Monday, July 9, 2012

Suckred and suckered

It was Sunday in Marrakech and we wanted to visit a few of the historical sites in town, including the Palais de la Bahia and the Palais el Badi.  The former was built in the nineteenth century and was intended to be the greatest palace of all time. Its name means “Brilliance” and the palace is still sometimes used for official functions.  The Palais el Badi, which means "Incomparable" was originally built in the sixteenth century but was looted when Sultan Moulay Ismail decided to move his wealth to the city of Meknes.  It is now being excavated and, at some level, restored.  In any case, they both promised to give us glimpses and insights into Moroccan architecture and culture, and according to the employees of our hotel, the  Riad Princesse Jamila, both were within an easy 5 minute walk.

We found the Palais de la Bahia with no trouble and enjoyed the gardens, the tiling, the architecture, the ceiling paintings and the mostly the shade from the hot Moroccan sun.  The palace was in various states of disrepair and restoration, but it was clearly a grand place, vivid colors drenched with sunlight.  We wandered around, snatching bits of history from the English speaking tour guides, but mostly enjoying the sights on our own. 

Center court yard, Palais de la Bahia
Doorway, Palais de la Bahia

The weather in Morocco was very toasty and we found ourselves perpetually hot and very thirsty.  After our tour, we found a small restaurant just down the street from the entrance, and enjoyed some cool water and an assortment of Moroccan cookies. We asked the owner for directions to the other palace, the Palais el  Badi,  and he pointed vaguely back towards the direction from which we had come.

Dates, Figs, Apricots, Nuts
We started out as he directed, but quickly got lost in the twisty narrow passages, among the souks selling everything from sweet aromatic spices and dried fruits to sort of fresh and definitely aromatic fish and meats, from toilet paper to silver teapots.  We could easily have been hopelessly disoriented, but we had memorized a few major sites on the Djemaa el Fna (the main market) so we could get our bearings as needed.  First however, we needed to get to an open place where we could see the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque or the Café Francais, two clear landmarks on opposite sides of the main square.  We did not manage to get to such a place near the center of the square,  but after an hour or so of wandering around, we blundered our way to the wall that defines the outer perimeter of the old city.  There we saw two uniformed police officers, a hopeful sight for the hopelessly lost.

We asked in English how to find the Palais el Badi, but the police officers did not know much English.  Al, who studied French in high school tried asking in French, the second most common language in Morocco after Arabic.  The police officers did know a little French so between their little bit of French and Al’s little bit of French we thought we understood which way to go.  Maybe.  To our surprise, they seemed to direct us away from the twisty turning maze of passageways and to an open area through a gate in the wall.

We had just set out on this course when we were met by a smiling man dressed completely in orange and pushing a red bicycle.  He asked in nearly perfect English what we were looking for.  Since we were not entirely sure that we had communicated effectively with the police officers we told him that we were trying to find the Palais el Badi.  He said, “Oh don’t go that way- too dangerous.  Stick to crowded areas, it is much safer.  Empty spaces are dangerous for visitors. Come follow me.”

He continued his monologue as he pushed his bike and urged us to follow.  “Where are you from?  England?”  We shook our heads no and said “The US” 

“America?  Wow!  How’s Obama?” he asked.  We laughed and said it depended on who you asked.  

“I have never met Americans before” he added.

“But,” I said, “your English is so perfect.  Did you study in England then?”

“No, no," he said, "I am not a rich man.  I studied here in Marrakech. Education is the most important thing to me.  I worked very hard.  
My people are from the Atlas mountains.   I am a Berber.  Berbers are the original and rightful inhabitants of this land.You can tell Berbers from Arabs by looking into their eyes.”

