Marrakech Express

by Zoe Hamilton

Word of the Day : شكرا  (Shokran) / Sahit

Meaning : Thank you

Language : Arabic / Berber

After a brief séjour back to the US of A I returned to Paris for two small jet lagged days before to returning the place I seem to frequent more than any place I really call home, the airport. The destination: Fes, Morocco. The time: too early for anyone but students on a budget with a bad case of the travel bug. My travel companion: a friendly Canadian girl named Madison.

Everyone told us we were crazy to go alone as two girls to a country as “dangerous” as Morocco but on my flight back to Paris I had sat next to a woman from Seattle who had lived in Rabbat for the past ten years. She said she feels more unsafe in the US because of the culture of violence and guns which does not exist in Morocco. I found this ironic. So many Americans would disagree with her I think at first glance but honestly she has a point. Even in my short visit to the states there was a violent and senseless gun crime against a park ranger and mother of two. The United States is in many ways one of the most developed countries in the world. And in other basic ways we are archaic and have values that I fail to understand.

After a whirlwind security check and the discovery that they won’t actually notice if you don’t take out your liquids (win!), we arrived at our gate. It was 6am. I was too drowsy to notice. The flight was not bad, just about two hours. It’s incredible to me that in the same time it would take a Seattleite to fly to California, a European can be on another continent. And another continent it was. Being my first time in Africa I expected to be overwhelmed with new sites and sounds. And we were. Our hostel picked us up at the airport so we had our noses glued to the car windows as we passed piles of trash lining the road in front of beautiful landscapes of snow capped mountains and palm trees.

We had breakfast at our hostel but our rooms were not ready so we decided to take the hostel’s walking tour of the Medina, or old town. This was a wise decision on our part. We met a South African couple and we hung out with the rest of our time in Fes. They were the outdoorsy, well-educated travel type that one-day I hope to be. Our tour guide was friendly and began telling us about the history of the city as we slipped into the labyrinth of the Medina. It is hard for me to describe the old city as it was unlike anything I have ever seen before. The roads were covered and narrow, probably wide enough for two people across and curved in every direction, more often than not finding you in a dead end. If that was not chaotic enough there were people selling everything lining the streets and waves of people coming towards us and pushing us from behind. The shops were organized by product so we would walk through the fabric section, then watches, then figs and dates. It was dizzying. Every once in a while a donkey would come lumbering down the narrow paths at speeds normally reserved for Olympic runners or perhaps small rocket ships. There was so much to look at and take in. But our guide took us through this with an expert grace. He dodged oncoming donkeys and pointed out different products and monuments. We were not allowed in the mosques as non-Muslims but what we could see from the outside was breathtaking. The ornate tile and plaster designs were truly awe-inspiring.

Our first stop was at a carpet factory. The place was massive. There were rooms upon rooms of carpets. They were rolled up in corners, stacked on the floor and hanging from every possible surface. We were given mint tea (thé à la menthe), which was delicious, and the process of rug making was described. They then began lying out rug after rug in a giant stack in the middle of the room for us to admire. We told them thank you but we were students who were poor and had no need for giant ornate rugs. But of course, buy six or seven and sell them, you can make a fortune! We were told. But transport. We ship! But we don’t know how to sell rugs. Ebay! They had all the answers but we were not buying. Eventually Madison and I were led into another room to be talked into smaller rugs (only 300 euro!) while they worked on the South African couple downstairs. I felt like we were being separated in order to weaken our will power not to buy. We were shown the sunny roof with the whole of Fes below us and the women working in the back rooms. Before long, dizzied by the sugar rush from the tea and the onslaught of coaxing words, I was questioning if I did in fact want a 12,000-dollar rug. But then I remembered that I am not a homeowner nor do I have 12,000 dollars. So we left.

The same process was repeated more or less at the tannery, the oldest one in the entire world! It was cool to see (the leather was dyed in stone pools in the back) and the leather bags were impressive but they were too expensive and we were sure we could find cheaper stuff on the street (when our guide was not getting commission).

