The high cost of a cut-price holiday

A man transports bags on a moped on the waterfront of Agadir in Morocco. Photograph: Andia/Getty

A man transports bags on a moped on the waterfront of Agadir in Morocco. Photograph: Andia/Getty


HOLIDAY DISASTERS: ANN MARIE HOURIHANEremembers a never-ending fortnight in the concrete streets of Agadir

DO NOT go on holiday to any country where the people are poorer than you. A sturdy slogan, and one that means we can holiday in any Western country these days. Of course, it used to mean that we could hardly go anywhere with a clear conscience. Not that your average holidaymaker has a conscience. No sirree, if we got a good deal and the en suite, then we would holiday in hell; and we have done.

Of course, there have been terrible holidays in Ireland, spent in the B&B that is painted terracotta but chills you to the marrow. And there’s always the pleasure of staying in the hotel that hosts the local disco every night of the weekend. Not to speak about children in mobile homes in the rain. Or in tents. We would need a whole newspaper for the camping stories alone.

But let’s not talk about holidays you can drive home from. Let’s talk about holidays you have to sign up for, hook, line and sinker. The charter flight. You all wait on the aircraft as a party of about eight of your fellow passengers stays drinking in the bar of Dublin Airport. The plane misses its departure slot. The drinkers arrive on board about 45 minutes after the plane was due to leave, full of false apologies and spoiling for a fight. Happy days.

I don’t know what it’s like now, but 12 years ago Agadir was grim. Rebuilt after being destroyed by an earthquake in 1960, which killed 15,000 people and left 50,000 homeless, it was a rundown town of crumbling concrete and, your average Western neurotic suspected, asbestos. Given the grinding poverty of the local people, asbestosis was not their major health concern.

By the swimming pool, the German women sunbathed topless and were served drinks by men who wouldn’t let their wives appear in public with their heads uncovered. You had to take refuge in table tennis to avoid a nervous breakdown from the culture clash. For the Germans, this was the second holiday of their year; for most of the Irish, it was just the first holiday of several. There were a couple of female groups, on annual girls-only holidays. One of the women on a girls-only holidays was mugged; she was dragged down a flight of steps by a young man who stole her handbag and broke her arm.

Some days later, a line of young men, mostly teenagers by the look of them, was led into the lobby of our Soviet-style hotel, joined together by chains. The woman who had been robbed, and was by this time out of hospital with her arm in an impressive bandage, was asked several times by the local police officers present to identify the man who had robbed her. She said that she was unable to do so. The hotel staff told us that this made no difference, as one or two of the boys would go to jail anyway, so that a crime against a tourist would not go unpunished.

During the day, we walked the blindingly hot concrete streets of Agadir, assaulted by people trying to sell us spices. We bought so many that even now, more than a decade later, there is still a bag of unidentifiable yellow powder in the kitchen cupboard which really does go well with chicken.

Or we went on tourist excursions to the Atlas Mountains, and met guides who were more educated and sophisticated than anyone else we had ever met, and were teetering on the edge of genteel despair, as buses disgorged large parties of Western tourists who wanted only to buy carpets in towns so poor they looked like sets from a cowboy film. (We bought a carpet. We had it for years.) At the end of the first week, we tried to go home on the flight back to Dublin. We lied as much as we could, but the tour operator had no spare seats and we had signed up for a fortnight. We were left with nothing to sustain us but a biography of Winston Churchill and that year’s World Cup. The complimentary basket of fruit which, you could tell by the way the maid looked at it, was the very apogee of luxury, started to rot and was taken away.

There were long hours of Moroccan folk music on the television. One night, the transmission of a very important World Cup match was interrupted by the broadcasting of Friday prayers. You have never seen unity of purpose until you’ve witnessed every man, woman and child in a hotel bar run out, leap in taxis and roar to the next hotel.

One night, we went to a local soccer match, Agadir against Casablanca, if memory serves. We had been enthusiastically assured that it was perfectly all right and indeed absolutely routine for a woman to attend, but it turned out that I was the only female visible in the stadium. It was kind of like being in The Prisoner. In fact, it was a fascinating experience, with players being stretchered off the pitch at an amazing rate, only to re-emerge a few minutes later, like the Marx Brothers running through the set of the opera.

That was the night we got fish for dinner that was so rotten, luckily, that it stank.

We should have cut loose completely and set off by ourselves for the mountains and the luxury hotels. But some tourist obedience held us in Agadir, as if we couldn’t abandon the horrible logic of a bad holiday.

We came home laden with gifts, memories of a holiday we wanted to forget. Strangely, a tenuous but very cordial relationship emerged from the experience. The lady who had been mugged and had her arm broken, and who had refused to identify a random teenager as her assailant, works in a Dublin cafe where I sometimes go to lunch. When we meet, we fall on each other like long lost friends. But we never talk about our holiday.