Morocco, Part IV: an ancient curse, the dark side of Marrakech and the magic of street food

[Morocco, Part I] [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part III]

When we last left our intrepid traveller, she had been deposited at the busy end of the Fna, desperately in need of the loo (and a shower), an hour late and quite eager to meet her co-adventurer back at the riad…

Jemaa el Fna at night

Truth be told, I navigate better by gut than by map, so after a quick pit stop at the nearest café (NB: it is a fact that in any ladies’ room on the planet, it will always be occupied by someone having a vivid argument on her mobile, and the intensity of the conversation will be in direct proportion to how badly you need to pee), I trust my instincts (and cheat with Google Maps only once) to guide me back to the riad. Briefly revelling in my triumph, I arrive with barely half an hour to spare before C appears. Our reunions are always nice, as was the tagine dinner and Fna-gazing from the rooftop. It’s a different world up there; the din of the music and the drums and the crowds are near-silent within the walls of the riad.


Explorers-ho!

The mission for the weekend is to explore the souks and The Medina. I hadn’t ventured too far my first afternoon, and by the next morning I was excited to see the sights. With company, I figured, it wouldn’t be as daunting. I must report that the bazaars I’ve been to in India and in Istanbul pale in comparison to the ferocity with which the souks here in Marrakech do their souking. Hundreds, non, milliers, of stalls fan out from the Jemaa el Fna square in semi-organised lanes, lined floor to ceiling with wares, some sections carry general themes: cuir, olives, cuivre, vêtements, textiles, lampes, épices… The rest of the stalls, piled high with pottery and scarves and shoes and crafts and rugs and…I’m confident that one could find literally anything here.

By this point we’ve spent some time haggling for trinkets, and I’m beginning to get my sea legs back – in French! We’ve spent an hour or more in a gorgeous lamp shop, genially negotiating, finding C the one thing (actually, three) he’s wanted to get here: some filigreed copper lamps, and I’ve even chosen one for myself as well. We’re feeling accomplished but hungry, maybe a little haggle-weary, and on our way back through the chaos we run into the super-nice Puerto Rican couple from my jaunt in the desert. We’ve decided to have lunch together in a café overlooking the square, so we’re en route when we’re accosted by a very insistent woman, babbling in nursery rhymes, keen on hennaing me. She’s not as keen on C’s brush off and looks him squarely in the eye as she invokes the ancient and potent Berber curse. Every hair in C’s scrappy beard stands on end as she says, finger pointed in warning: Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he? It’s clearly lunchtime.

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Jemaa el Fna at lunchtime on a Friday, just before the afternoon Adhan

The Adhan, or call to prayer, sounds haunting from above – 3 minarets broadcast the muzzeins’ calls in unison, lunchtime din mixes with the prayers.

Running amok…

After depositing our souk winnings and a siesta, we embark on the next check-box for the day: completion of C’s RunStreak. You see, he’s an ultramarathoner in recovery from a frustrating injury so he’s challenged himself to a 20 minute (and >1.6 km) run each day for the month. I’m an incidental beneficiary (??) of the challenge. And so we set out this afternoon, not entirely sure how it will play out – even with all the European influnce here it is still a very conservative Muslim country. I’ve covered myself head to toe; but still, in running tights and a long-sleeved/hooded sweatshirt, I feel a bit exposed in this place where the sight of a woman’s legs sans frock is near blasphemy. We run through the Fna square and across to Koutubia mosque, with its orange trees ripe for picking. It goes okay, I haven’t gotten berated or stoned, so I’m feeling a little better about the next day’s plan for an even longer run in these streets.

Street food for dinner in the largest open-air cafeteria on the planet

If rigid ideology is what divides us, food is what unites. Jemaa el Fna is a mélange of sound, smoke and smell; an open-air cafeteria for all the senses. There are the food hawkers of course, but also the drumming and other instruments (the gimbri or the oud, Moroccan versions of the lute), the insistent clapping of the two-sided Moroccan maracas; there’s a resonance of flutes in the air…not to mention the snake charmers and storytellers and singers, all swirling their words, in Arabic and Tamazight and French, with the smoke from the cooking fires. The smell is something I’ll always remember as warm and spicy and rustic and elemental.

