Cold in Marrakech: first week

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Monday, first day: Zip!

After my rough arrival night, out in the cold, I was freezing and miserable, with a very sore throat, stuffy head, and just shivering. When I was given access to a room and bunk that afternoon, I settled in under the covers and wrote off the day. It wasn’t possible to sleep, with all the conversations just outside the room and people coming and going, but I rested. In the evening I wandered around the hostel briefly, but there were smokers in every angle of the terraces, the family running the place had the living room outside my dorm room, and it was all so, so cold, I went back to bed. A hibernating bear.

Tuesday, second day, first outing

My first time venturing out, I counted my steps from the hostel door (Amour d’Auberge – but I’m not feeling the love – 74 euros for 7 nights in a female dorm) to the entrance to this blind alley – just to know (35) – and then from that point along the passage to the main square (132) so that I could find my way back. What I’m calling a passage shows up like a street on Google maps, Rue Riad Zitoun el Kdim, but no car can enter because it’s too narrow, and there are walls on each side. There are shops and food stands one after the other all the way along, and little blind alleys off either side at frequent intervals. Bicycles, scooters, mopeds and motorcycles will fly by, often recklessly, because this so-called rue is a straight throughway from the central square, Jemaa el Fna, to the square by Badi Palace. From Jemaa el Fna, you can enter into the maze of passageways of the Medina. Just south and west of Badi Palace, you enter the Kasbah district. So, this is quite a central location, and there’s a lot of traffic though hardly any room to pass through. Walking as close to a wall as possible is crucial. One cyclist ran over the edge of my foot even though I was no more in the middle than the people ahead of me. I was shaken and angry, and couldn’t stop thinking what shape and situation I’d be in if he’d been even an inch more to the right. Unsettled me for quite a while and stays in my mind.

I wasn’t feeling well after my terribly cold arrival night; on the plane’s landing, my ears had gotten stopped up, and my head was still congested, so I wasn’t feeling ambitious about exploring. I just wanted to get a quick orientation, have a bit of a look around the immediate area, and find something light to eat. Jemaa el Fna is a very large square, with a lot going on inside it, and what seem to be countless alleyways and small streets leading off it. Just circling the square is quite a tour. There are snake charmers seated here and there as well as men standing wrapped with snakes or holding them, men with leashed monkeys on or near them, performers of various types, aquarium-type boxes with little turtles. Most of the center of the square is filled with one booth after another of fresh fruit stalls, identical or nearly so, selling freshly squeezed juice. In the evening, these are pretty much cleared away and small food booths are set up. Motorcycles, horse-drawn carriages, scooters, vendors’ trucks, and wheeled carts zip around in all directions, all the time, so one must be very attentive – and of course, watch one’s step.

I went into the post office on the square, which I’d noted from the airport taxi on my way to the hostel. I wanted to buy stamps for eventual postcards, and was sure that this would be the easiest place to get some change from the larger bills issued by the ATM. Mission accomplished.

I toured the square and looked at the restaurants that line its perimeter. I decided to check the side streets to get away from some of the hubbub, and finally chose a restaurant with an upstairs terrace. There are many such. I sat by the railing, had a view, was away from street odors and smokers. The 7-vegetable couscous I ordered was very bland. I couldn’t even finish it, not interesting enough, but that was my meal for the day: about US$5 for the couscous, $2.50 for a lemon-ginger juice (served with a small bottle of water, for diluting it), and about a dollar tip, for $8.50 total.

After a bit more wandering around the stalls and just the first couple of blocks of streets opening off the square, I headed back to the hostel. Short outing of just a few hours, but all I was up for. I counted my steps back to the hostel and was glad I’d made that mental note on the way out, because it was visually confusing and I wouldn’t have managed to pick out my alley otherwise. Brr, back to the cold hostel and later, an early night.

Wednesday, third day in Marrakech, second day out

terrible pastilla

The weather was a little better, and I was ready to explore, so today I was going to cross the square and explore the maze of souks. As I headed up the “rue” to the square, I decided to stop at one of the little restaurants where tourists were eating and indicating they liked the food. I ordered a vegetable soup and chicken pastilla. The vegetable soup was nearly tasteless. The pastilla was a shock. I once had an exquisite “pigeon” pastilla in a Houston restaurant (long gone) that was delicate, moist, savory aside from the raisins inside and the merest dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon on top. It had poultry, almonds, egg, possibly shallots, a thin and crisp pastry wrap, and was impossibly light. That memory would have me in search of its equal … Oh maybe not. This pastilla was small, heavy, tough, dry, and like baklava with some dried chicken layered in. Horribly heavy and sweet. I don’t think I will dare try a pastilla here again. US$6.50 with tip, my meal for the day – not much, but an appetite killer. On my way.

