Take me to Marrakesh

The bus ride from Oulad Teima, where we’d just completed a volunteering assignment, to Marrakesh was rather pleasant and scenic. The monotony of the chanting sounds the driver played on his speakers for nearly the duration of the trip was compensated for and colored by the friendly young woman across the aisle from us who told us about tourist attractions, and even showed us photos on her phone.

When we arrived, we had only about a mile to walk to our lodgings for the next three nights. Our trek took us through the modern part of the city, complete with McDonald’s, KFC and an affiliate of Bank Of America – since the latter is one of our banks, we stopped and withdrew a few dirhams without having to pay a hefty ATM fee.

The part of the city where we were headed was a different matter altogether. It’s the oldest part of town, dating back to the 13th century or so, a walled fortress-like sector, a medieval city within a city. As soon as we walked through the arched portal in the wall, we felt as if we’d stepped into a Disney movie about a fairy tale. (There was even a Story Telling cafe – closed, alas – capitalizing on the architectural associations with Aladdin.) The streets were a maze of narrow passageways, often too narrow even to qualify as alleys, lined with shops, stalls, cramped dwellings and amazing, colorful sights. For some reason we couldn’t quite fathom, men at several locations were stretching string along the walls for lengths of about 100 feet or so. We gathered that it was a ritual pertaining to Ramadan, or at least to Islam.

The place where we were staying, booked through Airbnb, was also an antique gem. It was a riad, a building constructed originally as a spacious home, with rooms on several floors around an open-air center. The ground floor, which was living room, dining room and courtyard, also had a kitchen that we were able to use. And there was a rooftop where we could hang our laundry and indulge in yoga and kung fu.

Our room itself was a classic, from the arched doorway within a larger door – only the smaller entry would open, so we had to stoop to enter – to the grated window that opened onto the central hub, the tiled floor, the rustic wooden furniture and the brass/ brass-painted trim. The only problems were that the room was rather dimly lit (which actually contributed to its storybook atmosphere, even though it made flashlights necessary for reading) and the door had no latch on the inside, so we had to improvise something with a belt.

After checking in and dropping off our gear, we headed out to shop for groceries. Many things, of course, we could buy from produce stands all over the neighborhood. But for other items, like coffee and shampoo, we made our way to Carrefour, a chain of megamarkets we’d encountered in Europe. This one was in a mall, and so once again we were subjected to the mall curse – we’ve visited a mall in every country we’ve been in. This one even had a Burger King. While we were there, we took a look at some of the other stores; it was rather interesting because there was a Japanese influence suffusing the entire venue. In fact, there was a little Japanese-style parlor where you could get your feet massaged, in a fashion, by sticking them into a fish tank and letting the fish nibble on them. Gotta try that one of these days.

En route, we passed a few camels that were saddled up, or waiting to be saddled up. We’d really like to ride one, but when we do, we want it to be in the Sahara Desert to get the authentic camelization experience. Actually, we’d had an opportunity that would have allowed us to do just that – and on this very day. The director of the school where we’d next be volunteering frequently organizes weekend outings for his volunteers. And on this weekend, they were taking an expedition to the Sahara. He had contacted us and invited us to come along, and we’d very seriously considered it. But because of a number of factors, including not being familiar with him and the other volunteers yet, the cost, and the fact that we’d already made arrangements to explore Marrakesh, we reluctantly turned down the invitation, hoping that we’d get another one like it in the near future.

As we were walking down the street in our neighborhood on the way home, we passed by two men who were yelling at each other and, it appeared, about to break out into fisticuffs. And from what we gathered, it was over some very trivial matter. As we paused a second to look on in concern, a bystander who spoke good English commented to us, “don’t worry, they’ll work it out. They’re just tense because they’ve been fasting for Ramadan.” So we gathered. How exactly is this supposed to be a good thing?

Back at our digs, we learned to cook dinner very early and save it until we needed it, or we’d have to wait until 7:30 or so to start. Because the staff who lived there began cooking around 6:00, preparing a lavish feast to end their daily hunger strike, and taking up pretty much the entire kitchen. In fact, they felt they were entitled to take up the entire kitchen, simply because they were desperate to get food into their bellies – they explicitly told us that we’d have to wait until they were done to do our own cooking. (This reflects an attitude that is, alas, all too common all over the world: “I have certain religious beliefs and practices, so you need to adjust your life accordingly.”)

But other than that, everyone there was very friendly and agreeable. When they had messaged us before our arrival to give us directions, they told us to be wary of boys in the neighborhood who spot travelers coming in to spend the night and offer to give them directions to their lodgings – with the expectation of being paid, of course; and they often will guide visitors on a long, circuitous route to make the distance seem much greater than it is – and thereby get more money for their services. We didn’t encounter any such lads on the way to check in, but two of them targeted us once when we were going home. By that time, we knew the way reasonably well (“reasonably” because the labyrinthine layout was indeed quite confusing.) So we told them no thank you, we knew where we were going; but they tagged along anyway and then asked for money for “helping” us. We told them goodbye, and they left grumbling.

And they aren’t the only hustlers and huckster in Marrakesh to look out for. Once, when we were walking along a bustling street (one of the wider ones) a man rushed up with a grin, and said, “Hi, remember me? I’m Mohamed, your taxi driver from the airport.” For a moment, we actually bit. His act was very convincing, and our memories about all the drivers who’d picked us up had all blurred together like melted ice cream – and in Morocco you can’t throw an olive pit without hitting someone named Mohamed. But then we remembered something.

