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Atay Maghrebi: Lost and Found in Marrakech

A beautiful labyrinth that should be respected: Marrakech, Morocco.
I arrived in Marrakech in late July 2016 too tired to deal with humanity. I’d slept for about one hour and fifteen minutes overnight and only caught two 45-minute bursts of sleep on the tightly packed Ryanair plane.

Anyone who knows me knows one thing about how I travel: I prepare well, but pack last minute. Last evening I had decided it would be better to go to Women’s Equality Party event in Islington with a friend, visit a bar and then head home at 1am. Not very wise.

Despite being a little worried about being alone a long way from home, I stepped off the transfer taxi on Boulevard Fatima Zahra. It wasn’t able to get up the tight streets of the medina, and with the relatively light backpack that represented my worldly possessions for the next two weeks, I started to walk under the gateway.

A youngish man with sleepy eyes, dressed in a shiny blue djellaba and pink crocs called out to me, “Equity Point?”

“Yes,” I mumbled.

“It is just here,” he said with sincerity, “I’ll show you.”

“It’s okay. I’ll be fine from here.”

“No. I’ll show you,” he insisted.

The perfect trap; he was already locked on and leading the way. A trap very neatly sprung.

At this point I had no dirhams, so hastily came up with a plan to offload a €10 note. After a confusing conversation with the unimpressed guide, which involved looking at a forex app, I ended up paying him around €5 for his services and I left with around 50 dirhams in change. It is fair to say that both of us felt a little ripped-off, but neither party was in the mood for an argument.

❦ 

It was still too early to check-in, so I dropped-off my bags at the Hostel and went in search of a padlock, an ATM and lunch.

At the end of Boulevard Fatima Zahra, a short walk outside of the medina, I came to a slender three-storey café-restaurant called Café Kif-Kif. Here I ordered a kefta tagine – meatballs in a rich, mildly spiced, red sauce with two fried eggs on top. To wash it down I had a pot of the essential Moroccan drink, atay (mint tea), to mock the already intensifying heat.

The food was served in the traditional clay Moroccan cooking pot that gives the dish its name, the tagine. It was both incredibly tasty and obscenely photogenic. I resisted the temptation to Instagram it, opting to annoy a few Whatsapp contacts with the image of my lunch instead.

After whiling away a little time people watching, talking in bad French and amazed at the ferocity of a niqaab-wearing, motorcycle-riding woman shouting at a shop owner, I headed off in the direction of Jemaa el-Fnaa with a view to looping back the hostel via a back route to check in properly.

Passing through the square, which at this time was quiet save for a couple of snake charmers and the juice bars, I managed to miss the turning back through the souks and ended up walking in the vague direction of the tanneries.

The narrow alleyway leading to Equity Point Hostel: Marrakech, Morocco.
A few guide books had suggested that visiting a tannery is an interesting thing to do, so when a Berber guide said he’d show me one, I thought, “why not.”

As it was a Thursday afternoon, the tannery workers were packing up early. My tiredness crept back suddenly, and I ended up feeling like I was essentially walking around some rancid concrete troughs, literally full of crap, holding a sprig of mint to my nose and looking to see how many other tourists were being duped into a grand tour. I just wasn't awake enough to appreciate it.

This wasn’t everything though; having to exit through a leather shop meant I had to dodge a sales pitch for my least favourite form of material.

After some gentle persuasion (basically me saying: ‘I don’t bloody like leather and I’m not carrying a carpet around Morocco for the next two weeks like a substandard Aladdin impersonator’), I thought I’d escaped. No such luck – my guide reappeared and demanded his 200 dirhams fee. I’d fallen into the trap of not negotiating a price up front - again.

I thought back to a conversation on the plane with a Belgian man who’d said, “They call tourists walking cash machines.” He wasn’t wrong, but like any tourist location, simple mistakes like not agreeing a fee up front had been my undoing – along with an unhealthy lack of sleep.

Following another unplanned outlay of dirhams and some poor directions from a youth, I wandered off in the wrong direction and did so epically. Stopping to check Google Maps, I realised that I had somehow arrived outside the city walls near Bab Aylan to the east of the medina. I was lost, irritated, tired and disappointed that my usually faultless inner navigation skills had let me down.

I took another moment to get my bearings and I told myself to calm down. After all, it didn’t matter if I was lost. I had enough money to get wherever I needed and was perfectly safe.

One abortive attempt at flagging down a taxi nearly resulted in another tannery tour, but I thankfully managed to stop another taxi.

Saying a quick bismillah under his breath, the driver circumnavigated the perimeter wall of the medina for twenty-five minutes, taking me back to where I’d started my erroneous wanderings around three hours before.

I shuffled back down a more familiar alleyway to the hostel and finally checked in.

Lessons Learned:
  • Get some sleep before you arrive.
  • Always negotiate a price before you do anything, however unnatural you may find it.
  • Slow down; there's no need to rush into anything and take your time before diving down an unknown alleyway.

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