12 January 2013

Marrakech, Morocco - Part I

This is it, a trip to my seventh continent.  The last remaining unexplored continent for me up to this point was Africa.  When I heard that two of my dearest friends had joined the US Peace Corps and were assigned to Morocco, I decided that it was too great of an opportunity to let pass by.  I promised them that I would get out to see them at some point during their deployment.  Arguably, Africa is really two continents, since it is so entirely different in nearly all aspects between Saharan and sub-Saharan.  So I still feel like I need to get back to sub-Saharan Africa before I really can say that I've been there.  That argument can be further refined, however, since Africa is an absolutely massive continent with quite literally the world's oldest cultures, which are extremely varied, complex, and diverse.  Morocco is no exception to this cultural richness and diversity, and technically, a trip to Morocco lands you on the African landmass, so it does indeed count as a trip to my seventh continent.

I arrived at the hearth of the country, in the old city of Marrakech.  The picture above is a street scape leading up to the Moroccan style minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque. This is a classic example of the 5:1 (height to width) ratio used in Moroccan mosque architecture for their single, square-footprinted minarets.  Minarets are a prominent feature of Mosques and vary in style from region to region throughout the Muslim world; they are used for the call to prayer.  The Koutoubia's minaret is one of the prominent symbols of Marrakech... like Westminster's Elizabeth Tower (i.e., the tower formerly known as Clock Tower) is to London and the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.

At the heart of Marrakech is the Djemaa el Fna, the main central square.  Lined by market stalls, restaurants, hotels and riads, the Djemaa also fills with food and juice stands, a farmers market, and street performers.  It is undoubtedly the highlight of the city for anyone interested in people and their culture and normally a bustling hive of activity.  However, I was visiting Morocco midway through the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when all Muslims must fast, allowing nothing (food, drink, or smoke) to pass their lips during the day-lit hours of each day.  This made for a particularly remarkable experience during my trip, as you'll find through my posts on Morocco.  I loved wandering in and around the Djemaa... it is an invigorating experience, and one that truly ties in all of the great and overwhelming feelings of travel.  The minaret of the Koutoubia is seen again here on the left, with another minaret tower on the right along the horizon.

Down at street level in the Djemaa during a day in Ramadan.  It was August when I was there, so the days were longer (though not bad since Morocco isn't at high latitudes... unfortunate Muslims closer to the poles suffer much during summer Ramadan... we heard of one family in Norway that was going 17 hours each day without food or drink!).  This also meant the days were hotter, and the combined effect of the heat and exhaustion and fatigue of not eating or drinking meant the days were pretty low on the activity scales, as you can see from the essentially empty Djemaa.  As I found more and more throughout the trip too, the fatigue of fasting every day for a month really got to people.  The difference in their mood between night and day was remarkable.  During the day, people were sleepy, mopey, cranky, and sometimes outright rude (Moroccans tend to smoke a lot of tobacco... imagine the responses of nicotine addicts going without smoking each day and then combine that with the mood swings that come with hunger and thirst!), but that all changed come sunset and that pure pleasure of breaking the fast, which I'll come to soon.

I added this picture, another taken from the Djemaa, as a reminder of the times we live in.  Morocco is a Muslim country, and the majority of Muslims are incredibly kind and peaceful people, with Moroccans being particularly warm, open minded, and friendly to outsiders.  However, the small percentage of Muslims who have embraced extremism and are engaged in open acts of terrorism have had a devastating impact on our modern world, as we are all aware.  The building under construction beside the mosque in the background here was originally the Argana Cafe, which was destroyed by a terrorist bomb in April 2011.  17 people died in this cowardly attack (the explosive device was left in a bag dropped in the cafe), and 20 more were injured.  The attack was blamed on al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, though the organization denied responsibility, and there are others who believe there may have been government involvement (for details see: the Wikipedia article and references).  Regardless of who was ultimately responsible, this construction site - visible from all around the square - was a terrible reminder of the random acts of senseless violence in the world, but its rebuilding was also a sign of the resilience of the people of Marrakech.

