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400 Day LETS Odyssey
Copyright � James Taris

JAMES TARIS around the World- (2003-4)

Within minutes I had a couple of snakes around my neck. Snake charmers are
looking for donations, so I reasoned that the snakes would have to be
non-venomous if their owner was going to collect any money.

MOROCCO - Marrakech (Wk.1 of 2 weeks)
Week 20 of World Tour

1. Magical Mystical Marrakech

Contrary to my expectations, Morocco wasn’t the African country I expected to see, but a very Arabic country with all of their customs and traditions. And staying with a Muslim family in Marrakech was both welcoming and enlightening. And instantly recognizable in any photos.

You see, all the buildings in Marrakech were a unique puke (vomit) colour. The sort of colour you used to get in art class when you mixed all the colours on your pallet together. But as you saw more of it, you realized that it was actually a natural red earth colour. And the window shutters were an unflattering bright blue. But again, they were only imitating the colours of nature. So the buildings blended perfectly with their natural surroundings … the red earth and the bright blue skies. And the green trees (mostly palm trees) blended beautifully too, and they were everywhere.

Marrakech isn’t the capital of Morocco (27 million pop’n), thats Rabat. And Marrakech isn’t the largest city in Morocco, thats Casablanca. But Marrakech is definitely the most mesmerizing city in Morocco.

A visit to Jamafna, the city’s central square, was like taking a trip back in time, to the ancient days of Baghdad with the hustle and bustle that normally accompanied the antics of traders, mystics and performers.

As we approached the overcrowded square, my host said, “This is where the snacks are.”

But as I wasn’t hungry at the time, I didn’t pay too much attention to that comment. But within seconds I was standing in front of an amazing sight.

“Snakes!” I exclaimed, “You mean snakes!”

This was a cobra. I made sure to keep my distance from this fella.

The official language of the Moroccan people is Arabic, but most of them also speak French. So English isn’t one of their more popular languages and gets grouped up with Spanish and German in order of priority.

So there in front of me were some snake charmers, just like I’d seen so many times on TV. But I thought they only did that in India!

Sitting under a very large umbrella to keep the hot sun off themselves and their snakes, these snake charmers sat cross-legged and began their music playing and swaying motions, more for my benefit than that of the 3 coiled up cobras in front of them.

And within seconds a couple of their snake handlers had wrapped 2 snakes around my neck. I did see them coming, and I wasn’t too worried because …

1) I could tell those snakes weren’t cobras, and

2) I knew they wouldn’t be dangerous or poisonous, because it would be hard to collect money off a dead body.

So with those reassuring thoughts going through my mind, I happily posed for a couple of ‘snakes-around-my-neck’ photos using my own camera.

“Give me 100 dihrams,” one of them said.

Now, 100 dihrams is about AUD$17, or for a more accurate comparison, about half a days wages for the average Moroccan worker, so I didn’t think that was justified by my one minute snake experience. So I confidently told him he was only getting 5 dihrams.

“Give me 50 dihrams,” he said, realizing that he’d finally come across a cheap-skate foreigner.

“No, you’re only getting 5 dihrams,” I said, realizing that he didn’t have anything to bargain with. But when I reached into my pocket I pulled out a 10 dihram coin by mistake, which I gave him anyway.

“Give me another one,” he said hopefully. But by then I was already walking away.

“Give me my snakes back!” he said frantically.

In my haste to leave I’d forgotten all about them!

But they were all like this. As soon as I looked at someone, they’d start performing for me, then 3 seconds later the hat would come out eagerly waiting for a charitable donation from a rich and warm-hearted foreigner. At times I may be warm-hearted, but I’m definitely not rich, and now wasn’t the time to ask if they’d accept LETS points in payment.

