Sunday, December 17 and Monday, December 18
I met Jeremy, my 40-year-old son, at the Tom Bradly terminal, and we took off for Marrakech, via Frankfurt and Lisbon. On our layover in Frankfurt it was snowing and 32 degrees. Somewhere we passed from Sunday to Monday. We have just taken off for our 1 1/2 flight to Marrakech on Portuguese TAP Air from Lisbon. I’m so tired but managed to stay awake all day so far to avoid jet lag later, although Jeremy and most others fell asleep on the plane. I started another crossword puzzle to help me stay awake. And it’s only 2:30 Marrakech time!
I’m looking down at the Mediterranean and snapping pictures of the shoreline.
We landed and were picked up in a van by a man from the riad (a large traditional house built around a central courtyard, often converted into a hotel) and went straight there. The riad is called Los Ammonites. It is located down one of the dark alleys with doors leading to other riads or dwellings. The structures are concrete or stone, about three stories high, where people live. (One day I tried to snap a picture of some boys playing soccer in the small courtyard outside our riad, but one of them demanded the equivalent of $10, so I passed on that one.)
To enter the riad, you have to step over a high threshold and then down one steep step, bending because the door is not very high—only up to my forehead. During our stay I bumped my head twice, once very hard, on the door frame at the top.
Then the dimly-lit hall to the stairs and courtyard makes a turn every few feet, and has more intermittent steps down, so I have to pay attention. The hallway has steps every few feet down into the sunken courtyard. The staircase is winding with high and narrow steps. (In fact, steps are everywhere in Marrakech, and the steps are about 1/3 higher and 1/3 narrower than ours in the U.S.)
The manager, Francesca, comes from an Italian family who owns the riad. She oriented us to the city. She warned us to avoid those young men who offer to “show you the way,” because often they just lead you in circles when your destination is really very close. Then of course they want to be paid.
On the roof is a terrace with tables and chairs and sofas, where you can have a glass of wine and chill out. I’m sitting there now. Very lovely, peaceful and relaxing.
Our room is on the second floor, up curvy, narrow steps. After you enter there are immediately five steps down to the first level, where Jeremy sleeps, and then two steps from his bed down to my bed. The ceilings are extremely high. All along one wall are windows that look down into the courtyard (we’re on the second floor) so there’s lots of daylight. The room lights are very dim, difficult to read by. The only light switch is up the two stairs to Jeremy’s bed so in the middle of the night I use my Kindle as a flashlight to get into the bathroom. The heaters worked well, which is good because it’s chilly at night—in the 40s. There is one small window in the bathroom. There are few towel bars, almost no counter but a huge sink—the biggest I’ve ever seen, a nice shower (no doors), very humid bathroom.
Jeremy’s having a massage for 90 minutes downstairs. I decided not to because I need time to write in this journal and relax. I’m feeling slightly overwhelmed; we’ve done so much I don’t know where to start writing.
Wednesday, December 20
This morning we went to the Majorelle Garden. Inside we visited the Berber Museum, with colorful clothing, handicrafts, rugs, and even tools on display. (The Berbers are any of the descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa. Berbers live in scattered communities across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger, and Mauretania.) The gardens were peaceful, with lots of visiting elementary school classes.
Yesterday and today we spent a lot of time walking through the Medina (Old City) and getting lost. The Medina is surrounded by a large wall, part of a past fortress. Inside is a huge maze of souks, narrow alleyways with kiosks on each side, no sidewalks, lots of tourists and “natives,” and motorcycles, bikes, donkey-driven carts everywhere, and (a few) cars. They come up behind you and there’s nowhere to avoid them, so everyone squeezes to one side, or the vehicles wait until the way clears. Sometimes they honk, but usually not. There are no signals. The vehicles seem to have the right-of-way, although it’s not entirely clear. No one seems concerned in the least. The drivers never meet your eyes; neither do the pedestrians. It doesn’t seem to bother them if you bump them while dodging. They just keep on walking as if oblivious to your presence. They are probably inured to tourists by now.
