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.

Tangier – The Gateway To Africa

Looking over the Mediterranean from Tangier
Looking over the Mediterranean from Tangier

Going Back to Africa held so many emotions and expectations for me.  It’s a continent on which a year of my life has passed; not a great amount of time but it bears a great amount of significance.  I was excited, hoping the continent would instantly bring back old memories, familiar sensations, that I would feel at home, that Zach would love it.  Yet I knew, at the same time, that Tangier Morocco is a world away from East Africa, with a completely different culture, race, and self-perception.  We had a Couchsurfing host lined up and couldn’t wait to immerse ourselves in the local culture.

One of King Mohammad VI's palaces in Tangier
One of King Mohammad VI’s palaces

Stepping off the ferry from Spain onto African soil again for the first time in three years was a relief.  The FRS Ferry from Tarifa to Tangier was not at all a comfortable ride.  The first 10 minutes of the journey the huge boat rocked from side to side so violently that I thought I was going to lose my lunch.  And I have never been seasick in my life!  Apparently it was a problem of “getting up to speed” and once we got going faster the rocking lessened.

After landing, we got a taxi through the bustling medina to Hakim’s (our Couchsurfing host’s) apartment.  He immediately informed us that we got ripped off by taking the “wrong color taxi” and that we should only take blue ones because they have meters and the brown ones just name a price.  Well how were we supposed to know that before he told us?  Oh well.  Welcome to Africa.

Walking through the "medina", the old city/marketplace in Tangier.
Walking through the “medina”, the old city/marketplace in Tangier.

Tangier was, of course, wildly different from East Africa.  Almost every woman wore a hijab, many completely veiled in birkahs.  The call to prayer could be heard five times a day from a variety of different directions, mosques dominating the city.

There were remnants of a strong foreign prescence however, as Tangiers used to be an “international zone” in the years surrounding World War II, with different sections controlled by several different European nations.  It was also a popular hangout/escape for the artists/writers/druggies of the Beat generation, home to William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and a popular touring ground for the Rolling Stones and The Clash.  Nowadays, a lot of the expats have gone home, and the city remains largely conservative.  Alcohol is nearly impossible to find and insanely expensive.  The Lonely Planet lists which bars, specifically, are okay for women to drink at, and its not very many!

We took a break from the drinking scene, as our Couchsurfing hosts were pretty devout Muslim non-drinkers.  We did enjoy a lot of “Berber whiskey”, a.k.a. the famous Moroccan mint tea, super sweet and chock full of fresh mint leaves.  Hakim and his roommates also cooked us an amazing “tajine”, basically a vegetable/meat stew slow-cooked in a special clay dish with exotic Moroccan spices.  The rest of the visit was spent exploring and taking in the beautiful Islamic architecture of Tangier!

Delicious tajine...sorry for the bad picture!
Delicious tajine while Couchsurfing in Tangier.
Classic Islamic architecture in the Tangier's "Kasbah"- castle
Classic Islamic architecture in the Kasbah – ancient walled castle section of town
Classic Islamic architecture in the kasbah of Tangier.
“Hands of fatima” symbolizing the Five Pillars of Islam
Intricate mosque ceiling on display in the Kasbah Museum, Tangier
Intricate mosque ceiling on display in the Kasbah Museum
Parts Unknown Bourdain Tangier
Café Tingis in Tangier. It’s the coffee shop in the Petit Soco that Anthony Bourdain visited on “Parts Unknown” Bonus points to anyone who can name the person Bourdain talked to on that show.  He is in this picture!!!!