Marrakharacters, Visions in the Desert

26 03 2012

We take today’s breakfast in the Slipshod room (the Slapdash has been overplayed, we feel).

This morning’s spread includes chocolate cake – fortunate, since today’s shopping extravaganza requires fuel for the haggling fire.

MP and I dress down as much as possible in preparation; the couple we spoke with last night at Gastro MK has warned us that any outward appearance of wealth (watches, shiny earrings, etc etc) will more than likely work directly against you in the hard bargains of the souks.

We pop into the Ensemble Artisanal as a sort of amuse-bouche for the souks; here all the products have marked prices, so you can theoretically get some kind of idea of what items “should” cost. Important, since the first price quoted by souk vendors can be upwards of ten times the amount they’d actually accept for the object.

The EA is interesting enough, but we find the atmosphere far too calm to consider opening the floodgates. Bolstered in confidence, we plunge headstrong into the shady corridors of the souks.

I take few photos this time round; my aesthetic eye is fixated not on photography, but rather the many, many different prizes carpeting the infinite stalls. I also feel waving about the lens would significantly detract from our deal-making power.

We break the seal in a fabric stall, overflowing with beads and dye. MP zeroes in on bright square pillowcases, and we are immediately assisted by a sparsely-toothed shopkeep. Burgundy emerges as a favorite hue, and we line ’em up and narrow ’em down.

Once settled upon a sequined selection, the three circle around a table of negotiation in the very center of the room.

Shopkeep adds up items on calculator, then offers a “discounted” price.
MP slashes it by 2/3.
Shopkeep looks pained, explains that MP has very expensive taste. Offers 95% of original quote.
MP counters with 40% of original, says it’s her final offer.
Shopkeep explains that he must eat.
MP begins to make her way out of store.
Shopkeep protests emphatically, engages “boss” (second man in stall).
“Boss” hems/haws, reluctantly offers 80% of original quote.
MP actually steps foot outside of store.
“Boss” and Shopkeep physically usher her back inside, acceding to 50% of original quote.
MP insists that she’s already told them her final offer.
“Boss” inquires as to what difference it really makes, 40% or 50%?
MP responds, exactly.
“Boss” sighs, ok ok ok, 45% of original quote.
MP agrees, and we have a deal.

This at minimum 10-minute negotiation is repeated ad nauseum, exchanging calculated wads of dirham for hard-won souk goodies. MP is, of course, a natural expert (“Master Haggler” perhaps lacks some panache, though). Even I find myself on the battlefield in the fight for a series of small mirrors I’ve been lusting after since seeing similar styles in Granada. We also manage a handful of local trinkets, from ceramics to leather to metalworks.

One priority is a return to the spice dealer from our tour with Aziz. Here we score heaps of cumin, cinnamon, peppercorns, and harissa. Gastro MK’s turnip soup fresh in our palates’ memory, we also pick up a bottle of argan oil meant for cooking – you use the delicate nuttiness for finishing soups and salads, much as you would sesame oil.

The spice guy doubles as “herboriste” – natural medicine man – so I ask about what he might have for dealing with the persistent red patches I sometimes get on the backs of my arms. He claims the solution is pure argan oil designed for exterior application – distinct in composition from the cooking variety. It’s a little on the ‘spensive side, and I tell him I suppose I don’t really need it. He’s as slick a seller as the rest of the merchants here, though, and he quickly locates an open bottle to daub a bit on my skin. Believe it or not – and I still hardly do, given that nothing the Spanish pharmacy offered me worked worth a damn – the spots lighten in a matter of seconds. Sold.

In need of a brief repose from our spree, we pop in Café des Épices for a fruit juice and a view.

Aziz’s advice comes through again; the perch offers an unobstructed view of the hubbub below. The real people-watching paradise, though, is discovered hours later.

We are weighed down by the stress of barter, as well as multiple plastic bags brimming with purchases, when it begins to rain in Marrakech. Special and unique, perhaps, but we’re in no shape for it – we’ve elected to skip lunch in anticipation of a feast planned tonight, and find ourselves running on fumes. As such, when we emerge from the souks to Jemaa el-Fnaa quickly becoming slick with rain, we take to a terrace viewpoint once more.

On the verge of grumpiness from low glucose, we cave and order an olive-anchovy pizza to split, plus a pair of mint teas.

The frenzy of Jemaa el-Fnaa does subside somewhat in the rain, although most locals appear to simply carry on with their business; the only figure noticeably flustered in this photo is the tourist at the bottom.

