Marrakech, Part 2

{Read about the beginning of our trip to Marrakech, Morocco, here: Marrakech, Part 1.}

We loaded up on another 5-star breakfast at the riad on Saturday morning (this time we were served some amazing fritters of some kind—I never did find out what they are called), building up our energy for a day of haggling in the central souks.

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The souks are the maze of market stalls, and they seem to go on and on and on. They’re primarily geared towards tourists looking to buy traditional Moroccan handicrafts, but you do see locals shopping for items, too. Before our trip, I wasn’t sure what I would even want to bring back with us, and we only brought carryon bags for the weekend, so couldn’t go too crazy.

But now I get what the fuss is about. There are so many beautiful things to buy that are made right there.

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You walk around and see the artisans at work—blacksmiths working metal into lanterns, hides drying in the sun, wood carvers working spindles with their feet. Moroccan carpets, lanterns, tiles, leather goods, paintings, wool blankets, pottery… there’s enough here to want to redecorate your whole house in Moroccan riad style.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, there are no fixed prices. You have to haggle for everything. Personally, I hate haggling. I find it exhausting and stressful and it takes such a long time and I always walk away wondering if I was way off on the price and he’s laughing behind my back. Just tell me what the price is and I can compare it with another shop and make my decision and we’re done here. But that is not how it’s done. Furthermore, in Marrakech, you aren’t supposed to launch right into asking how much it is. You’re supposed to chat for a while first, build a relationship. I mean, really.

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So we set out for our shopping expedition ready to get down to business. Our first stop was a woodcarving stall. The craftsman demonstrated how he makes the pieces, and we picked up some wooden toys for our daughter and her cousins from him.

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We continued on, picking up some more gifts for family members, doing the negotiation dance each time. For ourselves, we brought home a copper tea light holder and a small metal and glass star lantern for our Christmas tree, which were easier to pack home than the large lanterns I’d really like to have all throughout my house.

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We also bought a large, hand-painted serving dish, the kind Moroccans use to serve couscous.

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Speaking of couscous, when we needed a break from souk shopping, we headed to Naima, a little hole-in-the-wall kind of place recommended highly in our guidebook (we used the Lonely Planet pocket guide). There’s no menu, you just sit down and they bring you whatever she’s cooking that day. There was a starter (roasted eggplant/aubergine with bread), and then the main event is a large platter of couscous. The way they cook couscous in Morocco takes two hours. It’s steamed, instead of boiled. That day’s version featured chicken, roasted vegetables, and a delicious medley of caramelized onions and raisins. There’s a broth to pour over everything. It was fantastic. And of course, the Moroccan-style hot sweet mint tea to go with it—the best we had.

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After lunch, it was time for our hammam, a traditional Moroccan steam bath with scrub-down. This was one of the most foreign-feeling cultural experiences I’ve ever had, which really took me out of my comfort zone, on a par with the time in China I had a foot “massage” that involved pain… and fire.

There are lots of places around Marrakech that call themselves hammams but are more like Western-style spa experiences, catering to tourists, but M wanted the authentic experience at a traditional hammam with the locals. Our riad arranged for us to go accompanied by a man and a woman they use at the riad’s spa to do the scrubs, which seemed like a good compromise. They came equipped with the kit needed to bathe us: plastic mat to sit on, plastic cups, soaps/shampoos, scrubbing mitts, salt scrub, and clay/mud from the Atlas mountains.

The hammam has separate sections for men and women, so M and I bade farewell at the entrances and went with our hammam guides/bathers/I’m not even sure what to call them?

Here’s what I knew about the hammam beforehand: The hammam is heated with steam, and there’s a warm room, where you sit first to sweat out the toxins; then there’s the tepid room, where you scrub yourself down (or have someone do it for you) with a special black soap; then there’s a cool room, where you can sit afterward. Moroccans do this to sweat out all the toxins and scrub away all the dirt and dust of the medina and exfoliate really well. What I’d read online and in our guidebook said there is not actually full nudity; everyone keeps their bottoms on.

That is FALSE. At least for the women’s side. This is not a spa. This is bathing. With other people. I didn’t know where to look, because as the very obvious foreigner in the room, I was getting quite a few looks myself. I tried to appear bored and uninterested; like oh, I do this all the time, I always bathe this way, ain’t no thing.

My bather didn’t speak English, so we communicated as best we could in French. She paid for our entry at the front desk, and showed me where to leave my clothes and towel. Once we moved from the steam room into the tepid room, she filled up a large bucket with warm water from a faucet in the wall, then came back and started my scrub. The scrubbing mitt she used on me was quite possibly made of sandpaper, and she took off a good layer of epidermis with it. Then she slathered me in some mud, supposedly from the Atlas mountains, before washing me with soap. She gave me one initial warning to “ferme tes yeux,” but the rest of the times I received no warning before she waterboarded me in the face with the contents of her heart-shaped plastic cup.

Afterwards, when we were back in the lobby area and getting dressed, an old woman shuffled out, nude, knelt down to fill up a cup of water from a spigot near the floor, and farted. And that signaled the end of my hammam experience.

All throughout, I kept wondering what M was thinking during his hammam experience. If I was uncomfortable in this situation among other women, certainly he must be, getting bathed by a man. Turns out I was totally wrong about that. First of all, the men really did all keep their trunks on. And as someone who’s played on sports teams his whole life, he’s showered and changed in locker rooms countless times, so this really wasn’t a big deal at all for him. And he said there weren’t any children and there wasn’t any talking (for women it’s a very social activity, and some were bathing their children, too), so it was relaxing to just sit there in the steam.

“I didn’t realize I was so foliated!” he exclaimed. I do have to admit, my skin has never felt so soft.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of our Marrakech experience, in which M eats spleen.

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