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Trouble in Marrakech
Jon Gerloff and Esrin Gozukizil

Here are the expectations I had for a recent trip to Morocco: exotic, sand swept topography, dunes as high as a skyscraper, camels filling the roadway, belly dancers serving food, sunrise in a sultan’s tent.  Unrealistic?  Sure.  And when you never leave Marrakech, impossible. 

Marrakech is a bad city for a traveler, or I should say a tourist.  I make no bones about my status; I am a tourist.  I like certain amenities.  When my wife and I travel we like to eat good food and see interesting sights.  It’s what makes a vacation a vacation and not just another boring day at the office. 

Unfortunately, in Marrakech, there isn’t a lot to see, food and drink are hard to come by, it isn’t cheap, and pushy carpet sellers constantly harass you.  To go anywhere, it’s best to hire a guide, and to get anywhere you’ll also need to hire a driver.  Pretty soon you’ve built up a whole retinue. 

Sure, you can find old Morocco, quaint and charming just like in a storybook, but in Marrakech it’ll be protected behind a well-fortified wall with an armed guard outside (a ceremonial saber is still armed in my book).

While in Marrakech, we stayed at the famous 5-star Hotel La Mamounia.  It was voted best hotel in Africa and the Middle East by the people that vote on such things.  The room was beautiful—high ceilinged, big firm bed, well appointed bathroom, satellite television and air conditioning on the fritz.  What?  What!  It was over 100 degrees outside and hitting 150 sweltering degrees inside.  You could cook a lamb on my forehead.  So like most locals, and for the very same reason, we left our hotbox of a room and ventured outside.

The main attraction in Marrakech is the Djemaa el-Fna.  Think of Venice Beach in a parking lot, double the crowd, add a couple of hair-patched monkeys, and you get a good idea of the place.  It’s a short walk from the hotel and you don’t need a guide. 

The Djemaa el-Fna starts forming for real in the late afternoon under the watchful presence of the Koutoubia Mosque.  All varieties of food vendors set up shop, storytellers weave their tales, musicians bang out tribal rhythms, and belly dancers gyrate.  Snake charmers can be seen during the day when the snake is lethargic with heat prostration, or maybe that was just me.  The place is packed with people gawking at it all, forming loose circles around the performers.  It’s alive with wonderfully exotic sounds and colors.  Be warned, it’s mostly for the enjoyment of the locals.   

In the Djemaa el-Fna, a tall Anglo with a non-chadored wife stands out like a sore thumb.  And when the story is done being told, or the music has stopped, or the belly dancer’s hips have ceased gyrating, it’s time to pass the hat for donations.  Where do you suppose they go first?  It doesn’t matter if you’re in the first row or are the ninth one deep, they come straight for you like a heat seeking change maker.  You better have some coins ready because these people do not take no for an answer.  I had the misfortune of having an angry belly dancer stare me down when I couldn’t fork over the requisite patronage.  I was just as surprised when she turned out to be a he as when he said, ‘go get some’.  And he wasn’t kidding.

The Djemaa el-Fna is not only a locals-only hangout, but it’s predominantly men (about 80-20 men over women).  Many of the women I saw were wearing traditional chador.  The remaining women who weren’t covered, like my wife, got a lot of hostile looks.  I couldn’t tell if they wanted to rape her or tear her apart by quartering her.

It’s best to hire a guide if you’re going to see the outlying sights or to the souq.  Here’s why: out on the street, just past the entrance to the La Mamounia, something goes on that I called the Carpet Surveillance.  Across the street sits six or so local men, innocently shooting the breeze with each other.  But as soon as a guest walks out, probably on their way to the Djemaa el-Fna (where else would they go without a guide?), they spring into action and initiate surveillance.  Whosever turn it is amongst them follows discreetly from across the street.  Once the target gets past a predetermined point, they cross over, but still follow from behind at a safe distance.  They are assessing your clothing, your jewelry, your watch—but not to steal. 

They are out to steer you into the souq to sell you a carpet.  If another person attempts to horn in on their prey, which is more than likely, or at the first stoplight, whichever comes first, they make their move.  They greet you warmly and ask if you remember them.  What a coincidence they say, but they just happen to work at the La Mamounia too.  You remember them, surely.  They work in the garden, at the pool, by the bar, whatever innocuous position they’ve designed for themselves.  And maybe you know their uncle too, he works there as well.  Small world.  Then they ask if you are going to the Djemaa el-Fna which is such an amazing coincidence because he happens to be going that way as well and he’s more than willing to show you the way.  But that’s not all, it just so happens to be the best time to see the souq, you are very lucky indeed, because the Berbers have come down from their mountain retreats and are only there today (we were just as lucky on subsequent strolls because the Berber women happened to be in town.  I’m sure on other days the Berber children and their farm animals would have been there). 

So you talk to your newfound friend and savior and, before you know it, he’s strolled you away from your destination and towards his.  Be warned, enter that souq and you’d better leave with a carpet because if he takes off on you in a huff, you’re toast.

The next day we hired a guide.  The hotel arranged for it from a list they keep.  The guides are state regulated and near at hand.  A half-day excursion will run you 150 dirhams (about $15) plus the cost of a taxi to get around. 

