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October 2, 2005

Moroccan Generosity

After a few days of sitting around in the patisseries of Marrakesh and getting lost in the souk, we caught the coach to Essaouira. The landscape was dry and parched, with the odd skinny goat wandering helplessly around. The coach stopped midway at a cafe, and, seeing an old truck overloaded with hay, I went over to take a photo of it. The driver and passenger waved me over, and after saying hello, they insisted I take an audio tape from them. I tried to refuse (partly because I don't own a tape player), so they played it on the old truck's stereo which sounded so distorted that you couldn't hear anything then again insisted that I take it as a gift. Once you get away from the big city touts, real Moroccans are incredibly friendly and generous.

October 5, 2005

Rif Mountains

We're in Chefchouan, a town in the Rif Mountains now, and the trip here was pretty risky. Off back towards Spain tomorrow so I'll fill in the details later.

October 9, 2005

Pacha Marrakech

pachamarrakech.jpg

As Pacha Marrakech opened up last year, I knew I had to check it out while I was there so I jumped in a petite taxi late on Friday night, told the driver the address and off I went.

The club is built just out of town and stands on it's own, surrounded by desert. Built in the style of a kasbah with high, red earth fortress walls, it looks really impressive and has burning torches lighting it. The entry fee of 150 Dirham at the weekend (€15) makes it a fraction of the price of getting into Pacha Ibiza, but unfortunately the crowd inside just don't compare. Once inside, the main entrance corridor has a fountain in the middle of it and water tumbling down a channel in the centre of the steps, immediately giving you some idea of the amount of money which has gone into the construction of this club. Directly ahead of this is the one and only dancefloor, to the left is the chillout bar, and to the left of that is the exit to the gardens, swimming pool, and restaurant area which are beautifully landscaped with palm trees.

As their website listed the opening hours as 1800-0200, I arrived around midnight to find the place fairly empty. The pool and restaurant seem to be for evening use, and this area was closed off by this time. About thirty minutes later a dj appeared at the decks of the main room, which until then had only been playing a recorded mix, and gradually people began to dance.

The people there were not your typical Pacha types. There was a mixture of fairly old people who appeared to be expats, some rich Arabs, and a few guys who looked like drug lords, wearing white suits and several girls with each of them. The VIP area had more people in it than the rest of the club.

As the night progressed, however, and it passed 0200, the club stayed open, the old people went off to bed, the music improved, a few younger, trendier people appeared, and some French gays dragged me down to the dancefloor. The sound system was impressive; ranked as the most powerful system in Africa, if you stand in the right place the bass is powerful enough not only to move the clothes you're wearing, but also to make the end of your nose vibrate to it! The dj didn't seem to put much effort into the mixing though, and at the end of the evening when everyone shouted for an encore, he just picked up his stuff and walked off.

Overall, the club is very impressive, however, building a Pacha club doesn't guarantee a Pacha style crowd, and this is what really lets the place down. It's worth seeing, the interior is fantastic, but without the trendy crowd the club's atmosphere just can't cut it.

October 10, 2005

The Beer Run

beer runWhen we first arrived in Morocco I was intent on getting into the local Muslim vibe, deciding that I could exist perfectly happily without alcohol, content with the country's fantastic patisseries and mint tea for the duration of the trip. This state of nirvana lasted two days.

The only bar we could find was a depressing hole with old tourists drowning their sorrows, so, unable to handle another night in the heat without a beer, Colin and I set off on a quest across Marrakech in search of an alcohol shop. Once again we made the mistake of trusting the Lonely Planet's crackhead authors and their hallucinogen inspired maps so what should have been a quick trip across town turned into a three hour, traffic dodging epic.

Most cities in Morocco have a shop that sells alcohol somewhere, but invariably it's hidden, unmarked, down a side street, in the bowels of the town. In Marrakech this means risking your life dodging, Frogger-like, through manic traffic until finally arriving at the shop to find that it closed ten minutes earlier. After much more searching we eventually found somewhere that was open, stocked up with two black carrier bags of Heineken cans, and made the long trek back to Hotel Afriquia. There, relaxing on the tiled roof terrace and looking out at the floodlit Koutoubia, warm beer never tasted so good.

