Taxi? Taxi? Fifty Dirham! Taxi?
Perhaps the most common refrain on the streets of Marrakech – a shopkeeper, restaurateur, or even a pedestrian, will offer a cab ride or some small trinket for sale.
This past weekend was our first one “in-country.” We’ve been in Morocco for just under a week, adjusting to the unhurried pace of life, to heavily gestural communication and to our new parents and siblings. There is much to see in Rabat, which has both a modern city with apartment buildings, cafes and high-end clothing stores, as well as historical areas, including a vibrant ancient medina. During the orientation week, I began exploring both sections of the city, witnessing how the old and the new meld into each other, flowing freely between high-end restaurants and ancient markets. In the coming months, I hope to discover more and more of the city’s alleys, shops and sights.
For this weekend, some brand new friends and I decided to explore more of Morocco, and travelled south to Marrakech. The simplest way to Marrakech is a four-hour train ride. The trains in Morocco are a cheap and excellent way to travel, and an even better way to make friends – but more on that later. We arrived around noon, and the first thing I noticed were all the tourists. In Rabat, I am one of very few non-Moroccans around, and even after just a week in Rabat, I’ve grown accustomed to having to use a mixture of literary Arabic, the spoken dialect (Darija) and a lot of hand gestures to buy anything from soup to notebooks. In Rabat, for the most part, I am seen less as a tourist, and more often people assume I am indeed a student. Yet in Marrakech, all of a sudden I was lumped together with travelers and visitors of a week or just a few days – and seeing the sights necessarily included incessant refusals to purchase some artifact or coffee. At times, the implorations tested my nerves, yet a sentence or two in Arabic did wonders – an almost magical transformation from tourist to quasi-local. I was asked several times whether I was Arab, or at least have an Arab grandparent. Equipped with a bit of Arabic, a determined sense of humor and a lot of la shukran (no, thank you), navigating the souks and squares became much more pleasant.
The city itself is beautiful. Markets of shops filled with pyramids of fragrant spices, scarves of every color waving in the soft breeze, and tiny stalls of deliciously fresh avocado, date or orange juices. The sights, smells and tastes are truly incredible. After two days of breathing in the city, it was a little sad to leave. Our trip, though, was not yet over.
Taking the train back to Rabat, even though we embarked on the very first stop of the route, somehow there was barely a seat to be found. After traversing several train cars, we found an eight-person cabin with three empty seats, exactly what we needed. We squeezed in between the other passengers, and began to strike up a conversation with one of the passengers – a student at the university in Marrakech with great English. In English peppered with Arabic words and phrases, we discussed whether honey-sesame or honey-peanut snacks were better, and where the best beaches in Morocco are located. Soon enough, the whole cabin joined in, sharing their advice in Arabic, French and limited English, or pooling together their vocabulary to help translate words from Arabic to English and vice versa. As we shared our honey-peanut snacks bought in the Marrakech souk (the cabin was unanimous that these were indeed better), one of our fellow passengers thoughtfully remarked, ‘you are teaching us English, we are teaching you Arabic. We can call this the Learning Train!’
This sentence encapsulates what my experience in Morocco has been, and what I hope it will continue to be. It is one long journey of learning through encountering brand new experiences and people. These moments provide chances for learning, and also for sharing, creating a true learning train.