The Final Stretch in Marrakech

morocco-march-2009-541Saturday, March 28.

Call it a case of last day lethargy, but I don’t really have a lot planned, nor do I want to. I’m tired, actually.

We saw the Djemaa el-Fna the night before, and I’m on the fence about returning. The only two things of interest to me today is (a) visiting the Majorelle Gardens and (b) trying to get in touch with my friend from work, who’s supposed to be in Marrakech with her fiancé for a family function. It would be nice to see them before I return home.

Home. That’s the other thing on my mind.

It’s not the destination that’s making me anxious. It’s the journey to the airport. How in the sweet hell I’m going to get from Marrakech to Casablanca? I haven’t even begun to steel myself for the long, god-awful flight itinerary back to Toronto. 

Before leaving for that morning’s outing, I see Will in the front lobby and explain my dilemma, which he offers to help me with. He phones around until he finds someone who thinks he can take me in a private van for 900 DH (currently about $127 CAD). He’s just awaiting confirmation.

It’s friggin’ steep. But not a choice I’m turning down at this point since my only other options are :

(a) missing the group dinner, taking the 9 p.m. train out of Marrakech, and sleeping on the floor of the Casablanca train station or airport overnight, or

(b) taking the 5 a.m. train Sunday morning , arriving at the airport around 8:30 a.m., and risk missing my flight. 

I also use Will’s laptop to try contacting my friend. She hasn’t been on Facebook for a few days now (duh – would YOU be?) so I’m unsure of what to do. At a tour-mate’s suggestion, I leave an e-mail, plus messages on her wall (and her fiancé’s as well) and hope for the best.

After, a group of us – consisting of Alex, Nikki, Grace, Amelia, Liz, Nonnie, Colin and myself – decide to start our day by walking over to the Majorelle Gardens.

Unlike last night, today feels MUCH cooler, and it’s slightly windy. I’m wearing my sandals, thinking it would be warm – but my toes are freezing.

After about 30 – 40 minutes (including a couple of stops), we finally reach the gardens.

Backstory: The gardens wemorocco-march-2009-559re designed by a French expatriate artist, Jacques Majorelle, in the 1920s, when Morocco was still a French protectorate.

The garden was opened to the public in 1947, and in 1980, the late Yves Saint-Laurent and an associate took over ownership.

(You can also visit the official Web site here for more information on Majorelle and the gardens.)

It’s really hard to guess how lush it is from the outer wall of the complex. From the minute we enter, there’s lush greenery – palms, flowers and plants – everywhere … especially cacti and other types of succulent plants.

Also everywhere: the shade of bold, blue paint used on the various structures in the garden – like doors, clay pots and the base of some fountains – named Majorelle blue, after the artist. 

morocco-march-2009-549There’s also a memorial to YSL in the gardens. (When he died, he apparently had his ashes scattered here.)

The little tile plaque leaning against the base of the memorial’s pillar says “silence” in English/French and Arabic.

We’ve only been in the gardens about 10 minutes when it starts raining. Again. Luckily I was smart enough to bring my trusty baby blue rainjacket.

Strangely enough, despite us folks getting wet, the rain seems to make everything in the gardens look even prettier.

Upon leaving, we split up. Nikki, Amelia, Alex, Grace and Colin all opt for heading down to the market straightaway. Nonnie and I take a taxi back to the hotel so we can change into warmer clothes and drier shoes.

Back at the hotel waiting for Nonnie, Will fills me in on the private taxi situation. Essentially the 900 DH offer has evaporated, and another offer – for 1,500 DH (about $210 CAD) – has taken its place. I’m incredulous, and a bit discouraged at the prospect of forking over THAT much money. He’s also checked for other options by plane and train. None. He says he’ll keep trying.

Nonnie and I set out by foot to the Djemaa el Fna. Of course, it’s NOW stopped raining and has gotten warmer than when we arrived a half-hour earlier.

morocco-march-2009-5771We also get lost when we get really close to the square. 

