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

From March 2009: Marrkesh, Morocco

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Our first morning in Marrakech started out very relaxing. Ab and the other employee at Dar Musique (a quiet, nice woman whose name I can’t remember) served us a traditional Moroccan breakfast (some amazing crispy pancake type things) and then we spent time just relaxing in the sun. Ab offered to give us a tour around the souqs and so the three of us headed out into the heart of the markets.

He first took us to a little store (by stores, I mean holes in the walls with goods…literally) that sold scarves. The man there took us around the back and showed us cups full of powdered dyes that he used to stain the silk scarves. He would hold up each cup of powder, take a little in his fingers, and smear it across newspaper to display the vibrant colors that seeped forth. He also pointed out the difference between dyed scarves that leak and fade when they get wet and those that are better quality and don’t (this tip came in handy later). Then he took a rich deep blue scarf-the color of the Berber tribesmen garbs- and wrapped it around Jonathan’s head in traditional desert style.

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Of course, our mini-tour of the man’s profession ended in his store where it was more than obvious that we now were supposed to buy something. Luckily, this was fine by me because they were beautiful, well-made scarves. I bought several delicate, hand-woven silk scarves and Jonathan decided he liked the blue one that had been put on him. From there we had to haggle , though Ab helped us out in some quick-spoken Arabic.

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Happy with our purchases, we followed Ab through the souqs to Mederssa Ben Youssef, a 14th century university. It was a large building, with pillared hallways, hundreds of small rooms used for student housing, and a beautiful courtyard with a tiled pool. The university was an architectural and artistic masterpiece, with highly detailed cravings covering almost every surface of the courtyard and walls. 

Ab guided us around a bit longer then took us back to the riad where Jonathan and I relaxed for a bit then headed out again on our own. We crossed Jamaa el Fna and headed towards the looming mosque where the calls to prayers originated. A large street lay in front of it and half of the adventure was trying to cross. Traffic that zoomed past us consisted of everything from cars and buses to horse-drawn carriages and donkey carts. There was no crosswalk and though there were lights for the vehicles, only about half actually stopped for them. We looked to other pedestrians for guidance on how to cross and determined that the most common method was the run-for-your-life-in-a-zig-zag-fashion technique. So that we did and amazingly made it to the other side safely.

We could only wander around the mosque since we weren’t allowed inside because we are not Muslim. But we could peek through the door and marvel at the high ceilings, richly tiled floors and enormous columns inside. As the sun set, the outside of the mosque lit up with a soft orange glow

On our way back to the marketplace, Jonathan took out his video camera and held it at waist level as we walked, subtly recording all the activity in the marketplace at night. We stopped by a couple street dancers in passing and in the one minute we had been standing there, one of the performers spotted the camera, stopped dancing, came over and held his hat out. I dropped in a few coins and he continued on, as did we. It was still incredible to me that money took priority over quality, fairness, or common courtesy. We were once again reinforced with this mentality only a few minutes later.

Jonathan and I were walking across another large corner of the marketplace when a man with a trained monkey on his shoulder came up to us and started talking, asking us where we were from, etc. Jonathan wisely ignored him and so, while still walking next to us, the man turned to me and put out his hand. I instinctively put out mine as well to shake his(bad idea). He grabbed it and held tight and then led the monkey across his arm and onto mine. It climbed up to the shoulder, practically on my head.

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Now don’t get me wrong. I love animals and monkeys are awesome. But a large, possibly disease-ridden monkey that is angry and mean because he’s been yanked around by a chain his whole life is not exactly what I want on my head. We stopped walking and I stiffened as the man adjusted the monkey on me. Then he turned to Jonathan and told him to take a picture. Jonathan refused because we knew we would have to pay for it and all we had were a few 2 dinar coins. Plus, neither of us really wanted to support the harassing monkey man. But the man kept demanding and wouldn’t take the monkey off until Jonathan had quickly pulled out his camera and snapped a picture. Then the man stood there and told him to take another one. Both of us adamantly refused until the man reluctantly pulled his monkey off. Then he stood there with his hand open. I took out the coins and put them in his palm. He looked at them with absolute disgust.

