September 2022
The beginning of some new adventures...
Souk, sleeping, spices
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  • 8footprints
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  • 10days
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  • 2videos
  • 56kilometers
  • Day 1

    From here, to there.

    September 13, 2022 in Morocco ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    I'd forgotten how brutal the 02:00 alarm call for the 03:00 cab to the airport was. Bleary eyed, short of sleep, thankfully not hungover. I'm also conscious that I'm the least prepared for a trip that I can remember. Not intentionally - I think I just hit the off switch at the end of Friday, and haven't really turned it back on since then. After a slightly frantic hour making sure I've actually packed, you know - some clothes, and have all my documentation, I'm into the cab and suddenly feel the flush of excitement about my trip.

    I've done a little solo travelling over the past 15 years, but it's largely been with something specific in mind, like a week's skiing. This is the first time since my ill-fated trip around in India over my 30th birthday, some *cough* fifteen years ago that I've set off to explore and discover in quite the same way. I know I've changed a lot in those 15 years, and I wanna find out if that's changed my experience of and attitude to throwing some clothes in a backpack, and hitting the road.

    The first thing I'm struck by is how 'normal' the airport and flight experience is. There's no distancing, there are incredibly few mask wearers. Definitely looks and feels like a post-pandemic environment. Wilful ignorance? Maybe - but if I'm honest it's quite a nice slice of normal.

    I'm immediately minded that travelling solo is a very different experience to the past 15 years of fun with my co-conspirator. Social interaction is only there if you search for it, and are open to it. I spend a lovely hour on the flight chatting to a young mum who's travelling with her 4 year old - fast asleep in the window seat next to her.

    On arrival into Marrakech, walking out of the coolness of the airport terminal, I'm met by a blast of desert heat. Marrakech sits on the boundary between Morocco's Mediterranean climate and the bone-dry Sahara eco-system. It's not like the UK hasn't had the hottest Summer on record, and isn't enjoying a very warm Autumn, but the difference between that and the desert heat is huge. It's lovely.

    I'm staying in Palmeraie - about 8 km outside of Marrakech's ancient city-centre. As the name suggests, the environs are littered with palm fronds, gently swaying in the breeze. The hotel's grounds are covered with them, mingling with the classically styled North African architecture of the hotel buildings.

    My priority once I'm checked in is sleep, and I drift into a deep, 3 hour nap - so deep that I'm utterly confused when I wake up, unsure where or when I am. It passes quickly enough, and I head to grab a beer and some dinner. Moroccan wine is, um.... *interesting* Definitely not the worst I've tasted, but a bit rough around the edges. Who cares - it does the job, and it's not late before I decide today's been long enough, and I'm ready to sleep...

    I think I'm supposed to share pictures with these blog posts - something about making them more visually appealing or whatevs. I will comply.
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  • Day 2

    I found the off-switch

    September 14, 2022 in Morocco ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    My plan has always (well, for the week or so that I've had any kind of plan...) been to spend a few days completing switching off and recharging my batteries. I'm been in the midst of an insomniac episode for about 4 months. Not the worst ever, but still dull as fuck. I've been surprised at how easy it's been to find the off-switch. After a great night's sleep, I slip into an easy rhythm of zizzing by the pool, realising it's beer o'clock, grabbing some lunch and a couple of glasses of questionable white wine, before hitting the sack for a deep afternoon nap. Nearly three hours later, I wake up. Grab some dinner, more of that questionable white wine, and soon enough, I'm ready for more sleep. Somewhere in there, I make the mistake of trying some deeply troubling rosé wine. An experience, but not one I'll look to repeat.

    I could get used to this...

    Oh, photo. Of course.
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  • Day 3

    Now for something completely different..

    September 15, 2022 in Morocco ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    Averaging 12+ hours of sleep per day. I've set myself a thoroughly sensible and I think very reasonable rule - for every hour of sleep I get, I can have 1 glass of wine.

    I don't have anything new to report. If you want to see how my day has been, check yesterday's update - it's remarkably similar.Read more

  • Day 4

    I've been here before...

