Saturday, December 30, 2006

Tagines, Grand Taxis and Chris Sharma in flip-flops

Check out my Morocco photo set on http://www.flickr.com/photos/seewah
















19/Dec/06 Tues (London -> Marrakech) - first impression...

By the time Shaon and I collected our backpacks, it was already 9pm. We were expecting some kind of information service, or even just a sign to the bus stop, but there was none. Eventually we came across a few dodgy-looking blokes smoking cigarettes by their taxis. After a bit of obligatory haggling (from 200 dirhams down to 100 dirhams, i.e. 12 GBP down to 6GBP), we set off for Jemma El Fna. The Jemma is the main square inside the Marrakech Medina, which is the walled old town of Marrakech.

Apart from a minor altercation between the driver and a pony-cart owner after a near crash, the drive, mostly along the main boulevard, was uneventful. With the Koutoubia minaret, the most recognisable landmark of Marrakech, beckoning in the distance, I was looking out of the taxi window looking for clues, anticipating what surprises Morocco has in store for us, but Marrakech refused to lift its veil. We finally arrived at a broad and busy pedestrian area. The driver pointed out of the window and lazily indicated where our hotel was. Just when we were about to pay, he cheekily demanded another 20 dirhams. After a bit of futile debate, we managed to stuff the 100 dirham note in his hand and walked away.

Our hotel, l'Hotel Afriquia, was tucked away in a side street by the pedestrian area leading up to the the Jemma. Straight after checking in, we headed to the food stalls in the Jemma and I had my first tagine, along with my first fresh pure orange juice in Morocco. The Jemma was just as I had imagined - bright white lamps, white steam coming out of the countless cooking utensils adding to the hectic ambience of the place. After our quick dinner, we had a wander around the dimly lit souq to the north of the Jemma and was promptly approached by various locals who claimed to have "the number one morocco hashish".

Chaos and yummy food, we loved it.

20/Dec/06 Tues (Marrakech -> Agadir -> Taroudant) - it sucks...

In the morning we got to the coach station (La Gare Routiere) to buy a couple of overnight bus tickets to Taroudant for this evening. We was told that there would be no direct coaches to Taroudant at the time of the night, so we got a couple of tickets to Agadir, from where you could apparently catch a coach to Taroudant.

From the coach station, we decided to take a shortcut through the souq in order to get back to the hotel in time for checkout. MISTAKE! The souq in the Marrakech Medina is a wonderful place, but not if you are in a hurry. As we went deeper and deeper into the souq, the network of alleyways became more and more chaotic until it turned into a wicked maze. As the clock was ticking down, the arabic banters between the shoppers, between the store owners seemed to be turning into jeers, and the straw hatch roof seemed to be letting less and less light in, until we had to concede and asked for direction. Just as we had expected, as soon as a friendly local showed us the way to the Jemma, a kid decided to be our guide and walked in front of us. Of course, walking in the same direction and being in a hurry, we could not exactly lose him. Eventually, bright day light came streaming through one of the gates leading to the Jemma. As I was to find out later throughout the week, tourist hustlers could be very forceful in Morocco. They would jump in front of you and offer to help you just to earn a few dirhams. Granted, without all these "helpful" hustlers, it would have had taken us much longer to work our way through the many labyrinths in Morocco, to decipher the chaotic transport (bus and grand taxis) system. I guess, in an alien environment, I wanted to feel in control, and having decisions made for you, having to blindly follow strangers, made me feel insecure.

In the afternoon, we walked down the busy Avenue Hassan el Fetouaki to reach the Mellah (Jewish area) and the Kasbah in the south east corner of the Medina. Despite effort by various shopowners to assure us that the palaces were closed and to conveniently lure us into what we assume to be a bit of a tourist trap inside the Mellah, we visited the not really worth visiting Palais Bahia, and Le Palais Baadi, which, in the sinking north African sun, stood majestically in defiance of its own decay.

After dinner, at around 10:30pm, we made our way to the coach station. The stand from which our coach was supposed to depart was eerily empty. The coach was there, but the driver, with his mates, was obviously not too bothered about his job, despite telling me again and again that we would depart in 15 minutes, until he eventually walked away to be replaced by another driver, who told us the same thing and also walked away. We waited and waited, assuming that the second driver was trying to gather more passengers. He eventually reemerged at 1:00am , and was genuinely surprised that we were still waiting in the freezing cold. Apparently earlier on, he shouted "mon amis" to us and signalled us to board an Agadir coach across the other side of the station, which we obviously did not paid much attention to. Luckily there was another coach at 1:30pm. We got on the coach and felt asleep straightaway (I did anyway). The coach arrived in Agadir at 5:00am. In a state of pure confusion, we got onto another coach for Taroudant. It was absolutely freezing and I was shivering like mad. Tiredness got the better of me, and I felt asleep again.