“This is nothing!!” he exclaimed, pinching his fingers together and waving them around in a very Italian-like fashion. “I can't even buy a cigarette with this!”

Jonathan and I shrugged and told him that was we had, so basically too bad. Attracted by the commotion, another monkey man had come up and joined us, also yelling about how little we had paid.

“Look!” The first man said, pointing to the second. “You got two monkeys!” Annoyed even more by the fact that now both men were expecting payment, Jonathan and I hardened and told them that they either got those two coins or nothing at all. Grumbling, and probably cursing us in Arabic, the men examined the coins again and stomped off with them. This was probably our most negative experience in Morocco, but I did later derive great amusement by periodically and randomly waving my fingers at Jonathan and exclaiming “This is nothing!” in my best Arabic accent.

Ending our day with dinner on a terrace restaurant above Jamaa el Fna, I took in the sounds of the Marrakech marketplace. Snake charmers hawking excitedly to tourists, storytellers talking to large crowds, monkeys screeching, chefs and waiters yelling at one another, and above it all, a lone flute whose tune reached through the smoke and chaos of the night to my open ears.

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(Note: This restaurant from which this picture was taken has since tragically been destroyed by a terrorist bombing in April, 2011. Details here.)

The next day, we had arranged for Amib, the friendly taxi driver who met us at the airport, to take us up into the Atlas Mountains. We both enjoyed Amib’s company and found him to be trustworthy and so were excited to have him show us around the mountains. As we drove out of the pink walls of Marrakech and Jonathan practiced his French with Amib, I was impressed by the common sight of single motorcycles that had a man, woman, and several kids all perched on top of them.

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Amib continued on the road up into the mountains and I mentioned that I had heard we might be able to ride camels in the mountains. He confirmed this and quoted a decent price to do so at. Soon enough, we stopped in a pullout where a man stood with several camels and a small pony. Excited, we exchanged greetings and the man led a large white camel up to me. He had it sit on the ground and then motioned for me to hop on. This is easier said than done, because hump aside, the camels also wore padding that added at least an extra foot. But I managed to get on and not fall off while the camel stood up (also tricky). Jonathan mounted his camel and the man tied his camel to the back of mine, then led my camel down the road.

It was a very mild ride, but a lot of fun. The camels took a lot of concentration and clenching of thigh muscles to ride. Eventually, I would like to do a multi-day ride across the desert with a camel, but our half-hour ride was a good introduction of what to expect. When we dismounted, I requested a picture with my camel, so camel owner made it sit down and had me stand next to it. My camel was apparently not thrilled with this, because as Jonathan kneeled across from it to take the picture, it spit on him. Yay! My favorite part. Plus, it made the camel feel much better.

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Before we left, the man gave us the price for our ride, but Amib very kindly cut in and mentioned that he had already told us to expect a lower price. So the man lowered his price and we appreciated Amib even more. 

We continued on the road to two more spots, a Berber household that had tourists pay to come inside and watch them just live….(it was kind of awkward) and a mill where women sat grounding nuts to make edible oils and oil-based cosmetics. At the household, a bought a small Berber mask for my collection and proved how much of a failure I am at haggling. I asked the man how much it was and after short consideration, agreed to buy it. Jonathan whispered to me, “You forgot to haggle!” Simply buying something without haggling in Marrakesh does tend to lose you some respect from the merchant.

As the man was wrapping the mask, I asked again how much it was.

“250 dinars.” He said.

“….um…200?” I asked meekly. I looked at me for a second then said again flatly, “250.”

“I…uh…don’t know if I have that much,” I pathetically said, gazing into my wallet.

“250.” He repeated, sensing how bad I truly was at this.

