Birds are softly chirping in the courtyard garden beneath me as I sit looking up at the pink sky stretching in all directions above the rooftop garden where I‘m sitting. The soft morning sun is beginning to rise while the half moon still hangs in the sky opposite it. The morning air is cool and quiet, the sweet smell of baking bread wafting up to me from the kitchen, bringing promises of a delicious breakfast. I am staying in a riad in the medina, old city, of Marrakech, Morocco. The sound of a cart rattling through the cobblestone alleys somewhere in the distance is the only sound that breaks the morning’s silence. I can picture the donkey slowly pulling its load through the empty alleyway, taking its master’s wares to the souks, traditional markets, or to one of the medina’s restaurants. After the sun has risen into a clear blue sky I wander down the narrow ceramic stairways to the riad’s courtyard for my breakfast. The riad’s owner serves me a broad spread of the freshly squeezed orange juice, flaky croissants, warm bread, cheese and jam.
After breakfast I make the short walk through the narrow alleyways to Djeema el-Fna square, where the real magic of Marrakech happens. The juice vendors wake up the square in the morning, the rows and rows of their stalls lining the open square. For only 3 dirham (about 30 cents USD) you can quench your thirst with a glass of freshly squeezed orange or grapefruit juice. The juice seemed to be the same quality at all of the stalls, so I chose stall number 19 and am rewarded with a cool glass of pulpy sweetness.
Other merchants follow the juice vendors to fill up the wide square. Rows of stalls selling nuts and dried fruits extend beyond the fruit-filled stands. Veiled henna artists sit under umbrellas to shade them from the sun’s rays, offering to adorn the hands and feet of passersby with their swirling brown and black ink designs. Snake charmers play whining songs on flutes to their cobras, who lie lazily in the sunshine or twine around their necks and hands as they walk around, trying to snare unsuspecting tourists into taking pictures with them for a few dirham. Traditional dentists sitting at tiny tables offer to pull troublesome molars, their past work evidenced by the large piles of teeth in front of them. The sound of drums and instruments of the traditional Berber musicians fills the square, starting out quiet and increasing in intensity and liveliness as the day progresses. Lining the square are shops selling all sorts of tourist and traditional wares, but they are only a taste of the full Moroccan shopping experience. Stepping through an archway leading out of the square I entered the souk that is filled with hundreds of tiny shops selling jewelry, lanterns, leather goods, metal teapots, billowy clothing, and all things Moroccan. No prices are displayed, all sales are made through light-hearted haggling between the shopkeeper and the potential buyer. I purchased some finely worked metal earrings and flowing purple pants reminiscent of Aladdin after denigrating the quality of the goods, bringing up the competitors’ prices, and using the especially effective “walk-away” technique.
After returning to the riad to deposit my goods in my beautiful room I exited it’s heavy wooden door to find myself in the middle of an impromptu soccer match, small boys wearing European jerseys were kicking a ball in the alleys. Ducking the flying soccer ball I followed the signs to the Earth Cafe’- a highly recommended vegan spot that I had learned about the previous day from an American Peace Corps volunteer that I had met in the alleyways. The cafe’ lived up to the hype- its brightly colored walls and natural vibe created a mellow atmosphere that made it easy to relax and enjoy my organic lunch while being out of the summer’s heat.
After wandering back to the riad I enjoyed some complimentary homemade mint tea made by the riad’s housekeeper. Sitting in the daylight sipping my tea I was able to admire the riad to full effect. The courtyard was filled with squishy, colorful couches and there was a small tinkling fountain underneath the young trees. Tiny birds were flitting in the branches of the trees, which reached up to the level where my room was airing out, its exquisitely carved wooden doors opened to reveal the bright bedspread of the large bed. Besides the beauty of the riad itself I really appreciated the owners’ interest in my welfare and safety. They spoke perfect English, like most of the other Moroccans I had encountered, and they happily answered all my questions about sightseeing and culture.
Then it was back to the Djeema el-Fna square to see what changes had been wrought to the cobblestone expanse in my absence. Entertainers with pet monkeys on leashes had joined the throng. The small groups of tourists wandering around the square that morning had been transformed into a mass of people enjoying the day. The various musicians had roused themselves to a new level of intensity. I let one of the veiled women gently pull me towards onto a short stool where she proceeded to tattoo a flower onto my palm with vines that twined up around my wrist.
I ate dinner on one of the rooftop restaurants that surrounded the square, watching the square beneath me fill with people as the evening dinner stands were erected, the smoke from their grills snaking up into the darkening sky. The benches of the dinner stalls in the square were crowded with people enjoying all kinds of food including buttered snails that you slurped straight from the bowl. The call to worship was sounded and Muslim men gathered in front of a mosque in the square beneath me to pray. I ordered the couscous and was rewarded with a taste of traditional Morocco to accompany the traditional music floating up from the square.
I had been warned incessantly about the dangers that I risked as a girl traveling in a predominately Muslim country. I was cautious and wore fully covering clothing. But I never was harassed more than having to wave off the few flirtatious young shop owners who thought that seduction was a good technique to get me to buy their goods. The lack of expected harassment in the medina may be due to the fact that tourists are the primary driving force of the economy of that I was in a safe area. I was definitely not the least conservatively dressed female around; I saw many tourists, mainly French, walking around wearing tank tops and almost nonexistent shorts. It was a far sight from the conservative, misogynistic Morocco that I had been warned against.
After dinner I stopped at the famous Ice Legend to test some of their homemade flavors of ice cream. I turned around with my scoop of sweet ice cream in myhand to be confronted with a small, black haired boy pulling on my skirt. I flinched away reflexively at being approached by a stranger, being on my edge after a day of traveling alone in a foreign country, my body almost going into flight mode. Then I realized that he was looking up at me with hungry eyes and reaching for the ice cream cone in my hand. Observing his skinny frame and seeming lack of parental care, I looked down at my ice cream and saw in it the good luck that I have in life. That for me a day in the souk is an escape from reality, a nice break from the ‘real’ world, while the Moroccans working in the square had spent the day earning their daily bread. I had more than enough money to spend on gifts and whatever edible treats that I wanted. Looking at my scoop of ice cream I saw the awful juxtaposition of the rich world in which I inhabited and the poor world in which this boy lived, in which I had spent my entire day but had been blind to the reality of. I put the ice cream cone into his hand and walked into the crowd of revelers. With the night’s festivities in full swing in the square, I returned to the riad to relax on the rooftop garden and enjoy the night sky. The night stars shone in the purple sky above me, the sound of beating drums from the square drifting to my ears on the warm night breeze.
When I returned home a few days later the henna tattoo twining around my ankle was a reminder of a wonderful taste of Morocco. It started with a sip of fresh squeezed juice, had its own original soundtrack, and ended with a better grasp of Moroccan culture. But it also reminded me of the importance of opening your eyes to what is really around you while traveling.
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