A very acute contradiction exists among the images of Morocco. Travel magazines like Afar or Travel+Leisure depict peaceful sanctuaries of elaborate tilework and intricately decorated gardens. Sun splashed courtyards with heavenly mint tea amidst colorful stone walls evoke the most romantic notions. But step foot in the Fes or Marrakech medina and a different feeling emerges. Questionable odors, streams of unknown liquids, animals on chains, and a sea of pushy, trinket-slinging Moroccan salesman dominate the streets.
The truth is, both images are real. How they comingle is what makes Morocco such an intriguing place.
There’s a simple pleasure in the arrival - any arrival - after traveling a long distance. After nearly 8 hours on the train from Fes to Marrakech, stepping onto the station platform is a joyous occasion. And after the narrow streets of Fes, being greeted by Marrakech’s modernity and open spaces is another greatly appreciated change.
A short taxi ride from the station, Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech’s world famous plaza in the center of the medina, is awash with tourists and locals attempting to sell something - anything - to tourists. Snake charmers, henna artists, musicians, men with monkeys on chains, and Argan oil salesmen each stake out claims in the center of the square. Horse-drawn carriages pass by and rows of carts sell freshly-squeezed orange juice for 4 dirhams (about 60 cents) a cup.
Our riad, again, is a beautiful respite from the chaotic and odiferous streets. Vines climb the south-facing grey stone walls and the center garden catches the day’s last rays of sunlight. Marrakech’s grasp on tourism is vastly improved over Fes and while more shops and restaurants make life easier on travelers like us, sales tactics are more evolved. As we walk through the medina’s tight streets, vendors welcome us, ask (or guess) where we’re from, then request we look in their shop, all in a matter of seconds. Shouts of “Madame,” “Australia,” “Bonjour,” and “Hola” come from every corner.
Pushing through the narrow lanes and small plazas of the souks (markets) on our second day, we make our way to Madrasa Ben-Youssef, the largest Islamic college in Morocco. Founded in the 14th century, closed in 1960, then renovated and reopened to the public as a historical site in 1982, it’s an architectural wonder. Vibrant, symmetrical tiles splash the courtyard walls with color and life. Small dark rooms where students once lived make up the rest of the ancient college. And as with most buildings in Morocco, the quiet interior provides peace and calm from the tumultuous streets.
The next day we head to the beautiful Bahia Palace, built in the late 19th century. After our visit, we learn that Si Moussa, the grand vizier of the sultan, built the palace’s central basin and its surrounding rooms for his concubines. My how times have changed.
Making our way back to the riad, passing half-starving stray cats in dark alleyways, we again walk through the main square, Jemaa El Fna. Snake charmers taunt cobras and vipers, lying out of the sun under umbrellas. The cobras stand up in a defensive posture, sneering at the men playing loud music and jeering the venomous reptiles with their flutes and drums. A few feet away, large monkeys on chains (more overt animal cruelty than in Thailand, where monkeys wear diapers) bounce up to their “master’s” shoulders as the handlers try to push them on tourists in exchange for cash. Through the square and among the shaded alleyways, turtles and chameleons live stacked on top of one another in tiny cages. These images reveal the unsavory reality that in places like Marrakech, people will do almost anything for money.
At a point when we may be feeling our lowest about Morocco, we spend an afternoon visiting both Henna Cafe and Marrakech Henna Art Cafe (we’re just as confused by the similar names as you are). Henna Cafe offers henna, tea, and traditional Moroccan snacks to support its education and empowerment initiatives for local Moroccan women. Providing jobs and classes for women in need, it’s a social enterprise giving back to those in the community who have little else to rely on. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Marrakech Henna Art Cafe is following a similar path. Lori Gordon, an artist from South Dakota, opened the cafe earlier this year with hopes of giving back to the community in her own way. Serving up henna art and delicious eats, Lori recently founded a sister non-profit that will support underprivileged Marrakech youth through free art and photography lessons.
And again, visions of hope oppose images of exploitation. Beautiful riads, charming ancient buildings, and altruistic entrepreneurs clash with the often unseen, grittier side of Marrakech. Like many places we’ve traveled, it’s not a matter of what’s nice or not; what we like or dislike. It’s the space in between the peaceful images in magazines and the chaotic reality that makes traveling here so fascinating. We’ve come to appreciate the slight discomfort and imperfection that comes with the beauty of each experience.