The Thing About Marrakesh

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A lot has been said about Marrakesh. Some love it and keep coming back, some suggest a short visit. Marrakesh is everything people have said about it. It’s a place you need to experience for yourself to know what all the fuss is about.

Most of the time, when people say “Marrakesh” they mean the Old City, not the town itself. Tourists head to the Old City to see Jamaa el-Fnaa and the surrounding areas. It is madness. Too surreal, too real, too loud, too busy, too beautiful, too antiquated, too colorful, too much.

The streets of Marrakesh wouldn’t be like anything you’ve seen before. So many streets, very confusing. It’s like a maze. Just when you think you’ve almost reached a dead-end, you will see another street that leads to several streets, all leading some place else. The souks get more colorful as you get near the Big Square.

I walked the streets with souk owners saying, “Konnichiwa.” I think not a lot of Asians come here and those who do are mostly Japanese, Chinese, or Korean. I know because several times I’ve been asked what kind of Asian I was (and no, I didn’t take offense). When they guessed, they always said Japanese first, then Chinese, then Korean. Always in that order. My travel partner sometimes told souk owners, “She’s from the Philippines. Do you know where the Philippines is?” Guess how many of them actually knew? Not a one. Well, being Asian worked out great for my visit because when touts or insistent merchants approached me, I just put on my I-don’t-understand-English-and-that-is-why-I’m-smiling-like-this face. It worked well a few times, but to two touts who followed me as I headed to Jamaa el-Fnaa, I had to say with an “Asian” accent, “No English, no English” with hand gestures to match.

Moroccan breakfast is rather simple—jam, butter, tea, yogurt, and sometimes eggs and processed cheese. Bread is always served. So many bread! Brioche or croissant, flat bread, cakey bread, baguette, pancake, and the Moroccan staple khobz (a round bread you can find anywhere and comes in many sizes, 1 to 3 dirhams each or 5 to 10 pesos). My favorite will be the flat bread, similar to India’s naan, or Malaysia’s roti. I happen to look for a protein source in the morning so I always headed out to look for something more “Asian” for brunch. For two days, I ate in a place a few minutes walk from the big square. They serve several kinds of bread, lentil and bean stew, and my favorite—chicken cooked in tagine.

I walked the streets, mainly enjoying the plethora of items for sale. It’s not unusual to find a donkey strutting alongside you. It will be more fashionable than you can ever be, totally rocking its colorful gear. It is normal for butcher shops to be right beside a shop selling mobile phones or clothes. I liked strolling along the street where all the nuts and dried fruits are sold. I have never seen so many dates my whole life! Heck, I couldn’t even find them in groceries back home! They taste so normal and not overly processed and sweet. When you buy nuts, the souk owner will give you a handful of anything you like to nibble as you continue your stroll. After buying dates, almonds, and walnuts, I had a Moroccan trail mix that lasted for two days. Good deal. Almonds and walnuts cost 100% cheaper there, too. Bakers, take note.

The leather shops will make you wish you’re a millionaire. There will be tons of bags you would want to take home with you. Don’t let the price discourage you because haggling is an art form in Morocco. I didn’t try in Marrakesh but in Fes, you can haggle in restaurants and it is the norm.

plate.jpgI tried avoiding the ceramic shops but it was impossible to resist them. See, I love kitchen items. Earthenware is my weakness. And Morocco is earthenware paradise, OMG. Once I started, I almost couldn’t stop. I wanted to buy everything but I had to remember that I set a budget for shopping and I shouldn’t exceed the limit on my first destination.

After my daily stroll, I always came back to children playing on the streets outside my inn, wearing their cute little leather boots. They always waved at me, shy at first but all it took was a smile to get them to say “Bonjour!” I always said “Bonjour!” back and gave them a wave. I guess I felt like what foreigners do in the Philippines when kids come to them to say hello in a curious manner because they look very different from us. I will obviously stand out in a place like Morocco. Most tourists are European. The streets were noisy with every language I couldn’t understand.

