As I mentioned in my first post, this blog is a bit of a compromise between me and my mom. It also serves as a confessional because I didn’t tell my mom a lot of the details of my travels. Now she gets to read about the things that would have worried her after I’ve done them so she knows that I’m still safe. Hi mom, I’m still here.
Upon arriving at RAK, I’ll admit, I had few expectations and little plan for Marrakech. People I had talked to told me to prepare for culture shock and described the relative lawlessness and chaos of Africa. My only thought was, “Sounds like Malaysia; it’ll be fine.” And for the most part, it was.
The airport is really small so finding Dana (who flew in from Paris) was no problem. After waiting for 30min for a navette I booked through Ryanair that never showed up, we took a taxi to our AirBnB host in Gueliz – the new city. It’s always kind of a grab bag when you stay with locals, but our host, Soufiane, was great. Staying with a man I found online in Morocco qualifies as one of those things I omitted from my travel plans when I talked to my mom before leaving – but Soufiane turned out to be one of the best decisions we made this trip. He is a native Moroccan, but grew up in Jersey so he has an American mentality. He let us borrow a guide book and map for our stay. He was also able to to give us a few suggestions for things to do and cultural pointers. Morocco is a melting pot of French, native Berber, and Arab cultures. It is not fully one nor the others.
سوق The Souqs
I always feel like the best way to enjoy a city is on foot, so that’s exactly how we spent our first two days in Marrakesh. We looked at the map and made a plan to go to the Palais Badii and Saidian tombs on the south side of the city. To anyone traveling abroad, save the Google map of the streets to your phone. It makes life so much easier. However, even with a map and GPS, we never made it to the palace. Instead, we got caught up in the big square, Jemaa el Fna and the endless labyrinth of souqs that spiral from the square. Just like in the Malaysian night markets, the price of the endless tapestries, bags, scarves, and trinkets is not fixed. It is instead based on your ability to bargain. The theatricality of the bargain follows a prescribed pattern.
Buyer: sees something they like and enters the stall
Vender: says what good quality it is and how it is one of a kind. Everywhere else is inferior
Buyer: asks a price
Vender: sizes up the buyer and gives price at least 50% too high depending on how much he thinks he can get. Higher if you’re obviously a foreigner; higher still if you’re a foreign woman
Buyer: feigns surprise and looks harder at the object. Says, “no, that’s too much.” Offers price 30% too low.
Vender: appeals to the craftsmanship and offers a price slightly lower than his original offer
This continues until an agreement is made. It’s times like these that I wish I were more like my mom. In Malaysia and China she was a pro at bargaining. Everyday when we came back to the apartment to show of our hauls, Soufiane would tell us how much we got ripped off and what we should have done. On our last night, he took us out to the souqs to help get “the Moroccan price.” He helped me get a pair of shoes for 100 down from 160 and he helped Dana get a scarf for 120. By the end of the trip I bargained my way to a leather satchel for 400 dirham (from 800), 5g of saffron for 200 dirham (from 400), and a few other souvenirs. In the end I don’t think we did any worse than Soufiane. Being able to barter in Arabic probably gave him a leg up (we had to do it in French or English).
After a few rounds in the souqs it is apparent that Morocco produces a lot of leather goods. On our second day and second attempt to go to the palace, a young Moroccan man named Salim stopped us in the street saying, “are you American? I go to school in New York!” He pulled out his student id to prove it. We asked him for directions to the palace which he happily gave, but then asked if we wanted to go to the tanneries. He told us the Berber people only come into the city once a week to sell their fares and then go back to the countryside. We decided to go check it out and he pointed us in the direction of the tannery.
Once there, they give you a sprig of mint to cover the putrid stench of the animal carcasses. You can see cow, sheep, and camel hides at the early stations that look like the animal. Then the fur is stripped off and the skin is soaked, dried, stretched, and cured.
After the short tour, they bring you into their showroom with an aggressive, but charismatic salesman. We figured after the tour it would be good to buy something to help support the cooperative. Dana bought an overnight bag and shoes after a long time of bargaining. She got the guy to cut the price of her bag in half (when we got home Soufiane still said she got ripped off but we were pretty proud of the price). On our way out of the tannery, we were stopped by a man asking for 100 dirham for the tour. We argued with him in French saying we already paid and we had no dirham, just foreign currency and cards. He said he doesn’t accept cards but he does accept euro. If this alley had had more people or man didn’t have two other large men with him, I would have rather not paid. However, the 7€ he took from us (70 dirham) seemed worth the price of our safety. Part of me hates accepting this, but as a woman in Morocco, you are going to get ripped off and there nothing you can do about it.
About a 20 min walk from the apartment, le Jardin Majorelle was once a private garden. Now the gardens have become a sort of botanical garden showing of plants from around the world. The flourishes of the former owner, couturier Yves St. Laurent, can be seen in the colorful vases and the small exhibition in the center.
Madrasa Ben Youssef
This is one of the oldest colleges in the world. Walking through the cramped dormitories, Dana and I joked that at 5ft tall, we’d fit right in. Then we realized that since we’re women, that’s probably not true. We’re lucky we live in this century and in our part of the world.
After our first two days in Marrakech, we decided to leave the city for a day trip to the coastal city of Essaouira, aka the windy city.
I should mention that Dana is a fellow blogger and you can see her take on our trip on her blog, As Told by Dana