Surviving the Mayhem of Marrakech
Marrakech, one of the original Imperial Moorish citadels and today the fourth largest city in Morocco, sprawls out as a gateway to the foothills of the magnificent, snow-capped Atlas Mountain ranges. Famed for its 19th century, Moorish red walls, today, it is home to over 900,000 people. At its heart are the vibrant buzzing Medina, intertwining bazaars and the largest traditional Berber Souk in all of the country. Stunning, time-worn architecture lines the dusty paths; Mosques, glowing in the sunlight with their satin sheen, golden domes and towering Minarets the colour of precious mahogany and lavish palaces that rival the European courts with their splendour. Infused with the brilliant green and gold of the city gardens, Marrakech claims its rightful place as an oasis flower in the desert. The city holds a dramatic air of elegance, in tune with coronets of intricate geometrical patterns in harmony with the endless hum of its residents. A city, teeming with life, a city not to be missed…
Arriving onto African Soil
It was past midnight when our flight taxied onto Moroccan soil, the red blinking lights of the airport, glaring back against a dark sky. Our plane had arrived a full hour and a half later than its scheduled time, and so when we ventured out into the arrivals plaza, it wasn’t a surprise to find it empty. Luggage trolleys are free and so taking advantage of the rolling wheels, we stepped out into the warm night and took our first breaths of African air. Next, we secured a taxi and made our way to our reserved Riad (Traditional Moroccan style Guest House). Do beware that if you are arriving on a flight that gets in late in the evening, you will be charged double, sometimes triple, than the usual fare of a taxi. As a family of four we used the larger ‘Grand’ Taxis throughout our stay in Morocco. The smaller ‘Petit’ Taxis would only hold three people, cancelling it out as an option for us. Using the ‘Grand’ Taxis we always had to settle on a price before getting into the cab as the larger cabs usually don’t have meters, only the ‘Petit’ ones do.
We arrived at the Riad Dar Aby in the dead of the night and were greeted by the owner, a highly strung yet kind-hearted host by the name of Brahim. We were ushered up two flights of marble steps and shown to two separate bedrooms. When the lights to the rooms flickered on, we gasped, causing Brahim to shush us apologetically, glancing nervously at the closed doors of the other guests’ rooms. Sound really traveled here, and it was now getting close to 1:30 am. Mum and Dad’s room was painted in calming shades of orange and amber, glowing from the flattering traditional lantern chandeliers in the ceiling centre. Our room was painted in delightful shades of green ranging from a bright neon in the bathroom to a languid forest hue in the bedroom. It gave off the impression that an army of trees were wrapping us up in a nature blanket for the night. The furniture was elegantly relief carved from a dark and glossy stained wood and dotted with mesmerising geometric shapes. At first, I was a bit worried about being so far away from my parents (a whole level separated us), but on looking out the window, I realised that we had a perfect view of each others rooms and standing up on my bed, we were easily able to wave goodnight.
A Traditional Moroccan Breakfast
The next morning I was awoken by the rich call of the Muezzin of the closest Mosque calling the faithful to prayer. I didn’t understand what was happening until I looked out of the carved window to see Brahim gathering up his beautiful, woven prayer rug and heading out the door. After that, I had no desire to go back to sleep and got up to get a better look at the Riad. It was an open aired building, with a quadrangle at the ground level, allowing fresh air to circulate at all hours of the day and night. The main lobby/lounge rooms of the hotel were painted in striking shades of deep cerise and sparkling ruby. The ground was covered with a long, soft, hand-woven carpet and the decorative chairs at the tables were accompanied by comfy oval shaped, leather poufs. Soon, breakfast was served. Throughout our stay, a lovely lady by the name of Hanna, who had an incredible culinary range, whipped up a sublime traditional Moroccan breakfast for the other guests and us every morning.
