There is so much to write about Morocco and I don’t quite know where to start. There are so many new things that have happened that I could probably save them all up and write about them one at a time for the rest of year and that would be my 365 new things for my final year of my twenties. But I am not a cheater-er. Well, I’m only slightly a cheater-er. I’m only a cheater-er at the times and in the circumstances I choose.
And because there are so many new and exciting things I’m not even going to break them down into each new and exciting thing because it is just pointless. I am bundling them all together and creating a wonderful fable of numerous ‘new and exciting’ things because going through and listing them all would be boring and endless. So, without further ado: my first two days in Morocco.
Yesterday morning we got up at the obscenely un-holiday like hour of 8:20am to have breakfast before our guide arrived to take us out into the town. I would not normally complain about a start time of 8:20am, except that I had (foolishly) drunk a can of Pepsi Max on the plane at approximately 6pm. I used to be addicted to this gunk and could drink 600 mL daily, but these days I find that a single can had any later than about 3pm will keep me awake and jittery into the wee small hours of the morning. I spent the early hours of the night in a state of anxious ‘I’m-not-certain-if-I’m-awake-or-asleep’, making it very difficult to drag myself out of bed when the alarm went off. Also, our room is incredibly dark, meaning no sunlight comes into gently rouse me (the sun is my normal ‘alarm clock’ in London, which unfortunately wakes me around the 6am mark many days). This is nice for sleep-ins, not so nice when you are trying to convince your body to wake up and get ready for the day.
We headed to the rooftop terrace for breakfast and were served what we dubbed ‘heaven-in-a-cup’, but which our hotel named simply as ‘natural yoghurt’. I maintain they filled it with pixie dust , happy thoughts and sunshine (or possibly sugar), because I have never before tasted such delicious yoghurt. Our guide arrived during the end of our breakfast and we headed out into the city.
Our first stop was the Palace Bahia, so-named for the Princess Bahia it was built for. Her husband the Prince was so in love with her that he built her a palace and then carved into the walls poetry praising her beauty, intelligence and charm. He was so in love with her he built her a beautiful room adjacent his own room, separated by a beautiful, peaceful garden, so that they could wave at each other across the ferns and then meet in the middle or go in to one of the bedrooms. He was so in love with her he gave the other princesses that lived there and that he also slept with much smaller rooms and did not cover the walls with poetry praising the beauty of the second princess (Annabile… not certain of spelling). He was SO in love with Princess Bahia that he only had ONE room with 27 little rooms surrounding it, which would be filled with beautiful women who would dance for him and then he would choose which one he liked the best and then (in the words of our guide) she would be ‘cleaned really well’ and then was taken to his bedroom. Yeah, he was THAT in love with Bahia. Perhaps I am being a little harsh to judge this prince’s love by today’s standards of Western Anglo middle-class romantic monogamous love, but I just can’t help it. If my Liberal Arts degree taught me anything, it’s that we all bring our own baggage and perspective to our perception of the world and I couldn’t help but think this prince was kind of a douche. A nice douche, a reasonably romantic and generous douche, a douche completely shaped by his own culture and times, but a douche nonetheless. Our Moroccan guide told us with a twinkle in her eye that most Moroccan men still have their primary woman and then several other women they have ‘fun with’. And they certainly do like to flatter and call out to women in the street (if only to get you to come and look at their stalls and buy their merchandise).
After a look at the palace, we headed to the museum, which we unfortunately found closed, but wandering through the streets was pleasurable enough. I think I mentioned in my last post that all the walls of all the buildings here are a beautiful peachy-pink colour, due to the colour of the earth they are made out of. Many are also beautifully smooth and cool to the touch, having been ‘exfoliated’ by hours and hours of hard scrubbing with soap. After the museum, we headed back out into the Souks (markets), where we had been the night before, but this time, everything was open and everyone was trying to get our attention.