North of the Djemaa lies Marrakech's enormous labyrinth of souks (the Arabic word for market).  Marrakesh is definitely a market town.   Adventurous travelers that are familiar with bargaining tactics and aggressive vendors should definitely spend some time getting lost in the maze of Marrakech's souks.  It is and incredible experience wandering around, and there are many, many sights, smells, and tastes to take in.  Marrakech has this incredible "ancient" quality about it.  You feel at many times as if you are wandering around a medieval city, and the markets exemplify that quality.

Being a Mediterranean nation, Moroccan cuisine includes plenty of Mediterranean influences and flavors.  This stand showcases olives and pickled vegetables, which are ubiquitous in markets around the country.  I gorged myself on olives in Morocco.  The vendors offer an incredible variety of the small, plentiful fruit of the olive tree, most of which are mixed with various oils, vinegars, and/or spice mixes.

Popular souvenirs for tourists are elaborately and colorfully decorated earthenware, and in particular tajines.  The tajine (seen here in the lower left of the picture), is a Moroccan culinary tool, used for making a flavor-infused stew/roast hybrid.  A piece of meat is placed on a bed of rice or cous-cous and surrounded by vegetables, fruit (like olives or dates), and spices in the bottom plate of the tajine.  The conical lid is placed over the dish and the tajine is put in a hot oven to cook over several hours.  The steam and juices from the cooking rise up and condense on the lid, then flow back down the sides and infuse into the various ingredients.  I knew I liked Moroccan cuisine before my visit, but the many meals I had in country really developed my appreciation for the combination of flavors, ingredients, and styles of cooking.  Some of my favorite tajine meals included chicken with rice lemon and olives and lamb with dates and onions.

Spices... the all important ingredients that have driven trade throughout the world for all of human history.  I mean, people love to eat... a great meal is one of the simplest, most basic pleasures we can experience in this life, and the right combination of herbs and spices are key to making a good meal great.  Being major cross-roads of old world trade, the Middle East and North Africa are right alongside the massive markets of India and China for having some of the richest spice markets.  Like markets I've seen in those places, Moroccan vendors also put a great amount of time into properly showcasing their goods (as seen above with those seemingly physics-defying cones of spice).  The picture below is incredibly reminiscent of those I've taken in India and Turkey too.

Marrakech's souks offer shoppers all kinds of consumer goods... and the great thing is, they aren't entirely dominated by souvenir stands selling all of the same thing.  The tourist market mixes in seamlessly with the local markets... really its just all blended together naturally in the epic labyrinth I suppose.

Moroccan markets also offer up an amazing array of carpets, rugs, and blankets.  Be careful though, the vendors are very, very effective hagglers... so be sure to never agree to anything more than you were originally willing to pay.

Most of the souk streets are covered... which is obviously to protect from the sun, not rain.  It adds a very closed-in almost claustrophobic quality to the markets... you feel very close to the goods and those around you.  This is an exciting feeling for me, one that I seek out often while traveling, but I quite understand how it can overwhelm, frustrate, and even scare others.

Fresh fruits and vegetables.  Morocco is a geographically wealthy country, particularly for North Africa.  With a variety of landscapes and micro-climates available thanks to its coast, deserts, and mountains, they are able to grow a wide variety of foods.

Having been to Budapest and Istanbul, I knew right away what these domed structures with the small inlaid glass rounds were.  Hammams, bathhouses, are popular in Morocco, and offer a great experience for visitors.  Just be sure to look up the local customs and etiquette before jumping into one.  Also, there are several that cater more to tourists as well... making for a much more comfortable experience for everyone involved (tourists, staff, and local customers).

As mentioned above, the streets were relatively quiet during the day... there were some people about there business, but very clearly not the normal hustle and bustle of a big city during the day.  It allowed me to really get some great shots though and reflect a lot on where I was and what I was doing, which was much appreciated.  The ability to just relax and reflect often escapes or evades me when I'm wrapped up in the go-go-go environment of big cities

Morocco offers these deliciously colorful cityscapes.  In Marrakech, warm, earthy colors were very popular, but other places used lots of blues and cooler tones.  It is a visibly stunning and pleasurable country, both naturally and anthropogenically.

