One of the first things you learn in Marrakech is how to cross the street. I hereby present a strategy that (probably) won’t get you killed:
- Identify a good place to cross. The painted crosswalks mean absolutely nothing to anybody, but if it makes you feel better, by all means locate the nearest one.
- Find someone whose skin tone is at least a few shades darker than yours, or who’s wearing a headscarf or robe, who is also crossing in roughly the same place.
- Position yourself on the non-traffic side of your new guide and do exactly what they do. This may mean pausing in the middle of the road as cars, trucks, buses, scooters, motorcycles, bikes, horses and carts, and donkeys rush, zoom, whoosh, trot, or plod by on both sides, but trust the drivers and your guide: they’ve been doing this since they were but babes in arms.
- Don’t look back. Really, don’t.
- Put a little extra spring in your step as you climb the 8-inch curb on the other side, so the drivers can see you’re making an effort to get out of their way.
- Quietly celebrate not ending up as the number 6 bus’s new hood ornament.
What actually surprised me the most at first wasn’t so much that the streets are absolutely insane, even the extremely narrow ones in the souks (markets), but that it’s surprisingly not terrifying to walk places. Even with our luggage the first day, walking up and down and around trying to find the hotel, there were bikes and scooters and carts coming both ways down the 7-foot-wide streets and not once was I afraid of being run over. If you keep to your path and don’t accelerate, decelerate, or change direction quickly, everybody adjusts to your path and you get through without incident. It’s quite beautiful, actually – a bit like a ballet.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We arrived at the Marrakech airport on February 10th, got out onto the tarmac, and instantly shed a layer and giggled with glee. It was warm. Then we got our passports stamped
and headed into the terminal to find a bank. I gave the lovely man 145€ and he gave me 1595 Moroccan dirhams, which made me feel very rich. One euro is 11 Dh, so you basically divide the dirhams by 10 and chop off a little more to get euros. One dollar is 8 Dh.
We got outside and found the bus to the main square of Marrakech, Djemaa el-Fna. A round-trip ticket for the 30-minute ride cost 30 Dh. It’s okay to laugh incredulously at the price; we spent most of the week doing that, actually. So we hopped on the bus and glued ourselves to the windows. There were snowy mountains in the distance, and palm trees and cacti close up, and everywhere people on scooters with no helmets, people driving donkeys, even camels! Dromedaries, with one hump. We’d gotten a map of the bus route, so we compared that with my Google map of the riad (small bed-and-breakfast) we were staying in and figured out where to get off. When we got to Djemaa el-Fna, the bus driver came back and asked why we weren’t getting off. I showed him the map, and he said no, that street is clear on the other side of town from where your map says, you should get off here. He then handed us a better map, pointed out the street we were looking for, and helped us off the bus. We hadn’t rolled our suitcases three feet before we were accosted, in French and in English, by the row of men sitting waiting for the tourists. “Bonjour! Are you looking for a hotel? You already reserved? Where? Mine’s better!” Many firm “Non, merci, ça va, on est bien”’s later, they left us alone and we had ten free steps before the next batch got to us. Trying to look like we knew what we were doing, we continued into the Djemaa el-Fna proper. Oh lordie. Everyone had set up their little umbrella, under which women were advertising henna designs for your hands and men were either charming real cobras or holding pet monkeys for photo ops. Giving the animals a wide berth, we tried to find a street name, any street name, anywhere at all, and were frustrated. We got all the way into the souks, then realized that that was not where we wanted to be and turned around. Finally we found a name that matched something on our map and thought we were getting close. Down that street and up another one, fending off would-be guides left and right, we still hadn’t found anything helpful. A French couple stopped and asked if we needed help, having seen us on another street, and as we were puzzling over the map another group of men came up and offered to help. At the end of our ropes, we told him the name of our hotel and he called his friend over to lead us there. As he led us down progressively smaller and less-well-maintained streets,
I started to worry, but soon he brought us to this door.
Notice the tiny little piece of paper in the upper right? That says 70 Riad Zitoun, Jamaa House. That is the only indication you get. A young woman in a headscarf came to the door, nodded when I gave my name, and led us up the stairs. She showed us the room, then wrote our names down (doing a much better job in French than I’d do in Arabic) and took my 999 Dh ($125) for four nights. Then we collapsed on the bed, exhausted.
