From the Archives: Marrakesh (Part I) / by Heather

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From March 2009: Marrkesh, Morocco

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With one of my December exams finished, Jonathan and I continued our adventures with a trip to Marrakesh, Morocco. I, for one, was very excited to see the sun again. At least a “real” sun. I recently had an argument with a British friend of mine about what constitutes as “real sunlight.” I personally won’t settle for the type of sun we see in Edinburgh, one that weakly trickles through the grey clouds and fails to provide any sort of warmth, let alone an opportunity to wear any less than five layers. My friend considered us lucky to see any sun at all. You can tell which of us is from Southern California and which is from England. We shall have to agree to disagree and I, in the meantime, will just run away to warm countries.

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But I digress. So off we were to Marrakesh, not really knowing what to expect. I was excited just to set foot in the African continent. I eventually want to travel all throughout Central and Southern Africa, but this was a very promising start. After a couple flights (with a stop in Luton for Man Ho!) we arrived at the airport in Marrakesh, and stood in the longest passport control line either us of had ever been in. In planning for the trip, we had found a riad to stay in called Dar Musique. Riads are a popular form of accommodation in Morocco, usually featuring an open-air courtyard and with rooms for several guests. Dar Musique was owned by an English woman who was currently traveling, and we were lucky enough to have the entire place to ourselves, with the exceptions of two servants, whom I will get to later.

Part of our accommodation arrangement was transport from the airport to the riad with a trusted and very friendly taxi driver named Amib. He spoke very little English and our French was the equivalent to that of a third-grader in a French class (French is the second most common language in Morocco). Ok, to be fair, my French was (and is) practically non-existent despite our stay in Paris and it was Jonathan who was up to a school boy level (and he improved along the trip, to his credit). Amib and Jonathan carried out a few brief conversations that meandered through both languages

We arrived inside the pink walls that surround the city and to a narrow dirt street that Amib stopped in front of. One of the servants of Dar Musique was there to greet us and guide us to the riad. His name was Ab and later we found out his official title was “Guardian of the House.” Every day he wore a leather jacket, a t-shirt, and blue jeans. He was sweet and very soft-spoken and was always extremely polite. As he welcomed us to Marrakesh and started to unload our bags from the taxi, I had my first local interaction. A tiny beggar woman, wrapped in dark blue traditional garb, approached me and started mumbling in Arabic. Her face was lined with thousands of wrinkles and her eyes were large and dark, seeming out of place peering out from within the shriveled form of the rest of her body. She clutched at me, asking for money. She took my hand in her own tiny hands and lifted it to her mouth, kissing it and begging more in Arabic. I was too transfixed to react at all, plus I didn’t have any coins, nor did I know whether it was customary to encourage begging. But Amib pulled out a few coins and gave them to her, provoking a flurry of thanks in Arabic from her. By this time, Ab had collected our bags and started to lead us into the depths of the maze that is Marrakesh.

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Before I continue about our own experiences in the city, I feel I must explain the layout of Marrakesh. It makes much of the environment what it is and provides both a fascinating and intimidating atmosphere to strangers. Within the heart of the city are souqs. These are marketplaces that line twisting, confusing, and mysterious alleyways. The alleyways (for lack of a better term….they are main road within the souqs, but incredibly narrow) have lamps, arches, doorways, and some even have roofs. At times, it can feel like one is walking within a winding hallway of someone’s house. There are different souqs for featured objects for sale, such as the shoe souq, the cloth souq, the hat souq, etc. The poorer parts of town (where most of the locals live) are uncovered and lined with fruit stands and many dark, dodgy alleys. Walking through the souqs was a bit unnerving as they were jammed pack with locals and tourists, vendors shouting, trying to sell their wares, young men on motorcycles who were constantly threatening to run people over, and the occasional donkey cart. However, as Ab led us to our riad on the first day, we were unaware of all this, and just followed him through the maze.

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Dar Musique was in an ideal location. We were just right outside the souqs, which was not only convenient, but also forced us to learn our way around them. But first…the riad itself. It was amazing….I don’t think either of us could have asked for anything better. We followed Ab through an unassuming door in a wall and suddenly we were in a tiled open courtyard with a basin full of water and rose petals in the center. Each side was surrounded by two stories of beautiful rooms, each decorated uniquely and with incredible style. As we were the only ones staying there, all the doors were open and inviting. We spent time in the smoking room, where we drank mint tea, in an open-air hallway on the second floor with sofas shaped like flowers and spirals, and of course, the roof garden.

Soaking up the sun on the roof was wonderful, just laying on cushioned reclining chairs, listening to birds twitter, young children play, and the haunting call to prayer that was broadcast over the city five times a day. Our room was also fantastic, with a giant bed, a four foot heater I couldn’t stay away from (with the result of several painful, albeit slightly humorous and waffle-shaped burns), and many other quintessentially Moroccan embellishments like cushions and carved wooden dressers. Our room was adjoined to the common bathroom (which we didn’t have to share with anyone…fantastic!), a remarkable display of interior design in and of itself. The floor was tiled with deep blue mosaics and the walls painted a purplish hue. The appliances and furniture was painted gold and shone from within the dark room. So we weren’t exactly roughing it as backpackers in a hostel, but I don’t believe that is the only way to travel on a budget anyway. Dar Musique was actually quite affordable and gave us a place to unwind and relax after spending time in the marketplaces, which could be pretty stressful. I would do it all over again and hopefully one day will have a chance to.

