The Air Is Full Of Spices! Marrakesh, Morocco

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Monday, November 2, 2009

11.2.09                  The Air Is Full Of Spices!  Marrakesh, Morocco

[First, a shout-out to our dear niece Elena, whose 7th birthday it is today in Australia!  Happy Birthday, Elena – we love you!]

So… it IS true.  The air is full of spices here in Marrakesh (sometimes spelled Marrakech).  It may be cliché, and it may be what everyone says, but I can now tell you that it is an accurate summation of time spent here!

We slept in today to the late hour of 8am, showered, and headed down the street to a boulangerie for breakfast.  Murray had his café au lait and I had my freshly-squeezed, full-of-pulp OJ – and we shared a meal of crusty, toasted rolls, cheese, fresh apricot jam, and chocolate croissants to top it off!  (I asked for cheese, and we were trying to ask for bread by way of asking for croissants, and the waiter brought us all that I just mentioned.  Hey – we'll take it!)  I also had some yogurt, which I ordered by pointing out a passing yogurt truck to our waiter.  He said, "No, no yogurt," but later came back and said, “Yogurt, oui?”  “Oui!,” I said, and then watched as he ran across the street, dodging traffic, to purchase my yogurt from a little shop, bring it back to the restaurant, place it on a small saucer, put a napkin and small spoon to the side, and serve it gracefully to me.  What service!

After breakfast, we hit the streets of Marrakesh on this beautiful, HOT (about 90 degrees, but no humidity), clear, sunny day.  We spotted a tourist office and popped in for a better map – and at that point, I was wise enough to ask the cost of a taxi from Ville Nouvelle to Medina, the Old City – about a 30-minute walk away.  No more than ten dirhams, we were told (exchange rate is roughly 7.5 dirhams to one US dollar).  (Back to last night’s cab ride, where we negotiated down from 50 to 35 dirhams for a cab ride of roughly 5-minutes walking distance.  Doh!)

[First side note: French.  While most people in Morocco speak Berber or Arabic, most also speak French, as Morocco is a former French protectorate.  I am squeaking by with my Span-French combo language, which I find works about 1/3 to ½ of the time…]

[Second side note: traffic.  Those taxi rides we took last night and today?  And generally crossing the street anywhere, anytime?  Taking your life into your own hands.  I have seen crazy driving before – in DC, in LA, and definitely in Central and South America – and even Turkey.  But NONE of those experiences compares to the driving and traffic here in Morocco (I’m presuming it’s not just Marrakesh!).  Most intersections have no traffic lights, so they are a car-bus-moped-bicycle-pedestrian-donkey/horse cart free-for-all!  Every horn is honking, every driver is leaning out their window and yelling, and all the while, pedestrians are scuttling and darting here and there through bumper-to-bumper chaos while the mopeds cleanly shave the distance between every object in their way.  You must see it to believe it – it is absolutely unreal!  I laughed myself silly during both cab rides, partly out of amusement but mainly out of sheer terror.  Oh, and the cab driver today?  Wouldn’t let me click the back seat forward in order to access the seat belt, which was actually still installed in the taxi (most do not even have seat belts).  “Seat belts?  NON!,” the driver yelled at me.  (He was quite pissed at me, actually.)]

[Third (and final) side note, I swear: smoking.  Love it or hate it, people everywhere in Morocco are smoking.  In cafes, and restaurants, at train stations (and even in the train cabins!), on every street corner, and walking behind every native (and/or many Europeans).  Trying to find a smoke-free corner of a café or restaurant has been nearly impossible.  We thought Iceland was bad, until we got to Portugal – and then we got to Spain – but Morocco?  Beats them all.  Alas.  I’m generally fine with people making their own smoking choices – and in the past, have been known to have one or two myself – but the second-hand smoke everywhere/all the time thing does get old…  For us Americans, it’s like reverting back to/being on the set of “Mad Men”…]

After our taxi ride to Medina – and, frankly, feeling a little nauseous as a result of another lunatic ride – we first toured the Koutoubia, a major mosque just outside the heart of Medina.  It’s a gorgeous 12th century building with a 70m-high tower, scalloped arches, jagged crenellations, and Moorish minarets.  While non-Muslims are not allowed inside, we did take a quick look at the beautiful attached gardens and once again heard the adhan, or call to prayer.

Crossing the street and a small plaza from the Koutoubia, we finally entered Djemaa El-Fna, Marrakesh’s main square and the heart of the Old City.  I’ve never before in my life seen such a huge open plaza area with so much going on!  Everywhere we looked, something was happening – snake charmers playing their recorders to anger the cobras in front of them – monkeys hopping around on leashes – fruit stand owners yelling out invitations to passersby to try their freshly-squeezed juices and dried fruits – strolling musicians with tented, pom-pom hats – flipping acrobats – water sellers clanging copper mugs together – Arabic music blasting across the open space speakers located here and there – horse-drawn carriages and donkeys pulling carts of vegetables, winding in between everyone and everything - and still some cars and countless mopeds whizzing by and narrowly missing pedestrians.  It was like La Rambla in Barcelona, but multiplied by ten million! 

