Marrakech, Morocco: Our First Trip to Africa

When we landed in Marrakech, and I walked across the tarmac into the curvaceous white concrete airport with large glass triangle windows flanked by gold paneling with star-shaped cut-outs — an architectural belly dance between modern and traditional Arabic sensibilities — I felt excitement stirring in my loins. This turned-on-by-a-city feeling has happened before. There was the hip-swiveling salsa in old Havana, the Flying Buttresses and buttery croissants of Paris, the arched-back and lock-eyed tango in the streets of Buenos Aires — the list goes on.

Moreover, I like my cities like I like my lovers: sensuous, complex, a touch dangerous with the promise of great morning coffee conversation: philosophy, literature, art, food, history, music, spirituality. And, if they have a sense of humor, too? I’m in love! (That’s how both Tree and Mexico City stole my heart).

Considering you spend the night together with both lovers and cities, possibly for days on end, the correlation starts to make sense. Of course, these days, happily married and happily monogamous, the only sleeping around Tree and I do is geographic. In that way, maybe we could say we’re polyamorous? It’s a stretch, but it somehow feels kind of true. 

Regardless of what it’s called, I was happy to hear that Tree felt the excitement, too. This was going to be a fun little romance.

And, like a short affair compared to a longterm relationship, this trip was devoid of quotidian responsibilities like grocery shopping, toilet scrubbing, cooking, laundry, and sorting the recycling. It was more a typical vacation than the overlanding or slow-living travel we’re used to. While there’s no doubt road-tripping across a country or renting apartments in various locations is a much more intimate and authentic (not to mention inexpensive) way to connect to a people and place, there’s something to be said about arriving to pre-booked accommodations and guided excursions. 

Put another way, sometimes it’s really nice to be a pampered tourist. 

Upon arrival to the amazing Riad Jona (thank you, Ahu, for the recommendation!) by pre-arranged airport pickup, we were greeted by this:

“Bonjour! Let me take your bags, here’s a cup of mint tea, lunch will be ready shortly. Relax!”

And it just got better from there. 

After filling our bellies with roasted eggplant, tomato salad, and lamb tagine served with perfectly fluffy couscous that felt like clouds bursting in my mouth, we walked out of our riad along the quiet narrow passageway, stopping to pet all the half-ferrel cats fat on scrap fish heads and chicken feet.

I quickly learned we’d have to factor in 20 extra minutes to our ETA to account for all the kitty petting. 

Then we turned onto another narrow passageway, except this one was complete chaos. We hugged the side of the wall and dodged scooters, motorcycles, trucks, and bicycles whizzing past. We nimbly stepped through, around or on construction sites (let’s just say Soleil left her little print on Marrakech for years to come). Unable to resist, I stole furtive glances into the colorful shops to my left and right, trying not to make eye-contact with the owners who were calling out their best offers to lure us in, but this was not our time to shop. We were on a mission. 

After 7 harrowing minutes of me screaming out dangers from behind– “moto! truck! biker!”– as if Tree, who was walking with Soleil ahead of me, couldn’t hear or see the same would-be killers approaching, we popped out through this little archway into….

Jamaa el-Fnaa!!!! (the main plaza) 

I’m not going to lie, I hyperventilated a little bit. Really, no picture can do it justice because you need the sounds and smells to give texture to the experience. I’ll try to describe it for you:

Imagine the hustle and bustle of people walking and talking mixed with the faint twang of Arabic music mixed with motorcycles revving, cars honking and horses trotting mixed with monkey screeches and the drums of snake charmers and oh my! What is that piping out of the speakers on top of the minaret? Yes, the beautiful, rhythmic call to prayer. Now take a deep breath and smell nutmeg, cumin, and cardamon; jasmine, gardenia, and roses; dirt, dung, and exhaust; baking bread, sweet mint tea, and burning wood; and maybe you’ll get a sense of what it’s like to walk through Jamaa el-Fnaa. 

