Destination unknown: Night kitchens of Zeida

A traveller's tale from Morocco won Andrea Kirkby the top prize in this year's Independent on Sunday/Bradt Guides travel-writing competition

We've dozed fitfully on the way here, as the bus swerves its twisting way through the Atlas foothills, passing headlamps and the dim glow from the dashboard are all that breaks the absolute Moroccan night. I'm half asleep as the bus pulls into town. Rubbing my eyes, as the blur of waking dissolves, I see a wide street, low buildings, a line of buses. Gravel crunches under the tyres as we pull over. It's one o'clock in the morning. We'll be here an hour.

I try to sleep, give it up as a bad job after 10 minutes, and get out to look around the town. Above, the stars shine sharp and cold in the utter dark. The puny streetlights are too few to taint the sky with orange. On the other side of the road, the houses are dark. Cats slink across the parking lot, fix the bus with shining eyes and, with a flick of tail, they disappear into the night.

But this side of the road glares with electric lamps. This is a nowhere town. Low buildings of breezeblock. A single long road. Somewhere between Azrou and Midelt, in the blank space in the map in the Rough Guide. I can't even find out what the place is called. Nondescript by day, it seems it comes alive only at night, when every bus travelling the long road from Fes or Meknes to the south stops here.

Every stall facing the road is as brightly lit as a stage or a peepshow. In one, a sweaty man moulds minced meat into brochettes, pinpointed by the light in his grid-like box. (I'm reminded of a Vermeer.) In another stall, a butcher cleaves a joint. I hear the grudging hiss of a sharp knife through meat. The smell of blood is oddly heavy and sweet. Outside the next stall, a half carcass is hanging, the bull's tail still attached. A man comes, buys a half kilo of meat, sees it carved off the bone, and takes it next door to be cooked. A cat brushes my leg as it scuttles past, looking for scraps.

The line of stalls seems to extend for miles. There must be 20 or 30 buses stopped here. The noise of their engines never stops. It's so like a dream I pinch my leg through my jeans pocket to make sure that I'm awake.

The smell of mint prickles my nose, and I wander over to one of the stalls where a waiter is pushing fresh mint leaves roughly into a teapot. I hadn't realised how cold the night had become till the sugary liquid warms my stomach.

The engine of a bus starts turning over. A man with an anorak over his djellaba dashes out of a café; it's a false alarm. But I look at my watch; it's nearly two in the morning. Time to get back to my bus.

Back into the black night, past bright shops where customers seem frozen in the moment as if by a flashlight. Back on our way through the dark, from this town we didn't know existed to the deserts of the south. As we leave, I see the sign. Zeida. I write down the name on the back of my bus ticket.

About the author

Andrea Kirkby is this year's winner of the Independent on Sunday/Bradt Guides travel-writing competition for her article on the theme of "Destination Unknown", titled The Night Kitchens of Zeida. It was described by the deciding judge, the writer and broadcaster Matthew Parris, as a piece of "classic travel writing" during the awards ceremony at Stanford's Bookshop in London last Tuesday.

Paris-based Andrea is a former business journalist who is now developing a travel journalism portfolio and a collection of audio guides to European destinations. She wins a trip to Colombia, courtesy of the Colombia Tourist Office, Proexport and The Traveller. She also receives a commission for an article from her trip, to be published in these travel pages.

The Unpublished Writer award went to Kate Cantrell for her piece, Colours, which Matthew praised for its "fine, descriptive writing". Kate lives in Australia, having recently returned home from volunteering in the slums of Bangkok and teaching English among the hill tribes of Chiang Mai. She is now studying for a PhD on women's travel writing. Kate wins a place on a Travellers' Tales writing course taking place in Cordoba, Spain.

The shortlist was drawn up by five judges, Hilary Bradt, Donald Greig and Adrian Phillips of Bradt, Kate Simon, Travel Editor of The Independent on Sunday, and Jonathan Lorie of Travellers' Tales. Four of the six finalists this year were unpublished authors.

Martin Alexander, Sally Blake, Sophie Coulombeau and Jo Forel were the other four finalists. Read the winning articles and the other finalists at bradtguides.com.

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