A Travellerspoint blog

Day 7: Marrakech

In which Dan is assaulted by both a snake charmer and a pharmacist.

The birds were much quieter than expected in the atrium of Dar Pangal this morning. Breakfast was much simpler than what we enjoyed at Dar Masmoudi (bread, some kind of pancake, orange juice, and delicious spiced coffee). Our new guide, Jamal met us at 9:00 for a ½ day tour of Marrakech. First thing, he informed me that neighboring houses had been warned not to go onto their roofs while the king is in town (next door to us, in fact).

Jamal made us really appreciate Idriss. Ostentatiously hung over, he mumbled, walked far ahead of us, and when he finally perked up about 2 hours into the tour, he told us a convoluted, nonsensical story about why Muslim men should have multiple wives. I’m rather doubtful that the population of Morocco is really 60% female. Also that Jamal really has 4 wives. Good thing for me that it didn’t take Dan four tries to find a wife that was “his style” as it apparently did Jamal.

Jamal took us to the Saadian Tombs, the Bahia Palace, the Mellah (Jewish Quarter), the Djemaa al Fna, and some souks. Most of this was an uninformative blur.


We did learn that only Jewish houses have balconies and windows that face that street, as opposed to the interior courtyard. Also that houses often display their occupants’ ethnicity by a flower (Berber), Star of David (Jewish), or Hand of Fatima (Arabic) pressed into the stucco near the door.

It was in the Djemaa al Fna that Dan experiences his first assault of the day. We had barely crossed into the square when a man swooped down upon us and draped Dan in a giant live water snake, pulling him over to sit next to a snake charmer. Dan actually was pretty amused by this.

For my part, I had a primordial response to the sight of both Jamal and another man coming at me from two directions with snakes outstretched. There was no way they were putting a strange snake on me – and I have a pet snake! Nat and Chop seemed to be having the same reaction. We tried to take photos of Dan while watching our backs for more surprise snakings. The video that Chop took is hilarious. She films Dan for a few seconds and then the camera whips away to the right, clearly looking out for the next snake-wielding Moroccan. Too bad she didn’t capture me saying, “nobody better %*&(@#&ing put a snake on me!”

Next we moved on to the souks. Despite Dan starting the morning by telling Jamal that we spent all our carpet money in Fez, we were taken to a carpet shop for “a demonstration.” The woman knotting a carpet really was impressive. Each thread of carpet that you see sticking up out of what we would call a “Persian rug” is actually a piece of wool yarn that is wound through the rug’s weft, tied in a knot, and cut to an even length, all by hand. The woman’s hands were going so fast we couldn’t even see what she was doing. It had taken 10 days for her to make an approximately 6 foot by 2 foot section of a single color. Then the mint tea was offered and the rugs began to roll. We actually extracted ourselves pretty quickly this time.

Next it was the “Berber Pharmacy,” which was a kind of Mary Kay demonstration by men and women in white lab coats. I saw nothing particularly Berber about the white walls, spare shelves, and lab coats. We were literally locked into a demonstration room while a guy described various spices, oils, and creams available for purchase. Then came assault #2. Again before any of knew what was happening, Dan had been seized, sat upon a bench before us, and a second white-coated man appeared with Argon oil. Dan was told to take off his shirt (we think he was selected because he was wearing the button-down variety) and the second man began massaging him in front of us. The tried to pull me in too, but in the confusion of trying to find a female masseuse, I managed to escape. So basically Chop, Nat, and I were sitting on a bench watching Dan being unwillingly rubbed with oil before us. (Photos are blessedly unavailable) Chop managed to create a small diversion by asking what could take the vomit smell out of our freshly tanned leather and then buying a couple small cubes of musk. For further humiliation, at the end of the massage, the first white coat smacked Dan on the belly and offered us some cholesterol reducing tea.

We extracted ourselves from the pharmacy of shame and from Jamal and headed for lunch, where we discovered that our credit card would not work on any ATMs. We returned to the riad to call Chase (our credit card company, remember the name in case you’re every shopping for a credit card that WON’T be cancelled whenever you travel) and to allow Dan to wash off his humiliation.

What followed was a series of phone calls and ATM runs (30 minutes each) to test out the Chase operator’s assurances that THIS TIME the card would work. Finally, after all the banks were closed, I was told that I had been given “the highest clearance” (perhaps now I can take pictures of the palace), but was also told, ominously, that I should probably go into a bank and have them run the card as a transaction. I felt that Chase really failed to appreciate my situation, as “I apologize for your inconvenience” really fails to capture my feelings of “I’m leaving for the Sahara tomorrow and I have no money.” Thank God we were staying at Dar Pangal, where our wonderful host, Julio, allowed us to use his phone. Chop and Nat would not be so lucky when it was their turn to have a card frozen.

