Feb 7, 2005
Today was a wild one. After having tea with two travelers we met at the hotel, we took a taxi to the train station for an overnight to Marrakesh. Upon arrival we saw no such train leaving at midnight. The next train to Marrakesh departed at 2:45. We grumbled at our misfortune, but soon found seats in the stations café. We ordered drinks and unfolded
Bobby's travel chess game. Bobby revenged a set of humiliating defeats by winning both games handily. I blame the blaring Moroccan music.
An hour before departure, three and a half after our arrival I realized we hadn't bought the tickets. We soon realized after this that we didn't have enough dirims to buy the tickets. I took to the now pitch black streets of Fez in search of an ATM. Thankfully I quickly found one.
An argument in the café broke out about the time I came back from the ticket counter. I gather that a group of men were brought food they did not order, and were charged for it at the end of the meal. One visibly pissed off man began to shout and point at the table, then at a restaurant employee. More employees came out into the dining area. Shouts and points were exchanged by both sides, a portly middle-aged woman taking the lead role for the restaurant, arguing with the man, the two within inches of each other. After what seemed to be ten minutes, they must have reached an agreement because the argument ended.
The Moroccan trains reminded me of the trains in the Balkans as we walked towards the platform. I was excited to finally get a chance to sleep. This excitement plundered rapidly as I walked from compartment to compartment seeing them all full. After haggling with a group of young Moroccans with the help of a wrinkled-faced Muslim woman, Bobby and I crammed into a now full compartment. It wasn't the best sleeping arrangement so we decided it would be fun to stay up for 72 hours straight... this lasted all of about twenty minutes. For the next few hours I struggled to sleep despite the crammed circumstances.
An hour before Casa Blanca we were able to stretch out a bit after four of the people in the compartment de-boarded. We transferred trains in Casa and found a car with only two people. This was optimal and when the two men left the next stop, Bobby and I slept like babies until we arrived in Marrakesh.
Our taxi driver was the happiest cabbie in the world, shouting out facts about Marrakesh. He spoke three languages, which he felt was not enough. Right away I was struck by the differences between Marrakesh and what I have seen in Morocco so far. First of all, the landscape is drier, brown, less mountainous, and more what I would have thought Africa to look like. With that said, the city itself if beautiful. The trash I had become accustomed to was nowhere to be seen. Many streets are lined in palm trees and fairly exotic. As the taxi driver talked away, he maneuvered through the busy, and what seems to be law-free streets of Marrakesh. The ride cost only two euro.
We were dropped off in a heavily populated commercial district bustling with locals and travelers. We had a bit of trouble locating the hotel recommended in our Let's Go book, but were pleased to find a cheap pastry shop instead. Bobby asked the owner for directions and he sent his young son to show us. We definitely would not have found it without him, Bobby rewarded him with a few dirim.
The city felt much safer than any I had been to in Morocco, and I was only approached once by a hustler on the way to the hotel. Speaking of the hotel, it is beautiful, by far the best we have stayed in thus far. The tiles are amazing, the terrace has a nice view, there are plants everywhere, the mattress is comfortable, and our room has a sink and a mirror... but the showers are lukewarm (the only negative).
After a shower I felt refreshed, even though I didn't sleep great the night before. Bobby and I left the hotel without the slightest clue as to what was going to happen less than twenty minutes later.
We made our way through skinny medina streets to the Djema fa (Assembly of the Dead), a massive square full of people, even at 1:30 PM. Quickly, we were confronted with pushy restaurateurs, the sound of flutes, the smell of grilled meats, the sight of motorbikes and bicycles, and pedestrians and buskers all taking up the same space, and as we continued to walk, snakes...
As we drew closer, the sound of the flutes became louder as we saw men piping away and beating on drums. On the ground feet from us was a king python, its next charged to strike. Other snakes lay coiled or slithering on a blanket in front a snake charmer, kneeling at the top of the blanket. Other men holding snakes walked around people watching, offering the snakes. I looked back to the charmer, who held his hand out towards the cobra. In return it snapped at him. Before I could think a man had confronted Bobby and I with snakes of our own. I was not keen on holding a large snake, but before I could refuse the man had left the snake in my hand and walked away. The men took pictures of us and demanded a large sum of money. We rewarded them with a small sum of money and three oranges.
As we walked towards the center of the square, things were happening all around us. Make-shift shop owners beckoned us to see there teas, spices, and knick-knacks. Orange juice vendors pointed at their stacks of oranges, small children peddled toy snakes. I turned to look for Bobby, but he had been accosted by a henna tattoo artist and was wriggling to get free. A man holding a monkey on his shoulder approached us and began performing tricks in front of us. At this time, another henna lady approached as well.