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In the evening, the stalls go up: dozens of pop up restaurants selling variations on a theme, organised into rows of similar foodstuffs. One row is snails, one row soups, one row meats, one row kebabs, one row desserts. We choose a stall on faith – they’re numbered, and representatives from each stall go out into the crowd to entice hungry-looking wide-eyed lingerers to their tables. It’s an amazing visual, a well-choreographed nightly ritual.

Our first experiment is snails. We’re served a small bowl of the critters from a giant steaming pot, and use toothpicks to pluck them out. They’re a thinner, more peppery version of escargot, sans the butter and garlic. So they’re nothing like escargot at all really, but I’m glad to have tried them.

Bread is a staple at every meal. And mint tea. I order olives and Moroccan salad (something like ceviche without the fish); C orders an entire lamb’s head (because, of course you do) and has way more food than he can possibly eat, so we share an entire plate of meat, plus some of the bread, with the sweet, chatty family sitting next to us; they’re clearly grateful that we’ve shared our dinner.

Dessert is a thick tea; a ginger, anise and cinnamony mix of spices (there does not seem to be any actual tea in the tea), served from massive copper urns, accompanied by dense, crumbly cake that is something of a cross between halvah and gingerbread. I think I could stand here at this stall for an hour, sipping this luxurious tea and watching the Fna go by. Grand total for dinner: 150 dirhams; approx. 15€.


We’re quite good at getting lost together, C and I, but usually it’s in a forest or on a mountain, not on the narrow alleyways of an ancient city. We’d stumbled around The Medina that morning, deeper into the souk streets, finding the old slave market that now houses olives and textiles; exploring old caravanserais (fondouqs), old lodging houses for traders on the caravan routes – the bottom floors wide open to accommodate camels, the rooms on the upper floors for travellers. Only 140 of these fondouqs remain in The Medina; they’re gorgeous old buildings now home to artisan workshops.

We wandered until we found ourselves near the tannery, where, before we knew it, we were being handed Berber gas masks (sprigs of mint) against the smell, and guided into the lieu. There are two tanneries, we’re told: the Arabic one, where they use machines and chemicals to cure the hides (typically cow), and the Berber one, where they use natural ingredients (including “pigeon poo”) to prepare the leather (the more durable camel, and also goat). It’s more fascinating than stinky, and for that fact alone I’m grateful it’s not 10° warmer. And I’m not surprised as we’re then guided into a shop to haggle for more goods (I score a pair of handmade leather shoes) before meandering back out into the maze.

It’s here that we become frustratingly lost and ask directions – we’re aware of the scams so we ask to be pointed the way back. This was the diciest moment of the trip: the guy who initially pointed out the directions began to lead; the streets grew quieter and we were lead into an empty courtyard where he pointed to a minaret (not the one we were looking for, I realised) and demanded money to lead us to it. We said no (again) and began to walk back the way we came. Just then, 3 or 4 of his friends appear from out of nowhere. There are no other people around and we are surrounded by these guys in a really narrow alley, demanding to be paid for their, erm, services. I don’t think I had time to be afraid because when I saw how angry C was, the don’t fuck with me look in his eyes said all the guys needed to know. They backed off just moments before it could have come to ugly blows.

Crisis averted, Google maps gets us to more familiar territory, and we let the adrenaline die down over a fantastic rooftop lunch. It’s times like this I think of that Charles Schulz quote, “In life, it’s not where you go, it’s who you travel with.” We toast, with mint tea, to this very moment in time.

Rooftop lunch at Bazaar Cafe

The afternoon is more wandering, more haggling (argan oil and scarves), more running – this time through the magnificent Cyberparc Arsat Moulay Abdessalam, its manicured gardens and meandering paths a striking contrast to the din of the souks. And finally, after the long day, dinner redux at Jemaa el Fna.

Because food is half the adventure of travel, we first try soup from one place (the ubiquitous harira, which I’ll try to replicate when I get home), then seek out some other vittles for the main course. “Number 55 is stinky food,” we’re told by a guy representing a virtually empty stall. We choose number 55, of course, as it is packed with many more locals than tourists – always a good sign.

