Thursday, July 23, 2009

Guelizing in Marrakech

If you get tired of hustling and bustling life of medina, head out to Gueliz, the new and fancy part of the town. Gueliz is the opposite of medina – modern and relaxed, less people and more open spaces. If your budget allows you can relax in some of the super trendy restaurants or cafes. But if your budget is not as kind, you can stroll the endless avenues, read a book in some gorgeous park or just walk around and enjoy the weather. No worries if you get lost, just ask a random person for “main square” or Djemaa el-Fna and they will point you to the right direction. Or grab a taxi back, it will most likely cost you around 10-20 DH (provided that the taxi driver isn’t giving you a city tour).

Majorelle Gardens is a nice place to visit also, admission is 30 DH. It’s filled with rare plants, birds and vivid colors. There is also an Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech on the garden grounds. The garden itself is like a chill colorful haven in that city of heat and crowd. Most of the visitors are tourists, but not the obnoxious XXL T-shirt wearing fat American kind. You can sit on one of the benches and read a book all day long if you want to, you're not going to get hastled like in public gardens. They also have a cafeteria on the premises, but i found it greatly over-priced. The garden was much smaller than i expected, but quite relaxed and nice nonetheless.

On the note on recommending things i'd also like to mention that Cafe de la Poste has very good mojitos, though with matching prices.

Every time i go walking in Gueliz something funny or absurd happens. Last time a guy followed me over 3 hours on his bicycle. In the beginning he drove next to me, but when i got tired of it and told him to fuck off, he crossed the street and continued his mission from there. At first his persistence was slightly creepy, but i quickly got used to with him tailing me and he became just a background noise. When i reached back to medina, where my hotel is, i took extra care of getting rid of him. Whatever his motivation was for following me, i didn’t really want him to camp out in front of my hotel or something.

At the end of the Avenue Mohammed VI (on older maps it’s named Avenue de France) there is sort of an empty grass field with some bushes. People use it for picnics or other gatherings. There are also 4-5 football courts and every evening some teams are kicking each others asses. I found this place one evening quite accidently, but now I go there regularly to see them play. It’s actually a great entertainment because some of the teams play very well. The best time to go is around 6 pm, the match usually ends a bit after sunset.

Football is a popular game in Morocco, you can see the local youth playing it everywhere throughout the city. When me and Kaidi were visiting Fes in last October, we went for a late evening walk one day and somehow got drafted to a local youth football team. We had very much fun, so we made a deal we’ll meet again the next day. The next night we played for some time (I even scored a goal, haha) then some of the guys started playing for money and we just sat back and made small-talk with the ones who weren’t playing. I remember one moment we were talking and making jokes with the guys and the next there was something round and hard impacting on high speed with my face. My head snapped sharply and there was a bad sounding crack somewhere in my neck. It took me some time to realize that I got kicked point blank in the face with a football. Kaidi had been sitting next to me and the kick was so well aimed that part of her face was also grazed. Two tourists with one blow :). I’m glad i was watching aside at the time of the kick, otherwise it might’ve ended with a broken nose and now that would’ve already been a bit uncomfortable. The guys were actually much more afraid about the little mishap than we were. If I would’ve demanded to be taken to the hospital, they looked like they were ready to carry me on their backs J. I went to sleep that evening with fingers crossed that I wouldn’t be blue the next morning. The kick also kind of broke my glasses, so I ended up walking around most of the next day with my optical sunglasses on, just to see anything. The fact that there was no sun made me look like a wannabe gangsta, but it would’ve been even more ridiculous if I’d walk into a wall, because i was borderline blind.

Nightly photo of our funny little football team. Quality is of course atrocious, but the guys were posing so hard and were getting into little arguements about who can stand next to us.

Partying in Marrakech

Me and Houssam went for a club-touring one night. Houssam is a friend of one of my Estonian friends, very protective and an excellent guide for a Marrakech nightlife. We started in Pacha, the most celebrated and talked about night club in Marrakech. I had heard stories and read praises about Pacha, how this place is the trendiest and coolest ever, so i guess my expectations were somewhat elevated. Frankly, i didn't see what all the hype was about - i found it lacking any character and atmosphere. Pacha is supposed to have many clubs inside on building, so maybe the one we visited was not the greatest of them. The crowd drinking and dancing seemed to have been more concerned with looking posh and hip, instead of truly enjoying themselves. I don't know, it seemed a bit like a place to show yourself rather than have a really good time, forget your daily worries and dance like crazy. But this is of course very personal observation, i actually like my dance music versatile, not the same 10 sec beat segment repeated over and over again for hours. Those few drinks i tried in Pacha were either really small or watered down to such extent that vodka with Sprite became just Sprite. The dancing area was surprisingly small and the light effect on that particular night made me think of an animal testing facility - let's see how long can a pack of intoxicated homo sapiens withstand bright lights flashed in their faces in random sequence before showing signs of agression.