I had a small culture-shock-induced breakdown, but soon decided that the best way to fix that would be to get out and eat something. We found little pastries for 1 Dh each (cue slightly hysterical laughter on my part) and enjoyed ourselves looking at all the beautiful things for sale (and saying “non, merci” five times a second). I tried to bargain for some black suede ballerina flats and got him down to 300 Dh from 650, but I still didn’t think they were worth it and I didn’t want to buy the first thing I saw, so I tried to back out gracefully, which is apparently not cool at all. After many protests about how we’d wasted his time, we escaped and continued on to Djemaa el-Fna, where we discovered that the stands selling fresh-squeezed orange juice charged 3 Dh a glass. We stood next to the cart with our glasses, sipping our lovely sweet juice and watching people, and suddenly I felt much better about life.
Then we walked out past the Koutoubia, the main mosque
to the more European part of the city, where there are wider streets, gardens, and McDonald’s, KFC, H&M, and other American and European stores. But the sidewalks reminded us where we were:
By the time we got back, it was darker
and Djemaa el-Fna was filled with temporary restaurants, all selling the same dishes for the same prices, but each with its own hawker to bring in the wide-eyed tourists. Taking it all in stride (kinda), we chose a place and sat down. First, we got round leavened bread with tomato sauce and spicy sauce, both of which were fantastic. Logan ordered chicken tagine and I got a meat tagine. Tagines are those round dishes with pointy tops used to make stews – ours had potatoes, carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, as well as the tenderest meat I’ve ever had. We also got a “grande” bottle of water, which turned out to be 1.5 liters, for 5 Dh. I could barely finish my meal, and the best part was that the whole meal, total, for the two of us, cost 75 Dh. You can’t even get an entrée for that in France, and certainly not of this quality. Fat and happy, we snagged the rest of the water bottle to brush our teeth with and returned to the hotel for bed.
The next morning, I awoke briefly at the dawn prayer call (half-asleep, I thought it was Logan groaning for a second), then woke up fully at breakfast, which was waiting for us outside our door. Hot coffee and hot milk (but no sugar!), mini croissants with creamy filling, round breads with jam and weird moldy-cheesy butter, tangerine juice, and sweet mint tea.
Then we set out to enjoy the souks. I found another shoe place (there are millions), selling patterned flats this time, and sat down prepared to bargain with Abdou. He asked our names, made rhymes with them (“Chez Lisa, il y a de la bonne pizza, chez Logan, il n’y a rien!”), and told me I looked like a princess in the shoes. We settled quickly (probably too quickly – I should have started lower) on 220 Dh, or 20€, and he threw in a few mini shoe-shaped keychains as well. Then he asked if we wanted tea and we couldn’t refuse (mint tea is known as “Moroccan whiskey” because everybody drinks it all the time everywhere) so we sipped the tea, sweetened with huge chunks of sugar, and chatted about Morocco and the US. At one point he asked Logan how many camels he would trade for me, which is probably just something he says to every tourist, but I nearly spat out my tea as Logan tried to judge what an appropriate number of camels would be. We took our leave, much more amicably this time, and wandered the souks a bit more. I apologize for the lack of pictures of the narrow, bustling streets of the souks, but if you even slow down while walking, the three nearest vendors will jump on you, so I shudder to imagine what would happen if you brought out a camera. There are so many beautiful things to look at, though: shoes and slippers in every color of the rainbow, scarves in every material and pattern you can imagine, embroidered tunics and dresses, robes, leather bags, cloth bags, pottery, copper teapots, tea glasses, cushions, furniture, spices, soaps, all spilling out of doorways and stacked higher than you’d think possible. By the end of the trip, I had perfected walking by and looking just long enough to see what I wanted to see without getting accosted. I also became mysteriously unable to speak or understand whichever language they chose to yell at me in, which helped.
