by Ben Essex.
There are battles you cannot win.
Sometimes the stakes are high. Sometimes the fight will be against forces of tyranny and darkness and mountainous evil- and though you know from the start that there is no end but defeat, that changes nothing. Some things must be fought.
Sometimes, the fight will be against a man trying to sell you a carpet.
In the end, it’s all about eye-contact. Every two-bit con man knows this. It’s easy enough to shrug someone off when you’re not looking in them in the eye, but once someone has your gaze all the ancient instincts for social interaction kick in and you cannot help but relate. You’ll listen despite yourself.
It doesn’t help if its forty-eight degrees Celsius, you’re clothes are sticking to you and there’s an anaconda wrapped around your neck.
All right, two points of exaggeration. It was only forty degrees, and the snake wasn’t an anaconda. I assure you, it was still pretty damn uncomfortable. I’m British, and the British get confused if the temperature rises any higher than twenty-two. As for the snake… well, I just plain don’t like reptiles. There’s something unwholesome about them. Let me tell you about this garden I once visited…
No, I’ll concentrate on this story. It was hard enough to stay focused back then, trying to split my attention between the man trying to sell me a carpet and the man trying to add a second snake-skin necklace. The two salesmen had converged on me in the middle of Marrakesh’s central market square. Marrakesh, Morocco. Didn’t quite know what I was doing there; getting on the plane was a whim. These days that kind of whim needs three days notice while you book your flight, but it’s a whim nonetheless. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t have anywhere to stay. For some reason, I was under the impression that these were good things.
Marrakesh is an assault on the senses. I’d heard stories of the sheer sensory overload induced by the central square, but I hadn’t paid too much attention. I love being subsumed in sights and sounds and smells, but I’d never before been properly swept away by them. London, Berlin, Paris, Rome, others- all the busy cities that I’ve visited, there’s one thing they all have in common. Every one has a peculiar distinct rhythm, a pulse. Every one has a melody, and all you have to do to get by is tune yourself in. It’s easy once you get the knack; not that getting the knack is necessarily easy.
Marrakesh doesn’t have a melody. It has forty-seven different rock’n’roll guitarists all screeching away around you while in the background Pink Floyd picks a fight with Yes over who invented Progressive Rock. There’re shouts, screams and monkey calls. Children scurry beneath ramshackle stalls while slabs of meat sizzle on flame-ridden grills. Staff slip out from their shops and onto the street, putting casual arms around passing tourists; fishermen hooking unsuspecting prey. That’s how they got me. The Carpet Man called me ‘Friend’ and gripped my shoulder. Big brown eyes sat over an even bigger grin- golden smile beneath a sea of stubble. I’m British, we don’t do physical contact unless somebody’s dying. It’s a stereotype, but it’s true.
Stereotype. The same could be said of the Snake Charmer hovering behind me. He looked like every shady backstreet character of questionable political correctness that Indiana Jones ever outran. Everything about him screamed ‘This is an affectation.’ His turban was a lie.
I think they must have been working together, the Carpet Man and the Snake Charmer. How else could they net me with such precision? Then again, maybe not. Marrakesh is like a living thing; the traders are antibodies. They might’ve found me by instinct.
Hot and bothered, attention divided, wondering just why the hell I’d chosen to bring my baggy winter coat to Morroco… I knew one of them would eventually beat me. I’d tried to resist the Charmer’s efforts to drape one of his snakes around my neck; he wouldn’t have it. Soon he was taking pictures of me with my own camera, pictures I knew I would be paying for. The snake, by the way, felt dead. Apparently they dip them in cold water to keep them docile. This specimen wasn’t moving, not at all- small mercy.
The battle with the Carpet Man was ongoing, a flurry of moves and counter-moves. I tried to hold my ground, and was helped by the fact that I only understood about half of what the man was saying. He spoke perfect English; I was just suffering from heat delirium.
‘Good quality, Berber carpet. Authentic hand crafted, it’ll last you a lifetime,’ he said, or words to that effect.
‘That’s nice,’ I replied. ‘But honestly, my lifetime doesn’t need a carpet.’
‘Yes,’ he told me confidently, ‘it does.’ Who was I to argue?’
Fortunately, it turned out I really didn’t have any money. My wallet had somehow miraculously cleaned itself out. I hadn’t been robbed (probably), I’d just lost track of the number of battles I’d already lost. Including the one with the Snake Charmer, who was already counting my change. I shrugged meekly at the Carpet Man, clumsily deflecting his offer of escort to the nearest cash machine. I barely managed to detach from the snake before making my escape.
That was my first day in Morocco; one encounter after another. Battle after battle. I got better at resisting; they got better at selling. The sights and sounds and smells all grew. The melody was a madman’s symphony. And it was fantastic.
For one month, I made eye-contact with all the wrong men. By the time I got back to my home country, I was in the state of mind where I even tried to barter prices with an English Taxi Driver- a bit of a mistake, because that’s a battle no-one in history has ever won.
Some things must be fought.
Battles. TNT Travel Writing Awards 2009.