The medina is haphazardly laid out, a sign of city that has organically grown over the last millennium. Even the major thoroughfares in the medina have just enough room for one car to pass. With the two double storied houses and shops lining the streets, it is easy to feel claustrophobic. Like a writhing snake, the narrow streets turn and twist dramatically. Yet, it is on these very streets that the vivid color and character of Marrakech is on display.
Walking in Marrakech is the best way to experience the true spirit of Morocco.
A typical alley in the medina in Marrakech (Nikon D300S, Nikkor 18-200, f/3.5 @1/80s with ISO 3200, EV –1)
There is a continuous patter of feet on the streets that starts early in the morning and continues late into the night. The colorful local garb - Berber men in their long djellabas, fez hats and bright babouches; the women mostly in a hijab or burqa (a western attire flashing by every once in a while) – lights up the scene. Most streets do not have footpaths and people freely use the entire breadth of the road, by a blaring horn scattering them every now and them. The traffic consists of possible form factor – trucks, vans, cars, motorcycles, scooters, mopeds, bicycles, and even donkey carts.
A tea stall in Marrakech (Nikon D300S, Nikkor 18-200, f/7.1 @ 1/200s with ISO 200, EV –0.3)
I had (wisely) chosen a riad in the medina as our temporary headquarters in Marrakech. That way, I was right in the middle of the maelstrom the moment I stepped out. A trip to the grocer at the corner to procure a toothbrush felt like an adventure. Fortunately all the years I spent in India, particularly in the crowded Mumbai, had made self preservation a mere muscle memory. For example, I knew that the moped headed towards me had an equally worried driver who would pick up bruises in case of a collisions. So it is safe to hold my ground, reducing one variable in this equation, and let the rider find an alternate path. The trick is to ignore the indescribable that is yelled at you.
A modern kasbah in Marrakech (Nikon D300S, Nikkor 18-200, f/5.6 @1/125s with ISO 200, EV –0.3)
In the streets, the scarcity of signage – and in Arabic, when present – renders navigational apparatus like maps useless. One is left to using age old devices like memory, common sense, wits, asking politely and to a large degree, luck.
When I first stepped out alone, I tried to memorize the landmarks on my route – a left at the pharmacy, a right at the tea stall. Too many pharmacies and too many tea stalls meant I was lost within a few minutes of starting to head back. Another time, I tried a system I called “all lefts”. By this system, I walked a road until I came to a fork or a T-junction, then I would always take the street on the left. While returning, it was then a simple matter of taking every right. It did not work either, as if Marrakech naughtily rearranged itself behind me.
I realized getting lost was part of the Marrakech brochure. From then on, I simply took the street that caught my fancy and followed it until another beckoned. There with no overhead of trying to remember how to get back. When I wanted to return, I just took a taxi.
(Nikon D300S, Nikkor 18-200, f/6.3 @1/160s with ISO 200, EV –0.3)
The dilapidated petite-taxis are omnipresent, whisking around dangerously, cutting a way through the crowd without dropping speed. They can be hailed with the wave of a hand or with a sharp whistle. And they are very meticulous about carrying no more than three passengers. Once Preeti, Vijay and I stopped a vintage, cream colored Mercedes to take us to Djemma El Fna. As we were getting in, the driver kept shaking his head vigorously waving three fingers in our face. We finally realized that little Kabir – the junior Aski, just two years of age – counted as a full headcount. Which meant, I had to get a separate taxi for myself. When you rent a taxi, you only rent your seat. As long as there is an empty seat, the the driver will stop to pickup additional passengers at will. Like most prices in Marrakech, the fare is negotiable.
(Nikon D300S, Nikkor 18-200, f/5.3 @1/125s with ISO 200, EV –0.3)
I saw this man sitting on his cart while taking a walk one early morning. While retuning an hour later, he was sitting exactly at the same spot. It was the donkey that looked a bit bored.
They say, In Morocco, don't look up! (Nikon D300S, Nikkor 18-200, f/9 @1/320s with ISO 200)
When you are in the streets, local cultural etiquettes warns you about looking up at the windows, balconies and terraces of the houses. These are the vantage points for the women of the household. Most traditional women are covered head to toe when they leave the four walls of their house. Since they leading a fairly cloistered life on the streets, the terraces and the windows are supposed to be their spots to peep down into the streets without having to be covered. So try and not look up.