The ceiling dances in kaleidoscope isosceles triangles, colors and stars. I am wrapped in two woolen blankets and feel the cold concrete wall on my face. For a moment, I do not recognize where I am until I hear the muezzin’s call to prayer. It is five, dark, and painfully cold, and from the touch of my pillow, I notice I have drooled in my sleep again. Great! Just when I convince myself I have been spirited away in desert oasis allure, spit cakes on my face.
I remember putting on all my clothes and an extra shirt over my hoodie to keep warm before jumping into bed last night, because Marrakech is unrelenting on winter nights. I remember passing by a long mirror from the bathroom looking like a walking air-show blimp. And I remember feasting on the long, frothy taste of sweet mint tea Siljane generously poured me just before I dozed off. It reminds me of the smell of the brushes I helped pull my cousin out from after my brother pushed her off a brambly shortcut into the subdivision I lived in back in Cagayan de Oro.
In my youth on Sundays, we would bypass the guarded entrance to the gated community by skirting through a gap in the gate, by a creek, and walk across the road to church. Sheen would find it funny to push anyone into the brambles where fire ants would then find you common game.
I feel my way down the blue tiled staircase and find Siljane, my affable innkeeper, already awake, holding off laughter from some youtube channel she is watching. Ohgoodmorningprofessor! she says a little startled by the bundle of woolen blankets wearing eyeglasses, and a little apologetic for being too loud. I tell her I woke up because of jet lag, not her muffled laughter. She decides to serve me breakfast on the top floor of her ornately decorated riad. I agree, as it would be quaint to greet the winter desert sun this way.
As she pours one teacup full of mint tea after another, I remember Jhaye-Anne helplessly screaming from the brambles, trying to get out of the clasp of some ant-queen monster. I play tongue-soccer with an olive stone in my mouth, and appreciate the home-churned butter, honey, olive oil and slices of baguette. I hear a home crowd cheer in my head as I successfully spit the lonely olive seed into a nearby trash can. Siljane speaks to me in French and insists on calling me professor for no apparent reason. She dispenses the run-of-the-mill seventy-dollar excursion advise I should be taking right about now, if I hurry and make a down payment, into the foot of the Sahara, or the most luxurious hammam in the medina, or of the camel rides in the Hollywood of the desert where they shot the Ten Commandments, Prince of Persia and a bunch of other dusty sounding movies. I trail away as I watch Siljane’s halting French bounce off the Zillij mosaic tiles and get swallowed by the rising sun.
I interrupt her by asking what she’s doing this afternoon. She says she is paying bills and doing errands, but why, she asks defensively. I say I just want to walk around with a local, rather than smoke shisha watching a belly dancer twerk, with all due respect. She is suspicious at first but as soon as I promise her I’ll take her up on the excursion to the foot of the Sahara, she warms up.
A riad is a traditional Moroccan house that contains a central courtyard. It looks quite boxy and nondescript from the outside except for a usually ornately designed door. But as soon as you walk into the house, you are greeted by an understated opulence unique to Moorish architecture—tiles of geometric design, an unimposing central fountain, hallways running along the inner perimeter, lamps that elevate the dark with its crescent and star motif, low-lying sitting areas with throw pillows of similar patterns, and tea. Pots and pots of awesome mint tea. It is quite private in its construction and I love the fact that even though you are surrounded by man-made luxury, you merely walk a couple of steps into the courtyard, look up to the sky, and enjoy the stars man cannot create.
Oh, and since riads were made centuries ago, chances are, the one you are staying at does not have heating. It’s all good. It makes you appreciate the rising sun in particular, and mornings in general.
We weave through donkey-drawn carts carrying traditional Moroccan sweets, teenagers in trendy black clothes on their smartphones on motorbikes, restaurant touts in a red fez humbly suggesting their tajines are the best in the medina and that if I come back for dinner, I get a 20% discount, sheep carcasses on a hook, colorful burst of spices looking like orange and yellow and green mini Atlas Mountains. There’s a KFC in the corner where a guy threshes sugarcane into a quick pedestrian drink. The colorful rugs and the sweet smell of apricots and the salted orange juice vendors and the leather tanneries—this is the quintessential Marrakech everyone comes home to talk about, but I am surprised at how I am more interested in how Siljane pays her bills.
Every now and then, a random person would come up to Siljane, chat her up, give her a hug or a kiss, and Siljane would mutter cousin, aunt, neighbor to me under her breath. She is evidently popular as even the folks at the electric company know her by name. We hurry back to Djemaa-El-Fnaa—old Marrakech’s central square. I tell her to go ahead without me as I inspect the surrounding souks and coffee shops. I am meeting up with Kimo, a friend who is temporarily based in Marrakech for work.
The Djemaa is not as busy in the afternoon as it is at night, but you have the ubiquitous kook-job, lady-with-child beggar, snake charmer and contortionist present as in any main square in any major city in the world. And I absolutely enjoy watching them go about their trade as I sip my really strong coffee in front of the staunch Café de France.
Kimo arrives with two friends and slouches on a lounge chair as we get up to speed with what we’ve been up to the last couple of years. Someone offers to shine his shoes and he agrees. The last time I saw him was in Rome in ’12. He tells me he likes Marrakech a lot but he is eyeing a transfer to Dublin in a couple of weeks. I am nervous the shoe-shine guy might ruin Kimo’s shoes. They are suede loafers, after all. We walk the entire perimeter of the Djemaa and watch as the world’s largest theater production begins to unfold. Infamous traditional dentists prop up their tooth-full jars, story-tellers their chairs, and henna tattoo artists their binders of ethnic and Tweetie Bird designs. Food peddlers begin to put up their tents in choreographed cacophony, as the first whiff of meat stewing in tomatoes and olive oil beckons. I point to my favorite tent serving essential Makouda—potato balls in harissa sauce, Merguez—lamb and beef sausages, homemade bread and every imaginable tajine—North African meat and vegetables cooked in conical earthenware. I order several sausages and dip them in an excellent spicy-sour tomato mix. I also down two glasses of salted orange juice from a cart whose operators I’ve made friends with last night.
