“I’m off to Morocco”, I announce cheerily to a small gathering of friends over lunch on a typical drab November morning. “Simply can’t stand the rain any more.” The reaction might have been reserved for a stray skunk seeking solace under the table or even a nearby flatulent dog exercising an indiscretion.

One by one the jealous group files out, citing forgotten appointments, expiring parking meters, a child to collect. “My niece has a Riad in Marrakesh,” announces the only guest unmoved by my news. “She rents it out – Want her email address?”

“Fatiha, the maid, will cook and clean for you. I can arrange for her husband to meet you at Marrakesh airport?” came the reply. Sure enough Khaled is anxiously waving one of those cardboard signs that gladden the heart of a weary traveller after a gruelling 19-hour journey.

When the road narrows to a sliver, we lug my baggage through a maze of tiny dark alleys just wide enough for a donkey cart.

It is said that behind every ancient door in The Medina, lies a Riad – A palace. Khaled finally produces a key from somewhere in the folds of his jelaba.

Fatiha greets me with a wide-open grin, a hug and a kiss. “Welcome Mister.” (She will forever know me as Mister!). The dining table is groaning with food. Harira soup. Chicken “Tajine” cooked and served in a conical clay pot. A perfect “Pigeon Pastilla” (complete with beak!) and a plate of banana crepes drowning under a mountain of whipped cream.

You must be very hungry after your journey Mister!”

I stumble upstairs and collapse in happy exhaustion. Traditional homes are built around a garden. Bedrooms are off the second floor gallery. The roof deck is perfect for al-fresco dining and siestas! Bliss!

I drift into a routine. My day begins with a 6am cacophony of roosters, braying donkeys and howling cats. They have been “jump-started” by the muezzin, who belts out “Allah u Akbar,” (God is great), through an amplified speaker on the neighbour’s roof.

I roll over in joyous anticipation. Fatiha will soon arrive with delicacies still warm from the baker’s oven. I can plan my day over breakfast on the roof deck.

My Riad is stumbling distance from the labyrinth of souqs and Djemaa el-Fna - The Square that never sleeps. I squeeze past a line-up for fresh tripe and dodge between horse-drawn caleshes, horn blowing motorcyclists and donkey carts delivering sand.

The square is relatively quiet in the morning. Hordes of cleaners brush, scrub and hose away the evidence of last night’s crowd. By early afternoon things change. Fortune Tellers; Henna artists; Tuareg drummers; Snake charmers; Water vendors; Hawkers of potions to make you potent, pregnant and palsy-free, vie for space alongside snail, date and orange juice stalls.

This is not just a tourist scene. Storytellers attract the biggest crowd. Their yarns can take 3 months to complete. Miss a night and lose the thread. No reruns!

Come sundown, entire restaurants are erected from the contents of one handcart. Within minutes, touts are busy hustling customers for smoking skewers of kebabs and sausages.

I was lazily planning to rent a car and “do” the country when Fatiha unwraps hot chocolate croissants. The henna tattoos on her hands and ankles are new?

“Will you be here on Saturday Mister?” she asks innocently. “If so, I won’t go to the wedding.” Fresh tattoos are a traditional way of wishing luck and happiness to newlyweds.

I become galvanized into action. The car rental chap, Aziz, will arrive on Saturday at 10am. Maps and guidebooks cover the breakfast table. I am finalising a plan for the next 3 weeks when Fatiya reappears. “Why don’t you come with us Mister?”

“Come where?” I ask. “To the wedding in Casablanca of course!”

On Saturday morning I am packed and waiting. I see another side of Fatiha. She is shrilly berating Aziz on the phone. The entire neighbourhood hears her opinion of Moroccan men. Unreliable; Always late; And generally useless! Khaled and I cower in fear.

“We will go to his office” she retorts, slamming down the receiver.

My car is a rather battered Renault Clio. The agreement is in French. The fee of 6000 dirhams, around $800, (21days X $38), should be paid in cash on my return. “Yes yes,” says Aziz. “I know about the bumps and scratches. Just sign here.”

When I attempt to ask questions, 12 pairs of impatient eyes bore through the back of my head.

M’barek is to be my guide and passenger. Being head of the family brings power as well as responsibility. A toll highway connects the two cities. Take a ticket and pay at the other end. In Morocco, cell phones and satellite TV have become as ubiquitous as couscous. M’barek is constantly chatting to the two cars up ahead.

During the 3-hour drive, we regularly pull over to let a mother breast feed or change a child in our empty back seat. Another call, another’s turn. It’s odd to see shepherds driving goats across the overhead bridges.

