Sunday October 23rd
Culture shock? Well, we’ve been in many different cultures, and certainly this one is very different. Our memory of Morocco twenty years ago summarises like so ...
We arrive in Tangiers by ferry from Spain. We are immediately set upon by hustlers, mostly young, who start of relatively politely and ultimately progress to swearing and spitting on the ground in front of us when we decline their offers of “guiding.” Unused to this kind of treatment, we band together with a small mixed group of Australians and Americans. Without formalizing a plan, the group immediately heads to the train station to get out of Tangiers as quickly as possible. Arriving at the station, we (Susan, our friend Kim, and I) realize we don’t have any local currency, having assumed in Spain that we would just change some once we arrived in Morocco. Our fellow travellers kindly buy our tickets.
On the train, we are greeted by some pleasant young “university students.” They are well spoken and talkative. Exiting the train station at night in Fes, they suggest we catch a ride in the back of their friend’s pickup truck to a nearby hotel. We pile in, and the truck drives off up a hill, only to be stopped a minute later by a police car, lights flashing. Is this all part of some elaborate scam – make the foreigners pay an exorbitant fine for illegal use of a pickup truck? No. The police chat with the driver, no idea why, and we move on. The hotel is ok, if a bit on the decrepit side. The next day, the entire newly formed group of travellers is out in the new town, looking for a cafe, when somebody asks if we are the Canadians who got into town last night and are staying at this same hotel. How do they know? One of the “students” is waiting for us to help guide us through the medina. He is very helpful, gives us some tidbits of history, leads us to some interesting places where there is nothing to buy, such as the tannery (big vats of smelly stuff for curing leather and various colour dyes) and a carpet manufacturer where young fast-fingered kids are busy working on a loom, as well as a selection of artisan shops, and the traditional carpet store. It ‘s a fun and exciting day. That day we move to the official International Youth Hostel. The hostel guy tells us that our student friend is just a hustler, taking us to specific shops to get his commission. He will arrange a real, official guide for us the next day. The official guide turns out to be a complete hustler himself, taking us past three identical copper craft stores into the fourth store, for no apparent reason. His tour includes no interesting non-profit stops, only stores in which he is clearly hoping we will purchase souvenirs. He helpfully inserts himself into the bargaining process to ensure a quick and profitable sale. His carpet store is far more high pressure and stress inducing than the one we have already visited. So much for the official guide.
Morocco twenty years ago was a fun, exciting, and different place, but it took a lot of energy to be there. Only five days in the country felt more like five weeks. Will today’s Morocco be like the Morocco we remember? Has the new crackdown on “unofficial guides” resulted in a change in the hustling? Will the medina still have that strange, otherworldly sense, twisted narrow streets of shops and stalls full of handmade goods, where simply glancing at an item can result in a harrowing back and forth bargaining, resulting in the purchase of something you didn’t actually want for an excellent price.
This time, our first experience in Marrakech came in the airport. We exited our Easyjet plane onto the tarmac and followed the line of passengers to the terminal, passing two other Easyjets, three Ryanairs, and one Royal Air Maroc. We then joined the passengers of apparently all these planes in one of the ten customs lines, waiting over an hour to finally be processed. In Turkey, the customs man (remember that combover, it was insane) was quite interested in my origin, given my obviously "Turkish" name. In Morocco, just like twenty years ago, the customs man was also interested in my origin. The usual, “Where are you from?” Not to be too obtuse, often a poor idea with officials, I respond, “I was born in England.” “No, no, where are you from? Your father?” “Tanzania,” I offer. For some reason this satisfies him, and he writes “Tanzanie” on the debarkation card I have filled out.
