A couple of days ago, I had a pretty weird 24 hours. My good friend and flatmate, Nick, sent me a text when I was leaving, which stated – “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you deal with it…” Sage words really and I have been thinking about them a lot while I’ve been away.
We got to Madrid on Tuesday afternoon. I hadn’t been there for many years, since I was 21 and travelling with the ever shining light that is Sharon Eyre. We saw tons of museums and art that was beyond my understanding back then. I didn’t remember a lot about the city per say.
It’s a big city, but cleaner than I remember and easy to get around on the Metro. We stayed at a really nice hostel called, Hostel Centro One, right in the middle of town, near Sol Metro. After we stowed our gear and had a sandwich, I decided to go for a walk. As soon as I walked outside, it began to snow. Madrid is pretty high, so this wasn’t a big surprise. What was a surprise was how nice it was to walk through a big city like that while little snow flakes are falling down around you. It was really kind of magical and I got a coffee and wandered toward the Real Palace.
I was in awe of the size and age of the different buildings. It’s nice to be in a city you’ve visited before and feel like it’s a first time. A smile spread across my face and was a fixture until while I circled the palace and headed toward an Egyptian temple that was apparently a “gift” from the Egyptian government back in the day.
Maybe because I looked so friendly, some kids came up to me and showed me a note on an A4 envelope. It said they were collecting for deaf and blind kids on behalf of UNICEF. I was wearing a UNICEF jumper and they made the connection, saying I must sign their page and give a little money. Sure, I said. Their were 5 of them around me, all saying things at once and I just signed the paper and didn’t think much about it. I felt like helping, as I was having a nice day and they seemed like nice kids. They asked me for money, so I pulled out 10 Euros, thinking “this is a bit much on my budget…” They said, “Others give 20 or 40!” I told them I was travelling and I needed the money myself. As soon as they realised that they would not get more, they were off, without even a goodbye, onto the next tourist…. “Hang on…”, I thought, immediately realising my mistake, “I think I’ve just been swindled!” These kids were not from UNICEF, they were not carrying any official ID or even being escorted by an adult. They were just stealing money from tourists!
I thought about going after them, but the money was already in their hands and I would not get it back. It wasn’t a lot, but I felt like such a fool for handing it over so easily, without question. Sooo stooopid.
I walked to the temple and then back through the city and into town. It was still a lovely walk, but I was frustrated with myself. I tend to be highly self-critical and was very annoyed at my ignorance. It was only 10 Euros, but that’s a night’s accommodation, so it was silly.
I went back to the hostel and focused on writing my blog. I was maybe going to have a drink later that night, but I wanted to get my post done, so I focussed and powered through it. I get great feedback from the posts, so I know they’re really worth getting up within a reasonable time. By 1am, I was done. I was tired and we had a flight in the morning. I hit the sack, while a bunch of Argentine guys tried to get myself and Daz fired up to go out. Just couldn’t do it though.
I snapped awake before 7am. Getting up and packing all my stuff, I realised that I needed to give my keys back, but reception was closed. A sign said, “If you want to check out early, inform reception the night prior”. Bugger, that was another 20 Euros for the key deposit.. Bugger, bugger… A woman was sitting at the bank of free computers, scanning the internet. I told her of my problem and she suggested that she take my keys and give me the 20 Euros… Result! “Yes please, that would be an amazing help. I am running for a charity and I can’t afford to lose money like this.”
Her name was Ann and she had reams of paper with notes in front of her. I thanked her profusely for her help and asked what she was doing here in Madrid, as clearly she was an American on tour. I expected her to say that she was here visiting all the museums and art galleries. Instead she said, “I’m here collecting information to take the US government to court on war crimes charges, for their use of plutonium in different conflicts.” Aaaah, ok…. “Yes, I previously worked with the CIA, so I have a lot of internal information that will help to expose them. I’m meeting with lawyers here to make my case.” “Wow”, I said, “that’s really big! Good luck with that…” I wasn’t sure what else to say, I was quite shocked by the response. I really did want to wish her luck in her endeavour, but it was early and I was a little confused. I thanked her again, grabbed Daz and we left.
We had plenty of time to get to the airport, but once we were down in the Metro, we realised it was peak hour and the trains were packed. On one of the three trains we had to get, Daz and I got separated into different doors. I was jammed into one section and kept my backpack on because we only had 3 stops to go. People were jammed around me and at the next stop 3 guys got in next to me. They squeezed past and moved my little backpack across the floor a little. I said sorry and moved a little too, trying to take up less space. I grabbed my little back pack and held it by the handle. The guys tried to manoeuvre to get out. I asked them to just wait, as I would get out at the next stop and let them out. One was behind me squeezed against the door, facing out. I was sort of off balance and tried to hold myself up, but with smiles on their faces, they kept trying to move past me. Wait, I said… Nothing, they were speaking in Spanish and I just thought they were being impatient. The train finally stopped and everyone poured out, including me, saying “Jeezus, these guys are crazy.” I got back in and we went on to the next stop.
