Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Trying to avoid Ryanair baggage restrictions in Morocco

After a few short weeks at home, I was off to my next trip: Marrakech, Morocco. I had traveled to Morocco while I was studying abroad in Spain and loved it. I was itching to return. My first trip to Morocco was like nothing I had ever seen before. Since then I’ve been exposed to much more of the world, but I was still anxious and eager to get back.

Last Friday, after a short delay, our plane took off heading south. I could not wait for the warm weather, relatively speaking. It pains me to admit that I’ve turned into a Spaniard. (Only when it comes to weather, though. Don’t worry!) It’s been in the upper 50s/low 60s and I’m still walking around in my winter coat with a scarf on. Marrakech’s forecast was a bit warmer, so I was excited. Nonetheless, I still wore my heavy jacket and scarf the whole time I was there. We saw a fair amount of British tourists and even some Americans, all of whom were wearing shorts and tank tops. Looks like I missed the boat on that one. After a year here I’m not sure how I’m going to go back to the frigid U.S. temperatures. Hopefully my blood will thicken once more.

When we landed at the airport there was a gentleman holding a sign with our hotel (or Riad’s) name on it. I was very glad he waited out our delay. It was a quick ride to the hotel. The hotel was located towards the outside of the medina, which make it easy to access by car. The driver parked as close as he could to the hotel and led us on foot through small, windy alleys to the hotel. We checked in and were delighted to see our room. Fortunately, all four of us were able to stay in one room. I looked around the hotel and I think we lucked out. Our room was certainly the biggest, and it also looked like the nicest. After dropping our bags off it was time to explore the city!

Medinas in Morocco are known for being particularly challenging to navigate, so we made sure to ask the hotel for the map. Minor detail, they didn’t have one. (Side note: what kind of hotel doesn’t have a map?!) The guy told us to check back the next day. We weren’t going to let that stop us, so we were off, sans map. While he couldn’t give us a map, he did manage to lead us to the main square, Djemaa el Fna. I had been warned, or cautioned rather, by several people about the square and I couldn’t wait to see if what I’d heard was true. Our first visit proved them right. With snake charmers, men with monkeys, henna artists, fresh squeezed orange juice and dried fruit stands galore this place was truly a whole new world. One of the first things we saw was an Asian man performing martial arts. There was a crowd gathered around of both tourists and locals, so I decided to join. I tried to snap a quick picture without being seen. No such luck. A man came up to me demanding money. I pretended not to speak any of the languages he was harassing me in. I only had to keep it up for a few steps until he left me alone.

From the main square we wondered into the souks. I enjoy taking everything in and found it to be a little overwhelming. The vibrant colors, smells and sounds were fascinating. Last time I went to Morocco I decided that when I have a family and settle down I’m going to have a Moroccan styled home. Returning to Morocco for a second time only solidified those plans—as did all of my purchases! Most of the souk is organized by category. It’s easy to find 20 lantern dealers right next to one another with dried fruit dealers across the way. One square was filled with spice dealers.

It is part of their culture to bargain (my favorite…) We had been warned that the price you pay should be around half of their original asking price. That means when they quote you 400 dirhams your counter offer should be around 100. If you stick around and chat with the vendor you’re much more likely to get your way. The trick is walking out very slowly until they give you a final and more reasonable price.

I decided I didn’t want to buy anything the first day, so my task was scouting out the vendors. After exploring for several hours we parked our tuchuses in a café on the main square for some tea. My family has been going to a delicious Moroccan restaurant in Chicago for years. It was there that I first discovered Moroccan mint tea. Needless to say, it was a staple on the trip. After tea we walked through the souks a little longer and then through the square. It morphs into an entirely new attraction between morning and night. In the morning it’s filled with the snake charmers, men chasing tourists with monkeys, orange juice vendors and ladies screaming at you asking if you want henna. At night it’s that, but on steroids. Luckily, the snake charmers and monkeys disappear, but out come fortune tellers, more ladies yelling at you about henna, vendors setting up shop on the ground, more orange juice and dried fruit vendors and a plethora of street food pop-up stands. The sight and smells were delectable! The disheartening part is all of the beggars and little kids running up to you trying to sell Kleenex. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. I felt like I was in an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, which happens to be a favorite of mine.

