Trip report: Morocco

Okay, it’s time. I’ve got stuff about Budapest too, but it’s less interesting, so we’ll go in reverse chronological order.

Our trip to Morocco was intense! Let me start off with a disclaimer: these stories aren’t on my photo page (which parents, etc, read) for obvious reasons… However, the internet is still very public, so all is left sorta vaguely anonymous. And for better anonymity, let’s play the game of “all of these except one are true”:

1. Whole rotisserie chicken, plus bread, fries, olives, sauces, all the fixins for 5 people, $6.50
2. One of my friends and I rode a camel over a sand dune to meet our other friends, who were buying hashish from a guy named Abdullah.
3. Snake charmers!
4. I hired a kid to take me to the tanneries; he got picked up and carted off by the “tourist police.”
5. We went to a hookah bar where a monkey refilled the coals.
6. My friend traded his pants for hash.
7. We smoked said hash on the roof of our Marrakesh riad with one of the workers.
8. We did eat a sheep’s head. Also a couple bowls of snails.
9. I bargained a guy down from 700 dirham to 60.
10. A kid got walloped with an orange.
11. I have three and a half weeks to get married.
12. We ate some shit fucking good food!

Okay, now I’ll explain. Keep in mind that one of these is still fake.
1. $6.50 chicken: we arrived in Casablanca at midnight or so, and as Casablanca is kind of crap, we wanted the first train out (4:50 AM). Being frugal and thrifty, we were not about to pay for a place to stay. So we, you know, wandered the streets for a few hours. It was deserted and shady. Casablanca is not a particularly safe town, and we were sort of lost. Whatever- we’re five big dudes! Nobody will mess with us! Luckily, that turned out to be true. A couple junkies followed us for a while, but we managed to lose them somehow. And then, miraculously, our famished selves came upon an open restaurant, and we were in there faster than you can say “student discount.”
The owner looked and sounded a little like Watto. We happily ordered this big chicken dinner and discovered the beauty of the dirham. 10 to 1. So 65 dirham = EU$6.50 (or like US$8) Anyway, three days later, we had to get the first train to Casablanca airport at 5:05 AM, and we found ourselves in Casablanca at midnight. What’s up, Watto? We retraced our steps entirely, and pretty successfully!

2. Essaouira beach. Camel rides? Sure! One of my friends and I paid 100 dh each, which was probably overpriced, given that you should bargain for everything, but totally worth it. It was kinda nondescript; a little bumpy but not bad. Getting up and down was the only lurchy, tricky part. Anyway, we go over to find our friends, and they are hiding behind a sand dune (no kidding!) conducting shady business with a guy named Abdullah. They ended up buying a bag that was supposedly opium but actually sticky and useless, making it probably the only straight-up scam of our trip.

3. Well, okay, scam #2: the snake charmers. We walk into the Djemaa el Fna (the big square in Marrakesh) and the first thing we lay our eyes on is a bunch of snake charmers. We walk over, a little awestruck, a little sleep-deprived, and we’re totally cool with them draping a snake over us, and letting us get pictures with their big ol' cobra. Then they take us aside and say “you have to pay us (I saw this coming) 200 dirham (didn’t see that number coming, though!)” I’m willing to pay a buck for a good photo, not 20.
Now, I’ve already accepted the service, so in some weird logical system, I owe them whatever they ask for. But I know this is a scam, so I don’t want to give them more than 10 or 20 dh. But they are using clever mind tricks, and a forceful “You have to pay us this much!” is a pretty effective argument. But not effective enough; I see my friends getting hustled too, out of the corner of my eye, and so I blurt something about my friends paying them, and I run away. We were not all so lucky; sometimes they hold both ends of a snake around your head, like a rope, until you pay!