For lunch we went to a funny family place. To order we were led into the kitchen where a young girl spooned four types of meats into our mouths (using the same spoon….) and we were told to choose. I had a spiced chicken dish with the flat bread that we came to both love and hate after having it with every meal.

That evening we decided to go up to the hotel above the city for a drink with the South African couple. We knew we needed to go north so we started into the maze of the city working our way up but eventually met a man who was going the same way and let us there. As white people when you walk without a guide people automatically ask if you are lost, and you probably are, whether you know it yet or not. The hotel was palatial. Really beautiful. And the view was incredible (I grabbed you a card Patti in case you want to go to Fes, you should stay here). We had a beer and watched the sun set behind the city just as the prayer calls began. It really is a sound unlike any other, kind of haunting.

The way home was another adventure. We had planned on grabbing a cab but we could not find one that was available or that would take all four of us. Eventually we broke down and decided to pay a group of 8 year olds to lead us through the maze of the old city back to our hostel. I was a little nervous as we ducked through dark alleyways because the group kept breaking up to visit people they knew. But they always came back, chattering away in French with the occasional “let’s go, this way!” in English. It was cute how they would point out the sites, so clearly proud of their city. They left us right before the main square because if you get caught guiding tourists without being an official guide there is a heavy fine.

The next day the morning highlight was finding a café that had been recommended to us called Café Clock. We sat in the sun on the terrace and had a long relaxing lunch surrounded by Moroccan students doing the same. It was fun and the sun felt so good after the cloudy weather in Seattle and Paris. After lunch we stopped by the market to stock up on almonds, dates and oranges for the lunch the next day on the train. In the afternoon we took another tour with the hostel to the viewpoints around the city along with a pottery factory and the palace. We had accidentally run into other students from our school at the hostel so it was fun to hang out and catch up with them on the tour.

When we returned at night we were starving so we went into town to grab some sandwiches off the street that a friend recommended. It was really the first time we had gone into the old city by ourselves. And we noticed the difference right away. People yelled at us a bunch on the street, which was something totally absent when with the guide. One guy followed us for so long and despite my assurances that we did not want company nor need assistance, he would not leave. Finally I said our boyfriends would not like us hanging out with other guys, anything to get him to which he exploded. Turns out all we American girls want is sex and that’s why we wouldn’t get dinner with him. Who knew? At least our sandwiches were delicious (though it did make me nervous how the man making them touched our money, the raw meat, and then the finished product…).

The next day we took the train to Marrakech. Our quick stopover in Casablanca made it clear that we made the right decision in not spending more time there than we did: just enough to grab a quick mint tea and say “we’ll always have Paris” before jumping back on the train to Marrakech. We arrived at night and had dinner at the market in the main square. You pick your food and they cook it for you as you wait at picnic tables set up next to the market (we had cous cous, fish and eggplant). Our first impression in Marrakech was a bit scrambled. We had crossed into this main square looking for a certain café where the instructions to our hostel that I had printed out began. Immediately people began offering to lead us to wherever we were going (white people, with backpacks = easy targets). Knowing they would charge an arm and a leg we tried to shake them off and find it ourselves. But these people were more used to tourists than in Fes and they were insistent. Even a man with a monkey came up. I was so flustered as the monkey began touching my arm, it only added to the chaos. But eventually we found our hostel (by ourselves!) hidden through another labyrinth of small residential side roads hidden somehow in the middle of the Medina.

Wwe rose early to start our three-day trek into the Sahara the next morning. We had signed up through our hostel because we needed a minimum of four people to have a private tour. This means we were put with the strangest traveling group ever known to man or, I’m sure, to the camels we later road. We were with an Australian woman (the only other native English speaker), two Norwegian girls, a Brazilian couple, a Moroccan woman, a Spanish couple, an Italian couple, a Dutch couple, a Pole, a Spaniard and a German. Group conversations were compliced to the point of comical. The Moroccan woman would often talk to the guides in Arabic who would then tell us in French and we would relay the message in English, which was then translated into all the other languages. One such example is at dinner one night we had a dish with turkey in it. You may remember the vocabulary word “dinde” from an earlier post. Unfortunately I do not know how to say turkey in Italian or Spanish, although that would have greatly diminished my fun because about half of dinner was spent trying to explain it. “Bigger than a chicken but still a bird….what American’s eat for thanksgiving….” At this point the Italian man (our favorite by far for his crazy antics) jumped up and started doing an impression of what we later learned was a peacock. Do they eat peacocks in Italy?? Side note: turkeys do not say gobble gobble in every language.

