Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Mazes of Marrakech – Erich

Sunday we flew out of Cape Town and into Doha, Qatar. We were just in the airport and only for a couple hours. But the flight there was amazing. We flew Qatar Airways who served us two delicious meals. I had chicken and pasta, and the sauce on the chicken was wonderful. My other meal was lamb biryani.

Two and half hours later, which was now Monday at 1 AM local time in Doha, but midnight to our bodies used to Cape Town, we flew out. We arrived in Casablanca, Morocco eight hours later, local time in Morocco was 6 AM. We all slept some on the second flight, but we were still tired.

From the airport we caught a train to a different station where we caught a train to Marrakech. The rest of the day we did a bit of exploring, ate a meal, got to our apartment, and went to bed by eight, because we were all exhausted.

Today, Tuesday, we headed into the Medina. I'll explain. Marrakech is a city surrounding an old city. Very old. The Medina, which is the old city, was built over 900 years ago. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And while the new city is much like you would expect from a western city, the Medina is entirely different.

Tower at the Center of the Medina
The Medina has narrow streets that bend every which way. The architecture is certainly not western and the houses are one continuous block of walls. Some of the alleys are so narrow you could probably only fit two people abreast. We explored down one and eventually it led to a dead end. There were doors all along it to get into various homes, but there was no way out but the way we came. And all of the buildings are easily three stories high, so you are in a canyon of walls.

This will eventually dead end
It's like movies where you see the people run into a narrow alley and then end up trapped at a dead end. Or in a James Bond movie when he rides a motorcycle through these tiny streets that are crowded with pedestrians. That is the Medina.

We saw plenty of people on motorcycles riding past, as well as some on bicycles. There were men pushing what looked like giant wheelbarrows. At two different times, we even saw donkeys pulling wagons through these narrow passages. And all the while, there are people walking through the streets.

Why do the people walk here? The souks! The streets in the Medina (not the super narrow ones that lead to dead ends, but the slightly wider ones) are full of shops along the ground level. There are cosmetic shops, carpet shops, pastry shops, restaurants, snack bars, little hotels, spas, places selling beautiful ceramic or metal dishes, spice vendors, lots of places selling sandals and cloth shoes, clothing stalls, and so much more.

But in addition to lining the streets, there are these souks. They are open air marketplaces where stall after stall is crammed right next to one another. The vendors are very friendly, certainly trying to get your attention when they realize you are a western tourist. But with a firm no (or la which is the Arabic word for no) they usually (though not always) leave you alone.

A Souk
In the middle of the Medina is a huge open square called the Jemaa El Fnaa. Here there are restaurants and stalls around the edges. But in the open square are more stands and areas that are not stands, but still have people selling something or performing. There are women offering to draw henna tattoos on you. There is an entire section of carts that sell orange juice. (They also sell jus de citron which is lemon and jus de pomplemousse which is grapefruit.)

Jemaa El Fnaa

Jemaa El Fnaa
But there are also performers. We saw snake charmers. There are men sitting and playing music and cobras as well as other snakes swaying. They really want you to stop and watch and to give them money. That's fine, but there are other ones who walk around with snakes (not cobras) and tell you touch them and then try to put them over your shoulders and take a picture. Of course they expect to be paid for this service.

I'm not afraid of snakes. At various science museums I have worked for, I have had to handle many snakes for demonstrations to the guests. But I wasn't excited about men foisting reptiles onto my shoulders when I was repeatedly saying “No. La. No.” It wasn't the snakes for me, it was the pushiness of the people.

We wandered through the Jemaa El Fnaa and the narrow streets. We bought various foods when we saw something we wanted. We had a savory panini viande hachee. (That's a grilled beef panini sandwich.) I loved it, and somehow it reminded me of pizza. I'm not sure what spice it was that made me think of it.

We bought some pastries from a shop. Alrica and I shared one that was like a croissant in shape, but had a honey glaze of some sort. The kids each got a flaky pastry that had sprinkles on the outside and a white icing like cream on the inside.

We bought pop (soda, call it what you will) that was Fanta Lemon. We've not seen that before. It was good, but it did have a bit of a sour kick. We bought fresh orange juice at one of the carts. A bit too pulpy for my taste, but super flavorful. At another cart we got fresh sugar cane juice. We watched as the proprietor juiced the cane. Hard to explain the taste. Certainly sweet, but not overly sweet. The signs all over the cart pronounced the many digestive benefits of sugar cane juice (though in French, so I didn't take the time to translate them all.)

There were many stands selling dried fruit. We stopped at one and bought dried kiwi. It tasted similar to fresh kiwi, of course, though had a very different texture. And the sweetness was more concentrated, though there was no juice, unlike a fresh kiwi. That is, of course, what dried means.

Our biggest purchase of the day was a scarf. It is purple with gold details. Syarra loved it and the people at the shop taught Alrica how to put it on Syarra as a headscarf. She doesn't yet look like a local, but it is adorable on her.

Syarra's Headscarf
 If you are ever in Marrakech, you definitely want to spend a lot of time in the Medina. But bring along something to help you navigate. I was using Google Maps on my cell phone and it did a great job of keeping track of where I was. I would have felt okay without it, but felt much more confident with it. It would not be too hard to get yourself totally lost in the twisting maze of tiny streets.

We will definitely be visiting the souks and the Medina again, many times, during our stay.

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