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Marrakesh, Essaouira and the Atlas Mountains

Author: metravellongtime
Date of Trip: March 2005

I was a few blocks from the hotel, speaking to my mom on a rusty pay phone by the side of the road when a man on a motorcycle pulled over and began to sputter at me in Arabic, inches from my face. The man’s clamoring promptly defeated what had been the purpose of my call — to assure my mother of my safety. I was a junior in college, and had traveled to Marrakesh for spring break. Surprisingly, my mom accepted my plans with no contest when I told her I would be spending a week in Africa with my best friend. Perhaps she had envisioned traditional undergraduate spring break revelry – wet T-shirt contests and uninhibited drinking – and thought Morocco might be a smarter choice. Regardless of her reasons to trust that I would be safe in a predominately Muslim nation with no male escort, my mom’s assurance was completely shattered by that phone call.

I was having trouble calling the U.S. from our hotel room. Most of the staff at our hotel, the Kenzi Semiramis, could speak English; however, the concierge was not fluent enough to explain how to make a successful international call with a phone card from our room and I had tried and failed repeatedly. Frustrated, I walked down the road in the dark to where I had seen a public phone.

I was mid-conversation, happily describing to my mom the wonders of Morocco, when the motorcycle man appeared. He pulled his bike so close that at first I thought he was going to hit me. I shouted “No! Go away!” and “Police!” over and over again, although the man seemed to have no grasp of English and persisted to attempt communication above the roar of his bike. He stayed for a few minutes, steadfast in his goal, loudly prattling god-knows-what in a foreign tongue as the bike’s deafening engine grated and churned before he finally drove away. Needless to say, when I turned back to the call my mother was beside herself.

Unsolicited attention became one of the themes of our trip to Morocco. The conspicuousness of our pale skin coupled with the capitalist motives of many of the residents in tourist-filled Marrakesh drew both men and women to us, offering various goods, as we strolled through the city’s alleys. However, men in particular seemed to assume that if we were not accompanied by a gentleman, then we were in need of one and many a Moroccan vigorously set out to fix our “problem”.

Although I would never discourage anyone from traveling to Morocco, if you are a female who is uncomfortable with excessive male interest, I do not recommend touring Marrakesh without a guy or two in your group. We watched men target other single foreign-looking females as well as ourselves, repeating phrases in three or four languages to see which one would elicit a response. Once, we were even followed by a pack of pre-teen boys, one of whom was bold enough to reach his hand into my purse. Luckily, the boys ran away the second I yelled for the police.

Djemaa el Fna, the famous market square in the center of Marrakesh, was where I felt most like an obvious outsider in the ancient city. The square harbored a motley mix of performers, tourists, henna artists, snake charmers and salesmen and every Moroccan with something to sell will purposely cross your path if you look like a foreigner. Men in elaborate costumes slid into our pictures and demanded to be paid for their modeling services. Henna artists grabbed our arms and swiftly applied clumsy gold designs, then held out their hands for some coins.

As we were peering at a collection of tiny caged monkeys ($200 each), the animal handler placed a monkey on each of our shoulders. My gut reaction was to remove the animal, as the marginal cuteness of the filthy shrieking monkey failed to distract me from the likelihood of it biting me or depositing fleas in my hair; yet I pretended to enjoy the experience for the sake of international diplomacy. When the owner returned his animals to their cages, he insisted that we pay him for the experience. We quickly learned that if one appears foreign when visiting Djemaa el Fna, absolutely everything has a price!

If you’re seeking something that you might actually intend to pay for, Marrakesh offers a variety of unique and interesting items for the shopping enthusiast. Spices abound and saffron, the most sought-after of Moroccan seasonings, is for sale everywhere from authentic Moroccan spice boutiques to hotel gift shops and the airport. Silver is a major Moroccan export. You will find many jewelry shops in Marrakesh selling beautifully-designed rings, necklaces and earrings. Wooden carvings are another popular product in Marrakesh.

My favorite purchase was a hand-carved puzzle box, which called for a clever mind to slide its compartments and locate a hidden key, rewarding the winner with the warm, nutty smell of fresh wood. My friend bought a dead, stuffed lizard and managed to sneak it through customs to the delight of her little brother. When shopping in Marrakesh, don’t forget to bargain – think of the sticker prices as merely an overstatement. I bought many items that I bargained down to roughly a third of the price that was advertised. However, if the price you offer is too low, you may offend the vendor and lose your shot at the acquisition (and give audience to some strong opinions in the process).

As much as I would have loved to spend all of my money shopping in the Djemaa el Fna and the shadowed alleys of Marrakech, my friend and I decided to save some of our cash for the guided excursions that were offered by the concierge of our hotel. We chose to visit the seaside town of Essaouira (pronounced eh-swear-ah), a two-hour drive from Marrakesh. A tour guide picked us up shortly after dawn and we rode in a van with other travelers, who were mostly Europeans.

