I'm just back from a week-plus tour of Morocco with my friend Mary. We spent a day in Tangier, and several days each in Marrakesh and Rabat. We're both of the opinion that we've about seen it. No need to go back. Merci au revoir.
You may have heard that "India" stands for "I'll Never Do It Again." From what I've seen of that country, it can leave you gasping in astonishment, in bliss and/or in horror. Although Morocco--at least Marrakesh--is wildly crowded, frantic and strange to westerners, it's not on the same jaw-dropping level as India. For the most part, I just found it exhausting and even a little monotonous, which was really surprising considering its exotic reputation.
I live in a very conservative Muslim country, so I wasn't shocked at the unequal footing that women have on the streets of Morocco. In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive and they must wear an abaya and in many cases a head scarf to cover when they are in public. Pretty draconian. Morocco, of course, is not that extreme. There's no law saying what women can and cannot wear, and woman are free to come and go as they please. But I felt an underlying attitude that it's at least slightly inappropriate for uncovered women to be walking around the streets. The vibe feels like, "You can do what you want, sure, but if you're out without a man and you're not all covered up and roasting, then you're going to get hassled and what else did you expect?"
Marrakesh is a city full of adolescent boy grifters who will offer to help you navigate the maze-like streets of the souk (the neighborhoods of the old marketplace) for a price. In our first experience with one of these kids, we paid more for directions to the Photography Museum than we did to enter the museum itself! Okay, chalk that up to experience. But every interaction--with taxi drivers, with shop owners, with these boy guides through the souk--began with a negotiation on price. Sometimes it was genteel, but mostly the exchange felt sort of hostile. It was exhausting.
What was even more exhausting, though, was the endless stream of commentary that Mary and I heard trailing off behind us. "You want make sex?" "Verrrry nice." Once, when we did not respond (with what? Giggles? Smiles?) we got a vehement "Fuck you." It was nerve-wracking, and we would have been much better off traveling with our menfolk. Not cool.
On the bright side, we spent one fine day cooking an elaborate, traditional Moroccan meal with Souk Cuisine. Gemma, a Dutch woman who has made Marrakesh her home, led us on a guided tour of the spice and vegetable markets, and then turned us loose with a team of Moroccan chefs in the large courtyard of a traditional riad (a residence with a big open courtyard in the middle.) A dozen or so of us created a beautiful lunch, chatting all the while in English, German, Dutch, French, and Arabic.
Another highlight was Majorelle Gardens, famous for having been owned by Yves Saint Laurent (though they were created by the expat French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 30s.) Mary's guidebook claims that the garden includes over 8,000 species of cactus. We questioned whether there were even 8,000 plants in the garden, but whatever. It was a beautiful, serene space made vibrant by the signature blue color of the residence and some of the garden walls.
Other high points included the two charming riads where we stayed: Mon Riad and Riad Cherrata. The former serves dinner and offers beer and wine in the evening, which is great because, good grief, we needed it. Also, alcohol is not typically served in restaurants, and this is a shame because Morocco produces some very nice wine.
Note: these photographs were all taken with my creaky old iPhone 3. I brought my good camera on this trip and do plan to post some of those photographs later (check for new Travel Snaps), but on most days I didn't feel like dealing with the added hassle of carrying and protecting my camera. That pretty much sums up our approach whenever we left the riad: we suited up in modest (read: overly warm) clothes and sensible shoes and waded into the hot mess that is Marrakesh.