Thursday, January 05, 2006

Ordeal by holiday

Marrakesh was an experience. Or rather a lot of experiences packed into 6 days. We had come for work purposes, but there was also time to do a bit of sightseeing. It was my first time in any part of Africa and at first I was a bit shocked by it all. We arrived late at night, were let out of a taxi into a crowded narrow street, which looked about as Third World as you can get. We were then led down a maze of even narrower streets, by a series of hooded men who would take us so far, then pass us on to some other man who was waiting for us round a corner. We had no idea where we were going and it went against every warning about going off down alleys with strange men. Finally, we arrived at our hotel which was in the middle of a courtyard. It was actually quite nice, with a private roof terrace and our own outdoor jacuzzi, just in the centre of the Kasbah (Old City), which is rather disconcerting to newcomers. There were no paths either, so pedestrians shared the road with cars, donkeys, cylists and moped users. Navigating the streets was incredibly difficult - as well as all the traffic to avoid, there were plenty of hawkers and street urchins trying to get you to part with your money. As one of the few "whiteys", we stood out a mile, particularly because we looked so terrified. Fortunately, after a couple of days we acclimatised and were able to step out of the way of motorcyclists at the last second, just like everyone else.

On the first day we were taken to a Moroccan pharmacy where we were sold aphrodisiacs (I have yet to ascertain whether they work or not) and a woman made me take my top off and gave me a back rub in the middle of the shop with everyone watching. How friendly. Later we went to a hammam (Turkish bath) and a wiry man in his underpants gave me a body scrub. This involved rubbing me over with foul olive-smelling soap (which got in my eyes and stung), then scrubbing me with the sort of brush you normally clean potatoes with. Then, having completely removed the top two layers of my skin, he finished off the experience by throwing scalding hot water all over me. How lovely. Despite the fact that semi-naked men were involved, it was about the least erotic experience imaginable.

I am rather pedestrian on holiday, preferring to lie in late every morning, spend lots of time round the hotel, sun-bathing and using room service as much as possible. My fella is the opposite and wants to spend every spare minute on day trips, photographing sites of interest (he takes two cameras with him everywhere and a range of different lenses and filters), or haggling in the souks (labyrinthine covered markets). I usually end up feeling guilty and giving in to him. But ended up almost regretting a 12 hour long round trip to the Sahara dessert. It started badly - I ALWAYS get a stomach bug on holiday (even in North Wales), and this was no exception. So we started the trip with me having to rush back to the hotel room to "use the facilities". After that, the 4X4 we had hired drove into, up and over the Atlas mountains, across a series of windy, scary, narrow roads that gave me motion sickness to add to the stomach cramps. After a short stop at a site of cultural heritage (I wasn't paying much attention I'm afraid, but I was interrupted by some tourists taking a leak against it), our driver announced we were going on "the scenic route". This commenced a 2 and a half hour nightmare drive on what was a mountain camel trail - basically a single lane dirt track. I now see the point of 4X4s. Any other vehicle wouldn't have made it. It was like been trapped inside a salt shaker while it was being used. We were thrown around inside as the 4X4 traversed a rocky, seemingly never-ending almost non-existent route. Sometimes the road seemed to vanish beneath us on some of the hairpin bends, with sharp drops below. It was like having constant whiplash. Sometime we would have to pull over to the edge of a cliff face to let other 4X4s travelling in the opposite direction, past us. They contained western tourists, their faces contorted in horror and fear, silently screaming for it to be over. At least it wasn't just us.

Finally, it was finished and we arrived at the edge of the Sahara. We were at an amazing place - which had been used as the set for countless films, including Gladiator and Time Bandits. It was an ancient red city built out of mud, on a hill. Incredibly beautiful and majestic. We climbed to the top of the city and looked out at the view - which was like the landscape of Mars. Nothing but dust and rocks. And a couple of bored camels. Then we got back in the 4X4 and headed back to Marrakesh.

Because of the stomach bug, I hadn't had anything to eat or drink all day, worried that it would just work its way through in minutes - and with all the bumping around, I didn't think this was wise. However, the alternative - fasting - was even more stupid. By the time we got back to the hotel the heat coupled with the diahoreea and lack of food and water meant I was suffering the effects of severe de-hydration. I had a monumental banging headache, like nothing I've experienced before. I also started shivering uncontrollably and was unable to regulate my temperature, feeling incredibly cold, despite the fact it was a warm evening and the heating in our room was on full. We had no pain-killers and it took 2 hours for the hotel manager to rustle some up - they are not big on paracetamol in the Old City in Marrakesh - instead they usually give you some black powder to put in a handkerchief and sniff. Once western medicine had been located, I fell into a sound 12-hour sleep and woke up the next day feeling a bit better, if not somewhat rueful. I am not a very patient patient and some of my comments to my fella the previous evening had been what the French call "de trop".

Despite the rather complaining tone of this entry, we actually had a really nice time! It was constant sunshine and didn't get dark until about 6.30. (Bristol, on the other hand had half an hour of sunshine yesterday.) People on the whole were very nice and helpful, especially the hotel staff who weren't fazed by two gay men (despite the fact it is a Muslim country and homosexuality is forbidden). Property is very cheap over there and we contemplated buying a little flat and spending all our winters there. But it'd mean I'd have to brush up on my French, which is severely limited to phatic communication and a few pointless nouns. So perhaps not.


matty said...

Oh, I always get sick when I travel. Isn't that frustrating! Must have been that harsh scrubbing!

I only know of that place thanks to AbFab and some movie with Kate Winslet --- or was that a different culture entirely? Hmmm...

But it sounds like quite an adventure!

Lost Boy said...

I always like the idea of holidays and then when I'm on them I remember how crap they are. I too get ill every time I travel. If it's not an eye-watering migraine, it's 'stomach trouble'.