w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
Marrakech is like childbirth: The memories are great, but while in the throes, it's a complete and total pain in the ass.
The last time we were in Morocco was 17 years ago. Chris and I flew in to Casablanca, picked up a car and drove to the seaside town of Oualidia, the pottery capital Safi, the fishing village of Essaouira, to the winding medina of Marrakech and up through the desert to Fes. It was our honeymoon and by our second day in Marrakech, I had been touched by so many strangers, you could have dusted me for fingerprints. A man trapped Chris and I in a dark alleyway and offered to trade me for a donkey. I was constantly followed. Children tugged on my clothes and arms. Doors locked behind us in carpet shops. It was more annoying than menacing, but by the time we returned back to our home in NYC, we vowed never to return.
So yes, like childbirth, we conveniently forgot all of this and birthed a sibling – a two week trip to Marrakech, the capital of unwelcome touching and aggressive street hawkers. If there is one location Isoo was dreading, it was here. This is a kid with full blown anxiety – fear of vomiting, rigid sleep rituals, obsessive hand washing and tooth brushing, picky about food, smells, strangers, you name it. So going to Marrakech was like venturing straight into a cobra pit. But it wasn’t just Isoo who struggled. This portion of the trip, more than any, made us question the kind of travel we wanted to pursue, the lifestyle we were giving up and highlighted our individual weaknesses and strengths.
Don't get the wrong idea - we are not extravagant people, but because I knew Marrakech would be stressful for Isoo, I rented a (fancy for us) house that would feel like a sanctuary. It just so happened that the house came with a driver and housekeeper. Our flight to Marrakech was delayed so we arrived after 9pm. Fayssal met us at the airport and took us to the house where Sabah had a chicken tagine waiting for dinner. Then she showed us around the dreamy three-story riad anchored by an central, open courtyard complete with a private dipping pool. The downstairs consisted of a cozy salon with series of daybeds for lounging, the open air courtyard and sitting room, and the kitchen/dining room. Upstairs were two bedroom suites connected by an open air sitting area. On the roof was the terrace and another bedroom suite. It was gorgeous. We’d never seen anything like it.
The next morning, Sabah arrived early to make us breakfast. Unaccustomed to having a housekeeper, Chris and I had set the alarm, got washed, dressed, made the beds and had coffee ready for her arrival. After the first of what would be 13 straight days of bread for breakfast, Sabah wandered from room to room, and then admonished us for leaving her with nothing to do. It went like that the entirety of our stay and frankly, while Sabah is a lovely woman, after a couple of days, I really hated having her around. Not only am I not a morning person, but I do not like strangers in my house and prefer to do my own cleaning. In the end, we didn’t use Fayssal either, preferring the sponetanity of cabs and long walks.
A note about open air houses – they are awesome when a little bird chirps next to you while you're sipping coffee, when the sun is streaming through the house or it’s night and you look up to see the sky is filled with stars. It’s way less awesome when it’s the rainy season and you’ve left your camera sitting in the courtyard. Or you need rain boots to get from the bathroom to the kitchen. And when it’s cold for several straight days and you're so desperate for clean laundry you spend six hours diligently flipping socks on a portable electric heater. It's especially hard at 5:30am during the call to prayer which woke all of us every single morning. Chris and Isoo got over the magic of the house pretty quickly, missing the good old days of ceilings and central heating.
Despite the cold, Oona insisted on checking out the dipping pool.
The open air courtyard.
The kids across the courtyard.
After the first couple of days, Sabah made a point of locking up the broom and the tea. If you know me at all, you know how painful and hilarious this is (the broom part, not the tea). Clearly she was not comfortable with me trying to usurp her job. We mostly hung out in the salon, hiding from Sabah and the rain, but if she offered tea service, we always said yes.
Sabah trying to show Isoo how to twirl a fez tassel.
