Our trip in March of 2011 began with 5 days in Marrakech, Morocco. Therese had been there for a day or two when she was a young lady. We both had the sense that Marrakech would be a little different than the usual trip to a European or American city. And it certainly delivered on its promise.
Our first impressions were of delight. Seeing the pink walls of the medina as our taxi circled the city, heading to the gate that would be closest to our dropping off point. Leaving our taxi in the dusty crowded streets and dragging our luggage the last few blocks to the secretive side-street entrance to our hotel, the Riad Miski. Walking into the courtyard of Riad Miski, meeting our hosts, and taking in the beauty of the building: the whitewashed walls, the stone floor, the wood and wrought iron and our beautifully appointed room. There were smiles on our faces when Therese and I finally looked at each other to see if we were both taking in this delightful place.
And then we were ushered to the roof terrace to have some late breakfast. Nothing fancy: just bread with jam and the ubiquitous mint tea. The sun was already hot, but we had a canopy over us to shade us. We sat to talk with our hostess Christine and get a sense of what we might do during our time. We were prepared to be amazed, and we were already delighted. Good start.
Not that there wasn't some adjusting that we had to go through. Once we ventured out onto the dusty crowded streets again to walk around and take in the Ben Saleh neighborhood in which our hotel lay, we immediately were verbally assaulted by people, men mostly, telling us where to go and hassling us. Or at least that's how it felt at first. Therese handled it better than I did. She's got a thicker skin than I do, and has an easier way of telling people "no" but being polite about it. It took me a day or two, but once I got used to it, I began to enjoy the give and take between myself and all the shop owners and every one else trying to sell. At points it seemed like everything was for sale. But I came to agree with Therese's way of looking at it: we think of it as aggressive, but it is a way of being friendly and polite, to engage people in a positive way, knowing that if you do that well, your chances of making a sale at some point or other increase greatly.
And we did do a lot of shopping. We also ate very well, including a couple of wonderful meals in the Riad Miski. We also explored the attractions the city has to offer: the Musee de Marrakech, Jardin Majorelle and other places, knowing all the time that the city itself is an attraction. And we spent each day feeling very deeply that we were somewhere that was profoundly different than the places we are used to traveling to. It was vibrant, dynamic, ever-evolving. Many of the buildings looked like they could crumble any second, but if anything did crumble, there would be something new in its place by the next day. We literally saw a team of workers dismantle a building practically by hand (with help from some hammers and a donkey or two) in about a day.
Let me revisit this question about being hassled for another moment if I may. I certainly would not advise a woman to travel by herself in Marrakech, or ever two or three women, without having a guy close by to keep the Moroccan men honest. And when it came to the souks, we discovered, as our hosts at Riad Miski had warned us, that the further you get from Jemma el Fna, the main square which is part city hub and part circus, the more genial and flexible the shopkeepers are. As you get closer to the square, they tend to get a little more mercenary and bent on getting your money, and they don't really want to go through a song and a dance to get it. Perhaps the stalls closer to the square, since they are seen by a greater number of tourists, charge higher rents, and therefore the poor fellows making their rents don't have time to be nice.
Of course, there are always exceptions. We went into a lamp store right on Jemma el Fna, and found the proprietor there very hospitable, so much so that we bought a beautiful lamp shade from him.
Perhaps it is also a matter of how Marrakech is changing as a whole. I have seen people writing about how Marrakech is getting spoiled by all the tourism, that it used to be a much more wonderful and precious place. And I have heard that for some Marrakech residents, the great amount of tourists is not to their liking. So on the one hand it may be that people are stuck in a hard place between needing the tourist's money to keep going in a way that they are growing accustomed to and resenting that they are not able to enjoy their city as they did at one time, before all the tourists came.
I don't know. I was not there when Marrakech was a quiet place. Frankly, it is hard to believe that it was ever a completely quiet place. It is poised at the foot of the Atlas Mountains in the southwest of the country, in a perfect spot to exchange the crafts and other creations of the Berber peoples living in the mountains and desert for the goods of the coast - produce and the like. It grew up around the marketplace, the Souks, and that marketplace may now cater mostly to outsiders, but the marketplace keeps the city buzzing.
We were sorry to leave Marrakech after being there for less than a week. We hope we have the chance to go back. We did a lot, and came away with a strong taste of what the city has to offer, but we know there is more. We were infected by its uniqueness, and from now on, when we travel, we will be looking for more tastes of cultures that take us out of our comfort zone and fire our imaginations.
For me, visiting Marrakech was a turning point. I had traveled to some places, and enjoyed getting to know places like Southern Spain and Belgium. But with Marrakech, it's like I came of age as a traveler. I truly left behind my normal surroundings, and found my feet in a place that was new to me. I will be looking for that from now on, everywhere I go. Partly that will be a matter of where we travel, trying to find more exotic and "otherly" places to visit. But partly, that is just a matter of bringing to life that thing in me that says, "my world just got a little bigger, and I am the richer person for it."