The last time I flew into an Arabic airport it was in the back of a heavily laden Chinook helicopter whilst the cargo bay crammed with soldiers was periodically illuminated by the lightning storm we were flying tactically through from our desert location of Muffrash to Basrah International Airport in March 2003.
The last time I was in Morrocco I was leading a adventure training expedition consisting of me and about 10 soldiers from the Gibraltar Regiment with the aim of trekking up Mount Toubkal and exploring the Atlas mountains with Morroccan mountain troops.
Whilst rewarding, neither of these experiences were relaxing so my 'baggage' was not the best as we arrived in Marrakech. This baggage was not helped by the fact that like many towns in developing country, besides the absence of government buildings turned to rubble by Uncle Sam and a little less death, Marrakech was not a million miles away from looking like a war zone.
However, in many ways Marrakech is all that it should be: hot, dusty, manic, slightly medieval and full of contrasts. It is exciting and fun as well.
We stayed in a lovely Riad called Noire d'ivoire. It is in the old Medina in the labyrinth of narrow lanes and cannot be reached by car. Mohammed the driver who picked us up from the airport, dropped us off in a small square outside a mosque and we were met by two men in black holding a small hand cart. Once our bags were loaded we followed them through a market selling fruit, very graphically displayed cuts of meat (which Jodie loved of course. Later I noticed a row of roasted sheepskin heads; dark skinned, glassy eyed and with big white teeth. They reminded me a little of the Bee Gees (the Baa Gees perhaps)) second hand shoes and all manner of other offerings. It was dirty and it smelt. We then hung a right down a maze of other lanes, avoiding the mad scooter riders, past the beggar, on past the plot empty,less for discarded rubbish and stray cats, then finally arrived at a big wooden door with a very small plaque next to it. The other side of the door was an amazing contrast and our host, a Frenchh guy called Damian, fed us beer and wine before he showed us around this incredible oasis. Inside there are two courtyards, one covered and surrounded by sitting areas, the other open and with a pool in it. Both areas are beautifully decorated and furnished. Our room was well appointed but small, the smallest in the Riad, but as we planned to be out and about or by the pool that didn't matter. More irritating though was a noisy aircon which sounded like a loud Cricket. Doable, but irritating.
Before I could mention the noise the next day, Damian mentioned that the suite next door was not being occupied for the next three nights and he would like to put us in it. No problems from us! It was great; huge bed, sitting area and a large bathroom. We had one more night in the old room, when the real owners of our temporary suite turned up, and found the Cricket was louder. I asked Damian if someone could look at it but instead, as we were so reasonable, he wanted to put us in another suite. I now write this from a suite much bigger than our house;it has a huge bed, sitting area, a large bathroom, a sunroom and a roof top terrace with jacuzzi. It's a hard life.
We have enjoyed being back in a very different culture but it took us a couple of days to get into the swing of it. There is so much to deal with. The heat, the language, the food, the touts, the performing snakes and monkeys in the square. Then there's the poverty, smells and terrible roads used by lunatics. A real overload. Once we got back into the swing of it we remembered how much we love these kind of adventures and need to work out how we do more.
Yesterday we hired Mohammed for the day and went to the mountains: Asni, Imlil and the Ourika Valley. I knew Asni and Imlil from my last trip and they have changed little. That's not a good thing. Roads are still dirt and facilities are still limited. We had a glass of mint tea at the hostel I stayed in before setting out. 17 years ago an old man lived in a shell of a car nearby and told me he was the 'car guardian' and I needed to give him money to look after our vehicles. I said we were being looked after by the Moroccan Army and police so we would be fine, thank you. I feel very stingy about that and hoped that the very old man who lived rough 17 years ago may still be about so I could put right my wrong. He wasn't. Obviously.
The Ourika valley is very pretty and green and we followed the river south to the famous Ourika waterfalls. They are a series of 7 waterfalls at the head of the valley and it is normal to hire a guide to trek up to see them. The first 2 are the most spectacular and the round trip is about 80 minutes. Sound good? Well it's a bit s***. Firstly our driver recommended a guide who seemed to be way over the top price wise. It's all a little awkward when that happens. They both knew where we were staying and how much it must cost, so arguing about $20 (3 beers in Sydney) made us look cheap, but then again paying over the odds feels a bit poo too. We kind of reached a compromise but Jodie was not impressed by my negotiating skills.
Secondly the route to the waterfalls was lined with stalls selling tat and our guide kept suggesting we looked at the tat. We were not interested in the tat but it took a while for that to sink in.