Apparently, the hoopla (and halqa, or street theatre) of Djemaa El-Fna has been happening ever since public executions took place there in 1050 AD – hence, it’s name, “assembly of the dead”!  Toward evening, more than 100 restaurant stalls set up shop in and around all of this action, and even more performers come out of the woodwork.  There were strolling astrologers, healers, and cross-dressing belly dancers.  And storytellers recite tales of ancient times, alongside mobile dentists’ booths that display teeth in jars!  For all of this life and rich history, Unesco declared Djemaa El-Fna a “Masterpiece of World Heritage” in 2001.

As we began walking through this massive plaza, passing by a non-descript rug laid out on the ground with an umbrella poised over top of it, one of the first things that happened to me – no joke – is that I felt a huge tug on my arm and looked over – and a very big MONKEY was crawling up onto my shoulder!  I literally stifled a scream as I looked this monkey (who was very heavy, and had hands and feet that felt so odd on my skin) in the eyes – and then looked over at his/her owner and started saying, “No, no, no, no, no!”  After what seemed like minutes – with the monkey reaching over and patting my cheeks, and tugging on my shirt, and generally scaring the crap out of me (visions of my face getting ripped off did come to mind…) – with a tug on the leash by the owner, the monkey did a back-flip (not even kidding!) onto the ground.  And then what did the owner do?  He picked up the monkey and threw it onto Murray’s arm, of course!  Repeat results.  Even though the monkey’s arrival on our shoulders was unwelcome and uninvited – still, of course, the monkey’s owner now wanted some dirhams from both of us for the pleasure we’d just experienced of having a strange and heavy monkey dumped on our bodies.  (Ok, it is all a little funny – I’ll admit it.)  So, I thought – if that’s how this guy wanted to play the game, then put the damn monkey back on my shoulder so at least Murray could take a picture of me with the monkey!  So… obligatory monkey in Medina (funky called Medina?) picture attached.  (Afterward, we sprayed our hand sanitizer up and down both of our arms and hands, and wiped down our faces… hahahaha.)

Leading off of Djemaa El-Fna are several narrow pathways and alleys leading to the thousands of open- and closed-air souqs (or souks) beyond.  Souqs are marketplace stalls selling every item under the sun.  We saw carts with yarn, stands of jewelry, clothes, wood carvings, shoes, silver plates, tea sets and copper kettles, live animals and toy ones, patisseries, cloth, scarves, pillows, blankets, butcher and fish stands – to name a few!  At every souq, there’s at least one (probably more) individual urging you to “Come in and explore!  Buy!  Stay awhile and spend your money here!”  Again, while I have been to several large marketplaces in Central and South America, and the Turkish Bazaar in Istanbul – this was a market area like none I’d ever experienced.  It was loud, and smelly, and chaotic/crazy – and again, all the while, the horse-drawn carriages and donkey carts, and even mopeds and some CARS, are competing with pedestrians down these tiny, winding pathways of activity, with just centimeters to spare.  It is totally wild!

After some souqing (just made up that word), we took a break at the spice market (here, the air REALLY spelled of spices – mint, cinnamon, vanilla – oh my!) and stopped at Café de Epices (accent over the first “e”) for a late-morning snack.  We had some café con leches (with interesting, fresh spices added – wow!) and sandwiches de fromage as we ate on their third-floor terrace overlooking thousands of souq rooftops.  It was lovely.

From our refreshments, we again hit the souqs and spotted a tiny “Cyber/C@fe/Internet” shop, where one hour of Internet cost six dirham (less than $1 – not bad!).  Since our current Hotel du Pacha has wireless but we have been unable to access it, we needed to check our email accounts and also – lesson learned – attempt to book accommodations in advance for our upcoming days in Fez!  We spent just under an hour there – slow-going with the Internet connection speed (about a 5 out of 10), the crazy souq environment clanging onward outside the shop’s doors, and the very inconvenient French keyboards at every monitor (e.g., the “Q” and the “A” have switched places – every number key is also a shift key – and where is the darn period symbol???).  We will check email again tonight to see if any Fez hotels or guesthouses have space for us later this week!

We rewarded ourselves for all this hard work by stopping for lunch at a little café deep in the heart of the souqs that we had come across earlier – owned by none other than the self-proclaimed “Moroccan Jamie Oliver” (spelled “Jimmy Holliver”)!  (Quite a character, this guy – who had signs listing all the famous people who, apparently, have dined at his tiny establishment over the years, including “Melany Crifth” and “Denzel Wachincton” – but he was so happy to see us return to his stand to dine…!)  We enjoyed a very tasty lunch of mixed marinated vegetables (green peppers, tomatoes with herbs, and thick slices of delicious eggplant), large pieces of pan with marinated olives, a mixed-meat Tagine for Murray and vegetable curry couscous for me, and Moroccan mint tea with a large pastilla for dessert (the pastry was unbelievable – a dense CD-sized circle, about 1 ½ inches thick, of flaky filo on the outside, and thick and gooey dried fruits, spices, and nuts on the inside, all topped with freshly-grated cinnamon!).  Interestingly, during our lunch, a funeral procession passed by – 7-8 men carrying a rough wood platform raised high above their heads, with a body on top, covered with blankets.  I had only ever seen that on TV.

