It’s such a cliché, but the heat in Marrakech can only be described as oppressive. It was 105*F (40*C) when I stepped off the plane, and it was quite the introduction to Morocco…
My next interaction with the country fared little better. Getting lost in the medina is a right of passage, even for the local taxi drivers it seems, because mine could not seem to figure out how to get to my (fairly popular) hostel, even with directions from my GPS. Eventually he dropped me off about a quarter mile away, grossly overcharged me, and gestured to some nearby men to show me the way (presumably for a price). Luckily I come equipped with Google’s handy offline maps, so I was able to wave them off, ready to locate the hostel on my own.
Being able to confidently turn down offers from locals is an important skill in Marrakech, as it turns out, and one I’m glad I picked up on early. The streets and alleyways of the medina are lined with shops, restaurants, and hammams (local bathhouses/spas), and at almost every one a man will call out to passerby with offers of great deals or try to shove advertisements into your hands. I’ve found that ignoring them altogether or a firm “No thank you” and walking away from the most overbearing and in-your-face of the lot typically suffices.
You have to be very assertive though. I went out walking around the market with my dorm mates from Germany a few times and their soft voices did little to dissuade the hagglers and hustlers. Only when one, who is terrified of snakes, yelled and swore at a snake charmer did he finally back away.
Despite the eventful journey from the airport, and the chaos of the souks, I generally found the Moroccan people to be very warm, friendly, and helpful. The man who runs my hostel greeted me with “Marhaba, welcome to Marrakech” many times upon my arrival, as did others while out and about. Shopkeepers will often invite passerby in for a cup of mint tea and a demonstration of their wares being made, so I found myself spending quite a lot of time in the market whether I had intended to or not.
For my first two days in the country I wandered the souks and Jemaa el-Fna, the main market square in Old Town Marrakech and a UNESCO cultural heritage site. The endless maze of shops with seemingly infinite piles of pottery, spices, clothing, leather goods, and more for sale, along with the juice makers, snake charmers, monkey handlers, and motorbikes careening through the main square lend themselves to intense sensory overload.
Unfortunately those sensations include a smell that is difficult to describe, and mildly unpleasant–a combination of cigarette and shisha smoke, faint traces of the leather tanneries on the far edges of the market, and the questionable contents of the streets and alleys that accumulate by evening, but are cleaned every morning. All this to say, Marrakech takes some getting used to, but once you’ve had time to settle in, it’s a city you can absolutely fall in love with, and an exciting and interesting one to explore.
In addition to the souks (where I purchased some lovely harem pants for a mere 70 dirham), I also spent some time outside the Koutoubia Mosque nearby, though as a non-Muslim I was unable to enter.
Some men from my hostel managed to bribe a local to bring them into a mosque, but even if this were as easily done for me as a woman, I wouldn’t want to. It seems crass, as a privileged Westerner, to pay for the chance to enter another culture’s sacred space so I can gawk and take pictures of it. I prefer to stick to the places where I am invited, which fortunately for me included a carpet-making cooperative that I stumbled upon on my second day. One of the artisans, Mohamed, gave me a tour of the 14th century riad which houses it, telling me about the incredible history and architecture, as well as the stories of the families who live and work there.
I was also able to visit Al Nour, a social enterprise which provides training, child care, and other support to widows and women with disabilities who would otherwise be forced to beg on the streets. At Al Nour the women learn incredible embroidery skills and sell their wares in the adjoining shop. Both the cooperative and Al Nour were incredible and heartwarming to see after witnessing so much poverty and struggle as I wandered the city.
On my third day in Marrakech I was finally brave enough to eat a full meal of couscous vegetarién from a nearby cafe. Between the heat and the rather lacking food safety standards (street stalls of bread and sweets, and even the restaurant displays are often covered in flies) I had been hesitant to eat much up to that point. That being said, throughout my time in Morocco I indulged often and much in ice cream from trusted glaciérs and had sampled a few bites of tagine vegetarién from a clean but expensive restaurant. Other local specialties include homemade yogurt and fresh squeezed fruit juices. I don’t normally drink juice at home, but I loved the orange and papaya juices I tried in Morocco.
That third night, after dinner with some friends I had made at the hostel, we ventured out to experience the Jemaa el-Fna at night. I had thought the square chaotic during the day, but after sunset it really comes alive with street performers, rows of food stalls, and unbelievable masses of people taking it all in.
Early the next morning (too early considering my late-night adventure in the square) I hopped on a mini bus and headed 3 hours away to Ouzoud Falls with a tour group. My group was made up of a French couple, four Spanierds, an Irish man, and myself, along with our Moroccan driver guide, each with varying knowledge of the others’ languages. Often someone would translate my English into Spanish and then another person would relay the message in French, or vice versa. The whole day was like an international game of telephone, but we all managed to communicate well enough to get along. Shared fatigue and heat exhaustion knows no language barrier, so by the time we had hiked for several hours winding our way up and down a massive cliff and helping each other through the rough spots, we were the best of friends. After all that hiking we were rewarded with an incredible view of the waterfalls and an opportunity to swim in them, which by that point was the most refreshing and wonderful thing I’d ever experienced.
Along the way we had also had a chance to make friends with some wild monkeys and feed them peanuts. I don’t normally advocate animal encounters while traveling because of the rampant abuse in the industry, but this one was done ethically and very enjoyably.
