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Getting fresh with Marrakesh

‘Hey, Joss! Look out the window!’ I bawled.
We both came around from a refreshing night’s sleep as we neared Marrakech, a Berber town that grew up around an oasis at the scenic foot of the High Atlas Mountains, simultaneously savouring our compartment with a view that framed a perfectly flat desert landscape. No iconic sand dunes were in sight, granted. We were still a long way north of the Sahara, yet the landscape we were greeted by was thoroughly captivating nonetheless.
During the night, two other men had quietly ducked into the beds beneath ours and were now exiting our compartment. Assuming we were almost upon Marrakech, we gathered our gear and readied ourselves, half-knowing what to expect at the train station: unadulterated interest in the lost-looking travellers, who would be craving a taxi ride and hotel room like nothing else.
As expected, the front of the station was murder upon arrival. Joss and I split in order to collate quotes for a lift to the medina. Such quotes ranged from the almost reasonable to the filthily extortionate, the latter being so high that we had to laugh. But the taxi drivers were being deadly serious, claiming they couldn’t possibly take us AND our luggage to the medina for less than forty dirham. Sensing that some taxi touts might turn nasty when we turned them down in favour of a more appealing (i.e., cheaper) proposition, we didn’t hang about, drawn towards another couple of backpackers who were in the same metaphorical boat as us – and sinking fast.
‘Excuse me. Do you speak English?’ we mutually chanced.
They did. Well… kind of. An Argentinean couple, she spoke English well, but her lanky partner struggled. Still, it wasn’t too difficult to suss out what we were after, with a shared taxi between the four of us bound to be dirt-cheap. And that’s how Joss and I effortlessly hooked up with blonde bombshell Pilar and her man, Alex. I felt guilty for not involving her boyfriend more in the conversation as we raced through the city’s busy outskirts, but he understood very little, though Pilar could fortunately act as an effective mediator, translating for him.
We’d all immediately clicked, thrilled to hear each other’s travellers tales. Upon being dropped off in the huge Djemaa El Fna square, we decided we should stick together given our freshly forged friendships and common interest in backpacking on a budget.
So, out came Pilar’s well-thumbed, near-spineless ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebook to Morocco. She had a specific hotel in mind, pre-circled and seriously considered for its cheapness, central location and decent amenities. So we aimed there… or at least tried to, unsure as to which side road we needed to duck down.
‘Let’s ask the policeman over there,’ Joss suggested. As far as genius plans went, it was a cracker. At least it was until the building-of-some-importance-patrolling policeman began to shamelessly crack onto Pilar, saying that he’d show her – and her alone – to our desired hotel if us lads hung back in the square. Far from being light-hearted flirting, what he instigated was delivered with a dark, malicious, disturbing edge. He clearly had no respect for Pilar, determined to have his way with her in total disregard to her boyfriend, who – due to the language barrier – didn’t understand that the cop was hell-bent on bedding Pilar. It was a twisted situation, and we scurried off before the man beckoned his colleagues and got them in on the act, too.
There was no denying that Pilar was good-looking and spellbindingly sweet in manner, but we couldn’t believe what had just happened. If you couldn’t trust a policeman, whom could you trust?
Well, we trusted each other. For the most part, backpackers instinctively do.
Joss and I didn’t even discuss the practicalities of us all sharing a room for the night together. We went with the flow, booking into the ‘Hotel Central,’ a short hop from the square. We wangled a large, en-suite, air-conditioned room with four beds for a bargain price. I thought Pilar might object to sharing a room with us, but she loved the idea; saving money where one can is always a backpacker’s priority. Agreeing to meet up for a meal later in the evening, they went their own way for the day, leaving the Yorkshire contingent to get fresh with Marrakech.
They seemed better organised than us, heading out as soon as we’d been shown to our room in the palatial hotel, the high-ceilinged and unnecessarily wide corridor leading to our room rife with cleaners dashing in and out of rooms laden down with dirty laundry.
We’d known Pilar and Alex for less than an hour, yet they’d left all their gear in the room, unsecured and there for the taking should us Yorkshire boys have felt inclined to relieve them of whatever we fancied. Given the cheap price of the room, we could have simply run off with all they’d left, forgetting all about the room and finding another one elsewhere in the city. Chances are they’d never find us, unless they hired a crafty P.I. to hunt us down like they dogs we would have been. But the thought of daylight robbery was the last thing on our minds. If it was, however, we’d have been laughing. Bearing that in mind, it brought home the importance of trust amongst friends, old and new, and also hastened to remind me of one of writer Laurie Gough’s wise observations: ‘A curious human linkage is forged amongst travellers, making it possible to understand one another almost immediately because we recognise something of ourselves in each other.’ And it was so true.

