I’ve always wanted to step foot on all seven continents. I had achieved five continents (North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia) and looking to check Africa off my list next. I have seen the coasts of Djibouti and Somalia in the Navy, and I have been to the Seychelles Islands, but I had never stepped foot on mainland Africa until this fall of 2016.
My wife and I were traveling between Spain and Germany for a few weeks and decided to take a cheap flight from Barcelona to Marrakesh for a few days. It’s a short hour and a half flight. As soon as we passed customs and I converted our money, we caught a taxi to the riad we were staying at. A riad is the term used for a Moroccan house with a courtyard or garden in the middle. It’s a short taxi trip from to the edge of Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main market square in Marrakesh.
As soon as we got out of the cab, we were swarmed by men either trying to help with our bags or show us how to get to our riad, and they all wanted to be paid for their services. I told them “stop” and “no thank you” in Arabic, and that seemed to do the trick. One guy said I’m going to get lost in the small alleys. What he didn’t know was that I had already programmed our riad all of the famous sights in Marrakesh into my GPS watch. I walked straight to our riad through a labyrinth of alleyways like I grew up in Marrakesh.
After we checked into our beautiful riad, my wife and I decided to go to the main market square, Jemaa el-Fnaa. As you walk down the small alleyways in Marrakesh, you have to really pay attention as to what’s going on around you. The alleyways are only six-feet wide with vendor shops pouring out onto the fringe and people on motorbikes sharing the same walkway. It’s not that dangerous; just pay attention to what you see coming at you and listen to what may be coming up from behind. As the alleyway opened up to the main square, we could immediately tell that we were in the heart of the city. There are hundreds of vendors selling everything from spices and fruits to oil lamps and rugs.
The sun was starting to set around this time, and I wanted to get a picture with the snake charmer and his cobras. The snake charmers are only out during the day because if a snake gets loose in the market after dark, it’ll be pretty hard to find. As we got closer to one of the snake charmers, he came up and shook my hand and started with whole sales pitch. I asked him how much, and he kept saying cheap and kept loading my body with snakes.
I figured it couldn’t be that much money in a country where people live off of $2.55 a day. After we got about eight pictures, the guy says he wants €50 ($55), and I told him to kiss my ass. He said that €50 is cheap and I said, “Ok, I’ll meet you halfway at €6.” He said, “This is nothing!” How ungrateful, right? He just made €6 tax-free in five minutes. If that’s nothing, then I’m in the wrong business. I told him, “Take it or leave it,” and he finally relented. Just as I was paying the snake charmer, I looked up and saw my wife getting pulled away by a woman in burka. Apparently, when I was paying the snake charmer, a lady who does henna tattoos came up and started working on my wife’s hand. She told her repeatedly that she didn’t want it and that she had no money, but the henna woman kept going anyways. As I got closer, the lady tried pulling my wife into her chair that was in a row of other women trying to pull the same scam. Next thing you know, this woman and I are playing tug of war with my wife. I would have grabbed her arm and ripped it off my wife’s wrist, but when a Muslim woman is wearing a burka, it probably means she’s not supposed to have contact with any man but her husband. I didn’t feel like starting a religious, international conflict that week, so my wife and I simply pulled harder and eventually broke her grip. The woman started slinging vulgarities at us, including F-words, but we quickly walked away without looking back. I learned two valuable lessons that evening: 1. Never ever shake in hands in Marrakesh until a price is agreed upon. It may seem rude to refuse an introductory handshake, but the locals will know you’re no pushover. They consider a handshake to be something completely different over there. If you shake hands before a price has been settled on, you have already agreed to the transaction, and the price will be figured out later. 2. Don’t ever let you’re wife go out in a third world country wearing Tory Burch from head to toe, a Louis Vuitton handbag, and gold head band. It makes it harder to negotiate price when your wife is radiating money. After that culture clash, she decided to go back to the riad and change clothes.
