The four of us were squeezed into the back of a faded yellow Mercedes taxi with Meagan sitting in the front with the driver. As we swerved through an opening in the high-standing red walls that separated the old city from the new (giving it the nickname the “red city”), the scenery transformed from the dull, sprawling highways, characteristic of any city, to the chaotic sort of excitement and life that radiated from every corner of Marrakech. There was a certain kind of energy to the city, which I hadn’t felt since the last time I was in India. We had no idea what to expect from this adventure, but one thing was certain: we were definitely not in Europe anymore.
The first thing that amazed me upon arrival in Morocco was the spoken language, or I should say languages, for most of the people I met in Marrakech were not only bilingual, fluent in Arabic and French, but also spoke English and Spanish. The conversation with the cab driver, on the way into the city, was the most multilingual conversation I have ever heard. There were several times when a sentence started off in English, switched to French, morphed into Spanish and ended in Arabic, at which point I was completely lost. Between my knowledge of conversational Spanish and my even feebler knowledge of French, which I was desperately trying to recall from high school, I felt woefully incompetent in comparison.
We were let out of the taxi just by the Jemaa el-Fnaa, one of the most well-know squares in Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the time we arrived most of the shops were not fully open and the square was quiet. We would soon find out that this emptiness of the square was in fact a rarity. The next time we crossed through it, it was overflowing with crowds of people. The square becomes home to carts of oranges and dried fruit, snake charmers and monkey trainers, henna artists, wandering salesmen with bangles and small wooden camels, and pickpockets and beggars alike. There is a light golden brown tint to the sky that reminds you of being in a desert and so many sounds and motions coming from every direction that it is impossible to mistake this place for a more refined European city square. And I am absolutely in love with it.
Marrakech is a mess of unlabeled, meandering streets that turn into short tunnels and marketplaces, known as souks, scattered about. The city is home to the largest of these traditional Berber markets in Morocco, which writer Paul Sullivan describes as “a honeycomb of intricately connected alleyways, this fundamental section of the old city is a micro-medina in itself, comprising a dizzying number of stalls and shops that range from itsy kiosks no bigger than an elf’s wardrobe to scruffy store-fronts that morph into glittering Aladdin’s caves once you’re inside” (148). The narrow roads are often cramped, teaming with people, merchandise spilling outside their shops, carts drawn by donkeys carrying everything from blankets to produce to people, and motorcycles speeding through the crowds, darting in and out through the cracks of open space. Leaping out of the way in surprise, as a motorcycle skimmed by us, was probably one of the first things that gave us away as tourists, followed very closely by our asking for directions to the address of our hostel.
Looking for our hostel, we made the first mistake of a tourist in Morocco. We asked directions from someone who was standing around on the street, whose job, we soon realized, was to act as a walking GPS for tourists and show them to the places they were looking for in exchange for no previously set upon sum of money. It was while walking the city with our temporary guide we realized that our own overwhelming confusion of how to navigate the city was shared even by the locals. At every corner the man leading us would ask someone for directions, and that person would point him on in the general direction, instructing him to ask again a few blocks down. The system worked in the end. People knew their own small areas well enough to be able to send us a bit further on towards our destination.
When we finally arrived at our hostel, however, our growing suspicion was confirmed, that the man, whom we had at first thought to be so kind and helpful for showing us the way personally, was only doing it for money. Janina and I had converted some euros into dirham at the airport, but since the cab driver had accepted euros for payment, we hadn’t had a chance to break the money. All of the bills were in 200s, which is approximately twenty euros, far too much to give away so freely in Morocco where a full three-course meal at a more expensive restaurant cost around fifty or sixty dirham. We gave him a few spare euros we had on us and hurriedly rang the doorbell to our hostel. The man who met us at the door ushered us inside and handled the situation with the displeased guide, finally sending him on his way. Inside, the man who ran the hostel explained to us that those sorts of guides will always make it seem as though they are just trying to be helpful with no expectations of reward, often going so far as to say the directions are free, but to be wise when accepting their help, no matter how pushy they are, because they will always expect payment upon arrival of the destination. For that reason, he suggested, we should always try to carry spare coins in case we get lost, or if we have no money, enter one of the shops and ask the store keeper for directions instead of someone sitting by the side of the road.
