Marrakharacters, Visions in the Desert

We take today’s breakfast in the Slipshod room (the Slapdash has been overplayed, we feel).

This morning’s spread includes chocolate cake – fortunate, since today’s shopping extravaganza requires fuel for the haggling fire.

MP and I dress down as much as possible in preparation; the couple we spoke with last night at Gastro MK has warned us that any outward appearance of wealth (watches, shiny earrings, etc etc) will more than likely work directly against you in the hard bargains of the souks.

We pop into the Ensemble Artisanal as a sort of amuse-bouche for the souks; here all the products have marked prices, so you can theoretically get some kind of idea of what items “should” cost. Important, since the first price quoted by souk vendors can be upwards of ten times the amount they’d actually accept for the object.

The EA is interesting enough, but we find the atmosphere far too calm to consider opening the floodgates. Bolstered in confidence, we plunge headstrong into the shady corridors of the souks.

I take few photos this time round; my aesthetic eye is fixated not on photography, but rather the many, many different prizes carpeting the infinite stalls. I also feel waving about the lens would significantly detract from our deal-making power.

We break the seal in a fabric stall, overflowing with beads and dye. MP zeroes in on bright square pillowcases, and we are immediately assisted by a sparsely-toothed shopkeep. Burgundy emerges as a favorite hue, and we line ’em up and narrow ’em down.

Once settled upon a sequined selection, the three circle around a table of negotiation in the very center of the room.

Shopkeep adds up items on calculator, then offers a “discounted” price.
MP slashes it by 2/3.
Shopkeep looks pained, explains that MP has very expensive taste. Offers 95% of original quote.
MP counters with 40% of original, says it’s her final offer.
Shopkeep explains that he must eat.
MP begins to make her way out of store.
Shopkeep protests emphatically, engages “boss” (second man in stall).
“Boss” hems/haws, reluctantly offers 80% of original quote.
MP actually steps foot outside of store.
“Boss” and Shopkeep physically usher her back inside, acceding to 50% of original quote.
MP insists that she’s already told them her final offer.
“Boss” inquires as to what difference it really makes, 40% or 50%?
MP responds, exactly.
“Boss” sighs, ok ok ok, 45% of original quote.
MP agrees, and we have a deal.

This at minimum 10-minute negotiation is repeated ad nauseum, exchanging calculated wads of dirham for hard-won souk goodies. MP is, of course, a natural expert (“Master Haggler” perhaps lacks some panache, though). Even I find myself on the battlefield in the fight for a series of small mirrors I’ve been lusting after since seeing similar styles in Granada. We also manage a handful of local trinkets, from ceramics to leather to metalworks.

One priority is a return to the spice dealer from our tour with Aziz. Here we score heaps of cumin, cinnamon, peppercorns, and harissa. Gastro MK’s turnip soup fresh in our palates’ memory, we also pick up a bottle of argan oil meant for cooking – you use the delicate nuttiness for finishing soups and salads, much as you would sesame oil.

The spice guy doubles as “herboriste” – natural medicine man – so I ask about what he might have for dealing with the persistent red patches I sometimes get on the backs of my arms. He claims the solution is pure argan oil designed for exterior application – distinct in composition from the cooking variety. It’s a little on the ‘spensive side, and I tell him I suppose I don’t really need it. He’s as slick a seller as the rest of the merchants here, though, and he quickly locates an open bottle to daub a bit on my skin. Believe it or not – and I still hardly do, given that nothing the Spanish pharmacy offered me worked worth a damn – the spots lighten in a matter of seconds. Sold.

In need of a brief repose from our spree, we pop in Café des Épices for a fruit juice and a view.

Aziz’s advice comes through again; the perch offers an unobstructed view of the hubbub below. The real people-watching paradise, though, is discovered hours later.

