As we walked towards the taxi rank after leaving the airport in Marrakesh, Sam and I acknowledged the fact that we would need to haggle with the taxi driver – that he would undoubtedly try to rip us off. We agreed we would be tough; drive a hard bargain, get a fair price. We checked the distance to our accommodation on Sam’s phone: two miles. The exchange rate was £1 to 12 dirhams. We decided we’d not pay a penny over £15 total, or around 180 dirhams.
Steeling ourselves, we found a taxi man and asked him how much it’d be to our destination. Without hesitation he replied:
“Three hundred dirhams.”
There was a moment’s quiet as I wrestled against every polite British instinct in my body desperate to say ‘okay!’.
“No,” I said after about eight minutes of silence. “That’s too much. Can you do it for two hundred fifty?”
Two hundred and fifty? groaned my inner monologue. Good haggling, Danny boy! Fantastic work! Why not ask for a quid off the asking price next time, really up the ante?
“No,” said the taxi man. “Three hundred is fair.”
And then he reeled off a lot of information very quickly that sounded like this:
“ThreehundredisfairbecauseIneedtotakeyoutooldtownanditisverybusyandyoucan’tgettooldtownpedestriandistractisdifficulttowalksoyouneedtaxispecialrulesandcostoftaxithreehundred very fair price for you.”
And of course, freshly bamboozled, I said:
“Oh okay then, yes, three hundred sounds fair.”
The taxi man called Sam ‘Big Man Big Man’ as he put our bags in the boot, much to our amusement, and then drove us away into the great dust cloud of the city. I pointed things out to Sam as we ventured into Marrakesh, passing little canvas slums and donkey carts and motorcycles with entire families on them.
The driver dropped us down a nondescript alleyway with a cobbled floor, and we traipsed down several dry streets. The buildings were sandy-coloured and low-rise, with ornate oak doors that looked a thousand years old. We passed chickens in cages and foul-smelling puddles on the floor, and kids in flip flops playing games in the street. We’d downloaded an offline map while still in the airport, so were able to navigate to our riad without too much trouble.
The locals stared a lot less than we were expecting – but then, foreigners are not so foreign in Marrakesh as they are in, say, Varanasi. The fashion was surprising too. It was inconsistent; some men were in jeans and British footballs shirts, others were in long gowns and sandals. Some women were in vests, others in burqas. One middle-aged man in a gown stopped us in the street, asking where we were going and if we needed help.
“Here,” said Sam, handing the man his phone and pointing to a location on the map.
My eyes bulged a little watching this stranger take Sam’s phone from him. They bulged even more to notice the stranger was wearing running shoes. We’d only been there five minutes; I really didn’t fancy sprinting through the warren of streets, rucksacks thumping against our backs, shrieking ‘stop, thief!’ before an assembly of disinterested locals. That’s really more of a ‘day three’ encounter.
Thankfully, he was a good stranger, and he stood up from his perch and led us to our riad, which was located down a shady alleyway. We were a bit nervous to enter, as from the street, the place looked rundown and unclean. We knocked at the door and a little old lady answered and bid us to come inside.
The place was a Tardis. As soon as we stepped through the old wooden doorway, the heat and whiff of the street vanished, replaced by cool air and the smell of incense. The place was one giant open chamber, going up and up several floors, with rooms coming off it. A staircase on the ground floor led round and around, and each floor was stunningly ornate – tiled and carved with the fervour of a great artist. We were seated in this gigantic foyer, and a quiet, polite man in a shirt poured us a couple of glasses of mint-flavoured tea. Instantly, the grime of the city streets was forgotten. I looked at Sam, and he shared my expression. It was one that said: holy shit.
The little old lady didn’t speak much English, so I tried to talk to her in French. She spoke a little too fast for me, and there were a couple of words I didn’t know, but I got the gist: there was something wrong with our room (I think either a leak or broken AC), so we would be moved to another property, if it was okay.
After the taxi rip off some thirty minutes earlier, I was a little wary, and agreed to take the alternate property only if we could check it ourselves first. The little woman agreed, and we were led by her polite porter through the city to another property, which itself was down an even dirtier alleyway – one littered with crisp packets and banana peels and dubious, fly-covered piles of mulch. Several kids were playing in a doorway, and went quiet as we passed. I looked at Sam and raised my eyebrows a fraction. He did the same back, and unspoken message conveyed was simple: this looks sketchy, keep an eye out.
The porter knocked at the door of our new riad – another chunky, ornate oak door – and a moment later there came the sound of bolts sliding. The door swung open, and a small, slender man in a white shirt, blue jeans and sandals waved us inside. I looked at Sam out of the corner of my eye.
“Please don’t be fucking horrible,” I breathed.
Well, whatever the opposite is in the dictionary of ‘fucking horrible’, that’s exactly what we got. We stepped off the street, through a little reception room, and into a vast, open-air garden with tiled floors, a central fountain, towering palms, and high Moorish arches and columns shooting up to the sky with long beige curtains rippling in the breeze. Tasteful sofas and pillows sat around the periphery at each level, and on the upstairs inner balconies we could see bookshelves and beautiful minimalist lampshades.
