Friday, May 09, 2008


I have said this before – Marrakesh has an energy that no other city in Morocco seems to have. You notice it immediately when you get off the train, even though it’s a half-hour walk to the hub of the energy, the Jemaa al-Fna, and even though that square itself is so crowded with snake charmers, storytellers, henna painters, food stalls and people that I tend to walk along the fringe and never linger. With a holiday for Labor Day on May 1st and a Friday that changed in classification from vacation to work-related to finally medical (an actual mental health day), I had the luxury of spending quality time there – most of my visits there have been more of the arrive-on-Saturday-afternoon-and-leave-on-Sunday-morning ilk, which have always left me wanting more. I finally got it.

Rose joined me, and as we were finalizing things on Wednesday night, she suggested that we take the 9:20 out of Meknes (for her, 8:50 out of Fes) rather than the train two hours earlier, which we had been aiming for. Off to a good start already, without the need to get up early. Except that due to holiday traffic, I precision-timed the taxis a little too close and arrived at the train station at 9:28-and-a-half, just as the train pulled in. Cutting it so close added to the stress I had already been feeling, but by the time I arrived in Marrakesh I had calmed down, thanks to lots of conversation, some reading and some rummy. It’s a long trip, but much easier when shared. We arrived around four and had a late lunch and found a hotel. Rose took a nap and I called Linda, who had come down by bus; we talked and then when Rose woke up we all ventured into the souks.

I finally feel I know my way around the Marrakesh souks. I’ve felt that way about Fes for a while, helped there by stars marking touristic themed circuits (“monuments and souks,” for example), a book with a good map describing the circuits, and frequent visits. I’ve had it as a goal to come to Marrakesh and get to know it well enough to know my way around, and this trip did that; as a bonus I found a detailed souk map on Sunday so now I really know where I’ve been and where I might want to go back to next time. Thursday night’s walk was an appetizer; we went along a wide, open street to the west of the more crowded covered souks, enjoying the cool night air and the colors and sounds. I also had my first Magnum bar of the season – double chocolate. I remember having one on December 1st – a true May-December romance for me.

Friday morning we went to the Artisana – I’ve gone there before to get ideas to bring back to the Azrou artisana, and with the opportunity to give input into the new construction in Azrou, I wanted to see it again. And also, as I said to Rose, to “let the shopping begin.” I bought a couple of leather things and a straw bag – nothing I had had in mind when planning the trip – but it was nice to spend time there, going through the showroom and visiting the spaces for the cooperatives and the individual artisans, even resting in the shade rather than just cruising through and running on to the next thing, as I have done in the past. And speaking of running – it was interesting to travel over some of the half-marathon route – streets and sidewalks look different once you have run them.

Rob came in to town and we met for lunch at an organic café – a cool place to spend the hot lunch hours; I had pumpkin pastilla and we sat and talked for a while. Rose mentioned that she feels she has seven months more of vacation; Rob feels he has seven months more of a prison sentence. I lean more towards Rose, though I know that part of my stress is the feeling that I want to get a lot more done before I leave. Rob has Marrakesh next door – what a pity that he feels that way. We went with him to get fruits and vegetables (so that’s where the raspberries are!) and then Rose and I went on to the Dar Si Said Museum. This former palace was closed when Helen and I tried to visit, but along the way we discovered the brass artisan and another nice store, so we’d had a good walk. The museum was all right – a good collection of rugs, pottery, jewelry and the like – but its outstanding feature was the building itself, with elaborate décor (though, as Valerie said at the Alhambra, “we’ve been here”) and an Andalusian garden, where we stayed until closing time.

We had gazpacho and a salad at a terrace restaurant overlooking the Jemaa al-Fna, where we heard the sunset call to prayer. I told Rose that being at the Jemaa al-Fna at sunset has to be on anyone’s list of all-time experiences, and there we were. Fortified, we ventured into the heart of the souks, with its explosion of color, sound, and people. The shop after shop aspect of it makes it seem like a theme park, whereas Fes seems more grounded, real, and medieval, but Marrakesh is fun, and there are things there that you can’t get elsewhere. One thing I bought is a ceramic jar made with using the tadelakt process – it’s basically lime plaster, with a smooth matte finish. Some of the rooms at some of the riads where I’ve stayed have rooms with this finish, and if I ever become an adult, I would like it in some of my rooms as well. Marrakesh also has things from elsewhere – I got some square Safi plates (just in case I don’t make it back to Safi).

