Wednesday, February 14, 2007


“Marrakesh Express” is one of my favorite songs; I like it as a song, but I also like the association it has for me – Thursday nights at the MBA House at Wharton. I don’t think a week went by when that didn’t get played. I sing it to myself occasionally here but not as often as I expected to. Saturday morning, though, it was all aboard – that train – all right, I’ll spare you further lyrics.

I didn’t realize that the GAD people like to go out and party late into the night – maybe any gathering of PCVs in Rabat includes some of that. I’m not a partier, so I did not stay out late, but it still felt very early en I got up to catch the train. At the time I thought that after the next GAD meeting I should just stay in Rabat, but I can get there more easily for a weekend than I can to Marrakesh – starting from Rabat instead of from Azrou gave me several more hours there. By the dawn’s early light, I didn’t see much out the window, and then as more people joined our compartment the window kind of fogged over, but I would say that the Rabat-Casablanca corridor looked urban/industrial (I thought I might see the ocean but I didn’t) and that after Casablanca there were flat parts and rolling hills. It wasn’t as agricultural as I expected, but maybe that’s because it’s winter, and everything just looked brown. I may not have enjoyed the scenery but I did enjoy the train ride. The other train I had been on had open seating throughout the car; this one had compartments. I was looking for a compartment with women or with mixed gender, but I saw only men – finally I just sat down where there was room, and some women then came in behind me. That wasn’t advice that Peace Corps staff gave us; that was my own idea.

My friend Rob met me at the train. I had taken a walk with him while we were waiting for the bus from Philadelphia to JFK, and I felt I had found a friend – something that I did not necessarily feel during the weekend of staging. He and I took some walks at seminar site too, and he’s one of the people who I wish were at a closer site, but it’s also nice to have a friend who is close to Marrakesh! The train deposits people in Gueliz, the new part of town, and first we went to an English-language bookstore/café. This could have been anywhere – in fact, the new part of Marrakesh felt like California – modern, comfortable – whereas the new part of Fes and the new part of Rabat around the train station still feel like Morocco (the new part of Rabat that is near the Peace Corps office might feel like California too, but I have only seen it from a taxi and not walked there). It was late morning, which made it a good time for chocolate cake (note, I would have said this no matter what time it was when we got to the café). I didn’t buy any books but I truly hope that some of the books I have been waiting for since November get here soon!

We then walked to the medina. It was nice to be able to walk from the new part to the old part – Meknes is walkable in that way as well but Fes is much bigger. I would like to see more of the new part of Marrakesh, but I really wanted to see the old. Rob has been to Marrakesh three or four times now and not done anything touristy. He said other volunteers don’t really have an interest in sightseeing. Based on Rabat, I guess they are just interested in partying! I’d heard of a karaoke place. Also of two PCVs who (on separate occasions) ran into Jake Gyllenhaal in Marrakesh. But me, I wanted to see some of the things I read about in my tour books! First you go past the Koutoubia mosque, one of the tallest in the world, and also one that set the 1:5 ratio that became standard for mosques everywhere.

The main feature of the medina is the Jemaa al-Fna – “parade of the dead,” possibly so named because heads of the beheaded were displayed there. Here are the snake-charmers and other entertainers (we didn’t stop for any), orange juice stalls aplenty (we didn’t have any) and all sorts of food stalls (more on that when I get to dinnertime). We found a hotel, the Riad Omar – closer to the Riad in Fes than to the budget hotels I’ve stayed in since; it even had a massage menu but we just didn’t have time for that. On to the souks! Rob hadn’t been yet – it was nice to do things that we both were doing for the first time, but what was he thinking by not going earlier? It’s interesting to me to see the different products of the different cities, and Marrakesh might have had the nicest things I’ve seen yet. Colorful fabrics – I bought two pillowcases that happen to work really well with my ponge covers, but even if they hadn’t, they are colors I like, different shades of purple. The fabric and weave is called sabra; it’s fine and close and Rob’s host father does it; I can see myself getting more. I also love the colorful painted furniture and twisted-pyramid metal-and-skin (I think) lamps. There was also pottery I hadn’t seen – solid colors with a matte finish. I would like to go back and shop some more! The souk streets seem a little wider than those of Fes. There didn’t seem to be as many shoes and jellabas as Fes and Meknes have, but maybe I have learned to tune them out – or maybe they’re in a part of the souks that we didn’t get to, because we didn’t get to probably about half! I also don’t think I saw as many stores for residents mixed in with the stores for tourists, as they were in the other cities. Clearly I need to go back for further investigation!

A note on tuning out – I read in one of my books that 94 percent of the people who go to Marrakesh never go again, which is extremely high for a city that is a major tourist destination. Part of the reason is the aggressiveness on the part of people who want to guide you around and on the part of the salesmen at the stores. I didn’t think it was that bad – so either I have learned to tune it out, or I am used to it, or a little bit of darija makes them realize I’m not a tourist (though I’ve also read that salespeople flatter you when you speak some Arabic, as part of the bargaining negotiation). Anyway – I would go back. In fact, I told my Rob that my goal was to go back so often that I would have seen all of the tourist things I want to see and could just come for a visit.

They dyers are to Marrakesh what the tanners are to Fes – and we did allow someone to guide us there, showing us the raw wool, the dye powders, the ovens, the vats, the racks of colored wool hanging to dry all over their part of the souk, and the sales pitch – I bought a long indigo scarf. Sure, it was a pitch, but I’d been thinking about getting a long scarf anyway and why not here. And then we had lunch – as I mentioned, I had had pasta in Rabat, so I didn’t need more, but somehow spaghetti sounded really good so I had some. Then we went to the Saadian Tombs. These are the best-preserved examples of architecture from that dynasty, because they were sealed up and only discovered from a French aerial photograph in the 20th century. The big palace nearby was plundered to build the palace in Meknes and only the shell remains. The tombs were beautiful – similar to the medersa in Meknes with its sculpted walls and mosaics. And interesting – different spaces, some indoor and some outdoor and some outside but covered, for the different tombs; I’m not sure why.

