The red earth, the colorful traditional dress, the persistent vendors and beggars – Marrakech is a city truly of another world!
I arrived here Saturday, went into the main square Sunday night to participate in the madness there, to a Berber flea market and village on Monday, and last night to an elaborate dinner and show at a palace-like setting that was like something out of Arabian Nights. Today, I will lounge by the pool in the Moroccan sun and write about some of my experiences: yes, finally! A true travel blog entry!
I am lucky to be staying in a large condo-style apartment with air conditioning. (Lucky because I was sick for two days and that would have been unbearable in one of the tiny rat-hole hostels I have been frequenting lately!) Nearby is a restaurant with friendly waiters, where the manager calls me “sweetheart” and brought me a flower when I came in, feverish, to sip tea.
Now that I am back in my usual form (insert big smile) I spent a day exploring the winding streets of the famous Souks: local markets where you can buy pottery, jewelry, leather good, spices, wood crafts, and many other wonderful things. The local hobby is bargaining: they begin with a price (often written out or punched into a calculator for clods like me whose French amounts to not much more than “Bon jour!”), and you counter with a price that you think you would like to pay – or a little lower, to leave room to haggle. From there it continues until you come to an agreement. Yesterday I was like a kid in a candy store; I lifted my previous “shopping embargo”, withdrew 1000 Dirham from the ATM (about $120) and gleefully bargained and spent and laughed and carried an over-stuffed tote through the streets with reckless abandon!
(One thing I feel obligated to mention is that one is always accosted by beggars and people wanting money. I’m sure this is typical of many tourist destinations where the locals are poor. There is always a hand extended. Any time you take a picture of someone, their hand goes out. You meet a new “friend” who gives you advice or directions, “Please sister, can you help me with some money?” I find it disheartening, but unavoidable.)
After shopping I ate with my new Malaysian friend at a local restaurant, one a cab driver took us to. Cab fares are dirt cheap here; we spent ten Dirham, a bit more than a dollar, to go to the restaurant. Everybody washes each other’s back: the cab driver walked us in and presented us like a prize and I’m sure he walked away with a “bonus” from the restaurant manager for bringing us in. When you enter this place you see a fountain strewn with rose petals. Colorful petals also decorate the tables. A duo of Berber musicians plays in the center: men in robes playing traditional instruments like the rebab, a one-stringed apparatus played with a curved bow.
We ordered a fixed-price lunch to share (120 Dirham) and received a wonderful “Moroccan salad”, a beautiful platter of delights displayed on lettuce leaf petals, with the ubiquitous salty green and black olives in the center. There was a type of potato salad, a stewed eggplant one (my favorite!), a salsa-like salad with tomato and onion, and one with red and green peppers. We were served round loaves of crusty bread, and the terra cotta tagine (typical Moroccan cone-shaped cooking dish) contained beef cooked with lemon and spices. I ordered a cold local beer. Perfect! We lounged on the pillows of the banquet – there are always pillows! – and awaited our dessert, a plate of melon and grapes. As I drank my second beer and sucked the sweet grape juice from my fingers, I noticed a sign directly across the street: Hammam. I bid my friend “au revoir” and go to check it out.
A hammam is something I have been wanting to try. The word “hammam” means spreader of warmth. This traditional version of a Turkish bath and massage is on the Must-Do list in Marrakech. I chose a combination of hammam (steam bath and scrub), clay body wrap, and massage with special oils. The whole treatment took about an hour. I relaxed in the reception area and they brought me tea. The whole room was pink: pink couches with pink pillows (one, inexplicably, has Betty Boop on it!), pink paintings of typical arched doorways in the markets and robed men walking, all with a pink cast of light upon them, and even a pink “stained glass” (plastic) window bathing the reception area in rosy glow.
I undressed and was given a paper bikini bottom (very un-sexy!) to wear. I walked half-naked to the steam bath area, where the attendant unrolled a mat on a marble slab of a table and asked me to lie down. She took bowls of warm water and doused my body, then washed me with black soap. She put a stiff exfoliating mitt on her hand and scrubbed my entire body, then rinsed me with more bowls of water. After this, she brought in a bowl of watery mud and covered me with a terra-cotta-ish coating. I lay in the steamy room while, covered in mud. When the attendant returned, she gestured for me to stand under the shower, where she washed me off and shampooed my hair with an aromatic almond-honey shampoo. This brings up childhood memories of bath-time, my daddy washing my hair (he was quite the scrubber!) and I am purring, a contented and clean kitty. The attendant helped me into a terrycloth robe, and once outside the steam bath, I stepped into slippers and proceed into the massage cubicles. The massage is nice (of course!) with golden aromatic oils kneaded into my body. Hopefully, dear reader, you have had massages before, so I will not go on with this description. In summary, though, it was a wonderful experience and well worth 250 Dirham.
In the evening, I got ready for “Fantazia”, the dinner show with an Arabian horse display for entertainment. This is arranged by the hotel, and they shuttled us out to the location, which is about twenty minutes outside of town. We unloaded and walk toward the palace-like structure. A double line of men on horseback pose regally for pictures with the throngs of attendees (us) and then extend their hands for money. At the door of the place is a huge cobra fountain, two stories high! – with glowing eyes. Inside there are displays of traditional wedding dress from different parts of Morocco. This is set within a labyrinth of man-made red caves, complete with stalactites and stalagmites, which made me laugh. It was just like Casa Bonita! And in a sense, it is the same idea: a restaurant based on entertainment. Dinner was served in huge, open air tents with wandering musicians and singers banding loudly on drums walking through the restaurant as we ate Moroccan soup, roast lamb, couscous, and fruit. I fed the wandering cat and stashed some mandarins in my bag for later.
After dinner the show was a spectacular event: a belly dancer gyrating on a float, horseman doing acrobatics as their Arabian steeds cantered in circles around the arena, a magic carpet flying overhead, and ending with fireworks.
Today, I feel fortunate to bask in the sun by our quiet pool. Tonight I will head out into the man square – a veritable zoo of wandering tourists, vendors, beggars, monkey-handlers, snake charmers, fresh-air restaurants in rows, competing for each and every customer, musicians…. Almost anything you can think of. The souks at night are supposed to be wild, as well. I guess I will find out!
Reporting to you from colorful Marrkech (and on my way to Fez, Rabat, and the famous Casablanca!) – Catnip