15.02.2013 - 18.02.2013 18 °C
Hello again!! As I write this I sit on a train to Valencia for a four day weekend to experience one of the major festivals in Spain, called Las Fallas. But wait don't let me get ahead of myself, I left you having returned from France and Geneva. (Entry written March 15)
After a whirlwind visit from an old soccer buddy, who had a post in London, I was off to Marrakesh, Morocco with old friends Ross, who lives in Madrid, and Rebecca, who is living in a small town in Galicia, Northwestern Spain. I have been traveling quite a lot, and at that
point I felt likeI was ready for anything, but boy was I not mentally prepared for how different Marrakesh is.
As one of the largest cities in Morocco, I expected a big airport with many gates and airplanes. I suppose I should just warn you now that any time I say that I was expecting something, you can safely expect the opposite. It was a learning experience, to say the least. Anyway, I stepped off the plane into the relative warmth, and was greeted by a small airport at which we were the only airplane. Mildly surprised, I walked through customs easily and exchanged money. It is illegal to transport Dirhams, the local currency, out of the country, so I was forced to buy them there. Also, fortunately, the exchange was almost exactly 10 Dirhams per Euro, which made converting in my head easy (a huge asset as I found later). I walked out of the airport and into the most different and incredible weekend of my life.
As I stood, bewildered, looking for the bus stop, I was immediately accosted by a man offering a taxi ride. I didn't know how much the bus would cost, but was fairly sure it was less than a cab. So I declined, and he started bartering with me, unprovoked! I knew beforehand that I would be bartering with vendors, but didn't realize that that extended to EVERYONE-- vendors, cabbies, even the guys serving mint tea behind the counter will bargain with you. I staved off the overly pushy cabbie, and hopped onto the bus for the short ride to the city.
Now, I had a map and directions to my hostel, but of course jumping off the bus map in hand tags you as a tourist straight away (not that I would have gotten away with it anyway, judging by my hair and skin color) but I was beset again almost immediately by a younger chap touting a local cafe. Another lesson: I assumed that politely declining advances by these people would be the best way to get away. Wrong-o!!! Any hint of a response actually proved you to be pliable (Or a sucker, but I never got to ask) so a smile or nod usually caused even more attention. Eventually I found myself being led to my hostel by this friendly stranger. Of course when we arrived he required funds, and I was not inclined to give him much, since while he maybe saved me a few minutes, I surely could have found the place on my own. I left him at the door griping over the 10 Dirham coin in his hand.
The hostel was an incredible place itself. The sign for the hostel was a spraypainted word 'Rainbow' at the exit to the alley which led to the front door. The lobby of the building was a huge open space with tall retangular sofas draped with sheets interspersed with small tables, upon which one was sitting a hookah and upon another a pot of steaming mint tea. I was offered some tea while my host verified that I did indeed have a reservation. If anything, things move even slower in Morocco. The host tisked at me when I tried to move him along, so I contented myself sipping on the tea and looking around at the plethora colors splayed around the room. The following photo shows one half of my dorm room after I was let in. The bed on the right was mine!
Ross and Rebecca arrived later in the day on the same flight, and the weekend got easier in a posse of three. Marrakesh is an extremely rich city culturally, but not in the architectural or artistic sense like mich of Europe. Here, the people and the Souks are the culture. Our hostel was situated very close to the main square in the city, called Jemaa el Fna. A walk through the square during the day yields interactions with fresh squeezed orange juice carts, snake charmers, men towing around semi-trained monkeys, dentists sitting at tables overflowing with teeth and dentures and a plethora of women offering temporary henna tattoos. All businesses operate the same way. If you so much as pick up your camera to snap a photo, the people will accost you for money. If you want a monkey on your hand, shoulder or head it will cost you even more.
Around four every day, every single day, the square empties of snake charmers and other men start dragging in carts with benches and tables, and an impromptu food market is set up. Starting whenever they are ready and running late into the night, carts tout anything from snail soup to goats head (tried sheep's brain with my amigos-- it was palatable but mushy and fatty-- not on the top ten list) to cous cous to tagine (a local vegetable and meat specialty cooked in a small ceramic container over an open fire with lots of local spices). Walking through the food area was just as nerve-wracking, as the waiters' jobs were less serving and more cajoling the next customer. We started choosing based on how crowded the tables were instead of how enticing the workers were.
Meanwhile, beside the food market, the rest of the square was full of acrobats, storytellers (from whom I understood not a single word as it was in Arabic) and small carnival type games with sodas and fishing poles. A distinct disadvantage of not looking like the people there was I was constantly tapped for money.
Finally, the city around the square is the most well-known part or Marrakesh: the Souks. They have transformed the streets into giant markets, peddling cloths, spices, intricate wooden pieces, shoes, shirts, turtles, instruments, really anything imaginable. The is really where the serious bartering happened. Some vendors actually consider it rude NOT to barter, but I think most would happily take your money. Most prices start about 3 times more than the vendor is willing to sell the item for, and a weak persona is lost money. The single best thing we found was to reach close terms and the. Actually walk away and let them come calling back. After all better a sale for them and a small profit than none at all. The biggest problem I encountered was that I spent so much time worrying about how much I was paying, I forgot to ensure the quality of my purchase. But after getting into the groove, it was actually pretty fun. One interesting thing is that the people will do anything to get your attention. They know just enough English to get your attention (using words like 'please' and 'excuse me' often) and sell their goods. I tried to ask a man if he knew what the New York Yankees hat represented, and he didn't even speak enough English to understand me. But I bet if I'd offered to buy the hat, he would have done just fine. Another example is that I was called Harry Potter multiple times (due to my glasses I suppose, I don't have much more in common with him... Except vicious quidditch skills of course) and Ross was called John Wayne once or twice. I ended up with a tagine for the parents, a Berber flute for Alex, and a scarf and Barcelona shirt for me.
If theres one word go describe the weekend, I'd go with exhausting. Constantly on alert, I spent the whole time over stimulated and excited. But in the end, what an incredible introduction to the continent of Africa!!!
Next: Family!! And we're almost caught up!!