‘What on earth is that?’ I sat up, rubbed my eyes and remembered I was in Marrakech.
A long, echoing note that rose and fell like an air raid klaxon had pulled me up from the deepest dreams and my heart pounded in terror.
It was the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer blasting out of loudspeakers that seemed to be next to our bed and mixing with the hundreds of other voices singing their piety before the sun rose.
We’d arrived in Marrakech the night before and I must confess I didn’t really take to the place. To be blunt, Marrakech frightened the bejesus out of me. My first impression of it was like being tackled in a rugby match.
We took a cab from the airport to the city and marvelled as Marrakech’s ancient pink and red walls erupted from the flat desert. The traffic slowed as our ride hustled through the city gates and stopped in the middle of a wide square. It was my last moment of peace.
I stepped out of the car and fell into a maelstrom of men, women, children, hawkers, donkeys, motorcycles and cars, all meeting head on like two fire hoses pointed at each other. A fellow from the Riad (a private home in Marrakech converted into a hotel) we’d arranged to stay in threw our bags into a handcart and led the way. I rarely get culture shock but this was like a cold shower in winter.
The fellow suddenly turned down a side street and we clambered after him. ‘Look here!’ he said, pointing at a small room open to the street. ‘This is the bakery. Everyone brings bread here for baking. You will have some in the morning. Watch out!’ A motorcycle roared up and I flattened myself against a wall as it sped past inches from my toes. Then the front door of the Riad swung open in salvation and I staggered into an oasis of calm.
Carmen was already in love with Marrakech, bouncing around the Riad concocting plans for our week in Morocco. But I still wasn’t sure. Don’t get me wrong, I love travelling in places that challenge me to let go of my fears and embrace things I find strange. I lived in Phnom Pehn for a month and saw abject poverty. I also travelled solo to Hong Kong and Thailand so the idea of teeming humanity was not new. It’s just that Marrakech hadn’t hooked me – it was just a tango where the city was doing all the leading and I was spinning backwards not knowing the steps.
The next morning I found my feet. Groggy from being woken at 5am by the call to prayer, I followed Carmen up the stairs of the Riad to the roof terrace a few hours later. The sun was already high in the sky and you could sense the heat of the day building in your bones. I walked to the edge of the platform and gazed at the whitewashed buildings glowing in the sodium light, crisscrossed with spider webs of electrical cables and lines of washing billowing in the breeze.
‘Here is your breakfast,’ said the Riad manager, who laid a wide platter on our table stacked high with bread, butter, jam, coffee and tea. ‘This is all fresh from the bakery. Enjoy!’
I picked up a flat bread and tore it in half so a waft of steam ghosted up into the air. I popped a dash of home-made apricot jam onto the nub of bread and popped it into my mouth. It was delicious, bread so perfect I have never tasted its equal since. I turned back to the view with new eyes, the memory of the call to prayer echoing in my mind as I gazed at this ancient place spread before me like a magic carpet. OK, I thought, I’ll give Marrakech a go.