Marrakech: the perpetual circus - Have this woman washed and brought to my tent - CycleBlaze

Marrakech: the perpetual circus

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IT'S THE NOISE that gets you - the racket of the souk, the narrow passageways of a thousand cave-like shops, the alleys a hive, the sky hidden by primitive roofing of fronds and sticks. And then there are the Moroccans, youthful usually but not always, who insist on riding mopeds as fast as they dare through the crowd. Nobody seems to care. It's Moroccan life. Nobody is touched, nobody hurt. Fate will decide who will suffer, who will be spared. Fate seems on our side. Inch'allah.

Then it's the drumming in the grand square, and the strident, disagreeable warbling of high-pitched trumpets, for their own sake or to encourage interest in bored, broad-necked snakes too sleepy to dance. Crowds gather around musicians in long robes of white, sometimes red or brown. The musicians seem perpetually on the verge of playing but never do. We think they are collecting enough coins to tell a musical story, but since everything is in Berber and sometimes Arabic, we just don't know.

Lines of wheeled stalls sell heaped oranges and cones of herbs. Don't drink at the orange stalls, we're warned: the juice is spliced with unclean water to improve the profits.

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There are temporary restaurants, wheeled in each afternoon on carts, and sad-looking monkeys that perform tricks to nobody's great interest. It's all commercial, of course. The water-sellers in their royal scarlet and yellow, ringing small brass bells to attract attention, haven't sold water in years. They are living photo opportunities. Ten dirhams a time. Lift a camera without paying and they turn the other way before your finger reaches the button. Even old men making buckets from car tyres in the souk, as untouristic an activity as you can imagine, rub thumb and forefinger at the hint of a camera. They all know the going rate and complain bitterly if you don't meet it.

There's charm in it all, of course. Naturally there is. Enough remains of the original to see how once it must have been.

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"It's all changed," the taxi driver warned us as we drove from the airport with our bike boxes sticking out his yellow Mercedes. He meant it was no longer as it was in 1984, the last time we were in Marrakech, when we took a bus across the mountains from Agadir as part of our honeymoon. Then there were still medicine men squatting before carpets of potions, and people employed to dig wax from your ears, and others who sat writing letters for those who couldn't spell. They didn't ask money to be pictured then: if they didn't want to be, they waved or they turned their head. There were far fewer tourists.

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But then why shouldn't it have changed? Things die when they stay the same. In 1984, there were doubtless those who remembered the 1960s, when hippies and gurus added an odd charm, and in the 1960s they must have looked back fondly to the 1930s. It's life.

There are authentic parts, of course. There are souks of useful things rather than tourist tat, quieter places that sell reels of cotton and hammers and coffee mugs. We bought gas bottles and a pair of pliers from one stand, our only and, I agree, limited contact with Marrakech beyond tourism. Other than that, we spent a couple of days wandering old palaces and what in a western context would be stately homes. We weren't dissatisfied with our stay in Marrakech but we were expected to be tourists and we obliged.

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