Born in Newcastle, Broken in Marrakesh

‘Let’s go to Marrakesh’ my beloved said. ‘It will be fun’ he announced.

It was about as fun as diarrhoea, which luckily, was one thing I didn’t have to endure on this traumatic trip! They say ‘You get what you pay for’. At £147 each for four nights including flights, there was never a truer statement said.

I will be honest, I am a bit of an Idiot Abroad. Think of me as a more intelligent and less naïve Carl Pilkington. However, what Carl and I have in absolute unison is our need for home comforts, our lack of common sense and a complete need to have British crisps on any trip we take. You may mock, but my essential travel items of Monster Munch, porridge and cereal bars became absolutely paramount on this holiday.

When I discussed my up and coming holiday with colleagues at work, I was greeted with some level of shock, laughter and tales of their own personal experiences in North Africa. One colleague, Mark, responded with ‘You? Marrakesh?’ with a humorous amazement spreading across his face.

‘I went years ago, travelled up a mountain, sacrificed a goat and ate it’ he said. After witnessing the sheer terror on my face as the colour drained from me, he compassionately added ‘But it was about twenty years ago’. Mark also, in hindsight, accurately and concerningly knows me better than my life partner, adding into the conversation ‘You’ll not like it’. Mark, consider everything that you say in the future as being my gospel.

A further opportunity to discuss said planned holiday was brought up at another work meeting, where Gospel Mark announced that whilst on his goat slaying trip to Marrakesh, he did the usual visit to the Souks (markets in the famous square). He informed the meeting that whilst perusing the array of beautiful crockery and bizarre acts of snake charmers and stall holders, that he heard some cheering and shouting. His first thought was that this was some form of lively Moroccan street performer. Strolling over to have a look at the entertainment, he instead observed a public flogging of ‘someone with a very small head’ being stoned to death. I believe my initial response was ‘You’re f*@ing joking?’ Turns out it wasn’t a joke.

At this point, I had mentally collated a list of warning factors about Marrakesh, health hazards if you want. The risk of being stoned to death was added to the checklist, noted down in my brain as approximately number 112 on the register.

Now of course, we all know that Trip Advisor is the second worse thing to research on the internet. This coming in at silver place to conducting a health symptoms checker on Google and diagnosing yourself as only having six days left to live. However, the urge to research my holiday destination was, understandably overwhelming after discussions with lived experience Marrakesh travellers.

‘I got worms. They were falling out of me’ advised another colleague. ‘Dear God, what the hell did you eat?’ was my enquiry. ‘It was from salad. You have to wash all your food. They were long, black worms’. The horror visible in my eyes, she offered some supportive advice.

‘Get some anti-worming tablets’. ‘What, like those you get for your dog?’ I questioned, aghast. Another life lesson right there. Human beings can in fact get anti-worming tablets. A new one for the holiday check-list along with travel plugs, nail varnish and shower gel.

‘Carry bottled water and wash everything’. Bloody hell, I thought, more Monster Munch and porridge to go in the case and only eat something with a peel able skin. Then again, don’t worms help you loose weight? Or do they just grow and eat your intestines and you starve to death?

The vision of Marrakesh in my mind was building, and believe me, it wasn’t pretty in the slightest. In fact, it was rapidly becoming the stuff of nightmares.

Whilst booking our ‘adventure’ one Friday night after a few too many orange gins, and the suggestion to expand my cultural experiences from my (used to be) better half, I was easily persuaded to book. What can I say? I love a holiday and fancy myself as a bit of a Poundshop Judith Chalmers, with a few less wrinkles and a shopping addiction. Ignorantly, I did no research myself, relaying on my exceptionally well-travelled partner, with his experience of visiting over thirty countries, as well as the assumption he knows his partner very well after a decade.

As the weeks before we departed on my initially hoped African retreat came closer, my beloved began drip feeding me snippets of information.

