No seriously. Africa is my dream place. No, no…not like England “dream place”. Like when I imagine myself in my other, other life, wearing men’s button downs, with wild hair, working in the plains of Africa, next to animals, tribes, dirt, and knowing that my purpose in this life has always been to help and help and help. Help what? Who cares! This is my dream of my dream life, jeez. Don’t hate…
So, to Africa we go. But not the wild Africa, the very European, Islamic Africa- Morocco. And maybe in your mind you’re imagining the very same Africa that I usually do, but this Africa in reality is more like Egypt-Africa than Kenya-Africa. No wild animals, no villages, no strong, stoic warriors with spears and beaded clothing. Nope, my second Africa experience was filled with pollution, traffic, souks, honking, hustling, and only light discomfort. Not even the type of discomfort I really like either.
Marrakesh. Because we had house exchanged, and the apartment where we were staying was a long ways from the main part of town, with no Internet or modern convinces. It wasn’t in a pretty area, and that was the saddest part of my first moments. In my mind’s eye, I saw tiled floors, arched doorways, rippling foundations, men dressed in galebias drinking tea. In reality, we lived in an apartment complex over a pharmacy and a couple of tire shops. The inside was pleasant, nothing tremendous to speak of, but comfortable for the four of us to sit and sleep. We were lucky to have a pastry shop nearby which made delicious breads and pan ou chocolats for our morning breakfasts, along with two outside butchers who would chop up various types of meat in a tiled alcove and where once you selected your carcass they would grill it up for you right there to eat with flat bread, diced tomatoes, olives, and a veg tagine of the day, all located just behind the apartments. Other than that…it was bare pickings. One must venture inwards for the real goods.
And it was getting into the main part of the town, the medina, that was a bitch.
You had options though. You could walk 4 or so miles down a hugely busy road way, hoping a taxi would stop for you that wasn’t already busting with people because if there is space, they’ll take as many fares as possible. Or waiting for an imaginary bus that was also so crowded that the walk through the weight of the air pollution felt like a dream. On that route, we did find an O’Mulligans pub with wifi and beer, which we quite liked, a mafioso speak easy, which Roy and I frequented quite a bit at the end of our stay, the train and bus stations which served spaghetti (judge if you want), before you got in the old city walls and the action could really begin.
If you haven’t been to a souk of any kind, I will do my best to describe this phenomenon, as it is exactly that. Try to imagine a child creating a maze with blocks, one that had no direct route, just paths and avenues that came off others, leading to dead ends, or right back out to the place where you started with no rhyme or reason. Then imagine filling that insular maze with hundreds and hundreds of touts selling all of the following in no particular order: spices, nuts, shoes, fake luxury bags, ancient tea pots and plates, modern ceramics, underwear, clothing, robes, leather good of any kind, mirrors, food stuffs, plastic toys, lanterns, snakes, oils, ointments for every ailment, weapons, kitch, all while the vendors are literally screaming to get you inside their makeshift department stores. There is a small opening in each shop amongst all of the crap, where 1-4 people can squeeze in to try and peruse the hundreds of items that start from the floor and work their way to the ceiling and back again. It is tramaze balls that so much can be fit into so small a space. And then you look too long at one item or even in one direction, suddenly you’re in trouble; big bargaining trouble.
You see, these sellers are bad ass business men. They might give you the whole routine of, “I poor, I uneducated, I no understand”. But let me tell you, from the second you’ve walked into their stall, they have you so pegged that a CIA operative would be impressed. And then they start giving you the run down on the ancient history of the item you desire, which kings and heroes held in their own hands, how it has been hand-made, passed down from generation to generation, too precious to even sell, buuuuuuut….they’ll give you good price because you have:
a nice smile,
are from a nearby location of their cousin, aunt, niece, brother, son.
And then you ask the price.
Right at that moment, they OWN YOU.
No matter what happens from that point on, that tout will wrangle either MUCH money from your wallet or ALL the money from your wallet. And if you’re a novice…if you’ve never been in this environment,t they will fleece you dry. Buuuuuttttt, if you’ve been around the block once or twice, you can have a grand ol’ time in the dance they call Berber sales.
Sit down, smile, have tea, talk about the weather, or your kids, your new marriage(in my case), the beauty of their county, WHATEVER YOU WANT in order to make nice and then throw out a price 50% lower than they asked. And then the dance begins.
“6,000 for you pretty lady”
3,000, you respond with a smile
“What??? You kill me!! My children, how can you! But because I like you, let’s say 5,500”
4,000, you jump
“Nooooooo, I can’t eat with those prices, you must come up, how about 5000’…for my kids and your future children to be happy. Please let’s make deal now.”
4,000, you repeat
Now once you’ve got the price you’re willing to pay you CANNOT BACK DOWN NO MATTER WHAT. Even if you have to leave the shop with sorrowful head bows and sadness etched on your face, they will almost ALWAYS call you back.
And that’s what happened to us in the Souk.
And for our exorbitant price, we got:
An antique hand gun
A huge brass plate
Two wall sconces
A metal mirror
An ivory tangine
And in the end, both tout and white face were happy.