Saturday Janeila came into town and we met her for breakfast. She commented on how happy she feels lately, and Rose seconded that. I didn’t feel I could third it, and I started wondering what I could do to get back to feeling happy – that put me in a funk for most of the day, but another sunset souk walk lifted my spirits and I’ve felt happy since then. The mental health day itself wasn’t enough, but the Marrakesh Energy Weekend did the trick! We went out to Rob’s site, and the contrast with Marrakesh is stark. It’s, as he put it, unbeautiful, with unpaved streets and smoke from the tire-burning pottery kilns. We walked through the Kasbah – which I had not done on previous visits. It’s tranquil there, an escape from the ordinary rest of the town, with imposing walls, impressive doors and spirits of the past. It feels like a movie set – and it is! They are filming “Prince of Persia” there, and a security guard prevented our seeing the rest of it.

Rob works with a painter, and at the organic café he had shown pictures of some of the works to us; Rose decided she’d like to see them in person. He makes what some call folk art and others outsider art – with no formal training, from his imagination. People, animals, Moroccan doors. Lots of caged birds, representing how the painter feels about himself, and recently, some cigarettes, since he’d just quit smoking. We all purchased some of his drawings and then headed back to Marrakesh for lunch in the Ville Nouvelle – quite a culture clash to be in that posh part of town after Rob’s dusty and basic site. We went to an art supply store, Rob and Janeila left, and Rose and I plunged back into the souks, this time approaching from the right-hand side, where I don’t think I had been before. Nothing I hadn’t seen, but all-new things to look at.

Sunday morning we sat in a café overlooking the square for hours. I felt happy and relaxed – maybe I have learned something about relaxing here after all. I can sit in a café for hours – not sit and read or sit and write but just sit! We watched the square wake up, the stands and stations being set up, and people walk by. We saw a cart pulled by a horse and a donkey and extended the mismatch metaphorically. We saw three older couples put on their gear and prepare to ride off on extremely expensive Harley-Davidsons. And we finished off the banana chocolate chip cake that I had made.

We then went back into the souks; I suggested a detour into the rug souk just to see what was there – wandered into one shop and stayed for hours, observing the rugs that someone was looking at and chatting with the kind owner – they say that in the big cities the prices are high, but you can get good prices if you go to places run by good people. There was just a good feeling in that shop – later the owner asked what brought us in there and I said, “magic.” He looked at me, started to say something, and then just shook my hand.

We missed our train. That’s okay – I had gone from stressed to relaxed to a funk to happy again and an extra night in Marrakesh seemed more than called for. We called the duty officer, paid for another night in our hotel, and had lunch at a little food stand. Rose wanted to take a nap and that sounded like such a good idea that I took one too. I woke up before she did, went to the bookstore where I found my souk map, and wandered to the Koutoubia Mosque – seeing it now after the Giralda in Seville reinforced my appreciation for both. I sat under a jacaranda and studied the map – we had actually managed to cover quite a bit; the map noted some must-sees and some side souks off the main aisle, some of which we covered in the evening and some of which we left for another time.

Back to the souks – I saw some of the stores I had seen with my sister and her family, but now I know where they are in relation to other things (I already knew where I had been on the Helen and Elisa and Steve and Youssef trips, though I never re-found the felt slipper place – maybe just as well, since the ones I bought have big holes in the toes, and I want to make some for myself anyway). The map said that the kissaria, a roofed-over portion of the souks and one of the oldest parts, dating from the 1200s, was a must-see, and it was a sanctuary from the hustle–bustle and had some things we didn’t see elsewhere; it was less touristy, too. We found the felt area and I bought a felt-ball necklace (not that I couldn’t eventually make one of those too!) and a fringe necklace so long that I will use it for a belt. I had seen a fringe belt earlier but the price was much too high. For both of those necklace purchases – and for the ceramics earlier in the weekend – I was able to bargain and to stick to the price I wanted to pay – so I am officially relinquishing the title of world’s worst bargainer! Another skill gained in Morocco! We went back to the rug store, where the owner took us to a roof to see the sun set. Rose noted a cute guy sitting in a rooftop restaurant nearby. I replied that it was interesting to see where we were in relationship to that restaurant and how happy I was to have the map. Rose then said, “you know, if we had known each other in high school, we might have had this exact same discussion.” She – the guys. Me – the map. Perhaps she’s right.

I thought it would be a good idea to get an early start on Monday and get back to our sites; again, Rose’s suggestion of the 9:00 am train instead of the 7:00 am was a great idea. We played a lot of cards, dozed (it remained temperate the whole way down but it was hot on the way back), recapped and read. I still don’t feel that that was my last time in Marrakesh, but I do feel I know it now, which I had hoped to do.

News flash – Morocco is going to Daylight Savings Time, for the first time! From June 1 to September 27, it will be five hours behind the US Eastern time zone (and it will be again when the US gets back to Standard Time). It is good in that I can sleep later – even with a dark bedroom and eye mask, I have been waking up early with the light – and we will have more time to get back to our sites before nightfall. But it means lftur will be that much later during Ramadan….hm, I wonder if the 27th is the night of power, when the skies open up and prayers go directly to Allah – will that night now have an extra hour?

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