Our 7 hour train ride was punctuated by the pleasant conversation of our compartment-mates. They were an older couple from Ann Arbor, Michigan and had spent several weeks in Spain and Morocco. We shared stories and a few laughs as the red clay desert of Morocco rolled along.
Fez and Marrakesh are competing cities. So much so, that a third city, Rabat was chosen in the middle in West Morocco as the capital. It was a compromise to placate the two different cities. Visitors typically choose a side in their favorite of the two cities. Naturally, Hannah and I disagreed on which we each preferred of the two. She preferred the cramped, narrow corridors of Fez alive with vibrance and grit. I preferred Marrakesh with its open square, wide streets, and motorbikes closely zooming between tourists. I found vendors to be less pushy and more open to tourists taking pictures and talk about their culture.
For example, we abruptly stopped at a stall selling Berber style pillow cushion covers. The naturally dyed reds, blues, yellows, and oranges were hand woven and beautiful. Hannah and I started negotiating with the vendor. He was a respectful, young Moroccan man who came across as a bit shy, which was very uncharacteristic for the souk salesmen. We settled on a price and had a few laughs in between. As he wrote up a receipt, I spotted a picture frame hidden behind a cushion and curiously asked if that was the vendor’s grandfather. He excitedly said yes, and proceeded to pull out a large photo album. The album was full of photos of his now deceased grandfather side by side with decades of happy customers. The young man explained that his grandfather owned that very same shop for about 50 years. The store ran in his family and he was recently married, as evident by the ring on his finger. I told him congratulations and soon he would have a son, “In shāʾ Allāh”. He laughed and nodded his head. It was the pinnacle of our bargaining experiences in Morocco. Like the legacy his grandfather left behind, we took a picture with him to remember.
Our lodging in Marrakesh was one of the higher ends of the trip, we used Mariott points. What made it interesting was the security at the hotel. The complex was gated with several guards who used angled poles with mirrors on the end to check the undercarriage of cars for vehicular bombs, similar to US airports post 9/11. We walked through a narrow metal detector each day and past a ferociously barking German Shephard/Belgian Malinois guard dog. Surprisingly, it did not put us on edge. Armed soldiers and uniformed police patrolled intersections, malls, and busy city squares. In 2011, a suicide bombing in the most popular tourist destination of the Djemaa el-Fnaa Square took the lives of 16 people and at least 20 more were injured. Those responsible claimed links to Al- Quaeda. Knowing all this, Hannah and I were hyper-vigilant as we walked around the sights, smells, and noise of the earthy Marrakesh.
I stopped outside a “Berber Pharmacy” and politely asked to take a picture. The owner said yes and I tried to hand him 10 dirham for allowing it. He declined and invited us into the shop to show us his wares, instead. We explained that we could not buy anything as we had no room, but this did not deter him. Our nostrils became filled with eucalyptus oils, hands turned soft with lotions, and our eyes widened at the colorful spices. He was very generous with his time and patient to show the neat cultural aspects. Hannah and I agreed on our next trip we would take home “tajine seasoning” to try our hand at the dish.
Clusters of slowly chewing camels anointed various street corners. Red, patterned rugs caked in the dust and settled fumes of pollutants adorned the backs of braying camels. Each camel’s front leg was encompassed by a tether stretching 3 feet at most. Animals took more of a novelty tourist attraction in Marrakesh. In Jemaa El Fna square, monkeys hopped and stood by their master on short chain leashes that negated any hopes of freedom. Feet away, the shrill sound of a flute broke the air like a knife. 3-4 snakes of various species slowly slithered and “danced” as a man prodded them with a motorcycle helmet and pretended to feint away from them as they struck forward. The reality is most of the snakes are defanged or their mouths are sewed shut so that only their tongue can escape to lap up little food. While they did not pose a threat, it was not my preference to go anywhere near.
As we entered the souk, a small motorcycle more akin to a bicycle zoomed by, narrowly missing my elbow by inches. The narrow market streets allowed pedestrian, small motor vehicle, and pack animal traffic. The wooden, latticed ceilings funneled in rays of opaque sunlight that mildly glowed as if in a fog. The artificial fog was from the blue-ish grey smoke that billowed from the backs of motorcycles. Tourists stepped into stores with mouths covered in handkerchiefs and facemasks while locals breathed the troubled air unhindered by the damage in their lungs. I ran 6.2 miles one day in Marrakesh and spent the afternoon with a headache and coughing from breathing in the fumes of the city. It was by far the dirtiest air quality we noticeably witnessed at this point in the trip. I could feel my lungs struggling ever so slightly near the end of the stay.
Our taxi driver smiled and grabbed our luggage with an audible “oomph” as he heaved it into the trunk. Minutes later we arrived at Marrakesh Menara Airport as the sun rose over the Atlas Mountains. It felt like it had barely begun and yet our short adventure in North Africa came to a close.