Saturday, 24 May 2008

Marrakesh (Morocco) -V. Travel Destinations

Summer 1967

Late that evening, after we had a delicious dinner of CousCous and lamb curry, hummus and kebabs, Nan bread with Harisa (chilli paste), olives and Dates, drank many glasses of hot fresh mint tea, we met a Veterinary doctor and a man called Moussa. I do not remember if his name was Ahmed or Mohamed, every body called him Moussa. He was a Tuareg, originally from Mali but was settled in Morocco and knew everything about camels and their transportation. He was a tall and thin man, with a narrow pointed nose, deep set eyes and a cruel mouth, I remember it well. With his white robe and a long blue tunic on top, with a white turban on his head, he looked clumsy.

When I was young, I had read many books about adventures of soldiers of fortune, convicts and con men, who had joined the Foreign Legions to seek fame and fortune. When I went to live in the Canary Islands, I gave myself the nom de plume Tuareg. I was very fascinated about the stories of Tuareg warriors fighting the French colonial masters and French Foreign Legion which was garrisoned in Algeria. And their caravans journeying from Morocco to the legendary and mysterious town of Timbuktu.We always read about world's tourist attractions, but cities like Marrakesh, Casablanca, Tangier have their old world charm, still have the desert mystique which every traveller enjoys.
This meeting was arranged by my friend Hugo who knew many people in Marrakesh. After a long talk, much of it in Arabic which I could not understand, it was settled that Moussa will, on the next day, travel with us to a settlement on the outskirts of Marrakesh, where he had arranged for the Vet to examine the camels which were to be bought and brought to Casablanca. I promised to arrange for the payment with my businessman in the Canary Islands.

Early on the morning of the next day, we started towards the town settlement to view the camels. We were on the outskirts of the city, outside the city walls and going back towards Casablanca. The Tuareg Moussa took us to a place called Palmeraie, which we had seen while coming in to Marrakesh. Moussa told us that this place was the original settlement of the city, where there were more than 140,000 Date Palm trees and with a large Oasis. He told us that there was a legend that at night, Yusef Ben Tashfin, the founder of Marrakesh and his warriors, used to rest in this Oasis which was not populated with many palm trees. But the warriors used to eat the dates which they brought from other oasis's and they would dig holes in the earth with their spears and bury the date bones, which after a time germinated in Date Palm trees, thus creating the settlement with thousands of Palm trees.

Every village, town and city needs a legend, in Pune (India) there used to be a Temple of Hanuman (The Monkey God) and in its courtyard there was an ancient Banyan tree with a large girth. This tree was hundreds of years old and from its base to the top, there were literally millions of iron nails hammered in its trunk. And the tree was alive, green. The popular legend was that every night, Hanuman patrolled the city, and nailed the evil spirits to the tree trunk, which would otherwise scare the devotees of the temple. India is a country full of cultural and spiritual mystique, beautiful monuments and religious cities, teaming with a hectic but mind absorbing street life.

As we neared the village, a languor settled over me, I was sweating a lot and my stomach was bothering me. Soon we reached the house of the man whom we had come to see, and before Hugo had switched off the motor, the wide metal door in the mud wall of the house opened and a swarthy Arab stepped outside, shook hands with everybody and invited us in. We entered a large cool room, more like a covered veranda, and settled down on thick carpets and pillow-cushions. Soon two young girls brought us hot mint tea, goat cheese, dates and fresh baked Nan bread.

By now I was not feeling well at all and would have declined to eat anything except to drink tea, but the Arab customs of hospitality obliged me to partake of food. The cheese was so smelly that I felt sick and ran outside in the courtyard and vomited. Our host immediately called some one and from behind the house, from another quarter, his wife and young daughter emerged, took me by the arm and led me to a tap in the corner of the yard. I wet my head and washed my face and arms, but the sweat just poured down my body and I was extremely hot, feeling feverish and uncomfortable.

Presently we left this place and after walking ten minutes, came to another large mud house. The stench of camels hovered over the place and the air was full of foul smell, which the camels emit while chewing their cud. I felt terrible and refused to enter the house. Every body else entered, and later when the Vet had inspected the camels which were for sale, the deal was struck, they came back and we started for Casablanca. The return journey was a torture and when we reached our hotel, I fell totally sick. The doctor who came to examine me told me that I had some virus in my stomach which could have been caused by drinking bad water or some bad food.

I sent a telegram to the businessman in the Canary Islands, told him to send details for finalizing the sale, and by next day had a reply in which he detailed about the shipment from Casablanca harbor. He also instructed me to buy 600 water jars to be sent to El Aaiun. I was flabbergasted. Now I told my friend Eric to take charge and with the help of Hugo to arrange for the completion of job at hand. I was feeling retched and wanted to go back to the Canary Islands.

