For Christmas this year, we decided to skip Christmas. Margaux had some days off and we booked the cheapest flight we could find, which happened to be Marrakech, Morocco. I can’t say that Marrakech was at the top of either of our travel lists, but then again, we don’t really have travel lists yet. Anyway, we arrived in Marrakech knowing next to nothing. It’s not a very good way to travel, because it makes the learning curve a little too steep, plus it makes us look like ignorant American jerks. But there we were, with the only page about the entire country of Morocco torn out of our “Europe on a Shoestring” book. (It is a book about Europe, after all.) Lesson learned.
We caught the bus to the center of the old town. J’ma el Fna. I had seen it on an episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and was eager to see all the action.
Snake charmers and cobras, monkeys, orange juice vendors, drummers, story tellers, henna painters, horses, donkeys pulling carts, motorcycles and cars all whizzing around without any semblance of order. Not to mention the smell. Use your imagination.
It was a lot to take in. I was eager to dump our bags at the hostel so we could explore without the obvious, “I just got here”-look that declares, “Please ask me for money!” We wandered down a small alley as directed by the hostel’s directions we had printed the night before. There are not many street signs, and using directions like “take the third left” and “on the corner” are impossible when streets wind and bend in every direction. Our directions told us to go through two arches and then follow the alley to our right until it bends to the left. We managed to find it!
When we went in, we were invited to sit for tea. We had tea, and looked at the map. A little while later a woman came over to tell us about the hostel. I guess that was our check in. We were led to our room, which was on the roof of a building behind the original hostel, and dumped our bags. I was excited to go back out to the square and look at everything.
By dinner time, we were caught up in the maze of food vendors who set up shop every night and try to persuade every person who walks by to come eat. Every food stand has a beautiful display of raw meats, veggies, salads and breads. It’s basically a health inspector’s worst nightmare. And an adventurous eater’s dream. We chose stall #117. “Number 117, to heaven,” the waiter says. We sit at a picnic table covered with plastic and tell the waiter that we want to try a little bit of everything, except fish and couscous. Tiny plates, one after another, are served to our delight. Everything is fucking delicious. Olives, lamb skewers, roasted eggplant, stewed veggies and lamb, lemon chicken, spicy bright red sauce in a little dish that I basically drank right up. The lady next to us was eating a sheep’s head, right off the skull complete with teeth and eyes. Cool!!!
The next morning, we spend time wandering through the tiny streets filled with millions of things and very eager salespeople (souks are the little shops lining tiny streets). This was something we had seriously underestimated in our prep for the trip. The constant, relentless, and persuasive chatter from every single shopkeeper and street vendor. It was, at first, too intense for either of us to handle. The first night, we had gotten carried away by a pair of women hawking henna tattoos and ended up getting half-rate henna at quintuple the price. Not because we wanted to get ripped off, but because we didn’t know what we were doing. So wandering through the souks was overwhelming for both of us, especially with the sting of being ripped off fresh in our mind. Still, it’s hard to be unimpressed with the hustle and bustle of the streets.
We ate more delicious food, bought some knitted hats, dodged mopeds, donkey carts and running kids. We drank some coffee. Mostly we just stared at everything, trying to take it all in. We realized how very little we know and understand about this city, culture and its customs. I have never been more aware of the fact that I am a woman. We walked past a cafe looking to get some coffee and realized there was not a single woman inside, despite the crowded streets, then we noticed ALL the cafes had only men. Confused and uncomfortable, we found a tourist-y cafe instead. It is strange to be so aware of social rules and not understand them at the same time.
By the end of our first full day, our minds were exhausted. We headed back to the hostel, and were pleasantly surprised with the lovely company that had gathered on the hostel rooftop to smoke shisha (hookah) and swap travel stories. We joined them, had a few beers and laughed about our cultural blunders and misinformation. Everyone seemed to have traveled much more extensively than Margaux and me. We ate up their stories of traveling, asked lots of questions and got too many recommendations about other places to go and top 3 must-sees. The other travelers also sympathized with our confusion in Marrakech and helped us understand some of the cultural differences.
We learned that the constant pressure to “come look!” “you will like this, good price” that is relentless in the city is just the way it is. We can’t change it, and if we wanted a comfortable experience, we should have just gone to Target or Starbucks. I realized that the reason we were uncomfortable is because we have never experienced this before. Duh. This IS travel. To be uncomfortable and gain experiences. Uncomfortable means you are doing something new! Of course, uncomfortable is different than unsafe. We were uncomfortable, but not unsafe. With this realization, I was ecstatic. This is what I signed up for! Hell yes.
Maybe one day I’ll tell you about the local hammam (bath house), where we got a naked scrub down in a steamy room full of other people. No pics of that. Obviously. Talk about being uncomfortable! Or when you have some free time, I’ll tell you about the pharmacy we went to, or the adventure it was to get some wine in this dry town! Or about the tea that had some vicks vaporub in it, I think. Good times.
Read about our Camel Trek in Part 2!
Here’s the pics, click on one photo for the slideshow.