A Mook In Morocco
Needing a recharge, Galactic Funk Militia’s Mook soundtracks his journey through Morocco, and shares his thoughts and tips on 12 day trip.
How much do you spend on an average night on the “sesh” in Liverpool?
Too much, right? It seems like a good idea at the time, but then you’re forced to be housebound until the next payday.
Well, I have a thought; since this will be the case anyway, stay in for a few weekends, save your money, and have an adventure flying from John Lennon Airport out to the beautiful country of Morocco. With a song per day from his holiday playlist for good measure.
I did that recently, and this is how it went down.
Day 1 – Marrakech
It’s a little before 5pm in Marrakech and I’m lost; but this is a good thing, despite what my feet may have to say on the matter. Getting lost is how you discover unexpected places and meet interesting (and, more often than not, kind) new people.
This will prove to be a recurrent theme on this trip. Today, I meet Abe as he sits in his shop listening to Bob Dylan, and as I poke my head around his door looking for some directions. In his early 50s, Abe is a fan of Anglo-American culture and clearly a music-lover. After taking some directions I gratefully accept his offer to return later for tea and a proper chat.
But for now, my mission is to find the Hotel Zaitoune, a budget riad somewhere in the synaptic tangle of streets that form the bulk of Marrakech’s old Medina, emanating out from the central square, the Place Jemaa el-Fna.
I arrived by a Ryanair flight from Liverpool a little under an hour ago, liberated from Britain’s seemingly endless winter by an impulsive decision a few weeks ago to buy a cheap £80 return ticket and hope for the best.
But first I need to find my hotel and drop off the small rucksack that contains everything I own for the coming eleven days. So I ignore the solicitous calls of the shopkeepers, and their entreaties to view their wares, and politely decline the many offers of kif (hash) from the younger guys; and eventually I stumble upon my destination, more by luck than design.
Morocco seems that kind of place – plans are there to be broken, or at least, adjusted. More than once during my time here I’m told, “You’re in Morocco now – relax!”
It’s easier said than done. I’m in need of a recharge, if not a full spiritual overhaul. I’m hoping this solo trip to Morocco can help.
“Be careful of some of those young boys dealing kif on the streets,” Abe tells me when I return to see him later. “They can be a little aggressive sometimes.”
I tell him some tales about my life in Liverpool and he concedes that it’s probably a lot safer for me to be in Marrakech. We laugh at the observation, but there’s a sad truth behind the joke. The sobering news of two horrible knife attacks back home during the following week only reaffirms this for me.
Me and Abe end the evening drinking Moroccan mint tea and chatting in the lobby of the riad he helps to run, Riad Blue Berber, before I return to my own hotel to rest. My senses are reeling joyously from being back in this amazing country after five years and I’m asleep within moments of climbing into bed in my simple, but comfortable, terrace room.
Cash is king in Morocco – don’t expect to encounter many card machines on your travels out here. And if you do see one, you’re probably in the wrong place – some slightly snobby tourist trap owned by condescending Europeans, perhaps. Le Salama, the bar I take a quick drink in this first night, is possibly one such place –pleasant enough but as far from authentically Moroccan as you can hope to get. With bottles of the local Casablanca beer going for 75dh (£6 approx – during “Happy Hour” too) it isn’t exactly cheap either. Far better to sip Moroccan mint tea (or “Berber Whisky”, as the locals call it), whilst overseeing the bustle of the square from the balcony of the Hôtel Restaurant Café de France, or somewhere similar.
Today’s Essential Costs (approx):
£80 return flights, £21 hotel, £5 dinner and mint tea, £6 beer, 50p bottled water £7 airport taxi. Total: £119-50.
Song of the Day: Hot Chip – Over and Over
Day 2 – Marrakech
I rise early but not quite as early as I’m woken by the 5.30am call to prayer from the nearby mosques, which takes me a little by surprise on this my first morning here. I quickly acclimatise to this intrinsic aspect of the local culture, but today it does have a similar effect on me as twenty air raid sirens being set off right outside my window.
Later, I walk into the Place Jemaa el-Fna in search of coffee and food (but mainly coffee), and find the sun shining and the air warm, which is a welcome novelty after a long and cold British winter. In fact, there may even be a few tears in my eyes as I emerge from the shadows of the medina into the North African sunshine.
It was cooler yesterday as I made the journey into the city from the airport, so this is my first real taste of a real Moroccan climate and it is very much needed. Slowly, tentatively, my muscles relax, followed by my brain and, as the week progresses, my soul.
The square is heaving, even at this early hour. Imagine what it might be like to witness a couple of different music festivals crash headlong into Camden Market and a circus, and you’d probably come close to what it’s like to stand here in the centre of it all – especially at night.
It’s an intoxicating and heady atmosphere, a clash of sound and colour and fragrance. The thrum of drum beats and gimbris (a stringed instrument akin to a guitar or bass, used to make the music of gnaoua), the shrill warbles of the rhaita (essentially, Moroccan bagpipes), the babble of human voices in a mangle of human languages – sometimes it’s a bloody racket, but mostly it’s utterly entrancing and invigorating.
