Apologies for the long absence from the blog, although this time I had a real excuse. Roz and I were in Morocco and I felt neither the desire nor obligation to interrupt our holiday to hunt down a computer suite circa 1995, with a 56k connection and a cassette playing ‘Now that’s what I call Koranic chants 1983,’ in order to write some sort of eulogy about a North African country that you have probably never even considered visiting. Now that we’re back though, I will make you care. I’ve endured too much to let my hard won wisdom slide into the deep abyss of unremembered memories.
Eighty pounds for a flight to Morocco. It’s a good start. But first of all you have to get to Luton airport, which is a pain if you live anywhere outside of Luton. Then, worse than this, you have to fly with Ryanair. I’d never previously flown with them before, but I assumed that their ‘no frills’ approach would be the bog standard Easyjet affair. In actual fact though, it’s more like a no frills version of Easyjet. You have to pay for literally everything bar the actual flying bit; each bag checked £20; priority boarding £5; you even have to check yourself in online or get charged £40. How can you check in when you aren’t even in the airport? It doesn’t make any sense! Onboard, the only thing free is the seat you sit in. Water costs £2.70! I was glad there was no loss in cabin pressure or we would have probably had to pay for oxygen and mask hire.
Nevertheless, after three hours or so, we arrived alive, which is the main purpose of flying I suppose – maybe it could be Ryanair’s tagline ‘Bringing you to your destination not dead’. Tired and extremely dehydrated we ambled towards border control. Now, I’ve travelled to a good few countries, many of them far more poorly equipped than Morocco, but never have I had to wait for such a long time to actually enter the country. As far as I can discern from my detailed past appraisals of border control, the process for a border guard seems to be: Enter some details from the passport into a computer, look at the photo and then at the person, stamp the passport, look menacing throughout. This usually takes about a minute and in some more technologically advanced countries even less (thanks to the automatic scanning thingamajig they use in the UK the process takes less than 10 seconds). So I have no idea why it took an average of two and half minutes per person (I worked it out while we were waiting) in Morocco. Oh, and there were still 17 people in front of us in the queue when I had determined this average, so you can calculate roughly how long we had to wait.
Once you finally get into Morocco – assuming you don’t have to just turn right around and board your return flight home, having spent all your holiday in a queue – you must barter with a bastard of a taxi driver outside the terminal who will heavily overcharge you for your journey, safe in the knowledge that the only options available to you at that moment are: 1) Take his expensive taxi to your accommodation. 2) Walk aimlessly for miles through desert scrub in 35 degree heat, carrying 20 kilograms of luggage. You always choose option 1.
Despite the rip off (I later discovered that we were overcharged by a factor of three) I always quite enjoy the first taxi journey from the airport. The journey is a mix of excitement and apprehension. Between the standard broken English conversations held with the taxi driver “From England? . . . Yes . . . Is cold? . . . Yes,” you get a chance to gradually acquaint yourself with the city you are entering – from the desolate sparse surroundings of the terminal building, through the fragmented suburbs and finally into the cacophony of the centre – rammed with all the shrieks, beeps, sights and smells of life – where you are dumped, confused and disorientated and at the mercy of strangers that you must trust to help you.
And so we were dumped, in the North of Marrakech’s central medina, which is not an easy place to find your way around. In fact, I’d go as far to say that it’s the most challenging place I’ve ever had to try and navigate . . . ever. It’s a high, walled in maze of side streets, paths, narrow alleys and cul-de-sacs, signposted in French, Arabic, or not at all. Maps offer no help whatsoever. The taxi driver misdirected us for no discernable reason (it was before I discovered that I didn’t have enough money to cover the journey) and in the end we had to trust an incredibly eager small boy, who proved to be remarkably helpful guide to our riad, although not a free one. In these early stages of our trip I was beginning to see that in Morocco, like in other poor tourist destinations, everything is a challenge and only money can alleviate the difficulty. Perhaps if we had visited 10 or maybe 20 years ago it wouldn’t have been the case, but Marrakech has been open to travellers long enough for the locals to know that they can exact money for just about anything they want, and many have found a way to make a living from doing literally nothing at all. This issue came to be the single annoyance that bordered on spoiling an otherwise remarkable and fascinating holiday.
In the UK and other developed countries the price for things, be it a service or a product, is determined via supply and demand and lots of other factors that I neither understand or care about. But in Morocco, the price is determined solely by how much the customer is willing to pay. Perhaps this worked in the past, but after years of affluent idiots grossly overpaying for worthless tat, the system has broken down. It’s something I would normally feel positively jubilant about – “. . . what’s that you say, the poor are getting one over on the rich? Call in the DJ—prepare the fireworks display!” – but it has thrown the relationship between vendor and customer out of sync. For instance, when shopping in the souks you are meant to haggle and barter for goods – it’s supposedly fun – but there is no congruence between the quality of an article and the price the merchant will quote you. Some of the shopkeepers jack the initial price up to three or four times the worth of the article, while others only make a small mark up. This means that you either become an expert in Moroccan handicrafts, or you do as I did and offer a woefully low price for everything you set eyes on, which means that in some cases you will still overpay a little, and in others, you will insult the vendor by implying that his beautiful hand crafted goods, forged with care attention—the result of centuries of accumulated knowledge and decades of practice, are nothing but crap, hardly worth a handful of pennies.
