A Travellerspoint blog

January 2005


sunny 20 °C


After a couple of days ingesting Saharan dust, churned up from our "luxury" mini-bus, we stopped overnight in a Marrakchi riad, a beautifully designed house set around a courtyard with a fountain at its centrepiece. It was rather palatial after a night spent in the bitterly icy Sahara with putrid smelling camel blankets to keep us warm.

From here we caught a spiffy Supratours bus out to Essaouira, a charming coastal town, that is blindingly whitewashed in contrast to the warm ochre hues of Marrakesh. Its quaint surroundings have afforded it popularity amongst painters, writers, hippies, and package tourists sporting their knee-high socks with Birkenstocks, whilst the whipping Atlantic winds have brought it notoriety as a mecca for wind-surfing. Essaouira comes from the Arabic word for "walled", and its fortified ramparts, juxtaposed by the raging Atlantic waters, make for an immensely dramatic scene.

Unfortunately, our time here was short, and after a quick roam about the medina and fishing port, we made our way back to the bus stop, to return to Marrakesh.

As we hastened our pace toward the bus stop, I noted a sparkling Supratours bus accelerating toward us. Before we had a chance to even read the destination sign, the bus was gone, and we were faced with the inevitable horror that is catching a local bus.

Now I have done my fair share of dodgy local transport over the past couple of years: notably the marijuana fumed upstairs of Dublin's 77 bus; the overcrowded Laotian cargo boats plying the Mekong; and countless tuk tuks, pick-up trucks and motos across South East Asia. Really, it shouldn't bet that bad right?

Dear dear dear...our adventure began upon our arrival at the immaculate(ly grotty) city bus station where a cacophonic ranting of touts welcomed us by screaming out destinations at random (just for fun, try saying Agadir [Ah-guh-deer] in rapid succession for a couple of minutes), and following us around, with the hope that we may just follow them to their ticket booth
and they collect a few dirhams commission. Eventually we bought "comfortable" tickets on one of the local buses back to Marrakesh, and boarded for our journey.

We were welcomed onto the bus by an elderly gentleman who walked the length of the bus, initially ranting about "the price of eggs in China", before bursting into a disharmonious rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. It was a very hand-on-your-heart moment. Well, perhaps not. It is probable that he was praying to Allah for a safe journey. It is a lovely notion for one to
pray for a safe journey, though one must wonder if it is done out of thoughtfulness or dire necessity.

Aside from the repulsive odour of canine faeces wafting down the aisle, and the frequent honks of the bus driver's horn (a-la Vietnamese taxi drivers), the journey, though not particularly
"comfortable", was rather uneventful and we seemed to be chugging along just fine.



Quickly, the ticket attendant flicked on the light to confirm what we suspected

It immediately became apparent that a mother in the seat opposite ours had fallen asleep with her baby daughter resting peacefully in her arms. As the mother had dozed off, the baby must have slid from her grasp, and fallen to the ground... eeeeek....She seemed to be ok, though I spent the remainder
of the trip on the edge of my seat, in case the mother dozed off again.

Fortunately she didn't, and baby continued the journey sucking contentedly on her dummy/soother, apparently obvlivious of what had happened.

After some kip back in Marrakesh, we opted to take a train up the coast, to Casablanca, the economic capital and most populous city in Morocco. I had heard that Casa was akin to any other city in the developing world - overpopulated, rife with social problems and a tad polluted. Polluted would
be an understatement. The air in Casablanca is a national disgrace and sufficiently filthy to make one feel ill. Inhaling through the sleeve of my shirt dulled the intensity somewhat, but obnoxious it certainly was.

The main reason for our stop in Casablanca was to visit the Hassan II Mosque, the world's third-largest religious monument (I think Cambodia's Angkor temples are #1) capable of holding 25000 worshippers. Of course our last minute decision to stop here en route north meant that we happened to be passing through on a Friday, which as Muslim holy day, meant we were unable to visit the interior of the complex (d'oh) . So we settled for
parking our buttocks on a seat outside the mosque and watching the throngs of worshippers come and go from it. As the sun began to sink in the late afternoon, the seaside area became decidedly seedy, so we made for our dingy hotel back in town, missing the spectacle of the late night laser show that is projected from the top of the 210m high minaret each night.

Unable to suffocate on anymore Casa fumes, we journeyed onward to Fes, home to the largest living medieval city in the Arab world. For hours at a time we wound our way about the medina, admiring locally crafted artisanal goods, trying on shoes and peering into the entrances of the many medersas (theological seminaries) and mosques. We went in search of the tanneries
where the famous leathergoods of Morocco are crafted today in the same manner that they have been for several thousands of years using the same stinky ingredients to treat the leather.....pigeon poo, cow urine, fish oils, animal brains etc... (no wonder mum's beautiful fuschia handbag has been relegated to its position on the back verandah).

