Tag Archives: Souks North Africa

People Pictures – Unusual Headware

When it comes to taking pictures I like doors, statues, balconies and washing lines, Kim on the other hand likes people pictures so I thought I might share a few of them with you.

This one was taken in a street in Marrakech just outside of the busy Souk…

Why do you think she has got a plastic footstool on her head?

a – She has just bought it and it is the easiest way to carry it home
b – She supports Manchester City
c – She takes it shopping with her so she can reach the top shelf in the store
d – Health and Safety – a Moroccan Hard Hat
e – It keeps the flies off

Morocco, Essaouira – Medieval Time Travel

Morocco Souk

Walking around the Medina and the Souks I got a sense that very little has changed here for several hundred years.

Like almost everyone I guess, I have always been fascinated by the possibility of time travel and in the heart of the old town it was possible to imagine stepping back to the Middle Ages but this, let me tell you, was just about as close to Medieval as I would probably want to get.

There is a tourist attraction in York (UK) which recreates a Viking village complete with sights, sounds and smells.  This I thought was similar except it is for real. There are some curious odours, that’s for sure.  In the butchers souk huge beef carcasses hang and release the aroma of slaughtered animals and blood soaked sawdust while close by fresh killed chickens dangle from hooks, in the fish souk there were more fish heads and guts and in the vegetable market mountains of rotting leaves were piled up behind the stalls.  Everywhere rubbish is left in convenient doorways and alleys and it is going to stay there all day until cleared sometime in the night.

Beneath the street I could see that the inadequate drains were blocked with years of debris and lack of cleaning and must surely be completely unable to deal with whatever is down there.  I reminded myself that this was January and wondered just what it might be like in the in August in the heat of summer!

Morocco Henna Hand Painting

Everywhere there is street food, bread, biscuits, pastries and fast food cafés on every corner.  When I had visited Marrakech in 2009 I had a street-side snack which upset my stomach so I was nervous here but on one occasion could not resist the temptation of a chicken kebab wrap, a combination of meat, cheese, various salads and a secret sauce and it was delicious and thankfully without any unsettling consequences.

Away from the food market there were small shops selling spices, herbs and quack remedies from over a thousand years ago.  We stopped and shared tea with a trader and then felt obliged to buy a bag of various spices and when I reckoned up later I was certain that we had been overcharged.

You need to be careful in Morocco because most of the traders in the souks want to separate tourists from their money as quickly as they can so it is important to have your wits about you and it is important to remember that most of them want to sell you something that you do not really need.

Morocco Spices

As a consequence of the fact that Morocco does not have a welfare payments system there is no financial safety net for those who fall on hard times and there are therefore a lot of beggars on the street.  For me this creates a huge dilemma, do I give to one but not the other or, on the basis that I cannot give to everyone, do I give to none at all?  This is like the film ‘Sophie’s Choice’.  I choose the first option and put some money in my pocket and give a coin here and there based simply on who to me appears to be the most desperate.

There are hustlers too and these are the people to give a wide berth.  They follow, they pester, they won’t take no for an answer and they cling on like Velcro.  On several occasions I was offered hashish to smoke (a sort of marijuana) or cannabis ‘space cakes’ and had to be really firm in turning them down.  And then I worry, ‘will they rob me’ and in quieter streets I was forever nervous of footsteps from behind of someone blocking the way ahead.  I am sure I didn’t really need to worry at all, I am certain that there was never any real danger and generally speaking Essaouira was a lot more relaxed and less challenging than Marrakech or Fes.

Essaouira Spices

Down one of these side streets we came across a small museum and stepped inside.  It was quiet, there were more attendants than visitors and inside there were some interesting exhibits but mostly I could only guess what they were because the only European explanations were in French.

Outside of the old city walls there is a lot more of Essaouira and once through any of the four main gates there was a much more modern European feel about the place with more familiar shops and traffic and suddenly it was necessary to remember that we were no longer in a pedestrianised environment.

Moroccans are notoriously poor drivers and the accident and injury rates are scarily high.  I don’t think there is a Highway Code in Morocco, I have looked and certainly can’t find one. Crossing a road is a very tricky process because, cars and lorries don’t give way to people  in the same way that it is expected they will in the UK  so this was a potentially death defying procedure.

There are zebra crossings marked out in the roads but they are there only for a bit of highway decoration and are not something a walker can rely upon so we watched the locals as they strayed into the carriageways and we stuck close to them because they appeared to have a sort of uncanny sixth sense about which vehicles would stop and which would simply mow a pedestrian down without a second thought. Crossing the road here is even more dangerous than juggling gelignite!

We didn’t stay long outside the town wall; as well as being dangerous it is also a lot less interesting so after we had satisfied our curiosity we returned via an area which has the potential to be an nice piece of park land but it is badly maintained and a hang out spot for beggars and homeless people so is an area where it is preferable not to linger.  In the centre is a statue of Orson Welles who used Essaouira as a location for his film Othello but the local people don’t seem to especially appreciate that and the bust is damaged and covered in graffiti.