I wrote before about the art of ‘looking but not looking’, but the stall owners are persistent in their attempts to get your attention. The main styles seem to be:
1) Flattery (‘Hi, hi beautiful ladies! So elegant, so elegant, you want spices?’)
2) Jokes (‘Hey, hey, Fish and Chips, Fish and Chips! Nice shoes here!’ They hear you speaking English and assume you are British)
3) Starting a conversation (‘Hello, how are you? Where are you from?’)
4) Using social niceties to stop you in your tracks (for example, putting out their hand to be shaken – very, very difficult to walk away from without feeling incredibly rude)
5) Trying to stop you by pulling your arm – absolutely not appreciated and in no way useful to their cause from our perspective.
6) Trying to spark your interest (‘What’s this? What’s this?’ We find this one particularly amusing, if taken literally. If the stall holder doesn’t know what he’s selling, he is obviously at a real disadvantage and, also, why does he think we will know?? Or is he trying to express the fact that someone has left a bag of things on his table and he has no idea what they or why they are there? Or is it the start of an existential crisis? ‘What is this? Why I am selling this? Why am I here? What have I done with my life???’ Poor Moroccan stall-holder)
7) Calling out what they think you want (‘Good deal plates!’ When I told one stall holder I didn’t want this, he asked me what I did want. I said, ‘Nothing’. Which is probably the first time in my life I have ever said such a thing and genuinely meant it and it was nice and so I would like to continue doing so, please. ‘What do I want? Absolutely nothing, I am perfectly content.’ Blergh, I sound like a darn hippy. But a happily content hippy!)
Even with our guide we were not completely safe from all of these cries (especially when many Moroccans think she is American, for some reason – she jokes about needing a sign saying, ‘I am Moroccan’ to wear on her chest). She got convinced to bring us into a basement store, being assured, ‘It is free to look, free to look.’ And it was free to look, they were very pleased to have us in the store, very helpful, very friendly, showed us everything we wanted. But when we decided to leave without buying anything, oh how the attitude changed. They were very, very grumpy with us. Our guide eventually took us to some of her friends’ stalls and shops were we found things we very much liked.
Part of the process of buying things in Marrakech is, of course, the bargaining process. I find this extremely difficult to deal with, especially when I don’t know how much things are worth or how much they ‘should’ cost (that is, how much they would cost if I weren’t an Anglo tourist). When I’m shopping, the price of something is an integral part of my decision to buy something. I don’t decide I want something and then look at the cost. I decide if I want something and part of the deciding factor, for me, is that it is a ‘bargain’ (I like to be able to say, ‘It was only 3 pounds!!!’ when someone compliments me on my clothes). There are the occasional items that I will pay whatever they are asking for (hello 35 pound 1980s Laura Ashley sailor dress), but in the majority of cases if I look at the tag and its already much more than I would pay, I either convince myself I don’t need it, can’t afford it or don’t even try it on in the first place to save myself the heartache of liking the look of it and then having to leave it behind.
In the jewellery store we went into, the manager got us to look around and pick out some pieces we liked. After we combed the whole place, we were left with a few items each. At that point we were taken to another room and the negotiations began. The manager explained that no matter what happened, we had to keep smiling. He had to keep smiling with every offer and we had to keep smiling with our counter-offers, which were to be written down on a slip of paper so everything was fair and recorded. He was clearly easing us into the process. He started with Liz’s choices. But the prices he gave us did not make us smile (did not make Liz smile about how much her bracelets DID cost and did not make me smile in anticipation of how much my necklace WOULD cost). There was much back and forth. There was much negotiation, which seemed to me suspiciously like argument, which always makes me uncomfortable. But I’m also certain that this show of unhappiness at the counter-offers is ‘part-of-the-process’ for these sellers. This manager was an expert in his chosen field, performing his unhappiness at our prices perfectly. He had well-worn phrases about the pieces being unique and high-quality, he asked us to give him a ‘democratic’ price (another well-worn phrase amongst other sellers as we have begun to learn). The whole thing is a performance – we had to reply with cries of ‘this is our final offer, we can’t pay more’ and he would reply that he couldn’t go lower. Of course, he went lower and we went higher and (I suspect) he got the better end of the deal, but I also now own the most amazing piece of jewellery I have ever seen and I know that I will wear it for years, so I suppose it’s win-win (well, I hope it is, anyway. I don’t want anyone to prove me wrong please so don’t tell or show me how much I’ve lost out by, thanks very much). I love this turquoise necklace so much that I put it on just to lie in bed in my PJ’s reading last night, which Liz found ridiculously funny.