Somehow we end up around the outer wall and have to take the scenic route (by which I mean travelling alongside huge, high metal roadway guardrails, on strips of concrete one could barely call a pedestrian sidewalk) until we hit the Koutoubia Mosque (pictured at right).

The mosque is the largest in Marrakech. The minaret is said to have been used as the model for the Giralda in Seville, which I visited almost two years ago.

By the time we reach the square, all I can think about is my rumbling, empty stomach. Forget the market! We end up going to one of the rootop restaurants overlooking the square.

morocco-march-2009-580The service is slow, but I don’t mind.  While we wait, we watch the tourists, the snake charmers and other performers below.

After lunch, we return to ground level. We pass by one of the street performers, watching briefly. Wandering towards the entrance to the souks, Nonnie’s accosted within seconds. She’s looking for a little trolley to transport all the things she’s bought, but no dice.

Minutes later, we run into the others inside the souks. Nikki and Grace are sealing the deal on some jewellery they’ve bought; poor Alex has unfortunately been accosted by a local guy, leaving her quite fed up with the Marrakech experience; and I think in sometime in the space of the seven minutes we’ve been here, Nonnie manages to barter for yet another pair of shoes.

As for myself, I end up buying a pair of cushion covers. I get Nonnie’s assessment before I start the bartering process. While not entirely happy with the price, I at least hold my ground, raising my price in increments. It’s better than past barters I’ve made.

The group elects to meet near the post office ’round 3:30 p.m. to plan their next move. I opt to break away and hang out near the Koutoubia Mosque in hopes my friend and her fiance receive my Facebook message and can meet me.

I give it a half-hour before giving up. As I’m crossng the street, I see the others, who I thought had left at least 20 minutes earlier.

The girls hop in a cab; Colin, Nonnie and I venture down the street and discover a cyberpark. No, not wi-fi. I’m talking internet kiosks set up around the park grounds for public use. Call me weird, but I’ve never seen anything like it back home.

We do eventually find an internet centre, where Nonnie logs on to arrange her accommodation in southern Spain for the next day. I check my Facebook and – as luck has it – catch up with my friend’s fiancé via Facebook Chat. Turns out they’ve had a busy morning, checking out of the really shady riad they booked and finding a safer, less dodgy one. So sadly, our paths do not cross. 

We grab a taxi to the train station near our hotel so Nonnie and Colin can book their tickets for Tangier.

When we return to the hotel, I find out the issue with the private transfer has been resolved – Will manages to find someone who can take me to Marrakesh for 1,000 DH. Relieved, I chill in my room, relaxing into the pillows on my bed as I watch the back half of an American  movie with subtitles.

By the time we assemble in the hotel bar before dinner, it starts raining AGAIN. And it’s a downpour.

Will can’t find any petit taxis for us to hire, so he’s forced to arrange a minivan with the shadiest, most difficult driver we’ve come across in the two weeks we’ve been here.

Not only does he make us pay 200 DH upfront, he kicks up the HUGEST stink when we ask him (even with translation help from Alex) if we can stop off at an off-license place – near the restaurant, no less! – to buy some alcohol along with us for our meal.

Granted, he warns us (though not very nicely) that it’s closed, and it is -by the time he manoeuvres through traffic. But on top of his ridiculous behaviour, he demands another 20 DH. (What?)

We get our revenge in the end. As we’re piling out of the van, a middle-aged guy walks up to the driver’s side of the van and starts talking to him, probably about hiring his services.

We just turn and walk away from the van.

(To anyone thinking of travelling in Marrakech: If  you have to hire a van service and can’t avoid using Sté Transport Tahanaout, at least steer clear of a driver called Haj Lahcen. Yes, I’m calling him out, because he’s an ASSHOLE and he had the gall to give us his business cards … as IF.) 

morocco-march-2009-585Once out of the rain, the restaurant we’re at for our goodbye group dinner is quite nice, if more French-influenced than Moroccan.