We have done some research on the airport bus, and we know that bus #19 stops just outside the terminal and will take us right into town for 30 Moroccan Dirham each (8DHM to the $CDN, so this is $2.75). We also know that the maximum cab fare that the cabbies are allowed to charge up to 21:00 for a trip into town is 50DHM, but that this goes up to 80DHM after this time. It is 19:50. Serendipitously, a man gives us a city map as we exit the airport. We have a map in the Lonely Planet guidebook, but this map is much more detailed. As we walk up to the clearly marked bus stop, a man comes over from the line of fifteen or so cabs and offers to take us into town for 100DHM. We tell him we are taking the bus. No, the bus has stopped, he informs us. We give him the specific information we know about the bus, and he moves off. As we are waiting for the bus, which the sign tells us is due at 20:00, we are approached by no less than five other cabbies, each trying to convince us to go into town with varying levels of politeness and firmness, none for less than 100DHM. None of them are mean or unpleasant, but some are quite insistent and would be difficult to resist if we weren`t reasonably sure of ourselves. They manage to convince about a third of the twenty people waiting for the bus, before the bus comes and we all get on. Surely, getting out of the airport into the city shouldn`t be this difficult. I suppose that exiting any London airport is quite harrowing, but only because there are so many different options, all usually overly expensive, as opposed to being hounded by merciless British cabbies. Can you trust someone who is clearly out to just get you into their cab to actually take you to your hotel, for approximately $12? Probably. But you can also trust that even if they don’t recognize your hotel name or address, they will still take you into town, just not necessarily where you want to go. And you also run the risk that if they need to drive around endlessly trying to find your hotel, you will undoubtedly end up paying significantly more than the originally agreed amount. So, at least on the bus you have more control over the outcome.
We exit the bus when we see the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque, which is the stop just before Place Jemaa El Fna. The Place will be ridiculously busy and it is dark, so we definitely don`t want to get off there. There are crowds of people at the bus stop, and many people walking past. We are on an extremely busy street, both in terms of motorized and pedestrian traffic. As we stand there momentarily, wondering which way to go, a young man asks us if we need a hotel. He gives us a card. We tell him we have a reservation and ask him if he can tell us which way to go. He offers to lead us, but we are familiar with this particular scam and just ask for directions. He looks a little put out, but politely points us down the street. So, we go. On our way, looking for any kind of suggestion as to where we might actually be, we are accosted by several different young men, all offering us hotels, and wondering which hotel we are actually reserved at. This particular scam follows the following sequence: you give the name of the hotel, oh no, it closed last week, or it is full, or there was a fire, so I will show you my hotel; alternatively, I will lead you to your hotel, but I will take a very interesting route, so you have no idea where you are, don`t worry it is just around the next corner, or perhaps the one after that, oh, look here we are at my hotel, you can stay here or find your own hotel, good luck. So, we do our best to be polite and rebuff offers of being guided anywhere, while still trying to find out exactly where we are on the map. The main problem being that if we walk with purpose, we are generally left alone, but as soon as we pull out the map to find out where we are, we are immediately accosted by someone. We have a fairly good idea of where we got off the bus, and we trusted that the first young man who showed us which way to go was accurate, as his directions agreed with our sense of direction. Finally, standing on the corner across from where we believe our street should be, we recognize the name of the hotel in front of us from the map. We actually know where we are, and all we have to do to get to our hotel is cross the road.
Well, this is no easy task, despite the fact that we are experienced travellers in countries where people in cars have absolutely no respect for pedestrians, Croatia and Portugal being notable exceptions, England, Turkey, and Italy being possibly the worst offenders. The Moroccans are possibly even worse. The traffic is crazy, with cars and trucks and scooters and even donkeys racing past and darting this way and that as necessary. Ok, not so much darting from the donkeys. The usual technique remains attaching yourself firmly to the path of a local, or better yet a group of locals, and trusting that, insha’allah, you will make it across the road in one piece. We do. We see the blue sign of our hotel down the street, and we make our way past the stale urine smell on the corner, down our street which actually seems to be a car park, past a couple of begging women sitting on the road, and into the remarkably calm and serene quiet of the Hotel Narjisse.
So, four paragraphs for an experience that should have been summarised “We took a bus from the airport to our hotel,” but in Morocco things can often seem far more intense than that. Getting from the airport to your hotel can be an experience, even if you had just got into the first cab and been happily dropped off at the front door. Walking from your hotel into the medina is an experience, crossing the road, heading down the nearby pedestrian street, dodging the scooters on the pedestrian street, weaving a path through crowds of actual pedestrians, politely declining the beggars, perhaps detouring while some man shows you the rooftop terrace restaurant, then when your face suggests that it might be a bit expensive for your tastes, takes you across the street, half a block down to another, nicer rooftop terrace with exactly the same prices, and suggests that you sit down for dinner, and what time would you like your reservation for tomorrow?
