we spent another day in marrakech exploring the city. we visited the koutubia mosque, the famous 800+ year old minaret that towers above the rest of the city and the gardens around it, and listened to the call to prayer as we walked through the gardens surrounding the holy center. it was my first time really hearing a call to prayer that wasn’t on youtube or something, and i remember being curiously struck by it. i really didn’t know what to think of it. i wondered what they were saying. i wanted to go to the source and watch, but i knew this wasn’t really a thing for tourists inside. it was a place for worship. zuzu steered us toward djemaa el fna.
located at the south of the medina (medina just means it’s the ancient part of the city), djemaa el fna is one of the most famous areas of morocco. a heavily populated market and town square, it is difficult to make sense of it when first approaching. the wide-open space at the mouth of the entrance immediately introduces chaos as pedestrians aimlessly wander in all directions while cars and motorcycles zoom in and out indiscriminately and unconcerned about the foot traffic all around them. unlike the US, the
pedestrian does not have the right of way. if you’re dumb enough to get hit by a car here, it’s your fault. it was a little disconcerting at first, but the longer i spent in the country, the more i liked it that way.
as we approached the central part of the crowded square, we began to hear the squawking instruments of the snakecharmers and the calls of the stall owners trying to attempt shoppers and tourists to their stalls and shops. as i drew near, i began to prepare myself mentally for the madness. before i was ready, an old man with a huge grin on his face walked right into the middle of our group with a black cobra snake on his arm, trying to get someone to take a picture with it. the group immediately and comically scattered, leaving everyone but surjit and myself, just staring curiously and somewhat fearfully at the massive snake less than a foot in front of my face. with his other hand, the man stroked his own cheeks and chin and said “alibaba!” aloud. surjit and i quickly deduced he was referring to our beards, as we had noticed we were the only ones around who had them (i had foolishly assumed everyone would have beards down here, so i had been hoping my travel beard would hide my baby face and make me look at least a little less conspicuous, even if it was bright red. no dice). we laughed as the old man reached out to shake my hand. i reached back, and as i politely shook, he quickly threw the snake around my neck.
surjit immediately started laughing, as i can only imagine what the look of mixed panic and confusion must have been. not only did i really not want a big snake around my neck, i knew i was in trouble. this is what i wanted to avoid. i knew if i wanted a picture with a snake, the time to negotiate the price was before, not after. a reasonable price can be negotiated before any exchange has taken place, but if you partake first, they have you right where they want you, and you can expect the starting price to go up tenfold. this guy had tricked me, and i knew what was coming. i tried to enjoy the moment, allowing surjit to take the snake next. no sooner had surjit taken the snake, did another man come over and begin demanding money. i didn’t even try to defend myself, as i knew it didn’t matter. i didn’t have any money on me anyway, i was a backpacker on a budget, and i honestly didn’t enjoy cheap tourist thrills like snake selfies and shopping, so i had planned on not needing any money that day. surjit gave the snake back as the man began yelling at us after i gave him all the coins in my pocket, amounting to about 7 dirhams. i looked at surjit helplessly as the man continued to cause a scene. i shouted back “okay how much do you want? this is all i have, honestly.”
“this is NOTHING! you give me 100 dirhams!” he disgustingly demanded. i looked at him for a moment to determine if he was serious. he was. i laughed. “that’s like $25 american dollars! you are crazy.” i replied incredulously. this went back and forth for about 2 minutes until surjit pulled out 20 dirham, pressed it into the man’s palm, and we both walked away quickly before the man could continue to yell. we caught back up to the group, laughing nervously about our first brush with moroccan bargaining. lesson learned. always negotiate FIRST, and nothing is free, not even a handshake & a smile.
