The Marrakesh Express – Two Weeks in Morocco Pt 1. Maudlin’ Musicians and Metal Miners

I must have been in my teens when “Marrakesh Express” came out (1969). Those were heady days. Before Hendrix (1970) and Joplin died (1970). The Lizard King was still alive (died 1971). We were still trapped in Hotel California. Barclay James Harvest would play at our school a year or two later, followed by Genesis. We paid them £200 and a year later they were playing in Brighton for£2000. There are some music pundits that say that Marrakesh Express is among the worst pop songs ever written. But we didn’t care because to us it represented something totally different from the school environment in which we were trapped.

I can remember, to this day, singing the lyrics of the CSN song and fantasising with my teenage mates about heading off to Morocco – before we even really know what drugs and sex were. Instead I made it to the Costa del Sol, with two other school friends, where we got drunk on cheap champagne and risked imprisonment by hiring a car on a provisional licence and then driving around the Pyrenees with no insurance. That was the limit of our budget, nerve and time.

Had we met any women in Spain, I know that I, for one, would have had no idea what to say, let alone anything else. Being brought up with two brothers and attending an all male school for all but two of your school years will do that. It took me another 15 odd years (odd being the operative term) before I got over that handicap in life and, I’m sure, some of my female friends will argue I never got over it.

So, I guess, Morocco had been on the proverbial bucket list for somewhere around 50 years before I finally landed in Fes, earlier this year. A trip taken somewhat wiser about things like drugs and sex (or at least I like to believe so) but just as profoundly ignorant about Morocco and most of Africa.


Marrakesh Express

Whoopa, hey mesa, hooba huffa, hey meshy goosh goosh

Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
Traveling the train through clear Moroccan skies
Ducks and pigs and chickens call, animal carpet wall to wall
American ladies five-foot tall in blue

Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead bring us back to where they’ve led
Listen not to what’s been said to you

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
They’re taking me to Marrakesh
All aboard the train, all aboard the train

I’ve been saving all my money just to take you there
I smell the garden in your hair
Take the train from Casablanca going South
Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth

Colored cottons hang in the air
Charming cobras in the square
Striped djellabas we can wear at home
Well, let me hear ya now

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

They’re taking me to Marrakesh

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

They’re taking me to Marrakesh

All aboard the train, all aboard the train, all aboard


And so I boarded my RyanAir flight. As any wise traveller knows this, in itself, was my first mistake. Non Gaelic speakers may not know it but Ryan is the Gaelic word for “complete shite”. And if it’s not it should be. If you don’t have a bad back when you board you will when you are carried off. The seats are made from some form of indestructible rigid plastic and, far from reclining, are actually set in a bolt upright position.

RyanAir. Almost impossible to find anything uglier or less comfortable

The décor is what you imagine they’d put in Guantanamo to torture the inmates. And all this before you even get to the booking process and charges which if you have any self-respect, you’d never put yourself through twice. People say “Oh but it’s a budget airline”. I mean, Aldi is a budget supermarket but no one would go there if they behaved like RyanAir. Can you imagine? Want to walk down the aisles? That’ll be $5. Basket? $5. Customer assistance? $20. Pay for your goods? $5. Use the toilet $10. Still at least we got their alive albeit with a stiff neck and sciatica.

My second mistake in Morocco was breaking rule 2 (the first being don’t travel RyanAir) – which is don’t try and cram a four week itinerary into a two week period. One would imagine any Idiot Traveller would know this after 60 odd years of travelling. But no. So Morocco turned out to be like the proverbial curate’s egg, I.e good in parts – meaning of course that a revisit is required to make amends.

This is a country which is fundamentally Muslim and traditional in it’s Berber culture. It’s population is about 75% Berber and about 25% Arabic.

Morocco hasn’t been overly corrupted by tourism, and is also a relatively modern in ways that many African countries are not yet. Good public transport, good drinking water, great food, good accommodation and remarkable accomodating to tourists. So it’s really the best of both worlds. Politically is is relatively liberal and socially and religiously it falls somewhere between a historically liberal and secular muslim society, such as Turkey (perhaps was), and the more conservative societies of Iran and Saudi.

