On Christmas Day 2011, I went out on a walkabout to Morocco (first spending the night in Madrid, Spain). This post originally appeared on my old blog in January 2012 when I got back. It was only a few months before I met Allison. This was the trip that inspired me to quit my corporate job to go freelance, and ultimately is the reason I met Allison when I did. ]

The sun came up and shone through that same stained glass window I fell asleep looking at. I felt better after getting some rest.

My first impression of Marrakech the night before could have been better, but it was largely my fault. Perception is reality, right? I perceived a threat. I hadn’t realized how tucked away many of the riads and hostels were in this town, and my failure to make arrangements with the manager shaped the events of that first evening; and the fact that I knew I was being scammed by Marud–and his anxious need to avoid the police–increased my perception that I might be in danger.

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Just outside the front door to Riad al Mamoune.

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The truth is that in the daylight, I realized that I wasn’t as far from the market as I had felt. Just far from home.  

It was actually only a 5-6 minute walk back to the market.  And even if those guys really were considering jumping me if they couldn’t find the place (still a very real possibility), we all know I would have judo-chopped them into the middle of next Ramadan. :)

But that was past, and I would not experience anything of that intensity for the rest of the trip. From here it just got better, and better, and better.

*     *     *

I began to make my way back to the Jemaa el Fna market, where hundreds (thousands?) gather each day.  As I reached the outskirts of the crowded market, I turned the first corner only to bump into Matt and Michaela.

Awesome. What were the chances?  We were glad to see each other, and decided to wander around together before grabbing lunch.

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We followed lunch with some delicious freshly-squeezed orange juice, which is sold on ever corner. It was seriously so good, and the day was a perfect 70 degrees. But I was cautious about crashing Matt and Michaela’s romantic getaway. So I thanked them for letting me tag along and offered to leave them to do their own thing, but they kept inviting me to stick around. We were having enough fun that we ended up spending the entire day together, and sharing some really great moments, including:

  • Snake Charmers
  • A monkey jumping on my head (no photos, sorry)
  • The rose gardens at Les Jardins de la Koutoubia
  • The ruins of Palais Bahia
  • Dinner at Jemaa el Fna square

And one of the highlights of the trip (and probably my life):

  • Playing with the beggar-kids

If you haven’t already checked them out, there are tons of photos posted on Facebook. I’ll post just a few of my favorites below, along with this little video:

 

SNAKE CHARMERS

Let's get this over with.

Let’s get this over with.

Nasty.

Nasty.

Old snake charmer taunting the naughty vipers.

Old snake charmer taunting the naughty snakes.

I’m fairly certain these cobras and vipers were doped up on NyQuil or something, because they were absolutely uninterested in all of us. And don’t worry, the one around my neck was harmless.

 

A MONKEY ON MY HEAD

Just after seeing the snakes and [handsomely] tipping Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, we were assaulted by more tourist traps, including Henna Tattoo artists (who will actually start tattooing you before you’ve agreed, if you’re not careful) and monkey-men. These monkey-men walk up to you with a monkey on a leash and try to “welcome you to Marrakech” . . . but as soon as they get close enough, these trained monkeys will actually jump onto your shoulders and head.

Of course the goal here is to create a great photo-op for you and your friends, then they expect you to pay them for this service. Well maybe I was being cheap, after being worked over by the cobra guys, but I didn’t want a picture with the monkey that had suddenly climbed onto my head and shoulders. Mostly I wanted to not have a bare monkey bum against my neck. Matt, Michaela, and I had a good laugh but kept walking until the poor monkey got yanked off of me by his master.

Now what did I do with that hand sanitizer?

 

LES JARDINS DE LA KOUTOUBIA

We found our way to the gardens just outside the Koutoubia Mosque. Along with roses, they had well groomed orange trees and other lush vegitation.

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PALAIS BAHIA

The ruins of this old palace were kind of enchanting, especially with the waning, late-afternoon sun painting everything with a thin layer of golden light.

 

 

DINNER AT JEMAA EL FNA SQUARE

After exploring the ruins of Palais Bahia, we wandered back to the market.

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Rather than finding another restaurant, we opted to eat at one of the many stalls in the main square at Jemaa el Fna. It was wonderful.