As I eat my breakfast, I decline innumerable offers of cheap “designer” watches from the Senegalese guys who do their slow but constant circuit around the square, of phone cards, and cheap cigarettes and (of, course) hash; and of guided tours of the surrounding countryside.
Today, I have one primary mission to fulfill – buying my bus tickets for tomorrow’s journey to the city of Ouarzazate, the first step in my long haul out toward the desert and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
This mission takes me out of the old city and into Marrakech’s much more westernised newer areas, where the Supratours bus station can be found; the nationally-owned Moroccan equivalent of the UK’s National Express, only more reliable, more comfortable and less of a flagrant rip-off – the ticket from Marrakech to Ouarzazate is a reassuringly cheap 80dh (£6 approx).
The short 40-minute walk out to the bus station gives me a good excuse to explore. One thing I note is how the French colonial influence on this city makes itself known in two notable ways – one is the language, French being Morocco’s second language; and the other is the quality of the driving, around which there’s a distinctly Parisian air of je m’en fous.
Scooters rule the road here and are ridden by people of all ages, including some who look distinctly too young; and I lose count of how many heart-stopping near-misses I see of little kids almost mown down in this constant, insane dash. On one occasion, I see a scooter with a very large dog up front, sitting triumphantly in his owner’s lap, tongue lolling out over the handlebars.
As I walk, I’m a little disheartened to see the ubiquitous golden arches of McDonald’s and smug features of KFC’s Colonel Sanders; but one thing to be expected of Marrakech, and Morocco generally, is that she is continuously evolving. This is not a place that stands still or relies too heavily on tradition, at least not when it comes to money.
At times, the place can resemble a building site – but not in the destructive way that Liverpool so often can under the oversight of her current mayor. Here, there is a real sense of a country on the move; and of a people working hard to build their future. The people of Morocco work extremely hard and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
And there are many more unique and beautiful sights to see in this “red city”, so named because Marrakech has been built fastidiously using pinkish-red rock that imbues the whole place with a warm, almost amniotic, feel. One of these sights is the incredible railway station (pictured), which sits proudly beside my destination. Morocco has a decent, nascent railway network, although the Supratours bus routes are much more widespread.
Ticket purchased, I venture in the other direction, into the older but less-touristy parts of the city, such as the Jewish Quarter. There’s less tourists out this way, which reassures me that I’m on the right path.
True, I attract quite a few long stares, especially with my habitually colourful mode of dress; but people are just being curious, and are friendly enough.
I must walk at least 15km today as I circle around and around, gleefully hurling myself down side-street after side-street, impetuously following my curiosity.
Later, tired, as I walk back into the city, I am overlooked by the imposingly beautiful Atlas Mountains, shining white with recent snow. Even the landscape here reflects how this is a country of contrasts – a land of dust and snow, forests and deserts, sweetness and spice, and of a multiplicity of peoples and traditions. Already, I feel like I am falling in love.
Not everything here is so enamouring, though. It’s disheartening to see young children of perhaps only 10-12 years old out on the hustle, offering tourists everything from packets of tissues to hash, or just simply begging; but then, I once lived in Bootle, where things weren’t so different (and that isn’t hyperbole).
Life for the people here can be harder than perhaps we realise, and money is scarce. Despite this, those people are almost ubiquitously kind and generous. Not everything is about making money. There is a phrase often used in the Muslim world: “blessed are the strangers”. I will see this message of simple kindness enacted time and again while I’m here.
As the day wears on and my skin darkens under the unfamiliar glare of the sun, and as I shed the pallor of a British winter, the calls of, “Hello, English?” or “Ça va, Français?” become first “Ola! Españole?” and, later, “Hey, Berber” – the latter being a great compliment, I feel. I feel like I’m starting to blend in. Even my shit, sub-GCSE French begins to improve as seldom-used neurons begin to fire. I end the day getting to know my French neighbours Leo and Mathieu on the hotel terrace, as I bemuse them with talk of Le Tajine de Chât Banane, before we venture out together for a couple of cheeky beers at the nearby Café Arabe.
Get lost! No, really – this is the best way to explore. Allow yourself enough time to wander aimlessly and who knows what you’ll find. You know you’re on the right track the less tourists you encounter. When in Marrakech, you can use the imposing minaret of the Koutobia Mosque as a landmark to guide yourself back toward the Place Jemaa el-Fne – but be aware that there’s a lot of smaller mosques and attendant minarets scattered throughout the city, so an untrained eye could easily lead you off in the wrong direction.
For a good vibe and reasonably-enough priced drinks, I recommend you seek out Café Arabe, which lies a couple of twists and turns off the Place Jemaa el-Fne. Expect to pay 35dh (£3) for a bottle of Flag Spéciale or Casablanca beer, or 90dh (£7) for a cocktail. The beautiful décor and relaxed atmosphere is combined with an excellent playlist of music, which blends everything from gnaoua to reggae to jazz, funk and house.
Today’s Essential Costs (approx): £21 hotel, £9 bus ticket to Ouarzazate, £6 food, £3 teas and coffees, £12 beer, 50p bottled water. Total: £51-50.
