Tale of two tourist cities
A little while ago we voyaged to Ifrane, a cute little skiing town in the Middle Atlas mountains. It was built by the French, and it feels like you're in Switzerland... Christmas lights, snow, cute A-frame houses.. and we went skiing! Like what!?! Skiing in Africa!? The only way I can describe the experience would be...ratchet. (For all y'all who aren't hip to the slang that the young folk use, "ratchet" refers to something that is somewhat haphazard and potentially dangerous, but works out regardless). You pile into a grand taxi with six other people (a sedan that can normally only fit 4 people) and pay the driver for three hours of voyaging and skiing. As we got closer to the mountain (and higher in elevation, aka more snow) we saw tons of Moroccans "sledding" (shooting down a 10 foot patch of snow on a sled made of a crate and pieces of skis) on the foothills of the mountain. At the actual mountain, a bunch of guys were announcing their wares for people to rent: skis that seemed to be from the 80s, mismatched boots, polls that looked like they were about to fall apart or pieces of bamboo... We rented skis and were about to start the trek when I noticed that one guy had a snowboard, so I negotiated with the original guy to let me change. I later learned that they were all owned by the same people, so I shouldn't have been stressing so much. Anyway, there are no lifts at this "mountain" and only one slope wasn't covered with giddy sledding Moroccans. So we started the 1000 meter trek (I actually have no idea how high it was), carrying our gear on our backs. It was tough, let me tell you. But getting to the top was totally worth it. We frolicked around for a bit, then boogied down. The trek took 45 minutes, the run took 3. So worth it.
Ifrane was great for a couple of reasons. We rented a couple apartments for everyone (12 Americans, 6 Moroccans) and it was really fun to be able to cook for ourselves and not have to adhere to any schedule except our own. On the way back from Ifrane we stopped at Meknes. Oh! Forgive my backtracking, I forgot to document our traveling experience to Ifrane. The way trains work here is you can buy a ticket 5 minutes before getting on the train. They don't sell out (unless you go bougey and buy first class, which in hindsight we should have done). You wait on the track for the train to come, and you pray to God/Hashem/Allah that all the other people waiting with you are just lost and aren't in fact getting on the same train as you. The train screeches into the station, and you're incredulous that there is only a trickle of people getting off the train. Your primal instincts kick in, and suddenly you find yourself pushing around a djelaba wearing woman and a stout Moroccan man that simply won't get out of the way for you to secure your place on the train. You stand in the aisle with your face squeezed between the window and a man's shoulder for about 2 hours, until some of the passengers decide they can't handle it anymore and they get off the train. Only the lucky ones find a seat. That was our experience. It made arriving at the town all the more sweet.
A couple weekends later, we went to Marrakech and Essaouira. I'll be straight up, I was not impressed with Marrakech. The ride there was beautiful, with farms on one side of our familiar minibus and the Atlas mountains on the other. The end result was not so great. Marrakech feels like it's trying to be the Morocco that tourists want it to be. The main event, Jemma el Fnaa, is an overstimulating, touristy, monkey throwing, snake charmer ridden square in the middle of the city. The medina is clean and has street signs. The merchandise is overpriced. Everybody urges you to "come into my shop, I have great prices, you want to try, very beautiful, welcome to my country". Which is fun for about 12 seconds.
We were only in Marrakech for a day. The next day we spent in a village up in the mountains, at a beautiful riad tucked into the hillside. We went for a hike to work off the bzeff tagine that we ate.
After Marrakech, we continued Westward to Essaouira, which quickly became my favorite Moroccan city thus far. Essa (as nobody calls it) is a fortified city on the Atlantic ocean with a Parisian/Andalusian/Moorish charm. The beaches are beautiful, the architecture is lovely, and the place is brimming with history. It used to be the main squeeze for the Jews in Morocco, so there are a couple synagogues scattered around the city.
We stayed in Essaouria for two days and waddled around the city, eating strawberries and oogling at all the places that were sets for "Game of Thrones". It was very relaxing and pleasant. I also almost made my first art purchase, but I didn't have enough money. I went back the next day and my painter friend named Zazu had been replaced by a woman selling popcorn. Downgrade or upgrade, you decide. We discovered a great café/resto that was owned by a Frenchman and served fresh and local Moroccan inspired cuisine. The place looked like a furniture store on the Lowest East Side of Manhattan, very hip and slightly retro.
Our two cities (or really two and a half cities) that we visited over the past couple weekends were extremely different. It was interesting to see Moroccans being tourists in their own country, a stark contrast to the regular ol' boring tourists we saw in Marrakech. I guess one thing can be said: I'm happy I live in Rabat, where tourists aren't a huge part of the cityscape. Except for one thing in particular that happened just earlier today:
Taxi slows down next to me and a friend walking down the street in Agdal. A man sticks out his head and motions for us to come over.
Man: Are you American?
Julia and friend: Yes!
Man: Where is Burger King?