Currently, I am staying at my second different riad because my first one was sold out. It is only 165 meters away, which I am happy about since I have now become comfortable with my immediate labyrinthine surroundings. Given that my stays here are cheap, I do not wish to complain about much, and the environment is charming. However, I have encountered nonfunctional power outlets, no hot water one time from a shower, and a cockroach on a bed. Amazingly, one can pay more than $1000 for a room in a couple of hotels in the city, which I find ridiculous since $200 should get one 95% of the way to the maximum luxury. Also, the high-end properties are farther from the action than the riads. You can certainly opt for nicer riads than mine, but stay in one to get the traditional Moroccan experience.
After I dropped my bags in my room in my first night, I headed back to Place Jamaa el Fna that I had walked through to arrive at my lodging. The first thing I did was purchase a glass of orange juice.
There are more than a dozen orange juice stalls. A standard glass of orange juice is $0.45, and a glass of either grapefruit juice or lemon juice is $1.13. I have not tried either of the latter two. I think the best tasting orange juice is Tropicana, but I have had a glass of this stuff every day I have been in Marrakech.
Differentiation is extremely difficult in Marrakech, even with location, as it is not obvious what constitutes a good one since everything is hard to find anyway. These orange juice stalls are adjacent to one another, and they have the exact same prices and fruit sources. When I walk by them, I will inevitably here the owners’ exhortations to have a glass. I have tried several, and the product is homogeneous. I have been trying to spread the wealth and patronize a different stall everyday.
The juice is served in a glass. I am not a queasy mysophobe, so the relative lack of sanity in Morocco does not offend me. These juice and food stalls are in an open-air plaza where running water is not available. There are big vats of water, and the glasses and dishes are simply rinsed using them.
During the daytime, Place Jamaa el Fna is filled with street performers, monkey trainers, acrobats, and cobra snake charmers. If you stay around to watch these acts, the performers will badger you about contributing money. It is not like the U.S. where the performers often do not verbally solicit money, only leaving a passive collection hat on the ground. There are several restaurants bordering the plaza. I would not entertain these spots, but they cater to people who may be wary of getting into the mix of the food stalls. They do provide a good view with elevated seating. The acrobats will entertain in front of these more refined diners, doing impressive tricks on the hard surface.
As the sun sets, hundreds of people start to set up their nighttime food stalls.
Like hotels and hammams, these food stalls have aggressive solicitors begging you to dine at their establishment. More than 95% of all the workers are male. These guys can be quite charming. The guy I have had the most contact with, Muhammad, speaks English, Arabic, Spanish, and French quite fluently. The way he flicks between the languages depending on his assessment of a passer-by’s physical features and speech is impressive. Other solicitors are less confident or take rejection more personally. Muhammad seemed to be enjoying his job, constantly laughing and smiling. There are so many multi-lingual charmers here that I thought they could probably make more money being smooth-talking con artists in other parts of the world.
Like in most parts of the world, soft drinks in Morocco are filled in refillable glass bottles. The U.S. is rare in using brand-new plastic cans or bottles for each serving of soda. At one point, a neighboring diner indicated he needed his bottle opened. As I set my fork down from eating, Muhammad, in one slick motion, used my fork to pry open the bottle, while continuing to solicit new customers!
Another thing that will offend U.S. tourists who have not traveled much is the absence of napkins. Marrakech is a filthy city, and you accumulate dirt and grease since running water is not widely available. At many dining establishments, the most you can expect is a sheet of paper whose surface is the type on which you write. I have encountered similar “napkins” in Brasil.
A typical food stand will have four workers. A cook. The salesperson walking in front of the stand, enticing people to sit down. And a couple of guys who do everything from cleaning the area, getting food from other stalls they may not ordinarily serve, and dealing with the money. These roles seemed to be interchangeable. Many of the workers were in their 20s, wearing jeans and a European football player jersey.
Many of the diners at Place Jamaa el Fna are locals. They usually eat this dish consisting of a lot of bread sopped with the tajine meat juice. Tajine is a dish endemic to this area, cooked in earthenware pots. Technically, it is a Berber dish. Berbers refer to peoples of North Africa west of the Nile River. At least one person scoffed, when I said, “Thank you” in Arabic, replying, “I speak Berber. We can use English, français, español [but not Arabic].”
Everywhere I went, I could also have Tuareg tea, popularly known as mint tea. The mint flavor is actually nonexistent, and it is quite sweet, depending on the amount of sugar. It is poured with some flair, the liquid falling more than a foot out of the pot. Even in a country where you can be nickled-and-dimed for something as simple as asking for directions, the tea is often served gratis.
At both the orange juice and nighttime food stalls in Jamaa el Fna, the menu prices are legitimate. That is, there is no need for negotiation. Especially for transactions with goods, the tourists pay prices that are more than twice that for the natives. You can rest assured that these food stand prices are low enough that everyone pays the same amounts. Eating in this plaza at night has been one of the most enjoyable parts of Marrakech. Do not go to a hotel restaurant.
For the most part, use the local currency, the Moroccan dirham here. I have been quoted prices in Euro for the hammam and Sahara Desert tour, but even then, I can pay in dirham with no currency exchange cost. ATMs are easily found, but credit cards are rarely accepted. Catering to richer tourists, this city would be well served by adopting simple credit card acceptance devices offered by the likes of Square and PayPal.