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Kebabs. Yum.

Kebabs. Yum.

While eating, the beggar-kids would come to the table and try to get a coin or two from you, some of them selling these little junk toys, or pocket size packages of tissues. Although we had ignored all of the other beggars throughout the day, we were suckers for the kids. But after giving them some money, later we observed them all meeting with a man off to the side, who was clearly their pimp.

Dammit.

That was so frustrating. It’s hard to imagine what kind of life these kids have, and thinking you’ve brightened their day with a few coins only to see them report to their pimp and hand them over . . . ugh.

But something was brewing . . .

 

PLAYING WITH THE BEGGAR-KIDS

[ You will fall in love with the beggar-kids, and they will break your heart. ]

We finished our meal and decided to go get another round of freshly-squeezed orange juice. But this time would be different.

See, as soon as you go up to the orange juice stands, the beggars come up and start pawing at you because you’re sure to have loose change after purchasing some juice. Well this time it was some lady and these two kids (probably a brother and sister).

Well the lady was putting on the same boring beggar routine as most of the adults, and the kids were putting on their sad puppy-dog faces for us and whining for some coins.

Michaela and I had already been handed our glasses of juice before the beggars arrived, so we were already sipping away while Matt waited for his and the beggars showed up and began their song and dance. The juice-man handed Matt his glass of juice. Then, in a moment of inspiration, Matt offered it to the kids.

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They were thrilled! They laughed and sipped and grinned, and you could tell their mom (or handler?) was getting after them for breaking character and smiling, because she’d cluck at them and they’d immediately try to put on the sad faces again.  But we had them. It became a game of getting them to grin and laugh, and we won. :)

We walked away, remarking about those kids and wondered how often they even get a glass of orange juice, because they looked at each other with surprise, like that was the best treat in the world. And it was then that we knew what we were doing the rest of the night.

We went and got small change so we each had a bunch of coins, and we went out trolling for beggar-kids. One or two showed up, and we started playing games with them and doing cheesy magic tricks with the coins. In no time, a half dozen kids surrounded us. We played and teased and made them smile. We made sure that they got a few coins each so hopefully their handlers wouldn’t be upset for their wasting time with us.

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But we wanted them to have something they couldn’t give to their pimps.  So, at the end, we brought them over to get some orange juice. Now, the shop owners are used to shouting at the beggars to leave their customers alone, so with a handful of kids behind us, this guy hollared at them and motioned for them to scram. Confused, these poor kids began to do as they were told and walk away. We quickly motioned for them to stay and told the shop owner the juice was for the kids. He understood.

He tried to be hard and keep serious as he handed us the glasses of juice, but when he looked over the counter and saw the smiles on the kids faces as we handed it to them, a tiny smile crept across his gruff face as well.

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If I ever had a moment where I understood the Angelina Jolies of the world wanting to save every poor kid in Africa, it was then.

Finally, we said goodnight to the kids and made one or two more passes of the market. It had been a wonderful day, which had ended with one of the highlights of the trip, if not my life.  Unforgettable.

The night was coming to a close.  It was cool and dark as we walked past the singing storytellers, past the lady selling lamps on the sidewalk, past the carts full of dates and figs. I even got a chance to jam with a guy on the djembe drums he was selling.

[ THAT would have been good to video. Doh! ]

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The storytellers.

 

 

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The lamp lady.

We found a place to sit and relax–we actually looked all over for a place that actually sold alcohol (it was a mini-quest to find such a place that close to the mosque).  Matt and Michaela each ordered a mysterious brew of Moroccan beer while I sipped on some hot mint tea and we took in the sights and sounds of the day. After a while, we headed back out to the market, where I said goodbye to my new friends.

The shops were all closed up, at this point, and it was quite a different environment on my solitary walk back through the labyrinth to my riad.

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I made it back to my riad without having to stab anybody for the second night in a row. :)  I was invited to join Ali, the manager, and two other guests from the UK in the common area.  More mint tea, and chatting about our adventures.  Before too long, I said goodnight and retired to my room. What an amazing day.

I hope I never forget that night, or those kids. They break my heart.