First job of the day was to sniff out suitable snatches of food for a surprise purchase Joss had made in Tangier. Despite worries that he might struggle in getting what he’d set his heart on buying back into Europe, then into England, he’d thought to hell with such petty worries and flashed his cash. In exchange for a tiny, cute-as-candy tortoise he’d immediately christened Tange, in view of the inspirational surroundings.
Thus, we went on a lettuce-hunt through the many and varied markets that make Marrakech so alluring. Still, the only thing we didn’t see was that one thing we wanted. Hell, our deep-seated desire for a few leaves of the green stuff surpassed and destroyed all rational thought. More than wanting lettuce, we needed it. The fragile life of a helpless tortoise hinged on our mission being a success. High, low, then higher and lower we hunted, but the main vegetable market proved elusive.
We did inadvertently stumble upon the poultry market though: a strange source of endless fascination for Joss, the devout veggie that he was.
‘This is how it should be done,’ he pronounced, as we watched locals step up to various cages stuffed full to bursting with alive and shrieking birds. The bird-hungry buyer pointed to the ones he wanted, provoking the seller’s assistant to dive around the cage amidst a flurry of feathers, catching the desired birds. Then, without further ado, the selected victims literally got it in the neck, money changed hands, and the buyer left with his birds: now all as dead as dodos.
It was mid-afternoon when we hit the poultry market, but it wasn’t the greatest time of day to witness the place in all its mad glory: most of the trade occurs early in the morning. We sauntered around, understandably attracting stares as we snapped photos, perversely framing the appalling filth that pervaded. If only photos could effectively capture and preserve the intensity of the stomach-upsetting stench of death that saturated the air. To inhale deep breaths could have been deadly, yet no reports of bird flu had to our knowledge been made in Morocco – a fact that made us breathe a little more easily.
Daily life whole-heartedly revolves around the markets in Morocco, and folk with an attention deficit might get seriously lost down many of the Marrakech alleys if not careful. Many lead elsewhere, but some abruptly dead-end, forcing a begrudged retreat.
Oh, and if you so much as show even a slight passing interest in anything for sale, the stallholder will pounce, invite you to inspect other products that might appeal, then perhaps offer you a ‘special deal’ should you be interested in purchasing more than one item.
Joss and I were somewhat inexperienced suckers for the circus of foods, spices and gorgeous souvenirs. Joss had a penchant for olives and tried a few samples from each stall, if only to cheekily cadge a few freebies in a ‘no obligation to buy’ taste-testing fashion.
We hung back in one spice shop for more than half an hour, as the owner enthusiastically lifted down plaster container after container brimming with just about every herb and spice one could possibly desire. Our mutual interest piqued, we were offered a seat each, never-ending cups of mint tea (his deceptively tiny kettle seemed bottomless), and as many samples of whatever we fancied. Even in the face of such irascible hospitality, we didn’t feel particularly pressured to buy anything, and between samples we casually chatted to the owner, his lame friend, and his Canadian fiancée. If nothing else it was great to be out of the afternoon sun that rejoiced in battering us into dehydrated submission. That’s why the act of drinking scolding hot mint tea bemused us so. In that heat, surely an ice cold drink would be more refreshing, but still the tea kept coming. And to it we were both undeniably addicted.
‘Try this,’ the owner gestured, grabbing a container packed with a black mixture. Tipping a tiny amount onto a piece of cloth, he then twisted up the cloth, safely enclosing the mysterious mixture before instructing me to jam the cloth-bound substance up one of my nostrils so I could take a good snort. Trusting that what I was about to do was neither illegal nor destined to result in the death of me, I snorted – and almost blew my head off. Man, it smarted; my eyes were ringing wet and my poor nasal cavity combusted.
‘What the…?’ I stammered, somehow refraining from swearing as I did my level best to compose myself.
Repressing a fit of hysterics at my reaction, he revealed that it was supposed to stop people snoring.
‘But I don’t snore,’ I pleaded, coming around.
‘How do you know?’
‘Well, nobody’s ever complained.’
