Shadow of lady with crutches
Lens-Artists,  Morocco,  Street photography

Keep walking … even on crutches!

We were just twenty-four hours into our first visit to Marrakesh. We had arrived in the city with high expectations. It had been on our wish-list for some years; and as this was the first holiday of any length that we had been able to take together for over a year, we were determined to enjoy it.

But on the evening of our first day, a lovely day spent visiting the Djamaa el Fna and the Majorelle Gardens, I stumbled on the edge of a tiled basin in a fancy restaurant and broke a bone in my foot. I spent the rest of the week on crutches, severely restricting our ability to see even a fraction of what we had planned.

Blue painted fountain among greenery
In the Majorelle Gardens – before the fall

The restaurant had been recommended by the owner of our riad. Even without the broken foot it would have been something of a disappointment, being seriously over-priced. Of course we were paying for the setting, which was admittedly wonderful; a beautiful old palace approached along a red carpet lined with flickering lanterns. The tables were set out in the central courtyard. It was here that I had my fall, not spotting the sunken basin at its centre (probably because I was marvelling at the building all around me).

I sat through the meal in considerable pain, hoping that I had simply sprained my foot and would feel better the next day. But after a largely sleepless and painful night it was obvious that medical attention was required. Fortunately the riad owner did a much better job of recommending a doctor than she had a restaurant. He spoke French and a little English, was used to treating tourists and soon had me whisked off in a taxi for x-rays. They confirmed the worst; I had broken my fifth metatarsal on my right foot, no doubt as it banged against the beautiful ceramic tiles of the basin.

Here in the UK the treatment for such an injury might be a little different (judging by what was recommended when I got back a week later); but there the solution was plaster to just below the knee and a pair of crutches. I was also prescribed pain-killers and a course of daily injections which it turned out were intended to minimise the risk of thrombosis caused by a lack of activity. The latter were an unnecessary precaution. I was on holiday, in Marrakesh for the first time, and was determined to keep walking – somehow.

Sightseeing on crutches

Marrakesh really isn’t the best city to explore with restricted mobility. There are plenty of cheap taxis, but our riad was at the end of a dead-end lane. And with the quarter’s narrow alleyways there were four blocks to walk before I could get into any sort of vehicle! But once I had negotiated those the city opened up to us a little. We had to cross many sights off our planned itinerary but there was still much to enjoy. Top of the list was people-watching and photographing. Could it be that this enforced week of relative inactivity first awoke the street photographer in me?

People-watching is an activity very compatible with a broken foot. I could find a table at any of the Djamaa el Fna cafés; order a strong coffee or mint tea; and sit back and wait for the world to come to me. And to observe life a little off the beaten path where tourists don’t out-number the locals, I perfected the art of propping myself on my crutches to get some shots on the side streets near our riad.

There is always something to catch your eye in this bustling city. A moped carrying a traditionally dressed man weaves effortlessly through the crowds. A donkey cart laden with mint and other herbs holds up all traffic in one of the small lanes known as derbs. Carpet sellers pause between customers to swap gossip or discuss business. A woman sells bread from a barrow; and another pauses to inspect the dried fruits and spices on offer at a stall. A musician plays in a back street hoping passers-by will reward him for his efforts (we did).

The Djamaa el Fna

But sooner or later it seems, all paths in Marrakesh lead to the Djamaa el Fna. The name means ‘Assembly of the Dead’ in Arabic but a visit here suggests life in all its vibrancy. To call this the city’s main square doesn’t begin to do justice to it. This is a meeting place, a shopping centre, a performance space, a happening.

Looking down on large square with market stalls
Looking down on the Djamaa el Fna (taken from a terrace on our first day, when I was still mobile)

Here is a snake charmer with a sleepy cobra waiting for tourists’ dirhams before luring him into action. There is a man with a monkey wanting payment to pose with him perched on your shoulder. And over there a colourfully dressed water-seller is making more money from posing for photos than he ever will from selling water.

Rows of stalls sell dried fruits; others freshly squeezed orange juice. Women offer to decorate your hand with henna, and men to shine your shoes – even if you are wearing trainers. You can buy a leather handbag or a packet of tissues, a lantern or a cigarette lighter. Mopeds weave past pedestrians; men push carts and donkeys pull them; horses trot past with tourist passengers perched in the caleche behind.

Over it all towers the minaret of the Katoubia Mosque, the tallest building in the city, and at regular intervals the call to prayer rings out above the hubbub.

But that one spiritual note barely seems to make an impression on all the secular activity at its foot, although the faithful no doubt pause briefly in their actions before returning to earthly matters of commerce and enterprise.