The Place Jemaa El Fna is completely indescribable, although I have used that word so many times on this trip that I am beginning to suspect I’m just not very good at describing places or experiences. UNESCO declared the experience of the square to be a World Heritage, which is quite unusual as this generally applies to monuments, or places. The Place is a huge square, in the middle of the Medina, on the edge of the Souks. Tonight, the Place was absolutely jam packed. In the evening, there is a smoky haze drifting from the middle of the square. This is from the food stalls, perhaps thirty of them, selling typical Moroccan fare. One row sells a full selection of food, including salads, brochettes, tagine (stew), seafood, and desserts. One row sells soup and dates. On row sells snails, steamed in gigantic woks. On the two sides of the food stalls are rows of carts selling either dried fruit or fruit juice. The orange juice is freshly squeezed and 4DHM a glass. That’s fifty cents folks, for a glass of delicious! The rest of the square is occupied by bands of five or ten musicians, rocking out some desert sounding tunes, old men with beards speaking about who knows what to the crowd around them, ladies (and the occasional man dressed like a lady) selling henna designs, children selling phosphorescent toys, men with monkeys, men dressed up in weird colourful outfits, a man with a hawk, a gerbil, a turtle under a hat, and five doves (I have no idea how he parlays this into money), and other strange, weird, and wonderful ways of parting you from your money while providing some sort of goods or service. The Place is a giddy experience, a combination of intoxicating atmosphere, sensory overload, and generous dash of the exotic.
The best one tonight was when we were standing in front of a row of stall, all with gigantic copper pots from which they were pouring tea, together with bowls of some sort of unidentified browny substance. The list of tea flavours (in French) was interesting: cannelle, genebre, others... We are interested, looking, but we have no intention of trying anything as we have just finished dinner. The boy waves at us, and again, so we wander over. He pours us a small glass of tea. It is cinnamon, and spectacular. He gives us a dish of the browny stuff and it is weird, some kind of chocolate based substance, but good. He pours us another glass of tea, and puts a tiny bit of something in it. The tea smells like menthol, very powerful. It is hard to drink because of the intense smell, but the flavour is fine. Alison manages to take a sip, but the Moroccan lady next to us needs to plug her nose when she tries her friend’s. How much for this particular unexpected culinary adventure? 10DHM, or $1.25.
We walked over to the Koutoubia mosque this evening, since it is a local landmark and we hadn’t seen it yet. We passed several cafes along the way, which just like in Turkey and Greece were full of men, with not a single woman to be seen. We found the women, with their young children, sitting in the square in front of the mosque. They were sitting on every available sittable surface, including steps and edges of fountains. A group of perhaps thirty women and children were sitting on steps listening to a group of five young men, sitting on their scooters, playing the same deserty sounding tunes from the Place, including drums and singing. There was clearly no money involved here, the boys were just singing because they wanted to and they could. Although it was busy in the square in front of the mosque, it was much more relaxing than Place. Nobody was encouraging us to part with our money, so it was a nice change of pace. Of course, we followed this brief peaceful sojourn by heading immediately to the Place!
So far our stay in Morocco has been superb. We have dined out for breakfast ($5), lunch ($20), dinner ($13), breakfast ($6), and dinner ($8). We have wandered through the souks and got lost. Sunny has bargained herself yet another new bag and had an unsolicited henna experience (best if she relates these stories herself, suffice it to say that Fatima “Berber” is not on her list of bffs). And Alison and Kas each have a new pair of leather slippers.
Today it rained in the afternoon and evening. Looks like it’s going to rain again tomorrow, but we will actually be spending a good part of tomorrow on the train. We are catching the 9:00 train to Fes, which will, Insha'Allah, arrive at 16:00. We have booked a room for three nights in a “Dar”, just inside the medina. This is a traditional Moroccan house, that has been renovated and turned into a guesthouse. It is a step down from the traditional “Riad,” which are generally fancier and a whole heap more expensive.