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Monday, 30 April 2007

Mayhem in Marrakech

Written by Rick Robiar
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I need to clarify something up front. I suffer from the affliction of Attention Deficit Disorder. That means at times my mind flies from one activity to another with a reckless abandon akin to a wrecking ball being swung to and fro by an intoxicated construction worker dabbling at the helm. It’s not that I can’t concentrate at all. When there’s something important happening, about 4% of the time I act quite normal and get things done in a reasonable way. The other – slightly higher percentage of the time – I flail wildly upon the task at hand. So when I heard Marrakech was an exotic, bustling, fast-paced city with much to explore my mind began to rev its engines, craving the fuel of multiple simultaneous endless distractions. This was right down my alley.

We had heard and read that in Morocco the quoted price of goods and services are negotiable. Basically you ask someone how much something costs and they say it’s worth five times its actual value, and then you work your way down from there. We got our first chance to barter at the taxi stand outside the Marrakech airport. Armed with the info that a ride to the medina should cost 6-10 euros, my potential driver informed me it would be 50 euros. I was firm; we settled on 10 euros. I felt a swagger come over me as I settled into the back of the taxi. If this was how it was going to be, I would be more than a match for teeming Marrakech.

As we headed into the heart of the ancient Islamic city, I hadn’t the foggiest clue that this taxi ride would be my first and last negotiating victory. Throughout the next ten days I would be reduced to the usual tourist fodder, running a gauntlet of tricky merchants, shady peddlers, dishonest taxi drivers, and diabolical tour guides. Ignorance is truly bliss. However, I would eventually leave Africa with an obvious truth – give me 100 Moroccans and a viable product to sell and in three years I would rule the world.

As we passed through the new city things seemed normal, but when we neared the gates of the old city a group of men, varying in age, approached us. I thought they were competing for the taxi we were leaving, but instead they wanted to be our guides. They spoke over each other, vying for our attention, grasping at our suitcases. I swatted their groping hands away as gently as I could; now I know how Pamela Anderson feels. Finally realizing there are 1,000 streets in this labyrinthine old city and zero street signs, we caved in and paid one of the guys to lead us to our riad (inn), an impressively tiled 18th century building with a courtyard at its center located at the end of a dark, dank alleyway.

The first thing we noticed as we wandered around was an endless stream of cars, bikes, buses, donkey carts, and motorcycles. There are no traffic lights in the old city, so if you want to cross the street, do what everybody else does, say a prayer and adopt the strange local practice of heaving yourself into oncoming traffic. I cheated death; or rather, death drove around me as I froze in the center of the street. Eventually, as we crossed, unbeknownst to my girlfriend, (I’m not worried, she never reads my stories anyway) I accidentally positioned myself behind her and other potential victims, creating a human shield for myself.

At some point we decided it was time to de-stress. We found a place that does ‘Moroccan massage’, I was intrigued. The manager explained that the treatment would be in two parts – first I would be taken into the hammam room – a large steam room where one is scrubbed down with loofa and black soap, then splashed with water and toweled dry, and a vigorous massage would follow.

I was then introduced to my masseur, a tall, thin Moroccan man in his early 30’s. We exchanged pleasantries and I mentioned that I was also a massage therapist back in the states. He told me to undress, and as I did, he did too. That’s not how we do it back home, I thought. Since he wasn’t a mind reader, he continued stripping down to his birthday suit, girded himself with a towel and led me into a large wet room with many floor drains and a platform at its center. I lay down and before I could ask any questions he began picking up large buckets of hot water and splashing them onto me in a somewhat forceful manner. I hollered my displeasure at the water being too hot, but soon my screams of protestation were reduced to a gurgling whimper as he bolted the next steaming bucket of H2O into my face. “It’s not too hot” he declared. For a split second I imagined attacking my therapist and knocking him to the floor, so I could demonstrate just how hot one of these torture buckets were. That dream was soon expunged by yet another ear-piercing cry, as a third wave of scalding liquid seared my burning body.

After the latest deluge subsided, I quickly tried to spot my therapist, so I could know which direction the next bucket would be coming from. I heard his feet pitter-patter toward me and through my blurry vision I caught his approach to the left, but instead of more water he was wearing two large, thick white gloves. He began to rub my back vigorously. Although the hot water routine was no picnic, his scrubbing technique was final confirmation of a blatant sadist tendency.

