Travel Column: Fool For A Day

by Gregg LaGambina

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Travel Column: Fool For A Day

Buying Into The Strange City of Marrakech

You’re going the wrong way. It’s closed.

There is no blending in here. You’re either a sucker or you’re not. Today, I am the fool, pulled along by an invisible tether, pockets picked clean by my own hand. The chatter is aggressive. An elaborate coax disguised as help. It’s all designed to lead you down passageways that twinkle with identical tea sets and platters and carved figurines. Every turn feels familiar yet drags you farther away. The drift is oceanic, imperceptible, no guiding star, no shoreline. All of this, I will know, tomorrow.

Today, I am “going the wrong way” and “it is closed.” I choose to follow the smiling man who matter-of-factly muttered both. In Marrakech, the capital city of Morocco, you roll like a pinball, bright and obvious as the silver trays hanging from the dealers’ booths. Lost in the maze of shimmering things, there is always something to buy and someone to sell it to you. Inside the city’s souks, tightly coiled as an intestine, you might trudge for miles, convinced you haven’t seen the same thing twice. After a few circuits, you’ll be spotted. An impromptu guide will take you the wrong way with such confidence, it will feel like the right way. After all, there is no wrong way if you don’t know where you’re going in the first place.

Do you like the cats?

So it was the cat that betrayed me.

I slow my gait to glare at the tiny breathing bodies nestled beneath the butcher’s booth. The kittens pant, eyes closed, in a small pile of furry vulnerability. But I am the prey. The air smells of freshly killed poultry. A larger cat strolls by proudly, a hop in its step. A smooth, round, pink piece of chicken flesh, plump like an organ, dangles from its teeth. I stop. I look. I reach instinctively for my camera.

In swoops a local to guide me to where he is certain I must be. The markets are closing soon, he says. The Berber craftsmen will head back home after they finish preparing the leather. Today is the last day before they leave for the Atlas foothills, not to return until next year. I must not miss it. This is what he tells me. I don’t believe him. But his certainty about everything is seductive after a day of aimless, hot, panicky wandering. I will not know anything for certain until tomorrow. So I follow.

Do you know the Berber gas mask?

I am led to a door. He introduces me to another man, also certain of everything, pulling me along a narrative they’ve rehearsed for who knows how long, for people just like me, from around the world, who’ve stopped just long enough to look at a cat, getting caught up inside the melody of the sell. My questions are discouraged, talked over. I must not interrupt, or the song might fall away, the spell might lift.

Instinct brings a hand to my nose, a futile effort to block the odor of ammonia rising from cement reservoirs filled with soaking animal skins. The Berber gas mask is, in fact, a bouquet of cut mint, held up to the nose to fend off the stink. Seeing my own hand dangling pathetically in front of my face, they both smile and produce this “gas mask,” hitting their cue, encouraged by my smiling gullibility as I inhale deeply from the leafy bundle of green leaves, relieved.

Don’t be afraid. It is just over here.

Price might be the most mysterious thing in this city, a secret held tightly like dealt cards. Elias Canetti, in Voices of Marrakesh, wrote about this puzzle as far back as 1968. In Canetti’s mind, this bargaining has all the weight of a complex philosophy, this skepticism of mine nothing but a byproduct of my origin from a land where “the price ethic prevails.”

In his book, the Bulgarian novelist waxes about the “unfathomable riddle” of price, how “no one knows in advance what it will be, not even the merchant.” No gas mask necessary for this Canetti either, because for him, the smell of the souks is “always pleasant.” But I have certainly smelled shit and I am most definitely about to get fucked.

You are not following the tradition! How much will you pay!

My second guide leads me to a third, the mint now wilting in my clenched fist. Like a baton in relay, I am handed over, taken to a back room where rugs are hung and the smell of finished leather is floral and clean compared to the chemical stink of the pits filled with pigeon shit where the skins are soaked, one of many steps in the long process to make these goods that now lie before us.

So I have been led to a shop. (Where else?) Handcrafted belts and bags collapse down the walls in a leathery spectrum spanning light tans to deep burgundy. I am told to sit, offered mint tea, and asked what pleases me, what I might buy. A notebook is pushed across a table and I am asked to write down how much I will pay.

I stand. I object. I tell this third stranger I am not interested in purchasing anything. I am told that I am not honoring the tradition. I must name a price. I repeat the price is zero, for I want nothing for nothing and that I must go, now. I move farther away, jostling the small table with my shoulder bag, spilling some of the tea. I become ugly, the look of tourism all over me, spraying the room with American irritability like a red, white, and blue skunk. I begin handing out 200 dirham bills just to be done and gone. I stumble backward through the doorway and into the narrow passage. I want to go home. But I no longer know where that is or how to get there if I did.

I will take care of everything.

Ina Krug stands in the doorway of The Great Getaway Medina, a refurbished palace-turned-design hotel she opened in the historical section of Marrakech. How I found my way back to her door, I will never know. It is a mystery as complex and elusive as the price of a Berber rug. But over the next four days, she will take care of everything.

There is a rooftop breakfast (including her homemade cherry preserves) with views of the distant Atlas Mountains. In the evening, a tagine of aromatic kefta is served by candlelight in the dining room festooned with floor pillows and a corner fireplace. Colorful birds chirp from their ornate cage. Her newly adopted puppy Ruby (named for the Cat Stevens song “Rubylove” after she was found along the beaches in Essaouira, where the singer once frolicked) will yap at the glowing fountain water that casts twitching shadows up the seven columns and arches that form the hotel’s center courtyard.

Opened less than a year ago with her husband Christian, The Great Getaway is a place where the German-born Ina—hair wild with brown curls, eyes as blue as indigo tile—will talk of how one motorcycle ride sealed her love for this metropolis that almost scared me off for good the day before.

She’ll arrange for her driver to take me to the nearby Agafay Desert to spend a night at La Pause, a resort owned by a friend, where I will witness my first moonrise, watch a hill come alive with the descent of what seems to be hundreds of camels herded into a valley for the night, and awake in the morning to a sparrow pecking at my bathroom mirror.

She saw that look on my face that first day and became determined. Not to sell me anything, not to make sure I wrote well of her hotel, but to make me see what she saw when she came to Marrakech and decided to build something permanent out of her visit. So, if you come here and you feel the swindle begin to swell, do not become ugly as I did that first day. Do not panic. Just ask for Ina.

You’re going the right way. It’s open.


Written by Gregg LaGambina