Daz and I made one more change and we were on the final train heading to the airport. We were making good time, but I wanted to check anyway, so I reached for my phone…. Nothing…. I checked my pockets 3 times… “What the? Ahhhhh, no!” I looked at Daz. “My phone’s gone…” He looked at me and said, “We’ll call the hostel later and see if they have it.” “No man”, I responded bleakly, “it was in my pocket 10 minutes ago.” Bugger, bugger, bugger (plus a few other words not fit for print). It was in my back pocket. I realised very quickly what had happened. They were real pros and as much as it pissed me off that I’d been robbed, I had to admit, they were pretty damn good. I had no idea until I was on the next train. It was my own fault for having it in my back pocket. And I shouldn’t have had my big backpack on, which made me cumbersome and an easy target. I was complacent and I paid the price. BUGGER! But, it was bound to happen. Sooner or later I was going to lose stuff or have it stolen. It was to be expected. I was just hoping it would be in a few months, not in January. Idiot. The words “candy” and “baby” passed through my mind… Don’t get upset, I thought. You knew this would happen.
We flew to Morocco. It’s a strange place. A large city nestled next to snow capped mountains. As it’s Winter here now, it’s pretty cold if you’re not in the sun. The airport is right next to the city, so it didn’t take us long to be next to the main square, or “Souk” which means market. Daz grabbed a map and we tried to work out where to go to our hotel. It was difficult to figure where we were. I looked at the print out I had from Google Maps. It looked wrong. We seemed to be a long way off. A little guy missing his front teeth came up and asked where we were staying. I told him and he said, “I show you”. No, no, we’ll be ok. He was persistent, but I figured we should try to get our bearings and work out where to go. It was confusing though and we soon gave in. He said, “I am good map, you follow.” And we did, through the market, down some winding streets and further in the warren that is the Medina of Marrakech. The further we got away from the market, the more concerned I was that we were going to be led into a trap. The streets were full of pedestrians, push bikes, horse drawn carts and motorbikes. We almost got run down a number of times. The little guy, who’ll now be named Danny, started asking for directions, which made me more worried. As we followed though, we started to see some signs that made sense – Ben Saleh, Derb Hiddadad.. We ended up down a narrow street and in front of a door, with Riad Puchka written on it. Result! We never would have found this. We gave him 20 dirham and he seemed insulted. It was as much as the bus ride into town, so seemed right. Mustafa opened the door and asked if I was Tristan. “Yes!” Come in, come in. Danny argued with Mustafa, asking for more money, saying he’d recommended the Riad. Mustafa told Danny we already had a booking and shooed him away. Apparently we had tipped enough, but it was obvious that everything has a price here in Marrakech, so beware of what you ask.
The difference from being in the street and inside a house here is absolutely extraordinary. I’m sure they don’t all look this good, but the fact that the streets around here would scare most people from taking a wrong turn, is an indication that it’s not really a pretty area. But it’s functional and people move around quickly. As long as you know where you are going and ignore the hundred dudes that offer you hash, you’ll be ok. Once you duck inside the door you’re after…paradise! The Riad we’re staying in has a beautiful tile garden inside. It’s an open air courtyard in the middle, dominated by a small wading pool. To the side is the reception, a dining area and a fantastic lounge space. It’s a real hidden treasure, an oasis from the busy dirty streets of the old city. Apparently there are many spaces like this around the town, not all of them hostels or hotels, but private residences. Some of them are even 4-5 times the size of the one we are staying in.
Mustafa sat us down and brought us some tea and coffee. He filled us in with all the information we required and took us to our clean, spacious room. We’re paying more than we need to in Marrakech, but I think it’s worth it in these potentially dicey surrounds. Mustafa is great at his job, you can tell. He’s happy to help, but doesn’t pretend to know what you want to do. He just gives easy, clear advice and makes some recommendations.
From here, we went into town to look around. Back in the square we were tempted to take pictures of the snake charmers and the other funny sideshows. Everyone is calling to you to come buy something or look at their performance. As soon as you go, it costs you. Mustafa told us to pay no more than 5 dirhams – Daz and I call them “dizzys” thanks to Nick in Dubai – so that’s what we offered the guy who was trying to dangle a snake around Daz’s neck. Of course he asked for 20 and we were retreating saying 5. He immediately gets annoyed and says 10, but even with a snake in his face, Daz holds to 5 and handing it over we make an awkward getaway.
