Lost and found in the madness of Marrakech
Mum had sent me money for my birthday. It was a special birthday so I wanted to do something special with the money. Something I’d remember for a long time. Marrakech seemed like the perfect idea. I’d never been abroad on my own before and I’d never been out of Europe, but there’s a first time for everything, right? Plus I saw a perfect hotel offer online and pretty much impulse bought it there and then.
Ok, so Marrakech wasn’t really a plan, it was an impulse. But it was still a perfect way to use my birthday money.
I was so excited about the trip, I had been looking forward to it for weeks. But as I was sitting in Luton airport with my case and my coffee, waiting for the flight to be announced I had a bit of a nervous wobble. I’d read about how easy it was to get lost in Marrakech and how maps weren’t necessarily accurate, especially in the old parts of the city where I was going to stay. I realised I had no idea how to get to my hotel. I wasn’t sure if I’d find anyone who spoke English and I’d been told that the local taxi drivers were not to be trusted. So I took a deep breath, decided Google was my friend and typed in “taxi from marrakech airport”. Up came the perfect website: marrakechairporttransfer.com. Within minutes I had booked a taxi, had email confirmation and I felt much happier. By the time the plane was in the air I’d explored the website enough to realise they also did trips out into the desert. The camel rides and camping under the stars sounded wonderful and I was seriously trying to work out how to extend my trip so I could try that too.
It turns out the information about getting lost in the old city was very accurate. My taxi driver got lost looking for the riad and had to call someone. Then he asked people on the roadside. Eventually he pulled up in a deserted street, found a door and knocked. There was no answer for ages. We knocked and rang the bell but nothing. He gave up, hopped back in his taxi and disappeared, leaving me in this strange exotic city, in the dark, totally alone. I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place. I couldn’t see any sign that this was my hotel (although I realised the next day that the sign is just about visible behind the plant on the left of the door). I’m so glad I’m not the the anxious type. such a haphazard start to my first solo trip could have put me off travelling altogether!
After what seemed like forever, but was probably only five minutes, the door opened and I was ushered inside by a very friendly gentleman. Mustafa welcomed me warmly, apologised for the delay in answering the door and sat me down with hot mint tea and biscuits. The riad was such a surprise after the sparse almost derelict streets. There was so much space and elegance inside, with ornate rooms centered around a beautiful tree-filled courtyard. I had no idea that those old streets hid such wonderful and spacious homes.
The next morning I rose early and gathered the two maps I had. One of them was an offline Google map (my phone data wasn’t going to work in Morocco unless I was prepared to remortgage myself to pay the bills when I got home). The other was a paper map that Mustapha gave me, along with verbal directions to get to the the main square. The directions he gave were partly in French and partly in English, but I was fairly sure I knew where I was heading. The two maps certainly didn't have the same streets in the same order. It seemed the warnings I heard about maps of Marrakech were more accurate than the maps themselves. I took a photo of the hotel and of the street it was on, so that I would recognise them later, then I set off bravely towards the market.
It took me around forty five minutes to find Jemaa al-Fnaa, the central marketplace. I found out as my time in Marrakech progressed that the walk was only around ten minutes once you knew the way, but that first walk was the most intoxicating. A number of locals offered to guide me and most I managed to dissuade. One old man, who introduced himself as Mohammed, was not going to go away though. He led me through twisty little streets until we arrived at the main square. I had nothing to give him for his help other than the large denomination notes I’d picked up at the airport. Mustapha did very well from guiding me that morning. It was a fast and effective way to learn that I always needed to carry a handful of low value notes in my pocket.
There is little I can say about Jemaa el-Fnaa that hasn’t been said already, in ways far better than I can express. It draws you in immediately and captures your soul almost before you have even taken a breath of the warm, spice-scented air. Wandering through the wide, triangular space took me from stalls selling leather goods, to pottery, to jugglers and snake charmers, all the way round to the amazing orange juice stalls selling the freshest, sweetest juice I’ve ever tasted.
Every stall holder in Marrakech seems to know someone in England - a cousin, a brother, a friend. They all offered their wares with gusto. Refusing to be drawn into their negotiations is something that stretched my British sense of politeness a great deal at first. Even the briefest interest shown in any of the stalls will lead to an invite inside to see more of what they have on offer.
Whilst chatting to one stallholder about his brother in Manchester my hand was lifted by a lady sitting close by. Before I had a chance to object she was drawing an intricate henna design on me and setting it with glittery sparkles, while she chattered away about her sister’s wedding. I’m sure I paid her far too much, but that’s an integral part of the whole Marrakech experience.
There is joy to be had in sitting a while and chatting with the shopkeepers. Even if you finally decide not to buy there are no hard feelings - just laughter and a friendly wave goodbye with the encouragement to come back and buy another day.
Eventually I exhausted the sights of the market square and dived into the souk. The contrast was immediate. The narrow little streets were covered over with what looked like rush matting to keep out the strong midday sun.. The smell of spices and motorbikes fumes… the loud chatter and calls of the stallholders mixed in with bursts of Moroccan radio… the bright colours of overcrowded stalls piled high with spices and leather and intricate metal lamps… all of this intoxicated my senses and dragged me deeper into the exotic world of the souk. It was easy to completely lose my bearings in the endless labyrinth of the souks. Seemingly endless alleyways of little shops and stalls enticed me to explore an immense variety of merchandise. Sellers were competing for attention, each of them assuring me will the best deal on wares of the very best quality. Of course, only after spending some time haggling and laughing – a necessary practice in any Arabian country before money changes hands.
Occasionally a motor bike would weave through the narrow alleyways, scattering people into the stalls in order to make room. At one point a small van tried to pass. I have no idea how it squeezed through without flattening the market stalls that spread across the narrow space, but it slowly disappeared around a corner, only the distant shouts and honking horn left behind to show its passage.
If you walk long enough in the souks of Marrakech, you will eventually reach the tiny workshops of the local craftsmen. From workers assembling beautiful stained glass lamps, to textile dyers, leather tanners, and metalsmiths, nearly everything that is being sold in the souks can be traced here. As I turned one corner I discovered a man sitting on the floor of his little shop. He had a small, ancient lathe that he worked with his socked foot, his spare shoe cast off to one side. The speed and skill of is work was fascinating, despite the backbreaking position he was in as he hunched over his makeshift lathe. He looked up at me as I watched him working, then grinned and grabbed a small offcut of wood. Within moments that tiny piece of wood was a carved with a small free-floating ring trapped in the centre of it. He drilled a hole through the wooden trinket, threaded it onto a length of brown cotton and hung it carefully around my neck. He wrote something onto the wood before giving it to me, which may or may not be my name (if anyone can read it please do let me know). That little wooden charm has come to symbolise all the madness and joy of my first ever solo trip and I still wear it whenever I travel.
Over the next few days I walked all over the city. I made friends with people from every corner of the world, ate lots, laughed lots and fell completely in love with this amazing place. As I was checking out of the riad, Mustapha asked me how many times I’d been to Marrakech and how soon I would be coming back. He said he could tell that the city was a place I felt at home and I obviously knew it well. I had to admit to him that it was my first visit, but that his city was so beautiful and so intoxicating that I had spent all my time walking and soaking up the sights and sounds and scents of the place, until I truly felt that Marrakech had become a part of me.