Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Marrakech, Part I: A Marrakech Welcome

We arrived in Marrakech in darkness. From the window of the plane we could see the bright red neon Marrakech Menara Airport sign in French and Arabic; when we climbed down from the plane and walked en masse across the tarmac to the airport door, we could see the Koutoubia minaret in the distance—the city center. Inside, our passports were stamped; we found an ATM and withdrew hundreds of dirhams, the equivalent of about 30 euros; and then we looked around anxiously for our driver, without whom we’d have been stranded at the Marrakech airport. The city center would have been accessible enough by taxi, but our riad—a traditional Moroccan home refurbished as a guesthouse—would have been hidden forever in the warren of unmarked streets in the Marrakech kasbah. Fortunately for us, there he was, along with Simon, a guide/servant sort of person at the riad, with Andrew’s name and the name of our riad written on a bright red sign. Simon spoke minimal French and even more minimal English. He shook Andrew’s hand, but turned away from mine when I offered it until the driver chided him in Arabic. Andrew and I followed them to the car, and we were on our way.

The streets of the kasbah were too narrow and twisty for cars, so the driver let us out some distance from our riad. We hurried to keep up with Simon as he led us through masses of people and guided us through many twists and turns. Just walking to the riad was an adventure. We wove through crowds and stalls selling boiled lambs’ heads; huge bloody cuts of meat hanging from hooks; live and not live chickens; boxes of live chicks, some dyed purple and green and pink; piles of hooves from an unidentifiable animal, being cleaned in a bucket of water; fresh whole fish swarming with flies. We dodged motorbikes and donkeys. When we finally reached our riad, we were hopelessly turned around.

Michel, the riad owner, welcomed us in French; Simon served us mint tea on the rooftop terrace. The night was chilly, and the tea was sweet and hot. It was getting very late, but we were excited to really be in Marrakech, antsy to see some of the city. Our requests for directions to the main square, where we hoped to have dinner, were met with incomprehension and a map without any street names, but nonetheless we left the comfort of the riad and set off alone for the square.

Somehow, we found Djemaa el-Fna, the throbbing main square of Marrakech. Even from some distance away, we could hear the square: the whiny discord of snake charmers’ oboes, the shouts of the crowds, the sizzle and bustle of hundreds of food stalls. Smoke rose into the night sky; we smelled grilled meats. And then we were there, overcome: Marrakech. Veiled women and tunic-clad men mixed with westerners hopelessly clutching maps and cameras. We walked quickly, only to find ourselves facing snake charmers’ coiled black cobras; we veered away and found ourselves in the sea of food stalls, our arms pulled from every direction. “Francais? Ingles? Espanol? Come, eat here. Sit. You are welcome. Francais? Ingles?” We pulled away and pushed past, saying no amiably and then forcefully. But we were hungry, and a menu—one of many—being waved in our faces looked cheap and good; so we eventually gave in and sat down at a long communal table, Moroccans and tourists eating around us.

Suddenly, food appeared—bread, then bowls of potatoes and plates of eggplant and peppers. Bowls of hot pepper sauce. A bowl of couscous and vegetables. We’re in Marrakech, we said, satisfied and amazed, eating hungrily. The food was delicious. But then more food appeared—a plate of brochettes (meat and vegetable kebabs); plates of fries; plates of sausages. Finally we waved our hands and said No more.

As we sat, satisfied, and waited for our plates to be cleared, it began raining—a downpour. People crowded under the tarp-covered food stalls, pressed close against us. A small child’s hand reached over my shoulder and grabbed my uneaten fries. Then a hooded and robed old woman appeared and began gesturing at the other uneaten food. We had no idea what to do—we were happy to give away the food, but was it okay to do so? We’d been in Morocco for only a few hours, and we were already at sea. Then one of the stall workers hollowed out a round flat bread, gestured for our permission, and filled the bread with our uneaten eggplant and sausages.

While we were eating and being given plate upon plate of food, we hadn’t worried about the fact that we hadn’t ordered anything specifically from the menu; surely, food at the food stalls of Djemaa el-Fna couldn’t cost much, and the menu prices we’d seen—briefly—on the menu looked incredibly cheap, the equivalent of a euro or less per dish. We’d only brought with us a couple hundred dirhams and a few euros, figuring we’d be eating cheaply at the food stalls. But then the couple next to us—Germans, who had far fewer plates spread out before them—began gesturing confusedly about their bill. A few of the stall workers hovered around them, pointing out the prices and the corresponding plates. The couple shook their heads, shocked and resigned. We saw them hand over two hundred dirhams. We knew then we were in trouble.

Sure enough, when we asked for our bill, it was 450 dirhams—about 45 euros. We threw up our hands, gesturing for explanations. Obviously, there were explanations for each. We hadn’t been given the cheap dishes; we’d been given the 5 and 6 euro dishes, and two of each to boot. We couldn’t argue—we hadn’t refused the food, after all—but we didn’t have enough dirhams to pay for it. For a scary moment, we thought Andrew would have to leave me as collateral at the food stall while he ran back to the riad—wherever it was—to get his ATM card and then found an ATM—wherever one might be. We’d heard from a friend in Barcelona that euros are sometimes accepted in Morocco, and this was our only hope. “Euros? Euros?” we asked desperately, and the man shrugged and agreed. We had exactly enough dirhams and euros to cover the bill.

We walked home in the rain, clutching our useless map, nervously retracing our steps down dark, deserted streets to our hidden riad; and once we made it back and closed the door to our room, we collapsed and just laughed and laughed. We figured paying 45 euros for food at the Djemaa el-Fna food stalls was the equivalent of paying $45 for a hot dog from a New York City hot dog cart. We’d been officially welcomed to Marrakech.

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