‘Well, there will be begging and homelessness’. That’s a busman’s holiday for me, working for a national homelessness charity. I felt nothing could be as distressing as the homelessness I witnessed in San Francisco, so although upsetting, thought I could manage witnessing the hardship and poverty.

‘And there will be monkey’s on chains and snake charmers’, both of which I did not want to visualise as an animal lover. ‘And chicken’s in cages’. The national dish was then mentioned. Now we aren’t talking lasagne, fish and chips, Sunday roast type of dish. No chance. The famous dish in Marrakesh is in fact, sheep’s head. Yes, sheep’s head. Boiled and served as it is (perhaps carved if lucky). You’ve got to be joking? So let’s summarise; I’ve been a vegetarian for thirty years, the national dish is one of our farmyard friends boiled head and the salad gives you worms that sound like eels falling out of your backside. As you can imagine, I couldn’t wait to go!

Then Trip Advisor happened and the reviews added to my shot nerves. Along with the pre-existing traumas, after reading a number of reviews further fear factors included women getting spat at for bearing their shoulders and knees, people expressing constant harassment from locals to buy from them or pay them for giving them directions, as well as organised crime gangs.

In the midst of my soon to premier nightmare, there was a silver lining. I was absolutely looking forward to staying in a traditional Moroccan hotel, a Riad. These are small, authentic B&B style accommodation with around six rooms which are usually family run. I was also super excited to visit the Atlas Mountains (slightly less excited after colleague Mark’s goat sacrifice story).

On discussion with my beloved, it transpired that the Atlas Mountains trip sounded like it was going to be a right chew on. It included numerous jaunts on the way to said mountains such as visiting tour guide’s brothers oil shop, cousin’s leather shop and uncles tat shop before eating with their family, probably getting worms and having to drink mint tea (which is absolutely vile by the way and I am not sure it is African etiquette to hold your nose and down it like I would if Aftershock was imposed on me).

BUT, I was prepared to embrace the experience as I knew the mountains would be stunning. So in preparation, I bought some Royal Family postcards (personally not a fan) for our hosts and some shortbread biscuits as a thank you for their expected hospitality.

The day before our trip soon arrived and we travelled to Manchester to fly and see some good friends beforehand. By this point the tragedy of Coronavirus was the headline of all news, with just under 1,000 cases identified in the UK and 28 identified in Marrakesh. There was something in the back of my mind that worried me. Women would call in ‘female intuition’, men and my beloved may call it ‘paranoia’. Either way, I will dine out on this ‘paranoia’ for the remainder of our lives together, given what happened on our trip.

The next day came, we dropped our car, Big Viv, off at the airport parking and soon arrived at Manchester airport. The flight was half full and all seemed happy enough. We later found out that 15 minutes after we landed in Marrakesh, the Moroccan government announced they would be closing the borders.

Our private shuttle collected us at the airport to take us to our Riad. I saw a sign for Casablanca.

‘Ooh is Casablanca nice?’ I enquired like an excited child.

‘No, there’s nothing there but a Mosque’ he replied.

That’s the end of that conversation then.

Our ride dropped us off and a member of staff came to meet us to take us to our Riad. We stayed in the Medina, the old town of Marrakesh (turns out sensible people stay in the new town or on the outskirts on the whole). The Medina streets were like a maze, cobbled and with a very, very vague physical appearance to The Shambles in York. Imagine The Shambles with two stray cats per each twenty five walking steps, someone pestering you and interrupting you on each third step, and speeding mopeds flying past you every ten seconds as you walk down a street as narrow as your lounge.

We arrived at our Riad and were greeted by our lovely hosts with some mint tea, which I ungratefully gagged at, before being shown our room. The room was beautiful and everything I envisaged. Traditional, colourful and inviting. The staff were friendly, warm and hospitable.

After unpacking, we ventured out for a mooch. Exploring a new city is such an adventure and we both wanted to have a look around and absorb the atmosphere and culture. Stepping out of our Riad, we got immediately pestered with someone wanting to give us directions, followed by almost getting mowed down by a speeding moped. Not easily phased, we continued to mooch, having to use Google maps to venture out of the Medina maze.

