Thursday, July 5, 2012

Marrakech, Morocco - June 14, 2012

In search of the Riad Fantasia
      Arriving in Morocco, I had been warned many times about the people (touts) who press you for any and everything.  Sure enough, as soon as you walk off the plane and into the terminal, if you don't look like you know where you are going, must be a hormone emitted, then someone will be on you like white on rice.  If a kid comes up and says, "you look for taxi?" and you say yes, or even no, they will walk you to the taxi stand and then ask for money, as if they did something that you couldn't have done on your own.
    I knew that the taxi should cost between 75 and 150 dirhams so I had a place to start the haggling - 50 dirhams.  The first offer to me was 200 dirhams and when he could see that I wasn't going to pay, he knocked it down to the bargain price of 150.  At about that time a local bus #19, which went directly to the town square had just stopped at the bus stop, so my bargaining power greatly increased.  His next offer of 125 was rejected and I said, never mind, I'll just take the bus.  It was a bluff.  I had no idea where to go when I would be dropped off in the medina (old town)  It's not like maps really exist.  Even if  the maps did have names on them, so what, the streets don't.  And there are so many alley ways and 1/2 streets.  It's like someone took the city planner's maps, put them on a blender, and pushed frappe.
     So I had agreed to 100 dirhams about 9 to the dollar and off we went.  He drove like someone had told him that his house was on fire.  I must say that my first 40 minutes in Morocco were just about enough to make me say, "Hey, Mr. Andretti, please turn around and take me back to the airport.  It's time for me to go Stateside."  But I didn't.  I figured, it was... an experience.  It was only 4:00 in the afternoon, and I figured that I would have about five hours to find my Riad (home turned into a hotel) before it got dark.    
    The streets looked like something out of Blood Diamond.  Like a movie set.  I knew my Riad was just off the Square, the Djeema, and inside the old city walls.  But with a million people, finding it on my own was not going to happen.  After 30 minutes, the cabbie stops at the end of an alley and here's the conversation:
cabbie - "Here Hotel Fantasy"
me -  "So it is.  So it is... but I said Riad Fantasia!"
cabbie - same same.
me - nice try Amos, but nope.  Keep driving!
cabbie - looks at me like I'm going to get out.  Then he makes a motion for me to get out.
me - I stay where I am. Smile at him and say, "No money, if I get out!"  You don't know where the Riad Fantasia is, do you?"
cabbie -  yelling out the window in Arabic, "Ahkmed!  Ahkmed!  Where is Riad Fantasia?"
Ahkmed - yelling back in Arabic, "How the Hell do I know?  You're the cabbie!" (I'm just guessing by his face and gestures)
cabbie:  Bah!  drives off.  Stops and ask different people.  Six different stops and six different responses, probably along the lines of, "maybe cab driving isn't for you" to "Jackass!"
me - I've taken a relaxation pill of sorts and am just taking this in as a city tour for 12 bucks.

Finally, he comes across a teenager who knows where the Riad Fantasia is.  He gets in.  We drive for another minute or two and the cabbie points and says, "There Riad Fantasia".  The kid gets out, I get out, and the kid takes my bag (tip implied here!) and off we go down the alley.  Sure enough I find the Riad Fantasia.  Will miracles never cease!?!?

This is Johnny and Lauren, two of the ten Brits that I went with on a 4 day safari to the Sahara.

The Riad was about $30 a night and worth every penny.  My room was on the bottom floor and looked like something out of Arabian Nights. Had my own bathroom.  Was even clean!  No air-conditioning, but no big deal.  The 12" thick walls kept it amazingly cool.  When it got a bit warm for two hours a day, I'd take a shower and take a nap.

Riads are amazing because the alleys they are on are filthy and disgusting.  But open the door to the Riad and a world of peace and solitude await.  This is the street 18 feet from our Riad door.  Yes, let's keep that door shut!

Riads are very conducive to meeting people.  The common area is where we all meet for breakfast which ends up with, "Where are you going today?" and from that, groups head out to tanneries, safaris, massages, haircuts, beers, dinners, watching the Euro Cup, etc.  Good fun.  Makes staying in a hotel room boring.


I knew that with a good clean room and a shower, I could tolerate whatever came my way during the day.  Throw in a great house keeper named Abdullah and it was made even easier.  Abdullah was a Berber and made couscous for me the first night.  Every day was a simple but wonderful breakfast.  In this picture he's teaching Sara how to tie a turban.  Sarah was one of 10 Brits.
    He knew where to find everything in the city.  Massage for $1, laundry for $5, Hash for.... well you get the picture, he was a concierge!