Some time later, I learnt that camels arrived safely at their destination but all 600clay water jars were broken on the way.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Marrakesh (Morocco) IV. Travel Destinations

Medinas and Markets
Summer 1967 sunny 40 °C

If a visitor bestirs himself from the mesmerizing spectacles of Djemaa El Fna, he can stroll around the Plaza in the labyrinth of Zocos (Souks). Most popular is The Semnarin, with its colors, aromas, variety of cloth and carpets on display. Or you can visit the casbah of Télouet (outside the city and 170kms) which is a very impressive Kasbah, albeit in ruins but attractive anyway and go further to visit the casbah of Ait Benhaddou, which has been perfectly conserved and is worth a visit.

Marrakesh is famous for the tombs of its kings, as is The Bedi Palace which is entirely constructed in Marble. Against the backdrop of snowy Blue Atlas Mountains are the waterfalls at Vuzoud, about 160kms from the city. And if you like the ethnic handicrafts, then a visit to Chichaova Coop Society is worth the trouble. There you will see the making of carpets with typical Berber designs and basic colours of red. The carpets are called Chichaova, which has given the name to the society of artisans.

My favorite museum is Dar si Saíd, which is housed in a beautiful building of 19th Century, and has an important collection of Moroccan art, a colorful display of female attire, ceramics, carpets, Berber jewelry and articles of adornment. Its carved wooden doors with beautiful Ablutions of 10th century, etched in Spain on one single slab of marble. There are more than 200 Mesquites (Masques) with the beautiful designs and ceramics and etchings of typical Arab artisan work, all worth seeing. Moors conquered Spain in 9th century and their cultural heritage, Art, their buildings have left an everlasting impression in many regions of Spain, specially in Andalusia (Al-Andalus).

My favorite place in the evenings, whenever I visited Marrakesh, was the Casino at La Mamounia. I knew the Director of that time and went there almost every evening, together with some Indian business men, to drink whiskey and soda and gamble. Black Jack, Open Poker and English Roulette (One Zero).were popular games and every evening you saw rich and famous local dignitaries and Europeans playing there.

Moroccans are friendly people and once you knew them well, their hospitality knows no bounds. I made many influential friends in Tangier, Casablanca and Marrakesh where late in the night, whether we won or lost on the gaming tables, when we had a good amount of whiskey and had deliciously satisfying food, we would head towards a Cabaret. As I remember, La Mamounia also had a Cabaret, but now, after a lapse of so many years, I can not remember well.

That evening while playing Roulette, I made the acquaintance of yet another Italian business man, who was living in Paris but had come down to Marrakesh to play the tables. He usually went to Nice to play roulette because only there you could play American Roulette (with two zeros) which was lucky for him. Two zeros were lucky for me too, so we made a promise to sometime visit Nice together. I had been lucky at roulette, once in Gibraltar, at the newly opened Rock Hotel Casino, I had won, at one sitting, Five Hundred sterling Pounds. Quiet a sum in those heady days of 1960s.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Marrakesh- Morocco. III. Travel destinations.

Minarets and Muezzins
Summer 1967 40 °C

I was very happy to see my friend Hugo again. He was a tall, lean and a jolly person.
With a happy smile on his face and an easy laugh. He told me that he and his family were planning to emigrate to Canada soon and in fact, when I went to Canada in 1970, I met him and his son again in Toronto.

I explained to him about our mission and he told me that to buy camels, we must travel to Marakesh, where his contact had arranged a meeting with a man who would make the deal with us. This was an unexpected twist so when we went to our hotel, I sent an urgent telegram to the businessman in Canary Islands. And next day we travelled by car to Marakesh, the most beautiful city in Morocco.

Marakesh has always been the favourite city of internatioanlly famous persons, its seduction lies in its Medinas and Markets, the most famous luxury hotel La Mamounia with its 1920s Art Deco facade, through its doors Kings and Colonial Masters have passed, famous actors stay there. La Mesquita (The Masque) at Koutoubia Palace, with its twin towers of Giralda in Seville (Spain). The Plaza of Djemaa El Fna, its Souks and Kasbahs. It is known that the city started as a Military Encampment around year 1070 by Abu Bekr and over hundred years, it was transformed from a primitive Oasis to the modern walled city of Marakesh. The famous entrances to the city are Bab Doukkala, Bab El Khemis and Bab El Jadid, among others.

A visitor like me, who is always fascinated by Morocco and its Arab-African heritage, its mystic Berbers and their culture, will love Marakesh. You can easily get lost in its narrow streets and alleys, its Medinas and Markets. Streets are dirty with a constant din of people working, children playing in the puddles of water standing in the middle of the streets, its bars where men gather on its verandahs to drink mint tea and smoke Hooka, gazing at the smoke curling and drifting lazily towards the sky above. Once you have aclimatized yourself to the hustle bustle, the chaotic traffic, you will be enchanted by the msystic charm of Marakesh, its white, red and yellow buildings, lingering in the Souks, savouring the ambience of hectic activity of daily life which unfurls itself before your eyes.

