Turn Left At The Man With The Monkeys

If you had told me a year before that I’d be jogging through the maze-like medina of Marrakech with all of my belongings on my back and a baby in my arms trying to keep up as our host led us to our riad, I’d laugh. but I can’t say i’d be too surprised.

After dodging a couple donkey carts we came around what seemed like the hundredth identical red clay corner to find an open door ready to welcome us off the dusty street. Within minutes we had hauled our bags up a surprisingly steep, tile staircase that was so narrow your shoulders could almost touch on both sides. We flicked on the light in our room and shared a “this might be a long month” sort of look. The kids didn’t seem to notice and were already busy making silly faces and tossing pencils down to the staff in the courtyard.

Back to the room…Lets just say that whoever took the pictures of this place for the booking site should get a raise.

photos: Standing on our steep stairway. Interior courtyard design in our riad. Making friends with the laundry ladies on the roof.

The beds were almost all that fit in our little space plus about one square meter for the door and the worlds smallest pedestal sink.

The tiles that lined the walls and floors were as beautiful as they were useful for keeping the rooms cool in the hot Moroccan summers. We arrived on the first day of March and might have enjoyed a less efficient cooling system.

A riad is simply a home built around a courtyard, some large and luxurious and some smaller and simpler. Ours was small and brightly painted with intricate designs on the walls, doors and ceilings. Like a home, there were not bathrooms in every room. There was one for each level and occasionally we’d also share with a few extra people from another level in the event something was broken. The best shower could be found on the ground floor right next the check-in area.

There was also a sitting area to hang out in if we got tired of sitting on our beds. It was up on the roof where you could also scrub and dry your laundry.

So maybe it was less than ideal.

But to be fair, I got a really great deal.

It was obvious to me then that we’d be spending a good deal of our time outside of our riad.

We spent our first evening in the main square (Jemaa El Fna) trying to find a restaurant that accepted cards (pretty sure there is only one in all of Morocco), dodging cobras and old women selling henna tattoos and eventually ending up in the middle of two fighting monkeys.

It was loud. The combination of merchants trying to talk to you in a handful of languages (until they found one you understood), drumming, motorbikes, an annoying sounding woodwind used to charm the snakes, the Adhan blaring through the speakers atop the mosques calling everyone to evening prayer and the sounds of the sizzling and cooking coming from the food vendors was enough to make your head spin.

The smells were unfamiliar. There was the smell of spices in combinations I wasn’t used to. I could pick out cumin above the rest, so much cumin. Then there was the smell of fruits from the juice carts, the people crowded around me, mint and the occasional whiff of incense. As we walked we smelled the musty smell of wet dirt and the super sweet, honey smell from the bakery. It wasn’t unpleasant, just new.

There were food stands everywhere selling all sorts of crazy things. Little pockets of dough stuffed with meat but topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar, sheeps head, savory tagines, olives, nuts, crispy pancakes with honey, cane juice, snail soup and a surprising amount of French pastries.

The glow of the lantern stands was magical. The light sellers bring out their wares at dusk just as the sun dips below the horizon. Minutes later the candle filled shapes glow, thousands of tiny holes allowing the warm light to escape into the night. It reminded me of Christmas and of the mysteries of the desert all at once.

It was a bit like going back in time.

I immediately loved it.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for our sweet manny (man + nanny) Billy. In fact his culture shock was so intense that he did what he could to stay indoors as much as possible for a solid two weeks. That meant that if I was going to see this place I’d have to do it alone.

The next morning I put the kids in the stroller to go see Marrakech (while Johnny worked and Billy stayed inside). Our host Hamid gave us a map with all of his favorite things to see circled in blue and notes about things we could skip in black.

I hadn’t bought a Moroccan SIM card yet so my phone navigation wasn’t an option. I didn’t realize how attached I was to the location services on that thing until it wasn’t available. That advertisement laden map and a business card with our riad’s address were all I had to find where we were and where we were going.

Since I generally have a pretty good sense of direction I assumed we’d be fine.

The most exotic sounding of the circled items was the Ben Youssef Madrasa. I grabbed some snacks, walked to a slightly larger alley and headed North.

It was early and the medina was still waking up. If tourists were awake they had left early for day trips and excursions. The chaos from the night before seemed a million miles away. The people went calmly about their business buying vegetables and setting up their shops for the day.

photos: Marrakech morning. Juice cart juice (with a cup). The mint man setting up for the day.

I tested out a fresh squeezed juice from the line of juice wagons. It cost 4 dh (about 50 cents) but I soon found out that the price didn’t include a cup for take away. I shelled out an extra dirham for a cup.

Figuring the Madrasa wouldn’t be open yet, I casually followed some people I presumed were locals, hoping they would lead me to wherever everyone was getting the hot rolled dough from.

They didn’t disappoint.

About 50 meters later we found the source, a small griddle out in front of an unassuming looking cafe counter. It was operated by a happy looking woman in a hijab and an apron who was so adept at the patting out and frying the dough I’m sure she could do it in her sleep.

We waited to see someone else order and followed their lead. What we ended up with is a hot, square pancake spread with honey and soft cheese then rolled into a convenient shape for snacking. As I bit into the crispy but chewy treat (called mssemen) I decided that perhaps we’d just keep going down the alley we were on. I figured it was almost the direction we needed to go. Perhaps we’d just follow it for a while then turn left and cut over when we got near the Madrasa.

That would have worked if the streets were laid out in a grid.

Nothing in the medina even slightly resembles a grid.

We kept walking and it soon became clear (by the number of shopkeepers asking if I was lost) that most tourists don’t venture that direction. I politely declined their assistance. Partially because I didn’t want to seem lost enough for them to offer their services as a guide, get me more lost then make me pay them too much to get to where I wanted to go (I read that happens sometimes) and partially because I knew the place I had set out to find was in fact nowhere near where I was.

