Madness of Marrakech
My first visit to Morocco was flying from Seville, Spain to Marrakech. Prior to our departure, my traveling partners and I had booked a riad – a traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard. Strapped with a backpack and an appetite to explore a new world, we hired a taxi to drive us from the airport into the old city. Our driver got us as close as possible and let us out into a world I would soon be unable to forget.
The old city is truly a maze and navigating through it the first time is like attempting to swim through a whirlpool while waves are crashing from above. You’re thrown head first into an unguided and foreign scene intertwined with obstacles; alleyways and bolted doors, structures and scents that take their toll, roads un-named that disarm your senses and strip you of any control. The only clarification you’re granted is that there will be no map that will come to your aid.
We manage to find a local. Using broken French and the three Arabic words I could recall, we convince him to help us find our riad. With our newly acquired compass, we arrive at the door that would grant us shelter and some much needed rest. Prior to leaving us in this abandoned alleyway, the local extended his hand awaiting his much-deserved tip. My friend reached into his pocket and placed a few coins into his tattered palm. What we didn’t realize at this point was the exchange rate and the value of those few coins would only amount to a mere five American cents. Disgruntled, he threw the coins down and walked away.
Our fatigue and muddled senses narrowed our focus solely on getting inside our promised palace. The royal welcome, however, would not come easily. The door was locked and knocking did not seem to have a positive result. It was the peak of summer, the July heat was magnified, we offended the one person who could help us, and none of us could remember what combination of left and right turns brought us to this alley. After we each had our turn of claiming how thirsty we were, proposing new strategies, and inventing new ways of percussively knocking another door in this narrow alleyway opened. A short woman appeared and began waving us toward her. With no option to debate alternate choices, we followed her in through a tiny doorway that would even require a child to duck to get passed. Any alarming thoughts soon dissipated as a majestic riad came into view.
A sparkling courtyard with a fountain echoing the faint splashes of sea turtles swimming across its shallow waters, the presentation of refreshing mint tea, and a soft-spoken gentlemen showcasing Middle Eastern hospitality helped us get situated into our remarkable room. It was the first grasp of air after grappling with a quavering sea, a rejuvenating breath in, and royalty without compromise.
We were not given a key to either our room or the riad itself. We weren’t even in the correct riad, but what toner choice did we have? We trusted the promise that a key wasn’t necessary and whenever we wanted to return, we simply needed to ring the doorbell. Hungry and determined to not be defeated by this city, we ventured outside the comfort of the cool and make belief palace walls.
The bazar exploded into view and once more we were strolling towards a red sun suspended in the desert’s horizon. Thrown back into the wild, you could hear prayers resonating throughout town. Women dressed and fully gowned tattoo exposed skins of visitors without fear of its permanence. The henna dries, its ink temporary, but the frenzy of the scene continued to linger. Vibrations of the melodies escape from mosques, drummers pound to the rhythm of cobras; it’s the madness of the souks, the overload of the town. There is no traveling here; you’re engaged in survival mode. Snakes are thrown and wrapped around your neck for an unwanted Kodak moment you must tip your way out of. You’re in no position to negotiate. Fastened to a seat with no belt, the profits align as durham signs virtually float above your head.
I am not one who vacations, I travel. I love to blend in with the locals and have always had success in doing so. Yet I cannot shake the perception of an ATM machine that I now forcibly bare. There must be a way to transition out of this walking dollar sign. Taking risks in order to learn plenty, I befriended a few berbers in the market and slowly begin rebuilding my confidence.
A market overflowing with wonder unfolds with this newly attained clarity. Zooming passed colorful windows framing mountains of spices that empty into containers their cures and aged remedies. The landscape is digested and changes its shape into a purified stream. I’m a Moroccan prince seated in a front row hustle to regain my power. Collecting exchanges and forging a connection with the locals grants us the right to partake in their iconic world. We’re explorers now, welcomed and one in the same. We’ve dug ourselves deep within the town and earned the company of our riad’s humble staff, endless corridors, tents, and treasures to explore. Night falls to our ambient paradise and awakens a new desire to continue the adventure.
The following day we hire a car to drive us to the Cascades of Ouzoud. It was refreshing to get out of the old city. We could now see an open landscape dressed in the uniquely Moroccan pink-orange hue. The car’s window zoomed passed donkey bazars, fruit huts, and children taking their turn waving at the cars speeding by. Once we arrived at Ouzoud, we stepped out of the car and waited to be joined by the driver. As we turned away, the car and our guide disappeared. A man watching us quickly grasped this moment of silence and confusion. Opportunities in the desert must be swiftly seized. This man would now become our guide; a mutually beneficial arrangement that probably predated our arrival. We became fond of him quickly. He guided us across a river, some territories claimed by native monkeys, and we finally reached the peak of the waterfall we were after. The ground opened up beneath our feet, as if controlled by a push of a button, unleashing a massive cascade pouring into an endless abyss. The contrast between the waterfall and the adjacent desert was captivating. Soon, we were led to areas where we could jump off the cliff to meet the base of the waterfall. Our guide didn’t want to jump as he was fasting for Ramadan and didn’t want to exert more energy. Correctly so, swimming worked up an appetite and we began our search for a home-cooked meal to end our day’s adventure.
Returning back to Marrakech, we navigated the intertwining streets with more confidence. Finally, we had regained our fearless traveler’s status. We started looking forward to recognizing the characters, staff, and animals that became more and more familiar. It is the beauty of an adventure, surviving the struggle and chaos, standing firm against the storm to be greeted with the clear skies that follow. That is the gift of travel…as is realizing that you’re not feeling too well. Feeling worse after recalling that one meal you bravely tolerated had a lot of lamb, a lot of gray colored lamb. As soon as I began feeling empowered, I was to be defeated once more. I’ll spare you further details, but the worst case of food poisoning would quickly conclude the remainder of our trip to Marrakech.
Would I return? I would need to allow some more time to pass to consider returning to Marrakech specifically. Yet, I treasure the memories and stories till now. Traveling is a gift that continues to give and the more one does it, the more patient and tolerant they become. It isn’t how much better you get at doing things, it’s how much more daring you become. To the next adventure…