Morocco, Day 3

Posted by Ted on Oct 29, 2007 in Travel

Our last day in Marrakech already? We woke up slowly and caught the end of breakfast. The lavender yogurt was truly wonderful, and we need to find a way to make it. Afterwards we took a nap, packed up, showered, and left our packs in the care of the riad for the day while we went wandering. We went to the bus depot to buy our overnight tickets to Zagora, the farthest “big” town towards the desert. We went to the bank, and each took out 2000 dirhams (about $260 each) and we ended the day with 90.

Did I mention that the vacation cost about twice as much as we’d anticipated? One of our original reasons for choosing Morocco was because it seemed cheaper than Spain, and not much more than Burning Man. The key point is that it can be done cheaply, but two things counted against us. For one thing, we decided to play it by ear. After the first two nights in Marrakech, we made no plans, and decided to let our whims guide us. This worked out great, except for the fact that the cheaper lodging was already booked. Also, we (or at least I) was unprepared for exactly how much shopping temptation there was. We figure that we spent over $800 on stuff; mirrors, jewelry, clothing, a lamp, and an amazing blanket. Some food is really cheap, but some is not. By US standards, even the expensive meals were pretty reasonable, but everything added up by the end of the trip.

By chance, and the fact that we stood out even among the tourists, the cab driver from the day before found us and tried to be our guide, but we wanted to wander on our own. We walked through the north of the medina, getting lost in the residential district, which was devoid of other tourists. We hired a horse-drawn carriage to take us across town to the Palais de la Bahia. It was closed when we arrived, so we walked through the Spice District and into a nearby plaza. Liz got a bracelet with interlocking snakes from a wandering woman, which we later found out from a different woman that she could have gotten 5 for the same price. Clearly we still had lots more to learn about the value of things and of haggling. There were many lantern shops, and a souvenir shop that was beyond anything we’d seen. A modest hole-in-the-wall entrance like any other, it was cavernous, dimly lit, each room leading onto another, filled with everything imaginable; lamps, mirrors, chests, doors, carpets, jewelry, pottery.. Time stopped while we were inside, and it felt like the storeroom for an archeological dig. Then we stopped for lunch, with poor quality meat, which was made up for by the potatoes which soaked up the superb spicing. Now that the palace was open, we wandered through and took pictures. It had a very run-down feel, but it was still beautiful. The zellij tilework was stunning, and the carved rock was unbelievable; such fine detail, carved by hand, blew us away.

We walked back through the Spice Quarter, and picked up some Ras el-Hanout (a blend of over 30 spices), some mint tea, and a 5-spice blend for fish. We meandered down a new street, looking at belly dance costumes, and then ended up back at Djemaa el-Fna. We walked around the back of the square, looking at different shops, and stopped at a lantern store owned by a woman. This was especially notable because it’s a culture where the men are generally the business owners. In fact, we met no other women shopkeepers in our travels. She was a welcome change from the typical pushy salesman. While very pleasant, she was also clearly well suited to her role. She was proud, professional, and talked about her empire of three factories which made lanterns, ceramics, and something else. We bought a lantern for our bedroom, unlike any that we’d seen in the multitude of shops. Across the street I found a mirror that I liked, and tried the “walking out” technique of haggling to the success of talking down his 950 dirham offer to 500. I probably still paid too much, but we were learning.

Spent, literally and figuratively, we went back to Dar Soukaina to pay our bill, rest, and repack. Then we headed out to dinner at Cafe Arabe which thankfully took credit cards. We relaxed on the rooftop terrace with a bottle of wine, our first alcohol since arriving. Forbidden in Islam, alcohol is not widely available, but it is offered in upscale restaurants who cater to tourists. For a country that doesn’t drink much alcohol itself, Morocco does have its own vineyards that produce very drinkable and very reasonably priced wine.

