Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A feast for the senses

Me, I always bitch before I go somewhere. I love traveling but I'm anxious about where I'm going.
My friends wanted to go to Morocco. I wasn't that thrilled. I had heard women get harassed and the hustling of tourists is heavy. I asked around. Some people said the hustling was a pain, others said the place rocks. So after indulging my customary kvetch, I let myself go to Marrakech.
I loved it the minute I set foot in it.
On the way to the old city from the airport (5 minutes) there are olive and orange groves and the streets are lined with rose bushes. I hate to use this line, but Marrakech had me at hello.
The taxi leaves you on one of the gates to the walled city and a guy with a cart lugs your bags through the winding alleyways to your little riad, your little boutique hotel. You seem to enter a bit of a time warp all of a sudden. It all looks ancient, every wall is painted in terracotta, and life unfolds on the streets with a vibrancy and passion that is foreign to us.

I come from Mexico, where you can see sort of the same colorful liveliness, but Marrakech is extraordinarily exotic and atavistic, even when it is being shamelessly touristy. It is Mediterranean, it is Oriental, Levantine, Arabic, Berber, French. It requires complete engagement of the senses. All you can do is venture out, get lost and wander around the markets, most of them transparently designed with tourists in mind, but to its credit, even the touristy stuff is lovely and beautifully crafted.

They sell an enormous amount of crafts, but the difference is that in the markets you can still see how the crafts are made because they are made in front of your very eyes. The markets are divided by trade so you can go to see how people dye the fabrics, the looms they use to knit them, you can see the smiths hammering their delicate motifs on the iron, you can see the old way of sculpting cedarwood into skewer or knife handles, (by foot), you can see and smell how they dye the leather.

It all feels slightly medieval. If you leave the tourist shops behind, you will bump into the Medina not of tourists, the markets not of trinkets, the houses and the stores and the people of this extraordinary place.
It helps the atmosphere a lot that the locals still proudly wear their local dress, djellabas and burkas and hooded robes over their jeans and nikes. Some women are completely covered, others just cover their head, others look totally Western, others do a combo. We could not figure out the rules, but one of us thought that perhaps they wear the burka on a bad hair day, when you just don't want anyone to see you.
For pictures of people, you will have to wait until I get them from my friends. I didn't take pictures of people out of respect and because it was intimidating. In Morocco people really look back at you and you don't want to be snapping pictures of them as if they were exotic specimens.
I expected really pushy vendors and aggressive men. Some are still that way, few and easy to brush off, people with the proverbial chip on their shoulder (tourism begets plenty of those); but most people were warm and charming and had a great sense of humor. You could engage in conversation (they speak every language) not only for the purpose of buying or haggling but also for learning and exchanging information, which is what makes the shopping experience such fun.

This guy had a spice store, way out of the tourist traps near the big square. He was elegant, honest and gave us Arabic and Berber lessons. We bought rosewater, musk, scents for the home (orange peel, clove, cinnamon, cedarwood).

A young guy at one of the food stalls in the main square told me to eat in his establishment because it was better than Ferran Adria's, a patently studied line, but delivered with great moxie. He also said it was climatiseé, air conditioned. I had to go. The food was actually great.
In the markets people take one look at you and without hearing you speak, they already know where you are from. They beckon you in Italian, French, Spanish, English. One of them even spoke to me in Hebrew. I turned around but pretended I didn't understand. He asked me where I was from. I said Mexico. He said: you changed your nationality. How did he know?
Saying I was from Mexico, I was heartily welcomed, they all knew the name Guadalajara from the soccer club of the same name. When I said I lived in NY, I could perceive a discreet flicker of surprise, a minuscule raising of eyebrows, and not necessarily bad. The town was teeming with tourists, but no Americans in sight.

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