I woke early, excited to see what Marrakesh was all about. Partly that, and partly due to the not so comfy bed in my room. Had a shower of sorts although, is it still classed as a shower if you have to hold the shower head while washing? I moved into the room and found a place for everything so that it felt a little like home.
I love to explore new places. I had read a little on Marrakesh and watched some videos but I find just wandering around is the best way. I entered the big square which looked so different from the night before. It was just waking up with people out sweeping the streets and setting up stalls for the day. I found a small bar in a back street serving breakfast. Not a great deal of choice but found something for me. Fresh orange juice, mint tea, bread roll and omelette. I’ve had better but it was pleasant enough and did the job. All for about £2. I carried on walking and found my self in the ‘Souks’, a large area of small winding streets full of stalls and shops on either side. Second piece of learning about Moroccan people; don’t look if you don’t want to buy. As soon as you show the slightest bit of interest in anything on their stall they are on you and it is very hard to get away without buying anything. “Belt for your big trouser?”, “Come and see my shop”, “good price for you”, “hashish, you want some hash”, “sim card?” are just some of the common approaches I heard over and over. As is common in the souks, I found myself a little lost. Not worried I kept just walking and exploring. Many people try to offer you directions but this often leads to them insisting on payment for their services. I continued to look confident and unlost. As you may have guessed, they got me in the end. My downfall was listening to a guy who was warning me to keep tucked into the right so that the moterbikes and horse and carts can get passed. Yes, I did say the streets were small and no, they are not really big enough for horse and carts. Anyway, this guy just tapped me on the shoulder and pulled me into the side of the road to keep me safe. “where are you from”, he says. I answer and he has me. This man shouts to another guy who is walking along the street, “you go to the tanneries?” The young guy nods and I am guided in his direction. I chat to the lad who speaks pretty good English. His dad works at the tanneries and he is going to visit him. He usually goes to school but not on Sunday he says. Before I know it, I am passed onto a ropey looking man stood in a door way. He hands me a bunch of mint and says, “take this for your nose and follow me”. A little confused I follow him into the tanneries. He explains that there are 2 main tanneries; one run for sheep and the other for camel and cow if I understood him correctly.
As I am writing this I am thinking to myself, how did you end up there and why didn’t you say no and walk away? Its a hard one to answer and the answer has a few different aspects to it. Firstly, I wanted to see the tanneries although I hadn’t necessarily planned to do it then. The fact that the opportunity had just emerged was ok and so I was happy to go with it. Secondly, I was warned about the tanneries as that they were well known as an opportunity for the locals to scam tourists out of a lot of money. It certainly isn’t like the way we book onto a tour in London for example; with tour guides, booking offices and prices all up front. Despite being warned I still wanted to see them and for me this makes it part of the adventure. I think that when you visit a place so culturally different to the place you live, you need to go with a different mind set to the one you may have while at home. I want my experience to be challenging and a little risky. This is how you get to see the heart of a place and unfortunately how you sometimes get taken advantage of. I paid too much I later found out but we we’re not talking any crazy, less than £10. Worth the money to me? Yes. Did he need the money more than me? Yes. Morally ok? Questionable.
Anyway, back to the tanneries. The tanneries are where the Moroccans process and produce leather from Sheep, Camels and Cows. Although there are now factories that complete the same 3 week process in 3 days, they are still at the heart of life in Marrakesh. Imagine a large court yard surrounded by masses of other buildings in the middle of the city. Within the courtyard there are lots and lots of concrete tanks, each about 2m square. There are men dipping the animal skins in a variety of dips that each prepare the leather for use in a different way. The process was lost in translation a bit but I remember there being 5 dips, one being salty water and one being pigeon poo. The men work inside the tanks washing the leather while others have set up a work station on the floor where they scrap the remaining flesh from the hide. It was interesting but I was struck by 2 things; Firstly, these guys earn their money. I am always happy to get my hands dirty and get shitty jobs done but not this. It was awful. Secondly, the smell! The guy took me to both tanneries and a shop selling leather goods!!!!! Like you didn’t know that was coming! I walked in and was welcomed by the man who owned the shop. Ive been in this situation in Asia and it is difficult to get out without buying anything. As luck would have it though, I did need a new wallet. He tried hard to sell me a new leather jacket and a leather football (he clearly hadn’t worked out my tastes). I found a wallet that I liked and was about to enter my first bout of haggling. I did alright. I got it from 400 Dirhams to 250. I walked out feeling a little pleased with myself but was then confronted by the man who showed me around the tanneries. “Now you pay me for the tour”, he said. “Shit”, I had forgotten that he would want paying. “How much”, I ask. “200 Dirhams”. I looked in my wallet to find that I only had £120 Dirhams left so I offered that. He was not happy and told me so. We were on a quiet back street and there is the tour guide and his mate getting pretty aggressive because I don’t have enough money. I decide that this was going nowhere fast so said, “this is all I have”, handed it to him and started to walk away. I walked, just waiting for him to follow me and continue the abuse but he didn’t. He just shouted something and walked off. I don’t enjoy confrontation but it has to happen sometimes. Afterwards though I do need to take a second to gather my thoughts. There is nowhere to do this in Marrakesh. I was straight into more people trying to sell me things. Later on, I realised that I paid about £23 for a wallet and about £10 for the tour. Not such a bargain but there you go.
