Snake Charmer (Morocco #1)

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Vendors poured on the streets like ants on a fresh carcass, the sun relentlessly baking everything it set its sights on. There was heat and chaos all around, but if one was lucky, a breeze with the scent of jasmine would bless your face and nostrils for a fraction of a second.

Or at least, that’s how I imagined the Middle East (and by extension, in my head, Northern Africa) to be. The temperature was at worst bearable, nothing of the scorching sun that I led myself to believe would make me rethink my choice of travel destination for this period of the year. In fact, at night, it becomes quite cool (perhaps because of the desert climate).

I decided to do this trip properly – so I booked myself into a riad. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house with a courtyard or a garden that acts as a ventilation system. They are in a way quite reminiscent of the place I stayed in Jodhpur, and they do come in all shapes and sizes – and even in the form of hostels I am told.

They are quite charming and I did feel as if it added to the whole atmosphere. Riad Laksiba (where I took refuge) had very delightful staff, hidden away in the backstreets of the Medina (medina being the old part of the city, surrounded by the big walls), more like a secret club than a hotel (which it technically is).

Nearby, at Cafe Clock, the tiny gods living within my intestines were marking their need for attention with a variety of interior lightning and thunder under the form of pain and grumbling. As I was appeasing them with couscous, it dawned upon me that I had forgotten my camera battery.

“No worries”, I say to myself, “I can just be a normal tourist. No photos, no blog, no…”.

Obviously enough, the life cycle of that train of thought was short. If anyone ever needs to buy any electronics, from batteries to chargers, the place to go would be Rue Koutoubia (it’s right next to the Koutoubia Minaret, after the street with all the carriages that smell of horse poo). There are several shops here selling an array of batteries for phones and camera and it was simply god sent.

Djemaa el fna

The extent to which my imagination went wild when thinking about Morocco is best exposed with the main square: when being told of snake charmers, “dentists” that use strings and rusty pliers to pull out teeth on the spot, I had envisioned something akin to that place from Game of Thrones where Khaleesi nearly got poisoned wine. Dirt, more chaos, tents. 

The square is tiled. During the day, a distinct sadness can be felt in the air, mostly due to the fact that the vast place is so scarcely populated by locals  snakes charmers mostly, indeed. They play their drums, they wrap their snakes (no inuendo here) around your neck, “for good luck”, and then they take a picture. And charge you 300 dirhams. “We all share boss, 300 is nothing for you”. They must also have the ability to see into my past lives and understand I was once nobility, with gold showers everyday. 

We settled for 30 dirham, which was way too much anyway. The cobras are interesting to look at, so are the desert vipers (you will notice neither of these two will be snakes that the charmers put their hands on), but there’s only so much you can stare at snakes.

The square changes quite a lot during the night. From the desolate emptiness, food stalls spring all around and the Moroccans come out to play. Life itself seems to be pouring in the place, together with lots of smoke from all the frying and even more hassling. It’s great to roam around, drink a glass of orange juice (4 dirham), and then sit yourself at one of the restaurant to fill your belly with tagine, couscous, pastille or other various wonders. The square is open till late in the night (tho it starts to wind down at midnight), and you can find alcohol in some of the places nearby (filled mostly by dreaded tourists).

The prices seem to be identical at all of the restaurants (so are the menus), with a special line of booths that seem to sell snail – and which seem to be only frequented by locals. The orange stalls seem to exist only to defy any economic theory and logic, each seemingly identical to the other, the vendors all shouting for you to go to theirs and no the neighbors. Why do we need so many orange juice stalls? Maybe it’s just “why not”? 

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