“Ok,” I said and gave him the money. There are some battles that need not be fought (especially when one is ill-equipped to fight), and unlike the monkey men, I was happy to support these people. But from then on, I made Jonathan haggle for every purchase.

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From there we drove us a little further, through a small town, and to the end of the road. We decided to turn around and head back to Marrakech. On the way down, we passed through another village where people were fully painted, dressed in furs, and running around the road. Amib explained that it was some kind of festival. The people surrounded the car and asked for payment of passage. Amib paid them and one posed outside of my window for a picture.

After about an hour of driving, we were back into Marrakech. On the whole, a very generous tip included, our five hour taxi ride/guided tour only cost us $75. That is the one thing about Morocco….even if the people there overcharge you (not that Amib did), everything is still very cheap.

On our last full day, Jonathan and I once again enjoyed the roof garden and then headed out into the souqs. I had previously bought a djellaba, the woman’s traditional garb, while in the souqs, and so decided to wear that today.

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I found locals to be very complimentary about it as store keepers would throw out a friendly-toned “nice djellaba” as we passed. We stopped in one small store that sold scarves as I had decided I wanted a deep blue scarf like Jonathan bought. The store had one, as well as fez hats, which I wanted to get for friends back home. The man was extremely friendly and did not pressure us to buy anything. He commented on the good quality of my djellaba, wrapped one of the scarves around my head in traditional manner, asked if I was Moroccan, and even invited us to have mint tea with him. He also gave me a key chain as a gift (a real one) after I had purchased everything. His manner was very sincere and unobtrusive, which was such a wonderful change. 

Later, we made our way back to Jamaa el Fna where Jonathan decided he wanted to be adventurous. In the marketplace, across from the juice stands, are steamed snail vendors. They are tents set up with three high tables and a man in the middle, steaming live snails in a giant pot, then passing them out in bowls. Unlike escargot, the snails are prepared with absolutely no seasoning. They are steamed in their shells and then their soft little bodies are picked out with toothpicks and eaten whole. These vendors only had locals at them

.….Except for the one that Jonathan and I stood at, where he ordered his 3 dinar (so cheap because it’s not aimed at tourists) bowl of snails. Slowly, he shifted through the shells until he found just the right one. Then, with a mighty gulp, it was gone. Deeming it not terrible, he offered me one. It is in these sorts of travel experiences that you just cannot decline certain opportunities. So I stared the little snail right in its eye stalks and swallowed it whole. While chewing was definitely out of the question, swallowing whole was also questionable as I swore I could feel the thing clinging to the inside of my throat for the next hour. Admittedly, it was not extremely horrible, but very briny. That was my only snail, but Jonathan bravely took on the bowl with determination. We had only been at the snail vendor for a short time when we heard an English accent behind us.

“Excuse me. Are those good?” We turned to find an elderly English gentleman, standing there eyeing the snails. “I wanted to try one, but you were the only tourists eating them. And I figured, if that bloke can do it, so can I.”

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We greeted him warmly and invited him to dine on snails with us. He bought a bowl and eagerly joined us. We sat there for a while with gentleman, whose name was also John, and he told us all about his travels and own experiences in Morocco. Apparently he had been ripped off into having to pay someone who also considered his offering not enough to buy a cigarette with. John told the man that he shouldn’t be smoking anyway. Ah, the English.

And with that last night, our Morocco adventure wound down to a close. Ab and the woman at our riad made us dinner from the market, giving us a wonderful candle-lit meal, complete with sprinkled rose petals on the table. The next day we headed back and parted ways in London… Jonathan back to the US and I, off to take my exam.

Marrakech is so far the most foreign, nerve-wracking, incredible, and rich place I have been too. It was truly an insight into another world and a different culture. There are many details I must leave out as this blog is long enough, but all my time there was unforgettable. Thank you for reading, and I hope one day, you too can experience Morocco.

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