It was overwhelming. Tree said the energy of the place reminded him of Asia, specifically Nepal. Even though it was hard to take it all in– if I were a robot I would’ve had smoke coming out my ears–I loved it. There’s a pulse to Marrakech, and Jamaa el Fnaa is the heart.

Now, we know you’re supposed to ignore the animal handlers in the square because the animals are stolen from their natural habitat and how they’re handled is questionable, but that’s easier said than done. Why? Because the handlers have every intention of paying attention to you, dear Tourist Who Feeds His Family. Besides, I think we can tell in this picture who is really being abused. 

Poor Soleil. The monkey experience was only marginally better. 

“Come here, Soleil, and check out the little monkey”

I’m scared!

“It’s okay. C’mon.”

Uh-uh!

“See, he’s nice”

Hmph.

“And soft”

Houston, we have lift off. 

At the far end of Jamaa el Fnaa is the entrance to….

 The Souk (the open-aired market)

The Souk is a labyrinth of little shops divided into sections: Spices, Leather, Rugs, Shoes, etc…

Once you take a couple of turns, it can be a while before you get out. But, really, getting lost in there is half the point of going in. 

See those little red clay pot lids in the picture below?  You can either swipe a wet finger or your blush brush in it, and use it as a lip or cheek stain. Called “Aker” or “Aker Fassi,” this Berber make-up is made of red ochre terra cotta that’s been blended with powdered poppy. I bought some gardenia oil and the store owner gave me a pot for free. So far I love using it. A little goes a long way. 

A note about shopping in Morocco:

I’ve heard countless tourists complain about the aggressiveness of shopkeepers in Morocco. Some even say it ruins their experience. While it’s true store owners call out “Hello!” and “Good Price!” in multiple languages as you walk by, and if you enter their store they’ll attend to you intensely in an effort to get you to buy something, and yes the original price offered will most likely be heavily inflated and you’ll have to haggle it down by half if not more, one must remember: this is part of the culture. There is no harm meant. If you walk in knowing you’re going to bargain, it makes it much easier. Stay kind and firm, and remember to smile. This is a game. They’re not trying to rip you off; that’s just how you shop in Morocco. Also, it’s helpful to spend a couple of days wandering around and walking out of stores without purchasing anything to get a feel for fair prices. The real price tends to come out when you’re around 3 feet out the door. Lastly, if the shopkeeper feigns anger once you settle on a price, you’ve done well! He’s not really mad. It’s just part of the schtick. In fact, he’ll smile and wave to you when you walk by again later, and maybe even offer you a cup of tea or your kid a piece of candy. 

Three shopping experiences to paint the picture:

The Taxi

Before getting into the car, I negotiated a price. The taxi driver quoted me 40 dirham (4 euros), I counter offered 20 (2 euros) since that was what it had cost me to arrive and what the riad had suggested I pay. He reluctantly agreed. There was a lot of traffic on the return ride and it took much longer than expected to get back, so I ended up giving him 30 (without him asking) because that seemed fair to me. He was appreciative, and I knew I’d done the right thing. After all, do I really want to save a buck at the expense of a man in a beat-down taxi working an honest job to support his family? 

Earrings

I’d been talking to a young shopkeeper for a few days about various pieces of jewelry in his shop. One pair of earrings he said cost 80 dirham (8euros). They were heavy, real silver. I offered less but he said that his price was fair and, truthfully, it was. The day before we left I went back and handed him 100 dirham for the earrings, and he gave me back 40 in change and said, “Only 60 for you. Nice lady.”  I like to think this was karma for the taxi. 