“But we flew into Agadir”, we told him. And without missing a beat, he replied, “Yes, I picked you up in Agadir.” Damn, he was good. So good, it took us a minute or two two realize that Agadir was 300 miles away, so the odds of this guy in Marrakesh picking us up at the airport in Agadir were incredibly slim. In fact, it wasn’t until later that we recalled that we did not even catch a taxi in Agadir (and, for that matter, in most other places); our Airbnb host picked us up. And his name was Rachid, not Mohamed.

Anyway, “Mohamed’s” spiel was to introduce his marks to a friend of his who just happened to be passing by, and who’d generously offer to take them on a tour of a tannery. For some reason, tanneries seem to be a popular draw in Marrakesh. They don’t appeal to us at all; why should we take any pleasure in walking among the smelly hides of a bunch of dead beasts? We even peeked into one as we strolled past, and both the view and the stench confirmed our suspicions. So we ditched out on this friend of “Mohamed”, and went on our merry way.

The next day, we heard from a couple of people that the mosques in town, or at least some of them, were open to visitors with no charge or restrictions (except for observation of proper decorum, of course). So we sought out one we had noticed that piqued our interest. It was not exactly entirely open as such, but you could peek into an open window to view the interior. There were also some informative plaques in the courtyard, as well as a dozen or so blind beggars. By the way, we were a bit taken aback by how motorcycles occasionally zoomed into the courtyard, right through the gate where the security guard seemed to think nothing of it.

As we were reading the plaques, another smooth-talking fellow who spoke good English approached us and struck up a conversation. He introduced himself as Ali, and claimed to be a student (a popular claim, we’ve learned, for hustlers who are youngish-looking). He began telling us some things about the mosque, giving the impression that he had some connection to it. Then he invited us to drop into a nearby “Berber center”, which was open “only today”. Since we’d been intrigued by what glimpses of Berber culture we’d already been privy to, we decided to take him up on it. As we were leaving, he made a comment to a friend of his nearby (who presumably was also working the crowd), and we heard him say the magic word “American”.

Well, to make a long walk short, this “Berber center” was not connected to the mosque, nor was it even adjacent to the mosque. It was a good hundred yards away. And when he ushered us inside, it turned out to be… a gift shop. Rather high-priced gifts, it appeared, such as silverwork and carpets, but just a gift shop – and it was definitely not just “open today”. As the owner of the shop came out to greet us, “Ali” hastily disappeared, no doubt to ferret out his next tourist to steer in this direction in return for a kickback. Disappointed and disgusted, we walked out too. “Wait”, the owner said, “what are you looking for?” As if he honestly believed we’d knowingly entered his shop to browse.

Now let us make it clear that these two fellows, and possibly another man we met in Oulad Teima, are the only individuals who used such deceptive tactics on us; you cross the paths of plenty of hustlers, of course, but normally they make it quite obvious that they are trying to sell you something. But this tactic of pretending to befriend us was, at this point, something we’d been exposed to only in Morocco. (We’d later encounter it once in Turkey, and – we think – in India.) So forever after, we would refer to this approach as trying to “Morocco” us. And let’s also emphasize that the vast majority of Moroccans we encountered were genuinely friendly, generous and helpful, and not just seeking a profit.

Once, while strolling past the stalls in the narrow alleys/ streets in our neighborhood, we passed a man who was practicing the most fascinating craft of hand-carving chess pieces. Or maybe we should say foot-carving them. He cranked a rudimentary lathe with his foot, turning a piece of wood which he shaped with a chisel he held in his hand. We stood watching him from a few feet away, and Kimberly pulled out her camera and waited for an opportune moment to sneak in a candid shot or two. But he motioned for her to step forward, and take all the photos she wanted.

Then he took a fresh piece of wood and, before our eyes, created a special wooden trinket that resembled a chess piece, yet wasn’t exactly. And he punched a hole in one end, ran a string through it, and handed it to her to keep. We asked him how much he wanted for it, and he replied something like, “whatever you want to give”. So we handed him 10 dirhams, and he seemed as pleased as we were. Naturally, we’d realized when he invited us to take photos that he’d be expecting some cash. But we had no objection to paying a little for such an experience, especially when we got a unique souvenir out of it. And for the equivalent of only a dollar, it was all quite a bargain.

As far as tourist attractions, we steered clear of them. This was our first time to visit Marrakesh, and we were only there for 3 nights and 2 days, so we wanted to pass all of that time just walking around and taking in the sensual feast of the whole place, rather than spending our hard-earned dirhams to go where all the tourists go.

But we were rather intrigued by the Royal Palace, which we just might have to go inside the next time we’re in town. This time, we were content merely to marvel at the storks that make their nest atop it. The palace is guarded by sentries apparently representing a variety of police, military and/ or paramilitary units, because they were wearing a variety of colorful costumes – oops, uniforms.

Having completed our all-too-brief introduction to the storybook city of Marrakesh, we begun packing up to make our way to the next volunteer post. We weren’t sure whether to hum “Marrakesh Express” or “As Time Goes By”; but we were catching a train from Marrakesh to Casablanca.

Not just any ole birds – these are storks who have taken up residence on a royal palace

April 23-25, 2022

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