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]