After the tidal swells of the straits of Gibraltar we came round Punta Almina (Spanish territory but on the African continent) and were suddenly becalmed. It was a welcome break from wrestling the helm and a good place to have sandwiches had we not consumed them on the straits (me having made myself queasy knocking up ham, cheese and Branston butties in the heavily rolling galley). This is what out sister boat did, we later found out. Us, well, we just admired the view and took in the glassy water, peering to bow every now and then to see where the line of rougher water began, signalling where we would pick up the wind again as it funnelled down between a valley on the mainland.
And so we arrived in Marina Smir some time in the afternoon after three or four hours of exhilirating sailing. As we negotiated the narrow channel, exotic scents wafting on the warm air, there was no mistaking we were on a different continent. This is a relatively new marina on a stretch of the Mediterranean coast which is being developed as part and parcel of King Mohammed’s Vision 2010. Ten years ago there was nothing here. Now there is a goodly spattering of white villas and apartments and one large hotel. The ubiquitous golf course is currently under construction. I had mixed feelings about all this. I would have preferred to have seen it with pristine hills sweeping to the sea undisturbed, but tourist development is happening all over the world these days and there is nothing little old me can do to stop it. It is, though, one of the reasons that I had to leave my career in travel PR in the end as I couldn’t bear promoting unknown beautiful places which were likely to lose all their appeal thanks to people like me promoting them! It was a bit of a dilemma, to be sure.
Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, motoring gently into Marina Smir which appeared calm and serene in the afternoon sunshine. We moored up to report in and complete convoluted paperwork before proceeding to our alloted berth. A few natty little manoeuvres and knots later and we were able to hop off and enjoy a cool beer on one of the quayside cafes. Not so our South African shipmate on the other boat. Having not got a visa, he was confined to barracks. Frankly, I’m really not sure anyone would have known or noticed if he’d stepped ashore, but he was happy to bob around doing his own thing while we got fleeced by the locals, so that was just fine.
So after the chilled beer and debrief with our instructor, we piled into a minibus where small, hawkish Abdul, in grubby chinos and checked shirt greeted us with outstretched hand and toothless smile with burly, bovine Mohammed crammed uncomfortably behind the steering wheel. Having welcomed us in French and broken English they then proceeded to talk to each other ten to the dozen in Arabic, pausing only for petrol and to indicate the various ‘points of note’ on our journey. We were on our way to Tetouan, a large provincial town about an hour away from Marina Smir. We were promised souks and supper (and possibly a carpet). All was well with our world.
The bus ride was the first opportunity N and I had had to properly meet our sister ship shipmates. Nol I have already told you a bit about and he was there resplendent in his orange trousers, white shirt and white hair, clutching a large camera and asking interested questions of our guides in a variety of languages. Pia was a glamorous blond with an enviable hair cut and skin tone, half Italian half English, living in Amsterdam (also enviable), previously a buyer at Morrisons (not so enviable). She had also spent a fair number of years in Milan, but somehow we never got round to talking about that much, despite the fact that we had lived there for a couple of years too. I watched her nonchanantly enhance already lush lips with Clarins lip gloss, quizzed her about various aspects of her life, as I always do, then thought I’d better shut up and leave her in peace. She had boarded the boat with her mate Cat (a sailor should always have a cat, after all) – smallish, darkish, pale-skinned and kind looking. Latterly from Nottinghamshire (and knowing Buxton and the Peak District), she too was now resident in Amsterdam, worked in advertising and was doing the sailing as a two-week break before going back to start a new job. Erika was the final member of the party and the youngest of the group. She was in her early twenties, having finished at university and now doing admirable things in social work in London. Her studies had been in psychology and she was hoping to take them further. It made my mind flick back to the fact that I had originally been enrolled on a French and Psychology course at Manchester back in the early eighties before being diverted into Modern Languages at Oxford. I often wonder if I made the right decision. With my art-science divide, I think the Manchester degree would have been right up my street and probably would have helped me focus my subsequent career rather better than I did. Ho hum. But I digress again. Erika had none of the regret of age and all the enthusiasm of youth. She was following her sailing course with travels, alone, around Morocco. I admired her spirit and her courage – a young blond girl with big brown eyes in an Arab country was potentially asking for trouble. But she’d already understood that she was going to have less hassle if she covered up her blondness and had a scarf draped elegantly around her head which, with those big brown eyes, transformed her miraculously into something less English, more exotic. She would be ok.
Stepping out of the minibus just outside the narrow streets of Tetouan’s souks, I felt every inch the tourist. I don’t do that sort of thing very well. I’ve always tried to be as inconspicuous as possible in a foreign land. After a spiel from Mohammed delivered at a million miles an hour, we set off into the alleyways.
I tried not to take too many pictures, despite wanting too, as it just draws attention to yourself and I hate making local people feel like a circus act. Imagine a whole load of Arab tourists making ooh and ahh noises and photographing you in the aisles of Tesco as you finger the fruit and veg and try and work out what the hell you're going to cook for supper. Most unwelcome! For those of you who have visited souks you will already know the sort of things we saw. Cubby hole after cubby hole filled with meat, fruit, veg, fish, some of it live, some of it dead. The chickens were very much alive, the pigs very much dead and chopped into myriad parts. They clearly eat the lot a la Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall aka Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall. Waste not want not. The air was thick with mint and spices and conversation. Pause for a moment and someone tried to lure you into a purchase. Nol’s gang bought a shiny new moka coffee maker as Nol would be removing his when he left the boat at the end of the week. Flat rounds of crusty Moroccan bread, beloved of both our sailing instructors, was purchased in large quantities, as was a huge bunch of outrageously sweet smelling mint.