I pore over the menu and order one last harira for the road (I can only eat about half of it), along with some pasta.

We make a gelati stop after dinner for the younger half of the group  and say our final goodbyes to Sally, Cathy and Nonnie, who head back to the hotel.

The rest of us walk down to this restaurant/bar, Comptoir Darna, for a drink. It’s pretty upscale compared to where we’ve been so far. I suddenly feel grossly underdressed. And the prices for drinks seem to match.

morocco-march-2009-588We stand, clustered close to the bar, and stay long enough to see the establishment’s other big draw – its bellydancers.

I don’t know what impresses me more – the fact these women can get their to hips gyrate while standing on the backs of armchairs, never mind on solid ground …

Or the loud, syncopated clapping of the male staff members in time to the music. (The similarity in rhythm to flamenco music strikes me. I wouldn’t be surprised if the two styles are distant cousins.)

We walk back to the hotel, spending some of our remaining time together just hanging in the darkened lobby.

THIS is when Colin finally decides to whip out the whiskey he’s kept closed during the trip, for a goodbye swig.

I wish my mates a final goodbye in the elevator ride up to our rooms, and begin the task of packing just before midnight. 

I finish packing just after 1 a.m., grabbing about an hour and 15 minutes “sleep” before changing and leaving my hotel room for the last time …

Action Couscous and the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou

Monday, March 23.

I’ve left the Todra Gorge with good memories, clean laundry …

And the driest throat EVER.

For me, this usually means I’m going to get a cold. Several other tour-mates are having similar symptoms. Liz already has a cold. I’m just hoping it’s a temporary by-product of the climate we’ve been in.

The first place we hit after leaving Todra is a souk in a local town. Anything you can think of is being sold here – clothes, old electronics, spices, shoes, underwear, jewellery. I even saw an old handle being laid out for sale. What it USED to be attached to, I can only guess.

I’m not even remotely in the mood for this. I’m feeling a touch crappy. The LAST thing I want to try and do is barter with ANYONE for ANYTHING.

Sally and I pass by this one guy hawking his wares, and of course, he immediately starts chatting me up, because I’m from “the family.” This is the one thing I note about travelling through this part of the country: people who look more like me, using this fact to try and get me to buy something.

The “something” in question is a door-knocker in the shape of a hand, which apparently an antique. The “salesman” next to the guy we’re dealing with tries to get us going with the bartering process. But Sally doesn’t have enough money, and I’m turned off, so we walk away.

But it’s only a matter of circling the place before Sally decides to return so she can take a second look at that door-knocker. The salesman tries again for a sale. What he’s offering, Sally doesn’t want to pay. And what Sally has in terms of cash, the salesman doesn’t want.

Meanwhile, one of the nearby merchants latches on to me, trying to entice me. My heart’s only half in it, but I settle on this wooden bowl – again, supposedly antique – with a gold-coloured Tuareg design inlaid in its centre.

The vendor offers it to me for 750 DH (about $108 CAD); I barter him down to about 500 DH ($72 CAD), all the time wondering what on EARTH I’m doing buying a wooden bowl for that much money.

(Note: Writing this now – about four weeks after the fact – I’m looking it, STILL wondering what I was thinking. And the thing smells like either burnt wood or smoked fish … as stinky as the day it arrived home.)

Sally also successfully scores the door-knocker – for a third of the price! I’m impressed.

We make our hour-long lunch stop in the town of Ouarzazate (pronounced WAR-zah-zat). It’s generally known as a movie town, because of the movie set nearby that’s been used for big Hollywood productions.

I will remember Ouarzazate for the only pedestrian traffic signal I’ve seen on this trip so far. I’m not even kidding. It’s been so long since I’ve seen one, I almost forget how to use it.

After lunch, we re-group and head over to a non-profit organization called Project Horizon, which is sponsored by the tour company’s charitable foundation.