I wanted to find a few places north of the square, firstly, the museum of music which has some evening concerts, and then see a few hammams at least from the outside. The day before, I’d been very cautious not to get disoriented or lose my way, but then, I was feeling pretty lousy. Now, though still with a sore throat and congestion, I was ready to do as I usually do when seeing a new city: just wander wherever things look interesting until fairly tired out or late in the day, at which point I’ll use phone data and Google maps to figure out where I am (though the geolocation is often not quite accurate) and start making my way back to lodgings, knowing I’m still likely to make some wrong turns. I was in the maze of souks when I felt I’d had enough, and it was hard there to get much of a location and a good idea of where to go. The passageways are covered and narrow, wet underfoot, dirty and smelly, and seemingly endless. I looked for glimmers of sunlight that would suggest an exit to open alleyways if not actual streets. I did get out of the covered maze, and then still went in circles before getting back to the square.

I did want photos, but tried to take them where no one was around – many people do not care to have a camera pointed at them – and also avoided taking straight-on photos of shops or market stalls because showing any interest will get you cornered. For that reason, I took hardly any pictures in the maze of the covered arcades. There are lots of photo-worthy shops: all the beautiful ceramics, metal trays, leather shoes and bags, baskets, textiles.

I had managed not to engage or get caught up anywhere until I was rounding the bend of an open string of stalls and a fellow jumped out in front of me and said, “See this? It’s crystal! Eucalyptus! Look what happens!” I wanted to just go on, but no chance. He was smack in front of me. He took a small splinter of crystal, put it in a metal pot, poured hot water over it, and put it under my nose – a couple of inches away – and I could hardly breathe with the menthol rush of eucalyptus steam. Hmm, not the worst thing with my stuffed-up head. But I didn’t want to buy anything so I just acknowledged the powerful effect. He grabbed a small bar that looked like a little soap, grabbed my hand and rubbed the substance on me, said, “Ambre!” A solid perfume. Next, jasmine, before I could back away. He was ready to keep rubbing other scents on me but I said, “No, no, thank you, no.” Then he pointed out the baby turtles and the lizards in little aquarium boxes (see the last two gallery images above) … very disturbing to me … and I managed to move along.

From Google maps, I thought I was heading to the square, but after quite a while I knew I had to be on the wrong path. I asked an old fellow with a stand, “Jemaa el Fna?” and he pointed the way. This is the rule: do not ask directions of anyone who is not rooted to their spot, because fellows will lead you around and then demand money for the help. Another moment when I was confused, I asked a waiter to point me to the square. Both safe options. And where did I find myself but back at eucalyptus demonstrator. He recognized me and greeted me, “You were here before!” and I laughed, “Yes, and I was looking for Jemaa el Fna then and I am still looking for it now!” He gave me directions, no grief, no hustle. I will probably buy some eucalyptus and other things from him before I leave.

Got back to the hostel. DId nothing in the evening but watch shows on my laptop. Still terribly cold at night. No where comfortable to sit and hang out. Feeling very tired of being cold and having no where comfortable to sit.

Thursday: time to find some wine!

There are some restaurants that serve alcohol, but they are few and touristy and pricey. We’d learned that our hostel management had no objection to whatever food and drink we might want to enjoy. So my goal today was shopping at Carrefour, though I was lazy and only headed out mid-afternoon. The weather had improved considerably, and it was a lovely, sunny day. I liked this walk better than making my way through the Medina. I was walking up a broad boulevard, past the pretty Cyber Park across from the big city hall plaza and building. It was all cleaner and a more typical urban setting that I found very pleasant. The Carrefour I was heading to is just before what’s called a new neighborhood, Gueliz, and I could see that that is a part of town I will enjoy more. I’m thinking I’ll look for lodging there my third week.

At Carrefour I bought wine, including a bottle requested by a fellow guest, and some veggies, cheese, breadsticks. That would be my meal today, in the evening.

In this cold and rather uncomfortable hostel, fellow guests were the good thing. Not my roommates; little conversation there, though one woman who hadn’t responded even to “Hello” for three days eventually spoke, and told me about a good laundromat. But at breakfast, there was lots of friendly, happy chatter. The breakfast itself was a meager thing of oj, coffee or tea, and a grilled flatbread with butter and jam, that they called a crepe, actually msemen. The freezer was packed full of these frozen breads, so nothing homemade, just something rather thick and tough and somewhat layered. Not worth the carbs or calories, in my opinion, so after the second day, I only came to the table to have some coffee, which in the first days was generously provided but in later days gotten with fair delay. I met three young Danish women I could enjoy chatting with (in Danish for a bit!) who were lovely and enthusiastic and out and about every day, booking tours, a hammam, a cooking class. There was a friendly American not much younger than me (who requested wine when I shopped). There was a young Polish fellow who lives in Ireland and travels nearly non-stop, it seems; he was very funny and unorthodox. Then there were two Polish men rather more serious, very smart and extremely entertaining to talk to. There were lots of Germans, who kept more to their own group, and of course others coming and going over these days.