Within five minutes we had approximately twenty eight locals telling us the Souks ‘weren’t that way’ or ‘that way is closed’ in attempts to get us to follow them. Now it is known that locals will try and direct you. This will be either to their shop or possibly to the Souks, where they will expect money for the directions. By all means this is certainly not every single local, and during our trip we encountered some lovely people, but this pressure and harassment is commonplace.

We mooched around for a bit, enjoying our orange gin that we had picked up in Duty Free and taking in the new, slightly intimidating atmosphere as we headed in the right direction to the Souks. It was getting dark by now so thankfully, I didn’t witness the monkeys on chains or the snakes and their so-called charmers. Instead we were able to look for one or two seconds at the stalls, before having the local Del Boy and Rodney almost mount us for a sale. This paired with the shock to my retinas of observing the traditional boiled sheep’s heads hanging from multiple food stalls and people tucking in with enthusiasm, made me grateful of my slight fuzziness thanks to my gin.

Time was now getting on, and my other half, like a baby, needs fed every two hours. We walked around the square a few times, trying to glimpse at the menu outside without getting accosted. Finally settling on somewhere that had more than one vegetarian option, we were guided upstairs to the open restaurant, allowing us to look over the Souks from a distance. I could absorb the smells, the lights, the hustle and bustle away from the animal skulls!

Having traditional tagine was a pleasant experience, albeit in the back of my mind I was angst about contracting the eel type worms I had heard so much about. After our meal, we decided to head back.

Ignorant in our stroll, we had a full stomach and were merry from our gin. Still not familiar with our surroundings, we attempted to navigate the maze of the Medina to find out little Riad. Coming to a small, narrow walkway that looked like gates were shutting, we were told that we could not enter and had to go another way. Like the many people in the few hours we had been there, a man told us to ‘follow him’. We seemed limited in ways to go other than the way we had came so reluctantly followed, with my partner saying we did not want to go to his shop and hanging back a little. After about a minute, we were still following, around narrow turns. We weren’t our usual sharp self, given the consumption of gin, but it all felt wrong.

The man rushed a head a little, looking over his shoulder. At this point there was an exit in the path to our right. I told my beloved we needed to go down there instead of following the man. As we rushed down the possible exit, we saw a moped come zooming up and going the way the man had been guiding us. We soon realised that we had narrowly escaped an organised mugging. We were very lucky. Even as a six foot muscular bloke and the little radgie that I can be, we were targets.

After a disturbed sleep we awoke to the news that due to Coronavirus, the borders of Morocco were closing. The Moroccan Government had decided that flights would cease at midnight that night, both in and out of Morocco and a full lockdown would commence in the next few days. After the panic from the near miss mugging the night before and the thought of being stuck somewhere that was certainly not my cup of tea, it felt like a shitty prank!

We spent the next few hours researching, contacting the Embassy, attempting and utterly failing to contact Ryanair who were flying us home three days later. My partner had to listen to me repeatedly saying I couldn’t possibly be stuck there for weeks on end with hysteria increasing in my voice. It didn’t help, and our usual in love bliss was tested with my increasing distaste for the situation. Flights were being cancelled all over and looking on social media was both helpful and traumatic in equal measures.

After around eight hours of research, multiple cups of tea and breakfast and lunch of Ginger Nuts, Skinny Whips and bananas, we concluded that we would keep checking the Ryanair app for our departing flight, frantically, but try and make the most of the days left.

Venturing out, I knew I couldn’t tolerate the Medina atmosphere for long. My heightened anxiety about being stranded and the persistent and rude advancements from some of the locals, meant someone was going to get my wrath (if I would have been brave enough to brandish it!) Luckily, my partner didn’t give any harassers the lickings of a dog and abruptly said an insistent ‘No’ at every five steps.