The souks are a wealth of sights and colors and diversity. The stalls are packed with goods, sometimes staffed by men who come from other African countries. There are women with burkas, women in western dress, men selling things while seated on the ground, salesmen in the stalls. None of the shopkeepers are women. Nor do we often see women on motorcycles or bicycles. We see women with school-aged children, taking them to and from school. Once in a while we see women walking with men, and we do see a lot of affection between men. Two males today kissed each other on the cheeks four or five times.
It is impossible not to get lost in all the winding and branching alleyways. Luckily, Jeremy uses an app called City Maps to Go, which has a GPS. Out of convenience, I rely on him instead of myself, so I feel somewhat more disoriented, although it does take Jeremy about three days before he can find his way home again without the app. I have to look down at the rough road and simultaneously look up at the sights and listen for motorcycles. Triple tasking. People sometimes don’t want their picture taken but they usually agree to have you film their store or artifacts.
In the large plaza or place, called JeJemaa El Poste, there are all kinds of activity going on, from jugglers to snake charmers to acrobats to musicians. I snapped a picture of some musicians and immediately one of them came to me and demanded money. Jeremy handed him the equivalent of $1 in dirhams, but he scoffed at it because it wasn’t enough. I tried to pay him but he wouldn’t accept it and demanded more. I think he wanted $5 but that was too much for me.
We have eaten at a couple of restaurants overlooking the plaza with seating on the second or third floor that provides fantastic birds-eye views. We had ice cream, café Americano, and good meals in those places. Tangine (a kind of stew with meat or vegetables) and couscous are the staples here. I love them both. Tangines are full of veggies, olives, spices, and argana oil. Arganas are similar to olives but made from nuts. The oil is made from them.
Someone led us to the tannery of the Berbers, who live mainly in the Atlas Mountains and are somewhat discriminated against and discounted by Marrakech society. Our “guide” told us how one day a week the Berbers come into the city and make leather. Their specialties are from camels or cows. We watched them working. Our guide seemed irritated when we bought nothing.
In wandering the souks and searching for dinner tonight, we arrived at a restaurant from the guidebook. It was tucked back in a dark alleyway and turned out to be closed. Some guy helped us find it so I tipped him $2. Then another guy took us to a riad that served dinner.
We ordered a bottle of red and sat on a comfortable sofa in the bar, then proceeded to the dining room, where we sat next to a pool with trees all around. Appetizers were a mix of salads, and entrées were tangine with lamb for Jeremy and tangine with veggies for me. Delicious. (The food here is almost always delicious.) A musician played a stringed instrument that was somewhat like a guitar, except square-ish. He sang, too, very nice traditional music. This turned out to be one of our favorite restaurants.
Thursday, December 21
At breakfast a Dutch couple was at the next table. They had been to the U.S. several times. They said that Holland is very nervous about terrorism now. Checkpoints and cops and metal detectors are everywhere. Their news media is full of Trump. International news also fills Dutch papers, but most of the news is about America “and of course the E.U.” There are very few guns in Holland, they said.
Breakfast in the riad was the same every day and consisted of fresh-squeezed orange juice, three types of pancakes or bread with honey or marmalade, a delicious cup of yogurt, packets of cheese, and good hot coffee in a pot on the table with a pot of warm milk.
Although I’m getting weary of watching out for motorcycles and speeding bikes on narrow streets, I’m so glad we came here. It’s truly another world from what I’m familiar with!
where is—feyn keyn
dirham—monetary unit. One dirham is about 10 cents. Ten = $1. About ten to a dollar. Very approximate. Ten dirham is a coin that is silver with a gold-colored border. Five dirhams are gold with a silver border, and one dirham is 100% silver-colored.
Most people don’t speak English except a few sentences needed in the riads or by vendors. Berbers are struggling to have their language, Amazigh, accepted as the official second language.