    September 16, 2022 in Morocco ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    A triumph! I only slept around 8 hours overnight... This might just mean that my body is catching up on the rest it needs... I've determined to postpone leaving Marrakech. For one, I've not left my hotel yet, and there's a bunch of stuff I wanna see in the city. For two, I'm just enjoying WAY too much not doing anything. My body, my mind and my soul are craving R+R, and who am I to turn the tap off? I'll reassess after the weekend, and see what I can muster up the energy to do.

    I've been genuinely stunned at how quickly I've been able to switch off and relax. When I'm working, it would typically take me the best part of a week to power down. I guess as a result of not having any stress to head back to, it's happened immediately. There's definitely a learning in here somewhere...

    My rinse and repeat pattern continues - except that my total sleep yesterday was a paltry 11 hours. I'll do my best to correct that tomorrow.

    In other news - treachery. I notice that one of my flip-flops has a small hole in it. A closer inspection reveals wanton destruction. I'm loathe to blame Vicki. Bitey, she might be, but the teeth marks are the wrong size and shape. If I had to guess, I'd say Scout - the little fucker.
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  • Day 5

    The craziness of the Marrakech Souk

    September 17, 2022 in Morocco ⋅ ☀️ 29 °C

    You probably don't wanna hear about how well I'm sleeping any more, so a slight change of pace today... After an early breakfast (I mean, 08:00 is early, right?) I'm on a shuttle bus into the heart of Marrakech by 10:00. It's a short 20 minute bus ride, replete with the driver leaning on the horn every 10 seconds, and several pedestrians literally throwing themselves into the road. Couple of things I always try and discover early on in a trip in a new country as it can vary so massively - how to cross the road, and why someone is beeping at me. (Often they go hand-in-hand.)

    Morocco seems to be similar to India on the horn use front. It's used primarily as a way to tell other people on the road that you're there - as if the spectre of an eight ton truck covered in bells and shiny baubles bearing down on you at 80 kilometres per hour wasn't enough of a sign.

    Road crossing - Morocco is a little more similar to Vietnam. They use what I like to call the, "Take your life in your hands and hope for the best" method. The trick (apparently) is to make eye contact with the car / scooter / truck driver, and maintain eye contact while you cross the road. This action allegedly means the driver can't reliably claim not to have known you were there when they mow you down. It has the ancillary challenge of meaning you can't see where you're going. There's a natural instinct to flick your eyes ahead of you to make sure you're not about to knock over a defenceless grandmother, or put your foot into a pot-hole. You must resist this instinct - lest the driver takes this lapse in judgement as reason to double down on the accelerator. Outside Koutubia Mosque, it takes me a good ten minutes to build up the confidence to cross the road, and when I do, it's not a fun experience. It's only as I walk down the road towards Jemaa El-Fnaa Square that I notice there's a proper pedestrian crossing that I completely missed.

    I'm meeting my guide, Mohammed at midday by the Souk, the complex, maze-like market that is the lifeblood of Marrakech. I head for Café De France, an institution of a bar right on the square. As I walk over, my senses are bombarded by smell, sound, sight. Here, a snake charmer with the shrill oboe-like music they use to arouse their Cobras; there, a dancing monkey with his trainer. There are horse-drawn carriages ferrying tourists around the city, countless fresh fruit stalls, and a lot of foot traffic. It's a cacophony, and an assault, and I love it. I find the Café de France, grab a seat, and spend an amazing half hour watching the world go by...

    Mohammed and I manage to find each other, and we embark on a walking tour of the Souk. He's a lovely guy, speaks great English, and gives me a deep insight into the inner workings of the Souk. I'd never find my way around it unguided.

    We visit a few different artisanal stores - one in particular sticks in my mind, where Berber leather products are crafted by hand. Mohammed and I sit for a while, chatting over a cup of tea offered by the store owner, and just watching these craftsmen (and it is all men, at least in the storefront) at work. It's mesmerising, and the quality of their product is outstanding.

    We visit a fresh orange juice stall to quench our thirst, then continue, deeper into the Souk where we come across the butchers' market - which is another fresh sensual check. We stop and watch one of the store owners butchering a lamb, and at another we find a butcher preparing offal for a local delicacy - a sausage that sounds to me to be pretty similar to Haggis.

    All too soon, our walk around the Souk comes to an end. I'll be back in a few days to take more of a look around. For now, I head back to the hotel, conscious that I've missed at least a couple of hours sleep, and need to top up.