We then proceeded to the next stall – a leather stall – because I had in my head that I would buy a leather satchel to cart around my computer in. I have always used canvas bags or my backpack, but have felt uneasy about the former and the latter made me feel like I was 10 years younger and still in high school and I figured it was time to ‘graduate’ to a proper bag. Something that would go with everything and would last me forever. So, of course, I was looking at leather (I do realise the hypocrisy of buying leather as a vegetarian. There will be another post on this and other issues I’ve come up against with soon). Again, the stall-holder was a friend of our guide’s and he was ridiculously charming, telling us we had to touch everything in his store because it would bring him good luck and whatever we touched he would sell immediately, because beautiful women were always good luck (bullshit, bullshit, but oh what fun bullshit). When I told him I wanted the bag for a laptop, but I was worried it wouldn’t fit, he obligingly got me a measuring tape to check. When it was measured in centimetres and I only know the size of my laptop in inches, he ran next door and got an ACTUAL laptop and slipped it into my satchel to show me how well it fit. I was sold. We went through the negotiating process again and before I knew it, I was the proud owner of a goat leather satchel. We sealed the deal with a handshake which involved touching our interlocked hands to his chest, then mine, then his forehead and then mine and then four kisses on the cheeks, which seemed all a bit much and I’m uncertain if its traditional or just something he made up on his own, but I enjoyed the long performance of as well. He also wanted a photo with me, which I am meant to send him (I have his email address on his shop’s card).
It was by this time the middle of the day and we were expected by our guide’s mother for lunch, so we jumped in a taxi and to her house, which is situated next to another palace. We met her mother, her aunt and her two little cousins (an incredibly beautiful young girl and the most adorable little boy of 3 years old, both of whom were completely charming and totally stole our hearts. Too shy to be photographed, but did give us kisses when we arrived and when we left). We were presented with a huge plate of beautiful, colourful and delicious salad, which was followed by a traditional Moroccan meat meal (this is only cooked by men in a terracotta pot. They take it into the desert in the morning and bring it back at 2pm). I pleased my hosts by taking the smallest bite of beef – they were all intrigued by the girl who ‘didn’t eat meat’ (and the rice salad did have tuna in it, which I chose to not be bothered by).
After waiting out the worst of the midday heat, we headed to the Yves Saint Laurent garden (part of the house where Yves Saint Laurent lived in Marrakech), which my housemate had mentioned and is on the list of the Top 20 things to do in Marrakech. It was an extremely beautiful and peaceful place, completely covered in ‘Majorelle Blue’, which is apparently the purest form of blue. Somehow calming and vibrant, it’s the blue that looks like it is made of crushed lapis lazuli – the colour that the Mother Mary is always wearing in old religious paintings, because it was the most expensive and precious of all the colours and paints. Liz and I were completely enchanted and ran around taking photos of all the flowers and trees. I spent 20 minutes attempting to get a picture of a turtle, which eventually ended up with me lying flat out on the ground, the camera sitting beside me and pressing the button. The chic French people who were mainly visiting the gardens thought I was very strange.
