The sound of Muslim prayers echoed from the speakers. The smell of smoke from the meat stands filled our apartment. Spices lined the streets. Fresh orange juice lingered on our tongues. Exotic smells became familiar. We were not ready to come home and rented a place in Marrakesh, Morocco after we left Zanzibar.
Winding streets led to a rusty, black iron door and into another universe. We were living in a riad with Bernard, a French painter, near the main square in Marrakesh. He lived here during the winter and worked at the consulate in Iran during the summer. The houses all looked inward and the simple concrete exteriors gave way to rich and colorful interiors.
The bottom half of our apartment had tiled walls, and its two floors circled around an open fountain in the center. There was no ceiling and birds flew in and out of the courtyard. Art hung from the red and pink and green and orange walls. Bernard painted in the studio on the second floor all winter because he liked the colors and the light in Marrakesh. We were using the room beside his studio. The main floor had a huge, red sitting room with over twenty carpets and long couches with many pillows. It was cold and drafty but exquisite, and my favourite spot to sit.
We spent most of our mornings exploring the side streets and getting to know the local shopkeepers. We’d spend afternoons in the apartment with Bernard. He set up an easel for Zoe, and they spent the afternoons painting together while Loc and I sifted through the images and sounds we collected during our journey.
It was hard not to feel inspired here.
We became friends with Soad, Bernard’s housekeeper, and she taught us to speak and write some basic Arabic. She also showed us how to cook her lamb tagine, a slow-cooked stew, which we still make today. One evening, she invited me to the local hammam, and I, assuming it was a kind of local spa, agreed to go.
We paid eighty dirhams to a man sitting outside of a small white door that most people walking by probably didn’t even notice. The room was dark and covered from ceiling to floor in white tiles. We took off our clothes and then walked through another wooden door past six other women sitting on a bench. These were the massage people.
There were three big, steam-clouded rooms and each led into the other while progressively getting hotter and hotter. We headed for the farthest and hottest room with our five big buckets of hot water. The rooms were packed, and we passed woman after woman as they scrubbed their children down while chatting and laughing.
We found a spot near the wall and placed our buckets around us. As the initial shock of the place faded, I started dumping the buckets of warm water on myself. Zoe acted as though she had been here many times before and covered herself in some green smelly algae. After subduing a look of horror, she gave me uncontrollable giggles as I dropped to the wet floor for my massage.
A massage is supposed to be gentle, right? I was sanded like a piece of wood. The “masseuse” scrubbed until grains of black dirt appeared all over my body. Then she took bucket after bucket of hot water and rinsed East Africa away into the soil of Marrakesh.
I peered at the women around me. Some of them spent their days fully covered with only their eyes peering out from under their veils, but in the hammams, those same women were pouring hot water over their bare bodies. Soad said that women came to hammams once or twice a week because they still didn’t have hot water, and it was a treat to be able to feel clean and hot and comfortable. But mostly it was a place where women and their children came to socialize and talk. Three hours later, we were finally finished and we walked back to the apartment, cheeks silky smooth and flushed from the hammam.
The hammams served another purpose, too. The fires in the back were used to cook a traditional moroccan dish, tangia marrakchia. It was common for people to congregate there in order to cook the dish. The man who stoked the fires was friends with Abderazak, the town barber. We found in him a great friend, and all it took was a haircut for Loc. Men would bring their tanjia pots to the butcher, who would fill it with prepared meat, then they would take this to the hammam fires where it would simmer slowly all day. One day, Abderazak invited us over to dinner to share in this meal. We visited his house, met his family, shared this delicious meal.
We learned to appreciate the simple things here, like drying off in a warm room after getting wet from the rain, drinking a glass of fresh orange juice from one of the Djemaa stands, feeling clean after the Hammam, sleeping late, listening to the birds flutter around our place, and escaping from the crowds of people.
We were there long enough to know the smells and learn the streets. We knew where to get a haircut and buy our bread. Things we thought were exciting when we first arrived eventually seemed commonplace, like donkeys that carried goods piled high on their cart down the street, the djellaba coats that the men wore, the women in the black veils with only a slit for their eyes and the snake charmers in the Djemaa el-Fnaa.
But the time eventually came for us to leave Marrakesh. We would soon be leaving to return to Canada, but first, though, we planned to visit the Sahara. We packed our bags and said goodbye to the people that we had said hello to each day as we passed them in the street.
We had rented a car earlier in the month and braved the mountain paths that took us through Berber villages to the Merzouga sand dunes. At the bottom of one of these villages, we met a stranded man whose car had broken down. The roads were empty, so we stopped to give him a lift. He said his name was Saiid and that he lived outside of Merzouga with his five brothers, his Berber father, and Touareg mother. He was proudly Berber, the nomads that had settled in Morocco about three thousand years ago. They had strong feelings about Arab occupation. It’s funny, in the souks, a man said “don’t worry, I won’t sell to you like the Berbers” and Saiid said “Don’t trust Arabs, they lie.” I never side with anyone over politics, but as it turned out, Saiid tried unsuccessfully to swindle us anyway. I still liked him, though. Plus, he took us to meet his family.
We finally arrived late and met up with Abdul, a man who would be leading us into the desert. He prepared the camels that would bring us on our sunset trip to a campsite in the sand dunes, and then we set off. The yellow light that washed over the land quickly turned into pitch blackness, and we had no clue where we were headed. Abdul stopped an hour into the trek so that he could do his nightly prayers. We were not sure of the etiquette of where to look when someone was kneeling on a mat praying on a sand dune—so we all just turned our backs. We resumed our trek under the stars, which, although spectacular, only dimly lit our way.
We finally arrived at the campsite in the oasis and climbed inside our Berber tent. Nobody had bothered to tell how just how cold it got in the desert during the winter, so all we had were our equatorial sleeping bags from hot and sunny Uganda. Fortunately, Abdul had brought spare blankets that weighed and smelled like they may as well have been sheep. But they were better than freezing, so we huddled underneath the heavy, smelly blankets, hoping that morning would come soon to reveal our whereabouts.
When we awoke, we climbed the highest sand dune, and from three hundred feet above the Sahara, we witnessed the sunrise.
Moroccan culture is split down the middle. Outside the medina walls there is a fairly modern city, but then you see a man pouring water from a water bottle onto his feet from in preparation of praying on the side of the road. The inside of the medina walls are seemingly traditional, but then you see a man walking down the street in his djellaba and bright yellow slippers talking on a cell phone. The culture is in transition and there are many foreigners buying the riads. Many of the people we met worked as housekeepers. One of her friends received an American quarter as a tip, and she asked me how much it was worth. I was embarrassed to say. The owners gave their workers just enough to get by, but not enough to move anywhere else.
Satellite dishes littered the rooftops and received western media while, five times a day, the speakers on the mosques blared the traditional reminder of the call to prayer. It was a fight between the modern and the traditional, a love/hate relationship.
At night when I can’t sleep I often sit in the colorful chair that Bernard has painted and think, mostly about my mother. I try to make sense of the past few years and I can’t. The world is beautiful, sad, ugly and unfair all at the same time.
But mostly life is random and all I can do is live every day like it is my last, because it really could be.