Bartering is an art. And I must say I am pretty good at ti. I have two friends in France whom I apparently embarrass when I suggest a lower price. Well, not in the grocery store or Galleries Lafayette. But from street vendors. I am polite about it. I suggest a price. They can say yes, no or give me a higher price. No big deal in my mind. But in Morocco, I ended up shopping at the Artisan store. The prices were fixed, the quality was good. And it’s what I would have ended up negotiating with no language barrier or stress.
Third world country. My high school friend kept emphasizing that to me and wanted to know my reaction. I wasn’t sure what she expected me to see. I wasn’t surprised. Maybe there are too many northern Africans in Paris? Maybe I go to too many Paris and banlieu marches and barter there? Maybe I have seen too many National Geographic and its ilk programs? I wasn’t too surprised. Noise. Donkeys. Dirt. And then places of silence and calm. Mercedes. Pristine.
What did surprise me was the toilets. Now when I was 10 we visited France. And I clearly recall the pit toilets. The hole in the floor that you squatted over. And my mom always carrying Kleenex. I’ve still seen a few here and there since living here. But on the morning of the leather workshop, I had a sudden need for a bathroom. The Marrakech public toilets were directly across the street. There are all these open stalls. I have my Kleenex stuffed in my pockets. The guy in charge comes over to me for my 50 cents which I give him but he signals me to wait. He walks over to a storage area, gets a roll of toilet paper, hands it to me and walks me to a stall with a door on it which he unlocks and waves me in.
So Europeans get their own toilet.
Politics are interesting. I recall that after/during the Arab Spring, the king here made some changes to mollify his population. More involvement of the people. But when you come down to it, after all the changes, the king seems to have the final say. And I understand it is against the law to speak poorly of him. That made conversations interesting. One person seemed to be genuinely pleased with the king and what he was doing. Another was more critical. And didn’t seem to look over his shoulder to see who might be listening. The complimentary one told me stories of secret police everywhere… Clearly, the king is massively wealthy. And most of his subjects are not. The future will be interesting. Especially because women seem to be speaking out and becoming more and more educated.
Sunday morning the atelier assistant picked me up… um walking. And took me to the jewelry store where a craftsman was going to show me how and help me make a thing… it could be hung on a necklace but it wasn’t silver, some other metal. I’d put it on wood to display it, not wear it. So the older gentleman (I do think he was older than me but maybe not!) starts to pick out this square design. That to my aesthetic was ugly. I pointed ot the triangular one. He looked at me every so skeptically, eyebrows raised. “You think you can do that one? Yeah right! But ok you’re the customer.” No, he didn’t say it in Arabic or French, but I could read his mind from the look on his face.
Ha! He didn’t know I was crafty! (Manually and mentally, I think…) So he glues the paper pattern to the metal, drills holes where the area needs to be cut out. Threads the metal handsaw through the hole and hands it to me.
I was successful. HA! The first time I finished a hole and gave it back to him, he had a very puzzled look. By the third time he was nodding and finally I got a tres bien from him. So much better than cooking something.
The next day, Monday morning (back to Sunday afternoon later), I was picked up to go to the leather atelier. The website said you made a business card holder. But in fact! I made slippers! This craftsman spoke English and French so we had a great conversation I cut and pasted. The rubber cement glue fumes nearly overwhelmed me but with quick trips to the street – the shop was open to the street- I survived. Just the day before I had had a conversation on FB about red shoes. FB reminded me of a post I had made of a photo of my red boots. I said all women should own a pair of red shoes. At the leather shop I had to choose between turquoise or red leather. Yup. Red. The whole process was interesting and engaging. Then he brought out his old Pfaff sewing machine. My mom had one so I thought I ‘d be fine. But his was very touchy. Slowly ever so slowly put pressure on the foot to – hopefully – inch forward… no millimeter forward. Not. There seemed to be only two speeds. Off and Super Fast. After two inches of sewing, I bowed to him and asked him to finish for me. He was happy to.
How do these people survive? I was there for 3 hours. During that time only 4 people stopped at his shop and none bought. The assistant told me there was more traffic in the afternoon. OK. But those slippers were sold for 12 bucks. Now he can certainly make more than one pair in three hours – maybe 2 or 3 pairs. But still…
On Sunday afternoon, I ended up with my guide again. He had his daughter with him and he drove me around. Much better than a taxi whose driver would have had to negotiate price with me and then not give me a running commentary. He had offered to do this during our tour on Saturday. Of course, he said, it would be his pleasure. For free. No money. Because we were friends.
Yeah right. It was nice for him to say that but I knew I would pay him the same. And totally worth it to me. We drove through the new part of Marrakech. Through the old. Out to Yves saint Laurent’s museum (I didn’t go in – maybe I should have but I was done with museum experiences at that point – I was relishing the freedom of the car). And out to the palmier area – full of palm trees and camels. And camel drivers. I turned down a camel ride. But I got some great pictures of a Moroccan dressed in blue caftan with his 5 camels. Camel abuse? To get the camel to stand up, he kicked them. And I have a priceless photo of him in his Bedouin garb talking on an iphone…
First, the riad. That’s a home that has been transformed into a hotel. Riad Clos des Arts. Just over $100 a night and voted in the Top 25 WORLD WIDE Small Hotels on Trip Advisor. Wow. And deserved it. The place is beautiful. Run by Italians. And the food… well the cook also did my henna on both hands and an artist… it was like a 5 star restaurant every night. With delicious breakfasts on the roof top terrace. Yum. Miam.. It is in the old town. They arranged for a driver to meet me at the airport.