The Internet works well in our room. I keep it on non-roaming and airplane mode to avoid huge fees from Verizon, and only use it when WiFi is available.
After breakfast Jeremy and I went walking through the Medina on our way to see the Tombs of the Sultans (Saadian Tombs), which date from the 1600s. They consist of the graves of about 60 members of the Saadi Dynasty, and the walls and floors have many stones and mosaics. The tombs are have no names. Next we walked to the Palais Badi, commissioned by one of the sultans from the same period. It had sunken areas with orange trees and a lot of structures, art work on the walls, consisting often of tile along the bottom of the wall and cedar carvings along the top. The ceilings were incredibly beautiful, the sculpture and the tiles and the carvings in the wood as well.
Today Jeremy had scheduled a walking foodie tour, which was to begin at 1 o’clock in front of the post office. We sat up on the second level of the Terrace Café and had tea with peppermint leaves. Then we headed across the square to the post office, where we waited.
After a short while a man approached us and introduced himself as Abdul, our guide. During our tour we talked. He told me that the Berber language is now officially the second language, and French the third. From what he said, though, it sounded as if Berber is not consistently taught.
I asked him why all of the vendors were men, to which he bristled slightly and responded that the weavers in the co-op we were going to visit were all women, and that the women in the Argana oil production cooperative were also all women. I explained that I was only talking about the vendors. He said that probably the men spoke better English and other foreign languages. I said, why was that? He said because they finished college. And didn’t the women finish? I asked. No answer. I said, maybe they are busy in the home raising the children and cleaning the house. He nodded.
The first place we stopped was a typically Moroccan place, filled with natives, no tourists. Very small, dark, with wooden table tops. There we had lamb, which was delicious. Yes, I, a pescaterian, ate quite a bit of it to see what it was like (very tasty).
Next we entered a shop through an obscure passageway where they sold argana oil. We were told—by a woman—about the history of argana oil and how it was produced. On the wall was a poster of goats high up in an argana tree eating the nuts. They then chew the shells, and the raw seeds come out with their feces. These are used to extract the oil. (I read that it’s done more hygienically today, but no one told us that.)
I soon realized that the real point of our being there was so that we would buy some of the oil products. The saleswoman must have described at least 50 different products, each with different herbs and spices. According to her, argana oil is considered to be a remedy for everything from osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes, insomnia, and about 15 other things, including wrinkle remover, face cream, body cream. Then she asked us if we wanted a free massage, using some of the argana products. We agreed, and had a short shoulder massage by two assistants. She put more pressure on us to buy something. The bottles were not cheap. The smaller ones cost perhaps $15 and up. The medium ones cost around $50, and the large ones cost over $100. Jeremy bought some. One product was supposed to clear your nose if you had allergies; since Jeremy has a cold, he bought that product as well. Aside from the insomnia formula, I needed nothing. When I asked her about the cooperative, she said that yes, women own it and that it was to employ and help women who were by themselves and had no means of livelihood. If I wasn’t so skeptical, I would have bought something.
Next, we went to a rug store, also supposedly produced by a coop of women. One woman there was weaving a beautiful rug. As we sipped tea, the salesman explained to us the difference between Arabic and Berber rugs. We viewed both as his assistants unrolled them for us, one after the other, flipping them out in a pile on the floor. They were beautiful, individually designed, and of different weaves, textures, thicknesses and materials.
After visiting a candy shop, we entered another small Moroccan restaurant, where we had goat meat. And then we went on to lunch! I had a couscous vegetarian dish and green salad with a number of chopped vegetables surrounding it and a mayonnaise dressing.
We learned that our guide has four children, and that his youngest girl is only a week old and was a “mistake.” His oldest child is 13, I think he said. He is 50, and his wife is something like 37. She had a hard time with the last baby, he said, so she is having her tubes tied. I asked him if birth-control was against the Muslim religion, and he said yes, that every child is considered a gift from God.