By this point it was late in the afternoon and we were all famished. We hoped to check into the hostel quickly and then leave in search of somewhere to get lunch. While we were waiting, a tray with a beautiful silver teapot and five small glass cups was brought over to us. We were each poured a delicious cup of Moroccan mint tea, which helped to temporarily draw our minds away from food. Unfortunately, when the man checking us in returned to the room he informed us that the hostel has two locations in Marrakech and that we were booked to stay at the other location. After we had finished our tea, the man brought us to the hostel we would be staying at, which turned out to be a better location than the previous place. We were now only a few minutes walk from the main square and several souks.
Again, while being checked in by the new hostel man, we were served a pot of Moroccan tea. We were beginning to realize that this is a customary form of Moroccan hospitality, and we certainly liked it. Once Janina and I paid for the hostel we ran up to our room to drop off our things. It was a beautiful room with its own private bathroom. There were two beds with simple but pretty bed spreads and two open windows with wooden shutters that could be draw together and latched to keep out a draft. The windows looked out into the open courtyard around which the rest of the building seemed to be built. There was a tree that shot up through the center and drew our attention to the clear plastic covering that ran from rooftop edges of one side of the courtyard to the other, serving as a protection from the rain among other things. It was a beautiful hostel, if you could really even call it that; so much nicer than grabbing an available bunk in a room full of cheap old bunk beds occupied by ten people you’ve never met before.
The man who checked us in was named Samiro. He gave us a map of the city and circled all of the main sites that we should see as well as a few areas where we could find some delicious Moroccan food. We set off in search of food first, and after wandering around a bit, we finally found the grouping of restaurants that he had suggested. We ordered three different types of Tajine to split between us. Each one arrived in its own decorative pot that was still steaming. Tajine is a traditional North African dish of vegetables, often with meat or fish, slow-cooked in a Tajine pot, which is where it gets its name. The food was delicious, and split between the five of us, very inexpensive.
Outside the restaurants, hired men stood by waiting for tourists to show interest in one of the restaurants or shops so they could start their spiel about how this particular restaurant served the best and most traditional Moroccan cuisine for the cheapest price or that shop had the finest scarves in all of Marrakech. Somehow, on our way out, we ended up being drawn in by one of these men who was advertising for a spa that was just above the restaurants. We decided to have a look, and followed him inside. We sat down and were immediately served a pot of tea. Then the man who owned the spa came over to us. He was middle aged, heavy set and had the warmest smile. He told us how he and his wife had moved to Marrakech from France five years ago and had started this spa. His wife had studied to be a doctor, he told us, so they put the upmost attention into the cleanliness of the facility and processes they offered. After speaking with the man for at least half an hour we decided to all sign up for a night of pampering that included a hammam, which is a massage, and a complimentary free manicure or pedicure. The best part was that it would cost only roughly the equivalent of twenty euros.
On our way out, the man asked us if we had tried Tajine yet. When we told him about the restaurant we had just been to, and how amazing we thought it was, he shook his head and explained to us that most restaurants in the area do not make authentic Tajine. The true dish takes a minimum of four hours to cook with all of the ingredients simmering together during the entire cooking process. Most restaurants cook the vegetables and meat separately and then throw them together when serving the dish. There was a place, however, just around the corner, that only locals went to where the authentic Tajine was served. This restaurant begins cooking around nine in the morning and serving at one in the afternoon. Once all of the food runs out, they shut down for the day. The man told us that if we were interested in eating there, we need only to come by the spa and let him know, and he would gladly show us the way. It was an offer we definitely intended to take him up on.
As we left the spa we realized that it had started to rain. In a country that only experiences rainfall a handful of days out of the year, of course we chose the weekend that coincided with that handful. It was almost eight o’clock and already dark out, but none of us wanted to turn in just yet. As we walked down the main road we were on, we came across a hookah bar. It seemed a traditional Moroccan experience and so we went in. We sat in a corner of a tall open room. The lights were dim, and there was a large, colorful glass lamp that hung from the ceiling. We sat around the table where the large hookah was placed and played several games of cards while laughing and talking. It was cold inside the building, so we curled up under soft blankets that were placed on the ends of the benches where we were sitting. Later in the night several of the people who worked at the hookah bar came over and joined us. They brought out instruments and started to play Moroccan folk songs, and we nodded our heads and clapped along. A few more people came in and joined our group to be entertained by the music. It was all a lot of fun, but as the night drew on we realized we should start heading back to our hostel, if we still planned on rising early the following day.