The next club Teatro was more to my taste. It was actually a theatre before it got converted into a nightclub. Luckily the designers didn't go all modern with the interior and preserved a lot from the old style. I liked the dominant red color, shaded lamps and three-four different levels for dancing. The decor gave a bit of a naughty old style cabaret vibe, wasn't hard to imagine that there could be some nice cozy rooms back somewhere for getting more intimately acquainted. The people were really dancing and having fun, not just "moving along with the rhythm" and trying to look cool while doing it. One girl actually fell on me, she had been dancing on the higher level dance floor and i guess lost her balance because at some point i found myselt attacked by a falling body who was too stunned to know what was happening to her.

I don't know why i so much disliked Pacha, but i was definitely glad that Houssam knows the door-guys in most of the places and we didn't have to pay for a ticket anywhere (usually around 100-150 DH). Pacha also locates outside the city and the taxi-ride back can get very expensive, whereas Teatro is about 20 minute walk from Djemaa el-Fna or 8 DH taxi ride.

That was a fun night, Houssam gave in first, i would've gladly danced until the last club closed. We left after 5am, but it didn't look like the party was ending any time soon yet.

The dangers of Marrakech

Some people have asked about the dangers of Marrakech. I don't really know how to answer that. It's a bit of a subjective thing and it depends first of all still of your own sensitivity towards other people and weird situations. I very rarely team up with anybody while traveling, so most of my comings and goings are done alone. There have been few spooky/creepy situations, but it is a city with roughly the same amount of people living in it as the whole population of Estonia, so some creepiness is greatly pardonable.

Latest spooky situation was when i was coming home after that same night of clubbing. Taxi dropped me off around 5 am and i had about 5 minute walk to my hotel. During this time some guy lurking in the side street somewhere had noticed me and took an active interest in me. He was following me quite tightly while talking something in Arabic. Since the streets were totally empty, i didn't stop to inquire what he wants, i just kept walking without paying any attention to him. I was exceedingly glad that i had chosen a hotel so close to the main square and not deeper in medina. It was creepy enough having him tailing me on the wide (though empty) shopping street, it would've been times more unpleasant dealing with him on the small secluded streetmaze of medina.

I've gotten few times into a late night argument with some brick-headed horny guys who don't take no for an answer. I know it's pointless to steep to that level, but i really resent being grabbed. Once i slapped a shop-guy for sticking his hand under my shirt in a too active attempt to help me try on a jellaba. Funnily enough he got offended on me because i had touched him and that was not supposed to be acceptable. I haven't laughed so hard for a long time.

So far the weirdest and i guess potentially most dangerous situation i had was when some guy sort of attacked me on the ATM queue. He was taking out money and i was standing behind him in a queue, we were about a meter apart. I was turned away, pretty much with my back to him. Suddenly he kicked me with a leg and when i turned around he was running towards me with his hand up in front of his face and fingers spread. He was screaming something and jammed his spread fingers into my glasses, kind of like trying to stick my eyes out with them. I had to jerk my head back not to get my glasses slammed into my face. All this time he was screaming something in Arabic and people around were translating later that he had thought i was watching his PIN code.

Generally a rule - the later the hour and the less crowded the street, the more seedier people are hanging about. So make your own conclusions in choosing where, when and how you walk.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Shakira Shakira!

Cellular experience

So, on the account of having the previous one stolen, i went shopping for a new mobile phone. I've always felt that not having a mobile phone is like not having hands. You know that you will get yourself new hands soon, but that's not really going to help you if you need to scratch your nose right here and now.

So, the mobile phone prices are the cheapest when buying from the street vendors and there are plenty of vendors selling them. And since i needed just a random mobile phone, not anything specific or special, i was very ok with buying it from the streets. At first i tried to bargain on my own, but the guys just wouldn't budge. Seems that mobile sellers here in Marrakech are quite a tougher breed than the tajine ones. But having some Moroccan friends really pays off, mostly financially - i decided i don't want to pay the double price, so i got a friend to help.