Erika’s linen trousers trailed through the pungent liquids running down the alleys of the fish market but she remained unbothered. She would be fine on her travels, I thought to myself, while N, on the other hand, started to regret wearing his open-toed leather sandals as we squelched on. We passed a pile of huge multi-coloured eels which I showed too much interest in and nearly came away with a bagful, perish the thought. We ducked through dark passageways, trying to keep up with Abdul and his mate, who mysteriously stopped every now and then to discuss prickly financial issues with shady men in shady booths. Money owed, money paid. Who knows. It’s always about money though. As a tourist, I find this so unsettling. They know we have more than them. They try and pretend it doesn’t matter. They always try and get more off us. Mohammed repeated like a mantra how cheap everything was in the souks for us foreigners and how much we would pay elsewhere. I felt awkward, unnerved. I hate discussing money. I hate what money does to people. I hate feeling the difference between those who have more and those who have less. But money makes the world go round. I wish it didn’t. I wish we could go back to bartering (actually, we have, haven’t we, from what I was reading in the papers the other day about all these new bartering websites?). Radix malorum est cupiditas [The Pardoner’s Tale, Chaucer]. Avarice is the root of all evil. I repeat it constantly as I go through life. There has never been a truer phrase coined.
And so the inevitable happened. The ‘fair trade’ craft emporium. Aka the Carpet Shop. Our guides' mates, of course. Lots of commission. Rub hands. We were greeted courteously and unctuously by a flurry of excitable men. We were shown the view from the roof of this majestic old riad. We were offered sweet green mint tea on soft red leather poofs and then the show began. Carpet after carpet was flapped in front of our eyes – oranges, yellows, browns, blues – every colour, design and origin under the sun. A cigarette lighter was even taken to one and held there for minutes to prove that silk is inflammable. Something new I learnt. If there’s ever a fire, throw the silk carpet over your head and RUN! At this point it was all smiles and jokes. After the display, we were then asked to go through the whole lot again, saying yes or no (in Arabic). It took hours. Everyone was getting twitchy and hungry. It was half past nine. Cat had already bought a carpet elsewhere. I was interested, but not really in the ones they’d shown us. The place was heaving with rugs of every description. It would have taken weeks to go through them all. I knew the perfect one for me was in there somewhere, but I had to make do with what I was shown. I foolishly muttered interest in a few of them and with that they were whisked off to another room, large and barefloored, where they were all duly laid out for me. My God, the pressure. I was starting to crack. N was asked what he thought they were individually worth. This is torture. He’s an accountant, for God’s sake, a bean counter – don’t mess with him! N duly threw up a mean offer and there was much reciprocal throwing up of hands and rolling of eyes. Suddenly the atmosphere was changing from friendly to fierce. I wanted to run. Get my supper. Just get out of there. I hate buying things like this. I’m a browser. I take my time. I go away and think about it. I, in turn, threw up my hands and walked out of the room, heart pounding. I couldn’t take the pressure. Unwittingly, this was the best thing I could have done. Suddenly N’s mean offer was being accepted, other things thrown in. Credit cards were produced. Hands were shaken. 'Shukran'. I apologised to our fellow travellers and their rumbling stomachs. Nol reappeared from the roof where he’d been in deep conversation with the mint tea maker. Abdul, getting grumpier by the minute, marched us to the restaurant where he gets a commission. He asked what time to come and pick us up and we said in an hour. He said, no, take your time. Ok then, an hour and a half. We enjoyed our meal. We chatted gently.
I still felt slightly sick about the carpets we’d just bought (and realised one of them was the fire blanket). Did we really need them? Had we been ripped off? Had we ripped them off? How were we to lug them home? Abdul appeared earlier than agreed and then got very antsy that we weren’t ready. So much for taking our time and enjoying our meal! With the suggestion of indigestion in our stomachs, we were hurried back to the waiting taxi. The fee was demanded. We thanked him. He still looked displeased with us English tourists and, job done, turned swiftly on his heels and disappeared off into the hubbub of the Arabian night, his small frame instantly engulfed in the flow and shadows of human life.
We travelled back to the boats in amiable silence. It was late, we were tired after lungfulls of sea air and steadying of helms. We'd had a good evening despite the pressure of unwanted sales. The smells and images of Morocco were embedded in our senses and my carpet, with all its mixed emotions, would surely bring them home with me. You can't put a price on that.
The harbour was still and calm, the white boats sleeping on the dark mattress of water. All was silence below deck,a DVD left hanging on 'pause' and a half drunk bottle of red on the table. Life interrupted, like the Marie Celeste. Then reassuring snores seeped out from a closed cabin door and we, ourselves, retired to find our way effortlessly to the land of Nod, rocked gently on our way by the almost imperceptible motion of the vessel which had become our home.