We arrived at Taroudant at 7am. Found our hotel and went straight underneath the blanket on our beds.

21/Dec/06 Wed (Taroudant) - relaxing...

We got our deserved sleep after the epic journey, and did not get to get out until midday. Taroudant was quite a relaxed little city with a beatiful city wall, a couple of souqs, a kasbah and a number of mosques. It was a nice change of scenery after a manic day in Marrakech. We wandered lazily through the meandering alleyways of the kasbah. The mud red kasbah wall was juxtoposed against modern shops, including an internet cafe called Cyber @ Kasba, and air-conditining units. We walked around the city wall and got back to the main square, Place Assarag, in time for dinner.

Our hotel, l'hotel Taroudant, also functioned as a local drinking establishment. Being an Islamic country, outside big modern cities, alcohol was hard to come by. In fact, back in Marrakech, alcohol is pretty much forbidden in the Medina. We had a couple of state-produced Flag beers.

Sadly, the Moroccan brew left a lot to desire...

Had an early night.

22/Dec/06 Thurs (Taroudant -> Inezgane -> Tiznit -> Tafraoute) - grand taxis...

We were told by the owner of the hotel that we could take a grand taxi to Inezgane and from there we could catch a bus to Tafraoute. With that mind, we squeezed ourselved into an old Mercedes taxi with four other passengers, excluding the driver, and endured our first grand taxi experience - two in the front seat and four in the back sites. I was pushed right up against the door. Trying not to think too much about what would happen to me if the door swang open (don't be silly, why would there be seat belts... in sh'Allah), I tried to absorb the scenery along way. As we were still quite a way from the Anti-Atlas, the area was flat, and moreover, most of it was quite arid. With the Sahara constantly expanding, desertification must be a real issue in many parts of Morocco. The repetitive barrenness and the heat eventually sent me to sleep. Incidentally, later on, I caught a glimpse of another passenger reading the newspaper, which happened to have a special report on water suuply problem in Morocco.

After an hour in the taxi, we arrived in Inezgane only to find that there was no buses to Tafraoute. Instead we had to take another grand taxi to Tzinit, from where we would have to take another grand taxi to Tafraoute....

Another hour spent in another grand taxi, we arrived at the city of Tiznit. After a bit of asking around, we found a grand taxi for Tafraoute. Donning a blue head scarf, the driver was, I believe, of Touareg descent. Prior to this, I had only really seen Touareg people riding camels, living in nomad tents in the Sahara in travel photos, and I was glad our modern day blue man was equally skilled at negotiating the ultra-bendy mountain roads in his old Mercedes. Part of the experience of taking grand taxis is that you get to listen to whatever music the driver wants to listen to. While in our two previous rides, the drivers had had Moroccan radio on - an eclectic mix of arabic chanting, Rihanna and French hiphop, our Touareg driver this time was listening to some old cassettes of again what I assumed to be Touareg music. Pumping through his half-broken soundsystem, which was randomly adding delay, echo, stereo panning and all kinds of weird and wonderful effects, the music was amongst the most psychedelic I had ever heard. Syd Barrett himself would have approved. Driving into the golden setting sun, totally immersed in Touareg psychedelia, the meandering ride was simply magical.

We checked into our hotel. Hotel Salama, a pretty plush one, for a change. The damage was 120 dirhams pppn (7 GBP!!!). We found a shop, Coin de Nomad, where we could hire mountain bikes for tomorrow. The shopkeeper, again in Touareg outfit, showed me photos of him with Chris Bonnington and Joe Brown. Respect! Not having had lunch, we were pretty hungry by 6pm, and we went down to the local restaurant to sample some Kefta Tagines. There we met a trio of English dudes. They were in Morocco on a surfing trip. The lack of waves had taken them away from the coast into the Anti-Atlas region. A couple of them were into African music, and I was happily talking to them about Seckou Keita, Tinawiren, Tounami Diabate, Fela Kuti and all those legendary musicians.

23/Dec/06 Fri (Tafraoute) - Chris Sharma in flip-flops...

