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Archive for January 25th, 2007

Jon with Snakes in the Djemma el Fna

Today when we started Day 2 of Buying Things We Don’t Need, Jon got sucked in by the snake guys in Marrakesh’s main square, Djemma el Fna (see creepy photo above).  Here’s how the Snake Guys work: they spot you, the big dumb tourist, wandering around the Djemma el Fna with a guidebook. Actually, scratch that. You don’t even have to carry a guidebook. They just spot you.

Snake Guy 1, smiling big, comes over (sans snake) and says hello, extending his hand. You reach out to shake his hand, exchange a few pleasantries, and voila, Snake Guy Sidekick (avec snake) is suddenly right next to you, wrapping a snake around your neck. In Jon’s case, there are now two snakes – one that Jon holds by the head so it doesn’t whip around and bite him, and another that the Snake Guy holds.  Moral of the story – don’t shake hands with strangers in the Djemma el Fna.

Alternatively, if you, being the friendly person you are, do shake someone’s hand, be on the lookout for a Snake Guy Sidekick lurking nearby.

Snake Guys come in many varieties. Some of them are scattered around the square putting on little snake shows. We’re talking huge-ass anaconda-looking snakes slithering around (*shiver*) while cobras “dance” to some gratingly high-pitched flute music.  Question: are these snakes drugged? I mean, you’d think the snakes would be making a break for it as fast as they can (at least to gobble up some unsuspecting child – or maybe one of the many sad-looking monkeys controlled by the close relative of the Snake Guy – aka the Monkey Guy).

There are miles of souks in Marrakesh. The souks are seemingly endless alleys (warrens) that twist and turn and seem to tunnel in every direction off the north side of the Djemma el Fna.  Jon and I have seen a few “maps” of the souks that tell you generally where all the pottery vendors congregate, where to find the tapis (rug) sellers, shoe sellers, wood carving sellers, leather sellers, etc., but really, unless you want a million people offering to give you somewhat biased directions, just put the map away and wander around. If you really get lost, you just ask for the Djemma el Fna, and you’re all set.leather drying in the sun, marrakesh

We started with the leather souks today because you can’t escape the leather industry when you’re in Marrakesh. You round a corner and encounter dozens of animal skins, drying in the sun, and every other souk seems to offer leather goods – shoes, belts, bags, picture frames, ottomans . . . even leather bellows. When was the last time you saw a bellow, really?

Most of the vendors work out of narrow, stuffed-to-the-rafters spaces (see photo below), but every now and then, you duck through a tiny entrance and find yourself standing in a cavernous shop with (generally) At a woodcarving souk shop in Marrakeshhigher-quality inventory. The souks are surprising this way.  The bargaining can get exhausting, but when I step back and think about it, these guys (no women shopkeepers spotted yet) have a grueling job. There are hundreds of stalls selling hundreds of pieces of identical inventory. I can see why the shopkeepers work hard to squeeze every last dirham out of their customers (the foreign ones, anyway).

Although Jon and I checked out this morning the “fixed price” government-run craft shop on rue Mohammed V to figure out the “high end” of negotiating for goods, we didn’t have a good run today. For example, I negotiated for a pretty run-of-the-mill, casual leather belt for 120 dh ($15 US), which seemed like a bargain until I noticed “opening prices” by other leather sellers started at 150 dh. Oops.

We encountered a particularly tough father-son duo at a leather bag shop. Even though I suspect we got a raw deal, I can’t help but be impressed by their tag-team approach, especially because the son looked like he was maybe 12 years old.

Son: “My father, he scrapes by after he pays the craftsman and the dealer. Best quality leather! You want shoes with that?”Father: “My son, he speaks French so well, no? This money – it sends him to school.”

Jon and I clearly need to come up with our own expert patter to have a fighting chance in the souks. Our “we’re just poor students” line doesn’t seem to go over too well. Suggestions, anyone?

Our limit for haggling today happened at one of those cavernous souk shops I described. The seller had a few gorgeous, unique-looking pottery pieces that had an asking price of 1100 dh (~$155) according to various price tags (price tags are when you know you’re not in a typical souk shop).We were interested in picking up three bowls as gifts, and before even getting down to negotiating for the bowls (rule of thumb in Marrakesh according to Lonely Planet is to start at 1/3 the asking price and move up from there), the seller starts freaking out on us when we ask what kinds of shipping options he offers. He’s pointing fingers at me, gesturing wildly and *telling me* that I should just carry these three heavy-ass bowls on the plane, and I’m explaining to him it’s not possible given (1) how strict EasyJet limits are; and (2) how strict EU limits are, generally, after the 10 August flight scare in the UK. We went back and forth about this until Jon signalled that I was having a meltdown and it was time to go home.

As most of you know, if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s someone telling me I’m wrong! : ) [Seriously, I’m so right. I mean, I *just flew on a plane* the other day. Tell me when this guy last got on a plane to the UK! Besides, I’m the customer!]Jon and the fireplace at Riad l’Orangeraie  As you can see, the haggling ceased to be about the goods. It was indeed time to call it a day, so we walked away and came back to our cozy little riad and sat by the fire. All better now. Time for a home-cooked dinner chez Riad.

