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 morocco

8 jul
The taxi brought me to the edge of the medina, the ancient inner city where cars cannot enter. I moved through the narrow streets searching the walls in vain for street names. An old bearded man in a long brown djelleba or robe approached me and beckoned for me to follow. At the door of my riad, an old style small hotel built around a courtyard, he put his hand out. I didn't have any coins yet, so he gave me change and disappeared back into the maze of streets.

Unbearably hot in Marrakech in July, the riad was a lovely oasis in between outings. The courtyard garden was dense with orange and fig trees, thin hanging vines hung like beads in a doorway. Yellow leaves broke loose and floated lazily to the ground, scattered on floor tiles, couches and chairs, as if they were part of the decor. Birds chattered outside my second floor French doors. A red rose petal appeared on my pillow each day. I indulged in a massage in the hammam one afternoon.

In the medina, men sat on the ground or on small stools calling out to shoppers, instantly engaging them in friendly informative chatter. The walls along the streets reeked of urine, more so than in other developing countries because there is no rain to wash it away. Women were reluctant to make eye contact with strangers. I crossed Jemaa El Fnaa, the big square, to the souks, a labyrinth of tiny little streets packed with narrow vendor stalls, sometimes just wide enough to stand in. You go in and get lost; when needed, someone will point the way back to the main square.

Once you stop to look and chat, you are offered a cup of mint tea and they charm you until you buy something, however small. Several vendors asked me to come back for tea just to talk. The herbalist called me sister, and added "Insallah" (God willing) after any discussion of plans or future. Said, the jeweler, introduced me to his father, who sat on a carpet on the floor, unseen behind the counter, polishing silver. We talked about our countries, some politics and compared cultures. He called me an ambassador of peace from America and wrote my name in Arabic.

I bought a small rug from Abdul, a young man who had studied at an English School and believes in the importance of education. "At the Arabic school," he explained, "sometimes the teacher doesn't even show up for a week. How can you learn?" He described how traditional Moroccan women, confined to their home unless escorted, put their lives into their weaving. I was invited to come for tajine with his family the next day. Lamb, vegetables and lentils were cooked in a clay pot. We sat around in a circle in a little room above the carpet souk and all ate from the same bowl with the right hand. His father and brother were shy to speak and just asked questions.

As the shadows lengthened, Jemaa El Fnaa turned into a night market. The cluster of fresh orange juice carts in the middle was joined by food stalls. Said had advised me not to stay late if I was going alone. I had coffee and desert just off the square and watched the commotion. The snake charmers played music frantically. A handler yelled at one monkey who chattered disobediently. Some herbalists, who may be more like witch doctors, shamans or hucksters, called out from a crowd of spectators as they mixed potions for love, cures, luck, whatever you might be looking for. Groups of men gathered in tight circles - I suspected a con game was in progress but was reluctant to press in to look. A dancer performed to a percussion band. The smoke from grills hung in the air giving the landscape an eerie haze. It seemed like a weird scene from a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

Mosques are not open to visitors here, so Medersa Ben Youssef, the old school, was the next best thing. On the way out I thanked the attendants who asked, laughing, if I wanted to book one of the students' rooms for next year?  I protested that I would need a bed and pillow. "Ah but you will have a carpet. You must live like a student!" they joked. I toured the section of the ruined Badii Palace that was intact, and the Musee de Marrakech, with its modern Moroccan paintings and sculpture and some historic artifacts.

On a day trip to Essaouira (pronounced 'S-where-a), we followed a two-lane road over dry land, but not called desert, according to Fouad, the driver, for the 2-1/2 hour trip to the sea, passing many a donkey walking slowly along the road - each carried a man perched sideways on it with feet bouncing gently, full bags on either side of the animal.

An attractive young woman led me around a women's cooperative where argan oil is processed into cosmetics and body oils. Divorced or widowed women could find work there. She showed me the fruit, both ripe and dry, and the seed, which is called almond but not the kind we eat, and I saw how the women worked. Essaouira's souks hawked boxes of thorag wood and other local crafts. Royal blue doors appeared on white buildings, but there was not the clean sharp white and blue contrast of the Greek islands - these were faded, ageing, peeling.

Little blue boats were jammed in so tightly at the port that it was difficult to imagine a fisherman extracting his own and getting it out to the open water. Men repaired or painted boats, some a bold yellow. Fishermen brought in their nets and cleaned fish along the old ramparts while seagulls hung suspended in midair overhead, waiting for their share, white wings waving.

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