After a much shorter hike up a set of stairs on the far side of the falls, and a brief stop for lunch at a restaurant set into the cliff halfway up, we made our way to the mini bus for the ride back to Marrakech. The few scattered businesses at the base of the falls had all been rather ramshackle, but also clearly authentic to the lifestyles of the 400 or so families living in Ouzoud. As we neared the top of the cliffs, though, the wooden stairs turned into paved paths and a swath of new, modern shops in the midst of being built. All of Morocco shares this odd juxtaposition of poverty and tradition mixed with blossoming infrastructure and Western influences but that was the most unsettling experience I’d had of it up to that point. Seeing that stark difference between the top and bottom of the falls (which serves as a perfect metaphor, mirroring the top and bottom of Morocco’s economic classes) gave me pause. It will be interesting to see what becomes of Ouzoud in the years to come. It’s already a major tourist site, but it’s also people’s home and I hope that it can retain that community in the face of further tourist-based development.
On my fourth day in Marrakech a new Finnish friend, Saana, whom I met on the first day at my Marrakech hostel, had returned from a brief trip to the desert and despite, or perhaps because of how travel worn we both were, we opted to do a day trip together to the coastal town of Essaouira. The day began with another 3 hour bus ride, though this time we stopped partway to check out a workshop where local women make and sell Argan Oil products. Most of the others on the bus made a beeline for the store (or the bathrooms), but I stopped to watch a woman splitting the Argan nuts that would then be essentially juiced for their Oil by another woman nearby. The first woman patted the cushion beside her and smiled, inviting me to learn the art of Argan Oil production for myself. It was almost therapeutic to whack at the nuts with the stone she offered me, though I couldn’t imagine doing that day in and day out for years…
Luckily I didn’t have the chance to grow tired of splitting Argan nuts, because at that point we were called back to the bus and resumed our journey. Upon arriving in Essaouira Saana and I wandered the medina, immediately noticing the difference between it and its counterpart in Marrakech. Essaouira’s medina was as calm and unobtrusive as Marrakech’s was chaotic and aggressive. We were deep into the market before anyone tried to shove an advertisement into our hands, and the lack of harassment from vendors was a welcome relief even after only a few days at the Jemaa el-Fna. When we came across the butcher shop section of the market with dozens of cow carcasses hanging out in the sun collecting flies (thankfully not a fixture of the Marrakech medina) we turned back and grabbed lunch elsewhere. After lunch we made our way to the real reason we had chosen to make the trek out to Essaouira–the beach.
Coming from the stifling heat of Marrakech, the sea breeze felt incredible and we ended up spending almost three hours just laying on the sand enjoying it. I’m fairly certain I actually fell asleep for awhile it was so relaxing…
Sadly we had to leave sometime, but stretched our time on the beach til the last minute, and stopped briefly on the way back to make friends with some goats in an Argan tree…
So we didn’t arrive back in Marrakech until around 9pm. Despite the late hour, we decided to continue our relaxing day with a trip to Hammam Ziani, a traditional bathhouse near our hostel. Now, when I say traditional what I mean is full nude. And when I say nude I mean that a strange woman will exfoliate and massage you in places you didn’t even know existed.
Once again Morocco provided me with an odd juxtaposition, and I couldn’t help but think the entire time about how I was at a communal nude spa (the likes of which Moroccan people use as often as 2-3 times per week) in a primarily Muslim country where baring your shoulders in public is cause for harassment. Even so I managed to enjoy the experience (which included time in a steam room, the exfoliating scrub which makes it a bathhouse, and a full body massage) immensely!
My final stop in Morocco was a single night in Casablanca. Once again it was a 3 hour trip, though this time by train, followed by a half hour walk to my hotel in the sweltering heat (here’s where it really pays to pack light…). Though I love the movie of the same name, by the time I had checked in to the hotel and spent a few hours seeing the sight (singular) of Casablanca, I felt grateful for the brevity of my time there.
Casablanca is bursting with modern glass and steel luxury high rises that stand literally right across the street from what can only be called slums, creating yet another unsettling (and upsetting) juxtaposition. And while walking past them on my way to and from the Hassan II Mosque I’m fairly certain I was sexually harassed by every single man in the city.
The mosque, at least, was incredibly beautiful, and luckily between my time there and dinner/drinks at the famous Rick’s Cafe I did manage to enjoy some of my stay in Casablanca.
From the moment the black curtain at the entrance to Rick’s Cafe was grandly swept aside I felt just like Ingrid Bergman. I savored my time there, splurging on a margherita and plate of pasta for about $20 US (actually very expensive by Moroccan standards). The next morning I packed my bags and headed to the airport, bound for Senegal, where I was told that my flight time had been moved to an hour earlier than I had booked it for due to daylight savings time (and yes, I’m still confused about their logic with that one). After 3 rounds of security and passport control I had to sprint for the gate, making it just before the final boarding call finished.
While Morocco may seem like a dream vacation destination, and in many ways it was, I also had a challenging and thought provoking experience with it at times. Overall Morocco was a fantastic introduction to my time in Africa, and allowed me to experience the good, the bad, the culture-shocking, and the beautiful in a short but intense trip.