Swindlers? Sunburn? It’s the worst bits about travel that make it so memorable

Swindlers? Sunburn? It’s the worst bits about travel that make it so memorable

  • January 13, 2021
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While I couldn’t help but find this endearing, I noticed he hadn’t been entirely honest about the location of this festival – we’d been walking for 10 minutes and it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. I made a few half-hearted attempts to turn back, but each time he implored “come, come”, and I was so groggy with the heat and lack of sleep – not to mention hopelessly lost – that I thought it would be easier to do what he said.

Eventually we arrived at the leather festival, where he passed me to a large Berber in traditional headdress and grey robes. The leather festival turned out not to be a festival as we know it, but a primitive leather-tanning process, where workers used ammonia from its traditional source of guano to treat cow hides in grave-sized holes in the earth. 

“You’re lucky,” said the Berber, “because today is the festival’s last day.” As I stared up at – and smelt – the eagle nest-sized basket of guano (also known by its anglicised name of “bird s—”) suspended from a wall, I have to admit “lucky” wasn’t the first adjective that sprung to mind. 

The Berber took me to a leather shop selling everything from cushion covers to wallets and passed me to the owner. I told him I didn’t want to buy anything, and despite his protestations, made my excuses and left. 

Outside, the Berber and Football Shirt accosted me, insisting I pay them for showing me around, saying they would accept “something small”. Yet when I handed the Berber £1, I thought they were going to attack me, so insulted were they by my offer of payment for what amounted to a four-minute tour that consisted mostly of sweaty blokes flinging bird faeces at animal carcasses in 35C heat. 

I handed them a couple more quid, then Football Shirt hid the money and pretended that I hadn’t paid him. Realising I’d been had, I turned back in the direction of the hotel, his abuse ringing in my ears. I didn’t have a clue where I was and even Google Maps was of limited use, with its perception of the street layout bearing little resemblance to what I was seeing on the ground: half the medina appeared to be a building site, and I got the impression that entire streets were popping up and disappearing again with the same regularity as football-shirted swindlers. 

I forget exactly how many wrong turnings I took that day, but what I do remember is that I had yet to buy some sun cream. When I eventually collapsed into my bed more than an hour later, I was so burnt I resembled one of those crumbs you shake out of the bottom of your toaster every couple of months or so. 

That evening, I went looking for Djemaa El-Fna, Marrakech’s famous main square. I got lost again, so it wasn’t until the next day that I chanced upon Djemaa El-Fna, which means “assembly of the dead” due to its use as a venue for public executions in the 11th century.

Standing with a mob to cheer on a hanging or beheading seemed to be just about the only medieval form of entertainment that has fallen out of favour in the square, as snake charmers and fortune tellers fight for space with Berbers carrying chained monkeys and birds of prey. 

The highlight of that first night came when I turned away from a local and he shouted, “Hey! F— you and f— your country!”

It meant he had given up on trying to swindle me out of any more money and I had learned how to deal with Marrakech. 

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