Song of the Day: Jason Robello feat.Maxi-jazz – Sumeclamertime
Day 3 – Marrakech to Ouarzazate
The bus departs promptly at 8.30am and I’m on my way to the mythical-sounding town of Ouarzazate (pronounced oo-waa-za-zat), otherwise known as the “door of the desert”. We depart in the relative cool of the morning and head South East over the snow-capped Atlas Mountains.
The four-hour bus journey offers amazing views of the Moroccan countryside as we pass first through the Toufliht Forest, then over the mountains themselves, and then out onto the drier plains that lie to the south. This is a great way to see the Atlas Mountains and the surrounding country if you’re not much of a hiker.
As we travel along these winding roads, the signs of human existence dwindle gradually to little more than the occasional telecom tower; and when we stop at the only services on the route, the first squat toilets make an appearance. Using these is an experience in itself and, I think, not for the faint-hearted, retiring sensibilities of most Europeans. For me, I feel like I’m entering the real Morocco, and I’m utterly thrilled.
We arrive in Ouarzazate a little after midday. The city has a thriving film industry rooted around the nearby ECLA Studios and has played host to a number of international film and TV crews, including director Ridley Scott for his turn-of-the-millennium sword-and-sandals epic, Gladiator. Game of Thrones fans may well recognise much of the surrounding countryside as a stand in for the fictional land of Dorne and the so-called Red Waste.
But this isn’t the extent of Ouarzazate’s claim to fame. This city, the capital of its eponymously named province, with its historic, central Taourirt Kasbah, has a long and rich history dating back to its foundation by Berber people at some time before the 11th Century AD. Since then it has been home to many different peoples: Berbers, Jews, Muslims, Indians, French, Russians, and, today, one Mook.
I decide to forgo a taxi journey to my hotel, opting instead to make the hour-long walk across the city and take an opportunity to explore.
I saunter into and through the old Kasbah, and out onto the dusty Rue Ait Kdif, where begins an increasingly desperate two-hour mission to find my hotel for the night, the mysterious Berber Homestay, whose Google maps location marker takes me to a modern-looking junior school, and of which no one locally seems to have heard – despite their best efforts to help.
But getting lost again proves its worth as I stop at an auto-parts store for directions and I experience once more the simple kindness and generosity of the people of Morocco. The two brothers working there offer me a chair and mint tea, and charge my phone while they call the hotel for further information.
As football fans, they are excited to learn that I’m from Liverpool, and they ask me if Jurgen Klopp is as nice a guy as he seems on TV. I admit that I’ve never met him but this doesn’t diminish their friendliness. They do, however, tell me apologetically that the man who owns Berber Homestay has finally replied to say that he is out of town and that I need to find somewhere else to stay.
Luckily, I find an alternative hotel without too much hassle, which turns out to be right around the corner from the very bus station I arrived at three hours earlier! C’est la vie, I think. Meeting those kind brothers was worth the hassle.
A little later, I finally have a hotel for the night, but by now it has turned dark. Despite protests from my beleaguered feet, I venture back toward the old Kasbah in search of food and perhaps a well-earned beer. This time, however, I do so with the aid of a 5dh (40p) taxi ride. The taxis here stop to collect and drop-off other passengers en route, like a bus. As with many aspects of Moroccan life, it’s a very communal experience. I share my brief journey with four other locals as they jump in and out of the cab and we try, with varying degrees of success, to communicate as we travel.
Tired now, my priorities swing between food and beer, as it becomes clear nowhere can offer me both at this hour.
Alcohol is, of course, less common here than back home. By good fortune, I happen across the Ksar Lina (pictured, by day) – a restaurant/bar/lounge (read: drinking hole) – where they’ve finished serving food but where I can find a cold beer and some live music?
I decide to reward myself with a quick drink after a long, dry afternoon. Perhaps inevitably, one beer becomes three as I settle into the welcoming ambience of this locals’ bar. I am the only non-Moroccan here and that’s fine with me. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that Moroccans don’t drink – many of them do, and when they do, they drink a lot. Heroically, even.
I get chatting to a local university lecturer, Jafe (who once did his masters in Dorset, of all places), and his drinking buddy, the retired chief of the Ouarzazate police.
They are a well-known pair here, it seems – pretty much all the staff and the clientele were either students of one or arrested by the other. They’re well looked after, with a constantly replenished bucket of cold beer bottles stashed under their table.
They invite me to join them and ply me with several of these bottles. I tell them about my difficulties that afternoon and that I should soon leave to find somewhere to eat, as I haven’t had dinner. This isn’t a hint but a few minutes later, as we are laughing and swapping tales, a huge chicken tajine arrives on the table, which Jafe has arranged for me with the owner despite the kitchens having officially long since closed.
No-one is willing to take any payment for either the food or the many beers I’ve drunk, and I don’t press it as it’s quite clear that this would not be acceptable. Nor will they even allow me to buy a few beers in return!
