Some people call this a "culture shock" going to Morocco is more of a "culture kick in the face". We took a 12km ferry from Algeciras, Spain to Tangier, Morocco. It's amazing just how much is separated by such a short distance. Language, culture, religion, and economic stability are completely transformed when a person crosses the Strait of Gibraltar.
We got off the boat and got a taxi to the train station. All the reading we had done warned us that Tangier wasn't the best city to spend too much time in. So, we booked ourselves on the overnight train to Marrakech and killed some time in a remarkably nice train station. We had about three hours to kill so I was pacing around a lot while Colleen was reading a book. In this amount of time I was offered hash about six times by different people, one of whom claimed he was in charge of security for the train station. It isn't really my thing so I politely refused, but It's a common story that travelers will be offered hash at a cheap price then they tell the police about you. Not to arrest you, but to squeeze every cent out of you so they won't have to arrest you. We made it on the train and were happily on our way out of Tangier. The train was pretty nice. No different then your average European train. It was a long night. We split a six seat cab with four other people (the couchettes/sleeping cars were already booked). Everyone was nice and Colleen and I practiced some Arabic phrases out of our Lonely Planet (Morocco) book. They all had a good laugh listening to us try to count to 10 and say all the days of the week in our really bad arabic.
We arrived in Marrakech around 8:00 AM and found ourselves in another really nice train station.
The Moroccans take great pride in there train system. The stations were spotless and woman were constantly cleaning the floors and emptying the garbage cans, even if they weren't full. After we found a cab out of the train station we were given some specific directions from our riad (Moroccan guest house) owner on how to get to his place. He told us to take a cab to a centrally located hotel called the Hotel Tazi, then call his cell and he would meet us and show us the rest of the way to his place. This seemed odd when I first read it, but once we got there it all made sense. The Medina, or the old part of Marrakech, is a complete labyrinth of roads and pathways that are impossible to stay oriented in. He took us through the Djemâa el-Fna (city square) and through a few narrow streets, pointing out key land marks along the way so we could find our way back. Once we got there we checked in and drank some Moroccan mint tea. The tea in Morocco is amazing, I don't really drink tea but we couldn't get enough of this stuff. After about a two hour nap we were ready to check out the town.
Here are a couple pictures of our Riad:
After the ferry and the train ride we were ready to eat something. So, we went to a restaurant near the Djemâa el-Fna that our host recommended. We sat down to eat next to a woman that was sitting alone. We asked if she spoke english and she did. She asked us where we were from and we said Seattle. Turns out her name was Jade and she was from Bellevue, so we ended up hanging out with her for the rest of the day. We checked out all the souqs around the big square and Jade helped Colleen buy a scarf. Haggling prices is the national past time in Morocco. With Jades help Colleen talk the price down from 200 durum to 70. The souqs in the Djemâa el-Fna are what bring people to Marrakech. There seem to be miles of streets lined with souks and they will sell you anything.
The freshest chicken around, notice the meat in the front and the live chickens in the back (no refrigeration)
You could spend days looking at all they have to offer. From nice leather jackets and bags made at the Marrakech Tanery to knock off Rolexes, to spices that will cure anything from a cold to a hangnail. I actually bought some kind of herb that if you rub it in your hand and hold to your nose it clears your sinuses. It actually works pretty well.
After the sun goes down the Djemâa el-Fna really starts to liven up. I would almost compare it to a 3rd world version of Las Vegas. One of the books we have calls walking through the Djemâa el-Fna at night like "live action channel surfing". I can't think of a better way to describe it. In one direction you have 500 people listening to a old man telling a story in Arabic, the other direction there's two king cobras being seduced by a snake charmer, right behind you some kid is trying to sell you a pair of gucci sunglasses.
That cobra was very thirsty, we saw the guy try to pull the glass away and the cobra latched on because it wasn't done drinking yet.
Yes, those are real human teeth
It's just nut's, while all this is happening there are about 100 food stalls where people are cooking up all kinds of crazy stuff. snails, sheep and goat heads, tagines, couscous, and anything else you could imagine. All the while the food venders are trying to convince you that they have the best spices and tastiest food. It really is overwhelming. All five senses are being engaged. The smell of the spices, sound of the music and crowds, taste of the food, sights of all the colors being displayed in the souks, and the feel of the warm night air. It exciting and exhausting at the same time.
