I had to stoop to get through the black metal door. My biggest concern was finding this door again. It was at the end of a network of dimly lit narrow streets. I had closely studied the markings on each street that led to that door. It would only take one wrong turn. I noted the over flowing bins. The undernourished cats scavenging what fell to the ground. The odd stranger seemingly lurking in the darkness. I was told however it was safe.
It’s part of an extraordinary maze of narrow streets that eventually lead to one of the many souk markets. Navigating the streets is shared with bikes and motorbikes weaving in and out alongside you. Encountering donkeys hauling their carts. Dodging the street beggars. And the never ending enticements to “come into my shop”.
Welcome to the top of Africa. Marrakech, Morrocco. The unique experience of staying right in the heart of the Medina, the old town. An exciting hussle and bustle of an ancient city life. With its array of colours of material, clothing, pottery, pots and pans, brass lights, carpets and rugs. The enticing smell of all imaginable spices. Where survival also seems as much to scam the next unsuspecting tourist. “Wrong way. This way”. I was aware of this scam.
But I wasn’t prepared for this one. I was exploring my way out from the main souk. A local walking in the same direction offers some helpful advice. “Keep to the right” he politely advises as a never ending stream of motorbikes haphazardly career past. As the conversation grew, he informs about a special tannery market. Just this weekend. He anticipates any concern saying he’s not a guide. No cost. After a short while he advises to follow this other man. “He works in tannery”. We walk on for 20 minutes.
Scam bells were starting to tingle. I’m now handed off once again. This time to a man waiting at a door. The scam bells are clanging louder The Tannery tour begins. An expansive outdoor collection of cement baths with camel and sheep skins in various stages of the leather making process. Fortunately you the reader can’t smell it. It was bloody disgusting!
One bath, as explained, was full of pigeon poop. Now I don’t know about your leather bag. But if the leather originated from this part of the world, you can be assured it’s been soaked in pigeon shit. The paint stain on your car duco left from bird droppings helps to explain the bleaching power of this natural resource.
Of course no tour is complete without ending in the showroom. The scam bells were now on high alert. I politely decline the merchants kind offer to relax on his coach during his product presentation, along with the customary pot of “complimentary” tea. There’s no such thing as a free lunch here. Despite the fact I don’t think I could ever look at a leather bag the same way again (or at least I’d smell it first), I didn’t have any room in my backpack. Meanwhile my friendly guide was waiting outside, ready, as expected, to demand a fee for this tightly networked “free” service.
Unfortunately my payment, while a fair amount in local currency for the knowledge gained, was way below my now not so friendly guide’s extortionist demands. Thankfully my map was there once again to get me quickly back to more familiar territory. And yes, as confirmed later, this well executed plot also has a name. The Tannery Scam.
As night set in, the chaos of the souks move to the huge Jemaa el-Fna square. A haphazard collection of musicians beating drums and stringed instruments fill the square. The excited crowds grow encircling their rythmic beat.
Rows of outdoor food markets come to life. Filing past the eateries are the never ending line of the relentless watch and bead sellers. But now there’s an additional member to this endless queue. Children. Quietly anticipating a share of the food from the tables. I notice a young boy has joined the next table. Oblivious to the generosity of his new found hosts, nor the world around him. He has just one purpose. Staring only at the plate in front of him. He intently feeds himself as quickly as he can consume it. I glance over later. He is gone.
As night deepens, the chaos and vivid colours of the markets have now disappeared. The abundance of shop items that overflowed into the tiny streets are gone. The lanes have change to a dull grey of shuttered up stalls. More prominent now are the beggars. Cocooned in rugs, braving themselves for the cold winter night ahead. Just a bare hand is visible. Enough to collect any meager offerings.
I tap the metal bar off the black door. It finally opens. The warm and friendly riad hotel manager, Aziz welcomes me in with his cheery smile. ‘Any longer”, he jokes “and I would have had to get the police to find you”. The door shuts behind us as the passage opens up to an oasis like tranquil courtyard setting. Typical of the riad that Morrocco is famous for. The rooms, spread over several levels, have no external windows, except to look over the courtyard. Whether for security or privacy, it is certainly one thing. A sanctuary. Away from the crazy chaos outside. A relaxing place to sit and chat with other guests. And to brace yourself for the next day of life in the Marrakech Medina.
An hour’s drive away, the serenity of the Atlas Mountains offers a far contrast to the city life below. A three hour bus trip away is the popular Essaouira. A beach lovers retreat for surfing, kite surfing and swimming. To get around you can choose between a camel along the beach, or a horse and carriage ride through the city. Or maybe if you have luggage, there’s always the donkey and cart!
No doubt the pièce de résistance of this Morroccon experience, was a home cooking class. Cooking Morrocco’s famous lamb tagine with lamb, prunes, apricots, almonds, and a whole array of spices. It was something to die for!
And to finish off this “visa exile”, a six hour bus trip up to Casablanca. Travelling in modern coach line comfort on modern highways. It was the last day of my Morocco visit. And guess what I was offered by a friendly local? I politely declined his kind offer to take me to this special market, just on today!