Monday, March 4, 2013

Morocco – Marrakech


The medina was already buzzing the evening we arrived in Marrakesh. Brightly lit stalls with mounds of oranges and bins of apricots, dates, nuts, and figs surrounded the main square, Jemaa El-Fnaa. At the gate of the medina, we were immediately enveloped by the “do-gooders” trying to direct us to our riad. With my trusty old Blackberry which I save for travels like this, sim card fully loaded, I called the riad we had booked, and within minutes, Pierre and Simone showed up to whisk us to our very lovely “home” in the Medina. We loved our riad, just off the main square, but down a side street which ensured a quiet’s night sleep.

The sun is blindingly white, I’m squinting even with my sunglasses on. We take refuge in the shady lanes of the souqs, trying not to look directly at the brightly colored pottery, metal lanterns, hand-stitched leather purses, and silver mirrors, otherwise the merchants catch us looking and launch immediately into their hard sell, chasing us as we keep walking. We know the marrakeshi merchants are ruthless – they step into one’s path, blocking the way, commanding us to look at their shop. I dodge, and they chase after me yelling “Oh madam, why do you not like Moroccan men?” Small boys sell packets of tissues and big balloons while women sells baskets and cookies.

When we make eyes at something we want to buy, we realize that the prices in Marrakech are exorbitant as compared to Fes, and the shopkeepers seem angry at us for counter offering a price that we already know is reasonable. With hard bargaining skills, we often emerged triumphant, but one must be firm and be prepared to walk away if the seller refuses your final offer (so tough!).

My favorite purchases in Marrakesh were, of course, the lovely little sugar pots which we tracked down after failing to purchase them in Fes. Other highlights were hand-woven scarves purchased from the best-dressed man in the souk, tiny hand-tooled leather purses, and leather Tuareg camel reins.

As expected, traveling in a unfamiliar terrain comes with frustrating challenges. Every time we paused to consider which direction to head or to take a peek at our map, a boy latched on to us, demanding money to show us the way, even though we protest loudly that we don’t need any help, merci. Taxi drivers refuse to use the meter, and ask for a fare that we know is quadruple what we should be paying. Maybe it’s not any worse here than it was in Delhi, Kathmandu, Hong Kong, or Kuta, but it feels more ruthless. We are exhausted.

Every restaurant plunks down a free dish of olives when we sit down, and they are delicious. The olives make us crave good cheese and good wine, though we can’t find either. Wine and beer are on the menus in the fancy hotels and restaurants that are filled with well-dressed Europeans, but impossible to find at the more affordable places where we mostly eat. We spent two hours out in the no-man’s land of the ville nouvelle finding our way to one supermarket, and then another to buy a bottle of wine and some crackers to enjoy on the terrace of our hotel. Alcohol consumption seems so secretive here that we feel like we are smuggling drugs back into the medina.

It's funny when you travel in exotic places that require you to be on point and use so many senses you did not realize you had! The truth is that in any country no matter the different customs, at the end of the journey people are people and a smile and a hand shake and a bit of warmth gets you a long way.

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