After a couple stops across Western Europe, I was ready to jump continents and spice things up a bit. My original itinerary dictated a flight East to Israel, but due to some last-minute modifications I found myself journeying South to Morocco! I flew out of Barcelona into Marrakech and immediately upon exiting the airport realized just how out of element I was. I went from a culture (and language) with which I was familiar to one that was completely foreign. The fact that I didn’t speak Arabic or French complicated things a bit, but I was up for the challenge. What started as an impromptu addition a few weeks beforehand actually turned out to be the most memorable portion of my journey.
One of the highlights of my time in Marrakech was definitely the hostel at which I stayed. Named “Waka Waka” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRpeEdMmmQ0), it was saturated in color from the carpets and couches to the rooftop patio. Unlike larger, more commercial businesses, no locks were necessary to secure your belongings, everyone in the building became friends, each morning we were presented with a freshly baked traditional breakfast, and there was a never-ending free supply of traditional Moroccan mint tea. Waka Waka became a wonderful oasis to return to after exploring the chaotic streets of Marrakech.
In the days that followed I spent time with new friends exploring the souk (the market) during the day and tasting Moroccan delicacies in the main plaza in the evening. The afternoon I arrived in Morocco happened to be the first day of Ramadan, a coincidence that turned out to be both a curse and a blessing. Many shops and restaurants were closed during the day, the Moroccans could get quite temperamental with the combination of fasting and 114° Heat, and we had to be careful when eating snacks or drinking water in public. On the flip side, I was able to learn so much from the locals about their religion that I didn’t know before. Plus, the city completely came alive after the sun set. The main plaza buzzed with food vendors all shoving their menus in your face promising various free extras to entice you to choose their stall. Steam cascaded into the night sky from pots of traditional Moroccan soup, plates of vegetable couscous, and grills full of lamb kabobs. The food was incredible and – while at times hectic and a bit stressful – the ambiance couldn’t be beat.
One of our favorite post-dinner activities was to wander over to the orange juice section of the plaza. Rows upon rows of identical stands selling fresh-squeezed orange juice and bottled water lined the square, complete with more shouting vendors trying to get people to come over. During my first night in Marrakech a group of eight of us befriended one of the vendors, Adel, to whom we returned time and time again for our daily dose of fresh orange juice. Throughout the week he would take hilarious pictures with us in his stand, sit around and talk with us for hours, and let us squeeze our own orange juice.
In an effort to find some shade and green vegetation, I explored Jardin Majorelle in 110° heat with Matt, Louis, Ozzy, and Gabrielle. Later in the evening we returned to the plaza for dinner. As we wandered around watching some of the street performers, we were pulled into the center of one of the circles and danced to traditional music on and off for hours until we physically could not any more. To recuperate we headed towards the orange juice stands and met back up with the rest of the group, who had been chatting with Adel and the other vendors.
During my last full day in Marrakech I was ready to do some serious shopping. I was prepped, poised, and geared up for some bartering. Entering the winding alleyways with three fellow Americans, we scouted out what we wanted and proceeded to search for the best deals possible. I discovered that my most valuable asset was not my sassy attitude or my keen eye for a bargain, but my Spanish. Shop vendors left and right would call out for me in either French or English to buy their wares, but I would only respond in Spanish. When they would excitedly ask if I was from Spain, I would tell them yes (for a native speaker it would be obvious that I am not, but not for someone who learned Spanish as their fourth language). By pretending to not know English, I was able to shed the stereotype of “American tourist” and secure much better deals on what I was buying. The vendors treated me more like a friend than someone they were trying to trick into paying as much as possible.
In one shop I befriended a man selling beautiful handmade blankets. I wanted to buy one and expressed my love for the ornate craftsmanship, but knew I could not possibly backpack around the world with it. The longer the shop owner and I chatted, the lower the price sank. Finally I had to say no thank you and leave the store to meet up with my friends, but ended up returning to buy the blanket because two of the Americans studying at a summer law program in London offered to take it back to England and eventually back to the US for me. To cap off the afternoon, the vendor shut down his shop for a bit to bring us down the street and show us the loom at which his entire family works and the facilities where they dye all the material. I was overjoyed to be able to bring home such an exquisite memento of Morocco and to see the behind-the-scenes of how it was made.