We wandered through the colourful fruit and vegetable markets to the heady odours of meat markets where you can opt for fresh goat's head, if you aren't in the mood for chicken wings. We met loads of 7 year old boys who wanted to make a few dirham by guiding us to the tanneries (or to their uncle's best friend's cousin's business partner's shop), as well as a man who touted himself initially as an "official guide", before correcting himself and proclaiming himself to be a "hustler". And of course we met lots of friendly local boys who thought I might be interested in marrying one of them! Can't blame these guys for trying though. In a society where the local women are barely seen, and the images of women from the west are predominantly of the likes of Britney Spears cavorting about in her leather gear, western women really must seem like fair game to these lads. Still....it is very bothersome.

After escaping Fes without a husband (apparently I requested too many camels), we headed to the chilled out city of Meknes, home to the old imperial city of Moulay Ismail, a 17th century sultan who was famed not only for bringing widespread unification to Morocco, but for his tendency to chop off the heads of anyone who displeased him. You gotta give the guy some credit though as he built a pretty amazing city filled with spectacular
gateways, medersas and palaces. He also built massive granaries to store vast quantities of food for the people as well as his 12 000 horses. As is the case with the kasbah of Ait Bennadhou, the granaries are popular with film-makers for their ancient atmosphere.

As much as Meknes was a delightful constrast to Casa and Fes, it was a nightmare to try and get a taxi here. Along with hundreds of locals, we waited at the Place el-Hedim to flag down a taxi. After watching the locals, it became pretty obvious what had to be done.

1. Spot a taxi
2. Sprint madly for it along with everyone else
3. Run along side the still moving taxi (preferably making contact with it the whole time)
4. Try and open the doors while it is still moving and climb in
5. Be assertive, even agressive - it is YOUR taxi
6. If you are foreign, sprint twice as fast
7. Push if necessary but not too hard
8. Be first into the taxi!

Exhausting? Absolutely! Took us half an hour to get a taxi back to the hotel! Yeah and I looked like a right eejit running after taxis too!

After a couple of hours wandering about the ancient ruins of Volubilis (settled by the Carthaginian trades around 3 BC), we returned to Tangier to board our ferry back to Spain...

No touts, no donkeys, no marriage proposals...... Just the joys of shopping, tapas, and churrerias...

Bel x

Posted by Backpasher 23:05 Archived in Morocco Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Conversation with a souq salesman

sunny 17 °C

Vendor: Bonjour mademoiselle/gazelle, ça va?
Me: ça va bien
Vendor: Français? Espanol? English, Belgique........Australian?
Me: Oui, je suis de Australien
Vendor: Ah le kangaroo, Welcome our country!
Me: Merçi
Vendor: What you want? Slipper? Bag? I make good price for you (interchangeable with "Prix democratique"). Very cheap.
Me: Just looking
Vendor: Ok only looking, looking free
Me: (nods, quick side-ways glance at a gorgeous handbag)
Vendor: (dexterous manoeuvre to remove it from its nail on the wall and opens it up to show me)
See, very nice, handmade, good quality. How much you pay?
Me: Only looking, looking free
Vendor: Ok ok, no problem my friend, I do you good price, today everything half price
Me: Everyday half price no?
Vendor: Special price today. Ok ok how much you pay?
Me: C'est combien?
Vendor: 370 dirham!
Me: Ooh la la!!! Trop cher! (turns away in disgust)
Vendor: Ok ok, how much you pay? How much maximum?
Me: hmmmm 50 dirham
Vendor: (looks away in disgust) ok no way miss, excuse-a me, serious price, how much you pay?....yadda yada yadda...until an agreeable price is decided...

Posted by Backpasher 22:03 Archived in Morocco Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Marrakesh to Merzouga

sunny 17 °C


After a flight to Malaga, and an afternoon spent in the British settlement of Gibraltar chasing about the Barbary apes and devouring a some grand Pommie fodder (aka Fish and Chips), we made the long journey south to Marrakesh. This journey involved an early start to catch the 6am ferry from Algeciras to Tangier, a taxi ride to the Gare de Tangier Ville, a 5 hour train journey to Casablanca, and then another few hours on the train, sharing a carriage with Morocco's answer to Paris Hilton (sans coffieured chiuaiua), before finally arriving in Marrakesh at around 7pm and heading straight into the heart of the medina at the Djemaa el-Fna.