I was pretty lost by this point so just walked for an hour or so. I didn’t have a penny with me now so was keen not to look too hard at anything. I really enjoyed this hour or two. I just soaked it up in the souks. I found a great café on the square and sat drinking coffee, reading and watching the world go by. It was great. I wanted to do some writing on this trip so returned to the hotel to put pen to paper. While I was typing away I hear a couple come into reception (my room is right next to it and I hear everything). They wanted a room because their flight had been cancelled because of Corona. This is where my trip took a different path!
This news caught my attention so I looked on the hotel internet and sure enough the Department for Foreign Affairs had changed their statement which now said that Morocco was closing their boarders and that as of tonight (Sunday) at midnight flights wouldn’t be allowed out of Morocco to over 30 countries. This didn’t include the UK but it would be closing its boarders to the UK on Monday at midnight. It sounded like I only had about 30 hours to leave the country before I was stuck here. I looked at some other news sights and my flight information and these seemed to support the facts. I messaged my family just to inform them really. I wasn’t particularly worried at this point but thought it needed looking in to more. Both my family and I got busy trying to speak to the airline and find out my options. It looked as though I should go to the airport and try to get on a flight as soon as possible. I quickly packed up my things and handed my key into one of the staff at the hotel. I tried to explain that I had to go to the airport and that I might or might not be back. I’m not sure he fully understood. I caught a taxi in the main square and paid 100 Dirhams (£8.50) for it which I had been told was reasonable.
On arrival at the airport there were a lot of people running and shouting and on their phones frantically trying to do something, I’m not sure some of them knew what. I found the customer services desk for my airline and joined the considerable que. I got chatting to people from all around Europe who were also in the que.. There were, and still are so many versions of the truth regarding this crisis. I will only bore you with the ones necessary to this post. As I waited I was struck by how the majority of people deal with a crisis. I don’t know how but I have always been very cool in a crisis. One reason for this is that I know that my brain wont operate in the way I need it to if I become emotional about the situation. If I become worried or scared the part of my brain making my choices will be the wrong one. I will make the best choice if I am calm and collected. The second reason is that I genuinely don’t feel panicked. I felt a little unsure and vulnerable and I was obviously concerned about not getting home but nothing to worry about, yet at least. Most of the people in the airport were running around, looking up at the big screens every few seconds and frantically pushing to the front of the ques as though their needs were greater than anyone elses. Some were angry, they weren’t rushing about but they were certainly voicing their disgust of the situation to anyone who would listen. Some just looked upset and beaten. I got my turn at the desk as was told that my flight would still fly on Thursday as planned. This didn’t support what I had seen elsewhere. I wasnt sure what to do so I found a quiet spot and sat on the floor. There was chaos everywhere. Another guy who was alone came and sat next to me. We both said nothing. We both seemed to be in the same situation and were both pondering what to do. As we watched everybody running around, trying to be the first to solve the problem, both he and I realised that we were the only ones just sitting down, working it out. I introduced myself and we talked for 15mins or so. A little about he current situation but mostly about each others lives. He was from Argentina and was living in France with his girlfriend. I feel ashamed to say that I cant remember his name. Even though we didn’t talk about it much, we both realised that there was no point in waiting here so we left. As I left the airport there was a mass of taxis that had caught on to the unusual peak in demand and were now trying to charge 4 times as much for a trip to the city. I worked hard to improve on the last effort and got it down to just above what I paid to get here.
I arrived back at the hotel and had to explain to the owner what had happened and he gave my key back. I unpacked my stuff again and talked through options with my family. There was lots going on (thanks goodness for group chats) and flights to the UK or indeed, anywhere in Europe seemed to be selling out quickly. I was struggling to get onto the airline’s website to try and book something but my family stepped up and tried to book something. By the end of the evening I was booked onto a flight to London on Monday morning via Paris. These flights had gone from around £60 to £600! My family said that even this was cheap. It was all going a little bit crazy. I tried to get some sleep but again struggled. What a 24 hours it had been.
On the journey over I wrote the first blog of my trip about the art of being alone. My experiences since then have made me very thankful that although physically alone, I have not felt alone at all. The support that friend, family and even customers have given me has been amazing. It doesn’t always change anything physically but just to know that people are thinking about you and doing what they can to help makes all the difference.
I didn’t make it home on my first attempted so I was here for another day at least. That means there is a ‘day 3’ blog to come. Stay tuned.