Monday, March 27, 2006

Marrakesh trip report, Part One

First: I am totally totally sick. Maybe something I caught in Morocco, or on one of the planes back? Pah.

So the Limey and I went to Marrakesh over the St. Patrick's Day weekend. Parades full of American high school marching bands? Crowds of drunk people stumbling around the city? Pubs too full to even contemplate squeezing yourself into? Nah, we thought, let's leave. So Morocco it was. A good choice, too, because the day before we left, it was snowing in Dublin, and every day we were in Marrakech, it was 24-25C. So hah!

We flew to Marrakesh from Gatwick on Atlas Blue, part of Royal Air Maroc. Our original plan was to leave on Friday and come back on Wednesday, and thus still have two days of work the week we came back. However, Atlas Blue canceled our flight back, and booked us onto the next one, which was great- an extra day!- but then we thought, Hang on, what's the point of just coming back to work for Friday? We should have just taken Friday off as well, and stayed a whole extra weekend! But, no, it was too late.

We arrived in Marrakesh at around 4 or 5 in the afternoon. The arrivals hall, for some reason, didn't have an ATM, and we had no Moroccan money. (The bureau de change was having a field day, though.) I had done some research beforehand and was convinced there was an ATM in the airport. So, after asking around, in bumbling French, we were told there's an ATM in the other terminal, which we couldn't see because it was behind a construction site. So we manage to get some money. We leave the terminal and approach the taxi stands with some trepidation, as I'd been warned that the Moroccan taxi drivers will totally try to rip tourists off. A taxi driver comes up to us and asks where we're going and we say the medina (the old town) and how much would that be? 120 Dirhams. Ha! I say No, how about 30? He is in total disbelief and points us toward the posted sign for taxi fares into town. It says the medina for 60 Dh. So I'm like, fine, 60 Dh for the trip. And he says, No no, 60 Dh per person. Which is total crap. We point out that the sign is obviously for grandes taxis, which charge per trip. He still insists it's per person. So we say, Fine, we'll try the taxis back in the arrivals area, where there are more people about and where they might not try to so blatantly rip us off. As we leave, another taxi dude comes up to us and says he'll take us to the medina for 80 Dh, total. Still a rip-off, but since I was expecting to pay 60 Dh, a tourist tax of 20 doesn't sound that bad. So we agree and get in the taxi (which has no sign of a meter, by the way). At which point, the other taxi drivers start getting riled up that someone's come along and busted up their price-fixing scam. The original driver asked us how much this one was charging, and the other drivers are clearly less than gruntled at this development. But, anyway, we drive off. We ask the driver if there's some problem back there, and he says No. Oookay.

We pull up to Bab Taghzout, one of the old city gates that are dotted about the medina. We're instantly surrounded by a pack of kids, asking us for "un dirham, un stylo, un bon-bon." We're, like, No, we're not giving you any money or pens or candy. We don't have any. One of the older ones (mid-teens?) asks where we're staying, and we say Dar Zouar, and he starts leading the way to the place (we had been given a map, but it was, uh, less than crystal clear, although we'd probably have been able to find it, given the chance). At the door of the riad, the kids once again start their cacophony of demands for gifts, and the oldest one asks for something for guiding us to the riad. We're like, Dude! We have a map! Anyway, after spending some time telling the kids (in bad French) that we had no change or presents to give them, we get into the riad, where it is blissfully quiet and still.
This is a picture of the riad from the rooftop terrace. You can see some of the centre courtyard and the first floor. Our room is on the first floor, on the left in this picture. You can see one of our windows and just a bit of our door. The place is an old Moroccan house that the French owner had bought and restored. There are only five rooms, and the whole thing is done up really really nicely.The terrace had lots of seating, with some areas shaded. The courtyard had couches and a small table where they've just started serving breakfast, because the weather is getting warm enough. Lots of plants everywhere, which is nice. There's even a house cat, who basically sleeps on all the couches and anything cushioned, and fights off the other cats on the terrace.

We had some mint tea and a talk with the owner about where we should go and what we'd like to see. Then we went up to our room, unpacked, and rested a bit.

