Marrakesh, Morocco - The cries from the vendors at the food stalls follow me as I make my way through the Djemaa el-Fna, the Marrakesh city centre.
"Hey! Hey! Ali Baba! Ali Baba! Over here!"
"Ali Baba! Ali Baba! Come here! I have nice price for you, try my kebabs!"
"Hey! Ali Baba!"
I've been here two weeks now, so I've gotten used to being called Ali Baba. I think it's because of my beard.
The Djemaa el-Fna (meaning assembly of the dead, in honour of the gruesome tradition of displaying the severed heads of criminals) in daytime is ringed by vendors who hawk freshly squeezed orange juice. Within the market, snake charmers, storytellers, monkey-tamers and entertainers of all sorts perform.
Be prepared to pay for the photos you or anyone else take - particularly if the snake charmers grab you and give you baby cobras to hold while they snap your picture. I found this experience somewhat alarming; a runaway adult snake slithered toward me while I was crouching down for the photo. I like snakes, but my grin in the photo is a little lopsided.
Traffic, day or night, is a mystery. Taxis, cars, trucks, scooters, mopeds and bicycles all revolve around the action. Sitting on rooftop patios, we spend hours drinking mint tea and watching the traffic. Amazingly, as we look on, four lanes of westbound traffic suddenly merge into one while the single eastbound lane opens into four lanes - for no discernable reason. And never an accident. Utterly engrossing entertainment for an idle evening.
To save money, I sleep on a hotel rooftop. Together with the Brits who share my accommodations, I decide to visit a hammam. Hammams are public baths with hot, steamy rooms and "plentiful water," many of which have masseurs - or so says my (borrowed) Footprints guidebook. I envision big hot tubs where we'll all have a good soak prior to a rubdown.
We descend to street-level high on hashish - alcohol is scarce in Morocco, but hash is cheap and plentiful - and very excited. Armed with bathing suits, towels and poor French skills, we arrive at the hammam to find most of the attendants only speak Arabic. We manage to negotiate a price that includes a taksira (massage) and are led into a hot, steamy room. We're given buckets and a black, tar-like soap.
Crouched down on my haunches, I begin to splash warm water over myself and soap up. The attendants scrub our backs for us and we all laugh and splash each other as we rinse off, dumping buckets of water over our heads and each other.
Cushy massage tables and towels are evidently not available. I'm led to another hot, dark, steamy room and ordered to lie down on the wet stone floor. A masseur gives me a quick rubdown, tapping my leg or circling his finger when he wants me to move, lift something or turn over.
Then the wiry, wizened old masseur climbs on top of me. He sits on the small of my back and grabs my arms, pulling hard. Next, he somehow manages to grab my legs and stick them under his armpits. I hear cracking and popping. I begin to wonder if I should've asked to see his credentials. With his bony butt on my bony butt and both my arms and legs in his firm grasp, he starts to rock, slowly at first, then more enthusiastically. I have to watch that I don't smash my chin on the stone floor while he rides me like a rocking horse.
None of my English companions have gotten the rocking-chair treatment, but we all have a good laugh afterwards, sitting around smoking cigarettes with the attendants. My guy cheerfully claps me on the shoulders.
"OK, Ali Baba?" He grins.
I nod and grin back.