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Ramadan and Mad Taxi Drivers in Marrakech
By Ayesha Attah

Part mystical journey, part tourist haven, Marrakech was when my vacation really began. After taking the ONCF train out of Rabat, I arrived in Marrakech with my sister and a friend quite late at night. After being rejected by several taxi drivers (an ominous reminder of my inability to stop a cab in New York City), I began to think our upcoming three days stay in Marrakech, Morocco's Red City, was doomed.

Morning came and I was greeted with clear blue skies and buildings painted with varying shades of red, pink and rose. The salmon hue comes from the construction of buildings with red mud and water, a process dating from the 11th Century, during the reign of the Almoravids in the region. The city is even more stunning because of the plethora of palm trees -- in some places houses and roads are built around palm trees. I kept expecting a sea, but unlike many of Morocco's big cities, there was none for miles.

Marrakech's founders wanted it just that way. Almoravidm leader Abu-Bakr Ibn-Umar, wanted a new capital for the Almoravid Empire and chose that location because it was situated on a plain, between two tribes feuding for their land to be chosen as the new capital.

Marrakech, the second largest city in Morocco, is home mainly to the Berbers of Morocco, and a large European population; it seems to buzz eternally with tourists. We visited Place Djemaa el Fna, the biggest square in all of Africa. A row of men with horses and carriages lined the entrance to the square; we had to turn down several requests for rides. On the square sat several little carts with vendors selling freshly squeezed orange juice, dried nuts, and several were restaurants. Side roads leading to the square housed little vendors and markets or souks, as they are called.

"Monsieur, Mesdames, restaurant bien climatisé," was one of the calls inviting us to a "well air-conditioned" restaurant, even though every single place on the square was out in open space. The restaurants boasted "brochettes" (grilled mince meat), tagines, fried calamari, and shrimp. The list was endless. We settled on a delicacy â" goat head. Even though our platters contained the meat chopped up, we had mounds and mounds of goat heads in front of us, to perhaps help us identify the parts. After eating we played an impossible game of putting a ring around a bottle of coke and had money fleeced off us when we took a picture of a musician or performer.

For some reason, all three days I was in Marrakech I found myself at Place Djemaa el Fna. On one of those days, after Ramadan had begun, the only people in the square just before 6 p.m., were tourists. Even getting a cab was impossible. There wasn't a soul around, except for tourists.

Thirsting for a water body of sorts, we decided to ride to go to a water park in the outskirts of Marrakech. We paid for two taxis even though there were just four of us (in Morocco, taxis take a maximum of three people, unless they are "grand taxis," usually Mercedes Benzes which carry six people). Our overpriced taxis drove us all the way out to the park but from the road, I could see there was not a drop of water on one of the slides. They were closed till spring.

Our drivers put their heads together, and the more gregarious of the two brought out a booklet and mentioned two possible places, but said we'd have to pay even more to get there. Seeing as we had no choice, after bargaining somewhat, we were driven to the Plage Rouge. The talkative driver said he knew a fast route.

Before we knew it, we were bumping up and down a dirt road. The talkative driver was ahead of us but paid no attention to the fact that we were following him, and sped madly ahead. In my mind all sorts of scenarios were playing out: he knew my friends in his taxi didn't have phone units (we tried calling the Plage Rouge to make sure they were open, but none of us had phone units). He had another man sitting in his front seat, who was this sidekick? What if he sped off with the other two and left us?

Well, needless to say, we made it, though rather rattled. One of my friends, a military man by training, was determined to "shake the driver," but let him go. The Plage Rouge, an enormous pool, in the middle of no where â"quite the oasis â" erased the crazy ride over.

We made sure to visit as many sites as we could â" the Koutoubia mosque, the oldest in Marrakech; the Kasbah, the oldest part of the city; the Palais de Bahia, the palace of 18th Century Queen Bahia; Menara Gardens, an ancient pool where water sports were played, surrounded by a grove of olive trees and the place where I sat on a camel for the first time.

Because of Ramadan, museums closed at 3:30 p.m., and determined to do as many museum sightings in one day, we went to another palace, that of Badia, but rather late. An old man told us the museum was closed but offered to take us to the real parts that tourists miss. We all swore we heard him say he was doing this for nothing in return.

He took us into the Jewish Quarter of Marrakech. In no time he led us to a health and medicine store. After being offered mint tea, rose water facials, introducing us to a whole host of spices and natural remedies, we decided to make purchases. I bought mint tea, sandal wood, myrrh, and a pumice stone as gifts for the folks back home. After his kindness, I was expecting to pay close to 50 dirhams. He looked me straight in the eye and said 300 dirhams. I had to leave behind one or two things and bargain like crazy.

Barely five minutes after leaving the health store, our old man guide said he had to go. "A little something, for something to drink," were words we didn't believe had come out of his mouth. We gave him change and decided we could be our own tour guides.

Leaving Marrakech was quite sad, but my limited holiday pocket was glad. Our last night we decided to experience the nightlife and the only place that was open (Ramadan), had a sprinkling of people. I bought a bottle of water. It cost 90 dirhams! At the grocery stores, they cost at most 10 dirhams. Might as well have bought a drink!

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