By Sara Sanabria
Here’s the thing about traveling, it’s not about what you see or what you do: it is about experiencing what is unknown to you and having these things push you to rethink the way you see the world. Sometimes the experiences are good, sometimes they are bad, other times they leave you more confused than when you arrived. Nowhere is this mixed bag of experiences more likely to happen than Marrakesh. Sitting north of the Atlas mountains in Southwestern Morocco, this city was first inhabited by Berber farmers and later founded by Abu Bakr ibn Umar in 1062. It went on to become one of the most important cities of North Africa and earned the nickname of “the Red City” due to its ochre coloured buildings and the wall that enclosed the city.
Personally I never expected to visit Morocco, from across the Mediterranean it seemed so distant that it was never on my radar. Then sometime in September a friend forwarded me a link to discount Transavia flights, and before I knew it I had booked a weekend getaway to North Africa for less than 140 euros. November rolled around, and I found myself touching down in a place that can only be described as foreign. Even from the tiny window of my plane I could see that I was in for an experience. The arid landscape alone was a whole new concept to me; add to that the red mud buildings and the hectic traffic that could be seen from the sky. The beautiful and modern airport that welcomed me only heightened my expectations. I didn’t think airports could be beautiful so like most things in Marrakesh, this was a pleasant surprise.
On the drive to our homestay I was already surprised at how different everything around me was, the traffic was hectic and women were fully covered. Then, my transport stopped in the middle of an intersection and told me we had reached the vehicles destination. Thankfully, our homestay sent someone to walk me the rest of the way. It turns out that our accommodation was in the “Medina” which is the old fortified part of the city packed with vendors and merchants as it is basically one big market no cars can enter. As I quietly scurried behind my guide, I balked at everything around me. Never had I seen so much going on; every turn (and there were many) brought new sights and smells. Eventually we reached the homestay. Even though we had just entered I knew that there was no way I would remember how to get back to the main road.
I met up with my friends who had arrived the day before and we sipped Atay Bi Nana — sweet morocco tea — as we figured out a plan for the day. I would have been content just studying our Riyadh, traditional enclosed houses with a courtyard at its center, what with its beautiful high ceilings, wooden engravings and regal tiling, but we decided to visit as a couple of museums. After many twists and turns we reached our desired destinations.
After having spent a morning exploring, the initial new destination dazzle wore off and a common theme, or should I say nuisance, began making itself apparent. While opinions may vary on the intentions of catcalling to women in a foreign land it can only be received with discomfort. So in the midst of quenching our childlike curiosities, I couldn’t help but begin to feel annoyed at the strange men that would call out to us “hello beautiful” or “nice body.” It’s not that I don’t like being called “Shakira” or “girl with beautiful face,” it’s that when those things are said to me in a strange land by unknown men it makes me feel helpless; a constant reminder that I am far from home and that as an uncovered woman I stood out much more than I would have liked too. My only consolation was that the things said were never vulgar. Annoying, sure, but I never felt fully threatened and in a way, and that’s the best one can ask for.
As we lost ourselves in the maze that is the Medina we found ourselves in an empty street. A rare site in the heart of the old city. We decided to round a few corners but found ourselves being followed by a snake charmer who had cursed at us for not tipping his tunes. Noticing our musical follower we hurriedly lost ourselves in small side streets. Though the music became quieter and quieter we found ourselves quite off the beaten path. With a new concern on our minds we eagerly followed a man that promised to take us to the nearby Jewish Market. We were ushered into his friends shop but were relieved to have found a busier area. The shopkeeper gave us an extensive presentation of his shop. We smelled, we tasted, we drank and felt many herbs, minerals, oils and spices. Dazzled by the goods, we didn’t realize that the way they were weighed and priced, or at least the way pricing and the weighing was presented, seemed much cheaper than it actually was. Without realizing it I spent a weekend’s worth on turmeric and henna. Confused, dejected, and broke, we headed back to our Riad.
The afternoon ended on a better note, however, as we had pre-booked a sunset camel trip. After being whizzed off to the outskirts of the city, we were dressed in headscarves and robe-like shirts and placed on a camel. As our guide herded us through desert patches I couldn’t help but wonder if this “Lawrence of Arabia” look was a product of supply or demand. Did this 45 minute walk really necessitate the orientalist indulgence? Or had tourists thrown scarves around their heads for the “look” so much that the guides decided to provide the proper attire? Judging by the woman having a small photo shoot on her camel, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. The only thing to tug me out of my reflection was the camel that had began to take a bite out of my camera bag. And as we strolled past the President of Gabon’s summer home the sun set, and with that my first day in Morocco ended.
It could be said that the morning started off with a hearty breakfast at 8:30 a.m. but in reality it started somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. with the deafening call to prayer. With an early start we headed to the Jardin Majorelle across the city. This property once owned by Yves Saint Laurent is picturesque as it is serene. The bold blue house at the epicenter somehow manages to blend in with the extensive flora of its periphery. The only drawback of the experience is the fame associated with it creates a very very (very) long line at the entrance.
We walked across the center back to the Medina we found our way to The Henna Cafe. As a women owned and women ran cafe whose proceeds go to funding language courses for women, this was at the top of our to-do list. Not only was the food superb, the henna experience was enchanting. I couldn’t help but feel in a trance like state as the artist/cook created a beautiful Mandela inspired flower on my hand. Full of food and unable to move our left hands we headed for inner Medina for some shopping.
After haggling and negotiating and scurrying from store to store in a shopping frenzy, having bought everything from purses to door handles and even almost a sink, we called it a day and went back to our hostel to drop off the day’s bounty. For dinner we headed to the Jama El Fna square. After having spent hours shopping I thought I had seen it all, but as always, Marrakesh never ceases to surprise. This square is the busiest in Africa for good reason. In the early evening trucks pull up and set up a night market featuring stalls upon stalls of food stands, and once the sun sets dancers, musicians and vendors congregate and over-stimulate every human sense. As we walked through the food stalls, we were greeted with every phrase possible in an effort to get us to eat at their particular stall. One of my favorites was “we all sell the same shit but our shit is better.” We ended up going with the place where the chefs called out to us, opened their sizzling tajin pots and did a little dance. After flavorful chicken we headed back to the Riad, I’m sure we could’ve stayed at the market till the last truck packed up, but unfortunately we had early flights to catch.
As I followed the same employee from the homestay back to the main road I had emerged from two days earlier, I couldn’t help but feel a little confused. Upon arrival I had no expectations, the decision to come had been on such a whim I hadn’t had the opportunity to create expectations. I experienced every sight, smell and sound possible, I was catcalled, followed and scammed, I met strong women and creepy men and yet I felt like there were so many questions left unanswered. What does it mean to be a Western woman walking uncovered in a modest country? Does propagating a Western narrative such as “mysterious oriental Morocco” act as a harmful upholding of stereotypes or a way to profit off of those who created the narrative in the first place? How many Moroccan sweets can one eat in one sitting without taking whole years off of one’s life? Perhaps I’ll return someday and answer the questions this experience has created, or perhaps I’ll seek answers in another North African country. Either way, the “Red City” will always serve as a reminder that no good traveling ever occurs without some frights, sights and camel bites.