Marrakech & Fes – Patchwork Quilt (2006)

Marrakech & Fes – Patchwork Quilt (2006)

The Rock of Gibralter wore a shroud of midday haze. From my perch on the foredeck of the Comarit ferry, I could just about spot phantom white columns shimmering at a distance. As the ship did a complete U-turn and cruised closer to the rock, the shapes came alive – row upon row of white-washed multi-storeyed buildings, their glass windows glinting in the noon sun. The road lay limp like a supine serpent on which were crawling ant-like cars. How I wish we could just go take a peek at this Mediterranean vestige of colonial Britain, a veritable English-speaking oasis in a sea of Spanish Babel! But we needed a British visa, which we did not have. We had to be content with a close-up view of the looming, monstrous rock when, earlier in the day, our bus called at the Gibralter stop, just outside the customs area.

Pleasant drive

My friend and I were on our way to Morocco from Granada in southern Spain. The five-hour bus journey from Granada to Algeciras took us through gorgeous costal Spain – Costa del Sol of which the seaside town of Malaga is the crowning jewel. Row upon row of pretty travel-brochure resorts lined the sea front. A turquoise Mediterranean fringed by swaying palms provided a stunning backdrop. The road wound its way along the sandy beaches. This is one of those drives where the journey itself is the destination.In Algeciras, we left our luggage in the locker at the bus station and set sail for Morocco with a light backpack. The sea was tranquil and through the three-hour sail, we were entertained by schools of playful dolphins performing acrobatics. The coast of northern Africa came into view sooner than we expected. The Rif mountains to the east and the Atlas ranges to the west beckoned through the clouds. Our trip would take us first to Tangiers, the port town and thence to Marrakech, Casablanca and Fes. We had made no prior bookings either in Tangiers or for the train journey to Marrakech, 12 hours away. We had been assured that we could take it easy, since Morocco is every bit tuned to tourists. And it was. Except that there were too many of them, all armed with the same advice from the same Lonely Planet Morocco guide!

Beach party

First we made our way to the beach where almost the entire population of Tangiers seemed to have converged. There were women and children everywhere. Women on the beach were clad from top to toe, despite the reputed liberal Islamic traditions of Morocco. At one end of the beach we spied giant speakers on a makeshift stage belting out an English song that went “everybody, my body, your body… “, adding a touch of incongruity to the whole scene. After a while, we took a petit taxi to Gare de Tanger Ville, the newly built railway station. As we stepped inside the spacious hall, we were greeted by a colony of backpackers sprawled over every inch of available space. Little wonder then we couldn’t get couchette tickets, which we had hoped for. We had to make a split second decision to either buy the seats on the night train to Marrakech or go looking for a hotel in Tangiers to spend the night.

We decided to plod on regardless, and had twelve long and very uncomfortable hours to rue the decision. As luck would have it, we had to share our compartment with six portly Moroccan women in flowing hijabs. All of them were strangers to each other, as we found out later when they got off, but that didn’t deter them from keeping up a constant chatter all night. On any other occasion, I might have found Arabic a mellifluous language, but not in my somnolent state as I rested my head on my garrulous neighbour’s shoulder and nodded off to sleep. The train stopped in ever so many stations all along the way. Every time I opened my eyes, a hennaed palm or a bejewelled finger – the only body parts other than the face that were not swathed in layers of embroidered taffeta – dangled in front of my face. I dreamt of henna designs as I drifted off to a fitful slumber. Finally, the train pulled into Marrakech station and put me out of my misery.

Useful guide

A posse of touts promptly converged on us, quizzing us about our nationality and wanting to take us to the fanciest riad – a traditional Moroccan house with a central courtyard – in Marrakech. On all such occasions, we found the Lonely Planet guide to be extremely useful: just wave it as you would wave garlic before a vampire and lo and behold, the touts invariably vanished into thin air. They know the shoestring tourist variety that haggles over every dirham, armed with rates of yesteryears quoted from a second-hand copy of Lonely Planet!We checked into the ornate Riad Fantasia that looked every bit as promising as its name sounded.

When I tried to open the door of the bathroom, it swung violently from a hinge on top and crushed my hand; worse, there was a generous six-inch gap between the wall of the bathroom and the door, offering a not-so-tantalising glimpse of the goings on inside – enough to make a voyeur blush!

Soul of the city

Soon we were on our way to the souk. The souk is the soul of Marrakech. It is where life happens. There are rows upon rows of merchandise artistically stacked and crying out for your attention and your emaciated wallet. Ubiquitous are the footwear, colourful and embroidered. Then you have the tassels, painted Berber ceramics, charming bric-a-brac, masalas, potions and what have you! Mohammed, the self-proclaimed double of Dr. Zhivago, proudly waved his cellphone in our face – it had Aishwarya Rai for screensaver! Rows of colourful jars brimmed with potions promising everything from eternal youth and beauty to cures for earache and herbs for slimming. With great reluctance we extricated ourselves from the souk and headed for the Hammam – the public bath that had been upgraded to a spa! The attendant spoke flawless English and the rates charged were commensurate! But we deserved a bit of pampering – after all that shoving and pushing in the souk and getting slammed by a bathroom door dangling from the roof! That is Marrakech for you – teaching you to take the rough with the smooth; love it or hate it, but you can’t be indifferent to this quintessential Moroccan town.

On our itinerary is Fes, a good seven hours by train from Casablanca. Fes was an imperial city with a distinct Arab identity. Even today, this confluence of Muslim Spain and Arabic identities is what attracts the discerning traveller to Fes. The Moroccan landscape reminds me so much of Ladakh – with its Berber villages made up of stark mud-huts and bleak all the way. At Fes, we get into a taxi and head for the Medina to look for a hotel. The taxi drops us off at the entrance to the ancient heritage town – one famous for over 8,000 lanes and gullies, where even locals get lost. But we are undeterred, empowered as we are by our faithful companion and guide, Lonely Planet. The first pension recommended by the guide looks a bit seedy so we decide to try the next one, which seems even seedier. The third one seems good, but has no vacancies. As we tick off the list one by one, we find that each new hotel we check out turns out to be pokier and seedier than the earlier one. It is getting rather late – almost close to midnight – and we’re already deep into the maze of alleys. I am not sure we can find our way out of here even if we wanted to.

Authentic experiences

So we decide to take the next one, come what may. Pension Tala is perched on a terrace and boasts of terrace views – of other similar pensions no doubt! We poke our head into the cave-like stairwell and ask if rooms are available and a disembodied voice answers in the affirmative. We pick up our backpacks and go in search of the voice, ascending the narrow winding staircase. The reception is a hole in the wall on one side of the stairwell. But that’s not the problem. To reach the reception, I have to plaster myself like a lizard on the wall and shinny up to the entrance. And having entered, I find that the roof is so low that I – all of 5’4″ – have to kneel. There are three other backpackers already kneeling or squatting before the reception desk which is a low stool on the floor! They look at me with dismay, wondering whether I am a threat to their claim to a room in this cubbyhole! However, after two hours of loitering in the winding alleys of Fes, we’re truly grateful for a bed even if it is in a windowless dungeon. After all, we came to this heritage town only for the authentic Fes experience!

(Published in The Hindu Aug 20, 2006)


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