4. My little guide and the tourist police: so it’s the last day, and we’ve kinda seen Marrakesh, and my friends are more tired than I, so I run off on my own. For a goal (because it’s important to have a goal, even if you don’t care at all about reaching it) I head towards the tanneries, which are supposedly cool and also stinky. I hear they’re north of the center, so I wander north, and as I reach the end of the souks (shops), things get poorer quick and I realize I’m not in the tourist’s Marrakesh anymore. Instead of ramshackle shops and every shop owner bugging me to come in, it’s even-more-ramshackle houses and every kid giving me weird looks. (Of course, you can’t blend in in a country where your skin is a different color) It’s interesting, but I feel way out of place, and when I’m in Morocco, I don’t want to mess around. Besides, people can smell unease, and that’s never good. So when a kid asks “Djemaa el Fna? Big square?” I say “sure!” and he walks me in the right direction. I know he’ll want a tip, and that’s fine. I get back, and it’s cool. I gave him 10dh, and he kept bugging me for 2 more. Err… sorry, I’m out of change.
A while later, another kid starts taking me on a tour of the shops, or something. Sure, great! I’ll give him another few dirham afterwards. He shows me the dyers, who are using magic color-changing dye. (ooh!) Then some metalworking guys. I ask him about the tanners, and he says sure (I think; language barrier…), and we start walking along.
Then these big burly guys grab him and pull him away. Huh? Whatever; I’m not getting involved. A couple minutes later, he (somehow) finds me again, and we keep going. Then, a couple minutes later, some other big burly guys grab him! Another older kid tells me it’s the “tourist police.” Apparently, local kids aren’t allowed to hassle visitors, and so if you’re talking to one of them, the tourist police can take you away- make you pay a 100dh bribe or go to jail for a day or something. It didn’t quite make sense; a tourist will give you a small tip (they seemed to think my 10-20dh were the norm) so you’d have to take a lot of tourists around to make up for the bribe, even if you only got caught 20% of the time or whatever.
But I soon learned the secret: the older kid offered to guide me (he spoke Spanish better than English, so that was fun) but he said I had to keep a distance behind him. It felt sorta sneaky and spy-ish, and I’m always in for that, so I followed him, and he took me to the tannery. (15 minutes walk through impossibly labyrinthic streets) The tannery was kind of interesting in the fact that it’s such a repulsive place- big vats of dye or whatever, trash all over the place, piles of stuff I wouldn’t want to touch with a 29 1/2 foot pole, a kinda bad smell, maybe a donkey here or there. But hey, as usual, the journey was more fun anyway.

5. Yeah, so on our Casablanca adventure(s)- there were two of them but they were exactly the same- we whiled away a large portion of our time inside a hookah bar, which sure was open all night, and that was nice. Gave us a safe place to sit while waiting for our 4:50AM train, and that was all… we thought. Then we ordered a hookah, and the shopkeeper brought it out. Cool, tasty, etc. (my first real hookah experience!) but then the coals cooled off a bit, so they had to be changed. The employee comes out with a monkey! We’re a little weirded out, okay, maybe it’s someone’s pet, but then it goes ahead and picks up the old coals, tosses them into his little bucket, and uses tongs to put new ones on. Whoa. None of us could figure out if this is a standard thing, or maybe it’s this shop’s special gimmick, or what. But we were pretty thrilled to see the monkey keep coming out and changing the coals. And you wonder why we recreated our entire Casablanca trip the second time?

6 and 7. Pants for hash: my friends bought some hash (which was an experience in itself; a deal with a guy who walked by and said “hash?”, conducted in an alley, while another friend and I acted as lookouts), and they were looking for a place to smoke it. Hey, our riad has a roof… oh yeah, and when we walked in, we smelled hash… so my friends asked the guy if we could smoke on the roof. “Sure… smoke what?” “err… tobacco.” “and?” “uhh… something else?” In short, the riad worker joined us on the roof that night, and many hash joints were passed around. But then the worker expresses his liking for our friend’s pants. Sorry, did you say pants? They were old J.C. Penney shorts, blue, good shorts if I do say so myself. The worker explained that he couldn’t get that style in Morocco, and he really liked it. In the end, my friend wouldn’t trade them, but my other friend traded his. So yeah, long story short, pants for hash.