We walked home from the gardens via the New Medina (new city), which was not as enchanting as the Old Medina, but for me was equalling fascinating. I think most tourists would like to think of Marrakech as only being the Old Medina with its stalls of ‘traditional’ goods like tagines and slippers and leather. They don’t want to wander into the New Medina and see those beautiful pinky-apricot walls with the McDonald’s sign on top in English and Arabic. They want to pretend they are in a completely different, alien world, something out of a time machine. I find this an interesting attitude, because I don’t feel like what I see in the Old Medina as being necessarily ‘authentic’ in the way that some tourists seem to hope it is. I think it is a performance of culture in the way that many places whose main industry is tourism perform their culture in a way that is pleasing and expected for their visitors (Ireland is another example of this, or Thailand or Peru). I don’t mean to be insulting and I’m obviously part of that large group of people that travel to Marrakech specifically for the reason of ‘experiencing something different’. But, my point is I don’t subscribe to the idea that the New Medina is somehow less interesting or less worthy than the Old Medina. Seeing McDonalds and Zara in the New Medina is simply reality. That’s what globalisation and capitalism has done. I guess we can mourn the ‘death of the traditional way of life’, but does that mean we would deny Moroccans modernisation or all the things that Western culture decrees as being necessary, wonderful and desirable? The West advertised and the Moroccans bought. No different from anyone in Europe, Australia or America. We expect them to hold out when we haven’t? I mean, I don’t like this long reach of the global corporation either, but I’ve always had qualms with capitalism and globalisation. I feel like people who are usually pretty happy about the existence of Zara and McDonald’s then coming to Marrakech and complaining about finding them here have possibly missed a somewhat larger problem.
Anyway, off my soap box.
We were at this point, exhausted, but we met a few more of our guide’s friends around the place, before walking through the square again (a completely different experience to the square at night and in the morning. Mainly because of ALL THE FREAKIN’ SNAKE CHARMERS WITH THEIR FREAKIN’ SNAKES . Needless to say I was completely beside myself with fear – ‘Are they on me? I feel like there on me. Or chasing me! AM I COMPLETELY SURROUNDED BY POISONOUS COBRAS RIGHT NOW AND ABOUT TO DROWN IN A SEA OF SLITHERING, RATTLING, WRITHING, HISSING SNAKES??? THIS IS NOT HOW I WANTED TO LEAVE THE WORLD!!!’) On the way back to the hotel we were taken to our guide’s favourite Hammam (spa) to book an appointment for Saturday. We stumbled back to our hotel and, after some showers, collapsed into bed. A bit of reading, some water and we were off to sleep.
Today we’ve taken it much easier. We got out of bed around 9:30am, ate a breakfast of dates, apricots and almonds (bought in the market the day before) and then Liz worked whilst I lay in the sun on the roof terrace and read. Have I told you of my obsession with dates? I have an OBSESSION with dates. I once ate a 500g bag of dates in one afternoon. All on my own. They are like candy to me. I think they taste like raw cake dough. Over here, there are date trees everywhere and date stalls in just as many places. At lunchtime, I bought a date smoothie. A date smoothie! It was even more like cookie dough except it was cool and quenched my thirst and satiated my hunger too! I ended lunch with oily warm Moroccoan bread filled with cheese and amazing fresh orange juice that I drank so quickly the stall-holder took pity on me refilled my glass half-full again. The heat of the midday sun was getting too much for us though and we stumbled back to our hotel for more relaxing spa treatments (Liz) and a bikini-wax torture session (for me. Only my third ever and I still feel morally opposed to them – hey world, what exactly is wrong with my naturally occurring hair? But, like shaving my legs and my underarms, the instinct to be hairless is still so culturally ingrained that I still do it occasionally). Mint tea and cakes in the afternoon and then sitting around on ridiculously comfortable couches reading Vanity Fair articles to one another. I’m ending my night on the roof-top terrace, which is once again a bearable temperature and my absolute favourite place in the hotel. The lights just turned on and the calls to prayer have started. It’s magic and haunting and unbelievably beautiful.
Ok. 3400 words. Enough.