“I believe that Marrakech ought to be earned as a destination. The journey is the preparation for the experience. Reaching it too fast derides it, makes it a little less easy to understand.”
Here is a map of Marrakesh as was given to us when we arrived.
Well, it was absolutely useless.
You very quickly realize when you get to Marrakesh that, not only do none of the streets and alleys have names but try to show someone a map and ask them to show where in the medina you are, you only get blank stares, furrowed brows and looks of confusion. It’s like they had never seen a map before. This includes people you would think should know, like policemen or guards. It was very puzzling for us, being so used to knowing exactly where we are at all times. We didn’t even want to try using Google Maps here, in case it also threw up its digital arms at us and melted the phone. So, we put the map away for the most part and just wandered hoping that our feet would remember the way back to our Riad.
This is what we settled into after Switzerland. It was a bit of a rude shock after the calm and idyllic life we had had in Switzerland but the longer we stayed the more we got into the rhythm of life in Marrakesh. Marrakesh is not an easy city to enjoy and we would often let out a breath of relief when we got back to the riad. However, there was an ancient beauty and an energy to Marrakesh that made you get up the next day and want to go out and explore. Each alleyway led to another beautiful doorway, the crowded alleys propelled you from stall to stall of beautiful crafts you wanted to buy and stuff into your suitcase (hoping it would make it home safely because it was so beautiful), and the people we interacted with were all kind and helpful. It was unfortunate that we had come with our pre-conceived notions of life in these cities as we were caught up many times trying to be sure we didn’t get pickpocketed, have our children disappear or get sick with the result that we probably didn’t enjoy our time here as much as we could have. At the end of our time though, we came to really enjoy Marrakesh. Deanne and I concluded that it was much like New York. We love going there but four days is definitely enough.
Our Home, Our Riad
After a very long wait in customs in Marrakesh, the airport finally spit us out onto the streets where a mob of representatives from the various Riads waited. Unfortunately, not a single one of them was for our Riad. Wandering around for a bit, we begged the use of a phone (ours doesn’t work here) and were able to contact our Riad. They were very quick with getting to us and we finally were off towards the Old City where our Riad was. As the streets are not built for traffic beyond a certain point, we were met by the Riad host at the parking point and led to the Riad. This was our first experience with Mohammed, who was to be our host at the Riad as well as our advisor. Running to keep up with him (he walked very fast), we quickly made our way to the Riad through seemed like a very dubious path detouring around pieces of rock, a half fallen building and other rough parts. This we discovered was just a shortcut but it was a little shocking for us after Switzerland. We weren’t quite sure where we were going. We arrived at our Riad and were relieved to discover an oasis from the craziness of the outside. Riads are houses that are built around a central courtyard that is usually open. In busy packed cities like Marrakesh, it provided a place of quiet and privacy, as well as air free from the street vendors. We had one whole side of the main floor to ourselves and it was a very nice open room. We did have to be mindful of things like not drinking the water from the tap but otherwise, it was very nice. We also had our breakfasts on the roof-top terrace which was very nice in the mornings when the day was still cool. After breakfast, the kids and I would do our school work up there, as well. Mohammed was an amazing host, always willing to help us out. Whenever we had a question about something or needed to call someone about an arrangement we had made, he was always there to make the phone call or do other things. He also brought us our breakfasts in the morning, which would usually consist of some kind of bread, a yoghurt, coffee, honey, jams and scrambled egg. I quite enjoyed the fig jam he brought up each day and the scrambled eggs were very good. They usually had a light seasoning of cumin on the top which was quite lovely. The Riad was our comfy hiding place after a busy day fending off the hordes outside the walls.