Feeling very humbled by their generosity, I spend a few hours here with them, laughing and enjoying the antics of the local cleun (a drunk who is aggravating and entertaining everyone in the room in equal measure). I’m also introduced to some of Jafe’s current students, two beautiful twenty-something Moroccan girls who I am immediately quite smitten by (and the feeling appears to be quite mutual). But, sadly, as it we approach midnight, I find my body is tired and my head fuzzy from drink, and I make a reluctant exit, despite the entreaties by my new friends to stay.
I ride back to the hotel by taxi, the driver unashamedly sipping from a small bottle of beer. This, I think to myself, is one crazy town – it reminds me a lot of Liverpool in her better moments, and it makes me a little sad to think that I can’t stay longer.
But tomorrow afternoon I will complete my journey to the desert. I resolve to return the kindness of my new friends should they ever venture to the UK; and failing that, for the time being, to at least take away a lesson in simple kindness and hospitality – qualities that, it often seems, we have largely lost back home.
Back in the hotel, as I settle down for sleep, I regret a little not staying longer – not least as my expansive hotel bed has room for at least one of those lovely Moroccan girls. But my body is clearly not as a ready for an all-nighter as my mind or libido, and unconsciousness quickly claims me. Tomorrow is a new day and there’s much still to see in this historic city before my 1pm bus.
Seek out the Ksar Lina to drink with the locals – and if you encounter Jafe and his mate, please buy them a drink from me!
Today’s Essential Costs (approx): £23 hotel, £12 beer, £1 taxis, 50p bottled water, £4 food, tea and coffee. Total: £40-50.
Song of the Day: Hans Zimmer & Lisa Gerrard – Now We Are Free
Day 4 – Ouarzazate
Before I depart by bus to Merzouga on the next leg of my journey, I have just enough time for breakfast (an outrageously cheap £2 for coffee and a mushroom omelette) and a wander through the Kasbah, as I try to make up for some of the time I lost yesterday. Eventually, my somewhat erratic wanderings lead me to the door of Mohamed Ibelaioui, a leading figure in Ouarzazate’s IGRAR Association – a group devoted to maintaining the rich history and multiple traditions of the city.
Mohamed’s house here in the Kasbah is home not only to his own family but an impressive exhibition of historical artefacts and photos from the old Berber and Jewish populations of this town, and also arts and crafts from its current inhabitants.
We share tea as he tells me about his life and work. As well as being an historian, Mohamed is also a musician, visual artist, and poet. Each year, he and the association organise a free festival of music and culture in the city, as well as conducting workshops in local schools on everything from traditional music to protecting the environment, to safeguard not only the past but also the future.
I am privileged to hear Mohamed perform one of his works, a satirical sung-poetry piece about our modern addiction to processed sugar. The melody is catchy and I wonder, only half-seriously, if I could maybe “borrow” it.
Much of the art here is for sale but I’m not in a position to buy anything today. Luckily, donations for the IGRAR Association are also gratefully accepted – I pass Mohamed a modest payment of 50dh for his time. The visit is well worth it.
After I part company with Mohamed, I hurry around the corner to the nearby old synagogue, Ben Knesset, which is now also a museum. For centuries, there was a strong and established Jewish population in this part of the Kasbah, a testament to the tradition of cultural inclusivity that Moroccans can take great pride in. With the establishment of Israel, that population gradually drifted away; but this remarkable building remains, and I am glad to have time enough left before my bus to make a quick tour.
There is a real serenity here and spiritual energy is imbued into the very walls. My guide, Hussein, shows me the historical artefacts left behind by its former inhabitants, and he leads me through rooms once filled with rabbis and worshippers and the small children who once studied here.
The view from the top of the old synagogue is particularly beautiful, and between me and the distant horizon is an impressive vista that shows why so many film and TV productions make the journey here. Hussein shares with me a few memories of his encounters with such productions – apparently, Ridley Scott visited the old synagogue too whilst filming Gladiator all those years ago.
Donations are also gratefully accepted here in lieu of any purchases – in this instance, I give Hussein the 30 dirham I have left in change. It’s a meagre fee for his time but he takes it happily. I could linger for much longer here in the streets of this Kasbah but my time is running short – it’s almost midday and I have a bus to catch in an hour to begin the long journey to Merzouga. As it turns out, I barely make it in time, and earn myself a scolding from the somewhat officious bus station manager, Blakey (as I privately rename him in my head).
The journey from Ouarzazate to Merzouga takes a somewhat arduous eight hours as the bus stops in every major town on the way. But the upshot is that we pass through some absolutely stunning countryside and fascinating-looking places, with names like Tinghir and Errachidia.
It’s a shame that I don’t have the chance to stop and explore some of these beautiful, mysterious places; but we do pause for a time in a roadside service station with a great view of the now-distant Atlas Mountains. There’s something subtly mind-blowing about the sight of snow-capped mountains glimpsed across a desert plain.
As day segues into night, the sun sets with a fiery glow beyond the horizon. I switch seats on the now nearly-empty bus to take a better view. The beauty of this place seems infinite and I find myself utterly captivated.
But it’s a relief to finally arrive in Merzouga, mainly for the sake of my legs and buttocks. We arrive a little before 9pm in the centre of town, where I’m met by Mohamed, the manager of Camel Trek Bivouac, where I’ll be staying for the next few days, and from where I’ll be setting out on my desert tour.
