Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Yesterday at about 2:45 we decided on the spur of the moment to go to Marrakesh, and we were out of the house shortly after 3:00 (how long does it take to change out of a bathing suit and feed the cat?) The car, a small Peugeot hatchback, is air conditioned, unlike many here, so it was possible to drive there during the afternoon. Marrakesh is about 2+ hours inland, 238 km from Casablanca, via a well-paved limited-access toll road.

There was farmland outside of the city but soon we saw dry grassland -- not quite as dry as southern New Mexico, though. There was an occasional low-roofed walled compound made of mud bricks, which was hard to distinguish from the land. No windows. If you were close enough you could see the gate leading in, with an open courtyard and low buildings around it. Occasionally we saw flocks of sheep and goats but often these dwellings seemed to have no way of making a living; perhaps they grazed their flocks at a distance.

On the road there were trucks that were loaded twice as high as they were wide, so picture a truck maybe 8 feet wide but 15 to 20 feet tall. The loads they carried were covered by tarps and tied down so we couldn't see what they transported. The highway speed limit was 120 and it didn't take long to realize that the trucks, and some cars, went MUCH more slowly than that, possibly half as fast or even less, so once you saw them you had to get over to pass very fast because you reached them in a flash. On the other hand, some cars passed at lightning speed.

Marrakesh, to our surprise, is obviously a town with serious money. There were lots of new apartment buildings going up, very spiffy, and very spread out: it was maybe 10 miles to get to the center of town from the outskirts. We of course headed for the market. I've been to Tunisia and went to the market there, but nothing prepared me for this.

The Marrakesh market consists of hundreds of streets, corridors and alleyways. Depending on the width there was daylight or electric-lit roofs. For everything you could see -- clothes, shoes, toys, spices, nuts, dried fruits, electronics, objets d'art, and dozens of others -- there were literally hundreds of merchants exhibiting exactly the same merchandise. Given all the competition, no wonder they tried to pull you into their shops! Which Rick hated, but I was amusedm perhaps because I could speak French and therefore felt I could defend myself. I enjoyed changing nationality as we walked along: sometimes I was Canadian, sometimes Swiss, sometimes others, because no merchants guessed American once they heard my French -- everyone knows Americans can't speak anything but English.

And the people, thousands upon thousands of them. Many beggars: mothers with children, blind people, even small children alone. A little girl about four was trying to sell small kleenex packs and was shooed away by the waiter of the cafe we stopped in for something cold to drink. Some women wore western clothes but most wore long-sleeved, ankle-length caftans or jelabas (= without or with a hood). Some wore scarves around their heads and necks, some wore veils as well so that you could see only their eyes. Men wore shirts and long pants but not blue jeans. Many were carrying packages of things they had bought at the market. Threaded through the throngs (sorry, alliteration not intended) were motorbikes and bicycles of all sorts: you can imagine the chaos trying to get from here to there.

Oddly enough, we didn't feel like buying anything. The profusion itself made choosing something difficult: it was all too much! The high-pressure salesmanship didn't help. It was also, needless to say, very hot. Even though we got there around 6 PM in hopes of cooler temperatures it was in the high 90s, so during the day it was surely well over 100. There was a beautiful light cotton, Berber cotton they called it, that we both would like to get shirts made out of, but the thought of trying something on (over our clothes of course) was horrendous. We'll look for shirts at markets closer to the coastm where it's cooler. We did buy a few things -- saffron powder, a couple of wooden stirring spoons for the kitchen, a small agate bird, but that's about it.

There was of course bargaining. The price of the agate bird started at 250 dirhams, about $30, and went from there to 200 dirhams, 100 dirhams, and ended at 80 dirhams, $10. That was fun, actually.

At dusk we found ourselves in a huge plaza, and about 8:15 there were simultaneous calls to prayer on loudspeakers from four minarets we could see in different directions. We didn't see anyone do anything different as a result. Maybe the calls to prayer are giving people 45-minute warnings? The plaza was astonishing. Hundreds of cooked-food merchants set up shop, one next to the other in numbered booths. Each had a small cooking area, a long table covered by a white plastic tablecloth, and two long backless benches. Here too men (always men) tried to lure you into his particular booth. The booths sold brochettes of different meats (beef, sheep, fish, sausage), salads, sandwiches, various dishes I couldn't identify. Hundreds of them, all lined up. Then there were a couple dozen booths selling snails, which I'm sorry I didn't get, 5 dirhams for a small plate and 10 for a large one -- about 65 cents and $1.25. Other dozens of booths sold fresh orange juice. Other dozens sold sweets. Picture each type lined up identically next to the others. We sat down at one and had brochettes of lamb with French fries ("frites") and mint team for 44 dirhams, about $5. The tea here is much sweeter than in Tunisia, but delicious. Then we had a glass of perfect orange juice (picture a booth with hundreds of oranges, above which is a man with a juicer). We looked down at a small little girl begging, and gave her the last of our juice to drink. During the time we were there we gave change to probably half a dozen beggars, and food to several children.

Also in the plaza at this hour were entertainers. An old man told a story (in Arabic, of course -- only educated people and those who sell things speak French here). A veiled woman with a pom-pom sewed to the back of her pants belly-danced -- wiggling her ass was super-effective! -- while a gray-haired shirtless old man worked the crowd for donations. Liter-bottles of Coca Cola were set up in a circle while people with fishing rods tied to a large ring at the end tried to get the rings on the tops of the bottles, but it was almost impossible because the ring was vertical, not horizontal.

When we left Marrakesh at 9:45 PM we noticed there was an outside-temperature indicator in the car: 33 degrees Centigrade, which translates to 92 degrees Fahrenheit. You cannot imagine how grateful we were for the air conditioning.

Getting out of Marrakesh was like driving in Casablanca. This place either makes you a better driver or makes you give up driving entirely. If there are rules, they don't matter. Painted lane divider lines don't matter. Speed limits don't matter. Cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians, huge numbers of them, just aim in the direction they want to go. They come swooping in front of you from nowhere: anything goes. Rick, who has driven at least a motorcycle all around the world, says it's worse here than anywhere else he's been. People don't have a zillion accidents because they expect this, because usually they go slowly enough to swerve out of the way, and because they've probably developed eyes not only in the back of their heads but the sides as well. A challenge!

When we got home we stripped and jumped into the pool. A wonderful country ...



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