Morocco was a last minute escape; a promise to honour a desire to see the country since watching Hideous Kinky. On New Year’s Eve our travel to the country that promised beauty, spices, mountains of dye and tagines began. Sam had booked a taxi so on our arrival, after a frantic dash around the airport trying to take out dirhams, our driver stood outside waiting for us. With the Atlas Mountains as our backdrop we drove to our villa. Cars generally ignored the rules of roundabouts and traffic lights, and motorcyclists often stopped in the road to chat, I made a quick mental note as I clung onto my seat belt – I would not be exploring Marrakesh by car.
Adama Hotel, our complex, is beautiful and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a place to stay near Marrakesh. We didn’t want to be in the city centre but chose to stay a 15 minutes bus ride away to the south-east of the city, and this I believe has been an excellent choice. Upon our arrival we were greeted by a Moroccan wearing a Santa Claus style Aladdin outfit (yes, such a thing does exist) and after some welcome sweet Moroccan tea we were taken to our villa. Our own courtyard, large bedroom, sitting room and kitchen – we felt very blessed to begin our new year in such romantic and beautiful surroundings.
‘Funny’ I thought as the clock stuck 12, ‘Two years ago, I had just met Sam, two strangers, from two different worlds and two very different stories and here, two years later, we’re in a foreign country together feeling like we’ve known each other a lifetime.’
The next morning, after a visit to the hammam (I do recommend going to to a local one if you get the chance) we decided to take the hotel’s free bus into the Centre Square (Jemaa El Fna). We thought we would just wander around and after a few hours take the same bus back. We didn’t have a map and had done no reading on the place, after all this is pretty much what we did in Croatia and Greece. The elements of surprise were always great.
Our first big mistake.
The square is bustling and alive. On entering, you are first hit by the smell of horse manure and then by the sounds of snake charmers, the sight of henna artists and endless stalls of lamps, rugs and trinkets.
The medina is a maze and probably not as confusing as it appeared without a map. At one point we turned a corner and ended up being led by a Moroccan to a beautiful riad with tiled roofs, ancient arches and romantic balconies. Here we bathed in the heat on the terrace and drank mint tea while the call to prayer reverberated around us.
After leaving we took another wrong turn. We were clearly moving away from the tourists but the sight of local children playing, men sharing food from a large plate, women rushing around doing their shopping, and the sound of French and Arabic mingling in the air was charming. Although a warning – scooters just rush through the crowded markets and if you’re lucky will break an inch away from you. Sam and I were walking deeper into the medina when we suddenly heard a local shout ‘Retournez! Retournez!’ Ah we thought – we’re entering a part not for tourists, and as we turned around we were stopped by another local, who introduced himself as Abdullah. ‘You lost?’ he asked.
‘We want to get back to the square.’
He smiled and shook our hands. ‘Rashid here is going to that part – he’ll take you and…’ he paused and smiled, his yellow decayed teeth gleaming ‘welcome to Morocco’. Completely unaware we had walked into a tourist trap. Rashid, a sullen adolescent, led us around the markets, through the back streets, deeper into the maze, away from the tourists, but we had no idea this was happening. ‘Wow’ I said to Sam ‘we really did wander far.’ And then halfway down another anonymous alleyway Rashid, in his leather jacket and Nike trainers, stopped, gesturing us on with the assurance that the square lay just around the corner. ‘A present for me?’ he asked. How strange, I thought. I felt like a child was talking to me but Sam understood and handed him 20 dirhams for a journey he claimed he was making anyway, and one we had never requested but were just too polite to refuse. Rashid then got incredibly aggressive and intimidating, harassing us along the way while a man on a bike followed shouting ‘pay him, pay him’.
Sam spoke to him in French refusing to budge and finally, when we had reached the square, he accepted the 20 dirhams and disappeared. We quickly realised he had led us in completely the wrong direction.
I felt like I had just been crushed by a boulder of sadness. What makes people do this? Make money from intimidation and trickery for not very much at all? True, tourist traps are common but had Sam not been with me, I would easily have burst into tears. I hate malicious behaviour in all its forms. I abhor meanness. I understand the desperation for money can make you behave in desperate ways but when you start exploiting hate and anger, then that’s all you become. I hope this is not the life for Rashid.
Morocco is beautiful, it’s colourful, vibrant and mystical. The architecture is mesmerising and its history is profoundly layered. And I could happily sip Moroccan tea for the rest of my life. Just some advice: never go anywhere without a map; don’t ever look lost; and keep plenty of small change in your pocket.