Lost in the Souk

I have been in Marrakech two days now and I have been lost in the souk (marketplace) at least three times. Far from being a problem, that means I am doing things right.

After traveling in Dakar, the touts, faux guides, and various other types of urchin are no problem for me. In fact, as they are incredibly effective at reading people, I get approched a lot less because they can see that they will have no power over me. Still, I get my share of them. I turned into an alley yesterday and immediately realized it was a mistake because this guy launched into a speech. I ignored him furiously, staring at my feet and pretending to be deaf. Out of desperation he started guessing nationalities: Vous etes francais? American? Spanish? Greek? England? Taiwanese?

Taiwanese?!?

He got me. I cracked up because it was so insane. And as his reward I turned around and gave him a big handshake and admitted that I was in fact not deaf, and that I am American. He was my new best friend for another 10 meters, but by then he was too far from his store and he had to scamper back to start the cycle again with the next “Taiwanese” traveler.

I got squeaky clean at a hammam last night. This is the same thing that is called a Turkish bath in other places in the world. It is really daunting when you don’t have a clue what the hell is going on. But it is really cool too and you get cleaner than possible in the dinky gross shower in the hotel. I went to the male version of a local hammam. Other options are female local ones and touristy ones which are more like western health spas. For 8 dirham you get access to the steam room and the cooler bathing rooms, and if you brought all the right stuff (soap and various kinds of washing glove things) you can wash yourself. But for 50 dirham you can get a “massage” which means that a guy washes you. Despite my embarassment, it seemed like a good idea, if only so I would not be alone and commit all kinds of faux paus in the hammam. The guy leads you to the steam room and you warm up there for a while. Then he comes and gets you for the washing. You wear bathing shorts, but that doesn’t mean he is going to miss many spots. He pulls up your trunks and washes each cheek, but not between them! The washing includes an abrasive step where he takes off the dead skin. It is really amazing and though it is not painful it is uncomfortable when you are not used to it. The final step is a bunch of stretches they guy does by folding you into knots and then leaning on you. These would be ok if you were expecting them, but I was too shocked, confused, and apprehensive to enjoy them much. I will try again in a few days when I am good and dirty again.

Today I saw the tanneries. My guide to find the tannery left me with the tannery guide, but promptly came back with a bundle of mint. They crushed it and gave it to me saying, “Moroccan gas mask”. It wasn’t that bad, but I did use my gas mask some. The active ingredient in tanning Moroccan style is pigeon manure. But my guide kept calling it “pigeon shit” as though it was a technical term. I mostly used the gas mask to hide my grin. As is always the case, much complaining went on as I tried to pay only 5 euros for the guide. He wanted 15 euros. And of course the guide from the street that helped me find the tannery had to get his percent from me instead of from (or probably in addition to) the tannery guide. But I really enjoyed seeing it all.

One thing I learned is that the work conditions of the tanners is absolutely horrific. If you want to improve the world, do not buy Moroccan leather until they put in place some kind of fair trade and safe labor system for the workers. It has happened recently for other industries like coffee and cacao. The problem is that European and American tannery workers already got their press and their reforms back at the turn of the 19th century. Present day Moroccan tanners got skipped by history, I guess.

Dinner last night was nice. I was working my way through the stalls in the square picking a place to eat and enjoying watching the touts hassle other people. This cute girl got nabbed in front of me and the guy was selling the air conditioned comfort of the (outdoor) seating. She dodged the guy, putting the tout right in front of me and said, “Oh, I don’t need air conditioning but this guy (meaning me) was just telling me he wants it.” I gave her a dirty look which was quickly interrupted as she disappeqred behind the tout. After I got rid of my new best friend I caught up to the girl and told her, “Just for that, you have to accompany me to dinner!” She laughed and joined me. She had a simple soup and bread and I had lamb brochettes and various salads and sauces. A very nice and very cheap dinner.

She is a medical photographer for Operation Smile. She is in Morocco for a conference. It was interesting to compare our two NGO experiences, as they are related but quite different too. She was shocked at the realities of how bad healthcare is when the government is disrupted. Her experience is with functioning but poor health systems.

I booked a four day tour today that will take me all the way out to the desert and back. I am considering hopping off the tour on the way back and taking my time at Ourzazate, but I guess I will see how it goes. So I will be off the net for a while and I will send an update next when I get back from that tour.

Finally, just a little plug for my hotel, Hotel Essaouira. It is clean and has a fair price and the people are really friendly and helpful. When I return to Marrakech in a few days I will return for sure.

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