After you buy the phone in Morocco, your next visit is to a lovely gentleman down in some basement somewhere, who will crack the phone for you and make it work with any SIM card. That service can also be very flexibly priced, i think the initial price we started was 150 DH, but in the end we shook hands on 30 DH. The phone itself was 300 DH, add to that the local prepaid SIM set (another 50DH, though they will try to sell it with 75 or higher) and some extra credit (i bought the 50 DH card) and the total came to a whopping 430 DH. I could've come up with some better ways to spend that money, but oh well, at least i have a shiny new phone now.

I got the cheapest phone there was, i will have plenty of time at home to waste thousands and thousands on a new fancier model. Though knowing myself, i will probably never get around to do it. I don't care much about mobiles, i use them for pretty much only one thing - calling; so all the fancy extra features are not really my thing. And the very cheap one will do just fine while traveling. Turned out that my newly acquired high-tech gadget could be best described with words "somewhat too weird", as it really is ahead of the pack when it comes to sucking in many different levels. It looks decent enough though, very slick and modest.

My first problem was finding out what kind of ringtone it has, to ensure i would actually recognize it ringing when i'm in a more crowded place, like anywhere else besides my hotel-room. I spent quite some time trying to find the way i could change the ringtones and it was only later i learned that the feature i was searching for was burried so deep into some obscure sub-menus that you'd think it's part of national secrets. When i got my first call to my new phone and i heard it ring with it's default ring-tone, i almost broke my leg jumping up and running to it in attempt to cover the phone with my whole body and silence it forever. Btw, it's still my reaction every time the thing rings. I remember thinking "Oh my God, oh my God, no no no, that just can't be! what the fuck ..??". When i finally found the way to change the ringtone, i was re-introduced to a wonderful world of .midi audio files, that were supposed to die out along with the end of previous century, but somehow had still made their way into my spanking new mobile phone. And may i say what a delightful arrangement of sounds they are - if you are tone deaf, that is. I truly couldn't believe it, but when i tried all the different melodies that my phone had to offer, i reached to a painful conclusion that the default one is actually by far the best .

Entrepreneurial boys selling stuff on the street

Shakira Shakira!

So far i’ve been in Morocco only with my friends, but this is my first time to come here completely alone. While a big chunk of my acquaintances and family is convinced that i am totally crazy and irresponsible, i myself am kind of thrilled. Maybe i should be worrying about my safety, reputation and whatnot, but at the moment my biggest concern is money and how to keep my meager budget afloat.

The attention in Morocco can get a bit tiresome. Specially if you are a white woman and alone. It’s amazing how most random guys will take the trouble to mutter something to you when passing or attempt to start a conversation while walking on the same street. The iPod + sunglasses combo works quite well in Morocco as well, though you might still find somebody walking next to you for 5 minutes and trying to talk to you. My Moroccan acquaintance Adil was saying that modern Moroccan guy’s dream is to get a fancy car and land a rich (preferably white) woman. Morocco is definitely a country where any normal looking white woman can find herself a guy for the night is she wants. And from conversations with local guys I get the impression that there is a fair number of female tourists who are coming to Morocco first of all for exactly that and then for tajines :). No wonder it’s almost impossible for me to explain to locals that I’m not here for love affairs, majority just don’t seem to grasp the concept of traveling for the sake of traveling.

Of all southern male population I’ve met, Moroccans are by far the most non-vilently aggressive and with unreasonably high egos. You just cannot imagine the confidence of those guys, they are ready to butter you up any time any place. And all that without a drop of alcohol to gain courage from (islam forbids alcohol). Of course, it might be also a lot of talk and no follow up, but the testosterone is definitely bubbling. For example Mexican guys were kind of timid when it came to making social chit-chat, specially when they were sober (hehe, like Estonian guys). They were very happy shouting “Guapa!” or “Bonita!” from over the street or from a passing car, but that was mostly it. Next to Morocco Mexico was a land of peace and quiet for a single female traveler, though I did not realize that at the time.

