Sandcrete Jungle: 1st visit to Africa

June 1st 2018

During my daily instagram browse, I kept noticing posts from/about Marrakech. It’s architecture, people, culture and beauty really interested me. I had never thought to visit Morocco, as I have always preferred the aesthetic of Asia, to what I had seen in photos from African countries. Not to say that Africa didn’t look beautiful, but as a HOLIDAY Asia appealed more.

I had never visited Africa before, so really didn’t know what to expect in terms of its terrain and culture. Please do not think I am naive, and that I am generalising Africa, yes I do know that it is extremely vast and cultures differ from country to country. Lets just go with it… I was super excited to see in person what Marrakech had to offer. So… flights were booked!

Ed and I had received several tips and warnings about Marrakech before going.

  1. Don’t follow anyone that says they want to help you.
  2. Don’t take photos of any shops or people obviously.
  3. Don’t go into shops that have shutters.
  4. Don’t accept prices at face value.
  5. Don’t let anyone put things on you (monkeys, henna, snakes) and assume they are just being friendly.

When people told us all of these things, we just thought to ourselves…. easy enough!! They all seem like pretty simple instructions to follow.

Alas, they were not. When we landed in Marrakech, we did what any tourist would do, and headed straight for the taxi rank. We were given a price for the journey to our hotel, and got in the car. Bringing us to Rule 4. Turns out we over paid by about 4 times the amount it should have been. Moving on, once reaching our “destination” (I put that in quotations for a reason) we paid the taxi driver who handed us over to a boy, about 16 years old, who we assumed worked for the hotel. “He will show you to the hotel.” Said the driver. This had to be done as there was no road leading to the hotel, just walkways. Bringing us to RULE 1… the first bloody rule that was reiterated to us many times by multiple people. Ed noticed we were being followed by another man in his 30s, however didn’t think twice. When arriving at our hotel, the young boy began demanding money. Given that we only withdrew a small amount for the taxi journey, we did not have spare cash to pay him. When we said we couldn’t pay and we misunderstood that the whole ordeal was supposed to be on a transaction basis, the older man stepped in. He began to get louder and more insistent. In the end we agreed to pay him if we saw him again. Which we did!

Later that day we ventured into the Souks and went for dinner in Jemaa el-Fnaa. The souks embodied the hustle and bustle of Moroccan life. On multiple occasions we were almost plowed down by beeping motorcycles, manoeuvring through these busy narrow passage ways. Our attentions were torn between the spices to our left, the sweets to our right, the enchanting lamp shops in front of us and the beautiful leather work we had passed. It is quite a tricky picture to paint for you readers… as I can’t quite put into words, the hectic-ness of the Marrakech souks. The souks were quite an intimidating place to visit for us on our first night, as I am pretty sure by this point, the stall owners had reached various points of frustration and therefore, HATED when we browsed but did not buy.

Day 2 consisted of us once again roaming the souks. We found that they had a far more inviting atmosphere during the day than in the evening. My experience of Marrakech by this point, was still somewhat tainted (due to our encounter with the teenager and his older ‘friend’, and the forcefulness of the souk stall owners). However, my opinion was gradually changing as I was adapting to my surroundings. I was no longer on edge when walking through the markets. I was no longer scared to look for too long at someones trinkets, incase I got shouted at for not buying. I was adjusting! That was until Day3…

So our agenda for our third day, was Saadian Tombs followed by the Badi Palace and then the Bahia Palace. Following our map, like all good tourists do (ditching Google Maps), we ventured into the maze of dust and sand swallowed streets towards the Saadian Tombs. We knew we were on the road to success as tourist numbers were increasing, and signs were appearing.

We followed a graffiti arrow/sign pointing to the left. From here on, we were lost. I suppose our mistake was allowing our curiosity to lead us, “Oh look down there… Those shops look fun… that fruit market looks cool…” and so on. In the end we were walking down back streets, obviously not intended for tourists, and this was explicit. A seemingly lovely man, took it upon himself to start speaking to us, and offering his aid to these two poor lost souls. Now of course we said no, given Rule1 and our complete disregard for it on the first day. But he insisted he would not charge us and he genuinely just wanted to help.