We chat for a while after I arrive. Mohamed has a website that he needs updating so we spend the next couple of hours chatting about it and researching good domain names, before eventually he departs for bed, and I follow suit.
(Incidentally, Mohamed is possibly one of the coolest men I’ve ever met. At one point during the following day, he appears beside me on his motorbike to ask if I’ve had a good day, and then tells me, deadpan, that “I have to go now and see some guys in the desert” before racing off in a cloud of dust and tyre-smoke – like, as they say, a boss.)
While in Morocco, don’t take photos of the military or the police – they really don’t like it, and they will confront you over it. A Russian gent on the bus to Merzouga fell foul of this just outside of Errachidia and was white as a sheet after being given a royal dressing down over his indiscretion.
Today’s Essential Costs (approx): £10 bus ticket to Merzouga, £7 accommodation, £6 donations, £1 taxis, £4 food and coffee, 50p bottled water. Total: £28-50.
Song of the Day: Robert Randolph – Why Should I Feel Lonely
Day 5 – Merzouga
Sleepy Merzouga offers a welcome change of pace after the frenetic buzz of Marrakech and Ouarzazate, bordered on three sides by the seemingly endless plains of dry and dusty earth, and flanked to the south by the imposing dunes of the Erg Chebbi desert, revealed to me now in the early morning light.
With her single main street, Merzouga reminds me a little of an old Wild West town, only without the banditos and occasional shoot-outs. If anything, the people here are even more warm-hearted and welcoming than their northern neighbours – and that’s saying a lot. What the people here in Morocco often lack in material wealth is more than compensated for by the richness of their spirit, their kindness, and their simple decency.
My desert trek will start at 4pm, past the blazing heat of midday, after the air has cooled a little. Even at this time of year, it’s hot enough for that to be a very sensible move (today it’s about 27◦C).
I spend the intervening time relaxing, drinking Berber Whisky, making notes in my journal for this very article, and writing a few postcards to send back home. I also make friends with the neighbourhood children, including my host Mohamed’s young son, who on a cuteness scale of one to ten scores about 90.
The place I’m staying is a quiet, idyllic spot on the edge of town, which I have to myself until a lovely German couple arrives later in the day. I am tipped off to their arrival, amusingly enough, by the appearance of matching his-and-hers towels in the communal bathroom.
Contrary to what many tour guides may tell you, Erg Chebbi isn’t technically part of the Sahara desert; rather it could be seen as a gateway to the Sahara or, as I observe, something akin to the kiddie pool at the local swimming baths.
But it’s a huge expanse of desert and it counts well enough in my book. Either way, it’s indescribably beautiful and my heart soars as we ride out on camel-back onto the dunes. There is real magic here, which cannot be described by anything as limited as the written word.
The wind sings and I can feel the desert spirits, the Djinn, whisper to me as we delve deeper into their sacred domain. After an hour’s ride, we pause in our journey to watch the sun sink behind the distant sand dunes. My heart feels close to bursting with the quiet beauty of this place. I’m not sure my companions on the trek feel quite the same – the four lovely Taiwanese people I’m with prefer to sing pop songs together and take a seemingly infinite number of selfies.
Personally, I prefer to just sit and imbibe this sacrament of sky and sand and open space. (Although I do, of course, strike a pose for a couple of photos – I am, after all, a millennial; and it isn’t every day you get to hang out in the almost-Sahara desert).
We arrive at our camp for the night a little after sundown.
We’re met by Yussef, Mohamed’s brother and our host for the night, who serves us tea and biscuits and sweet bread containing star anise, all of which is quickly devoured. As the last light of the sun vanishes beneath one horizon, the moon rises above the other, low and clear and as big as I think I’ve ever seen it.
It’s a full moon so there are a few less stars visible than there would normally be; but the view is still spectacular. I spend a good long while just looking at the sky as the beauty of this place repairs something in me that I didn’t realise was broken. It’s so incredibly beautiful that I can barely breathe. There’s a part of me deep inside that feels like it has come home.
We dine that night on a couple of huge and delicious tajines (one fish, one chicken) and a more dubious-looking banana and yoghurt dessert that I decide to avoid, followed by a spot of traditional Berber music around the camp fire. Djembes and bongos are handed around, as well as sets of qarkabeb (traditional metal castanets), and all are encouraged to join in. I take approximately 0.75 seconds to be persuaded. A “traditional English song” is later demanded of me and I somewhat self-indulgently decide to perform one of my own (Sugar Hunt) – luckily, they like it, or at least pretend to, although I’m sure most of the meaning of the lyrics is lost on them (which is perhaps for the best).
As the fire dwindles away to nothing, we defy all language barriers to swap jokes and riddles, before a couple of us wander out across the desert to find a good spot to watch for shooting stars. I stay out here far later than anyone else, until around 2am, unable to tear myself away from these spectacular surroundings.
The wind picks up and again, I can hear the desert singing to me. Some deep psychological/spiritual communication happens that I won’t be able to write about here without sounding like a basket case; and then eventually, reluctantly, I retire to bed and sleep as best I can, my head filled as it is with stars. I feel like I’ve stepped into a picture book from my childhood.
