Marathon des Sables – Chapter 13 – To Marrakesh and Beyond

To Marrakesh and Beyond

And there he was. After ten years, my friend Nick was sitting by the pool waiting for my arrival. After all these years, here we were meeting again in a far away corner of Morocco. It was great to see him.

Nick hadn’t changed much since I last saw him as we said good-bye to each other at Riyadh airport in April 2000. His forehead was a little more pronounced and his belt was a little bigger, but apart from that he was the same Nick. After our greetings, we sat on the poolside lounges for half an hour and swapped stories before going up to the room and settling in. Nick was here to help ensure that my sugar was OK as I recovered from the event. This had all been organised months ago when it was expected that I would be completing the full distance. But because I had actually pulled out four days previously, it wasn’t so important for Nick to look after me so we could just enjoy being in Morocco and reminiscing about old times. There were lots of memories and “Remember when’s”, because the time Nick shared with myself, Donna and the girls in Saudi Arabia was a very important time for all of us.

After settling in to the room, we went for the obligatory walk to the supermarket. This time I knew where it was from the first visit, so we went straight there and filled some bags with groceries. We bought way too much because it’s much safer to have too much than not enough. The groceries we bought here needed to last me for the rest of the day and evening, breakfast the next day then the trip back to Marrakesh. And if you think back, I hadn’t been able to do a supermarket trip the previous afternoon and had a rather bad hypo in the evening. The hypo was not because I didn’t go to a supermarket, but if I had been able to visit a supermarket, I wouldn’t have had the hypo. See the connection? Yes? Now you are starting to see the world through the eyes of a type 1 diabetic. Some people call it “anal”; I call it “survival”.

That night Nick and I walked up the road to the same restaurant that Erick, Sam and I had gone to before the event. There we had the same lovely meal that included a tagine. I wish I could tell you more about this little restaurant, because it is lovely. The setting is beautiful, the food wonderful and the service excellent. We will certainly be returning when I do the event again in four years – yes, the decision has been made. 2014 is when I complete the Marathon des Sables.

The restaurant tonight was full of people. Last time there were many empty tables, but this night it was so full that we only just managed to get a seat. Sitting at another table were a group of MdS competitors including Denis, a very friendly Irishman who owns a restaurant in country France. He was one of the memorable characters.

*   *   *   *   *

Monday the 12th of April and the goal today was to travel from Ouarzazate back to Marrakesh, where we had a villa booked in the Medina for five nights. We had asked the hotel the previous afternoon to arrange for a taxi for us, similar to my trip with Erick and Sam from Marrakesh. This time the taxi fare was 1200 dirhams, which converts to around $A185. Yes, you could say that was a bit much, but the comfort and the convenience of being able to stop anywhere we wanted to was worth it. Our driver was great, being a local fellow with a family from a village not far out of Ouarzazate. He proudly showed us where his village was as we drove past towards the Atlas mountains.

Speaking of the Atlas mountains, as I was now taking much more notice of my surroundings compared to the first trip, they are extraordinarily beautiful. They are a long line of snow topped mountains that run through the heart of Morocco from south west to north east. The road between Ouarzazate to Marrakesh runs directly across the mountains, taking in spectacular scenery and some interesting country towns and villages.

We stopped twice along the way, once at a large traveller’s café for a cup of tea and again at the main town in the mountains. A strange thing happened when we stopped at the town for a stretch and to answer the call of nature. I came to realise that this was one of the very few spots I recognised along the whole trip from my original trip nine days previously with Erick and Sam. I mentioned this to Nick, momentarily a little concerned that I might be losing my mind. But we concluded that I must have been so very focussed and more than a little stressed about the upcoming event on the first trip, so that not much made it’s way into my over-stressed brain. Now I was actually seeing the countryside and it was beautiful.

After five hours of a very pleasant drive we arrived in Marrakesh. The driver found our villa by calling the fellow who managed the villa, Abdulleila, on his mobile and getting directions. I found even this amazing because as far as I could see, the Medina (the old part of the city) was simply a rabbit warren of laneways and impossible to navigate. So how anyone could understand instructions over a mobile phone left me stumped.

Our abode for the next five nights was an amazing looking place that I can highly recommend. It is called Villa Dar Musique. It is buried deep in a labyrinth of alleyways that will feature a little more later in the story. The lovely people who run the villa, Abdulleila and “the sisters”, are wonderful, with Abdulleila more than happy to provide advice, directions and anything else to make your stay in the Medina as fulfilling as possible.

The original plan was for between eight and ten of us to be staying at the villa, but the problem with Donna’s back, plus other things that came up as time passed, meant that it was only Nick and I there for the whole five days.