We worked up quite an appetite walking around. Our various guidebooks and printouts recommended one restaurant in particular, so we ventured inside. I was a little worried considering there wasn’t a soul in sight. The host directed us up to the terrace with a beautiful view of the square. As we climbed the stairs, we heard voices, which helped calm my nerves. Upon finally reaching the top (3 stories later) we were greeted by a quaint dining room with open windows facing the square and a flood of tourists. We were right at home. The menu was god’s gift to starving American tourists. We each ordered Morocco’s famous harira, which is a tomato and lentil soup. It was delicious. For our main course we ordered couscous. I ended up with a chicken couscous with raisins, garbanzo beans and onions. I could live a very happy life in Morocco. After stuffing ourselves silly we needed to wash it down with some more tea. This time we tried a new tea and strayed from our old standby of the mint tea. In addition to all of the vendors previously mentioned at night booths pop up serving tea. I have no clue what flavor we sampled, but it was delicious and strong enough to put hair on your chest. Tells you something about Moroccan women. I kid, I kid. After downing my glass I was ready to hit the hay, so we walked back to the hotel.

The next morning we were pleasantly surprised with the most amazing breakfast we’d ever eaten. (I hope you’re catching on to the trend here. Good thing we spent most of the trip on our feet walking around! But in all honesty, to me one of the most important parts of learning about a new culture is the food, so why not indulge? Yes, I am an Elman.) Breakfast started out with fresh squeezed orange juice and mint tea. Then they brought out the homemade orange and date jams alongside some homemade honey. Natural yogurt, fruit and a selection of homemade breads came next. It was heavenly. We enjoyed our breakfast up on the roof of the hotel under a traditional style Berber tent. Our breakfast lasted a little longer than planned and it didn’t leave us a ton of time before our cooking class. We decided to walk to the square to catch the morning attractions. I still can’t decide if that was a mistake…

While in the square if you stare at something for too long or take any pictures the tourist hungry men will come up to you and demand money. We made the mistake of hanging around a little too long by the snakes. One of the men saw Briana took and photo and it was downhill from there. He insisted she come closer to take more pictures of and with the snakes. That’s how they try to lure you in. She agreed and walked closer to a group of snakes slithering of the floor. Julia went too to help her take pictures. Jan and I stayed behind to watch. A man carrying a snake walked up to us and tried to start a conversation. At first we were quiet, not wanting to play into his tricks. I don’t know what I was thinking, but against my better judgment I shook his hand. He wouldn’t let go and then he began the rub the snake on the back of my hand saying, “isn’t it smooth?” I replied yes and begged him to let go, but to no avail. Then he started to wrap the snake around my neck as I was backing up in utter fear and practically yelling please don’t! Again, to no avail. He quickly had the snake around my neck and was using it as leverage. He was telling Jan to take a picture. She kept saying she didn’t have her camera and I thought it was just to get out of paying. So then I started yelling at her to take a picture, too. I wanted the damn thing off my neck. Turns out she really had left her camera at the hotel. The man began to demand money and I told him Briana had all of my money. He removed the snake and followed me to her. She had several coins in her hands, maybe equivalent to 1 euro. They try and separate you so you get nervous and pay them the big bucks. We instinctively tried to get back together. I was not about to open my wallet when he wrapped a snake around me while begging him not to. “Give me bills,” they demanded, “are you British? I want pounds.” Luckily I stuck to my previous statement saying Briana had all of my money and she wasn’t about to open her wallet. The managed to get some money out of Julia, but we all quickly ran away before we lost too much.

Our cooking class helped ease my mind and forget about our resent unpleasant experience in the square. Our instructor, who happened to be the hotel chef, didn’t speak any English, so the one employee at the hotel who did served as our translator. We made tagine chicken with onions, apricots, prunes and dates. They also showed us how to make the mint tea. It had about a pound of sugar—no wonder it’s so good! The cooking lesson was more like a cooking demonstration. We didn’t do much, or anything really, but we watched our instructor. We got to enjoy the fruits of her labor an hour and 15 minutes later in the Berber tent.

After lunch we were off to find the hammam. A hamman is a traditional Morocco bath. There was one we had read about online and we were determined to find it…even if we didn’t have a map. We looked up directions on Briana’s phone, walked all the way across town and couldn’t find it. On our way we did pass the main mosque and minaret. The Giralda in Sevilla is actually modeled after this minaret, so it was cool to see. With “nothing” else to do we continued our shopping and walked through the souks. Our first purchase was teapots. Jan, Briana and I each bought one. Now that I know how to make the mint tea I thought I might as well buy a teapot! It took us awhile to negotiate, but we ended up getting him down to about 12 euros. Goodness knows if it will actually work. Some of the teapots were just decorative, but he swore the ones we purchased can be used. I may wait until I get back to the States to try mine out. I have a feeling the Chicago Fire Department is a little faster than the Sevilla one.

