Marrakech: 45 Degree Landing

From the airplane the landscape looked different than what I had expected. It wasn’t all desert, though everything seemed to be draped in sandy colours. There were lush, large areas of what seemed to be palm tree farms. Everything seemed well put together from 5,000 feet in the air as the plane prepared for landing. I wondered if Morocco was going to be as tame as European destinations I had been to so far.

The Sahara

The Sahara (desert) in Morocco


I never liked flying on small jets – you know the ones with propellers and a 100 or so passenger capacity. Despite 28 years of jetting around the world, I confess, I was nervous. However, I tried to maintain a calm, collected demeanor. That did not fool my next seat passenger, an Aussie-Canadian gal I had been exchanging travel stories with during the flight. My speech became faster and I would pause mid-sentence at every bump that our vessel encountered as we descended. My fellow voyageur kept me engaged in conversation to keep my mind off the turbulence until we finally touched ground. Ahh… the relief!

We landed at Menara Airport (RAK) in Marrakech around 6:00pm in the evening. The sun had started its approach to the dusty horizon. Relieved and excited to be finally in Morocco I approach the airplane door with enthusiasm not realizing the inferno that awaited me outside the air conditioned cabin. It was 45 degree Celsius at sunset!!! The strong, hot winds at the airport released my imagination to feel like a chicken roasting in a convection oven. I dashed to get inside the airport building.

The immigration process at the airport was straight-forward. As a Canadian I have never experienced any challenges crossing borders. Within roughly 20-30 minutes after walking off the plane I was on the other side with all my lugguage where my ride awaited. The airport in Marrakech was probably my last contact with the developed world until my departure from the city’s train station about a week later.

Moroccan’s in this region of the country speak French and Arabic. Two languages that I should be able to make basic conversation in but can not. Even less after a month-and-a-half of being immersed in various dialects of Spanish and Portuguese. As I tried to communicate with my driver the words that rolled off my tongue seemed be a mixture of Quebec French, Jordanian Arabic, mostly Spanish with a hearty sprinkle of English over the entire phrase. We kept to the essentials in the conversations.

Medina of Marrakech

A typical street in the medina of Marrakech.

By the time we were on the main road, outside the airport, night had fallen and the streets seemed quiet, dark and deserted. Like an ignorant tourist I asked the driver if there was a curfew in the city? He reminded me that I had arrived during the month of Ramadan and people go home just before sunset to break their fast.

The car turned in to an old gateway in to the medina, the old city, of Marrakech. It was as if I had traveled through time. The car stopped in a dark alley, by Canadian standards, and the driver pulled out his cell phone to call someone. I, with my Indiana Jones hat, a backpack with expensive hiking poles attached to it, and poor language skills, already felt like cow grazing in a herd of goat. The driver asked me to get out of the car and follow him. We wandered in to a maze of small, winding alleys with few people to be seen. “Stay positive, stay positive, stay positive“, I kept repeating to myself in my head.

We arrived at a traditional gate with a sign on top of it that read “Riad“, which means guesthouse. Yes it was the one I had booked, the one that had arranged for the ride from the airport. In that moment I realized that the guesthouse did not include photos of the entrance in any of their marketing. Then again, I wondered how many travelers might get turned of by those photos. During peak activity hours, walking in to the medina is like walking in to a scene from the movie, Aladdin (1992). In fact, often when I walked out on to the streets of the medina, I would picture myself in the scene when Princess Jasmine wanders outside the palace walls for the first time. She is literally pushed and pulled in every direction by traders, thieves, carts and almost has her hands chopped off in a few minutes.  The scene is not far from reality on the streets that form of an abysmal maze in the medina of Marrakech.

Though filled with colour, smell, interesting art and merchandise, I found it almost impossible to feel free and enjoy it all. At every step it seems you run in to con-men and drug peddlers trying to make an quick buck at your expense. Even the merchants seem aggressive and arrogant. They are either using pressure tactics to sell to you at 2, 3, 4 times the fair price or being rude and pushing you out when you don’t want to buy. It was strongly recommended by the guesthouse and other travelers I met to avoid making eye-contact or engage in conversation with locals on the street. In fact, later in Fes, I discovered that there was a law against the anyone who was not a certified guide to speak with tourists or insist they purchase products from merchants for commission. The good news though is that despite the constant annoyance and petty crime, Morocco is generally very safe.

The center of all life in Marrakech is Jemaa el-Fnaa, the old square and a dynamic marketplace. It’s amazing how this place comes to life and goes to sleep, leaving few traces of its existence, every day. This is the place you see when you fantasize about Morocco. An open air food market with delectable smells and smoke rising up in a mystical play with light above a square filled with snake charmers, performing monkeys, gypsies doing belly dance, colour everywhere. Music, voices and sounds from a 1000 activities meld together to create a sound that can be best described as a pleasant hum.

Market Street in Marrakesh

One of the 100’s of market streets in Marrakech.


Ramadan is a special time to be there. The markets are filled with colourful merchandise and literrally packed streets once the local come out of their homes after a day-long siesta. Though this is a month of  peace, piety, and kindness it seemed that people were even more aggressive. You would find this hard to believe but one day as I was returning to my riad, I saw people tense, crowded at the entrance of a street I needed to turn on. The scene I saw when I poked my head around the corner to see what was happening:

A man with a rusty sword, his had raised over another man while a group of people pulling him back. Women crying, men screaming, children in shock! I don’t know what the issue was but it seemed like people go crazy here in unbearable heat, without food or water and perhaps equally as importantly to some cigarettes and alcohol. Unlike I expected, alcohol is freely available in most places in Morocco except during the month of Ramadan, when it may even by punishable by law in some places.

I traveled from Marrakech all the way up to Tangier in the north. No where in Morocco is more wild than Marrakech. Then again no where do you feel so much alive because all of  your senses are constantly activated. If I ever choose to return to this mystical and incomprehensible city, I will make sure to go during cooler temperatures.

The story of Morocco will continue as I travel through the desert, beaches, mountains, markets all the way to the north where I hopped on to a boat to cross the Strait of Gibraltar back to Spain. Stay tuned and keep exploring!

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