We stirred from our restless slumber as the coach jolted its way through the narrow streets leading to Marrakech, Grace brushed her waves of auburn hair out of her face and I checked my watch: It was four in the afternoon. We grabbed our board bags and flagged down the latest in a long run of drive by taxis and headed for our new abode.
Once in Marrakech, our driver signaled us to follow a lingering youngster to our Riad (a Moroccan guest house). Considering we'd just arrived and had no map or sense of direction, we had very little choice in the matter. We followed him through shadowed alleyways, abruptly stopping before each one and telepathically expressing our unwillingness to get mugged. Hesitantly, we strolled on and soon arrived outside a door at the bottom of a passageway with the name of our Riad tiled above it, Riad Selouane. Relieved, we dropped our luggage and rang the bell.
"Five euros," said the boy who had walked all of three minutes to our destination as we dragged our luggage behind him, exhaling the last of his cigarette through his tea-stained teeth. We knew what was coming next -- the inevitable backsheesh (tip) so I placed a 10 dirham coin in his hand, the equivalent of €1.
"It's not enough! The fee is five euros!" he replied. A further five dirham greased the palm of our new friend. "No! It's five euros, so need to pay more!" It seemed this guy was going nowhere with a solitary €1.50 in his pocket, but fatefully just then the door to the Riad creaked open and the stooped shadow of our host, Moustaffa, silhouetted in the doorway. €1.50 quickly became a satisfactory fee, and our guide scampered back into the labyrinth.
We shuffled timidly into the Riad, which opened into a tranquil courtyard, white pillars towering up to the view of the sunset, water features trickled around us and leaves fluttered in the balmy breeze. It was as if we had walked through a portal into another universe, our safe haven away from the madness of Marrakech.
We settled into our new home nicely, and after a couple days, organized a bus trip to the mountainous village of Aït Ben Haddou through a middle-aged man in an alleyway who claimed to be a booking agent, praying he wouldn't just take our deposit and run. We arrived at the pick-up point at 7:00 a.m. the following morning and piled into a minibus to take us to the site where they filmed the African arena scenes in the movie Gladiator, as well as scenes from the television series Game of Thrones, among others.
We sped through the treacherous mountains, sliding back and forth across our seats, bumping heads and limbs with the person next to us:
"Oh! Nice to meet you, ugh, sorry about the elbow in your chest/crotch/throat."
"Oops, excuse me! Here are your false teeth and dignity back."
The mini bus clung to the road as a sheer drop down the mountainside invited us with every wild turn. The driver, noticing bodies flying around in the back and trying to avoid a motion sickness epidemic from breaking out on his nice seats, mercifully stopped every hour for toilet/cigarette/sick bag emptying breaks.
After the death defying, yet picturesque, four-hour journey, we arrived at Aït Ben Haddou. Orange sand whipped skyward and danced across the barren landscape in the fresh mountain breeze. Smoky mountain ranges dominated the horizon, disappearing into an endless powder-blue sky, eliciting a collective "wow" from our wide-eyed tour group. The surroundings were breathtaking, a habitat so alien to anything I'd witnessed that it felt like we'd flown up to Mars. Considering how disorientated we were from the journey, it felt very much a possibility. The village sprawled across the foothills and spread up the side of the mountain as if it had spilled from an overflowing well, humble abodes built from the sand and mud that made up much of its surroundings. We toured through the village and across the mountain peaks snapping our cameras furiously, afraid we might miss something or leave without proof of our footsteps on Mars.
The next day, our adventures took us to the palaces, Mosques and gardens that surrounded the city. We strolled slow motion through the Jemaa el-Fnaa, one of Africa's most famous squares. Navigating a market of snake handlers, xylophone playing monkeys and jewellery salesmen, all competing for the attention (and dollars) of passing tourists.
Two palaces dominated the city's skyline, towering above the bustling crowd like stoic watchmen from the city's corners. We ambled through the palace's open courtyards, cooled by the shade of the olive trees, and posed for photo opportunities below the golden-laced ceilings and intricately painted archways. While meandering through the gardens, I began to reflect on our unique time in Marrakech:
We'd haggled our way through the Souks, defied gravity on our way up mountain peaks and toured the beauty of the palaces throughout our four-day stay in Marrakech. But strangely, it was when we retired from the busy streets to the terraces overhanging the city that I really felt its presence. At those moments, the culture of the city drifted on the cool night sky, filling our senses with all of the cities wonderful flavours, brushing our palettes with its local cuisine and filling our ears with its ancient sounds. It was when we resided in the calm above the storm that Marrakech really settled into our souls, the madness below framed by a blissful peace hiding in the rafters of this chaotic paradise.