Marrakech, Morocco; September 2-3

"Get ready for culture shock!" said Emily gleefully as our plane landed in Marrakech. Little did she know, two hours later she would burst into tears, overwhelmed by the hustle-and-bustle, cacophony of noise, crushing crowds, smells of every type, heat, tiredness, and the last straw: getting sneezed on by the boy squished next to her at the open-air food stall. All's well that ends well, though. The boy belonged to a French family we befriended over kabobs -- they live near the Black Forest and invited us to visit when we're there. The food was delicious! The hustle, bustle, noise, crowds, and smells (though maybe not the heat or tiredness) transformed from maddening frustration to stimulating adventure.

We've traveled in places somewhat like Morocco before -- India being the most recent and perhaps most similar. Of course each place has its own unique character, not easy to capture in words or photos, at least not by amateurs such as ourselves. Our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook emphasizes Morocco's intensity and hassle factor, with phrases like "take a breath and plunge in," and the new concept of "Medina rage." ("Medina" denotes the very hectic older part of each city.)

So we took a breath, plunged in, and (tears aside) found it to be not nearly as challenging as conveyed. (To be fair to the guidebook, it does discuss the joys of Morocco just as much as the challenges.) There is incessant touting of one type or another, but even the touts are not terribly annoying, often genuinely friendly, sometimes even charming and amusing. When a restaurant tout learned we'd already had dinner, he said "But look at these skinny kids. They must eat again!" as he patted Tim and Emily's hardly-skinny tummies. (The touts speak English and French out of necessity, but in general French is much more prevalent. In fact, due to the variety of Arabic and Berber dialects, French is an official language of the country. Jennifer's French, such as it is, is back in business.)

We could have spent quite a bit more time in Marrakech. Between the time-consuming nature of buying souvenirs as detailed below, the excellent food and yummy Moroccan pastries (don't ask how many in two days), the constant draw of the Djemaa el Fna central square (also discussed below), a bit of regrouping after major forays, Emily's henna tattoo (photo 6), and some pre-trek errands, we barely got out of our neighborhood. We made it to fewer than half of the major tourist sights, and there aren't even that many. We usually do better. On the other hand, we were in Marrakech long enough to become familiar with some of the local characters -- and them with us -- and to get a good feel for the place.

The kids have been saving up their souvenir allowance in anticipation of cheap and interesting trinket shopping in Morocco. They were not disappointed. Marrakech has a huge network of "souqs" (photo 2): narrow covered alleys packed with small shops, and packed with shoppers. Purchases are not a rapid matter, regardless of size. Bargaining is a national pastime; patience and perseverance are critical, particularly when Tim or Emily's allowance is at stake. (Although, one time in a total breach of protocol when we were in a hurry, Alex estimated where the haggling for an item would end up and gave the shopkeeper an immediate "take it or leave it" price. As always, the shopkeeper laughed at the price, but when Alex strode purposefully out of the store, the shopkeeper hesitated, then ran after Alex and "took it.")
Alex has become quite good at bargaining over our years of travel, and there will be many opportunities for him to exercise his skills as we continue through Morocco.

The focal point of Marrakech is a very large square, Djemaa el Fna. Day and night -- especially night -- it's alive with snake charmers, fortune tellers, story tellers, healers, henna tattoo artists, dancers, musicians, acrobats, monkey tenders, juice vendors, costumed water sellers (photo 5), and scribes who help illiterate Moroccans (43% of the population, apparently) read letters or fill in forms. Djemaa el Fna was named a World Heritage site for being "a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity."

The latest trend in Moroccan accommodations, especially in the cities, is riads: large older homes converted to guesthouses, set off the small and remarkably quiet back alleys. Riads run the gamut from filthy rock-bottom to $500/'night lavish. We went for a modest but highly-recommended place and enjoyed it very much, including the small swimming pool in the ubiquitous riad atrium (photo 4). Riads are generally reached on foot (also by push-carts, motorbikes, and donkeys), and are notoriously hard to find in the maze of alleys. Local kids often guide lost tourists back to their riads, for a price.

We haven't traveled much in Muslim countries before, but our understanding is that Morocco is fairly progressive. Most women and many men wear traditional dress of some type, but there's plenty of Western garb as well. Some women have only their eyes showing, but it's not prevalent. We noticed that neighborhood cafes are frequented exclusively by men, and there's no beer in sight -- tea, coffee, and cigarettes are the libations of choice. (Apparently alcohol is available in some places, but we've made no effort to find it.) On the whole, the people seem quite happy, and they're certainly enjoyable to interact with.

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