A 2:30 video of Marrakech highlights: Morocco_May2001
We left Heathrow on time, bound for Casablanca and a connecting quick flight to Marrakech. I was wide awake a couple of hours later when we dropped into Marrakech at twilight. I’d seen the red hills of Africa and the Mediterranean from the air.
Overnight travel seems to make your senses pop and crackle even though you’re exhausted. Stepping out of the airport into the hot, dry, night air was breathtaking. You could smell the heat, the desert, the jasmine, the mint in the air. Our taxi sped past bicyclists in white robes and in a quick few minutes we were in the Sheraton Hotel lobby being served hot mint tea in delicate glasses by a man dressed in a white, loose-fitting, pajama-like outfit, a red hat and brown leather shoes like house slippers. He looked so comfortable, elegant and exotic. The tea was steaming–and a fistful of mint leaves filled the tiny glass. We sat in the lobby–watching the people come and go as someone, somewhere checked us in. Later in our room, we sat on our balcony–sipping from the little wine bottles from the airplane and enjoying the sounds of the palm trees in the breeze. We inhaled the desert night air like dogs sniff the wind. We had been up for over 36 hours, traveling for 24 of it…and we were tired, but oddly awake. We sat there for awhile–watching and listening to the night.
The next morning, we “acquired” a guide, Noori. He took us to El Bahia Palace, the Menara Gardens, and the souks. The Palace had been built as a harem–quiet courtyards filled with fountains, cypress, and carved cedar woodwork and cool blue tiles with that repetitive pattern. All the colors mean something orange=saffron, white=jasmine, blue=cobalt/indigo, green=mint tea, and red=henna. It seemed that many things I’d read about Morocco were about seduction: “I understood the seduction there is in a life that reduces everything to the simplest kind of repetition…” And everything Moroccan seemed dizzying in its repetition…the trance-like music, the patterned tiles, the Arabic script, the cedar woodwork, and even the religious rituals. Something about the place was mysterious and charming and sensual–but like a secret annex-type life. Our guide told us that Morocco allowed four wives if all could be supported equally and if the first wife permitted it. He joked that two would certainly be too much for him.
We were anxious to see the souks. I’d read “in a society that conceals so much, that keeps the interior of its houses, the figures and faces of its women, and even its places of worship jealously hidden from foreigners, the great openness with what is manufactured and sold is doubly seductive.” It was an interesting experience–overwhelming–loads to see and smell. There were precious few moments alone to feast your eyes without someone approaching to tell you all about the exquisiteness of the piece you really only glanced at and to summon mint tea by the teapot from some unseen source. It was intimidating and thrilling. Of course, Noori led us to his favorite sellers in the souk. The shopkeeper calculated on a tiny handheld calculator and then wrote the tally on a tiny notebook that was handed over with humble care. I tried quickly to figure out the exchange rate math (20 dirhams = $2)–and scratched out the original tally in exchange for a number about 50% lower. The haggling was on. After about 5 glasses of mint tea and lots of back-and-forth, I walked away with a Moroccan teapot, a set of 6 tiny green glasses, a silver tray, silver barrettes, some saffron, jasmine oil perfume, and a hand of Fatima. It turned out that I paid more than I thought I did. Now, I can look back and see that the $ difference was worth the experience. But later that day, when I was sitting by the pool, going over the math again in my head–I realized I’d paid about $100 more than I thought I did, and I was mad–I felt I’d been taken advantage of. We would not use a guide the next day…
We spent early mornings pool side, venturing out mid-day. Our routine was to find a street level cafe on the square, order the great little cafe au lait coffees with sugar cubes and watch Marrakech meander by….a goat following a man like a leashless dog, a cigarette salesman–selling the goods one at a time and tossing his change to alert potential buyers to his presence. He did a brisk business. Everyone wore robes…we watched as every color passed by, stirring up red dusty clouds at their feet. There were bikes, carts, and cars. Horns and muezzin calls.
And we went back into the Souks with a tough-as-nails haggling approach. And that day–I was proud. Walking through the souk, separated from Bryan by about 20 feet as we “window” shopped, a strange man walked alongside me, rubbing his forearms and then briskly zipping and unzipping his pants. I ignored him, and stopped to look at some beautiful hand-carved domino sets. The shopkeeper quickly came out, telling me they were made of cedar and orange and to please smell them! They were lovely. He, however, was a bit of a jerk. He told me a price, very high. I said “for two?” He made a face and said no with a flip of his hand. The men seemed to treat women rudely and it was damn frustrating. After the lewd little man with the zipper and this guy, I was steaming. So I turned to walk away to catch up with Bryan. But then he called out “Yes, ok!” So…two cedar and orange wood domino sets for the price he originally asked for just one. I felt a little better. It was all a game to be played.
All told that day: Bryan got two leather bags, and a pair of the cool Moroccan leather shoes–in orange, size 11+. Two men chased all over the souks for about an hour looking for big enough shoes in a red/brown or orange color for him. While we waited for the next pair to try on, we smiled and nodded a lot as we talked, sipped steaming tea, and haggled over the prices. In the end, everyone seemed satisfied…even if we did start at less than half the price they named. We also ended up with a solid block piece of perfume in sandalwood or amber. The very smell of Marrakech. We saw women haggling for bread, for every household supply. I can’t imagine doing that every day for every thing…it would be exhausting. I learned to let “la, la, la” roll off my tongue (no, no, no) without the least bit of remorse.
We spent the evenings in the square (Djemaa El Fna–“Meeting place at the end of the world” or “Place of the Dead”) or watching the mania from above in one of the many cafe terraces. Gas lights, orange juice sellers, fire breathers, snake charmers, belly dancers, henna ladies, lectures on pancreatic ailments (this guy sat on a short stool at a little table…he had a microphone taped to this chin, a spot light banded around his head, a 15 inch plastic torso model with removable insides and a school pointer…and a crowd of about 50 highly attentive men surrounding him. We picked out the word “pancreas” about 5 times.) There were acrobats, storytellers, tooth pullers, fortune tellers, water sellers…Add to that, the steam from street food vendors, gas light smells, and that sweet jasmine and sand smell. The crowd seemed to swirl in chaotic madness.
On our final night, we descended into the madness. Within moments, we’d seen a cobra rise up from a coil responding to a man with a turban and flute. A moment later, a fire ball spewed up from a man’s mouth about 10 feet away. Suddenly, a woman covered head-to-toe in a light blue gauzy veil–all but her heavy kohl-lined eyes–had my hand, was looking me in the eye asking me in 3, 4, 5 languages where I was from and henna painting my hand at the same time. The henna was cold–and itchy. But I was fascinated–she put the design on each finger joint, the top of my hand and up my wrist a bit. I let her finish so I could talk to her. Fatima–she knew of Chicago, “Michael Jordan!” When she’d disappeared into the crowd, after my paying her about $5, I found my way to a bathroom to get the itching stuff off. A kind Moroccan lady helped me wash it away…tut-tutting and smiling. She pointed at places where the henna was poorly applied and chattered away (in French? Arabic?) as we worked on my hands beneath the cold water in the small, dim bathroom.