Tales from Morocco Part 1 of 2

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Our plane touched down early evening, having glided in past rippled sand dunes bordered by the blue snow-peaked Atlas Mountains. Our riad (a stately traditional hotel with a courtyard) had sent a driver who was waiting for us outside among a sea of other men holding paper signs and ladies wearing hijabs.

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We rode out into the dark streets amongst a swarm of mopeds, taxis, and small noisy trucks. I’ve been on some crazy taxi rides and experienced hectic traffic, but nothing had quite prepared me for the chaos that is the streets of Marrakech. As the palm trees thinned and we entered the low red clay wall of the Medina, the old town area, the roads narrowed into a veritable maze.

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Shops were still open along both sides of the streets in full swing, with pedestrians, including elderly people with canes, ambling every which way among them. Mopeds and trucks continued to zip past from both directions, in addition to cars, bikes, and the occasional cart pulled either by a man or a shaggy donkey. Two men were in the process of physically pulling a truck, whose low wooden bed was filled with mandarin oranges, to a new parking space. One had his arm inside the driver’s side window to direct the steering wheel while the other pulled from the back.

Cars were parked on either side, despite the fact that many of the roads were only really wide enough for one car to drive down anyway. At one point our grumbling driver, who never really slowed down despite the blur of vehicles and people milling around on both sides, had to back up a full block to allow a taxi coming around the corner toward us to pass. Not long after, he called out to a tall, nicely dressed gentleman who was to take us the rest of the way to our riad on foot. For even in Marrakech, there are apparently some streets where cars are understood to have no chance. As the van stopped, we found ourselves face to face with giant slabs of raw meat hanging in the open air from metal hooks over a butcher’s counter.

We had arrived.

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Sitting under the moon in the open air courtyard of our riad was a different atmosphere entirely. We sipped sweet mint tea and snacked on Moroccan cookies in a beautifully tiled oasis of stillness and quiet while completing our check-in paperwork and letting our heartrates calm down from the drive. A fountain laced with rose petals trickled softly in the center, and on all sides, elegant but modernized rooms hid behind keyhole-shaped doors.

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We spent most of our long weekend in Marrakech visiting the markets. During the day, the souks (the small permanent shops and stands whose windy alleyways are covered by a crisscross of reeds) and the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, buzz with activity within the walls of the Medina. Heaps of spices, dried fruits, nuts, sweets, fresh produce, clay and ceramic tajines (pointy-covered dishes), richly designed carpets and fabrics, tanned leather goods, hand-cobbled shoes and sandals, shiny teapots and small colorful tea glasses on silver platters, curly-tipped blades with bone handles, perforated metal lamps, scented soaps, and some kind of brown goop cry out for a buyer.

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Women in low chairs under umbrellas offer henna tattoos, while men wander the market with monkeys on chains or sit in small circles charming king cobras, offering photo ops to tourists in exchange for money. An older man at one table seemed to be selling teeth and dentures. If you stand still for a moment or let your gaze drift, people call you over or offer products or advice.

At night, the markets take on a different kind of energy – a liveliness and a rhythm all their own. As the temperatures drop from the 70s to the 40s with the setting sun, candles shimmer in the colorful metal lamps, casting shadows on the ground, and a haze of smoke and the hearty scent of grilled meat form a blur over the main market place. The area where the daytime street performers peddle their entertainment becomes filled with people. In the dark, the crowds circle around energetic musicians and storytellers. They clap or sing along with some of the performers, sometimes dancing in small tight movements, controlled convulsions. They join in on games, flipping coins on a chart of numbers or dangling a long fishing pole over a circle of soda bottles.

To walk around the market place at night is to hear one type of music after another, a kaleidoscope of sound.

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