Prepare for your senses to be slapped. Marrakesh’s heady sights and sounds will dazzle, frazzle and enchant. Put on your babouches (leather slippers) and dive right in.
Marrakesh had been on my hit list since forever. A promise of North African adventure with all the exotic accoutrements; maze-filled medinas, narrow alleyways crowded with souks and hanging lanterns, and beautiful mosaic tiled riads hidden down cobbled streets.
A place for healing. A place for spiritual growth. A place to be lost and found.
This is the story of how we begin to remember
It was my thirtieth birthday and I’d woken up to balloons, banners and the realisation that I was entering a new decade; the decade where reckless behaviour goes from cool to cringeworthy and “for your age” gets added on to the end of any form of complement.
And I was ready for it. I was ready for my thirties adventure.
We stepped off the plane at nine in the evening, greeted by a gazillion sparkling stars sewn into the blanket of a pitch-black sky. After a short taxi ride, we were dropped off just outside of the old town wall and dug out our printed map to find our riad.
I hadn’t checked the weather before we went; Marrakesh’s proximity to the equator was all I needed to pack a bottle of factor twenty, four pairs of sunglasses, eighteen summer frocks and eleven pairs of sandals. But it was a lot colder than I’d expected. In fact, it was baltic.
Covered in goosebumps, shivering and dragging behind a suitcase full of uselessness, we hurried over the cobbles to find where we were staying. After two lefts, three rights and one more left we found a tiny little alleyway with a broad wooden door with a hand painted sign.
We’d arrived at Riad Edward.
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
Ducking down through that door way and coming out into the courtyard was like stepping into my own Moroccan dream. It was exactly how I’d pictured Marrakesh to be.
Our nostrils were filled with satya incense, Maghrebi mint tea and rose. The soft glow of candles, the bright sparkle of stars and the blaze of a small fire burning in the corner gave a false sense of warmth that made our goosebumps disappear.
We wove our way between the tall white pillars and dark green leaves and sat down on a pile of patterned cushions at the centre of the courtyard, overlooking the pool. The silver mosaic behind us caught all of the lights around us, shimmering their reflections onto the walls.
It was as though the whole of the city was sleeping, or maybe those walls that surrounded us were so big they kept the noise out. All we could hear was a few creaking crickets and the faint sounds of Gnawa music tickling the speakers.
There couldn’t have been a more serene setting to say goodbye to my twenties ~ surrounded by shimmer Under African Skies.
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
The next morning, feeling freezing cold but refreshed and ready for a day of discovery, we headed out to see the city.
There was such a stark contrast between the tranquillity of the Riad and the intimidatingly lively maze outside.
Music played from every street corner; clicking castanets, beating drums and strumming banjos. Chanting, singing and shouting. Honking horns and children laughing.
The pace was frantic.
Pedestrians, mopeds, bicycles and anorexic donkeys fought for cobbles as they made their way through the crowds. The streets were narrow and filled with stalls selling spices, fruits, nuts and seeds. There were hanging lanterns and Aladdin’s lamps, tiles, tagines and pottery everywhere.
Blasts of smoke billowed up from streetside grills to singe our eyebrows and every time we turned our heads, we’d smell something new. Juicy tangerines and apricot jams, freshly baked pastries, leather satchels, bubbling cauldrons and burning incense.
The streets were filthy and the air was thick. Dust and dirt puffed up around our ankles with every flip and every flop. We inhaled the microscopic fragments of Morocco with every breath we took and the warm, grimy air clung to our skin.
Every gap in the wall led to a souk with a canvas roof and more hanging lanterns. Every corner we turned led to yet another cobbled alleyway. Everywhere looked the same.
There were no distinctive landmarks and no signs we could understand. The map was useless. Everybody everywhere was trying to sell us something; even a polite offer for help with directions came at a price.
We were trapped inside the cinnamon coloured walls of Marrakesh.
These are the roots of rhythm
After hours and hours of attempted escape, we somehow found our way out into a more open area where there were other lost and confused tourists just like us. We headed towards a doorway with a sign written in English:
Welcome for a complimentary tour of our leather tannery
Hiding behind the left door was a large burly man who leapt out in front of us as we approached. He was wearing a filthy old navy blue Adidas tracksuit with holes all over it and tattered edges. His face was withered with heavy eyes and a deep scar running down the side of this left cheek.
He was holding out bunches of mint an gesturing us inside. His friendly smile turned into an uncontrollable grin as we cautiously moved forward inside the walls.
He handed us each a bunch of mint leaves and showed us to hold it beneath our noses. We did as we were told and followed him up biscuit coloured steps towards the tannery.
I have never smelt anything more putrid.
Dead animal skins lay strewn over walls, others were drenched in clouded waters. Shredded clumps of camel hair was scattered around the floor and there were stray dogs everywhere, leaving a trail of excrement wherever they pottered.
I stuffed those mint leaves right up my nostrils to prevent myself from gagging and held my breath for as long as I could. After a few fervent head nods and false smiles, we shuffled our guide out of there as quick as we could.
And the roots of rhythm remain
He led us out of the tannery through a different door, through a shop selling leather goods and into a backroom. Before we could say anything, our shoulders were pressed down and we were sat on two small wooden stools in the corner of the room.
Then, another man appeared from nowhere and placed a round silver tray down on the table between us, presenting two small glasses and a pot of mint tea.
We were hot, tired, drenched in Eau de Camel and a little bit bewildered as to what was going on. So we gratefully sipped our tea and enjoyed the breathable air while these friendly men stood before us holding up beautifully handcrafted rugs.
All of a sudden grunts turned into words; it turned out they could speak English and they knew very well how to say “two thousand pounds”.
We put the tea down immediately and stood up to leave.
“No thank you”, we said, “We don’t have enough money”. As we edged towards the doorway, the tall, ogre-looking man in his dirty Adidas tracksuit leapt up from his chair to block our exit.
He took a deep breath to open up his chest and held it there, his grubby, scar-covered face filling up with rage. He began shouting at us aggressively in Arabic with spit flying out of his enraged lips and onto our startled faces.
We had no idea what he was saying but assumed it wasn’t “thanks for visiting our tannery, enjoy the rest of your stay”, so we emptied our pockets and gave him every coin we had.
But he still wasn’t happy.
Without exhalation, he took another deep breath – his chest rising even more this time and his shoulders reaching either side of the doorway. He continued to shout. His voice was getting louder and louder, his arms were waving around with fury and he continued to shower us in vehement hisses.
We pleaded with him to leave – we really didn’t have any more coins on us and we definitely didn’t have two thousand pounds to spend on a rug.
After a few minutes of drawn out negotiations in languages that none of us understood, he gave in and let the anger leave his lungs. His shoulders shrunk, this hissing stopped and he stood to one side to set us free.
And we walked away, Under African Skies.