2016 Grateful 51

It’s been a long time since anyone scrubbed me down and washed me. The last time was most likely during a hospital stay in Cherry Orchard some 20 years ago. But, as is more usual that not, I hadn’t done my research and had little idea what to expect from a Hammam. I had some vague notion of a steam room followed by a massage, but didn’t think much beyond that.

Do I bring a swimsuit? Would they care? Surely there’ll be towels involved? Using various sign language she made it clear that I could strip to my birthday suit but men needed to be suitably clothed. Then it was in to the steam room where I was doused in water and told to sit and wait. So sit and wait I did.

Now, for someone for whom the thought of a long bath is far more enjoyable that the bath itself, I was soon getting antsy. I find it very difficult to sit and relax unless there’s a couch or a bed or some sort of wait involved. Just to sit for the sake of sitting with nothing to sit for – that does my head in.

After about 20 minutes, she returns with some black soap and proceeds to exfoliate me thoroughly. It was dark. I don’t know if I blushed. It was all very clinical anyway. Then I had to sit some more. Wait some more.

And then I was rinsed again, and oiled. And instructed to lie on my stomach to be massaged. It was grand though I’d have liked it a little stronger. But it was good. Then I had to lie and wait some more, while the steam room steamed and my pores opened and the magic hammam stuff happened. And I got even more antsy. I couldn’t lie so I sat up and even that was tedious.

Back again for more rinsing and oiling, I was then handed a bath robe and  told it was over. An hour all told. For about €20. No complaints there. And yes, I slept well afterwards and felt good.

BUT… and isn’t there always a but…

I discovered later that there were public Hammams (separate bathing for males and females, of course) where you can rent a bucket and buy some black soap and a mitt and even hire a woman to rub you down. But you also get to watch everyone else, listen to the gossip, and experience what it’s like to be Moroccan. Apparently everyone goes once a week – it’s a ritual. And they can spend up to three hours there (mad).

IMG_2566 (600x800)IMG_2570 (600x800)When we were up in the High Atlas, I saw a home hammam – and it reminded me a little of an American Indian sweat lodge made from clay. While I get the idea of detoxing and appreciate the need to relax every so often, for me it will take work.

I’m grateful, though, on two counts: that I got to finally experience a hammam, even if it was not quite the real thing; and that I now have a note to self to add ‘learn to relax’ to my list of things to do this year. It’s time. I’m old enough. I’m ready.

Opened or closed?

The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live. So said Flora Whittemore, an American woman who lived till 103 and so no doubt knew a thing or three about life.  I have had a fascination with doors for as long as I can remember. At various stages in my life I’ve wanted them open, always open, even into the bathroom. At other stages, I’ve wanted them closed. More times I didn’t care much one way or another. I never stop long enough to wonder why. I just accept. I go through phases.

One phase that has been pretty constant though is wanting to know what lies behind the various doors I’ve wandered past, down various streets, in various villages, towns, cities, and countries. And for a door lover, Morocco is door heaven, the town of Essaouira in particular.

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The mosaic tiling. The carved stone. The metal studs. The doors, in various stages of repair or disrepair, all lead to other worlds, to God knows what. The blue that is somewhat universally associated with Morocco is vibrant no matter how faded it is.

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And even when you add the ubiquitous graffiti, they still leave so much to the imagination. Perhaps it’s the colours that I’m so taken with. Or the sturdiness. Or the fact that they suggest former days of glory. Perhaps they’re some sort of analogy for aging gracefully, of shabby chic, of a slow but beautiful wearing away of glitz and glam. Even doors that aren’t doors at all front a story. I have no clue why they fascinate me so.  But fascinate me they do.

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Morocco wasn’t ever really on my list of places to go. Well, not high up there, anyway. And I still have a smidgin of trouble getting my head around the fact that it’s in Africa. And while I have often thought I could never live in an Islamic society – and still could never, ever, live anywhere that enforced Sharia law – a door, once shut, has now opened. Morocco changed my mind.

PS. Check out Steve McCurrry’s photos of doors – spectacular

Sleepy or stormy?