We were glad to return through the gate through the fortress walls and resume our Medieval time travel experience.

Essaouira Orson Welles

Morocco, A Previous Visit – Marrakech

 

Morocco was quite unlike anything we had ever seen or visited before and it was everything we had expected but more with a riot of colour and frenetic activity that was exciting and vibrant.  We walked through the square in a northerly direction and eventually arrived at what most people concede is the biggest Souk in Africa and we slipped into the labyrinthine maze of covered but sun-dappled market streets.

Here was a whole new experience with street after street of shops all overflowing with things for sale that we didn’t need but each with an owner who didn’t understand this and was determined to part us from the cash in our wallets.  Some of the shops were no bigger than the tiny cupboard under my stairs and many of them sold exactly the same things and as we walked through we were under constant pressure from the owners all trying to entice us with a ‘special price’.

What didn’t help in establishing whether this was a special price or not was that nothing was priced in the first place which meant this form of shopping was very difficult process for people like us who are not used to haggling.  A lot of the stuff in here was rubbish of course and my favourite was the honest trader who assured us that he only sold genuine fakes!

Fez Carpets

We walked past carpet shops, elaborate lampshade shops, slipper shops, silver and pottery shops, shops selling leather, silks, ceramics, spices and pastries and our senses were under constant assault from the colourful sights, the rich aromas and the constant chatter and noise of the traders.  Occasionally a donkey and cart would send people scattering as new supplies were delivered and the shop owners were probably glad of this because the only place to go to get out of the way was inside the shop doorways where someone was waiting to pounce.

Threading our way through the heaving twisting lanes we nodded politely as we rejected invitations from all sides, trying all the time not to make eye contact and declining inducement to go inside.

Soon we were the only tourists amongst the crowds of men and women in their traditional Arab clothing, the men in long gowns called djellabas and the women in colourful kaftans, head-scarves tied around the hair, some with face veils and a small minority with a full burqa.

We were in unfamiliar territory now and although there was no danger and we felt perfectly safe there were no street signs to help with navigation so at a convenient junction we took a turning into a parallel street which seemed as though it should return us to Djemma el Fna.

By a stroke of good fortune it did and as we got closer the local stalls gave way again to tourist shops and we pushed our way back through the Souks and into the huge square where shifting circles of onlookers were constantly moving between acrobats, drummers, dancers and street apothecaries but we made sure that we kept a safe distance from the snakes and the monkeys.

Morocco Fez Blue Gate

Later on the terrace of our Riad we watched the sunset usher in the darkness and bring to an end a day of perfect blue sky and sunshine and refeshed and rested we made preparations for a night on the town.  We were returning to Djemma el Fna and when we arrived there the place had taken on a whole new identity.

Sometime between the end of the afternoon and the early evening the square had been transformed from a market place to an open air theatre with swarms of people and this is something that occurs every single day of the year.  The snake charmers and the monkey men had packed up and gone home and had been replaced by a carnival of musicians, storytellers, transvestite dancers and other entertainers.  There were fairground stalls and all sorts of opportunists trying to sell things not just to tourists but to each other as well.  There was a crackle of excitement around the square that was fuelled by the energy of all the players and it was impossible not to be caught up in it all.

Now we were in the food market where every night a corner of the square is transformed into an open air free for all restaurant with one hundred and sixty hastily erected stalls and kitchens all competing for business from hundreds of people, locals and tourists, as they pushed through the narrow aisles in between the steaming barbeque kitchens.  At every stall there was someone trying to entice us inside by explaining the menu options and making impromptu offers and we didn’t get very far before we gave in and allowed one of them to lead us to a trestle table with a plastic tablecloth before thrusting the menus into our hands.

It was all really lively and good fun and there were local people eating here so we thought that might be a recommendation and we ordered a selection of food in a tapas sort of way and in only a short time the table began to fill up with bread and spicy dips, beef tagine, mixed skewers, couscous, salad, fish and chicken and we all tucked in to this rather unusual food combo.

Carpet Store Fez Morocco

After we had finished we left and continued walking and had to explain every few seconds that we had already eaten to the waiters that continued to accost us every few metres or so.  Most of the stalls sold fairly similar food but there were some speciality places and at the edge of the market there were five or six stalls, next door to each other and back to back, all cooking and selling portions of steaming snails with glistening shells which seemed to be really popular with the locals but which didn’t especially appeal to us.

It had been a long day and we seen all that we wanted to by now so although it wasn’t especially late we negotiated our way back to the Riad first through the jostling crowds of people and then the traffic that even now showed no sign of easing up.  Once inside the walls of the back streets we left the noise of the city behind and then through the heavy wooden door of the Nafis it was though it never existed at all.

Are you any good at haggling?  Have you got any tips? Do share!