The lamb tangia is cooked in earthen pots over an open fire. We’re seated at a long table with sheets of paper for mats, Berber bread plunked down in the middle, Berber whiskey (mint tea) served alongside the meal. Next to us sits a family of 3, excitedly awaiting their dinner. It is served with fanfare, and we watch in equal anticipation as the waiter unfurls the dish. The meal, barely enough for two, is placed in front of the family. But before they begin, we are offered the first taste with a warm gesture.

We’re enjoying the food (C’s got the tangia; mine is a really good roast veggie plate), revelling in the gregariousness and absurd hospitality of the cooks/waiters, welcoming the kindness of strangers. We share bread, we share our meals, we eat in the din of the night amongst thousands of strangers. This is nice, I think…What is it that we’re doing wrong in the West, when welcoming foreigners is discouraged, as if we’d lose something of ourselves if we were to gain new perspective or new friends. It pains me that if the tables were on this soil, this scene wouldn’t likely have played out.

 


We wake the next morning and it’s already time to go. A quick riad brekkie and C is off to the races, almost literally, as the Marrakech Marathon has snarled traffic and, ironically, he has to walk part-way to the airport. I get a few hours more, the first part of which I spend drinking mint tea in a sunny café in the quiet of the morning Fna, watching the day (and the vendors) unpack. I had wanted to see the photography museum, but after our ordeal in that general vicinity yesterday I decide I’d better not get lost with just hours before my flight. Instead, I set a goal of getting the most for the last dirhams in my pocket and venture back into the souks. And I feel pretty good, parting with my last 100 dirham bill and some coins in exchange for some hand-painted bowls. I feel an even more an accomplished haggler when the shopkeeper, laughing, calls me a Berber. For that I take back a one-dirham coin (roughly 10 cents) from the pile I’d placed in his hand and say, jokingly, pour un souvenir, and leave the shop with both of us still laughing.

The ride to the airport was uneventful, and it was on the walk to the car that I realised we were lost the day before mere blocks from the riad. Oh, the labyrinthine rues of Marrakech…The sounds and the smells and the sights of a whirlwind week in Morocco fill my head as I check in and board my flight.

One last stop: Germany. A quick stopover in Munich on a lovely day gives me just enough time to see the Marienplatz glockenspiel do its thing from the 91-metre high Alter Peter. Then it’s Westward-ho into Boston’s late-January chill, where the fernweh takes hold and gets the wheels spinning for the next adventure.

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In case you missed these: [Morocco, Part I] [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part III] and read C’s account here. Cheers!

Morocco, Part I: Marrakech; On being a rat in an ancient maze

3 years ago plus 1 month and 9 days, there was suddenly a new person in my life, one who often makes me feel like a better version of myself. I’m grateful for this kind of human in my world, for we rarely find them. So today I flew to Marrakech, the place from which the initial contact was dispatched, to reconnect with this person whose presence makes my entire being feel at home, wherever in the world we may be. We’ve travelled a lot together, he and I: short trips and long. But this winter has been brutal in New England and I needed an escape. So, to what was intended as a long weekend for C, I’ve added a few days up front to justify the travel time and the airfare (I dream of the luxury of living Europe, where a weekend getaway really gets you away).

ch-exploringThe itinerary: Day 1: arrive in Marrakech; Days 2-5: visit Berber country; Days 5-8: meet my Calvin-like co-adventurer back at the riad for a few days of Medina madness.

As they say: Let’s go exploring!

The trip from the airport is via taxi, to just outside the Medina’s inner web, where cars are not permitted in the afternoon; then via hand cart, dodging donkeys (and scooters and bikes and other handcarts and shopkeepers and hawkers of Every. Possible. Thing. No, really.) To the riad, whisked away in those 8 minutes to a very foreign-seeming place. Marrakech is a whirlwind. The Medina, a labyrinth. I don’t quite know how to describe it without sound or colour. Even so, the riad is a kind of oasis; decked in carpet and copper lamps, wooden furniture, large cushions…warmth oozes from each étage. Within moments of arriving, I’m served traditional mint tea and Moroccan biscuits by a smiling, welcoming Abdul.