Oh the medina. What can I say? It is absolutely magical. There is no place like it. The day after our arrival we walked the twisty alleyways, taking non-stop pictures, the children picking up instruments, fingering scarves and carpets, marveling at the hammered trays and shiny teapots, the goatskin lamps, the piles of colorful, deflated poofs. Just before sunset we climbed to the top of Le Grand Balcon Café Glacier, ordered our mint tea and then watched the square come to life, smoke emitting from the food stalls, knots of crowds gathering around snake charmers and monkey trainers, the hawkers out hustling tourists into restaurants. Isoo stood at the edge of the balcony, quiet as a church mouse, taking it all in and then finally turned to Chris and said, “Wow, Dad, I wonder what my friends would think if they could see through my eyes right now.” Even he couldn’t resist the charms and magic of the medina.
But in the coming days, it would all unravel. Isoo was protective of me, hating the constant touching, the “konnichiwa!” that followed me around the square. He detested the sellers, the noise and dirt, the dark, low alleyways, overflowing dumpsters, the mysterious puddles, the narrow streets crowded with donkey carts, motorcycles and bikes. And as much as he abhorred it, Oona adored it. She loved Jemaa el fna, everyday asking, “Can we go to the night party?” She moved from crowd to crowd, drinking it all in, holding snakes, nagging me for henna tattoos, jumping up onto an orange stall to sell juice, marveling at the monkeys wearing diapers, the acrobats and their human pyramids. She haggled for the best price on wooden snakes, begged for a tasseled fez hat, devoured dried fruit and nuts and sweets sold from the wooden carts. While she wouldn't be able to to make it to school without getting lost, within a day, she had the medina down cold, grabbing Chris by the hand to lead him to her favorite stalls.
The view from the Le Grand Balcon Cafe.
"#18 is the best!"
Just thought I'd make myself comfortable by this stinky dumpster and the start of a darken alley to you, know, catch up on some reading. Ah, Marrakech. On the street to our riad.
Marrakech movers and shakers.
In Jemaa el fna, young men in hoodies, tight acid washed jeans and fawkhawks line the stalls touting the merits of their restaurants:
"Hey, hey, come here! Best food, better than Jamie Oliver!"
"Free air conditioning!"
"Come, look, see the menu. No diarrhea for 2 years!"
"No, come here! No diarrhea for 5 years! Guaranteed!"
"Hey you, you look like the actor in X-men with the really long…."
We sit at a food stall and Isoo pulls the collar of his shirt up to cover his nose. Oona, famous for her love of soup, leans over, stares into a murky cauldron and says, “That looks good. I’ll have that.” Chris and I eyeball each other, trying to ride that line between caution and curiosity. But after having worked at Tizi Melloul for 6 years, I’m no rookie to Morrocan food. We go with curiosity and thankfully, I manage to be the only one who gets sick during the trip. In the meanwhile we have a few great tagines, pastilles, couscous and brochettes, but man, do I miss sushi!
Everyday I'm hustlin'
Nibblin on bread.
In a tiny little strip hidden in the olive souk is Mechoui Alley, famous for its lamb sandwiches. The lamb is delivered, salted and then put into a pit that's been smoldering with ash and coal for two hours. When it's done, it's sold by the kilo and served alongside a piece of Moroccan bread. The kids nearly cried when they saw the piles of dead flesh piled in the carts. I did manage a taste, but I draw the line when I see a tail. Chris, on the other hand, couldn't get enough. He would disappear during various times throughout the trip and return with a greasy grin and a round belly.
They let us into the kitchen to see the cooking pit. Ha! this is me, photo thieving Chris' pic.
Oye. I can barely make it into Old Navy without losing my mind, much less deal with the haggling in Marrakech. I'll gladly throw a wad of money on a cash register just to make the ordeal of shopping end. This is why Chris is in charge of all the haggling. The rule of thumb is ask the price, offer half, and then work your way toward the middle. And no matter how self-satisfied you are with your purchase, you've probably lost because the shopkeepers in Marrakech are WAAAAYYYY better at the haggle than you.
