My life on the road: Marrakesh

In my experience, the beds in Morocco are generally hard. Bounce a coin on one and you'll lose a fucking eye. They are also cool and pleasant to sleep on. It was still dark when I first heard it: a single voice assuring observant Muslims that prayer is better than sleep. Other men soon joined the call to the first prayers of the day. I felt a smile fall on my face as I strained to make out individual voices. In under a minute, so many mu'azzin had joined the call that what once could be made out became a melodic din.

It was not a message meant for me. I drifted back into the black as the undulating prompt to pray continued.

After being awake for close to 24 hours the day before, we slept in until 10am, our internal clocks synced, through misadventure, with Moroccan time. As we stumbled downstairs, our host made us breakfast. The features of the meal were ones that we'd come to know well over the next three weeks: A single scrambled egg, served with fresh-squeezed orange juice, an an assortment local breads and a pastry. Using my questionable Canadian French, our host Basal's Belgian-accented French, and a smattering of assistance from Google Translate, we hash out some pleasant conversation about the surrounding area. When asked where we could find a local SIM card and where the nearest bank could be had, Basal threw on his shoes and offered to show us the way himself.

The long, narrow side streets and alleys of the Medina still held to the past evening's chill, despite the sun's best efforts. It was a Sunday. Some shops, such as the local butcher and a bakery that we recognized from our brief trip into the Medina the night before, were already open. Other merchants, with their stalls, wagons and tarps spread across the cobbled walkways, were off to a slower start. As we followed Basal, fruit was unveiled, leather goods where laid out. Bessara was on the boil. The bank and a bodega that sold damn near everything a local might need short of produce and meat were only a ten-minute walk from the riad. Having seen us sorted out, Basal bid us goodbye and left us to wander—something we felt one helluva lot more comfortable with now that we had cellular data to guide us to and fro.

We backtracked past the slow-waking shops and stalls, beyond the junction that would take us back to our riad and found ourselves in a large, open square. Old men sat smoking in the shade of the Kasba Mosque of Marrakesh, the mid-morning silence occasional punctuated by the whir of a moped and the quiet, happy greetings of fellows genuinely pleased to see one another. Once in the square, our first stop of the day required nothing more than a turn to the right: the Saadian Tombs were kind enough to have remained planted in the same spot, since the 16th century. We found that the well-preserved royal necropolis had few visitors at the time we arrived. The buildings of the necropolis shone red in the bright morning sun, the only shade to be found was past the barriers that protected the intricate mosaics wood and stonework of the interiors of the tombs. Fruit trees in bloom, well-kept lawns and denizens of Marrakesh's ever-present cat population filled the space between structures. Modern LED lights and water spigots were the only reminders that we were still wandering around our own century.

"Everything here is older than anything we've built in our own country," my partner said. It's all older than our entire country. All of it."

I have no idea how they'd managed to keep from fucking something so old up, for so long. It feels like a skill that we've failed to master in Canada or the United States. Not because of our youth, but our fragility.

Later in the afternoon, we attempted a visit to the Djemaa el-Fna market square once again. Finding our way there in the light of day proved easy. Navigating Marrakesh's mad snarl of traffic? Not so much. At first glance, it appears that cars, tuk-tuks, mules hauling wagons full of construction materials and damn near anything else with wheels all move with abandon. On closer inspection, you'll see that a system of hand gestures and flashing of lights keeps everyone from disaster. Vehicles and animals move past one another in a whirl. What appears to be a traffic jam is actually folks waiting to make sure that they've got it all worked out. Nonetheless, the idea of crossing the street on foot left us unable to move. We decided between the pair of us that the best strategy for surviving a road crossing was to jump on the tail of another pedestrian that looked to have their shit together. It occurred to me, later that evening, that it was possible that the people we followed might not of had any intention of getting across the road alive.

The Djemaa el-Fna is the largest market square in the Marrakesh Medina. It is also, thanks to the Moroccan Government's drive to make the kingdom more tourist friendly, something of a sanitized disappointment. While there was no shortage of men pissing off dangerous snakes, musicians working for the attention of passers-by and wandering vendors, much of what we understood had made Djemaa el-Fna special had been regulated into the ground. All of the food stalls looked the same. They offered the same menus at the same prices. The shops and stalls in the maze of lanes that surrounded the square all sell the same items at the same prices. There are no surprises to be had. Delight in the unique does not live there. That said, the square's heavy police presence, and relatively friendly performers, sellers and touts make it feel like a safe choice for young families and western travelers who are more interested in easily had mementos than they are experiences. We'd decided, before leaving our riad that morning, that aside from our SIM card and food, we'd buy nothing that day. It made wandering Djemaa el-Fna pleasant, and easy to leave. We started back to our riad at dusk, stopping at a busy stall outside of the square for a dinner of Kefta charbroiled to perfection, served up inside of freshly toasted flatbread.

It was a wonderful bit of food.

We thought of it often over the next few days, which turned out to be a massive load of miserable bullshit.