Eventually, I had to leave the luxury of the Hotel Kasbah at Ait Benhaddou.
On my last evening there, I got to talking with a New Zealand couple who were staying at the hotel next door.(They were paying fifty dirham each at my hotel to use my
swimming pool. They were headed into Marakesh the next morning, and said that if I promised to shower in the morning, they'd give me a ride. I'd been concerned about making my way to Marakesh. Would I have to hitchhike back to the main road? Would I have to double back to Ouarzazate in order to catch an intercity bus? But no, all I had to worry about was Chris driving on the wrong side of the road!
The drive across the Atlas Mountains was really spectacular, with different alpine scenery around every corner. Tiny stalls selling fossils and 'thunder egg' rocks lined the twisting road, and when we stopped at bunch of stalls on a mountain pass so Penny could look around, the three of us were attacked by over enthusiastic rock sellers, who also seemed to sideline as foreign exchange speculators. "Monsieur, I have a ten pound note," said one. "Can you change it for me?"
"Sure" I said.
He asked me how much it was worth, and I feigned ignorance.
"I've got no idea," I shrugged. "You should know, don't you?" He seemed pleased with this, and announced that he had just checked the foreign exchange rates, and it was worth 650 dirhams. At this news I broke down laughing, and he realized he'd have to wait for another sucker. Ten pounds is worth no more than 170 dirhams!
In Marakesh I headed straight to Hotel Essaouira. Ariel had said that was where he'd be staying. He wasn't there when I arrived, but it wasn't long before I met a few other backpackers who knew him. I was umm'ing and ah'ing at reception whether to shell out 100 dirham for a private room, or pay 30 driham to sleep on the roof terrace. An Aussie voice from the nearby stairwell reassured me-" G'arn mate. It's all right up on the roof!" So I paid my thirty dirhma and joined the Marakesh terrace dwellers.
The crew on the roof seemed like one big happy family. They were Aussies, Poms, Americans and Canadians, but I assumed that quite a number of them were travelling together. In fact it turned out that of the eleven of us, nine of us are solo travellers. The only two who were really travelling together were Jack and Joe, two brothers from Arkansas, who entertained the rest of us with their strumming and singing under the stars. The group had just sort of 'fallen together' over the past week or so. Four days later, and we're all in Essaouira on the Moroccan coast, revelling in a massive four day African music festival. We've hired an apartment a few blocks from the beach, and I'd have to say that being in the comapany of such a great group of people in a friendly, laid back place like Essaouira- especially as the whole town is just going off for the music festival- feels like the highlight of my Moroccan trip. The first night of the clebrations was last night, and the shows were sensational. I've never seen so many thousands of people squeezed together, without a trace of aggro all night. Prerhaps it was the total absence of booze!
*Did I tell you that booze is technically illegal in Morocco? Sure there are some towns where bars and bottle shops are clearly visible, but in most places, you have to know where to go if you're looking for a cold beer. The restaurant last night offered us a choice of beer or wine- but didn't feature eitehr on their printed menu. In Marakesh, Dane and I jumped in a petit taxi and asked the driver to take us to a liquor store. He drove us into the suburbs and pointed out a plain, unmarked doorway that led to a dingy stairwell. At the bottom of the steps, we discovered the liquor store, and much to the manager's delight, we bought a whole carton of Flag Speciale (prestige beer!) to share among the terrace dwellers.
Rather than rattle on about the scenery and the music festival *thank God, you say* I thought you might like to meet my fiends.. I mean friends!
I'll start with Dane because although he's the baby of the group, he always seems to be the one who's in charge of paying our communal bill at restaurants and hotels. He speaks French competently, but with a distinct Australian accent. Dane is from Sydney and misses the gorgeous Australian beaches. He's just come back from a walk around Essaouira, and assures us that we're not missing anything as far as swimming. The water is icy cold and murky, and the wind is whipping us blasts of fine sand. Dane has spent the last five months studying French in Bordeaux, and after Morocco he's off to Senegal and Mali. I've been boring him to tears with stories from my trip across those two countries.
Remember Ariel? We met in Ouarzazate a week or so ago. Ariel is American, born in Israel to Uraguayian parents. I don't often meet people who travel in an even less structured way than myself, but Ariel is undoubtedly one of them. He has been on the road for nine months, and has no real plan as to when he'll be heading home. When we caught up with Ariel in the crowd last night, he said that if we hadn't found him, he was just going to go ahead and sleep on the beach somewhere. His parents don't really understand what he's doing. "What do you mean, you don't know where you're staying tomorrow night?" they ask him when he phones home.
