Melt Into the Mending Mix of Morocco was written by Isis Freeman, a close personal friend of RBT Haley. Isis recently graduated Harvard Law School and is beginning her journey in NYC.
In March of 2017, a few of my law school friends and I set out for Portugal and Morocco. While Portugal seemed to be a fairly straightforward western European country, none of us had any experience with the North African destination. For me, it was my first time setting foot on the continent of Africa. There was something intimidating about the thought. As a black woman in the U.S. whose family became disconnected with its homeland due to the transatlantic slave trade, and as someone with an Egyptian name, I had been dreaming of this momentous occasion for some time. I never knew when it would happen, where I would first connect with Mother Africa, or how I would make the trip happen, but I had always sworn it would. So when a flight deal popped up for a sub $400 round-trip flight from NYC to Morocco during my final spring break, I knew my moment had come.
We caught a train from the airport in Casablanca to Marrakesh. The trains were super disorganized and exceptionally late, which was not what our jet lagged persons were ready to endure. Eventually, however, we made the trek by train to Marrakesh, making up for the inconveniences and fatigue with people watching and intense card games.
Initially our group was set to spend a couple of days in Marrakesh and then a couple of days in Casablanca, where our returning flight was to depart, but let me tell you, Marrakesh is captivating. As soon as we opened the front door to our Riad in Marrakesh, we knew there was no way we were leaving the city until we literally had to. Riads (meaning “garden” in Arabic) are traditional housing in the Moroccan urban areas (medinas). These houses are completely closed from the outside and are arranged around the central patio, on the model of the traditional Arab-Muslim housing. They are often planted with trees and endowed with a fountain. The best part about Riads is how unsuspecting they are from the outside. Walking past the mud foundations outside, you would never imagine a spacious courtyard with six bedrooms, each with their own bathrooms, and balconies that overlooked the courtyard, existed within. The colors were vibrant. The temperature was a cool contrast to the Moroccan sun. Oh, it was majestic.
We spent our first day exploring the lay of the land. We stumbled upon a beautiful courtyard for lunch, enjoying lamb and chicken stews and rosé in the sunshine. After lunch we decided to check out the infamous Jemaa el-Fnaa. If you do nothing else, go to Jemaa el-Fnaa. It is a large open market with an extensive variety of wares. The feel, the sound, the smell, the people of Marrakesh are all embodied in that one experience for me. We checked out snake charmers, tried fresh squeezed juices, purchased a colorful, traditional Moroccan wardrobe, and took it all in. Funny enough, this is the place we spent the most time and it is still the hardest experience to describe about the whole trip. You have to see it to understand. But be prepared to barter, to walk away, to be catcalled, and to be extremely overwhelmed.
That night for dinner, we decided to check out the less traditional areas of Marrakesh. We ended up at Buddha-Bar. It has a pan-Asian menu and amazing cocktails. Most importantly, after 7pm, it has a series of burlesque shows that were absolutely beautiful and mystifying.
Our second day went a lot like the first in that we explored random restaurants, this time near the market, and walked through the market. However, that evening, we decided to explore the Marrakesh nightlife more extensively. We grabbed dinner, hookah, and drinks at Bar à Shisha du Théâtro which adjoined a nightclub, Théâtro. People spoke highly of Théâtro, and they allegedly played hip-hop, so we decided to give it a shot. We were highly unprepared for what awaited us! Théâtro has the setup of a Las Vegas club, with music blasting and colorful bars (and characters haha), but with a Cirque du Soleil twist. The costumes! The music! The instruments! The stilts! The visual effects! I’m still in shock and awe just from memories. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but that was the wildest scene I’ve ever witnessed. We were all in shock. Drinks were flowing, confetti was flying, and people were dancing. That is the closest thing I have ever witnessed to magic.
Unfortunately, after two days, we were faced with a dilemma: to head to Casablanca where we’d already secured an apartment on Airbnb or to hunt for a new Riad to spend our remaining days in Marrakesh. We decided to risk it. It. Was. Madness. We decided to book another Riad on Airbnb to continue our stay. However, our cab driver could not find the Riad for anything. [A note: Uber is not a thing in Morocco, and streets can be super tricky. Even if you have the address, cab drivers half of the time will not know what you’re talking about. When you go somewhere, note landmarks! They will be your saving grace.] A few people from the group got out of the cab to attempt to search for the Riad on foot, but they were followed and harassed upon and down the street by locals. Eventually they found the Riad. However, the accommodations were subpar and the area was noticeably poorer and more dangerous. At first, we thought about sucking it up and dealing with it, not wanting to lose more money. But our cab driver told us about another Riad that he knew of that he highly recommended. Thank goodness for him.
Our new Riad was even more stunning than our last, with a pool and running fountain in the middle of the courtyard. Personally, I decided to make use of my new Moroccan dresses and do a photo-shoot in the pool. I was so obsessed with the space.
The rest of our time was spent pretty much the same way, exploring restaurants, perusing the market, and partying at Théâtro [A Note: the show is the same every night, just with different costumes] Our final morning we packed everything up and had a car arranged to drive us the couple of hours from Marrakech to Casablanca. It was SO inexpensive. I definitely recommend that route over trying to deal with the trains, which are finicky at best.
And that was it. That was Marrake$h Money. So far as first times go, I can honestly say my first time in Africa was a success.
1) Note landmarks to spare yourself and your cab drivers headaches.
2) Know basic French words and phrases. Even better if you go with someone more proficient in French (I was that person in our group).
3) Find out before hand if your cellular service provider has a partnership with a service provider in the country.
4) Be sure your Riad has wifi.
5) Shower first (haha)! Hot water tends to run out QUICKLY. (I, sadly, always got the cold showers.) And don’t forget your Travel Toiletries
6) Set alarms. The darkness of the Riads coupled with jetlag make them perfect for hibernation.
7) GO TO THE MARKET IF IT’S THE ONLY THING YOU DO.
8) If a vendor tells you the deal is only for the day, just run to the ATM to get more cash. He really will not offer you the same deal tomorrow and you’ll be bummed you spent 700 dirham instead of 500 ($50!!!!!) for a gorgeous leather bag.
9) Best souvenirs are leather goods, pots and dishes, and garments!
10) If the attendant of the Riad offers to cook something for you for dinner, just say no. They will not actually adhere to your requests based upon the menu and will just serve you whatever they want to cook and expect you to pay. Not worth the hassle and the dirty looks when you aren’t willing to pay for the meal they prepared.
11) Go to Buddha-Bar and Théâtro.