I crammed into the backseat of the tiny car, pushing my backpack to the side and putting my feet under the seat in front of me to be able to fit in. I felt relieved.
After leaving the sheep truck, I had walked down the hill away from it, to put some distance between us. I was looking around for a secluded spot in case I had to spend the night somewhere along the side of the road. I had plenty of water, but not much to eat. The area was very quiet with some great views of the High Atlas mountains. Once the thick exhaust and grinding rumble from the sheep truck disappeared up the hill, the air was fresh and clear.
Cars in Morocco were not the huge steel boats back home, but smaller vehicles able to take the rough going. I was grateful for the ride. We still had more mountains to climb, and I steadied myself for the bumpy passage up even higher. The loose windows couldn’t keep out the dust, but on we went.
The road seemed to be needing repair. It had been built around 1930 and been subject to rockslides and heavy use, so we bounced as we proceeded. Going was slow. It was not a road for those with bad backs or vulnerable kidneys. We continued the climb for a couple hours edging along the cliff face.
Then we stopped at a look out on the Tizi N’test pass for some food. When I looked around, I was amazed that goats were up in the argan trees eating leaves. They seemed to have no trouble climbing up high. The Tizi N’test pass is over 6,000 feet in the High Atlas Mountains, so it is already up in thinner air. As high as it was, the goats wanted to be even higher.
We had lunch at a small taverna there run by a Berber family. One delicious item offer was the goats’ milk and cheese. It had a distinct taste, perhaps due to the argan leaves.
Once over the pass, we came down into much greener valleys as we pressed on for several hours to get to Marrakesh. When we arrived, I extricated myself from the cramped car and thanked my host for the day’s travel. I took a breath and walked through the Jemaa el-Fnaa Gate in the Great City Wall into the hubbub of the medina.
There was a simple but comfortable students’ hotel a few streets into the medina from the Gate. I had stayed there before and found it to be a convenient central location right around the corner from the Hippie Café, a gathering place, welcome center, community refuge for kids my age.
The huge Jemaa el-Fna Plaza was also right there. It filled every day with entertainers and merchants selling fresh fruit, particularly oranges, street food, local crafts and merchandise of seemingly infinite variety. There were snake charmers and barbary apes in chains performing for the passers-by. Many were dressed in the traditional blue, which sometimes tinted their skin blue.
Wearing my djellaba, I fit right in wandering among the stalls, looking for local food, something new and different, or interesting bargains. The odor of onions and garlic were in the air around the stands selling tajine and couscous, while the charcoal and sizzle of the lamb kebab stands competed for the attention of my nose.
The smells, the sounds, the colors also crowded the Plaza. There was a constant chattering or Arabic and Berber with regular daily calls to prayer from the minaret nearby. Occasionally there were brightly colored marriage party processions with their chants, drums and cymbals which managed to pass through the crush of people in the Plaza. The crowds seemed to magically part clearing a path for the celebrants.
Tea Vendors in the Plaza poured tea with much ceremony in great arcs from their outstretched arms down into the cups. The tea in the pot was burning hot, so their exaggerated pours aerated the tea and cooled it almost to a drinkable temperature.
The Hippie Café afforded me more familiar foods, like omelettes – also served with tajine. There foreign students could sit and drink tea while contemplating the value of humanity, our reasons for being and other mundane philosophies.
After a couple days, I saw a number of locals clothed in their djellabas, spending the night sitting in the Medina. So, I decided to spend the next night sitting against a wall down the street from my hotel to see what it was like. In my djellaba with the hood pulled over my head the only visible part of me was my fingers and the tips of my sneakers. I became another shadowy character in the in-between world once twilight fell. I was neither a local nor a foreigner, except for the sneakers.
The djellaba kept me warm and comfortable, protected. I was left alone passing as another local in the night. It was pleasant in the cool fresh air and made me feel even more a genuine part of Marrakesh.
I wondered if I would have been brave enough to sit out overnight on the street in a European city or somewhere in the US? Not likely. Was I becoming braver with less fear of this place, even with its amazing differences? I guess I was learning the risks and was now able to evaluate them as not that great.
Was I becoming assimilated in my travel, merging with the environment I found myself in, rather than looking at it like it were a post card or travel site?
Isn’t that the goal of the traveler – to experience where you go, not just look at it but feel it, taste it, smell it. While you can never really be a local, you can experience the sensations.