To relieve the claustrophobia a bit, we wandered over to the mosque, which has gardens around it. We spent a nice long time sitting in the sun, admiring the palm trees and watching people. We saw a lot of groups of young women, some in headscarves and some not, dressed with varying degrees of modesty (from loose pants, long tunic and headscarf to stilettos, painted-on jeans, tight shirt – and headscarf!) walking around with linked arms, giggling and enjoying the sunshine. I liked that all of them seemed to have the freedom to dress how they wanted, and that they granted their friends that freedom as well. Marrakech, being very touristy, is quite tolerant, which I appreciated for my own sake. Tolerant, that is, until your heathen self gets too close to a mosque, which Logan learned to his chagrin many times over the course of our stay. This is about as close as I’ll ever get to a mosque, as I don’t particularly enjoy being yelled at in French and English by groups of small boys.
By this time, we were ready for a drink and a bathroom, so we headed to a pretty touristy-looking café. I went to the bathroom and experienced my first squat toilet, which was… eye-opening? thigh-punishing? frightening? But I managed without slipping, falling, touching the walls, or doing anything else unfortunate, so I’m quite proud. Do I get flowers or something? Baby’s first squat toilet?
After that ordeal, I was ready for some coffee, which was delicious. We sat in the sun and watched traffic for a while – this was where the video above was taken, so you can see why the traffic was worthy of attention – and then got some gelato and sat in the sun some more. For dinner, we went to the stalls again, this time with a fellow assistant named Keri who had arrived that day. We agreed to meet the next day to go to a museum, then went back to our respective beds.
The next day, we tried to take a shortcut to meet Keri, which failed in a spectacular fashion when we realized we were actually at the museum we wanted to go to, clear on the other side of the souks from where we were supposed to meet Keri. Many apologetic text messages later, Keri arrived and introduced us to Roz, a Brit she’d met at her hostel. Roz, Logan and I decided to go into the museum, the Musée de Marrakech. It was built in an old palace, so the architecture and ornamentation were just as interesting as the exhibits themselves.
The exhibits were pretty awesome, though, especially the one with textiles from various regions of Morocco. This was a belt, silk embroidery on silk, designed to be wrapped around the waist multiple times. I just loved the geometric pattern.
There was also an exhibit about tea, it being such an important part of Moroccan culture. I mean really important:
That’s a lot of tea right there.
After chilling out and imagining what it would have been like to live there, Roz showed us the way back to Djemaa el-Fna, right through the souks. At one point, a vendor, seeing Roz and me trailing behind Logan, yelled “Good businessman! Have two wives!” and we all cracked up. Oh, Morocco, you slay me.
We hung out writing postcards near the mosque for a bit, or rather, I wrote postcards while Logan took pictures, but I joined him when I realized that you could see the crazy mountains from there.
Intellectually, I know that they’re really far away, but don’t they look close enough to touch?
After dinner, we went out with more assistants (apparently everyone in the Académie de Rouen decided to go to Morocco in February) to have tea on a rooftop terrace. It was gorgeous and warm, and the tea was served in individual teapots:
It was so lovely to sit and sip our sweet tea and chat about our crazy adventures so far in Morocco.
The next day, Logan and I got up relatively early to visit two more historical sites near the Musée de Marrakech: the Madersa Ben-Youssef and the Qoubba des Almoravides. The Madersa (or madrassa) was a Qur’anic school, built in the 1500s and allied with the Ben-Youssef mosque right next door, and it is beautiful. It contains a prayer room, washrooms, and lots and lots of student rooms, all built around small courtyards to let in natural light. The rooms overlooking the main courtyard were for visiting dignitaries, and were accordingly fancier. Logan and I wandered around pretending that we were first-year students moving into the dorms (“Hey Mom, look, my bed is lofted already! And I’m on the ground floor! Sweet!”), which, while basic, were quite lovely:
Just seconds after this picture was taken, there was a minor tragedy: I dropped my camera on the hard tile floor of the courtyard, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put little Kodak EasyShare together again. The following pictures, therefore, are courtesy of Logan. Here I am, hiding my grief:
(Don’t worry, this story has a happy ending: the camera was unfixable but I bought a reasonably-priced shiny new blue one which is actually much nicer!)
The carved cedar in the main courtyard was ridiculous. I love the aesthetic of all the architecture, because it’s always abstract and geometric and my little pattern-oriented brain goes into overload.
