thoughts of a deviant
  entry created: Thursday 22 November 2007, 7:25am (NZ time)
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Location:  Märjamaa, Estonia
Local time:  Wednesday, 8:25pm

"Morocco is sick". Strong words from an old Moroccan man, that will stay with me for some time. It was said in response to a small cafe trying to rip off myself and a friend over a cup of coffee. It was only the equivalent of 50c, but still a 100% inflation over the original price.

But not everybody is like that. Indeed I met many locals who were completely sick of the faux guides, who wander the markets hassling tourists with offers for shopping, restaurants, hashish, you name it. They lament that is it these false guides who are giving Morocco its bad reputation. And they're probably right. "Welcome my friend - where you from?" is a common line uttered by such guides, to white tourists in Morocco. (Not surprisingly, it's very similar to what I was constantly hearing in Egypt and the middle East). It does tend to get extremely exasperating the tenth time you hear it within the space of 10 mins.

After a rediculously long and sleepless 20-hr bus journey from Barcelona through Spain and across the Gibraltar Strait on the ferry, I arived in Tangier expecting the worst. From what I'd read and heard, you should "get off the ferry and run to your hotel!" It wasn't quite that bad, but I was offered hash at least five times before I'd made it to my hotel room (which was run-down and prison-like by Western standards, but what can one expect for 4.50 euros per night).

Photos alone cannot capture the mood or feeling of strolling through the medinas (a tightly-packed maze of shop-lined alleyways) of Morocco. And no more so than the medina of Fes El Bali (old Fes) - Morocco's oldest Imperial city, and one of the largest living medieval cities in the world. One minute you're being offered silks, soups or shoes, the wonderful smells of exotic herbs and spices filling your nose; and the next minute you're assaulted with the gagging stench of human excrement, chickens having their throats cut before your eyes; whilst the shop right next-door is selling a mouth-watering selection of the sweetest local candies. And then, from behind you... "welcome my friend - where you from?"

After having enjoyed the relatively safe, comfortable embrace of Europe for so long now, I confess to having been a little nervous about my foray back into third-world Africa. But my fears were unfounded. Once you know what to expect and can tackle it head-on, it ain't so bad. Thankfully my previous experiences in the Middle East left me with a fairly resilient attitude towards this kind of travelling.

Easyjet and Ryanair now fly to Morocco. This means that white middle-class Germans or Swedes (for instance) can nip over to third-world Africa for the weekend, for less than the price of dinner in a nice restaurant. I can imagine that landing amongst all this madness could be quite a shock to Mr and Mrs Schneider from Dusseldorf.

The food in Morocco is great. I was a huge fan of Arabic food before (I went nuts in Egypt), and once again found myself immersed in a similar food culture, with similar tastes. Being white, I'm still given a knife and fork a lot of the time when I eat, but I've always preferred to go about it the traditional way - getting stuck in with your hands. And good food can be so cheap. Tajine, 3 euros; soup and bread (harera, a favourite of mine), 30-50c; coffee, 50c; huge thick pancakes covered in honey (perfect for breakfast with a coffee), 50c. I was living like a king, indulging in everything I saw, and loving it.

During my time in Syria I often wished I could speak French, as I could have conversed with many of the locals (from Tunisia and other French-speaking regions). Now in Morocco some two years later, since 95% of the locals I met could speak French (and sometimes several other languages), I could get around with relative ease, find cheaper hotel rooms, understand what food I was ordering etc.

(In Casablanca this included a bowl of steamed snails - extracted from their shells with a toothpick - and an accompanying bowl of spicy snail soup, from a man with a cart in the street. Quite delicious actually, and only 50c, compared to the 20 euros or so that it could be in France!)

One unfortunate aspect of Morocco's poverty (asides from the obvious) is that the countryside is strewn with rubbish. Some fields are often carpeted with drifting plastic bags, whilst others have simply become dumping grounds, complete with a resident population of people sifting through the trash. It's a sad sight, and seen all-too-often really, from the plush comfort of my passing train.