Back at the riad I went down to the lobby and talked with Francesca, the manager. She used to work for a travel agent and would stay one month in each place they sent her. She got tired of this, liked Marrakech, and decided to stay here. Francesca has a Siberian husky pup, who is very frisky.
Francesca said she likes it in this riad because everything is close by. She said that she has gotten close to a group of ex-pats. They regret not knowing Moroccan women. She said that Moroccan women “stay close to home, never do much outside the home, and are extremely jealous.”
I think that this experience is really amazing. The colors are breathtaking, both of the people’s clothing and of the products they sell. We haven’t met very many Marrakech people that we could just sit and talk to. Most of the ones in the Medina are trying to sell something, to tourists especially. So if you are at all friendly with them, they jump at the chance to sell you their products. I’m sure if we were here longer, we would meet some nice Marrakechans (word?). The waiters are friendly as well.
Friday, December 22
Today for breakfast we were served something different—chocolate pastries.
Today we had a tour of the Low Atlas Mountains. When the van picked us up, three Philippine girls were sitting in the back. They were named Hazel, Pi, and Katrina. They turned out to be very friendly companions. They are working in Paris for six years for the Philippine embassy.
Our guide was Omar. They told us they were Berbers. (I can’t tell the difference between Berbers and Arabs.) We headed out of the city up to the Low Atlas Mountains. We stopped at a branch of the aragon collective with the same spiel as yesterday. And more tea. Then to the rug factory—same supposed women’s collective, although only men were doing the demonstrations. Same spiel.
The area was beautiful: waterfalls, pine trees, cactus (harvested for their berries), goats, camels, sheep, apartments terraced on hills, riads, donkeys. Mountains in background; we were 200 meters high (6500 feet). We had to walk a mile uphill—fairly steep trail—to get to the café at the riad where we lunched on copa meatballs with lots of spices and vegetables, and yogurt for dessert. And tea, of course.
Finally back at the car, we drove “home” to Marrakech. I took videos from the van. We talked a lot with the Philippine women. They said the schools in their country are taught in English—their first language; all the 7107 islands learn English, although many dialects are also spoken there in everyday life.
We discussed their president, Maduro (and our president even more. No one we’ve met likes Trump, and they’re trying to figure out how he could have become leader of the leading country of the world). Maduro was elected as a populist; people were tired of politicians. (It sounded a little familiar.) Out of six candidates, Maduro won overwhelmingly.
After the tour, Jeremy and I had a red wine in the lobby of our riad, then went out to dinner at the plaza, where we sat on the second floor and looked directly out the window at the street action below: boys playing soccer, boys arguing, boy breaking up a fight, boys performing gymnastics, vendors packing up for the night, people walking home from work, motorcycles, women in their robes and burkas—some black, some in vibrant colors. Very lively street scene. It was a view so close yet so private; no one looked up at us sitting there.
Saturday, December23. Last full day
Cats are everywhere in the souks. They’re usually not scrawny and are treated with tolerance if not open affection by vendors and shoppers.
Jeremy thinks maybe they are welcome because they eat the garbage strewn in the streets, thereby keeping the rats at bay. Makes sense. We often see shopkeepers sweeping with water the areas just in front of their little shops.
I found a bead place run by a black man who said he was from the Southern Sahara, and that he was here six months on a job for a company. He spoke excellent English so we chatted for a while. I bought a string of Berber beads for about 175 dirhams. Close by, I found another shop with beads. This vendor was from the Eastern Sahara. I bought a necklace from him, too. I bargained with each of them and found it a lot of fun. One of the men asked for 600 dirhams, and I bargained down to 225, which was probably still way too much. He said they were genuine Berber, and who knows, maybe they were. I enjoy bargaining. I think they all do. I only feel a slight discomfort that I know nothing about the value of things so my starting bids may be too high.
Several people have commented that Jeremy looks Moroccan, probably because he hadn’t been shaving so he had a lot of stubble (which he shaved off this morning), possibly because of his skin color, or as one Moroccan pointed out, he has some “sunken areas between his eyes and the side of his nose.” Sometimes I tell people that his father was from the Dominican Republic.
We returned to the riad. I’m now out on the rooftop deck. It’s 5:30 and the sun will be down by six. The sky is a faded blue overhead with just a sliver of moon, and the edge of the deck a cream color infused with a tiny bit of orange. Jeremy is having another hammam here in the riad. A hammam is a type of Turkish steam room, where one usually receives a massage and, at this riad, also a skin defoliation.
Some fun things today: I saw a mother with a little girl about five years old, and the little girl smiled at me and I blew her a kiss, which she returned. Last night when we returned to the riad, there were two girls outside our door, and one of them came up to me and shyly but with obvious enjoyment asked me my name in French. I told her, and in French I asked hers.
Walking through the souk, there were two young western-dressed Moroccan women ahead of me. I heard one of the vendors, sitting behind me, resting on the edge of the street, yell something. One of the two women turned back, bent down, picked up a piece of trash she had apparently just discarded in the street, and deposited it in a garbage can. I looked back at the vendor; he gave me a big smile and a wink. Of course I smiled back. I also enjoyed meeting the two vendors from the Sahara.
Whenever I saw a woman who looked homeless (there were a number of them, like here in the U.S.), I would give her a dollar. That’s 10 dirhams. I also gave a dollar to a woman sitting on the sidewalk and holding a small girl. The girl smiled at me. I was so relieved to see that.
Now its 5:40. The chanters are singing and drawing people to prayer. It’s magical to hear their voices ring across the whole city. A lead male voice with several chanters chiming in.
Some things about the history and politics of Morocco: The Western Sahara would like to be independent. There has been a long-time conflict between the Polisario Front and the Kingdom of Morocco. It is still part of Morocco officially and has never been recognized by the United Nations as independent.
Morocco is a poor country. It has a strong imbalance of imports and exports, something like 70%/20%. The average salary is around $400 per month or about $5000 per year. In the souks many vendors sell their wares sitting on the ground, many in stalls, where they sell things from various companies, although some or many of the vendors may own the stock themselves. The Marrakech people speak Arabic.
The king is named Mohammed VI. In the beginning he instituted a lot of reforms, but his record is mixed. A number of the reforms regarded the condition of women, who under his edict, for example, were no longer required to marry a man who had raped them(!). The Moroccans achieved independence from the French in 1954 under King Mohammed V. Then came King Hassan, prior to the current Mohammed VI, who married a famous young woman and is apparently very wealthy. Mohammed VI is, however, supposedly more transparent with his wealth, which wasn’t the case with earlier monarchs.
We ate our “last supper” in Marrakech at a place we’d reserved for 8 p.m. It was great! First they seated us in the courtyard, where we had a before-dinner drink. There was a violinist in the corner. Then we moved into the side dining area, where we sat on cushions at a large table. There were about three other tables of groups there.
We had huge portions of various salads, couscous, meat dish for Jeremy, and oranges for dessert. For entertainment, there was the same violinist with the traditional string instrument and fez with tassel that swung in circles as he played.
Next two African musicians, one of whom made each of the women—including me—dance with him. Then the belly dancer, who pulled some of the men from their tables—including Jeremy—to dance with her. Lots of fun.
This was our last night. Tomorrow we fly out to Lisbon. I will miss this place. Marrakech is truly delightful, and I’d say that color is one of the main reasons—the way people dress, the items in the markets. Then there are the souks. Just to walk through them is so amazing. The food and the oasis of the riad. The deck. The plaza. Watching the vendors, talking to bartenders, tour guides, and the guys in the bead shops—it was a marvelous experience. I feel sad that I may never return to Marrakech.