[Fourth side note (sorry, I lied above): cats.  There are kitty cats (or shall I say, “kitty witties”?) everywhere in Morocco – on the streets, in the plazas, even hanging out in some of the trees.  Central and South America has its sad, homeless dogs everywhere – Morocco has its sad, homeless cats.  At lunch today, I was so sad for this skeletally-thin cat sitting near our table that I kept on feeding her bits of Murray’s meat – which, of course, caused the kitty to become my new best friend and to try and jump up into my lap several times.  It’s hard to see the homeless animals – but even harder to see the difficult conditions some people here face, although we’ve been mostly sheltered from that perspective…]    

As we left lunch, we had another crazy experience of the day – we inadvertently found ourselves in the middle of a street fight between a man and two burqua-clad women!  There was shouting, and chasing, and a moped was slammed to the street.  Murray and I were trying to run away, but the man got shoved into us by one of the women (we’re OK – not a big deal, just scary), and then the man turned around and shoved that women straight into the faces of two horses who were attached to a carriage coming down the souqs’ pathway!  People instantly came from everywhere to watch this fight (comical), as Murray and I just tried to avoid getting hit and focused on getting the hell out of there.  It was intense!  We really wish we knew what they were fighting about – I thought that maybe the man had clipped one or both of the women on his moped, but Murray guessed that the man was publicly divorcing one of the women by yelling out three times, as is acceptable practice, “I divorce you!”, and one of the women got angry about it (maybe Murray should start writing soap operas…?).  I guess we’ll never know!

Winding our way back through all the souqs, and again through Djemaa El-Fna, we rested our weary (old?) bones at another rooftop terrazzo restaurant, enjoying more café con leches and Moroccan mint tea.  We were poised above the big plaza, and the people- and activity-watching were (once again) very enjoyable!  (I was able to zoom in on the snake charmers, and another monkey owner about to prey on more unsuspecting tourists, without having to pay a dime.  You cannot take a picture of ANYTHING in Djemaa El-Fna without the object of your picture demanding money out of you… which, I guess, might be fair, as that is how livelihoods are made…) And, during this stop, the adhans (calls to prayer) started again, this time in competition with one another – I counted at least five mosques in my view, all announcing the call to prayer, along with the sixth mosque, the Koutoubia, that I knew was behind us.  Wonderful, slightly eerie sound.

So… a long journal entry today, I guess (is anyone still reading?  hi, Mom!), but it was a really interesting day full of incredible sights, sounds, and smells (actually, a few of the smells were fairly un-incredible).  You may have noticed one thing missing from the day so far… and that is no beer yet!  Yes, it’s true – we have not yet consumed any beer while in Morocco (actually, no, untrue – Murray did have a bottle of Moroccan beer (called Flag) last night, from the hotel bar), but we’re heading out to dinner soon (at Le Caspien, a recommendation from an English writer staying at our hotel – plus the lively Café du Livres Internet café after that, so I can try to upload these latest entries), so the night is still young.  Don’t you worry – I’m sure Murray will get his beer before too long.

[Editor (AnnaLisa)’s post-publication note: We changed dinner plans and went to “Beyrout Restaurant” last night.  We enjoyed an amazing meal of eight varieties of mezzah, including the best Fettoush (it’s that fresh Moroccan mint!) and Falafel I’ve ever had!  Murray also tried another Moroccan beer – Casablanca – which, he reports, is not as good as Flag beer.  Murray also wanted me to report in today’s journal (I’ll take his limited input where I can get it!) that over today’s lunch with the Moroccan Jamie Oliver, the café was playing “Boney M.,” while at tonight’s dinner, the restaurant played “Crowded House,” “Duran Duran,” and other great 80s hits.  (Maybe I should leave, rather than take, his input, eh?)  Anyway.  We stayed at dinner so late that when we arrived at Café du Livres, they were just closing down, so we’ve decided to go there for breakfast instead.  Hopefully, the last several journal entries will be uploaded by tomorrow morning!  Again, my apologies for uploading the entries in “clumps”, but Internet access is what it is...!]
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sho on

I feel like I am traveling with you and have read every entry so far! I am so happy that you and Murray are having such wonderful life experiences -- so amazing! Enjoy every minute!

Elena & James on

thank you for the birthday message. hope you are having a good trip. We like the photos. Love from Ellie and James

Mary Kendell on

Annalisa, It sounds like you are having a wonderful time to say the least. To say I'm jealous would be an understatement. I've put my new e-mail address below. Perhaps we can catch up on a personal level.

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