8. Sheep’s head and snails: truth!

9. Bargaining in Marrakesh (they don’t do it so much in Essaouira) is nuts. It kept me guessing. I’ve heard numbers like 1/5-1/7; you shouldn’t pay more than that for a product. So, the first couple times, for sunglasses and stuff, I offered maybe 1/5 of the price, and got flat out rejected. Meanwhile, my friends were getting stuff for maybe half price, no problem. Eventually I gave in and ended up offering maybe 30%, and going up to 50% by the time we were done arguing. I still got some good deals for large quantities of spices and stuff. But then, on the last day, I was looking for some wooden things, and this guy showed me a “magic box.” It’s a little trick gadget thing, like you have to know the secret to open it, and I thought, cool, a magic box. I figured it’d be a couple dollars (because, you know, everything comes from the big ol' Morocco factory somewhere…) and I asked, sportingly, how much it was. “700dh.” What?! That’s EU$70! I said forget it, and proceeded to argue about something else. As I was leaving the store, I said, “I’ll give you 50dh for the box.” He immediately came down to 350, and after some haggling, I got it for 60. Huh! I sure showed him! Then I realized I just bought a box I didn’t really want, and it became clear who showed whom.

10. Orange fight: this reminds me of two stories. First, “orange”: We got fresh-squeezed orange juice, The Best that I’ve ever had, made for you on the spot, from Moroccan produce, for 3dh/glass. (that’s 30 cents) It was so good that I had to stop drinking it, because it was just too sweet. Next time I pay a buck twenty for a freakin' Minute Maid processed-from-concentrate-preserved bottle of orange snot, I will think of Marrakesh and groan.
Second: “fight”: We saw a lot of fights in the streets. Not sure why. The most notable involved a kid who tried to steal an orange. He got caught, and the shopkeeper started hitting him with the orange. Come on, dude, you just squeezed like six of those oranges into my drink! It probably cost you 50 centimes! (100 centimes = 1 dirham. I think I saw a 50-centime coin once.)

11. Married in three and a half weeks: I got the worst (or best) fortune telling ever. These old gypsy-looking ladies have chairs set up in the Djemaa at night, and they have tarot cards and stuff, so I figured, I could use some advice as much as anyone. I asked a lady “do you speak English?” because a French fortune would not be so useful (although probably funnier) and she waved over this other lady, who spoke broken English, to translate. Okay, so there’s two levels of language barrier here, this is a good start.
After our snake charmer experience, I knew better than to just take the fortune telling without negotiating in advance. I said 20dh, she said 150dh, we settled on 40. She shuffled the cards, held one out to me, and motioned that I should hold it on my chest (without looking at it). Then she took it back. She put the cards in three piles, and pointed, saying “one, two, three.” So I pointed at them and said “one, two, three.” At this point, she probably thought I was retarded. Fair enough. But she happily continued, and started looking through the deck. The first thing the translator said was “You… husband?” “No.” “Okay, you, husband… four weeks.” “I’m going to be a husband in four weeks?” “Yes, yes.”
She continued by offering such sage advice as “you will… very rich.” and “you think change.” I noticed that every time I translated (“my thoughts will change?") she would reply “yes, yes!” I think, throughout the course of the telling, I got good fortune too, and a comparison to her mother. Okay.
Afterwards, I felt a little ripped off (not only because the translator started bugging me for “some money for her too”, because the 40dh just went to the reader) but also because the tarot reader didn’t even know how to read the cards. She just shuffled through them and said stuff. It was like the barber college version of the tarot reading, except that a haircut at the barber college probably costs less than EU$4.
That said, though, I only have a couple weeks left! Ladies, start lining up!

12. All the food stand owners would try to get you to eat their food. They figured that the best way to do that was to become your friend, and the best way to do that is to relate to you somehow, and the easiest way to do that is to talk about something from your homeland. So everyone really wanted to know where we were from. If we said “America”, they’d say “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” and so on. Sometimes they’d pick a city (“Holland? From Amsterdam?"). Or sometimes they’d just guess we’re English and start spewing English. My buddy at the one stand kept talking about how his food was “Better than Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen! Shit fucking good food! It’s the dog’s bollocks!” I think we actually ate there at one point.

Phew! That’s all I’ve got for now, although that’s still not all that happened. What a crazy country. Ask me about it sometime.

By the way, I live in a country where this apparently works. Oh, Nederland, I will miss you when I have to leave. (seven days exactly. :(

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