In the mornings, the best place and a must for any visitor, is the Plaza Djemaa El Fna, which sits like a Berber emcampment, although with shops and stalls, hot sun steaming the ambience, and drink fresh orange juice, eat fresh fruit and if you feel like it, drink hot sweet mint tea or a cold beer. The place is packed with hawkers selling wicker baskets, sweets, jewelry, healers, sellers of birds in cages, street dentists plying their trade, secretaries writing letters for the illeterate.

In the evenings, the Plaza transforms itself into a scene from Arabian Nights, reminding you of a Cecil b.Demille epic movie scene. Snake charmers, story tellers, dancers, acrobats, all attracting crowds. The setting sun brings out the vivid colours of the city, red and ochre, the plaza illuminated by 1000 and One lights, the smell of food being cooked on open charcoal grills set on the stalls, making you hungry. As if the city wants to reveal its charms pace by pace, spectacle by spectacle as you watch the chaotic and hectic activity all around you. There is no doubt Marakesh is a popular tourist destination.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Casablanca (El Maroc) Morocco-II. Travel destinations

Summer 1967

"Do you think that your businessman friend really means to transport camels by boat to Sahara?"

We were traveling by plane from Las Palmas to Casablanca and my friend Erick asked me this question.
Erick was Swiss, I have long since forgotten how I met him, but he became a friend and after some years he disappeared from my life. A very talkative guy, chain smoker like me, with a liking for free drink, he was a jolly companion. He knew many people in Las Palmas but was averse to working and was not interested in doing anything. We went fishing together, went to the island of Fuerteventura a few times, fishing and staying on the beach for a few days. It was him who knew the Canadian woman who had in 1967 bought a major chunk of beach front land at Jandia Playa (Beach) at a very cheap price and was selling one square meter for BP 1.00 (equivalent to 70 pesetas at that time).

I had sold many parcels of 5000sqm land to my friends and business acquaintances and sold even in Canada where I went in 1970. And now we were traveling together to Casablanca. I had phoned a friend of mine there, an Italian Jew who had lived in Morocco for many years and was in advertising and Insurance business and had very good contacts. I had explained to him our mission and he, without any comment, had promised to do what he could.

We landed in Casablanca late in the evening and there was a chill in the air but the change in the surroundings was remarkable. We took a taxi and went to a small hotel in the center, near the Hotel Atlantique, where I used to stay during my visits there. A friendly and clean place run by an Spanish couple.

Casablanca made famous by the 1942 movie, was not the modern city with new buildings and mosques it is today, it was a chaotic city with buildings in need of repair, its boulevards and streets clogged with traffic and fumes of ancient motor vehicles. The city has always been influenced by French culture and architecture, with a hangover of a decadent Metropolis mixed with the authentic Arab ambiance. The white colonial buildings, impressive iron grilled doors on their facades, all have the unmistable Arab-Adalucian influence. You will hear more French than local language in the shops and streets.

Casa Branca (Casablanca because of its white coloured buildings) as the Portugese called it, was a city in which Berbers had settled as early as 9th Century when the influence of Islam was growing in Spain and in Europe. Berbers were against the Mohamedan religion, but by 14th century the whole region had become a haven for pirates who were attacking the Portugese ships. So in 15th century Portugese assaulted the city and named it Casa Branca and stationed a military garrison to protect their shipping lines. The rest is history, the French colonial rule in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and French influence in architecture, language and customs. The Moors who conquered a large part of Spain have left everlasting historical and cultural monuments in Andalucia and Spanish people like to visit Morocco for its mystic Arab charm and enticing Souks and colourful bazzars, the haggling for trinkets.

The daily life in Casablance was and is even today, in and around its Central Market where you could buy fresh fruit and vegetables, live chickens and goats. The Souks were always full of pedestrians, buying clothes, spices and articles of art, and you would find every imaginable thing there. Streets full of shops dying cotton cloth and leather, its overpowering stench assaulting your senses, the heat, the din of hammering on brass and ironware blasting your ears, shopskeepers shouting and pulling you to have a look at their carpets spread out in front. A total bedlam but so romantic, women in burkas covered from head to foot, young girls with blond hair and short skirts and blouses, men with long jellabas and others in western attire mingling freely in the streets.

The old city of Casablanca was located just off the town square, near the Medina, the main commercial centre, a lybrinth of narrow and dirty streets, near the sea and where many streets meet. During the daytime it was full of people, its bars and cafes full of men drinking mint tea and smoking waterpipe, the hub con constant conversation reaching you as you passed, but in the evenings and specially at night, it was not considered safe to venture there. In hotels, bars and on the streets, you would find prostitutes and their pimps lounging in wait for their trade.
Morocco is El Maghreb and you may not find the salve girls, harems and houris of Arabian Nights there, but there is no derth of their cousins plying their trade at all hours of the day and night.

On the next day I phoned my good jewish friend Hugo and set up an appointment to meet him at a restaurant near the Central Market, where they served delicious lamb cutlets and CussCuss and cold local beer.

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