Justine Tyerman has a not-too-close encounter with a cobra in Marrakech.
I spotted the characteristic hood of a black cobra out of the corner of my eye.
It was dark in Marrakech's crowded Djemaa el Fna Square so I was on high alert in case I accidentally stood on the creature of my worst nightmares. The music of the charmer forewarned me but seeing the snake just a few metres away, out in the open, was quite surreal.
I watched it for a while until my fascination at the strange rapport between the snake and the charmer overcame my fear. It was shiny black and neatly coiled, smaller than I expected and quite beautiful, swaying slightly to the music of the flute-like instrument. Repelled and attracted at the same time, the scene had an oddly hypnotic effect on me — like the charmer and his snake.
A few steps on, a large dappled brown snake sprawled inert on the hot concrete. I decided he was not nearly as elegant as my cobra.
My first night in Morocco was a full-on assault of all senses including some I didn't know I had — a tingly sensation somewhere between excitement and anxiety.
The medina square, declared by Unesco in 2001 as a Masterpiece of World Heritage, was a vast outdoor theatre of exotic entertainment — performing monkeys on leads, African dancers with brass castanets, water-sellers wearing elaborate fringed hats, henna artists tattooing hands, food stalls selling Moroccan and international cuisine and hawkers with all manner of whizzing and flying contraptions.
The instant a camera was trained on the performers, even a telephoto lens from a distance in the crowd, an upturned hat would appear, seeking a contribution. It was only ever a few dirhams and well worth it . . . all part of the theatre of the square.
We wandered through the maze of souks in the narrow winding alleyways that ran off the square. I was in the company of a couple of street-wise guides and as long as I kept them in my sights, I felt relaxed and entirely safe. They were veteran bargainers whose skills astounded me. I piggybacked on their purchases, waiting for them to haggle the price to about a third of the stated amount before I cashed in on the deal.
The argy-bargy with the salesmen was invariably good-natured and amusing, usually ending up with handshakes, hugs and photos. Literally a world away from the impersonal, sanitised version of shopping in New Zealand, it was exciting and fun.
On more than one occasion, young men with winning smiles attached themselves to us as unofficial guides, taking us to specific souks, in return for a few dirhams and the chance to practise their English. One night, four of us were on a handbag hunt so an obliging lad led us to a variety of souks belonging to his brothers, uncles and cousins until we found what we were looking for. It's not recommended in the guide books but it was a most efficient and entertaining way of navigating the confusing, unmapped network of veins that feed into the arteries of this ancient body of commerce and trade.
The dimensions of the workplaces in the souks gave new meaning to the term shoebox. I peered into a tiny cavity below ground level to see a little man hunched, by necessity, over his indicate work making exquisite tassels for the ornate curtains in some of the magnificent hotels and riads we stayed at on our eight-day Ancient Kingdoms' private tour with New Zealand-based Moroccan specialists, The Innovative Travel Company.
The souks sold everything from food to home-wares. Our guide Redwan said they were so self-sufficient, many who live and work there never ventured beyond their own neighbourhood.
We often had to flatten ourselves against the walls or duck into a souk as donkeys, mules and men hauled over-laden carts along the narrow alleyways. We met one donkey in serious need of orthodontic work, saw live chickens and turkeys being carted away squawking to their fate, watched butchers chop up large bloody carcases with no refrigeration in sight, examined cages full of hedgehogs and turtles for sale, and grieved for the wretched lives of numerous skinny mother cats trying to feed their tiny wisps of kittens. Being a cat lover, I surreptitiously fed them left-overs from our over-generous lunches and dinners.
The Moroccans are not afraid of colour and nothing is muted — shoes, handbags, scarves, carpets, ceramics, clothes and fabrics were displayed in riotous rainbows of bright yellow, blue, red, pink, green, purple and orange.
My companions stopped for freshly-made juices at stalls along the way and ate at a restaurant in the square. I was overly-conscious of the buckets of grey water where dishes were being washed, so stuck to my bottled drinks and safe snacks. My taste buds were the poorer for my cautiousness but I stayed 100 per cent well the whole time I was in Morocco, including on our camel trek into the desert.
I expected the 'aroma' of spices, sweets, meat, fish, poultry and the teeming masses of people in the heat of the souks to be overwhelming but I found myself reluctant to leave this most chaotic, exotic, confusing and fascinating of market places.
Towards midnight, we trotted the short distance home in a horse-drawn carriage to our air-conditioned haven at the luxurious five-star Sofitel Hotel, each with our mementos of the Marrakech medina - four Kiwis wearing technicolour shoes, scarves and handbags.
The writer travelled courtesy of The Innovative Travel Company, Sofitel Marrakech Lounge and Spa, and Emirates.