For reference, Marrakech’s Medina is the walled-in old city, a maze-within-a-maze that leaves you feeling at times like a baited rat that would do anything to find the cheese; or the riad, in my case. There are a few meandering main streets, barely wide enough for one car to pass: rues lined on either side by cafés, shops, and their wares on offer. The streets bustle with merchants and shoppers (and hagglers) and ogling tourists, one of which I’m about to become. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, walled-in in the 12th century, The Medina’s wall is a 19km stretch of stone, bounding the old from the new. A tangle of alleyways connects the “proper” streets (one must use proper as loosely as possible), and it’s here you find the homes and riads (the mansions of old that have been transformed into lovely guest houses). The 15 metre-high buildings create an inner sanctum of sorts, blotting the din of the Jemaa el Fna, and the market streets that radiate out from its madness.

Thus, my first half-day in Marrakech is a blur of light and sound and smell and primal tendencies. Between hunger, jetlag, curiosity and restlessness, I decide to go see the famed ‘Fna to catch a glimpse of this experience for myself, because it’s so much more than just an historic site. Literal translation is either “large open space” or “death” depending on which definition you choose; history tells of another mosque here originally, but it was erected pointing the wrong way towards Mecca and was replaced by the impressive 77 metre-high Koutubia Mosque in the 12th Century (Oops). Not-so-urban legend tells that Jemaa el Fna was also used for public executions.

Heeding warnings of pickpockets, scammers, gropers, and general miscreants, I set out. And after a couple of wide-eyed hours of wandering the ‘Fna and the streets nearest my riad, I turn back to go home. The late-afternoon frenzy at Jemaa el Fna is only just beginning and I’ve already seen snake charmers, Berber musicians, chained monkeys, tea sellers, fortune tellers, henna hawkers, would-be stalkers… I haggle (poorly, I decide, but it’s a first attempt) for a Taureg amulet, its price includes a story about Berber marriage and the need for keeping one’s many wives in different parts of the country (to ensure they never meet), since Allah suggests up to 4. And while Marrakech is a melting pot of old and new, Berbers and Arabs, Europeans and ex-pats, I feel more of the old culture prevailing in this part of the city. As a solo woman here, I feel a strange impulse to layer on more clothes, even though it’s warmish and dry and the only parts visible are my hands and head.

Google maps is utterly useless, and I find myself near, but not near-enough, to my riad. I’m lost, feeling tired, hungry, shell-shocked, alone amidst a bazillion strangers, and I’m trying to talk myself out of crying (in French, so at least there’s that). I see a clean-cut youngish man up ahead and ask him to point me in the direction of the rue. Note: I’ve momentarily forgotten this item in the list of potential Marrakech scams and don’t ask up front what the directions will cost me. I’m just grateful for a smile and some help getting un-lost. Moments later (we were, literally, one tiny alleyway away), we’re at the riad, where I greet my hosts and thank my guide (really, all I wanted was for him to point, not lead) and he says, gruffly, “you pay me now.” Hm. So I hand him a small coin for his trouble, knowing that all I have in my pocket are larger bills and a few Euro coins. He says, “50 dirhams.” (roughly 5€) To which the riad ladies guffaw and reply, “non… you go away.” And a shouting match ensues, in French-laced Arabic, where the only thing I remotely recognise goes something like, “she has a big fancy camera, she can afford to pay me…” to which we all reply, “a taxi would cost less, get lost!” Finally, some smaller coins are produced to shut the guy up, and he goes away hurling ancient curses at this Western witch, I’m sure.

I’m stressed now, a little freaked-out, hoping the rest of my trip won’t be as terrifying. But a hot shower, tagine dinner with an unforgettable courgette soup, another cup of delightful Moroccan mint tea, and the knowledge that in a few days, my smiling ami who has been here before will meet me and meander the maze of The Medina by my side. Tomorrow, I leave on a short tour to the interior and into the Sahara.

The score for Day 1 in Morocco – Marrakech: 1; Travel Girl: 0.

Read on: [Morocco, Part II]  [Morocco, Part III]  [Morrocco, Part IV]