Day Two – Hot Souk!
Met up with the rest of the group at breakfast (12 people, one couple, 50:50 male/female ratio, age range from 29 to 60, no obvious nutters, and including one woman, Ginny, who lives in the next village along from Wantage – how’s that for a coincidence!) and set off on a walking tour of Marrakech.
The name means ‘pass quickly’ and dates from a fairly unsavoury past, though any bandit impulses have long since been subsumed by the city-wide hobby of fleecing tourists. Of course, that’s largely what we’re there for, and when you’re only losing a quid a time, you can rationalise it all happily that at least you’re contributing to the local (black) economy. The urchins who insisted they’d just performed incredible feats of acrobatic dexterity and it was your fault if your back was turned and you should still pay them 10 dirhams anyway were good. As was the woman who grabbed my arm in a WWF-approved wrestling hold and had painted a scorpion on it in henna and demanded 20 dirham (about £1.30) for the privilege all in the space of about 10 seconds.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Andy,” I replied.
“Okay, I write it on your arm in Arabic,” she said and added a few squiggles to the scorpion. Never managed to allay myself fully of the suspicion that it said ‘Guys, we’ve got a live one here’.
The souk is amazing, though: a labyrinthine warren of dense, interlocking alleyways split into informal districts. Turn one corner and it’s all scrap metal and metalwork shops and workshops, with young men squatting in dingy arches and hammering together lamps and lanterns. Turn another and it’s all animal skins, another and it’s olives, another and it’s towering, tottering piles of richly coloured spices. Imagine Hampton Court Maze crossed with Greenwich Market, populate it with mules and people weaving in and out of the narrow passages on motorbikes, and you’re halfway there.
It’s in the evening though that the main square gets going. This really is the heart of Marrakech, a vast plaza full of snake charmers, musicians, acrobats, storytellers, hucksters, dried fruit sellers, beggars, buskers, jugglers and food stalls, with smoke from their cook fires curling up into the night air under the tungsten glare of the lights. It’s an overwhelming place. And given some of the isolated areas we were trekking to over the next couple of weeks, it sometimes felt like we were trying to cram all our human contact into the space of a couple of hours.