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Our first steps into the medina are chronicled in the Tuesday Tale, "How We Found Our Riad in the Marrakech Medina." In this post I'll share some pics from the labyrinth known as the medina. We'd been to medinas and souks in Tunisia and to bazaars in Iran, both of which presented us with the feeling of being a rat in a maze. In Iran we were with our guide the whole time, so we did not get lost. In Tunis, we got lost and couldn't find our way out and I desperately had to pee, like I mean I thought I might die or else pull down my pants and go right there on the cobblestones, we kept running into dead ends where there were no shops. We made it out barely in time for me not to burst. Usually we enjoy getting a little lost in these types of places, but that became painful! We've meandered medieval labyrinths in old quarters of several European towns, as well. So I can't claim to have been to *tons* of these types of places, but a fair number. The Marrakech medina was on a whole new scale from anything we've previously experienced.
Our first day there, we meandered with little point ... i.e., just for the sake of meandering. At the time we finally stopped for lunch about 2:00 p.m. and asked the waiter if he could point out on a map where we were, because we had zero idea, we were shocked to see how little ground we had covered from where our riad was. It seemed like we must have crossed vast distances. But though we walked a lot, we made little progress as the crow flies. But that was no problem, our goal was mere exploration. Later, when we had goals, it was more unnerving to have been walking for ages and have no idea where we were. Paper maps are useless. Google Maps was helpful only when we got reception on our phone (we had purchased a SIM card at the airport), and it often cut out deep in the medina. We also were sure to take the business card of the riad with us when we went out walking precisely so we could pay someone to take us back if absolutely necessary.
One time a British girl came up to us as we were trying to consult the phone and asked if we knew where we were and how to get to the big main square. Although we had come from the square an hour or two earlier, we had absolutely no idea how to get back, and we were trying to head the opposite direction of it to our riad, but we weren't getting a signal, so we had no clue about anything, not even if we were doing what *we* wanted to be doing. We felt badly but we could not help the girl, she was alone, I said she could come with us until we found our bearings, but she opted to keep going on her own. It's definitely more scary to be lost alone so I was glad to have a teammate and Google Map reader.
I regret not buying some strawberries. We ultimately didn't buy anything in Morocco except for two bracelets I picked up near the end of the our last day as we straggled home after a lot of walking. At that time we didn't know that we had 24 hours to get out of the country, so I'm glad I made that one little purchase or I would have nothing at all to show from the brief trip. But anyway ... the strawberries looked absolutely divine and there were tables and tables of them throughout the medina.
I've never seen such piles of herbs before. I would get hit with overwhelming olfactory sensations from time to time, and usually it was in passing a mound of herbs. The most common smell punches were mint and cilantro.
We noticed that for such a crowded place with so much raw food, so many stray cats, no real drainage systems we could see, often patchy roofs, we really didn't encounter unpleasant smells -- even passing by the raw meat and the exceedingly fresh chicken (which kind of made me sad).
I've spoken before about how my dad's exotic travels for work when I was a kid and teenager inspired my desire to see the strange wide world for myself. One of the places he went was Morocco. I still have the souvenirs he brought me back. I remember him talking about the raw goat carcasses hanging in stalls along the roadsides. By now I've seen this many times in various countries, but seeing it here specifically reminded me of my dad's tales and how at that time I couldn't imagine this.
So what else do they have to peruse there in the maze? Well, shall we take a little stroll to see a teensy fraction of the things available?
Mounds of olives.
A fair number of items mysterious to us. Sometimes as we stopped to ponder, the seller would point things out to us in English or explain what they were used for, which of course was always a prelude to trying to make a sale. So unfortunately we could not stay very long at these places and learn very much -- the longer you stay the harder the sell.
Dried flowers, roots and herbs.
Craftsmen and things like hardware and appliances, scooter parts, etc., seemed to clump together in little sections. We watched some men carve designs into wooden posts and dowels using a tool with their feet. Here's one of the wood shops.
Most of the medina is simply where people live. The marketways, shall we call them, are like arteries through the medina, and off of them are the countless quiet little capillaries lined with residences that often dead-end at a home.
The capillaries are filled with wandering kitties. They wander and sleep in the market areas, too, but they were much more accessible to the stalking tourist who wants to pet them in the residential areas. They seemed very fond of sitting on the seats of parked scooters and mopeds. Notice in the painted mural above that there are two cats on the back of the scooter.
Lots of kittens, too. Here was a mom nursing her kiddo. In the back you can just see the white tummy of another kitten stretched up against a gate. He wanted to come out so very badly. He cried and cried and bit at his metal prison. Surely he was safer inside, but I finally had to move on because his desperate little pleas were killing me.
This was sweet, in a random corner, somebody had set up a little place for this momma and her kittens ... a rag and a piece of glass that was probably both a wind shield and a solar panel. A plastic dish of water nearby. The kittens were so precious sleeping in the sun, oh how difficult it was not to reach around and snatch one up to snuggle. The people probably really need to be fixing the cats not to breed so much, but if they're gonna breed, at least they take good care of them. We saw extremely few cats in questionable health.
We had lunch that first day beside this paved street. Wise kitty across the way diligently looks both ways before crossing the street.
Should you visit Marrakech (if you haven't), you can see the tanneries if you want, but find them yourself, don't let anyone tell you they're walking home or to work and it's just on the way, they'll lead you no problem; that there is a special market today, an auction, a berber auction is ending in an hour, hurry come see!; that street is closed, come this way. Also find the palace by yourself -- 1,800 people will want to show you where it is. No one is doing anything for free, either they will ask for money or they're getting a kickback from whomever they lead you to. It's a shame but the occasional genuine person gets lost in the sea of scammers and unwanted guides who try to force themselves upon you. After awhile, Erik was just waiting for the next guy to tell a lie or try to lead us somewhere, they were going to get some schooling!
