A few days ago a friend of mine from university posted this message on my Facebook page — “Read this and thought of you this morning. Smooches bubbala!”
Every year, The New York Times recommends 52 Places to Go, one place to dream about exploring each week. The list is an ambitious forecast of which beaches will remain unspoiled, which starchitect-designed museums will live up to their renderings and which culinary treasures are worth hopping a flight to eat.
This year, we want at least one ambitious traveler to turn our wish list into an itinerary.
We are seeking a journalist who, over the course of 2018, will go to every destination on our list and tell us the story of each place and the story of life on the road. The ideal candidate is a permanent student of life and astute documentarian of the world. This person should have a well-worn passport, the ability to parachute into a place and distill its essence and to render a compelling tale with words and images.”
As part of my application, I had to write (only) 500 words on the most interesting place I’ve been to. It was fun to go back on the Marrakesh Express … Fingers crossed!!
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Marrakesh – I expect it to smell otherworldly like Tangiers, fragrant with spices mixed with sea water, but it doesn’t. Instead, I notice steam rising from the black-tar cement and yellow maze-like lines that direct us inside the airport where there is no air-conditioning, no Wi-Fi, not even a vending machine selling over-priced water.
Outside, under a white tent, wooden benches teem with drivers holding signs, like breakfast, it is included with the price of our riad.
We pile into the car and drive towards the old city. A woman wearing a cobalt blue kaftan and matching head scarf keeps pace with us as we circle the roundabout. The streets are lined with palm trees and resorts tucked behind colorful walls.
We stop abruptly at an uninspired entry point to the medina. Our driver hands us over to a small man with a wheelbarrow, who tosses our luggage into it. We follow him down cobblestone streets with no names to an unremarkable door, behind it is a courtyard with a small dipping pool and our host, waiting with mint tea. He takes us to our room — white-washed and pristine with wooden shutters that look out across the courtyard to its mirror image and upward to the sky. He marks our location on a map with an X and shows us how to reach Jemaa el-Fnaa – the main square.
We snake down dusty paths with no street signs, but that more or less match the design of the map, taking photos of the low archways we pass through and doors on each corner – my own version of breadcrumbs that will lead us home.
The streets are loud with a language I do not know. Tongue-y and shrill. Spices are piled in the shape of cones – mustard, orange and saffron-colored. Babouche, brightly colored slippers with pointed toes, line the walls. I have been advised not to look unless I am prepared to purchase, so I avert my eyes, the same way the women walking two-by-two avert mine.
The labyrinth-like streets drop us on to the main square where there are rows and rows of pop-up restaurants with metal picnic tables covered with plastic, checkered tablecloths. Each host carries a stack of laminated menus and tries to pull us in. “You are so skinny. You must be hungry. Come. Eat.”
There are tall stalls with men selling fresh dates, dried apricots, cashews and almonds. Sitting perched at the top, they grab their wares with long, metal claws and hand us samples, then fill cardboard cones with our purchases. We drink fresh-fruit smoothies served in real glasses at a make-shift bar.
Snake charmers sit on the warm cement playing flutes called pungis while serpents dance to their melody, as if agreed upon before the show. Monkeys on leashes pose for photographs. Amidst the pandemonium the Muslim call to prayer sounds from tinny speakers that crackle. It passes through me like a breeze and reminds me I am a long, long way from home.