We laughed to see our luck: this was a fantastic upgrade. We were poured another mint tea (brewed with great care from the new property’s porter, who introduced himself in French as Jamal), and shown to our room – a honeymoon suite. I nominated myself to take the sofa. It seemed only fair; Sam is 6 foot 4. Big Man Big Man.
That evening, we decided to head out and explore the city. We asked Jamal where to go to eat, but the conversation didn’t exactly flow.
“Do you know where we can go for some good food?” I asked him.
His blank expression told me his English skills didn’t go this far, so I switched to French, an official language of Morocco. My French isn’t elegant, but it usually gets the job done. Or so I thought.
“On veut trouver quelque chose pour manger.” We want to find something to eat.
Jamal looked at me as though I was speaking tongues. I tried again.
“Est ce qu’il y a un bon restaurant a cote d’ici?” Is there a good restaurant close to here?
Jamal stared at us for about eleven seconds, and then handed me a key. I looked at it.
“Pour la porte,” he said. For the door.
I thanked him for the key, then asked again for a restaurant. He regarded me as though I was rolling my eyes back and bleating like a goat.
“Manger?” I asked, miming eating with a spoon. “On veut manger.” We want to eat.
“Ah, manger,” said Jamal, nodding. Then he gave me a thumbs up and wandered off.
I looked at Sam, my face reddening. Maybe I wasn’t quite as good at French as I thought.
The streets of Marrakesh are wild. Deathly, flea-bitten donkeys pulling carts, motorcycles zipping past, little dark shops in crowded doorways, packed so tightly with produce that you wonder how the hell the owner ever leaves. Front doors left ajar, giving glimpses into empty living rooms with only a thin mat on the floor and old box TVs showing films so distorted by static you can hardly make them out. Leathery old men drinking tea out of shot glasses, giggling kids roving past with their arms dangling idly around one another’s shoulders.
We’d made it not fifty metres before we were stopped by a lanky sixteen-year-old kid in a grey gown. He stood up and crossed the street to us, leaving his friends sat behind.
“You looking for the big market?” he asked.
“Er, yeah,” we replied, thickly.
“The market is not this way. It’s back that way,” he said, pointing behind us.
Sam and I frowned at each other.
“Here, you follow, I show you,” said the kid.
We didn’t know what else to do, so we followed without further questions. The kid walked ahead of us at a distance, every now and then looking over his shoulder to wave us after him. It seemed a friendly, neighbourly gesture, but the longer we wound through the streets after him, the more suspicious I grew. I’ve seen this sort of thing before. I nudged Sam.
“Bad vibes, man. Let’s get rid.”
I tapped the kid on the shoulder.
“We’re good from here now, man. We can find the market ourselves. But thank you for your help.”
The kid told us the market was hard to find, and that we would get lost. We told him that was fine, we were in no rush. The kid shrugged.
“You like to make some contribution to me, for my services?” he said, holding out his hand, cupped.
“I’m sorry, man. We don’t have any money.”
He went from placid to furious in an instant.
“You don’t have any money? You come to Marrakesh and you don’t bring money?”
“I’m sorry, man. No.”
“What you sorry for?” asked the kid. “Why you sorry?”
He switched to questioning Sam instead.
“You give me some contribution?”
“No mate, sorry.”
“Oh, you sorry too, huh? Why you both so sorry? Huh?”
The argument wasn’t going anywhere, and we were attracting attention by arguing in the street. In the end all we could do was keep mumbling apologies and walk on, ignoring the kid behind us.
We exhaled when we rounded the corner.
“Well that was intense.”
Without further incident – mercifully – we arrived at the city’s most famous market: Jemaa el-Fnaa (which, to my surprise, is pronounced exactly as it’s written).
The Jemaa el Fnaa marketplace is one of the most insane places I’ve ever seen. From the moment we left the warren of alleyways and entered the market proper, men wielding restaurant menus accosted us, inviting us in for tagine and cous cous. From carpets spread out on the ground, merchandise winked at us, and after being badgered to buy something every three steps, we soon learned not to look at any person or product with even mild interest. There was drumming and engines and the sound of sizzling meat, and donkey carts parted the crowds piled high with old rags. We wandered the ranks of light-blazing stalls and saw severed goat heads dangling in clusters, their tongues hanging out, eyes glazed, while diners scoffed happily mere feet away. Snake charmers played their strange high-pitched bagpipes while cobras slithered around on the ground before them, and monkeys sat on their masters’ shoulders to pose for photographs. Children ran around the crowd’s knees, and men in high fruit stalls cheered in unison to attract customers. Drum circles pattered constantly, with passersby stopping to clap and sing and join in. Each breath of air brought a new smell: incense, spices, meat, sewage, aftershave, fruit, fire, smoke – and all ensconced in a dense evening heat, sprawling beneath a broad black sky. Pandemonium.
Every restaurant around the perimeter of the enormous square had a roof terrace. We chose one that looked like it would have a good view, and went up. There we sat and ordered a vegetarian tagine each; we realised we’d not eaten since the morning. As we ate, we watched the endless coming and going down below, the broiling madness of it all.
“Fucking hell,” I said to Sam. “And to think all this is happening every night, a four-hour flight away from London.”
“I know,” said Sam, every bit as dazed as me. “We had coffee in Balham this morning.”