Take a good supply of bottled water with you into the desert, obviously. The guys will be more than happy to run it to the camp for you with any other luggage you want to take.
Today’s Essential Costs (approx): £7 accommodation, 50p bottled water, £6 food, tea and coffee. Total: £13-50.
Song of the Day: Pleasure – Midnight At The Oasis
Day 6 – Merzouga
It’s 5.30am and I’m waking up in the actual desert.
To be honest, I haven’t really slept – I’m just too excited to be here. Beyond the doorway of my comfortable little tent, the first tentative emanations of daylight are appearing over the horizon and are chasing away the lingering Moon; and slowly, but inexorably, the sun reappears.
Sunrise in the desert is something you need to see with your own eyes and feel on your own skin as our friendly neighbourhood star literally breathes life back into the world. We all sit together and eat a hearty breakfast and experience this natural spectacle before eventually heading back to Merzouga on camelback.
The desert is just as beautiful this morning as it was yesterday afternoon. My Taiwanese comrades are clearly in high spirits, as they serenade me with a further selection of their favourite chart-toppers.
Then, all too quickly, we are out of the desert and back on the edges of Merzouga. I wait for as long as I can on the fringes of the sand here before Yussef appears in his battered 4×4 to take us the rest of the way back. As he does, we pass a real-life oasis, where flamingos are sometimes known to gather on the rare occasions that it rains enough for them. Mohamed tells me later that it’s been seven years since they last visited.
I spend the rest of the day half in the shade at the Café Restaurant Tenara, enjoying the sunshine and drinking Moroccan tea and coffee with one of my new Berber friends from the camp. He has come here from the distant south-western Sahara proper and, despite his claims to the contrary, is a better English-speaker than most people I know in Liverpool.
I end this laziest of days smoking shisha with my host Mohamed and his friends at a nearby garage owned by his mechanic friend. They all welcome me like an old friend and, despite the language barrier, we laugh and joke and relax here for a good few hours while a sandstorm flares up outside.
I’ve offered to help Mohamed make some improvements to his website; trading skills like this is a good way to make friends and thereby have a more authentic experience, as well as saving a few quid (he’s knocked off a fair chunk of the price of my desert trip).
We stay here until Mohamed’s wife messages him with a terse instruction to return home; and then we ride back across town through swirling plumes of dust and sand on the back of his motorbike. As we do, I secretly wonder whether maybe a little of Mohamed’s cool will rub off on me.
Today’s Essential Costs (approx): £7 accommodation, £6 food, tea and coffee, £1 water. Total: £16.
Song of the Day – Miles Davis – On The Corner
Day 7 – Merzouga to Marrakech
Today is spent almost entirely on the bus – it’s a long, long journey all the way back to Marrakech.
12 hours is a long time to spend boxed up in any vehicle, even when surrounded by such beautiful vistas as those that lie along this route. So there isn’t much to report aside from how the day begins with another act of simple Moroccan generosity – a local pays the 10dh for my morning coffee, as I don’t have any change and the café owner is reluctantly to cash in a 100dh note.
I should pay on the 10dh to some homeless person in Marrakech, the stranger tells me; and again, I feel humbled by the kindness of the people here, always so willing to share what little they have. I promise him that I will, and I make good on that promise later that day.
It feels like far longer than a week has passed since I last walked out into the Place Jemaa el-Fna, which is bursting with its vibrancy when I finally arrive. I now feel fully acclimatised and at home in Morocco. But there isn’t much time to get reacquainted with this particularly crazy place: tomorrow, after an evening and morning’s brief respite (and a couple of cold ones at Café Arabe), I’m back on the road to my spiritual second-home of Essaouira.
Today’s Essential Costs (approx): £19 bus ticket to Marrakech, £9 accommodation, £4 food, tea and coffee. Total: £32-00.
Song of the Day: Goldbug – Whole Lotta Love
Day 8 – Essaouira
It gets gradually colder and cloudier and wetter as we ride out on the three-hour journey westward toward the coast, and the fishing town-come-musical capital of Morocco that is Essaouira. As a Brit, the cooler air and light rain is actually something of a relief after the dry heat of Merzouga, as is the clean air after the crowded streets and petrol fumes of Marrakech.
There’s a whole lot of Jimi Hendrix playing on my MP3 player as we near this magical place that the great man himself visited in the infamous summer of 1969. Also, some gnaoua too – after all, Essaouira is home to the annual spectacle that is Festival Gnaoua et de musiques du Monde.
This incredible free public festival is highly recommended for fans not only of gnaoua but also jazz, reggae, afrobeat, and fusions of all of these things and more.
I was lucky enough to visit a few years ago in June 2013, when the weather was far hotter and the streets packed with people and musicians from across Morocco, North Africa and the wider world. In early March, it’s quieter and cooler here, but the sea seems to be as excited as I am as the bus speeds into the middle of town, and the roiling waves are as spectacular (and seemingly as high) as the desert dunes of Erg Chebbi.