We decided to walk to the New Town, around thirty minutes walk away.  I was exhausted from dodging away from speeding mopeds, and thankful to arrive to the New Town which had more traffic control and was less populated. I had never been as happy to see H&M in my life. However, the shops were starting to become empty following the Government imminent lock down announcement.

After an hour or so respite in the New Town, we headed back to Pester-ville. There was a market off a roundabout which signified the start of the Old Town / Medina where we were staying. What I witnessed next summed up the visible border of stepping back into my residential hell.

Dodging over the road, walking out on the cars that refused to stop at the zebra crossing, and mopeds making me jump so much I looked like I was doing a dance routine, I luckily made it to the side of the road and the start of the market. Knowing I couldn’t look at the stalls for more than a nano-second without having to buy the whole cart, I tried to look elsewhere. Big mistake. I noticed a moped about to start. Anxious in going through possibly getting mowed down for the 108th time, I looked at the moped, only to be greeted with two freshly severed sheep’s heads, dangling from the handlebars. In absolute shock and disgust, my brain tried to register what I had saw as I looked the other way. Low and behold my gaze immediately met another moped about to speed off with a family squashed onto it, with two more animals heads dangling down, this time those of two cows.

‘What the f*@k?’, my reaction to my beloved. ‘Have you seen, have you seen it?’ I was almost screeching. ‘Yes, yes I have’ was his calm but disgusted reply.

We walked in silence, I was too disturbed to talk. Only to be greeted with more carcasses within sixty seconds.

It felt like a computer game to get back to safety, to complete our level and get the reward of closing our Riad bedroom door and having a cup of tea, although we went straight in for something stronger.

‘Why in God’s name have we come here?’ was my most asked question of the last 24 hours. My partner, and his well-travelled and expected knowledge of what his beloved likes and dislikes after a decade, was questioned continuously. He disclosed that he didn’t realise it would be as far away from our holiday wish list as it was. You’re not friggin kidding!

After making it clear I didn’t want to go out when dark, we spent the rest of the evening drinking gin, eating crisps and checking Ryanair app like maniacs. At least our little room was comfortable and cosy, even though it was so intimate that we were scared to cough and heard the staff’s mobile phone beeping like buggery non-stop.

The next day we had a scheduled trip to the Atlas Mountains. Something I had been massively looking forward to before our trip, even with the chew on sound of getting involved with the tour guide’s whole family. But now it was something I was nervous about. Nervous incase our flight was changed and we had to get to the airport immediately and nervous because at this point, I had only met a small handful of people who were not intimidating, harassing me or looking at me like I was scum. I am certain this is not common place, but given Coronavirus and the increasing cases in Morocco (28 before we went which jumped to 50 before we left), there was an underlying unpleasant atmosphere which added to the pot of awfulness.

The Moroccan Government had announced that they had extended the availability for flights to leave up until 19th March. Great for us as this was the day we were due to leave (and coincidently my Birthday!) So, it looked like our flight could go ahead. However, other airlines were announcing they were cancelling flights and people had to rebook, even on their original flight as so many Brits were stranded and kicking off at the airport.

Arriving at our pick up point for the Atlas Mountain trip, we were relieved to see another couple waiting. By this time we had began a little game of saying  #howareyougettinghome to ourselves every time we saw someone who looked slightly European.

The couple were from London. They were scheduled on our flight home on the 19th also. They were staying on the border of the Old and New Town but had recruited a local guide to show them around and keep them safe. Speaking to them, I was relieved they would be on the trip with us to the Atlas Mountains. Now normally I am anti-social on holiday. Don’t get me wrong, I am most definitely a people’s person and working in the social care field, this is paramount. However, on holiday, I most certainly don’t want to make friends, and I don’t want to make small talk unless essential. I just want time with my beloved and to destress from my busy job. I was all over these two London bods and my heart felt ripped out when two mini buses arrived and we were separated. The cynic in me also thought we may be getting kidnapped. Turned out it was on instruction from the tour company management due to the impending lockdown that day.

