Days after running the Madrid Marathon, Jeff and I hopped a plane headed for Marrakech, Morocco. It was our first visit to the continent of Africa, and we were both very excited and unsure of what to expect.
I was lucky and got the window seat on our two hour flight, and I watched as we passed the Strait of Gibraltar below.
After landing and hitting the ATM, being the stubborn budget minded travelers that we are (we turned down the $30 airport transfer), we found and took the public bus #19 (50 dhr or $5 roundtrip per person) to the main square Jamaal El Fna. So far so good…
We wanted to quickly find our riad (traditional Moroccan hotel) and drop off our heavy backpacks. The riad was deep in the oldest part of the medina, and I soon realized that I’d taken us down the wrong road. We ended up walking past the markets, out of city, around the entire ramparts and back in and out of the labyrinth of winding streets and markets. Everyone speaks Arabic or French, and I struggled to recall my French vocabulary after speaking Spanish the previous week. It also didn’t help that I kept stopping to snap pictures of the beautiful colors and sights around us.
We knew we were heading in the general direction of the riad, but each time we passed children on the street they kept pointing us in the wrong direction and then laughed. We were very hot, sweaty, thirsty and still carrying our packs. What should have been a 1 km trek turned into a 2 hour, frustrating, arduous journey.
One teenager followed us and kept telling us that the “road is closed”. He said he’d show us the right way, but I was apprehensive. When we were close, he asked again if we needed help. I told him the name of the riad, and he knew exactly where it was. Surprisingly, we were only about a block away, but I felt like we would never have found it without his help. The outside of all of the buildings looks the same-with a pink terracotta colored plaster-like appearance. I knocked on the door of the riad and I was going to give the kid a small bill for his help, against the advice of my guidebooks. Before I had taken out the money, he demanded money from me for his help. I took out a 20 dhr ($2) and he then demanded 50 dhr. I just wanted to get to the hotel room so I was going to give him the 50, and he then demanded 100! I was now absolutely frustrated and I wasn’t going to be pushed around by this kid. Jeff was livid and told the kid to leave. The young man began to yell and shout at me and I was almost in tears. At that moment, our host came to the door and was able to diffuse the situation. He made the boy leave (he tried to follow us in!) and told us that sometimes the kids here like to take advantage of tourists. (I tell you this story so that you will: 1.) know that it’s inevitable that you will get lost here, 2.) buy the airport transfer, and 3.) will be aware that the kids here like to tease tourists, but please know that most adults here are helpful, kind and well meaning).
Our host Mehdi led us into his beautiful riad. You’d never know that these striking homes are just within the pink walls of the medina. Mehdi spoke French, and he led us to our charming air-conditioned private room so we could compose ourselves. I booked our room through airbnb.com for a bargain $45/night. I can confidently say that this is my favorite airbnb ever!
After we changed our clothes and cleaned up, Mehdi met us in the tiled courtyard, complete with two resident turtles, and he gave us a map with the direct route to the main square highlighted. He also told us that he could book anything for us that we wanted. When he mentioned a camel ride I squealed with delight! Riding a camel in the desert is on my bucket list. He said it was only $25 each and includes a taxi ride there and back! Sold! We decided to go after breakfast the following day. We were also interested in a hammam (more on that experience later….)
We were ready to brave the streets again and head out for the night. Armed with our map, I was determined to find the direct way into town. My plan was foiled when I spotted our young “friend” and I ducked into the first street entrance I could find. He saw us and followed us again, still demanding the money. I felt bad (he HAD helped us!) but I sternly said no and kept walking. Oops. I got us lost again in the maze of the souks and we eventually found the square hours later. (There are some signs directing to the Jamaal El Fna as you get closer, but some are deceiving).
Starved, we found a rooftop cafe in the square, ordered couscous (the food so nice they named it twice) and the traditional refreshing hot mint tea.
From the safety of the rooftop, we watched the performers in the square. There were young, talented acrobats, tossing each other in the air and balancing each other -Cirque de Soleil style. There were monkeys dressed as ladies and famous soccer players. We saw brightly colored dance troopes and heard the music of the snake charmers. It was interrupted only when we heard a man’s voice over the loud speakers: five times per day, Muslim prayers are read for the entire town to hear. My frustration has melted away and has been replaced with a love for this magical place.
Jeff spots a market stand with sunglasses. I’m not really ready to haggle yet, and we end up with $15 Rayban knockoffs. The seller thinks that we are English (we were later told that there are few American visitors here-perhaps because French is the prevalent language spoken here). He asks us to take a look around his shop, which appears small from the outside and is a whopping 4 floors! Each floor is filled with gorgeous, colorful handmade goods-leather slippers, lanterns, Moroccan poufs, and Berber rugs. I try to play it cool, but a striking camel wool rug catches my eye. Haggling in Morocco seems more intimidating than in Peru. He starts the price very high-4000 dhr ($400 US!!!). I explain that I can’t pay that much and we reach a deal at 700 dhr ($70-still more than I want to pay, and I’m not convinced it’s an authentic Berber rug, but I really like it, so it’s now my haggled-for Moroccan rug!). His assistant efficiently wraps up my rug for our flight home (make sure to tip for services like this-tipping is very important in Morocco) and our new friend makes me promise not to sell it for a profit in England.