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Jon in MarrakechClearly, after putting in almost three weeks’ time at work since the Christmas holiday, Jon and I were in dire need of another vacation.So at 5:15 am, we headed out on a snowy, dark London morning to Gatwick Airport. After waiting two hours on the runway because of the unusual half-inch of snow on the ground, our EasyJet flight finally took off. Two hours after take-off, we landed in sunny, 60-degree Marrakech.

Despite a greeting by what can only be described as an oh-so-French immigration official (she pushed my passport back at me and refused to look at it until I had carefully tucked my landing card into the front page of the passport), my excitement to be in Marrakech was undiminished.

The 15-minute taxi ride from the airport to the Riad de l’Orangeraie was easy peasy, and after getting out to walk the last 200 yards through narrow alley chaos (donkeys, piles of dirt, motorbike madness, etc.), we arrived at our quiet getaway hidden in the heart of the “old” part of Marrakech (the walled-in old city known as the Medina).

Riads are traditional Moroccan townhouses that are Riad l’Orangeraie entrance gardenbuilt around a central courtyard garden and facing away from the street. These days, many riads have been converted into small (and in this case, gorgeous) hotels. Our riad, for example, has just eight guest rooms and a courtyard that includes both a garden and a turquoise gem of a pool. (Cheers to Travellerblogue for pointing us to this riad).

While our room was Mint teaprepared, we sat down to some mint tea, which came served in a small silver teapot and gilt-decorated glasses. Even though I am a huge fan of the minty goodness, I have to admit that the pre-added sugar is a little strong for me. I’d rather add my own sugar, but based on my one day here, I’d say adding your own sugar is a no-can-do.

Jon and I spent the afternoon wandering through the Medina attempting to orient ourselves, which may end up being a losing battle considering (1) there are a million winding alleyways here; (2) there are no street signs; and (3) all the shops start to look the same after a while.That said, we greatly enjoyed the street food we sampled. There was the chicken brochette (skewer) guy who served the chicken to us hot off the grill in a flatbread (khoubz) and topped with “tomato salad” (spiced tomato and onion salsa). At first, I worried about eating that tomato salad, but it added the best bit of moisture and spice to the hot, juicy chicken – so obviously this is a risk we had to take. For just 20 dirham ($2.50 at 8 dh to the US dollar), it was also a great deal.Jon buys Orange Juice in the Djamma el fna

Other highlights of our street snacking today included Jon’s purchase of fresh-squeezed orange juice from one of a gazillion (why so many?) old-fashioned-looking carts found in the main town square, the Djemma el Fna; crispy and hot deep-fried dough at the tourist-inflated (but still bargain basement) price of 1 dirham ($.12); and fresh-from-the-griddle roti-like flatbread for 4 dh (see photo below right). Roti type bread in MarrakechAlthough we greatly enjoyed the aimless walking and street-food-sampling, we spent almost four hours walking in what was surely a series of circles. I think we’d still be walking in those circles had it not been for an executive decision at around Hour 3 to actually ask all sorts of people: “ou est le Djemma el Fna” (where is the main square?).  Almost everyone we asked was super-friendly and helpful – going out of their way to walk a few steps to point us in the right direction. When we got really close to the Djemma el Fna, we rookies got waylaid by some teenage kid (whom we hadn’t asked for directions, but who insisted anyway that we follow his directions to the Djemma el Fna). The kid was annoyed when we paid him 5 dh just to go away. He started following us around and saying we hadn’t paid him enough.

In the interest of promoting world peace and understanding, we traded a few choice f*ck you’s before he left us alone (he started it, I swear). You could say it was not an ideal exchange. Dining room at Le foundouk

We had a fun dinner tonight at a beautiful restaurant called Le Foundouk (55, Souk Hal Fassi, 024 37 81 90). The food is supposed to be French-meets-North Africa, but it’s more like French and North Africa exist side by side. There are Moroccan dishes and there are French dishes on the menu, and the two are separate and distinct. No fusion going on here.

The food was fine. What’s worthwhile about the place is the decor and service. My briouates starter came with five deep-fried goodies. Normally, as you know, I am all over the deep fried food, but of the five pieces on my plate, I could only identify lamb and beef as fillings. The lamb filling was tender and sweet from the raisins and cinnamon; the beef was good enough; and the other three fillings were unidentifiable mush.

My chicken tagine with onions and grapes was a little dried out despite the (overly) sweet sauce made from the onions and grapes

Jon started with harira, the traditional Moroccan lentil soup, which was hearty and meaty, so no complaints there. Chandelier at Le FoundoukHis pastilla was tasty, and because we’ve never had it before, we’re not sure if it’s supposed to be this dry, but that’s what we thought of it. The pastilla is a pastry-wrapped bit of pigeon filling. On top of the pastry is a honey-and-nut coating that adds a great sweet contrast to the savoury pigeon filling.

We’d try it again, but we’re not convinced it was worth the money.  What *was* well worth the 700 dh we paid for dinner were the soaring ceilings, iron filigree work, warm lighting and perfect soundtrack in the dining room. Together, it created both drama and coziness. We’d go back, though maybe for drinks and desserts. The mahia (fig brandy) in the cocktails, for example, was a nice treat.

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