Walking Through the Streets
Whenever we left the Riad, our walks would become an adventure. The alleys twisted and turned. They were very narrow and if you were not careful, you could easily lose where you were going and have to backtrack quite a ways before you could figure out where you had gone wrong. The other factor that made walking an interesting experience was the fact that, while there were no cars or trucks that were able to get through the alleys, they made up for it by trying to fit every single motorcycle, bicycle and cart ever made by a human in the entire existence of this earth through them. These alleys could barely fit the walking traffic going in both directions. But the motorcycles would roar down these alleys, twisting and turning through the pedestrians as if we were stationary pylons. It was quite the experience. You would get to a corner, pause to get your bearings and suddenly behold at least twenty-five motorcycles coming at you from all directions. And those are just the motorcycles. There would also be carts coming toward you and bicycles. It got to where you couldn’t really slow down. You would step into the alleyway and immediately be swept along with the moving current. If you missed your corner, ah well! C’est la vie. You would have to continue until you got to the next corner and hope you could make it back. I exaggerate a little but it was pretty close. We got to be pros after a bit, getting used to it enough to be able to talk and walk at the same time, moving to the side when a bike would come by without stopping our discussion. It was quite an experience seeing all this humanity directing these vehicles through the narrow streets without killing anyone.
The Main Square
Once you got to the end of the walkways, you would invariably hit the main square. This was a huge open area surround by shops and restaurants. It would undergo a number of transformations throughout the day. From the mornings, when things would be mostly empty and closed, to the middle of the day when shops and stalls would start to set up, to the evening where the entire square was covered and filled with a variety of eateries, fruit stalls, snake charmers, men holding monkeys and other things. It was always transforming into something new and, while it was neat to see the first time, we tended to a stay away from it as it was also the best place to get accosted by people trying to sell you something. The kids were especially fascinated by the snake charmers and the monkeys though we didn’t get to close.
We were usually fairly careful where we went to eat as we didn’t want to get sick. Most times we would have something light for lunch like pizza and a bottle of water. We bought lots of bottled water as you can’t safely drink the water in Marrakech. In the evenings, we tried out a couple of different places that were recommended in the guides we had brought. The first night, we went to a place overlooking the main square. While the kids had spaghetti, Deanne and I tried out a couple of Morrocan tajines. We both had the chicken tajines which were very good. Moroccan tajine dishes are slow-cooked savory stews, typically made with sliced meat, poultry or fish together with vegetables or fruit. Spices, nuts, and dried fruits are also used. They are cooked and served in special tajine pottery which helps with the cooking process. I have discovered a love for this dish. The combinations of spices are exquisite!
Another evening, we went to the Clock Cafe. The Clock Cafe is run to help people learn more about the culture of Morocco. One of the evenings we went, they were doing storytelling. A group of students from the local college told two Moroccan stories in English. There was another story after which was told in Arabic but unfortunately, we had to leave as it was already getting late. The children enjoyed the stories and it was a nice experience. The food was really good as well. I had falafel and hummus which was very tasty. One of our other nights was spent eating at the Henna Cafe. This restaurant worked with local women to provided them with skills that would help them get better jobs. It was a tiny restaurant (most places are around here) and the kids loved the fact that there were two turtles walking around on the floor. Siena also got her hand done with a henna design, which she enjoyed. It turned out quite well.
Our Scavenger Hunt
On our final full day in Marrakesh, we decided to do a scavenger hunt. I had found this neat scavenger hunt form online and had gotten Mohammed to print it out for us. To find the items on the list we had to go into the maze of stalls called Souks. These areas are usually covered passageways that are made up tightly packed stalls selling items. It may seem quite disorganized but over history, sections have become designated for certain products. Thus, one section would be where you would go to find leather goods, another section would be for clothing, another section would be for jewelry, etc. There were also sections devoted to meats, fish and many other smelly things. We didn’t go into that section. It took us a while to find all the things on the list. I allowed them to make “snails” the gimme square, but they had to find everything else on the list to get an ice cream. Thus we spent a good hour or so looking for leather poof seats, a black and white cat (very easy), a key, a Berber letter (very hard) and other things. The kids managed to find everything on the list and, to celebrate, we all got an ice cream. It was a nice way for the kids to really get a good look at life in Marrakesh. We spent some time talking to the kids about how hard these people had to work and how much they helped each other in order to make enough to live on. Marrakesh was a big eye-opener for the kids in that way.