On the road to Merzouga, Morocco

My two week trip took me on a circuit via Fes, to Volubilis the ancient Roman city, to Merzouga, in the desert, and then on through the Atlas mountains to Marrakech before finishing my trip in Casablanca and then flying back out from Fes.

It’s a day long trip into the desert but it’s a trip that should really take at least two days and once you are there it’s a full day trip back to Fes or onto Marrakech. In the ideal world this should be a week’s circuit at minimum. A couple of days out. Three or four in the desert and a couple of days back. And even that is scratching the surface.

On the road to Merzouga

My first AirBnB was in the heart of the Medina, which is reputedly the largest and oldest in Africa. Morocco greeted me with freezing weather and the tail end of a few days of rain. And it turned out that the AirBnb, I’d selected, while having many redeeming features, not least it’s location, could well have doubled as the site for the winter Olympics.

Absent any heating the only solution, after about 4 pm, was either to go out or to bury oneself in bed wearing every possible scrap of clothing. Still the food  cooked by our friendly hosts was good and his brother, usefully, also owned a cafe about 50 metres up the road which allowed for evening entertainment and supplies not normally available  in the Medina.

I shared the paid bit of the accommodation with two other guests, an Australian woman, Tiffany and a French woman, Alex, with whom I would visit the desert out near Merzouga.

Mohamed and the monkeys at the ski resort

The Idiot Traveller rule for all new places is to have at least a half day, if not a full day. for organisational purposes. Work out where you are going to go. Find the teller machines, the railway and bus station, the best cafes, the interesting bars, the live music. Work out the timetables, plan your route, make your bookings if necessary.

Fes (Blue gate, Mosque, square outside Medina, pottery shop)

Then a minimum of two days to put that plan into effect. That’s the theory but often the first day turns into a sort of desultory blob of a day where you get up late, have a brunch, get some money out, study your map over a coffee, stroll around a bit and climb up the nearest hill (if there is one) where you can buy a wine and look at the city below. That then becomes your spare day so you need four days minimum instead of three. So that was day one in Fes. Meaning the first part of day two is taken up doing what you should have done on day one.

Fes

My second day in Fes involved a side trip to Volubilis, the ancient and former capital or Roman Mauretania. Not that I was aware that the Romans even came this far south-west but clearly they did since just an hour from Fes is bloody great Roman ruin, estimably well preserved.

This was an Idiot Traveller instant decision – the sort you make when you haven’t been forced to make decisions of any importance for so long that you can no longer remember how to make them. Shall I go, shan’t I go, shall I go, shan’t I go…for about four hours. With the result that by the time I actually headed for the station it was already about 11 am.

So you jump the train omitting to note that one should get off at the second stop in Meknes. As a result you descend at the first station in town thus finding yourself marooned several kilometres from the “grand taxis” which you are supposed to share to go to Moulay Idriss, the nearest town, and then on to Volubilis.

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The holy city of Moulay Idriss

Here I encounter Chloë Mayoux who has made the same mistake as I but hasn’t yet realised that she has made that mistake. Chloë is a half French, half British being. She can’t decide if she is French or British and thus was a sort of Brexit before Brexit ever existed.

Cat Brexit

Chloë says she feels more British than French even though she exhibits every sign of being psychologically about 90% French and prefers to speak French. She is being cajoled by an elderly Moroccan who is trying, illegally, to sell her an unofficial tour of Volubilis.

On seeing me he determines that I shall (a) be his second victim and (b) by persuading me he will also be able to persuade Chloë as the cost to each of us will be halved. Unfortunately for him I perform the Scots gambit, a tourism form of a chess move which prevents one being checkmated by a clever tourism operator and saves a lot of money.

So I persuade Chloë, clearly against her better judgement, to share a petit taxi to where we can get a shared grand taxi. 

Chloë’s protective alarm systems are at Code Red. I can sense the hackles rising on the back of her neck as she tries to decide if I am (a) an axe murderer (b) a sex slave trader (c) merely a dirty old man who is likely to annoy and harass her. Having made the judgement that the latter is the most likely and reasonably benign outcome, but clearly still being very doubtful, we set off.