These panoramics in the rain come out just lovely, but soon I become curious as to just how powerful the zoom function is on MP’s camera.

It’s rapidly evident that I can seriously spy on the different characters present in the square from up here. The range of dress in Marrakech is just as varied as the selection of souk wares.

This little exercise makes me realize something that wasn’t immediately obvious upon our arrival two days ago. I referred to tourists as “serious sore thumbs in the social landscape here,” which I now feel is wholly inaccurate. Western tourists are generally identifiable as such, much more so than in, say, Madrid – however, they form just as much of the atmosphere in Marrakech as the rest of the players here. For better and for worse, tourism transforms; I’ve seen it in Bangkok and I see it again here.

Legitimacy doesn’t, however, always equate to savvy. Within a quarter hour, we observe these three monetary dramas play out. Hope those photos turn out.

Snake-charmer requests payment from camera-happy tourist couple.

Cowgirl/musclehead couple pose with de-fanged snake.

Dance, pose, pay, regret.

We could easily stay up here for hours, entertained by the constant hoodwinking and checking out how the square gets dressed up for nightfall. However, our plans for the evening involve meeting a driver at the Riad at five o’clock – so I reluctantly pocket the camera and we head out.

Approximately five minutes after arriving back in the room – enough time to wash the face, poof the hair – we are called by reception. Non-stop action today. We summon up our strength and roll out.

The driver speaks very little English, and my French sucks (I think that’s the most accurate linguistic term, anyway). I’m also nodding asleep, so I let warped dream fragments wash over me as we motor away from the city.

When I awake, we are veering off the paved road to the left: directly into the desert.

There are a few faint imprints of tire tracks in the dusty ground here to indicate that one might wish to venture this way, but otherwise no sign that we are in any way doing something rational. Once, we pass a shepherd and his small flock off in the distance. Twice, gray concrete skeletons of buildings, looming like massively misplaced tetris blocks.

Hours or minutes or days later (where are we where are we wherearewe?), we arrive at a small gathering of edifices the same precise color as the dirt, appearing to actually be made from it. A gaggle of small children runs out from a doorway, waving. The driver stops the car here, we step out, and a grinning girl offers us a fistful of good-smelling herbs and flowers.

Would we care for mint tea? We would.

Our dinner destination is a bit further on, but MP has scheduled a camel ride through the desert for the final leg of the journey. The tea is the final precursor to mounting the beasts of burden waiting outside, and we are led to an elongated room lined with embroidered pillows and covered entirely in rugs. A single bare fluorescent bulb illuminates one half of the room; our driver explains that electricity is new to the village as of the last few years.

We de-shoe and sit cross-legged on the floor with our driver, plus a man who has greeted us outside (who speaks no English). A 60+ year-old robed woman – his wife? – enters with a metal tray balanced on her palm and serves steaming mint tea all around, plus a round of semolina bread with olive oil for our driver.

The children periodically peek in on us, making direct eye contact and grinning. We exchange few words, and it feels nearly sacrilege to snap a photo.

Our steeds await.

There’s little time for mutual contemplation between rider and mount. This hurried portrait is all I have time to capture before I am invited to make closer friends.

Camels are large.

Our driver takes the million-dollar shot. But this is no fashion shoot, and our man in blue shortly tugs at the lead, prompting MP’s camel forward.

Camels don’t move like humans, nor horses, really. They seem to bend exaggeratedly at the knees, allowing them to plod steady over moonscaped desert terrain. As rider, you have to simply relax into it, let the undulating texture wriggle its way up your spine.

How to describe? It feels both surreal and majestic; I am wholly out of place and out of my element and elated and terrified all at once.

This photo perhaps captures something of the wash of emotions: a pair of lucky aliens dwarfed by starkly resplendent landscape, posing for a sunset photo while one of their pack animals takes an extended pee. Yeah, that’s what that puddle is. I think you can even see some drips if you zoom.

After roughly half an hour’s circular journey on camelback, we reach an outcropping of buildings a few hills away from the village: La Pause. The camels bow, and we dismount as the sun disappears from the washed out sky.

La Pause is a guesthouse tucked in the middle of the Afagay hills. It has no electricity. The term might be “rustic luxury,” but I don’t think that quite captures it – there is sheer magic at play here.

Would we like mint tea served to us in our oasis tent? We would.

Temperatures drop as the night thickens, and we’re proferred blankets.

I’m still not sure where we are.

