Follow me, I am not a guide!

Oct 19, 2010 by     2 Comments    Posted under: Discover, travel essays

I stood in the searing sun, on the edge of a nuclear green pit of lime, the stench of burnt hair and butchered meat assaulting my nostrils.  I knew that one slip, or push, and my skin would melt and my screams would go unheard.

“How did I get here?” I asked, for once cursing the adventurous spirit that has provided me with so much joy.  “I trusted that kid, and now he has disappeared!”.  I realized that no one knew exactly where I was.  Sure, I’d told a friend I was jumping on a plane from London to a North African country for a long weekend, but that was it.  The revelation was a bit scary.  And I felt a little stupid that I’d left the safe poolside of Club Med, where the only danger was eye damage from staring at the bare European breasts burning in the hot Moroccan sun.

To explain, allow me to set the scene.  Marrakesh, Morocco.  The height of summer, so there are few tourists around.  The famous Souk, the marketplace for anything that can be sold or traded, is a maze that no Minotaur could navigate. The day before I’d got lost numerous times, but figured I had a sense of it.  This day I decided to explore further, outside the Souk, into unknown and ancient walled areas with fascinating sights, sounds and smells.  Motorized scooters fly alongside mule-drawn carriages.  Old crones with commanding presence shuffle with bent backs.  Spice bins piled high reach into the brilliant blue sky like rainbow mountains. In my fascination of an unknown land, with a language I couldn’t comprehend, and a way of life I had no experience of, I clearly got lost.

For once, I answered the call of “Not a guide”.  Now, “not a guide” is something that you hear a lot in Marrakesh, which really means “I’m not a professional guide, but if I show you something you pay me or the traders you buy something from will pay me”.  Maybe it was because this kid looked honest.  Or because I admired his industrious spirit at a tender age of 10 or 12.  Or because I needed someone to make me “not lost”.  But without hesitation I responded “sure!”.

Off we went, the kid carrying his plump body with surprising speed, scurrying through narrow streets, ducking under sheets, past dark doorways with dark secrets.  Every now and then he looked back, to make sure I was still there.  A number of times I thought of stopping, but by then I’d gone deeper into mysterious territory.  There was no turning back.  And each time I asked where we were going I’d get the same response, “nearly there Mister”.

After the 10 “nearly there Mister” responses, we emerged from one of the labyrinthine alleys into an ancient industrial area.  Hot, unbearably hot, with dark eyes peering at the obvious stranger in their midst.  Sheep and other animals milled around lethargically, and the smell of blood in the ground was apparent.  A man appeared – a man with dark, cracked hands.  Hands stained dark.

I had been brought to a tannery.  Not just a leather store, but an actual tannery.  A place where they kill furry animals, slice the hides off, burn the hair off with caustic lime, and do everything else necessary to turn something living into something you can wear or sit on.

The man’s face broadened and a smile spread across his face.  White teeth contrasted against his skin, darkened by the unforgiving sun and a lifetime of outdoor work.  His smile was followed by a warm handshake, and while my heart had slowed from its previously adrenalin induced staccato, I couldn’t help but notice the stench of centuries of hide curing.  Mr Tannery spoke good English, and he happily walked me through the gates of hell.  Disconcertingly, my little guide had disappeared.

An enormous plot of land lay before me, pitted with holes of varying sizes, colors and stenches. He explained the process, and we walked through the “factory”.  All without the benefit of a hard hat or appropriate footwear.

The tannery had been in operation since 1170, and passed down from generation to generation.  The hides come from camel, goat and sheep.  Mr Tannery took great pride in his work, and he danced between the terrifying pits with the grace of a Russian ballerina.  I realized I had open sandals on.  After the slaughter, some of which takes place on the grounds (comforting!), the hides are first dipped in pigeon excrement (a lot of it) to soften them.  This is not done by machines, but in the time tested method of by hand.  No unions here!

The hides are then dyed, again by hand: flour pits for white, magenta pits for red, indigo for blue.  A plethora of pungent pits, with countless colors, and hundreds of hides.  The hides weren’t just thrown in from the side, they were dipped and swirled from within, by a man actually standing waist deep in the vats.  One such “dipper”, lean, muscular and tanned darker than the dyes he worked with, toiled away endlessly, oblivious to the heat of Hades.  Sun protection standards are as well known here as Mandarin.

Noticing that I was clearly struggling with the putrid odors, Mr Tannery gave me a sprig of fresh mint to hold to my nose, and advised me to step carefully.  This was especially needed as I walked precariously around the milky, acidic lime pits.  At times mere inches of earth, or narrow and fragile planks, were my only refuges of safety.  I was aware of that virtiginousness one gets when fear grabs high up on a narrow mountain path.  Survival instincts reigned, and the tour concluded with a visit to a giant mound of animal skulls.

My host took me inside, mercifully into shade. Another man, dressed in a long robe, well over 6’4″ tall, had his straight back towards me. A glimpse of a long face and an even longer beard. I wondered if I’d stumbled upon the hideout of a fugitive from another land. The salesman turned, and gave me an even warmer greeting than Mr Tannery. He showed me his wares with great pride, in cultured English.  “Its still early, so I can offer you a special price”.


I didn’t really need anything, but I felt obligated to repay the hospitality I’d be shown. And my subconscious still feared the lime pits.  I surveyed the leather jackets (a little impractical in the heat), the finely woven rugs and blankets, hats and trinkets. I settled on something I didn’t have, and which was visually appealing, and which I’d seen the actual process of manufacture. A hand-stitched camel leather footrest, or pouf, with an intricate blue pattern.

Of course, haggling is required, and a satisfactory sale completed at one third of the starting price.  I respectfully bowed to my host, stepped back out into the oppressive heat, and there was my cherub-faced guide.  Of course I had to negotiate my safe passage back to my part of town, so we settled on a pencil and a pen, valued items for smart kids in these parts.

The experience of getting lost did more than allow me to discover something few people would, and to learn about a historically significant industry.  It showed that taking a risk, trusting a stranger, and overcoming the fear of being melted in an acidic substance like the Joker in a Batman movie can actually be incredibly fulfilling.

Oh, and as for the pouf?  Well, no one told me camel leather stinks, badly. I had to throw out my suitcase, and the only way to remove the stench was put the pouf in a large box of cat litter pellets for 6 months. But it now has pride of place in my living room, is always a talking point, and an evocative reminder of a grand adventure.

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2 Comments + Add Comment

  • what a great post! adventures abound, fear peaks, fear ebbs, friends made. sorry to hear camel leather smells so poorly.

  • Thanks Gabrielle. Not sure I’d venture into unchartered territory to the same extent again, at least not without boots, but it was an educational outing. Every kid should do it! More adventure stories in the works.

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