We are weighed down by the stress of barter, as well as multiple plastic bags brimming with purchases, when it begins to rain in Marrakech. Special and unique, perhaps, but we’re in no shape for it – we’ve elected to skip lunch in anticipation of a feast planned tonight, and find ourselves running on fumes. As such, when we emerge from the souks to Jemaa el-Fnaa quickly becoming slick with rain, we take to a terrace viewpoint once more.

On the verge of grumpiness from low glucose, we cave and order an olive-anchovy pizza to split, plus a pair of mint teas.

The frenzy of Jemaa el-Fnaa does subside somewhat in the rain, although most locals appear to simply carry on with their business; the only figure noticeably flustered in this photo is the tourist at the bottom.

These panoramics in the rain come out just lovely, but soon I become curious as to just how powerful the zoom function is on MP’s camera.

It’s rapidly evident that I can seriously spy on the different characters present in the square from up here. The range of dress in Marrakech is just as varied as the selection of souk wares.

This little exercise makes me realize something that wasn’t immediately obvious upon our arrival two days ago. I referred to tourists as “serious sore thumbs in the social landscape here,” which I now feel is wholly inaccurate. Western tourists are generally identifiable as such, much more so than in, say, Madrid – however, they form just as much of the atmosphere in Marrakech as the rest of the players here. For better and for worse, tourism transforms; I’ve seen it in Bangkok and I see it again here.

Legitimacy doesn’t, however, always equate to savvy. Within a quarter hour, we observe these three monetary dramas play out. Hope those photos turn out.

Snake-charmer requests payment from camera-happy tourist couple.

Cowgirl/musclehead couple pose with de-fanged snake.

Dance, pose, pay, regret.

We could easily stay up here for hours, entertained by the constant hoodwinking and checking out how the square gets dressed up for nightfall. However, our plans for the evening involve meeting a driver at the Riad at five o’clock – so I reluctantly pocket the camera and we head out.

Approximately five minutes after arriving back in the room – enough time to wash the face, poof the hair – we are called by reception. Non-stop action today. We summon up our strength and roll out.

The driver speaks very little English, and my French sucks (I think that’s the most accurate linguistic term, anyway). I’m also nodding asleep, so I let warped dream fragments wash over me as we motor away from the city.

When I awake, we are veering off the paved road to the left: directly into the desert.

There are a few faint imprints of tire tracks in the dusty ground here to indicate that one might wish to venture this way, but otherwise no sign that we are in any way doing something rational. Once, we pass a shepherd and his small flock off in the distance. Twice, gray concrete skeletons of buildings, looming like massively misplaced tetris blocks.

Hours or minutes or days later (where are we where are we wherearewe?), we arrive at a small gathering of edifices the same precise color as the dirt, appearing to actually be made from it. A gaggle of small children runs out from a doorway, waving. The driver stops the car here, we step out, and a grinning girl offers us a fistful of good-smelling herbs and flowers.

Would we care for mint tea? We would.

Our dinner destination is a bit further on, but MP has scheduled a camel ride through the desert for the final leg of the journey. The tea is the final precursor to mounting the beasts of burden waiting outside, and we are led to an elongated room lined with embroidered pillows and covered entirely in rugs. A single bare fluorescent bulb illuminates one half of the room; our driver explains that electricity is new to the village as of the last few years.

We de-shoe and sit cross-legged on the floor with our driver, plus a man who has greeted us outside (who speaks no English). A 60+ year-old robed woman – his wife? – enters with a metal tray balanced on her palm and serves steaming mint tea all around, plus a round of semolina bread with olive oil for our driver.

The children periodically peek in on us, making direct eye contact and grinning. We exchange few words, and it feels nearly sacrilege to snap a photo.

Our steeds await.

There’s little time for mutual contemplation between rider and mount. This hurried portrait is all I have time to capture before I am invited to make closer friends.

Camels are large.

Our driver takes the million-dollar shot. But this is no fashion shoot, and our man in blue shortly tugs at the lead, prompting MP’s camel forward.

Camels don’t move like humans, nor horses, really. They seem to bend exaggeratedly at the knees, allowing them to plod steady over moonscaped desert terrain. As rider, you have to simply relax into it, let the undulating texture wriggle its way up your spine.

