Tuesday, October 8, 2013

An American visiting Marrakesh, Morocco

Back in June, i had a few days with no work scheduled, so i decided to get away from Rome and see some place new. The cheapest air flight to an exotic place i could find was to Marrakesh, Morocco. i would have preferred to return to Egypt, but all the budget airlines had discontinued flights there, and EgyptAir flights started at about 300euros. So, Marrakesh it was, and 111euros later (about $150) i was on my EasyJet flight to Morocco!

Moroccan farm land, from plane landing in Marrakesh
As we descended into Marrakesh, the Captain came over the intercom to say we should all stay in our seats and the crew should buckle down for landing. Then a steward came running up from the back of the plane shouting in French and waving his arms frantically. i looked forward and saw a brown-skinned young man up out of his seat, moving through the aisle with a face that showed urgency and fear. And he was not obeying the steward's direction. "Holy shit," i thought, "this is real, we're being hijacked, we're going to have to 'Let's roll,' his ass!!" And when that eons-long-moment had passed, i realized what was going on:

The guy's little brother, maybe 7years old, had unbuckled his seat belt and bolted for the bathroom. Knowing we weren't allowed out of our seat, the big brother was going to bring him back, freaking out the steward. Embarrassed by my inner panic, this is how my Morocco experience began.

But then, landed, everything got brighter and easier. The Marrakesh airport is very nice, clean and modern, with a very calm, easy system to get a taxi into the city. There was a flat rate prepaid at a desk, no haggling with the taxi driver, which i really appreciate. As he loaded my backpack into the trunk, the driver asked me, "Where from?"

"The United States," i said.

"Ahh, Obamaland! Welcome in Morocco!" And that turned out to be about the extent of his English.

Anti-American sentiment, Marrakesh, Morocco.
i stayed at Riad Dar Atta, a cheap Marrakesh riad/hotel which had a perfect position, just five minutes' walk from Jamaa el-Fna Place, or Mosque Courtyard Square, one of the coolest piazzas (squares) i have visited. It is always crowded, always full of music,, street performers, pickpockets, snake charmers (literally), henna tattoo-artists, etc. And it is surrounded by markets and restaurants. It is the main part of the city. i had to pass through it to get to or from pretty much anywhere, and i almost always ran into this guy wearing his American-flag denim jacket, clearly a local guy who worked among the vendors.

You can get pretty much anything you want on the Place. Souvenir stands and fresh orange-juice stands were abundant, people were hawking bottles of water, shops were sporting handicrafts and kitsch, a few young guys quietly asked me if i wanted hashish (i didn't), one man asked me if i was a tourist, and then asked me if wanted a blow job. "No, thank you," i said. 

"I am gay," he replied.

Variety of women's style, in market place, Marrakesh, Morocco
"Enjoy that," i told him.

"I do." He smiled and walked away, looking for some other foreigner to make some easy cash and fun from.

There was relatively few tourists around, compared to the European destinations where i spend more time, but there was constant trickle of scantily-clad backpackers and other travellers. Among the locals, the men were dressed mostly in Western, casual style, usually slacks and a collared shirt and sandals, with a relatively small percentage in the Muslim-style kameez coverall. The women though sported a whole range of styles - some wore completely normal Western clothing like i would see in Tampa or Paris, some wore head-scarfs, just a few were in the full-covering burqas. What surprised me is how you would see a range of these styles even within family-groups or friend-groups strolling around.

i saw one guy walking with a Muslim woman (in head scarf, not burqa) wearing a tshirt that shocked me. i walked way thinking how remarkable and cool it was. Then i realized the opportunity, ran back through the crowd to catch this poor stranger minding his own business, and explained that i was American, that i liked his tshirt, and asking if could get a photo of it. They discussed a bit in Arabic between them, then she took the camera and lined us up for the photo. Check it out, a big pic of the President with the words, "OBAMA IS MY HOMEBOY" written on it!! 
Obama is my homeboy, in Marrakesh, Morocco
One morning i got up relatively early and found a little tea room/bar for breakfast. i had a (lousy) chocolate croissant, (terrible) espresso, and an (excellent) fresh avocado juice with milk. There was a kid probably in his early 20s working there by himself, but i was the only customer. When it came time to pay, he didn't have change, he said, to break the bill i was trying to pay with. "Come with me, we'll find change," he said, and off we went down the road. i think his name was Abdul. At first i thought he was wearing eye liner, imagining him at some rave the night before. i later found out that this was a type of charcoal, and that Bedouin (desert nomad) culture uses it to help with the problems of sand in the eyes, or something like that.

