Visit to Marrakech (2004-12-19 to 2004-12-20)
I went to Marrakech just yesterday after a couple of days in Casablanca giving speeches and having stomach illness (which is unusual for me). I traveled there with two students, one who studies in Marrakech and was returning there from the Casablanca GNU/Linux Days, and one who simply went there to visit along with me.
Marrakech is near the edge of a large plain that runs to Casablanca and the Atlantic. About 40 minutes drive away are the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. You can see a line of high, snow-capped mountains on perhaps half the horizon.
The students insisted on taking me to the three obligatory tourist sites of Marrakech: a centuries-old artificial lake, a centuries-old minaret with a twin in Spain, and a large plaza where various sorts of entertainers, astrologers and charlatans draw crowds. They hoped I would really like that last. We passed by some snake charmers, and my friends interrupted them before one could put a snake on me and then insist I pay for that service, but I did take a photo of him.
Then we approached a circle which turned out to contain musicians who were collecting money before performing, so we gave them some. But they went on collecting money for 15 minutes without performing for more than a few seconds. I got tired of waiting. Feeling gypped, I lost all interest in this plaza.
Part of the plaza is dedicated to food stalls, but I've been advised generally to avoid food stalls in places where the water supply is not potable. I stuck to this even though the students told me that many tourists eat there and it should be safe. So we ended up in a restaurant overlooking the plaza, where I ate a dish of very-slowly-cooked lamb called tangia, a specialty of Marrakech. Then we noticed that the people at the table next door seemed to be having trouble communicating with the waiters, since they didn't speak French and the waiters were not entirely clear in English. We explained and clarified for them. I asked them where they were from, and it turns out two were from Singapore; the other was from California and knew them from working with them in Singapore. So we discussed the restaurants we know in Singapore, and I showed them my Singapore photos (including Lory, the parrot who made love to me). One mentioned he was actually from Malaysia, so I tried speaking to him in Indonesian. But he (along with his friends) is ethnically Chinese, and like many ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, he has done his best all his life to learn and use as little Malay as possible.
After the restaurant, we went for a walk through part of the old quarter of the city. That was really fascinating. The main streets were packed with people, and had shallow stores with large numbers of things on display. They got me some oranges and some small purses that I hope will be useful for carrying various different countries' money while I travel.
The side streets were even more interesting, because houses were often built over them. The outside of these houses was a dull brown; every building in Marrakech is painted brown, because every year dust blows in from the Sahara and a white building would have to be repainted annually.
The students told me that there is nothing else to see in Marrakech that is open to the public. (Later on, others told me that there are some interesting palaces one can visit.) They said that the houses in the old quarter are often very beautiful inside, but neither of them comes from Marrakech, so they had no possibility of showing me the inside of a house there. On the edges of the old quarter, they said many houses are being bought by Americans who fix them up and sometimes retire to live in them. I am not sure why someone would particularly want to live in Marrakech.
It was getting towards 10pm, so we visited an internet cafe so I could transfer mail. The attendant said that all of Morocco had lost its connection to the rest of the world. My friends called other friends in Casablanca and discovered that the outage was limited to Marrakech. We hoped it would be fixed in a little while, so we visited a nearby bakery and tea shop where I bought pastries (mostly to go) and worked for a while. But when we finished, the connection was still out. I went back to the hotel to sleep.
There are very beautiful places not far away from Marrakech. The next day, after finding an internet cafe and doing my mail transfer, we headed towards the Ourika Valley. It is long and thin, and you keep going up.
We went in a "large taxi", a full-size car more or less. The taxi driver was going to wait for 3 more passengers to go with us, 6 in all (2 in front and 4 in the back), which would have been rather cramped. If we didn't wait for more passengers, we would have to pay for the remaining places. When I found out that the price of each seat was 2.5 dollars, I decided to pay for the empty places without delay.
The driver was very friendly and helpful--more than usual, the students later told me. He knew a person who lives along the way who invites passing visitors to see his house; then they can pay him or not, as they wish. The students explained this to me after we had moved on, and I was glad to hear they had paid him. It was an interesting visit, as I got to see the woman of the house making couscous from flour.
At one place where I stopped to take photos of the high mountains, my friends told me that the king's motorcade was on the way down the road. So we waited, and I took a photo of one of the cars. However, afterward they told me the king wasn't actually in the motorcade. (They would have recognized his face, since his photo hangs in many public places.) They told me that such virtual motorcades are not unusual--the king travels quietly in another car. They also told me that the queen is a software engineer and they hope she'll take an interest in free software.
Morocco is not a democracy; there's an elected assembly which the king usually listens to, but he does not have to. However, people told me, this king decided to recognize and respect human rights--until Bush pressured Morocco to pull back from this in the name of "fighting terrorism".
We continued on to a place which is the base of a trail which leads up to some waterfalls. We then ate lunch in a restaurant that cooks traditional food in a traditional way--in a tagine (covered clay pot) over a wood fire. (Tagine and tangia are different.) Each meal is cooked separately in its own pot, probably for a long time, because the potatoes had absorbed a lot of flavor from the lamb and the lamb was marvelously tender.
Then we tried to follow the trail to visit the waterfalls. The trail turned out to go up at a rather precipitous angle. I was rather scared and needed help. After climbing with the students' help for a few minutes, I realized that going down would be harder than going up, and decided to turn back. Indeed, going down just that small part was hard. I've heard there are actually 7 waterfalls one can see if one travels the whole length of the trail, but I won't take that much risk to see them.
We got back to Marrakech just in time to take the 7pm train to Rabat.