"A mix of tradition and modern life" was how our Atlas Mountains guide, Noureddine described Marrakech. We were instantly welcome by the more modern side at the airport with some of the most beautiful geometric beams and windows I have ever seen. We met our driver, Hakim, and made the twenty minute drive into the Old City, or the Medina, where our riad was located. Before entering the Medina's thick and soothing pastel pink wall, Hakim pointed out the "New City" next door where we could find modern restaurants and high end stores like Gucci. We playfully informed him that we didn't come here to shop at Gucci and dine on fancy food. He nodded in approval and went on to tell us about day excursions out to the Atlas Mountains where the Berber villages are. Hakim is Berber so he was quick, yet still respectful, to say that the Medina is touristy and we would do well to get out of the city to see the real Morocco.
With that bit of information in our back pocket we entered the wall of the Medina and were greeted by the Koutoubia Mosque - Morocco's Eiffel Tower. It was stunning and the fact that it's seven centuries old makes it a world wonder. Moving past the mosque we were in local trade streets, no tourists in sight but lots of motorcyclists and donkeys carrying heavy loads behind them. My first reaction was "yes, i love this!" but then it quickly turned to a "wtf?" when we arrived at our final destination. Paved roads had ceased three turns prior, the corner was littered with trash (no dumpsters I guess?) and there was a dog laying in a pile of torn up styrofoam looking totally dead. A group of neighborhood boys were playing a game of football (soccer) next to it and didn't seem to think anything was wrong. Hakim didn't seemed phased either so we carried on and met our riad host, Sadiq. He was ALL smiles and the most welcoming. The exterior of the riad didn't look like much (it's next to a cement brick maker) but as soon as we walked inside it was like being in a completely different world. It was gorgeous and peaceful and had a great balance of traditional and modern style. I later learned that traditional riads (mansions with open central courtyards or gardens) were designed with very few exterior windows and embellishments to keep with the modesty and privacy of the Muslim culture. Our room was so simple and beautiful that I had completely forgotten about the dead dog by that point.
After settling in we decided to venture out and see if we could make our way to the main square, Jemma el Fnaa, with the directions Sadiq had given us. It was Friday so the streets and shops were very quiet and the grey skies above made everything feel a bit moody. We zigzagged through the landmarks that Sadiq said would indicate that we were on the right path and eventually found ourselves in the middle of the infamous souks. Before traveling I had read about their notorious aggressiveness and I was determined to not let them (the souks) get the best of me. I quickly realized that it was going to be a problem. I wanted to stop at every shop and browse through all of the colorful, brassy, leathery treasures and intricate textiles. I've never wanted to shop more than I did there but I simultaneously had never felt more uncomfortable doing so. The first time I looked at something and then decided to pass, the guy looked at me like I had killed his mother. The rest of the time when we chose to ignore the sales calls (literally coming from every single vendor at the same time "look at my shop!" "looking is free!") we'd get disgruntled comments as soon as they realized that we weren't stopping. Finally we decided to give a shop a chance because I wanted to try some leather slippers on. I learned a BIG lesson here, people - I tried them on and asked for my size BEFORE asking what the price was. Ultimately, the seller didn't want to bring the price down to what I was willing to pay (you're supposed to haggle, which I hate) so I said "okay, no thank you" Immediately after I gave my (polite) decline he shooed us away with his hands and yelled "get out of my shop! poor people, get out!" and then he began to spit at us! My heart was pounding and Joe and I looked at each other like, "seriously?!? are we getting spat at right now?!?" Needless to say, all of those combined incidents left us feeling less than lovey towards "the way of the souks".
I was really bothered by the day's experience all night and realized that yes, that one guy was a total dick but also, I had approached the entire afternoon with a guard because of what I had read online. I was receiving the energy that I was giving off. So, for the rest of the trip I made the conscious decision to have a more positive (and open) attitude, to get comfortable saying "no thank you" with a smile, and to let whatever nasty things were said just roll off my back. I wasn't going to let them (or myself) ruin experiencing a city/country that I've always dreamt about.
The next day we took Hakim's advice and booked a day-trip to the Atlas Mountains through our riad. I'll share more about it later but it was exactly what we needed to cool down from the previous day. It was beeeuuutttiffffuulll. We saw parts of Morocco that we never would have imagined existed (Joe kept thinking we were in the Colorado Rockies) and spent hours learning about local cultures and landscapes from our awesome guide, Noureddine.
We returned to the riad that afternoon with a new found sense of appreciation and energy to take on the Medina once again. Night time in the square was a totally new experience - restaurants pop up out of nowhere and performers rally crowds that were nonexistent just a few hours before. Again, we felt the aggressiveness of the area as pitchmen approached us every several steps to convince us to dine with them. Other cultures and cities have this but it's at another level here - like, they will walk with you for two minutes saying anything they can to convince you. Joe got called "skinny" and I got "harry potter" haha. Eventually we let one guy convince us to sit down and we had a GREAT meal and thoroughly enjoyed the ambiance. It was a much better day/night than the first.
Sunday, our last day, was gorgeously sunny and with bright blue skies above, everything below it looked much more enchanting. I think the people who fall in love with Marrakech in an instant visit in the summer time - it truly does feel like a different place when it's not gloomy and cold. We only had a few hours before our flight so instead of trying to cram in a palace or museum visit we opted to give shopping another go. I'm glad we did because we experienced much more pleasant vendors who didn't curse us if we politely declined and by that time, we had mastered not getting run over by motorcycles and donkeys when walking in the narrow walkways, or what they call streets. I was fully enjoying myself and everything around me - I felt like me again, the me that likes that sort of crazy, foreign, adventure and says "I love this!" at the site of a donkey. Perhaps it was my conscious attitude shift or everyone really is more friendly on a warm and busy Sunday morning. Either way, I'm so happy that I finally came around to enjoying Marrakech. Despite it's faults it's a very interesting and inspiring place to visit. Oh, and that dog wasn't dead after all...that's just the way dogs do it in Marrakech. They must be conditioned to the laying dead-style (and hardly breathing?) due to the desert heat. Poor things.
And because I didn't write enough ;) ... here are a few tips for having a rosy experience while not forgetting to take off your rainbow colored glasses...
• expect to be asked for payment if you take a photo of a craftsman at work, folk costume personality, or performer without asking. even if you ask, they will ask for payment first.
• shop keepers in the souks will expect to be haggled with on the price so start by asking about a larger object to get an idea of their price range and then go for the smaller item you really want.
• do not accept any offers to help get you somewhere if you are lost. there are plenty of kids and young men who will casually offer to show you something like "leather market, only today" or help if you are lost. they WILL demand payment afterwards. we were approached a lot but we knew better having read horror stories. ff you need directions, go into a store where someone can't simply leave their post to "guide" you there.
• it seemed like locals do not like to have their photograph taken so be mindful of where/how you point you camera in the instance that they may be in your shot.
• forget about "standing and soaking it all in" while in the square - some performer or shop person will approach you before you get a moment to yourself. kudos if you manage it!