Friday, February 26, 2010

The Souks!

Day two in Marrakesh was another adventure! It started at 5:48AM with the call to prayer. That was a fascinating way to wake up our first day in Morocco, and I was very grateful that we were all able to fall back to sleep.

It was also Valentine's Day. They don't celebrate it here, but Mike remembered! He bought me a silver sea horse necklace, which he surprised me with first thing in the morning. I am married to the sweetest man on the planet!

Now onto the Moroccan part of our adventure . . .

At the Riad, breakfast is included. We wandered downstairs around 9ish, and we were seated in one of the sitting rooms at a very nicely set table. Then we were served fresh (as in homemade - not from a carton!) yogurt with fresh strawberries. Although everyone said they liked it (I think Mike only ate his because I told him that yogurt has a lot of protein!), I obviously liked it the best. I finished Max's, too.The next course was fresh Moroccan round bread and interesting-looking pancakes, served with butter, sugar, honey, and apricot jam. We also had fresh orange juice (which is a specialty here in Marrakesh), coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. Yum, yum!

Then, we packed the camera, our Moroccan Dirham (currency), our map, and some emergency food and water (we never go anywhere without food for me and Max, as we get, ahem, rather unpleasant when we are starving), and we set out to wander the streets of the Souks.

We walked out to the main street through our dark tunnel & alleyways, and the first thing we saw was a Moroccan pharmacy. The pharmacies here sell all natural medicinal cures, so the walls are lined with glass jars full of stuff. The owner asked us to have a seat, he welcomed us warmly to Morocco, and he proceeded to give us a demonstration of the medicines, perfumes, spices, and oils of Marrakesh!

It was fascinating and perfect!! Mike loves spices, and his Marrakesh research told him about the special oils that are produced only in Morocco from a nut that grows here, Argan oil. Apparently, it is delicious for cooking and it is also a well known beauty product ingredient. Mike also loves spices, since he still does all the cooking Chez Billat. Thus, he wanted to learn about the spices.

The man was very interesting. He used French & English, and we learned a ton.

We now have some Moroccan 25-spice, some Moroccan 4-spice (for fish), Moroccan Vicks (explanation available for those interested - Dude, you will get some in the mail!!), various oils, and about 6 little gifts. It was very fun. The more we bought, the more gifts he bestowed upon the kids. They received jasmine perfume, rose perfume, magic lipstick (it's green in the tube and changes to "your color" upon application), and all sorts of other goodies.

Josey is so adorable. She and Mike wanted to give him some type of gift, too. Well, we bought M&Ms in La Jonquera, and we brought them in our carryons. We took our purchases back to the Riad and gathered up the M&Ms. Josey passed them out to Moroccans throughout the day. It was very cute!

Sidebar: The pharmacy/spice shop ended up being an almost daily stop for us because the kids had so much fun buying unique things there! We donated all of those clothes we packed to the two men who ran the spice shop during the day. Although I intended the clothes to be a donation, they did give us many gifts in return - more spices, cinnamon, poppy dye for me to try, perfumes, etc. They were wonderful men, and they provided a lot of great memories for us!

While we were shopping at the pharmacy (and I forgot to mention how inexpensive things are here!!), another Moroccan man walked in, and he offered to show us some palaces. We were thrilled! In hindsight, it turns out that he was bringing us to various places where we could shop, and I'm sure he got a cut of the action, but it was still very fun.

Our next stop was Palaise Vizir, which was an enormous building devoted entirely to the sale of Moroccan carpets. I am very familiar with foreign carpets, since my father sells them. However, this was a truly foreign sales experience. They took us through the various rooms of this former palace, and every room had carpets everywhere! The color of the carpets combined with the colors of the tile was brilliant and lovely! I was spellbound.

As I snapped pictures, they led us upstairs. We were seated in a little alcove and served traditional Moroccan mint tea (very sweet, and very yummy), and the carpet display began! We were shown at least 30 carpets: Arab traditional carpets, Berber traditional carpets, hand knotted, embroidered, wool, silk . . . Wow!

Here are just a few pictures of the wonderful things we saw.

I had not the slightest intention of buying carpets in Morocco. In fact, I did not even know that Morocco was world famous for its carpets. However, we are now the proud owners of 2 beautiful little carpets! Amazing souvenirs. We are very pleased!

