Thursday, September 22, 2011

Marrakech ~ Tales of the Unexpected

Today's guest contribution comes from one of the most intrepid travellers we have come across. Iain Mallory is one of those rare souls that has been almost everywhere you can think of and done a few things that probably never crossed your mind. A British ex-serviceman, rugby player, photographer, Iain has a penchant for adventurous pursuits; including mountaineering, skiing, kayaking and diving. He also has specific skills - he is an avalanche specialist and harbours the desire to become a storm-chaser. Here is his report on “Moroccan Tales of the Unexpected”

It’s always cool to find something a little unexpected, but in Marrakech, a city of the unexpected, sometimes getting a pleasant surprise can be extra special.

A genuine act of kindness

It seems unlikely that many of you are unaware of the Moroccan hamman - the quintessential spa treatment in this part of the world. Spa treatments, however, are not exactly high on my list of travel priorities. During my visit to Marrakech, despite having many leaflets thrust in my face by the numerous touts, it was one particular aspect of Moroccan culture that I was happy not to immerse myself in.

Returning to my riad one night, however, I was greeted by the owner, Mohammed. We struggled to communicate due to language barriers, but he was always pleasant and very friendly. On this occasion he guided me upstairs, showing me a small sort of steam room and indicated that I needed to get into a swimming costume.

It has to be admitted that an invitation to join another man that I barely knew or understood, wearing just my board shorts in a small little room at nearly midnight was not usually high on my list of priorities either!

But it was obvious that he was likely to be offended if his kind invitation was refused. As he had obviously gone to some trouble to prepare this ‘personal’ hamman it seemed churlish to decline.

Stepping gingerly into this little room dressed only in my ‘hula girl' board shorts, I was immediately ambushed by Mohammed wielding a flannel cloth, which was quickly followed by a loofah. For those not familiar with this unlikely weapon of torture, it can best be described as a very coarse sponge, designed to remove the upper layer of skin. This it does extremely efficiently, especially when in the hands of a heavy set man who seemed intent on testing my pain threshold.

This ‘attack’ was pretty thorough with almost no area remaining unscrubbed, although fortunately my groin was left with its dead skin intact! This was followed by a good dousing in some cool water and then a massage which started at my feet and worked its way up to my scalp.

I am not sure how skilled a masseur Mohammed actually is but it certainly left me feeling totally relaxed, strong fingers completely kneading away any tension that may have been lurking in my musculature.

Once this toe to head massage was completed, he ushered me to sit in the corner, a little like a naughty boy. My epidermis was scrubbed red raw and still tingling but felt totally refreshed all over from the shock and awe treatment it had just received.

After several minutes, permission was granted for me to leave. I thanked my benefactor profusely and sheepishly slinked off to bed. This was a totally unexpected treat, but one that was actually enjoyable and left me feeling special afterwards.

Finding sanctuary

Marrakech with its main square, souks, hordes of performers, traders, donkey carts, barrow boys and tourists bustling around the streets on foot, bicycles, scooters or in cars is hardly a place you might expect to find peace and quiet.

Dar TimTam, however, is an oasis in the midst of this chaos. Just ignore the name - it is not in any way associated with a certain Australian chocolate covered biscuit.

It is actually a little restaurant and coffee shop tucked away in an enclave off one of the main streets near the souks. It is only necessary to follow the obvious sign, and pass through the outer courtyard and there it is: a haven of tranquillity.

Although expensive in comparison to the majority of places in the medina, it must be the price of peace, silence and solitude to be found here. It has a decent menu of tagines, or pastries if arriving mid-afternoon as I did, not quite so hungry.

It is not only the human visitors to Marrakech that appreciate the quietness of this hidden sanctuary. There is a constant stream of sparrows in and out, picking up the crumbs dropped by the paying guests and visiting the central fountain for a bath and to quench their thirst.

It is certainly a pleasant surprise to discover this lovely little courtyard in the middle of the souks, enjoy a coffee and pastry, chat with a friend or just sit and absorb the solitude. Either way it is well worth seeking out.

Oh! Look, a celebrity!

Impromptu hamman aside, I was treated well by the owners of the Riad,  For the majority of my stay I enjoyed a room to myself; they provided me with two free breakfasts; topped me up with coffee and mint tea at all hours and even gave me a discount on a desert excursion.

It was not totally one-sided, as they gratefully received some marketing and guest handling advice from me. I also helped translate a few guest arrivals and provided a favourable review on my arrival back home; very symbiotic!

On one occasion however the staff seemed a little stressed and were especially busy getting the main atrium spic and span. Aziz, who was the ‘front’ man for the riad, seemed especially animated, barking orders to the cleaning girls and rushing about like an agitated bee.

This intrigued me. Was the King visiting today? A member of government? These seemed the only logical conclusions for all this activity. Having some work to do, I settled down at a table. There were a few new faces that turned out to be Norwegian. We chatted and they were as mystified as me regarding the fastidious spring cleaning being done.

The reason became clear a little later, when Ahmed Mohamadina, the goalkeeper for the Moroccan national football team appeared. He was with his coach and a few other guys; minders maybe? As soon as he arrived, it was assumed that I would act as official photographer, recording the visit for the riad scrapbook.

I had actually watched the game the Moroccan team had played in the previous evening in a pastry shop. The locals had been very happy with the result. Beating Nigeria in a friendly 3-0 was no mean feat, even on home soil here in Marrakech.

Mohamadina seemed a pretty friendly and down to earth guy. But I was amused by the reaction of the two cleaning girls; they were always happy and smiling but today they were like two star struck school girls. They almost tripped over each other trying to get an autograph. It was really quite sweet and I thought they were going to actually faint when I gestured to him to stand and get his photograph taken with each of them.

 It was definitely an unexpected bonus that morning: not because Mohamadina was some big star, but the frenetic activity earlier, the chatty Norwegians, fawning cleaners and his humble attitude were all refreshing.

It is doubtful that any trip goes by without something different occurring, an incident - an unexpected kindness or a chance encounter with an interesting traveller or celebrity. It is these little ‘extras’ that often make the experience that bit more special and turn a trip into an adventure with stories to regale our friends with upon return.

They are an invaluable part of any trip for me, and I look forward to many more ‘surprises’ on my future travels.

Photographs by Iain Mallory.
You can read more of Iain's adventures at Mallory on Travel

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