Tuesday, May 08, 2007

"I just want out"

Lost in the souks
Originally uploaded by cornasdf.
Ooh my god it’s funking early. In order to catch our 7am flight, we had to get up and out of the house by about 4:30am. Of course, we got to bed early, just after midnight. Ahh well, slept on the flight. Nothing fancy at this airport, we stepped out onto the tarmac and wandered over to the customs lines. The lines were terribly unorganized and it took us at least an hour to get through. The annoying thing was that after all that time, they didn’t even ask any questions. I guess they used the time to enter the data from your landing card into the system. Why that needs to be done in real time, I have no idea.

We found the one working atm in the airport. There was a ‘helpful’ local standing over it and ‘helping’. A bit sketchy but we needed the dirhams. Once through that hurdle, we went out to the taxis. After a short argument over price, which we lost, we settled on 150 dirhams. This is only about 20 bucks but it is still far more than we should have paid and really set the stage when he took us down the road and then pulled over to argue for more money.

The driving was crazy, as it is in most 3rd world countries. This guy was passing on both sides and forcing oncoming traffic out of the way. His English, which seemed fine when we were bargaining for money, was curiously degraded when we asked about town. In any case, he got us to the square and directed us down an alley to, ostensibly, our hotel. Completely wrong directions though.

I had other directions from a friend at work and we found our way to a small riad just south of Fna Square, Hotel Nissam. For 200 dirhams (25$) we got two beds and a wash basin in a quiet riad courtyard. The riads are really nice in Morocco. They seem to be a tranquil oasis in the midst of the bustle and assault of the city.

We dropped our stuff off and headed to the Fna square. There were monkey handlers and snake charmers and all sorts of interesting things in the square. We found a café overlooking the square and stopped for lunch.

We decided to head out to Essaouira for a day trip the next day. It was either that or the mountains and maybe the dessert. Both sounded nice but we chose the beach. The bus to the beach was supposed to leave from Bab Aganou. We went looking for this through the winding alleys that made up the Medina (old city). Keeping a sense of direction was quite difficult in the winding alleys. There was traffic of all sorts, from donkeys to motorbikes to cars. Stray cats everywhere.

Eventually, we found the wall between the new and old city. We were trying to determine which way to go when we met Ali. He explained a couple of the options to get to the beach and took us to the various desks at the bus station, etc… After we squared away our Essaouira tickets, he offered to take us around ‘the real Marrakech’. Well, not so much offered as started taking us. I asked him how much he wanted and he said ‘what ever it’s worth to you’.

Ali said he had a craft fair that only happened once a week that he would show us. Somewhere ‘only the locals knew’. Alright, whatever, supposedly violent crime in low in this city and we had nothing better to do. He took us to a beautiful riad deep in the twisting streets the medina. It was really quite nice. Then he took us to a small shop where we met a berber merchant. Apparently they are part of some collective, this is where the street vendors buy their wares, this song, that dance. The merchant was a likeable sort and he brought us out some ‘berber whiskey’ (mint tea). After the tea, we browsed his shop and ended up buying a few things. The haggling was all done on paper and was very ritualized. He knew exactly what he was doing though and extracted a bit more money than we meant to spend. At one point, we realized that Ali was doing drugs in the bathroom. My guess is he just brings people to this guy in return for a couple hits. Not sure what it would be, maybe opium?

When we were finished and feeling a little ‘taken’, we stepped outside to find Ali waiting for us (with newly bleeding gums). He walked us about 50 ft down the street and said that we could get back to the square if we just took the first left. We gave him a bit of money and he hemmed and hawed. We ended up giving him about 120 dirhams (15$). Looking back at the scam later, it was too much. Especially since his directions to the square were nothing even approaching adequate.

Thoroughly lost in the souks, we wandered around trying to find the square. At one point a little kid mentioned he knew where the square was and took off in one direction. We told him not to bother but him and a multiplying number of kids kept going with us. Not 50 yards and 2 turns down the alley he mentions that the square is just down there, right and then right. With that he puts his hand out. We gave him a coin or two and that just pissed him off. I was a bit worried at this point b/c he had assembled a not small posse of little shits. We pointed out that we didn’t ask for his help. By this point I was getting fucking annoyed and sick of the town in general. We pushed our way out of that but by this point we were annoyed with the whole situation.

While wandering through alley after alley of crap for sale, I saw an exchange that about summed it up. One of the vendors spotted a middleaged, overweight woman. “Can I help you? Would you like to sit?” he asks. Her reply was a pitiful sounding “I just want get out” (of the souks I am sure). “Let me call my friends, they will help” came the reply. I have no doubt that they would take her 3 or 4 turns, get some money and she would be as lost as she was when she started.

After having to fight off plenty of people who wanted to ‘help’, we eventually found our way out. As an aside, I think this is what annoyed me most about Marrakech. I like travel as an opportunity to meet people from different places and see how we view the world differently. In a place like this, everybody is smiling and helpful and absolutely on the con. And if they happened not to be, you wouldn’t know it bc damn it sure seems like everybody is trying to wheedle money out by any means necessary. There was absolutely no feel of camaraderie or interest in anything other than what they could extract. It reminded me of the feeling some people have of stealing from large corporations and how it isn’t stealing. The whole thing made me wonder why I bothered coming there at all. In retrospect, I realize that we should have stayed out of the center of town. Coming from the airport (annoying), to the old town (annoying), I didn’t realize there was not-old town. I think it would have been fine as a thing to see for a couple of hours. As an enveloping situation, it was just a pain in the ass. It was definitely the most obnoxious tourist trap I have found.

When we finally found the square. It was more bustling that before. There was even a guy selling human teeth. We headed through the square and back to the riad to regroup. The riad was a welcome bit of tranquility.

When we headed back out for dinner, we were immediately accosted by merchants of various types. We found a restaurant on Bab Agnou and ate some dinner. Next door was a riad with a massage. Hmmm… massage sounds good. I signed up for one and the guy was very good. Feeling a bit better after the massage, I headed back to the riad to find Zach.

We headed over to the one place nearby to get a beer. The Hotel Grand Tazi. Being a Islamic culture, drinking is frowned upon. Apparently there are a few bars but they are considered, well I guess sinful and only prostitutes or johns would go there. The only other place to get drinks are in hotels.

After a couple of drinks, we finally felt a bit relaxed. We headed back to the square which was still hopping. There were lots of interesting things to look at but anywhere you looked would cause a guy to come over and follow you trying to get you to come into his store or restaurant. Even as I munched on a kebab I had bought, the restaurant vendors wouldn’t take the hint after the first 5 ‘no’s. Even stopping at a drum circle, it wasn’t 30 seconds before somebody was there asking for money. When we told him no, he started shooing us away so we couldn’t stand there. Eventually, we gave up and headed back to the riad.

We were up early the next morning to catch the 8am bus out of town. Not that we were exactly sorry to leave Marrakech. The bus station was a marvel of chaos. Buses bumping people out of the way when they wouldn’t move out of the way fast enough. There were some people in uniforms or with clipboards that looked official trying to direct things. There were at least 4 times as many guys in plain clothes either standing around or doing some directing of their own. A couple of buses started to leave with people running up along side, throwing their luggage on the bus and then running to get in the open door.

This was our first glimpse of the new city. It looks much nicer. There are still big piles of garbage but at least they are generally within 20 ft or so of actual garbage cans.

The bus driver drove like a madman, passing other buses and a sundry vehicles. We rocketed through a terrain that reminding me of a poorer NM. Lots of adobe looking building and shepherds. With one stopover, the bus took a good 3.5 hours to get to Essaouira.

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