The whole sales experience was very entertaining. I had a favorite, and Mike had a favorite. The owner was determined to sell us both before we walked out. The negotiations were friendly, and they went on for at least 30 minutes. When we decided to buy just one carpet, the price dropped for 2 . . . and on and on until they were packaging our carpets to be a carryon for the plane.

It was really fun! In fact, Mike and I both decided it was our highlight of the day.

And we have 2 beautiful carpets to memorialize the experience. Dado's pick is on the left, and my pick is on the right.

After we dropped our new carpets off at the Riad, we decided to strike out on our own to see the souks.

Now, how do I describe the souks? They are the heart of the shopping and artisan activities in the Medina. They are literally a warren of tiny alleyways lined on each side with tiny shops. The alleyways are only wide enough for small mule-drawn carts. There are no cars in the souks. However, there are many, many motorbikes, bicycles, donkeys, and people. No dogs (thank goodness after our experiences in France!), but there are cats.

The souks almost defy further description. They are a cacaphony of sound, color, and activity. There are carpets, traditional Arabic clothing, scarves, metal work, fossils, crystals, wooden trinkets and treasures . . . all handmade in many cases by the actual shop owner (okay - obviously not the fossils; although, in many cases, the shop owner says he knows the man who found the fossil). Often, the shop owners are sitting outside the shop, beckoning you in to take a look.

Here is a look at the dyers section of the souk.

And did I mention the beautiful, random doors that surprise you from time to time?

Everyone speaks Arabic, French, and at least some English! We are communicating easily, which is a relief.

And, Mike and Josey are the masters of negotiation, which is vitally important here. In our research, it seems that you should only pay half of the original asking price, and we seem to be doing so consistently. However, if the negotiations are left to me or Max? Well, let's just say that both Max and I always ask for help.

Josey is hysterical! That little mite does not get intimidated at all! She does not back down more than about 50 cents worth in the very end. I am so proud watching her. I know that her determination and skills will take her very far in life.

So, as we wandered through the souk, we saw so many amazing things. There was one wood carver who was working his lathe with his feet and manipulating his knife with his toes! We stopped to watch him, and he made the children what he described as Moroccan good luck charms. Dado had wanted Moroccan skewers, so of course we purchased his handmade skewers.

Inventory after our first few hours? Spices, carpets, skewers . . . wow! The thrifty Billats were on a buying spree!

We found a fossil vendor. For those of you who don't know, Mike and the kids love all things fossils. So does Uncle Mark. So, Josey and Mike started negotiations while I stood outside the shop oggling the silk vendors next door. The man wasn't willing to come down as low as they wanted for Max's cool, hot pink geode, so we walked away. Ah! He chased us down the alley, so we were back to negotiations. Max finally decided that 650 dirham (6.50 euros) was a fair price. In France, that same geode would have been at least twice as much, if you could find it. Josey also bought her first camel gift, and we got some cool fossils!

Here is Max's 650 dirham, hot pink geode (along with several other goodies he collected on our journey . . . he had a lot of birthday money to spend).

And, while Dado was helping Max negotiate for the geode, Josey spotted a head scarf. The kids both ended up with a lot of truly Moroccan things. Here is a good example. Josey was quite pleased with herself, too. She ended up negotiating and buying this for a mere 200 dirham (2 euros). Max didn't buy his, but it looks great!

By this time, we were hungry and needed a rest from the souk. However, finding our way out was proving to be difficult! We wandered at least 15 minutes. In that time, we managed to find the leather district (very stinky!) and the metal district (don't look at the welding torches!), but we did not find a way out.

The only food in the souks appear to be little stands, the sanitation of which I was not comfortable with. Thus, finding an exit was critical.

Luckily, a nice Moroccan man took pity on us. He led us right back to our original entry point. Whew! Again, luckily there was a restaurant right there. Cafe Arabe. Yum! Here's a picture of the kids on the terrace at the restaurant.

We checked out the menu, and they offered Italian (wow) and Moroccan fare. The kids joyfully gobbled up spaghetti with red sauce while I ventured to try the pastilla poulet (savory chicken pie), and Mike ordered a meat tajine dish.