Essaouira was well worth the drive. The town framed the Atlantic Ocean with magnificent 16th century Portuguese fortresses, which towered above thousands of jagged black rocks that cut through sprays of ocean foam. Behind the impenetrable rocks and ramparts was a maze of bleached white houses tucked along alleys too small for cars. The houses had tiny, delicate doorframes, built centuries ago for when people were smaller. The wind smelled of brine and shipbuilders were lined along the bay, wielding and boats by hand. The sky was dotted with hundreds of swirling seagulls. Essaouira felt like another century, as if the battlements that once kept out violent invaders now guarded against the incursion of progress and time.

When we visited Essaouira, there were hardly any tourists. We saw a few hotels in the process of construction and visited the inside of one, which was extravagant and grand and foretold a sad change in the timeless magic of this pre-historic port town. I recommend a visit to Essaouira to any traveler, yet I hope that the inevitable influx of tourists will never conquer its mystery.

Our second excursion was to the Atlas Mountains, a trip that required another van ride of about an hour (from our hotel). We parked at the bottom of the mountains and walked for about fifteen minutes. The Atlas Mountains, which hang in the sky above the pink defensive walls that surround Marrakesh and can be seen from many points in the city, were lovely to visit up close. There were a number of tiny Berber towns in the mountains, where villagers harvested their own food, raised chickens and cows and washed their clothes in the fresh mountain streams that seemed to pour from the clouds.

The villagers were friendly and welcoming. We visited an underdeveloped town nestled into the side of the mountain base and were served green tea by an old woman who did not speak any English , but graciously posed for pictures – no charge! In Morocco, it is customary to pour the tea from a few feet above the glass in order to aerate it; the serving of green tea is an elegant ritual that I suggest every Marrakesh visitor experience. Small groups of children followed us as we explored their village, chattering and laughing to each other in Berber. The children were elated when we handed out pens and pennies from our purses.

On the way back to the van, we insisted that or tour guide wait as we snapped pictures of each other on one of the rope bridges that we saw swinging in the wind above a deep, rocky mountain gorge. I am enthralled by the danger of old rope bridges (maybe from watching Indiana Jones movies as a child), and navigating the splintered planks high over a snaking river was my favorite part of our trip to the Atlas Mountains!

Excursions to sites near Marrakesh are unforgettable, but don’t overlook the hundreds of exciting things to see and do within the city walls. Majorelle Gardens, a jewel-toned landscape of exotic plants and flowers owned by French designer Yves St Laurent, are open to the public and are a must-visit in Marrakesh. The gardens were a respite of cool peace within the crowded city. The saturated aqua blues, greens and yellows and intricately-tiled fountains of the gardens formed an agreeable contrast to the dry and dusty salmon-pink streets of Marrakesh. Don’t forget to bring your camera – especially if you love unusual flora.

A second fun place to visit in Marrakesh is La Mamounia Hotel. A favorite of Winston Churchill, this opulent Art Deco five-star hotel is an oasis of luxury. My friend and I took a cab to La Mamounia, which we had read about in our guide books, because we wanted to see its casino. Unfortunately, the casino did not impress us and we left after a few minutes. We attempted to see the inside of the hotel through one of the doors in the casino, but we were prevented from entering by hotel security. We left the casino and on our way out, my friend decided she had to use the bathroom. She tried a door on the side of the building and it was open — we were inside the Mamounia (although I was very skittish that we were going to get discovered and thrown out)!

The hallways were decked with thousands of red and gold Moroccan tiles and mammoth chandeliers drew our eyes to dramatic ceilings. I noticed a glass case in one of the walls that displayed expensive-looking jewelry and Louis Vuitton bags for sale (prices were not displayed). A woman wearing a lush fur passed us and shot a cold look in our direction. I was impressed by the Mamounia’s splendor, but felt that the palatial atmosphere of the hotel was too removed from the Marrakesh outside – its presence seemed like more of an escape from the unpredictable streets of a developing country than an opportunity for cultural immersion.

The Kenzi Semiramis was certainly not as ritzy as the Mamoumia, yet it was comfortable and had a terrifically landscaped pool, a night club and three restaurants, which served mediocre food. The concierge had an attitude (I think he was frustrated by our sad attempts to speak French), but the waiters and hotel staff were very pleasant and helpful.

We went to the hotel’s nightclub on our final night, as we were prodded to visit it by more than one staff member and had begun to feel like we were missing something. The club was populated by Europeans dancing stiffly to early 90’s dance music and many Moroccan women who were prostitutes (we found this out by talking to the women, who were surprisingly frank about why they were at the club). The sight of middle-aged European men leaving the club with young girls on their arms depressed me. The nightclub was by far my least favorite place that I went to in Marrakesh.

The prostitutes in the club, the feverish aggression of Moroccan craftsmen and performers and the hundreds of ragged, barefoot children who cupped their hands and held them out to tourists alluded to the poverty that blankets this African nation. When traveling from a wealthy country to one whose history has yet to deliver wide-spread prosperity, you must be prepared to take the good with the bad. Marrakesh offers travelers snow-capped mountains, the Sahara desert, and the beach, all within one-day’s travel time from its center, in addition to a strong dose of reality. I went to Marrakesh prepared to be amazed by scenery and history, yet I was most affected by the dignity its people, whose warmth and color defy the divisive power of money. To me, one of the best things about traveling is identifying with people whose daily lives are remote from mine. Marrakesh offers this experience and much more, and my trip to Morocco was the best spring break I could imagine.

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