i knew this was not representative of the entire moroccan culture, so i tried to ignore it and enjoy the rest of my wander through the ancient paths and streets of the medina, but for the first time in my life, i was experiencing a real culture shock. life in the medina was a grind, and for the unprepared, it was a tough place to adapt to. walking from one stall to the next, each owner would approach you, trying to push items into your hands or lure you into their shop. nicer establishments would take a slightly different approach and offer mint tea for free, which i thought was a nice touch, but i knew this was just a negotiation in disguise. if i had been interested in shopping, i might have been more receptive to the offers, but i hate shopping. i just wanted to take the experience in and watch things happen, but every 8 seconds there was someone new in my face, and it was hard for me to appreciate anything around me. i couldn’t take pictures of anything without being given grief from people or someone demanding that i pay them, even if they weren’t in my shot. i could empathize with the locals wanting to profit off a tourist, and i was aware that people often don’t want to be photographed for personal or religious reasons, but i wasn’t even photographing people and i was still getting into conflict. eventually i just put my camera away, admitting to myself that it wasn’t even worth the trouble.
despite the minor stress, i still was really enjoying myself. i had never been in a situation even close to what i was experiencing in the marrakech medina, and this was literally the opposite of anything i could ever find in the US. after about 20 minutes, i really started to get the hang of things. i tried to pay attention to how other people were interacting, especially the locals. i didn’t know the language, but i was sure that i could adopt the same tone. i noticed that the group i was with wasn’t getting as hassled when we were all together, so i joined them for awhile, but i really preferred to practice and learn on my own, solo. that way when i broke out on my own after the guided tour ended, i would feel more comfortable. so i often hung back and trailed by a few stall lengths, keeping them just within sight. when shop owners would offer things to me, instead of just saying “no thank you” i began immediately saying “how much?” with a big smile on my face, regardless of what the item was. i had
no intention of buying, but i figured it would be better for me to at least be a part of the process rather than opt out altogether. i would slow my pace if someone began engaging me, but i wouldn’t stop. the price was often ridiculously high, an obvious opening negotiation tactic, and so i would laugh, smile at the person, thank them, and keep moving. they might shout “how much, my friend?!!” but by then, someone else had already pushed something into my face and was repeating the same dance as the stall owner before them.
i began to realize there was a real humor to the entire process, and once i embraced it, i could see how fun it was. there were jokes and fun hidden in everything, from the items that a stall owner might offer you, to the opening negotiation bid, even down to the way someone might greet you. if you were paying attention you could see that the moroccans were incredibly adept at the double entendre, and often times everything they said or did was a test, to try and figure out what kind of person you were (and if you were a sucker with lots of
money), and if you could pick up on that humor, and even dish it back to them, they loved you for it. even if you didn’t buy anything. but they always love you more if you buy.
the next day we loaded up the van and left marrakech, headed south into the desert searching for the city of ouarzazate. we drove for hours and stopped semi-frequently along the way, whenever our guide, zuzu, felt there was something that we needed to see or be educated on. the roads were much better than i had anticipated, offering a much smoother ride than anyone could have expected. the fact that we were in a luxury tourist van didn’t hurt either. on the ride, zuzu regaled us with historical tales and cultural explanations, highlighting things that i
would never have otherwise heard or known. periodically he would pop in a cd of his favorite moroccan music and fill the entire coach with the rhythmic local sounds. he’d start dancing in his seat erratically and hilariously, sometimes hanging halfway out of the passenger window, his headwrap flowing in the wind and stretching almost the length of the entire van. if we were stuck at a stoplight in a town somewhere, he would turn the music louder and roll down the window and start dancing even more, attempting to get other drivers to dance or laugh with him. zuzu had an infectious energy and enormous confidence, and he was easily the best guide i’d ever had. we all laughed at just about anything he did.
the van barreled through the desert, crossing over the atlas mountains, down the other side and to the ancient fortified city of ait benhaddou, making a quick 2 hour stop to walk around the city and marvel at the red earthen clay architecture and hear about some of the dozens of movies filmed there over the last 60 years (examples: gladiator, the mummy, kingdom of heaven).
over the course of three days we made our way down to ouarzazate, skoura, to boulmane to see the dades canyon, then up to tenghir. we stopped in notable kasbahs, riads, oases, and other notable geographical sites along the way, getting detailed information from zuzu at each stop.