The courtyard in the Riad was a place of great peace and tranquility.  Every morning breakfast and every night, I'd plug in my computer and type for a couple of hours.  Abdullah would bring me tea and I would answer the door if someone was out late or newly arrived in town.  It was a trade we made without ever saying anything, but I figured he had to be tired as he was up at 5:30 every morning and up at least to midnight.  Either he was a triplet or he was working 24 hour shifts.
  This is a picture of my first night in Marrakech.  Dinner with Carla and Everrett. He from Seattle and she from Chile.

The great attraction to Marrakeck is NOT it's cleanliness.  It's the Djemaa el Fna Square.  The "Square" is nuts.  It is Barnum and Bailey without restrictions, rules, regulations or safety nets.  It's the place to go every night and indeed, every Moroccan does exactly that.
This is the place to see snake charmers, who are a royal pain in the fang.  If they so much as see you touching your camera, they run at you demanding money.  Be sneaky, but remember, they've been doing this for 1,000 years from the same spot.  You've got little chance of succeeding.  I would take many pictures with the camera at my side and pointing away as I faked talking to one of the Brits.  It worked because I'm using a digital camera.  "Back in the day..." never could have afforded that many throwaway pictures.

The monkey men are almost as bad.  They will come up to you and put the monkey on your back, head, shoulders and then demand money for the  picture.

Doesn't this girl look calm and relaxed??
Doesn't she look like she'd give her last $ to get this rabid animal off her shoulder??

The lady in green is thanking Allah that she isn't a tourist!


 I may not be the greatest promoter in the world, but I know that if I were going to dress up in "traditional garb"... in an effort to lure in the tourist wanting to see the "traditional garb", I'd lose the motorcycle... but hey... I don't live in Marrakech, so whatever.
Great drums
Great hats
Great outfits
Great moped???

During the day, the Djeema looks like this, empty.  Everyday, the owners of the food stands have to take down their metal stands and then erect them again when the next day arrives.   In the background you see the tallest minaret in Marrakech, which can be heard from everywhere... except my room!

 At night the Djeema is crazy with activity.  Story tellers, henna salesladies, old men selling fruit, orange juice stands with their incredibly never ending cat calls to the tourist that their oj is better than the other 45 other OJ hawkers.  I wanted to say, "Don't you think that I might know if I want an oj?"
     The food stall hawkers, however, are in a league by themselves.  Apparently, the Bureau of Tourism has told them that grabbing you and sitting you down on one of their shucky looking benches is not good for the city image, but that doesn't mean that you can't stand in their way and "usher" you toward a table.  Some are funny.
food hawker:  Please... sir... please... sit here...
me:   La shokran (no thanks)
food hawker - fresh chicken!
me:   I just ate!
food hawker - Okay... maybe next time?
I love the good guy approach!  Very novel!

   But the majority of the "salesmen" want you to sit at their very dirty looking food stalls and eat chicken, lamb, snails... etc.    Yep, those are snails that you buy by the bowl...and folks are lining up for them.  "Uhhh.... you can have my place in line...No, really... I insist!"

Another treat is to have Moroccan Mint tea or Berber Whiskey as the Berbers call it.  It is very good but there are two things wrong with it.  Allah only knows who the last guy was to drink out of the glass and secondly, there is literally a block of sugar, not cube, in each glass.  Unreal.

At the risk of being accused of exaggerating, alleyways that are no more than 7 feet wide and with people walking both ways, have motor bikes buzzing through them as if it's a main thoroughfare.   I saw two people get hit while I was walking to the square, all of about 300 meters from  our Riad.  The secret is to NOT make a lateral step.  Only go forward or stop, look, and then take a lateral step.  It is amazing how close they come next to your elbows, so keep them from flailing or from pointing your fingers.
     It looks like the guy in the ball cap on the right has set up to watch the Indy 500 or more like the Demolition Derby.

But wait!  Hold your horses.. No, DON'T hold your horses.   there's a late entry into the mix... it's a pull cart complete with donkey and owner.  Yes, he, and the donkey, and the minibike, and three year olds, and 90 year old men, and the pregnant women...and me...are all using these little alleyways.  I can't believe that more people are killed!

Now here's one that makes a worker for CPS (Child Protective Services) scream, "Job Security!!"

And to make it even more of a challenge to common sense... Let's imagine that Papa actually needs glasses.  Let's imagine that the face on the little girl isn't saying, "I'm scare witless!"