the chaos

Venturing out

After spending time in Chefchaouen and Rabat, we felt ready for Marrakesh. This turned out to be both true and false. On arrival at the train station, we successfully by-passed the tourist-poaching expensive taxis and haggled a good price from a smaller one. We managed to direct our taxi to the neighbourhood of our riad, and after disembarking, managed to find the riad without too much trouble. Our time in Morocco up until then had prepared us for hassling shop-keepers, foreign languages, and culinary adventures. Our culture shock had receded. We were going to be fine.

Then we discovered Marrakesh. What a city! As Meg wrote in her last post, it is truly a city of extreme contrasts. On the streets — noise, traffic, shouting, hurrying, haggling, hustling, dirt, sweet and rancid smells, and stress. But there is a hidden side to Marrakesh that one discovers by passing through thick walls and climbing steep stairs. The city’s buildings have turned their backs to the chaos outside, and offer calm refuge in their interior courtyards and rooftop terraces. These two extremities stand in such complimentary opposition to one another that it is sometimes hard to believe they are part of the same city. I only hope I can do each some justice in my descriptions of them. In this post I will focus on the street-side of the city, and the secret calm side will follow soon.

First, the chaos. I’ve never seen traffic behave quite the way it did in Marrakesh. Scotland had its narrow, slow roads, Amsterdam had its thousands of bicycles, and Paris had its eight-lane boulevards without painted lines, but traffic in Marrakesh is of a different order. There are some lines and crosswalks painted on some streets, but five minutes of observation quickly reveals that they are virtually meaningless. Instead, what you see is a flowing tide of cars, trucks, buses, donkeys, scooters, bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, and men on foot pulling loaded carts. To the uninitiated viewer, it appears that a horrible accident is imminent at all times, yet it never seems to materialize.

Traffic in Marrakesh

I’ve concluded that there are three secrets to this traffic: first, everything is done smoothly. There are no quick stops, no fast accelerations, no sharp swerving. Every move is made with just the appropriate amount of push or pull to get it done, and the result is a collection of vehicles that seem to drift and flow between each other, clearing room when it’s needed, and taking room when it’s given. Second, confidence is everything. Each pass, weave, squeeze, or crossing must be done with purpose, so that other drivers don’t question your intent, and can adjust their course appropriately. It is truly a case of “he who hesitates is lost”. This makes crossing the road as a pedestrian a test of nerves; wait for a lull, step out, and walk. After a few times, you can actually pick out the point at which the group of 30 scooters will part to pass you, 15 in front and 15 behind. Third, the car horn is perhaps the single most important piece of hardware in the vehicle. It is used almost constantly to say “here I am, don’t hit me” or “I need room beside you, drift over a little, will you?”. Everyone has some version — pedestrians yell, scooters beep, and even horse carriages have those old-school horns with the rubber ball that you squeeze to honk. Put all these together, and the traffic starts to make sense. However, I still wouldn’t drive there, ever. Forget it.

The Djemma el-Fna square

Then there are the markets. In Marrakesh, the main market area is concentrated around the Djemaa el-Fna square. This square transforms constantly throughout the day, with a rotating cast of juice vendors, musicians, craft and souvenir sellers, food stands, and all other manner of entertainer. Leading away from the square are the souks, or market streets, which twist and turn like a labyrinth. Walking through the souks is the surest way to wear out your nerves and stimulate your senses at the same time. They are crowded and noisy, and often very narrow. The narrowness wouldn’t be too much of an issue if it wasn’t for the scooters, bicycles and horse carts that use them simultaneously. It’s a place to watch your elbows — we actually saw many tourists with bandages on their forearms or hands, and we suspect that they are injuries resulting from being swiped by scooters in the souks.

If you manage to avoid being taken out by the scooters, then all you have to contend with are the market salesmen. “Persistent” isn’t nearly a strong enough word to describe them. Some of our favourite sales-pitches included:

– Come have some lunch! No? Why not? So skinny!
– Surf prices! Ski prices!
– Tannery this way! No? Why not? Why not?
– Vous avez une tres belle gazelle la!
– Hey you, Ali Baba, come see, good prices!
– Shoes? Free! Really! Free…to try!

So many of the vendors could not fathom why we might not want to look at their camel keychains or try their fried fish parts. When we did come across stalls that interested us, it was even more pressure. As soon as the slightest interest was shown, they were determined to make a sale. This is where the fine art of haggling comes in. They tell you a price, but only a sucker will pay the first number offered. I even heard some vendors trying to explain to tourists that haggling is expected — it reminded me of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”, when he’s trying to buy a fake beard in the market. Those of you who are Monty Python fans will know what I’m talking about. Meg bought a pair of sandals at one stand. The asking price was 250 dirhams, which is about the equivalent of 25 euros. About ten minutes later, we walked away with the sandals for 70 dirham. And I think we probably could have gotten them for less.

This type of pressure is constant, and even though you can be enjoying yourself the whole time, the stress does mount as you go. If you put these things together with the heat, it’s easy to understand how Marrakesh can wipe you out in a couple of hours. But luckily there is another side to this city, one that miraculously creates a perfect balance. More on that soon…


  1. Bruce the Moose

  2. Great story – I think car horns are really under-appreciated back here in Ottawa.

    Reminds me of Kathmandu

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