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March 2, 2017

Despite not so good food on the plane, our travels to Marrakesh, Morocco were timely and uneventful which is always nice with multiple connections and checked bags.  Our biggest delay occurred when we arrived at the very nice new terminal and our driver was not there to pick us up.

Suman had reserved a ride through the riad in which we were staying, and after a few phones calls and 45 minutes of waiting, our ride finally showed up.  I don’t know what took so long as the airport isn’t that far away from the old city center also known as a medina.

A medina is a specific city section found in many North African cities which are typically walled with many narrow and maze-like streets.  The one here in Marrakesh is no exception.  Cobblestone streets which zigzagged in every direction were lined by thick-walled, interconnecting buildings.  Once designed to confuse invaders, it now just confuses tourists.

Thankfully we had a driver that new the location of our riad, as we would have been hard pressed to find it with few streets signs and derbs (or alleyways) pointing in every direction.  The car was too large to make it down the narrow streets, so we were met by a baggage porter who wheeled our luggage in an old cart to Riad Karmela where we were staying for one night.

A riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior courtyard.  Most of the riads are located inside the medina, and I highly recommend experiencing at least one night at one of these authentic accommodations.  The entrance door to our riad was really low and the registration process was quite simple.  Of course, as customary, we were offered a cup of mint tea in the courtyard which was home to pet tortoise before we were escorted up a narrow, twisting stairwell to our second floor room.  The place was quite lovely, especially for $70 and aside from the slow pick-up and lousy exchange rate (try the airport instead), this is great place to stay. www.riadkarmela.com or info@riadkarmela.com

Our room was named, Lailla.  The beds were made in traditional quilts and the tile floors were covered in traditional berber rugs.  The decorations took on the traditional Moroccan style as well.  We only spent a few minutes in our room to change clothes, however, as our guide that Suman scheduled to take us around the souks was already waiting for us for our 3pm appointment.

Suman scheduled Youssef for four hours, and this may have been the most savvy choice made on our entire trip.  While the souks are navigable with a map, none of it is easy, and having just landed it was nice to be led through the maze rather than have to find our (or should I say Suman’s) shopping items of interest.  Even for those who don’t shop, like me, a guide is worth every penny, as just having a local around kept the shopkeeping hustlers from bombarding us.  Of course, walking as fast as he did helped too!

He took us to some very cool places that we wouldn’t have known about or noticed had we just been wandering around lost.  Our first stop was on the backside of a hammam, which offers steam baths and massages.  We entered a dark chamber with a bed on the right and large compartment of sawdust on the left.  Down the stairs was a gentleman who sat tending the fire which heated the hot water for the hammam!  Locals also brought him things to be cooked in the fire.

From there we weaved past businesses, mosques and homes with countless varieties of doors.  I just loved the doors…tall, short, decorative, plain, wood, metal…many decorated with the Hasma (or Hand of Fatima), the universal sign of protection.  As we walked, Youssef was quick to explain to us Islam and to discuss his beloved king.

Islam encompasses Surrender, Submission, Obedience, Sincerity, and Peace.  As an American, it was nice to hear his explanation, as unfortunately we only hear about Islam through the sensational seeking media when something awful takes place.  Jetlagged, I certainly can’t recall all he told us, so in an effort to provide accurate information, I found this website: https://www.islamtomorrow.com/islam/islam_verb.htm

King Mohammed VI is loved by his people.  He is the son of Hassan II and took over the throne upon his father’s death in 1999.  He is the first Moroccan King to have only one wife, as men were allowed four, until the King enacted a new family code or Mudawana that limited the terms of polygamy as well as provided more powers to women.  He was also the first King to show his wife to the public. While a progressive King, he also named the traditional Berber language to be the official language along with Arabic, and it must be taught in school along with French and English.

The Berbers are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa and most are Sunni Muslims.  One of many handicrafts they are known for are their rugs.  Suman was interested in seeing these, so Youssef led us to Dar Mejbar, a store or maybe I should say palace of rugs! For rugs email: darmejebar@gmail.com

Mohammed graciously welcomed us to his store.  First we sat with the lady weaving a rug and got to try it ourselves.  We were quite slow at the process. Next we sat in the center of the room, as two men brought rugs from all corners of the store and ceremoniously spread them out for us to see.  They were made from different types of wool, had different patterns, and came in all shapes and sizes.  Suman quickly narrowed her search down to small with purple colors.

After the rug selection, the business deal is not complete without a cup of mint tea.  We were escorted to the rooftop, where we looked out above the souks and sipped the sugary drink.  In fact, I joked about having tea with your sugar as opposed to sugar with your tea, but the ratio is five teaspoons of sugar to one teaspoon of tea, so it wasn’t much of a joke!  There is a ritual to the tea pouring as well.

First a glass is poured which is then put back into the tea kettle in order to mix the tea.  Next the tea we drink is poured from about 18 inches high in order to create a little froth on the surface.  It is customary to have three glasses of tea too.  The first glass is a gentle as life.  The second glass as strong as love.  The third glass is a bitter as death (as the tea gets stronger as it steeps).  It is known as Berber Whiskey due to the daily, social interaction that takes place around tea drinking.  We stopped at two glasses before we bid our farewells.

From Dar Mejbar, we continued through the souks.  There were souks that were mainly working areas for blacksmiths, woodworkers and leather tanners which I really liked, and then there were souks that sold the handicraft items including but not limited to purses, lanterns, shoes, vegetables, meat, fabrics and much more.  It was a photographers dream if it weren’t hard to snap photos.  Women, in particular the most conservative who were draped in clothing from head to toe with only their eyes showing, did not want their pictures taken.  It seemed sort of ironic since it was impossible for the regular person to tell who they were.  Others wished to be paid for a photo, so most of the time, I had to sneak a photo from a dark corner while making sure I didn’t get run over by a moped that zipped between the pedestrians, resort to my iphone, or settle for shots at places where Suman shopped.

We walked by the communal oven for baking bread (though it wasn’t open) on our way to a lantern shop as well as a spice shop before we passed by a square and were eventually led to the main tourist section, Djemâa el Fna.  This centuries-old square, once a meeting point for farmers, tradesmen, storytellers and healers, is now home to snake charmers, transvestite dancers, women that painted henna design, and countless food carts that mostly sold smoothies.  It was surrounded by many terraced cafes as well that provided a nice place to view the chaos and the sunset.

This is where we said our good-byes to Youssef.  I highly recommend him. He may be contacted at Y.kharroubi@yahoo.com and his website is Www.marrakechtourguide.com.  Suman found him on Viator.  Before we left him, he pointed out the restaurant where we should get a tajine, told us to carry our valuables in front of us, suggested to keep walking, and then provided rather simple directions to our riad.  We were to take the first right, then the first left. We had to pass by the colorful paintings we saw earlier and turn right at the vegetables.  If we got lost, we were supposed to ask an older person.  We heeded his advice and went to the second floor of Restaruant Chez Cehgrouni to eat our tajine of lamb for only $6 as we looked out over the busy square.

After a tasty dinner, we navigated back to our riad only pausing once with slight confusion when a local shouted, “Can I help you?”

We asked, “Riad Karmela?”

He pointed to our right and that was all we needed to find the rest of our way as we then came upon an area we regonized.

Our room was a bit warm so we turned on the A/C, but quickly figured out it only blew heat, so we opened the windows, packed up to head to the High Atlas Mountains and Berber Villages in the morning, and drifted off to sleep after a long day.  ETB

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