Nothing really prepares you for Morocco. The Lonely Planet books try but unless you are standing in the middle of Marrakech’s Djemma el-Fna, you just don’t know what to expect.
We caught the local bus from the airport and sat next to a friendly Moroccan woman who spoke French, Arabic and of all things Italian. She had a small child with her who was fascinated by the two foreigners sitting in front of her. I said hello to the little girl in Arabic and she looked so surprised that she didn’t know what to say and shied away smiling. The bus dropped us off into a world of chaos filled with smoke, snake charmers, monkeys, African dancers, and the most bewildering scene Regina and I have ever encountered.
It took us a while to find our hotel, or riad as they call them here. Winding our way through small corridors and alleyways past carts being pulled by donkeys, motorbikes whizzing by, and the ever shady hooded man wanting us to come to his hotel because it is cheaper and better. “La Shukran” we reply. No thanks in Arabic.
Relieved, we find our hotel, the Jnane Mogador. A thick, wooden arched door leads us into a beautiful courtyard with a fountain in the center. This will be our safe haven from the pandemonium for the next 3 days. Our room is small but clean and comfortable. We head upstairs to the restaurant on the roof to have some lunch before we go out. A muffled call to prayer can be heard over loud speakers in the distance. The call to prayer is held 5 times a day here and when you first hear it you realize you are in a different world.
We leave our riad and walk down another small alley lined with shops selling rugs and tin lanterns. A butcher shop sits next to a Moroccan shoe shop and the smell of meat and leather permeate the air. Dodging the motorbikes and stray cats we end up in one of the most hectic locations the world has to offer: the Djemma el-Fna or Place of the Dead. I would compare this to Saint Marks Square in Venice or Tiananmen Square in Beijing in size only. It’s a place where locals and tourists alike gather and soak up what Marrakech has to offer. We fist stop at the orange juice stalls. A tall and thin man dressed in a white robe convinces us we need to try his orange juice and not the 20 other similar stalls. For only 10 Dirhams (1$) we each have a freshly squeezed glass of juice. All around us we see snake charmers trying to convince the tourists to come a little bit closer. The beat of their flutes supposedly keeps the cobras from striking. Herbalists (medicine men) sit by their potions, herbs, and dried animal parts. Fortune tellers and women in black veils hawk henna tattoos. Monkeys on leashes are running around with their handlers wanting a few Dirhams for a photo op. Story tellers draped in what resembles a Jedi cloak speak loudly and gather large crowds around them in a circle. The stories they tell we will never understand. Large pots of boiling snails are sold and the Arab man is trying to get us to sit down and have a bowl of this local delicacy. Entering deeper into the food stalls we see sheep’s head that has been boiled and the hair burned off, their tongues hanging slightly out. Everything is eaten but the eyes. We pass on these dishes and head to the stall selling mint tea. A large glass is filled with fresh mint leaves and a very large chunk of sugar. Hot tea is then poured in and the sugar is dissolved and we now have one of the best drinks Marrakech has to offer.
We call it a day and head back to comforts of our riad. The first call to prayer comes at 5am and that is only a few hours away.