Communication is sparse as Chloë follows the female strategy of “don’t think I’m going to encourage your interest in me by speaking to you”.  This is a sort of partial inverse of the female complaint about being sexually invisible after about age 50.

strangers

In fact the same sense of invisibility applies to older men but, not only that, one is burdened with the perils of being perceived as a potential serial molester of young women if one is the least bit friendly to any female stranger under the age of 30. It is perhaps poetic justice for several thousand years of patriarchy.

Arriving eventually at Volubilis I can tell that the last thing Chloë wants is to be forced to do the tour of the ruins with me. Which is fine because I feel the same way. For me being forced to undertake tours as part of a group, however small, is about as satisfying is it is for my partner to be forced to take me shopping. It ruins the entire experience.  Still we bump into each other a few times as we tour the ruins and by the time we come to return it appears that Chloë is no longer at code red.

Volubilis itself is a delight. It’s large and well preserved as Roman ruins go. It sits high on a mini-plateau with spectacular views all around – especially good for sunset viewing – and it has a plethora of well preserved buildings, mosaics and bath houses.

This was the ancient capital of the Roman-Berber kingdom of Mauretania and, as such, was full of grand buildings. Historically this was also the capital of numerous empires. Built in and occupied since the 3rd century BC, Volubilis had seen its share of residents – Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans – before being taken back by the locals by 285 AD.

The city remained occupied by Latin Christians, then Muslims, then the Idrisid dynasty, the founders of modern Morocco. In the 11th century, it was abandoned when the seat of power moved to Fes. The ruins remained substantially intact until they were devastated by an earthquake in the mid-18th century and subsequently looted by Moroccan rulers seeking stone for building Meknes.

The buildings include a massive arch to the Emperor Caracalla. It was built in 217 by the city’s governor, Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, to honour the Emperor and his mother. Caracalla was himself a North African and had recently extended Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of Rome’s provinces.

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The Triumphal Arch of Caracalla

By the time the arch was finished both Caracalla and his mother, Julia had been murdered by a usurper – perhaps a warning against misplaced vanity. Other major buildings include the Capitol dedicated to Juno, Jupiter and Minerva and the Basilica . The Capitol was built under the obscure (at least to me) Emperor Macrin (the ancestor of the current French President, perhaps).

The Arch, Basilica and Capitol, Volubilis

Volubilis is sufficiently intact that, wandering around the ruins, in and out among the baths, houses and mosaics one can almost imagine the footsteps of a thousand years ago, echoing down the stone streets. In winter this is exploration of the past at its best. There are few places in the world to see better examples of Roman mosaics, in situ.

Volubilis. Every step a joy

Our return trip to Fes is more relaxed and somewhat hilarious, or at least the first part. Our “grand taxi” is an old Mercedes which is already completely full save the front passenger seat. This means that Chloë and I have to share that seat and I make the mistake of not insisting on being in middle.

Being a manual car this means that every time the driver changes gear Chloë has to perform a feat of yoga practice combining a new move, known as upward dog, combined with a right hand twist in order to avoid getting groped by the taxi driver each time he changes gear. This is repeated about 40 times on the trip becoming increasingly hilarious as time passes. Maybe it was the Roman air. Our return to the station is made easy by a Moroccan woman who goes out of her way to accompany us the 500 metres to the station out of the goodness of her heart and we finally arrive back in Fes around 8 pm.

I have another day in Fes. The Fes Medina has allegedly over 8000 streets and lanes and venturing out into that maze of alleys to find a particular location is a bit like looking for ethics and values in a modern day democracy. They are out there somewhere but finding them is somewhat tortuous with no guarantee of success.

In my view better by far just to set off blindly and hope that, by chance, good things will happen. This was my plan if you can call a plan with only unknown unknowns a plan. But the advantage is that you stumble across all sorts of interesting little side alleys and cafes populated only by locals where you can either have good conversations or get mugged and robbed.

Either are, of course, interesting experiences but one is less stressful than the other. In addition you escape the majority of the other tourists who tend to stick to tried and true routes. Still since I was close to the famous blue Gate and the tannery these were included in my itinerary.

The trip to the desert was like Gordon and Speke’s search for the source of the Nile. We knew, ostensibly where we were going, but beyond that we had little information about the how, when, why or who with.

Lake Victoria
Lake Victoria, Nile source

This was a variation on my Fes Medina exploration, this time with some known unknowns as well as unknown unknowns. I was to travel with Alex, a young Frenchwoman just about to return to France having finished her studies, who was desperate to visit the desert before she left.