October 11, 2005

Essaouira

EssaouiraArriving in Essaouira, we ended up in tow with some Australians and a Norwegian, and, as the hotel we'd planned to stay in was full, we all rented an apartment together. It turned out to have one of the best views in town, looking out over the town's fortified ramparts to the Atlantic, and at only 500 Dirham (€50) for the seven of us, was a real bargain as well.

Essaouira turned out to be one of the prettiest, laid-back places we had a chance to visit in Morocco, set by the sea, with it's small, winding alleys, and mixture of Portuguese, French, and Berber architecture.

Spurred on by stories of peace, love, and Jimi Hendrix's favourite beach, we set off on the hippy trail for a walk to the village of Diabat, where he allegedly spent some time. It turned out to be an empty, depressing, concrete place with scruffy goats eating rubbish from the bins. Across the road, men were digging up trees from which many of the souvenirs on sale in Essaouira were carved, but with no replanting taking place the entire area was being transformed from forest into sand dunes. We cut across this semi-wasteland to find the famed beach, and it was, indeed, beautiful. Stretching for 10km down the Atlantic coast with fine sand blowing down it's dunes, it was far enough from town to be tourist and tout free - deserted apart from an old man fishing next to his donkey.

After our long walk we retired to Patisserie Driss, a lovely, mosaic tiled cafe with Arabic columns and drug fuelled paintings hanging on the walls - one showed a giant croissant floating high above the town's ramparts. Thanks to it's French history, Morocco's cake culture is as good as anywhere in Europe, and with abundant, freshly-squeezed fruit juices we spent much of our time chilling out in cheap cafes.

Lots of people we met travelling in Morocco fell ill with upset stomachs in Essaouira, and, although we were very careful with what we ate, we were both hit by Moroccan Arse Syndrome there as well. The entire town is often covered in a fine mist from the Atlantic breakers crashing on the rocks below the ramparts. It was only on our last day that we looked out to see a huge slick of untreated sewage discharging into the sea close to the town - maybe shit spray in the air isn't too good for your health?

The False Hedrix in Morocco Claims
Essaouira webcam

October 12, 2005

Tetouan Video

Here's a short video I shot with my phone (so apologies for the quality) from the bus in Tetouan's crazy bus station full of beggers and touts. The voice you hear is a preaching, old woman who boarded the bus to shout a sermon to everyone. Notice also the great name of the bus company, and the old man trying to stuff chickens into his bag.








October 13, 2005

Tetouan Touts

On the overnight train back to the north, we found ourselves sharing a carriage with Mustafa, who owned a lingerie shop in Marrakech. As he was unable to speak any English, Colin and I somehow managed to stumble through our longest pigeon French conversation in history, and we enjoyed discussing everything from Moroccan town planning to politics with him. It was yet another example of just how friendly real Moroccans are. Unfortunately, our remaining days in the north of the country would be characterised by being hassled by desperate touts.

It began in Tetouan, where, after our chilled experience in the south, we arrived somewhat unguarded. Travelling by local buses, we got off to change for the service to Chefchaouen, and were immediately met by a guy wearing what appeared to be a bus company uniform. He led us outside towards the souk to 'get tickets' for the connecting bus and alarm bells began to ring. Realising he was probably taking us to someone with a fake book of tickets, we tried to get rid of him politely, telling him we were going to spend some time in the town instead, but he was impossible to shift. Continuing to follow us, and now deciding that he would be our guide, we just couldn't lose him. The touts seem to go through a series of emotions to beat you down. First they're friendly, then when you tell them that you don't need a guide or drugs or whatever, they're offended. "I am not a guide, I am your friend from the hotel", they will tell you. Finally, when all else fails they become angry, and sometimes start insulting you. So this guy turned angry, telling Colin, who'd been polite to him, not to talk like that to him in 'his' country, then began screaming, calling him a Jew.

Somewhat shocked by this turn of insanity, we managed to finally lose him but immediately picked up another 'friend'. This guy was bigger, more menacing, but drooling just as much. Were we from Spain? His brother lived in Malaga. Were we from Britain? His father lived in Gibraltar. He only wanted to be our friend for life. Until, of course, we made it clear that we wanted to be alone, and naturally, he began trying to sell us hash.


