I was inter-railing and had arrived in Marrakesh after a seemingly interminable train journey from Tangiers. All I wanted was the sweet release of sleep, but the glorious madness that was arriving in the Red City meant that I had to be on my toes. This was in the late Eighties, well before the mass tourism boom that has somewhat diluted the other-worldliness of this extraordinary city. Like the pilot in the opening scene of Airplane, I fought off waves of unwanted guides and hawkers as I made my way on foot towards the magical Djemma El-Fna. The square throbbed with the sounds of drums and the wail of Touareg singers. Shrouded in smoke emanating from a hundred food stalls, it was like a scene from another time, another dimension.
I headed for the Café de France, a building situated right on the square. I fought my way through the café itself, packed tight with men playing backgammon while gulping on shishas and tea as though their lives depended on it. At what passed for the reception, I asked whether they might have a room. They did, with a view of the square, and mine for three pounds sterling.
This was a bargain anywhere in the world but I was not going to accept the first offer given to what they assumed was some greenhorn. I was an explorer, an adventurer who was not going to be palmed off with some weedy tourist accommodation. I looked at the receptionist as though he had just insulted my entire family.
“Please… I beg of you, do not waste my time. I am tired and have no desire to be robbed before bedtime.” I said in my pidgin Lebanese Arabic.
Translated, it might have come out harsher than I intended. The man turned on his heel and indicated that I should follow him downstairs. We ended up in the basement, in a room no bigger than a cupboard, where kidnappers would baulk at putting their captives. The cost was 50p for the night. I tried to look triumphant as I accepted but secretly wished that I’d taken the exorbitant three-pound option. I cursed my mother for drumming into me the phrase: “we are not tourists, darling, we are travellers.”
A small grille directly above what passed for a bed went straight into the café above me. It acted both as a loudspeaker, channelling every noise into my dungeon, but also as a conduit for escaping cockroaches who would flee the establishment by somersaulting off the ledge onto my bed below. Occasionally someone would sweep a pile of cigarette ash and desert detritus through the grille and the room would fill with a hideous, choking mist. The room was hot, hotter than hell and not helped by a constantly arcing electrical wire that dangled a metre from my weeping face.
I lasted three stubborn hours before giving up and joining the locals for an all-nighter in the café above. Sometimes it is better to travel, than to arrive.