In my head, it was the perfect proposal. As the smoke from the food stalls rose into the dusk sky above Marrakech’s main square, I’d go down on one knee; the gathering murmur of the crowds would add atmosphere to the exotic backdrop — the colour, sounds and smells boosting the cinematic romance.
That dream vision, of course, had not factored in the men with snakes. Stand still for more than a few minutes in Marrakech’s Djemaa el Fna and you’ll undoubtedly be accosted. The snake charmers have realised there’s more money to be made putting serpents around people’s necks for photos than playing tunes to them in baskets.
A walk through the square becomes the sort of experience Indiana Jones would hate. If it’s not the snake-thrusters, it’s the tattoo artists. Hold a hand out, and a woman will leap up and try to paint it with henna before you’ve got chance to put a ring on the finger. Popping the question here is like trying to eat a banana inside the monkey enclosure at Twycross Zoo.
Travel and surprises go together as well as roast lamb and custard. Whisking a loved one away somewhere may seem a good idea, but executing that idea generally leaves you wishing you’d stayed in and watched Holby City.
Keeping it secret is virtually impossible. There are little giveaways, like telling the recipient to book certain days off work, asking where their passport is kept and guidebooks mysteriously appearing in the post.
Try this when you’re planning to propose, and a whole new set of problems arise. Do you ask for parental permission first, or will they give the game away? Is the hotel as nice as it looks online, or am I taking her to a hellhole? If I pack the ring in my hand luggage, will it be pulled out at airport security? And if I put it in the suitcase, how will I stop her finding it when she’s rummaging around for clean pants?
Marrakech is many things, but calming isn’t one of them. After a lengthy grumbling session in the airport immigration queue and a terrifying taxi ride, we were dropped off at the edge of Djemaa el Fna. We just didn’t know which edge. Inside the photogenic red walls, it’s a maze. Streets may have names, but signs saying what they are haven’t been deemed necessary. The romantic break started with lugging bags around for an hour, asking for directions and arguing with would-be guides who didn’t know where the hotel was either.
Given we didn’t know its location, it was fitting the hotel didn’t know we were coming either — there’d been a mix up on the online booking site. The fretting about whether the website photos would match reality was irrelevant; the Valentine’s break was kicking off with a nice spot of homelessness. Apparently, this is neither sexy nor romantic.
With the first night taken up with finding a new place to stay, and the second spent dodging men with snakes, I desperately needed another option. By this stage, the ring couldn’t have been any more cursed if Gollum was following me round, trying to snatch it.
The solution was to head beyond the walls to somewhere more serene. The Jardin Majorelle is a picturesque dollop of calm in a city often resembling a screeching child running around in circles after too much Red Bull.
I shepherded my beloved to a quiet corner and started a preamble: “I love spending time with y…”
A bellow erupted from the other side of the garden. “OH. MY. GOODNESS! It’s BEAUUUUUTIFUL.” I turned round to see the galumphing 40-strong American tour group, dressed in stereotype visors and bum bags. Again the mood had been killed.
So, I gave up trying to make things special. We went back to the hotel room, and I tried the smooth talk again. As I poured my heart out, she became enthralled by the colourful bedspread and started harping on about soft furnishings.
And so our engagement began with those timeless words I’d uttered continually at the airport, during the hotel hunt and while fending off men with snakes: “Oh, for God’s sake…”
Next time I want to organise a surprise, I’ll stay at home and stick to flowers.
Published in Jan/Feb 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)