    The rest of the day passes blissfully, peacefully, lazily. I start reading my 7th book of the trip, I revisit the rosé and immediately regret it. I settle into several vins blancs, and soon enough, it's bedtime...
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  • Day 7

    Chocks away Ginger!

    September 19, 2022 in Morocco ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    My alarm goes off at 05:15, and I swear. How fucking dare they. I quickly remember it's my alarm, and my own fault, and crawl out of bed after a paltry 6 hours of sleep. My ride to my balloon flight is picking me up at 05:45, so I need to hustle.

    We head out into the desert for maybe 25km, and pull up outside a couple of Berber style tents. There are multiple balloons going off from the same point, and I'm quickly allocated into a group with 14 others. They are all French. I mistakenly tell our guide that he doesn't need to explain everything twice - that I'll follow in my rusty French ("Ou se trouve la ferme des escargots?") and immediately regret it when I realise that what I thought was a quick chat about the weather was in fact the potentially life-saving instructions for what to do in case of emergency.

    It's pretty much pitch black when we arrive, but after a half hour sitting around a fire drinking cups of sweet, mint tea, the first blurred rays of light are starting to creep above the horizon. It's a muddy, brown light, as the clouds have gathered, and visibility is poor. Quickly, the balloons start to inflate - the roar of the hot air burner piercing the still dawn air. Some poor fucker has to stand next to it holding the flaps (technical term) of the balloon open while the burner screams a few feet from his face. We're instructed to board. I do so gracefully, as you would expect.

    Once onboard a balloon, there's an amazing moment when you realise that the hot air is now sufficient to lift the basket. It's a strange sensation - like the entire ballon has become weightless. We're only being held down by a few guys who are keeping us where we are so we won't wander off into the path of other balloons before we've got enough lift to go pretty much straight up.

    And suddenly - we're off. We head up pretty quickly - faster than I recall from any of my other balloon flights. There's something about the silence of balloon flight which I love. First time out I found it disconcerting, but familiarity breeds anything but contempt in this case.

    We head upwards smoothly and at a rate of knots. Before I'm all that aware of it, we're around 1,000 metres up. It's noticeably cooler, and I'm all too conscious of keeping a very firm grip on my phone as I snap pictures. Looking down a LONG way below, I can see some of the other balloons still struggling to get up in the air. And then - all of a sudden, nothing. We're incased in a thick low-lying cloud. It's very surreal.

    Our pilot (massively rocking the triple denim) allows our altitude to decrease a little, and we emerge from the cloud. In the couple of minutes we've been hidden from view, something like 20 other balloons have taken to the air. Some are rising quickly, others hovering not far above the arid shrub-land. We play a strange game of yo-yo for the next half hour - variously dropping down quite quickly, and rising back up - to catch particular thermals to take us towards our destination at the foot of the nearby Atlas Mountains foothills.

    An hour after taking off, we're coming in to land, and the team do a pretty decent job of it. We hop out, jump in a jeep and head back to the tents for a Berber breakfast. The sun is up and hot now, despite still only being 07:45, and I bathe in the warm rays with a cup of mint tea...
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  • Day 9

    Melting in the Medina

    September 21, 2022 in Morocco ⋅ 🌙 24 °C

    It's my penultimate day in Marrakech. On previous trips, by this point, I'd subconsciously be starting to stress about what awaits me back at work. Unsurprisingly, my emotions on this trip are completely different. There's excitement - seeing my beloved Vicki, finding out what mischief Scout and Gizmo have been getting up to, putting in to practice some of the decisions I've made about what work I want to do in future.

    There's sadness too. I'll miss Morocco generally, and Marrakech specifically. I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of this warm and welcoming country - by choice, as I've prioritised rest and relaxation above anything more adventurous. I'll be back, for sure - and hopefully with at least one partner-in-crime...

    The sun's gonna be WAY too hot for my delicate, alabaster skin today, so I head into Marrakech late morning for a mooch around. There's a group of Brits behind me on the bus. Sheffield / Barnsley if I had to guess. They flew out yesterday, and clearly made a day of it. One of them repeatedly threatens to take another look at his breakfast. Sounds like they had the same ball-bustingly early flight yesterday, and instead of the parsimonious approach that I took, hit the beers at 04:00, and didn't stop till midnight. I'm equal parts smug and impressed.