So despite coveting the rugs, pillows, teapots, etc., I just could not pull the trigger. Shopping + pressure + haggling + attempts at brainwashing = empty shopping bags. Case in point:
I stop to admire a pair of funky purple harem pants and the shopkeeper comes out.
“250 dhms,” he says.
"Oh, I'm just looking, thanks."
"No. You like. You buy. 250 dhm, special price for you."
“What size are they?” I ask hesitantly.
“No really, what size?”
Looks me up and down, “They fit you. You take. 230 dhm.”
“Wait, can I try them on?”
“Why? They fit you. You take. 200 dhm.”
“Oh, 200 is too high. Will you take 120 dhm?”
“No. 200 dhm. Final offer.”
“Um, Ok. No thanks.”
“Fine, 180 dhm."
"No really, I was just looking."
"Why you no buy? They fit! I give you special discount! 170 dhm!”
“Let me think about it. I’ll come back after lunch.”
“No. Don’t come back.”
"Oh, OK. Good-bye."
Here are pictures of beautiful things I did not buy.
Also, while there are supermarkets and shopping malls galore in the new city, the medina is all specialty stalls.
Our corner store.
Most of all, I did not buy anything from this guy. Here's a well known Marrakech con: Step foot into the super windy, ultra confusing Dyer's Souk and a "guide" will offer to take you to the dying vat. Instead he will take you to a shopkeeper who will do a fast demo of the dyes (scripted and done a million times each day) and then he will (unbidden) wrap your kids in turbans, encourage you to take pictures and then hard sell you into buying a million overpriced scarves. If you don't buy, he will throw his hands into the air, stomp out and watch as you helplessly try to find your way out of the souk. If you leave empty handed, the shopkeepers lounging in doorways will laugh and offer up the wrong directions.
Oh well, at least we got a cute pic out of it.
Oh wait, we did buy something! Actually, we stopped to watch this guy make chess pieces and before you know it, both kids were sporting necklaces. If a guy makes necklaces with his feet, you gotta pay him, right?
After our blow out in Evora, Chris offered to step it up and take over some of the trip planning. His first order of business was to plan the desert excursion in Morocco. Several of our friends had raved about driving to the edge of the desert, riding camels into the Sahara and staying overnight in Berber tents. You must do it! they insisted. Who are we to argue?
So despite a record breaking rainstorm raging in the south, we packed a bag and met our young Berber driver, Ahmed, on the outskirts of the medina. We drove an hour through flooded streets before learning that the bridge to Ouarzazate had collapsed. We turned around, unpacked and then spent the next couple of days waiting for the rain to subside. Three days later, we were packed and on the road again, this time, with just a "small detour", promised Ahmed.
After countless inquiries of "are we there yet?", "we're hungry," "when's lunch?" "I have to pee," Ahmed pulled into a restaurant and with the motor still running, said, "Have lunch, I'll see you in an hour" and raced off. It was 3pm and we had been in the car for seven straight hours. We bombarded Chris with questions, to which he had no answers. When Ahmed returned, we hopped into the car and I demanded to know how much longer till the desert. "And don't say 10 minutes and then 40 minutes and then 1 hour that turns into 5 hours. Just give it to me straight." When he mumbled, I screamed hysterically, "Huh? What's that? Speak up!" Turned out the roads were still closed which meant we had to drive all the way west to Agadir before heading south toward the desert. In the end we spent 12 hours driving the first day only to spend the night in a freezing hotel, wake up to an even colder shower, and then got back in the car for another 5 hour drive to the lip of the desert.
When we finally got to the desert, we dropped our bags at yet another hotel, and boarded camels for an hour ride into the Sahara. It was great fun for the first 20 minutes. There is a reason why only tourists ride camels. It's freaking painful! (The Berbers? They drive ATVs.) But the dunes were undeniably breathtaking. I mean, ridiculously, insanely beautiful. Oona had a blast running up and down the dunes, whooping and racing, making footprints in the pristine sand. Isoo was dismayed to find that there were no birds, which basically killed the trip for him. He couldn't even muster a smile for the pictures.