After the hustle that was the souks of Marrakesh, it was a refreshing change to wander about the souks in the medina in Essaouira where ‘no thanks’ was accepted as a polite rebuke, only occasionally met with eyes thrown to heaven or mutterings underbreath about what I assume was the equivalent of ‘bloody foreigners’. And in Essaouira, the mix was surreal: carcasses of meat hanging between the latest designer knockoffs.

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IMG_2731 (600x800)Sunshine during the day was lovely. Lots of cafés to stop off in and watch the world go by. Plenty of mosques to create a cacophony five times daily, including one just across the street from our blue-shuttered flat. The couple of days I spent in bed, sick, were interesting to say the least. I really should have paid more attention to the list of restaurants the landlady left for us. Her note beside one saying it was okay to eat the salads there should have rung an alarm bell and made me realise that it might not be okay to eat the salads elsewhere. Add that to taking over-the-counter antibiotics and overdosing on the paracetamol and it was a recipe for disaster.

IMG_2796 (800x600)IMG_2750 (800x600)IMG_2752 (800x600)Moroccan flats are bloody cold in winter. No heating systems. Twenty-four degrees outside and four degrees inside. I had plenty of time to wonder what I’d do were I to move over and I’m still none the wiser. That said, I think I still want to give it a go.

The view from the flat looked down over a
row of shops, one of which was kept going into the small hours of the morning, whatever it was he was selling.  The rooftops are covered with satellite dishes. Internet is cheap – just €2 for 400 MB and about €12 for a data card to IMG_2737 (800x600)make your own home wifi. It’s all a little at odds with the other-worldly feeling that permeates the place.

And much and all as I like to drive, being in a world within walls where no cars are allowed was very IMG_2736 (800x600)therapeutic. The whole place is a Unesco Heritage Site and so well it should be protected. A bolthole from the madness that lives just over the parapets.

My wish for 2016 is that I somehow find the money to buy a flat somewhere, just so that I can come back to Essaouira and furnish it. The carpets. The sconces. The leather. The pottery. The bedspreads. The choices. Truly a shopping heaven and so very very different from the proliferation of sameness that has beset the highstreets of Europe.

IMG_2785 (800x578) (2)But outside the walls that enclose this sleepy haven, the tides push and pull, fighting to make themselves heard. The surf rages. The seagulls compete with the muezzins come prayer time. It’s all in such stark contrast and from the inside looking out, quite spectacular. A fitting place indeed for Jimmy Hendrix to have written When the wind cries Mary.

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Surf or turf?

I’d be hard pushed to choose between a day by the sea or a day at the races. So any day that I can have both (of a sort) is a good one. Essaouira, a fishing town on the west coast of Morocco, about 3 hours by bus and €7 from Marrakesh, is famous for its surf. The Alizée winds are strong, the waves are high, and the thrill is there for the taking.

In the distance you can see the Island of Mogador, which now requires special permission to enter. It was once home to a massive open-air prison where pilgrims from Mecca would stay for 40 days to see if they were sick or not. And it had a mosque (where doesn’t?)

IMG_2676 (800x600)This late eighteenth-century fortified town is quite something. The town itself has been trading since the fifth century; it’s the fortified walls that went up some thirteen hundred years later. Outside the walls, a crescent-shaped beach wraps around the town adding even more strength to the fortification as the waves pound the rocks and spray the gallery of tourists who gather on the ramparts to watch the sun go down.

IMG_2875 (800x600)IMG_2640 (800x600) On any given day of the week, the musicians are out in force. Sit for a while at a beach café and it won’t take long for them to find you. Essaouira is far more relaxed when it comes to beer than Marrakesh – perhaps something to do with the sun? Or the surf? Or the type of tourist it attracts. IMG_2655 (800x600)IMG_2654 (800x601)Who knows? Whatever is going on, the rules in this Wind City of Africa seem a lot more lax and certainly the hassle factor is far softer.

It was here on New Year’s Eve that the culture of the country went on show, starting with horseracing of sorts on the beach. Saddles of Berber soldiers rushed at the promenade brandishing their muskets, screaming their war cries, and then letting loose their final volley. It was quite the spectacle with riders young and old alike, and some too cool for school.