The palm readers eyed me and gestured that I have my future revealed. The baboon handlers also looked on hopefully. The young castanet dancers pranced about and asked to be rewarded for their efforts. I watched a veiled belly-dancer dancing in front of a large crowd of onlookers. But in Morocco it is forbidden for women to perform in the open like this, so this was actually a man! And after the regulatory 3 second viewing period, an old guy came over to collect a donation from me. But when I refused, he began muttering something which I’m sure wasn’t very complimentary. Needless to say, I moved on very quickly.

And then there were the Water-Carriers. These men were dressed in bright red clothing, somewhat like an ancient warrior, and hung about 8 brass bowls around their necks. They also carried a bucket of water and a long-handled brass ladle. I didn’t really want a drink of water. Just a photo would be nice. And because of all my previous experiences, I thought I’d negotiate a price for taking a picture with them first. But no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t get a price from them. Maybe they would’ve accepted anything. Maybe I could’ve even taken a photo and refused to give them anything. After all, I was taking photos in a public place. But the more I got asked for unreasonable donations and the more I got cursed by thankless performers, the more I became uncomfortable with the whole scene. So I ceased negotiations with the water-carriers and moved on to the popular market place.

. . . .
Typical Marrakech market place.

The ancient atmosphere continued into the market which was full of tiny stalls crammed neatly with their wares of shoes, teapots, clothes, lanterns, material, daggers, etc. Skilled tradesmen worked at their crafts oblivious to the crowds walking past them. I was particularly impressed by the wood lathe craftsmen who kept their wood spinning with their hands, while they carved the turning wood with tools held between their 2 larger toes! Exotic caged animals were also for sale. Small tortoises (not turtles), squirrels, dragon lizards and even chameleons!

Earlier that day, I’d almost bought a black belt from a street-seller in the city, but even though he dropped his price down from 20 dihrams to 15, the size was too big for me and so I’d need to take it to someone to have it shortened, and I didn’t really want the hassle. So when I was checking the prices of belts in the market, I was justifiably unimpressed with the price of 60 dihrams for a plain black belt.

But as I walked away the young merchant followed me and insisted I make him an offer.

“Fifteen dihrams,” I said, and waited for the shocked look on his face.

But he agreed! So I returned to the stall with him and selected a belt which fitted me perfectly. But when I offered him the money, he looked at me blankly.

“I think he’s expecting fifty dihrams, not fifteen,” my host explained. So another misunderstanding with the English language!

Then he said, “Give me 20 dihrams, so I only make 5 dihrams profit.”

But as I gave him the belt back (you didn’t think I’d yield, do you?), and just like I’d experienced on countless occasions before, he cried out, “OK, OK,” and took the 15 dihrams from my hand. So maybe there was a larger profit margin in it after all!

By the time the evening came about, I began to feel a little peckish (hungry). And when I walked out of the market, I noticed that most of the street performers had moved on and were replaced by dozens of food stalls.

“What would you like to eat,” my host said.

“Those sheep heads look tasty,” I said.

So we ordered half a sheep’s head. But whereas in South Africa my sheep’s head came on a plate, bones and all, this one was being carved up and the bones discarded. How considerate, I thought. But then he gave part of our meat to another customer so that the portion left for us barely filled a small saucer.

“That’s not half a sheep’s head,” I said. Then I quickly got up and walked away.

Several other stalls were offering the same foods at the same prices, so soon we were sitting in front of another sheep’s head, but this time with bones attached, as per my instructions. Needless to say, I enjoyed my meal immensely.

2. The Art Of Morocco Tea

In Morocco, tea isn’t just a beverage, it’s an art.

Even though alcohol wasn’t banned in Morocco, I didn’t see anyone drinking it during any of the 2 weeks I was there. But when it came to drinking, Morocco Mint Tea was always their first choice.

Sure I’d had Mint Tea before, or more specifically, I’ve had Peppermint Tea (it said so on the teabag). But I wasn’t prepared for the fanfare and grace that accompanied the preparation and presentation of Morocco Mint Tea.

