In which the early Marrakeshi hustler fails to get the worm; Marrakesh at last; Finding the riad; Evil children with smiling faces; A house of quiet repose; Djemaa el-Fnaa; The souks of Marrakesh; Snake-charmers and spice shops; Sheryl and her devil hair; The palace of storks; The last synagogue and the only Jew in Morocco; Majorelle Garden

We all slept quite well on the train, and woke late, just as the train pulled away from the station just before Marrakesh. We hurriedly began to dress and pack up. Naturally, just as I was naked on the top bunk, some big fat Marrakeshi whipped open the compartment door - and then shut it in a hurry. He came back a few minutes later saying “Everything is okay? Everyone has his clothes on?” and sitting grandly on a bed and introducing himself magnanimously. Claiming to be employed by the rail company (his uniform must have been in the wash, leaving him with only a dirty golf shirt and fanny pack) he grandiosely offered us Moroccan hospitality in the form of a ride into town from the train station. Not being born yesterday, and knowing that he wasn’t employed by the train company, and that he’d got on the train at the last stop, and that he’d been going down the sleeping car making the same offer to everyone, we politely declined. We’d barely finished saying we preferred to walk when he’d vanished as quickly as he’d come.

Coming off the train, we grabbed a cab into the centre of town - the old walled section, called the Medina, where our accommodation was. We were due to stay in a riad, which is like a hostal or pension - a one-star bare-bones guesthouse or hotel. We had very sketchy instructions for how to find it, translated from some non-English language (”take Derb Dabachi from Djemaa el-Fnaa, turn at the third derb on the right and go to number 17, reception is by dar Bamilike”). We knew from our guidebook that Djemaa el-Fnaa was the main central square of the Medina, and I’d found Dabachi on the map, and we knew that a derb was a small street or alley, so we thought we had a reasonable chance of finding the place.

We hadn’t reckoned on Marrakesh, though. Its streets are a narrow twisting chaos of people, mopeds and donkey carts all crammed in together and all screeching loudly in various pitches. The air is a miasma of engine fumes, cooking smoke and animal dung, and the sun slams like a hammer down on the stones of the road. It’s like no other place I’ve ever been, and the unprepared Westerner is instantly lost. I’m very grateful that we arrived in the early morning before the streets got busy, or - god forbid - at night, when the streets are jammed and barely navigable.

We knew we were on Rue Dabachi - the taxi driver had dropped us off there, he’d said, and I’d seen a street sign confirming it - but we had no idea which side street was the third from the square. It sounds stupid, but none of the streets have signs (and our map had no names for the streets anyway) and some of them are streets, and some of them are just alleys, and there’s no readily apparent method of telling one from the other. They’re all full of people and donkeys and cats, and they all have the same trash in the corners and the same stones underfoot, and they all meet at the top where the buildings are leaning into each other, leaving the bottom in deep shadow. It’s a maze, and I was acutely aware of just how easily and quickly we could all vanish, and never be found again. We tried twice to count streets, and were unsuccessful at finding a number 17 both times.

I was discreetly attempting to consult the map - or as discreetly as it’s possible to be when carrying a huge backpack and being, clearly, not Moroccan - when a boy of twelve years or so approached us and asked if we needed to find our riad. We’d been ignoring the constant gutteral demands of “Cherche riad?!” shouted at us, but against my better judgement I took a chance and told the kid the name of our hotel. Naturally he knew exactly where it was and offered to lead us there. Equally naturally I was intensely suspicious of his motives - my rule is, trust only people that I approach for directions, and that look too busy and irritated to mislead me, and distrust anyone who approaches me with a smiling baby face and offers me directions out of the goodness of their heart. But you don’t want to be a completely cynical bastard all the time, do you, and so I followed him into the alley… and into another, smaller alley. I rebelled at this point, but Emilie trusted the kid and followed him, and I had to watch her back - until he led her, smiling all the time and swearing the place was just around the corner, into an even smaller alley. Even the locals were looking at us askance at this point, and I decided that enough was quite enough and that I didn’t want to fall for what is, after all, one of the oldest tricks in the book, and over the kid’s sad and wounded protests, retreated to Rue Dabachi before his older brother and his brother’s friends showed up with their blunt or pointy instruments.

This was the sort of thing we were all expecting from Marrakesh, really, and we weren’t surprised or shocked. Marrakesh is legendary for danger after all, and I can’t complain. It’s our responsibility to be wary and not walk wide-eyed stupid into bad situations. In the end and after some persistence, we found the place we were looking for. “dar Bamilike” turned out to be, not a street, but a different riad, at which the reception for our riad was located. Don’t ask me, I don’t know. In any case they confirmed our reservation and led us to our riad, which felt like a haven of tranquility after the streets and noise of Marrakesh. It was a building modelled on the traditional Moroccan style, with an internal courtyard with trees and a small pool. We settled in and took a short rest, and then ventured out into the streets again.

Marrakeshi are, on the whole, more tolerant and friendlier than Tangerines. The girls had none of the issues with men that they’d had in Tangier, though they had learned by that point not to make eye contact, that being seen as provocative - a necessity which made Sheryl, heir to fifty years of womens’ liberation, grind her teeth, I can tell you. I myself had none of the issues I’d had with men playing eye-contact alpha-male dominance games, staring at the girls and then trying to bore holes through my skull with their eyes. All of this is not surprising, I suppose - Marrakesh is a tourist town, after all, and those who live in tourist towns know from whence their money comes (trust me, I know). Still, Sheryl overheard a few muttered comments about her “devil hair” - it’s hot pink at the moment - and decided to find a headscarf to cover it. She said people were friendlier after that. No one seemed to care what colour my hair was, which fits with what I discovered of Moroccans - that men can get away with nearly any deviance from the norm (with a few notable exceptions) while women must hew to a much stricter standard of acceptability.

