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Michael’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 04 Jan 2009

Location: Marrakech, Morocco

Map1st January, 2009 –
For the first time in a while I was up at a reasonable hour on New Year’s Day and not suffering from a hang over. Given the three previous years included the Walkabout Staff party till 7am, Las Vegas and Fatboy Slim on Bondi Beach, this year was again a change of pace. As I say, gotta do something different each year to keep it interesting, otherwise it is just another day that is too hyped up.

After breakfast at the hotel we decided to make the most of the lovely weather and decided to jump on the City Sightseeing bus and have a look a round Marrakech that way. With the Sun out, it was nice to sit up on the top deck and look around the city. Of course, it seemed every other tourist in the city decided to do the same thing. The tour took in a little bit of the medina and much of the new city with its more bus friendly roads. There was actually a second bus route in Marrakech which explored areas outside the heart of the city, so when we got to the appropriate stop we jumped off one bus, grabbed a Panini on the run for lunch and then jumped on the other bus still scoffing our food.

The second bus tour, whilst being interesting to get out of the heart of the city, really wasn’t that interesting and mainly toured through a palm grove on the outskirts of the city. Despite being a hop on hop off bus tour, most people remained firmly glued to their seats. As the tour progressed, the wind picked up a bit and it started getting rather chilly on the upper deck. Back at the bus change spot, we jumped back on the first bus and completed our journey and headed back to the hotel where I continued my good end of year work and went to the gym. Of course, I haven’t been since!

Nat and I headed into Djemaa El Fna, the main square, for dinner and to experience the madness that is the main square in the evenings. The snake charmers and monkey men seem to have left, in their place are story tellers, henna painters, medicine men, musicians and dancers, and primitive carnival games. It combines to make a crazy mix of sights and sounds, and then there is the amazing aroma coming from the restaurants that are set up and dismantled every evening. And of course, that is where things are most hectic. There are four rows of restaurants, each about 100m long, and in total there must be over 100 restaurants there. Obviously they work hard to get your custom, and make the hawkers on Lygon Street in Carlton seem shy. It is the same ploy as everyone uses (hello friend, where you from), but they always come up with other great lines; “Our chef is Jeff Ramsay, Gordon’s brother” and such lines were thrown around frequently. Unfortunately, the one thing missing, especially compared to Lygon Street, was the offer of a free bottle of red to eat there!

We settled on a place that looked nice enough, once we’d grown weary of the haggling, and settled in for a massive meal of shish kebabs, with bread, salad, olives, dipping sauces and the like. Of course, the olives, bread and dipping sauces are all placed in front of you, and is NOT free/gratis/libre or anything of the sort. In fact, unless you wave them away immediately, it will be on your bill before you realise the plate has even hit the table. The one scam I saw a few nights later was to place a 1L bottle of water on the table, which of course isn’t free. When the couple went to leave and argued the price of the bill, the waiter pointed out the bottle of water. When the couple said they didn’t ask for it, and hadn’t drunk any of it, the waiter picked up the bottle, examined the seal, and determined that the seal had been broken and would therefore have to be paid for. By the look on the couples face, I have no doubt that the seal of the bottle had been ‘cracked’ as the waiter placed it on the table earlier in the meal.

Anyway, the food was good, filling and it was a nice atmosphere. After dinner we did some wandering around, looking at the medicine men, there was even a dentist willing to pull teeth, as well as trying to make any sense of the story being told by the story teller. There must have been 50 local men gathered around this story teller, who had many things with him, including an owl that had some twine around its foot to keep it from flying off. The crowd kept throwing him small amounts of money as he told the story, which unfortunately was in Arabic and I had no idea what it was about.

Nat decided that she would look into getting a henna tattoo and was considering getting it on her neck. It didn’t take much effort to find someone with designs, as all the henna ladies walk around with photo albums full of photos. She started flipping through one ladies album, and then switched to the album of the lady next to her, neither of which spoke English. A third lady, much pushier, and able to speak English, came over and was talking up a storm. At this point Nat wasn’t even sure if she should get one due to work and all, but had said many times that she would come back the following day and get a tattoo, but just wanted to look at the designs for the evening. As she put down the second photo album, the English speaking woman introduced us to the henna scam!

We should have figured it out very quickly when she went to shake hands with us goodbye, as women tend not to shake hands with anyone, but she grabbed Nat’s hand to shake it and wouldn’t let go. Within an instant, she’d pulled out the syringe with the henna paint in it and had applied a dot to Nat’s hand. Nat immediately said, “No, I will come back tomorrow”, and the lady said, “Just a small one, it’s for good luck”, which of course means I will paint and you will pay. The design got bigger and bigger, taking up the whole back of Nat’s hand with a flower, and patterns extending up most of her fingers. The whole Nat just kept saying, I don’t want this, I don’t want this. When it was all done, Nat took her hand back and said “I don’t even like it” (she can a ‘particular’ girl – hope she don’t take offense to that). Of course, the lady then asked for payment, and Nat said “No, I was genuinely going to come back tomorrow get one done, but not now”. The lady took Nat’s hand back, scooped as much henna back up into the back of the syringe, and stormed off in a huff! We wandered over to one of the juice stalls and asked if Nat could wash her hand of the left over staining henna so there wasn’t too much of a yellow/brown smear on the back of her hand.

After that we decided we’d had too much excitement for one evening in the main square and decided to buy some dodgy DVD’s and head back to the hotel to call it a night.

January 2nd –
Being our last day in Marrakech, there were a few things Nat needed to get done for work. Whilst at breakfast Nat got a message from her boss asking her to pick up a couple litres of Argan nut oil used for cooking. So now we had a mission and a goal when we entered the souqs. Unfortunately, most people that sold this stuff sold it in 200mL bottles. Buying 10 of these wouldn’t be cheap, and would have most shop owners running to their brothers/uncles/cousins shops to ensure they had enough supplies. Eventually we found a place that sold the stuff in 500mL and 1L bottles, but the 500mL bottles were nicer and made of glass where the 1L bottles were plastic. I asked the lady in the shop to give us 4 bottles of the 500mL for 2 bottles of the 1L price. She wouldn’t do it, claiming the glass was more expensive etc, and I was ready to get in a serious haggling mode when Nat said, “its 100 pounds and the guy is a multi-millionaire, stop arguing and just buy the stuff”. Fair point I guess.

Whilst on the wander through the souqs, Nat also decided that she would like a pair of thongs/flip-flops/slip-slops or whatever you call them depending where you are from. So the wandering continued through the souqs looking to the exact pair of shoes, and there were PLENTY to choose from. At one point we had managed to get VERY turned around and had admittedly absolutely no idea where we were. Asking for directions isn’t easy as there are few people that speak English and those that do will inevitably try and sell you something, or offer to take you where you want to go for a ludicrous fee, and no doubt bypassing all of his cousins' shops. The only way to do it is to ask shop keepers that are behind a counter and can’t get out of their shops, and doesn’t have a lot of people around to offer to “guide” you.

Along our wanderings we found a man that seemed somewhat genuine in asking us for help with his English. He said that someone had used the phrase “when push comes to shove” earlier in the day and was asking us to help him understand it... harder than it would seem at first thought. Of course that got us into his shop out of the heat of the Sun, and before long he was going over a couple other phrases he was unsure of before explaining that he was a healer with many new age skills including Reike and those type things, and had pulled out a folder of letters of appreciation from other customers. Then the question came, “let me examine you and tell you if anything is wrong” (and then you pay me money). Alas, there was no genuine friend in the souqs of Marrakech. To drive the point home, as we declined and walked out, a bit disappointed, he made one last plea, asking if we needed a tagine pot, something sold in every second shop in Marrakech. It seems everyone there is always trying new ways to get you to part with your money, and you can’t take anything at face value. Eventually we walked past Omar, the carpet salesmen we’d met earlier in the week, and based on where his shop was, we were able to finally find out way back to Djemaa El Fna.

We wandered over to La Koutoubia and the Pizzeria Venicia which was up on a balcony overlooking the mosque, the foundations of the old mosque, and the surrounding square. It seems that they weren’t convinced that the mosque faced Mecca properly, and decided to rebuilt the mosque next to where it originally stood, with the correct orientation. After our lunch we headed back through the main square and dodged another pro-Palestine protest that moved through the square, smaller than the one earlier in the week though.

We headed back to the hotel in the late afternoon and began to pack up. Nat finished off making sure that the catering was ready for the airplane for the next morning, and we headed to the hotel bar for a pre-dinner drink around 7 pm. We had an early dinner at the hotels Italian restaurant before calling it an early night, as the next morning would be an early one.