“Come,” the dread-headed man muttered, gesturing. I follow him up one dank staircase and then up another into an inner sanctum of the souq, the Arabian-style marketplace.
“Val, if I’m not back here in 20 minutes,” I instruct my travel companion. “Do, umm, something.”
My large order had apparently necessitated our negotiation to be adjourned to a private room. I wasn’t discriminating against the man’s dreadlocks and choice of streetwear. I’m cautious with all strangers I negotiate with. Why are we in a meeting room fussing over just 350 grams of mint and tea leaves anyway? The merchant in question – who could have been the nicest man in the whole city for all I knew – had dispatched a runner who I reckon was darting through the souq a la Disney’s Aladdin to fetch my goods.
Morocco’s world-famous mint tea isn’t as ancient as one might imagine. It isn’t even that Moroccan; “thé à la Menthe” was a British invention. Tenacious traders, the English arrived in Morocco in the mid-1800s with a copious excess of Gunpowder Pearl green tea leaves from China.
They thus endeavoured to create an appetite in Morocco for this tea – which is drunk by the Moroccans with sugar and mint – enabling the British sell off their overstock at a nice price. Jocularly referred to as “Whisky Berbère” ( after the Berber tribesmen, the desert nomads of the region) in this Muslim country, or more affectionately, “atay b’naana” in the original Moroccan language, this tea is traditionally saturated with sugar – the more sugar the higher the esteem a host has for his guest.
It is also poured from a height; once again, the height it is poured from conveys the amount of respect the host affords his guest, which is why the King of Morocco has official tea pourers who stream the country’s favourite beverage from atop a ladder.
The runner returns, now clutching a bag of leaves and a mini scale. Rasta man weighs my goods on the weighing scale for me to see while I look out for any sleight of hand. I bargain him up – the same price but for 450 grams and we’ll shake on it right now. He feigns a reluctant face then nods in agreement.
So now I have a big bag of dried leaves in my suitcase, which I will bring back to Singapore, the most drug-paranoid country in the world. Note to self: Paste a big, legible sign saying “MINT LEAVES” on the bag before I check it in at the airport.
I swear, Moroccans are the most persistent salesmen in the world. The art of weaving from point A to point B through the souq comprises mainly of ignoring everything except the path ahead of you. “Sir, you are my friend. Sir, I give you friendship price.” What does “friendship price” even mean?
The Moroccans primarily speak the main dialect of the country, which is akin to Arabic skewed by an almost French accent, but quickly wrangle foreign languages in the name of tourist dollar. One of them raises a handful of Khoudenjal, a Moroccan sexual elixir, to my nose. “You need help in the bedroom, sir? Make tea from this.” No thanks. I can do it myself.
“Where you come from? China? Taiwan? Korea? Japan?” Never ever reply “Japan”. Morocco’s shrewd touters mark up their wares according to how much each nationality tends to bargain, and have no qualms about drastically ripping off Japanese tourists, who rarely haggle.
Moroccans are unquestionably determined to make each and every sale, but don’t take everything they say to heart – in the North African desert, all’s fair when shooting one’s mouth off in the name of capitalism. “I give you 100 camels, make your friend my wife.” I stop in my tracks and shoot a glance at him.
“No!” Val replies with an audible aggravation in her voice. We both break into hysterics.
The diversity of wares peddled between the salmon-toned walls of Morocco’s cities is truly breathtaking. After escaping a storekeeper urging us to buy his Eyes of Fatima (“You first customer, you must buy something for my good luck”), Val and I come face to face with a camel’s head hanging off a butcher’s window.
“Have you had camel’s meat before?” I ask her.
“No. Wanna try?”
The camel butcher instructs us to buy a loaf of bread, and he will chop up a fine cut of camel for our burger. Unfortunately for us, Fes is an ancient maze that, in my humble opinion, was not built with convenient navigation as a priority. I decline young boys who offer themselves as our guides through the pungent tannery city.
After a minor odyssey, we eventually find our way back to the butcher via our bloody landmark – a chicken monger at the T-junction who’s unfeelingly slitting the throats of thrashing fowl at breakneck pace, and dumping them one by one into a big straw basket. Val and I agree that the camel burger is delicious.
For desert in the dessert (I’ve always wanted to say that), we had herbal tea brewed from garden snails, which can be best likened by Singaporeans to Chinese pork rib tea.
Back in the comfort of our riad, we are enjoying actual alcoholic beverages in our rooftop lounge instead of Whisky Berbère – local beer brewed in the royal brewery of this occasionally Muslim country. Almost all meals in Morocco are served in tangines, conical cooking vessels that transform into serving plates. We need to get some good rest before we commence our trek early tomorrow morning. Tomorrow’s riad will be a tent in the Sahara. Tents in the desert can get stuffy though, so I prefer sleeping in the sandstorm even if it means waking up buried in a few inches of sand.
One needs to experience a heat wave to understand why people dread it so much. It is something I would not wish upon others. Five minutes in the unforgiving heat feels like an hour. We are forced to scurry from building to building. Each establishment’s mud walls offer respite from the punishing heat, which is too much even for these two natives of the tropics.
With a moist turban bandaged around his head, an unnerved artist paints in a street corner. He appears to paint blind, swishing colourless liquids onto a white postcard. After he thinks, or knows, his work is finished, he smokes his artwork over a flame. Only then do his transparent dyes become opaque – the flame turns the dabs of dissolved saffron to orange, clear indigo to blue and tea to brown.
We buy a four-litre bottle of water, which helps us keep going and make less rest stops. Children leave their footballs in the dust to beg us for a sip, and wave gratefully as we continue on our way. The heat lightens up on us as we near the camel ranch.
“Do you think these camels will smell the camel meat in our body odour?” Val asks me.
“They’re camels, not dogs.” I would suffer a massive camel bite the following year, but that happened in a different country, and is another story.
Riding a camel can be excruciating. The camel herders tell me that my sitting position is wrong, but how can there be a right way of jamming a sharp hump between my legs, and against my pelvis and tailbone? After 30 to 50 repetitions a minute of that jamming for the next hour or two, we finally arrive at our base camp for the evening.
Sand dunes pierce the cloudless sky at 300 to 500 feet in the air. My rump feels worse than Hillary after she got beaten by Trump, but we gladly doggy-paddle up these majestic dunes. Dry-swimming up these diagonals is taxing, but the view gets more scenic as we ascend the golden landform, enticing us to ignore the enormous amount of lactic acid building up in our muscles.
Finally at the top, our Berber guide informs us that we are high enough to see Algeria, the dark green foliage in the distance.
“How different do you think Algeria is from Morocco?”
“I don’t know, but I bet the Brits tried to sell them Chinese tea too.”