The rain had increased to a downpour while we had been inside, and none of us had an umbrella. Luckily, before we had left our hostel, Janina had given her “What’s Up” contact to Samiro in case we got lost and needed to get directions. He messaged us offering to come get us and bring us an umbrella, which we eagerly accepted. He showed up with a huge umbrella and walked us back to the hostel, which we realized we wouldn’t have found easily on our own now that all the shops had closed and everything looked the same. Samiro and his friend, Lotfy, who also worked at the hostel, were very helpful during our stay and became our friends who we still keep in contact with. The first night we stayed in Marrakech we couldn’t get the heat working in our room, so Samiro brought us up extra blankets and the following day surprised us with two of the softest, warmest blankets, which he had bought specially for us. One afternoon, while we were back at the hostel for a short break, Samiro showed Janina and I several ways to wrap the scarves we had bought around our heads like they are traditionally worn. On the last night of our stay, Janina, Meagan and I played several games of Spoons with both Samiro and Lofty, which resulted in me having to do ten push-ups and Lofty having to perform a 70’s-style gogo dance, since we were the two who lost. I hadn’t laughed so hard in a long time.
Over the several days we were in Marrakech we got to know the city pretty well. In India, it is quite common to see stray dogs everywhere you go; in Marrakech it is stray cats. There were full-grown cats and newborn fluff-balls all over the city, several of which I was terribly tempted to try to sneak home with me. We got lost many times and spent an entire day walking in circles trying to find several palaces that no one, not even the police officers, seemed to know the location of. The stunningly beautiful and quite tall Koutoubia Mosque often served as a landmark that helped us find our way around.
We were given a tour of a tannery, which is where animal hides are processed into the leather goods that are then sold in the markets. It smelled terrible, which is why we were given a handful of mint leaves to hold to our noses as a sort of “gas mask,” the tour guide joked. We shopped and haggled at the souks for items such as leather bags, Argan oil, pottery, a tea set, scarves and various other things. We searched for the famous spice markets that Morocco is known for and realized we must be in one when the air was so thick with the smell of saffron, turmeric, mint, cinnamon and cumin that it stung our noses. It wasn’t as impressive as we had expected. There were not rows upon rows of baskets piled high with brightly-colored powders as so many of the pictures on Google had promised. Instead there were small barrels of rock, sticks and powders, all in neutral earth-tone colors.
In the main square, while watching one of the snake charmers in action, we had smaller snakes thrown around our necks by the other men who worked with the charmer. They insisted on us taking pictures with the snakes, whether we wanted to or not, and then demanded payment for their services. I later made the mistake of getting henna done from a set-up in the main square. The two women who were running the business were sitting in plastic picnic chairs under a large umbrella, shouting out to any easily recognizable tourists while waving around booklets full of possible henna designs. After choosing the design I wanted out of one of the booklets and then haggling over the price for several minutes, one of the women started squeezing out the brown goop in waves across my right hand. I soon realized it was not the design I had asked for and when I tried to ask to see the book, the other women hid it away. Later that afternoon while I was waiting for the henna to dry and harden, my hand started to burn. Samiro told me that was typical of cheap henna
We did go to the restaurant the man from the spa recommended, and we were definitely the only tourists there. It wasn’t even a typical restaurant setup. It was at the end of an alleyway, and behind several rows of the brown Tajine pots, which were cooking over the coals, was a plastic picnic table that we sat at to eat our lunch. When we tried the food, we immediately could taste the difference between the true Tajine and what we had eaten the night before. It was also half the price, which was a nice bonus. While in Marrakech we also tried couscous, which is another traditional meal, as well as delicious sandwiches that we had made for us by a street vendor.
I loved the energy that radiated from Marrakech. Even when we spent a great deal of our trip lost in the city, there was never a moment where there wasn’t something to grab our attentions. When it finally came time to leave it felt surreal. I couldn’t imagine leaving this place and returning to the quiet more subdued normalcy of Western culture. It was similar to the feeling I had the first time I left India, which just gave me assurance that, like with India, I would one day return to Morocco. And so I waved good-bye to the pink stucco airport and the golden brown city as the plane took off in the direction of home, where my five o’clock English class awaited me.
Sullivan, Paul. A Hedonist’s Guide to Marrakech. London: Filmer, 2006. Print.