Once daylight has fully vanished from the hills, we are left in the company of floating flames. A low murmur from a far-off tent indicates the presence of two other temporary desert guests. Our waiter, soft-spoken and kind-eyed, invites us down to a dinner tent of our own. The only other company is a golden dog, who lopes alongside us down the sloping candlelit path.

We request wine, and our waiter slips away soundlessly into the dark to retrieve it. The table has been set with salads, twin picking plates consisting of quiche, sweet beets, and spiced carrots, plus a communal bowl full of peppery greens and sliced tomato. There’s a bread basket as well; MP audibly reacts upon its perusal. Toasty and pillowed in all the right ways: they have given us the good bread.

We play it slow. The eats are exquisite, the wine lovely, but it’s the unreal atmosphere we’re really drinking in.

There’s lamb tajine and couscous after the opening salad scherzo. We unilaterally agree: Riad Kniza’s velvety lamb was best, but this tajine as a whole takes home the prize. The good bread dipped in the sauce stops the turning of the earth upon its axis.

Our companion delights in a few choice morsels slipped to him by a friend.

Dessert is sticky-soft sugared fruit – apricot? – atop a simple crumb crust.

We cannot stay. Although she has graciously chosen to sweep us up in her arms for a scant few mystical hours, we do not pertain to this place.

Our driver masterfully motors us back across the pitch-black dust to find asphalt under the wheels once more, and too soon we are back in the beauty of the Riad.

Some write and some sleep.

Sometimes life gives you gifts, and I’m still figuring out how to best demonstrate my gratitude. These words and pictures are a beginning.

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Bienvenue à Marrakech.

23 03 2012

Pour some (organic, free range) vinegar on my rusted-over blogging gears, baby: a brisk madrileño dawn heralds my first Blog Day since last summer’s family reunion in the Northeastern US. I rise, I coffee, I shine. I troop halfway to MP’s B&B before AbFab’s sage travel wisdom has me do a speedy 180. Passport. Got to have the passport.

MP has her own passport scare – too many bags with too many pockets – but we eventually get our act together, motor up to Cibeles, and hop the Express Bus to Barajas.

Awaiting our arrival is Ryanair’s red carpet, decked out with Spanish youth groups and their neon luggage. We end up cutting it rather close, but who cares – you already know that with Ryanair, payment is not in euros, but in blood/sweat/tears.

After filtering past passport control – at which some passengers are detained extensively, and we are ushered through without a hitch – we immediately meet Yusef, our driver from Riad Kniza. Small talk is attempted (I live in Madrid, are you from Marrakech, wow this weather is like Arizona, etc etc), but mostly we are reeling with the pressing question: Whoaaaaa – where are we??

I’ve been informed by a couple buddies who have ventured down south before that Morocco is like absolutely nothing they have experienced before. There’s seemingly so much tourism between Madrid and Marrakech that one might assume a great deal of similarities (youth hostels, kitschy little bars, expats), but it’s immediately obvious from the mouth-agape ride in from the airport that we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Yusef stops just inside the walls of the old city and leads us directly into the fray. Tourists are serious sore thumbs in the social landscape here, and we get a small taste of how little we know about the system surrounding us here. I try not to gibber.

Not a minute into our jaunt to the Riad, MP squeaks out in surprise. Eyeballs popping and disbelieving grin of shock kissed with a touch of horror on her face: “Janel…! I almost just stepped on a chicken head.”

Bienvenue à Marrakech.

Yusef drops us off slack-jawed at the Riad, where the receptionist beckons us forward to one of many cool, dusky alcoves, decorated in exquisitely detailed Moroccan style. Would we care for mint tea and almond paste sweets? We would.

Riad Kniza differentiates itself through being wholly Moroccan-owned; this and its exceptional reviews are what have drawn us to select it as our home base. I’d say the architecture is reminiscent of what we’ve seen at La Alhambra, but it feels massively remiss to do so – I’ve been told that the gorgeous stone detail there is in large part modern restoration. What lies before us here is the Real Deal, the Genuine Article. It doesn’t get any more authentic, and I mean that without any trace of hipster irony.

We’re led up to our suite, which is replete with carefully placed rose petals and stray wisps of smoky incense.

MP enters the bedchamber and begins to gesture frantically.

This is what she sees, an elborately carved cupola destined to hang directly over our sleeping heads.

We’ve requested a tajine lunch at the Riad, which we elect to enjoy upon the roof terrace despite the surging heat. Further rose petals have been arranged on our table into miniature flowering designs.

Lunch opens with a chicken pastilla, savory meat mixed with ground and toasted almonds, wrapped in a layer of crunchy filo dough and topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. The cheery waiter enthusiastically implores us to “Discover! Explore! Enjoy!” but the verb I’d choose is “Devour.”