We see as much as we can be bothered with, walking by a massive mosque and around some of the streets near the Medina, trying not to get too lost in the maze. In the end, a kind young man directed us back to the square without even asking for money. As we skirted the square, we looked for a good place to eat. You have your pick of quite a few nice cafes, some with multiple levels that take you right up above the square for a “panoramic” view. We chose the one with the highest roof, but once we were at the top, we saw the prices of the set menu. Twice as much as ground level…. Luckily we could sit on the roof and just have coffee. In retrospect, the food was pretty cheap, at $12 for a 3 course meal, but when you can buy a bottle of water and small bread roll for 30 cents, you start to get hesitant to pay more than $5 for a good feed. It’s all about thinking local, even if that means bartering over $2.
After drinking our coffee and taking in the views of the snow capped mountains on one side and the bustling market on the other, we retired back down to ground level and found a café that didn’t cost as much. We picked a winner too, both eating sumptuous meals, Daz having chicken and vegetable tagine, while I chowed down on “meat” and vegetable couscous. Super nice local food. We sat facing the street with a really nice Slovenian girl named Maria. This was her second time to Morocco in as many months and she absolutely loved it, particularly out in the desert. She was even considering buying a house near the desert and maybe setting up a hostel or something.. I looked around and didn’t get the feeling that this was somewhere I wanted to live, but clearly there’s a lot more to Morocco than what was on display in front of me. I’m coming back next year to run in the desert, in the Marathon Des Sables, so I look forward to seeing more of what she was talking about.
Daz wanted to walk around the square, but I decided to head back for a nap. As I walked along the busy back streets, I got a little more comfortable with my surrounds. I knew where I was going and didn’t feel I’d get lost so easily now. I stopped at a store and grabbed a bottle of water and chocolate bar. A young guy came over and started speaking to me in French. This is pretty common here as the second language, behind Arabic, is French. Until 40 years ago Morocco was under French rule, so a lot of French tourists come here and a lot of Frenchies run businesses and tour companies around town. Anyway, we’ll call this kid (couldn’t be more than 15), Ahmed. Ahmed recognised that I didn’t understand him and switched to English. “Where are you from my friend?” I have a lot of new “friends” here. I replied that I was from Australia and got the obligatory “Gooday maaaate!” Yep, you got me man. “Hey where are you going to, you look lost.” No buddy, I’m fine, just heading back to my hotel. “Where you staying?” Riad Puchka. “I’ll show you the way, follow me.” No mate, I’m fine, I know where it is. “Follow me, follow me.”
Ahmed walks ahead of me, about 30 metres, as I start heading down the street to my hotel. I knew where it was, but he led the way anyway, turning the corner into my street, well ahead of me. They’re not straight alleys, they turn every 50 metres or so. Ahmed was at the next corner when I entered the street, looked back and waved me on. I was shaking my head, knowing that he would ask me for money for showing me to the door I was already headed to. I passed some kids playing football at the next corner and they all gave me strange looks. Ahmed looked back as he made the last turn. I was beginning to worry that I was walking into a strange trap here, but couldn’t figure that I would be seriously injured in front of my hotel in broad daylight – it seemed pretty safe. So I rounded the final corner, knowing the door was just 30 metres ahead and there was Ahmed, right in front of the door to my Ryad…. I stopped and burst out laughing… He was facing the other way and had his pants pulled down, showing me his bare butt…
“WTF?!” I exclaim.
“Come on,” says Ahmed, “touch it!”
“Ahhh, no mate, I’m good ay..”, I respond while still laughing.
“Touch it, touch it,” he repeats urgently, waggling his ass at me.
“Thanks man, but really, I’m not interested,” I say while heading to the door, trying to press the buzzer.
Someone above yells out and Ahmed looks up but seems unperturbed.. He does pull up his pants though (thankfully!) and turns to me saying “You give me money.”
“Look champ, I’m not giving you any money, ok, so just let it go,” all the while I’m laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. I hit the buzzer and Ahmed grabs my arm with one hand and punches me in the shoulder!
“You give me money!”
I would normally react pretty angrily if someone attacked me like that, but he was a kid and this was just stupid. I pushed him away still laughing, as the guy above yelled out again. This time Ahmed looked up and said something back, then took off up the street. “Crazy,” yells the guy from the rooftop. I look up and agree, “Very crazy, haha!”
I went inside and sat down. Everybody wants something here. Is it such a desperate place, that kids get themselves in that kind of trouble so easily? What if I had reacted more angrily. I dunno, he seemed pretty comfortable pulling this stunt.. It makes me sad that Ahmed chose this option, even if he’s just trying to swindle money. I hope one day he has better options and opportunities than this.
A crazy couple of days. Hopefully I keep reacting so passively. I need to learn more patience with the world.
Marrakech Marathon tomorrow…