I went to Morocco and all I got was this lousy sunburnt square of skin on my foot
Actually, not true. Not at all. I went to Morocco and got a huge gallery of photos, fond memories, musings on comparative wealth, and some cheap Stolichnaya. A splendid time was had, although the foot burn seems to be the likely extent of my tan. Tan! the last time I was remotely tanned was on a family holiday to Devon. I was 8. Since then it's been a case of pale / not so pale.
And was it hot? Well, yes and no. I mean it was hot alright, but it seems that once you get above about 30 it's all much of a muchness. A bit like getting wet. Sometimes you don't bother running in from the rain because you can only get so wet, and you're already that wet. Humidity, now that's the beast.
Casablanca was humid. Also, dusty, dirty, busy, loud, and scary for a middle-class boy from a sheltered background. I'm just not that used to seeing and sensing poverty all around. And part of me thinking how wrong it is, part of me figuring that's just the way it is, part of me knowing that I'm somewhere in the middle. I'm lucky. I was born in a country of much wealth, which means I can take holidays in Morocco, while a delightfully friendly hotel receptionist, charming, with a pleasant smile, good at her job, fluent in Arabic, French, and English (and probably not bad in around 3 other languages) has never left Morocco.
She asked me: "What is England like?"
I said: "It's nice", and showed myself less articulate in my first language than she was in her third.
I was better in French until I couldn't remember how to say "already", but, please, I'm not as stupid as you might be thinking.
I wasn't in expansive mood by then though. After a couple of days in Casa, we set off for Fes. A few days spent in the Ville Nouvelle, with a couple of ventures into the Medina, Fes-el-Bali. The first, disastrous, opting not to have an official guide, opting to enter the medina by the route of most touristness. A swarm of faux guides appeared from their fox-holes - "Can I help you?", "What would you like to see?", "He's a lucky charm, take him" - none of them more than about 15, latching on to our Englishness straight away (not that it takes an evil genius to see that, although I occasionally find myself facing questions in German when I travel, while the lady next to me on a plane once mistook my home counties accent for an American one), and coming in for the kill. The Rough Guide (which I swear I will ignore every time I travel, but always end up referring to, once I've wrung the smugness out first, of course) assured me they would give up after 50 metres. Hmm. Maybe if you swat them enough with your copy, they do. We tried 50 metres one way, then the next, then the next, then back again, with no sign of this magical 50 metre line painted on the ground. Most gave in, but Rashid persevered, we weren't having much fun, so gave in. I know; dumb tourists = rich pickings, but I didn't feel that pathetic in all honesty. We negotiate 30 Dirham for Rashid and his silent friend to guide us about for a bit.
Not such a bad deal all round. We get to walk without further offers of guides every two steps, Rashid gets some cash, and doubtless a commission from the leather shop owner at the tanneries (the whistle-stop tour's last stop, and the scene of some embarrasingly bad haggling - I half expect to pay more than is originally suggested). "He's too gentle" according to several shop owners, but Rashid turns out to be bit of a player around the medina, and clearly knows everyone or likes to make out he does.
We return the next day with an official guide, Abdul. Much better. We see seemingly the whole Medina ("My medina has over 5000 streets, the good news is you will only see 3000 of them, please, this way"), take our holiday snaps ("He is the finest craftsman in Medina, you can take a photo", "It is the oldest Fondouk in the medina, you can take a photo"), dine ("It is the best restaurant in the whole Medina"), and then suddenly find ourselves nearly buying two Moroccan carpets for just under a thousand pounds.
I'd been reliably informed that this carpet thing would happen at some point. And just when I was beginning to disbelieve, there I was, in among hundreds of rugs, drinking mint tea, saying "Haldi" when I didn't want to see a carpet again, and another word (I've regressed it) if I wanted to look at it a bit longer. Where look at it almost equals buy it. Then suddenly, my girlfriend says she likes the pastel ones, unfurling suddenly are 300 pastel rugs. I want to scream that I'll buy them all if it buys my path outside, but despite our seller's aside to me:
"We say that you forget the price of the carpet when you make love on it"
I'm reminded of a rug my Mum made, and that it's very nice thank you for a fraction of the cost and I'm sorry but we can't afford any of your carpets and please don't be offended, please god can we go. Thank you, it was our pleasure too. Then sunlight. I can barely walk with relief.
We leave without having to declare bankruptcy, and opt for blowing the cost of a third of two rugs on one night in the Hotel Palais Jamai. Just inside the Medina walls, it has a sensational view across the whole Medina below (and a view back up for Medina residents with binoculars, it turns out), and a feeling of sumptuous wealth and opulence. And a pool. Oh, this is good, this is a HOLIDAY. Drinks are ordered, and brought poolside. The sun melts the skin. Birds play round the pool and fountain, diving in for imaginary fish, and far too many people with good tans and swimming technique lounge poolside. It's our one night of fantasy hideaway from the world, in our almost penthouse room, the hotel manager Aziz sensing a poverty and sadness in us that we could only afford one night, giving us a room way up top.
Then it was back to Casa, and the curious, articulate receptionist. Tacitly admitting that the Palais was the end of our holiday, we dined in style at Pizza Hut - celebrating its tenth anniversary of something, not sure what though - and retired to our room. "Careworn but comfortable" in the words of The Really Rough and Ready Guide. 70s time warp deco and a suspicion of insects in the words of reality. Not that it was genuinely that bad, but... it was no Palais.
Then the plane, then the tarmac of Heathrow. The grey of the Sky. The wetness of England.
Contributions to theboy holiday fund 2003 gladly received.