The Medina, Marrakech, Morocco
“Did you enjoy your holiday in Morocco?” I asked, striking up a conversation with my seat mate on our flight to London.
“The people were so polite and eager to help” she responded.
We then spent the next five minutes talking about how beautiful the people of Morocco were and about how it was the politest country I have ever visited.
“It is as if the entire country went to charm school” I said.
“Exactly!” My seat mate exclaimed.
We both laughed and noted that that was not our initial impression. We shared similar stories of our first day in the country where we became hopelessly lost in the Medina and taken advantage of by street hustlers who asked for small change in return for directions out of the maze of alleys and streets lined with shops and carts.
“It is almost as if we had ‘stupid’ or ‘new arrival’ stamped on our forehead that first day” I said.
We flew in from Portugal and had ten days to explore Morocco. I was excited. I peered out of the plane window looking at the endless coastline with only a few structures. I nudged Ol to let him know that we were now in Africa. It was a new continent for us.
When the plane landed I could see that the ancient city of Marrakech was a mixture of new and old. We exited into a beautiful modern airport and followed the signs to the exit that were in English, French, and Arabic.
When we stepped outside we were surrounded by beautiful palm trees and flowers. Drivers held up signs for passengers exiting the terminal. Our riad (guesthouse) had a driver waiting for us and he quickly met us and took our bags.
Minutes after leaving the airport we knew that we were in an exotic foreign country. Taxis, luxury sedans, and SUV’s mixed with scooters, horse and carriages, and donkeys with carts. It appeared to be an organized chaos.
We drove for about fifteen minutes and arrived in the big square of Marrakech, one of the oldest markets in the world. Our accommodation was a three hundred year old mansion in the middle of all of the madness that was the Medina (or marketplace).
We drove by vendors selling everything imaginable, with musicians, snake charmers, locals shopping, tourists gawking, all mixed together and going in every direction. Our driver pulled over, wished us a good visit, and handed us off to his colleague who took our backpacks and put them in a handcart. He motioned for us to follow him into the chaos.
The noise, the people, and the scents all hit us at once. The assault to our senses was overwhelming. Motorcycles sped by on each side of us on the narrow alleys that were filled with pedestrians. Our guide kept motioning for us to stay to the right against the walls for the scooters and bicycles to pass.
We made our way out of the square and deeper into the maze of people and souks (or shops). Though he was pushing a heavy cart we were having difficulty keeping up with our porter.
He finally entered a narrow street off the square and we both looked at one another unsure if we would ever be able to navigate this labyrinth on our own. After ducking through a few ancient archways covered with leather bags, rugs, and jewelry, we finally found ourselves walking down a quiet street.
I let out a large breath, not realizing that I had probably been holding it for the past ten minutes. We had only been in Marrakech for thirty minutes but it seemed like we were worlds away and in a different time.
Our guide turned down another alley and stopped at a beautiful wooden door and banged the brass knocker. The door opened. Our riad host welcomed us with a wonderful hot, sweet, mint tea and pastries. He then sat down and joined us, pulling out a map and making sure to point out all of the places that we should visit and the restaurants that we should not miss.
He then gave us a tour of the three hundred year old riad. The inn only had five guest rooms. Each was beautifully decorated and included a private and spacious bathroom. The common areas in the riad included a courtyard where breakfast was served daily. There was also a media room with lush pillows, cushions, a computer, a library, and games. And, to top it off, the riad had a spacious rooftop deck with tables and lounge chairs.
Ol and I were then shown to our room which was decorated with embroidered bed covers, pillows, and rugs. The Moroccan lamps and art were what I envisioned a room in Marrakech would look like.
We stretched out on the bed for a few minutes. However, we couldn’t rest because we were excited to explore this exotic new city. The weather was a perfect 72 degrees, so we ditched our sweaters and jackets and made our way out the door and back into the madness of the Medina.
Being the savvy world travelers that we are, (ha ha) the first thing we did was drop a pin on google maps to mark the location of our riad. We also decided to take pictures at every turn of the winding alleys so that we could find our way back. We used landmarks of signs and archways. We wanted to make sure that we could get back to our new home.
We walked back to the big square, known as the Jema El Fina. We almost walked right into the snakes that were being watched by their charmers. We were doing our best to not get run over or stepped on.
We decided to be brave and head deep into the maze of souks. Ol was walking faster than I wanted as I looked into in every door. Some of the doors and entries were magnificent with tile and lanterns.