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After admiring our wonderful riad, we struck out into the souqs themselves. Each winding alley and open plaza was packed with hawkers and merchants, each in front of their wares, keeping a sharp eye on the tourists. It seemed that every seller knew how to say “hello” and “buy my things” in about five different languages and the souqs echoed with calls and offers. It was in these marketplaces that I quickly learned how to behave and respond in this foreign environment. One’s natural inclination as a tourist is to gawk and stare with wide-eyed wonder at new sights and people. I try to tone this down while I’m traveling, but I still love to soak everything in with a smile and curiosity across my face. However, this is exactly what the hawkers in Marrakesh prey on. If you look just a teeny tiny bit interested in anything they have, they will jump on you and corner you into buying something.

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My first experience with this was when Jonathan and I were walking across one of the plazas, and a woman, like many others in marketplace, was sitting on the ground with henna paste and book of designs. She caught my eye because her hijab (head covering) was very colorful and her charcoal-lined eyes peered out soulfully. I looked at her once-she saw me- and then after we had passed, turned around and looked at her again. Big mistake. One look is usually taken as ample permission and the second definitely sealed my fate. Not missing a beat, she quickly got up and scurried through the crowd to me. Once she reached us, she took my hand and starting talking. She said she liked my eyes (which I found ironic, since it was hers that caught my attention) and that she was going to draw henna on me as a gift. Henna paste tube poised, she hovered above my hand, and even though I politely declined, she started drawing anyway. I looked at Jonathan, but neither of us really knew what to do, and since I did kind of want henna anyway, I let her go ahead. She drew a flower with many embellishments and swirls across my hand and while she drew she talked.

“This is good luck, for good baby with husband,” she said, motioning to Jonathan. He and I exchanged a scared look with each other and tried not to laugh out loud. Once she finished on my hand, she immediately started on Jonathan forearm, drawing a scorpion (“for strength”). The whole time she kept saying it was a gift and we could come back later and buy another henna design. However, the second she finished, she held out her own henna-covered hand.

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“300 dinars.” (roughly $35) she said, waiting. Jonathan and I exchanged what would be the first of many telepathic what-do-you-think-of-that-price looks. He offered 100 instead (haggling rule for Morocco: cut the initial price in thirds and work from there); she came down only a tiny bit and eventually we agreed on 200 dinars. Once we paid and the woman had scuttled off, I felt like I had been tricked. I just thought that woman looked interesting; she came over and pretended to like us for the sake of money. Welcome to the souqs. 

In our time in Marrakesh, we found only a very select few of locals who were actually interested in conversing just because they wanted to talk or get to know us. The whole environment was very mercenary and I felt like I had to be on my guard the entire time. I could no longer smile and stare, but instead look straight ahead and completely uninterested in everything around me while taking peeks out of the corners of my eyes. It was very unlike my normal personality and was actually quite stressful at first. By the end of our five-day trip, I was so hardened that when a local man tapped my on the shoulder in the souqs, I turned around and immediately said “no thank you” only to find he had just picked up something I had dropped.

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This is not to say that our time was not enjoyable. Quite the contrary, once we had learned how to act and what to expect from the locals, wandering through the streets of Marrakesh was a fascinating adventure. One of the sights that stuck out in my mind was of cages that occasionally were stacked up in front of little stores. Inside the cages were varieties of chameleons, miniature tortoises, and desert lizards. The cages were bare except for the animals, a few pieces of lettuce, and in some, wads of cotton. In a couple of the cages, I noticed that a few of the reptiles were dead, looking sad and forsaken. I felt really bad for the creatures and thought they were being sold as pets. However, after going into one of the little stores and being presented with powder made by crushed chameleon, I realized that the animals were being stored as medicinal and cosmetic ingredients. It was a little off-putting and sad to come to that realization…but a fascinating snippet of culture.

We finished up our busy first day in Jamaa el Fna, the giant plaza in the middle or town that was completely bare during the day, but at night filled up with juice vendors, street performers, story tellers, and literally hundreds of chefs and hawkers trying to sell tourists dinner out of their carts. Jonathan and I stopped by a juice cart for a freshly squeezed glass of orange and grapefruit juice. As the vendor was pouring our glasses, he tried to distract us by pointing and yelling at someone a few yards away. At the same time, he reached up and flipped up the sign that marked each glass at 3 dinars, so that he could overcharge us. Luckily for us, we happened to be watching him and called him out on it. Attempted deception aside, the juice was the best I’ve ever had, even though it was pulpy enough to chew….which is incredible because I hate pulp. Dinner was at one of the chef’s tents, where although we did have to haggle the price and call out of the waiter/hawker on trying to overcharge us (despite a marked menu!), the food was delicious. Then a calculating navigation back through the souqs and we slipped into the quiet oasis of our riad.

(to be continued....)

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