What is this?!

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What is this?!

The Souks are a maze of gold, bronze and rich reds. Every lane is both too winding and narrow to see any distance, and yet wide enough for countless people, several speeding mopeds and the occasional cat seeking shade. A walk through the old town gives you the unusual experience of a comfortable and relaxed stroll through a bustling and chaotic medieval city. Oh and you’re constantly being hassled in the friendliest and easily forgivable manner.
“What is this?” asks a shop owner as he points to a heap of white scented powder that he’s selling.
“Well if YOU don’t know” I say, and I get a smile before the seller backs off. The whole time we were in Marrakech I don’t think we were hassled more than once at any one time by the same person.

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At night, the square (which is relatively quiet in the day) comes alive. There are rugs laid out on the floor with Moroccan oils, countless fresh orange juice vans (fantastic orange juice might I add), restaurant stalls selling BBQ’d meats, snake charmers charming the pants off some heat drugged snakes (but, as my research taught me, only drugged on the heat, not actual drugs), henna tattoo artists drawing on the arms of unwilling women (Gemma included) and drumming bands and acrobats gathering large audiences.

There were also monkeys in nappies on leads which we stayed well clear of – far too sad. We weren’t sure what we thought of the snake charming either for that matter…
“What is this?” a different miscellaneous white powder seller asked us.
“Soap?” we asked and he shook his head no, with a smile.

We wanted to see some of the museums in Marrakech, and found they were mainly hidden in the maze alleys of Souks. We visited the Musee de Marrakech, Ben Youssef Madrasa and somewhere that we think was probably a palace. Despite Gemma’s best efforts we couldn’t always follow what we were looking at as all the information was written in French. In half an hour Gemma was able to get the jist of an entire information board – unfortunately the jist was that we were indeed in a college founded by Ben Youssef, and that the rooms we’d seen were, in actual fact, rooms. Still, the architecture was nice.
“What is this?” we were asked as we left what was potentially a palace.
“Food?” I asked a little too eagerly. The man shook his head and we carried on walking aimlessly. So aimless was our walk in fact that we ended up lost and away from the tourist Souks. We’d walked off the map!

We’ve done this once before in Paris. I’d like to say that we were off the beaten track but we could see the Eiffel Tower from most of the streets and it was all rather lovely with several tourists about. We had an old and very used map which didn’t cover much of the city, so I guess the best I can say for us in Paris was that we off the beaten map. In contrast, in Marrakech everything seemed to get a lot dustier and more crowded. There were still market stalls but they were selling food and drink for the locals rather than bronze lamps and rugs for the tourists. There were more donkeys and all of the shops and factories were out of open garages. Several people tried to help us get back to the Souks but unfortunately there were also people telling us they were helping but pointing the wrong way so it became very hard to know who was actually trying to help. We did find our way back, but mainly through endless walking.

Five times a day a call to prayer is heard across the city. I had actually been looking forward to this as it was something I grew to love in India, a place where each call to prayer was soft, melodic and tuneful. I remember listening to one call to prayer on a rooftop in Jodhpur at sunset, sipping a lassi and watching monkeys hop around lower rooftops. It was a tranquil, peaceful moment, and one that I’ll remember forever. We were sat in a café in Marrakech when we heard our first Moroccan call to prayer. It was much louder and much harsher than the ones we’d heard previously, with more of a nasal drone than a tuneful melody. As soon as the call started a man over the road from us dropped immediately nearly hitting his head on a lamppost and started praying. He stayed on the ground for about 30 minutes with the chaos of the city (and it was chaos – next to a main road with schoolchildren and parents everywhere) moving around him. It was quite a striking image and his belief was humbling to see.

We drank a lot of mint tea in Marrakech. The first one was because our guidebook had told us to, but the next several were simply for their flavour. I’m not sure why it is poured from a height but I think it must have something to do with letting the tea breathe because when I poured, it wasn’t as good.

“What is this?” yet another man asked us pointing at some white powder.
“Spices?” I asked. He beamed a smile at me. “Yes?” I said. “No” he said.
“You know we’re going to have to stick around and actually ask someone what it is if you want to know what it is?” Gemma said. She is wise my wife, and I’d marry her again in a second if just for useful titbits such as this. I vowed that next time someone asked us ‘what is this’ I would ask what ‘this’ is. ‘If nothing else’, I thought ‘it will make a nice ending for the blog’.

There were two things we wanted to do on our last day in Marrakech, both of which were recommended by friends. One friend suggested we visit the Yves Saint Laurent Garden just outside of the old city walls. We did and we found the garden to be tranquil and beautifully laid out and ideal for those wanting to get away from the busy streets. All of the building walls are blue and the plant pots and plants are yellow and orange. We really liked it. In fact, if you visit our house after next month (and you are of course welcome) you’ll see a very small replica of it in our garden!

The second thing that was suggested to us was to take a hammam. Our friend had managed a traditional one with the sexes separated and a proper brutal scrubbing, but as we only had a short amount of time we opted to do it at our Riad as a couple. Then we remembered we were badly sunburnt from Essaouira and that a good scrubbing might scrub our skin clean off. So we ended up with the basic package which didn’t include any violent skin removal. We were left in a sauna with a cold tap, a bucket and some scented soaps. The people working at the Riad didn’t speak English and our French is minimal so we weren’t sure whether this was the hammam or not. After about 10 minutes we assumed that nothing else was going to happen and we were hot so we started pouring the cold water on ourselves. Then we continued doing that for about an hour and a half….

Eventually we left not sure if it was over and not sure whether we’d had a hammam. If we have (and I’m pretty sure we haven’t) a hammam is a fun and incredibly cold water fight in a small and incredibly hot room.

As we walked out into the old town again for a drink before our night meal in the Riad, I waited to be asked. I really wanted someone to ask me. I’d been asked every other time we’d wondered into the Souks. It was still chaotic, there were still reds, golds and bronzes everywhere and there was still heaps of white scented powder in some of the shops, but no one asked ‘what is this?’ And so I had no one to ask back ‘I don’t know, what is this?’ And to this day I don’t know what ‘this’ is.

So much for a nice ending to the blog….

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