Life, photos but not the universe

Places that are not like home – 2

Remember ‘Marrakesh Express‘?

Our Moroccan holiday was definitely prompted by Barney’s nostalgia for the whole hippy, peace, love, pot thing.  Of course we had to go on the cheapest possible package holiday as we didn’t have months in which to hitchhike or travel by exotic local transport, only a week.  So we stayed at a place called Camp Africa* in little local style, whitewashed, thatched, mud huts and ate and drank occasionally at the exorbitantly expensive camp restaurant.  This place was patronised by local well-off Moroccan families as well as the richer tourists and one of my favourite memories was the time when we, and two holiday friends, smuggled in our own cheap wine from the village and ordered a single plate of chips and sat nibbling our chips, hiding our wine from the waiters and watching a huge family of Moroccans eating a huge banquet at the next table.  The amount of food they ordered was astonishing and when they left, the amount of food remaining on the table was pretty astonishing too.  We muttered a bit about the waste and the prices and the absence of anyone clearing up.  After a couple of minutes, inevitably, a look went round our table and we leapt up, as one, and savaged the left-overs.  It was much nicer than chips!

Naturally we went on tours to the Atlas Mountains, Fez, Marrakesh itself and Tangier (of nightclub fame).  And we swam in the sea near the camp and attempted to learn how to surf.  This was memorable because, as it was the coldest summer for many years in Morocco (oddly enough it was one of the hottest, back home), my hands got quite cold in the sea and my fingers shrank and my wedding ring, a charming 9ct red-gold band with lovely engravings of ivy leaves on it, slipped off.  Gone for ever in spite of enthusiastic searching underwater by the whole group of would be surfers.

We didn’t do a camel ride as they were very expensive – and looking at the camels, or more to the point, listening to and smelling them,  it was hard to feel very deprived about this.  Their teeth alone – often shown – left nothing to the imagination and offered nothing to be desired.  Big, yellow teeth they were, garnished with long streams of evil looking saliva revealed with prehensile sneers whenever they made those astonishingly loud, gurgling belly noises, finished off with resounding chewing and slurping sounds.  Should I mention, in fairness, that they also had amazingly large, long lashed, dark, limpid eyes?  Camels are extraordinary creatures.

Fez, the place of palaces and golden gates and delightful small boys eager to be your guide.  We learnt some basic Arabic from one of these (which I’ve forgotten completely) and taught him some even more basic English.  We were shown the golden (Brass?  Copper? very shiny anyway) gates of a famous palace and bought a brass tray “made by the same craftsman who made those very gates”.  “Really?  How long have you had this tray”?  Well at this point the language problem muddied the waters of communication somewhat and we bought it anyway.  It was very nice and we still have it.   We were also led down tiny alleyways, festooned with multi-coloured wool skeins and smelling to the high heavens which were hazy with the heat and dust.  And we had a trip round the walls surrounding the tanneries.  The smells there must have gone a good deal further than heaven and I seem to remember being told that the workers lived in their own little ghetto because the smell, like the black dust in coal miners’ skins, never left them.  It can’t have been a fun job.

We also visited a Bedouin market.  Lots of camels there and donkeys too!  And slightly scary Bedouins.  Quiet, unlike the jolly, heaving mayhem of the big market, it was a rather intimidating experience and we felt decidedly like intruders at a private event.  (I think we probably were).  In those days, I wasn’t at all aware that the rest of the world did politics.  It didn’t really occur to me that as well as being gullible foreigners, we were lazy, sweaty infidels who didn’t dress decently and didn’t know how to behave.  Nonetheless, I could sense a certain disdain and even disapproval in the air.  And we didn’t even have the decency to buy anything there.

I think Marrakesh was where the great market could be found.  And that is indeed a place to remember.  The noise was astonishing, the colours were fabulously garish and there was brass gleaming everywhere.  The smell of roasting, stewing, simmering deliciousness was overwhelming and the square heaved with people wearing djellabas and wonderful white smiles in dark, creased faces.  We were really, truly offered several small sisters and a couple of brothers for sale.  We were besieged by vendors of brass, pottery, tagine dishes, woollen djelaba, cotton djellaba, nylon (?) djelaba (“genuine Moroccan wool”!!) small brass figurines, large brass figurines, pot pipes, water pipes, hookahs and round about there…. we encountered an old university acquaintance of Barney’s.

