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

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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