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IMG_2677 (800x600) For the princely sum of €3.50, you could rent a sunchair and a pair of eyes to keep watch on your stuff. But the tide was out and the water was miles away. The sun was warm but the wind was biting. Getting wet would be no problem but drying off would certainly take some time. The tourists were in various stages of undress and no one seemed to mind. But it was interesting to see the locals well wrapped up – the complete opposite of how it used to be in Alaska with the locals in shorts and tshirts on days that the cruise ships docked and disgorged teams of hatted, mitted, and scarved tourists.

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IMG_2684 (800x600)IMG_2695 (800x600)At 3.30, the parade started. Groups of different types of musicians, presumably different clans or tribes, lined up to take their spot under the watchful eye of a suited and booted official. Most of the instruments were variations a theme. Drums, bugles, more drums, more bugles.

But it was yer man with a cake pan on his head that took my fancy. He was fascinating. Keeping balance and keeping time. What talent. Him I could have followed, had I not had places to go and things to see.

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Pop culture or traditional culture?

The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock’s 1956 thriller, with Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart opens in Marrakesh. Ten years later, in 1966, Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! with Tony Randall and Senta Berger, is part comedy and complete guide to what’s worth seeing in the city.  Even the Absolutely Fab pair spent an episode there. Spielberg filmed Raiders of the Lost Ark in the city in 1981; Scorsese followed in 1988 with The Last Temptation of Christ, and Stone topped it in 2004 with Alexander.

Walking through the narrow, windy streets of the Medina, I half-expected to see someone running from someone else. Car chases would be mad. Motorbike chases  a possibility. But the old reliable on foot dodge-em would be perfect. It’s hard to get a sense of city scape. But I’d imagine that viewed from above, it would be a different story entirely.

Kasbah Mosque

Kasbah Mosque

The Saadian Tombs date back to the sixteenth century, but lay hidden for years and years and years until 1917 when they were rediscovered during an aerial survey of the city by the French. Located in the Kasbah, next to the mosque, a pathway was built to access them and the grounds reclaimed. Architecturally, they are a fine example of  mosaic work and inlay.
IMG_2220 (800x600)It’s thought thIMG_2226 (600x800)at they were sealed back at the turn of the eighteenth century when Moulay Ismail was in power. Having destroyed the Badai Palace next door, word has it that superstition intervened and rather than destroying the tombs and risking the wrath of those who had gone before him, Ismail just sealed it all up leaving just one entrance, a well hidden one, open from the Kasbah Mosque.

For two hundred years or so, the dead rested in peace, undisturbed by clicking cameras or littering tourists. Today, it’s a sight to be seen if you’re in Marrakesh – and, in fact, it was the only one we visited on purpose. [I have a thing for cemeteries.]

IMG_2231 (800x754)IMG_2224 (600x800)Sixty-six tombs are housed in the two main mausoleums with another 100 or so graves in the gardens, including, interestingly, a few Jewish ones. The dead are mostly princes or members of the various royal households, their elevated status probably reflected in the brilliance of the mosaic and the intricate carvings of excerpts from the Qu’ran. It’s quite something really. And while you might be shoulder to shoulder with someone as you try to get a peek inside, it still manages to retain that sense of quiet, that air of solemnity.

It’s an ongoing restoration, a painstakingly slow one, a lot of which is done by hand. Just last month I saw something similar going on with tombs in Hyderabad – hand chisels and hand work. And even watching that process is fascinating, in and of itself. It made me wish that I had paid more attention to pronunciation in French class – I might have been able to ask some questions. [Are mosaic artists good at doing jigsaws?]

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IMG_2234 (600x800)The walls outside, the shared walls with whatever is next door, are a maze of pigeon nests. It’s hard to know whether they are old bullet holes or mortar holes or whether, as in Malta, they were made with pigeons in mind. I’d be interested to hear if anyone knows more? But perhaps as much as anything else, I was impressed by the tri-lingual write-up in the square outside, written in the first person, as if the square was talking about itself and the sights around it. A new one for me and one that I’d like to see catch on.

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2016 Grateful 52

There’s a saying at home that you can take the man out of the bog but you can’t take the bog out of the man. I’m not sure what’s in me. Urban or rural? City or countryside?

