Monday, May 21, 2012

Into Africa – Marrakesh, Morroco

The straight of Gibralter is only a small bit of water seperating Gibralter from Tangier, but make no mistake about it. Morocco is African. They top two languanges are Arabic and Berber; the Berber being the indiginous people and the largest ethnic group. The currency is the dirham (about 8 to a dollar) and alcohol is rare, as Muslims do not drink it. The call to prayer rings out five times a day and the touts are back.

We got off the plane, made it through customs, got some money out of the ATM and found the 19 that would take us to Djemaa el Fna, which is a massive square in the middle of the old town of Marrakech. The bus driver had a map for us, but the majority of it was in French and Arabic. Nevertheless, the street signs were helpful.
As soon as we got off the bus we were surrounded by people trying to “help”. “Where you going?” was the constant cry. “You have reservation?” “Come see my riad!” It was almost as if we had a target on our back. Considering we had packs on our backs, I guess we did.
Travelers in the developing world are walking ATMs. Everyone wants a withdrawal.
The part of the square we were in was about three city blocks wide with cobblestone covering the entire ground. A layer of sandy dust covered everything and was constantly being kicked up by cars, horses-drawn carriages and motorbikes.
We had attempted to get past the group so we could sit down, readjust stuff and check the Lonely Planet map, but soon, another friend joined us. “Hello, friend! Where you going?” We had gotten everything into the packs, so off we were into the main part of the square.
The main portion of Djemaa el Fna was huge, about eight city blocks wide. A row of carts sold fresh squeezed orange juice at all hours of the day for 4 dirham (50 cents US), but everything else was in flux. During the day, carts selling fruit, gadgets and henna tattoos were prevalent. At night, over 100 stalls selling couscous and tanjines populated the square, each one trying to get you to their place. The motorbikers would fly through the square, weaving around people. The seperation between street and sidewalk was blurry at best.
Eventually, we asked a shop-keeper where our hostel was and he pointed us in the right direction. We ducked down a street off the main square and hasselled by another two touts. “Where you going?” Eventually, a young woman in a light blue burqa and matching head scarf looked at us and said, “hostel?” She motioned for us to follow. She ducked down into an alley, then into a second. She knocked on an unlabeled door. A guy answered and said, “hello, where you going?”
Now I couldn’t help but think that as soon as we stepped through the door, we were in an alley, in Marrakech, where nobody knew where we were. That said, what choice did we have? Sooner or later we had to trust somebody.
We stepped through the door and Mehdi immediately became an amazing host.
“You have made it my friends! Sit, relax, you are here at Trip and Friends!  You are home.” Soon, we had our shoes off, our hands full of sweet Moroccan mint tea and were being offered sheesha from a hookah. The hostel was riad-style, meaning a common area in the middle, open at the top. A ring of rooms around the central area hosted kitchen, bathrooms and about twenty people. The common area was filled with Berber carpets, comfortable cushions and fellow travellers. On top of the place was a shaded terrace where people would hang out and clothes would be hung to dry.
In fact, the common room turned into a fun, time-consuming activity in its own right as we spent time chit-chatting with people from all over the world. Conversations were always interesting as their was no common languange, but it all seemed to work as people figured out how to communicate. People would often return to the common room with their latest prize from the markets. Some of the best marinated olives I’ve ever had were 3 dirham for a fist-sized amount. Roasted almonds, dates and fresh fruit were also popular.
The Medina deserves a mention as well. Every city we’ve heard about in Morocco has a medina, which is small, windy streets filled with shops. The Medina in Marrakech was mostly covered to create shade and crowds of people walking up and down the medina were joined by donkey-pulled carts and motorbikes transporting people and goods.
Leif, is a guy from Jackson Hole, Wyoming who had been in Morocco for three weeks and took us to the moussaui place in the Medina for lunch. Moussaui is a lamb that’s been slow-roasted overnight. We ordered two sandwiches, at which point the man began chopping at the cooked lamb with an axe. In the end, we got bread the size of a salad plate filled with lamb. There was some gristle and bones we had to pull out, but it was excellent.
More common was the tajine. The word tajine actually refers to a covered clay dish. Food is put in the clay dish and baked. Couscous, chicken and veggies are common ingredients. Everything is served with flat bread, about an inch thick. Traditionally, tajines are served communally and you rip off a piece of bread to grab the food. No plates or silverware needed. After the meal you’re served more of the sweet mint tea. This sort of meal in the middle of Jamal el-Fna turned into a nightly event.
At the end of our second day in Marrakesh a man from the tour company came into the hostel to show everyone a bunch of tours. A few of the local waterfalls, the highest peak in Morocco, etc.
Basically, it was a fancy way of saying, “Where you going?”
“Three days, two nights. Sahara.”

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