Thursday, March 1, 2012

You're ready to enter the madness?

 21-24/01 - Marrakech

On the day of my arrival in Morocco I saw so much beauty that for the first time being in a country so different from all other countries I'd been to (together with Iceland) there is no way I can imagine not to share these impressions with somebody else. I'm quite lucky - in the most polite way I could imagine (absolutely no remorse about it) I dropped a guy I was supposed to travel with (very long story...) and teamed up with Guido whom I had met at Prague Winter Camp, a person undoubtedly as crazy as me to realize all the mad ideas we can come up with in this country. Let's see how long a silly Polish can put up with a silly Italian and how silly we can get.

After 6 days on the road without a shower I would wish for  a visit in a local hammam (a public steam bath) in the morning and having access to unlimited buckets of steaming water was the best way to relax and get familiar with some Moroccan culture. I felt a little lost in the beginning, since I went to the female part on my own (Guido had the companionship of our host Iliass), but quickly understood how to behave there. Even if you don't speak the same language, women there will always give you some help and a friendly smile. On the top of that, it's so sweet to be naked in a public place in a Muslim country. But it's still a Muslim country, so forget about co-educational hammams, unless you're a tourist who wants an upscale western-style place, which we're not.

The hammam was a place where we would have for sure loved to have stayed longer but so much was waiting for us. Ready and raring we headed to the city center - short ride with a bus that has only standing places, door that opens by people who bang on it when they see the bus is approaching the bus stop (not marked in any way, you have to know it's the bus stop and that's it). Another interesting mean of transport, right after the grand taxi where 7 people can fit, including the driver.

Guido, who had already seen this place the day before, took me right into the heart of the bustle - to Jamal el Fna; the main square of Marrakech with hordes of people, crazy drivers on their motorbikes, loud music played by street musicians. There is no place for tranquility here, you're never left alone - snake charmers, men with monkeys who make them jump on your back, tell to take a photo and demand money, women grabbing your hand and forcing you to get a henna tattoo - any way to get money from you is good for the people obsessed with trade. However, we tenaciously refuse any offers. We're wondering what the people staying in a nearby hotels pay for – sleepless nights filled with noise pollution until small hours? Fortunately our couch is located in the outskirts of the city.

On the souk in the medina the madness reaches a higher level. We slowly proceeded to get lost in the maze of corridors and alleys. Here you can buy anything from junk to treasure and here people are even more greedy for your cash - you can be sure that a friendly invitation for tea will end up with being showed some souvenirs and politely pushed to buy something. The vendors don't accept "no" for an answer and will come up with dozens of ways to part you from your money. I like some of the things on display but just seeing people having a look at the stuff and then immediately being harassed by shop owners is enough for me to know I shouldn't make the same mistake. Even without showing any interest we receive invitations to see the shop, just to have a look, words like "this way, come and see," "special price, just for you my friend" (this "special price" is still much inflated tourist price), "it's for you and not for your money" are heard all the time. Being there is a feast for all senses - smells of spices, fresh fruits, incenses, people dressed in colorful clothes, prayer announcements loud enough for the entire city, delicate fabrics, tasting whatever the sellers offer you. Just because of this the words "it's amazing" are probably the phrase we use most often being in Marrakech. However, after a long time spent there we feel overwhelmed among these narrow streets, full of noise and fumes created by omnipresent motorbikes and sometimes even petit taxis that speed through the narrow passages. It's a bliss to find ourselves on a much calmer street going straight into... Jamal El Fna where we can have some rest from the craziness. It's nice to be inside the crowd but watching the madness from a very silent place is also beautiful. Marrakech turns from frantic chaos into a night frenzy.

In the evening Jamal el Fna becomes the biggest open-air dining hall in Morocco. Stalls with food start to appear all over the place. And again, same situation as in the souks - people telling to come in, at least check the menu, it's very cheap here. Before coming to Morocco I heard that Robert Makłowicz (mostly known because of his cooking show on Polish TV) is the most famous Polish person in Morocco and it's confirmed here: when I say where I come from I hear "Zapraszamy Robert Makłowicz!... Śliczna! Zajebista!" ("Welcome Robert Makłowicz!... Beautiful! Fucking awesome!"). They know enough Polish words to have a simple conversation and, to have some peace, I start wondering whether next time I should say I'm from Denmark and anticipate some compliments in my favorite language.

With some help from Iliass and his friends we find some good and recommended stalls. It's the first street food in my life any it couldn't taste any better. Harira made of tomatoes and pasta, honey-sweetened chebakia, dates, sunflower seeds in cones made of newspaper, lentils, haricots, sugary mint tea, warm bread with chili sauce, so simple, but here elevated to the status of food of the gods, some kind of Moroccan kebab filled with different sorts of healthy things, fresh orange juice... All sounds very tasty but the way some of these delicacies are made would make some hygiene maniacs shrug. I have a look at the way plates are cleaned and it has little to do with the way you'd do it at home. They have three buckets, one for throwing away leftovers, one for soaking the plates in washing liquid, one for rinsing. Eventually the more plates you wash, the dirtier they are. Kebab made with ingredients that lie on the (dirty?) counter doesn't sound like food to die for either... Of course the same hands touch food and money. Some sickness is near? Not even close to this. The food in Marrakech has mercy on us. The locals eat it and are still alive, so it won't do us any harm either...


Really big kebab in less than one minute

Each food stall has its number. If you get sick, you easily know in which place the faulty meal was given to you.

Apart from the touristic souk in the medina we also have a chance to experience something really local and it's souk close to Iliass's place. We're probably the only non-Moroccan people there and we are awestruck. On the contrary to the big souk, here nobody tries to shove us their products, nobody has dollars in their eyes when they hear us speak English, nobody takes us for rich tourists with bottomless pockets. We guess most of these people might not even speak any other language than Arabic or Berber. The streets look like one big landfill and I'm happy that despite very high temperature I didn't take my flip flops. In Morocco they're the footwear you should wear only indoors, unless you want to get dirty in the very beginning of your walk.

Both there and in the center we observe the people, kids especially. There are big differences in the way girls and boys behave. Girls are usually bashful, when asked if we can take a photo of them, they timidly turn their heads away. But they have a genuine smile and stare at you and it's the kind of stare that says they want you to stare back. Boys are more naughty, sometimes they even throw objects at us, persistently beg for coins, take money for granted. They're younger copies of all these guys who assault you on the street and offer to take you to the place you're looking for or show a nearby attraction for "pas beaucoup d'argent." After our first encounter with the greediness of kids, which was when 3 boys almost deprived Guido of cookies bought just 5 minutes before, we decide to always have one extra box in case a child begs for some sweets. We share them generously, not only when asked for. It's easy to notice people in this country can win your heart in seconds, but kids have it particularly easy.

We spent three days in Marrakech, getting awestruck with all the small and big differences between "then" and "now;" between Europe and Africa. This place is crazy indeed and probably too amazing to find other words to describe it than just repetitive "it's amazing" every 5 minutes. Very traditional, but on the other hand having an ambiance of  modernity. If one of the biggest Moroccan cities has already surprised us in so many ways, how will we feel when we get to small villages; our destinations for upcoming weeks? We can't wait!

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