When I moved to Hungary, I wanted city. I wanted noise, life, chaos … anything that would take me away from the quiet, somnolent, comatosed life I had had in Chichester. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter I spent in Valdez, a small Alaskan town of about 4000 people. So I suppose it depends very much what I’m in the mood for and given that my moods can last years, it’s little wonder that I’ve stayed in Budapest as long as I have.

Or have I stayed so long because I leave so often? Because I go to places that are far quieter than Pest? Places where traffic in a given day is counted in donkeys and not cars? Places where kids still play in the street and all five families in the village know each other. Places where you stop and wonder what in God’s holy name do people do here all day?

The High Atlas are something special. Yes, the valleys and the rivers are spectacular and the scenery is jaw-dropping, but it’s the Berber villages that left me awed. You can do lots of day trips from Marrakesh,** there’s something for everyone – be it overnighting in the desert or visiting the beach or four-wheeling through the Sahara. Me? I wanted to see the villages and the people – the Berbers. What’s not to like about an ethnicity where the women get to choose their husbands?

IMG_2393 (800x600)IMG_2476 (800x600)IMG_2409 (800x600)We visited three valleys in the High Atlas, each one different in its own right. Ourika Valley is very popular with the Marrakeshis – a weekend retreat from the heat of the summer where they come to wallow in the cool waters of the Ourika River. Imagine taking Szimpla Kert or any other ruin pub in Budapest and plonking it outdoors beside the river … then you’d have Ourika and the village of Setti Fatma. It’s all a little bit mad really. Seeing sofas and dining tables and chairs set up on the banks of the river and even mid-river is quite something.

IMG_2416 (800x600)IMG_2422 (800x600)Our end goal was a waterfall. A waterfall at the back of the village and up a few stoney ridges. Our Berber guide reminded me of the young MT. While the rest of us were huffing and puffing and trying to find our feet, he was bouncing along up and down the rocks like a goat. We’d been IMG_2426 (600x800)warned to wear flat shoes and we were first that morning. On the way down, it was mayhem. They needed the  flag ladies out to direct traffic …  and some of those heels !!!! Mad. The lower part of the path was lines with artisan stalls selling all sorts of Berber handicrafts and once again, I was cursing the luggage allowance on Ryan Air and making a mental note to myself for next time.  There were plenty of cafés along the trail for those who dropped by the wayside and tempted though I was to let the others go on ahead, I’d never have lived it down. God bless those who have to hump in the cans of Fanta and bottles of water. It must be a thankless job. Gotta love the natural refrigeration though.
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One of the IMG_2444 (600x800)most remarkable things about Morocco is its colour. It is so vibrant. So not what I’d have expected from a society that is 98% muslim.  I don’t know why I expected sobriety to match with somber shades but I couldn’t have been further from the truth.  The waterfall, when we got there, was lovely. But beside Horsetail Falls or Bridal Veil Falls in Valdez, it would have looked more like a dribble. Then that’s life, though – a mishmash of perspectives that vary with time.  But I didn’t give up. I made it to the top. I persevered.

IMG_2514 (800x600)IMG_2532 (800x600)berber2 (800x450)The next valley over is Oukaïmeden Valley, distinctive because of its tricolour ridges shaded by basalt, copper, and iron oxide and famous as one of the premier ski resorts in Africa. No snow this year though – it’s been unseasonably warm. Many of the rivers we passed by were dry and the farmers are feeling the pain. The terraces hewn from the mountain faces that should by now be full of wheat were empty. It’s worrying, especially for a largely subsistence people who depend on what they can produce.

IMG_2487 (800x600)There aren’t enough schools or classrooms or teachers to go around so the kids go to school in shifts from 8 to 12 and from 12.30 to 5, older ones in the afternoons. There are two secondary boarding schools, too, and all education, what there is of it, is free. French is taught from 3rd class onwards and most kids are trilingual – French, Arabic, and  Tamaziɣt (Berber). Juxtapose this with women still congregating by the river to do their laundry and you have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming. 