How to describe? It feels both surreal and majestic; I am wholly out of place and out of my element and elated and terrified all at once.

This photo perhaps captures something of the wash of emotions: a pair of lucky aliens dwarfed by starkly resplendent landscape, posing for a sunset photo while one of their pack animals takes an extended pee. Yeah, that’s what that puddle is. I think you can even see some drips if you zoom.

After roughly half an hour’s circular journey on camelback, we reach an outcropping of buildings a few hills away from the village: La Pause. The camels bow, and we dismount as the sun disappears from the washed out sky.

La Pause is a guesthouse tucked in the middle of the Afagay hills. It has no electricity. The term might be “rustic luxury,” but I don’t think that quite captures it – there is sheer magic at play here.

Would we like mint tea served to us in our oasis tent? We would.

Temperatures drop as the night thickens, and we’re proferred blankets.

I’m still not sure where we are.

Once daylight has fully vanished from the hills, we are left in the company of floating flames. A low murmur from a far-off tent indicates the presence of two other temporary desert guests. Our waiter, soft-spoken and kind-eyed, invites us down to a dinner tent of our own. The only other company is a golden dog, who lopes alongside us down the sloping candlelit path.

We request wine, and our waiter slips away soundlessly into the dark to retrieve it. The table has been set with salads, twin picking plates consisting of quiche, sweet beets, and spiced carrots, plus a communal bowl full of peppery greens and sliced tomato. There’s a bread basket as well; MP audibly reacts upon its perusal. Toasty and pillowed in all the right ways: they have given us the good bread.

We play it slow. The eats are exquisite, the wine lovely, but it’s the unreal atmosphere we’re really drinking in.

There’s lamb tajine and couscous after the opening salad scherzo. We unilaterally agree: Riad Kniza’s velvety lamb was best, but this tajine as a whole takes home the prize. The good bread dipped in the sauce stops the turning of the earth upon its axis.

Our companion delights in a few choice morsels slipped to him by a friend.

Dessert is sticky-soft sugared fruit – apricot? – atop a simple crumb crust.

We cannot stay. Although she has graciously chosen to sweep us up in her arms for a scant few mystical hours, we do not pertain to this place.

Our driver masterfully motors us back across the pitch-black dust to find asphalt under the wheels once more, and too soon we are back in the beauty of the Riad.

Some write and some sleep.

Sometimes life gives you gifts, and I’m still figuring out how to best demonstrate my gratitude. These words and pictures are a beginning.


12 thoughts on “Marrakharacters, Visions in the Desert

  1. The spectacle of the haggling over the price of the pillows must have been a sight to see and hear. Too bad you didn’t have a video so you could re-play it time and again to get the technique. But I am sure you inherited much of the same, requiring only a little polish and experience. You witnessed the master at work. I have been privileged to see MP and her Mother team up on an unsuspecting clerk. It was unmerciful! Thanks for the vivid description. And thanks for the fabulous photos.

    1. Oh boy you brought back a deep memory of me and Mom haggling in the US. I don’t remember where we were or what we were purchasing – do you? Dishwasher?

      1. If I remember correctly, it was Sears in Honolulu, and the salesman was Glenn. It had to do with a continuous cleaning oven, and Glenn swore there has never been a CCO made. Alice has one, and Linda remembered it….I quietly moved over to the hardware department.

      2. omg What a memory you have! You are entirely correct! Glenn – poor guy. He probably quit soon thereafter. YES – a CCO was the product and yes, Alice has one. Glenn clearlhy did not know what (or who) he was up against. what a great memory – you made me laugh our loud!!! I knew I got my haggling skills from somewhere. Mom, do you want to come to Morocco with me?

    1. It IS a great word. I hope you clicked on the animated gifs and could really see some of the stories unfold. It was an awesome perch to gaze at all the action without being noticed. The cast of Marrakharacters was unending.

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