My painful bellowing echoed through the spacious hammam as he attacked one innocent limb after another with merciless efficiency. “Come on,” he challenged me, “you need this, you need this.” There are many things I need, I thought, someone scrapping down my third degree burns with brillo pads was not high on the list. He then showed me a pile of removed skin as evidence of the necessity of his actions. “This is dead skin,” he said, “its not healthy.” I contemplated the possibility that perhaps the skin was alive before he killed it.

Next was a black soap scrub which smelled of rotting fish. He covered me entirely with smelly suds and then it was time to break out the ice water. Suddenly it was too cold in this chilly room as each splash beckoned hypothermia. Finally we were done and it was time for the massage. But just then another customer came in whom my therapist recognized and they chatted. My therapist then explained I would have to wait, this man needed to get his massage first. Shivering uncontrollably and smelling of dead fish, I agreed.

Eventually I received a very good massage on an incredibly squeaky, rickety metal table. There was a massage going on next to us, in the same room, with only a curtain between the two treatment tables. Occasionally the female therapist behind the curtain would pull it back and stick her head inside our session. She was yelling at my therapist in Moroccan Arabic, and of course he was yelling back; this went on for some time. There was new age music playing in the background softly; it blended in nicely with the hollering and squeaking. When we were done I saw my girlfriend in the hall, she said she’d had the worst massage of her life. When it was time to pay, the hollering masseuse came to collect. The price she mentioned was 100 dirhams higher than the list hanging on the wall. When we mentioned that fact, she muttered something about that price not being correct. Due to her size and the look on her face, we unhappily paid and left. In the midst of negotiating we also forgot to remind her of the 20% deposit we’d given the day before to secure our appointments, and she certainly wasn’t in a big hurry to remind us.

Back on the bustling streets we entered the fray once again. We headed toward the famous Jemaa el-Fna square where thousands of people were mulling about. Storytellers, musicians, and snake charmers mesmerized audiences while astrologers and tarot card readers divined future events and henna hawkers tattooed unsuspecting tourists at outrageous prices. On the outskirts open air restaurants, juice stalls, and fruit stands pedaled their edibles. Surrounding the square were cafes and restaurants with balconies overlooking the madness.

Shop owners beckoned us to enter as motorbikes and bicycles wove through the oblivious crowds at uncanny speeds. Occasionally we’d catch a glimpse of a baby zooming by us, sitting on handlebars – the parent securing the child with one hand and steering the bike with the other. Large mules drawing carts would slowly part the crowds. Children were running about everywhere. There seemed to be movement in all directions at all times. Here people walk, talk, and commute fast. Action is all around you – souks, restaurants, performers, guides, and beggars fighting for your eyes. At that moment I had a cryptic realization, I had changed.

My once youthful mind, which loved to gobble up any stimuli and spit it out quickly to make room for more, had now been altered in a disconcerting manner. I was feeling overwhelmed by the endless hustle of traffic and footsteps. The calls from shop owners had me walking in the opposite direction. I was overly fearful of my toes being crushed by a wagon wheel or horses hoof. I’m getting old, I thought. I want slow, peace, and quiet. I want a footstool and a glass of wine. Yes, even a rocking chair is not unfathomable. Maybe a wide rimmed hat to beat off the sun. Golf lessons beckoned. My lower back ached. I felt a mild but perceptible limp as I dodged out of the way of a youthful humanity which had no time to observe a suddenly skittish elder statesman walking toward a certain early retirement. I found my eyes scanning the storefronts in search of a bingo hall. What if I get sick? I thought, I’m on a different continent! And just then an annoying cough settled in. I just wanted to climb into a tour bus with my grey-haired kinfolk and settle into my new demographic. When I mentioned all this to my girlfriend she shrugged it off as the side effects of fish fumes still emanating from my squeaky clean skin.

We had a great, but challenging time in Morocco. The food was unbelievable, the people very friendly, with the occasional huckster thrown into the mix. The architectural gems hidden there could rival any in the world, and so could the sweet faced children. We found the customary bartering that ensues between merchant and shopper tiring and somewhat distasteful. But with 20% unemployment, the stakes are high when it comes to making a sale. One of the best parts about this trip was the realization that I’m slowing down. People have been begging me to do just that for 40 years. I think I finally get it. I’ll no longer have to fend off their requests that I go on some form of medication. I want to return to Morocco someday, I just can’t wait to sit back and relax on that tour bus.

©Rick Robiar

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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