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Gardens near the Koutoubia Mosque (May 2017).

 

For the longest time, Morocco had been on my travel bucket list. Ever since February of my first year teaching in France, I saw other assistant(e)s’ beautiful photos of the country’s during the winter vacances, and at that point, I knew that I wanted to go. I didn’t end up going that first year, but made it a goal my second year to visit.

It was after I’d gotten back from my Christmas holidays just this past year that I, along with a former assistante friend, found great flight deals to Marrakesh and Fez and ultimately, we booked a round-trip flight for under 70 euros (not bad) to be scheduled in May. For the next five months, I waited in anticipation to visit the beautiful, north African country that everybody has been talking about.

Finally, May rolled around and I was ready! I shuttled myself to Paris, where I dropped off my *massive* suitcase at a friend’s place (my teaching contract had ended, and I would be heading home from Paris after my Moroccan trip) and took a BlaBlaCar to the Beauvais airport for an evening flight to Marrakesh. Flight took off about half an hour late (21h30) and about three hours later, we arrived in Marrakesh (before midnight, for Morocco’s one hour behind France). After going through customs, I found my hostel’s taxi, as I’d arranged things beforehand to get me safely to the hostel since it was so late at night. I arrived at my hostel close to 1h00 where I checked in, was shown to my bed, and proceeded to fall asleep (at least, I tried) without showering or freshening up beforehand.

I woke up at 6h00, unable to sleep anymore (travel does that to you). After a *carb-filled* breakfast provided by the hostel, I planned out my itinerary for the day and around 9h30 set out to explore Marrakesh.

If I had only one word to describe the atmosphere of the city, it would be chaotic. With its narrow streets and alleyways filled with pedestrians, bikes, even motorcycles, it’s a wonder that no one gets killed there. Everyone seemed to have their own death wish, and it was a matter of me being super alert and stepping out of the way whenever I heard a motorcycle approaching. Mind you, this was a lot to take in during my first morning in the city!

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Small street inside the Medina.

After a few twists and turns through the alleyways and streets, I finally made it to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square of the city. This is where everything goes on– shopping, food, entertainment– and people, locals and tourists alike, come together to make it happen. For a first-timer like me, it was definitely an overwhelming experience, as I had to dodge through the stalls to avoid getting hit by cars and also avoid getting harassed by the vendors who tried to lure me into their shops.

From the Jemaa el-Fnaa, I walked over to the Koutoubia Mosque, the largest mosque in Marrakesh. The minaret measures 77 meters (253 feet) and is the highest point of the city. I’m told that other buildings cannot be built any taller than the minaret itself, which shows just how respectful the people are of their religion. I couldn’t enter the mosque, because I’m not Muslim (same goes for the other mosques in Morocco), but it was nice enough just to get a look at the outside and take a photo of it.

I returned to Jemaa el-Fnaa, where I decided to check out one of the souks, or the bazaars, in and around the area. Knowing that it was easy to get lost in the souks, I made sure that I remembered where I was, as well as noting down each twist and turn, so that I didn’t get lost. That worked well for the first souk I visited, although not so much for the second one (more on that very soon).

Once I got out of the first souk and back onto the main square, I saw another souk nearby and went in to check it out. It was darker and filled with less people, but I found it to be more beautiful than the first one I’d checked out. Especially the lantern souk, which was way beyond gorgeous and made me feel like I was in another world. Granted, it’s not polite to take photos of these shops, but I made sure to be discreet as possible when doing so- they were too pretty not to, anyway!

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Lantern souk.
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Inside the souks.

Normally, I don’t do shopping whenever I travel; often times, I just buy a postcard. However, I was interested in buying a headscarf, considering that I would likely use it on the Sahara desert tour that I would take starting the following day. I paused at a scarf souk and, after admiring the scarves for a bit too long, the merchant came up to me and before I knew it, we were haggling.

Now, I usually don’t bargain, and I hate having to do it- but when you’re in Morocco, you’re expected to do so, not only because it’s the culture, but also the merchants charge you three times the actual amount. I did my best, and ended up purchasing a scarf for what would’ve been 200 dirhams (20 euros) for 150 dirhams (15 euros). Pretty good, especially when I’m so shabby at bargaining and the scarf was made from pretty-good material, aka pashmina.

Feeling rather satisfied, I continued through the souks, getting more and more lost with each turn around the corner. I should’ve known better and turned right around when I could, because by the time I popped out on a big street, I had gone too far to know how to get back to Jemaa el-Fnaa. This was when the trouble started.

I had no idea where I was, and even Google Maps couldn’t help me; the hostel map was useless, too. For about two hours, I wandered the streets, trying to remember the way I’d gone, but it was fruitless. I didn’t want to ask anyone for help, just because I knew that there would be faux guides demanding money- admittedly, I encountered a couple of them, but firmly walked away from them.

Eventually, I ended up somewhere in the peripheries of the city(!) and after a bit more wandering around, a man approached me, asking if I needed help. Of course, I remained wary, but at that point, I was getting desperate and just wanted to know how to get back to the main square. I’ll save the gripping details for what happened in a later post, but basically, I got robbed, and that in itself really shook me up the rest of the afternoon (and the rest of the trip).

I returned to my hostel later that afternoon, and after getting my bearings together decided to head out again, this time just down the street, for a late lunch-early dinner at a small cafe. I treated myself to a vegetable tagine and orange juice, which helped to cheer me up (and fill my belly, since I hadn’t eaten since breakfast). Also came across a couple of kittens, which proceeded to play with my shoes as I was eating. It was too adorable, and it was a nice distraction after a stressful day.

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Kitties!

Finishing up dinner, I headed back to the hostel where I showered to get rid of the two-day grime (and the robbery incident) before relaxing for the rest of the night. Once again, it had been a wild first day in Marrakesh, and I needed all the rest I could to prepare myself for the Sahara desert tour the following day.

I’ll be recounting more of my adventures in Marrakesh in another post, so look out for that soon. Until then!

 

— Rebecca

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