Our next purchase was spices. Briana and I bought a traditional spice (whose name is escaping me) and a lemon ginger spice. We have yet to use them, but they are certainly smelling up our kitchen! The guy helping us at the spice store opened virtually every spice and tea they had to let us smell them. It was an overwhelming task, but fun nonetheless. After making our purchases we dropped them off at the hotel to lighten the load. We were also determined to find this hammam so we asked the front desk for directions. The guy tried to explain it to us, but without a map we were lost. To be honest, we probably would have been lost even with a map. Marrakech is confusing! He was very nice and offered to take us to the hammam himself. We walked over to find out everything was booked! Not a surprise considering it’s the most popular hammam for tourists and only a day in advance. I left feeling incredibly disappointed. Luckily, the guy from the hotel brought us to another hammam, this one was closer to the hotel, too. They had space, so we made a reservation for the following day.

With a little kick in our steps we ventured back to the main square, determined to find lanterns. We stopped in one store and quickly became friends with Reda. Boy was he a salesman! Jan bought a traditional Berber rug and Briana and I walked out (about an hour and a half later!) with lanterns. Not only was he quite the salesman, but he was quite the talker. I suppose those two do seem to go together hand in hand. I was very happy to finally find a lamp I was happy with. There are tons around, but I was unable to find one to my liking. It was getting late and we still hadn’t had dinner. Reda brought us to a restaurant and we decided it was too expensive so we turned it down. He insisted on bringing us to another place, and he probably got a commission for his work. He promised us it would be cheaper, which it wasn’t, and that there would be a belly dancing show. We were tired and it was close to the hotel so we caved and decided to eat there. Unfortunately, the belly dancing show ended as soon as we sat down. It was another enjoyable meal, but we were all very tired and ready to get back to the hotel.

The next morning we were greeted with another fabulous breakfast. We slept in a little bit because we had our hammam scheduled at 11:00am. The hammam was just a short walk from the hotel. I had read several reviews of Moroccan hammams online, but I really had no idea what to expect. Jan, Briana and I signed up for the hammam and massages. Julia opted out of the hammam and just went for the massage. I’m not sure how this place compares to a typically hammam. I asked the English-speaking guy at the hotel if we could go to a traditional one and he told us we couldn’t because we wouldn’t have known what to do. That being the case, the touristy one was just fine. We went into a small room that resembled a steam shower. We each took turns lying down on a marble slab while a woman scrubbed us down with various soaps, brushes and the like. It was a really interesting process and my skin both looked and felt great afterward! The massage was nice, but it was pretty clear these women had little to no clue what they were doing. I wasn’t too upset though. We would have paid triple the price in the States or Europe for what we got in Morocco.

After our relaxing morning we went to the main square to grab a bite to eat and some more OJ. From our OJ stop we walked to the palace. It cost only 1 euro to get in. If they had kept the place up it would have been absolutely beautiful. It’s the same style as La Alhambra and Reales Alcazares if you’ve ever been there. It’s a shame they haven’t even tried to keep it up. It was dirty and falling apart. We walked through pretty fast and afterward it was time for some more shopping! At this point in time I was getting very low on funds. I had only transferred a relatively small amount of euros thinking it would be enough. Not being able to pay for the hammam with a credit card set me over. This meant that my bartering skills were brought to a new level. I bought two beautifully beaded pillowcases that I can’t wait to use when I get home. I had tucked some money away for dinner and was fresh out of cash after buying the pillow cases, so that was it for me, despite the fact that I wanted to buy everything in every store we went to. I guess when it comes times to settle into my own home I’ll just have to go back to Morocco to decorate.

Later that night came the hard task of packing. Ryanair is notorious for not letting customers get through with even slightly oversized bags and to make matters worse I’m pretty sure their carry on requirements are smaller than all the other airlines. I guess that’s how they get you. We were not going to allow that to happen. This involved some serious brainstorming. It started with wearing our lanterns as hats. That clearly wasn’t going to fly (no pun intended.) Then my favorite idea was putting my teapot open and upside-down on my head with a scarf covering it. It might have resembled a traditional African headdress, however I do not know how well that would go over with my American passport. I also tried wrapping my camera in a scarf once at the airport, however the nice British women next to us told me it looked “dodgy.” Jan was already wearing ALL of her clothes and Briana all of her scarves and several shirts. Packing that night was a very enjoyable experience that I will never forget.

The next morning we indulged in our last breakfast at the hotel, hung around for a little and then took a cab to the airport. Thank god all mighty we all made it onto the plane without any trouble. Ryanair is so unpredictable, but somehow we managed to squeeze through. I was sad to say goodbye to Marrakech after such a wonderful trip, but I’m confident I’ll be back some day—I’m going to have to buy all the furniture for my house.

Hasta pronto,