Shortly after breakfast, we went to Coin de Nomad to hire a couple of bikes. Following a hand-sketched map, we rode out into the wilderness. The landscape, dotted with weird, stacked boulders was simple incredible. The remoteness of the place, the eery silence. This is it! This is why we had endured hours of grand taxis to come to Tafraoute! We stopped at a cluster of boulders to shelter ourselves from the strong sun. I promptly put my climbing shoes on and had a go climbing some of these fine rounded granite boulders. They were pretty featureless, but quite frictiony, not dissimilar to the English gritstone. A kid from the local village, who must have been no more than 15 years old, saw me climbing and came over our way. Either my French was really bad or he could not speak any French, the kid and I could not really communicate. Nonetheless, driven by the universal urge to conquer and climb, he effortlessly soloed up a crimpy 10 metres route up to the top of a stack of boulders in flip-flops. My jaw dropped. He signalled me to come up. The route seemed to me to be about F5(+) / F6a, but there was obviously no protection whatsoever, no rope, no crashmat. With the kid staring down high above me, I got up 4 metres before coming to the crux move, which involved standing on a tiny flake, which was threatening to break off. The kid looked puzzled and did not really why I was having so much trouble. Feeling useless and inadequate, I told myself the flake was not going to break, my feet were not going to slip and I tried for different (non-existent) crimpy handholds until I decided that I valued my life more.

Even though I could not get to talk to the kid, I felt as if I knew his whole life-story, such was the awe that he had inspired. With time running out, we had to ride off again, and we bid farewell to this amazing kid. He will probably never leave his village, never leave Morocco, but in my mind, he is always going to be the rockclimbing superstar.

After 20 mins of cycling, we got to the painted rocks (Les Rochers Peintes). In 1986, driven by whatever urge he was feeling at the time, the Belgium artist, Jean Verame, decided to come to Morocco and draped a number of gigantic boulders in 18 tonnes of white, blue and red paint. With the colour fading, the colours were not so impressive now. Nonetheless, against this strange, otherworldly landscape, the effect was still extremely mesmerising. While Shaon went scrambling up to the top of some hill, I set off and climbed up some more (painted and non-painted) boulders in the middle of no man's land.

Such an amazing place...

24/Dec/06 (Tafaroute -> Agadir -> Inezgand -> Marrakech) - boredom...

If the previous day was the high point of our trip, the 24th was the all-time low. Due to bad judgement and incorrect information, we spent the whole day travelling. I tried various methods to keep myself entertained, including changing films in my Holga camera and playing mobile phone games, but nothing would cure my boredom. After three grand taxis and a four-hour coach journey, we eventually made it back to Marrakech at 10:00pm.

25/Dec/06 (Marrakech) - new town...

We spent the whole day walking around Gueliz, the new town of Marrakech. Full of relatively overpriced eating places and western shops, there really was not much to see, apart from Le Jardin Majorelle, which was a very pretty garden designed by Jacques Majorelle in 1886.

Walking through the new town, you just could not help noticing the wealth gap in Marrakech. Up until now, I had never really been struck by the sight of poverty in Morocco, primarily because we had not walked through any areas showing the rich and the poor side by side, but now the contrast became really apparent. Interestingly, western influence in the new town was a lot stronger, for example, with a lot of females not wearing hijabs or veils, and bars selling alcohol becoming quite prevalent. Do people naturally yearn for western lifestyles once they have more money? Does sticking to you tradition render you an underdog in this global fight for power and wealth? Or is it simpler than that?

In the evening, we met up with a couple of friends from the UK and had dinner in a place called "Trio Latinos", which, despite all their effort to make the place look Latin American, decided to blast out French chanson versions of cheesy love songs.

26/Dec/06 (Marrakech -> London) - homebound...

We spent the morning wandering around the Marrakech souq, with a compass in my pocket this time. To be honest, neither Shaon nor I was that fascinated by all the little things they sell. I did spot a pair of traditional Moroccan slippers with Louis Vuitton logos all over though. We also figured out that in the Moroccan's equivalent of pound shops, souvenirs like tea glasses costed half the price as they would do in the souq.

We left early for the airport, thinking that we could leave our backpacks in the airport and visit the Menara garden near the airport. Unfortunately, there was no left-luggage, and we could not be bothered to trek to the garden with our heavy backpacks, so we simply sat outside the airport, soaking up the last bit of north African sun, kicking around an unfortunate orange, talking about films, religions, politics and all those topics you always find yourself talking about in foreign countries.


Funny enough, I did not feel any of that languishing sensation that I had had when I had previously arrived at the departure lounges of the Havana airport, the Lima airport, or even the Delhi airport. Could it be because of the geographical proximity? Perhaps because I did not spend enough time talking to the people over there to understand the culture, the country? Perhaps because I felt that people were after my money all the time? Maybe it was because I knew at the back of mind that very soon I would be coming back to trek up Jebel Toubkal, or to climb the Todra Gorge?