He also stood his ground about paying the tannery guy who never said there would be a charge. A passerby with better English stopped to moderate the scene. In the end we paid the guy 20 dirhams (basically 2 Euro). The other people staying in our riad, a British foursome, fell prey to the same scam and paid 250! So we got off OK but I was kicking myself for being so stupid -- usually Erik is more susceptible to these things but this time it was me because of my glee at the prospect of seeing "a Berber auction" with camels and stuff ... the promise of which turned out to just be a lie.
We had been strolling along -- with our fair skin we simply can't hide that we're tourists -- and some guy lounging on his moped struck up a conversation and told us about the supposed market. "Just go down there, then turn right, and then left, and then after the square another right. Oh heck, I'll just show you, my house is over there, I'm going home anyway." We suspected a scam immediately and told our impromptu guide who led us there over and over and over that we were not going to pay him money, but he insisted he was just on his way home, "No no! I'm not asking for money." After many more than three turns, he dropped us off at the tannery without a charge. So it was a two-part scam and by the time we were inextricably inside the tannery, it was too late. A man ushered us inside immediately and began walking us around like a tour guide before we could say "boo," crushing mint leaves into our hands to breathe in as "a gas mask" to dilute the smell. Over and over "a gas mask!" As if we didn't get the joke because we didn't laugh. I didn't laugh because I was already simmering at how we'd walked right into this, for clearly we would have to pay this guy. So I kept waiting for the admission price but one never came as he tugged at me, "Over here, over here, take a photo."
So we did follow him around for about 20 minutes and listen to his script explaining the process. I already knew that goat hides were soaked in urine to remove the fur, and to be honest despite the raw hides and the ones soaking in urine it didn't actually smell that bad. So below, a pile of hides and the various "tubs" used to soak the hides in either urine or dye.
So tannery toured, he then led us inside a big shop to see the finished products. I was surprised he didn't ask for money from us when he turned around at the door. It is of course a three-part operation, because now they want you to buy something in the store, so I figured this was the end of the "scam" being dropped off here. Gratefully, the people in the store were not actually hard sells, we told them several times we weren't interested in buying anything, we just wanted to look, as they tried to interest us in this and that. In a place like that, having to give only *a few* brush-offs was refreshing, even relaxing. They did have lots of really cool stuff, leather and otherwise, but we were not there to spend money and didn't have a lot anyway.
I was just about to think that maybe I had been too cynical, so far nobody had asked us for money. But a few steps after exiting the store, our tannery man came up asking for the money. We were annoyed but saw it coming, though we didn't expect it this late in the game. If he had asked a reasonable price, we wouldn't have made a fuss. But when he asked for 250 dirham for his unsolicited services, that was a step beyond annoying. I'm sympathetic to the idea that Western tourists in developing countries should not haggle the vendors to death because a few dollars isn't much to us but can be a lot to them. I don't like being taken for a ride in the markets either, and maybe I should relax on that and actually I have compared to how I used to bargain, but at least you are presented with a price up front, nobody is trying to pretend they're giving it to you for free or waiting until you're already walking away with the merchandise to mention that there is a price on it. This is what was annoying. If he had said a price up front, we may have chosen to pay it. Not the equivalent of 25 Euro, to be honest, but it would have been honorable to give us the choice. He could have bargained with us for a price we thought was worth it. For some perspective, the entry fee to places like the palace and the tombs and the gardens was 70 dirham per ticket, so 140 total for an actually amazing experience lasting several hours each. For additional perspective, we paid the guy whose help we desperately needed and asked for who spent a lot of time with us to get us to our riad 300 dirham.
So as mentioned above, after some heated arguing with the man for misleading us and never stating a price, the passerby mediated and we paid 20 dirham. We were pretty sure our first unsolicited "guide" had purposefully led us on an unnecessarily circuitous route, probably hoping we would need help from someone to get back, for a price of course. But we actually found our way and eventually walked by that guy standing in the same spot where we "met" him, obviously nowhere near his home that was supposedly by the tannery, looking for his next victims. We didn't confront him but had a good chuckle since we only paid the tannery guy 20 dirhams, he didn't get much of a kickback from us.
Another guy attached himself to Erik so relentlessly, professing he just wanted to practice his English, but just by coincidence of course offering to show us the way to various places. Erik finally had to literally tell him to leave. I was already sick of people coming up to us and just walked away leaving Erik to fend for himself. It's exhausting, but if you know it's going to happen, I think it helps you brace yourself and maybe brush it off better. But again, it's a shame because the occasional genuinely friendly person cannot be discerned from the overwhelming number of disingenuous and scheming people who see you as just a dollar sign. I read warnings from other travelers about Marrakech, but it was hard to truly understand the scope until experiencing it myself.
Here are a couple photos I snapped as I wandered off by myself while Erik was weighed down with the "English practicer."
One thing I did not get good photos of was all the donkeys and donkey carts. The medina is full of them and especially the streets and parking lots surrounding it. Even in sub-Saharan Africa and China I never saw so many in one place. There were truly gobs of them. So it's kind of weird that I didn't end up with any good photos, but here's one beside some street art, which we did not see very much of, at a wide spot in the medina. He looks a bit thin to me, but most donkeys seemed quite healthy.
So all in all we really enjoyed the medina, though it was trying at times. If we get to come back to Morocco someday and complete our aborted itinerary, I think we will feel we have done Marrakech enough and move on down the road. I'll tell you about our last night there in another post. I'm still pining for those strawberries!