Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Marrakesh, Morocco

I’m pretty sure that we’d hit a wall of travel fatigue- or at least tout fatigue- by the time we arrived in Marrakech.  We’d been traveling through the mostly developing world for almost four months by then.  And we’d been spoiled by a week of wandering the Moroccan countryside blissfully on our own, in a peaceful rental car wondrously free of anyone trying to sell us anything.  That is, except for the rocks that Mohit pulled over to buy from a man on the side of the road…but that’s a story for another day.

First impressions of Marrakech: Nighttime in the Djemaa el Fna, clouds of smoke puffing from the kebab grills, steaming pots of snails ladled with broth into bowls, old men sitting in circles clapping and singing along to drums and stringed instruments.  Snake charmers playing lutes to coiled snakes, women grabbing my hand to show me pictures of henna, squeezing black paste onto my hand even as I pull away and insist “No Merci!”.

Brightly lit stalls with mounds of oranges and bins of apricots, dates, nuts, figs.  Motorcycles hurling straight at me, pedestrians scrambling out of the way.  The merchants are ruthless- they step into my path, blocking the way, commanding me to look at their shop.  I dodge, and they chase after me yelling “Oh madam, why do you not like Moroccan men?”.  Small boys selling packets of tissues and big balloons.  Men on blankets on the ground selling battery-operated toy trains with George W. Bush chasing a plastic Osama Bin Laden around and around the track.  Glass cases in front of the tea salons filled with syrupy pastries.

Daytime impressions: the sun is blindingly white, I’m squinting even with my sunglasses on.  We take refuge in the shady lanes of the souqs, trying not to look directly at the brightly colored pottery, metal lanterns, hand-stitched leather purses, and silver mirrors, otherwise the merchants catch us looking and launch immediately into their hard sell, chasing us as we keep walking.  When we do finally spot a dish or a scarf that we want to buy, we realize that the prices in Marrakech are exorbitant, and the shopkeepers seem angry at us for counter offering a price that we already know is reasonable for the same goods in Fes.  We emerge triumphant, but as we walk away we’re pretty sure we’re being cursed in Arabic.

We feel harassed, chased, like we have dollar signs printed on our foreheads, though we can’t tell if it’s our fault, if it’s Marrakech, or if we’ve just been traveling too long.  Arriving at the gate of the medina, a man had greeted our taxi, telling us he’d been sent from our riad to show us the way.  We follow him thankfully, but feel cheated when he demands a steep tip after delivering us only a few hundred feet away, and the woman at the hotel yells at us to just pay him already.  Every time we pause to consider which direction or to take a peek at our map, a boy latches on to us, demanding money to show us the way, even though we protest loudly that we don’t need any help, Merci.  Taxi drivers refuse to use the meter, and ask for a fare that we know is quadruple what we should be paying.  Maybe it’s not any worse here than it was in Delhi, Kathmandu, Hong Kong, or Kuta, but it feels more ruthless.  We feel exhausted.

Marrakech is bigger and brasher than Fes.  It’s clearly where Europeans come to throw money around on a quick, decadent vacation.  There’s a Club Med inside the Medina.  Our first night in town, we tracked down a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant, a “midrange” option, and walked into a palatial courtyard with a fountain of fire in the center and techno music thumping from the speakers.  The menu listed tiny plates of Thai-inspired dishes at $30 per person, and drinks up to $20 per glass.  We walked out.  The Indian restaurant we ended up at (we were tired of tagines and couscous) at wasn’t much cheaper, but by the time we’d followed the doorman up an elevator, past a plush rooftop pool lounge, and into the restaurant with tented ceilings and red-lit walls, we were too hungry and tired to leave.  The tamarind chutney tasted like paprika and the mint chutney like mint tea.  The next night, we ate at the cheap street stalls in the middle of the square.

Every restaurant plunks down a free dish of olives when we sit down, and they are delicious, they’ve even converted Mohit the former olive-hater into an olive-lover.  The olives make us crave good cheese and good wine, though we can’t find either.  Wine and beer are on the menus in the fancy hotels and restaurants that are filled with well-dressed Europeans, but impossible to find at the more affordable places that we mostly eat at.  We spent two hours out in the no-man’s land of the ville nouvelle finding our way to one supermarket, and then another to buy a bottle of wine and some crackers to enjoy on the terrace of our hotel.  Alcohol consumption seems so secretive here that we feel like we are smuggling drugs back into the medina.

On the terrace one afternoon, a fierce wind whipped up and the blue sky turned murky brown.  In minutes, my book, my hair, the cushions we were sitting on were coated in a fine sandy dust.  Marrakech is at the edge of the desert, and we’d found ourselves in the middle of a minor dust storm.

We discussed whether we’d have changed anything about our itinerary in Morocco.   We’d probably have enjoyed Marrakech wonderfully if we were on a short holiday and had more money to spend, since the posh clubs, pool lounges, and restaurants were comparable to Paris, New York, London.  Our advice to other travelers- do your shopping before you get to Marrakech, the prices here are ridiculous. We decided that Fes was a much less exhausting experience, and that we’d have skipped Marrakech and used the time to get to Essouira, on the coast, which we missed.

Our next stop: After a few days in Barcelona to meet up with friends from Boston, we’ve rented an apartment in tiny village in northern Spain.  We’ll be staying put at the same location for a full week.  I can’t wait to buy groceries, cook some healthy meals with lots of fresh veggies, and sleep in late, with no sights to dash off to see…

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