The Arab Awakening: Islam
and the New Middle East,
by Tariq Ramadan
He stopped at a couple of other shops and asked for change, with no luck, so we continued on. We were chatting as we walked. i had been interested in the Arab Spring, and in fact was reading Professor Tariq Ramadan's book, The Arab Awakening: Islam and the New Middle East, as i traveled. From the book, i knew that the Arab Spring revolution had not touched Morocco (and also that Prof. Ramadan claimed it had not managed to grow into an actual revolution anywhere, but that whatever it was it never manifested in Morocco), apparently because when the people had clamored for reform, the royal family of Morocco was not as stubborn or violent as other North African leaders had been in recent years. i asked Abdul what he thought of Mohammed VI, the King of Morocco.
"He is a good man," Abdul said.

"So you like the government?" i asked.

"No, the government is bad. But the King is good," he said.
Abdul, the friendly gatherer. That's my 50dirham
note in his hand, that we were trying to get change for!
Right about then a guy wearing a white keffiyeh desert hat zipped by on a scooter. Abdul yelled something in Arabic. The guy on the scooter yelled back. Then, casually, Abdul began telling me about how i was so lucky that some particular market was open that day which was only open once a month and wouldn't i like to see a shop and blah blah blah. Knowing i didn't want to buy anything, but wanting to be friendly, i was noncommittal in my response. All of a sudden then, though, we arrived at a doorway where Abdul was "sure they have change here."

Coca-Cola in Arabic (no corn syrup in the ingredients,
made with real sugar!)
Inside i recognized the guy from the scooter with the keffiyeh, and that's when i realized i'd been "gathered," as we call it when we do it in Rome - i'd been brought to a shop, where the person bringing me, the "gatherer" was hoping for a commission. But, he was at least right about finding change for my bill there, which was good. And since the guy from the scooter, who turned out to be the manager of the shop, was both friendly and interesting, i consented to sitting through a presentation on of their cactus-leather rugs and blankets, though i promised not to buy anything. "Then have tea, for free, on me!" said Scooter Man. "We do not pressure. Not like Bush: 'YOU MUST HAVE FREEDOM!'" he bellowed, wagging a finger at me, and then roared with laughter, which i shared with him.

Scooter Man was a good presenter and the rugs and stories really were impressive and cool. i even considered buying one by the end of the presentation, until i found out that the cheapest one cost three times more than my hotel room and i had no actual use for the carpets or blankets. True to his word, he did not pressure me, which was a shock. He handed me the change from Abdul's bill, asked if i'd enjoyed the tea (i really had), lead me to the cheap-stuff part of his shop and wished me well. A moment later i was back on the sidewalk, looking for some new adventure.

Scooter rental in Marrakesh, Morocco.
i had picked a up flyer the day before for scooter-rental. i love driving scooters, the best way to get around Rome. So i went to get some wheels there in Morocco, and for the equivalent of about $30 i had 100cc all to myself for the day. i originally paid for a larger scooter though, of 150cc. i had the receipt in my hand and the helmet on my head when the owner noticed that that machine's insurance had expired the week before. "That's no good," he said, refunded me part of my money and gave me a smaller, cheaper, insured bike instead. i was impressed - i do not expect such honesty in my business dealings in and around Rome. 
And off into the desert i went. Or so i thought. Turns out that suburbs sprawl much further than i
thought. By the time i was finally on a highway surrounded by what i thought desert should look like, i was tired and sunburnt and ready to go home. But, adding Africa to my list, i have now driven scooters on four continents (Florida in North America, Italy and Greece in Europe, India in Asia, and Morocco in Africa! :-) )

Dinner on Jamaa el-Fna Place.
i was very impressed with the food and drink in Morocco. There were juice stands all around the old town, and every restaurant had an excellent selection of fresh juices. And in their food they have the awesome habit of mixing sweet and salty. In one meal (pictured here), over looking Jamaa el-Fna Place, i had a fantastic pastarelle, which turned out to be a chicken curry pot pie with super tasty spices inside, that was covered with sugar and cinnamon on top! My taste buds did a happy dance - i've rarely tasted anything so complex and pleasurable! To drink i had the house-speciality orange-carrot-flower water juice. It was all delicious and cost the equivalent of about $7!

In fact, things in general were so cheap that for three full days in Marrakesh, i spent less than $300, including flights, hotels, taxis, scooter rental, food, souvenirs, everything! :-)

All photos by author.

6 comments:

  1. Great post! My husband is from Marrakesh! Looking forward to visiting this year,

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  2. Great post! My husband is from Marrakesh! Looking forward to visiting this year,

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