What follows is a spread of cold salads accompanied by hot golden circles of fresh harcha, plus beef, chicken, and seafood packets wrapped in filo dough and fried. Clockwise from the bottom left, the salads are sweet tomato with sesame and cinnamon, zucchini, potato, pumpkin and almond, eggplant, olives, and roasted green pepper.

The olives are playfully bitter and intense, completely distinct in character from their Spanish counterpart. Can one live on olives alone? I volunteer myself as test subject. MP favors the smoky eggplant bathed in olive oil.

We comment that we could be contented simply with the salads, and that the tajine will surely come as unwarranted and excessive. And yet, somehow, we are swayed by velvety lamb accented by dried apricots, plums, and figs, plus scattered almonds and walnuts. It soon becomes obvious why the seats are sprawling couches, and we take full advantage of the space to stretch out our bulging bellies.

Mirrors reflect our gastronomic bliss.

Oh my god, there’s a dessert. We can’t but we can.

Ktefa is a pastilla of creme anglaise, ground almonds, and filo dough. Its icy cool sweetness cuts through the midday heat.

Wracked by consumption, our bodies tell us to be slothful, but we refuse – on deck is a guided afternoon tour of the city. We meet our man Aziz at the front desk, and are whisked out into the hustle/bustle.

Aziz explains that there are just a few main walking streets that run through the old city, but they are bordered by scores of dead end streets called “derbs” (tee hee). Our derb is conveniently called “Derb L’Hotel,” and Aziz constantly checks our fledgling city bearings by asking us the way we might get back to it.

Our way down to the Jemaa el-Fnaa plaza consists of Aziz tossing bits and pieces of Marrakech history our way as we dodge wildly swerving bike, scooter, car, and donkey-cart traffic. We pass the oldest hammam in the city, with separate entrances and hours according to gender.

Nothing in the city is permitted to be higher than the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque. Oversize loudspeakers visible in its windows send out the call to prayer five times daily – which in relatively liberal Marrakech is heeded to varying degrees based on individual preference.

The road connecting Koutoubia with Jemaa el-Fnaa is lined by donkey carts for hire.

During the day, the plaza is mostly empty – we’ve arrived around 16.00, and the nightly food stalls are just now being set up. Aziz explains that the space will be overflowing with entertainers of all variety come evening, and that we should be cautious about taking photos – performers are very sharp about spotting cameras, and will demand subsequent payment.

As an on-the-spot demonstration, I snap this shot of what was meant to be simply of the general atmosphere. The guy in red garb comes directly up to us after, demanding “Photo? Photo? Photo? Photo?” I ignore him, but have a feeling Aziz’s suited presence is the only condition that finally causes the guy to give up.

Vendors, on the other hand, are for the most part okay to photograph, and I take advantage of Aziz to repeatedly inquire as to the appropriateness of each shot. I can’t help it; the lens feels intrusive.

In one corner of the square, all of the carts are orr’an juice an’ wadder. (no plantain chips)

Surreptitious shots are also always an option. Aziz explains that these guys dress in drag for belly dancing in the evening. No way – I’ll believe it when I see it.

We delve into the souks with aplomb – easy to do with a guide. The tangled knot of streets here is overflowing with sensory input.

Colors abound.

Every turn of the head is another unbelievable array of line and light.

The souks are somewhat organized by product, but that doesn’t keep them from being absolutely overwhelming to the newcomer. We are practically struck dumb.

Aziz leads us to a carpet shop he associates with. Every square centimeter of the place is saturated with color and pattern. A couple ladies in the back weave endlessly at looms – one more, this appears to be the Real Deal.

MP quickly makes a new friend in the shopkeeper, who, with all due respect, is one slick dog of a salesman. He piles on the flattery as high as the carpets, and his assistants roll out one priceless piece after another.

We are served mint tea, and we are prompted for our aesthetic and tactile opinions.

As to whether any pieces were purchased, that’s simply going to have to remain under the rug.

Some parts of the souks are more out in the open; Aziz recommends extended observation of the whole scene from atop a cafe. Just below the famous Le Café des épices is the spice section of the markets.

Grizzled ladies here sell woven hats and powdered henna, which is an unexpected shade of pale green before combining with water.

Aziz has an associate here too, purveyor of an unbelievable selection of spices, herbs, pigments, and medicines.

He explains some of the most interesting/easily confused specialties to us, including how to differentiate genuine saffron from fakeouts.