We were drug country now; the Rif mountains are the biggest marijuana growing region in Morocco, and wasted people were lying around on the pavement and in parks. Tired from travelling all night, we must have looked like easy targets for the touts, and the manic hassle they were giving us was becoming quite frightening. We decided to get out of Tetouan as fast as possible, marched back into the subterranean bus station, side-stepping the zombies, and tried to find the right ticket counter. We were immediately surrounded by junkies, all desperate to con some money out of us, but trying hard to ignore them, we got the tickets, and sought sanctuary in a nearby cafe until it was time for the bus.

We sat there, watching the hordes of touts mobbing new arrivals, but even the cafe was a little like something out of a horror film. The toilet floors were covered in sawdust, and cockroaches ran around the grimy walls. Nervous, with the feeling that the whole town was after us, we made a dash for the bus, ready to fight off the grabbing touts if we had to, and jumped onto the bus to Chefchaouen where we hoped things would, once more, be chilled and relaxed.

October 16, 2005

Chefchaouen

ChefchaouenThe local bus finally arrived in Chefchaouen and the touts were waiting. Still a bit freaked out from our manic friends in Tetouan, Colin and I pretended not to speak English, and although this helped get rid of many of them, our backpacks simply attracted more as we walked through town. The touts were mainly guys in their twenties, tough, but unhealthy looking, with puffy faces from years of hard substance abuse, and their offers were always tinged with a touch of implied violence. It was impossible trying to get through town without being harassed by them so we sought refuge in a cafe once more, Colin stayed with the bags, and I went off to find a hotel room.

It was like being in the Village of the Damned. You could hardly move without someone trying to sell you hash or be your guide, and unfortunately, we'd now taken to ignoring most locals who spoke to us, as almost always, they would turn out to be touts. We were relieved to eventually get into a room, throw our bags down, and close the door. It had been a long, tough day.

We'd come to Chefchaouen as several people we'd met had described it as the most beautiful and laid-back place they'd been to in Morocco. It is indeed beautiful, set high in the Rif Mountains with a quant old, cobbled square, and blue painted alleyways, but the continual hassle from drug pushers ruined it for us. Many different things give two people a completely different opinion of a place, making it either paradise or hell; the weather, someone who insults you or is helpful, or just how you're feeling when you arrive. Probably being stoned out of your face for your entire visit changes your perception too.

As soon as we walked out of the hotel, someone was immediately trying to sell us hashish - and the slogan of the town seemed to be, "You have the paranoia" if you turned them down. Even a waiter said this to us when we didn't eat in a restaurant. It was all far from the chilled experience we'd been told about.

We did, however, find another favourite in the series of dodgy Moroccan restaurants we'd been eating in. Absolutely filthy, but packed full of locals, and very cheap, it made fantastic chicken and chip sandwiches with an added edge. You had a 50% chance of choking on one large, sharp chicken bone hidden inside them. Inshallah.

As Ramadan had just started, it was impossible to find any beer - but, of course, drugs were still being pushed everywhere. The only option was the depressing Hotel Parador bar, in which the barman seemed to hate everyone, so after hunting around the entire town we finally gave up on finding a drink and returned to the hotel. Usually, we went to bed fairly late, but we were in for a surprise here. Just as we were falling off to sleep, someone started walking around the streets banging a huge drum! This, we put down to the glue sniffing kids we'd seen at night from our hotel window, but it's, apparently, a part of Ramadan. The Misaharaty walks around the town at 03:00, banging his drum to awaken the inhabitants to eat their sohor (the meal eaten before fasting begins again at sunrise). Shortly after this the mosque gives it's first call of the day, so needless to say we didn't get very much sleep at all in Chefchaouen.

October 17, 2005

Chefchaouen Video

Here's a video shot from our hotel room window of the drummer going around Chefchaouen in the middle of the night wakening everyone during Ramadan.