We were startled when we heard the first call to prayer. At first it was somewhat faint, but within a few seconds every mosque was joining in. I found it strange but beautiful. I didn’t”t know what to expect. Would everyone stop working to pray? But, it seemed to be only background noise as everyone continued on as normal.
Every merchant greeted us and it was common for the merchants in the souks to guess where we were from. Ol surprised me when he said “Canada”. We had mentioned that we might tell people that we were from Canada while in Morocco because of the reputation that the United States has in Muslim countries. What harm was there in a little white lie?
The man replied “Canada is a beautiful country” and asked where in Canada we were from. Ol said “We are from Quebec”. The man smiled and began speaking French. Ol is the worst liar! Did he forget that the two native languages in Morocco are French and Arabic? Ol then apologized and said that his parents were American and spoke only English at home. I’m thinking, what language do you think they speak at school? I rolled my eyes at Ol and after we walked away. We both agreed that next time we would say that we were from English speaking Vancouver!
Another merchant asked if we were going to the big leather auction. It is only held one day a week and he said that we were lucky to be there on that day. He told us that he was walking that way. We soon fell in conversation. Everyone seemed to speak perfect English. He then stopped at his shop and asked his friend to take us the rest of the way. We shook hands and then followed his friend. Soon we fell into an easy conversation with this gentleman. We were walking fast and turning down various streets and alleys. I knew that we were helplessly lost deep in the maze of the Medina.
When we arrived in the tannery area he asked if we would like to see how the leather is made. He stuck his head in one of the working tanneries that were as old as the city itself. He introduced us to another friend who offered to give us a tour. This man handed us a bouquet of mint and said that he called this a “Moroccan gas mask”. He said that we should hold it under our nose as the smells were strong and unpleasant. He was right!
After a five minute tour, I was ready to go. The smell of rotting flesh, ammonia from the pigeon droppings, and chemicals for tanning were overwhelming.
We did learn the difference between lamb, camel, and cow hides. We also saw workers scraping the leather to soften it after it was dried in the sun. Our guide then took us to the market, which was a rather large shop filled with all sorts of leather products.
We never saw the “auction”, but we were greeted by a man who welcomed us to the artesian market. He said that he was a Berber, from the Atlas Mountains and would be here for only one day. He would give us a “deal” as he didn’t want to carry anything home. All that I could do was look at Ol and laugh. How did we get ourselves into this mess?
Before we knew it we were ushered to a large room with a large brass tray with tea. I sat down and various men kept bringing me different bags and jackets to feel. I felt like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”.
We didn’t want to buy anything, especially on our first day. I started taking photos and texting them to the kids. They said that they didn’t want anything. Last year in Ecuador we bought them leather luggage and jackets for Christmas.
I told Ol that he should get himself a bag. We found one that we both liked and this set off another experience. We were going to another room that the Berbrer man called “the negotiation room”. Silk drapes were pulled back and revealed a room lined with beautiful rugs and pillows. The man sat down and pulled over a chair. He had a clipboard in hand.
Again, I had to laugh. How had we gotten ourselves into this? It was like falling for a timeshare pitch. The man took the dry erase board and drew a line down the board. He then wrote a figure on the left side and handed Ol the clipboard.
Ol, who hates to shop, quickly handed it to me like a game of “hot potato”. I knew that this was all part of the experience and looked forward to my first Moroccan negotiation. I knew that we wouldn’t pay more than half of his first offer, my goal was to walk away offering a third.
Our Moroccan host quickly took the clipboard from me and handed it back to Ol. He said that in his country the men do the negotiating. He said that the women generally take care of the family. “Madame, I would prefer to work this out with your husband”.
This was Ol’s worst nightmare. He hates shopping and I knew that he would pay anything just to get out of there. I would have paid just to watch!
It is Moroccan custom that almost every purchase is “negotiated”. It is away to get to know someone. It is usually a lot of boasting, bluffing, and at the end everyone should be happy and will have made a new friend.
The Berbers are masters at separating purchasers from their money. Lets just say that we now have a nice bag for our next adventure and a new friend.
We were given a master lesson in bargaining from a man from one of the world’s oldest and skilled tribes of negotiators. I thoroughly enjoyed the show and learned a few things. I plan to use these new skills in the Souks over the rest of our visit where they will think I am part Berber!
Ol on the other hand decided that his best defense was to look like a Berber. He purchased some new sunglasses and decided to grow a beard. He thought that the shop owners would leave him alone if he acted like a local instead of a tourist.
I am happy to say, it worked out for the both of us. I got amazing deals for Christmas shopping and nobody even approached Ol, because his disguise worked and he looked and acted like a local and fit right in!