15.01.2005 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...