The next three days we spent large amounts of time in a van together snaking up the small mountain roads and then down the other side into the desert, almost falling off the edge of the road at times. (Hamilton family: think Guatemala driving and roads). The first two days were spent mostly in the Atlas Mountains, which were beautiful and bright red in pigment. We stopped at viewpoints to take photos as well as several villages to be told we should buy more rugs. We even got a tour of the village where Laurence of Arabia and The Gladiator were filmed. The first night was spent in a very cold hotel where our group first bonded against the common enemy of the hotel staff who refused to give us heating in our rooms. At this point we were wonderfully ignorant to the cold that was to come.

Our second day was the most exciting day in my mind because we got to ride the camels. We drove out of the mountains and into the sandy nothingness that is the Sahara desert. We stopped at the last town to buy water (as you can imagine the water is quite expensive in the desert). There we found many children begging so finally the Brazilian couple decided to buy a bunch of chips for them. However, when the man came out of the shop carrying an armload of bags of chips, he was promptly attacked and we watched the children chase each other down in the field next to the shop as we drove away…

We arrived about half an hour before sunset at the edge of the desert. I was shocked at the abruptness of my introduction to my camel. I walked out behind the house and was introduced to my camel (Jimi Hendrix!) and then before I knew it I was being hoisted into the air far above my normal five foot two inches. I was the caboose. Once everyone else was loaded we began our journey into the never-ending dunes. Now they say that camel riding in uncomfortable. To this I said, “no way, I’m so excited. I looove riding horses.” Mind you, I am not often wrong. But wrong I may have been. After ten minutes of ‘oh-this-isn’t-so-bad’ing I was ready to throw in the towel. Unfortunately for my butt the ride was two hours to reach our campsite for the night. My only consolation was one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen in my life. As the sun set the dunes turned bright orange. And they went on foreverrrrrrrr. It was really crazy to see after seeing it in history textbooks and as a stock picture for Dell desktop backgrounds for so long.

After the sun set it grew progressively colder. We were happy to reach our tents expecting to warm up inside of them. But inside was just as cold as out. Thankfully our guides made us some mint tea and after a hot meal we were all feeling a little better. After dinner we went outside to a sky so full of stars that I am almost willing to bet another two-hour ride on a camel it is one of the starriest locations in the world. It has to be; the sky was almost white there were so many. To stay warm we sat around a fire our guides had built, to stay entertained they played us songs. After they played for a while they turned to us and started asking people to play song from their countries. This might be a good time to add that the entire trip I had been claiming to be from Canada. The first day when I said I was from the US I got funny and even unfriendly looks. So while I am all for saying I’m from the US in order to battle the bad stereotypes we have, I decided I should hold off on that battle for a bit and save it for a time when I was not alone in a country where this could potentially have unsafe consequences. But being a horrible liar (with a bad memory) I didn’t want to confuse my story so I just told everyone I was Canadian from then onwards. It was confusing to many people though why I knew so much about American politics and yet so little about my hometown of Toronto. So when the guides handed me the drums and asked for a Canadian beat, I was at a total loss. The only Canadian song I could even think of was “Oh Canada.” Lucky for me the Spanish couple broke in and started playing the only song we all knew: the Macarina. It was a magical multicultural moment.