For dinner that night, I indulged in one of my favorite meals in the entire world, shawarma. We have shawarma back in the states (or at least we claim we do), but it’s just not done right. Shawarma is an Arab and Israeli meat preparation in which lamb, chicken, turkey, beef, veal, buffalo, or mixed meats are placed on a spit and may be grilled for as long as a day. I found a shawarma joint on the edge of the square and ate there three times a day every day I was in Marrakesh. For less than eight dollars, I was able to get two shawarma wraps with fries, two huge bottles of water, and two large fresh blended fruit smoothies. Gotta love that conversion rate! The main variable that makes or breaks a shawarma joint is the harissa sauce! Harissa is a delicious hot chili sauce. My wife has heard me bitch and complain about the lack of harissa sauce in the states for years, but after she tasted it in Morocco, she said she completely understood. After dinner, we turned it in for the night because we were going to be riding through the Palm Desert on camelback in the morning.
The next morning we meet our tour bus with the other tourists on the edge of the main square. From there we went made a few more pick ups and then headed about an hour outside of Marrakesh in to the desert. After a while we pulled up to a small village that from the looks of it had been deserted, but as we got closer to our outpost, the tour guides and camels started to come into view. We got acquainted with our guides and camels and then were given head scarfs to help keep our heads cool. We rode for an hour through the Palm Desert until we came across a little oasis with a clay hut and a gentleman ready to serve us a traditional Moroccan lunch consisting of mint tea and Moroccan Msemen flat bread. After sharing stories of who everyone was and where they were from, we headed back to the outpost to conclude our camel ride and head back to Marrakesh.
Once my wife and I arrived back in Marrakesh, we wanted to go take in some of the local historic sights. We first headed to the Saadian Tombs to view the beautiful architecture. The mausoleum contains the remains of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty that originated in the valley of the Draa River. The tomb was built in the late 16th century and was lost until being rediscovered in 1917. After paying our respects to the royal family, my wife and I headed to the Koutoubia Mosque.
The Koutoubia Mosque is the largest and oldest mosque in all of Marrakesh. The mosque was constructed in the mid-twelfth century and has remained ever since. We did not go inside because it was closed at the time we visited, but it was a sight to see. After the Koutoubia Mosque, we got a few pictures with monkeys in the market and then headed back to our riad for a much needed siesta. That night we just relaxed, took in the sights around us, and ate some more shawarma.
The next morning, my wife and I headed to the Bahia Palace before all the tour groups got there. The Bahia Palace is a palace and a set of gardens that was built in the late 19th century and intended to be the greatest palace of its time. The name means “brilliance.” As in other buildings of the period in other countries, it was intended to capture the essence of the traditional Islamic and Moroccan style. This was accomplished the craftsmanship of woodcarvings, paintings, and geometric tile designs.
After Bahia Palace, my wife and I headed back to Jemaa el-Fnaa (the main market) so I could try my luck at snake charming. Once we got there, we were immediately bombarded with snake charmers all with their hands out ready to shake. With one swift gesture I put both my hands in my pockets and said, “No price, no shake.” I was immediately elevated to a level of bargaining that they usually don’t get from a Yank. I said I wanted a few pictures playing the flute for the snake and a fair price that I wasn’t willing to budge from. One of the guys took my offer and then we shook on it. I got some great pics and then when I went to pay him, he wanted double my offer. I laughed and then gave him the amount we agreed upon. You have to be stern with these people or they will hustle every last cent out of you. I’ve been around the world, and these salesmen are unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
My wife and I then went shopping for an oil lamp that she wanted while I bought some Yves Saint Laurent replicas that I just couldn’t turn down. We then proceeded to stuff ourselves with more shawarma and tagine before heading to bed so we could wake up and catch our flight in the morning.
Overall, our entire trip to Marrakesh was wonderful. There was beautiful architecture, amazing food, and everything was cheap! The riad that we stayed in was called Riad l’heure D’été, and it was absolutely friendly, clean, and located within footsteps from all the main attractions. I highly recommend this riad to anybody who is planning a trip to Marrakesh.