I visited a tannery beside the inn. I never knew there was one until the innkeeper told me. One morning, I decided to check it out. It was drizzling. I entered the huge gate and a man wearing a cloak said “Bonjour!” He did not speak English so I gestured if I could come in. He nodded with a smile and led me into a tiny shack. It’s like stepping into a different time when I entered that 2.5 x 5 meter shack. In one corner, a man was scraping leather with a tool I have no idea what to call. Like a half-moon blade-sickle of some kind. In the other corner, there was a tall stack of leather. I took photos and bought leather for 100 dirhams. Journal making would be more interesting using real leather not faux suede, I bet.

Moroccans are gorgeous, by the way. Most of them are reasonably attractive and a lot are simply beautiful. Fashionable, too. Gentlemen in suits selling fruits or ceramics, dudes in leather jackets and boots, ladies in colorful and elegant caftans and hijabs. Anyone would want to dress up here!

TOUTS

They are everywhere and come in all shapes, age, and size. From attractive, decent-looking men calling out to you, “Madame, Madame, how are you today? Speak English?” to kids saying, “Good morning, Madame, do you need a guide today?” They are not aggressive but can be insistent and some will follow you around. I have read about them in blogs before I arrived and Mohammed, the innkeeper also warned me not to talk to them. His advice was smart and simple: when lost or confused (you will be), just ask the souk owners for directions. Never ask anyone standing around for directions. They might offer to help but will charge you. Some might take you deep into the medina and take your wallet.

Aside from our experience with them on my last night in the Old City, there were only a few touts who approached me as I walked alone the streets of the medina. I have read a lot of articles from solo female travelers that said that they had very bad experiences in Morocco, but I didn’t experience anything similar when I was in Marrakesh by myself.

CHOOSING A RIAD/HOTEL IN MARRAKESH

Accommodation is an important part of travel. A big chunk of the budget often goes to this but in Morocco, it shouldn’t be the case (unless you prefer first class accommodation). In the Old City, there are only riads and inns. Big chains are located outside the walled city. If you plan to rent a car, I suggest you book a hotel outside the Old City. There are petite taxis that can take you to the big square any time.

If you prefer to stay in the Old City, make sure you look at where the riad is located before booking. A lot of them are located deep in the medina and might be confusing to find. The ones near the square might get a bit too noisy at night. The square comes alive at night with street performers, food stalls, shows, and many more. It’s like New Year every night and if you want to rest early, noise might be an issue.

HAGGLING

A merchant tells you a tagine costs three hundred dirhams, how much will you offer? I don’t know about other countries, but in the Philippines, if a tindera (sales person) in Divisoria says an item costs a hundred pesos, I will usually offer fifty and get it for sixty to eighty pesos. In Marrakesh, there is a lot of drama involved in haggling. Those souk owners are great performers.

Me: How much is this tagine?

Merchant (wearing a suit!): Three hundred dirhams.

Me: I don’t have money. I can’t afford it.

Merchant: How much do you want it for, Madame?

Me: I want those plates also. I only have one hundred for everything.

Merchant (acting as if I insulted him): No. I’m sorry (Sounding as if I broke his heart.)

Me: Okay. Thank you. [Silently singing: Hey, I just met you and this is crazy, but I have a budget, and your stuff’s expensive!]

I left and reached the street but he came after me, like a lover who doesn’t want to let go.

Merchant: Madame, madame, come back. I will give you good price. You will see good pieces. Come, come.

Me: But I have no money. I can only pay thirty for the tagine.

Merchant: No. I can give it to you for forty. I only want to touch your money.

(“Touch your money” is a common phrase here. It means that they only want to make a sale and a huge profit is not important. In Tagalog/Filipino, it’s “Makabenta lang.”)

I got the tagine for forty dirhams (P200) when the first quote was three hundred dirhams (P1,500), although when I asked the cashier of the money changer beside the souk, she said that I could’ve gotten it for thirty dirhams.

Do not be ashamed to offer a very low price. They will act insulted for sure, and you will feel bad—but don’t. Everything is just an act. You will get the hang of it after visiting a few souks.

Ready for Marrakesh? Great. Eat a lot and walk a lot. Everything’s gonna to be great!


[The first photo is owned by Elton]

2 thoughts on “The Thing About Marrakesh”

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