Towards a street funneling in and out of the square we walked. Motorbikes and bicycles whizzed by us. We drew close to the street and less commotion when I heard my name, undoubtedly my name. In the most fascinating square I have ever seen in a continent I have never been to, who would be calling my name, I thought. As soon as these thoughts came into my mind, so did another realization. It had to be Emma. Emma and I worked together in Greece at Archelon. She is from London, but owns a house in Essaouira, Morocco. I turned, and there she was, smiling. We had planned to meet up, but not until Essaouira in a few days. We chatted with her for a few minutes and made plans for Essaouira.
Bobby and I found a small restaurant on a busy street, we later found out was the street we first came in on, and had lunch. It wasn't the kebab I was accustomed to, or had been craving since I left Madrid, but it was tasty nonetheless. With our sandwiches we both had a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice... that cost only fifty cents.
After a stroll back through the square we walked through the souqs (shop areas) in the medina. Bobby played good cop at a jewelry store. Through him arguing with the shop attendant and me arguing with him about quality and price, and the fact that they have better rings over there, we managed to bargain the price of two silver rings down from 520 to 200 dirim. I just hope they are genuine silver. We walked on, passing ceramic stores, carpet shops, shoe, more jewelry, and clothing stores. We noticed a chicken market. Thousands of feathers and a few hungry cats coated the ground. Hundreds of cartons of eggs stood in window shops. Live chickens in small cages clucked. Butchers with dead chickens, some still bleeding from their necks, waited for customers. The smell was not pleasant.
Later in the afternoon we both bought necklaces from a cheery store attendant, and for some reason Bobby almost bought a cane. I bought a brown leather hat later, and Bobby a wool gellaba (traditional Moroccan jacket).
Back in the main square, crowds gathered around story tellers, dancers, charmers, and mystics. I bustled my way to get an unobstructed view of a story-telling, two-toothed, elderly snake charmer. Although I couldn't understand the words, the passion and intensity in his voice, as well as the viper resting quietly on the shoulders of another man made this spectacle unforgettable. Another viper lay on the ground, brooding. The charmer walked circles around the snakes and the man still as a rock, collecting coins from the audience. As he circled, spit protruded from his mouth when he spoke, dissolving in the warm air. This build up and yelling, this vibrant story telling continued for ten minutes, all the while the viper lay resting on the weary man's shoulders.
Quickly, the charmer grabbed hold of the viper on the ground and pulled it to the center of the large circle. It was still dazed from a previous charm, and did not fight. The old mystic pointed and shouted, saliva gathering on his bottom lip. The charmer slowly moved towards the viper, with a bag in his hand. As he opened the flap to the bag, the viper suddenly bolted up and snapped at the man with full force. Its jaws opened wide before it coiled back in striking position, hissing. I jumped... as did others around the circle. The on-lookers were all Moroccan, other than Bobby and I. The man again slowly moved closer to the snake, and it again snapped at him. He backed off quickly. The charmer began to recite something while the snake sat cocked in striking position, still hissing.
The mystic took these small gold rectangular charms out of the bag and walked circles again around the crowd. He was reciting various things and pointing to the sky, and trading the charms for dirims. All the while, the snake sat in striking position. Armed with one of the gold charms, the charmer chanted to the snake and ran a circle with the charm around the snake's head. A second time he waved the charm around the snake's head in a circular motion. Unbelievably, the charmer then placed his hand directly in front of the snake, moving it back and forth. The snake must have been completely unconscious, for it did not seem to mind at all the man now. I was in shock.
The charmer began to tell another or continue the same story... I am not too sure. He continued for a few minutes, then walked to the snake still laying on the poor man's back. It lay still silent, as well as the man. He pulled the snake off the man and into the middle of the circle. The snake seemed rattled, but not upset. The man quickly jumped back, and he looked up, very, very unhappily at the charmer. The tooth-less old man then roused this viper in much the same way, and again charmed it into unconsciousness. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. After this, no act seemed quite so fascinating.
Other interesting acts I saw in this square include a man who barked to a group of onlookers and poured various odd substances into a glass before drinking the lumpy brown drink. A black-African story teller had an audience completely captivated on him, not a person blinking or looking away. Later in the evening I watched traditional dancing and within seconds a woman noticed me and came over for money. She didn't leave until I gave her some dirim.