Marrakech – The Heart of Morocco

The Koutoubia, Marrakech's central mosque
The Koutoubia, Marrakech’s central mosque

The all night train from Tangier to Marrakech was comfortable, but still impossible for sleeping.  We spent the night popping in and out of sleep, strange cities coming and going along with the people in our compartment.   At dawn the sun rose over the desert and everything looked distinctly more African.  Dusty and brown with scattered shrubs and skinny trees.  Once at our destination we hailed a taxi (more like he hailed us) and we were soon passing through the wall surrounding the Medina and driving across Djemaa Al Fna (Community Square), one of the most famous places in Morocco.  The driver left us at the edge of the maze and after a couple minutes walking we were in our riad.  We needed a nap but the city was calling.

Medina walls
Medina walls

Endless madness, thats what was happening.  We walked into the medina knowing we would get lost.  Once we wandered into a distinctly less touristy area, kids started pointing us back in the right direction.  Carrie made sure I knew that getting lost in large African cities was a bad idea, so we were more careful after that.  “ZOORRMMM” as a motorbike screams past, barely avoiding the other motorbikes and crowds of people.  We had to always keep an eye or ear out for them as we really didn’t want to end up in a Moroccan hospital.  There was SOOO much stuff here and it took about an hour to get from one side of the medina to the other.  The craftspeople are still organized in a guild system, so there was an area for blacksmiths, shoemakers, leather workers, potters, the lamps, carpets, spices, etc.  Overwhelming wasn’t a strong enough word.

Spice markets
Spice markets

It seemed like most everything sold in the medina was made in the medina.  We also got the feeling that a lot of people who lived there rarely, if ever, left.  The walls are twelve feet apart in the widest sections, so it quickly got claustrophobic.  The people were just way to pushy and sometimes rude.  But there were also people who were genuinely really nice and it was hard to tell the difference a lot of the time.  Someone just needs to teach them that saying “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me…” over and over and over as we ignore you is never ever going to get us into your shop.  Also, when you yell “Rasta! Rasta!” over and over that is just going to make us mad.  Carrie didn’t know she had dreadlocks; thanks for telling us.

In Marrakech there are always people whispering (sometimes yelling) “…Hashish…” to anyone who is young and white.  A lot of tourists buy this stuff from these people but it is a bad idea.  Many of the dealers are snitches and will go right to the police as soon as you walk away with the brick.  The police will then arrest you and you will spend a mandatory two nights in jail plus a large fine.  Everyone makes money, only you lose.  Just say “no” sternly and keep walking.  They aren’t very pushy about it, unlike in Lisboa where there’s the same stuff, just more annoying people trying to sell it.

The Djemaa Al Fna gets crazy at night.  About 20 food stands appear in the middle around the dusk call to prayer, setting up and disassembling every night.  They all sell similar foods, cooked over charcoal – tajine, kebabs, soups… all served with bread and mint tea.  The smoke is crazy, filling the square and it gives a real mystic feeling to the multitudes of other performers set up everywhere.  There are acrobats, snake charmers, homemade carnival games, bands, story tellers, women applying henna, and who knows what else.  The same scene has been happening for a millenia and isn’t going to stop any time soon.  Just don’t take any pictures unless you’re ready to drop a few Dirhams in their hat.

Djemaa Al Fna at night
Djemaa Al Fna at night

And then there was the new part of town, Gueliz, where women uncovered their heads and restaurants sold beer for exhorbitant prices.  There was a modern shopping mall and supermarkets, traffic lights and vehicles drove on specific sides of the road, separate from pedestrians and sheep.   It’s nice for when you need to get out of the claustrophobic medina.

Marrakech is frustrating at times and at others down right annoying.  But it is the heart of Morocco and once you figure it out, it starts to grow on you.  All in all we really enjoyed our five days wandering, wondering, and drifting away, into the madness.

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