Then there was Mohamed the owner of the AirBnB, his cousin Salah and there was the driver who was apparently anonymous and who tried hard not to smile or communicate during the entire trip. 

Prior to leaving I knew only Mohamed and Salah among the group and they were the known unknowns.  Alex, Mohamed and Salah had known each other for a while, so I felt a bit like the third wheel.

Alex and me, Mohamed and me, the two boys and Alex and the road trip crew

Alex and Salah, in particular, and Mohamed to a lesser degree apparently had a form of love hate relationship going on where which felt like some form of asexual codependency where Salah spent the entire trip trying to touch and fondle Alex, which she accepted and appeared to even like until such time as it went beyond some unwritten and unspoken boundary at which point a shouting match would start and Salah would sulk off in a passive aggressive way until the entire sequence started again.

The trip to the desert passes through the nearest ski resorts and through many kilometres of semi-desert with the shining Atlas mountains in the distance.

It’s a fascinating trip broken by a few stops to visit villages and desert oases en route.

Each of the stops and where we go next is a bit of a magic mystery tour because Mohamed’s idea of being a tour guide is to just to go and not really tell anyone where the tour group is going, or when or why. The exemplar of this was arriving in Merzouga where Mohamed and Salah just mysteriously disappeared leaving Alex and I abandoned with no information and, more importantly, no alcohol.

In the morning we pile into the van and are driven out to Khamlia to see a performance by a group of musicians from the Gnaoua – about whom you can read more below.

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The music and performance are worth going for but for the sense that The Gnaoua musicians feel like a cross between circus performers and sweatshops labourers in Bangladesh.

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The Gnaoua – maudlin musicians

There is a distinct sense of ennui which makes watching the performers a tad uncomfortable for the onlookers – in fact some look so sad at being there  that you feel that they are about to start weeping – . You know you will be shuffled out the door and in another half an hour the performers will perform the same songs for another group of tourists. It’s the sort of thing that makes one want to avoid anything organised of this type.

From here we drive further into the desert to look at a semi-traditional Berber settlement – where the inhabitants are still on the margin of our technological society but are no longer nomadic and then onto a desert mine where a couple of miners scrape a living extracting a variety of stones for jewellery via a semi mechanised small scale mine.

Metal miners in the desert cold

Being winter the conditions are harsh, cold, with a biting dust laden wind. My sense of discomfort at being a spectator of other peoples’ lives is repeated. No matter how hospitable the people are or how interesting the places are the sense of intrusion is overwhelming.

Berber desert dwellings. How to feel intrusive

The sense of exploitation soon becomes a sense of the ridiculous. We are to go into the desert to camp overnight at a desert camp. These are specially constructed for tourists to give them a better sense of being in the desert. Which, in itself, is fine but it’s the way we get there that is somewhat hilarious. We are to go by camel about which I don’t have a particular issue until I discover that while Alex and I are to ride the three others, our camel guide, Mohamed and Saleh are to walk alongside.

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And the poor shall walk. While Alex and I perched precariously on our ships of the desert, like Lord and Lady Muck, the poor people walked

So, there we are perched precariously on our lurching ships of the desert to go to somewhere which is close enough to walk to, while alongside us the serfs are required to walk. Not only that but they are doing so in a wind which constantly lifts sand into all our faces and much so for those walking. It’s a neat encapsulation of modern day capitalism where the rich ride, metaphorically, on the backs of the poor (who cannot afford a camel ride).

Nevertheless the night is entertaining with good food, wine and music….unlike the previous stops the workers at the camp appear to be enjoying their work and the evening jam session is a delight. That combined with the beauty of the desert night and dawn make a Moroccan Desert experience of sorts a must do – just not the way this Idiot Traveller did it.

Alex and Salah desert camp
Dinner in the desert

Music in the desert camp. The locals do the jam session

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2 thoughts on “The Marrakesh Express – Two Weeks in Morocco Pt 1. Maudlin’ Musicians and Metal Miners

Add yours

  1. Enjoyed seeing parts of Morocco through your eyes and adventures – its a place i’d like to travel…
    Ski resorts and local jam session – I’m in!!

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