We stayed out till around midnight the first night (bad idea) and as we headed back to our riad, we noticed that nothing along the way looked familiar because all the souqs were closing up. Next thing we knew we took a few wrong turns and we were approached by a younger man in one of the dark streets. He said he knew the street our riad was on and offered to take us there. Now this was a little scary, but he took us right to where we needed to go. Of course he asked us for money and I gave him what I had on me. It was only about 12 Durum ($1.50) and he wanted more and wouldn't leave until he got it. As we argued about it Colleen craftily snuck the door keys out of my pocket and opened the door. We were able to get inside and leave him on the street arguing with himself. At first this seemed like a pretty scary experience, because he could have lead us anywhere and flat out robbed us for everything we had. However after being there a few days we realized thats just how the people operate. They just don't have much, Its not there intention rob or harm you. They're just trying to survive. It's a very sobering thing for an American to see.
After our morning breakfast bread, freshly squeezed orange juice, and Moroccan tea;
We planned to ride on the hop on - hop off bus tour, and got a little side tracked in the morning and ended up at a spice souq where I purchased herb for my sinuses, and Colleen bought some soap and a scrubber that is commonly used at the Hammams - a public place where everyone goes to be bathed. We didnt end up going to one, but many people recommended us to go to one, just for the experience. Maybe next time. Once we finished buying all of those goodies, we made our way to the bus tour, briskly walking past all of the souqs to try to keep from being asked to look in their shop, "its free to look". We finally made it to the bus and rode it around for about an hour. The bus took us to the newer parts of Marrakech, outside the madina. There are a lot of new hotels and apartments being built. The current prince of Morocco is making a huge effort to modernize the country. So if you want want see Marrakech before it turns into every other city in the world, you'd better get over there quick.
Here are some of the sights we took in as we rode on the bus:
Later on that day we went back to the Djemâa el-Fna to try out the food stalls. This is like combat eating. The venders actually hire people to go out in the crowds and try to get people to eat at there stalls. Each stall is numbered so these guys would come up with rhymes to eat at there stall. Like (the lamb is heaven at 27). We started out by trying some steamed snails. They were pretty good, Colleen even tried a few. After that we played it safe and got a chicken tagine and a lamb couscous, although you can have found just about any part of any animal being cooked up somewhere.
The next was our last day in town. We had one more thing we needed to do before we left the medina, visit the two tanneries. Some of the best leather in the world comes from Morocco. Marrakech has two ancient tanneries (Arab and Berber) that are still making leather the same way they did thousands of years ago. The tanneries aren't on any tourist maps, so our host just recommended that we start walking in the general direction and someone will take you to it "for a special price". So we made a visit to the Marrakech Museum, then we headed up to the tannery. We didn't walk more the 500 meters before a rough looking guy asked us "tannery, tannery?" So we followed him through the maze of streets we arrived at the entrance. He promptly handed us off to another sleazy looking manager fellow. He handed us each a mint leaf to cover the smell and we walked through both tanneries. first we saw the Arab tannery where they tan camel and cattle hides, then we saw the Berber tannery where goat and sheep hides are tanned. This was a very intense experience. The workers are knee deep in these pits and they weren't to happy to see American tourist being guided through there place of work.
To be honest, we couldn't blame them. So there was a lot of dirty looks and verbal rudeness, but nothing more. Most of it it was directed at our slime-ball guide anyway. So, as in true Marrakech style, the guide handed us of to another salesman slime-ball. His job was to talk the american tourist into buying as many leather bags as he could. He tried to woo us with mint tea and some long rehearsed speech on how great the USA is, I'm sure he has a speech for every country, then he starting trying to sell us stuff. Used car salesmen in the states could take lessons from these guys. We did want to have some kind of leather item to take home with us from Morocco so Colleen picked a small purse. After some rough negotiating we got the thing for 250 dirham. Not, bad considering he wanted 1400 when first started talking. After that they showed us back to the street. We paid the tour guide about 120 dirham for showing us the tanneries, we were told ahead of time this was a fair price, of coarse he didn't think so. Then we made our way back to our riad and got ready for the train back to Tangier.
This had to be the most interesting place we've seen so far. We're posting this about one week after we left and we're still trying to wrap our minds around it.