Having just finished up her work as a nanny in North London, Aidan's sister Emily decided to meet us for our last week in Morocco. With the idea of not moving around too much and blending in with the other tourists, we decided to test our nerve with the infamous venders and tourist touts. We spent the week amongst the madness of Marrakesh!
This city offered everything we were promised; fortune tellers, snake charmers, street entertainers and the most varied and interesting markets (or souks as the Arabs call them) ever imagined. Whenever we dared to glance into a souk store we were always taken in by the vibrant colours and exotic smells. We wasted days losing ourselves in the tangles of streets, as our attention was constantly diverted from one shop or street entertainer to the next.
We spent many more hours filling up on different Moroccan sweets, teas, fruits and nuts. After living off couscous and tagine for the last two weeks, we were expecting to embrace some of the more varied international cuisine on offer. Surprisingly, we found that these limited but delicious Moroccan speciality dishes kept drawing us back to the local restaurants. We even bought a few different spice mixes to improve our Christmas feasting when we get to Portugal!
Despite the tastiness of the food, we spent part of the week clutching our stomachs and running for the toilet! It all culminated one night while we were attempting to watch an outdoor film in the central Jemaa El Fna square. Standing amongst the crowd, with a smell of dried urine wafting past from a nearby shadowy place, Aidan's already upset stomach got the better of him. We left the crowd to sit down and get some slightly fresher air. A moment later someone had set their performing monkey onto Aidan. Careful not to throw up on the animal, Aidan tried to sit still.. Seeing our response, the monkey and his owner soon shuffled guiltily towards the next unsuspecting victim.. With a bit of a laugh, the queasiness subsided, and we set off again for more randomness.
The one thing that we struggled to adjust to was the bold, almost rude business manner of the Moroccans. We were shocked more than a few times when our pre-negotiated price or agreement was bent or broken. When it came to saying goodbye, a taxi driver, hotel manager or salesman would often demand more money than we'd originally settled on! In the souks, it was almost scary to watch them flick from the lighthearted, vague 'hello, how are you?, where are you from?'... to shouting Arabic insults when they realised we weren't going to buy anything. After a few frustrated and adrenaline-rushed encounters in the souks, we realised we were better to just ignore, joke and, if possible, keep our eyes diverted to minimize attention!
We don't want to convey a stereotype, and most of the Muslims we met were very modest and unimposing of their religious views. We did, however encounter one narrow-minded individual. After a dissatisfying bargaining experience (i.e. we didn't pay 200% of the worth of a wooden snake), this guy pointed at the small cross around Jess's neck.. 'what is that.. that thing on your neck?' Already knowing the answer, he hissed 'that not good, you no good!' As we walked away, shocked, we noticed the picture of Buddha on Jess's t-shirt.. Luckily our friend hadn't!
To get away from the mayhem of central Marrakesh, we decided on a day trip out to Setti Fatma, a tourist-orientated village in the Ourika valley. We hired a taxi driver for the day and followed the winding roads out to this beautiful part of the Atlas Mountains, made popular by it's stunning scenery and a series of seven waterfalls. The path leading up to the waterfalls was lined with souvenir shops and tagine restaurants, however the owners were a little less persistent than in the city. The place was famous for a reason and the natural setting had the desired calming effect on all our nerves. We suspect, however, that although still very beautiful, Setti Fatma wouldn't be quite so tranquil in the high season!
Back in Marrakesh, we made an effort to get to know the locals on a more personal level. We spent the afternoon at a very local hammam. The idea of a public bathhouse, natural argan oil soap, a massage and a well needed exfoliation treatment made this traditional necessity understandably appealing, and there are dozens of luxurious tourist versions all over the city. We opted for the less glamorous local version, at about a fifth of the price. With curious excitement, the girls headed off to the women's quarters while Aidan was ushered into the Men's next door. The first thing that shocked the girls was the stark contrast between the public and private Muslim woman. Em and Jess tried to divert their eyes as they watched an older woman walk out of the wash room completely and comfortably nude, and then take her time putting on at least ten different layers of clothing and head scarfs! It was even more of a shock when the massage and body scrub turned out to be a ruthless, military-esqe procedure with one purpose; to remove a good thick layer of skin from the entire body! We were ordered to strip off, get down on the tiled floor and watch as layers of dead skin washed past us into the drain. Red, raw and still shaking, we all had a very quiet dinner that night as we secretly appreciated just how fresh and smooth our new skin was feeling!
Still afraid of venturing back into the old souks, we spent the next couple of days exploring the rest of the city. We checked out the enormous and partly ruined Baadi Palace, the spooky but very elegant Saadien Tombs and the beautifully bright and cheerful Bahia Palace. Despite being located in the heart of the city, these places were an absolute world away from the hustle and bustle outside, and proved a bit of a safe haven for uninspired tourists. We also found peace in the new Marrakesh, outside of the old city walls. We were surprised at how spacious, clean and hassle free the area was, and even found a few amazingly manicured tropical gardens to stroll around in. The perfect escape!
With a fresh sense of energy and courage, we ventured back into the old town for our last night in Marrakesh to enjoy some delicious spiced tea from one of half a dozen 'tea bars'. After the tea, we bartered for our last taxi ride to the airport. Now waiting to board a flight to Portugal, we've said goodbye to this incredibly colourful city, still unsure of whether we loved it or hated it!