It's been a long, exhausting but exciting year at work and I needed a break. I've been overseeing various community projects and delivering on our action plan following our Heritage Lottery award for Cassiobury Park, as well as having contributed to yet another book, Hyde Park, A Social History, (out now on Amberley publishers; £16.99 on Amazon and all good book stores)
An early flight from England meant arriving at my destination in the heat of the day. I dislike airports and while I don't mind flying (in fact I rather enjoy it) they are an unfortunate necessity now as my annual leave doesn't give me the time to use my much preferred mode of travel, that of cycling to these destinations. So, suffer them I do, with all the queuing, the interminable waiting, and trying to wake myself from my early morning sleepiness by drinking endless cups of strong coffee on the plane.
I anxiously approached the security queues, wondering how I would explain to impassive faced security guards, armed to the teeth with high powered machine guns, that my dripping, sweat drenched face, perspiring armpits, scarlet cheeks and my continuous shifting and hopping from one leg to another, while furtively glancing around me (I was desperate for a loo after all that coffee) was in fact nothing more than a bladder filled but menopausal woman of a certain age, experiencing a hot flush, rather than a nervous, drug laden courier, hiding contraband down her trousers. My ever fertile mind was obviously in overdrive after having watched the film, Midnight Express, too often. They probably thought that I was just on a Saga holiday. (Humph! drug smuggling is one thing, but really!... a Saga holiday!) Expecting the worst, a particularly
po faced and bearded, uniformed official, surrounded by two even sterner looking, bearded, uniformed officials, pointed and beckoned me over to them, only to greet me with a huge friendly smile and said, 'Welcome to Marrakech'.
a singing street musician in Marrakech's Medina
Seven Days in Morocco
I entered the dusky pink, eleventh century, mud and brick Medina (old town) to the endless noise and bustle of drum beats, the hypnotic monotones of the snake charmers, strains of continuous Arabic music and the wail from surrounding synagogues calling the faithful to prayer. Having come straight from the plane, this cacophony assaults the senses straight away and for me, one reason why cycling is so much more preferable as a mode of transport, as its slow pace allows you to acclimatise to each country's culture; the senses already used to it's climate, sounds and smells by the time you reach the metropolis.
coloured, glazed, ceramic tagines, leather footwear and multi-coloured varieties of goods stuffed to the rafters in the maze of tiny stalls and claustrophobic narrow alleyways that I passed in the Medina. But first, I checked into my budget (and spotless) hotel to refresh and recuperate. The camera would have to wait for now.
dancing for the tourists (and money) in Djmaa El Fna square
Venturing out to explore, I learnt one of many lessons during my seven days in Marrakech. I noticed how few people were carrying cameras and how even fewer photographs were being taken. I soon found out why. Morocco is the most difficult of places to take photographs. While I acknowledge that many Muslims don't wish to be photographed, ( I tried as much as possible to be sensitive by asking first) the relentless harassment for money every time I lifted the camera was both annoying (I never believe in paying for photos in public places) and exhausting.
gatekeeper to the souk
Aggressive selling to a single woman is the norm for a tourist trap such as Marrakesh and not a day went by without a souk (market) seller or a street trader bartering with me to buy something or pay for a photo. Single women, while not harmed, are notoriously singled out for this treatment, as a woman on her own carries a certain amount of disrespect from Muslim men and therefore are seen as easy prey. As with all foreign travel, when you start out, you expect that nothing will be as comfortable as home and that you can either choose to accept it and not let it ruin your experience or you can compare it with northern hemisphere standards and let it get you down. I chose the former. Once I had accepted that this was the way it was going to be, I learnt to, politely but firmly, say no and while it was still tiring and somewhat annoying not to be able to just browse the souks and watch the performers without attracting attention, it did help in accepting things for what they were and then allowing myself to enjoy my time in Marrakech.
sweet seller in the Medina souks
My improving confidence was growing with this unwanted attention but I never felt threatened or unsafe and I eventually saw it for what it was - something that could be nipped in the bud if dealt with in the right way. However, one or two incidences occurred where this unwanted attention tipped over into direct physical harassment.
