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Michael’s Travel Diary

Friday, 02 Jan 2009

Location: Marrakech, Morocco

MapDecember 30th -
A late start in the morning, meeting the pilots for breakfast at 10am. A beautiful breakfast buffet, with tasty eggs, bacons, sausages and fresh squeezed OJ. We met back up at 1130 am in the lobby to head for the Medina to walk around the old souqs of Marrakech. Waving away taxi driver offers, we headed by foot to the Medina, and just as we made it to the city walls, a local guy came up and said that we were going the wrong way. I missed the bulk of the conversation, but it sounded as if he was telling Jim that he worked at the hotel we were staying at (hey, don't you remember me from the hotel yesterday?) and was on his way home. Anyway, Jim having spent a bit of time in the Middle East when in the army, and also having family roots in the Arabic culture seemed to be interested in practicing his Arabic and was happy for this guy to lead the way. At one point Nat asked "are you thinking what I am thinking" to which I just smiled and nodded, knowing we were about to be taken for a ride.

Before long we were walking through the souqs, having by passed the tourist areas of Jamaa El Fna and La Koutoubia. Our first stop was through the cotton dying areas, walking through the colorful back streets and quickly being draped in cotton head scarves that we were asked to buy. Shrugging off the head scarfs, after the photos of course, we continued further through the markets and found ourselves at a ‘medicine shop’. Having been through the process before in Fes, I knew what to expect and hung back somewhat from the very wordy presentation being given by the ‘pharmacist’ in the shop, and the obligatory dropping of the term ‘aphrodisiac’. I must admit I was a bit surprised when the pilots forked out for some tea and some amber that is used for washing powder. And when the guy started handing out bags of ginseng root like they were lolly bags at a kids birthday party, it was pretty clear that the pharmacist was happy with how much money he’d made off us.

A little bit further down the road and we found ourselves at my first carpet shop in Marrakech. Omar the carpet salesman, who made a habit of using every one of our names in every sentence he spoke, made a very slow and precise sales pitch, as well as offering us mint tea that every carpet salesman offers. They all have the same pitch, commenting on the unique designs, all the hand crafted work, the length of time that each piece takes, the tightly wound fabric resulting in quality that will last for generations as the value of the rug goes up. Blah, blah, blah.

Then they pull out examples of so many rugs it is just a dazzling array of colors on the ground. Before long they are asking you to narrow down which rug you would like, or what is your favourite. And once they know what your favourite rug is, all that is left to decide is the price! Clyde knew he wanted a rug the minute he saw it and ended up buying one, and Omar continued his pitch to the rest of us. We all made it out relatively unscathed after that.
After walking out of the carpet shop, our ‘guide’ wanted to take us to another shop. We quickly told him that enough was enough and that we were leaving his tour. Of course we paid him, far too much, especially given he would have got a cut of the sales from the medicine man and carpet man. Nat and I headed into Jamaa El Fna, the main tourist square of the city, where the day started to get interesting.

Firstly we were accosted by the snake handlers. They have a great habit of walking up to you and placing small snakes around your neck. The snakes are so lazy that they must be drugged. They just kind of hang there around you neck like cold pieces of rope. After I took a photo for Nat with snakes around her neck, I found a couple snakes hanging around mine. I argued for a bit and said that I was not going to pay for the snakes – nothing if for free! Before long I was on my knees in front of a couple cobras that were sitting up paying attention to the snake charmer and getting my photo taken. Of course, when I got up and tried to take the snakes off and walk away, they demanded money. I said that I didn’t ask for the snakes and handed them a 20 Dirham note (2 quid) for kindness, and they argued, demanding 200 Dirham – 20 quid for a photo with a couple snakes, are you kidding me? When the monkey man came over, and tried to put a monkey on my arm, I just told him that I had already got a photo with a monkey and wasn’t paying for another, and that trick seemed to work well. We then headed off for a pizza lunch to get away from the frenetic pace of the main square.

After we finished lunch we were wandering around the main square just as a line of students started marching in chanting in Arabian. Quickly I pulled out my camera as I presumed that things were about out to get interesting. The people just kept streaming in and streaming in. They continued streaming in, all the way from La Koutoubia and started to march around the square. There were banners being waved and shoes on the ends of sticks being waved about too – showing the sole of your foot to someone being a huge insult.

As I stood to the side, photographing and filming the marching, a young kid walked past yelling, ‘no photo, no photo’. This I couldn’t understand as everything I had seen in the previous days news suggested that there were big protests being held in order to generate public sympathy and awareness of the Palestinian plight in Isreal. A few other guys said something similar and I said that I was filming not photographing (being a smart ass at not the best time admittedly) and the guy spat in my direction and said something along the lines of “f--k you mama”. Unfortunately I had just stopped filming when he said it, so it wasn’t caught on tape.

We started to walk out of the area when the people that had entered the main square had finished there loop and were running into the people that were still coming into the main square. The protest seemed rather organised, and as a very rough guess I would suggest that perhaps 4000 people were there, and all looked like students. Having our exit cut off by the merging groups, we headed back into the square, finding ourselves near the police station, figuring it wasn’t the worst place to be. It was at the point we started seeing chairs get picked up and seeming thrown at some of the market stalls. At that point the mob in the area of the thrown chair started running towards us and we too turned and hightailed it out of the square, taking the opportunity for the break in the crowd to leave the main square.

After that we headed to the back roads in souqs and found a barber to give my face a shave. He was a lovely old man that didn’t speak a word of English. As I sat in the barbers chair, he arranged a seat for Nat and then handed both some Tangerines for us to eat. It was an old school shave, and must have taken 20 bloody minutes, at least. And to be honest, in the end he didn’t even do a very good job! When it came time to leave I tried to figure out how much to pay him, but he didn’t say anything, waving his hand like ‘no worries, it’s OK. Don’t worry bout it’. I gave him 20 Dirham and just hoped that I wasn’t insulting the poor old bloke.

When the pilots decided not to show up for the dinner at 630, Nat and I wandered into the casino just inside the medina walls. It was a pretty nice set-up, with a red carpet and white sheets being set up for New Year’s celebrations the following evening. Unfortunately none of the casino tables were open when arrived, so after wandering around, and seeing how boring their bar looked, we pushed on. Next we ended up at the Sofitel Hotel bar, out by their pool, drinking cocktails – even more expensive that the one in Fez, and again, using syrup rather than sugar in my mojito! We started nibbling on the pistachio nuts that we’d bought in the markets and suspecting them to be rotten with what appeared to be something having burrowed through them. Upon leaving the bar, having handed off the nuts to a horse and cart driver, we wandered into a second casino. This one again had the problem of no tables open, we were there about 40 minutes too early, but did offer free finger food. We each had three quiches, which covered our dinner and headed back to our hotel for the evening!

December 31st –
It was another late start, and today would be a day of all day rain. After breakfast we decided to try and figure out what to do for the New Year’s celebrations and did some researching online. Eventually Nat and I decided on Cafe Arabe in the Medina and the two pilots happily went along with it.

As the weather was so garbage, Nat started organising stuff for the next leg of flights and I sat around watching the news most of the day. Eventually, Nat took her usual afternoon nap, and at one point woke up, decided I looked too bored and ordered that I head to the gym – getting the new year off to an early start!

We headed into town about 7pm and wandered around the main square having a gander at all the food stalls that are set up each evening. Trying to find a place for a drink, we decided instead to head straight to the restaurant, not entirely sure where it was. We arrived about 30 minutes early, and were the first ones there (9pm start) so headed to the terrace bar for drinks. It was a lovely area, and we stayed up there for a while, with almost the entire restaurant being full by the time we returned.

The meal was pretty good, about 5 or 6 courses in total, and lasted for quite a while. In the end, the new year came some what anti-climatically, with us still sitting at the dinner table waiting for dessert to digest. We then headed back up to the terrace bar for a few more drinks, and Nat was getting some interesting attention from a Moroccan woman who dragged her onto the dance floor for some ‘boogie’! We called it quits around 230 am, and aside from Jim accepting an offer of 1000 camels for Nat (which she really didn’t appreciate), the trip home was smooth with us finding a taxi pretty quickly.