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To Ouarzazate

Our day following the desert experience was one of the hardest of the trip, but also offered some of the most satisfying interaction with Moroccans, and a beautiful stretch of southern Moroccan countryside, from the vast expanses of barren lands near Erfoud, to the dry landscape around Boumalne du Dades, to the sun setting over the stark beauty of the plains stretching into Ouarzazate. We left Merzouga in good time, intending to get a couple of shared taxis to Erfoud, from where we’d get a bus to Ouarzazate. We got the first taxi to Rissani, and then a second to Erfoud, where we were told that the bus had broken down, and wouldn’t be coming today. We moved from the bus station ticket office to a nearby restaurant terrace, a whole crowd of characters following us, partaking in what seemed like the day’s entertainment. There was a guy trying to convince us we should shell out large sums to do the journey is his private taxi, a couple of restaurant owners, and two brothers who supporters Real Madrid and Barcelona, as well as various others. As taxi man pressured us, I replied we’d wait and see what happened. “Wait and see”, “no rush”. This met with general approval, one guy declaring “this is Africa!” and my backup explanation, enshallah, “if God wills it”, drawing nods of general approval toward a more laissez faire attitude. As luck would have it, a German tourist appeared, prompting me to leap up and ask her “where are you going”, which in turn apparently prompted chuckles from the Moroccans due to my inquisitive attitude. In time a couple of other Moroccans joined us in a cramped shared taxi along the route to Tinehir. It was a satisfying experience, not only because we were on our way to Ouarzazate, but also because I felt I’d handled the situation well at the bus station, making friends of the Moroccans there through being relaxed, seeing the humour in the situation and not just ignoring them. This was in contrast to the German we co-opted, who had a tough time with their curiosity and questions.

From Tinehir, we followed the two Moroccans we’d shared the taxi with to leap on a bus just leaving- destination Ouarzazate. Joy at success was tempered by dehydration, and there was relief when we arrived that evening and could down soft drinks to quench our thirst. We were tired and dehydrated, but I’d enjoyed the landscape immensely, and taken real satisfaction with our progress that day, and joy in the little things. Tahir Shah writes in In Arabian Nights that “in Africa the bleakest outlook can be changed miraculously in a moment. It is a question of maintaining faith, faith in the bizarre.” Maintaining faith had certainly got us to Ouarzazate.

Marrakech

And so, finally, the next day we made it to Marrakech. It was here that Sam was to leave for home the day after, while I’d spend a few more days in Morocco by the coast. Marrakech was insane- a busy, bustling place made slightly easier to navigate by the large square, Djemaa el Fna, in the centre. This was its stand-out epicentre- a place that came alive in the evening with acrobats, storytellers and snake charmers. Restaurant stands set up early evening, distinguished by their numbers and such snatches of British knowledge as “Asda price” and “Jamie Oliver” shouted in our direction once it had been settled that we were Brits. The souqs surrounding the square were full of real treasures, on a greater scale than in Fes- indeed the whole place had a kind of ‘back-in-time’ medieval feel to it, even though five minutes outside of the Medina in the Ville Nouvelle you could enter KFC or Zara. If Fes had been the labyrinthine ‘face’ of the old Morocco, then Marrakech had its soul, with huge crowds of Moroccans gathering round the performers and storytellers in the evenings. I felt like I ‘got’ a little bit of it- the amazing energy of nightly performances. The souqs too had their magic. Yet again it was hard as a tourist with the hassle that obviously put so many other travellers off the country. Still, I’m glad we came here last. As Shah says in his book, “I believe that Marrakech ought to be earned as a destination. The journey is the preparation for the experience. Reaching it too fast derides it, makes it a little less easy to understand.” All our travel had maybe allowed me to understand it, just a little.

Essaouira

My last day in Marrakech was disturbed by food poisoning, so it was with a tired mind and delicate stomach that I set off for the coastal town of Essaouira, to chill for a couple of days. This was a highlight of the trip- second only to the desert experience. Essaouira has a bustling harbour full of people selling fish, and coming in from boats. The medina was compact and very ‘Moroccan’, and mixed with the European feel of the square and the long sandy beach, kept from becoming a prime tourist destination by the strong winds that blow around the town constantly. I enjoyed a fishball tagine, sitting and relaxing in a beachside bar, and watching a few World Cup matches at the Cafe du Paris on the main square, where Europeans were partisan and Moroccans seemed to applaud good play more than anything else. I readjusted to travelling on my own- writing more in my diary, reading more, and sitting thinking more. While I was reading my book, I came across this quote by Tahir Shah – “real travel is not about the highlights with which you dazzle your friends once you’re home. It’s about the loneliness, the solitude, the evenings spent by yourself, pining to be somewhere else. Those are the moments of true value. You feel half proud of them and half ashamed and you hold them to your heart.”

Back in Marrakech I was probably ready to return home. It had been a whirlwind trip – it almost felt like two trips, one that involved crossing swathes of countryside and journeying towards a destination, Marrakech, and another that allowed reflection and time to relax by the sea. They complemented each other well. Morocco is unlike anywhere I’d been before, and I reckon deceptively different to Europe given its apparent geographic proximity. I found it more ‘foreign’ than Japan or Korea, more difficult to navigate than Vietnam, and as nerve-wracking at times as Cuba. EasyJet and RyanAir have linked it into a cheap European network, but it remains a very different place, with many tourists we encountered suffering from genuine culture shock at its brashness and insanity. We saw its European, African and Arabic influences, and experienced a taste of what the people are like. You can’t ask for much more on 10 day trip.

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