I am back in Marrakech for work once again, and so far not a ton is new to report. I did bring Mr. Toutmerde along for the ride, so I have a little bit of company. I am happy to note that my friend Bjorn is also in town, and we will be having dinner tomorrow night. The company I am working for put me up at the Bab Hotel, which was really run down and terrible the last time I stayed here, but they told me it was under new management so I agreed to give it a another try (not that I had a choice). I have to admit that several things are quite improved since the last time. The service and attentiveness of the staff is much better than before, and the breakfast is actually fresh this time around, instead of the stale mess they used to serve. The place is still in serious need of a maintenance budget, but overall things are ok and the design of the place quite good. As for the work itself, it is as I expected it would be (when you work in Morocco, you don’t hold your breath for things to go off without a hitch), but the people are nice as always and the weather has been 80 and sunny, which is a wonderful change from NYC.
I really should plan for longer trips here, there is always so much to do, and today in particular I was running around like a mad man. I did work in time to have a couple of nice meals though, highlighted by pastilla and mechwi and friendly fun talk with friends and colleagues. I will probably be back again in a month or two for another round of project work, there is so much to do. That said, I am very happy with all that we accomplished, and it was nice catching up with people while here, and experiencing warm and sunny days for a change.
Tomorrow I will head to Geneva to visit my old friend Jonathan (no, not the other one) for a few days, and then I will finally head back to NYC.
My trimmer broke in my suitcase on the trip over from the US, so I had been growing an ever longer, unintentional, almost-beard while here. But after over a week of not shaving down to my usual close stubble, I could not take it anymore. The combination of the increasing heat (we have been at 90 the last couple of days) and itchiness was getting to me. Several people suggested I go to a barber to have it trimmed, and always being the adventurous type, I went this evening. They didn’t speak French all that well, but I was pretty sure I got the point across by pointing to my face, then doing a kind of back and forth call with them over the number depth of the trimmer. They kept saying “1” and I kept saying “.5” and through trial and error we came to an understanding.
The guy leaned me back in the chair and attacked my face with zeal, pulling and pinching the skin to get it to shave as requested. But of course it was hot and I was sweating and his hands were all sweaty, which made the whole thing rather more difficult, and made the metal of the clippers drag across my skin. In addition to that, at various moments I had the clipper blade, his palm or his fingers just about all the way inside my nose. I don’t want to read too much into his personal habits, but I can tell you he is a smoker and probably had lamb tagine for lunch eaten in the traditional way (with one’s fingers and bread). Overall, he managed to do a fair enough job (for the price anyway, it was only about 5 dollars). They then threw a wet, piping hot, smelly towel on my face which had come from the floor or perhaps the bathroom, and then sent me on my way. While I won’t win any beauty contests, I am more comfortable now without the beard, and should be ok until I get back home or break down and buy new clippers at a different voltage.
Last night Anthea (the garden’s graphics consultant who is also in town and staying at the same hotel) and I decided to have dinner together, and asked the concierge for a recommendation close by. Without paying too much attention to the details, off we went to the hotel/restaurant nearby, a place called Dar Rhizlane. Upon arrival, my companion and I had the slightly horrible realization that this was probably going to be quite a bit beyond our means, everything was impeccable, opulent and just screamed call your bank to make sure you have enough to cover this. But since we were already there, and the place was so lovely, we just went with the flow. After ordering the wine, we were informed that there was only a tasting menu offered, and they would be bringing that out to us presently. What followed was the appetizers course, which looked like this:
Each and every dish was delicious. I have had many meals in Morocco where they serve a variety of little plates or salads as appetizers, but this was hands down the best I have ever had. This was followed by a small chicken/mushroom entree, and then a lamb entree, then a pre-dessert sorbet, and finally dessert. Or should I say plate of several desserts, each one quite tasty.