We were weary but followed him for about 3 – 5 minutes. Typically, he took us through more back streets “towards” the Tombs. After 5 minutes we begun to second guess and decided to tell him we no longer needed him. We were going to find our own way.

Of course he did ask for money, and we obliged. I think by this point we just wanted to ditch the stranger leading us to strange places… Anyway, WE. WERE. LOST!!

Many of you may point out that it is the 21st century, Google maps exists… But no! Our phones actually were not picking up service at this point. After about an hour of wandering, we ended up leaving the confines of the wall surrounding the old town, which apparently unless in a taxi or with a guide you shouldn’t do! We were called upon by police, who urged us to go back into the old town… so we did. We then found ourselves exploring what felt like the Moroccan equivalent of a rundown London estate. There were young children getting off their school bus and arriving home, pointing and laughing at the obviously out of place, idiotic tourists. There were elderly ladies socialising on their balconies doing the exact same.

About another hour after this, we found ourselves walking along a more built up road, with shops and local restaurants. However it still did not feel foreigner friendly. Locals would shout after us, claiming we had dropped something, to try and entice us to walk back. Eyes felt like they were magnetised to us from all angles. Lets fast forward another say… 45 minutes. An odd fellow tourist here or there, this was reassuring. According to what we could make out form our map, the Bahia Palace was just a few more steps and then around a corner. Even then, we were being called to, by locals saying “You are going the wrong way! That road is forbidden! Do not go there, you will be arrested!” By this point I think we just wanted to scream F**K OFF!

We ignored them and followed our instincts. Thank God!

We watched the sun set at The Kozy Bar, and planned how we would successfully find the spots the next day, that we so epically missed that day. We enjoyed a lovely beer and cocktail, whilst overlooking a bustling market square below.

During our trip, we visited Le Jardin Majorelle, which was a beautiful experience. You would think that given the number of visitors you enter the garden with, that it would almost be ruined by popularity. However, its captivating beauty and almost hypnotic foliage and bold colours, allow you to block out the people around you and just enjoy being in the moment. We also visited Le Jardin Secret, a less known, but equally beautiful experience, which Ed preferred.

We enjoyed almost every dinner within the heart of Marrakech, Jemaa el-Fnaa. Our eating spots varied, whether it was in one of the many rooftop restaurants, overlooking the hustling and bustling world below us, or among it all, in one of the chaotic and extremely competitive food stalls that make Jemaa el-Fnaa so special. Lonely Planet refer to it as an ‘out-of-this-world pandemonium’ and I honestly couldn’t agree more.

I am waffling on a tad now, but I cannot say goodbye without discussing one of the most insightful and beautiful experiences of my time in Marrakech. We had arranged with our hotel to have a driver take us to the Atlas Mountains. At this point, I had not realised just how historically insightful this journey would be. I would like to first off say, how lovely our driver was. We began by stopping off at a traditional Berber village at the base of the mountains. (Side note: Marrakech may be hot and sticky… this trip is not. Take a sweater.) I just want to start by expressing my fascination and appreciation for this small culture, and its ability to make something from nothing. And not just ‘something’ might I add, a whole community, economy and way of life.

A village manufactured only by a couple of simple ingredients, and yet so beautifully simple. We paid to gain entry and a tour around a Berber museum. We were taught about traditional houses and how they were built. Different equipment used by the Berber people, and meanings for different types of carpets and the colours used, and in turn, how to decipher them.

We ventured on into the mountains, stopping off at various points along the way. We visited villages that made traditional argan oils, we experienced the whole process of them making the oil, from nut to product.

Further into the mountains, there were spectacular views, tiny little communities of houses and people, with restaurants and shops. Many of the restaurants were situated beside a gorgeous stream. It was a truly beautiful place to end the trip.

Many of our friends upon our return, asked us how we found Morocco, and if we enjoyed it. I always replied the same… “It takes a good 2-3 days to adjust to the culture and the custom there. Make sure that if you go, that you don’t follow anyone and you are prepared for some of the not so nice aspects.” Saying this though, it was an incredibly beautiful city with so many dimensions, nooks and crannies. Its architectural detail is breathtaking, and it is 100% a place you should visit.

I would definitely go back, maybe not anytime soon, as there are so many places in the world I have yet to visit. But definitely one day! : Summer Sterling-Crosse

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