Day trip to Essaouira

Two days after my fall, and with one day of our holiday already lost to doctors and clinics, we decided to press ahead with our original plan of a day trip to the coast. Sitting in a taxi watching the scenery sounded a lot easier than tackling the streets of Marrakesh on foot. And so it proved; we had a lovely relaxing (if long) day out which showed us that something at least of our holiday could be retrieved despite the unexpected and unwelcome change in our circumstances.

Leaving after an early breakfast we headed west through a fairly dry and dusty landscape interspersed with villages and small towns. Most of these serve as markets for the Berber farmers in the surrounding area, so were full of life and interest for us. We stopped several times en route – for coffee; to visit a carpet co-operative (and succumb to temptation there!); and to see the local oddity known as ‘goats in trees’.

We arrived in Essaouira in time for a leisurely lunch in the main square. The light was beautiful, the sea air refreshing, the activity around us fascinating but much less frenetic than in Marrakesh. After lunch Chris had a walk around the port area and took lots of photos. Meanwhile I sat on a bench and did the same in the square. I also took my featured ‘selfie’ there!

I then managed a short hobble around a few streets in the old town before it was time to head back to Marrakesh. It was dark as we approached the city and a huge red moon was rising. It seemed a sign of hope after the mess of the previous day; and a wonderful ending to our day out.

The Ourika Valley

We also managed a day trip to the Ourika Valley, again by grand taxi; although the planned walk to some waterfalls had to be dropped. Instead we visited a typical Berber home and a women’s co-operative producing the local speciality of argan oil. Later we had a lovely leisurely lunch on the terrace of a hotel garden draped in bougainvillea. The greenness of the valley, and the views of the Atlas Mountains beyond, made a welcome contrast to the frantic pace of life in the city.

The Djamaa el Fna by night

Our host at the riad had warned us against eating in the Djamaa el Fna night market; but she had also recommended that very disappointing restaurant (and I say that not because of my fall but because the food was dull and over-priced). So we decided to ignore her; and one evening I hobbled to the taxi rank for the ride back into the city centre.

If the Djamaa el Fna is a performance by day, at night it becomes a spectacle. As we approached from the Koutoubia Mosque / Avenue Mohammed V side, our first sight of the square was the glow of a myriad lights, with against them the dark silhouettes of what appear to be thousands of people, and above these the smoke rising from a hundred barbeques at the many food stalls.

Brightly lit stalls in a night-time market square
The Djemaa el Fna by night

As we approached, and started to immerse ourselves in the milling crowd, I found every sense stimulated.

My eyes strained to make out what was happening in the shifts from darkness to pools of brightness, and darted from sight to sight. There were performers with locals and tourists jostling for position around them; women crouched over a few handicrafts they have brought to sell; stalls with steaming glasses of tea; family groups gathered in a circle to talk and eat; a couple in their best and most colourful djellabas on a celebratory night out …

My ears rang with the chatter around us; the drums beating incessantly; the haunting music of the street performers; the stall holders calling out to passers-by and extolling the wonders of the menu on offer at their food stall. Occasionally the voice of the muezzin rang out from the several minarets that surround the square; but it seemed to me that only a minority paused for prayer among this multi-cultural, multi-faith gathering of mankind.

I could smell the kebabs and spicy sausages grilling, fish frying, cinnamon and ginger from the tea stalls; and my mouth watered, longing to taste them too. After looking around for a short while we settled on a stand where we could see kebabs or brochettes being freshly grilled. A helpful guy found us a seat at the end of one of the long tables and whisked my crutches out of the way to the cooking area. There his colleague manning the grill proceeded to mime using them as extra-long kebab skewers, to the amusement of all around us.

The food quality was a little mixed: delicious olives, bread and spicy dips to start with; excellent kebabs, good couscous but flabby chips. But the prices were low and the spectacle and experience alone worth paying for. And no, neither of us was ill afterwards, and we had a much more enjoyable time than in that ill-fated expensive restaurant!

So I hope I have shown you that it’s possible to keep walking even on crutches – shared for Amy’s Lens Artists Challenge theme this week.

I visited Marrakesh for the first time in 2009. Seven years later we returned to the city, and managed to see much more of it; other posts on this blog refer to that second, fully mobile, visit!

36 Comments

  • Marsha

    As a somewhat inhibited walker right now, this post is such an inspiration, Sarah. Your photos of people are fabulous. I hate to say that maybe the foot was a blessing, but it did make you more like a tripod that a video camera. And the pictures turned out so well.

  • rkrontheroad

    It takes some creativity to adapt a trip to an injury, but you did well! I badly sprained an ankle just before I left Australia years ago and the next stop was driving around the South Island of New Zealand. Had to give up hiking the tracks but there were so many water-related activities, it was still wonderful. I too did a day trip to Essouira when I visited Marrakech, loved the seafood and air. Thanks for reminding me. (Ok, so these are some blog ideas to put on my list!)

