Sunday, January 16, 2005

Marrakesh

Nice country, but so far an idiotic bus system.

It started late, as with the other bus journeys I've had. And then it took eleven and a half hours to cover 300 miles, even though the two lane road wasn't half bad. The first rest and food stop was eight and a half hours into it, about 70 miles before Marrakesh. The last hour or so I was brain dead from the tedium.

The scenery started to get more attractive as soon as we left Fes, going up into some moderate hills, and ending up looking like a cross between the south of France and New Mexico, if that makes any sense. Then after a while it started to flatten out, starting to look like a cross between the unattractive parts of the south of France and New Mexico. Then it flattened out altogether, turning into an endless panorama of fields and farms and the occasional orange or olive grove.

To the left of me the High Atlas appeared as a semi-respectable mountain range, with snow covering the top two or three thousand feet. These were soon eclipsed by closer, moderate hills which slowly diminished. Finally, right before Marrakesh, the High Atlas reappeared on the distant horizon, looking more majestic but too far away.

I passed the usual Third World assortment of donkeys, goats, and people, but, once again, Morocco didn't look backward enough. Even the rooftops in the small villages sprouted satellite dishes; in the larger towns were new developments that would be upgrades for many Americans. I don't know where the country is getting its wealth, since its entire industrial base seems to be one cement plant on the outskirts of Rabat. Maybe it's all those remittances from those working in Europe...

Anyway, and finally, we entered Marrakesh. Again, all clean and pretty new. I got off the bus and took a cab to the old district. We passed a posh hotel, then a posher hotel. Then a poshest hotel. Then a more poshest hotel. Everyone was built in the same style, with pink stone facing and palms and esplanades out the wazoo. Around them strolled posh Europeans. I was starting to get nervous.

Then we got to the old district, which was old only if you consider 'old' to mean 1960. The nice little hotel I had chosen beforehand was full. My backup, a giant backpacker hotel, only had one very, very crappy room left.

How crappy was it? Well, it was six feet wide. People walking up the stairs could see into it. The front of the toilet in the 'bathroom' was three inches from the wall, making it impossible to sit on.

It turns out that while Friday may be Sunday in Moslem countries, and while Sunday may be Monday, Saturday night is still Saturday night. I was stuck. So I took it.

Now it was time to check out the nighttime action at Djamaa square, which is Marrakesh's big drawing card. The hotel was only a few yards away. Here goes...

And WHAT A FRIGGIN' JOKE!!!!!

Okay, it is big, I'll give it that much. And there were thousands of people milling around. But what were they milling around for?

Here's what: Off to the left as you enter are 80 (don't worry, I counted them all) Moroccan EZ-UP craft fair booths, each well lit and each neatly displaying obviously manufactured Moroccan 'crafts'. Then as you walk through the square there were several quasi-competent Moroccan drumming circles, each surrounded by over a hundred spectators, and a few Arabic storytellers, each surrounded by the same. On the left and the right were 70 giant mall pushcarts, each selling either oranges or dried fruits. On the far side of the square were set up about fifty 'open air' restaurants, with about the ambience of a church or school fair, each selling, of course, the same stuff.

And that was it. That was Marrakesh.

Now I'm not one of those who think that the quaint should remain poverty stricken for the benefit of the viewing public. And I'm sure the local middle class Moroccans enjoy coming here in the same way that you might enjoy going to the church fair. And, as I've said, I realize that it's not 1969 anywhere in the world any more.

But even though the Istanbul I saw in 2004 was totally changed from the one I saw in 1970, it still had the Blue Mosque and St Sophia's. All that Marrakesh ever had was its old world funkiness. With that gone, why in hell would anyone come here???

Those of us who live in New Mexico are always scratching our heads as to why anyone visits Santa Fe. But Santa Fe, even with its Ann Taylors and Banana Republics, is far more authentic than here. Actually, Santa Fe might be the appropriate analogy: For Europeans, living in a totally fake and modern world, Marrakesh might be a totally fake and modern 'escape'.

Enough negativity, though. Let's focus on the positive. First off, what with the Mauritanian visa snafu, I was afraid that I would regret leaving Marrakesh too soon. Not a problem. Next, the nighttime chill wasn't nearly as bad as Fes, so my fears of pneumonia have diminished.

Third, my hotel had an all you can eat couscous buffet. So I was finally able to live the fantasy of being surrounded by mounds of the stuff.

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