After an 8-hour train journey south from Fes to Marrakech (on my birthday!), I stayed at a cool hotel right in the action, with a rooftop terrace (perfect for sunbathing) overlooking the Djeema El-Fna square. And all for 6 euros a night, including a slap-up breakfast.

Marrakech - what a city this is! The Djemaa el Fna is the tourist heart of Marrakech, especially at night, when all myriad of street performers, snake charmers, men with monkeys, storytellers, junk sellers, African musicians, hustlers... come out to woo the tourists and locals alike. It's a Moroccan fairground.

Marrakech has a vibe to it. An exciting, exasperating, friendly, hectic one. But it's a good vibe. I think I like Morocco. The food, the people (mostly!), the contradictions and juxtapositions, and the extreme contrast to my own culture. And the warm sun feels good on my skin...

Just sitting around in Casablanca. Notice the bruise on his forehead - the result of head-to-carpet prayer five times a day by devout Muslims.

The typical form of local transport.

A group of women enjoying the view, in the busy Northern port city of Tangier.

Meat is sold anywhere and everywhere in Morocco... no pretenses, no plastic packaging, no colourful advertising slogans. Just meat. And flies.

The Hassan II mosque of Casablanca (finished in 1993) is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike
to take a stroll through the huge, elaborately paved grounds.

The Morocco one-hander, outside the mosque - the second-largest
in the world (after the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca), with the world's largest
minaret, at 210m/690ft tall. There's room for 25,000 worshippers inside,
and a further 80,000 outside in the courtyard.

As usual, my handstand antics attracted a fair bit of curious attention...

...but mostly people just went about their business.

The state of housing around the mosque.

More chickens, in the old city of Fes. These ones were counted and weighed while living, then had their throats slit before being handed over
to their new owner, still bleeding. Right beside these two shops was a candy store.

A brand new Harley, sitting rather incongruously inside Casablanca's medina.

A wide, tree-lined avenue in Rabat - Morocco's capital (pop 1.7 million).

A cemetery in Rabat, stretching out towards the sea. It was a very peaceful place, and I was lucky enough to be the only tourist there.

A women finishes her prayers to a loved one.

Coke is everywhere!

An alley inside the medina of Fes - the third largest city in Morocco (pop 1 million). The medina of Fes el Bali is believed to be the largest
contiguous car-free urban area in the world, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A bustling clothing and carpet market I accidentally stumbled across, inside the medina.

One dude who just couldn't be bothered with it all.

The Blue Gate entrance to the medina, which I could see from my hotel room (costing 5 euros per night).

Looking out over the ancient city.

Djemaa el Fna, a square and market place in Marrakesh's medina quarter (old city).

The square starts to warm up at night as the crowds gather to eat, listen to story-tellers, buy all kinds of junk etc.

Some drummers in the square, competing for the tourists' attention and money.

Morocco's ubiquitous mint tea, on sale everywhere, and so syrupy sweet that I eventually gave up drinking it for fear of losing my teeth.

Spices on sale.

You can't hold back change!

A traditionally-dressed tea/water salesman.

Trying out a local hand-made drum in Marrakech's medina.

I attracted a bit of attention with the noise, so a friend Paul decided it was worth trying to collect some money for me.

One of my favourite snacks in Morocco was a thick fresh pancake covered in honey, for about 30c. Yum yum!

Just sitting around, shooting the breeze. One thing I noticed about Morocco was the number of elderly men and women
out in the streets, socialising, gossiping, watching... in Western countries I don't see nearly as many pensioners out
and about. I guess they're at home watching their shows.

These carts are literally everywhere in Morocco, pulled by both men and donkeys alike.

The view from my room in Essaouira - a beach-side town three hours from Marrakech, and home to the famous Gnaoua Music Festival.

Hand-made instruments in Essaouira.

They always fascinated me, and I ended up trying out a lot of different hand-drums. Unfortunately I didn't have any room for a purchase.

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