Getting a Haircut
For a bit of fun, and because I really needed one, I decided to enlist Mohammed’s help in finding a barber to get my haircut. I had wanted to get it cut for a while and we had been looking around for a good place to go before Morocco. However, everywhere else was quite expensive. Then Deanne read an article about a guy who had gotten his haircut in Marrakesh and how cheap it was. So, that settled it. I would get my hair cut in Marrakesh. Now, just where to go? I asked Mohammed at our Riad where he would go and he said that he would take us to the place where he usually goes. And off he went. Running to keep up to him, we came to a tiny hole in the wall place. Unfortunately, it was closed as the barber was in prayer at the mosque across the alley. Mohammed got his friend standing nearby to keep an eye on us and took off back to the Riad. After a little bit of waiting, the barber returned, settled on a hairstyle (something that didn’t have me looking like I had just received jail time and was being released on good behavior) and off we went. If you know me, my hair doesn’t just grow long. It grows long, thick and curly. There was hair everywhere in this tiny place by the time the barber was done with me. But the haircut turned out quite well (especially the next day when I was able to get all the gel out, making me look like an Italian gangster). It was a great experience and it only cost $7.00.
Mark Camel and Alexander Camel-ton
Our trip to Morocco brought a unique experience. We booked a camel ride. The only one of us that had done a camel ride before was Deanne in Egypt, and that was a long time ago. So, we were all looking forward to the adventure.
We got picked up at the parking lot near us. After we had extricated ourselves from the Old Town, we were zooming along the wider streets of the more modern area of Marrakesh. The driver was very generous with his horn and applied it liberally to anyone he felt was in his way. It took us quite a while to get to the camel area which was nestled in among the fancy resort hotels.
You can’t imagine how big a camel actually is until you are beside one and then on top of one. Deanne and I both shared our camels with the kids. However, we couldn’t get on until we were all dressed in traditional garb. The headdress turned out to be quite nice as it was a very hot day out. Once, on the camels, the order was given to get going and the camel heaved themselves up onto their legs. It was very ungraceful and we hung on tightly so we were not pitched off first the front of the camel, then the back. Our camels were all tightly linked together and Siena and I had the head of the camel behind right beside my knee for the whole journey. I was praying that the camel didn’t suddenly run out of cud to chew and decide that my knee looked tasty.
Riding a camel is much like how I would imagine going up and down waves in an ocean would feel like. In fact, for a little bit, I thought I was getting seasick but we gradually got used to the rolling motion. As we walked through the desert area, I was imagining the herds of camel leading goods and spices through the desert to the markets of Marrakesh. While on the camel ride, we discussed what we should name the camels and the consensus was that Liam’s camel was going to be camel Mark Camel and Alexander Camel-ton was going to be the name of Siena, representing two of our favorite things, Star Wars and Hamilton.
Camel riding in Morocco was a big experience for us. It may be one of those huge tacky touristy things to do, but we all enjoyed it immensely. The kids had a great time and I am sure we will talk about it in the many years to come. Maybe, when we come back to Canada, we will have to find a moose to ride to compare the experience.
The Final Word
Was it worth going to Marrakesh? We did grow to love Marrakesh by the end but it was exhausting. It was eye-opening for myself and the kids to see the constant energy and connections needed to survive here. The kids especially got to see a place very different from their own and a completely different way of living that was not better or worse than how we lived but very different. We certainly had to have shorter days out due to the heat and the energy required to get around. However, we had lots of great experiences. Getting to ride a camel, seeing the markets, staying at a Riad, getting a haircut were all experiences we couldn’t do anywhere else on our year travel and they will make great memories. We are now looking forward to our next stop in Essaouira, which is supposed to be a lot cooler and not as hectic as Marrakesh. We will see how the two places compare!