We decide to meet up with more of Kimo’s friends in Gueliz, the new part of Marrakech, also known as Ville Nouvelle. We walk past the Koutoubia Mosque while its dreamy 12th century minaret stands in deep authority. As we walk away from the medina, ancient Marrakech gives way to a more pragmatic one. Buildings start to clamber towards the sky, traffic begins to look more like BMWs and Toyotas, and the exotic becomes a little more mundane. People rush to the malls, exchange banter at a Starbucks, puzzle at which restaurant to dine in. At a packed McDonald’s, more and more of Kimo’s impeccably dressed friends join us as we wait for Hanane and her infamous Ferrari. I later find out that the car reference was an allusion to her generous behind. Their innuendo and humor blow me away, then I remember Morocco is relatively untraditional and European. The country, after all, is only 8 nautical miles away from Spain, which explains the centuries of mutual cultural influences. Moorish architecture in Andalucia and café-and-bikini culture in Tangier. I may have overworked my tact here a little, but I am glad I ventured out of the medina to meet people whose candidness cut my scruple down to size.
Before calling it a night, Hanane asks me to join her to grab some food at a mall food court. We order from her favorite Thai stall and get some Pad Thai. She asks me to teach her how to use chopsticks. I oblige but not before informing her that most people in Thailand eat with spoons and forks. She laughs as she negotiates a flat noodle into her mouth. I check out what other food they have when the cook answers me in a very familiar accent. His name is Rody and he is from GenSan, just a couple of hours south of Cagayan de Oro. I ask him if there is a considerable Filipino expat community in Morocco and he says a couple of thousand. He says Muslim Filipinos find it easy to assimilate into Morocco’s brand of religious and secular balance. I ask him jokingly if he was hired to do his job because he looks Thai. He answers yes, but not jokingly. I tell him we all have ideas of other cultures in our head. Sometimes accurate, most times not. But we get along. Because we have to. He looks at me and shrugs. In a few months, I am going home. I can’t wait, he says, as he cracks an egg onto more noodles. I am embarrassed and humbled by his disregard of my western-chartered, self-righteous notions of race. Guy just wants to hustle and go home.
A couple of hours ago, when I took that walk with Siljane, we worked up a conversation as we waited for her number to be called. She confessed that business has been quite slow lately, what with all these acts of terrorism and the resultant xenophobia. I remember telling her it is a touchy subject in the west and that there is a valid but misguided fear for travel safety. She then told me that I am the only guest in the riad which used to make a solid income in the not too distant past. As she walked to the counter to pay her bill, I wasn’t able to help but silently apologize to her for the ones who ruin it for folks trying to earn an honest living. I wonder now if that was an act of kindness or an unconscious manifestation of self-righteousness—the very same thread from which justifications of personal dogma are woven. Maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. Behind the Disneyfied curtain of exoticism toil people trying to pay bills, trying to get by. Siljane is no exception. Girl just wants to hustle and go home. Don’t we all?
The next day, I walk to the farther reaches of the medina and to look for the El Bahia Palace. The snaking alleys confuse me so I stop to check my map. A store vendor senses my desperation and volunteers to show me the way. I ask him if I need to pay him after showing me the way, he says no. He proceeds to take me to a deeper alley that branches several ways away from the one I was just in, and on the sixth turn, he tells me it’s just one more block down the road. When I thank him, he asks for a tip. When I remind him of his earlier response, he raises his voice and suddenly forgets English. I stand there waiting for him to finish and when he notices I am not reacting, he grunts and walks away. Just as well. I discover from the map that he brought me too far away from the palace, so I walk back to his street, walk past his store and wave hi. He looks away pretending he never saw me before. I walk into his shop, and literally browse his wares for twenty minutes. He was squirming in his seat, unable to sell things to the other customers because he cannot not ignore me. People start pouring out of his shop and into the other stores. I ask him how much a gaudy necklace costs, he looks away. Then finally, he says, Je ne parle pas l’anglais. I tell him perfect. Je parle un peu français! even though that’s about the only phrase I know in French. He looks like he is about to have a stroke, so I leave his store, walk about thirty steps ahead and am at the gated entrance of the Palace.
The El Bahia Palace is a good peek into how wealthy Moroccan nobles lived like in the 1800s. It is rid of any furnishings which helps one appreciate the intricate wood, tile and metal work found all over the place. The collection of rooms and parlors also help map out the familial dynamics of this sector of old Moroccan society. The central courtyard is refreshing with banana fronds shading it from the sun. I sit by a waterless fountain and count the hours until I leave Marrakech for the Sahara. I think about Siljane, Kimo, Hanane, Rody, and deceitful shopkeeper who speaks only French. I think about the orange juice vendors and the guys who sell sausages in the Djemaa. I think about my brother Sheen who can no longer push Jhaye-anne into the brush because he lives in California and she lives in Australia. I think about this outsider, self-righteous charade we take on as soon as we grab our passports and head off somewhere different. As though our lives back home are perfect. As though we don’t have bills to pay. As though we don’t blame others for ruining things for us.
At our best, we all just want to hustle and go home. At our worst, we are groping our way out of mint brambles trying to escape the evil clasp of the ant-queen monster.