*   *   *   *   *

Our first breakfast time back in Marrakesh was interesting from the start. As we didn’t have an opportunity the previous day to go to a supermarket, I was rather reliant on the breakfast provided at the villa. And as we were now working on “Inshallah time”, that is the more relaxed idea of time that prevails in the Middle East, exactly when breakfast was going to be ready was anyone’s guess. And as we were effectively stuck in the labyrinth of laneways that make up the Medina until we had a chance to explore and work it all out, getting backup food was not possible. So I needed to revert to my race food that I still had left over to get me through until breakfast was finally served. So once again, three days after the event finished and seven days since I had withdrawn from the event, I was again needing to be self-sufficient. This made me wonder what would have happened had I been successful and finished the event. We would still be here at the villa, but I would have eaten my way through all of my race food earlier. What would I have had to get me through?

Breakfast did come, close to 9:30 as it so happens, and it was beautiful. Freshly squeezed orange juice, a Moroccan dish made from eggs and tomatoes and some lightly spiced rice, not exactly what we expect in the west for breakfast, but we weren’t in the west. We were in the Medina in Marrakesh in Morocco.

A crucial goal for the first day, and definitely a most important goal, was to find a supermarket. Abdulleila gave directions we could follow that took us to the outside of the Medina, down a crowded road full of cars, motor bikes, the occasional donkey, street markets and the general throng and humdrum of Marrakesh. Just walking the couple of kilometres to the supermarket was fascinating in itself. The smells, the sounds, the things we saw were all just amazing. For me Marrakesh was a mixture of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and Bangalore in India, with a touch of Venice thrown in for good measure. It was a wonderful walk of discovery.

The supermarket was a full-on, genuine supermarket of a size and type that we would expect in Australia. It had everything we could expect on the shelves, including a brand of gluten free breakfast food. For not the first time this trip I breathed a sigh of relief and thought “thank heavens”. Apart from the breakfast food, we bought bottles of water, some fresh fruit, UHT milk (always a good thing to have in warm climates with no access to refrigeration) and a bunch of comfort food. All of this made both of us feel more comfortable and relaxed, knowing that we had ready access to good food. For Nick this was just a relaxing feeling. For me it was a feeling of safety. One interesting thing I found is that the only brand names that we recognised were Coca Cola and Green Giant. Everything else on the shelves, without exception, were either local brands or French. That’s another one of those things that you probably don’t find interesting, but I do. I know, I know; you’re not the first person to say that.

After the interesting walk back to the villa and having a cup of tea, it was time for our first explore of the Medina. The main, central focus of the old city of Marrakesh is the Jamaa El Fna, which is a big, open square which seems to be constantly on the go. This is where the snake charmers play their music during the day to entice the cobras to dance. Where at night there are story tellers and buskers and dancers and restaurants seemingly by the hundred. It is a whirlpool of activity morning, noon and night.

Surrounding the square are many shops selling local wares, as well as restaurants where you can enjoy the many tagine meals on offer. The tagine is a particularly Moroccan dish, cooked in a conical terra-cotta pot that seems to enhance the flavours of the lamb or chicken or beef and the vegetables. They are wonderful, good value and a great meal. Nick and I ended up eating a lot of tagines while enjoying the always interesting vista of El Fna square.
(Ed note 2015 : It was our favourite restaurant in El Fna square that was the target of a bomb in 2011. A very sad occasion.)

I found an internet café down one of the small roads that lead off El Fna, so took the opportunity to catch up on emails and let Donna and the girls know that I was still alive. This was an interesting experience. Firstly, and before I could even find out about the secondly, again this was a French keyboard and was therefore difficult to use. For example, where on earth was the @ symbol? On a western keyboard, at least every one that I’ve ever used, the @ is on top of the 2 key. If you’re reading this on a laptop now, have a look. I bet it’s there. Well on a French keyboard, chances are it’s not. I experienced two versions of French keyboards while in Morocco; one was missing the @ all together and the other would have it on a different key. With the second it was a case of finding it and remembering where it was. With the first, the only way I could figure out how to get an @ was to get an email address and copy the @ from that address then paste it where I needed it. Sound complicated? Uh huh, it is. A similar situation existed for the _ and the -, but that’s another story.

So, after finding the various keys and symbols, I ran head long into the “secondly”, the slowest internet connection I have experienced in years. It was painfully slow, so every email became a mission. But it was cheap, easy to get to and open until 10 o’clock at night.