    On arrival at Koutubia Mosque, there's a strong smell of the urinal in the air. As I walk away from the mosque, if anything, it intensifies. I'm surprised, as I experienced nothing like this during my visit a few days ago.

    I'm much more confident in my bearings after my previous visit, and I head into the Medina, looking for the Secret Garden (Jardin Secret). I mean - it's not really the secretest place ever, given I'm following Google Maps directions to get there... The garden is beautiful. It's right in the heart of the manic Medina, but you wouldn't know it. This beautiful botanical garden is an oasis of peace and quiet, in a city that otherwise doesn't seem to know the meaning of the words. I spend a restful half hour wondering around the garden, marvelling at the different cacti on display.

    Back in the Medina, I plot a roundabout way of getting back to Jemaa el-Fnaa square, stopping at a couple of places along the way. I march off, and am soon drenched in sweat. It's over 30C, and in the confines of the tiny market streets, there's no breeze to be had. I encounter an enthusiastic local, who wants to take me to a tannery. I've read up on this before I headed out here. It's a common scam in the Medina, to take you to a leather shop/tannery that you didn't want to visit, and then to demand (aggressively) payment for guiding you there. I let the guy know what I'm aware it's a scam. Disappointed, he says something in Arabic that I'm sure is less than complimentary, and then slinks away to try his luck with another tourist. I'm bizarrely reminded of the one Hindi phrase I was taught on my first trip to Goa, by my dear friend Serafin. I couldn't possibly write it out for you - but in summary, it was, "No. Fuck you. I don't want it. Go away." It served me brilliantly well through the remainder of my jaunt around India...

    I continue my wombling into the Souk, and from there back to Jemaa el-Fnaa. I'm sopping wet with sweat, and fall into the Cafe De France for a restorative cup of mint tea and a rest. As I do so, I read more about the Marrakech tanneries, and learn that the smell I was hit by earlier is likely a result of the tannery process - where camel urine is used to tenderise the leather. Yum.

    Suitably refreshed, I wander around the market square. Again, I've been pre-warned about taking photos/videos of the ubiquitous snake charmers and monkey trainers. The merest hint of a digital record, and they will apparently expect payment. I'll have to made do with, honestly, the slightly depressing visual memories.

    As I walk, I'm conscious I'm in the baking heat of the afternoon, and decide to call time on today's trip. Back at the hotel, it's well past beer o'clock, and by 4pm, I'm in a deep doze...
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  • Day 10

    Homeward bound...

    September 22, 2022 in Morocco ⋅ ☀️ 31 °C

    Actually didn't sleep that well last night. Well - by recent standards anyway...

    After breakfast, I spend an hour warming my bones in the morning sunshine. Check-out time is midday. As ever, I pack quickly, and by 12:01, I'm sitting in the bar with a glass of wine. My car's not due till 15:00, so I have time to rinse the vin blanc. After a pleasant lunch, it's time to head off.

    During the drive to Menara Airport, I notice for the first time just how many 4G masts there are around Marrakech. It's the primary means for folks to get online here, so I guess not that surprising. What does make me smile is when I notice that many of the masts are disguised as palm trees. Not particularly effectively, but A+ for effort.

    The airport is a bit chaotic, but not disastrously so. The departure lounge is actually pretty good. I find a little French style café selling half bottles of white wine, and settle in to write this blog post.

    My reflections of Morocco are overwhelmingly positive. I've met many genuine and warm people, and whilst the centre of Marrakech is a sensory assault, it's one that I enjoy immensely. I'll return for sure - not least because Vicki has never been, and I'm sure it'll be a black-mark in my copybook unless that's rectified. There's also so much more of Marrakech to explore. I think on a return journey I'd stay in a city-centre Riad, at least for part of the trip. Palmeraie is great, and if pool/sunshine/chill is your priority, then the right place to stay. Maybe a 50/50 split would work best.

    Well - that's it for now. Thanks for reading my random ramblings. It's gonna be a long hard wait until my next trip to Las Vegas and California...
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