Several years had passed since I’d seen my friend Noureddine. So I jumped at the chance of meeting him while he was on vacation with his family in Marrakesh.
This was my second trip to Marrakesh, 20 years after the first. I prepaid for a room for the week in the Riad Oumaima, a large old converted house with an interior courtyard in the Medina (old city). But I spent only one night in it as Noureddine talked me into staying with them at their large vacation apartment in The Palmerie (a palm tree forest with nice housing scattered within the trees).
I want to jump to a description of my arrival in Marrakesh, from my manuscript Well of Memories:
“I don’t hate all Americans,” the Marrakesh taxi driver told me. “I even have a cousin in America.”
The taxi driver handed me off to the Riad head of staff. He was a thin man in a robe, patiently waiting for me at a side entrance to the Medina, the old city, a neighborhood maze of interconnected dwellings and market stalls.
I followed him, left then left, then right, then left, down dark covered passageways and thin alleys, past locals and tourists, past stalls and men squatting like cats, past thousand year old brightly painted doors hinged in brown sandstone walls. We stopped in a walled alleyway, a dead end. I could reach one side of the alley with my left hand, the other with my right. A tiny stream of dirty water ran through the cobbles between my legs. My guide rang the bell at the third unmarked door in the alley wall on the right. A boy opened the antique door, and I was handed off to him. The boy, also wearing a robe, led me through the small hall past a crowded kitchen where two women in local dress prepared dinner. The kitchen smelled delicious, of roasted meat and vegetables and sweet baked pastries, a good sign. The hall past the kitchen opened into a large open common area, a kind of central patio, covered, three stories above us, with a plastic tarp. A large dining table with heavy wooden chairs filled the center of the place, sunken easy chairs sat in three corners, a bathtub sized pool in the remaining corner. The boy led me across the tiled floor, to a door at the end of the open area, a door that opened to a cave carved out of the sandstone wall, a cave with a low bed, a lamp on a bed table next to it, and a circular bathroom with a curved shower with stone walls. My room. The other rooms were upstairs. I left my luggage and followed the boy on a tour to the roof that circled the open common area, a roof that overlooked the other roofs of the Medina, and the Mosque. He told I could take my meals up here if I did not want to eat downstairs with the other guests.
After dinner I went to the roof and read a biography I’d brought with me. Amazing how quiet it was up there, given the activity in the Medina down below. A French couple came to the roof, settled onto a couch. To give them their privacy I went downstairs to my cave and went to bed.
So after sleeping in my riad, I got lost the next day as I toured the Medina (I made note of other tourists using the GPS feature on their smartphones to trace their way thru that incredible maze, and vowed next time to bring my own smartphone). After going in circles for hours, I ended up paying an outrageous sum to a local to lead me back to my hotel (he guided me, but stayed a step behind so he would not be noticed by the tourist police).
Noureddine picked me up that afternoon and the rest of my trip I ended up staying with them (much to the concern of the manager of Riad Oumaima), sharing wonderful Moroccan dishes. Too, they showed me the sights, even going so far as the Atlas mountains and the sea resort of Essaouira (where I saw an enormous wooden fishing boat being built by hand).
When I told Noureddine I was particularly interested in amethyst, he drove me to a mine in Sidi Rahal where I bargained for rough pieces at the mine site. Following is an excerpt from my manuscript First Kiss describing that visit to the mine:
At the end of the dirt road I find a couple of block building store fronts with amethyst and various colored geodes on display. A man comes out and guides me into the dark shade of his warehouse of a store. On dusty shelves are hundreds of specimens. Below the shelves in boxes he has hundreds more packed away. I buy a couple of geodes to get his good will, then I ask him in my best French to see the mine.
He was glad to walk me up the hill to the mine. We passed a storage building made of straw and baked mud – I’d never seen a building made of straw and mud before. We walked through a grain field. I asked him what kind of grain it was, and he told me but I did not understand him. He stopped and pulled grains from the flowering tops of the stems and popped them open with his nails. He showed them to me in his hand, I remember looking at the kernels nestled in the deep, dark wrinkles of the lifeline of his palm. He poured them into my hand and indicated I should pop them in my mouth. I chewed the seeds and swallowed them, but still I didn’t recognize the taste.
We walked together to the top of the hill from which we could see the quarry. A big V had been chipped into the black stone, a V the length and depth of two football fields. Three simply dressed men in straw hats worked the mine, chipping away at the stone with long chisels and sledgehammers and pry bars. They showed me how they worked the stone, looking for hollows and pockets where the minerals will have collected over millions of years. They showed me their latest finds, a donkey load of opened ostrich egg-sized purple amethyst and carmine colored crystal and orange crystals and azure crystals and violet.
I bought several pieces from them, quite happy with my finds. Until at the airport when I was told by the attendant that the cost to ship that heavy bag home would be several hundred dollars. He told me not to worry though, and motioning to the line behind me to wait patiently, he pulled me aside and extracted from me a $50 bribe to reduce the weight written down on the form to greatly reduce the airline fee.
At first happy, I then began to worry, because if he did this same thing with everyone on board, the plane might be unknowingly overloaded and we’d never get off the ground!
For souvenirs, besides the amethyst, I bought Argan oil and babouche slippers.