Below is a video of Chop and the Visa customer service representatives

Posted by redtogo 12:58 Comments (0)

Day 6: Fes to Marrakech

This day was going to be a long and dull one, with an eight-hour train ride from Fez to Marrakech leaving very early. The morning started with another lesson in Moroccan culture: nobody takes credit cards. We received our shocking food bill for three dinners at Dar Masmoudi (dinners turned out to be about 3-5 times the price of a normal dinner in Morocco) and had to scramble all our cash to come up with enough to pay the tab and tip the staff, guide, and driver.

This time we had a plan for the inevitable train visitors. Not that we didn’t enjoy chatting with everyone on our way to Fez, but this time we had 8 hours of potential tour offers stretching before us. Here was our plan: When asked, we would tell any visitor that we were on our way to Marrakech to meet our friend Idriss’s friend Jamal, who was a literature student and spoke excellent English. We couldn’t possibly blow off Jamal and hire another guide, because he was a personal friend. Sounds watertight, doesn’t it? It turned out we didn’t need the story at all, for when we arrived at our train compartment, we found two Europeans already seated. Hooray! We never did end up learning the names of our travel companions (or maybe I knew it once but forgot it while I was still shaking hands, as usual), but they were a very interesting and engaging couple from London. We whiled away much of the trip talking with them about vacations, jobs, sports, Americans’ measly time off, and of course, Morocco. But we also spent a fair amount of time reading, knitting, snoozing, and writing postcards. The 8 hours went by very quickly actually.

Marrakech was our first snaggle with Sahara Trek. Apparently Jamal was busy elsewhere, because we were (eventually) picked up by a cab driver who didn’t know where our riad was located. We got there eventually though, and met Julio, the owner of Dar Pangal. Unlike anyplace else we stayed, Dar Pangal really felt like we were staying at a friend’s house. Julio walked us out to the Djemaa al Fna (more on that later), let us use his phone (even more on that even later), and even allowed us to dry our clothes on the rooftop, which happened to look down into the king’s Marrakech palace. We weren’t supposed to take any photos, because the king was in residence, but our Snapfish album tells another story.

Posted by redtogo 11:01 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

Day 5: Fes

Just photos for now

The Heri es Souani, a 17th century stable and granary for sultan Moulay Ismail's horses


Mohamed + A. Elahad-- Frieds 4 Live

Nicole arrives for afternoon tea. Too bad the king is in Marrakech

Dyeing vats. You cannot imagine the smell...

All the streets in Fes are too narrow for cars. So donkeys are the transport of choice (from onions to DVD players)


That's right, even at the bank


Craftsmen everywhere


Weaver at his loom

Silk imported from India

Mixing clay at the pottery

Posted by redtogo 10:30 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

Day 4: Fes, Volubilis, Meknes, and Moulay-Idriss

Today was our first day of real tourism in Morocco. We began the day with the usual delicious and filling Moroccan breakfast (today’s variation: omelets along with all the rest). Idriss picked us up at the riad and we headed off (in a minivan ostentatiously marked “Tourisme” on all sides) on a loop that would take us to the Roman ruins of Volubilis, the imperial city of Meknes, and the holy city of Moulay-Idriss, then back to Fez at night.
Idriss’s approach to guiding was that of a school teacher, which really helped orient us to Moroccan history and culture. He was always drilling us on the Moroccan dynasties and important historical figures.

Our first stop today was for another Moroccan culinary delight: pomegranates. Dan loves these and used to steal them from people’s trees that overhung the sidewalks in Tucson. Our minivan stopped at a roadside fruit stand (really two guys selling fruit out of a make-shift tent constructed out of those blue tarps that we’ve all come to associate with the post-Katrina gulf coast) with a panoramic view. We each had a quarter of a pomegranate and took some photos.

Next Idriss took us to an olive oil press, which was both educational and delicious. People from the surrounding area bring their olives to this location to be pressed into oil and then the remaining olive material, now pressed into mats that look something like those disks you put under houseplants to absorb water, are burned by the Fez potters to raise the heat of their kilns.

Below is a giant pile of olive pits discarded after pressing

The oil here actually tasted like, well, olives, which made me wonder whether the stuff we get in the U.S. is so mild (read: tasteless) because we have it purified somehow, or whether olive oil just ages into a blander taste.

