Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Getting Lost in the Souks of Marrakech

There are many things to see in Marrakech, but none so famous as the souks: An exhaustive labyrinth that could take an entire day to explore or a lifetime to learn. Offering everything from spices to snails, the selection in Morocco's largest Berber market attracts anyone and everyone, be it tourists from across the globe or locals doing their daily grocery shopping. Today you might find nicknacks like knockoff Gucci sunglasses next to authentic handicraft like antique Berber rugs, but the market's traditional divisions still generally prevail. Head to the Souk Haddadine for ironworks and lanterns, the Souk Smata for babouches and belts, or even to Souk Ableuh for an elaborate sampling of olives. Whatever you're looking for, you can probably find it in the souks--if you can figure out how to get there. 

I bet on my own sense of direction to navigate the stalls, after ditching the guide and convincing my Dad and brother to come out with me for an evening stroll. Instead of branching out from the central square, we started from our hotel at the northern reaches and worked our way inwards. Heading deeper and deeper into the maze as the sun went down, we passed the sparks of the metalworkers and came to a new understanding of the term "fresh" while watching locals purchase their chicken for dinner--fully feathered and squawking when selected, but limp by the time they reached the bag. Although the boys quickly confessed that they could never find their way back, I remained confident: Left at the slippers, right at the pots, and straight on through the scarves... And if my girl-directions failed me, we were headed to the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square, where we could always catch a taxi home. 

Unfortunately we'll never know if I overestimated my skills, because I underestimated the souks.

After a thé de menthe and some fresh orange juice in the square, we started to snake our way back, but at the end of the main strip I was already confounded: I could have sworn we'd gone straight here! The only way through was to the right, and I remembered that square from the morning... We definitely hadn't passed through it tonight. Even as we were leaving the hotel earlier, stores had already begun to close, and now the stalls were nearly empty. In an interesting yet terrible moment, we realized that it was not only the shop windows that were rolling down their blinds; the medina itself was transforming. Doors were sliding, streets were changing, and what had been a fun puzzle was quickly becoming a problem. 

It was like an adventure right out of A Thousand and One Nights, but how to get home? Finally obliged to consult a map, we had the audacity to consider that we might still make it back something like the way we'd come. And like the moths flocking to the few remaining street lamps, we had no trouble finding "help." Which hotel are you staying at? Can I point you in the right direction? Money? No, no, you don't need to pay me... 

I walked right into it. 

As the nice young man pointed us down corridors, lights were going dim, doors were closing shut, and my pulse was on the rise. Just as his uncle's-brother's-friend-twice-removed started to fiddle with the keys to unlock one of the many dark doorways, my eyes were growing wide and the voice of reason began to repeat in the back of mind: "Oh crap." The clinking of the keys made a heavy sound in the empty corridor, with only my heartbeat to compete against the silence. 

No sooner had my father drawn the line with a quick, "Nope. Not doing it." than I had turned on my heel and was breathing a sigh of relief as we set off, briskly, in the opposite direction. The sound of cursing faded behind us as we reached Jemaa el-Fnaa, where my brother's unfailing GPS could lead us home safely by the main road. 

Have you visited the souks of Marrakech? Would you brave them at night? 

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