Travel: Make mine Marrakech

Travel: Make mine Marrakech

 

Marrakech Morocco, it’s bold and it’s beautiful. Colours collide here and eyes and ears are put to an endurance test. Every morning I woke up in the Red City, I fell in love with it, over and over again.

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The early foreign travellers to Morocco called Marrakech ‘Morocco City’. The city of old has expanded over the centuries since its origins but it is those beginnings that have kept it as mesmerising and traditional as it was in the past. It’s still a marketplace.

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It is the ‘Red City’, soaked with the natural red ochre pigment that is the walls and buildings dominating the city, souks and medinas, but there are other colours too that fight for space – colour is king in Morocco. A variety of blues and bright yellow and pink fight for your attention.

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To try and give a blanket narrative on this magical place is like trying to cover an oval of brilliant blooms with a handkerchief. Following are observations, ideas and suggestions of how to experience the beauty, colour and movement of Marrakech.

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Playing the market

Marrakech has Berber rather than Arabic origins as it was originally the meeting place of the Atlas tribes. It was the centre of the past for gold, slaves, ivory and leather brought to Morocco by caravans from far away empires via the desert port of Timbuktu. The visiting and trading population swelled the city’s souks and its way of life.

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In the heart of the medina (a medina is a distinct city section in north African cities, typically walled, it has narrow lanes and streets that are maze-like), is the wide open spaced Djemma El Fna or Jemaa el Fna (this has many spellings) – the city’s main market where all aspects of north African life is on view and the space becomes a theatre. The main souks are to the north of the market place but this is where the action is.

The epicentre of Marrakech is Jemaa el Fna, weaving its chaotic magic all day and all night.

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The famed “night market” at Jemaa el Fna is a bizarre microcosm of entertainment, food, and tradition. Since the mid-11th century, this plaza has been the beating and sometimes bloody heart of Marrakech’s old city. A thousand years ago, executioners plied their trade here (hence one translation of the plaza’s name to mean “assembly of the dead”). Today, the only gore you’re likely to see is from the skinned sheep’s heads ready for barbecue that await the market’s hungry patrons. The market is eminently intriguing in all ways – in a can’t-look-away kind of way.

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You have to keep moving at a steady pace throughout the market to avoid the snake charmers because if you stop for a brief moment to look at the reptiles, you’ll find one or two wrapped around your neck and shoulders. They’ll stay coiled there until you pay up for the experience – or else you might choke!

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There are fortune tellers, water sellers, jugglers, acrobats, garment makers, sellers of strange things in bottles and one stall that I cannot ever unsee – the man selling the teeth.

Day and night this middle-aged man sits on a folding chair at a card table presiding over a mounds of teeth. Some of the teeth have been worked into half dentures, delicately displayed for toothless shoppers (and generally the people of Morocco have terrible teeth due to to amount of sugar they consume daily).

Where did he get all these teeth?

A charming sight is the water sellers dressed in colourful garb as they have been for centuries with pompom hats fringed with coloured wool. In the local dialect they are called Gharrib and they carry goatskin tar lined bags holding water. They are mostly wandering entertainers these day but the Moroccans consider it lucky to drink the water they sell (see picture above).

After wandering around and if you aren’t stopping to eat a barbecued cow’s head, or skewered chicken feet, go to a café on the perimeter of the square, grab a cold beer and watch the amazing dance of pedestrians below as they shape shift thought the market.

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Colour and culture

Take an historical tour of the Bahia Palace and the Saadian Tombs are exquisite examples of refined architecture and tradition. Bahia (Bahia means brilliance) Palace was built in the 19th century and captures the the essence of Islamic and Moroccan style.

DSC03632It’s interesting to explore the layout and see the rooms of the harem which includes a vast court with four rooms built for Si Moussa, the grand vizier’s wives and many more for his 24 concubines. School rooms for the great many offspring that were produced on a regular basis.