IMG_2575 (800x600)We were booked in to have lunch at one of the village houses in Tachedirt, the highest village in the valley. Home cooking has never tasted better. We’d been on the road since 8.30am and I was hungry enough to eat a Berber bag, buttons and all. With tagine and couscous on the menu, we weren’t IMG_2565 (800x600)disappointed. Such is globalisation: this woman and her daughter catering lunch for some Austrians, Irish, Americans, and Australians, each of whom was marvelling at the simplicity of it all and no doubt a tad envious, too. The view was stunning. The food spectacular. And the air – so clean you could smell a blade of grass growing. Not for the first time this week I found myself wondering what it would be like to come back and stay a little longer…

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The third valley, Asni, is by far the most developed. It’s here that the rich people have houses and where Richard Branson has a hotel, with a swimming pool and room for a few ponies. I wonder what the locals make of the choppers flying in and out and whether the residents ever leave the poolside?

IMG_2571 (800x600)Asni, being that much more populated, has its markets at which most of the locals shop just once a week. Esnee has one on Saturda and some other village has one on Tuesday. Coming down from the mountains takes on a whole new meaning [anyone old enough to remember Come Down from the Mountains Katie Daly? – must be the altitude getting to me]. It’s here, too, that the majority of the fruit is grown – apples, walnuts, almonds, and peaches – as well as the bamboo used as roofing in the Berber houses. And with lots of houses going up, the urban sprawl from the city is making itself felt.

It was a spectacular day. One that will live on in the memory bank for a few years yet. I’m grateful indeed to be able to kick off this 2016 Grateful series by giving thanks, yet again, for the opportunities I have to travel, to see new places, to meet new people, to get a glimpse of other ways of life. And were I in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions, my first one would be: Travel … more.

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** www.getyourguide.com / moroccoattractivetours@gmail.com

Street food or restaurants?

I wouldn’t think twice about eating from a market stall in Dublin or Budapest or London or anywhere in Europe, but move me to another continent and the doubts set in. Horror stories from friends who have spent large chunks of their holiday wearing a path between the bed and the bathroom flood to mind. And while usually quite adventurous, I find myself erring on the side of caution.

Okay, in some places it’s the flies. I can’t eat anything that has flies dancing on it. In other places it’s the grime. The sink has to be clean. In more places it’s the greasy hair or the grubby fingernails. But in fairness, if I’ve not been warned, then I usually don’t think about it at all. And if I’m travelling with someone blessed with the constitution of an ox and a penchant for street food, it makes it all the easier.

IMG_2129 (600x800)IMG_2127 (800x600)Such was the case in Marrakesh. The food markets were amazing. The food was excellent and great value. I don’t know what they do with their eggplant – I’ve never had it taste so good. And as for the lamb – I was in heaven. I figured I could spend the week eating IMG_2238 (800x600)just like this.

I had eggplant with fish. Eggplant with lamb. Eggplant with chicken. Eggplant with just about anything I could find to go with it.

IMG_2468 (800x600)IMG_2583 (800x600)Tagines are the Moroccan speciality. Stews made from all sorts cooked in large conical clay pots (called Tagines), miniatures of which are sold by the truckload as souvenirs. In the city, they cook them on gas. In the Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains, they’re cooked over charcoal. Other IMG_2585 (800x600)than this, everything is the same, but the taste – so different. Slow cooking seems to be the way to go.

Couscous is also another staple in this carb-intense diet. The breads way too good though and the kilos could easily pile on.

IMG_2363 (800x600)We did go posh one night – to the La Pearl du Sud. And it was there that we discovered Pastilla. Filo pastry filled with savoury chicken and all sorts and covered with icing sugar and cinnamon. A different take on the old pasty, one I’ve made a goal to perfect when I get back to Budapest.

Being a Muslim country, alcohol is in short supply. In Marrakesh, it’s a rarity inside the Medina but across in the New Town, with its hundreds of new hotels, neon-lit fountain, and wide promenades, it’s available. The contrast between the two sides of the city is stark. The Medina, with its narrow, winding passageways, old riads, and suicidal scooter-riders pulsates with life. Gueliz is more like a Vegas wannabe, complete with casinos and private clubs. With more than 1000 hotels/riads in the city and 2 million visitors each year, the much-loved king – Mohammed VI – has embraced tourism and development. As you drive out of the city, the wasteland stretches for miles just begging to be built on. Golf courses and water parks offer something quite different to the riad experience. Personally, I can’t imagine coming to Marrakesh and not staying in the Medina. And eating the street food? That’s a  must.