‘That might be so. Some people are kind like that, not wishing to cause offence. Anyway, even if you don’t snore, you might know somebody who does. Failing that, you’ve got to agree, it’s still a blast sucking back on the stuff, right?’
I felt dizzy. Perhaps I’d snorted with excessive force. Regardless, I bought a small quantity, along with a bagged mixture of forty-five spices which allegedly alleviated the pain associated with chronic backache. Having only my life to lose, I’d give it a go, having been advised to mix a miniscule amount into hot drinks for best results. As we staggered out of the shack of a small holding, strung out on too much tea, herbs, spices and sunstroke, I had a few more brief words with the business owner’s girlfriend, curious as to how they’d met.
‘I was like you guys,’ she said. ‘I was backpacking around Morocco and visited here for some herbs and spices to take back to Canada. Only I didn’t go home, and instead of bagging herbs and spices for family and friends, I bagged the boss,’ she sweetly guffawed. ‘For myself. And it was pretty much love at first sight for both of us, so I stayed. Simple as that. You know, I love it here – and now I’ve got the perfect excuse to stay for good.’
‘But wouldn’t you rather both go and live in Canada?’ I wondered.
‘Are you serious? My Canadian hometown couldn’t be more unlike Marrakech if it tried. Here, life is in your face. Back home, it’s in the grave, and sheer boredom is the mainstay of daily life. There’s nowhere that I know of that oozes the same vitality and endless excitement as Marrakech… and now we’ve hooked up,’ she smiled, glancing across at the love of her life, ‘I can’t imagine I’ll ever leave. My fiancé wants to stay – especially now the business is doing better than ever.’
‘Oh yeah. Since we got together, his standard of spoken English has improved dramatically. English-speaking tourists are far more likely to do business with a man who can converse fluently, and who possesses a genuine knowledge and passion for the products he’s selling.’
‘Enough said,’ I retorted, shaking her hand, wishing them well, and ushering Joss out before we were served yet another round of mint tea.

Darkness was falling and it was time to catch up with Pilar and Alex. So back to the hotel we trekked, where they were patiently waiting up on the terrace.
Down in Djemaa El Fna square, the scene was set – as it is every night – for fun and food in excess. Late in the afternoon, food stalls are religiously rolled into set places in the huge square, around which street entertainers gather.
Cutting a haggard course past snake charmers, tarot card readers, teen-aged boxers and a circle of tourists and locals alike competing for bottles of Coke and Fanta by carefully hooking such bottles lined up in front of them with a fishing rod-styled implement, we were reeled in by a young menu-wielding boy who persuaded us to eat at the stall where he worked. At first, due to hassle hounding our ears from all quarters by stallholders, we blanked him as he tried to engage us, one by one, in conversation.
‘Hello! Hello!!’ he cheerfully shouted.
We walked on. He gave chase, presuming we were either ignorant or non-English speakers. Trying a different tack, he proceeded to reel off ten greetings, all in different languages, hoping to hook our attention. Given his jaw-dropping linguistic skills, we held our horses, metaphorically speaking, keen to test the boy’s talents – in good humour – to the hilt. Thus, we took it in turns to spew fragments of different languages to see if and how he responded. I offered up a random sentence in French, dumbly forgetting that most Moroccans speak French as a matter of course. Instead, I tried to fool him with a few poorly imitated English dialects, but he remained unperturbed. He understood perfectly, despite the obscure nature of what I said. Entranced, Pilar, Alex and Joss subsequently negotiated similar approaches in German, Spanish and Portuguese. In each instance, he responded fluently in the respective language, amazing us all. He’d learnt all he knew simply by talking to tourists every night in the square. Despite having never left Morocco, he was a master of many of the world’s languages if nothing else, claiming to be fluent in twelve. Needless to say, we asked him to translate the menu in minute detail, ensuring we got what we wanted. For a tip, we’d collectively never known anybody to work so zestfully and as diligently as him. We tipped him all we could spare.
Staggered by his formidable grasp of languages, even though he’d never had any formal education, I vowed to make more of an effort when it came to ‘talking the talk.’ Having said that, the number of people I’d accidentally bumped into in the souks that afternoon forced me to try and ‘walk the walk’ with even more urgency.