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Ruth 🙂 It sounds like you adopted much the approach that I did – drop the activities that are no longer possible and add some that are! I’d love to read your impressions of Essaouira and your adventures in New Zealand. I too get reminded of trips I could blog about when I read other people’s posts 🙂

  • leightontravels

    Enjoyed your Moroccan adventures very much, especially as it reminded me of my own visit to these locations. KUDOS to you for battling it out across Marrakesh in crutches, I can only imagine how tiring mentally and physically that must have been. I loved all these places in Morocco, but it was Essaouria that charmed me the most. Good enough for Orson Welles….

    • Sarah Wilkie

      It was pretty tiring on my hands and arms as they were taking much of the weight. Luckily I was advised I could put the broken foot down as I walked as long as most of the weight was through the crutches, so I didn’t have to hop everywhere!

      I loved what I saw of Essaouria and would like to go back one day for a proper visit 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Rose 🙂 I don’t think I’d describe myself as resilient but I can certainly be determined, even stubborn! And there was no way I was going to spend a week sitting in our small riad feeling sorry for myself.

  • Jane Lurie

    So sorry, Sarah. You sure have captured some fabulous images despite your limitations. I especially enjoyed your vibrant portraits. Beautifully shot. Take care! 🙂

  • sustainabilitea

    You certainly made tasty lemonade with your lemons, Sarah. Lovely portraits! A number of years ago when our older daughter took me to Costa Rica for a week, I broke a toe a few days in, just stubbing it while in the ocean. Can’t do much about a toe, so I taped it to one of the toes next to it and just kept going. It’s a tiny bit bent but we still had a lovely time. Not nearly as awful as your break though.

    janet

    • Sarah Wilkie

      That’s a great way of putting it Janet 🙂 Yes, we all need to make lemonade from time to time! I’m glad you managed to battle through your Costa Rica trip too 🙂

  • Tina Schell

    Oh dear Sarah! You must have been so disappointed- good for you for making the most of it! The sights and sounds look marvelous. So glad you got to revisit!

  • SandyL

    Every travellers worse nightmare – being sick or incapcitated on holiday! Sounds like you made the most of it and sometimes, slowing down is a good thing. Good street photography demands it. 😉

    • Sarah Wilkie

      True, it’s not what any of us would choose, but I guess the more you travel the more you have to accept that it could happen. And yes, slowing down can be good from time to time, although I’d rather not have had it enforced like this!!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      In some ways it must be among the best places in the world for people watching, but you need a good zoom and a discreet corner, as the locals in Marrakesh are possibly the least happy about being photographed that I’ve come across!

  • Amy

    keep walking on crutches, sounds very challenging, Sarah! You managed to take walk around and take wonderful photos. Thank you for taking us there. 🙂

  • CliffClaven

    You toughed it out – well done! But I wonder what you would have done if the accident had occurred before you left. Would you have travelled, or would you have cancelled? When I sprained my ankle severely about ten years ago, I decided to go ahead with a weekend trip to Belgrade. I left one crutch at home and hobbled through the airport, crutch on one side and hand baggage on the other. People were generally helpful.
    As for Marrakesh, I visited several times when I lived in Casablanca. It was always a fascinating experience. One night I drove my little red car to the Jemaa el-Fna square to eat spicy merguez sausages at 2 a.m. when the temperature was below zero.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Good question – I think with an actual break I would cancel, but for a sprain it would depend on the severity and also the destination. If it was somewhere I could relax, maybe by a pool or in a beautiful setting, and only do as much walking as I felt able to, I would go for sure. Whereas for a trip like this, with little to be seen unless you are prepared to walk a bit, I may have second thoughts.

  • margaret21

    You definitely made the best of a bad job. And if the accident awakened the street photographer in you, it had a lasting benefit for your readers at least!

  • Marie Nicholson

    A challenge indeed. How you managed those photographs I’ll never know (unless some were taken at a later date, or your husband took some). Handling crutches and a camera at the same time is difficult as I know, because I suffered a broken ankle on a trip to Germany. Maybe I’m just not as brave as you! Mind you, I was hobbling around pretending I’d only sprained my ankle as we were on a river trip and I knew if the organizers knew I’d broken a bone I’d have to go to hospital and then I’d be left there while they sailed on. It was my first solo trip after my husband died and I thought things couldn’t get any worse and my delay meant it took much longer to heal when I got home. Anyway, I loved the colourful life you displayed here.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Marie – and gosh, your break in Germany sounds pretty awful, especially given the timing 🙁 No, I took all the photos myself and on that trip, but the majority were taken sitting down at a cafe so I only needed to hold the camera! That said, I did find that I could manage to lean on the crutches with my arms in the arm rests but not holding the handles, leaving my hands free for photography 🙂

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