Friday, April 29, 2011

Day 175: Surviving Morocco (Marrakech)

Considering last night was my first pub crawl, I'm glad that I am able to write this blog entry. I was celebrating being alive – and given the recent events in Marrakech I had good reason. For those of you that haven't heard, yesterday a suicide bomber in Marrakech ended his life and those of fourteen others in a café in Marrakech. I cannot believe this happened one day after I left and only a few minutes walk from a hostel where I stayed. While I'm happy to be alive I grieve for the dead because I could have been one of them. I am also disgusted with this horrific act because all Moroccans will be unfairly judged. I had a number of discussions with people about how safe I felt in Morocco and the kindness of the people but after this I can't help but feeling a bit silly. Even after this I stand by my opinion that Morocco is a safe place to travel and full of wonderful people. Furthermore I encourage the rest of you to keep an open mind and realize that the idiotic acts of one individual do not reflect the values of an entire country. Regardless of this horrific event, Marrakech is a joy to visit and I am excited to tell you about my experiences there.

Marrakech's big square where the bomb went off.
Here's a map showing just how close my hostel was to the explosion.

I was lucky in Marrakech to stay in a hostel and with a local. Both environments provided a unique experience. My first night in Marrakech I stayed in a hostel called Amour d'Auberge. It was as cheap as it was excellent. The people I met there were tops and the next day we didn't waste any time before we headed out and explored Marrakech.

The hostel had an open courtyard space with a glass roof.
Spying on people from above.

Morocco is my favorite place to wander. The streets are rich like chocolate cake, and I ate too much. Walking around I found myself in a maelstrom of activity. Stray cats being grungy, vendors shouting at me, children playing and laughing, the smell of questionable street food, beautiful architecture, and ancient history. Every second I was exploring I felt like I was in a movie. Without going to see anything specific, just wandering the streets is an experience. Specifically, we saw Marrakech's two palaces, a school, and the big square Jemaa el Fna. The palaces were exceptional and had some of the most intricate artistic detail that I've seen. Definitely worth a visit, but my favorite part of Marrakech was the big square Jemaa el Fna. Imagine a mob the size of four football fields replete with snake charmers, monkey trainers, orange squeezers, and hasslers. It's incredibly alive to the point where it's a little overwhelming. Morocco is the most difficult place that I've traveled to but also the most rewarding. Experiencing the lifestyle is difficult because it's so different but that just means I was learning heaps. Staying in the hostel was a ton of fun but staying with a local was priceless.

This is one of the courtyards of the first palace we went to.
Beautiful old paintings of flowers decorated many walls.
The carvings were plentiful and exquisite.
Detail upon detail.
A corridor of the palace.
One of the large rooms inside.

I was so psyched when I found someone to CouchSurf with in Morocco. I wasn't sure how difficult it would be to find a host due to any sort of cultural differences. There were a lot of hosts on the site but lots of them had negative references from women. Apparently some Moroccan men like to oppress themselves on their surfers. I wasn't worried and thankfully I wasn't staying with some homo-creeper.

His name was Mohammed – imagine that. Throughout my stay I gave Mohammed a handful of opportunities to show his patience. Before we met I felt like a bad surfer because I was unsure of my arrival date and Mohammed waited for me for over an hour outside the post office. From Jemaa el Fna the bus ride back to his apartment took around 45 minutes. He lives in a block of apartments along with other families. When we walked in all of the kids stopped playing and stared at me. I smiled at them and some of them smiled back. Little twerps. Mohammed opened the door of his apartment and it was certainly different than accommodations I'm accustomed to. With a tile floor, his front room was empty, his kitchen was bare except for a sink and a propane canister and burner. Mohammed's room was nice with traditional carpets and desktop computer. His bathroom has a basin for showering and a squatting toilet. Toilet paper is for suckers and don't touch me with your left hand. This felt like the authentic Moroccan experience I was hoping for.

Spices are abundant throughout Morocco.
Morocco can be depressing.
A group of kids playing in the alley.
One of my favorite photos.
Rachel had a bomb camera from Lomography.
Amazing textures.
This dude's head looked like his brains were hanging out.
Who doesn't carry cow legs on their bike?
Rachel vs orange
Watch out... he's going to put his monkey on you!
Gettin' my creep on while trying sunglasses.
Probably my favorite photo of all time.

Staying with Mohammed was so cool not only for his apartment but for experiencing his neighborhood. Mohammed's apartment didn't have interwebs so I spent many of my days at a cafe nearby. I became friends with the staff and they would smile as I came around. We cooked a lot of tagine together and buying ingredients from the locals was awesome. There was a place for the vegetables and the meat shop was right next door. The meat stand had all of their meat prepared up front with live chickens in cages in back. Fresh! He made a wonderful tagine one of my first nights there and then I made two tagines after that. I can't wait to buy a tagine for myself so I can cook it all the time.

Mohammed loved my sunglasses and stole them every chance he got.
Watching a master at work.
Tagine is great, especially when you eat it for every meal.
My tagine was potato, parsnip, ground lamb, peas, with parsley and saffron.
My second, more experimental, tagine was raisin and prune with sausage.

We also went to a hammam which was one of the grossest highlights of my trip. Every neighborhood has its own hammam, a place where people go to get totally clean. The Roman bathhouses were probably modeled after hammams. Basically you go in, rub a special black soap all over yourself, sweat your brains out in a hot room for 20 minutes and scrub yourself with a sandpaper washcloth. Your dead skin is supposed to roll up like spaghetti rolls and fall off. Some of my dead skin rolls were almost the size of sausages. After all of your skin comes off you wash with soap and then rinse off using buckets full of water. It was a wonderful experience and afterwards I was definitely the cleanest I've ever been.

Going out for street sandwiches after a night of pool.
Not the hammam we went to but another local one.
We were hardcore to the core...

Experiencing Marrakech from two points of view was a treat. On one hand I did the tourist thing and enjoyed walking around the streets, seeing some sights, and the company of fellow travelers. On the other hand I lived with a local and saw first hand how he lives and enjoyed everything from buying food to seeing his apartment, from playing pool with his friends to making kids smile. During my time in Marrakech I started to feel comfortable in Morocco and I fell in love with my environment. Even though it's a difficult place to travel the experiences that I had were well worth it. Because my experiences were so positive, news of this terrorist attack was crushing. I feel connected to the Moroccan people and responsible for upholding their reputations . I encourage everyone to visit Morocco. Sakran Mohammed, and thanks, Marrakech!


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