22 – 24 feb 2014
I can’t turn around. I can’t move forward or sideways either, for that matter. The train’s seats are all occupied, and the pathway is too narrow; adults, children, suitcases, backpacks, and cardboard boxes full of tradeware are all jammed in there with no space to move; for a while, there’re even people hanging out the door. And that’s before the refreshments trolley has to come through! We make the most of it though, exchanging looks saying ‘lovely, isn’t it?’ with the wise old Moroccan who makes sure no one gets trampled, and having some small talk with the Indian-American tourist whose shoulder is wedged into my armpit. It seems a suitably chaotic way to travel to Marrakech! After following the coastline with its endless fields of agriculture for a few hours, we turn inland a bit, and reach the coastal steppes of Southern Morocco. The difference is immediately obvious; the landscape becomes much drier, with hardly any trees. The ground is dusty, and the grass is short and thin. The main business here seems to be goat herding. A while later, garbage in the fields is the first sign that we’re approaching a big city. After five hours in an overcrowded train, just the sight of the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas mountains, towering over Marrakech in the distance, is enough to feel fresher already.
My first impression of the main square, Jmaa el Fna, and its surroundings pretty much confirm my fears; in the thirty minutes it takes me to walk to the hostel, I see more tourists than in the three weeks of Morocco before it. The square is full of snake charmers (who often maim their animals for their own safety’s sake) and barbary macaque handlers (who contribute significantly to the near-extinction of the species by killing mother monkeys and taking their babies so that they can be tamed), and many others fishing for tourist Dirham. Considerably further South and inland than Rabat, it’s also much warmer (some 26 degrees C); this has many tourists walking around with as much skin as possible exposed to the sun, adding to the “theme park” feel of the place (Moroccans seek out the shade as much as possible, sometimes even going so far as carrying around a piece of cardboard to shield their face from the sun). At least the Equity Point hostel is great; fairly cheap, with good facilities (including a pool!) and very friendly staff, all while doing a pretty good job of recreating the feel of a traditional riad. During the day, I spend my time visiting some old palaces and tombs, all exquisitely decorated (although after a while I do suffer from woodcarving / intricate plaster / marble overload). The medina isn’t nearly as difficult to navigate as the one in Fes, as the streets aren’t quite so claustrophobic, and many of the shops seem to be operating for the tourists. The nights are when Marrakech becomes truly fun though; I spend my time mostly on Jmaa el Fna, which undergoes a spectacular transformation around sunset. The snake charmers and monkey handlers mostly disappear. Foodstalls take over about half the squares; some catering to tourists, with sit-down buffets, and others catering to locals, with street food (tasty but tends to upset my stomach), snails (spicier and less delicate tasting than the French style, but very tasty), and odd desserts that look like chocolate, but are actually made of insane amounts of spices pressed into a ball with something to hold it togethet (I don’t care for the surprisingly bland taste, and it hits my stomach so hard that I have to stop halfway through – and spend the rest of the evening trying not to throw up). The fiercely competitive stalls selling fresh fruit juice are popular with everyone. Entertainment is now aimed mostly at Moroccans, although I find the foodstall guys trying to lure in tourists with hygiene concerns through slogans such as ‘2 year guarantee: no diarrhea!’ and ‘remember, stall number 25, you stay alive!’ very entertaining as well!
Some of the more memorable entertainers, who have large circles of Moroccans gathered around them, are wildly gesticulating storytellers (wish I spoke Arabic or Berber!), Berber musicians with a chicken and a dove as part of their performance (sounds great, but so do half a dozen other musical groups; the animals are an effective way of drawing in crowds), and two men badly dressed as a Celtic warrior and a gnome, mock-fighting with sticks while directing a threesome of cross-dressing belly dancers… It’s a total madhouse out there, and I’m absolutely loving it; the noise, the smoke, the crowds, the seventeen orange juice sellers simultaneously shouting at me to visit their stall… The wonderful thing about it is that it very rarely gets unpleasant; if you ignore salesmen, or tell them to leave you alone, they just take their loss, give you a smile and move on to the next tourist, instead of pursuing you relentlessly. The office of the Brigade Touristique, a tough (but fair? One hopes…) police department created specifically to make sure that tourists aren’t harrassed too much, being right on the square might have something to do with it, but the atmosphere doesn’t feel tense to me. My personal highlight comes at the end of my first evening on the square. The deep bass line of a guitar-like instrument draws me into a circle of Moroccans; the pulsating rhythm turns out to be some ten people with metal clapping devices in their hands. The vocals are provided by all; chanting in unison, joyfully, hypnothically bluesy and unmistakeably African. Two men are dancing a trance-like dance, hopping, shuffling, turning, jumping. This is Gnaoua, a music form created by freed West-African slaves in Marrakech and Essaouira. They formed brotherhoods of the Sufi branch of mystical Islam, and use the music to express their joy and their gratiousness to Allah and to reach a trance. I stay around for as long as the performance takes (with up to twenty minutes per song, time flies!), and do the same the following evening.
My personal low point of the Jmaa el Fna, although I don’t hang around to see how serious it is, is two boys of maybe eight years old wearing boxing gloves while some adults go around the crowd, raising money for their fight to begin. Another sad but comical sight is an elderly musician sitting on the ground with literally no audience; as I come closer, and hear him play the same two notes over and over again on his violin, I can see why no one bothers to stop and listen. Away from the Jmaa, memorable moments include a taxi driver who’s so agressive that I seriously wonder how many pedestrians, mules or motorcyclists he’s injured or killed during his career, and my roommates at the hostel, Chris and Carl from England. With them I have regular chats (mostly about football; Carl is a walking football encyclopedia!), lots of Flag beers, and a dip in the pool, which turns out to be very, very cold this time of year. Good fun though! All in all, Marrakech has completely surpassed my expectations; the presence of tourist hordes has made the place much more accessible than Fes, and the fact that there’s a central square where all the action is focused on also helps. But especially at night, it still remains a place by Moroccans for Moroccans, with a very thick sauce of wonderful, partying weirdness added to it.