Sunday, November 18, 2007

Under the milky way

Last weekend I was in Marrakech with a troop of others to celebrate Caroine's birthday. It's very fashionable right now to celebrate your birthday by taking a trip away with friends, and the more exotic the location the more fashionable you are. Marrakech is, naturally, very exotic and very fashionable, as the following facts prove:

  • Richard Branson is building a hotel there;
  • Gladiator was shot in the desert near Marrakech (I've seen the film set); and
  • Brad and Angelina stayed nearby while shooting the movie Babel (I've visited the hotel where they stayed (they rented out the entire place while they were there, but this is less impressive when you find out that it's only got 8 guest rooms)).

But even if it were not so fashionable, the bustle and turmoil of Marrakech and the frenzied locals makes a fantastic contrast to dreary greyness of London and the bland urbanity of Londonites. Although we were only there for 4 days, we managed to pack a lot in. In order to save time (and, being realistic, so that the readers of this blog don't tune out half-way through this posting), I'll just list some highlights:

  • an amazing dinner on the first night in a courtyard of an old riad hidden down a maze of narrow streets, far away from the usual tourist thoroughfare. The setting was beautiful - all candle light and intricately mosaiced walls - and the food was terrific (the honey glazed chicken hot was a particular favourite);
  • the madnes of Jamaa el Fna (the main market in Marrakech), whcih totally lived up to the pre-trip hype. You can hardly turn around in the market square without stumbling across cobras, street kids trying to force-feed you macaroons (though our group didn't require much forcing) and grinning men with massive moustaches offering you chipolatas straight from the BBQ or boiled snails straight from the pot. A little word of advice, it's fun to look at the stall-owners cooking the food, but when you actually order it, it generally doesn't taste nice and there's a high probability that you'll get food poisoning. Luckily, we were seasoned enough travellers to know that chicken that's cooked properly isn't pink;
  • the apparently barren Atlas mountains that we drove through with our guide Hassan, where every corner brings a new amazing view. The mountains look fairly inhospitable and you'd think it's practically impossible to grow anything there, but somehow the Berbers who live in the mountains manage to get by. In fact, they seem to be thriving as there was always people hanging around by the side of the road even in the most remote of the mountain passes that we drove through. I have no idea what they were doing there, but I respect the fact that they were doing it;
  • the local Berber pharmacy that Hassan kindly showed us for nothing other than some substantial kick-backs from the owners (he was generous like that). The pharmacy was full of exotic spices, scented oils, potions, lotions, perfumes and other exotic things. The shop assistant spent a long (and fairly lucrative) time while talking us through the various products that he had to offer and we all walked away smelling quite a bit better than when we walked in. Afterwards, while the others were busy pulling out their wallets though, the shop assistant came up to me and in a conspirational whisper mentioned that he could give me some traditional Berber viagra if that's what I was after. Now, I appreciate the manner in which the guy addressed a sensitive issue, but why did he assume that I was the one in need of help and not my travelling companions? Very worrying;
  • camel riding through the desert at dusk. OK, I'm not sure that the camels qualify as a highlight, because all of my previous experiences of camels were confirmed on this trip (they are ugly, have extremely bad dental hygiene and are supremely uncomfortable). But the camels did manage to get us to a desert camp where we spent the night around a bonfire, playing drums and staring up at the most amazing display of stars that I have ever seen (I've never seen the Milky Way as clearly as I did from the Moroccan desert). Our accommodation was a tent made out of Moroccan carpets and we slept wrapped in camel hair blankets. In a word: awesome.

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