I was enjoying seeing the everyday rhythms of the medina so I kept walking.

I stopped to look at my map after I was checked up on a third time.

It was then I realized the map in my hand left quite a bit to be desired.

It wasn’t that it was wrong, more like the streets themselves didn’t have labels. It was the type of place that you would have to give directions using only landmarks. You know, “walk past the the henna ladies, take a slight right at the juice wagons and turn left at the man with the monkeys and the ATM is right there.”

I had no landmarks to draw from so maybe I was lost.

An older man was standing nearby and pointed to our general area on my map (when I finally gave in and asked for some help). There were no blue circles nearby. But the tanneries were relatively close. I had seen them on an episode of Parts Unknown by Anthony Bourdain so they were probably worth checking out.

Conveniently, the man I found myself talking to had a friend heading that direction (he was actually walking the opposite way) who would happily take us there. Of course he did. I told him I didn’t have any cash (true) to pay him.

He brought us there anyway.

In the five minutes it took to get there he told us about the differences between Berber and Arabic tanneries and about the leather auction that would be happening later that afternoon for the craftsmen. Before introducing me to his friend at the Arabic tannery he taught me how to say a simple greeting in Arabic. I promptly forgot. It was just a short interaction but it left me smiling all day.

photos: Arabic tannery. Colorfully dressed work donkey. Stuck in a traffic jam on leather market day.

With a handful of mint to sniff I was led through the (incredibly foul smelling) process of tanning leather. Then I was taken to a workshop where poufs, bags, babouches and all manner of leather goods were being produced. Since I was entirely unprepared to purchase anything yet, I ducked out and headed back the direction I came from.

I found the correct spot on my map and determined that I could still make it to the Madrasa if I took a right instead of a left. But then I got stuck in a massive traffic jam of donkey carts, tiny three wheeled trucks and the occasional motorbike all loaded up with leather and heading to the auction. If I wanted an authentic experience that was about as authentic as they come. They were all fighting to turn right.

I turned left.

I ended up walking through the Berber souk. It was covered and along a very narrow alley so it was far cooler than it had been in the sun drenched streets by the tanneries. The road was dirt but the shopkeepers regularly sprinkled water on the ground in front of their stalls to keep it in place and at the same time making it smell a bit musty.

The day continued in this funny cycle. Me purposefully walking in one direction, loads of unplanned detours, then finding wonderful things in unexpected places.

When we made it to our riad to join the guys for dinner they asked if we found what we were looking for.

No, we hadn’t.

But we found other things. We talked to people. We got stuck in a donkey traffic jam. We tried a local breakfast. We even saw a boy taking unbaked bread to the community oven while we wandered the wrong direction.

The next day we switched things up and headed South.

We were in search of a palace. We didn’t find it until a weeks later. Turns out we had passed it multiple times that day.

On our way back I watched a European looking woman open a nondescript metal door across the alley. Through that door I could see what looked like an oasis of calm. I followed her in to find a modern, French Moroccan restaurant. I got lunch reservations for the next day and made sure to take a mental note of where it was.

I was some of the best food I’ve ever eaten and they don’t even have a sign to tell the world they exist. Turns out that a lot of things in Marrakech are that way. The best places require a bit of searching.

One of the nice parts about traveling is that you have some extra space to think. I spent my hours walking the city mulling over this idea of being lost. Why do I always feel the need to have a plan for the day?

It has always been that way. Even when I was a little girl I’d ask my mom “what are we doing tomorrow?” just before bed. I wanted to know what we’d have for breakfast and anything else that might be coming my way.

Knowing the plan helped me feel prepared and feeling prepared helped me feel like I had control of my day.

By day three I started to enjoy the liberation of being lost so much that I left the map at the riad. It was an experiment in letting go of control.

I spent almost all day exploring the main souk. I marveled at the endless piles of rugs and smiled at the abundance of pom poms and tassels. I felt the woven hammam towels that somehow always stay cool. I tasted the sweet, nutty nougat and steered far away from the bees that seemed to love the honey laced Moroccan pastries. We walked slower at the back of the souk so we could watch the weavers and shoe makers working their magic.

When we came out the other end the sun seemed brighter after the being in the dimly lit souks for so long. Over a sea of motorbikes we saw the Ben Youssef Madrasa. Fancy that. The one day I leave the map is the day we stumbled upon what we started the week in search of.

For the rest of the week, instead of setting off in search of something specific each morning I decided I would just try to go somewhere I hadn’t been yet. I didn’t find amazing things every time. Actually, one day we ventured out of the medina and toward what we thought was a park. Turns out it was actually the private palace grounds of the current monarch where you’re not allowed to go (the guards with the guns told us). But most days we did find cool things, beautiful streets or places to eat we wouldn’t have found otherwise.

photos: With our favorite apothecary man. Best French Moroccan in a secret oasis. Cookies from the cookie girl.

With a full week of wandering under our belts and a decent idea of where things were, our good friends from California joined us. We took them to see some of the places Hamid circled in blue.

But the places we were most excited to share were the little places.

The places we found on accident or stumbled upon while lost that turned out to be amazing.

It was the tiny coffee shop with an almost invisible entrance that has a great view from the roof. It was the rug shop deep in the heart of the souks run by the kindest old man. It was the apothecary whose owner loved our kids. And it was the amazing cookies the little girls sell on the streets.

So while I still enjoy some structured travel days, Morocco taught me to embrace being lost. To enjoy a place without an agenda. I found that I could be prepared and still not have any idea where I was going. And I learned to look closely because there just might be something amazing behind that unmarked metal door in a dusty alleyway.

Lacie VasquezComment