Marrakech reminds me of The Mos Eisley Cantina. It smells of dry earth and sweet soap.
I booked this trip on a whim. I was warned that it would be challenging and at first I thought everyone I’d spoken to had overreacted. I am an idiot but we’ll get to that.
As we drove into Gueliz I became aware that there were seemingly no road rules. Filled with 50cc motorcycles and bicycles and donkeys and people and buses, the traffic seemed more like a swarm or a school. The beige Mercedes Benz taxis as full as clown cars, buses the same, sometimes 3 people on the back of a motorcycle. The smattering of colours from the date palms to olive groves and the vibrant hijab and niqab of the women, the elegance of the French influenced police uniforms, the suited men against the dusk pink city, almost too much to take in. I’ve never stared, no, wait, gaped at a place they way I did driving into central Marrakech.
The first night I dreamt of ants.
The first full day I took a tour across the Atlas Mountains and Ait Benhaddou. Bougainvillea everywhere. Donkeys and cocks and women with baskets. Prickly pears and Irises and bitter oranges and olive groves, lavender. Fewer Poppies than there should have been because of the drought. Weathered faces. Women lugging huge bundles of fire wood. Children selling thyme by the roadside. I couldn’t adjust to the amount there is to take in. Listing it seems lazy but it was like an onslaught.
In the mountains, I bought a hijab to keep warm, bartered and let the trader dress me in it before taking it off to wrap round my shoulders, embarrassed. We passed an overturned lorry carrying bags of cement. The guide didn’t even react to it as we drove through the rubble on the narrow winding roads after passing the summit. Juniper bushes and red dirt and stray dogs and goats.
We stopped to take photographs in a lush ravine and could hear a chorus of donkeys eeyoreing.
The guide asked me out while everyone was in the bathroom and I began to feel uneasy.
“You are here alone?”
The segregation between the sexes is so marked.
Every tour guide I had either hit on me or wanted to have a conversation justifying polygamy. I ended up in a conversation with one guide who insinuated that city women were lazy and prone to hypochondria in comparison with their mountain counterparts. He couldn’t understand why his wife had had to visit the gynaecologist so often when she was pregnant.
I stress, I did not begin any of these conversations. I tried often to end them.
“You are here alone?”
The following day I left the hotel unescorted for the first time. Even simply walking down the street, briskly, eyes down, full grimace – as I would in London actually – garnered much more attention than I bargained for.
Modestly dressed but alone. I found some markets that were relatively quiet and browsed until I felt confident. I then braved Jamaa el Fna on foot from the Avenue Mohammed V. I found myself stuck in the middle of oncoming traffic, unsure of whether to bolt across the road, often waiting for other tourists to take the gamble with me.
Jamaa el Fna is exactly as you would expect. Bustling, snake charmers, henna tattooists, chained monkeys, market men. I figured as it was so busy that no one would notice me stopping to take photographs.
This is the moment when I realised I was an idiot.
I was approached immediately by a man speaking french, making kissing noises, who gave chase as I trotted away, narrowly missing a pile of snakes. It began to rain and I was dragged with the crowds into the covered markets, the alley ways narrow and packed with men desperate to sell.
I felt like a rabbit.
I felt like prey.
I didn’t buy anything.
“You are here alone?”
I ran, amongst the cats and the stalls back out into the rain.
I slowed as I came closer to the hotel until I was approached by another persistent admirer.
I found a patisserie and hid in the hotel with cakes.
That night I found myself out at what can only be described at cross between Moroccan Medieval times, the Titty Twister from the film, From Dusk til Dawn and Disneyland’s, It’s a Small World After All.
Was it a restaurant?
Was it a theme park?
I don’t know.
I moved seats in order to avoid being molested by the dancers in traditional dress that approached each table one by one. Trying to give off the air of touch me and I will totally hit you with my handbag.
Mountains of food. No explanation. Women shrieking. Rounds of them entering the tent at intervals trying to get the diners to dance.
Did I mention the shrieking?
We were directed outside in the rain to a large arena for a performance.
Horse acrobatics. But wait. No.
Donkey acrobatics to the Bond theme tune.
A middle eastern version of I’m never going to dance again by George Michael played on the journey back to the hotel.
The following morning I took a guided tour of the Souks and the Medina and actually managed to buy presents for people without being chased down the street. The guide on this day gave me some advice I could have desperately used on arrival.
“Look once and then walk or you will miss your chance. Ignore everyone. Never make eye contact. The snakes have all been defanged and lastly, never go to Jamaa el Fna alone.”