Sadly, Kate has left us and moved on to Europe. However she still deserves a place in the character gallery, because of her pep and her blonde American giggle. Kate is from Denver. She studied photo-journalism, but after this two month holiday, she's off to Japan to teach English.
Bhu, from Oakland, California, has also just graduated from University, and is travelling the world to figure out what direction he wants to take with his life. His Mum and Dad were great travellers when they were young, having travelled across Rusia, Central and southern Asia in the early seventies on a budget of a dollar a day. In fact, Bhu is proud to say that his parents were the first tourists in Mongolia since 1945. They have encouraged Bhu to get out and experience the world, and not to make the mistake of just 'getting a job'. So far Bhu is one month into a twelve month voyage of discovery, making his way slowly acrposs Europe to the Middle East. He wants to write and direct plays, and is finding inspiration the more he travels.
Natasha's a French Canadian, but in spite of that she's actually very pleasant. Natasha is the only native French speaker in the group, so mostly gets lumbered with the task of negotiating us a group discount at restaurants. Sometimes I get Natasha to translate conversations for me, even if I'm not interested in what was said- just to hear her sexy Montreal accent. She said she hasn't really been enjoying Morocco as much as she'd hoped, and when she first arrived in Marakesh, she brought her flight to England forward to this weekend. Now she's found that she's enjoying being in this group environment, and has fallen in love with charming Essaouira, Natasha's gutted that she has to leave the group tomorrow.
Mike is our only Englishman. He's originally from Oxfordshire, but now lives in Bournemouth on the southern coast. Mike is studying product design at university, and has been in Spain studying Spanish for the summer. When I asked him what's been the most interesting thing he's ever designed, he laughed and said he once designed a collapsible surfboard. Mike agrees with me that there are not nearly enough Scandinavian girls travelling here in Morocco.
Steve, thirty-five years old, but not the oldest in the group- for a change. Travelling under the guise of some sort of internet photo journalist, he sits around on his laptop half the day. He says he's 'working', but the rest of us know he's looking at porn. With eight of us sharing a two bedroom apartment, Steve has tried every trick possible to to end up sharing a bed with one of the girls, without success. He sleeps on the floor every night. Steve is always asking if anyone fancies a beer, and seems prepared to go to an inordinate amount of trouble to procure beer and ice.
Tully is an unusual name. She was christened Natalia, but even her parents call her Tully. Her parents will be glad to see her when she gets back to Sydney in July. Tully's been in London for the last fifteen months on a working holiday, and is ending her overseas adventure with a few months around Europe and Morocco. She had been a little concerned about travelling Morocco alone, and was hoping to meet up with a travel partner while she was in Europe. Lucky for her, there was a fellow Aussie also looking for company.
Tully was in Granada, hoping to find a traval mate for Morocco, and along came Nina, another Australian. Nina says she's from Perth, but Tully and I know that no-one really lives in Perth. For Nina, this is just a one month holiday around Spain, Portugal and Morocco. She quit her job at home, and rented out her house. Of course, I'm trying to encourage her to keep travelling. Hey, that's my job.
The English girls Sophie and Esther have just arrived at our Essaouira apartment, bringing our numbers up to ten, bringing the cost per person down to 55 dirhams each, and taking the title of 'baby' from Dane, since the girls are only nineteen years old. Ariel met them in town this morning, and when he told them about our cool little apartment, they promptly checked out of their hotel and dragged their backpack over here. I first met Sophie and Esther in Ouarzazate the same day I met Ariel. The girls have been teaching English in Er Rachidia since late last year, and will now be the group's official translators, since they're fluent in Arabic- and Arabic seems to open doors here more than French. I'm happy for Mike, because now he has someone to share discussions about Eastenders, Coronation Street and the perfect cup of tea.
Kevin, the Welsh guy I rode into the Sahara with, is also in Essauoira. He's decided to join the fray. He had been staying in a hotel here, but decided our Big Brother house would be more fun. Kevin is starting a round the world trip, but has to stay close to the UK for the moment, as he has a friend's wedding to attend in July.
A few of us were sitting in a cafe near the beach, and our friend Caroline went to take some photos of the sunset. She was particularly proud of one shot she'd taken- of a guy with a long plaited beard, sitting on the seawall. When she showed us the shots on her digital camera, Tully and Nina screamed with excitement. The bearded guy was a friend of theirs, who they met in Fez. So the house has another housemate, Vince from Cork in Ireland. Vince is in Morocco for a few weeks break, before he starts a new job, his first real career job, he says. Vince is a real laugh, and I reckon he'd be even funnier if we could understand anything he said!