Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Honeymoon in Morocco: Jemaa el Fna in Marrakesh

I'm finally recapping the 3-week honeymoon we took to Morocco over Christmas and New Years. Expect many pictures and many, many words about Morocco in the next few weeks. You can find part one herepart two here, more about eating and drinking here, and the train to Marrakesh here.

Marrakesh, as we quickly discovered, is much busier and more chaotic than Rabat. I'm so, so glad we started with Rabat because even after five days in Morocco to get our feet wet, Marrakesh was still at times a little overwhelming. First of all, it's much bigger. Second of all, there are a lot more people, street peddlers, cart vendors, motorbikes, animals, and tourists. Like I said, overwhelming. That's not to say it wasn't also amazing--we loved Marrakesh.

When we arrived, the first thing we did after dumping our bags at our riad (and having the requisite mint tea) was head out on foot to Jemaa el Fna square in the old city. It is the center of the action, day and night, a kind of contained chaos. Juice stands, women trying to give you a henna tattoo, people trying to sell you any number of things, street performers, snake charmers, men walking around with trained birds of prey on their arms, men walking around with little monkeys and other primates dressed up in outfits and on leashes for pictures with tourists (I hated seeing that--it made me so sad), and lots and lots and LOTS of people.
Jemaa el Fna from above
Jemaa el Fna, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been continuously operating as a market and gathering place since around the eleventh century. Talk about history.
Dried fruit, nuts, and juice vendors
These vendors (above) would stand on a little platform in the middle of their cart, where they could strategically reach any of their wares for their customers. Sometimes you'd seen an unoccupied cart, and then a head would suddenly pop out of the middle of it as the vendor stood back up after resting or eating in the space down below his cart.
Jemaa el Fna at night, with the food trucks set up in the background
Although we didn't think it possible, Jemaa el Fna got even crazier at night, when the juice stands would clear out and an entire pop-up city of food trucks would set up tents and huge long tables covered with butcher paper. They set up and took down these enormous tents and tables every single night--by daytime there was no inclination that they had ever been there. We were determined to eat adventurously and thus wandered back to Jemaa el Fna one evening for dinner at a street stall. They all seemed to be selling pretty much the same thing--some variation on skewer-cooked meat, meat pockets, or tagine, so we picked a table and sat down. They rolled out fresh butcher paper, gave us each a fork and knife and a menu, and we pointed at a few options, rolled up our sleeves, and dug in. And it was delicious.

After we'd eaten our fill we wandered around the square some more, where crowds of people had loosely organized themselves into rings centered around either a game or a storyteller. The popular game, which looked absolutely impossible but was fun to watch, consisted of a few dozen full 1-liter soda bottles set up in a clump and a chalk circle drawn on the ground behind which you had to stand. Then if you wanted to play the game you were given a kind of fishing pole with a long string hanging from it and then circle on the end, and the aim was to get the circle/washer to go over the neck of a soda bottle, which is how you "won." Several people came very close but we never saw anyone win the soda bottle, although it sure was fun cheer them on and groan at the near-misses. The storytellers, who tell their stories in either Arabic or Berber, were much more popular with the locals, who could understand them. That was one thing I appreciated about Jemaa el Fna square--it was not just a tourist trap. Lots of locals made their way there every night as well, to shop, eat, and socialize. Although it was crazy crowded, it never felt unsafe. There was no drinking (because the country is 95% Muslim and thus don't drink alcohol), but it was still a rowdy good time. I loved Jemaa el Fna.
 A smaller side market during the daytime

Friday, April 18, 2014

Honeymoon in Morocco: the Train to Marrakesh

I'm finally recapping the 3-week honeymoon we took to Morocco over Christmas and New Years. Expect many pictures and many, many words about Morocco in the next few weeks. You can find part one herepart two here, and more about eating and drinking here.

The second stop on our Moroccan honeymoon was the city of Marrakesh, which has a reputation for being a busy, bustling, glamorous destination for wealthy vacationing Europeans. It’s very popular with the French, and several French movie stars have homes there. Marrakesh also has one of the biggest, most famous medinas (markets) packed with vendors selling anything you could imagine. We were very excited about visiting Marrakesh.

But first we had to get there.  

For some reason that we never quite figured out, you can’t buy train tickets until you’re in Morocco. Which is to say you can’t go online from America, punch in your credit card number, buy a train ticket, and be guaranteed a seat. You have to wait until you’re on the ground in Morocco, physically go to the train station, navigate either talking to a ticket agent (in French or Arabic), or use the only slightly less confusing ticket machines in order to get a ticket (again in either French or Arabic). Every time we navigated buying tickets it was rather baffling as there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to how you had to pay and why (either with cash or credit card), although we did seem get slightly better at it with experience.  