The main square of Marrakesh, Djemaa el-Fnaa, is mostly empty by day. There were a few carts selling orange juice, a few carts selling dried fruit, and a few snake charmers. The snake charmers weren’t, really - they had a few snakes that looked drugged, which they drape over the necks of passers-by, play music and shanghai them into their circle, where they take pictures and then demand money. Two hundred dirham per person, in fact - about CAD$30. I like snakes, and Sheryl wanted the pictures, so I was prepared to pay, but certainly not that much - we dropped 120 dirham and left over angry protests. At night, the square comes alive and is crowded with people, food stalls which spring up like mushrooms, vendors selling things from carpets on the pavement, musicians, and the like. According to rumour, the square is also home to the Ladies of the Night, though I wasn’t able to distinguish them from any of the other women in modest Islamic dress - there must be subtle cues which I’m unequipped to notice. The square swarms, too, with adorable little girls with huge eyes who attach themselves to your legs, stare up at you, and try to sell you toilet paper. As everyone knows, I’m a sucker for a set of pretty eyes, and I found it very hard to say no to the little sweethearts, especially since I knew they probably didn’t want to be selling me toilet paper any more than I wanted to be buying it. The ones selling pastries were even harder to resist.

The souks of Marrakesh must be seen to be believed. It’s an entire neighbourhood of twisting narrow streets roofed over with straw mats and filled with stalls and booths filled with every sort of merchandise imaginable - tortoises and chameleons, footwear and clothing and jewellery, carpets and carvings and lanterns. Emilie and I spent some time wandering there, trying to find some clothes for her (which we did, and at a good price, too - she’s a sharp negotiator and leverages mercilessly the fact that Moroccan men think she looks Arab and drool over her). I could have taken a thousand photos there, but I was only able to take a handful, since pausing for even a second or focusing a camera brings the owner of the stall over like a shot with the hard-sell. We took a quick look through the metalworkers’ section, and found that all the cheap lanterns and wrought iron are not actually factory-made, but made by hand by kids and people welding without masks on, and this made us feel a lot worse.

Most of our food was obtained from little stalls in the square or on the main streets - tagine, couscous or brochettes of meat. Moroccan food is bland but good. We also drank a lot of the traditional sweet mint tea at every meal - I’ve developed quite a taste for it. That, once or twice a day, and liter upon liter upon liter of water, comprised our diet. The heat was unbelievable, and the lack of humidity meant that we couldn’t really tell we were overheating until we actually fell over. It didn’t take long at all until we adopted the local habit of venturing out in the mornings and at night, and staying indoors between 1pm and 5pm when the heat was at its worst. I drank easily three times the amount of water I normally do. Too, Morocco is a Muslim country, and that meant that water was the main beverage - beer and the like not being readily available. But after the amount of sangria we’d had in the past few days, it was good to take a break from the sauce. Sheryl has a device which purifies water using ultraviolet light, and we used it constantly - making water was Emilie’s nightly chore.

One thing about Marrakesh is that even the nice people are on the make. Sheryl met one nice young guy hanging out in the shade, who told her about a neat old palace (el Badi) which has been taken over by storks and their nests. He took us to see it, and then kindly took us on a tour of all his friends’ shops. One of them was quite nice actually - a spice shop with some amazing stuff. We walked out €25 lighter and heavier by a mint tea blend, Moroccan curry, and a thirty-spice blend which I can’t wait to cook with. That was our big indulgence for Marrakesh, and we didn’t buy anything else while we were there. They were nice people, though, and they gave us tea. Afterward, the opportunistic tour guide took us on a trek through a maze of streets which had my danger-sense tingling, but nothing happened and we saw a lot of the Medina that we otherwise wouldn’t have. One of the things he showed us was the only synagogue in Marrakesh, a beautifully-appointed temple kept by an old white-haired man who I think must have been the last Jew in Morocco. Leaving, I said a proper shalom and we gave twenty dirham toward the upkeep of the temple and its keeper.

Eventually we tired of the heat and the noise of the Medina, and of having to walk with a constant sort of 360-degree sphere of ninja-like preternatural awareness in order to weave between people and avoid being run down by mopeds or donkeys, and of the constant pressure from hustlers in your face chanting the names of one language after another hoping you’ll react to one of them. We fled outside the walls to Majorelle Garden, a lovely green oasis owned by Yves Saint-Laurent, of all people - who had died only a few weeks previous. I can’t imagine how much water must be required to keep so much green from dying in the heat of Marrakesh, but it’s well worth it for the effect. Half the walls and plant pots are painted in a cobalt blue (called bleu majorelle) and the effect is striking. There, too, was one of the best cactus gardens I’ve ever seen.

Marrakesh was an amazingly intense experience, and after three days we felt that we needed a break from it. We’d learned that it was possible to arrange, through the riad, a three-day tour which included a trip into the Sahara on camels. It was expensive - €100 each - but none of us thought twice about it - how often does that chance come along, after all? The tour started from Djemaa el-Fnaa early the next morning, and so we took an early bed.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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