In 2012 I was blessed enough to take part in a World Challenge expedition to Morocco with a group of people from my high school. We went for two weeks towards the end of March, hoping to fulfil our goal of refurbishing and painting an old school in a beautiful Berber village.Upon completion we would continue our expedition, trekking various mountains in this picture-perfect country and finishing with a day in the capital city, Marrakech.
After spending 13 days working and camping out in the village, indulging in colourful Moroccan pasta dishes, tagines and fresh salads made by our chef, Muhammad, we set off to Marrakech before returning back to England. Unchronologically, I’ll write about the first part of the expedition at a later date, but for my first article, as an insight into this beautiful country, I’d like to focus on Marrakech’s markets. Unfortunately, being only 14 years old at the time, my passion for photography hadn’t yet flourished and so we’ll have to make do with the amateur shots I did snap.
That night, the twelve of us stayed in Hotel Ali, just a two-minute walk from the famous Marrakech markets. It was far from luxury but we got a first-hand taste of real Moroccan interior; stained glass lanterns hanging from every ceiling and mosaic tiles forming intricate patterns on cement walls. We woke to the usual breakfast of fresh, warm Moroccan bread (excuse me whilst I salivate), hot chocolate, various spreads and fresh orange juice and the day was a-go. Back home I barely managed a piece of toast for breakfast, but would I refuse another piece of that bread after having already eaten 4 of them? Of course not!
Poking my head out of the window of our room, I was welcomed by such warmth, a soft breeze sweeping my hair — bliss. Our window looked out on an orange-walled alleyway, occupied by stray cats seeking shade by a café where the sun was otherwise beaming. Surprisingly, simple settings like these away from your own home somehow fill your heart with utter peace.
We arrived at the markets sympathising with the poor donkeys carrying heavy loads on the open pathway and avoiding motorbikes coming from various directions. Our expedition guide warned us that we have to be ‘weary’, and there really wasn’t a hint of exaggeration in his words. Whilst you walk through the crowds in the immense heat, enjoying the beautiful markets and wonderful goods being sold, you have to hold tight to any belongings and try to ignore the men telling you that they would pay for you in camels, whilst you’re innocently trying to barter for a hand-woven camel-leather rucksack. 90 Dirhams? 70? 65? 60? Deal. Bargain? Possibly not, but the excitement of haggling in itself makes you feel like a pro and for a moment you’re full of pride.
Before you know it, you’ll be lost without a care in the world surrounded by aromas of spices, herbal oils and floral attars with the locals luring you in to buy their items for ‘special price just for you’ (always a lie). You’ll be struck with admiration for the colours of the scarves and lanterns, the sweet smell and taste of baklava, the swirls of henna being painted on your hand by beautiful, aged and experienced women dressed in the brightest reds, the mint tea being poured from risky heights from the most wonderful hand-crafted tea pots.
That right there is the Miracle of Marrakech. Take photos, but take them discreetly or, like me, you’ll have to pay 20 dirhams because you wanted photographic evidence of Marrakech’s ‘dentist’ — hundreds of old teeth laid out on a table. If you get too close, money will also be expected from the snake-charmers and they will do just that, charm you in. Playing a melody on their instruments whilst a serpent slips and sways around rhythmically on a red, black and gold traditional woven rug appearing as though it came straight out of Aladdin. This will undoubtedly make you feel like you’re in a story from Arabian Nights. Whilst these sights are admittedly somewhat fascinating, it must be understood that there is another side altogether to Morocco, which I will share with you in later posts.
Despite the variety of traditional foods on the markets, from couscous to their well-known (and loved) tagines, without guilt, I opted for the KFC that evening that was just across the (almost-impossible-to-cross) road. Best decision ever. To this day I don’t know what made that chicken burger so much more delicious than that of my local KFC, possibly the fact that I’d been rid of unhealthy food for almost a fortnight…
I left the markets with traditional beaded bracelets, hand-painted with the eye symbol, universally known for rejecting evil, a paisley patterned purple-toned pashmina complete with tassels, a pungent leather bag woven with a black and yellow Aztec pattern and some other sentimental pieces — and with that, I said my goodbyes to the gem that is Morocco, until next time.
Featured image: Bryce Edwards