Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bee careful out there!

mar07 Every now and then it is good to do something that scares you a little bit. This is advice I have given friends in the past and like most advice it is easier to give than follow. Our second day in Marrakech begins in our riad with tasty crepes, fresh squeezed orange juice, a selection of jams along with some very robust coffee served on the ubiquitous blue and white Moroccan china. Enjoying the second mug of the high octane brew no doubt contributed to my later anxiety.

mar08 Throughout our travels around the globe we have found ourselves under the tutelage of self appointed (and technically illegal) guides, especially in northern Africa. In the little town of Esna in Egypt we met Hanna who led us around her city and helped Sara haggle over the price of a skirt. Here in Marrakech we were landed by a smiling man who was trolling for potential customers outside of the main square. The general m.o. of these characters is to strike up a friendly conversation as they guess your destination and they then begin dispensing local information as they promise whatever you may be looking for is just a little bit further along. It’s a very subtle game, the local engaging in non-stop conversation turning back to be sure we are still following as he leads us in a more and more convoluted path through the maze narrow roadways either to confuse us to the point of relying on him to get us back or to avoid the tourist police who frown on these excursions led by the unlicensed.

Of course this friendly local is in the employ of the several shops he shuttles his marks into as part of his “tour”. Our first stop is to a tile factory housed in a building about the size of a two car garage. We are shown the process for making the tiles that cover all the floors and half the walls of Moroccan architecture. There is no firing, only a process of air drying then dipping into a pool of water followed by a baking in the sun. I am intrigued by the hydraulic press which compresses the colored sand into molds creating the different designs. Over 400 kilograms of pressure per inch I am assured. For this lesson we are awarded the privilege of underwriting the four employees of the shop’s breakfast to the tune of a couple bucks.

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Our next stop is to a small spice shop where the show really begins. Reminiscent of the perfumery our legally licensed guide in Cairo took us to, the proprietor here had a whole performance he was going to treat us to. Think old time door to door vacuum salesman and you’ll get the picture. Now I had wanted to pick up some spices, especially some saffron which can be had for a slice of the price in the States so we enjoyed the show. Our guy showed us concoctions and herbs that could cure any malady one could think of and we escaped spending less than fifteen dollars for condiments that would have cost at least five times the price back home.

mar10 It was around then though that my concern over not knowing where we were overcame my curiosity. I asked our guy to take us back to the main square. Just one more, one more he pleaded and tried to distract my apprehension by pointing out what a beautiful day it was and sights that he felt I had to have a photograph of. I was not enjoying my lack of control of the situation. This combined with my self administered over caffeination was making my heart race as my fight or flight instinct began swirling in my stomach.

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The one more place was a carpet shop. This is the granddaddy of all retail rituals to be had in the Arab world requiring tea drinking, the ceremonial unrolling of the goods with wrist snapping flair and hours of haggling. Our guide took leave of us there and I gave him around ten dollars for his services. The shop was beautiful and the keeper seemed genuinely sincere. “It is free to look!” but I had had enough. We made one polite circle of his massive store and I asked to be pointed back to the main square which the shopkeeper obliged – the fact that we were able to convince him that there was no way we could afford a carpet no doubt prodding his helpfulness. It turned out we were not all that far from where we had begun and my anxiety may have been a bit extreme but one always hears the stories of “that one tourist” who arrives at an unpleasant outcome.

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The rest of our day included lunch in an outdoor café surrounded by the pounding hammers of metalworking artisans as cats scooted all about sprinting from table to table looking for scraps. I had a lamb stew called a tagine, served in the conical clay pot that we see everywhere for sale in the souks. Sara had some chicken couscous. The savory food and carbonated cola settled my stomach and my earlier concerns eased away until all that was bothering me were the bees buzzing around my lunch as the sun warmed the day.

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