Sunday, May 21, 2006

24 ... no, make that 26 hours in Marrakech ...

I have just finished watching 2 teams of grizzling, spoilt, overpaid teenagers running around after a football in the final of the Champions League. After 90 minutes they're all tired and worn out, bless their little cotton socks. For the full effect of total exhaustion, they should try spending five days with a 4yr old child who's contracted gastro enteritis - and you don't earn a penny either way.

What started off as a 'little break to get away from it all', quickly turned into a brutal mixture of 'Carrie' and an SAS selection course. With suitcases packed, we settled down for a Saturday night's sleep before the following day's lunchtime flight to Marrakech. At 1am, little Marie woke up crying. Well screaming, more like. She was as hot as a hob-ring and about the same colour. At 1.30 we called the emergency doctor, who arrived 30 minutes later. "Oh she'll be fine - it's just a virus" he announced. "Yes, but is it advisable that we take her to Morocco in this state?" we asked. "Sure! Go ahead, stick her on the plane, she'll be fine", the doctor repeated. The nocturnal parasite charged €75 for his services and he slipped back out into the night. Marie, on the other hand, was still in pain and crying her tear ducts dry. No-one slept after that, and as morning broke, vomiting was next on Marie's repertoire.

We wandered through the airport with a purple plastic bucket ready for the next deluge and reluctantly boarded the plane with the doctor's words "stick her on the plane, she'll be fine" echoing in my head. The 4yr old was now in shock and as white as a sheet and thirsty. Very thirsty. That day she got through as much water as we could give her - even Coca Cola was a good stomach settler. But wary of a slight reversal on the old adage 'what goes down must come up', whatever she swallowed soon made a reappearance. Marie spent the 3 hour flight with her head on my beloved's lap, groaning and crying. I was beginning to think that we had made a terrible mistake.

The only medication we could give her was liquid Advil, which is superb at reducing temperatures and calming fevers but does nothing to quell the cause. On arrival at Marrakech, Marie seemed to perk up. She sat between the pair of us in the back of the taxi, looking around, pointing at the scenery and taking in the unfamiliar sights.

At the Riad, she happily took me to see our room and take a tour of the roof-top terrace. We drank a glass of mint tea and stepped out onto the hot and dusty streets.

This was not for Marie. Scooters and bicycles were hurtling through the narrow lanes, beeping their horns and swerving to avoid pedestrians. A multitude of tiny single-roomed businesses lined our route: barber shops, pointy-shoe makers, tailors, bakeries, fruit stalls and my own particular favourite, the butchers. Such was the heat, the meat was only visible once the flies had been waved away. Great swarms of them.

I find it quite extraordinary that such a level of public hygiene is so readily accepted. In the developed world, we would all be struck down with some form of intestinal sickness, but north African's readily accept it, their natural immune systems can easily cope. Another thing that I couldn't help notice was the sheer number of disfigured and handicapped adults. Not those sitting around begging as much as those actually working. One chap in particular rode a scooter, delivering bread, was piled high in a large metal box fixed to the machine. Both his feet were turned 90° inwards. He had spend a lifetime in this condition and it didn't bother him, happily jumping on and off the scooter, taking orders from his customers and greeting his friends. There were others with facial tumors, under-developed limbs and spinal problems. Pediatric care for the masses appears only for the privileged, so the afflicted just have to deal as best they can in getting to adulthood.

The road emptied out into Djemaa el Fna square, a sprawling tourist trap with street vendors a-plenty. Orange juice stalls, a motley collection of open-fired restaurants, henna artists and potions for the well being of your body. I could never quite figure out what it was they were actually selling but it didn't bother me in the slightest. Marie seemed fascinated by the melee but was less interested in the teenagers hawking bendy wooden snakes, "for zee chilllrenn" was their sales pitch. It only made Marie scream in terror, thinking they were the real deal. The 'real deal', however, was only a matter of feet away. Djemaa el Fna square has it's fair share of snake charmers who, for the price of a second class stamp, will blow their noisy high-pitched reed instruments and taunt their pythons. For a few coins more, they'll drape a 2m comatose specimen over your shoulders.

Little Marie was now tired and in the arms of her Mother but I ought to point out that we were joined on this little excursion by Marie grandfather, who works in Marrakech. On he strode, we merely followed. The Souk was next on the list. A veritable rabbit warren of stalls and passageways. Whatever you wanted, you'd find it here: spices, traditional dress, teapots, fabric, gold, leather goods more bloody pointy shoes. We needed to eat, so back along the crowded covered market we went. Djemaa el Fna square is surrounded by terracotta buildings with roof-top terrace restaurants. As it happens, Marie's grandfather is very matey with a Frenchman who's opened such a restaurant. With the long history that France and Morocco share, it's hardly surprising that the place is full of foreigners come sundown. The waiting staff are local Moroccan with a French chef. The owner and his wife made an enormous fuss over us and got us seated. As soon as we were settled, Marie whispered "I want to be sick" and in an instant, I was reminded of Elvis Costello's "A Good Year For The Roses", as Marie emptied what liquid she had left in her stomach all over the floral displays. Subconsciously, I was also reminded of the doctor's face of the previous night and how I'd like to strangle the bastard. A good dose of magic liquid Advil, and within 30 minutes, Marie was a happy little girl once more.

Neither my belovèd nor I had slept since Friday night, so we were keen to get a spot of shut-eye and hit the sights the next day. Back at the Riad, we got Marie settled and stripped the bedding down to a single sheet. My head sank into the soft pillow and I was finally admitted into the land of nod.

Our itinerary was to stay in Marrakech for the Sunday night, Monday and Tuesday morning, pick up the hire car and drive west to Essaouira on the coast. After a few days by the pool, we'd drive back to Marrakech on the Friday and take a late afternoon flight back to Paris. We'd read up on the subject, bought the right tourist book, invested in a map and paid for the hotel by the beach, in advance. All was in place.

In the early hours of Monday morning, Marie woke us up. It was a repeat of the Saturday Night Fever, all over again, except this time she was hallucinating. The poor little mite was breathing like a race horse after the Grand National and was boiling like a chip pan, so I took her off for a cold shower. Wrapped in a wet towel, we did all we could to get her temperature down. Cold flannels on the forehead and the back of the neck. My belovèd and I discussed what we should do next. The airline we flew with didn't have another flight out until the Wednesday, 48 hours later. I was in no mood to be mucked around by local doctors and my belovèd's face was quickly becoming an example of sheer terror. It was at this point that I made an executive decision "we go home tomorrow!" A child with a 40° temperature in a 40° environment is not an ideal situation to be in. The three of us dozed in and out of conciousness until day-break.

The flight home was difficult for all of us and Marie slept for the entire trip. Another bout of vomiting at Orly airport and another broken night followed. It wasn't until the following day did my belovèd get an appoinment to see her regular doctor. He pronounced a case of gastro enteritis and issued a prescription full of potions, sprays and syrups. Between Saturday night and Tuesday morning, poor Marie didn't have any treatment for the gastro, just enough medication to reduce the fever.

She's well on the mend now, though she has a rotten cold which is a common side-effect with gastro in a child. She's fed up of being ill and having a blocked face. We, on the other hand, are totally exhausted and need a holiday.

Back in Paris, a friend of mine gave me a small gateau which was made by a baker here in the capital. It is to commemorate the Champions League final between two teams of millionaire rich kids: Barcelona and Arsenal. Who better to give it to on the eve of her 5th birthday, but Marie. It only goes to show that you can have your cake and eat it ...



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