Back out to the Jemaa el-Fna, which gets lively in the evening. We had spiced tea from a stall Rob had discovered on an earlier trip, and checked out the food stalls. Some had just one thing – snails or soup, for example. Others had complete meals, all had places to sit around each stall. Come to think of it, the salespeople here were extremely aggressive, perhaps unpleasantly so. Maybe this is a thing you have to do in Marrakesh, but Rob had mentioned a Thai place and eating in a quiet restaurant sounded better than sitting next to a loud food stall outdoors in the slight chill. And it was. There’s Thai, which is good, and there’s good Thai, in which the spices are blended just so, and each bite is the perfect combination of food and spice. We even had some wine, and the wine paired perfectly. The dinner was a budget-buster but worth every centime. It was also nice to have a conversation. Rob mentioned that he missed the restaurant culture in the U.S.; I realized that after being with a pack of people in Rabat and having either getting-to-know-you conversations or hearing PCV whining, it was nice to be with just one other person and not a group and to have time to talk beyond catching up on life since swearing-in. I had had fun in Rabat with the group at the time, but this was a breath of fresh air, and combined with gourmet international cuisine, it is an early candidate for Best Dinner of 2007. The food was so good, in fact, that I didn’t want to cloud the aftertaste by having ice cream afterwards, even though the ice cream looked pretty good. Put that on the list for next time!

Also on the list for next time is the Mamousia Hotel, supposedly the finest in Morocco. That is a budget-buster for just about everyone, but you can get an expensive coffee there and then walk around their gardens. Winston Churchill stayed there once. But more important on my list was the Jardin Majorelle, where we went on Sunday morning. Marrakesh has lots of gardens, oases of cool in a place that can get to 134 F in the summer. I hope to get to all of them, because they all sound appealing, but the Jardin Majorelle was the one with the cobalt blue! It must have been in the Gardens of the World exhibit that was in Chicago this summer. The villa next to it is now owned by Yves Saint Laurent, but the garden is open to the public. Bamboo, cactus and palms abound. There’s also a Museum of Islamic Art that we didn’t have time for, but if we have to go back to this garden in order to see the museum, I can handle that. Not only was it an oasis of cool, it also was tranquil, despite being somewhat crowded – which reminds me, I should mention that I felt kind of out of place in my jellaba. There are so many western tourists that western clothing would have been more appropriate! And we went to one of the artisanas – yes, they have more than one – after the tombs, and I felt like a country bumpkin – golly gee, they don’t have near as much stuff in Azrou, and the displays in Marrakesh were so much purtier. Well, that’s why they put me in Azrou and not Marrakesh! I did feel I could live in Marrakesh – if I were on some kind of international consulting contract or something – and I could possibly live in Rabat, too.

All too soon it was time to get on the bus – not as much fun as the train but the most direct route home. Five hours to Khenifra and then a bus or grand taxi to Azrou. Except that it took seven hours to get to Khenifra – I know we got stuck in soccer game traffic somewhere along the way but I don’t know what else caused the delay.

Here the ride was past orange groves and lush fields, always with the High Atlas in the distance. You can see the High Atlas from the city, too, except that we didn’t – either they were obscured by clouds or we just didn’t look up. I thought that at some point we would go through the mountains but somehow we never did. When I got to Khenifra, though, it was dark. Not darkish, but dark. I thought about buying an entire grand taxi, but it still would have meant traveling in the dark, so I called the Peace Corps office and said I was staying in a hotel in Khenifra – ending all hope of seeing the Super Bowl. I was so tired that I don’t think I could have stayed up for it, but I was eager for a last night in my host family bed (my family was away for the night so I didn’t have to call in to them). Khenifra is at the beginning of the Middle Atlas, and the early bus on Monday took me through that now-familiar landscape – soft mountains, trees, red soil, rocks, towns of white and yellow buildings with green-tiled roofs. I got home in time to go to the artisana as planned – and when those plans didn’t take shape, I moved to my new home.

When the See the World Tour comes, we will spend five days in a resort outside of Marrakesh. I am very interested in how they see it and the other stops on the tour, through the eyes of someone just traveling around here for a week and a half. I am still discovering things, but I am used to things as well. I think for that reason among others, this trip will be quite different from the rest. And it’s getting closer! I am really looking forward to seeing my sister, brother-in-law and nieces!

A final thought - Rob had said that other volunteers aren't that interested in sightseeing. At the end of the weekend I asked him if this was what he had expected - after all, he and I had just gone for walks in Azrou. He said he knew I had a lot of energy, but he was ready to recharge. I know I'm a bit - unusual? Off the beaten track? Strange? It reinforced for me how glad I am to have friends at home who share my enthusiasm for touristy things, exploration and the like - or who are at least willing to be talked into going with me.

If he thinks you are energetic ...let's introduce him to my kids! Keep up you joie de vivre (I think that's how you say it) and everyone else will realize how right you are!!!
Sounds great!
I forgot to ask before...what is a ponge?
Thanks, Debbie! I knew I liked you!

A ponge (you are not the only person to ask so I must not have explained it well) is a couch bottom - they don't have arms or backs here. They put the ponges next to the wall and then put pillows against the wall. I got the large size so in a way it is like a daybed.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?