Luckily, our tour guide and the driver were delightful and we got a thorough history of our destination and sites on the way. The next stop was an oil shop where we had a snack of bread and dips and the hideous mint tea. The bread and dip which tasted like peanut butter was delicious. It was followed by a demonstration on how they make argan oil and subsequent creams and oils. I purchased one for wrinkles. I needed it before my trip, but by God, I aged a good five years in 3.5 days, so it would come in handy.

Next was a camel ride. I was already feeling guilty about this and worried about how the camels were looked after. I knew it would be a one time only experience for me. Trying to ask questions around welfare proved difficult but I got as much comfort as I was going to about how the camels were treated.

At last we were at the mountains, following a trail and hearing of the history of the Berber villages, which was fascinating. I was both impressed and a little bit in love with our tour guide who was so refreshingly polite and knowledgeable. We were taken to lunch, spiced lentils, bread, vegetable tagine and fruit. Delicious and no worms to date, touch wood. Our trip to the Atlas Mountains was almost over, just the 90 minute journey back to the hell of the Medina.

We soon arrived back and as we stepped off the bus and tipped and thanked our hosts, we turned around to see another disturbing sight that brought us right back down to Medina earth. Around 20 people walking down the street. Some carrying a home-made coffin, made from what looked like wooden pallets with a body hanging out. The shock and sadness of the situation was stark, and from the looks of the precession towards us, it could have quite possibly, tragically been a Covid-19 fatality.

Scurrying back to our Riad sanctuary, we were grateful of a beautiful trip out and to be back safe. Entering our Riad room, it had been disinfected to an inch of its life. Marrakesh was now in lockdown and although the Riad staff were lovely, they were clearly frightened.

Checking our Ryanair app for the 78th time that day, all seemed on track for two days time, thankfully.

As Marrakesh was now in lockdown, the next day we decided to go out early for water and food essentials for the day from the Supermarket, then go back and stay at our Riad, hopeful that the sun would come out and we could sit on our rooftop terrace. Over breakfast, we attempted French to communicate with the only other guest in our Riad, a French-Canadian couple. The Canadian Embassy were not assisting them. They advised us that they were stuck in Morocco until 4th April and that they were heading out to the Sahara Desert the next day to stay in a tent as hotels were closing. It felt really sad and the woman was very upset. I felt massive gratitude that our flight still seemed to be on track.

We left for the Supermarket, trying to take the most direct route. Some stalls were still open but the Medina was becoming deserted. Locals were still around and telling us to go the other way. Some locals were speaking in Arabic or French that we could not understand but seemed to be shouting at us as making gestures. It felt very uncomfortable and intimidating. Again, I was happy to return to the Riad, and we were lucky enough to have a few hours of sunshine, a book to read in between frantic Ryanair app checking and the remainder of our gin. I was ecstatic that it was our last night and anxious to be fastening my seat belt on the plane.

Eighteen hours later we were all checked in and sitting on our flight. Relief is a beautiful feeling and touching down in Manchester, even though it was many hours later than anticipated, was the best birthday present I could have asked for.

Would I recommend Marrakesh? Absolutely not.

Was it made worse by the current tragic pandemic? Most definitely.

However, I know what I like, I tried a new experience, it felt like a horror film. In the future I will most definitely stick to the phrase ‘You get what you pay for’.

Authors Note: This is a personal opinion only and it is absolutely appreciated that people would have had wonderful, enjoyable experiences of Marrakesh. We all like different things and that’s what makes us unique. I truly hope, if you have been, you had a magnificent experience, unlike myself!


4 thoughts on “Born in Newcastle, Broken in Marrakesh

  1. Fantastic ! Couldn’t stop reading . Funny , refreshing and addictive and informative. Look forward to reading more from you .


  2. Very, very funny. You vividly conveyed the sights, smells and sounds of your trip, not to mention the multiple anxieties. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief when you were finally on the plane home. Great writing! Keep them coming when you feel inspired.


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