Detour to the Marrakech Express–WOW, WOW, WOW

As I try to push thoughts of the second book out of my mind, I find myself in Marrakech, Morocco.

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Room with a view, Marrakech

My first instinct had been to travel to Casablanca. I have to sheepishly admit that I had been romantically expecting to see the Casablanca from the film, Casablanca. When I expressed this desire to a number of different people in Europe, the response was universal–NO. Go to Marrakech, they said. Go to Fez or Rabat. I chose Marrakech. Perhaps it was my inner Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young speaking. Who knows?

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Outdoor cafe in Marrakech

My flight out of the Rome airport was today at 9:30 a.m. I had several time choices for the trip to Rome and I opted for one at 3:10 a.m. This required me to actually stay up until 3:10 a.m. because I didn’t want to risk falling asleep and miss the bus. I slept a short bit on the ride to Rome but not enough to make a difference. The flight to Marrakech was three and a half hours and by the time I got to my room, it was nearing 2:00 p.m. I took a short (3 hour!) nap. By the time I awoke, it was approaching 6:00 p.m.

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Ancient wall

My bed and breakfast is owned by a local family. With only four rooms and a courtyard, it is a five minute walk to the souk or marketplace. I went down to pay for my room. I had assumed I would be able to pay for it with my Visa or my debit card. No such luck. Even though it was only seventy-eight euros, it bankrupted me as I didn’t have a whole lot of cash on hand. After paying what I had, I set out to find an ATM so I wouldn’t be broke in Marrakech.

The young man in my BnB gave me directions to the nearest ATM. Perhaps he misunderstood, perhaps I did, but I ended up on a wild goose chase traipsing through a relatively low-income area. Eventually, I decided to look for a bunch of modern buildings, reasoning to myself that there would be a better chance of finding an ATM. It is my observation that most people in Morocco probably don’t have a bank account which is why ATMs are not terribly ubiquitous.

I hadn’t had anything to eat other than a croissant at the Rome airport all day. By the time I found the ATM and got my money, it was 7:00 p.m. and I was starving. My arm had started looking mighty tasty. I stopped in the first cafe I found where I ordered a plate of shwarma–pitas with a pile of roasted lamb bits, a pile of roasted chicken bits, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and shredded lettuce. Dollops of mayonnaise and spicy sauce on the side along with a bowl of olives rounded out the dish. Along with two glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice, a bottle of water and a huge espresso-to-die-for, I was sated. I was then ready to explore the souk.

DSC00915I walked down alleyways and side streets that took me back in time. A hunched-over old man carrying a walking stick evoked Biblical images. Women in full hijabs strolled with women in modern garb. Other women in hijabs chatted on phones, some puttered by on motorbikes. Men called out to me in French, English and Spanish, “Meester! T-shirts! You like candy?”

I continued walking, absorbing the atmosphere. It was exciting, exhilarating, exasperating. Live chickens in a cage. Freshly picked citrus fruits. Sacks of spices and lentils. Obsolete electronic equipment spread on mats. Old shoes piled on a table. Containers of olives and dates. Stacks of nougat delicacies.

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Cafes and restaurants line the perimeter of the souk in Marrakech

Continuing on I smelled roasting lamb. Dog feces lay on the sidewalk. Speeding motorbikes swerved perilously between pedestrians. Children kicked soccer balls to each other. Young girls walked arm in arm. Need your shoes shined?

(Young women actually showed their arms and faces. I was struck how accepted it was that women were able to dress “immodestly”…in Islam. Yet there were no women in the cafes, only men. I also noticed that women and men did not walk together or socialize. The men and women I did see together were either foreigners or obviously betrothed.)

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Piles of every condiment you could want.

Eventually, I found the souk. A mosque stood in the distance. Dusk was setting and the plaintive wail of Islam call to worship sounded over the square. Despite the chant, six lanes of traffic on the palm-lined boulevard pulsed and wended its way forward. Crowds of people moved amoeba-like along the sidewalks and through the marketplace. Vendors called out, imploring anyone who looked western to buy their wares.

“Sir! Sir!”

“Bonsoir, monsieur!”

“Best prices! Come look!”

Apparently, I appeared to be French because many vendors called out to me in French. And since Morocco is a former colony of France, it made sense. I learned quite quickly not to look in the direction of the vendors. Paying attention to their entreaties would have entitled me to a relentless hard sell of whatever they were proffering.

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Don’t dawdle in the souk or you’ll be pounced upon.

I moved with the crowds inside the souk. It was enchanting, mesmerizing. Spotlights shone on the plaza. Groups of people watched street performers. Snapping pictures of the performers required a payment I unfortunately found out. It was the fastest five bucks I ever spent. Stopping for another espresso, I relished its ambrosial effects as it swirled over my tongue.

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Side street, walking back to my room

I walked yet more and found myself smack dab in the middle of what could best be described as an outdoor restaurant row. Booth after booth were filled with tourists and locals gorging on regional delights–Moroccan pastries, shishkebab, fruits and juices, chicken roasting over coals, shellfish(!) and assorted other dishes. The aromas were amazing and the vibe lively. I found myself wishing I hadn’t eaten at the earlier joint.

Vendors in the souk sold everything imaginable–hammered silver items such as coffee pots and lanterns, leather shoes and handbags, clothing, foodstuffs. I was getting lightheaded. Lingering for even a moment would result in a vendor pouncing on me. One man followed me for a block just because I happened to glance in his booth.

By 11:00 p.m. I found myself exhausted. It had been a long day and if I wanted to truly immerse myself in this experience, I needed to get some decent rest. I bade the souk goodbye and walked through the streets of Marrakech at a decidedly slower pace.

Sitting up in bed as I write this, I cannot wait to see what’s in store the next few days.

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