Thursday, 31 October 2013

the city of vowels and marrakech.

From Rabat we had a very long bus ride down to Morocco's "windy city", Essaouira. The city of vowels. Unfortunately it was the week of the sheep slaughter and subsequent feast, which meant several sheep were also on the bus, in the luggage hold, which meant when we arrived in Essaouira our bags smelt like sheep wee. Which is exactly what you don't want the really heavy thing you have to strap to your back to smell like...roses or vanilla or something is far more preferable. Bit of backpacking trivia for you there.

Anyway, the point is, we arrived in Essaouira. The same deal as all the other cities, a medina and a ville nouvelle, but a wander out of the medina walls here brought you to a very long, sandy beach, perfect for swimming and windsurfing, kite surfing and regular surfing...the windy city. This was also the town where the tout at the bus station begged us to let him lead us to a hotel then demanded a tip, which is how we ended up with our wicked penthouse suite. Complete with a balcony perfect for yahtzee games and airing out our urine soaked backpacks.

The first two days we were here everyone was gearing up for the sheep slaughter feast (it is obvious now that I have no idea what the actual holiday is called), so the main shopping street in the medina was packed, constantly. Trying to merge onto it from a side alley- keep in mind it is a pedestrian, and occasional bike, thoroughfare only- was a matter of inserting yourself into whatever tiny space you could and waiting for the crowd to slowly project you forward. It took about 1/2 an hour to get from one end of the street to the other (when the festival was in full swing and everyone was home, we managed it in under 10 minutes). It was full on. Luckily there were only 2 days of this and then it magically changed into a christmas morning town...silent, empty streets bar a few families on their way to parties, laden with food, or boys running to and fro with little trailers filled with sheep skins. A happy, festive air without anyhting really going on. Still and quiet, in a good way. Just hordes of tourists wandering around, disconcerted because no shops were open and they didn't know where to get breakfast from.

When we weren't battling the crowds and refusing touts who offered us drugs, merchandise or restaurants, we spent a bit of time wandering along the old city walls, around the harbour and up along the beach. Will practised his backflips on the sand and instantly became a camel enthusiast when we spotted some further up the beach. (Plans are in motion...if anyone knows how big a camel exercise yard should be, get in touch).

We also spent a few hours one morning surfing. My very first time ever, so I was looking very cool stumbling down  the beach with my enormous foam longboard...Will is getting better now, he had the grown-up's neat little fibreglass number. (And he also now has the bragging rights of having surfed on 4 different continents). But once we were in the water the conditions were perfect for learning. I was right near a group who were having a lesson, so I didn't have to worry about looking spastic in front of them, and it was so bizarrely foggy that I was invisible to all of the real surfers further out in the big terrifying waves. And so, I managed to stand up! Several times! And made it nearly to shore without falling off! It was a big moment for me. After our morning of exertion, we spent the rest of the day resting and drinking coffee.

We left the lovely little town of Essaouira rather reluctantly, but short of more surfing we had done all we could think of doing there. So onward and upward, to Marrakech.

Marrakech, where we had planned to couchsurf, found a host and had even talked to him over the phone. Marrakech, where we ended up staying in probably the fanciest hotel we have yet stayed in, on this trip (not that I was complaining). The couchsurfing fell through and by this time it was about 10pm, we had no map and this hotel was open and had a room free (a scarcity in Marrakech, the most popular city in Morroco), so we collapsed on the king-sized bed with relief.

Marrakech is like the other places we went, amped up. The medina is huge, the souk is an insane maze of piles of shiny things just begging to be bought...filigree and glass lamps shimmering from floor to ceiling, racks and racks of sparkly bags and shoes, little counters piled high with sticky, colourful apples, oranges and all made out of marzipan, and clothes and souvenirs and leather-work and wood-work...and touts just begging you to buy them. A very interesting little square was home to the herbists, who had discovered that putting cages with turtles, chameleons and salamanders in front of their stores was the perfect tourist lure. It makes for very innocuous opening conversation. We met one fellow who had a very curious chameleon, it only changed colour when it was in his shop, surrounded by things we could buy...but ignoring all this, it was interesting to find out what all the mountains of spices and colours were for. Did you know khol comes from a really heavy, silver rock? And that when you rub nigella seeds together they smell like eucalypt? And musk comes in small chunks, like soap, that you rub on your wrists to impress the ladies? All very interesting. And the shops that sold jars upon jars of coloured powders...I have no idea what it was but looking at the shelves filled with jars brought to mind a very colourful apothecary.

The other big focal point in this medina was the massive square in the middle. During the day it is home to dozens of fresh orange juice men and dried fruite vendors and snake charmers who grab unsuspecting tourists, coerce them into taking pictures, then charge (we heard) $80AU for the pleasure! But at night (when it cools down) the sqaure becomes a huge open air restaurant, performance area and meeting place. It fills up with hundreds of people, buskers, "side-show" games and rows of little stalls selling fried meat, stew, soup...lots. We spread dinner between three stalls, with soup and some kind of deep-fried sugar snack (every culture has a version of deep-fried sugar, it would seem) first, a delicious, melty lamb stew and bread second and some kind of cinnamon flavoured something with strong ginger tea for dessert. Then a coffee and some people watching.

We did a few tourist things here. Visited a museum in an old riad with beautiful tile work and orange trees, visited a palace with similar attributes, only grander, visited the tombs of Saadian princes. The thing I remember most though is when we were sitting in horse and carriage square, having a bit of a rest, and a man clutching a plastic bottle of moonshine and a frame made out of old tyres, swayed over to us, told us he had several shops ad tried to sell us carpets, spices and tyre frames. A successful business man, for one who appeared to be a very drunk homeless man.

And with that memory, we left Marrakech, and Morocco, and after several days of travel flund ourselves in Tavira, southern Portugal.

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