As we move from area to area – and with Alex’s superior French translation skills – we discover the organization does things from creating prosthetic limbs, to providing therapy for people with physical disabilities and children with developmental disabilities, to running workshops where people create various types of pottery, jewellery, carpets and other artisanal work.

By the time we reach the gift shop, I can’t NOT buy something. Even though early on in the trip, I’d told myself I wouldn’t buy a tajine bowl (because I wouldn’t be able to lug it home), I manage to find a beautiful decorative mini-tajine bowl, glazed a deep, dark blue, for 70 DH ($10 CAD). Not only it is completely reasonable, it’s totally worth it, knowing what the money is going towards.

We leave Ouarzazate, making no more major stops until we reach the town of Aït Benhaddou, where we’re staying overnight.

morocco-march-2009-454The maison d’hotes (guesthouse) we’re staying at is run by a man whose real name I don’t remember*, but everyone calls him “Action Couscous” (see picture at left).

He lives there with his other family members, including his sister, wife and four-year-old son Abdullah, who’s nicknamed – what else? – “Baby Action”.

Action’s fun moniker is the result of having been an extra in at least 10 Hollywood films. It’s his on-screen credits that he uses to promote his guesthouse …

And, as we find out, it’s also probably the reason he doesn’t appear to be camera-shy whatsoever.  In fact, he LOVES being in front of the camera and encouraging us to snap pictures whenever he can.

Action welcomes us to his huge desert abode with some tea. Alex also has her royal blue scarf tied professionally by  Action, Berber-style.

morocco-march-2009-451After getting our room assignments, most of us decide to  check out the huge kasbah on the other side of the river.

(As I’ve now learned, Aït Benhaddou is also known as a ksar – a fortified city – and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)

Again, I find myself paired up with Sally, and we make our way over to the river.

The path leading to the river is lined with shops and aggressive salesmen, who  know EXACTLY where we’re staying. Before I left on my trip, I was told about how ridiculously observant Moroccans are. I didn’t believe it until this particular moment.

Sally and I are by the river’s edge within three or four minutes.

There are two ways to cross the Ouarzazate River:

(1) by donkey for a small fee; or

(2) by foot, through the river water, for free.

Guess which one Sally and I pick?

AAAAAAARRRRRGHHHHHH!

The nerves in my bare feet are cussing at the nerve endings in my brain as I unsteadily wade over bumpy rocks and pebbles, through excruciatingly cold water, trying not to drop my sandals.

I kick myself for not taking option (1) when, halfway through my painful crossing, I look up and see our driver Abdul already on the other side, dismounting from a donkey.

Dammit.

Once we cross and put our shoes back on, we begin our climb to the top. The place is absolutely HUGE. And apparently only now inhabited by about five or six families.

morocco-march-2009-464The way up is a bit treacherous in spots, because some stairways are covered by crumbling plaster and huge bits of rubble.

But the view once we reach the very top is worth every step, twist and turn we’ve had to take. It’s simply breathtaking.

On the way back to the guesthouse, I get sucked into a local shop and, once again, end up practicing my mediocre haggling skills.

This time, I purchase an alabaster ring for 125 DH ($18 CAD), and get two pictures of myself posing with the store owner, me dressed in traditional Berber garb. It’s quite funny.

At 7:30 p.m., Action Coucous and one of his sisters gives us the group a demonstration on how to cook tajine and couscous, the old-fashioned way.  Then it’s to the dining room, where we have our choice of veggie or lamb tajine. I am so unbelieveably stuffed I cannot even think of touching any of the bottles of beer I had purchased earlier.

We while away the rest of the evening playing a couple of card games. Following this, Grace decides she needs her bangs trimmed, so Will elects to play barber – with some hilarious results. He does get the bangs evened out, with Nikki’s help.

I go off to bed, hoping to fight off the scratchy throat and blocked nostril I’ve developed during the day, but knowing full well what’s going to happen.


* Editor’s note: This post was written back in 2009. But thanks to a kind reader, I know now our kind host’s name was Houcine. A two-year-old mystery, solved!