We also got to see some furnished student rooms, complete with a teapot and brazier to make your own tea in your room! It was neat to imagine what the daily life for a religious student was – very different from my college experience…
We emerged into some rain, which soon passed, and continued on to the Qoubba, which was constructed to provide visitors to the ancient (11th-century) mosque with a place to wash. There were remnants of the individual washing stalls, as well as a central trough with an incredibly ornate dome that, according to the notice board, used every single arch style then known to Islamic architecture. I, for one, believe it.
Then it was back to the hotel for a well-deserved rest. We had a dinner date with the rest of the Rouen crew, so we went to a real restaurant where I ordered a beef tagine with prunes and almonds.
Happiness, thy name is tagine. At dinner, we arranged to meet some other travelers, Jay and Kate, the next day to see some palaces.
First on our list was the Palais Bahia, built in the late 19th century by a vizier for his concubines. It’s huge, with courtyard leading to courtyard, garden upon garden, and every surface covered with carved wood, sculpted plaster, or intricate tile work.
It was a bit overwhelming to try to focus on all of the beautiful details, but luckily there were kitties to distract us!
Kate tried to make friends with it, but it’s seen too many tourists come and go to dispense its affections so easily.
After the cool beauty of the palace, we headed out to the walls of the ancient city to see the most impressive gateway, the Bab er Rob.
It was hard to imagine the ancient majesty of it with all the scooters and cars whizzing through, but it was neat anyway. We found some lovely mountain views, then headed back into town to have a snack. Some luscious-looking pastries lured us into a bakery, where we also found large glasses of some delicious-looking substance, which we promptly bought. This entire table of mouthwatering goodness cost less than 7 euros:
Yes, those different layers were all different flavors – raspberry, strawberry, something creamy and delicious, mango… Feeling much more energetic, we set out for the Saadian tombs, which were built in the 16th century. We couldn’t go all the way inside, but they were quite impressive anyway.
I especially liked a particular bit of tile that looked woven:
After braving the restrooms (I will never complain about French public bathrooms ever again ever) we set off for our last stop, the Palais Baadi. This one was much older than the Bahia, built in 1578, and is mostly ruined (thanks to a different prince who stripped all the decorations to take them to his own palace – nice guy!), but the main walls are still there and you can walk around to really get a feel for the huge scale of it.
Jay and Logan got yelled at for exploring the sunken green areas, but the guard just gave them a nasty look while they climbed back out. We also found our way into the tombs, where I kept expecting somebody to leap out of any of the myriad dark holes and rooms, instantly turning my hair white forever. Luckily nobody did, but it was still quite dark and creepy.
We emerged, blinking, and made our way up to the top of the palace, where we got to see the storks who nest on the walls up close and personal. Then it was off to find more tea on a terrace close to the palace, where we sat and watched the storks for a few hours, chatting about the UK (Jay is from London) and Australia (Kate’s an Aussie) and the US. Then it was back to our new hotel, which we’d seen briefly in the morning to drop off our bags, but now had a chance to really explore.
We’d planned this hotel switch because we wanted to treat ourselves, but couldn’t quite afford to do it all week, so for the last three nights we moved to a nicer place, which turned out to be right next door to our first hotel! The new one was absolutely gorgeous, complete with a central courtyard
with orange trees and banana trees. Our room had lovely details
and a skylight with a nifty shade mechanism that we spent a good ten minutes playing with, because we’re four-year-olds:
After oohing and ahhing over everything in sight, we got dressed up and went out to one of the fancier restaurants on Djemaa el-Fna, because it was Valentine’s Day!
We couldn’t take pictures, but the restaurant is on the second floor, so we had a lovely view out over the square. We ordered the tasting menu, which gave us little tiny portions of everything – first all sorts of marinated veggies, then two kinds of tagine and couscous, then crêpes with honey and orange slices with cinnamon. It was delicious, and there were dancing girls! Which was a little bit odd, but the second woman dragged a female guest up to dance with her, then a male one, which was pretty funny. After that, it was all we could do to drag our fat bellies homeward, but we managed.