After the other guests arrived, we had a tasty tagine dinner and then gathered around the campfire to count shooting stars. We also listened to a drum show and some of us (i.e., Oona) danced around the campfire before taking a night hike in the dunes. It was pretty excellent and we had a great time getting to know the other guests. I had never seen so many stars. The evening was terrific until we retired to our tent. While we were lucky to have real beds, the recent rains made the mattresses so wet the damp seeped through our clothes. In the morning, my ankles were sore from the weight of the (numerous) blankets and yet, none of us had slept a wink, having spent all night shivering in the cold. We were not happy (Berber) campers.
We rode the camels back, took another freezing shower and then drove 9 hours back to Marrakech. In the end, we spent 26 hours in the car, 6 awake hours in the desert, 8 freezing hours "sleeping", several days spent waiting for the reschedule, and $1,000 for the privilege. Was it worth it? Ask me again in a couple of years, but we did manage to birth some fantastic pictures.
Our driver Ahmed: a true (modern) Berber. When I asked his age, he hesitated and mumbled 25 (I'm guessing he's not a day over 19). At every bathroom break he would smoke cigarettes and chat on his two cell phones.
Many of the roads were still flooded so the driving was slow going. Thankfully, we had an endless supply of Berber music to keep us entertained.
Isoo was not happy about the camels.
Oona at sunset.
New friends Colin and Caroline. And the lovely London ladies.
Our Berber tent. Wet and wild.
This amazing sunrise ALMOST made up for the sleepless night.
Early in the morning, Chris took Oona sand boarding and I took Isoo birding. While we were out walking a real live nomad came over the dunes on a donkey. Surreal.
Scenes from the drive
Top: Oona at the Casbah.
Middle left: Isoo at the hotel. Middle right: Dades Gorge.
Bottom: In some villages, married Moroccan women wear white (and the men walk 2 steps behind).
Sheep herding in the Atlas Mountains. Making argan oil.
Exhausted from our long hijacking.
We had one warm day in Marrakech so we high-tailed it to La Mamounia, the super posh playground of movie stars and diplomats, and apparently, grungy American almost backpackers. We bought a pricey day pass and spent the day lingering by the pool, noshing on $35 hamburgers, the kids doing laps while Chris and I took turns running on the treadmill. When the sun went down, we headed to the indoor pool, doing belly flops whenever the ornately garbed attendants turned their backs. It was Isoo's favorite (and according to him, only good) day in Marrakech. I said, "enjoy it while you can, because the days of fancy hotels are over!" I said it like it wasn't a big deal, but frankly, and don't judge me for this, I was a little sad. In the olden days, when Chris had a job, we could afford to splurge like this. We didn't do it often because I'm a cheapskate, but it was nice knowing we could. Now that Chris has not only given up his job, but turned his back on his career, these kinds of opportunities won't come along often. When we return, we'll rent a small place, buy a used car, purchase furniture with what's left of our savings. We'll both have to work. None of this is horrible. It's what we chose: to start over, live with less, share responsibility. Part of me is excited. But I don't yet understand what that life will look like because we're in state of limbo (and a privileged one at that). We'll see how it goes. But meanwhile, the day at La Mamounia? Isoo was right. It really was awesome.
What better way than to spend Thanksgiving than with a traditional belly dance show? We kept the kids up for a 9:00 dinner at Comptoir followed by a 10:30 belly dance performance. Chris and I loved it, but Oona deemed it "too naked" and Isoo didn't even seem to notice the dancers. I'm giving him another year.
What am I thankful for? Chris, my family (near and far), my friends (who I miss terribly), the occasional run, so much great food, beautiful art, sunny days, hug pillows, Googlemaps, shower curtains, dryers, Uber, a world that tolerates my inability to speak anything but English, good coffee, people who are willing to accept our overtures of friendship and Facetime.
She danced. With a candelabra. On her head.
Grateful for these guys.