We waited for the bill and played the money guessing game, but by that point I really didn’t care what it cost. It was one of the best meals I have had in Morocco, and one of the most beautiful settings:
I really couldn’t have been more pleased. Or so I thought, until the bill arrived and it turned out to be less of an extravagance than I had feared. If you come to Marrakech, I would highly recommend having a meal at the Dar Rhizlane.
Yesterday I took a break from work stuff and hung out by the pool for a bit, then took a fascinating side trip with Madison and Jai to visit a local pottery manufacturer. It is a pretty small and very artisanal operation, with six guys working there doing everything. They get dirt from various places in Morocco, they crush and sift the dirt, then add water in several steps to produce clay, then put it in a dark room until it is cured and ready to spin, then make all kinds of large and small pots on the wheels, then dry them, then fire them. It was pretty fascinating to see the whole process and hear their story.
After that, we drove towards a nearby dam, then got a little lost on some very rough but beautiful side roads before finally making our way back (with the help of google satellite imagery) to the main road and back to Marrakech. We ended the day with the best French meal I have had in Morocco, which included a couple of the courses being flamboyantly prepared at our very table.
Last time I was in Morocco, I marveled at how easy it was at the Casablanca airport to buy a SIM, get it installed on my phone and activated (by the guy at the shop btw). Voila, for about 24 USD I had unlimited internet, calling and texting for a month. Returning this time, I thought how easy it would be, because I already had the SIM chip. I inserted it, bought a recharge card for 100 dirham, sent the activation text and received a response. Voila…or so I thought. My problem was that this time, I had no internet. So, I consulted the Google from my hotel where there was wi-fi to try to get an answer. Nothing I tried worked, and it just got worse and worse.
First, it seemed that I didn’t have the APN correct on my phone, and I was advised to send “Config Internet Jawal” to 505, after which I received a response telling me (in French) to use wap.iamgprs.ma as my APN. I entered it, but nothing, no internet. So I restarted my phone several times, and…nothing.
I thought perhaps I didn’t have enough recharge credit to get internet, so I bought another 100 dirham card hoping it would give me internet. I hurriedly scratched off the silver part to reveal the code, but unfortunately damaged the number and entered it wrong a couple of times, which resulted in an SMS telling me my account was blocked and to call 888 for help.
So I called 888 for service, but the first 50 or so times I tried, it was always busy. This went on for the better part of a day. I noticed a strange thing though. It would ring through sometimes if I was connected to wi-fi. Unfortunately, the phone tree on the other end was in Arabic, and I could not understand anything. After calling about a hundred times and frenetically pushing all buttons, I hit upon a combination that proved useful. Hitting 2, then 2 again after a message change, the messages were suddenly in French. Hallelujah! I was finally able to understand what they were saying. I got through to an operator, who explained to me a couple of things. One, my account was locked by the system for 24 hours, and there was nothing I could do until then. And two (very very important), to activate internet using a recharge card, one needs to send the code FOLLOWED BY *3 to indicate internet activation instead of plain phone activation. I am mostly writing this here in the hopes that it will help some other poor fool traveler like me, who searched and searched in vain and never once saw this CRUCIAL piece of information written ANYWHERE on the internet, and not on the recharge cards themselves.
So, after dutifully waiting 24 hours, and having purchased another recharge card (this time for 50 dirham which would give me 10 days of internet), I tried to enter my new code which I had very carefully and lovingly scraped so as not to damage the fragile card. Unfortunately, I got the same fucking message back about my account being blocked. Once again, I called the (ironically named) service number (this being old hat for me by now) and spoke with an operator who told me to wait 24 hours. When I informed her that I had already waited the 24 hours, she looked at the records and said basically “Oh yeah, that should work by now. Hm.” She then made a note in my file and told me someone would get back to me.
Of course, no one ever did, and I continued to try my code in vain throughout the day, but nothing. Just the same message about my account being locked. So, having completely given up on ever having internet on my phone this trip, I tried my code one last time this morning (48 hours after original lock) and OMG. I now have internet!
