Over the years, I've carefully cultivated an approach to shopping that allows me to avoid it most of the time. Ursula doesn't even ask any more, and Molly and George have learned I'm a killjoy at the mall. In short, they don't ask; I don't go; and we're all happy. So, what does this mean when we're in a place famous for it's markets?
In Marrakech, the 'souks' (markets) are never-ending and mind-boggling. Between dodging small motorcycles and ducking aggressive vendors, I could not find a moment's peace. When I was alone, I walked briskly, mostly avoided eye contact, and stole quick glances into the alleyways and stalls. I know this sounds awful, but it was my best 'anti-shopper' survival technique.
When I was with others, such as my family or the Bruces, I frequently had to slow down and wait for others who were actually enjoying the experience and interaction. (I can't imagine walking through these places with John Beachli, who would be happy to talk to everyone!) This made me an easy target for every guy pretending he's my friend so he could try to sell something to me.
Which brings me to today.
We arrived in Fes last night, tired and hungry. After checking in, we made a brief visit to the edge of the souk before having a quick dinner and retiring to our lovely riad for the night. If Marrakech is a rabbit warren, this place is an ant colony. George realized we had moved to another level of authentic when he saw a camel's head hanging in the butcher shop. Suddenly the live chickens getting butchered in Marrakech didn't seem so exotic. The guide book says you have to be careful to avoid getting run over by motorcycles in Marrakech; they make a similar warning about donkeys in Fes. 'nuff said, I think.
Consequently, I've decided to hire an licensed guide to take us through this place today. While I may not be ready to join the 'bus tour' crowd yet, I am looking forward to having someone protect me from leather, ceramic and handicraft merchants in my face all day long. Having someone who can say "buzz off" in Arabic will be worth whatever it costs.
All this brings me to the place I quickly learned to love - Essaouira. This seaside town is historic and beautiful. There are no cars or motorcycles in the market areas - or donkeys. The vendors are laid back and good natured. Hearing the ocean waves crash in the background is an added bonus. Our little hotel was lovely, and we enjoyed several good places to eat for reasonable prices. We even found a place on Sunday night that served real beer!
Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy we came to Morocco. I always wanted to visit Marrakech, and the more I read about Fes, the more it interested me too. If I could borrow Harry Potter's invisible cloak, life would be perfect here. But, if I ever return to Morocco, I'll fly to London, catch an EasyJet flight to Essaouira's small airport, rent an oceanfront condo for a month, run on the beach every morning, visit the fish market when the boats return in the afternoon, and enjoy coffee (and some beer) in the old town afterwards. That's something I could look forward to!
We just got back from our half day walking tour of Fes. This was the best $50 I've spent in a long time for a couple of reasons. (Unfortunately, George has a sore toe today, so he didn't join us. Molly is exhausted about walking and listening for 3 hours straight, but she gutted it out with us.)
First off, the biggest advantage of a guide for me was that I didn't need to 'be in charge' to find my way around and decide which way to turn at every intersection. In this city, you cannot imagine how advantageous that is. Rather, I was a passenger, and loved every minute of it.
Second, as hoped for, we got a knowledgable local who showed us stuff we wouldn't have found on our own in a week. We told him before we left we weren't interested in buying anything, and I think he conveyed that to merchants every time we entered a specialty markets.
Fes is an unbelievable place. Imagine a walled medieval city, completely vehicle free and home to 200,000 people. (The entire city is 1.2 million, but the majority live outside the walls.) Some streets are so narrow my shoulders were almost touching on both sides. What I didn't realize is that the city was designed this way primarily as a security mechanism to confuse and confound invaders. This place isn't car-free by choice, you could hardly ride a bicycle on most of these streets.
Anyway, this place is pretty special. Today we saw stuff I couldn't have imagined. Very cool.