The mounds of cumin, paprika, ginger, coriander, and chile have me chomping at the bit.

The variety nears the point of absurdity. I could spend several lifetimes in just this one store.

Plenty of the products are meant for beauty rather than consumption; the shopkeep spots my streak of eyeliner and shows off a glittery gray specimen of his own.

Skins of all sorts are also available here. Aziz explains that these are believed to have medicinal value of their own, ranging from asthma reduction to warding off the evil eye.

As night pulls in around us, we dive into the workshop section of the souks.

This area is sparsely populated by passerby, and we spy not a single tourist. It’s in these corridors that the large majority of the goods on sale are actually fabricated.

To use the term “fabricated” combined with the passive voice, however, gives me pause. Aziz calls them “the makers.” In each of these narrow nooks we find at least one, but more frequently two or more men (I saw no women) completely focused on the production of some material good. A young muscled-armed man painting chemicals on leather to cure it different colors. A long bearded one guiding fabric through a sewing machine spooling thread from a contraption wired into the ceiling. A child – had to be about eight years old – piecing together sandal parts with his father.

The most striking of all to me was a guy in a chair in the walkway, hunched over a golden bowl and hammering it with a metal point to produce thousands upon thousands of tiny patterned dents in its surface.

You see these things in shops, and you think “Oh, beautiful.” You are told they are “handmade” and “artisanal,” which somehow equates to value, but still neglects to directly connect the elaborate object with the visceral hours of actual human work that go into its production.

This isn’t meant as any sort of condemnation (nor lauding) of any kind – merely commentary on how tangible the trail of production suddenly seemed to me upon walking through the realm of the makers.

The blacksmithing section is all noise and flying sparks.

And this is the result – scores of precious metal objects for sale, from the useful to the purely artistic.

Our plan is to stave off shopping until Saturday, when we can wholly dedicate the morning to it.

There’s just so much here; I’m sure we would have theoretically managed without a guided introduction, but it’s certainly given us much more confidence in terms of the hours of haggling ahead of us. I ask once again: Where are we?

We emerge back into Jemaa el-Fnaa plaza, in full swing now that darkness has descended. Lo and behold, the seated geezers from before actually have transformed into wriggling belly dancers, albeit transparently cross-dressed ones. Spectators are not in short supply.

The food stalls are fully set up as well, buzzing with knowledgeable locals and daring foreigners alike. Our original plan this evening was to be amongst the latter half – sheep’s head, anyone? – but we are a) seriously stuffed from lamb lunch, and b) wary regarding a plethora of accounts of food poisoning. As such, we stick with pictures, for this trip anyway.

There’s a whole row of snail vendors in the center of the food stalls. Three dirhams is about 0.30 euro – wonder how many slimy little beasties you get for it.

Aziz asks us if there’s anywhere else we’d like to be shown, but we find ourselves rather racked and in need of a quick repose. He walks with us back to Riad Kniza, and we thank him profusely and part ways.

The plan this evening is to get dolled up and check out La Mamounia, a five-star hotel just barely open enough to the public to allow the well-dressed in for drinks. We hoof it there by following the outside of the Old City wall, still managing to slightly lose our way but at least dodging the majority of the potential harassment. Funny – both of us have opted for looks that would be exceedingly conservative in Madrid, but here heeled boots and black stockings feel nearly scandalous.

What adjective to choose? Imposing, incredible, immaculate? We decide the word is “opulent.” It feels like an extremely high-budget movie set, and unquestionably an entirely separate world from what lays just beyond its guarded front gate. Two tall men swathed in scarlet capes flank the entrance, theatrically opening the doors for us as we tiptoe inside, attempting very much to put on a bit of an air.

We nestle into a select outdoor spot, and are served roasted peanuts, spiced hazelnuts, and the best olives I’ve ever had: dinner.

Each chooses something to sip on from the Créations menu – a sage margarita for me, hibiscus cosmo for MP. The boozy warmth of the floral and herbaceous drinks curls pleasingly about the cool night air.

Our dessert course is a glass of Moroccan cabernet sauvignon called Volubilia, which we take inside next to a live three-piece jazz crew.

We could envision ourselves spending a solid several days on the decadent Mamounia grounds, drinking it all in – but elect to retire for the night, as we have big plans for Friday. At the front desk, we request a taxi back to Riad Kniza, and are assisted by none other than a caped crusader.

There simply aren’t enough adjectives. You can’t capture it all. We aren’t going to try.

I dream a little desert dream, nestled beneath our cupola.