We reveled in our success at bartering with the taxi driver at the airport, lowering our fare down from 150 Dhs to 120 Dhs. Was it really worth ten minutes in the backing sun to save 3 euros (1.50 per person) and risking heat stroke even though this car was almost the only one available? Probably not…but hey we were in Marrakesh and we were here to do business local style!
The earth was dry and the houses and walls red. Palm trees lined boulevards, everything looked really smart. New mansions and apartments were being erected next to lush green gardens and new roads. We laughed and joked and exclaimed that really people had exaggerated. It sounds condescending but we felt that things looks better than we had imagined. Marrakesh we mused after all does have its own film festival now reaching the heights of Cannes itself and is being described my many as the new St Tropez. We passed Mamounia Hotel where the King himself stays when he comes to the city, its massive grounds sprawling out into the distance. Other Golf Courses, large hotels and Beach Clubs all loomed ahead. Had we flown 3 1/2 hours to see a slightly shabbier version of the South of Spain? Had we come too late? Has globalization, tourism and the property boom managed to finally sanitize even the wildest of mythical cities? We tried to ask the driver a good place to eat, but he mumbled 120 not 150 and remained silent Perhaps bartering was now a thing of the passed? Anyway whatever what is done is done! We had arriiiiived and I wasn’t that hungry anyway so he could just sulk and go away.
Impressive large red walls loomed up ahead. The rich colors of the houses really made the architecture that much more special. I felt like I was in a desert city and in this respect things started to differ from Europe. We passed through a large ornate door, one of the many separating the new town from the Medina and it was then that the world turned upside down.
The car slowed down as vendors and people filled the narrow lanes. Donkey carts laden with melons, shops with spices piled up high in pointed mounds. Baskets spilled out of shops, jewellery and carpets adorned the ocher walls. Women covered from head to toe and young men exchanging banter, mopes, more people and cars blocked our path until we crawled along at snails pace. Then came the sounds, metal against metal from a tiny crack in the wall: a man crouching low in a cave under hundreds of broken bicycle parts, his hammer working furiously working away. A beautiful tower loomed up ahead, yellow stone with an ornate design. It was tall so I thought it must be the Koutoubia and I pointed to it and gazed in awe. But then in the distance I saw the peak of another Mosque this one higher and I realized that this was just one of the many that sprang up around the old town. Clang, Clang, Clang went the hammer. It felt medieval with so many artisans, animals and what seemed like so little order.
Just a few minutes later the car stopped and we were directed down a side street, the name of which was written in Arabic. It was narrow and this was as far as the car could go. We were out of the tiny vehicle, out of the protective shell which separated us from this crazy outside world. From in there it has seemed so wonderful, but now it was a bit scary and the tiny weaving streets disorientating. The taxi left and we looked around us and had no idea if having not paid the full price we hadn’t been taken the full way.
We were already walking down the little alleyway that the taxi driver had hastily instructed us to go down before leaving, when a group of young kids passed us and waved us on in encouragement. We had found the right way, but they would take the credit and the money for leading us there. Round a few bends we were hot and somewhat ruffled, not to the point of panic or intimidation but because to show hesitation in our navigation meant intervention – perhaps friendly but perhaps not, we couldn’t tell yet. A few more twists and turns and like wide eyed gazelle we gaped with relief when we arrived at the ornate door in the side of a normal red walled house. Hotel Calipau 5* the sign read. We had arrived at our destination. The big thick doors creaked open and beyond the shadows we saw the oasis. A wave of calm, serenity and protection washed over us as we passed out of the sun and into the cool shade of the Riad. From the crazy world which we had just briefly entered into into very sumptuous surroundings with the sound of motorbikes replaced with that of birds chirping and the light trickling of water, like a babbling brook.
We walked under vaulted ceilings and melted into the purple arm chairs. Mint tea was served on a gold tray and as I took the first sip of the sweet fragrant drink all I could do was think about that crazy buzz which I had just experienced and like a drug I couldn’t wait to put our bags down to get back out there in the heart of Africa, at the heart of life.