 

Shoes

I picked out 2 pairs of super cute shoes. The shopkeeper sat me down on a stool and pulled out a notepad. We were going to negotiate Berber style, he said. He drew two houses on either side of the page and wrote our names (I hope) in Arabic underneath. He wrote down his fair price, 950 dirham (95 euros), under his house. I laughed and wrote down my price, 200 dirham (20 euros), under my house. He feigned offense. I feigned a would-be angry husband if I spent too much. He called in his uncle.”These are made with real camel leather!” the uncle said. Highly doubtful, but I appreciated the salesmanship. In the end, I said, you have beautiful shoes but I can’t afford them, and I got up to walk out. As I made for the exit, the uncle yelled, okay make one last offer! I pulled out 250 dirham, they accepted it. They pretended to feel slighted for about 60 seconds. I  thanked them for the special offer. They told me to come back, and I did. I bought two more pairs, one for Soleil and one for her friend, the next day. Repeat process 🙂

Indigo. The color of the soul. I wish I’d bought a nugget. 

The Food Tour

On our third night, we went on a food tour led by Youssef, half of the husband and wife (Amanda) team from Marrakesh Food Tours.  We met our group in Jamaa el-Fnaa and proceeded to spend the next 3.5 hrs walking deep into the medina (the walled old part of the city) and finally back to the main plaza– talking, smelling, tasting, and occasionally stopping to eat a full plate of something delicious along the way. While it was wonderful to taste dishes that we otherwise would never have tried, basically anything besides the standard tourist fare of chicken tagine, my favorite part of the tour was learning about “the underbelly” of Marrakech. Since Youssef is a local, we were able to go places with him tourists wouldn’t normally be invited or simply wouldn’t know exist. What resulted was a tour that used food as a starting point to get to the center of Marrakech culture. 

Case in point, the first place we stopped was a tanjia shop along “Mechoui Alley.” It was dark and rustic with a chopping block and worn down tables, and the “kitchen” was a hole in the ground covered by a hatch. Without trusted guidance, I wouldn’t have dared tried the food there, let alone eat sheep’s head! 

Today’s tanjia stalls have been in operation for multiple generations. Our guide took us to one owned by a man named Hassan who is the fourth generation of his family to make the same thing in the same spot for an estimated 150 years. Like all tanjia shops, there were three things on the menu:  mechoui, roasted sheep head, and tanjia.

Mechoui is sheep cooked whole for hours in an underground mud oven like the one in the picture above, rendering the meat tender and succulent, and spiced with little more than salt and cumin. Open the hatch, and you might see up to a dozen or more sheep baking. 

Roasted sheep head is exactly what it sounds like, but it tastes better than you’d think. 

Tanjia is sheep meat roasted in a clay pot with preserved lemons, garlic, cumin, saffron, a touch of olive oil, and, notably, it is sent away to be cooked. More on this in a minute. 

Also interesting, tanjia is unique to Marrakech and is often called the “Bachelor’s dish.” Traditionally, the men who worked in Marrakech’s souks would have Friday off work, so on Thursday, one of the men would stop by the shops in his section of the souk to collect money from his buddies, and then he’d prepare the tanjia for everyone. The following day the men would go to a park outside of the city to talk, relax, eat tanjia, break bread, drink mint tea, and smoke. The next Friday another man would be in charge. 

“True aficionados,” our guide challenged, “will dig for the eyeball!”

Ummm, yeah, seeing how there’s only 2, you guys go ahead….REALLY.

They even got an “I ate the eyeball” badge. 

“What’s it taste like?” I had to ask. 

“Like eyeball.”

“You’ve eaten other eyeballs?” I asked, incredulous. 

“Oh yeah, lots of fish eyeballs. They taste just like this.” 

Later, the whole group ate little snails direct from their shells, and all I could think was, these are the people who will survive the apocalypse. 

Okay, so where are the tanjias sent off to be cooked? 

The men who operate the underground furnaces that heat the water for hammams (public bathhouses) in the medina also keep the coals warm to cook tanjia overnight. Once the coals are hot, they put some outside the furnace and nestle the clay urn inside. In the morning, you’ll see the tanjia urns being delivered by bicycle to various restaurants and riads. 

Two brothers run this furnace, each working 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week. There are numerous furnaces heating many hammams throughout the medina. All day, all night, they throw refuse into the fire so people can bathe away the day’s grime.