 

Adamant or rude?

I need to learn how to say no. A firm, authoritative, no. One that brooks no argument. It doesn’t need an exclamation mark. Or any additional volume. It doesn’t need to be rude.  It should just be firm and final.  But despite years of trying, my no is pathetic. Lily-livered. Downright floppy.

IMG_2139 (800x600)IMG_2141 (800x600)I was up against the professionals. The souks in Marrakesh are the stomping grounds of some of the world’s best traders. They have their sales pitches down to a fine art. They’re people readers. They know what buttons to push. With me, they appealed to superstition. ‘You’re my first customer so I have to make you a good price, lady. Otherwise my luck will be bad all day,’ And yes, I know better but still I fall for it. Or they banter and make me laugh, make me like them. And then I’m doomed.

IMG_2167 (800x576)IMG_2201 (800x723)Many years ago, in Dubai, I watched a British colleague haggle with a trader for a suitcase to the point where the fun had gone and it was approaching embarrassment. There was no way what she was offering would cover his cost. I said as much and she was annoyed with me. I found it a tad immoral. Since then, I fix a price in my head that I’d be happy to pay and once I get to that, we’re done. And so what if the next person comes along and gets it at half again – them’s the breaks. I get to sleep easy.

IMG_2207 (800x499)IMG_2358 (800x600)But Marrakesh – Marrakesh is different. The bangle sellers in particular take no prisoners. They’re bandits. They’re relentless. They’re aggressive to the point of threatening. And I couldn’t get rid of the notion that I might be cursed or jinxed if I ungratefully returned the gift they’d clasped on my wrist – a token of friendship because they liked my blue eyes. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they’re all in cahoots because no matter how well I thought I’d done, someone always came up immediately after I’d closed the sale and offered me twice as many for half the price. My calves are black and blue from kicking myself.

I was warned not to make eye contact. But to ignore them and pretend that they’re not there is so rude. Terribly rude.  I couldn’t do it. Instead I had to admire, explain, and refuse to buy. And when the banter was really good and the tactics really clever, then I bought. And the banter can be good – with the lads especially. The women – they’re tough. They, too, use superstition. And the women talk of how they’re going to feed their babies if I don’t buy their wares. And the violins play quietly in the background, and before I know it, the bangle is on my wrist and the palm is open waiting for payment.But at least I can leave these shores knowing that I have done my bit to support several families. Perhaps even the same one.

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But the math doesn’t add up. When I think of the time it would take to string together some of the necklaces I was offered, not to mention the cost of the beads and stones and whatever, I can’t see how anyone is covering their costs. The stuff I had no interest in started at €20 and got as low as €3. But if I liked it, the movement was so slight as to be practically unnoticeable.

IMG_2621 (800x600)IMG_2624 (600x800)I’ve put it down to experience. When I come back next year, I’ll know where to buy, what to buy, and how much to pay for it. I’ll know to go to the spice market for my spices [freshly ground in front of my very eyes] and to a herbarium in the Jewish quarter for my Argan oil. I’ll know to stick to the souks where only the locals go for silverware and jars.  And I’ll know to bring a bigger suitcase.

This time around, I was amused at how they’d have the stuff wrapped before I could blink. I was useless in the face of their logic:

Four bottles for the price of three, then. Excellent quality. You will be very pleased.
I don’t need any, really.
Ok madam – three bottles for the price of two – just for you. Special price.
But I can’t take liquid on the plane.
No problem madam – two bottles for the price of one.
I have no room in my suitcase.
Of course madam, just these. Anything else?

Next time, the novelty will have worn off. Next time I will be more definite. Next time I will be more forceful. More adamant. But I could never ignore them. That would be rude.

 

Fear or propriety?

I can sit for hours and watch the world go by, blatantly staring at the teeming masses that flow back and forth as I sit and nurse a coffee. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to do so but it didn’t take me long to get back into the swing of it all. Such is Marrakesh. And in particular, the main square – Place Jemaa el Fna.