Again, this post is mainly a public service by me to help out others who are probably pulling their hair out and eyeing razor blades with longing.
One of the things that has always been a bit daunting here is taking a taxi. Many of them refuse to use the meter, and as soon as they see you are foreign try to price gouge, charging exorbitant rates. But as I have become more comfortable getting around Marrakech, and having a better idea of how much things should cost, I have had less trouble with them. Now if they refuse to use the meter, I just get out and pay what I know the rate should be, plus a little extra. Usually no one says a word, but on the occasions where someone wants to argue I just walk away, and it always works. You can never ask the rate in advance, or it will be insane. Today for example I got in a taxi and gave the name of my hotel, and the guy starts driving and then says, “You know what the rate is?”, and I said “Yes.”, because I knew that the rate is always about 15 dirham from the place I work to my hotel. And he says “60”. And I said “goodbye” and got out. Then he tries to follow me with offers of 50, then 40, then 30. Another cab came by and I got in, he took me to my hotel, I gave him 20 and he was all smiles and thank yous because it would normally be 15. But without some local knowledge, this kind of exchange is vey difficult, so I am feeling pretty good that I can finally take cabs in Marrakech with confidence.
The above phrase is salam alaikum, the traditional greeting in Arabic which means “peace be upon you”. I am back in Morocco for work once again, and it struck me yesterday that I should really be learning some Arabic phrases and words to use while here. I realize that I fell into a little bit of a mind trap by assuming that because I was already speaking a language that was not native to me (French), I was already making the appropriate effort. But that is not a good way to really engage with a culture, especially since the fact that French is so widely spoken here is a result of colonialism. That said, I suppose you could consider modern standard Arabic somewhat of an import as well, since in Morocco they speak an Arab dialect known as Darija. I am told that the dialect is not especially intelligible to people from, say, Egypt, although everyone that speaks the dialect can easily understand the standard version spoken in other parts of the Arab world. In any event, I am going to set a goal for myself of a few, well-pronounced phrases before I leave.
This morning Josh and I went to see a few things in the Medina I had not yet visited on my previous trips here. First we went to go see the Saadian Tombs, which were ok as far as they went, but one fact about them was just fascinating to me. They were sealed up for centuries, and only rediscovered in 1917 and subsequently restored. How does a large, above ground complex “disappear” and get “rediscovered”? Wouldn’t people have wondered what that building was behind there?
After that we went to the El Badi Palace, which must have been an impressive place in its day, and still is, even as a haunting ruin. Like seemingly everything else we have seen on this trip (Volubilis among others), much of its original marble and riches were plundered by Moulay Ismail for his own pleasure palaces. If you ask me, Moulay Ismail seems to have been a real asshole.
Following up our palace visit, we decided to take a walk in the nearby Mellah, which was the old Jewish ghetto here in the Medina. Many medina towns in Morocco have such ghettos, which were variously places to protect and imprison the Jewish population, depending on their usefulness to those in power at the time. Although at one time this area was quite prosperous, at the moment it is among the poorest and most run down in the Medina, and quite an eye opening experience. It was also interesting that the streets of the Mellah were all quite straight and parallel to each other compared to other parts of the Medina, and this made getting around quite easy.
Finally, we ended our excursion with a trip to the 19th century Bahia Palace, an incredibly beautiful and well crafted place with a level of detail that boggles the mind. We then had a quite delicious meal at the creatively named El Restaurant Bahia next door.
I have been working non stop for the past few days, but got quite a lot accomplished. With that out of the way, we will do a little sight-seeing tomorrow before heading back to Amsterdam and NYC. This evening I even had a little time before sunset so we took a walk from our hotel to the Jemaa el Fnaa, the main square of the medina, filled with chaos and light hearted energy. We then circled into the Medina itself for a bit to have a coffee perched atop one of the buildings, which was a great way to get a little bit of a view over the medina, and really beautiful at sunset. We finished up our little tour with a stop for some pastilla and merguez.