on the long bus ride segments, i got to know the australians a lot better. i’ve always enjoyed meeting australians, no matter where i am, because they are among some of the friendliest and most adventurous people i’ve ever met, and they always seem to be in an agreeable mood. this particular group was no different. after a couple hours in the desert, there’s only so much landscape that still looks interesting, and i eventually nodded off to sleep. i awoke a short time later to all five of them crowded around my seat, making funny faces and taking a selfie. they all laughed when i looked around in a confused daze. i figured out what they were doing and gave them a half-asleep chuckle. and this continued the rest of the week. anytime anyone in the group fell asleep in the van, everyone would crowd around and try to “selfie shame” the sleeper.
so i had gotten lucky with my tour-mates. my biggest fear of booking this tour had been that i would be stuck on a bus with a dozen octogenarians and no spirit for adventure or authentic interaction with the local culture. that wasn’t the case with this group, and their good humor helped ease some of the boredom in the long drives through the barren desert landscapes.
each one in the group was a character. the first was andrew, or “camby,” as the group affectionately referred to him. an intelligent fellow with a witty sense of humor and always the first to laughter when there was fun to be appreciated, camby had blonde curly hair and glasses that he would try (and fail) to hide his eyes behind whenever he was up to mischief. he had spent the past few years living in the UK with his girlfriend suey, and now they were returning to australia shortly after their jaunt through morocco. suey, or “sue” for short, had a soft gaze and a big, sweet smile which she flashed often, especially if camby made a joke, which he also did often. the two were paired perfectly, and it was obvious how in love they both were.
next was susan, also “sue” for short. that made things easy to remember. sue #2 (only #2 in order of appearance, not importance) was tall with light blonde hair and gentle blue eyes, and a funny, garrulous personality. sue could make friends with anyone, and she had a way of always finding the humor in a situation. we all joked that she was my “desert girlfriend” due to us being the only single ones on the bus. on one of our pit-stops at a desert town the two sues had been walking by some vendors who had been hawking their wares to anyone who would listen. one vendor had been futilely trying to demonstrate how nice a particular item was to a tourist when he interrupted his pitch by stopping mid-sentence and looking at the two sues: “you see sir, nice camel skin rug. i make good price. also see this nice…” he looked at the sues, “…nice.” sue came back to the van as we loaded up and retold us the story as we laughed appreciatively. “nice…nice” became one of the running joke of the trip, and might as well have become our slogan. anytime someone said something that could have been misconstrued as a dirty joke or a double entendre, someone would blurt out “nice…nice!” it became our “that’s what she said.” and it never got old.
then there was jeffrey and rachel. jeffrey and camby had been great friends for years despite the distance between the UK and australia, and their senses of humor were perfectly in sync. jeffrey had an outwardly quieter demeanor initially, but that made him no less mischievous (or talkative, once you got to know him), as he was always waiting patiently for his chance to make a quick quip. and when he did, it was always on point and perfectly timed. jeffrey was tall with brown hair and a subtle half-smile permanently fixed on his face. rachel was the newcomer of the group. she and jeffrey had been dating for a few months and this was their first real trip together, and it was her first chance to meet everyone in the group. she fit in perfectly. rachel had long brown hair and shrewd blue eyes. she had a sharp wit, and she would patiently weigh her words before vocalizing opinions or jokes, and when she did, her comments were never uninformed or unintelligent. she had a sardonic tone to much of what she said, which i picked up on immediately and enjoyed, being a fellow sarcasticist.
after a couple days of road-tripping, we eventually reached tenghir and settled into a large palatial hotel for the night. we were all tired, but we were eagerly looking forward to tomorrow, when we would journey out into the sahara desert on camels and sleep in a tent camp under the stars.
this week’s story soundtrack comes courtesy of indie band seryn, hailing from nashville. sporting big, reverby guitar hooks, soaring harmonic melodies, and even spirited banjo plucking, this group is worth a listen or three. and this song is exactly the type of jam i want to hear before adventuring out into somewhere incredible like the sahara desert. enjoy…
and for those following along at home, here’s our spotify playlist: