03 May 2009

Marrakech: Not for the Faint of Heart

These past two days have been a lush, intense, insane lesson in contrast. After LB + I took the Metro from Madrid to the airport, checked in + flew to Casablanca, our journey had only begun. On our flight, we met Freddie Jackson, who told us about the Grammy he won in 1986, before explaining that he was going to do some back-up singing for Ihlam, the famous Arabic singer. Getting to Marrakech, on the other hand, was a photographic novel in its own right.

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far:

1. Moroccans, are by and large, fascinated by my Arabic tattoo. Some of them seem to love it: I’ve gotten a ton of smiles, thumbs up, a few men shook my hand out of gratitude, and more than one girl has recited it back to me, smiling (more on that later)

2. After almost getting mugged last night by a group of six Moroccan teenagers that insisted on helping us and then tried to charge me 20 fucking Euros, a delicate situation that ended by me arguing with the leader in French for twenty minutes, surrounded by his pseudo-thugs in a dark, abandoned street (to be honest, the situation was even more fucked up than I’m describing it—LB was shaking, if that gives you any idea), ultimately I dished out all of my coins (Dirhams) to avoid getting beaten up or stabbed, or even worse. So, I’ve learned that the tourist industry is huge in Marrakech, not to mention largely European. I can’t tell you how many times I had to tell people that I don’t have any Euros. After talking with the woman in charge of the Riad LB + I are staying at, I’ve learned that she once had Slovenian guests that just walked around passing out four Euros to kids on the street, which is making our lives as budget travelers, just a fucking nightmare

3. I’ve never been hit up for hash + opium as much as I have today. I don’t know what it is about my appearance—the tat’s, the jeans, the piercing, the false swagger—but I felt like an open target for drug dealers, some of which, looked really really tweaked out on the blues

4. Moroccans are by large, very friendly (those fuckers from last night notwithstanding), and they appreciate the smallest crumb of Arabic. A shukran goes a long way here.

5. Like in Burkina Faso, you have to figure out who the faux types are (the sketchy conmen that always saying mon ami), otherwise you’ll feel like everyone is trying to rip you off, which in a way, they are. And honestly, unless prices are posted + fixed, that’s pretty much unavoidable. After LB + I had the most amazing experience walking through the Souks, talking to merchants, gazing at spices, shoes, hijabs, djellabas + tea sets, the fact is that the scarf I was haggling for, for almost twenty minutes, was still way more than what a Morrocan would have paid for the same item. That’s just how it is, and since I’m not living here, I have to understand that to some extent.

Within reason, that is: one commerçant, after I asked him how much a scarf was, told me it was 16 Euros, which is an enormous sum of money for a staple item like scarf, where more than half of Marrakechi women wear as hijabs.
--That’s a rip-off I told him in French, + walked away.

He didn’t even bother to respond because he knew it was true. The problem is, that dude knew he could get away with it. Many Europeans, with their strong currency, probably don’t realize what they’re doing by paying too much money for items (or conversely, passing out four Euros to kids on the street), but the fact is that they’re establishing a horrendous precedent that non-Europeans can’t afford. At least not peeps like us

6. The term “air-conditioned” is a relative term, at least in the second class part of the train, where I had to stand up for over an hour. We were sweating our asses off before some guy opened the train door, which definitely cooled the car down, but also filled it with sheets of dust, cigarette smoke + pollen

7. Moroccan girls are kinda flirty. I mean, it’s a bit surprising for me. I know Morocco is much more religiously + culturally moderate than many other Arab countries, but still, I’ve seen quite a few girls flutter or smile—or even stare—at me, using these beautiful trained assassin eyes that just melt my icy exterior. Maybe, it’s just my Arabic tattoo, which they seem to read with great interest. Or possibly, they just think I’m a hashish addict

8. Moroccan tea might just be the most delicious tea in the world, but that shit is suh-wee-heet. It’s like liquid cavities

9. This city is not for the faint of heart. Marrakech brings back many memories of living in West Africa + walking through Le Grande Marché in Ouaga: it has something to do with the hot, burning, slightly acrid smell in the air. It has something to do with the energy, the intensity + the chaos in the stalls + outside in the streets as mopeds accelerate between groups of heavily-dressed women in burqas and a truck carrying bottled water, racing right towards you, veering to the side at the very last minute. In a way, that is the right metaphor for life in Africa, always heading towards catastrophe + avoiding it at the last minute

10. Sometimes, it’s hard to shake the feeling that everyone is trying to rip you off. Even the woman in charge of the hotel where we’re staying seems in on the game: she charged us 7 Euros to go from the Gare to Riad. When LB + I took the taxi back to the gare two days later, it costs 30 Dirhams (in other words, less than half). She also wanted to take us to a restaurant where entrées were around 17-22 Euros, which is more than we paid in Madrid. I kept telling her no, not tonight, but she insisted on taking us there personally anyway, even though I’d made it perfectly clear that we were on a budget and her restaurant was out of our price range. When it turned out there was no room for us, she tried persuading the guy she obviously has some deal with, but he couldn’t help her. And then, when that didn’t work, she tried persuading two of the hosts on the ground floor. Finally, they said we could eat in the dark on the terrace, but I stood firm. But when I asked her to help us locate a restaurant that we had written down, suddenly, she’d never heard of any of the streets (or restaurants) we’d mentioned. The next day, she was still talking about that hyperexpensive restaurant, saying that all Morrocans know it’s the best restaurant in Marrakech. Later on, after joking that she should charge us for telling us “secrets” like how much toothpaste + shampoo should really cost, as opposed to what Marrakechis actually charge us, based on the TII (the tourist inflation index), she told me: the only thing I ask is that if someone asks you where to eat in Marrakech, that you told them to go to that restaurant. Fuck, could she make it any more obvious that she’s getting a kick-back? To top everything off, after overpaying our hotel bill by 20 Dirhams (I didn’t have the exact change), she told me she’d pay me back the day we left. And right before we took our half-price taxi to the station, she handed me a 10 Dirham coin. I refused to haggle this time. Though I felt like we did connect on the second day after I argued with her on the first about being overcharged (pointing out, among other things, that we weren’t European + didn’t carry a pocketful of Euros around us), finally it just became too obvious that she rips off her guests habitually. I ended up liking her, but I never really trusted her, which kinda sucks.

11. Speaking French here is a bit of a guilty pleasure. In Burkina Faso, it was the lingua franca. So many tribes were artificially placed next to each other + only Jula + French were spoken by the largest strands of Burkinabè society, so speaking French there was crucial. But in Marrakech, there are many Morrocans who don’t like—or aren’t comfortable—speaking French. And then there are many more who do so reluctantly. So, though I’ve had no problem communicating with people in French, inserting my ten words of Arabic whenever possible, I feel kinda guilty about it + I feel like there are limitations as to how well I can connect with people as long as I bypass their own language

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