Marrakech: A Dark Night in the Red City
As we idled in the parking lot, the call to prayer drifted lazily out from the city on the hot African wind. The red brick buildings of Marrakech stood as a labyrinthine wall in the setting sun. The GPS was unable to find the hotel, and the maps with named streets and districts bore little resemblance to the solid wall of buildings, the haunting call to prayer, and the mad crush of people, motorbikes, taxis, and animals. The whole scene was impossibly foreign, visceral, and more than a little intimidating. It was if all my previous experiences in travel had been wiped out by a continent that has defied expectations since time immemorial. The land itself seemed to laugh at my preparation, my maps, my planning. As the sun set below the horizon, and the Captain put the Peugeot 206 into gear, the night sky seemed to laugh and the blur of frenzied movement blended with the muezzin into a crescendo of light and sound, excitement and fear. Welcome, the city seemed to say, to Africa.
It had been 11 months since our first son was born, and being a new mother fulfilled me in ways I could never imagine. It is also a 24/7 job and my husband rightly realized that I needed a break. As much as motherhood tempered my lust for travel with caution, my desire to explore new lands will never and should never die. A standby booking to Paris, a quick jaunt down to the Opera House, and a confirmed ticket on EasyJet later; and there we were in that parking lot, in over our heads and secretly loving that underlying sense of exploration, the thrill of the unknown. Now my husband and I prefer to stay away from the beaten path and the traditional resort hotels, opting instead for small, boutique hotels often family-run and featuring only a few rooms. The plus side is that the lodging experience is far more local and far more authentic. The downside is that they can be damnably difficult to find, often residing in districts where side streets have long since turned into a warren of alleyways and signage is non-existent. In the case of Dar Warda, our 4-room riad deep in the Marrakech medina, difficult to find turned out to border the impossible.
A tip here about Marrakech, in fact about most of Morocco, but the larger cities in particular: the local population (for the most part) is all about the hustle. When walking the streets of Marrakech, simply pausing for a moment will bring a multitude of inquiries and offers of assistance. Things like looking lost, or God forbid, looking at a map will bring in a small army of eager locals, overflowing with offers of guidance, rides, and directions. Good samaritans, however, they are not. Acceptance or even anything short of a sharp refusal to their offers will always culminate in an aggressive demand for money, even if their offers are initially made to appear as just friendly help. When you don’t need assistance, be very blunt. When you do, always negotiate a price in advance, even if it appears their help is offered in good faith.
The Captain and I learned that lesson the hard way that first night, as it soon became clear that we had almost no hope of finding Dar Warda on our own. The hotel basically admitted as much, as their response to a request for directions only included the tips “ask about this street, or ask about this district…” The hotel turned about to be over 100 meters away from the nearest road, down a series of dark narrow alleyways. The shortest route back to the road included no less than 5 forks and direction changes. Local assistance was an absolute must.
The Captain then tried to find a local school, the nearest landmark to the hotel, on the GPS. The streets, however, were so narrow that many were not included in the GPS database and the satellite directions eventually ushered us down an alleyway that had concrete blocks set up to prevent car traffic. As we stopped and tried to turn the Peugeot around, we were surrounded by a group of young men who knocked rapidly on our windows. Now violent crime in Marrakech is very rare, but getting surrounded by people down a barricaded African street at night is never a good place to find yourself. I was scared. For perhaps the first time in my travels, I began to wonder if we had taken on too much, if perhaps we should have taken the path more traveled. Fortune may favor the bold, but that seemed a small comfort in that dark, crowded alleyway.
Fortunately for me, I wasn’t alone. I had my husband and he handled the situation admirably. While he turned the Peugeot around he talked directions with the group, and resisted calls to park the car and walk to the hotel which they assured us was close. Even though it was his first time in the city, the Captain knew that the hotel wasn’t in the immediate vicinity. We ended up programming a different route to the college of Mohammed V and the youths followed us to help find a local of that district who would know where the hotel was. We finally found the college (or at least what the GPS said was the college, to me it was aesthetically identical to the myriad of other small buildings we had passed previously). The Captain called the hotel who offered to send someone out to help us, but without a common reference point, we soon realized we would have to trust our new “guides”. The Captain paid off the large group who had followed us there, although they were not pleased with the limited amount of cash my husband claimed to have. That left us with the one local whom they had found to lead us through the alleyways to the hotel. At 6 foot 3, the Captain towered over most of the men there and once the large group had left he felt comfortable to follow our new acquaintance, Usama, into the dark twisting streets of broken stone. The Captain’s confidence gave me strength, and despite the gravity of the situation, I couldn’t help but yield to my adventurous side and take in the dark beauty of this ancient city. 15 long minutes and a few wrong turns later (even Usama had trouble finding our tiny riad,), we arrived at the end of a red stone alleyway with a faded sign marking the presence of our hotel.
Once inside the red brick walls, it was like being transported to an entirely different world. Opulent furnishings bordered a reflective square pool, and a tray of sweet pastries and moroccan mint tea awaited us. Our room was elegant and modern with a large tub hewn out of the local red rock. There was, however, little time to rest. Moroccan dirhams are impossible to find outside of the country as the nation bans the export of any significant quantity of currency. As a result, the Captain needed to find an ATM to acquire local funds. Since we knew we would have to haggle with Usama anyway, we had him wait while we checked in and then had him lead us to an ATM and a good place for dinner. Usama guided us through one dark passage after another and the only people we passed were those that lived in the stone spaces above. As we passed a collapsed wall, two young girls came out and began to point at my hair and giggle happily. Being part Filipino, I have always had straight jet black hair, an uncommon sight in North Africa as most hair is either wavy, curly, or covered under cloth. As we walked they walked with us and begin to touch my hair, smile, and whisper to each other. It was a crazy experience to have late at night in a dark alley in an unfamiliar city. As I was beginning to see, Africa confounds all expectations.
We ended up losing Usama in the crowds near the Jemaa el Fna, an ancient square whose name most closely translates to “The Mosque at the End of the World”. To the trans-Saharan caravans that made their way up from Timbuktu and Zagora, it truly was the end of the world. As slaves were traded for silks, spices, and gold, songs were sung and camels loaded for the trip back to the desert. Today, Jemaa el Fna has two very different sides. By day it marks the entrance to the famed souks of Marrakech, and the square is populated by snake charmers, fortune tellers, and showmen. At night it transforms into a massive sprawl of open air food stalls with Arabic and Berber bards telling stories of epic battles and ancient heroes. Locals gather round to hear these tales and it is the primary way in which their oral tradition is passed down from generation to generation. The Captain and I strolled through the writhing mass of people and smoke while taking in the beautiful mix of language and noise. French, Arabic, and Tamazight mingled together to form a low hum punctuated by the occasional honk of taxis and the shouts of food vendors. Eventually we found our way back to the riad, although once again with (paid) local assistance. The Captain had to venture out once more as Usama managed to find his way back to the riad to demand a price for his “good deeds” and for watching the car. Once we finally settled in, however, I truly began to marvel at where we were. Outside the red city was alive with light and sound, burned incense and the smoky aroma of tajine hung on the wind. But inside the riad, the red rock walls and the cool white sheets blocked out the world like a soothing oasis in the harsh desert. My first night in Africa was many things, but is was never dull. And as I faded off to sleep, the red city seemed to whisper that there was much more to come…and indeed there was.