Tajine is the famous fare of Morocco. It is cooked by heating in an inverted cone-shaped ceramic dish. In the dish can be anything from lamb, beef, chicken, and fish combined with spices, olive oil, and water (to provide steam for the cooking). They also have vegetarian tajines, tajine with couscous, etc. We are finding that we really enjoy most of the tajine meals. Delicious!!

My chicken pie was very beautiful and not at all what I expected! It was sprinkled with cinammon (very prevalent here) and powdered sugar, thus it tasted much like a dessert. It was phyllo dough-wrapped chicken, chopped almonds, and spices. I think there was egg, too, but I'm not certain. It was very good!

Thus well fueled and well rested, we set off again. We weren't willing to wander back into the souk yet, so we headed for the main square. We wanted to see it in the daylight!

We found the snake charmers immediately . . . or should I say, they found us! The Moroccans in the square are incredibly aggresive with tourists. They tried to put snakes (non venemous) around Max & Josey's necks. How can I communicate this effectively?


So, I calmly let them put snakes around my neck, to demonstrate that there was nothing to fear. So did Dado. But, the damage was already done. Max was freaked! Poor guy! He's in a foreign country, overwhelmed, tired, and now he's scared that some dumbass is going to flop a snake around his neck.

As we moved away from the snake charmers, the women who give henna tattoos moved in for the kill! Josey and I both wanted a henna tattoo, but we wanted it leisurely. Ha! When the woman handed Josey her sample book, that was it. Two women each grabbed Josey's hands, "Just to show her that it doesn't hurt", and started applying flowers. They apply the henna from what looks like a syringe, but they just use it as a pen. The syringe never touches your skin. Here's a look before things went downhill.

However, these women started to literally lead Josey to their chairs, while I'm yelling at Mike to come with us. The last thing I wanted to do was get separated in the square!! He's yelling back, "How much?" I said, "I don't know!" So, I started asking how much, and they wouldn't answer!! I asked and asked, then I said, "Stop. No more. You won't tell me how much, so we're leaving."

Oh man. That's when things got stressy. Mike handed me 100 dirham and walked away saying, "I'm leaving so you won't have anymore money. They are going to try and rip you off." You see, he had read about this and not yet told me how aggressive these women are.

In the space of less than 4 minutes, they had tattooed the back of both of Josey's hands and wrists. I handed them the 100 dirhams, and they were mad!! So, the arguing began. They wanted 400 dirham (whihc is 40 euros!!), and I said, "No way. You are lucky to get anything." I finally just dropped the 100 dirham bill on the chair and started to walk away. Then, suddenly, some other Arab woman came out of nowhere and actually GRABBED JOSEY'S WRIST! I was LIVID. She said, "Go get more money from your husband." I said, "Let go of my daughter!"

I had that woman by her own wrist, and if she hadn't let go of Josey immediately, I'm afraid that I actually would have hit her. The whole situation was so stressful and almost scary that my adrenaline was surging. I couldn't believe that she actually grabbed my child!!

They all finally backed away (I think Mike storming over may have helped, too), and we headed in the other direction.

Josey still had the henna on her hands, and we had no idea what to do to remove it. Luckily, another nice Moroccan man came to our aid. He removed it, and Josey was happy with the tattoos. She gave the Moroccan man some M&Ms, Mike gave him a tip, and I brooded over having left the 100 dirhams with the evil tattoo women. In Mike's research, it clearly states that if they don't agree on a price before beginning, you don't have to pay. It's all a technique to rip off tourists. Ack!

Josey and I still plan to get better henna tattoos, but we are going to ask Mohammed here at the hotel for a recommendation of where to go.

That was the end of the excitement our second day. It was late afternoon by now, and we all needed a rest. The Riad was the perfect respite. We had also requested dinner at the Riad. Mohammed explained that our dinners had cooked for 8 hours, and although they were cooked in the tajine ceramic dish, they were not cooked in the faster traditional tajine fashion. This was better because the meat was even more tender. He was right. The beef was delicious, as were the vegetables.

The best part was dessert. Imagine how simple and healthy this is: peeled oranges, sliced into rounds, sprinkled with cinnamon and a little sugar. That's it! Try it. It's incredible.

Sorry - too busy eating to take pictures of this amazing dinner.

Love to all!

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