After sitting around the fire our guide suggested we climb the dune looming over our camp. The moon had come out and he said there would be a great view of the desert from there. If you know me (or have traveled with me) you will know that when ever there is an opportunity like this to do something interesting and unique I usually take it without thinking about the consequences (think the “once-in-a-lifetime-beach we almost lost mom on the hike down to that one time near Spain). So we started up the dune, running at first to stay warm, blissfully unaware of the climb I had gotten myself into. We had to climb up the side as the front was too steep and you would not be able to make it up without sliding back down the sandy slopes. We laughed and tried to capture the beauty of the desert by night unsuccessfully on our cameras. After about twenty minutes of this I began to tire. Each footstep into the deep sand was a laborious feat. Madison, being an avid runner/health freak quickened her pace. I sunk into the sand, defeated before the half way point. “I need a break,” I gasped. “Well as least you have a good view!” I heard Madison say as she trudged ahead, excited by the challenge as crazy athletes often are. Soon enough a guide came up behind me and offered me his hand. With his help I continued on my long journey to the elusive peak that seemed to be taunting me in the distance. He held on to my hand and helped me as he explained that he is used to the sand because he was born here. The children grow up playing and running in it. I was grateful for the company and the encouragement.

As we walked I asked questions about his life, fascinated by someone so different from myself. He was born in the nearby village but lived in the desert through tourist season. He spoke close to ten languages (when he learned I spoke French we quickly switched because he was better in French than English) and had traveled all around Morocco but never outside of the country. He was only 25! Before I knew it we had reached the top. Madison had already grown cold by the time we got there so she decided to head back to the warmth of the campfire. I chose to stay and enjoy the view with my new friend before returning to camp. And what a view! The whole of the desert was laid out before us: blue dunes with dark puddles of shadow littered the earth as far as the eye could see. We sat against the cold sand and talked about languages and travel and the desert. How strange to meet someone so close to my age who lived in such a different world than me (cheesy I know but it’s really quite hard to describe the sensation). When I got cold we ran down the front of the dune, my shoes filling with sand, laughing and tripping and jumping. We stopped half way down and lit a fire on some small brush to warm our hands before continuing back to camp where he went back to the fire and I joined Madison in our tent for bed. I didn’t even see him the next morning but it was a very cool conversation that really made me want to learn more languages. It’s crazy how everyone there speaks so many languages. I think as native English speakers we have both the advantage and the disadvantage of everyone speaking our language. Advantage because we can go almost anywhere and people will understand us, disadvantage because we don’t have to learn another language so we often don’t. Children in Morocco speak Arabic, some speak Berber, most speak French and many speak at least some English! How cool is that?

Anyway, the night was spent freezing my butt off. I have literally never been so cold in my life. I watched the moon pass over our tent as the hours passed in sleepless misery. My only consolation was that nobody else had gotten any sleep either and they were all just as grumpy as me the next morning as we loaded onto our camels at 6am for our journey back to the van.

That day was spent in the van back to Marrakech. We did have one interesting stop. On a coffee stop while Madison was in the bathroom I wandered into a little roadside store where I met a man named Mustafa. We spoke in French for a while and he misheard my name thinking it was the Berber word for beauty or something (Zoeran maybe?). He decided I had Berber eyes and a good heart and therefore had to take a gift from his shop. He gave me a bracelet with the hand of Fatima for protection and made me promise that next time I was in Morocco I would find him so that I could have cous cous with his family. We took a picture to ensure that I could find him again.

Our last day in Marrakech (and Morocco) was spent sightseeing. We went to the palace, the tombs, and the spice market in the Jewish quarter. I finally gave in a bought a leather purse I had been eyeing.

My big mistake, however, was made at lunch. Not wanting to spend much on our last day we picked a cheap lunch place where you could get a Panini and fries for about a euro fifty. I picked tuna. Why? I have no idea. Maybe I had a death wish and was secretly dreading second semester. After our return to the hostel we sat in the sun on the terrace a bit before grabbing our bags and hailing a cab to take us to the airport. Before we got the airport I knew I had made a mistake. Thankfully Madison had a plastic bag for me to get sick in before entering the airport. And I was able to make it through security (but not take off). All things considered planes are probably the best form of transportation to get sick on. How many others come equipped with barf bags?

Back in Paris I was happy to see food that wasn’t flat bread, cous cous or chicken tajine. I was greeted by my little French family (Stéphane, Olivier, Olivia and Julie) sitting in the studio drinking champagne. A debate ensued about whether or not champagne would be good for food poisoning. Oh to be back in France…And I learned a new word of the day: “vomir.”