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Area 6 : News & Views


The longest journey starts with a single step .....................................................ancient Chinese proverb

Kathryn Watts reporting worldwide.

Experiences of Marrakesh ...

We arrived in Marrakesh to find a haven of palm trees, a heat often longed for at home, and beautiful blue skies. The intricacy of the architecture was striking. All this and we had only just stepped into the airport.

The journey to the hotel lived up to my expectations. Already there was a certain feel about the place, arousing my curiosity. In fact, after only a three hour flight, the differences of culture and lifestyle were striking, poverty lingering in the air. Yet the people were all so welcoming, happy and unaffected. It seems to me that the need for money and material things rules our lives too much, blinding us to things of greater importance, things that people here in Marrakesh recognise and do not take for granted.

The sedate yet buzzing pace of life when we arrived in the main square of Marrakesh was amazingly eye-opening, the Djemma el-Fna perhaps being the focal point of Marrakesh itself.

Suddenly, from turning the corner past the beautiful Koutaubia mosque constructed in the late 12th century, an array of activity and ambience delightfully greeted us.

A snake was immediately placed across my shoulders, monkeys pushed our way all of course for a price, indeed every move you made in the country seemed to involve a dirham or two! Acrobats, witch doctors, the sound of musical instruments and of life itself added to the overall atmospheric pleasure.

Sitting in a café with a panoramic view over the square, such simple yet memorable moments.

The traditional jeleba costumes, the colours of the market places and the beginning of the long and winding souqs. One almost felt like an intrepid explorer literally wading one's way through miles of stalls of beautifully coloured textiles, handpainted bowls and plates, wooden articles and jewellery trying desperately to fight the imploring calls of the sellers. But to experience it was a must. We had such fun, haggling being an expected part of the buying ritual.

We were so lucky to experience the atmosphere in the month of Ramadan. The people would be called to pray, an entrancing sound which became so welcoming to me. From the time of the call to prayer, the people would have an hour to do so. They would gather at the mosques, or place their mats on the floor, and kneel over facing Mecca. The image was of a spiritual serenity. Indeed the sounds that surrounded me and the distinctive smell of the food, spices, meat and even the sharp odours of the tanneries are the strongest memories I have. As I think back to a particular moment I can almost re-experience it by making an association with the strong sounds and smells.

We explored this intriguing city with eagerness, much of what we visited being owned by the king (who personally owns fifty per cent of this country's economy). The Palais de le Bahia was built towards the end of the 19th century, over a period of fourteen years. It was a delight to roam the gardens and the numerous secluded courtyards enshrouded with orange trees and other delightful shrubbery. The architecture was a marvel to see, the delicate and intricate designs covering huge ceilings, and walls, definitely in need of a picture whichever way I chose to look.

To step out into the crowded and sun-smitten streets again was indeed a contrast to the secluded, cool and slow-paced atmosphere. Eager to get to see new things, we set off once again, buying some freshly squeezed orange juice from one of the many sellers in the square.

After getting quite lost among the souqs we finally arrived at the Museum of Moroccan Arts housing jewellery from the High Atlas, carpets, pottery and traditional garments, household goods, and old daggers and muskets.

Up the stairs to the second floor, we were greeted by a magnificently decorated room with beautifully carved cedar ceilings, a sight rarely if ever seen in our modern homes. One had to respect the amount of work that went into such a design.

So many places of interest surrounded us. Saadian tombs, tanneries and of course the several beautiful lush gardens that were laid around the city.

We spent a relaxing afternoon walking among the olive and orange trees and found a spot for lunch next to a huge expanse of water filled with coy carp, presumably owned by the king. It was fascinating watching Moroccan youngsters feed these huge and ferocious looking creatures, fighting for the food they were being offered. I'm just glad that I didn't decide to take a cooling dip otherwise I too could have been fish food!

In the evening there were few bars other than in the hotels, alcohol not being permitted. But we hardly noticed its absence, the atmosphere in the square at night was just so exhilarating. The food that was on offer so cheap yet delicious. Snails, cous cous, kebabs, to name just a few of their traditional specialities, not forgetting the many patisseries with selections of Moroccan cakes. We would sit in the street opposite, literally watching the world go by for hours - sipping mint tea, mesmerised by this way of life.

We decided to hire a car to go further afield and to experience another part of Marrakesh. Setting off in the mayhem of traffic was at first nerve-racking. Any direction would do around a roundabout to get to your destination. In fact it was literally a free-for-all, indicators being completely non-existent. Horns would constantly be heard, not in aggression but just as a requirement in driving. In fact peoples behaviours and attitudes were just so laid back, which showed in all aspects of their lives. As a Moroccan proverb says:

"Slowness comes from God and haste from the Devil."

All one had to do was drive and count on people just dodging and swerving you. It actually seemed among the chaos safer than driving at home. No true anger was ever expressed, their actions and speech often animated but rarely with a note of seriousness, just like the friendly air of competition that was expressed by the sellers in the souqs and the food sellers in the evenings.

We headed north east from Marrakesh, heading towards the cascades d'Ouzoud, the best waterfall in Morocco. On the way we stopped at various villages, but much of the land was barren. The views were such a contrast - flat or hilly landscapes one moment, the next you would see hills and mountains looming invitingly before you. We passed children and elderly people on donkeys carrying packs on their sides, stone houses in the desolate reaches of the landscape, and children herding together the cattle.

We somehow - after declining the offer - had with us a student guide. The waterfall was a beautiful sight, a rainbow reflecting from it. We started at the top and worked our way down, stopping often to appreciate the splendour of it from many different angles and viewpoints. We had amazing views over the distant landscape to clusters of stone houses surpassed by mountains and streams.

After having a new pipe put in the car as a result of puncturing it going over the rocks, we headed on - the car was certainly no four wheel drive! We saw a beautiful sunset of so many colours before our eyes over the deserty landscape on our drive home and met some interesting people to whom we gave a lift, much to their delight it appeared, perhaps because it was so unexpected.

The following day we set out towards the desert, mountainous climbs in the car with magnificent views of the landscape for miles around.
We passed a sign for Telouet 21km east off the highway, and decided to go right off the beaten track, not that we weren't already! The narrow windy road led us to a lively little place dominated by a Kasbah that once served as a palatial residence and headquarters of the powerful Glaoui tribe. We sat in the sun, eating lunch, chatting with all the local people. It was a lovely way to while away the afternoon and well worth the extra effort. We set off again, almost running into determined sellers of precious stones on the treacherous bends, so unwilling to move. We stopped several times to admire the beauty around us, but no sooner than we had done this someone would appear almost from nowhere trying to sell us their stones, or at least wanting some money!

We passed Ait Benhaddou a village with fame attached to it - it was here that scenes from Lawrence of Arabia and Jesus of Nazareth were filmed. We reached Quarzazate, another popular location for film making, and a fairly modern town, before heading off on another adventure towards Zagora, the beautiful Draa Valley, deserts and of course camel rides!

The fishing village of Essaouira had a serene feel. This coastal town had miles of beach for a relaxing atmosphere away from the hustle and bustle of the main city of Marrakesh. The harbour gave a traditional feel to the place with seafood cooked on spits, the building of wooden boats and the overall lively activity of the place so prevalent in this country.

The last day we took our lives in our hands back in the main city and hired a moped, steaming around the city - particularly pretty by night in the French Quarter. At six o'clock suddenly the roads would become empty with the end of the fast. People would prepare to eat and to celebrate together for yet another night of festivity.

............................... Kathryn Watts

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