Then we caught a cab to the train station, and walked a couple of sketchy dark blocks to the bus station. While we arrived in plenty of time for our 11:30p bus, it was late getting in, and so it would be another two hours before we got on our way. During that time, we were approached by this guy in dreads and a robe who asked us if he was in the right place for the bus. It turned out that his name was Ali, has a relative who lives in Boston, and he worked for Sahara Services, and he’d be happy to take care of us when we reached the desert. He was gregarious and warm and crazy in just the way that we are, and would be at home at any Burner event. He was filled with glee at the existence of the soda vending machine in the lobby, and then asked us to watch his bags while he went across the street to grab a bite to eat.

Meeting Ali would be one of the best things to have just randomly happened to us, as it led to us meeting so many other wonderful people, and to experience the magic of the Sahara.

Finally the bus would arrive, and thus would end Day 3.

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Morocco, Day 2

Posted by Ted on Oct 28, 2007 in Travel

We woke to the sounds and smells of breakfast from the courtyard outside our room. Inside courtyards are a common design element in Moroccan architecture. Ours had an orange tree in the center, surrounded by chairs and tables. We sat down and had omelettes, pastries, and the most amazing lavender yogurt with dates, nuts, and coconut. After a very welcome shower, we walked to the Jardin Majorelle, avoiding being picked up by more guides. The gardens were beautiful, with pools, trellises, and numerous varieties of cacti.

Afterwards, we hired a cab to the far side of the medina, ending up at a government-run souvenir shop with regulated prices. It was here that I saw my first moroccan mirrors. I hadn’t expected that I would look at mirrors as something I “must have”, but they really caught my eye. I was especially drawn to the ones that had carved bone, dyed with henna. Suddenly, we were starving, and so we wound up going to Riad Omar and dining underneath Berber tents on their roof. We had another “mixed salad” of olives, carrots with cumin, baby zucchini, and the best lentils ever, as well as a kafta tagine (lamb meatballs). The meal ended with a fruit plate, including the sweetest pomegranate, and of course, mint tea.

Then we walked to the Koutoubia Mosque, and through its rose garden. As we entered the garden, we smiled at the sight of a gay couple holding hands; Marrakech has the largest population of same-sex couples in the country. We rested on a bench for a while, watching a family with a little kid, playing just like any other. On our way back to Djemaa el-Fna, we looked at more mirrors an jewelry, and then had a macaroon cookie from a wandering woman and some more of the cinnamon tea. Needing a break, we walked back to our riad. Even just the second time walking back through the maze seemed more familiar.

After an email check to let folks back home know we were safe and a nice nap, we headed out again, leisurely stopping at shops along the way to the square. I bought a beautiful white shirt and pant set for 700 dirhams, which comes out to about $91. In hindsight, I probably could have gotten it somewhat cheaper, but it was still early in the week and the first “big ticket item” negotiation. We also ended up buying a cheap watch, which turned out to be one of the smartest 120 dirhams that we spent. Without either of our cell phones, we still needed to be able to catch buses on time! Our next purchase was a hard lesson. We walked into a bag shop with a very pushy salesman, and bought an admittedly nice camel leather bag, but the exact same bag was offered right next door for 75% less.

Deciding that it was time to extract ourselves from shopkeepers, we stopped by Stall #25 which we’d passed the night before. However, food stalls are no exception to the haggling culture. For every cart, there is not only the cook, sous chef, and bus boy, but there are hawkers enticing any and all passers-by to come to their stall, and who erupt in claps when new people sit down. Here we had the best olives yet. Perhaps you’ve noticed a trend? Like mushrooms and eggplant before them, I’ve now come to the realization that olives can be yawmy. Not all olives, mind you; I still rarely like the black ones, the green ones are hit or miss, but the light purple ones are the best.

As we got up after our meal, we wanted to take a picture of the stall, and they would not have that! We were invited behind the cart to stand in pose with the cook. We then walked around and stopped at one of the many carts selling nuts and dates. Not only did we buy some of the most delicious peanuts and almonds, we got yet another behind-the-cart tourist photo. Then we decided to call it a night and head back to the riad, down the less scary empty streets, filled with cats.