This is just a teaser for the second part of my Marrakech blog.  Islamic art and architecture often incorporates incredibly detailed and complex geometric design, and Moroccan architecture has embraced that train to its fullest potential.  This was just a random facade I passed in the souk.

Sunset approaching... with the darkening sky, more and more people started wandering the streets...


Anticipating sunset and the end of their daily trial, throngs of people gathered in the Djemaa in preparation for breaking fast.  The tradition for breaking fast during Ramadan is to eat a small snack (often including dates, which is how Mohammed broke his fast as told in the Koran) and then head to the mosque for prayers before going home to enjoy a proper dinner with the family.  Some other things I saw a lot of people breaking fast with fresh fruit, like figs, juice (orange or grapefruit), and the very sweet shebekia, a honey covered sugary pastry.

Just before sunset, food stalls filled out the previously empty square.  When the call to prayer at sunset went out, the tension was immediately relieved as people dug into their snacks and broke their fast.  Immediately the change in mood was felt as people started laughing and discussing loudly.  The pleasure they felt at satisfying their hunger and thirst was very clear...

Everything became so lively after sunset!  Just compare this scene to the one of the same area earlier (note the minaret and construction site dominating the horizon as points of reference).  It was quite literally night and day between the level of activity and excitement and peoples' attitudes and demeanors.  Nighttime in Marrakech during Ramadan was quite simply intoxicating.

The ancient quality and exotic characteristics of the city and especially the back streets and passages were amplified by night.

After the services were completed at the mosques, the main square took on a festival-like atmosphere... the bustling Djemaa was full of excited people and imbued with the sound of snake charmers' flutes and cooking stalls and people selling their wares.

Snake charmers.  There were several groups of these men on the square, seemingly tempting their fate by romancing deadly cobras.  However, it is supposedly all a sick and twisted show; I was told that they sew the snakes mouths shut!  I was recommended, and will pass the recommendation on, that one should not support these men.  If nothing else, they are overly aggressive in their demands for monetary compensation.  If I wasn't able to take this photo from afar, and they had seen me taking it, then they would have demanded that I pay them handsomely for it.  Also, beware of the guys walking around with monkeys on leashes... as with the snake charmers you should just outright IGNORE THEM... don't make eye contact and don't pay any attention to them or their animals!  The monkey handlers are also overly aggressive, even allowing their monkeys to jump on tourists without any permission.  Fortunately, this didn't happen to me, but I saw many fall victim to such tactics.  Beware.

Not all the locals in the Djemma are bad and trying to cheat you out of your money... the food stalls were awesome and the people working and eating there were very nice, and most importantly, the food is good!  I love street food, and this was just an epic venue for enjoying some quality Moroccan versions of it.  They charge you for everything you eat, including the dipping sauces, bread, and olives, which are offered up regardless of whether you ask or not.  If you don't want any, then just don't touch them and they wont charge you... however, alongside the main dishes, they are delicious and the prices are quite reasonable, as any good street food should be.

Food stalls are all licensed and numbered... supposedly to ensure quality.  It is pretty easy though to pinpoint which are most popular with locals and which most people are avoiding.  We ate at this one, no. 31, a couple times, and it did not let us down.

Many more vendors show up after dark on the Djemma too, like the lamp merchant seen here.

The markets go on at night, and during Ramadan, it probably thrives at night.

One of the groups of stalls that was open all day and evenings on the Djemma were the orange and grapefruit juice stands.  At these, they would press fresh oranges and grapefruits to extract the juice right in front of you.... delicious.  Come nightfall, there were also plenty of stands selling dried fruit too.

Most of Marrakech's budget hotels are within a short walk from the Djemma.  There are also several of the luxury riads around that area... riads are old mansions, often with a central courtyard, that have been converted into luxury guesthouses for wealthy visitors.  There are plenty of hotels to choose from though.  I got my own room for only $20 per night, and it was quite comfortable.

Overall, Marrakech was an enticing introduction to Morocco....one that excited me and left me anxious to explore more of the country.

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