Marrakesh feels like a sensory overload test – something MI6 would put you through if you applied to join the Secret Service, as a means of gauging how well you hold up under
After being swamped and swindled throughout the sweltering morning, Sam and I decided to head to a nearby palace for a nose around. The city had a few more grim surprises in store for us, however. After attempting to cross a particularly wide and perilous road, during which we were forced to simply move with the traffic and found ourselves walking side by side with donkeys and motorcycles, we ducked through yet another market. Emerging at the other side, we passed a homeless man dozing in a wheelchair. From a distance he looked unremarkable, until I noticed his leg: snapped at the calf, purple and swollen, stuck at an appalling right angle. There was a meagre bandage wrapped around it, and that was that. Left alone in the street. It was macabre, and I hoped Sam hadn’t seen it, but the silence between us for the next five minutes told me he had.
“Fucking hell,” we breathed in unison.
This was the limit: after a morning of horrors, I could feel my brain frying. We needed calm – some quiet, clean oasis to take us out of the pounding sun and the abject streets. If we didn’t find something soon, I was going to freak out and melt down – I could feel it coming. It’s happened before – last time was in Jaipur, India – and it’s not pretty. Marrakesh doesn’t give a shit if you’re at the end of your tether, however. It’s relentless.
“My friend!” shouted some guy across the street. “You are going the wrong way. The palace is this way!”
“Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off,” I muttered under my breath, while Sam politely declined the guy.
I’ve a long fuse, but once it’s gone, it’s gone. I need to remove myself and calm down before I can cope with anything else.
Thankfully, aid was at hand: a rooftop terrace, a beautiful, golden rooftop terrace. We clocked it from fifty metres away.
“Sam, I think that – mate – mate – I think they’re drinking beer up there!”
Morocco isn’t a dry country, but it is an Islamic country, with official figures stating 99% of the country is Sunni Muslims. This means it’s not easy to find alcohol – only certain tourist bars serve booze, and they’re few and far between.
We raced up to the terrace (got harassed to buy candles from the shopkeeper next door), and there, with a view of Marrakesh – which looks far prettier and more peaceful from a distance – we drank several delicious and very necessary beers.
After, we headed home via the palace. It was elegant, albeit unfurnished, which meant you had to really use your imagination to feel you’d got your money’s worth. Imagine walking around Buckingham Palace and it’s just wallpaper and carpet and nothing else. Cool, but not quite awe inspiring. Nice, but not quite enough to balance out the insane violent havoc of the streets beyond.
That was the main difference I noticed between Morocco and India: in India, you see a lot of horrid stuff, sure, but you see just as much phenomenally beautiful stuff to compensate. Like, you might see a dead cow on the side of the street: that’s pretty nasty. Walk twenty metres further, however, and you’ll see an elephant walk past adorned with flowers and powder paint: that’s pretty fantastic. Or you might see an open sewer, filled with litter and whatever else: ew. But then you turn a corner and see children playing cricket in the street, and they hand you the bat and give you a go, and cheer joyfully when you hit the ball: nice!
Our experience of Morocco was far less balanced. You see a man with his leg snapped in two, dying unaided in the street – and then maybe you see, like, a quite nice mosque. You get prodded and pestered for hours on end and led by strange men down dark alleyways – and then you eat some cous cous.
We headed back to the apartment to decompress and rest, and when the evening came we got dressed up and headed out with a very simple mission: to get drunk. We went to a rooftop terrace bar – they all seem to be on rooftops, presumably to keep we European sinners out of sight – and had, oh, about fifteen bottles of beer. We’d planned on eating, but with each passing bottle the idea seemed less and less important.
At around beer number ten, we got talking to a Moroccan girl sitting two tables over, with her mum. The mum’s name I forget – it had an L in it – but the daughter was called Noor. She was only a kid, a 21-year-old student, and very confident and chatty. It was she who made first contact, leaning over and asking where our accents were from. We talked for long enough that we eventually moved to join them, although Noor’s mum only spoke French.
I was very happy we’d met Noor: aside from accommodation porters, she was the first non-hustler Moroccan we’d talked to. Because of course the vast, vast majority of Moroccans will be lovely and accommodating people – but in Marrakesh, as a tourist, it’s very easy to feel targeted and isolated and alienated. Noor told us a lot about their culture and their lives over in Casablanca, where they were from. I asked her how it was that she could drink and smoke in a bar with her mum, when other women in Morocco wore burqas and didn’t even frequent cafes. Her answer was a simple one: different folks, different strokes.
At around 1am, Noor’s mother was ready to leave. Noor, however, wanted to stay, keen to show Marrakesh to her new friends. With her mother’s blessing, she stayed out with us, and we walked her mum to a taxi and said goodnight. Then Noor called us a cab of our own, and whisked us away from Jemma el-Fnaa and into Marrakesh’s new town – which we didn’t even know existed.
It turns out, Marrakesh isn’t all labyrinthine streets and animal bodies. If you get a taxi thirty minutes out, you find yourself in a modern, spaciously-planned city, with tall buildings and broad streets and supermarkets and bars and clubs. It felt like taking a deep breath of fresh air after exiting a sauna.
Noor led us into a huge, vibrant nightclub, where everybody was smoking shisha and music was blasting. It was free to enter, we were pleasantly surprised to discover. We ordered a bucket full of beer bottles, and sat and talked into the small hours. I began to flag, and mentally checked out of the conversation for a good hour, instead simply staring around me with glazed eyes and a vacant expression. Noor remained very animated and eccentric, chatting away at a mile a minute.
We got a taxi back at around 4am, and dropped Noor at her hotel. She told us not to pay a penny over 200 dirhams for the taxi, and had spent the whole journey haggling with the taxi driver in Arabic. We were genuinely sad to see her go – she’d single handedly turned what was basically quite an unpleasant day into an unforgettable one.
As soon as we’d hugged Noor goodbye and she’d headed into her hotel, however, the driver turned around in his seat.
“I take you, 300 dirham, yes?”
“Eh? No,” I replied, feeling very tired. “We agreed 200.”
“Yes, 300 dirham.”
I let out a sigh that was like someone shooting a blimp with a BB gun. It had been a long enough day.
We drove back into the old town – boo – and the driver let us out at the big market. It was still another kilometre to our accommodation, through the maze of streets. We handed him 300 dirhams and opened the doors to climb out.
“350 dirhams,” said the driver.
“You pay 350.”
Well, here’s the good thing about having drunk one hundred beers in one sitting: you don’t much care about being agreeable.
“No chance, mate.”
We climbed out and trudged home through the now-empty market, feeling a dozen emotions at once, wondering what fresh mayhem the next day would bring.