. I just laughed and offered him five Dirhams, equivalent to about fifty cents. He told me that it was nothing, so I pocketed it and said that if it’s nothing, then it won’t matter if I keep it. Of course he accepted it as suitable payment when no more was forthcoming, but he stomped away acting angry. There is really no way to avoid this, except to refuse all payment, but what I choose to do is to always keep small change at hand to give and then just walk off. Better yet, avoid all offers for help unless you ask for it. If you ask for it they never charge, it’s the Moroccan way.
We found our way to the market and the fruit stalls. We bought a big bag of apples, pears, bananas, pomegranates and some kind of North African melon. My objective was to spend about 50 Dirhams, around five Euros, on fruit, but failed. We have enough fruit for a week and some of it will rot, but we couldn’t spend five Euros. This is my kind of place. Mason got a good lesson in multiplication as we figured out how much we would have to pay for every fruit item. We watched a taxi driver get into a fist fight with a bicycle rider after an inevitable collision. There is just no end to the things you can look at here.
We all went down to the Jemna-El-Fna square, which is yet another World Heritage Site
. It has been there for 950 years, and started out as an execution square; its name is Arabic for 'Square of the Dead’. It sits a very entertaining fifteen minute walk from our riad. It is sort of tricky to find your way there, or to find your way back, the first few times. But to get lost in the souks has no down side. The variety of stuff to look at in the souks overwhelms you, the smells from the spice markets (about every twenty feet) gives the whole place such a sensory overload of exoticism. The fume spitting mopeds, the sounds of so many languages that drift by with the smoke of meat roasting on open grills, the variety of Muslim and Christian cultures, the donkeys, cats, cages of reptiles and thousands upon thousands of stores selling so many specialized things leaves you bewildered. In places like Tijuana, where I first experienced ‘exotic shopping’, and so many other places like it have nothing on Morocco. In those other places, all stores sell virtually the same stuff. Here some stuff is repeated, and you will find the most useful things sold every block or so. In the souks you will find a store that just sells geodes, minerals and fossils. Then you will find one that sells nothing but old and beat up cameras; another that sells old computer equipment that should have made it to the junk yard (and probably already did). Then there are shops selling the most exquisite lanterns, so many different varieties of them, all formed from different types of metals, some hammered out of old bicycle fenders and painted
. There are shoe booths where somebody collects discarded shoes and sandals and rejuvenates them with a hammer and box of shoe nails, thick thread pushed through old leather with thick needles. You will thank me for not naming all items available in the souks, as this would be a rather long blog.
The souks themselves wind themselves into an inner sanctum of shops that get smaller and tighter the farther you get towards the middle. Soon even the mopeds give up. Colorful slipper shops are my favorite, and the spice shops. I stood and talked to one kindly older man about the spices he had in his shop, and he took out blocks of things we had never heard of and presented them to us. He had a block of musk he rubbed on all of our hands. I learned just a second ago that the word ‘musk’ comes from "muschka", the Sanskrit word for testicle. Isn’t the internet great? He showed us tins of all different types of spices, a block of something you keep with your clothes to keep all bugs away. If you rub it on your clothes at the hem, mosquitoes will not get near you, but the stuff has a very pleasant odor for humans. We bought some of that stuff, just to thank him for his lessons.
We finally made it to the Jemna-El-Fna square and found out that the souks were just a dress rehearsal for the main show. In the early evening donkeys haul to the middle of the square the makings of 100 restaurants, complete with huge barbecues, tables, chairs, food and everything that goes along with it. Soon 100 cooking fires are searing meat of all descriptions, and cooking huge pots of rice, couscous, vegetables and whatever else you could possibly want. Except beer. There are snake charmers, henna tattoo artists, guys with jars of teeth who will pull out a tooth for a couple of bucks (but mostly just let you pose for pictures, it’s easier on the malpractice insurance), monkey trainers, story tellers, cross dressing belly dancers, musicians, hundreds of orange juice vendors who will sell you a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice for about forty cents
. We decided to stay on the conservative side of exotic this night and eat in a restaurant on the fringe of the madness. We’re glad we did.
I don’t know the name of the restaurant, and it doesn’t matter because there are so many around the square, but it’s possible we stumbled upon one that was a cut above the rest. The food in this place was outstanding. I ordered a dish of chicken in a tajine sauce (a mixture of 40 spices), raisins and grilled onions and roasted almonds, that instantly become my all time favorite dish. Everybody in the family had the same experience, and we realized that Moroccan food is the best ethnic food there is. This place put Azziz’s place to shame, I’m sorry to say, because I enjoy the environment of his restaurant so much more. In this place we found ourselves at the third floor overlooking the square after sunset. The place was packed with tourists, mostly from France, and was probably out of reach pricewise to most Moroccans. But the price for our outstanding meal was far less than we would have paid in the US or anywhere in Europe, perhaps because there was no alcohol to be served. A meal here cost about five bucks; a rather outstanding bowl of Moroccan soup cost about a dollar. Incredible.
We took another pass through the square and watched other strange things going on, and then weaved our way through the souks as they were mostly closing their doors
. With the closing of the doors, the place looked different, and we soon took a wrong turn and found ourselves wandering through unchartered territory. The girls were getting nervous, I could tell because they were talking at a higher speed about routine things like TV shows. The places got darker and the crowds got a bit thinner, and I started to get a little bit nervous myself. There are few women out on the streets at any time, and fewer at night. But I would give an Arabic greeting “es salaam aylaykum” and get a return greeting “wa alaykum salaam” with a smile every time. When I asked random people where such and such was they would take me by the elbow and point me in the better direction, usually offering to take us there. In the end, everybody had good intentions, and there was absolutely no reason for us to be nervous. The guidebooks say that single women are perfectly safe wandering around Marrakech at night, and I believe it. Later I met a tour operator who has spent lots of time traveling the world. He told me that without a doubt he feels safer in Marrakech or anywhere else in Morocco than in New York or London. He told me that there are no streets in the city that are not perfectly safe in the middle of the night, and he’s been living there his entire life.
With an average annual wage of about $1,200 per year, you would think that there would be more crime in Morocco. But King Mohammed IV has led his people to spread their generosity of spirit and to help protect the tourists who come here to spend their money so freely. It is evidently working because the cheerfulness of the people and their willingness to help, usually without asking for any money, makes us westerners seem pretty shallow in comparison. In all of North Africa, Morocco stayed completely out of the Arab Spring mostly because they had a lot of respect for their leader. That speaks volumes, and I’m sure the king is proud of his people as well.
Early the second morning here in Marrakech Estela and I decided to walk down the exceedingly crowded and rambunctious street, outside the city walls and across the treacherous highway to the supermarket. We filled a taxi trunk full of food and drove back. We saw so much along the way that I soon followed another path with Mason and we stopped to watch all of the activities along the way, with the goal of getting fresh fruit at the dozens of fruit stalls just outside the city wall. On our way, we stumbled into one of those money extraction ploys I have fallen for so many times in my life but have never learned to properly avoid. Somebody sees where you are walking and grabs your arm, telling you the street you are heading for is closed. He walks you to another street as you insist that you have a map and know your way around, but they say it's no problem and take you to where you sort of want to go, but not really. Then they demand money. This guy asked for 100 Euros, but would of course settle for fifty