The next day we hit up our last two museums. First, the Dar Tiskiwin, which has textiles and artifacts from Berbers and other Saharan tribes. I’m fairly certain that the museum was in someone’s house, but it was interesting nonetheless, especially being able to see the blankets and rugs and bags and tents that were a part of daily life in the tribes. There were also some really neat leather belts that were embroidered with leather, which I made Logan take a picture of for my mother:
We headed out of the maze of tiny little streets and across Djemaa el-Fna to check out a park outside the city walls, but were stopped in our tracks when a woman grabbed my hand and squirted henna on it. I’d been planning to get some henna done, but not in that manner… But being afraid of conflict with strangers, as I am, I let her do it, then bargained her down to less than half of her asking price, which was still ridiculous. Logan was angrier than I was, I think, but it did come out nicely:
And I had the eminently satisfying chore of picking the paste off after a bit!
We wandered around the park, which is called the Cyber-Park because there are free Internet kiosks (with a frustrating touch-screen) scattered around, then went back home, stopping at the Koutoubia for more pretty pretty pictures.
On our way, we stopped to get a little picnic, then ate it in our lovely hotel courtyard.
In the bag are two flaky cream-filled pastries, two muffins, and two dense honey-filled sweets, which we got for 12 Dh. There are also pomegranate and pistachio yogurts, which were just as delicious as they sound. Mustafa, one of the turtles who lives in the courtyard, didn’t want to join our picnic, despite the delicious crumbs we put in front of his little nose.
Then it was time for our last museum, the Dar Si Saïd, which specializes in tradition Moroccan crafts. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take pictures, but there were wood carvings and jewelry and metalwork and all manner of lovely things. The best part were these little sedan chair-like things, which apparently would be attached to an eight- to ten-foot diameter wheel to make a small Ferris-wheel-like ride for kids. There was even a picture to show us how it worked! Logan and I got really jealous, though.
For dinner that night, we went to a stall that we passed every day, where a young man was selling something scrumptious-looking. As we watched, he put ground meat and red onions on his hot plate, squirted them with oil, and cooked them for a bit. Then he added an egg, hot sauce, rice, and olives, mixed it all up, and shoveled it into a split roll.
It was hot, filling, spicy, and cheap – only 10 Dh for a satisfying meal. We ended up going back a few times, and bringing friends, because providers of good street food should always be rewarded.
The next day, as we were wandering aimlessly trying to figure out what to do on our last day, we ran into Keri again. She wanted to go see the Jardin Majorelle, a European-style garden outside the city that has a reputation for being calm and relaxed, something that is all too rare in Marrakech. We joined her, and after a rather long walk out, we were rewarded by cool greenery accented with brightly-colored buildings and reflecting pools.
It made a nice change from the hustle and bustle of the old city, and since we had to pay to get in, nobody hassled us! I particularly liked this cactus; you can see the outlines the leaves left on each other as it grew:
The wind soon picked up, and as none of us had umbrellas or even sweaters, we hurried back to the old city. We escaped the rain, luckily, and after dinner met up with the assistants again to have tea at our favorite place, the one with the terrace and individual teapots. This time, they recognized us, and let Logan pour the tea!
Finally, we couldn’t put it off any longer and had to go back home to pack. Our hotel served us breakfast early in the morning so we could catch the bus back to the airport, and we spent the ride looking out the windows to say goodbye. At the airport, we had more stunning mountain views.
This was the last enjoyable moment for quite some time, since as soon as we got through security, we saw that our flight had been delayed for three hours. Luckily, the other assistants were on the same flight, so we hung out together, without food or water (they didn’t take credit cards and none of us had any cash left), until our plane was finally ready. One last farewell out the plane window
and it was back across the Mediterranean to France. I was sad to leave, and not only because an assistant’s salary goes a lot further in Morocco than in France. As stressful as it could be at times, I actually liked the constant interaction and attention, even if it was just to sell me something. I liked being able to speak French with most people and have conversations (although I really want to learn Arabic, just so when they assume I only speak English or French I can whip out something in really insulting, really slangy Arabic and watch their faces), I liked the friendliness and helpfulness we encountered most of the time, and I loved the sensory overload. I’m definitely going back sometime, hopefully with a giant empty suitcase so I can bring back all the tea sets and cushions and bags and tagines I drooled over all week.
More pics, as always, here.