One ploy used by many street traders, is to greet you with a friendly welcome while encouraging you in to browse, or give you a free gift. This sucks you in to a false sense of security and once they have given you the 'free' item, they pester you for payment for their work. Because of this outright deception, I refused to pay on a few occasions, including a woman henna tattooist, who began to get aggressive to the point of manhandling me and grappling with my bag. Calling me all the names under the sun and telling me I was 'no good', I eventually managed to walk away, the hullabaloo attracting, by now, a small crowd around me and the tattooist gave up, but it did shake me somewhat to think that they could use such aggressive methods.
But I quickly learnt not to let this get to me and for the rest of my stay I politely and firmly declined any future free offers of gifts and either passed by, or browsed in defiance, ignoring the persistent hard sell and accepting the attention without malice.
Solitary travel for me is addictive and the pros far out weigh the cons, but I have to admit that it is sometimes easier (and cheaper) not to go to these places alone. But it works both ways, solo travel heightens the experience and when travelling alone, people are more willing to approach you (possibly because they feel sorry for you!) to start up conversations, whereas, couples or groups are not approached as much.
a street trader carrying out a supposedly, free, henna tattoo who then got aggressive with me when I refused to pay
early morning travel to work in the souks
But for all my determination to ignore the pleas to buy and haggling over prices, I know I was ripped off a few times during my stay. Not that I was worried, it's all part of the journey and most of the Medina Marrakechies are so poor, that I went out of my way to pay for the odd photo or agreed to the overpriced souvenir.
overwhelming poverty of a central souk worker and his recycling workshop. Behind the gap in the bags and paraphernalia at the top of the photo, there is a space of about 4 square feet where he and his wife (who wouldn't be photographed ) live
souk carpenter guiding the chisel with his foot.
After a few hectic days of trying to find my way amongst the hustle and bustle of the souks and their maze of alleyways, I decided and needed to have a day's rest and recuperation at a luxury resort. I found a delightful villa on the outskirts of Marrakech, just a twenty minute taxi ride away, that was perfect for soothing my jagged nerves and resting my over stimulated mind. I could never afford or want to stay there as a complete holiday, but a one day pool and lunch pass was acceptable, not only because I get uncomfortable and bored staying in such luxury for any length of time, but also for my budget.
rest and recuperation at Casa Taos on outskirts of Marrakech
Greeted by the friendliest of dogs, Acho (pronounced aaayko) the villa's loping Boxer dog, Casa Taos was (literally) the oasis in the dessert. Its quiet setting amongst the palms and only a short taxi ride from the centre, was a world away from the crashing noise of the Medina. Casa Taos, owned by a friendly couple who originate from Cassablanca, had bought this former holiday home and now run it as a luxury hotel.
A day's rest lounging in the sun, ordering lunch poolside and cooling off with occasional dips in the aquamarine water under cobalt blue skies was just what I needed.
For one day only -sheer luxury - Mohammed bringing the lunch menu to my poolside lounger
lounging amongst the palms
Acho looking guilty after being caught drinking from the pool
Moroccan finch cooling off poolside
But one day was enough. Refreshed but getting itchy feet again, I decided to return to the chaos of the Medina and the wonderful photo opportunities waiting for me.
all dressed up for the tourists
cat enjoying a nap in one of the baskets - all made from recycled tyres
The fresh, orange juice stalls in the main square - delicious!
clay tagines and pots in Medina alleyway
the chefs in the outside cafes in the Djmaa El Fna start preparing for the evening rush
the tables are set
outside eating in the Medina
tajine stall in Medina
traffic in the streets of the Medina
cutlery served up in a Moroccan slipper at the Henna Café
sunset over Marrakech
After a few days in Marrakech I was relaxed, getting the hang of dealing with the unwanted attention and looking forward to the days, sights and sounds ahead. A day trip to the coastal town and former 1960's hippy hangout, Essaouira was next on the agenda. (scroll down to 'older posts' to see part two of three, blog posts)
Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar (title from the album by Robert Plant and Sensational Space Shifters)
copright (C) Deborah Anne Brady: all rights reserved. September 2015 All photographs (c) Deborah Anne Brady