On my second day in Marrakech I rejoined the group and we did more of the same. During breakfast the rain pattered on the panes covering the riad’s courtyard. We visited a photography museum. The photos of the souks didn’t look hugely different from today, while one of the school we visited the day before showed that the tile work had undergone some serious restoration since 1920. From the terrace at the top we could see houses and TV satellite dishes stretching away across the plain, the Atlas mountains a snowy border in the distance.
Storks nested on top of the walls of Badi Palace where another photography exhibition is temporarily housed. It’s trying to raise the profile of photography in Morocco but I wonder whether putting the English labels first, French second and Arabic last is the best way to do that. We tried to get to the tombs to see more tile work but they closed earlier than we thought. So off to the Clock Café for an early nibble, chats, dinner and some traditional music. I joined a conversation with an English couple and a Dutch woman when I heard her being asked about travelling alone. As she said, you don’t always meet people. Marrakech was the first time in two weeks where I’d really had good conversations.
The music put an end to conversation. Three men and a boy about 12 sat on cushions with an instrument that looked like an oversized cricket bat turned into a guitar, and three pairs of black metal castanet-like instruments, a smaller pair for the boy. The act built with dancing, faster and more complicated playing and others joining in. Slower bits after frenzied bits gave everyone a breather and by the end not only were the waiters dancing, but we were all strongly encouraged to join in too. We obliged. The evening wasn’t just about the music, and learning that the dancing was about freedom from literal and figurative chains of slavery, but the involvement of a community of ages and skill levels. All that was missing was a few more woman and any girls at all.
While the music and dancing was going on, I got to thinking about the spaces in Marrakech. I’d been checking out the design of the riad I was staying in, two storeys of rooms around courtyard covered for winter. Tiles, arches, columns and a water feature. No windows on the ground floor, stained glass windows upstairs. The places we’d stopped for tea, food and now music were similar structures with similar effect. The high walls created spaces closed off from the noise, dust and endless terracotta colour, the courtyards a private piece of sky. The architecture divided social spaces into on-street and off-street with hard high contrast boundaries. This was a huge contrast to the lack of boundaries I could identify in the farmlands to the north.
These off-street places are semi-private – officially private but public to an exclusive set with the ability to pay. The familiarity of set prices and clean decorative spaces with people speaking English makes these off-street spaces feel safer and we relaxed in them. For people to work in these places they need a certain sort of privileged background to present well enough, to know English and so on. Does this mean that when the tourist touts yell at us they are symbolically banging on the door to be let in? Or do they go home to nice new apartments or riad-like homes of their own? If I only spend my money in the exclusive places, do I help entrench the difference between those who are already well off and those who aren’t? Maybe not if there’s appropriate taxes. There was an extra visitor tax per night on my bill, but I don’t know where it goes. I’d like it if each visitor’s night paid for the equivalent of a night of accommodation for people like the women on the street the night before. But my short sojourn here, and at each stop along the way, leaves these questions unanswered.
That night I dreamt of riads turned inside out and covering a hill borrowed from Granada. Blue, green, yellow and white tiles shining under a blue sky. Water features and greenery. The maze of the souks buried away behind them. Something made me scared, an awareness that I would get lost here, but I’m not sure whether it was lost in the souks or in the riads with no way back to the real world.
On the third day the rain and cold set in. I had booked a tour up the Ourika Valley in the Middle Atlas mountains. We did the usual stopping at shops along the way, though some had a twist on the theme. The second had a small garden showing herbs used in Berber medicine, the weather hurried us inside but at least the Spanish girls got to see what ginger plants look like. Inside we learnt about the famous Argan oil I’d only heard about since arriving in Marrakech, basically another sales pitch.
