Boats, canvases, bustling squares, conversations, gardens.
Check out part 1 by clicking here.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world." -John Le Carre
After the desert we headed through the winding Atlas Moutains to Ouarzazate. Though Ouarzazate is known as the “Moroccan Hollywood” because it has been the location for many big-budget movies and TV shows (Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Game of Thrones, Black Hawk Down) we went there for another reason: women’s education.
We spent the night in Association Tishka, a dormitory for women going to vocational school and college in Ouarzazate. After dropping our stuff off and walking around the city a bit, we sat down to a meal with the girls. At first, it was a little awkward: the language barrier and the fact that we were split up between different tables made the situation feel a little forced. However, my fellow American student at the table spoke excellent French and we were able to have an enlightening discussion about education, women’s issues and their hope for the future. The main issue, they said, is poverty. Though education (through college) is free, students have to buy supplies and books, which can be too much for poor families. In addition, students in rural areas sometimes have to walk an hour or more to get to school, which can be dangerous and take away from time they could be working at home. They also pointed out that unemployment is high in Morocco and they are worried about getting jobs.
The next morning we left bright and early for a winding ride through the High Atlas Mountains. Our program coordinator insisted that this twisting mountain pass makes even the heartiest of stomachs turn, so I took a Dramamine just in case. Not my best idea. I slept through almost the entire trip through these gorgeous mountains, only waking up for a brief panoramic view of the peaks. I was still a little woozy by the time we got to Marakkech, but the hustle and bustle of this big city woke me up fast.
Marakkech is known as the tourism capital of Morocco, and as tourists for the afternoon, we figured out what that meant fast. We were ripped off on two taxi rides before finally insisting on a pre-fixed price before accepting a ride. We quickly became fluent in the language of “too expensive” (trop cher in French and rahli in Arabic if you ever happen to go).
We started out at Jardin Majorelle, the gardens of artist Jacques Majorelle restored by Yves Saint Laurent who made it his hippie hang out in the ‘70s. Though a bit manicured, the gardens are a gorgeous combination of Moroccan influences and European simplicity. The matte blue, yellow and orange flowerpots and architecture adorned with overflowing trellises of pastel flowers and magnificent cacti gave the impression of stepping into a Matisse painting.
From the calm oasis of Jardin Majorelle, we decided to head the to city center and world-famous Djemaa el Fna. This is an ancient sprawling square populated with snake charmers, storytellers, henna artists, vendors and food stands. Chaos would be a mild way to describe the atmosphere. As soon as we stepped onto the ancient cobblestone we were accosted from all sides. I had two snakes literally wrapped around my neck for “good luck” (in other words 20 dirhams), my friend looked toward the orange juice stands and became the subject of a fierce argument for her business between two competing vendors and another friend was attacked by henna artists and came out with an intricate design splashed with glitter. Aside from the vendors, motorbikes zoomed in every direction, taxis occasionally drove straight through the square and men shouted “Shakira!” “Spice Girls!” at us no matter where we turned. It was thrilling, but dizzying.
We headed back to our hotel for baguettes, cheese and Meknes wine (from a winery we passed earlier on the trip!) thanks to 50 dirham grocery coupons supplied by SIT, then headed back out to check out Djemaa el Fna at night. The city at night was even crazier than the day, even on a Wednesday evening. Large crowds gathered around dramatic storytellers, hypnotized snakes twisted out of their coils to the sound of reedy pipes and greasy steam billowed from sizzling grills. The tourism-fueled intensity was ever present, and especially noticeable when we walked through a row of open-air grills and men waved menus in our faces from all sides for the entire 100-foot block. Feeling once again overwhelmed, we decided to join our friends at a bar by our hotel.
At first glance, the club looked straight out of Miami. It was a monolithic round structure, cream with black trim. We walked inside to a bar bearing the name of a famous U.S. crooner, and it was like we had also entered the U.S.: women in Kardashian-esque attire and well-groomed men sipped cocktails around cozy tables. A live band played top 40 American and Arabic hits.
We were dancing for a bit, when the band began playing a catchy, Latin-inspired song and pulling women from the crowd up on stage to dance. The lead singer, dressed in a sassy red dress festooned with a flower, pulled my friend up on stage who implored me to join her, so we hopped up on stage for a minute or two, goofing off with silly dance moves before stepping down to what sure sounded like resounding applause. We kept dancing, and the practice continued: women were pulled up on stage to dance, but their moves were less goofy and more suggestive, gyrating and grinding. No one called to a friend to join them, nor ran off stage to a group of laughing companions. In fact, they all seemed to get off stage and back to a specific man. It clicked.
They were prostitutes.
I knew this was the case in a lot of bars in Morocco, but this was the first time I faced it in person (knowingly). I suddenly felt a bit more conspicuous (did the men here think I was a prostitute too?) but also sad: for me, this night on the town is free of worry and obligations. For nearly every other woman in the room, it meant something entirely different. It was also interesting to see that there were many western men at the bar; we learned later that Marakkech is a hotspot for “sexual tourism”, or men who come here just for the prostitution. Though Marakkech is a place especially notorious for this, nightclubs across Morocco are known as a place to pick up women. It seems to play into the “exoticism” that often drives tourism here: come to Morocco, meet a beautiful Arabian woman. Though we definitely enjoyed our night, it was another reminder that Morocco is a very layered country, especially when it comes to tourism.
Finally, the next day we headed to Essaouira, an old pirate town on the coast known for playing muse to Jimi Hendrix and Orson Welles, being an enclave for artists and hosting the World Festival of Gnawa music every June. After the hustle and bustle of Marakkech, a quiet beach town was exactly what I needed. We met up with the other SIT program, played a game of soccer on the beach and ate freshly caught seafood. A few friends and I decided to stay an extra day, and Essaouira quickly became my favorite city thus far. The medina is calm, clean and colorful, and there are tiny family owned restaurants and hotels tucked into hidden public squares. There were many ceramic and art shops as well as Berber pharmacies, so the sea breeze was sweet with musk and amber. At night on the recommendation of a friend, we went to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant owned by a former professor and his daughter. For 40 dirham we got a delicious spicy soup, a heaping plate of cous cous and oranges with sugar for desert. As an added bonus, the owner let us play his Gnawa instruments.
Afterward we decided to explore a bit of Essaouira’s nightlife. After wandering around to a couple overpriced bars, a man on the street pointed us to a street he promised was a place the locals frequent. We rounded a few corners and at the end of a dead end alley we found a packed fluorescent lit bar. It was certainly locals only, so much so that as we entered the bar we heard the bouncer laughing hysterically at the sight of four American college students entering an establishment clearly populated solely by Essaouira’s working class men. We sat down in a cage-like side room, the floor covered in months old cigarette butts, and took a couple awkward sips of our Specials (Casablanca beer) before a very drunk surfer decided to befriend us. Quickly we had a group of surfers and locals to talk with, including one man who recognized us from Rabat (apparently Americans stick out no matter where we go). After an entertaining conversation, we decided to get a bottle of wine to go and headed back to our hostel where we hung out with the other group of SIT students who stayed an extra day.
After a nine-hour bus ride back to Rabat, I was exhausted but thrilled at the incredible diversity of southern Morocco. From the desert to the mountains to the sea, each city offered a new fold to this fascinating country. Certainly a road trip I won’t forget anytime soon.