After a very pleasant afternoon of exploring, it was time to make our way back to the villa. This was my opportunity to learn how to get there. I must take my hat off to Nick here and say that, having done this little walk only twice previously during the one night he was at the villa before coming to Ouarzazate, he had a great memory of which way to go. I couldn’t and didn’t remember it that well. More on that later. For now, we left El Fna down a side street, walked through what we came to know as “Donkey Square”, down that alleyway over there, past these shops and the butcher with the meat hanging on hooks, past the bookshop that I was to discover isn’t always there, past the pictures hanging on the wall, past the line of jewellery shops to the T intersection facing the Café Bougainvilia. Turned left there and walked for around 150 meters then turned right under the archway, opposite the little shop that looked like it might be a pharmacy of some sort. Now we walked down the laneway and turned left, then turned right towards the white door with the pattern on it, but before getting there turned left again and walked through the tunnel, but watching out for motorbikes coming the other way. We didn’t need to worry about it being dark inside because everyone seems to behave themselves in Morocco. Turned right halfway through the tunnel, then headed towards the daylight, which is about 20m away. After leaving the tunnel, turned left at the funny symbol scrawled on the wall, then walked down the alleyway for, ummmm, around 50m. Now, we needed to remember which door was the one to the villa, because they all looked very similar. When we believed we had identified the correct door we knocked and waited for Abdulleila to open up. And miracle of miracles, there we were.

Now, if you have made notes of the above description I must warn you that the description is valid only for daylight hours and when the shops are open. When the shops close they pull down roller doors and shutters, so effectively they disappear. Plus the open air displays, such as the paintings, simply vanish. So now you have lost half of your landmarks within minutes. At night time the lights come on, so what was dark is now brightly lit, and what was exposed to daylight may now be lost in the dark. Finding your way back to the villa at night becomes a whole new adventure.

*   *   *   *   *

It was now Wednesday the 14th of April and the main goal for the day was to walk around the outside wall of the Medina, a distance of approximately 12km according to the simple map we had. The reasons for doing this included seeing more of Marrakesh, plus to see part of Marrakesh outside the Medina. The old part of the city was quite different to the rest of Marrakesh and Nick and I wanted to see something of the rest of the city.

We set off at about 10 o’clock, using the main post office in El Fna square as the reference point. We were both wearing backpacks with food and water, so were prepared for a longish walk.

The walking was interesting, with lots of traffic, donkeys and motor bikes. There was nothing of riveting interest beyond the general mayhem that constituted street life in Marrakesh. We walked along leisurely for about four hours, stopping off along the way at a café for a coffee and a good look at the passing street life. This was the real life in Marrakesh as there were no tourists and not even any French people. Of course Nick and I attracted a bit of interest because we were possibly the only non-Moroccans in the area.

After four hours and the worry that we were lost at a couple of points, we suddenly found ourselves back at our starting point. We had walked around the Medina on the outside of the wall and had seen a good portion of the real Marrakesh.

As we entered back into the Medina through El Fna square, we stopped at a street café for lunch. I had a simple salad and Nick had a tuna salad. Buying anything like this was always a lottery because the menus were written in two languages; Arabic and French. Our Arabic was poor and our French wasn’t much better, although Nick did a reasonable job of working out what the French was trying to tell us.

At last, after a wearying day of walking through the throng of the city, we made our way back to the villa. Our intention was to make our way up to the rooftop garden, sit on the lounges with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and some nibblies and while the rest of the afternoon away. That was our intention.

The reality was a little different. After we had settled down and got comfortable, Nick started acting a little odd, so I kept my eye on him. His talking slowed down and became sporadic and then, when he tried to go over to a lounge to lie down, he started to stagger noticeably. He staggered back to his chair and sat back down, now as white as a ghost. I was getting concerned.

I went over to check the door to the staircase down from the roof to see if it was locked, so I’d know if Nick and I could go down that way if necessary. The staircase we had used to come up did not have a handrail and I was starting to think that I may have to carry Nick down. When I turned around to tell him that the door was locked, Nick was looking very strange. He wasn’t responding to my questions. I went over to him and saw that he was whiter than a ghost, his eyes were wide, staring and unseeing and his arms were stuck straight out in front of him. He wasn’t responding to my voice at all and I realised that he was having a mild seizure. I talked calmly to him for about a minute, trying to calm him down. Finally he slowly lowered his arms and his eyes came back into focus. He got some colour back into his face and he began to respond to my voice. His seizure was passing.

When he was able to hold a conversation and could stand without falling, we slowly and carefully went back downstairs. There he went to his bed to lie down for a while. After confirming that his problem was passed and that he was going to be OK, I took the key and walked up to the internet café to do some emails.

That night Nick was fine. As we sat in one of the restaurants having a lovely tagine for dinner, looking out over the amazing night time entertainment in the square, we laughed and joked about what had happened. The theories of the cause extended from walking too far in the warm weather to something not quite right with the tuna salad. The second one had the greater ring of truth to it, so we settled on that.

After dinner, Nick headed back to the villa and I headed off to the internet café. He was fine by now so there wasn’t any risk in letting him walk back by himself. I spent an hour or so doing emails on the world’s slowest internet connection and with the oldest computers known to mankind, then headed back towards the villa. Now, if you were to go back up to where I describe how to find the villa, you’ll notice that I say that at night time it all looks different. Add to that a case of unrecognised low sugar and what we now have is “an interesting situation”.