Our guide was named Bush-something and he walked through the streets of Marrakech like Hannibal Lechter through Florence.  Dressed in a cream-colored tailored linen suit, complete with fedora, he acknowledged acquaintances and admirers alike with a small wave of his hat, strolling along without a care in the world, especially whether or not the two Americans trailing behind kept up.  He knew the streets of the souq like the back of his hand.  The souq is a large complex of narrow alleyways selling all sorts of tourist trinkets, clothing, shoes and scarves.  You could get lost after the first turn.   

But as they say about all roads leading to Rome, all souq alleyways lead to, you guessed it, a carpet salesmen.  Hey fellas, do you enjoy buying floor covering with your wife?  Well, just combine that experience with all the fun of buying a used car from a really, really (really), pushy salesman.  That’s what it’s like.      

Our salesman pulled out rug after rug while we implored him to stop, told him we weren’t interested, begged him to let us go, pleaded, shook our heads, wrung our hands.  But our carpet salesman was persistent, and if you believed what he said, not interested in whether we bought anything or not.  Huh.  But of course if we did like a certain carpet, how much would we be willing to pay for it, even if we weren’t going to buy it.  During all of this, Bush-something cooled his heals with an ice-cold soda, idly flicking flies away with his hat.  They finally got the idea that we were paupers and threw us back into gen-pop.  Bush-something stomped off ahead of us, clearly displeased that no commission would be forthcoming from his cut of the action.

Do you know who the most useless man in Marrakech is?  It’s the cop standing on a busy street corner trying to bring order to an intersection.  The streets of Marrakech aren’t like anything you’ve ever seen.  At night, not only does everybody go outside until their homes have sufficiently cooled off, but everybody goes out onto the street.  Imagine a river rushing by in one direction, and right next to it is another river rushing by in the opposite direction.  Those are the cars.  Now imagine an army of ants coming to those two rivers from opposite sides.  They stall, unsure of what to do.  Meanwhile the ants in back are stacking up behind the ones in front until they are forced to move forward.  Those are the pedestrians.  The streets are busy with thousands of petit taxis, the little four door death boxes that run about $2/trip.  Mopeds buzz by and fill in any gaps in the traffic while slower horse-drawn carriages and bicycles stay close to the curb.  People are walking and crossing every which way. 

And there stands that lone cop, in full uniform, white starched wrist puttees and official-looking hat, seemingly impervious to the heat.  No wonder he seemed so angry, indiscriminately handing out tickets to unwary violators.  I didn’t want to cross the street let alone get in a rental car and drive through this madness.   

Know who the most resourceful man in Marrakech is?  The one who gets his whole family of three—wife and child—onto one moped.  Not a scooter, not a motorcycle, but on an old Motobecane moped that I haven’t seen in production for years, sold by the thousands here, cruising around like it’s the family station wagon.

After two anxious days trying to make a decision whether to go out to the countryside or leave the country altogether, we decided to leave—I’d had enough.  Faced with limited resources and limited time, I didn’t want to gamble the rest of the trip by taking off towards destinations that might have been better, but could just as easily have been worse.  And once we were on our way, there was no going back, because the places we were headed wouldn’t have airports.  Like I said, I’m a tourist and this was not like The Sheltering Sky. 

So I called the airline and they informed me that any changes to my tickets would nullify them.  I’d have to re-book, which meant I’d have to buy new tickets.  The airlines toll free number quoted me a price, let’s just say for the sake of this story, $350/per.  But they couldn’t book it over the phone; we’d have to go to the ticket agency in town. 

Once there, the not so helpful woman behind the counter clicked away on her keyboard, looked at us like a couple bank robbers, clickity-clicked some more, then informed us that there was no reservation for us nor any room on the plane.  You have to realize that everything in Morocco is a negotiation, and that getting anything done is like pulling teeth.  Upon a second or third check, yes it turned out, there was a reservation for us but it was at $450/per.  I explained that we already had a quote for $350/per.  After some more one-sided haggling, where she held all the cards and knew it, we took the seats at $450/per.  I just had to pay for them over at the cashier who would issue us our tickets. 

Mr. Cashier also tap-tap-taped away at his computer and voila!  Two tickets to Paris for $550/per.  What?  Yes, so sorry, the prices are not set until I call them up on the computer, and of course the exchange rate is set by the bank and can fluctuate wildly you understand.  Oh boy.  I felt like I was in the middle of a Marx Brother routine—I was waiting for him to charge a handling fee for passing them over the desk to me. 

We finally escaped Marrakech and headed back to Paris.  The third world does not hold any charm for me.  On our bus ride back to the airport there was another American family traveling.  The father looked mysterious and we tried to guess whether he was with the State Department, the CIA, or was a TV anchorman.  He summed it up pretty well when he said, “They just have a couple of problems they’ve been trying to work out…for the last thousand years.”   

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Jon Gerloff and Esrin Gozukizil are a husband and wife team specializing in world travel and fine dining. Jon is a writer currently working on his second novel. Esrin works in television development for a major production company.

You can reach the authors at: (Jon Gerloff and Esrin Gozukizil)


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