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A visit to a souk is mandatory. If you’ve run out of spending money – sell a kidney. Beautifully made shoes and leather goods, carpets, embroidered caftans, spices, brass and copper goods are begging to be snaffled up.

In the early morning when the traffic is cool and calm, hop into a caliche (horse-drawn carriage) and let your destination be spectacular Jardin Majorelle, with its abundance of giant bamboo, yucca, palm, cypress and banana tree, bougainvillea and otherworldly cacti. These earthy, natural colours contrast vividly with the cobalt blue façade (called Marjorelle Blue) of the villa lovingly restored by Yves Saint Laurent.

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The French fashion legend said he ‘found colour’ in Morocco and made it his second home. The Musee Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech is a joy, a revelation and to see the exhibits is an emotional experience. The building is made from local bricks and the architecture is formed like the fabric of a dress with the curve of a draped cloak. There’s a rotating cast of 500 fashion items of clothes, and 50,000 pieces of accessories on display to be absorbed.

Saint Laurent dedicated his later years to this museum and created the extraordinary Berber Museum and stocked it with glorious, historical garments and accessories from the diverse Berber community that he had collected in his travels over the years.

Shuffle through the medina to fill your heart and soul with the essence of Morocco and once you’ve had your fill of the sights and sounds, the people and the donkeys crowding the medina’s alleyways step back in time to the 12th century. Count the 19 grand gates surrounding the medina – the grandest of all being the Bab Agnaou. And before you leave the distant past behind, walk the grounds of El Badi Palace, a 16th century ruin (but in very good shape) that still has an orchard growing ornamental oranges.

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Close by to the museums and gardens there’s a small local and French designer section of new buildings promoting modern, collectible goods and there’s a cool café to calm the shopping ardour.

A taxi ride back to Jardins de la Medina a superior riad (a type of traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden, courtyard and fountain) to shake off the heat of a heady Marrakech day and perhaps take a dip in the pool set in luxurious gardens or maybe a spa with hammam (a traditional cleansing ritual), steam bath and traditional Moroccan beauty treatments.

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Marrakech has centuries old layers to be uncovered and enjoyed. So much of its history is on display and open to touristic scrutiny but remember it has secrets – just think about the streets lined with orange trees, so pretty and not quite what they seem.

The trees are for ornamentation only – you can’t eat the fruit.

The author travelled to Morocco with http://www.bypriorarrangement.com

This story was first published by https://letstravelmag.com/

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I have to fess up – I did not drink the water.

 

 

 

Kenya: first time traveller

Kenya: first time traveller

I was enjoying a story by the fabulous writer, Christine Retschlag, on her experience in Kenya for https://www.dumbofeather.com/articles/out-of-africa/

While I was reading it I was remembering back over 22 years ago when I first visited Kenya and indeed the African continent. It was early days for international travel writing for me and this trip showed me how curious and weird some trips can get. In fact, it was good travel training ground for me.

When we arrived in Nairobi we waited for more than an hour to retrieve our luggage. Nah. It hadn’t made it from the plane in Jo’burg to our Nairobi destination. This was before social media, mobile phone, the internet to assist,so panic set in and many phone calls were made. Nah. Not happening.

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Photo by Tucker Good on Unsplash

We were to go to Amboseli the following morning with or without luggage.

There was only one other female travel writer on this trip so we headed into town to shop for basics. We figured we could get away with two pair of panties, one pair of Khaki knee-length shorts, two big khaki t-shirts worn several fetching ways. We purchased shorts and t-shirts but we found cheap sneakers and panties at a hardware shop. Delicate little pink and blue knickers were folded alongside various types of hammers and pliers. Ok, that was a first.

The following morning we were driving out of town and I thought we should try the airport one more time. Hail, hail Olympic Airlines – it had transfered our luggage and it was in a holding cage waiting for us.

On we drove through towns that consisted of four or five buildings, little shop fronts and they were all either barbers or butcher shops. At one stop I looked across the road at an expanse of vacant land and two giraffes were taking the morning air. Odd.