Barney was delighted to meet an old friend and one who might be able to sell us something really local.  Something we had been warned about with extreme solemnity (and in particular that Moroccan gaols awaited any foreigner who so much as glanced at this particular kind of local produce).  Barney saw an old acquiantance.  I saw a stranger with nails like camels’ teeth and a moustache which recalled camel tails, who had somehow made a living for several years in this city where sisters and brothers (well I know they probably weren’t really sisters or brothers – on the other hand does it make a difference) were sold to strangers and where people sold pot to foreigners and then sold their information to the police.  I saw danger and fortunately, Barney hadn’t ever really been a good friend of this guy and didn’t altogether trust him.

Well, we accepted an invitation to drink mint tea with him and they talked about old times for a bit and inevitably, he made us an offer which, fortunately, due to our financial position, Barney was easily able to refuse.  I breathed a sigh of relief and was very glad to get back to the known dangers of thieves and vendors.

This was particularly alarming because I roll my own cigarettes and also roll my own filters with bits of card.  Naively I assumed that so did people all over the world.  Not, apparently there.  Whenever I rolled up, I would be observed with interest and close attention by all the locals and on one occasion, a man came over to us and took my cigarette, smelt it and thoroughly investigated it’s every detail.  Then he asked me to make one for him and smoked a little of it.  Then he lost interest in us.  I suppose he was either police or an informer so it  was just as well we only had tobacco to smoke .  After that I took to rolling cigarettes in our hut or room before going out and bought a nice little brass and leather cigarette case to keep them in.

On the evening of the camp barbecue, Barney had managed to sunburn his shoulders quite comprehensively during the day (the compleat tourist) and then managed to burn his feet in the embers of the barbecue fire in the sand.  Fortunately one of the other tourists was a doctor.  It seemed the camp didn’t have one of its own, or it was his day off or the nearest one was in Tangier – something like that.  That young man saved our holiday by producing some magical cream which  actually worked within a couple of days.

Oh and one thing nobody warned us about was the arrival at Tangier airport.  I’m told it’s still the same.  What happens is, you’re told that we’ll be landing any minute and please fasten etc, etc.  Then you look out of the windows expecting to see a city or an airport and instead, you see the sea and a line of sand dunes, getting extremely close, very quickly.  You brake anxiously with your feet and lean as far back in your seat as possible as the plane skims above the dunes, missing them by about 30 feet(?) and wonder how often planes crash here.   Then lo and behold (and breathe again), there is an airport, hidden just behind the dunes!  It’s an exciting way to arrive only equaled by the bus trip up into the Atlas Mountains where it’s being generous to say there are roads and understating to say there are precipices beside them.  It’s quite generous to say there are drivers too as what they mostly seem to be doing is smoking, talking and waving to passers by.  Watching the road was definitely low on the list of driver priorities except when another bus came round a bend that we were occupying. Tightly closed tourist eyes were the order of the day.

Well, after nearly 40 years I remember all that!  It doesn’t actually seem to have been the most blissful holiday ever – I blame my youth and possibly a little bit, the shortage of cash that made it necessary to scavenge in order to enjoy the local food.  But then I always was a greedy brat and at least I remember the camels.  (how could one ever forget camels?)  And then thinking a bit more, I realise that we never got to talk to local people much.  If we hadn’t been in the camp behind walls we might have been able to wander more and might have found Morocco more friendly.  We might even have learnt enough arabic to communicate from time to time instead of just wandering about, gawping and wishing we knew what to ask for and who to ask.

And I’d quite forgotten that we went to see Moulay Idris, some Roman ruins and a huge number of beautiful and timelessly oriental courts, universities and places of worship.  The depths of my shallowness in those days make me feel that I must now be relatively discerning and appreciative : )

I have to make dinner and bread.  I have to feed the cat.  I have to mediate between my spouse and the internet.

I shall abandon Morocco.  It didn’t broaden my mind a lot, clearly, but I’m pretty sure it was a wonderful place.

*I looked it up and was enchanted to find this little conversation on Asilah forums.


January 13, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments