Thursday, January 14, 2016

Traversing the Maze-Like Markets of Marrakesh

Marrakesh is pretty sweet. There are two main areas that are of interest to tourists in the city. One is the Medina which is the old timey market area and the other is Marrakesh Ville Nouvelle which is full of modern bars and restaurants where the cool kids hang out. The hotel masterfully chosen by myself is walking distance between both of these places. Hurray.

The hotel was very nice but not too lively. The pool area was so nice but always deserted, making it clear that this is not tourist season. Good for me, bad for them.

The road to the Medina area had some serious city walls in some places. A couple of times we found ourselves on the wrong side of these walls and had to do quite a bit of walking to find our way back in.

We passed by Koutoubia Mosque which is named for the booksellers that used to hang around here. Lonely Planet: "Excavations confirm a longstanding Marrakshi legend: the original mosque built by lax Almoravid architects wasn't properly aligned with Mecca, so the pious Almohads levelled it to build a realigned one."

Marrakesh's souks (markets) are clearly more legitimate than those I saw in Dubai or Oman. The Medina is a massive maze with a really exciting amount of buzz and activity happening everywhere. Some areas were touristy but on multiple occasions we wandered deep enough to see areas for locals that were selling mundane things like tires and pots and pans.

Our sole touristy destination of the day was the guide book's top pick: the Ali ben Youssef Medersa. Medersa means school in Arabic, and it's named after the Almoravid sultan who reigned from 1106–1142. While there are lots of beautiful mosques in Morocco, it seems that the vast majority of them are not open to non-Muslims. That doesn't seem to be the case with the medersas, though, so I thought that checking one of these out would be a nice way to soak up some local culture. This particular school was founded in the 14th century, and according to the book the sign above the front door reads "You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded."

These bits of leather were lying out, waiting to be made into shoes.

We had a very long, leisurely lunch at a little cafe called Medina Saveurs.

There was so much activity happening everywhere that sitting and lounging and watching it all pass by for a while was quite nice. The little fruit cart directly ahead was selling what looked like prickly pears. I told Evan about the day I ended up with 30 prickly pear spines in my hands.

Morocco's thing is mint tea, so that's what I ordered. I think I also ordered couscous végétarien which wasn't bad.

We decided that we would just pick a direction to march in and see what happened. Well what happened was we got lost.

We were able to see a much more "real life" part of the Medina which I enjoyed. Every once in a while we'd hear someone yell "you're going the wrong way" which I always thought was funny. Like, the wrong way to what? The place is a complete maze, and the locals all know it, so a hustle of theirs is all sorts of "directions". Like one kid we followed walked us all the way to some outdoor tannery. I actually wouldn't have minded seeing it, but I just didn't have the energy to endure the sketchy "tour guide" that was waiting there for us. It's funny because whoever wrote the Wikitravel Marrakesh entry played this game as well: 

"That 'main' tannery, Dar Dbagh, where they seem to channel all the tourists is near the Bab Debbagh gate. You'll be quickly approached by a guide who'll give you a sprig of mint and tell you that the tour is no charge. At the end of the tour you may be asked for as much as 1MAD100 for a "tip". This is far too much (€9). Give no more than MAD10-20 and ignore the evil looks they may give you. If you hate or are bad at haggling, show them before the tour how much you will pay them."

Well we made it out of the shysters' clutches and back to the more populated parts of the market.

I really liked the antique stores that I saw in the market. At one place a Coca Cola sign with Arabic writing caught my eye, but it was only a few years old so I didn't think that was very fun.

I saw a whole wall of signs nearby though. They were hand painted onto metal with all sorts of different designs. I enjoyed talking to the shopkeeper a whole lot. He was very happy to have us and was very proud of his shop. I asked him how business is and he said it hasn't been as good as it was before all of this terrorist attack nonsense started. Morocco is a very lovely, liberal place but there have been sporadic attacks, and even one in this exact market a few years ago. He said the shop is 300 years old, and he even had an old black and white picture of some turbaned dudes standing out front. Very cool.

Back at the ranch I have them all hanging from one another like they were at the market. I try to keep my buying of knickknacks to a bare minimum, but I'm pretty happy with these. The one at the bottom there is an advertisement for Banania which is sort of a French chocolate mix thing you put into milk like Nesquik. Well the mascot dude on the box is actually a Senegalese Tirailleur, which is a type of colonial French soldier. It's kind of amusing that the more time I spend in Africa the more I learn about France.

I think Evan went on to buy a cool Arabian looking knife from him as well. Though our business was concluded, our friendly shopkeeper wasn't quite finished with us. He wanted to show us his friend's shop around the corner. Sure, I'll bite.

Whenever I'm being led down a dark alley by strangers I always think to myself "wow, what a convenient place to be murdered."

The place we ended up in was very nice but I didn't like it because it screamed "expensive". Evan and I are carrying dusty backpacks across Africa not collecting interesting art pieces.

Sure enough the store owner was very pushy. One of his little moves, which I've had other people do as well, is hold out his hand. Then when you shake it, he'll say a price, then keep shaking your hand until you agree. Well, dude, turns out I'm a grown man and don't respond well to being pushed around. He even had his little minion wrap up something for me that I still had not agreed to buy, and he was still waving it at me when I walked out the door. Sorry son.

Well I walked a few steps and there were other, much nicer dudes selling the exact same type of stuff for human prices. So I bought a few things from them.

Lydia got a few different designs of these cool earrings. She's probably out wearing the other pair as we speak, or you read what I write, or whatever is happening right now. I learned from the "my camel purse strap is too short" fiasco that earrings are the accessory that I am least likely to screw up. The little fancy designed hands are the called Hands of Fatima. According to some random internet stuff read: 

"the Hand of Fatima after Fatima Zahra, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. The five fingers of the hand are further associated with the Five Pillars of Islam. While Qu'ran law prohibits the wearing of charms and amulets, the Hamsa symbol is often depicted in and associated with Islamic cultures."

There was a mall right across from the hotel, which housed a nice grocery store. So that worked out.

We returned to Al Fassia for some dinner in the fancy part of town.

The chairs had some very exotic cushions.

I opted for the pastilla au pigeon, which I think is the traditional way to eat it over the chicken filled variety. Pigeon is very dark and chewy. The perfect sort of meat to hide in a flavorful pastry.

We spotted an interesting looking bar atop a tall hotel building and headed on up. We had some drinks, smoked a hookah, and good times were had.

I have yet to try a bidet. I mean... I'd put the odds of water bouncing off my butt and spraying all over the place like a cartoon fire hose at about 98%.

There was a McDonald's. Yes I just ate don't judge me. This was a fact finding mission.

I had no choice but to order a royale with cheese for science and in homage to Pulp Fiction.

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