Next it was on to Volubilis, the Roman ruins that were one of the main sights we arranged our trip around. As always, I was surprised by the complexity and preservation of 2000-year old material culture (well, architecture) in the “Old World.” IMG_2034_edited-1.jpg

The preservation is particularly impressive when you consider that visitors are allowed to walk all over the site, and that there is no protection of the mosaics from the elements (or again, visitors).
Dan was especially tickled by the vomitorium.

This is where ancient Roman revelers could take a break from eating and drinking to sick up. This is a significant step up from what is currently en vogue (i.e. vomiting in a nearby hedge). On our way in, Idriss mentioned that he has found a couple of bronze coins at the site over the years (grr). I imagine that the farmers in the area surrounding the preserved ruins do a pretty good trade in the artifacts that must come out of their fields.

Posted by redtogo 09:35 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

Day 3: Casablanca to Fes

Our arrival in Casablanca was our first indication of how well things would go with our Sahara Trek contacts. As soon as we came out of customs (a wave-through; apparently no one was concerned with what we could possibly be bringing into Morocco), our first driver was waiting for us with a sign that said Sahara Trek and our (Chop’s) name. Our driver helped Dan and Nat change some money and whisked us away to the train station and breakfast. Moroccan breakfasts were one of my favorite parts of our trip, a combination of the best of Moroccan and French foods and quite a bit like what we call “Kipervaser breakfasts” at my house. Our breakfast this first day consisted of coffee, tea, pain au chocolat, croissants, berber bread with honey, and orange juice. Now, you may be thinking of orange juice now (or maybe you’re still dwelling on the pain au chocolat), but whatever you are imagining, you are nowhere near the deliciousness of Moroccan orange juice, which is made from freshly squeezed Clementines. The greatest oranges in the world, squeezed fresh, every morning! What a great idea. I saw Moroccans adding sugar to their orange juice on several occasions, but believe me, it doesn’t need it.

The train from Casablanca to Fez was our first introduction to the strange concoction of hospitality and hussle that I’m sure every tourist in Morocco experiences. Our cabin consisted of 6 seats, and throughout our 4-hour trip, it would be occupied by the four of us, one Moroccan woman trying desperately to sleep, and a constant flow of Moroccan men who engaged us in conversation, either out of genuine friendliness, to get us to hire them as a guide, or both. I think Dan was the most surprised about this, since his comprehensive exam had prevented him from reading up on Morocco and its notorious “touts.” With a little attention, though, you could see the signs that these guys (for the most part) obviously did not hold tickets to our compartment (yes, seats are assigned on Moroccan trains).

Our first guest was a guy (forgot his name), who asked us, in French, to adjust the window shade, and seeing our blank stares (it was also pretty loud in the train), asked us in English if we were American. First Guy was the first Moroccan among many we encountered who told us right upfront that he didn’t like the American government, but did like Americans. Good, we wouldn’t have to try to remember what Canadian city we had claimed to be from. We had a great chat with First Guy about Moroccan and American life, useful Arabic phrases, and things to see in Morocco before we arrived at his stop. He wished us well and was on his way, maybe around Rabat.

A few minutes after leaving Rabat, a younger man sat down in the empty seat and nodded hello. Seconds later, the cabin door slid open and another man poked his head in, exchanged a few words with the young man, and the two stepped out into the walkway. A moment later, the second man, who I will call The Professor, came back and sat in what was becoming the hottest seat on the train. The Professor said the usual hellos (“Are you Australian? Oh American, we love Americans,” “Welcome to Morocco,” “Have you been here long?” “Bill Clinton visited Morocco a lot”) and then he told us that he is a history teacher and is getting his PhD in geography. After giving us a brief history of Morocco and Fez, he told us all the places we needed to visit while in Fez, and even wrote up a list (he actually took a good deal of time doing this last part). Now came the sell. The Professor told us that his wife worked for the Tourism Board in Fez (he even showed us pictures of her and their child, which is when I became sure this was going to turn out to be a hussle) and could arrange for a tour guide for us, a literature student (not sure why it should be literature instead of history, but this was the story every time) who spoke good English and wouldn’t charge us more than 150 dh. Now we had to admit that we already had a guide. The Professor insisted that ours would be “a touristic guide,” a phrase we heard often during our trip, which I assume means someone who is just showing us carpet shops and not teaching us anything about history. It got fairly awkward here as we had to admit that we had used an American company to hire our guide, and everything was paid for, while The Professor insisted that our guide would be no good and even called his wife. In the end, The Professor let us all off the hook (himself included) graciously by suggesting that the four of us discuss our plans while he went out to have a cup of coffee. We never saw him again.