Morocco is also the only country so far from my travel experience where marriage means nothing. A big fat zero. People either tell you flat out: “I don’t believe that you are married” or look around and say: “So what? I don’t see your husband here ..”. I liked that in Mexico people had respect for marriage and though the macho guys were still machos, nobody was trying to “talk you into” anything as it is in Morocco. Moroccans are generally very flexible when it comes to defining stuff like “private space”, “intimacy” etc. I personally do not like when people I’ve just met take liberties of touching me casually too much or trying to hold hands or something. It might be perfectly norm in Morocco, but it’s sometimes too much for my ice cold Northern nature. I also tend to be sensitive about conversations with a lot of sexual innuendo, because they can get very quickly very personal and when that happens I have very little patience to stay polite and friendly. I do realize that sometimes I over-react, but I prefer to keep most people at arm’s length, specially random new acquaintances. But if you get pass that awkward phase of making it clear that you are not “on the market”, then the guys can be very adorable. Very protective and helpful, sometimes even a bit territorial with each other :).

All my life I’ve mostly had guy friends. I grew up with an older brother and big part of my childhood was spent playing with his friends. Even now I can count on one hand my female friends and they are somewhat outnumbered. And i’ve yet to be in the situation in Morocco, where I could strike up a friendship with a girl. Women definitely speak less English in Morocco, but they also generally seem to be more passive and withdrawn. And so it goes that most of my old and new Moroccan acquaintances have XY chromosomes.

When i walk on the streets of Marrakech, there are many recurring types of comments i hear, but one of the most amusing ones is Shakira Shakira! - i've asked few times that why you are calling me Shakira and gotten an answer because of the "golden hair". I guess the Brasilian pop is taking ground in Morocco :).


Morocco is also so far the only country I’ve been to where people actually take the trouble of following you. OK, maybe for example Cubans were also doing it, but in that case they were much better at it because I never even had an inkling that I might be followed, not to mention seeing a guy circling the block for the umpteenth time. I remember that my first encounter of being followed was on my first visit to Fes. I was walking alone in medina, cruising about and snapping photos when a guy in a lime-green shirt passed me by on one of the streets. Five minutes later I see the same lime-green shirt walking on one of the other nearby streets, and then five minutes later again coming down the stairs somewhere and so on so forth. It went on for quite some time. At that point I even considered the possibility that he is just walking randomly like me, that we are on the same route or even that there might be more than one guy in Fes who is willing to wear that God-awful bright lime-green shirt.

The notion of “somebody following you” sounds awfully sinister, but in all fairness they seem to do it purely out of curiosity. I’ve never felt threatened or scared, it’s just a bit weird at times to see somebody taking such personal and persistent interest in you. But again, iPod will do miracles in not paying attention to anybody or anything around you. As it gets later in the evening that following can get more aggressive. I’ve gotten into a verbal fight couple of times because it’s very annoying if the same guy keeps coming to talk to you with the lamest questions ever or pretty much just one direct proposal. But if you’re walking late on the streets alone or spend time on Djemaa el-Fna after midnight, you kind of have to be prepared for that.

One morning i woke up and there was a note slipped into my hotel-room from under the door. It was a long novel of a letter:
"Hello sweet girl! My name is Khalid, i am 26 year old. I wanted to knock on your door in morning but didn't want to wake you, i hope you have good dreems .. ", it went on and on, telling me that he has been watching me (creepy?) and would really like to get to know me better bla bla bla. The usual pitch. Along with the phone number. Girls, anybody of you happen to want to meet a 26 year old tattoo artist from Morocco? :)

I guess, in reality, i'm also kind of a stalker. I love making photos of people, so all i do on my travels is lurk around and follow interesting people, trying to catch a shot-worthy glimpse of them through my lens. I'm constantly on the prowl, batteries charged and camera ready. Like a greedy animal who never has enough. Always looking for a better prey.

Show guys on Djemaa el-Fna. If you make a photo of them, they will hunt you down and bully you pay money for it. I personally believe in "it's a free world, i can photograph whoever is walking around in public", so i never pay for such things.

But all in all, people here are nice. I'm at the moment talking about the simple folk, not the rich cream of society of Morocco. Which is not to say that the latter aren't nice people as well, i just don't have very many personal connections with them. The usual people though are friendly and open. Sometimes they get too excited about you being a foreigner and they want to charge you too much or walk around with you in public and so on, but i've also met some great kindness, pure interest, childlike joy when you spend time with them and eagerness in helping you even if there's no way to profit from doing it. My suspicious nature is used to searching for an ulterior motive when somebody wants to be friends with you, but sometimes it's just that. Yes, i'm the first one to say that you have to be reasonable yourself not to get swindled or taken advantage of, but don't get too carried away with being always on a lookout or you will miss out on some interesting acquaintances.

A kind pizza guy from the pizza joint next to my hotel. He always tries to ask how my day is going (very little English skills) and gives me small gifts like keychain holder and so on.

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