September 2014

Lessons learned, part 3: merchandising Marrakesh

‘The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.’ (St Augustine).

Apart from never being able to put down a good book, for me, travelling is also about having fun, getting into crazy adventures and, with every new place I visit, coming closer to uncovering all the countries on my scratchable world map. On the way I might even learn a lesson or two.

3. Merchandising Marrakesh

“Very beautiful small tagine, best quality and very special price just for you madam. Only 250 dirhams!” With a smile I tell the salesman that I´m not looking for a Moroccan cooking pot but just for some dinner and that twenty quid might be a tad overpriced. He points me in the direction of the main square and shouts: “After dinner you come back here and buy a tagine from me, yes? I´ll make you a democratic price, only 240 dirhams. Sold, see you later.”

About thirty minutes and four near-crashes with motorcycles later, the maze of busy, narrow streets that form the medina opens up to reveal Jemaa el Fna. Young men are eager to tout people to the food stalls that fill Marrakesh’s main square every evening, assuring us that the cook is even better than Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver combined. Although that might be a bit over-exaggerated, the food is cheap and tasty, freshly cooked à la minute.

Slippers anyone?

Wanna buy some slippers?

After dinner, snake charmers, acrobats and shopkeepers compete for your attention along with henna-tattooists and more shopkeepers. Tourists wander around the square, buying freshly squeezed orange juice or sweet mint tea for 40p a glass.

There are rows of stalls all selling the same nuts and dried fruits, piled up high in exactly the same order and advertised for the same price. I’m baffled: how can all these shopkeepers make a living? There’re enough snacks to feed the whole country on 100m².

Marrakesh’s catchphrase is ‘Buy, buy, BUY!’ Whether you’re looking for shoes, lamps, herbs, handbags or even false teeth, you’ll find it all in the various souks. If you’re not looking for any of the above you’ll still find it – but ‘at a special price for you my friend’. This is tourist destination number one if you want to non-stop shop till you drop. (I usually get sick of shopping after about two days.)

In an attempt to escape the city’s consumerism and get a taste for the real Morocco, I sign up for a tour to the Erg Chegaga dunes. Getting to the Sahara desert takes a full day by four wheel drive. On the high passes of the Atlas Mountains there’s nothing more to see than vast, barren land. Oh, and souvenir stalls on the side of the road where you can buy gem stones for a “real good price especially for you because you’re from England/France/Germany/Holland/fill in whatever country you’re from…”

No shops in the desert...

No shops for the next 50 miles or so…

Continuing our way through the Valley of the Dades, kasbahs that resemble huge sandcastles make it look like we’re in another century and Ali Baba with his 40 thieves could be waiting just around the corner. Palm trees wave in the warm desert wind and little donkeys are so heavily loaded it’s a miracle they’re still on their feet.

As we reach a desolate spot in the desert after a drive that feels like riding a rollercoaster in a sandstorm (my idea to ever compete in the Paris-Dakar rally is soon abandoned), it seems we’ve finally run out of options to purchase stuff. Not quite: bright blue headscarves are a must to accomplish the Berber-look and our tour guide knows just the place to snap up these bargains. I give in and fall asleep in a tent listening to rhythmic African drum sounds.

Despite the fact that I haven’t drunk a single drop of alcohol, the hangover is huge after having covered only half a sand dune on my camel. Lovely sunrise, but probably best admired on foot. Abandoning the ship of the desert is not done though. No worries, the sea sickness will soon disappear after half a Kwells tablet which are… uhm, back at home. But surely they’ll sell them here?

The look on the face of our camel driver is a mixture of pity and disgust. I swear I hear him mumble “stupid tourist” as he patiently explains that there are no shops in the middle of the desert…

Lessons learned:
1. Names can be a warning: if some kind of vehicle is called ‘ship’ it will most likely stink and make me want to puke.
2. Always take sea sickness tablets.

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