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Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

You can see Mt Kilimanjaro on a clear day from Serena Amboseli.

We arrived at the Amboseli safari/resort/hotel place and I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me as fine shadows were zipping across the painted and polished  concrete floor of the foyer. As I walked the path to my habitat I say little fluffy bottoms poking out of holes in the stone walls. Then I saw the creature above my door – and immediately became a fan of the quirky hyraxes.

The hyrax, a small furry mammal is also called a rock rabbit or dassie. It looks like a robust, oversized guinea pig, or a rabbit with rounded ears and no tail and it mostly has a grumpy little face. Hyraxes have stumpy toes with hoof-like nails; and four toes on each front foot and three on each back foot. And they are distantly related to the elephant – true – do your research.

They are endearing. The following morning I looked out my window to the pool below and could see a great mound of (maybe 20) hyrax piled tenuously on a sunbed taking some early morning rays.

That night around a campfire we drank and smoked (those were the days) and eventually toddled off to our rooms. On the way I slipped on the polished concrete and the ankle twist was so fierce that I went into shock, I couldn’t speak, threw up and almost passed out. One of my travelling companions lazily propped me up against a wall and said to one of the concerned staff “my wife is drunk, watch her while I go to the toilet”. The staff member helped me hobble to my room. I was mortified and speechless and planned my revenge.

The following day we were to meet the people of the Maasai tribe close by.  The welcome dance was energetic, much leaping into the air. With my buggered ankle this was not possible for me to join the airlifts. But the young tribal leader – Bruce – yes, that was his name, took me into his house for a visit. The tiny hut house, closed up on a hot day with the animals in the pen inside and the aroma of sour milk did me in and I almost passed out on Bruce’s bed. As he guided me out of the door I was swooning with nausea and threw up at his doorstep. I still feel shame.

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Photo by Pawan Sharma on Unsplash

There were many little adventures on that particular journey and lessons learned:

  • Always get out of bed before dawn to go animal spotting. I was tired, in pain and grumpy and every night promised myself that I would sleep in. Bugger the dawn patrol. Every morning I did get up and had some wondrous sightings of animals including lions and cheetahs.
  • Always have items of clothing that you are willing to part with. We were in the backblocks of nowhere and we stopped for a rest from the bouncing, jiggling, pounding driving experience of speeding along roads that were really just a series of deep potholes joined together with spit and a prayer. I waved to a man plowing the ground with a farm implement that was ancient and strapped around his neck. He wandered over for a chat and a smoke (smoking was so social back in the day) and noticed he was wearing a pair of black pants with braces and an old dinner jacket. I thought he would look much more fetching if he had a white shirt to complete his ensemble. I whipped off my shirt (singlet underneath) and gave it to him. He was thrilled and dressed himself and went back to work. There was a scrub farmer looking damn dapper in a Carla Zampatti shirt – couple of seasons old but hey!
  • Take jelly snakes with you. This is how international relations with kids is forged. And with adults too.

Towards the end of the trip we took the ‘Lunatic LIne’ (the Nairobi to Mombasa train route). It was an hilarious journey with large bowls of soup being sloshed around the dining car, warnings to keep our windows shut from the top bunk in case of ‘nibbling animals’. But the best part of the train trip was my opportunity for revenge on my fellow traveller. I had waited for eight days.

He was languishing in his cabin with a terrible gasto/vomiting affliction, we visited him regularly with commiserations and acts of kindness. I opened the door and asked how he was and he just moaned, I then asked him if he “would like a fish milkshake with a hair in it”, which sent him into a violent paroxysm – as they say in Kenya – “Shame”.

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The writer’s photos of that trip have been lost in time but not memory.

In 1996 at the Australian Society of Travel Writers annual awards night I was named Travel Writer of the Year. Then there were only two writing categories – consumer and trade. Consumer stories had to include three published features. Mine were Nashville; Egypt and the trip called Postcards from Kenya. 

I was the second female to take the prize – the first being Susan Kurosawa. 

Top featured image: Photo by Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash