Once you leave air-conditioned Marrakesh airport, hot, muggy air gets to your body so forcefully that you start to imagine how hell feels like. The only rescue is to take a bus trip to the city centre ensuring all bus windows are wide open. Drought brings some relief. The thick soup of air turns into a warm breeze. Always something.
In the alley leading to the Jemaa El Fna, the main square of Marrakesh, people were waiting for buses going to nearby villages. In the shade of trees, gathered in groups, men sat and loudly debated, from time to time trying to start a conversation with tourists passing by.
– Where are you going? Asked a middle-aged man. He looked tired. Furrowed face with a few days old grey beard made him look older.
– Nowhere! – I quickly responded, as I already knew, that any answer betraying the slightest hesitation might be costly. Moroccans are not selfless people. For any “help”, even if the wrong direction was given, they expect to be paid immediately. And they expect euros or dollars, not dirhams.
– Tell me where you go, I’ll help you – he insisted.
– Thank you. We’ll manage. – Well, I knew we would not be able to handle it ourselves, because our accommodation was somewhere in the middle of the medina, in one of its unmarked narrow streets. This is what our rather inaccurate map, found on some travel blog, would suggest.
– If you think you know how to find the place you are supposed to stay overnight, you do not know anything! “The man yelled. He was right, we knew next to nothing about Marrakesh at that time.
We went along the shaded alley. In the main square small traders, musicians who came to Marrakesh from the desert, snake charmers and monkeys owners were gathering to get the best spot for the night displays of their talents. The ruthless heat from the skies didn’t spare anyone.
– Come to me! Come here! The best juice in the town! You will not find any better! The men who prepared fresh fruit juice were shouting. We went to one of them to buy two glasses of orange juice. Sweet – and – sour liquid was the best that could happen to us at the moment.
We moved forward. In the narrow streets of the medina, the traders opened their stands. The smell of tanned skin, fresh meat, spices, exhaust gas from cheap gasoline and the heat mixed with each other. Floating, ubiquitous dust penetrated the nose and eyes. The map, which was supposed to point the right path, took us to the other end of the old city, beyond its walls. Red Marrakech. This city, like the desert on which it was built, is unpredictable and ruthless.
We sat on the high curb in front of the motorbike shop. It was not long before another self-appointed ” guide” approached us – naturally he “knew “where we are supposed to sleep. We surrendered “Let him take us”. We followed him for over an hour. The “guide” asked the locals for directions, and each of them directed us in the other direction. When we finally reached the place, we threw our backpacks, refreshed ourselves and fell asleep with the sound of the fan working in the corner of the room. It was very old and was spinning around in a very annoying rhythm. One, two, three, whir, one, two, three, whir … Eventually, we fell asleep. The next morning we were to head to the Atlas Mountains.
Two-kilometres march with heavy backpacks along the city walls to the place where the taxis depart for Imlil. On our way to Imlil taxis, we were stopped a couple of times by taxi drivers who spotted two European faces and wanted to give us a lift asking prices we wouldn’t expect to pay in London for a 2-kilometer trip. We tried to negotiate, but the prospect of getting a weekly pay by giving two tourists a two-kilometre lift was too tempting for taxi drivers. They preferred to leave with nothing.
In one of the back streets next to the Jemaa El Fna square, people were trying to hide from swelter in the shade of tall buildings.
– Imlil? Imlil?- We heard a call somewhere near us. – Hello! Imlil? Come here! Here! – skinny man called us. He was accompanied by another man with a small boy and a fat imam.
– Go to Imlil? We also Imlil. Come on. “Need two more” – said a skinny, serious man with honest eyes. We exchanged a polite “where you come from” and drank the “peace water” from my water bottle. After fifteen minutes our taxi driver arrived. His beige Mercedes 190 shone in the morning sun. The skinny man helped us to pack our backpacks into the trunk and began to seat passengers. Father and boy to the front seat. Imam, skinny and we two at the back. The door hardly closed. I was seated just behind the driver pressed to the car’s window, so I ensured I locked the doors. At least that’s what I hoped for. We went on an hour and a half journey across the desert and Atlas Mountains to the foothills of Toubkal. Imam began his prayers. He took out a pebble, did the ablution, and began to whisper:
– Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar, Ashtanga an la Ilaha Illal-lah, …
Hot air came through the opened windows. We passed resorts and golf courses built for rich English and French, roadside villages consisting of three, sometimes the four houses where the inhabitants laid clay pots in the hope that passing tourists would buy something from them. I put my hand out the window, placed it on the body of the car, and closed my eyes hoping to have a nap and survive “the crush zone” I was in. Suddenly, I was awaken by shockingly cold air and the smell of apple orchards so intense and unforgettable that a memory of my childhood spent with my cousins in the countryside came back to me. We would put our shirts in our trousers and load them with as many apples as our already expanded, hand-made t-shirt-bags could carry. And one additional apple for the trip back home, eaten with its core. Everyone has their madeleines. The smell of fresh apples is mine.
– “Now cold. Now mountains. Atlas. There. High. My village. Said a thin Berber. You Toubkal?”
– “Yes” – I replied.
“I have a house. Tourism. Toubkal close. Come with me. Very nice. I’ll show you.”
We agreed immediately. The skinny Berber’s house was our destiny from the beginning. We waited at the car park at the entrance to Imlil for his brother and the mule on which our rucksacks were carried up the hill.
– “Follow me” – Muhammad said firmly. We started walking – his house was a few hundred meters from the centre of the village, up the hill. When we got there, still overwhelmed by the smell of apple orchards, we saw a modest house, where Muhammad and his family (wife and four children) lived and three rooms for tourists on the left. The accommodation was basic: there were hard mattresses covered with blankets on the floor and each room had a small window overlooking the garden. There was a kitchen with a sink and a small gas stove, dining area and a small bathroom. We did not need anything else. The next day we started our hike to Mt. Toubkal.
To be continued…