First, slim silver teapots and tiny mugs filled with hypnotising sweet mint tea were served. Peaches and plums came next, cut into thin slices and so sweet that they might have been dipped in honey. Then a large platter of Msemen (Moroccan, pancake inspired bread) was served along with ceramic bowls of Raspberry, Strawberry and Blackberry jam. Egg omelettes followed with Khobz (Moroccan flat, round bread) with cheese, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a large bowl of olives to finish with. Breakfast concluded with another serving of cleansing Mint Tea, as well as large glasses of citrusy orange juice. It was the perfect Moroccan breakfast and the highlight of our mornings.
Getting ready to leave, we were approached by Brahim, who offered us some tips on what to see, where to go and most importantly how to haggle for the correct Taxi fare. Brahim also mentioned that much of Western society has given Morocco a bad reputation by reports on muggings or murders. I had read countless blogs that advise against everything we were about to do. Brahim was very happy to see that we were not deterred by any of these stories, to the contrary, we told him we didn’t believe them at all.
When we had revealed to friends and family that we were heading to Morocco, we were met with a lot of skepticism. In fact, a few people had even sent a torrent of worried emails, telling us to be on guard. “You might get robbed or kidnapped or robbed again!” and “It’s dangerous!” was repeated numerous times.
In the entire seven days we spent within the walls and mayhem of Marrakech, we encountered only one incident that caught us off guard, but even that could not be classified as a problem, but I will get to that later. Moroccan society is very family oriented. Morocco has an extremely child-friendly culture and everyone we met exuded kindness and a genuine nature. We were not harassed by street vendors, troubled by pedlars or pressured into buying things by merchants. In fact, it was the contrary. When we visited the Medina or traversed the narrow streets of the Souks, we were met with a helpful smile and a friendly welcome. Vendors would stand to the sides, advertising their wares from a considerate distance. When we entered a stall, the owner would show off their merchandise and strike up an amiable conversation with us. We would chat about our travels, and they would offer advice on what was worth seeing and experiencing in their beautiful country. There was no upset if we left a store without purchasing anything, in fact, the vendors would wish us good luck on our coming journeys. When wandering down a particularly quiet street at twilight, we weren’t attacked, mugged or robbed. Instead other families waved from their windows, smiling shyly from behind their curtains. We went out at night, we walked in the back alleyways and always made it home safe to our Riad. We were advised that all of these actions are considered ‘dangerous’ and yet, nothing happened to us.
An Unexpected Lesson
Now to that one small thing, and I will offer it as a lesson learned. When we were in the heart of the Medina square, a woman approached Mum and I and grabbed my hand saying that she could do a henna tattoo. “I will just show you,” she said. We weren’t sure but before we had said anything she was busily painting away and within a minute she was done. In the end, she asked for 100 Dirhams or $10 USD explaining that what she did was far more intricate and included the whole hand. This soured the whole tone of things. Mum was not impressed with her. We noticed a group of her friends started to gather around us. Mum eventually gave her the money making deep eye contact with her while explaining that what she was doing was not at all authentic and reflected very poorly on her. She explained to her that with the talent that she had, she needn’t try to trap unsuspecting tourists in such a dishonest way and that if she were more honest, people would surely be prepared to pay her what she asked. However, I still left with a unique piece of artistry on my hand, a memorable souvenir of our time in the city.
So with that said, here are my quick 7 travel hacks for staying in Marrakech.
1. Stay in a traditional Riad in the confines of the Medina. It is a unique experience not to be missed.
2. Do not carry large amounts of money around with you or flash it about.
3. Dress with respect for the local culture and remember you are a guest in the country.
4. Always smile and engage people in conversation where possible; you might make some very good new friends. Great expressions of greeting are السلام عليكم or As-salamu Alaykum (Peace be upon you) and remember to say شكرا (Shukraan) or Thank you.
5. Always pre-negotiate your cab fare to wherever you go, particularly if there is no meter in the taxi.
6. Don’t give your hand to any henna painting artist without completely getting a full agreement upfront of what it is going to cost precisely.