Airport. That was interesting. After going through customs, we didn’t exit straight to the parking. Nope. We went through a security screening, xray machines and all, to enter the Kingdom of Maroc. And leaving, security to get inside the airport then the real airplane screening to be able to get to the boarding area. You can’t have weapons in Maroc. They mean business. Except when I was there, an assassin killed two people in a coffee shop – really, a hit man. He was supposed to be killing this businessman, owner of the café I think. He was told where the guy sat. But that morning, minutes before, the guy got up and let some other people sit there. Wrong place Wrong time. I never heard the full story but everyone was shocked.
So at the airport – I was thinking, all parking lots are the same all over the world. He drove me to a parking space outside the old city and I was met there by a gal from the hotel and a guy with a hand cart – well, not what we think of as a hand cart that UPS uses. No, a more wheelbarrow-ish hand wagon – for my bag. We walked thought the mazelike streets. The plain door opened to this beautiful welcoming warm space. Who knows what rests behind those unassuming entrances?
The morning with my guide was interesting and fun. He was a Moroccan married to a Czech gal with a 10 year old daughter. Full of stories. Fascinating. Some that made him sound like he was from a very poor family and other that made him seem from a very well to do family. And he drove a Mercedes. Old. But a Mercedes. But I found that out Sunday. On Saturday we walked. To the ruins of palaces, to tombs of sultans, thorough the souks (the markets with really-crazy-you-can-get-lost-here streets). He knew everyone. And everyone knew him. When he saw the photos I was taking with my Iphone, he then led me to other particularly photogenic places. Take your picture here. Here. There. And he negotiated for me – to take some craftswomen’s pictures I paid a dollar. I was happy to. At one place I was framing my photo and a guy started to approach me to demand payment for the women. Fortunately my guide stepped up and told him I had already paid and basically back off – but I bet it was more colorful than that. We saw henna being pounded to paste. Lathes used to make guitars. Yarn drying. Fascinating. And in the Jemma square, we walked by – quickly! – the snake charmers. He didn’t like these guys. He said he had a friend he would take his clients to – but he had recently died – wait for it – his snake bit him.
The guide doesn’t like the French. He prefers to work for hotels run by other nationalities. But he spoke French well and we went back and forth between that and English.
The first evening in the hotel, a gal sat with me to give me the scoop about Marrakech. With a map she pointed out where to go and where not to go. And told me about kids offering to take you places you wanted to go… but really took you to stores to be harassed into buying things… or getting you more lost. She told me how to handle them and how to politely decline from vendors or beggars. She made me a bit nervous, I must say. But better to be forewarned. It turned out with the guide I had no problems. And that gave me the confidence to go out on my own.
In early November I had to leave the Schengen zone for my visa. It ended November 3. As long as I leave the Schengen, when I next come back into the Schengen I have 3 months as a tourist, no formal visa required. This year I chose Morocco.
I surprised myself. I have a friend from high school who travels the world and Africa seems to be her favorite destination. Not me. Europe draws me. New Zealand calls to me. But I did love Istanbul – and was able to collect Asia while in Istanbul the city on two continents. I did get to Ephesus too so I really was in Asia. The only place in Africa that intrigued me was Morocco. Yet it also scared me. Because of comments I heard from friends (tall blondes who felt uncomfortable) who toured there and Arab Spring news etc.. So I said I’ll go to Morocco when I go with a friend, not alone. I have no hesitations going alone anywhere in Europe. Not Africa. And yet…
My initial idea was to visit Gibraltar for my visa exit. It is British after all. But when I used Rome2Rio to see how to get there, it suggested flying to Tangier and then taking a ferry to Gibraltar. Hmmm. So I looked into Tangier. An up and coming town, it said. Much improved. Safe. I found a Hilton – ok, taxi to the hotel, find a guide, taxi to ferry… yes I can do that.
Interesting, isn’t it? How your mind suddenly expands when you give it a chance. When Tangier became a possibility, I found the rest of Morocco started pushing its way into my consciousness. I focused on Marrakesh at the suggestion of a French friend who loved Maroc. And you know it was a French territory or protectorate or something for years so most speak French. So many pluses… And my traveling high school buddy had just been there in February 2017 so she had a recommendation for a place to stay.
But what to do there? She suggested a cooking class. Well, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know that a cooking class is the last thing that would interest me! Yet, what about other classes, I thought. So I found an atelier website. I could choose from a host of craft programs. I finally picked jewelry work and leather work. I planned for three nights. I have found I take in sights quickly and usually end up places with extra time – like Bordeaux this fall – I changed my train tickets and left a day early.
So arrival Friday night (delayed), guide on Saturday morning. Saturday afternoon free, Sunday morning jewelry, afternoon free, and Monday morning leather and afternoon free before a early evening return flight.
Sounded perfect and it was.