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Malaga to Meknes

After a catastrophic failure that changed our plans from a simple flight to a cross-continental adventure, we finally left the British Isles for the sunny climbs of Malaga, southern Spain. An evening flight meant we arrived late, but a hostel address and a taxi ride got us a bed for the night. The next day, we navigated to Malaga bus station, enjoying Spanish idiosyncrasies including a fat man on the bus who looked like Rafa Benitez’s dishevelled older brother. The bus journey offered the first glimpse of the sea- across which was our exciting destination- Africa! The ferry ride allowed time to prepare for this continental change by listening to cliched African music and posing dramatically at the front of the boat, pointing in the direction of the new continent. When we arrived in Tangiers, we were swept up in its insane pace. As with other cities in Morocco, a steep learning curve is needed where tourists seem the lifeblood of many a bored teenage youth. Long delays ensued, but by 9pm we were on a 5 hour train to Meknes, just north-west of Fes. We chatted with Meriyam, a young Moroccan woman living in Tangiers, on the train, before changing at Sidi Kacem and finally laying down our heads after a long and exhausting day at the art deco Hotel Majestic.

Meknes and Fes

The next day, we finally made it to Fes. In the morning, we explored Meknes medina. It was a hugely confusing place, as the Fes. Both are bustling plcaes, full of life. Yet the persistent hounding from touts, faux guides, and disaffected yoofs gets on your nerves. Stores selling metalwork and leatherware, coloured cloths and dyes are interesting but hard to admire when you’re being pushed into buying them. Despite all this, indeed maybe because of this, Fes was a fascinating experience. A rooftop meal  at Cafe Clock provided a moment of reflection against a backdrop of the sun setting over Fes. The best part however was sitting at a cafe near the entrance gate Bar Bou Jeloud for a couple of hours, sipping mint tea and smoking cigarettes, watching passers by- a pastime all our fellow Moroccan customers were also engaged in.

Another highlight of Fes was the tanneries- huge pits of various colours, stinking, with men moving from one to the next, dying cloth in a way unchanged for centuries. To view this we had to climb up a building surrounding the pits. In fact, you can never really ‘escape’ Fes, or get a sense of its whole. Even the highest rooftops don’t reach much above the top level of other buildlings. The labyrinthine maze of alleys weaves between buildings seemingly locked into each other like a giant jigsaw piece. I felt slight parallels with the chaos of Hanoi, combined with the hassle of Havana. The smells of baking bread and mint, extolled by the Lonely Planet, in truth mix with those of meat left out in the sun too long, and gasoline. People are almost matched in number by cats, while children vied to guide us short distances for a dirham. One morning Sam, my travelling compadre, nipped out to get some breakfast. On coming back he discovered the short alleyway to our Riad had been turned into a carpet shop!

Merzouga

After the madness of Fes we faced an overnight bus ride southeast to the edge of the desert at Erg Chebbi, and the outpost town of Merzouga. Arriving tired and snatching a few hours sleep at the Kasbah, we then had a quick look around town. Merzouga is a deserted place, where catching a taxi can mean a wait of an hour until a car eventually turns up. Its also a place totally reliant on tourism. To me it seemed a depressing, dispiriting place to live. The reason for our visit was for a night in the desert. We set off with our berber guide, a young lad of 22. He told me he lived beyond the desert- a world I can hardly imagine. Dressed in turbans, my own black in a failed hope to look like Omar Sharif from Lawrence of Arabia, we rode by camel about two hours into the desert and stayed in a four hut berber camp. As the sun went down over the desert there was a serene calm- no one to be seen in any direction, sand everywhere. Then the stars appeared, and I fell asleep under their light. It was a unique and brilliant experience. While it was the smallest of mini-tourist experiences of desert life, it still gave a slight inside into the solitude and peace of the desert at night, as well as the recognition of the insane power of the sun.

Part Two to follow…see photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevesayskanpai/sets/72157608322850711/

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