Where is Ahmed?

Published: July 20th 2015
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Upon arriving in Marrakesh it was immediately evident we were in a larger, more modern city. On the ride from the train station to our riad we passed night clubs, fancy restaurants, and billboards advertising alcohol and cigarettes. It felt like we had pressed fast forward on the remote and arrived in the modern world. The Medina felt distinctly different as well. The streets were wide enough that cars and motorcycles could drive on them, which lead to more traffic and congestion. There were also larger monuments and distinguishable landmarks within, which in theory, should have made it easier to navigate (this didn’t actually end up being the case). Our riad, located in the southwest corner of the Medina was run by a sweet, young French woman. It was adorably decorated with a mixture of Moroccan and European influence. A fragrant orange tree grew in the courtyard which provided our juice every morning. Our bedroom wall shared a wall with the alley. Each night as we lay in bed we could hear the sounds of the city begin to wake up outside. One sound we grew accustomed to was that of a man calling, “Ahmed…Ahmed…Ahmed” in short enunciated bursts. I wonder if he ever found him.

On our first day in the new city, we decided to take a short walk to see if we could find a couple of stores recommended by Lonely Planet. We figured we would venture out for an hour or two and then come back to our riad to cool down and relax. What actually happened, was quite different. Before we even made it to the main square (Jma el Fna) a man named Abdul approached us and asked if we would be interested in seeing his shop which sold spices and herbs. Fortunately for him, I had actually read about Marrakesh’s infamous ‘pharmacies’ and was interested in visiting one, so we followed him past Jma el Fna into the souks. After purchasing some spices and soaps, we took our chances again and went with him to a nearby antiques store. I chose a lantern and two pairs of earrings that I wanted to buy. Typically buying things you want is a pretty easy process – you look at a price tag, decide if you want it, and hand people money. This is not the case in Morocco. To buy anything here you have to go through a ritual of bargaining, which can be quite long and involved. Having no actual reference frame for what things are worth, you basically decide what you are willing to pay for them, rather than trying to figure out their actual inherent value. The shop assistant began by writing down prices on a small pad of paper for the items. Travis and I looked at the numbers, scoffed (of course they were ridiculous) crossed them out, and wrote down our own (approximately half that of his). He returned, looked at our numbers, made an expression of complete shock and disbelief, crossed them out, and told us to write new ones. After a few more rounds, we emerged successful, goods in hand, at about 60%!o(MISSING)f his original asking price.

Afterwards, we continued on deeper into the souqs, still in search of my stores. Souqs are basically alleyways that are lined on either side by small storefronts selling anything and everything you can imagine – namely a lot of metal lamps, babouches (traditional shoes), jellabas (traditional clothing), Berber carpets, colorful scarves, jewelry, etc. There are different souqs for different things – for example, there is a leather souq, a clothing souq, a metal souq, etc. The combination of the extreme heat, dizzying number of stores, and the lack of any sort of street sign, is extremely disorienting. You are lost before you even begin. It was silly to think we could have navigated them successfully on our first try. We must have appeared as lost as we actually were, because a man stopped to ask if we needed help. Skeptical, but at loss for another solution, we accepted. Unfortunately, our admission of need lead to a series of uncomfortable events. First, the man brought us to another pharmacie (which we had no interest in since we had just visited one). Then after we escaped, he lead us to another random alley and held out his hand for money. Fully expecting this Travis pulled out the obligatory 10 dirhams ($1), the customary tip amount. Upon seeing this the man got upset and started shouting, “this is nothing, you should give me 300 or 400 dirhams at least” ($30 - $40). Out of nowhere another man appeared, seemingly a stranger, and joined the first, repeating over and over “10 dirhams, that’s nothing!” Seeing a sign for the Photography Museum we decided to try to escape there, but this also proved to be a challenge. As we followed a sign down an alley for the museum, two local men got in front of Travis, blocking his way, saying “closed, closed for festival”. One of the men actually grabbed his t-shirt in an effort to get him to turn around. As this was happening, another man, completely unrelated, walked by and called, “museum this way” pointing in literally the opposite direction of the sign. We shoved past the men and kept walking in the direction of the sign, and lo and behold, ahead of us was the museum open for business. After visiting the museum, we eventually made it back to our riad. Seven hours had passed! The lesson of the day was to never, under any circumstances appear that you are lost. And do not, do not, pull out a map!

The next day we booked massages and hammam appointments at a beautiful little spa a couple of minutes away. The experience totally made up for the stress of the day before. It was a complete oasis in the middle of the hectic city, with separate areas from the hammam, massage, and relaxation. First we were lead to a full size swimming pool, the ultimate luxury during the sweltering heat of a Moroccan Summer. After cooling down, we were lead to a narrow heated room with beds on either side. Our attendant instructed us to lie down in our respective beds, and promptly stripped me of my swimsuit. She then covered us in some kind of herbal mixture and left the room. Being in a continuous state of confusion since we had entered the country, we weren’t really sure if she was coming back or not. But sure enough, 20 minutes later, she returned and began to scrub us both down with a kind of black scrub brush – it was coarse and mildly painful – but effective. She left again and then returned a third time to slather us completely in mud. After dumping buckets of water over our heads (surprise!) she instructed us to rinse off. Next was the massage! The style was similar to the Swedish massages I’ve had in the U.S. but with more essential oils. My masseuse was amazing. Finally, to top it off, we were lead to another large interior room, with the roof open to the sky, with and served mint tea and cookies! The whole experience took about four hours and cost $60 each.

That evening we took a taxi into the Ville Nouvelle and went to a super swanky Lebanese restaurant called Azar. When we pulled up a very tan, very suave Frenchman, who could have been a stand in for Bond, greeted us and led us to the outdoor lounge area to have a cocktail where heavily tanned European couples cuddled up on velour cushions smoking hookahs and lazily stirring cocktails. It felt like quite a different world then the crowded, dirty alleys of the Medina. Afterwards we were lead indoors for dinner. The interior was all black, white, and red with plush swivel chairs, mirrors, and massive bunches of red roses on every surface. Our food was exceptional, but the atmosphere was really the draw. While we ate an older Sengalese gentleman played hauntingly beautiful music on a traditional instrument. Afterwards several belly dancers emerged carrying platters of lit candles on their heads. It all felt a little forced, but I wasn’t complaining.

For our final day in Marrakesh we visited the Jardin de Marjorelle, a stunning garden restored by the French painter Jacques Marjorelle. Looking at exotic plants, is one my favorite past times, so we spent the entire afternoon there, wandering amongst the brightly colored planters, drinking tea in the café, and exploring the treasures in the Berber museum. We had dinner that night in the Mellah, or Jewish corner of the Medina; and then we were off the next morning for the mountains.

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