As we walked deep into and even beneath the medina, trying strange foods and meeting people with vastly different lives than our own, I kept wondering what was going through Soleil’s mind. She seems to take most new experiences with such stride (well, except the snakes), as if nothing is really that strange or different. But maybe, for her, it’s that nothing has ever been that normal.

Like it was old hat, she threw a piece of garbage into the fire and watched it burn with glee.

On our last day, both Tree and I went to a hammam. It looked like a big shower, basically a steamy room covered in tile. Inside a woman poured hot water over my head and body and scrubbed every inch of me with a kessel (a really scratchy loofah glove) and argan soap, leaving my skin softer than it’s been in decades. I couldn’t help but think of all the men below the medina, heating our water with yesterday’s refuse. The experience was strangely chaste, even though I was naked, and intimate, even though the woman was a stranger. To be cleaned from head to toe by another person with such care and attention felt like the ultimate expression of human kindness. 

I can’t begin to describe how perfect these olives were. My favorite were the spicy ones. 

This is a kefta (meatball) sandwich with olives and sardines. Strange combo but surprisingly tasty. 

Youssef, buying Soleil a special treat. 

These donut things were a big hit (obviously). They are only served twice a day, once for breakfast with egg and again as an early evening snack. 

These guys bake 4k loaves of bread a day, supplying most of the restaurants and riads in the medina. 

As our last sit down meal, we stopped at a food stall in a closed flea market to drink some mint tea and eat vegetables with couscous, or what I call Moroccan comfort food. 

Youssef pours the tea in the traditional way from high above to aerate it. 

During the day, the flea market is run by women–widows, to be precise. The division of labor in Morocco is still quite rigid and traditional, so when a husband dies there are few ways his wife can earn a living. 

This widow was the owner of the food stall. She graciously allowed me to take her picture. Youssef explained that she made her couscous with love-– steaming it, massaging it, steaming it massaging it, 3 or 4 times for hours until it was light and fluffy to perfection. 

We ended our evening with avocado smoothies and a trip to the spice shop where we ate the sweetest creamiest most delicious dates in the world, and I bought some…

ground Ras el-hanout! A mixture of 32 spices, it’s the quintessential taste of Morocco.  I highly recommend adding it to your spice rack at home. 

This is what it looks like whole. Isn’t that just gorgeous! 

 

Camels and ATVs

On our 4th day, we rode camels and ATVs across a palm tree reserve in the Sahara because, well, you can’t go to the Sahara with a 5yr old and not do that. 

Camels have lice and bad breath, and they poop a lot, says Soleil, who was riding with Tree behind me. It didn’t take long for her to name my camel “Caca Camello” for its prodigious expulsions. Apparently her camel, christened Camo-Whamo, was the only camel that didn’t poop. Did I mention that Soleil is 5 and we talk about poop a lot? Still, despite their funk and the alarming way they scream when you mount them, Soleil loved riding the camels. 

We stopped at a Berber house to drink yet some more tea. I think we’re still pissing mint. 

The Atlas Mountains

On our fifth day, we hired a guide to take us out of the city and into the Atlas Mountains to  three valleys heavily populated by the Berber/Amazigh people. Berbers are a different race than Arabs, have their own language, and have remained largely nomadic in Northern Africa, though it seemed all the ones we met had homes. I never quite figured that one out. Anyway, since the Arabs and Berbers live amicably side by side in Morocco (not so in neighboring Algeria) and often intermarry, they have more in common ethnically than not in Morocco.

The villages are built into the hillsides. 

Our first stop was to an organic Argan oil co-operative run solely by women. Again, since widows have few means to earning a living, this co-op is a way for them to survive. 

Yummm…Honey, Argan oil, and Ampoul (a mixture of almond paste, honey and Argan oil)

Further up the road we stopped at little cafe along the river to drink, you guessed it, mint tea! 

