Travel Essay

WITH one afternoon left to explore the souks of Marrakech, I must have sounded like the White Rabbit in Alice In Wonderland after spending spent 20 minutes haggling over the price of my first purchase. No more than you'd expect for a carpet, you may say, but this was only a packet of henna powder. To the shopkeeper, of course, all that pointing at my watch and muttering about being late for a very important date (my plane) was a mere opening gambit. Time to respond in kind. `We drink mint tea! With sugar, or without?' he cried. Three cups of tea and a wide-ranging discussion on world affairs later, it was time to accept that the souks are not the place for a spot of last-minute shopping. At the very least, you need energy, cash, a sense of humour, a large suitcase - and patience. The way in is through chaotic Djemma el Fna Square, an ongoing carnival of snake charmers, musicians and street entertainers. The souks themselves are roofed with an iron trellis through which the sunlight filters, casting a dim light on to alleys thronged with men in hooded cloaks, housewives carrying trays to communal ovens, and ragged porters bent double under the weight of enormous sacks. Rue Souk Smarine, the main alleyway, goes down to the heart of the labyrinth, past racks of clothes and tiny hole-in-the-wall shops where the tradesmen sit, watching and waiting, able to reach their stock simply by extending a hand. Other souks lead off on either side to workshops busy making soft leather slippers and bags, brass and copperware, woodwork and dyed cloth. Some stalls are stuffed with fine antiques, from Berber muskets inlaid with camel bone to jewellery and carpets in peacock colours. Down one lane, a tailor droned an incantation and shook an incense-burner over his bolts of cloth. `Getting rid of a jinx some jealous competitor has put on his trade",' said my guide. In another, barefoot carpenters used footlathes to turn the cedarwood blocks they were working into sweet-smelling table-legs. There's no break in the hubbub until the muezzin's wail rises up from hidden mosques. The workers response is to down tools and pray. It's a medieval fantasy come true, but like all the best travel adventures, it's hard work. Steel yourself for unrelenting pressure from a stream of would-be guides, eager to take you shopping `just to look', but equally anxious for commission on any purchases you make. Taking an introductory tour with an official guide is a useful tactic. …

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