Surprisingly empty street.
He kept walking, deeper into the maze of narrow twisty streets.  Despite his admonition to stick to crowded areas, he led us through remarkably empty part of town. He soon struck up a conversation with Eric and Ellen. “You know, in our culture, parents are sacred.” He pronounced this as“Suck-red”   "Yes, your parents are suckred.  You owe them everything, including your life. You should always take care of them. They gave you life.  They gave you everything.  Always remember that.”  Unsure  how to respond, Eric and Ellen just nodded tentatively.

Not waiting for a reply, the Bicycle Man turned back to us and said, “In our culture, we always invite strangers to our homes for tea.  Would you like to come to my home for mint tea?”  We were feeling overwhelmed and more than a little uncomfortable, so we just said “No thank you.  We’re just looking for Palais el Badi.” 

“Ok.  I offer.  That is the important thing.  My wife, she is beautiful.  She just had a baby.  One week ago.” 

Barely hearing our congratulations, the bicycle man kept talking.

“Have you done much shopping? You should know where to shop.  Most of these souks are for the touristics.  No good prices.  No good merchandise.  If you want good things you need to find shops with no touristics. “

“Well ok,” we said. “But right now, we’re not shopping;  we’re looking for the Palais el Badi.” The bicycle man led us down one street and then another, this way and that way.  We were totally lost once again.  We were not at all concerned about our personal safety, however, we weren’t born yesterday and we recognized a scam in the making.

“Yes," he smiled agreeably, "Palais el Badi.”

More twisty streets and pathways.  Suddenly the bicycle man stopped at a small storefront. “Do you see any touristics here?” 

“Uh,  no,” we admitted. 

“This is my cousin’s store.  What would you like? Spices are the best anywhere.  Not like the touristic shops.”  He muttered something to the man behind the counter and suddenly bags of fragrant and aromatic spices were being offered.  “Smell this,” he ordered. “You can’t get this anywhere but here.”

“Delightful,” I agreed, “But I am not shopping for spices.”  Searching for an excuse, I said, “I don’t think I’d be allowed to take them back in the US with me.”

The next thing I knew, I had spent about $5 for five small bags of saffron threads and a  good sized bag of Moroccan tea.  The bicycle man was happy and we got on our way.

Soon we got the edge of the labyrinthian streets and could see the center of the Djemaa el Fna.  “The palais is right over there” we were told.  “This was much easier than the other way,  no?”

We looked around and saw no signs of the Palais.  But, we were also glad to be done with the bicycle man.  We nodded and thanked him for his help. 

Smiling broadly at Al, he said, “Now, I have to ask you, kind sir.  My wife, as I told you, just had a baby, but sadly she has no milk.  Every day,  I must buy milk in the pharmacy and it is very expensive. Can you help me?”

Expecting something like this, Al handed him a 10 dirham coin. 

“10 Dihram?  Sir, that is nothing.  Can’t you spare some more?”

Expecting this too, Al gave him another and said, “That’s all.” 

Bicycle man looked at the two coins, shrugged, smiled, and rode off, presumably to find someone else to con.  We weren’t very good customers, giving him only a few dollars in trade and a few dollars in coin.

As he rode away, Ellen said, "Um, Mom?  I think we are still lost."

I replied, “Maybe lost, but suckred.  Don't forget, you owe us everything."

To which Eric replied, “Yup. Suckred and Suckered.”

We may not have given bicycle man much money, but I am sure that he got the last laugh because he abandoned us far from our destination.  Of course, we were indeed totally lost.  Much later, by sheer luck, we found our way back to the kindly police officers,  went through the gate as they directed  and the Palias was right there.  2 minutes from where we found bicycle man.  5 minutes from the Riad Princesse Jamila.

And only 5 hours after we left the hotel!
Center court of Palais el Badi.  The Minaret in the background is the famous Koutoubia Mosque.

Storks on wall of Palais el Badi signify good luck.This must be a very lucky place, because there were LOTS of storks!

Today I am grateful for our families, both our biological families and our chosen families of friends.  Suckred and sacred, indeed.

1 comment:

  1. Adventure is everywhere. Glad you got found. Were you able to being back the saffron?