More annoying than the challenge of goods acquisition, however, is the remuneration for services offered. Somewhere along the line food stands and stalls have become aware of the notion of tipping, but they have no concept of the purpose. The service in these places is hasty and perfunctory at best and sometimes virtually non-existant, which is, of course, completely understandable. After all, it makes far more financial sense to try and drag in as many customers as possible, than to dutifully tend to each tourist who will visit once and then leave Morocco for good a week later. However, to do this and then request a tip at the end of the meal is to have one’s cake and eat it too. I tried to explain to one such ‘waiter’ that the idea of a tip is a reward for providing a good service throughout the meal. He just stared at me blankly like I was stealing what was rightfully his (Other waiters managed to avoid this discussion by simply keeping my change). At the forefront of this shameless money pilfering though are what’s known as ‘faux guides’. Typically they are jobless teenagers and young men who hang around tourist hotspots waiting for confused or disorientated tourists. They see you stop to gauge your surroundings and then they pounce.
“Hello, where are you going?”
“No, it’s fine thankyou, we don’t need any help.”
“My friend it’s ok, I just want to practice my English.”
“Ok, fine. But I’m not paying you for anything ok.”
“Of course, of course. Where you from?”
“Ah London! I have a brother/sister/cousin delete as applicable in London. They live in Portobello Rd/Notting Hill/Oxford Street/Kensington/Chelsea or some other well known London destination.”
“Do you want to go to a nice restaurant?”
“Where are you going my friend?”
“Look, it’s fine. We know where we’re going.”
“Do you know this wall was built in the 12th century?”
“Do you know insert other possibly erroneous information about the surroundings.”
“Listen, we’re going to go into this café now ok. So goodbye.”
“Ok, I’ll wait for you.”
“No, I don’t want you to.”
“It’s ok, I don’t mind.”
“No, I really don’t want you to wait for us!”
“Ok, ok. Then just a little money for the tour.”
“The tour, while we were walking.”
At this point, depending on my mood, the heat, how much sleep I’d had etc, I would either laugh at them and walk off shaking my head while they swore at me in broken English (The word ‘Jew’ featured once, which has made me paranoid about my nose), or I would fly into a massive shaky fisted rage about their lies and treachery. Neither helped, as there was always another one waiting just around the corner.
I’d like, at this point, to apologise to Morocco and the majority of Moroccan people, for having ranted about its few flaws without highlighting any of its numerous upsides. I’ve made Morocco sound like a place solely inhabited by intolerably annoying money grabbing shitbags, but that’s really not the case. It’s just that it makes for more interesting reading than the story of the man on the train who gave us his email address in case we had any questions or problems when travelling, or the guy that collected us from the train station for free and wrote down instructions on how to visit some Roman ruins for the cheapest price possible, or the Riad owner who drew us a map of the Marrakech medina, or the shop vendor who invited us in for tea, which he wouldn’t let me pay for, or the myriad other random people that helped us, joked with us, or generally treated us with warmth and kindness. Ironically though, it is these people that constitute the majority of the population, balance out the annoyances, and leave a pleasant memory of the holiday in your mind.
Actually, I should have said that it is these people that constitute the majority of a 99% Muslim population, because, up until now, I’ve felt no need to bring the point up. It’s not that you don’t notice it; 5am prayer calls, the absence of alcohol and, of course, the abundant Islamic inspired architecture that you wander in and around every single day tend to remind you once or twice a minute. However, aside from the lack of booze, which is more of a personal gripe than anything, I was aware of the silent discord between Islam and the Western world, although surprisingly unencumbered by it.
Like many developing countries reliant on tourism, Morocco fights to retain it’s culture without discouraging the life blood of it’s economy. And whilst this may be manageable in more liberal nations, merging a rigid and uncompromising ancient religion with the feckless and capricious ideals of Western culture is like mixing oil with water; the two never truly unite. So it is testament to the Moroccan people that they have somehow managed to work the two side by side and, in doing so, erase the stereotypical media images of demented Jihadists, decapitated infidels, cowering obsequious burka clad unknowns and leave you to remember instead, the intricate plaster work and mosaic tiling of the madrasahs, the imposing minarets of the mosques, the reverberating prayer calls, the smell of cinnamon and turmeric, Coca Cola written in Arabic.
Returning to England after another torturous and waterless three hour flight, I felt as if we had returned from a place far further afield. And as we whizzed through the border check and into the straightforward simplicity of England I considered that perhaps the wait at the Moroccan border does need to take that long; a sort of acclimatisation to being in two places, but neither in one nor the other.