Monday, October 26, 2009

Tea and Chocolate Not

Every evening at sunset, dozens of open-air kitchens set up on the Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech's central square. The scene is like a giant dinner theater with all sorts of "entertainment'' going on all around and clouds of smoke everywhere from the outdoor grills. Crowds gather around drummers, herb and black magic sellers and women sitting on plastic stools telling fortunes or doing henna tattoos.

Our favorites are the tea vendors with their big brass urns and what looks like large mounds of chocolate cake.

"The surprise is that's it's not 'tea' and it's not chocolate,'' someone told us. The tea looks like the mint tea we've been drinking everywhere - little glasses of hot water infused with bunches of fresh mint and lumps of sugar. But these vendors are actually brewing a tea made from 20 spices and herbs. It has a strong taste of cinnamon and cloves, and it's served with a scoop from a mound of cake that's  spice cake, not chocolate, studded with almonds. Tea and cake cost about 50 cents. We've

been back several times! Notice the picture of the two women below this vendor's stall.  Each vendor decorates his stall differently. This one is ringed his with blue and pink flowers. Jars of spices are lined up on the bar. A framed photo of Mecca hangs next to the urn.

The snail sellers were another favorite. They set up in front of the orange juice stalls starting every afternoon around 4 p.m. I asked these locals what they thought. "C'est bon,'' one of them answered. Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912-1956. French is widely spoken, although I found it useful to learn a few words in Arabic such as "Hello'' and "Thank you.'' A small bowl of snails cost about 75 cents, and they were very good!

We spent a little time exploring the Mellah, the former Jewish quarter which once had a large population of Jews before many relocated to Israel after World War II.  The area is run-down compared to other parts of Marrakech, but less touristy and more laid back. Spice and herb vendors set up elaborate displays like this one to lure customers.

 I think it would be easy to come to Marrakech and be overwhelmed by the feeling of constantly being berated by hustlers and touts wanting to sell you something. Short-changing, and over-charging is common. There are lots and lots of European tourists and ex-pats with valuable euros to spend, so bargaining is essential when buying anything. Unlike in some other countries where the "first'' price might be a half to two-thirds higher than the real price, here it can be as much as six times higher than what a merchant will accept in the end. We haven't bought much so far, and some shopkeepers don't take kindly to "just looking.'' Tom has been "accused'' of being Jewish, being from Texas and needing viagra by various touts who became angry because he didn't buy.

There's a few minor historical sites, but what we've enjoyed most is what I like to think of as the museum of the streets. Some of our best times have spent people-watching at a cafe over glasses of mint tea and a plate of olives.

We spotted this man while taking a morning walk around our neighborhood. He goes from shop to shop offering to perfume the air with whiffs of incense.

Jemma El Fna is almost as interesting in the morning as it is at night. This man dodged motorbikes to drive his donkey cart through the square.

And finally, more interesting than actual shopping was watching these local shoppers cross the square laden with bags after a visit to the souks.

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