IMG_2342 (800x600)The place is a hive of cultural activity. From snakecharmers to dancing boys. From storytellers to musicians. From chained Barbary monkeys to traditional-hatted Berbers. This is where it’s all happening. The massive square is surrounded by the famous souks and myriad cafés and restaurants, all looking outwards at the spectacle on display. It’s like open-air theatre at its best – unscripted, spontaneous, and highly entertaining.

IMG_2278 (722x800)I had heard of the UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity – something along the lines of a Word Heritage status except that it’s not for a city or a town or a building but rather for a tradition. But I hadn’t realised that it was born in 2001 at the urging of those concerned that the cultural heritage on show at Jemma el Fna was in danger of dying a slow but steady death at the hands of economic development.

 

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.
— Juan Goytisolo, in a speech delivered at the opening meeting for the First Proclamation, 15 May 2001

IMG_2297 (600x800)Yes, if you dare to take a photo of a snakecharmer in action you have to cough up the 10 MAD (€1) for the privilege. And if you offer anything less to the musicians, you’ll be shamed publicly. Forget about trying to sneak a picture of a monkey or three. Moroccans are far from shy when it comes to naming and shaming. And they have eyes in the back of their head. For every one performer, there’s a bevy of watchers with ears attuned to the digital click of cameras and phones.

IMG_2298 (800x600)Morocco is 98% Muslim. I found that a little intimidating and so far out of my comfort zone as to be almost alien. If there are rules, I like to know them, so at least I’ll know what it is I’m breaking. Kissing in public is frowned upon but that’s okay – I’m not one for public displays of affection. I was more concerned about whether it was okay to show my ankles. They seemed to attract quite a lot of attention – mainly from matronly middle-aged women in full garb. I was concerned, too, about stopping for a coffee in a café with all men seated outside. And I was a tad bothered about whether or not to cover my head. But apart from the ankle stares, it seemed pretty lax.

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It did take me a while though to marry this 98% Muslim statistic and the religion’s thinking that homosexuality is a crime with the number of men strolling the streets holding hands. There are only five Muslim countries where homosexuality is not a crime – and Morocco isn’t one of them. I did a few double-takes before I got used to it all. Interesting though that my gay friends could walk hand in hand in a country where being gay is a crime and me, as a heterosexual woman, thought twice about holding hands with a man. And, of course, last year, there was the case of Ray Cole – the British chap who got jail time after being arrested in the city for partaking in homosexual acts. Yep – Marrakesh is nothing if not interesting.

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I was fascinated with the robes (djellabas) and the women’s penchant for ankle-length furry, animal print, hooded, buttoned dressing-gowns (well, that’s what they reminded me of). Mad altogether.

With a 60:40 ratio of Berber to Arab [the Arabs arrived around the 7th Century and converted everyone to Islam, while the Berbers are the original inhabitants], children are whatever their father is. So with a Berber mum and an Arab father, the children will be Arab. The pointy hoods when worn up at night gave me the heebie jeebies. And while I never felt in any danger, the shadows were reminiscent of the KKK and did cause the old blood to flow a little faster.

I was most impressed by people’s ability to do nothing. So many just sat and watched. While others stood and chatted, No one seemed to be in a hurry to go anywhere. Conversation seemed very much part of the way of life, a refreshing change from the home where everyone is too busy online to have time to ask anything other than what the wi-fi code is.

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I saw the local women sporting all seven types of headdress  from the hijab to the burka, although the latter I only saw once. Most wore niqabs or al-amiras. I found myself mentally chastising other foreigners who I thought to be inappropriately dressed and wondered at how quickly I’d become so judgmental. Never before have I been so put out at a bra strap showing. Whether it was fear or my innate sense of propriety working on overdrive, I’m not sure.

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Sitting on one of the many rooftop terraces overlooking the square as the sun sets is one of the more spectacular sights I’ve seen in my travels. The many calls to prayer compete for airspace as the muezzins recite the adhan. There was something a little suspect about the timing though, as they all seemed to be slightly out of sync. [I wondered fleetingly if all the Angelus bells in Ireland are synchronised.] And coming over the loudspeaker as they do, the human voices have an almost robotic quality that had me wondering if I was listening to a recording. [Yes, while I know something about some things, there’s a lot about which I’m clueless.] If you’re in Marrakesh, be sure and find a rooftop come dusk. It’s worth it.

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