The alarm startles me into a state of semi-consciousness. I focus through bleary eyes just enough to make out a 5, followed by some numbers, before collapsing back onto the bed with frightening velocity. I contemplate hitting the snooze button, reassuring myself that if god had intended me to be awake at this hour then surely he would have switched the sun on. However this is Morocco and the almighty sings from a different hymn sheet, or at least his disciples do. Aided by lofty, Sony surround sound minarets, the mosques wail across Marrakech, calling for the faithful to say morning to Allah. Despite mustering all my psychic powers, I fail to mentally hit the mosques giant snooze button and I’m slowly brought into a state of logical thought. Blessed by this, it dawns on me that I’d set my alarm for a reason and that the minutes are slowly ticking away until the departure of my Sahara bound tour bus.
I reluctantly remove the bed covers and the December chill instantly penetrates my bones. I sheepishly skip over the icy cold tiled floor and into the bathroom where the temperature puts me in mind of a documentary about penguins in Antarctica. It’s with a degree of hope that I turn on the hot water for the shower, knowing full well that despite being assured yesterday of the existence within the premises of this North African luxury, the likelihood of actually steaming up the bathroom mirror is slim. After 5 minutes of waiting for anything other than liquid ice to come through I decide to brave it. I immediately regret the decision. As the first droplets land on exposed skin, I lose control of my vocal cords and every following wave of cold water over my body is accompanied by a small involuntary wail. Vital organs quickly retract as though running in defeat from a far superior enemy and my skin turns milky white as the blood drains away. Just before losing consciousness, I stumble out of the shower and attempt to dry myself with yesterdays still soggy and slightly frozen towel. After achieving a state of dryness somewhere between dripping wet and damp, I throw on as many clothes as possible and reluctantly stuff the towel into the top of my rucksack, knowing full well the exuberant odour which will subsequently fester.
I tip-toe out of my room onto the balcony above the hostel’s inner courtyard and begin a tentative search for both the staircase and a light switch. I quickly give up on the latter and instead make my way down the narrow, pitch black set of stairs. Swiping my foot across every step first for fear of treading on a cat, for I know from experience that Moroccan cats carry the label “domesticated” only loosely. Were I to inadvertently rouse one into a state of anger on a dark staircase, the ensuing battle could only result in feline victory. Progress is slow until a previously unknown 40 watt bulb bursts into life overhead. Through the glare I make out the generously wrinkled proprietor watching me from the bottom of the staircase with a look somewhere between weariness and pity. She lightens me of my room key before ushering me out the door and slamming it behind me with nary a goodbye nor bon voyage. Clearly too early for hospitality.
I shuffle along the narrow alleyway, bordered on both sides by high sandstone walls, and onto one of the medina’s main thoroughfares. Normally the human traffic, food stalls, donkeys, beggars and open throttled scooters make for an assault course style stroll but, at five in the morning, the street is completely deserted. The relative squalor revealed by the streets emptiness is both visually and nasally impressive. I’m left pondering over the thought that only yesterday I was happily gorging on a mammoth sandwich from a street stall which, at the time seemed quite convivial, but now had an overwhelming aroma of cat piss and an abundance of top grade donkey shit. I forge on undeterred and, after a brief but unintended barter with a taxi driver and an offer of “spacey” marijuana from a shady character in a doorway, make it to my bus on time.
Despite the abundance of clothing, I’m still shivering from the cold as I board the bus. It’s with some hesitance but real necessity that I rearrange my scarf and hat to cover most of my face. However the mujahideen look isn’t such a good idea anywhere in the world, let alone a Muslim part, so I opt for some giant aviator sunglasses to give some Western Yin to the Eastern Yang. My fashion balancing act leaving me looking like Taleban in Los Angeles.
The bus is soon out of the city and after half an hour we’re ascending into the Atlas mountains. The landscape steadily changing from a patchwork of fertile fields into a strange Arabic-European alpine hybrid. The trees become more European in appearance and the snow takes away any idea that I’m in North Africa, yet the human marks on the landscape are a stark contrast. Clusters of simple, muddy looking houses, clinging to a mountainside or surrounding the tower of a mosque and any roadside activity near these settlements is normally of the “man & donkey” variety. We stop at a café somewhere high in the mountains and a handful of locals are given the visual spectacle of 16 Europeans shivering to death whilst trying to drink Berber tea. Inside the café, I give an example to Eurocrats in Brussels of how multi-lingual business should really be done by enquiring about the price of biscuits in a mixture of “Franglais,” “Spanglish,” pigeon English and a final splash of Arabic. My Moroccan counterpart in the bargaining process, failing to fully appreciate the linguistic benchmark that we’re setting, refuses to budge from his lofty 6 euro asking price for a packet of biscuits and I board the bus clutching only some dry bread.
We roll on through the mountains and slowly the snow starts to recede. Two hours after the café stop the temperature has climbed to 20C and we’re driving along palm fringed roads with occasional kasbahs offering some architectural style on the landscape. We stop for lunch in Ouarzazate and I remember why I hate doing organised tours when the bus driver gives us a strict two hour limit in town. A mere 120 minutes to find edible food, lose money to the locals and see or experience something noteworthy. It’s a challenge…