June 23, 2006 Features & Images » Feature Story

A shepherd, his goats and a road gap 

On a quest for good dirt, Whistler filmmaker Chris Winter
reports from Marrakech on hauling ass amidst shepherds, goats, and prayers to Allah.

Story and photos by Chris Winter

It started faintly, almost in a whisper - a deep and monotonous humming sound. The noises became slightly melodic and blended into words that I did not understand, then grew louder until he was fully wailing into the microphone, blasting a successesion of phrases. He kept going for what seemed like forever, chanting the hypnotic prayer that was broadcast at high volume from the mosque towers throughout the walled city.

‘Who on earth came up with this brilliant idea?’ I thought in my half-asleep state. Whoever he is, I’m sure that he isn’t too popular right about now.

I rolled over and fought to regain sleep and cruelly smiled as I remembered how close Darcy and Darren’s rooftop room was to one of the loudspeakers. It was pitch black outside and the city was coming alive around us; my watch read 4:30 a.m.

Welcome to Marrakech .

Our Marrakech abode was called a riad . Traditionally, it was a building where several families lived with rooms and balconies looking over a common courtyard. Lately, Europeans were buying old riads and transforming them into beautiful boutique hotels complete with fountains, orange trees, palatial rooms and over-the-top rooftop patios with lots of pillows and rugs.

Leaving our riad promised instant adventure as you’d step out and realize that the door, which you’d just closed, was identical to the neighbours’ doors and none had any signs or numbers. To make matters more interesting it was situated in a medieval labyrinth of twisty narrow lanes with no structure. Numerous times I’d had to pay a local kid to help me find the way back to our door.

Minutes from our riad was the famous Jemaa el-Fna Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the world’s greatest spectacles. Since Marrakech was developed in the 11 th century, the square has been a cultural crossroad where frenetic commercial activity and entertainment attract crowds well into the night. There is a huge range of performances and acts: story tellers, musicians, dancers, snake charmers, glass-eaters and performing animals. A wide variety of services are also offered, like dental care, traditional medicine, fortune telling, preaching, astrology, henna tattooing and much, much more.

Four hours after morning prayer we were chilling on our rooftop patio in the warm sun, sipping freshly squeezed orange juice, eating dates and discussing our proposed plan. Our group of 11 consisted of three pro mountain bikers – Andrew Shandro, Matt Hunter and Thomas Vanderham – four cinematographers, one photographer and four guides: nine Canadians and two Moroccans.

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