The Djemaa el-Fna is the pulsating heart of Marrakesh throughout the day, and even moreso in the evenings. From the haze of smoke swirling through the air, to the drones of the snake charmers; from the stench of donkeys pottering through the square to the richness of the tajines stewing from the dozens of food stalls that line the square. Everywhere you look, constant activity and abundance of colour: the mariachi brother water sellers; henna tattooists and tarot card readers calling out for custom from behind their veils; dishevelled felines scrounging for scraps of food and basking in the warm afternoon sunshine; the constant flow of ewok-attired men on foot, bicycle, motorbike or donkey-drawn carts; exotic dancers (who happen to be men) trying to woo other men; men fishing for coke bottles....oh yes, it is truly bizarre...no pun intended!....

And then in the evenings, the square lights up with 100 or so stalls selling kebabs, salads, deep fried eggplant, olives, tajines, couscous etc. If you are a little more adventurous you can feast on some boiled snails, before topping it all off with fresh orange or grapefruit juice, or a cup of mint tea.

Aside from the incessant activity of the Djemaa al-Fna, there are of course the labyrinthine souqs, which lie at the centre of the ochre hued medina. The souqs are as fascinating and envigorating as they are bothersome. Anything you want, you can probably find: pointy turned-up fuschia coloured shoes; amethyst jewels encrusted in suspiciously shiny "silver"; handmade handbags straight from the tanneries; kaftans in a multitude of colours; chickens, chameleons, tortoises; chinaware; traditional berber medicine (even "la viagra, pour la rumba bumba" as one fourteen year old boy shouted out)...and the list goes on. Yeah, so it's great, but oh so tiresome. Every single shop you pass, the deal is the same.... (see bottom of page)...... plenty of hassle, everyone has the best quality products, everyone is your best friend as long as they think you will buy.....oh fond, fond memories of all the best friends I made in the markets of Vietnam.

Besides the constant hassle from the vendors in the souq, is the peril beset upon one who dares work his/her way around a corner without first peering ahead. No, it's not a monobrow- infested hairy belly dancer.....nor is it likely to be a moto, though it is not entirely impossible.....it's probably a hobbling mule carrying stacks of coke bottles on its back; the driver side-saddling the beast as he shouts "attencione" to forewarn (usually morelike a postwarning) pedestrians of his wished passage.

In addition to the surplus of mules in Morocco, are the surplus of lecherous young men who vilely prey upon golden-haired western females. Roughly 75% of Morocco's population are under 30, and if you based your male to female ratio on the amount of attention a western female receives on an average days wander about the town....you'd be thinking oh 97:3. The salutations range from the unimaginative ("Bonjour gazelle", "Salut!" "ça va?") to the positively proposterous ("Wanna come to my place?", "I make you very happy", "Wanna see my ______", yes, just think of the last one as a cloze exercise). We had a few followers, and one young lad who tried the tack of encircling us several times while he fluttered his eyelashes . Oh dear dear dear....

Away from the hustle and hassle of the souqs are a few places of relative calm, including: the remains of the Palais el-Badi, with storks nesting atop its high walls; the Saadian Tombs, a beautifully designed mausoleum; and the Jardin Marjorelle, a lavishly set garden owned by Yves Saint Laurent, and set about a royal blue villa.

Heading out from Marrakesh, we left behind the vivacity/cacophony of the medina, and made our way over the snow-capped High Atlas to the kasbah of Ait Benhaddou, which tumbles as a red sandstone maze of houses down a hillside amidst a palmeraie. Name not familiar? It's the kasbah which provides the backdrop for several films, including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator, and currently only accessible by donkey-back across a usually dried-up stream (to the ass-owners´ delight, it is now flowly vigorously).

Continuing on from here we wound our way past the lunar Anti- Atlas into the Dades gorge, which is rather spectacular, though ludicrously frosty when the sun goes down. Onwards we continued the next day to the Todra gorge, formed along a fault line, and then further onto the hammada (harsh stony desert). Save for the occasional berber shepherd tending his goat herd, or the life pouring from the intermittent kasbah, the journey from here out to the Sahara proper was relatively monotonous....

Until the rough stony plains turned into gentle sandy ripples, and eventually the ochre Saharan dunes of the late afternoon in Merzouga. As the sun set across the Erg Chebbi, we rode in caravan out to our bivouac for the night. As romantic as the notion of a camel-ride by caravan to a Saharan bivouac by sunset is, ooh it´s not very comfortable.......

Downright painful to be precise, but the luminous confetti of stars scattered delicately over the desert dunes was an astonishing sight to behold, and well worth the effort of getting there.

Upon rising early in the morning, we returned to the backs of the belching, bony camels, and made our way back to Merzouga, and then Marrakesh.

To be continued...

Belinda xo

Posted by Backpasher 21:56 Archived in Morocco Tagged backpacking Comments (0)