I pour my second cup of mint tea. I haven’t quite mastered the technique the waiters use, pouring it into the glass from an impressive height without dripping scalding hot tea all over the table, so I adopt a more British approach. The tea is so sweet that I can feel the sugar coating my teeth. It’s lovely though. Very refreshing.
There aren’t many tables in the museum’s tearooms, so tourists cosy up next to one another. I am soon joined by a French family – a sullen teenage girl, her hen-pecked father and short-haired, leather-skinned mother. From their tans, I suspect they have been here a while, soaking up the sun by a pool in one of the hotels in the Ville Nouvelle, or perhaps at the Club Med just off Djemma El-Fna. They look as shell shocked from the souk as I felt on my first day. I’ve got a little more used to it now, especially since I learnt how to say “no thank you” in Arabic. But I still got lost again today, and when an alleyway brought me unexpectedly to the museum, I couldn’t resist making one last pit stop.
“Oh là là, partout c’est de l’arnaque,” laments leatherface to her husband. “Everywhere we turn people are trying to fleece us. In the souk. In the taxis. Even the mint tea here, I mean, 15 dirham is expensive.”
I hide my smile behind my guidebook. I suppose it’s all relative. 15 dirham (€ 1.50) seems a lot in comparison to a 3 dirham freshly squeezed orange juice on the main square, but really it’s peanuts. The taxi drivers are a pain, I’ll admit that. In the past three days I’ve only met one who was willing to put on his meter, as the law dictates. The trip to and from the Supratours coach station, where I bought my ticket to Essaouira cost me 20 dirhams one way, 30 dirhams back again. On the meter it would have cost 10. But I can’t be bothered to work myself into a lather about it. The sums involved are to small.
“Et puis le Monsieur là, le vieux, qui nous a reclamé de l’argent quand nous l’avons pris en photo…” continues leatherface. I take a sip of tea. I’ve had this experience too. People ask for money, or object strongly when you point a camera in their direction in this country, even if you are just trying to capture a busy street scene. Those who object do so on religious grounds, I think, although an exception seems to be made for the king, whose photo hung on a wall at Supratours. Now I think about it, the poscards I’ve seen for sale here all show close up views of mint tea glasses, details from buildings or pyramids of spices. Only in the modern art exhibition in the museum did I see some paintings of veiled women. I don’t want be accused of disrespect, so I’ve put my camera away.
My ears prick up when I hear English spoken on the table to my left. So far I’ve seen mostly French tourists, although there are lots of German couples in my hotel. A grey haired, linen-clad couple are seated at the next table sipping mint tea. The voice I heard belonged to the woman who has just zoned in on the spare seats opposite. Her husband approaches, brandishing two cans of coke with straws.
“What a relief to find this place,” he says as he plonks himself down. “How anyone can manage not to get lost in that souk I don’t know…” He voice has a faint Scottish burr.
“I can honestly say,” says Mr Linen, who sounds like a BBC broadcaster from the forties, “that I haven’t lost my bearings once.”
Either he’s lying, or he has a far better map than I do.
“Where are you staying?” says Mrs Linen in a friendly attempt to offset her husband’s smugness.
“Oh, out towards the Ville Nouvelle,” replies Mr Scot. “It’s a lovely place, but they lied about how far it is from the main square. You can’t walk it in ten minutes, it’s more like forty. Not that we mind though, the walk here takes us through the most beautiful gardens, it would be a shame to miss those.”
“Ah. You see, my wife and I don’t have time to waste walking,” says Mr Linen. “We’re staying in a riad, a traditional townhouse, right in the middle of the medina.” He pauses to pour his wife more tea, and frowns at the coke cans on the table as though they offend his sensibilities.
“Been on any excursions?” asks Mr Scot, undeterred. “We’ve just come back from a trip into the country. We went as far as the bottom of the Atlas mountains. Very impressive…”
“Yes. We went to the mountains too,” Mrs Linen says quickly, jumping in before her husband can answer. But there is no keeping this man down. He has to go one better.
“We went up as far as the snow,” he announces, smiling broadly.
Mr and Mrs Linen drain their glasses and take their leave, murmuring the usual meaningless pleasantries – “hope you enjoy the rest of your stay” “lovely to meet you,” – and leaving the Scottish couple alone to finish their drinks in peace.
I get up to go to the toilet, but as I pause to push a postcard into the letterbox by their table, I can’t resist a show of solidarity.
“I couldn’t help overhearing,” I say. “I’m surprised those two didn’t climb the Toubkal mountain! But then, he and his wife don’t have time to waste walking, do they?”