Re-crossing the square to our hotel post-meal, after a demoralising bout of Coke bottle-hooking failed to reap any reward, Alex had designs for something else altogether when a local man bustled up to him and whispered in his ear. Pilar suspected what was going on, shooting us worried glances. Seconds later, Alex waddled up, slyly grinning. Even though he couldn’t say as much in English, we knew what the deal was by the discreet gestures alone. Despite Pilar imploring Alex to walk away from the cloaked figure stood awaiting Alex’s response, he slid back over to the stranger, handing over a wad of crumpled notes in exchange for a small block of what Joss presumed must be hash. The man checked the money in a flash, and vanished into the crowd just as fast. We had to do the same, as Alex had put us all in jeopardy.
Reports of tourists being duped by undercover cops selling drugs were common. You could never be too careful. If an undercover cop had somehow been ‘in’ on the deal, or even if an authority figure had witnessed the exchange from afar, we could all get into serious trouble if caught red-handed. Even though Pilar, Joss and I had no intention of smoking the stuff, we could still be framed as accomplices. It would be our humble word against theirs, so we made for the hotel on the double, paranoia provoking us to continually glance behind as we weaved through dizzying whirlwinds of people seemingly doing everything in their power to prevent us from reaching our destination before being busted.
Once safely inside our hotel and up on the deserted terrace, relaxation flooded my consciousness. We glided up to the railings at the edge of the rooftop, gulping down the altitude-chilled air and gazing across at the extraordinary sight of Marrakech’s extraordinary Djemaa El Fna square by night. Lights blazed, car horns honked and the sound of snake charmer’s flutes seduced, as life was lived not with the past or the future in mind, but lived purely for the moment.
As the others shuffled off to inspect Alex’s purchase, I stood my ground, until a loping shriek of laughter dragged me back from the edge, chilling the night air yet more. I returned to the fold, sitting beside Pilar, wondering what the animated fuss was about. Joss could barely contain himself, staring dumbfounded at Alex’s unwrapped cube sat in the middle of the table around which we were crowded. Tears of mirth threatened to drench Joss’s face as he delicately crumbled a corner of the cube between his fingers, taking a sniff.
‘You’ve been done, pal!’ he proclaimed.
‘Say what?’ I mustered.
‘Well, Steve – this ain’t hash. Not by our standards anyway.’
Pilar looked on, suppressing an encroaching smirk whilst trying to console her scuppered boyfriend. He’d just wasted fifteen US dollars on what appeared to be a cube of chalk. When buying drugs on the street from a stranger, that’s clearly just one of many risks you take. Out of kindness, Alex held the cube before me, suggesting that I try some. Having never inhaled chalk before, I took a sniff and sympathised.
Throwing the fine particles into the light breeze, we all exploded into laughter. Worse things had happened, and we knew it, especially when Pilar flashed up a hand, telling us English boys to take a good look. We’d never noticed earlier, but one of her fingers was only half as long as it should have been, owing to a downright excruciatingly painful encounter with a door, a grim story that she regaled us with, and that concluded with her having to have the top of such a finger amputated. She had the bravado to laugh about it now, embodying an ever-optimistic outlook on life.
Resorting to smoking bog-standard cigarettes, Alex soon lightened up and we all chatted on as we chilled out, facing the nearby Koutoubia Mosque that stood high and mighty amidst the darkness. As our conversations petered out and weariness took hold, we were all content to simply sit, in silence, listening to the world at large, zipping through the universe. The clear, cloudless night sky revealed a tantalising tapestry of constellations. As we pinpointed a couple we thought we recognised, a shooting star ripped across our field of vision, burning up a couple of seconds after first sight. Having never seen one before, I was overjoyed.
Still, the happiness of the moment – atop that hotel terrace, in the magical city of Marrakech, in the company of people who’d been complete strangers one minute and firm friends the next – was impeccably overshadowed by a melancholic poignancy, knowing that it had to pass; it all had to pass; we all had to pass. At that moment, despair swallowed me whole. I could never remember being so happy, yet it occurred to me that the more episodes of sheer joy a person experiences, the more episodes of pronounced despair they’ll have to confront, too. On the rollercoaster of life, joy has to implode sooner or later.
Then a second shooting star trailed across the sky, but nobody else saw it. It hadn’t been my imagination; I was sure of that. I wasn’t merely seeing what I wanted to see. Similarly, in that instant, I wasn’t feeling what I wanted to feel. Perhaps happiness is a state of mind, I mused, and consumed by a sudden surge of hope, the after-image of the second shooting star burned onto my retinas for all time, I glanced around at Joss, Alex and Pilar in turn… thanking my lucky stars for being where I was, when I was – doing what I was doing.

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