Finally, the falls are a bit s*** too. I have seen more water coming out of a power shower than we saw in the first waterfall. The second, 'the best' was better but still not good enough to be the setting for a cut price shampoo advertisement. I had optimistically taken a towel and swimmers with me, but as I stood in calf deep water in a small pool consisting of 20% child urine, I realized they would not be needed. The guide enthusiastically said that next time we come we should do all 7. He repeated that number 2 was the best. Oh dear. Bottom line; nice valley, shame about the falls.
We scoffed reasonably well on this day trip. For lunch we stopped at Kasbah Tramadot, 'Richard Branson's Moroccan retreat' which is a lovely hotel perched on the side of the valley. Next door his wife has a development centre for the local community. I think she said 'I want to help the poor disadvantaged people of the Asni Valley, but I don't want to stay anywhere s***', so Sir Dick built her a hotel. Lovely setting, lovely food but a bit too sterile for the FT's.
For dinner we stopped at a place called ..................... To get there Mohammed had to negotiate 7 km of rapidly deteriorating dirt track through very deprived villages before climbing a steep narrow track (which required a 3 point turn to negotiate the corner) and depositing us outside an impressive fort like building made of compressed dirt. It is a hotel built in an incredibly spectacular location by an eccentric Englishman and run by a charming Kiwi called Amanda who met us at the door, took us to the terrace for homemade lemonade and showed us where the pool was. Just what we needed. We watched a chameleon in an olive tree, drank beer, swam and listened to the calls from the mosques as the sun went down. We then had dinner, which was pretty terrible. Unless you like tough duck or cold greasy vegetable pasties. Which we don't. That said I would still go again as the location really is special.
The previous day we broke from the routine of lying by the pool drinking surprisingly good Moroccan beer and wine and breaking out for a wander around the souk when it got cooler and we went to a hamman for a scrub and a massage. The Hamman de la rosa was a few minutes walk from the Riad and unlike many places allowed couples to be treated together. In hindsight that may not be a good thing.................due to the ridiculous pants which are all you get to wear. Mine consisted of a piece of white elastic as a waist band and a small rectangle piece of cloth which made a fairly poor attempt at maintaining my dignity. Sexy? When I dropped my robe Jodie nearly collapsed laughing. Not great for a mans self-esteem.
My sprits recovered when I realised that the next 90 minutes would be spent being lathered up, hosed down and massaged by nice young ladies. It is interesting to note that good Muslim ladies must not show themselves in public without full cover but are permitted to lather up strangers, occasionally rubbing against parts of me that only the wife has been anywhere near for a long long time. It took all my self control (and delving into my bad memory image bank) to prevent a very 'tense' situation if you get my drift........... Poor ladies. A great way to spend an hour or so.
It has to be said that Marrakech may never be renowned for it's culinary delights. 'Great culinary culture is born from Royal sponsorship, great local produce and a mix of cultures' according to the lady at the cooking class at Le Maison de Le Arab, and allegedly, Morocco has all these things. It that's the case why is the only choice Tagine with meat or vegetables, couscous with meat or vegetables, or meat or vegetable pasties? Departing from these staples to European dishes is a bit risky as well. The bread is bloody good though.
With this in mind, I am not sure why we did a cooking class, but we did and it was fun. Not sure if we will ever make 7 vegetable couscous again though.
Morocco remains a poor country and poverty is evident everywhere. They still have public 'wells' or taps were locals get their drinking water. A man with a few potatoes to sell has a business and a few dollars goes a long long way. I am now old enough to realize that many of the privileges I enjoy are down to the luck of my place of birth rather than any particular talent and we tried to give small amounts cash to those less fortunate when we could. It is a strange feeling running a bath in a beautifully furnished room or swimming in a pool, or eating fine food when you know at the other side of the wall people have difficult access to fresh water.
To complicate matters we were there at the end of Ramadan so those that served us during the day were not even drinking water for the hours of daylight. A tough task in 40C +. It was interesting to see people getting more and more lethargic throughout the day then getting new energy after eating. The whole city seemed much happier after Eid and life returned to normal.
It has been a great trip and whilst we have done some interesting stuff, we have spent enough time in bed, in the pool or sunbathing to feel really relaxed. Morocco is safe, interesting and whilst the service culture can be a little rough and ready at times, the majority of people are helpful and welcoming. It's also a fantastic place for a scrub!