Essaouira is a place of music and good vibes, dreadlocked Moroccans and Bob Marley, hashish and gnaoua, and everywhere you go has a story about Jimi Hendrix visiting (even the places that didn’t exist back then). It’s a rather trippy, hippy little place and I love it. The streets feel like home.
After checking in to my hotel, I seek out the relaxed vibes of café/restaurant Chez Kherfa, in search of some friends I made here all those years ago, only to find they’ve long-since moved (one to Casablanca, the other to Croatia). So much for using Facebook to keep in touch with people, I think to myself.
But I make some new buddies, especially local “kidda” Dodi and his gang, who are usually to be found offering either directions or smokes (or both) to tourists on one of the many intersections in these small streets.
Buying a few rounds that evening in the local bar The Hole certainly helps cement these new friendships, but for 17dh a drink (the delicious, Casablanca-brewed Stork lager) it’d almost be rude for me not to. In return, I get the benefit of some handy local knowledge and, as a particular boon, I get to meet Dodi’s brother Yunus, an extremely (almost preternaturally) talented gimbri player and gnaoua musician.
We hijack the Wi-Fi from a nearby restaurant, as the guys want to see Galactic Funk Militia in action. I reluctantly allow them a glimpse of one of our videos, and they like it; but I’m more interested in hearing more from Yunus. And so we end the night with some of the best gimbri-playing I’ve ever heard, and a truly authentic gnaoua experience, as Yunus plays to us by candlelight through a haze of hashish smoke.
I return to the hotel late, accompanied by my friend Dodi who insists on escorting me safely home.
Queues are not a tradition here, so don’t expect British “queue etiquette” when shopping, withdrawing money, or waiting to buy stamps. Be polite, as always, but stand your ground or you could spend a lot of time waiting around.
Today’s Essential Costs (approx): £6 ticket to Essaouira, £19 accommodation, £6 food, tea and coffee, £14 beers. Total: £45-00.
Song of the Day: Band of Gypsies – Who Knows
Day 9 – Essaouira
Despite the slight hangover, I’m in search of just a few simple souvenirs and so venture out early into the busy streets to try my hand at haggling.
As it turns out, I’m extremely good. I get some good “start of the day” prices and feel a little like I’m robbing some of these guys; but the rule of haggling is that if both parties part company with smiles then a good deal has been struck. One of the highlights is a green and gold, hand-embroidered shirt that I buy directly from the man who made it, after I spy it hanging up outside the small shop he works in. A deal is struck for 100dh, a little shy of £8!
I start to worry that I am sailing precariously close to my stingy Ryanair weight limit on luggage, so I break from this uncharacteristic bout of shopping and head to the Marché aux Poissons and its immediate environs to buy some lunch. I bag myself a huge sea bass for 10dh, an unnecessarily large bag of Menage de Poisson for 5dh, two absurdly huge hunks of bread for 10dh, and about half my bodyweight in olives for another 10dh. For only another 5dh a street trader cooks up the fish for me on his grill and so, for the princely sum of 40dh (£3 approx), I enjoy a huge, authentically-prepared dish for significantly cheaper than you’d expect to pay at some of the swankier, more touristy restaurants – and with much bigger portions.
These portions conspire with a lot of walking and a few nights of meagre sleep to render me asleep early tonight. My top-floor terrace room at the Hotel le Grande Large is quiet and cosy, so I make the most of the chance to rest up and recharge a little. I’m asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow and way before 9pm.
Today’s Essential Costs (approx): £19 accommodation, £5 food, tea and coffee. Total: £24-00.
Song of the Day: Mustafa Bakbou – Lbousouyi
Day 10 – Essaouira / Marrakech
Fuelled up by a good night’s sleep and a simple but filling breakfast, I go for an early walk with Dodi, who shows me where the fisherman bring in their daily hauls, and where they sell them in the more commercial market by the harbour.
We then walk together up onto the ramparts of the old walls and take in the view in the company of a few tourists, a couple of locals, several seagulls, and the imposing, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese-made bronze cannons. Dodi tells me that the next time I visit, and when the weather is warmer, we will go swimming in the sea.
I have only a couple of hours to spare today before the bus takes me back to Marrakech in readiness for my journey home. So we take tea at Chez Kherfa, where Dodi offers me a thoughtful gift of kif seeds for my garden back home. It’s a generous thought, but there’s no way that I’m taking these anywhere near the plane. For one thing, I don’t have a garden. More importantly, I don’t fancy spending any amount of time in a Moroccan prison. I politely decline his kind offer.
After we part, I take one last walk along the sea front before the Supratours bus arrives to bear me away. Even as we pull out from the bus station, I feel a sharp pang of loss for this beautiful, gentle little town, and for my new friends here. “I’ll be back,” I reassure myself, and sooner than five years this time too.
By the time we return in Marrakech, I’ve made a couple of new friends on the bus (a French couple and a German guy), and we share a taxi back to the old medina. It’s all of their first time here and as I lead them across the Place Jemaa el-Fna, I feel like something of an old pro. The air is thick with fumes and I already miss the fresh air of Essaouira; but a few drinks at Café Arabe take the edge off, although I’m slightly worried that the people who work here seem to recognise me a little too quickly as they welcome me back.