At about 6 or 7-ish, we decide to try to find the big square, the Djemaa el Fna, which everybody said must be seen at night. It was obvious we were going to get quite lost. The medina consists of lots of teeny lanes and alleys, none of which run straight for very long and almost all of which are not named or marked, either on the streets themselves, or on any of the maps we had. If I was by myself, I would not have attempted this at night. But the Limey has a solid sense of direction, so we set off. Happily, the kids seemed to have lost interest in us, since they mostly ignored us or just said hi as we passed.

We were staying in the northern end of the medina, which isn't a touristy part, so the area we passed by on our way to the Djemma el Fna was fairly laid-back, compared to the bits right around the square. It mostly had teeny storefronts, with a counter right at the street and goods piled around them. Lots of people selling the flat round loaves of bread the Moroccans eat all the time. Lots of shops selling the long hooded robes both men and women wear. The traffic on these teeny lanes was just crazy. Motorbikes, bicycles, donkey- and man-drawn carts, pedestrians, actual cars when the road was wide enough, all going at ludicrous speeds down swervy, uneven streets, with no sidewalks, obviously. I am amazed that I wasn't mown down by a motorbike, given the number of times I had to turn a corner without being able to see what was coming down the other way.

By basically following any path south, we actually manage to get to the Djemaa el Fna without getting hopelessly lost. You can sort of tell when you get close to the square, because the stalls start getting spangly and shinier and obviously catering to tourists. Also, while most people on our walk down ignored us and went about their business, nearer to the square, the shopowners started more aggressively trying to get us to stop and look at their wares, which is a little annoying, but okay. I can pretty much do the smile-shake head-say Non, merci-and keep walking thing, but the Limey cannot just ignore someone, and would actually stop when people called to us and then he'd stand there forever saying No, we don't want to buy we're not interested in any leather at the, thanks, really... I'm all like, don't stop and talk to them! We'll never get anywhere! Eventually, I think he learned and just started ignoring people, like I did. He feels uncomfortable doing it, but there's really no other way.

We get to the square and it really is crazy. It's not actually square-shaped at all, quite randomly shaped, actually. But there are people everywhere! There are stalls set up (these are clearly made to be mobile and set up every night- during the day, the square is nearly empty) selling glasses of freshly squeeze orange juice (3 Dh (30 cents) and sooooo good; I guess there are many pluses to having orange trees growing everywhere around town); teeny glasses of a hot, spicy ginseng-based tea, which the Limey got totally addicted to; a row of stalls sold bowls of stewed snails, where they give you toothpicks to pick the snails out of the shells (they were kinda interesting- unlike the butter-and-garlic smothered French things, these were more lightly flavoured and you could therefore actually taste snail; weird, but not in a bad way, though the Limey refused to kiss me after I ate them until I washed everything down with some orange juice); lots and lots of carts selling dried fruit and nuts; some stalls sold herbs and spices. In the center were the food stalls. Dozens of places, some with just a centre cooking part with some benches, others with more elaborate spreads of food and lots of benches set up in a dining area. Here the waiters and stall workers spend part of ther time trying to get people to stop and eat at their stalls, and we made one of them very happy by taking them up on their offer. We sat down and they put two of the flat round loaves of bread in front of us, with little dishes of olives, a tomato salad and a spicy pepper sauce. I ask for some fish and the Limey asks for lamb. I get a plate of fried fish, which is okay, and the Limey gets half a dozen skewers of grilled lamb, which were apparently quite good. They charged us 80 Dh (€8, which is total tourist pricing).

After dinner, we walk around the square some more. At the south-western-ish end of it, there are people playing some sort of drums, as well as story-tellers (in Arabic, so no clue), snake charmers, henna artists, and basically all kinds of street theatre. It's crazy. We stop for some spicy tea, walk around some more, then stop for some orange juice. When we got a bit tired of being asked for money, we decide to try to get back to the riad before it was very late, since we knew we'd have to allow time for getting lost. And yup, we totally got lost. Luckily, although most of the stalls and shops had closed up at around 9:30, there were still plenty of people in the streets at 10, so we stopped by a shop and asked for directions. I think we got back to the riad at 10:30 or so. Plenty of time to clean ourselves up and crash into bed.

Friday, March 24, 2006

New continent! Yay!

Just got back from Marrakech. Totally, totally crazy city. Have pictures somewhere. Will write more later.