As near as we can tell, from our own experiences and from talking to other travelers, Morocco is overrun with cats. As cat people, it was a unique pleasure to see so many cats wandering around as part of the scenery. However, it was a mixed blessing in that a good number of them did not look too healthy; some would be missing an eye, others just looked scraggly.

And that was Day 2.

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Morocco, Day 1

Posted by Ted on Oct 27, 2007 in Travel

The day actually started on Friday when we gathered Polly and our bags into the car and drove down to NY in the morning, and having a birthday lunch with Liz’ mom, before being driven through rush hour to JFK. Then we got on Royal Air Maroc, flight 201 and flew across the Atlantic to land in Casablanca around 9:30a. With our packs on our backs, we exchanged what cash I had on hand into dirhams, and caught the 10a train from the airport into downtown Casablanca.

The adventure began as the train broke down at one point, and we waited for over an hour for the 11a train to arrive and for everyone to crowd onto it. I remember getting off to walk around a couple of times, and the first “you’re not in Kansas anymore” moment I had was watching the crowded cross street, packed with cars, bicycles, mopeds, and donkey-drawn carts. We got to the main train station, and took a cab to a restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet, Cafe Moura. Our first of many price negotiations was the cab ride. Everything in Morocco is negotiated. haggled. bargained. It would take us until the end of our trip to get get even passable at this new skill. We had an appetizer of olives, bread, relish tray, and an amazing fish dish.

Due to a bit of a snafu (never split up when traveling in a foreign country. rule #1), we missed one train, but caught the next to Marrakech around 3p. It was a pleasant ride, watching the red terrain pass by, scattered with rocks. A deeper red than the american southwest, it was more martian in color, and its cacti were nothing like we have here; they were large and floppy. We finally arrive in Marrakech after dark, and the adventure continues as we walk down the street trying to hail a cab to our final destination. We zip through crowds and down narrow streets until we get dropped off on what appears to be a random street corner. While we try to get our bearings, we’re approached by someone who asks us where we’re going and did we need a guide? With no other real options open to us, we followed him down even narrower darker streets, soon followed by a second gentleman. Needless to say, we were wary. But we were delivered to our front door, we paid the man some dirhams, and then had tea in the courtyard of our riad, Dar Soukaina. It had been a very long trip.

We check into the “Muscade” (Nutgmeg) room, drop our packs, and relax for a few minutes before deciding to head out to have some dinner. Our hosts gave us a map, and we winded our way towards the famed Djemaa el-Fna. As one gets deeper into the old cities, the streets are truly a maze. Even with our carefully-drawn map, we made sure that we identified landmarks as we walked such as a tall lamp post, a crenelated awning, or a sign for La Vache Qui Rit. At one corner we stopped, and we had another offer for someone to be our guide. Saying no was difficult; we didn’t need a guide, we didn’t ask for the directions he gave us, and they are tenacious when they follow you, pointing out sights along the way, and get huffy when you refuse to pay them. In addition to the guides, the labyrinthe of the souqs had the distractions of shopkeepers inviting us in to look at their store “just for two minutes!” After a couple of stops, we finally found our way into the square, and it was a flurry of activity and a cascade of color. Appreciating the craziness but really just wanting to take it all in over a meal, we dined at Chegrouni with a third floor terrace view of the square, and had one of the best meals of our trip; an onion, beef, and prune tagine, and beef with olive-flavored couscous.

After dinner we went into the night market, and walked along the shops selling lanterns, handbags, and carts offering spices, nuts, soups, and tea. A monkey-handler put a monkey on our shoulders, and we stopped at one of the tea stalls for “Hunja”, a ginseng tea with cloves and cinnamon and “Sellou”, a sesame seed cake similiar to halvah. We then decided to head back to the riad for the night. We walked back down the maze of streets, now eerily quiet, but we remembered our landmarks and made our way back safe and sound. Finally lying in bed, we held each other and smiled. We were in Morocco.

And that was Day 1.

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