Sunday, March 01, 2015


We get on the train at the airport and head into Casablanca. Henri offers up coffee crisp balls to everyone in our car. They are very happily accepted by kids and grannies alike. Coming into Casablanca, we pass a huge crowd of young people carrying banners and chanting. It looked a lot like a student protest. With a couple of hours to kill before our next train to Marrakesh we head across the road from the station to a little café where we gesture to some yummy puck-shaped breads which they cut open and fill with Vache qui rit cheese, along with fresh banana and orange smoothies. Sitting on our colourful plastic chairs, the brief glimpse of life that we get watching the world go by gives us an idea of what Morocco is all about. The mechanic taking customers on the sidewalk next door, women in djellabas and socks and sandals hustle about with their shopping bags, cars and overburdened mopeds vie for the little space on the road. We hear the students chanting in the train station. Our neighbour at the café informs us they're soccer fans on their way to a big game. Back at the station waiting for our train, the group entertains us on the opposite platform, drumming and chanting and jumping up and down before the train pulls into the station, magically absorbs them and whisks them off to the game.

The train ride began a bit tense as we walked through a whole series of cars without finding a free cabin. We realize the train will only get busier on the way and unless we want to stand for 3-1/2 hours we need to split up. The girls and I squeeze into one cabin and Henri & Wil into another.

The ride was a lovely, mellow introduction to the countryside. Rolling hills awash with neon yellow and orange flowers, the bright green and the palest of lavender blush of the valleys bleaching out to pale pinks and creams on the hills' rounded caps. Kids returning from school, colourful backpacks slung on their backs, astride donkeys with blue plastic feed bags strapped to their muzzles. Long rows of prickly pear cacti, young boys standing by the slowing train holding up clutches of fresh sage and za'atar. Solitary goatherds in dull djellabas graze their small flocks in the little strips of grass between the track and the cement walls topped with broken glass that demarcate gardens. Through the small cities we catch glimpses down side streets, white-washed buildings, clusters of small boys crouch over games in the road or wrestle each other as their moms stand gossiping while hanging their clothes on the line. Frances gasps as she spots her first honest-to-goodness camel.

Adobe houses, cubes of pink notched into the hillside, bare bushes — all spike and spindle, look like little blurs in the sharp light, buckets atop keyhole-shaped constructions signal wells in the seams of the valley. The railway employees provide a whole other range of vignettes — a man laboriously hand-cranking to raise a crossing barrier. Where there are no barriers, employees sit in little chairs by the road alongside minuscule shelters fashioned from bright blue tarpaulins. Nearer the city, mustached men in dusty, old suits and gleaming white captain's caps stand watch.

Bunches of pink buildings signalled the outskirts of Marrakesh. We weren't expecting the string of jagged white-capped mountains looming so heavily over the city. A breathtaking backdrop. We hopped into a grand taxi and headed to Bab Mellah, Marrakesh's jewish quarter. The last little leg was on foot, through a gate into the neighbourhood and down lanes too narrow to accommodate more than a mulecart or a moped or two — usually bearing down on you from opposite directions at the very same time.

The walk to Jma el Fnaa was intense, strolling in a sleepless jetlag haze dodging manic traffic in the road and on the sidewalk. The square is a vast open space, hazy with wood smoke and the scent of cooking meat & incense. Competing stalls of brochette shacks, lamb barbecue, snail soup, almond cookie stands, women in niqabs squatting on low stools offering henna tattoos, snake charmers with red lampshade-like mirrored hats sit on colourful carpets and play dizzyingly repetitive flute music to seduce their snakes, black as night Africans hold out watches of every size and description, whirling dervishes, monkeys in lacy dresses all performing to intense drum music and occasionally overlaid with the muezzin's call to prayer.

Sensory overload!

At night, the centre of the square houses back to back restaurants — white marquees with tables and lengths of upholstered benches on either side. Some have piles of brochettes laid out, others display sheep heads & brains. All of them have at least one man in the aisles springing on you, often gently elbowing each other out of the way to pitch their wares. They are impressive polyglots, cajoling and charming at once with an impressive selection of lines — "Maybe tomorrow?", "Finger licking good", "Look! My place is full of Moroccans". They comment on each other's technique, "He is too pushy. I don't like it." Before your bum hits the bench, the table is miraculously laid with paper place settings and everyone has a little puck of pita, a bowl of red salsa, harissa and a small bowl of spicy spinach or olives. There is suddenly an army of white labcoat-clad young men dashing about to park you & lock you in as quickly as possible. They feign indignation if you don't order a massive meal for every member of the family. But, like the pre-restaurant selection banter and the quibbling over the price when you're done, it's not personal. It is all done with a smile, a lot of hands placed over hearts and handshakes.

We take a quick stroll through a couple of souks, the live chicken zone, the picture frames fashioned from recycled tires, the lovely delicate metalwork, toasted nut stands where the salesmen pop through a small hole like a jack in the box, surrounding waist-high by their very delicious looking snacks, tantalizing cones of spices of every colour.

We wait to meet up with Younes, the rep of the tour company taking us into the desert. He appears in fur-covered flip flops, a light blue embroidered kaftan and matching pants and a massive white turban. He invites us to have a drink before the deposit money changes hands. The niceties are never skipped here in order to get down to business. When you try, the Moroccans look at you sadly, as if you don't really understand how the world works, and I suppose they're right. We head up to the rooftop of Café de France and chitchat with the white mountain range at our backs and watch the setting sun paint the sky orange behind the minarets.

It's unanimous. Morocco is our favourite yet.


Jules said...

Love reading your blog. Your writing is frickin amazing and the content is so interesting. Keep em coming!

ajm said...

Stunning descriptions - I have such vivid images of your travels in my head.