October 19, 2005

Stoned in Chefchaouen

Stoned in the Rif MountainsWe decided to head out of town and do some walking in the nearby mountains to find some peace, and the Lonely Planet recommended a trek to the top of a nearby peak. Much of Chefchaouen itself is built on the mountainside, and we gradually climbed up through the narrow, blue-painted streets until we were in scrubland outside of the old town walls.

The track from there gradually zigzagged upwards, passing first through a rubbish dump of burning refuse, and plastic bags blowing across the mountainside, and then disappearing into the shade of a cedar forest. We rested out of the sun, looking down at the view of the town, as two boys sat above us on the hill, watching over their goats. It was mid-afternoon, we'd already climbed quite high, and the sun was at it's hottest as we continued further and higher along the track.

The solitude couldn't last much longer, however, and soon we passed a couple of guys, who decided to follow us, attempting to talk us into coming back to their village. We tried everything we could to get them to leave, but each time they just replied that everything was cool (with the implication that things might become uncool if we didn't co-operate. They were pretty big guys, and the track now clung to the side of the mountain with a sheer drop next to it into the valley far below. No-one would ever find our bodies here. Their pitch, of course, soon turned from friendliness to hash selling, and, whilst making it quite clear that we weren't interested, Colin, in a sudden turn of extreme diplomacy, asked them to respect our wish to be left alone, and somehow persuaded them to leave without anyone being thrown down the mountainside.

Shortly afterwards we passed the 2000m height marker, and turned off the road towards the peak. Although there appeared to be a path twisting it's way to the summit, once we'd begun climbing we just couldn't find it. The side of the mountain was, unusually, cultivated and had recently been ploughed by hand - the incline was too steep to do it any other way. The soil was really dark, like terrific earth for growing crops, but our progress was slow as we trudged through it, slowly climbing higher and higher.

I was walking in front, and I soon noticed someone further up the mountain, close to the summit. As we continued upwards, he seemed to be paying more and more attention to us - I wasn't sure if he was alone or if there were others, but he appeared to have something slung across his back, like a rifle, which raised my suspicions. Finally, we found the path we'd seen from down at the road, and our progress towards the top improved. The summit was at 2800m, and already our view across the mountains was stunning, with Chefchaouen sitting almost vertically below us. The sun was beginning to lose it's heat now, sinking slowly towards the distant hills, but catching our breath was becoming difficult as the air was getting thin.

The guy near the summit now seemed to be getting agitated, running along the ridge, stopping every so often to stand and stare at us. I started to get the feeling that something wasn't right, but Colin assured me that I just, "had the paranoia", and, not wanting to stop so close to the top, we pushed on. At this, the guy above us began totally freaking out, shouting, screaming, and waving his arms. We hoped he was shouting at one of his friends, but it became clear he was screaming at us to stop when the first rock flew into the air towards us. Realising our lives would probably be at risk if we continued, we quickly decided we didn't really need to climb to the top of the mountain, and instantly turned to get away from him. He still seemed pretty freaked out, however, and suspecting that he was armed, our descent soon became something of a scramble as we expected shots to ring out at any time, something like the chase scene in The Beach. We were, of course, trekking through one of the world's main marijuana growing regions; we'd strayed across the line, they of course didn't want visitors, and naturally the crops were going to be guarded.

Further down we stopped, looking back up at the mountain. The rock-throwing guy was lying down on his stomach on a ledge, but unable to see if he was looking through binoculars or aiming a rifle at us we decided to just keep moving! As we approached the road another figure on the hill opposite began screaming at us too, but thankfully he soon disappeared back into the scenery and we didn't see him again. A bit shaken, we made it back down to the track and began the long walk back to Chefchaouen - the touts in town were probably a lot less life-threatening than the drug mafia in the mountains.

October 24, 2005

Out of Africa

Leaving Morocco
Even getting out of Chefchaouen wasn't easy. After walking to the bus station, which seemed to be halfway to Tangier, we were stopped as we walked in, told the ticket offices were closed, and that we could only buy tickets from the guys running the bus. It was Ramadan, and a lot of things didn't seem to be open, so we bought our tickets from them and tried to board the bus.