First of all, there were no teacups. They used small and slender ornate drinking glasses, somewhat like liqueur glasses. I was sure it was for visual effect, because when it came to pouring a cuppa, the experience most closely resembled that of pouring a glass of creamy headed black Guinness.

A silver teapot came to the table on a silver tray with several tea glasses. But it had already gone through a long process before getting to that stage. In Australia, I’d just boil the water, pour it into a mug and add my teabag. Fifteen jiggles later (yes, I count them!) and bingo! One cup of piping hot Peppermint Tea.

But in Morocco they …

1) Bought loads of fresh mint leaves from the local market or from the door-to-door mint salesman. (The mint got used up very quickly.)

2) Stuffed the teapot full of mint so that they were sticking out of the top.

3) Filled the teapot with boiling water.

4) Added 3 large slabs of sugar. (I’d never seen sugar in slabs before. They didn’t muck around with one or two teaspoons of sugar there. The quantity of sugar placed in the teapot took up nearly half the pot! No wonder there were dentists on nearly every corner in Marrakech.)

So now we were back at the table with the tea …

1) After the tea had settled a bit, a glass of tea was poured from the teapot. Then placed back into the teapot! This was done several times so that the sugar was mixed into the tea and to see whether the tea was strong enough to serve.

2) Then came the art! As each glass was filled, the server started pouring from several inches above the glass and peaked at about 18 inches above it before coming quickly back to a lower level and ending the pour somewhat like a waiter pouring a glass of expensive wine. Pouring from such a height created a ‘head’ not unlike that of a well-poured beer, which stayed up for quite a while.

3) As you can imagine, the tea tasted very sweet and minty. And because they were in such small glasses, they were drunk very quickly, and no sooner was your glass empty, than it was immediately refilled with the same finesse as the first.

Other eating habits which intrigued me were …

The hand-washing ritual. Moroccans didn’t use forks at the table (just knives and spoons), so they were understandably fussed about hand-cleanliness at meal times. But rather than just go to the bathroom, they brought a silver hand-washing bowl to the table which had a bar of soap and kettle of warm water sitting on top of it. So everyone washed their hands carefully and dried them with a hand towel afterwards.

The communal platter. Moroccans didn’t use plates at the table either. Even though several small saucers of food (containing oil, butter, jam, honey, dates, cheese, olives plus an assortment of vegetables from time to time) were placed around the table, the main meal came out in a large platter which was placed in the center of the table. Bread was freely distributed around the table and then everyone, using a piece of bread, proceeded to dunk their bread into the section of the platter directly in front of them. Portions of meat and vegetables were skillfully broken off using the bread as a pick-up tool, until everyone had had their fill. I wasn’t so skillful with my bread (chopsticks are so much easier to handle) so my hosts thoughtfully supplied me with a fork so I’d manage to eat more than just the gravy.

Ramadan. Every year there’s a religious Muslim period called Ramadan which forbids their followers from eating or drinking during daylight hours. But what they missed out on during the day, they more than made up for during the night. My last 3 days in Marrakech were Ramadan days. I’m not a Muslim, so I didn’t have to follow this diet, nor do Muslim children up to about 14, but I was keen to see what it was like. And I’m pleased to say that I handled it very well and survived to tell the story (slight exaggeration). Ramadan started at 5am, just as the Koran could be heard being broadcast from the nearby mosque, and ended at 6pm. So at one second past six in the evening (can you blame them?) they began eating their ‘breakfast’ (called breakfast because it was breaking their fast!) which had been prepared and served earlier on. Then at 10.30pm they had dinner, which was typical of their normal evening meals (at least in this family). But then they had a special meal called ‘sohor’ which they served at around 4.30am. By this time you were so full you would just look at the food and try to motivate yourself to eat it. After all, you still had dinner sitting in your stomach which hadn’t had any time to digest because you’d been fast asleep. Nevertheless, just knowing that there would be total abstaining from food and drink for the next 13 hours was usually enough motivation to dig in just a little more.

This article is taken from the ebook,
400-Day LETS Odyssey

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