Further up the valley we stopped at a Berber house to be shown around. There was a shop tacked on the side, but this felt more authentic. A water mill with different height settings is used to grind grain. Villagers using it pay with ten percent of their flour. That seemed pretty steep to me. An enterprising household to be sure. Ten people usually lived in the house, but most were still staying away after waist high floods had washed away the gardens and while the river was still running red with mud instead of the clear it usually is. The floods probably explained how raw and carved up the bottom of the valley looked as well as the mess the road was in, with the half closest to the river missing in several spots. A lot of swinging and fixed foot bridges reached from the road side to the village side of the river along the way.
Yet further up the valley the main river indeed became clear and still further we stopped at a village for lunch and a walk up to a waterfall. Three girls from Spain, sorry, Basque country, invited me to join their table for lunch. (If Catalonians want independence and people from Basque country don’t say they’re from Spain when they’re abroad, how long has Spain got left?!) Of course, to get to the waterfall there were stalls to navigate first. A man carving soapstone was presented as a wonder by his peers, not that his work wasn’t good. A fellow with at least a few decent lines of English implored us to buy something as a good deed ‘for the village’. We continued.
With help from our guide, Kamal, we jumped over rocks and running water. Snow sat higher on the hills around us. For a few moments at a time, tiny snowflakes drifted down. I hadn’t expected that the second place I would see snow falling would be in Africa. A tea stop with tables and chairs under woven grass and blue plastic roof looked out over the largest waterfall and the point of the walk. I’d read a review the day before which said the waterfalls were only worth seeing if you’d never seen a waterfall before. I don’t think they’d seen this waterfall.
Post-tea and smoke break we had a choice to go back the way we came or to clamber over a challenging bit to go back a different way. All but one of us voted with our feet to clamber. I’d hesitated but went for it, the fellow who’d decided to stay behind ended up having to come with the rest of us. The guides perched themselves at strategic points and showed fantastic strength and balance in manhandling us up one by one. As we walked, others in the tour group got from Kamal that he takes tours high up into the mountain during summer and that this is how he learnt all the foreign languages he knows except a smattering of school French. Multi-talented. The rewarding views of the mountains was worth the clambering. The sun came out, setting snow on a mountain here and there aglow. A rainbow fell in the valley. As if it was needed, bare walnut trees added an extra element of drama.
Everyone else had a nap in the tour bus back to Marrakech. They must have missed their siestas. I asked Mohammed about the surrounds and learnt that they grow olives, oranges, and fields of vegetables irrigated from the mountains and a dam. And yes, most of it and the best of it goes to Europe. He did say that people were paid ok for their work. Back at the riad I had an hour or so to wait before leaving for my train. The owner brought out some sweets, and the housekeeper translated. The owner would rather have been in Madrid with her husband and children, who I got to see photos of and video of her son ding his skateboard tricks. The housekeeper gave me a lesson on the Koran. He told me that Jesus is named more times in the Koran than Mohammed, and Moses more than Jesus. Also that it supports the immaculate conception, but not that God was the biological father. Oh, and that Mohammed said the heavens and earth were once one, which was proof of knowledge from God because science has only known about the big bang relatively recently. I’m not sure of that, but it’s an interesting interpretation.
Koranic lesson over, I haggled my way into a taxi from the main road to the train station. It was a lovely station and I wanted to get some photos but decided I’d better get my tickets first. The train now goes 15 minutes earlier than it used to. I made it, but there were to be no photos. Instead I got to chat with an American woman who’d taken early retirement and moved to Morocco to be able to afford it. She hadn’t been on a train for as long as I’ve been alive! She was testing out the process to renew her visa by going in and out of the Spanish city east of Tangier and the train ride was all part of the experience. She explained that everyone had satellite TV because it’s free. The two other women in the cabin didn’t speak English, but we all shared smiles and mandarin. Door closed, lights out, and the rhythm of a train again. Not enough to put me to sleep. It had been such a huge few days. From being unsure about the whole thing to begin with, to being so happy with the whole experience. Friendly people, travellers and locals, good conversations, amazing things to see (falling snow!) and so much to think about. I had no idea that the next day would bring it round full circle.