When I got back from Carrefour around 6:30, I delivered the requested wine and prepared the veggies I’d bought. I set out the snacks, I and the other American each opened a bottle, did a taste comparison (small difference), and spent the evening chatting, sharing wine with others as they came along, including a young Chinese man we hadn’t spoken with before. It was finally nice enough weather to be comfortable on the terrace. Our little group ended up finishing all three bottles I’d bought. A very enjoyable evening,

Friday: Looking for my next hostel

Lovely fellow guests aside, I was not thrilled with the hostel I was in, nor with being in the Medina and off this little alleyway. I decided to look at a couple of hostels in the Kasbah. I’d been warned that it would be less safe at night, and was a quiet district – but I don’t have to go out at night, especially as I prefer to have my meal of the day in mid-afternoon when possible. I’d hoped this would be a period when I would get a lot done online. Such ambitions! More postings here, tax preparation, studying Icelandic, making further travel plans … But it’s been so uncomfortable.

chicken and veg couscous by Badi Palace

All I had to do was turn the other way when I left the hostel’s little blind alley, and I was soon near Badi Palace with its square, restaurants, markets, and entrances to the Kasbah district. After that, I found it quite a challenge to reach the hostel a new acquaintance had suggested. Seemed OK when I got there. I liked the signs around the lobby saying it was a no-smoking hostel, and I liked that I met tourists in the lobby who’d rented a car and parked right outside the door. That told me that a taxi should be able to take me there from Jemaa el Fna. I went on to check a second hostel, but it was locked with a sign giving a phone number to call, and I decided to let it pass. I walked back to the square by Badi Palace by a completely different route than I’d come into the Kasbah on, and it seemed much simpler. I stopped to eat at a restaurant where a waiter had tried to snag me earlier. Had a chicken and vegetable couscous, and once again was disappointed and did not finish the plate. It was only $US 5.50.

I had arranged to try the night food stands in Jamaa el Fna with a fellow hostel guest who had a friend arriving, but things went badly for them and I ended up on my own. No matter. I was comfortable going out now, and curious to experience these pop-up restaurants I’d heard and read much about. I’d looked them over earlier in the week, when they started setting up late afternoon, so had some idea of what I wanted to look for: someplace grilling skewers of meat and nothing too odd …. I chose one, expecting to eat and run. But I started chatting with a friendly Swiss couple who travel in a van – and who live near Zurich, and know my old students/friends Ursus and Nadeshkin. I moved table before they left, to sit behind them, because the smoke from the grill was pretty thick and hard to bear. When they left, pairs of French women on either side of me were chatty and friendly. The food was so-so; good gingery chicken, skimpy serving of vegetables, plain couscous with a bit of harissa. The bill was US$15, about twice its value in my judgment (echoed by fellow hostelers), so I knew this was going to be my only time at the night restaurant stands. I headed back to the hostel much later than I’d intended to be out, but it was fine.

Saturday: Time to head to a laundromat

I was going to try the good self-service laundromat in the Gueliz district, and one of my new Polish friends at the hostel joined me for the walk there, making the distance ever so much shorter. After putting things in machines, I walked to his favorite restaurant in the area, but in our 15 minutes at a table, no one took our orders, so I had to leave and get back to my wash. The laundromat was nice and clean. Afterwards I walked to Carrefour, not far, because, after all, we had drunk all the wine I’d bought on the first night I had it. I was preparing for Sunday night’s Super Bowl, so I wanted a decent bottle and some snacks to make a meal of. I walked back to the hostel much more slowly than my usual pace, loaded down with laundry and groceries, in fact, so loaded down I stopped along the way to sit on a bench and take the weight off my back.

I was expecting to have dinner at the hostel, which a fellow guest was to have arranged with the staff. But said guest was nowhere to be seen. When it was past 7:30 pm, I figured I must be on my own. And at that point I learned that the hostel staff was preparing dinner for a big group of students. I had some of my veggies and herbed cheese and called it a night, settling in bed to watch some shows on my laptop.

Sunday: Lazy day before Super Bowl overnight

The NFL offered Game Pass for the Super Bowl at 99 cents! I had signed up earlier in the week so I knew I could stream the game legally if the hostel wifi would cooperate. I’d found the wifi going off a number of times over the week, and it rarely worked in the rooms, being available just in the cold terrace areas and the lobby where the family sleeps – right outside my room. I planned to eat and drink through the game: isn’t it tradition? So, I didn’t care to eat anything during the day. I visited off and on with other guests, and in the afternoon tried unsuccessfully to nap. I also organized my things and packed up as much as possible, to make my morning checkout easier. In the evening I met the two Polish fellows up on the terrace, and talked with them quite a while, until time to set up for the game. My problem was that people were smoking on both terrace levels, every corner. Yuck. I ended up carrying things up to the top level, where there was no outlet for my laptop, but I did expect the battery to last. Unfortunately, the weather was colder again and the night was pretty tough. I had brought the heavy cover from my bed upstairs to wrap up in. I needed it under my legs and behind my back as well as on top of me. By halftime, the smokers had retreated and I could move down a level to a slightly warmer corner. The hostel host let me know it was okay for me to just sleep there on the terrace. Yeah, thanks. No. After the game I tried to make my way quietly to my room, but in the dark I ran into a chair just outside my room that I hadn’t expected. I’m sure there are worse hostels, and my next might not turn out to be an improvement, but I was very glad to be leaving this one.

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