The bus was surrounded by the customary combination of touts / thugs, and as usual it was hard to figure out who actually worked there and who didn't. A dodgy looking guy with a social problem told us to put our bags into the luggage compartment, and as we were doing so, ordered us with, "Give me money!" Naturally, as no-one else was having to pay for taking their luggage and chickens, and we hadn't had to pay on our way there, we refused. We expected he would let it go at this point, but a ten minute argument ensued; we stood our ground, and he became more threatening. In the end, we were on the bus, sitting in our seats, and he was still screaming into our faces. Obviously, he wasn't going to give up, and rather than taking the risk of our bags disappearing into the landscape, we gave in and handed him a euro. We were on our way towards Spain today, and we'd done pretty well avoiding being ripped off during our time in Morocco.

Early in the afternoon the ancient bus rolled into Tangier. Strangely unable to find a taxi that would take us, we walked to the port, grabbing some fantastic cake and pastries from Patisserie Paris on the way. Sometimes it's hard to understand why, if Morocco is trying to encourage tourism, some things, such as Tangier's ferry terminal, aren't cleaned up. Arriving there, we were first hassled by groups of touts hanging around the ticket offices, hoping to get a tip or cut of the ticket price. The ticket agency, whilst being very unfriendly, then sold us tickets for a ferry which was allegedly due to leave in thirty minutes. As we walked up to passport control, however, the ferry was closing it's doors, then we were refused through immigration as the ticket office hadn't given us departure forms to fill in. The guy on immigration couldn't give us them, of course, so we were directed over to 'officials' (well, they wore name tags if that means anything) who agreed to provide us with the forms and 'help us' fill them in for a fee if we wanted to catch the ferry. We now realised that it was these forms that the touts outside had also been trying to sell to us. It was like the entire ferry terminal was corrupt - a very bad first or last experience for any visitor to Morocco. Naturally, by the time we'd gone back out to the ticket office, got the proper departure forms and bitched at them, the ferry had left, and we had to wait almost two hours for the next one.

The ferry, when we finally boarded, did turn out to be fast, and we stood on deck, watching the sun set as North Africa faded into the distance across the Straits of Gibraltar. We'd been told the boat went to Algeciras, but unsurprisingly, it went into Tarifa instead, from where we had to board a bus to Algeciras. By the time we finally got there, we'd just missed the last coach to Seville, which we were due to fly out from the following day, so we booked into a cheap hotel, and went out to celebrate being back in Spain.

I'd always felt that Algeciras was the ugly armpit of Spain, a grimy port town wedged below Gibraltar, and I wasn't looking forward to spending the night there. Soon, however, we found a lively bar, enjoyed the wonderful freedom of being able to buy beer again, and stuffed ourselves on tacos before finally staggering back to our hotel and listening to one of our neighbours apparently dying in the room upstairs.

October 27, 2005

Northward Bound

The following afternoon, we caught the coach, hung-over, to Seville. Since we'd left Scotland there were only three days in which we hadn't been travelling so we were feeling quite exhausted. It was my first time in Seville and it seemed beautiful with it's wide boulevards and old buildings, but with only a couple of hours to spare we made the most of it by having coffee and stocking up on beer for the flight. Flying back with Ryanair, the beer was essential, helping to numb the pain of their hard plastic seats.

Back in Britain, I spent a restless night trying to sleep on the airport floor then caught an early morning flight back to Finland. Stepping off the plane into the northern sunlight, it looked so different - the light was soft and blue after the bright sunlight of Morocco, and the autumn trees were full of orange and red colours. Dropped back into the luxury of the developed world, I spent the next few days seeing everything as an outsider. I would catch myself standing staring at motorways and neon signs, and watching people who had everything, going around looking absolutely miserable.

The trip had turned out really well, and I think during our time in Morocco we saw some of the best and the worst of the country; the intense friendliness of the people, and the desperate aggression of the touts. Although the Moroccan government have been trying to tackle some of the problems by introducing tourist police, it's hard to say whether, as tourism increases, things will get worse or improve. I'd definitely go back but I'd probably try to stay off the beaten track and maybe travel further in the south, where the atmosphere seemed more chilled.