Traffic in Casablanca, a frantic city of 5 million, is a nightmare. From the number of U turns and shouted directions by my passenger and “spotter” it is obvious that everyone is lost. Do I really have insurance I wonder as I swerve under the nose of another smoke belching semi-trailer?

Our first mission is to buy shoes. “Casa has the best and cheapest shoes in all of Morocco,” announces M’barek definitively as our entourage snakes through the “shoe souq.” Merchandise is displayed on dangling strings stretching from floor to ceiling creating a sort of “enchanted forest,” doubtless designed as a web to ensnare customers!

After much checking for quality, finish and softness of leather, M’barek chooses a vendor. Boxes are hurriedly passed back and forth through a tiny hatch in the ceiling. Mint tea is served. Finally the needs of the family are satisfied. After some friendly bargaining, 12 pairs of shoes are packaged to go.

We drive to a small house at the back of a school playground. Another branch of “the family” live here. I am generally hugged, kissed and greeted like a long lost cousin – and renamed “Ali Baba!”

After copious glasses of mint tea the ladies disappear. M’barek decides that I should rent a hotel room. “Where is your family staying?” I ask. “After the wedding we will visit the best patisserie in all of Casablanca, maybe all of Morocco, then we will drive back to Marrakesh – at around 8.30am in the morning.”

With five men squeezed into my car we set off to find a room. This proves easy. November is low season.

By now, the ladies are transformed. Glittering sequinned outfits in rich vibrant colours have replaced comfortable travel clothes.

The men quickly shed their jelabas for suits and ties. Help! Suddenly a quick dry shirt and convertible pants just don’t cut it – even for Ali Baba! No one seems to mind.

Well before we reach the “wedding palace”, our ladies begin to ululate. I thought this practise was for funerals or moments of dire tragedy? Each competes with the others for maximum earth shattering volume!

The interior is all tile and detailed plasterwork, reminiscent of a mosque or a medersa (Koranic school). Large round tables are set with extravagant gauze tablecloths and red goblets.

The band is replaced by “professional” ululators who successfully rattle the glassware! All eyes are on the entrance. Four men, dressed in white robes and fez, drop a white satin sheet to reveal the smiling groom.

But wait! The ululators are now hitting fever pitch – Wow! The ultimate “Tongue Roll!” Tension mounts. Behind the next sheet the bride, clothed in silver with matching crown, sits X-legged aboard a silver, coach-roofed, palanquin.

Bearers lift her to their shoulders and parade her wildly around the room. Now the band has joined in and camera flashes go berserk. A true Hollywood moment! (I, an outsider and journalist, have been banned from recording this – Damn!).

The versatile band changes tempo from drumming to singing to rhythmic hand clapping. Haunting Sufi music is delivered through two long trumpets. Guests dance up a storm fuelled only by sweet mint tea and Coca-cola. Must be the sugar!

At 11.30pm white-gloved waiters circulate with hooded silver platters of chicken and beef. Two hundred hungry diners are galvanized into action tearing and devouring delicious chunks of meat.

The bride and groom do the rounds. She is on her 6th change of dress - with two more to go. A rich green number this time, topped by a golden crown.

At 5am I bid my farewells. “Come on Ali just another hour” begs M’barek. “The party has hardly begun!”



: Check these options for deals from London UK: Royal Air Moroc out of Heathrow/Gatwick: EasyJet and BA out of Gatwick: RyanAir out of Luton.

WHY TO GO: Much of Morocco is a medieval country locked in a time warp. Berber nomads dot The Atlas Mountains. Donkeys, even camels still struggle at the head of ploughs. Villagers share living space with goats and sheep. Markets and souqs are riveting. Views mind blowing.

GETTING AROUND: I rented a car for $38 a day. Buses are cheap. Shared (Grand) taxis, traditionally old 1960/70 diesel Mercedes, are great for short hops and go everywhere! There is a limited railway system for train buffs.

SAFETY: Moroccans are gentle people. The government is highly aware of today’s need for security in a Muslim country bordering on Algeria. The place bristles with police and military straight out of charm school.

ACCOMMODATION - COSTS: Outside the main tourist cities a comfortable clean 2 Star hotel runs $18/$20. Tourist infrastructure at all levels is surprisingly good. Hotel prices are often open for negotiation! A 3 course “prix-fixe” dinner with wine costs around $10 - If you can find a licensed restaurant.

WHEN TO GO: I went in November. Hot days cool/cold nights. Low season made for good prices. From mid March - mid May the country is lush and green.

GUIDEBOOKS ETC: I like Lonely Planet. A Michelin road map was a godsend. “The Caliph's House” by Tahir Shah is a hilarious insider's view. French is generally the working language - A dictionary is useful.



Copyright © 2008 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.