Monday, May 26, 2008

from Marrakech: coins and clay pots

From Casablanca, we take the Marrakech express.

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fellow travelers

The compartment is old, but we are given good seats – reserved for pregnant women and war ravaged veterans. I have to think there weren’t any on the train today. Or that I had eaten too many pain au chocolat in France.

So this is northern Africa! Rugged. Beautiful.

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In Marrakech, we’re staying at an old riad (the El Fenn) – a house built around a small courtyard, the handful of rooms facing the quiet, green space inside.

It’s inconspicuous. The riad entrance gate has no marking. The alley leads nowhere and has only an occasional person walking home, or out again.

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Inside, it is...sensual. Roses, plants, pools of water. Couches, of the type where you rest as on a bed, with woven blankets and throw pillows and mint tea brought to you if you’re in need of refreshment.

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mirror images

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riad room: sitting spaces

I have the usual (and still unsolved) Internet problems, and I don’t think they’ll be fixed in the five days we are here, because connecting to the outside world isn’t a priority. There are no TVs, no phones. Just roof terraces and steam rooms and birdsong. Loud, love sick birds, echoing their chirpiness within the courtyard.

In the late afternoon, we stroll through the Medina and onto the large square. Just to get a taste of things.

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And I learn a few things. When I take out my camera, people want to get a coin. I have no coins with me and it costs me some haggling to try to extricate myself from pay up requests. And it is my fault. Some of the local color is there for show and show people need bread. They don’t parade their skills, wares or clothing because they’re bored. They need to bring home coins.

In one vivid demonstration of this, in the large open space of the square, I see a very very large group, nearly all men, gathered in a circle to watch something. I make my way toward them and they let me move to the front to get a better view. I note there the presence of a rooster and a drummer. Several drummers in fact. Out comes my camera, of course. The lead drummer comes over and asks me for coins. I don’t have any. The ATM doesn’t spit out coins and no one gives small change. I explain this. He says he’ll give change. My sense of justice tells me that I should play fair and hand over a payment and so I do. And, as promised, he brings back change. I now have coins, he now has my payment – larger than anyone else’s I’m sure (the equivalent of maybe $1.50).

I see that my bill is now the subject of the story. For there is a story that is being told in Arabic and everyone is listening. I am invited to sit on a stool at the front. Money buys stool space. But the attention is not at all on me, nor my camera. It is fiercely focused on the words of the storyteller.

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In French, the drummer tells me they are Berber musicians. It could be, but in the ten minutes I sit there, in that circle of mostly men, I hear no music. After a while, I retreat.

There are many small and large pieces of wisdom to be culled from this. And Marrakech is like that – you want to capture its utter beauty, you want to be part of it all, and it reminds you that you need to be savvy and sharp. Use your wits. Play by the rules. Be generous but smart.

Of course, a respite from all this is wonderful and the riad offers us just that. You’ve been out there learning? Great, now come in and unwind. On the roof, above it all.

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In the evening, we eat dinner at El Fassia, owned and run solely by women. It is a beautiful space with low tables and plenty of plush pillows and we oder tajine dishes with caramelized pumpkin and tomato. The clay pots give context: these foods are earthy and aromatic and when the domes are lifted, your senses soar into high gear. I break of pieces of meat and dip couscous in the sauces and I am transported.

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So ends a Marrakech day. At the riad, I close the large, ancient wooden door to our room. Shutters are latched. All is quiet.