Last weekend, all of the CIEE students went on a large bus to Marrakech. Marrakech is beehive of touristy activity, but nonetheless, very entertaining. Because most of its walls were created from the pink sandstone of the atlas mountains, Marrakech gives of a deep pink glow during the day. The Medina is absolutely huge. Getting lost is not only a must, but inevitable. Turn to your left and there is an entire quartier of iron smiths; turn to your right, and you are confronted with rows and rows of silk thread used to make the gorgeous tekshetas and caftans that vendors attempt to sell to you for outrageous prices. When in Marrakech, you need to come armed with a hearty appetite for bargaining and sense of humor. The vendors are quite funny and charming...until they ask you to send them a picture of yourself on MSN messenger (a chat service that appears to function as the main communication line between members of the opposite sex here in Morocco). After wandering through the souks, you emerge on a large square that is filled with "blue people" (berbers from the south region who tend to wear periwinkle blue garments) selling various remedies for all types of ailments. Whether anyone (including the vendors themselves) takes these remedies seriously is anyone's guess. It seems more of a tourist trap than a legitimate pharmacy.
The first day we arrived, we took a tour of several important old buildings in Marrakech. The first of which was the katoubia mosque (named for the street of booksellers behind the mosque--kitEHb is the word for book in derija). Built in the 11th century, the Katoubia mosque holds 20000 worshippers and has three balls on the top of its minaret that were donated by royal princess during the 13th century. Now brass, the three balls used to be solid gold. The second building we visited was the palace of Bahria, named for the fourth wife of a wealthy vizier in Marrakech. In traditional Islam, one can only take four wives, so while the first wife holds all the power, the most beloved is the fourth. It was grandiose, but certain portions (like the harem) have fallen into disrepair. Many historical sites in Morocco are in similar condition because of the lack of government funding (not because the goverment is not giving money but because of the sheer amount of historical sites). Regardless of how much money is given, each room needs a team of skilled craftsmen to repair the intricate tile designs and carved cedar ceilings, and so the money drains very quickly. Within the palace, there is an arboretum of rare international trees, the most interesting of which is poisonous, and therefore had been used several times to kill of various members of the vizier's family. After wandering through the groves of lemon and fig trees we moved on to the Medina Madersa (school). It was built in the 13th century and was used as an Islamic studies school until 1975. It housed about 800 students in tiny (i am talking 5 feet by 6 feet or smaller) rooms surrounding a main courtyard. In each of these dorm rooms, up to four to five people slept and studied. I felt claustrophobic just thinking about it. All of the students were fed by local Medina families as a charity, and students sometimes remained there for as many as 11 years studying and memorizing and learning the proper way to sing the Koran.
After leaving these hallowed halls of learning, we piled into our bus and were carted off to what i would describe as the Moroccan disneyland. Tired performers entertained us while we picked meat off a sliced in half lamb carcass (head included). The meat was a little tough, but really it wasn't half bad. After the rather large, bland meal, we followed our entertainers out to this ring where we watched a horse show involving physical stunts and extremely loud gunshots with about 3000 other tourists. It was not a highlight, although it has caused a good deal of laughs amongst our group.
During the evenings, most of the group went out dancing at our hotel's night club...le diamant noir (black diamond). Hmmm, how to put this delicately...the women in our group were honestly the only non-prostitutes there. I am not kidding. Luckily, since we weren't wearing mesh shirts and skirts so short that even we Americans found them rather scandalous, none of us were bothered by the large population of sleazy men at the club. Since the focus of the club for most of the patrons was not the dancing, CIEE proceeded to take over the dance floor and worked our moves to the likes of "the rainbow song" (techno song played EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME), "ymca", and "Mesmerize" (ashanti, ja rule, for those of you who don't know this classic hit of the early 2000s). It was a great deal of fun had by all. And rather interesting to watch socially. Sexuality is not something you ever ever see in Moroccan society, so watching it full force and in your face was quite the experience.
Overall, Marrakech was marvelous, and provided a jump start to our 10 day semester break. Currently, i am in a small town in the Atlas mountains called Ouarzazate, and only four days into our marvelous break. We have to catch a grand taxi to the Saffron-growing region of the country, so i have to run, but I promise to write again soon. Sneak peak: Maggee falls ill, receives Berber medicinal treatments, rides a camel, and gets caught in a rainstorm...in the Sahara.
A la prochaine!