The Spectacle...Djemma-el-Fna!

Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

He Said:

Thankfully, Katie's "condition" she picked up in Fes a few days ago has pretty much cleared up. So I guess that's one case down, only a few dozen to go!

We spent the day yesterday riding the rails from Fes to Marrakech. Trains in Morocco are actually quite pleasant. The coaches are air-conditioned and situated with six seats per compartment. After our experience standing in second class a few days ago we elected to take first class on this eight-hour journey. I really enjoy train rides, they are almost always more comfortable than busses and always give a traveler a greater opportunity to interact with local people. Accomplished quite a bit of reading on the ride as well as some long stares out the window as the rural panorama unfolded with the iPod providing a nice soundtrack. Katie and I have been relishing the extra time we have been afforded since departing New Jersey and have used much of it to catch up on our reading. We decided to start to keep a list of the books we've been reading, if you are interested, they will soon be posted on the "Random Facts" tab of the website.

Marrakech is the largest city in the south of Morocco with a population of around one million. It has considerably more tourists than any other city we have seen here but ironically it is also one of the most authentically Moroccan. All the action centers around a large plaza called the Djemma-el-Fna in the center of the medina (old city) as well as the large number of souks (markets) radiating like spokes from it. In the evening the plaza comes alive with hundreds of vendors selling anything from food to "witch doctor" medicinal treatments. Just to give you a bit of a mental picture of the place, in our 15-minute stroll a few of the more unusual items we saw included: snake charmers with several black king cobras, storytellers with crowds sitting engrossed in their tales (too bad I don't understand Arabic!), an drum & acrobatic dance troupe, men with large monkeys who will pose with you for pictures, a vendor selling ostrich eggs, and of course a food stall selling sheep's-head stew. Katie dug her nails pretty deep into my arm when she saw the snake charmers; the whole place was a bit overwhelming for her. Too much stimulation!!! I found it completely unique and wonderful! Absolutely one of the highlights of the trip so far! When I was able to find a snake-free route out of the plaza we were able to watch the sunset from a rooftop restaurant overlooking the whole scene.

Today we spent the morning doing some logistics errands (flight confirmations, bus tickets) in the very modern Ville Nouvelle. Most large Moroccan cities have a "Ville Nouvelle" or new city, which is a district with wide boulevards and modern buildings, trendy boutiques and large hotels. These districts were originally built during French colonization just outside the ancient medina. Had a taste of home with lunch at McDonalds then went back into the ancient city to wander the labyrinthine marketplace. Again a staggering number of stalls selling all kinds of goods and handicrafts, many of which were actually being made at the time by craftsmen in the very stall they were sold from.

She said:

I survived my first travel sickness!!! It was a bit of a sticky wicket there for a bit, and I thought we were going to have to take up residence in Fes due to my unwillingness to leave the air-conditioned room with the private western toilet. Regardless, everything is fine now, and I strongly encourage anyone traveling outside of the US and Europe to get a prescription for Cipro (the miracle drug).

I'm going to do my best to paint a mental picture of the central plaza in Marrakesh for you, because it is outrageous and it feels a bit like you are in the middle of a live action video game. Picture a wide-open plaza as big as 4 or 5 football fields in front of you, and you are standing on one side of it. Directly in front of you, there are 15 identical large carts with vendors selling fresh squeezed orange juice (guess they never thought of diversification). This is what I like to call the "safe area." If things become overwhelming, you can always return to this lovely juice area.

Now, your ears are going nuts because there is crazy mixture of sounds - loud, monotonous drumming; high pitched tin horns (this particular sound reminds me of when I learned how to play Hot Cross Buns on the recorder in elementary school); lots of people yelling in different languages; horse hooves clomping; bells ringing; and the occasional call to prayer blasting out over loud speakers perched on top of minarets on the fringe of the plaza. From a smell perspective, it is just as overpowering. Incense, a mixture of smoke coming out of the stalls grilling foods with strong spices, donkey and horse manure, and the occasional waft of urine all tease your nose just daring you to lose your last meal.

Beyond the "safe area," there is organized chaos. At first it seems like just chaos, but the more you walk around, the more you realize that each crazy scene takes place in a particular area of the plaza, making it a bit easier to navigate. Juice carts give way to the food stall section in the middle of the plaza cooking up really tasty morsels like couscous, tajine, kebab, and for the more adventurous eater - whole sheep's heads (eyeballs included). There are groups of Moroccan men sitting Indian style in large groups around storytellers listening wide-eyed to tales, all collectively sighing or laughing at the same time (kind of makes you wish you could speak Arabic just to understand what they are saying). Then, there is a ring of medicine men calling out to help cure your aliments, with all their antidotes displayed in front of them (antlers, ostrich eggs, toad's eyes, strange spices, feathers, etc.)

Now, as you leave the medicine men behind, this is where the "danger area" starts. You will hear and see a lot of men playing tin horns. The men playing these horns are SNAKE CHARMERS, and they all have about 5 or 6 LARGE SNAKES (some cobras, some fat snakes that look like rattlesnakes). I have learned that this is the sound to RUN from. However, soon you will find that you are surrounded by tin horns and there isn't really a good direction to run in - even though you can see the juice area across the plaza, it's like playing Frogger to get there. And, sometimes, there are men just walking around holding small snakes, which certainly makes things a bit complicated, as you won't see them in the crowd until you are right next to them! ARRRGGHHH! Just as you are figuring this all out, you will realize that there are men walking around with monkeys wearing diapers on leashes. These men make their money by having tourists pose with the monkey for pictures. Now, I'm not for monkey enslavement or anything, but fine, whatever, at least it is better than snakes. The issue is that these men walk up to you and just put the monkey on you to "trick" you into paying them. Double ARRRGGHHH! So, you have snakes all around and the occasional monkey dropping by and potentially touching you. Trust me, you will forget about the smells!

Anyway, it is crazy and definitely a scene worth experiencing (at least once). This city is my favorite in Morocco so far. Tourism is in full swing, which makes at least this Western woman feel a bit more at ease and less singled out than I felt in Meknes. The Moroccans have been very friendly to us, and several have walked up to us each day and said, in English, "You are welcome in Morocco."

We are heading to the coastal city of Essaouira tomorrow for the next three days, then up to Casablanca and off to Tunisia. Expect the next post in three or four days.
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