Money spent well, money earned well.
To be fair, Morocco isn’t all dust and bargaining. We were super lucky to know countless travelers that recommended to us different cities to visit and we chose to go to an ancient seaside town called Essouira. I can NOT tell you how amazing this location turned out to be and how it turned us totally on to all that we could experience in Morocco.
Imagine all those small cobbled streets lined with bright blue doors, white walls, small shops selling wood and leather, cats running the roust, dogs belonging to all. Carpets hang on the street walls and tea shops selling fragrant Moroccan mint tea, quietly beckoning to you in the calmest and most gentle manner. Like the sea that washes up to this ancient medina, the waves are picturesque like the town and suddenly you have the impression you never want to leave.
This city has drawn every famous author, painter, musician, poet, and artist one has ever learned about in school and fascinated about being at home. It is a place where people come to visit and never go home. Jimi Hendrix wrote his famous song, “Castles Made of Sand”, about this view and when gazing at that same structure which is disappearing into the waves, you feel legendary yourself. In the huge plaza that opens into the waters, there is the feeling that if you were to twirl yourself round and round until you could fall below the soaring the seagulls and the sound of the crashing waves, you may die happy. I had to stop myself many, many times from just that.
Once we exhausted our exploration of tiny alley ways, eating fresh seafood at beach side cafes, shopping like animals, and sipping tea, we ruefully retuned via charter bus to Marrakesh to resume our overhaul through the city of muchness.
I will say that Lonely Planet is still, and has always been, a piece of shit directory to any given location, and I, as a seasoned traveler, should have been more than aware that this was the case and not fallen back into believing everything I read from their lying pages. But, without the Internet, I had no way of determining things to see and do in our city, so I opened the book of doom and proceeded to pick out a palace and tombs to view for a day of sightseeing.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Choosing to walk, Roy and I were so surprised almost two hours later to find that we STILL weren’t at our location and were maybe…lost. We picked a park bench, sat down to eat or makeshift lunch of meat balls, bread, olives and cheese, and while there, Roy had the ingenious idea to take a horse drawn carriage (for the white people) over to the tombs so that we could at least GET THERE before sundown. And thank the Lord we did, as we would have never found this little space tucked down a small alley, with no signs or directions. And after our massive trek to get there, the FOUR MINUTES it took for us to go through what LP called a gorgeous and magnificent alter to passed royals, was pretty but quick.
So, not to be deterred, we continued through the medina to find the Bahia Palace, and found some consistencies in our experience. Firstly, there are the children who were trying to lead us in the opposite direction for fun and giggles, only to be met with another youngin’ who did proceed to show us the right way, only it wasn’t anyway right. This kid literally picks us up, and begins to walk quick step down non touristy looking streets and continues to do this for 20-25 minutes, only looking back to check that we’re still there every few minutes. Roy and I blindly follow but realize we are going deeper and deeper into no man’s land where a little demon sitting on our shoulders flashes pictures of our dismembered bodies in a basement or even just being deposited in a spice shop and left to fend for ourselves. Neither sound pleasant.
However, I’ve learned when traveling that gut instincts are everything and I didn’t feel weird at all about this kid. So follow we did. And eventually when he dropped us off in front of the dilapidated site described as a palace, he held out his hand, looked at us disgustedly after we filled it with change, and then bounced. About one sentence passed between us, but with the unspoken language of white face and deep pockets, we got from point A to point B alive and well.
And of course the palace was nice, but nothing like the LP bible described. It only took us 12 minutes to go through, hardcore palace. Thank Allah that Roy and I like to walk otherwise I may have been slightly bitter. But so is traveling. We figured that we were committed to being out and about and would continue the day thus forth, so we went back to the Souk for yet MORE shopping, had the most amazing fresh squeezed orange juice for $0.50, and jumped into the back of a tuk-tuk to go home. 10 walking miles, two sites, three gifts, 2 glasses of OJ, one horse ride, one tuk tuk lift and our one day out was completed.
I may sound slightly negative, and as I’m thinking about this post, I more than anything don’t want to deter a person from taking the trip out to Morocco. This is a country which is lucky enough to have something for everyone. Gorgeous treks in the mountains, skiing, beaches, history, quality goods, KIND KIND PEOPLE, and an ease which many other locations I’ve visited don’t share. And I would go back…absolutely.
But would I stay in Marrakesh? Yes, but only at a nice Riad near the center of town – Treat myself (and you don’t normally hear me say that). And would I go out into the wild to trek the mountains and ride a camel in the desert? Ab-so-freaking-lutely!! It’s exotic, it’s different, it’s life, and a heartbeat of the world.
Overall, it was an amazing, amazing trip. Roy, my friends, THE BOYLES, Mom and Steven, were all awesome. I got to see friends, family, babies, palaces (!), new homes, new pubs, and the best faces I can imagine. I have pictures to boot, but more so, I have memories.
So, here’s to county number 38! And looking forward to our Honeymoon in Fiji and adding country number 39.