The first time I was in Morocco, I had a drastically different experience than my second visit last week. For one, I was traveling with one of my best friends, Megan. We were backpacking, we didn’t make a lot of plans, we were terrified at times to be in such a “grabby” place as two females alone and—oh yeah—it was also Ramadan. This meant that on top of all the other travel frustrations Morocco presents, we had to face them with an empty stomach. And not only were our stomachs empty, but the stomachs of all Moroccans were empty, too, and that understandably creates a sort of somber—not to mention, grumpy—atmosphere.
But this time, SVV and I arrived at the perfect moment. Ramadan had just ended four days before, and all of Marrakech was still rejoicing in the welcome return to their regular routine. It was pretty near impossible to get motivated to leave our five-star riad, but I knew I wanted to have one dinner out in the medina at Djemaa el Fna, the city’s central square, remembering how delicious the food was the last time.
Only, last time I was in this very spot, there were vendors, sure, but there was also a whole lot of empty space for wandering about. This time, you couldn’t go two feet without bumping into a band of buskers, or tripping over a monkey or having a snake hiss over your shoulder (true story: beware the snake charmers…and the primates).
It was the most magnificent sight.
Although we knew quite well that all cafes in the medina were going to cater to tourists and charge ridiculous prices, we didn’t care. We wanted a terrace view of the scene unfolding below us, and so we found the most appealing one and climbed up to the roof level.
Of course there was mint tea—and lots of it.
After the sun had sank behind the Koutoubia Mosque, we rejoined the party downstairs and went in search of food. I have been craving real tajine and cous cous since 2005 and couldn’t wait to stuff my face with these staple Moroccan dishes. Besides, the smoke from the hundreds of vendors was cloaking the city in a blanket of smoldering charcoal and burning meat.
I had it on good authority from two very informed men—Willem and Rajik at Riad el Fenn—that stall #1 was the best food in town. What I didn’t know is that there are well over 100 stalls in the square, and they weren’t arranged in anything resembling chronological order.
After 20 minutes of searching—and being approached by approximately 27 other vendors—we finally found it, sandwiched somewhere between 14 and 7.
We scarfed down our dishes when a little gypsy girl no more than eight approached our table trying to sell us Kleenex. We declined, and she took a seat beside me, before busting out her saddest “no mommy” with a pitiful frown, as she motioned to herself. (I’m 99% sure Mommy was lurking elsewhere in the medina, trying to sell glow sticks.) SVV didn’t buy it either, but he nodded toward our half-empty plates, and the little girl grabbed them before finishing off the rest and neglecting to share with her friend, who joined us a few minutes later.
Then, she lifted a finger towards SVV’s Fanta, at which point he put his foot down. Then he took a swig, melted his heart and nonchalantly pushed it aside; she took her cue, snatched the bottle and guzzled the rest down. I really wanted to take a picture of the two little girls, as they were absolutely beautiful, but sadly in Morocco, photos translate to money demanded, and while we were happy to share our dinner with them, I can’t condone the panhandling behavior so prevalent in this part of the world.
Our bellies full, we wandered across the street to the mosque as the last Call to Prayer rang throughout the city for the day. It’s funny how the mosque is a bit like going to the movie theater these days—I mean, there were even popcorn vendors!
And then we crossed the main drag, playing Frogger to a bevy of cars, buses, mopeds and pedestrians, before retiring to El Fenn, once again. (But only after ordering another four pots of mint tea, once again.)
They say you’re either a Marrakech person or a Fes person—I am decidedly not a fan of Fes—but either way, you can’t deny this nightly madness is captivating.