Examining a map of Marrakesh quickly becomes an exercise in socio-political cliches; the western side of the city is dominated by rectilinear boulevards and avenues that are obviously based on a large scale, pre-arranged plan. The eastern side, by contrast, is a living organism of tangled alleyways and ill-defined streets that haphazardly lead to plazas or simply become dead ends. In search of a hotel, we drove into the latter at night with its famous square, the Jamaa il Fna, in full swing. It was like waltzing into a bee hive. Knots of robed pedestrians unceasingly spilled around our moving car as we vied for limited space amidst a chaos of donkey carts, taxis and itinerant vendors. At times the idea of individual sides of the road became wishful thinking. Navigating our lengthy Volvo further into the Medina only made it worse. Even in first gear we were afraid we might run someone over or destroy their sidewalk stall. After winding through several claustrophobic alleyways and arriving at one of the Medina's ubiquitous cul-de-sacs, we wisely decided to beat a retreat and head back to the modern quarter.
As we still needed to provision ourselves for the journey ahead and buy some useful equipment for the desert, such as water containers, another spare wheel and sand ladders, we decided to devote the following day to these ventures. The obvious place to start was in the enormous market behind the Jamaa il Fna. Arabic souqs (markets) are always interesting places but the one in Marrakesh is supreme. Its narrow lanes and pint -sized stalls boast a cornucopia of everything that Morocco produces from filigreed wooden furniture to musical instruments to carpets. It was in the realm of scents, perfumes and incense that we lost our way. Trygve is a dedicated scent junkie who has wisely turned her addiction into a successful business in New York. Being with her is like having a dog's nose for a companion. All thought of trying to achieve our initial aims vanished the moment she saw the first perfume shop. At first the dealers assume she's just another tourist without a clue and pull out the cheap oils, then little by little come to realize they are talking to an expert. Then the good stuff comes out. For my own part, I'm not a big fan of scents and spent most of my time trying to absorb the swirling ambience of the souq while being intermittently swabbed with perfumed concoctions or having jars of dried flowers thrust beneath my nose.
Despite the all consuming hubbub, the Medina is calmer than it used to be, at least for foreigners. The last time I was here, fifteen years ago, wandering through the souq meant stepping from one hassle into the next one. Trying to extricate yourself from a carpet shop without buying anything was an exercise in both patience and perseverance. We've been told there's been a big crack down by the authorities and that the touts who used to make life hell for the tourists now receive healthy fines and/or prison terms. I suppose we should be grateful.
That being said, exploring the Medina was a delightful adventure with every turning offering something entirely different. On one street your nose suddenly alerts you to the subtle, green smell of cedar wood. Following the scent trail, you discover a small workshop where planks are being made. Around the next corner a long table is laden with mounds of patisseries swarming with bees. Neither the people working there nor the those buying their goods seem to pay the insects the slightest attention. The touts come up to be sure. "Monsieur, you want to see the tannery? Come. I show you," but then leave as easily as they came. For me the weirdest experience was to be taken into a carpet shop for a cup of mint tea, getting engrossed in conversation with the owner and then leaving without having been shown a single piece of merchandise. By the end of the day the only piece of equipment we'd bought for the journey ahead was a single forty liter water container. There's always tomorrow.