It’s now dark, and the storytellers and food stalls have decended on the square. We sit at a cafe and watch as the lights of the nearby Koutoubia mosque come on. The locals come out in droves at night and the square is full of life.
I also buy a handmade aluminum lantern for a bargain $10 from a man wearing a Chelsea soccer jersey. After talking soccer, he promises to give us the “fish and chips price” and he keeps referring to Jeff as Sean Connery and James Bond. :). If any English star, my husband is David Beckham! 😉
We proudly found the most direct way home from the square, with some help from kind strangers, and slept well that night.
The next morning, we were greeted by Mehdi and a delicious complimentary breakfast.
Mehdi introduced us to our friendly taxi driver, and we went on an action packed ride through bustling streets filled with pedestrians and mule carts. About 25 minutes outside of town, we stopped and were greeted by two men and several camels. The men introduced us to our camels: Jeff would ride the male named Taz, and I was given the female named Shakira.
They promptly dressed Jeff in traditional garb, complete with Raybans, and then showed me my clothes. I chose a bright red dress and I got to wear a fun, shiny headdress.
The men helped me to mount Shakira as she kneeled in the sand, and she blurted out when I sat on her! Turns out, she’s just a talker. She’d make the same noise each time we passed another camel. Jeff only had to step over Taz with his long legs. Shakira’s lead was connected to Taz’s saddle and Taz’s lead was pulled by our young guide. He led our caravan through a desert field dotted with palm trees. The Atlas Mountains were visible in the distance. We sat on large padded seats and bobbed up and down along the uneven path. Our guide showed us how the camels eat palm leaves, and he even braided a palm into a camel shape and gave it to me to keep. This was a really cool experience!
We had read about hammam bath houses in our trip research and wanted to try it, but were nervous to try the traditional public bathhouses, all of which are segregated by gender. With Mehdi’s help, we decided to try the Koutoubia Spa. We booked a double hammam bath, couples massage, and mint tea for 700 dhr ($70 USD-a bargain!!). We didn’t know what to expect, but we’d read that it was ok to wear swimsuits. Upon our arrival at the Spa, I asked if it was ok to wear my swimsuit, and the desk attendant told me it wasn’t necessary, as we’d be alone. I asked again if it was ok, and she said it was fine.
We were probably the most awkward guests they’ve ever had. We followed an attendant up the stairs where she showed us our lockers and asked us to change. She didn’t leave the room, and I pulled out my bathing suit. She told me I didn’t need it and said that they provided bottoms we could wear. She hands Jeff and I each a crepe-paper like thong and we just stare at each other. She leaves the room and I quickly change into my full piece bathing suit. Jeff has on his American Bermuda-length swim trunks.
The attendant seems surprised when she returns, but she kindly guides us into a small, tiled, hot room with two benches and large wall sink. There are four bowls of various substances, one of which appears to be mud.
She has Jeff and I sit next to each other on a bench and she proceeds to throw buckets of warm water on each of us. She scrubs Jeff down with soap and then begins on me. It’s all going fine until she pulls the top of my bathing suit to my waist and I immediately blush. She continues to rub my top half with soap. After dowsing the soap off, she has me sit on the second bench. She tells Jeff to lay down and she begins scrubbing him head to toe with a coarse hand mitten. I watch in concern as his skin turns bright pink and his back begins to bleed. Did she just rub off a mole?!?
I ask Jeff if it hurts and he says no, but I am sure he’s lying. I can see layers of dead skin flaking off of him. Next, she rubs a mud mask all over his body and face.
It’s now my turn. Mud-covered Jeff swaps places with me. I lay down and close my eyes, bracing myself for what’s to come. It’s surprisingly nice and refreshing. She scrubs the layers of sunburn off and the mud feels cool on my skin. After washing off the mud, she shampoos my hair and gives me a last rinse. After Jeff is rinsed, she dresses us in robes and towel dries our hair.
We are escorted out and two other women greet us. They take us the massage room, have us remove our bathing suits (eek!) and we are treated to a professional one hour soothing massage.
Jeff and I enjoy a refreshing sweet mint tea afterwards. I’m so glad that Jeff was with me for all of this. He’s a great travel buddy and open to exposing ourselves (literally) to new experiences.
I think my favorite part of travel and exploring new places is interacting with people of different backgrounds and cultures. Sharing a warm smile with strangers that I wouldn’t otherwise encounter makes me so happy inside. That evening, at a cafe, I tipped a bathroom attendant, an elderly woman in traditional dress, and she beamed with delight, thankful to have the small change that I left. It’s also a reminder to me that I have so much wealth, especially when compared to most of the world. When I travel, I try to tip generously and interact respectfully with everyone I encounter.