Marrakesh has been on my bucket list for something like 30 years. I've long had a fascination with the colors, the furnishings, the food, and the romance of the place. I'm not sure how it started, probably on my first trip to southern Spain after college and seeing the Moorish influences there and wondering about the culture of origin. I made tagines, collected colorful tiles, and went so far as to decorate an entire room in my house in Philadelphia with deep red walls, leather-covered window seats, tapestry throw pillows big enough to sit on, fabrics in golds and purples, and ornately painted tables - oh Morocco, you've been with me a long time! Finally setting foot in North Africa, it did not let me down.
Scott's approach to Morocco was a bit more subdued. He was hesitant, a bit worried about our safety, and not relishing the idea of being harassed and harried by hawkers constantly. If your only information is gleaned from guide books for Westerners and blogs by Westerners, it's easy to get a worrisome picture of the place. It was a bit like my feeling upon embarking on our journey down the Baja Peninsula. Excited but mixed with not a little trepidation. Luckily, the result for Scott in Marrakesh was the same as for me in Baja - it quickly won him over!
You've heard of culture shock, of course, but we have come to believe that, really, what you're feeling upon landing somewhere totally foreign is environment shock. It goes beyond culture because usually you feel it before you've even had a chance to experience the culture. It's that feeling we've had everywhere we've landed that isn't Western - Central America, South America, North Africa, even Croatia. It hits you because everything looks different. The architecture, the streets, the cars, the people - they're just not like what you have at "home". It feels alienating and not a little frightening - if you let it. But we've come to realize the signs and symptoms and know that we just have to give ourselves a few days in the new environment and it will start to feel "normal".
We arrived in Marrakesh late at night and thankfully arranged transport from the airport with our Riad (hotel). But driving into the old quarter, the Medina, at night, everything was closed, the streets were dark and winding, and young men were hanging out everywhere. We drove past the main square and went on and on through narrow alleys for what seemed like another 20 minutes. We asked ourselves, "what did we do?", "where is this place?", "what have we gotten ourselves into?" But we had seen this before in Cartagena and in Barcelona where vibrant shopping streets close up at night with steel doors covering the entries and dark, deserted emptiness taking its place only to come back to life the next morning. So we reserved judgement, trusted our research, and arrived at the most fabulous hotel to the most welcoming staff and a glass of mint tea to calm us down. The next day the streets were alive, full of people, and felt totally safe. We were a 20 minute walk from the main square but that walk was part of the excitement of staying in the Medina. Passing through the chaos of sight, sound, and smell as you wander and inevitably get lost in the souks, shopping areas, is an integral part of the Marrakesh experience.
The spice shops are truly amazing. They make these pointed cones with a playing card to smooth the edges.
The pastries in Marrakesh are not to be missed. Many are filled with nuts, pistachios or walnuts, and almost all are soaked in honey. They are delicious! Taking pictures like these is a funny endeavor. Most vendors welcome pictures but you can tell who the grumpy ones are as they have "No Photos" signs on their wares. One pastry guy, of all things, had a beautiful display but wouldn't let Scott photograph it?! Maybe he felt about his pastries like museums do about fine art - who knows. In a way, they are.
Another certainty in the souks is that every kind of conveyance comes through those narrow alleys. Donkey carts, bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks - they have it all. To avoid being run over, keep right!
Perhaps the hardest part is the young men. In stereotypical middle-class, white America (in which we were both raised), young men of color hanging on street corners is not a good thing. But in a culture where women are not seen outside the home as much at night and most homes don't have air conditioning or television, hanging out outside watching the world go by is just something to do. Putting aside your own discomfort and accepting a different way of doing things is an essential part of travel.
THE BIG SQUARE IS THAT WAY!
All of that being said, there are a few things very different about Marrakesh. First, the ever present young men and, shockingly to us until we got used to it, children - innocent children you're thinking - LOVE to mess with tourists. The favorite game is to tell you to go in the complete opposite direction of where you want to go and get you lost in the Medina. There is a constant chorus of "the big square is that way" accompanied by insistent finger-pointing. They will even offer to lead you there and then take you on a rambling course into the far reaches and abandon you. We heard from so many people that were so angry about this - we kind of found it funny. All of the guidebooks caution to not accept directions from people on the street. If you're lost, they say, ask a shopkeeper who is marginally more likely to steer you in the right direction. We say, use Google Maps! Amazingly, it works even in the depths of the souks and it is critical to direct yourself to where you're going.
The "big square", Jemaa el-Fnaa, is certainly not to be missed. During the day, it's all vendors and showmen with their monkeys and snakes.
At night, it's just a big party with tons of food. This was the only part I was nervous about. I had read tons of things about how crazy it is and to be really careful and if, in the end, it was all just too much, you should escape to one of the many restaurant terraces overlooking the square and observe from a safe distance. After all of that build up, we were nervously excited to go and having finally worked up the courage one night, we, well, felt let down by how non-scary, non-threatening, and non-chaotic it was! We were ready for an adventure and we got the equivalent of the State Fair midway. Yes, there were big groups of people hanging around but they were either at sing alongs or playing put the ring on the bottle.
The most chaotic part is the food area. There are young men in front of each stall trying to get you to pick theirs over all of the others that serve exactly the same food. They are persistent and, if you let them be, annoying. We decided to take the advice we'd read and engage them in a friendly way and politely but resolutely decline. They were such jokesters and we had a lot of fun with them once they knew that a.) we weren't going to be offended or rude and b.) we weren't just not eating at their stall we weren't eating at any stall.
HURRY! IT'S THE LAST DAY!
The second favorite game is to innocently intercept you on the street, engage you in innocent conversation ("Where are your from? Do you like Morocco? How long are you here?"), and then say "Have you been to X? You know it's the last day it will be here. You must go. I will show you where it is." And off you go to the tannery that's closing tomorrow, the Bedouin market that is only once a month, the mosque that is only open to outsiders for one day, and on and on, only to find you are being taken to be taken advantage of. We learned this the first day, the hard way. Looking back on it later, and reminiscing about our innocence that first day as it happened again and again, we could only smile. The best guy came up to us and said "Hi! Remember me? I work at your hotel. Have you been to the Bedouin rug market yet? It's just around the corner! You can't miss it - it's closing today!" He couldn't have known we were staying at a very small Riad where we knew all of the staff well or that we'd already fallen for this once and learned from our mistakes. And yet, we almost fell for it again! It happens so fast and they are so nice and seem so trustworthy and helpful...until you realize, wait he doesn't work at our hotel! nothing is sold for only one day in Marrakesh! thanks but no thanks, we'll be on our way.
BUT DON'T MISS THE TANNERIES!
But that first day we did fall for it. The target was the tannery that would be "closing for the season". Well they hit the right target because I wanted to see the tanneries but hadn't really known how we would get there or how we would tour them and couldn't believe my luck that we'd get to see them on the last day so off we went with the very nice and helpful young man who reassured us he would guide us there without a tip. Of course, he just happened to run into a guy he knew who actually worked there and who would take us the rest of the way so he could continue on to where he was going before he met us. So "very nice and helpful young man" number 2 took us through the tanneries in about five minutes and then onto the "Artisan Market".
This is part of the "scam". The least threatening guy with the best English gets you on the hook and then hands you off to the next guy who you'd probably never go with voluntarily but since your "guide" says he okay you believe it. It's really an amazing system perfected to play on Western stereotypes. And I put "scam" in quotes because at the end of the day you aren't ripped off or put in any danger and you do get to see what you wanted to see, you're just delivered to a place where the people they work for are selling their goods instead of the thousand other places selling the same goods.
There are a number of tanneries in the northern part of the Medina (and no they don't stop production tomorrow). Leather is worked and dyed manually using traditional methods of soaking the hides in pits, stomping it to make it soft, and laying it in the sun to dry. Be forewarned, the tanneries are smelly, dirty, and pretty disgusting places. For tourists, they give you a handful of mint to put under your nose. They call is a Marrakesh "gas mask" and it really works! Do not enter a tannery without it.
You see the raw leather being moved all around the Medina on donkey carts, aka a Marrakesh Mercedes, destined for the many leather workshops where it is cut, polished, and sewn into consumer goods.
So, looking back, we had to smile. We got to see the tanneries, I funded a family of four for a year with the leather jacket I bought, we learned a valuable lesson, and got to see an amazing example of social engineering masquerading as salesmanship. How about that jacket made of the softest suede in my current favorite color! It really is excellent quality and it fits like a glove. Sure, I might have bought the same coat for the same price in a mall in Kansas but I wouldn't have the story to tell.
Deciding how you respond to these situations will make or break your visit to Marrakesh. We decided to embrace it. After all, we don't want to be in Kansas. You can't see street scenes like these from a cafe in Kansas.
Check out Part 2 where we go exploring.