked at the private spa. We put on our swimsuits and headed downstairs to the basement where were met by our French speaking masseuse. We think she told us to strip but we declined her kind offer, sheepishly clinging to our modesty. With a shrug of her shoulders she ordered us into the treatment room – a marble cell with taps at one end and nothing else – no candles, no flute music, no tables to lie on. We were directed to sit on the floor which we did, already intimidated by her apparent strength and sternness. Even so, we weren’t properly braced when she then proceeded to throw buckets of water on us!

We huddled, prepared to tell her anything she wanted to know but she wasn’t going to let us crack that easily! Instead she gave us each a handful of black goo and insisted we smear it all over ourselves… ALL over – she wasn’t falling for the old prudish-I-don’t-want-to-be-naked-in-fro nt-of-my-friend trick! We complied and she left us alone in our filth for a few minutes. Clearly the cell was bugged and she was expecting us to talk while she was away but we didn’t give the game away. I guess that’s why she came back and threw more buckets of water at us!

Then it got interesting! Liz was dismissed to a corner while I was laid out flat on my back. Clearly our masseuse had had it with the whole swimsuit thing and just ripped mine down. I’m pretty sure I shouted out to Liz “CLOSE YOUR EYES!” as though she hadn’t already, rocking away in her designated corner! You have to understand that we made it through four years at an all girls high school, mastering the art of changing in a crowded PE change room without exposing so much as a peep of flesh. To have it end this way – in a wet basement cell in Morroco – oh the indignity!

Then the scrubbing of a lifetime began. On one freakishly strong hand she had what felt like a steel wool mitt, the other she used to keep piling on the grit. She was very efficient and thorough in her work. What precious little of my swimsuit she had allowed to remain, posed no obstacle either, she just lifted it up to access all areas. When my front was either gleaming or bleeding, she flipped my over in one graceless move and set to work on my back, again cleaning bits that I previously assumed to be self cleaning! Clearly frustrated by my unwillingness to squeal despite this torture, she again tried the buckets of water and smearing more mud on me. It didn’t work so I was dismissed to the corner while she laid Liz out perhaps thinking seeing a friend tortured would make me cave. Well, I showed her, I just sat there with my eyes closed hoping it would soon end!

Her penulitimate move was to leave us lying all nuddy and muddy on the floor for an undetermined length of time. We heard her outside the room talking with her colleagues before eruptin into laughter. We did the same, eyes still averted.

The last weapon in her arsenal was to have me stand, swimsuit discarded completely for a final round of bucketing. With that, I was unceremoniously dismissed. Liz joined me moments later. We dressed and walked back to our room in stunned silence, not sure if we should report what we’d just paid to have done to us. What we couldn’t deny is that we actually felt invigorated and cleaner than we’d ever been. As for that henna tattoo that should have lasted two weeks – gone without a trace!

Feeling renewed we went in search of a restaurant we’d read about. We wandered down various winding alleys, unsure of which were marked on our map and which weren’t. Eventually we accepted the offer of directions from a shop keeper whilst simultaneously declining his offer to join him in the back of his shop for tea instead. After all that, the restaurant was closed so we settled on a nearby alternative where we dined serenaded by the the call to prayer across the city from the nearby Koutoubia Mosque.

Fortified, the time had come to stop skirting Jemaa el fna and dive right into the heart of the souks (markets). Everything we’d heard and read about Marrakech began with a cautionary tale about getting lost in the labyrinthine souks, how it was inevitable and that you’d eventually need to pay someone to guide you out. These warnings were intended for mere mortals, not those gifted with superpowers of disorientation. With that in mind, we entered the fray with total abandon and acceptance of our fate.

The crowds seemed to part for us, the constant cat calling heralding our way making it difficult to truly get lost in the crowd or even stop to have a proper squiz at the weird and wonderful array of beaten metal light shades, slippers, daggers, clothing, jewellery, dry goods, spices – you name it, they had it. We must have wa
ndered around for a couple of hours. Once Liz had successfully haggled for a souvenir camel carving to add to her collection and we’d been told we had ‘nice legs’ for the thousandth time (the mystery here being that we both had ankle length dresses on, obscuring our legs entirely, nice or otherwise) we decided we were good to go.

Prepared for it to take a while, we followed our instincts which, historically speaking, is the last thing we should’ve done whilst lost in an apparently impossible maze. We found an exit within minutes and knew exactly where we were! Thinking it had been too easy and had to be a fluke, we plunged back in, turning this way and that without leaving a trail of breadcrumbs and tried again… and again, in a matter of minutes, we’d found our way out and although in a different spot, still knew exactly where we were. Now we were just getting annoyed – we’d been promised by all literature and accounts, a crazy adventure of being lost in these exotic souks that have confounded the likes of Indiana Jones and countless of others more adept at navigation (not all of them fictional either!). For our last attempt, we tried with all our might to get well and truly lost… again, we were spat out within minutes, not just at a place we recognised but somewhere very convenient for our onward journey!

The explanation for this is most likely that I have been grossly underestimating Liz’s survival skills and am unfairly tarring her with the same brush as myself. However, the theory I prefer is that somehow my brain can only find order in chaos. Seriously, I have gotten lost in bed before – true story! By rights, I should still be lost in that souk or given up and be living life as a Moroccan but I’m not because the chaos that confounds the logical mind, was clear in my own. Nah, it was Liz.

We rewarded ourselves with another obscenely cheap freshly squeezed orange juice and wandered through the traditional night theatre so rare and unique that UNESCO developed a whole project around it – the Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity project which is best summarised in this excerpt from the project launch speech; “The spectacle of Jamaa el Fna is repeated daily and each day it is different. Everything changes — voices, sounds, gestures, the public which sees, listens, smells, tastes, touches. The oral tradition is framed by one much vaster — that we can call intangible. The Square, as a physical space, shelters a rich oral and intangible tradition.”

Back at our riad, we ended the day where we started it, on the roof terrace overlooking the city, once again enjoying the relative solitude and brightly coloured mocktails which we may or may not have had the foresight to spice up with a little something from our room.


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