I managed to find the right hand turn under the archway, but after that it all came off the rails. In the myriad of laneways left and right, in my confused state of mind because of the hypo it was impossible for me to find the villa. For about thirty minutes I wandered left and right.  Not only couldn’t I find it but, as time went on, it was getting even less likely that I would eventually find it.

When I realised that I couldn’t even find my way out of the maze back to the road, I finally accepted that my sugar was low and I was lost. But here’s a frightening aspect of low sugar; you get to a state where you forget to, or don’t want to, or refuse to, eat. So now I was lost, low in sugar, confused and getting worse and yet doing nothing to help fix the situation.

Just then I walked passed a couple of young guys, whom I think I had walked passed a couple of times previously. This time they asked me if everything was alright. I paused for a moment and thought about what to say. My natural response was to say that everything was OK, but being as I was lost and getting worse, I relented and said “No, I’m lost”. “Oh,” they said, “Where abouts are you staying?” Surprisingly I could remember the name of the villa so told them. They said they knew where it was and could show me. I thanked them, then followed as they walked around a couple of corners and stopped at a door. I didn’t recognise the door and questioned if this was it. The leader of the two sighed and rolled his eyes almost imperceptibly and assured me it was the correct door, so I knocked. Sure enough Nick opened the door. I breathed a sigh of relief and said thank-you to the young fellows. They then said “We helped you find your home” to which I said “Yes you did. Thank-you.” Now keep in mind that my sugar was low, so I hadn’t clicked to where this was going. They then said “Now you should give us a present.” I thought this was a strange thing to say, then suddenly understood that they were asking for money. I was sad at this but hey, they did help me home when I really needed it. I got out my wallet and gave them 50 dirhams and said thank-you. They were now happy and went on their way.

Back inside Nick was expressing his concern about me being so late. I explained that my sugar was low and proceeded to eat considerable amounts of emergency food for the next twenty minutes until my sugar started coming back up.

With Nick’s problem, me getting lost and then having a hypo, this day had been an interesting one.

*   *   *   *   *

Thursday the 15th and things were about to start getting interesting. The day started off as normal, with me having my “proper” breakfast at a normal time and then having the “official” breakfast at about 9:30. As we prepared ourselves for the day’s activities, the TV was on the BBC and we started hearing reports of a volcano in Iceland. This was just another story amongst the many other stories, so we hardly gave it a second thought.

We decided that today we would explore outside the Medina again, but this time walk to a “point of interest” that we had found in the map book. We packed a bag of food and water and set off.

The walk took us past an attractive looking garden called “Cyber Gardens”, a name that we found intriguing. We went in and found a very attractive garden that provided a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh street life. But the intriguing aspect of these gardens was that scattered throughout were stand-up “poles” or “kiosks” where there was a computer screen and keyboard. These computers were connected to the internet and were free to use by anybody. What an excellent way of enabling anybody, young or old, rich or poor, to be able to access the modern world of online technology. Nick and I were most impressed.

We continued walking towards our destination, walking through some very impressive sections of town, with large, modern hotels and very large, ornate and expensive looking mansions. We believe that this may have been the part of Marrakesh where the foreign embassies and dignitaries were, which would explain the hotels and fancy houses.

Eventually we got to our destination, which was a public garden of some sort with an historic reservoir of water. There were two hundred years of history associated with the reservoir, the details of which I don’t remember. The more interesting part of the garden for me was that it was in the process of being setup for an exhibition the next day of garden displays made by local primary school children. Some of the displays were already setup, so we stopped by and listened as the school children explained to us in French the details of the theme behind their garden, the work that they had put into building it and what they had learned through the exercise. As my comprehension of French is virtually nil, I simply judged by the tone of the young voices when I was meant to show surprise, joy and praise. It was wonderful to see the energy and enthusiasm shown by the young students.

As we were walking around, Nick’s mobile phone was quite active. He was getting messages from his sister in England and his travel agent, mentioning something about the volcano in Iceland. This still did not really mean much to us, but it did at least shift our focus slightly towards the topic.

After a very pleasant walk we returned to the Medina, spent some time walking around the shops, finally returning to the villa in the late afternoon. While relaxing and preparing to go out again to one of the many restaurants for a tagine and pleasant evening watching the shenanigans in the main square, Nick kept getting messages on his mobile. This was starting to become either annoying or important. We still couldn’t decide which one.

As was now the pattern, Nick returned to the villa while I stayed behind to do some emails at the world’s slowest internet café. Now it was my turn; Donna was telling me about the volcano in Iceland. So now we were getting it from Nick’s contacts on his mobile and from my emails. What the heck did all of this have to do with us? What possible impact could a volcano in Iceland have on us here in Marrakesh?

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