I’ll never forget my first trip to Crete, circa 1988. The flight arrived pre-dawn and we waited in a large square in Heraklion for the island to wake up and the buses to start running to take us, in stages, to a small town called Loutro, which in those days had no roads, so the last bit was done by boat. As we sat in the dark, waiting for the sun to rise, I was intensely aware of how different it was. Not just the sights and sounds, but even the air smelled different – warm, exotic to my nose. Maybe, before the traffic started, I even smelled wild thyme from the mountains. All I know is I was struck to my core by how other it all was: the voices speaking Greek, as the waiters began unpacking the tables and chairs to place outside their restaurants; the stray dog that attached itself to us, whose coat was dusty and coarse; the light, when at last day came, was a yellow I’d never seen before; the landscape, the shape of the buildings, the cars, the colours – everything – was just… other.
I fell in love with the differentness then and I’ve been searching for it again ever since, because like a junky who needs a bigger and bigger hit to get the same high, nowhere else in Europe was ever quite as new to me again.
But Morocco. It is utterly fresh and unusual all over again. The only thing I recognised was the hippy-style decor – hand-knotted rugs in earthy colours, piles and piles of cushions, candles in punched-metal or glass containers, tiles and terracotta, old-blood-coloured walls – but the hippies obviously took their cue from this country, not vice versa.
Some of it is so magically beautiful – like the resort we stayed in, Le Jardin des Douars, about 15 minutes' drive out of town – and don't let the word 'resort' put you off. That's just shorthand for adobe-style houses with individually furnished and decorated rooms with their own private terraces set in the most incredibly lush gardens, so that every bush, vine and plant is a flowering variety, creating wonderful splashes of colour everywhere you look.
Then some of it is heartbreakingly dirty or small or desperate, like the man with the popcorn stall who had only about two bags worth of the stuff to sell. Either he didn’t want to waste the precious kernels by popping any that wouldn’t be sold or he hadn’t more to pop. That’s the sort of thing that makes me come over all tearful. Or the piles of pre-worn plastic sandals and flip-flops for sale, a cat sleeping incongruously among them. And then there was the ‘auction market’ as our ad hoc guide* called it, which was a walled square – or maybe just a space where a building used to be – filled with heaps of broken toys, old clothes, bits of cups… Rubbish, you might think, and everywhere a terrible smell, of dirt, excrement, who knows, because the mind doesn’t really want to take it in. But this was a market, a place where presumably someone might want to buy something or need to make a sale. I imagined, because of the rotting heaps of fabric, that what wasn’t sold just became part of the general debris…
And then there was the beautiful 11km-long sandy Mogador Bay, where for 150MAD (about £14) you could be taken for an hour’s camel ride, all the way to Castle Rock, alleged inspiration for Jimi Hendrix’s Castles Made of Sand, which he (again allegedly, but let’s go with it, for myth’s sake) wrote after spending three days here in 1969. If you’ve never ridden a camel over sand dunes, well, it has to be done. Alternatively, you could have a ride on one of the extraordinarily beautiful horses (though as small as ponies), each one with perfect confirmation – arched, muscly neck; rounded hind quarters; large brown eyes and flowing manes and tails. Probably bought for a song, but would fetch a good price back in the UK or USA, I couldn’t help thinking. Arabians or something like them.
Or the streets of the medina, some looking like a bombed-out war zone, others as if the scenes hadn’t changed for centuries. A picture I took, when given a ‘noir’ filter, looked as if it could have been taken circa 1950, maybe even earlier. Heaving with stallholders selling heaped-up piles of fresh mint, stacked round bread, a machine that stripped the sweet contents out of sugar canes, the liquid harvested in a glass to be drunk by the customer. No paper or plastic cups here – far too expensive. Likewise sacks: I saw a woman, squatting on the ground, selling thin-to-the-point-of-transparent plastic carrier bags. A man carrying a tray of cookies wandered up and down, hawking them with the words, “Fresh made”. It made me think of photographs I’ve seen of New York City’s Lower East Side from the turn of the last century. Hordes of people, always, moving up and down, shopping, going home or to work, or visiting or coming from school or going to mosque or… Just being out.
Then there was the fish market, on a pier, the Atlantic rollers hitting one side hidden by a high wall, ships unloading their catch on the other. All along, stalls selling everything from sardines to sand sharks to eels to dorade and more I didn’t recognize. Or you could buy them charred straight from the grill. Underfoot was a black squash that didn’t bear too much looking at; and I envied my companion’s lack of a sense of smell. It didn’t even smell fishy, but of something unspeakable. Rotted. Shit, maybe. But so much hustle and bustle. Bicycles and half-motorcyle, half-cart vehicles weaving through the throng. An 18-wheeler being loaded with ice-packed crates of small fish…
Does it sound ugly? There was ugliness and a certain disgustingness, but also an excitement. Everything – every thing – was unlike any thing else I’ve seen before. And? It was fascinating and alive feeling. And beautiful and amazing and… I’m already looking for the next hit.
*Wandering down one alleyway, we came to a shop selling medicinal herbs. The man whose establishment this was stopped us by asking about the book my companion was carrying, then was very insistent that my companion sniff crushed nigella seeds and, finally, giving us no choice in the matter, led us across an empty fish market, down this alleyway and that, further and further from the more-visited main streets, until we were getting nervous and on edge. Where were we going? Where was the promised ‘women’s co-operative’ making argan oil he was sure we had to visit? But finally, finally, we went through a doorway, in and out of the first room, to a windowless back room where an old woman sat on the floor cracking open argan nuts. He talked us through the process to oil, showing us the handgrinder, then took us back to the front room where another woman sat and offered us some half-eaten bread, which we declined, saying we’d just eaten (we had) and then we said thank you very much and scooted. It was all very… odd. We’d both, my companion and I, had the sense that anything might have happened: a robbery, maybe, or worse. But nothing did and so it has become a story… And perhaps our 'guide' was just showing us these women after all and why not? But that is Morocco. Random moments, acts of kindness and great hospitality, along with something unknown...