The train from Rabat to Marrakesh was supposed to take a little over four hours, but as we learned it can take much longer. Apparently there are only two or three tracks, total, that run across the mostly empty stretch between the two cities, so when trains want to pass each other they have to slow down and carefully navigate the tracks so there aren’t accidents. I’m all for avoiding train accidents across barren north Africa so that was fine with me. At some points we would stop completely, and a few people would jump off the train and walk around outside a bit. There was really nothing out there, only train tracks and a few desert shrubs, but no streets, or fences, or any other signs of civilization. Then the train would slowly chug back to life, they’d grab ahold and swing back onboard through the open doors, and we’d be off.

We bought first class tickets (which were still pretty inexpensive, I think around $20 total), which guaranteed us a cushioned seat in a dedicated first class compartment that had a little door that closed it off from the very cramped, hot corridor. The corridor was so narrow that only one person could fit through, and if you came upon someone going the opposite way one of you had to step into a nearby compartment to let the other pass. It was interesting trying to navigate it with huge backpacks on our shoulders when we first boarded the train. Every once in a while a man in a uniform would come around with a little cart that had cold drinks and snacks for purchase. The restroom on the train, in case you’re wondering, was a toilet that just emptied onto the tracks. If you looked down (which I don’t recommend doing), you could see the ground below.

After a five-hour journey, we finally arrived in Marrakesh. The gare (train station) in Marrakesh is very chic and modern, and absolutely huge. Another thing we finally noticed was that all the train stations we saw had a little prayer room in case you were waiting for your train when the call to prayer was broadcast. We stumbled outside with our heavy backpacks and found a cab, whose driver promised us he knew where we were going (we didn’t have an address, only the name of the riad and the name of the main gate it was supposedly near), and took off. And then stopped again, about a block away, to pick up a very stylishly dressed Moroccan woman who sat in the front seat, rode about two blocks, deposited a few coins in the driver’s hand, and then got out again. We later learned this is quite common.

The scene inside the medina walls in Marrakesh. Not much room for a car.
We opted once again to stay in a riad, in the old city instead of the ville nouvelle (the newer, usually more expensive part of town), so when the cab driver pulled up to the old city walls, which were designed way before cars, we thought he would deposit us there and we’d be on our own like we were in Rabat. But instead he plowed right on through the very narrow gate entrance, which did not look like it was possible, and laid on his horn to clear the donkeys and motorbike riders out of his way. Alarmed, we assured him that we were good to go on our own, on foot, from there. He gave us a shrug, took our money, and roared into reverse. We had arrived in Marrakesh.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: The Last Original Wife

Now that I’m married, I find that I read books or watch movies about marriage with a different perspective, especially if these stories are about an unhappy or failed marriage. Don’t even get me started on infidelity--I haven’t ever liked to hear about it and now the thought makes me almost sick to my stomach. I always think to myself “How did you get here? Did you ever really love each other?” The book The Last Original Wife by Dorothea Benton Frank is a good example of both how this happens to couples and a lesson in what not to do.

Leslie Anne Greene Carter is The Last Original Wife among her husband Wesley’s wildly successful Atlanta social set. But if losing her friends to tanned and toned young Barbie brides isn’t painful enough, a series of setbacks shake Les’s world and push her to the edge. She’s had enough of playing the good wife to a husband who thinks he’s doing her a favor by keeping her around. She’s going to take some time for herself—in the familiar comforts and stunning beauty of Charleston, her beloved hometown. And she’s going to reclaim the carefree girl who spent lazy summers with her first love on Sullivans Island. Daring to listen to her inner voice, she will realize what she wants . . . and find the life of which she’s always dreamed.

This book starts out in the middle of the story, with Leslie and her husband Wes going to therapy to try to save their marriage.  It jumps back and forth between their two points of view to give the reader background and insight into how they got to the point where they needed therapy in the first place.  Another consequence, probably unintended, is that it makes both of them seem like pretty unlikeable characters from the very beginning of the book.  The reader does get a lot of insight into how each of them thinks and feels, but at least for me this didn’t do a whole lot to help me identify with them.

Toward the middle of the book, when the narrative jumps back in time, I started to sympathize with Leslie a bit more, and actually felt pretty sorry for her.  She seemed like one of those people who always cared more for other people than she did for herself, with sad consequences. It also didn’t seem to make her family members and loved ones happier or more appreciative of her, which made it all the more sad.

The book tried to redeem itself and the characters in the end, but it felt a little flat. I finished the book feeling both sad for the (fictional, I realize) characters and very glad that I wasn’t in the same boat. I also realize that I might not be the best reading audience for this book since I’m younger than the "replacement" wives and thus had a hard time identifying with Leslie, the 58-year old original wife. If you don’t mind infidelity and are looking for a book that feels like the literary equivalent of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, pick this book up. If not, this one might not be your bag.
Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.