Then we carried on, winding through the mountains, and saw these cuties. 

Life is much harder for the Berbers than the people living in Marrakech. As we passed these kids, our guide explained how in the winter the river floods the roads, and snow and ice make long walks to school treacherous, if not impossible. 

Finally we made it to our destination, lunch at a Berber house. 

Our host was named Habiba. She grew and raised all of her own food. Note the colorful and expressive rug and pillows, and the ornate table. Berber’s are famous for their artisans. (I’m famous for the cute kid.) 

Habiba cooking bread by the wood fire. 

For me, this was my favorite meal. It was chicken tagine and tomato salad, the same food they always feed tourists, but the fresh ingredients and wood fired oven and Habiba’s  attention made every bite taste like distilled love.

On our last day, we went to Le Jardin Marjorelle. This one doesn’t get a big fancy heading. I thought it was woefully overrated. If you want to see some plants and pools and flowers, go to the Alcazar in Seville. It dwarfs all other garden experiences. 

Leaving was a bit sad.  After a week in Marrakech, I hungered for more. I got to know just enough to know I didn’t know nearly enough. Morocco is a sensuous and passionate country made for the thinker, the lover, the hedonist, and the devout all wrapped up in one. 

Above is Soleil and her friend, Adam. This boy brought her presents every day; one day it was just a simple rose, another day it was a little toy kitty, and on our last day he gifted her a drum.

Cats and Motos = Marrakech

I’m thinking someday we’ll have to take the ferry with our trusty van “Blacky-Rica” over to Morocco and overland the whole country for a few months. Maybe Soleil and I can learn a little Arabic and Amazign?

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Comments

  1. ‘… excitement stirring in my loins’. LOVING this post already. 🙂

  2. You continue to inspire me!

  3. I love your life!

  4. My favourite, my precious! We spent 10 weeks roadtripping there this year, we covered over 5000km in our trusty old lady Eileen. I am writing a series of e-guides for independent travellers based on our experience – they’re circular roadtrips starting and finishing in Marrakech. The first one is up on my website now and the others will follow, you can download for free. Eventually, it will all come together in motorhome/RV/campervan guidebook http://www.veedubadventures.co.uk/e-guides.html

  5. I’d love to try Moroccan food! My Mom loved it!!

  6. We love it there as well and can’t wait to return

  7. ” I like my cities like I like my lovers: sensuous, complex, a touch dangerous with the promise of great morning coffee conversation:” best quote ever??? 🙂 love it

  8. Where did you go now ?

  9. Beautiful photos thank you.

  10. Although I receive your blog via email, I waited because I wanted the full article and pictures in a larger, more visible format. As always, your writing is stellar, captivating…now, I want to experience Morocco. Thank you for the “tour”.

  11. Great article Stevie Trujillo. If you’re interested, we’d love you to put together a post for WorldschoolingCentral.com to feature on our site. Message me if you are interested.

  12. Most excellent ….

  13. Omg you were a great add. Your life is beautiful but even more so because you share it. Thank you! These pictures made me feel like I experienced the heart of your trip. Your intention must be so heart centered.

  14. Morocco is absolutely amazing!
    NJoi

  15. We LOVE Morocco.

  16. I hear ya… I felt that way about Afghsnistan 1973! Magical land!

  17. I can’t wait to read this super Amiga!!!!

  18. Wow, Stevie! This was an extraordinary taste of Morocco! Your words and photos weave a captivating story of intrigue and intimacy, and left me longing to visit.

    Thank you for sharing your life and lovers with us.

  19. Beautiful!

  20. LOVE it! Awesome post Stevie!

  21. Great read and brought back lots of fond memories of one of my favorite countries so far. Trying not to do repeats, but Morocco is probably one country I will return to sooner than later.

    • Us too. We’ve got too many on our list right now to keep repeating any, but given our close proximity and how thoroughly awesome it is, I think we’re going to have to break our rule.

  22. Now Nick and I have to go! Compelling!

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