7. Immerse yourself in the mayhem of Marrakech without fear! It’s all part of the experience.
We took these simplest of precautions, carried a large smile and were always pleasantly surprised. What I am saying is ignore the horror stories in your research on what could happen to you when traveling. Instead…What will happen to you if you venture out of your comfort zone, is a real sense of personal growth, fun and an experience of other people, places and cultures that will stay with you for life. Traveling for me is being mindful and aware of yourself and your surroundings. Keep an open mind and heart. If something does feel wrong, then move yourself out of the situation. Don’t wait around for the inevitable to happen. Intuition is our strongest power. Use it. Use it well. Be accepting of the situation and if you allow yourself to go with the flow, you will find yourself at the helm of a unique life experience.
Magical Medinas and Spellbinding Souks
We used our days in Marrakech to explore the city with these principles in mind, and we had a spectacular time. We walked down the dusty pink streets, taking in the senses and sights. The incredible golden topped figure of The Minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque was a constant landmark, and we used it as our guide to navigating the city. We dove into the cobblestone streets of the souks, revelling in the silk scarves, pointy leather slippers, bejewelled sandals, beaded jewellery and traditional crockery. Thousands of hand woven carpets, infused with assortments of rich and luscious colours hung on every stall corner, and I could almost swear that we had jumped into the pages of a storybook. It certainly felt like we were on a magic carpet ride, swerving out into the World Heritage Sight of The Medina of Marrakech.
Towering mountains of olives soaked in their spicy juices, and bright red, yellow and orange powders enticed us deeper. We purchased fat dates, dripping with natural sugars and took home sacks of Moroccan macadamias, cashews, figs, dried apricots and walnuts. I watched a snake charmer play his reed flute to his scaly, black cobra, the snake’s piercing eyes coupled with the spellbinding song, sending shivers of awe down my spine. We even saw a playful monkey with a red fez atop his head, clinging to the neck of his master and then the clusters of Master Jedis walking down the dusty Souk Streets. At least that’s what they looked like. What many people do not know, is the inspiration for this cloth chosen by George Lucas for the Jedi has its origins in the traditional humble Moroccan Djellaba.
On a particular late afternoon walk, we even discovered a traditional Moroccan Gelateria. It was a special treat on the dry and hot day, and we found ourselves returning for second and third helpings! We ate Mediterranean and Moroccan fusion meals for dinner, indulging in tzatziki and couscous, while continually drinking Mint Tea, thriving on this herbal concoction.
The Last Dinner
On our final night, we dove into the mayhem of Marrakech one last time, as we went out to the food markets, weaving our way past the large, dead carcasses of meat and smelly fish to reach the abundant stalls of fresh vegetables. Hanna let us use her kitchen to make our dinner, and once we were finished cooking we climbed the three staircases to the roof of the Riad where we ate our meal of grilled vegetables, lentil infused rice, freshly baked Moroccan bread and tomato and cucumber salad on a small circular table in the alfresco oasis, a paradise from the noisy and dusty streets below. In the distance, I could see minor sand storms, whipping the desert outside the city walls into a frenzy.
The sun began to set, and I can easily say that it was one of the most magnificent sunsets we had encountered throughout the entire two years we had been traveling. Drops of blood red streamed out from the sky, divulging the golden core of the radiant sun’s heart. The entire atmosphere shimmered like a mirage from the day’s bright blue into the twilight’s pink and purple hues. It was magical. My eyes turned to the North where twinkling on the horizon was the beginning of the spectacular Atlas Mountain range, which would be our next stop. Marrakech had treated us well, acclimatising us into Morocco’s energetic spirit and giving us a little taste of the incredible culture, traditions and customs that the Moroccan people embody. This was still on the very tip of the iceberg, and we were about to dive down, through the revitalising waters, into yet another new world of discovery. This time, it would be the heart of the ancient Berber empire.