Not 15 minutes later there was another shuffling of young men in the hallway and into the most popular seat on the train came Amine. Amine introduced himself as a student who was visiting his family in Fez. When he heard that we were Americans he again reassured us that Moroccans love Americans, though not the American government, and laughed about some “Canadians” he met a while back who later admitted to being Americans. We told him we thought about doing that, but as genuine Americans, couldn’t remember enough about Canada to pull it off. Then Amine told us all about his childhood trip to New York for a heart surgery, courtesy of Rotary International and the Ronald McDonald House. About 30 minutes later, Amine began the guide talk, again assuring us that the guide we had hired in advance was certainly a “touristic” one, and that as a native of Fez, he could arrange a much better guide for us, a literature student who spoke good English. By now we had caught on (well, Chop and Dan both believed these guys were totally legit), and were clear about wanting to stick to our prepaid guide. Amine, too, let us all off easy, telling us that if we found that we didn’t like our guide after our first (of three) days in Fez, we could call him and he would arrange for his friend to guide us. He gave us his cell phone number. But then, instead of skulking away like any American hustler would, Amine stuck around and gave us some more advice, including how much to pay for a taxi (“They’ll try to charge you more, so tell them you’ve been to Fez before and you know the price”), what sights to visit, how to find a good price on crafts (buy from the places that make the crafts, not from middlemen), etc. Then he took off about two stops before we got to Fez.

Now I hope that in some way I am capturing the charm of all these train touts, because to me this is something really uniquely Moroccan. This was nothing like those kids who come to your door selling magazines to earn a trip to Mexico or somebody trying to sell you a “Rolex” on the beach. Certainly there was no way these guys had tickets for the empty seat in our cabin (judging from the hallway discussions before they came in), and clearly they were trying to part us from our money (though not much, 150 dh is less than $18). But on the other hand, they really were very friendly and laid back, and actually did provide us with lots of useful information, even though we didn’t hire any of them (or their friends). They also spent a fair amount of time just chatting about life in Morocco and the U.S. This is perhaps one of the most foreign things about Morocco. In the U.S., I would be automatically suspicious of anyone who started talking to me on a train, particularly once the topic of money came up, and if I turned down someone trying to sell me something on an American train, that person would probably say something rude to me and then take off to find their next victim. But Moroccans are so charming, that you can never be sure whether your new friend Amine just happened to offer to arrange a guide for you (in which case you’re a complete ass clown for suspecting him of hustling you) or if some kid just hopped into your compartment to try to sell you guide services and decided to stay and chat anyway even after you turned him down.

In any case, we didn’t hire any of these guys, and when we arrived in Fez, our real guide, Idriss, was waiting for us, gave us some bottled water, and whisked us off to the medina and our riad, Dar Masmoudi, where we had tea, unpacked, hung out on the roof, and ate some fabulous pigeon pastilla. This being my birthday, my friends Bobby and Lisa had attempted to arrange some kind of celebration, so our riad hosts held us hostage at the dinner table for quite a while until Idriss appeared with his daughter and a bouquet of roses and pair of earrings for me. We went to bed well fed and ready for our “touristic” trip to Volubilis, Meknes, and Moulay-Idriss.
One other Moroccan reality check occurred as we were hanging out on top of Dar Masmoudi, taking in the view of the Fez medina all around us. Our hostess, Maryem, came up to the rooftop and we asked her what time the call to prayer would be so we could record it. We assumed at this point that 1. all Moroccans were Muslim, and 2. that the call to prayer happened at set times everyday, with each minaret starting up at the same time. In answer to our question, Maryem pulled out her cell phone, checked the time and told us, “in about 5 minutes.” Indeed the call to prayer did start around 5 minutes later (which as far as we could tell, was around 5 after 5:00), but only from one minaret, about a minute into the first one’s call, another minaret started, then another, so that the whole thing went on for about ten minutes total. Another surprise was that nobody really seemed to stop what they were doing. I had always thought that the call to prayer was a reminder to stop what you are doing, get out your prayer rug, and get praying. We asked Idriss about this later, and he told us it is more of a reminder that you should be praying five times a day, but you’re not really obligated to do it as soon as you hear the call.

Posted by redtogo 09:21 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

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