Today’s Essential Costs (approx): £6 ticket to Marrakech, £4 food, tea and coffee, £18 accommodation. Total: £28-00.
Song of the Day: Souk System – Metropole
Day 11 – Marrakech
My last full day in Morocco has come. Tomorrow I will be savouring the joys of airport security, and Ryanair’s daft little celebratory fanfare when it touches safely down in Liverpool, and I’ll be wondering if they play something more sombre if your plane crashes into the sea.
Today, however, I resolve to make the most of what time I have left. I’m awake early to try my haggling skills out at Marrakesh’s famous souks – imagine the atmosphere of Camden Market amplified by a factor of a thousand, only with more persistent stallholders.
I’m after some small trinkets to take home for my folks. Haggling is a part of life here and almost compulsory, although it’s very important to have an idea of what you want and what you’re prepared to spend on it, and to cultivate an ability to say “La shukran” (“No, thank you”).
Less fun is arguing with pushy youths on the outer edges of the city centre, who will try to set themselves up as unwanted tour guides and then demand upwards of 100dh for the privilege of them walking a few hundred metres with you, offering unnecessary directions.
I imagine it would be very easy to be intimidated into giving these guys money, especially for older people, or people with less experience of the culture here. I’m personally in no mood to be harassed into paying these guys a penny, especially as they look about 12 years old, and tell them in no uncertain terms to take a walk.
After a couple of minutes of arguing, in which I allow my voice to drop a good couple of octaves to make sure they listen to what I’m telling them, they finally make like the proverbial tree, and I continue my day. But this is certainly something to watch out for.
Back to the real reason I’m out this way in the first place – to visit the Berber tannery, which is a fascinating experience, if a little brief.
The tour begins with me being handed a fistful of mint (or “gas mask”, as they call it), to help combat the immense smell of the slowly curing leather; and it ends shortly afterwards in the shop, where something of an attempted hard-sell commences.
This slightly pushy mentality is the only downside of visiting Marrakech and something I haven’t experienced as much in the rest of Morocco. But I’m not buying and that’s final, and I can easily live with the obvious disgruntlement of a disappointed shopkeeper. Donations for the tour are, of course, also enthusiastically recommended. I refuse the initial suggestion of 200dh – it’s an interesting tour, but not worth £18. I give them 50dh and this seems to be acceptable enough to both parties.
By now, it’s a little after midday and extremely hot, so I head back to the square for a quick pot of mint tea and to plan the rest of the afternoon, while a nearby busker plays a somewhat incongruous cover of Imagine by John Lennon.
I decide that the best place for me to hide out from the Marrakech heat without spending any money is the Cyber Park, which lies about a ten minute walk from the square, and despite the name, is free from robotic marauders of any sort.
Instead, it’s populated by a few tourists, quite a lot of young Moroccan couples canoodling awkwardly as only teenagers can, and one rather ferocious park attendant with a whistle (and he isn’t afraid to use it, as some middle-aged French women discover as they venture out onto the pristine grass). It’s cool and tranquil here, an oasis of calm away from the heat and fumes of the city streets, and from the traders and opportunist street kids (although I’m still offered kif here by a couple of people, naturally).
Slowly, but inevitably, my last day turns into my last night. After a quick visit to catch up with Abe, who I met on my first day, I treat myself to a slap-up Moroccan mixed grill and lashings of tea, before a quick change and one last wander around the square at night; and then, naturellement, I head to Café Arabe to meet my new French friends for a few final beers. Eventually, as they head off for dinner, I settle in to take a little time sitting alone, whilst Bob Marley assures me that No Woman, No Cry, and encourages me to Stir It Up.
There’s a bitter-sweetness as I take my final few mouthfuls of Flag Spéciale and reflect on the last eleven days. I feel like I’ve been in Morocco for far longer, in a good way.
This beautiful country and her kind people have genuinely touched my heart and rejuvenated my soul. It feels like one man arrived in this land and another is leaving, irreversibly changed by his experiences. It seems insane how much I have lived and learned here for only the few hundred quid I’ve spent.
I’ve seen people blow £90 on a single round while flashing their cash in some of Liverpool’s more costly bars, and I wonder whether they would follow in my footsteps if they only knew how far they could get for that sort of money here.
All the people I’ve met and the things I’ve done flit through my memory like a montage in some slightly cheesy film as I try to relive it all, desperate to commit every last second to memory.
Tomorrow morning, I will brave brahmanic worlds-within-worlds of airport security, a cramped flight home to Brexit Island, and the icy welcome of a Liverpool climate. But for tonight, one last glorious night, I am in Morocco; and here, I feel, a part of me will remain until I return again – inshallah.
Today’s Essential Costs (approx): £7 accommodation, £4 donations/entry, £7 food, tea and coffee, 50p bottled water, £12 beers, £7 taxi for tomorrow. Total: £37-50.
Song of the Day: Bob Marley – Redemption Song
Total Essential Costs for 11 days (approx): £436 (inc accommodation, flights, buses, taxis, food and drink).
Average cost per day (approx): £40-00.