Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Michelle Goes to Morocco

This took place a year and a half ago, but it's a story that needs to be written down.

We were so thankful to have many friends and family come visit us when we lived in Morocco, and over Thanksgiving our second year our dear friend/former roomie Michelle P came.  

First, let me tell you a little about Michelle.  She is LIKE A BOSS.  Super smart, go-getter, funny, etc.  She has worked all over DC, including the White House.  And not just the White House, the WEST WING.  In fact, she is so good at everything out there in the political/corporate world, that I have always been scared of working for her.  I'm a hard worker and all, but she would EAT ME FOR BREAKFAST.  All that to say, she has always worn the pants in our friendship.  When we moved up to DC she showed me the ropes, introduced me around, preset my radio stations.  It works for us.

But in Morocco, it delighted me to no end being the big girl.  Michelle had never been to a muslim country and couldn't speak French, so she was dependent on ME.  (This is the first time she is being told of my glee.) 

Close mutual friends of ours that lived in Casablanca picked her up and brought her to Rabat.  We caught up and enjoyed precious hours being together.

Me, Michelle, Diana

The next few days I would drop Michelle at the Marine House gym on my way to work.  She is an avid cross-fitter and loves to work out.  Afterwards she would walk down to the embassy, we would have breakfast together and she would hang in my office while I worked a couple more hours. The office I worked in was kind of the social center of the embassy (however humble) with couches, a computer and small library with people popping in and out all the time, so it worked great.  One afternoon I took her to the medina, once I sent her out with our favorite tour guide for a few hours, and one afternoon we walked to our favorite little french restaurant downtown. 

I miss you Typotes.
But the real story starts on Wednesday evening, the night before Thanksgiving, when we departed for our trip to Marrakech.  Marrakech is arguably the most famous city in Morocco with the snake charmers, djemaa el fna square, and maze-like medina, so we had to make it down there. I had never traveled on my own in Morocco, nor taken the train anywhere, but I was fairly confident going in to the whole thing.  Joe dropped us off at the train station and I spoke my abominable french to buy our first class tickets.

Do not think this first class thing is a luxury.  It's the difference between safety and the possibility of air conditioning, and riding with someone's chicken on your lap.  We got out to the platform and stood under the sign for Marrakech.  I know this is the truth because we took a picture of it (see below), and it indeed said "Marrakech".  So the next train pulled up and we got on.  Yay!  We had done it- we were off!  

Feeling confident on the train.
Except when the conductor came by to punch our tickets he told us we were on the wrong train.  WHAT!?  How is that even possible?  (See sign above) It turns out the next train to pull in the station after this one was going to Marrakech.  No, there wasn't a sign for it, said the man.  Well, OF COURSE, Morocco.  Luckily, we were able to get off in Casablanca and wait for the correct train.  We made it on to our train, after repeatedly asking if it was going to Marrakech, and continued our ride.  My confidence had waned.  

We arrived in Marrakech and exited the train station to get a taxi to our hotel. We were immediately accosted by a slew of cab drivers wanting our business.  The way they acted you would have thought we were Beyonce on a night out in L.A. I picked a guy off to the side, rewarding him for being more laid back and we walked to his taxi.  (I chose wrong). I told him we needed to go to Les Jardins de la Koutoubia hotel.  What he didn't know was that I was not a tourist,  and I knew exactly where we should be going.

The streets around the train station are one-way, so I knew we had to go away from the city center before we could go towards it.  However, this taxi driver missed several turns and just kept going.  Two scenarios entered my mind:  one, he's going to drive us into the desert and do Lord knows what; two, he's going to drive us all around town to hike up the fare before delivering us to our hotel.  For her part, Michelle had her own fears.  During her morning bible reading time, her verse for the day was something ominous in Revelation.  Neither one of us can remember now exactly what it was, but the main idea was "Woe to you, you will be destroyed".  So as soon as she heard me having a heated exchange with the driver in French, she was PANICKING.  (Thankfully she didn't mention this until the next day).

Once the driver realized I knew we were going the wrong way he finally headed in the right direction.  (Oh, thank you sweet Jesus).  He pulled up to the end of the street where the hotel is and thus began the argument over the fare.  Oh dear me, he tried to pull a fast one.  And what killed me was that instead of bargaining with me over the price, he was VERY ugly about it, screaming and waving his arms.  I finally gave him more money than I should have just to be done with it.

We grabbed our bags and headed towards the hotel.

This is where I need to describe the atmosphere of Marrakech at night.  IT. IS. CRAZY.  Moroccans are all about the nighttime- they stay up late and sleep late.  They head out with their children to grocery shop, run errands or eat after 8 pm, when all of the expats' children have been asleep for an hour.  The public places are most crowded after dark.

We love Les Jardins de la Koutoubia hotel because it is a 5 star hotel located right in the medina.  To get to the entrance we had to navigate a street crowded with shoppers, donkeys with carts, zooming motorcycles, and beggars.  There was one guy in particular who was insisting on carrying our bags and showing us to our hotel.  And when I say insisting, I mean pressed up against me, trying to take the bag out of my hand, and shouting.  This would NOT happen if we had a male with us.  I continued to use my most forceful "LA!!" (No! in Arabic) until we were in sight of the hotel porters who came and shooed the guy off.

We finally entered the hotel and I will never forget the shell shocked look on Michelle's face.  It makes me grin even now.  I HAD WORN THE PANTS!

The great thing about the Koutoubia is that once you enter, it's like a peaceful oasis.  I don't know if they have that place soundproofed or what, but it is quiet, full of smiling staff, and the only aroma is of fresh flowers.  (As opposed to a mix of fuel exhaust, body odor, spices, animal feces, etc outside).

Image courtesy of the hotel.

Because the hotel loves repeat customers from the American embassy, they upgraded us to a nice suite.  The rest of the evening was spent eating steak frites at one of the hotel restaurants and sleeping.

The next morning we headed out to the medina to walk around and shop.  I didn't have to get a tour guide because I remembered my way from an earlier trip.  As we got deeper in the maze something in a shop caught my eye and we went in.  It was an upscale shop with rugs downstairs.  Vintage rugs.  Oh dear.

The owner of the shop spoke excellent English and we realized we had stumbled across a hidden gem.  Fast forward an hour and Michelle finds the rug of her dreams and because of our connection with the embassy he gives her a GREAT price.  While she was paying he showed us his wall of fame which included (recent) pictures of everyone from Hilary Clinton to Tory Burch to Will and Jada Smith to the American ambassador.  Oh, and an ancient picture of a married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. IF I had made a large rug purchase in Morocco, I would certainly have made the trip back to his shop.

The rug.
We spent the rest of the morning shopping and fending off men standing WAY too close to us.  They just don't believe personal space is a necessity if you don't have another man with you.  I feel this was different than in the Rabat medina.  I went down there all the time on my own, and maybe it's because Rabat doesn't have as many tourists or it's a much more laid back city, or because I knew so many of the shopkeepers, but the men were overall much more respectful.

That afternoon I took a glorious nap after sending Michelle to the spa for a hammam treatment. Hammam is like a turkish bath where you get all sorts of naked in a sauna-like room, and then a woman comes in and scrubs all the dead skin off of you.  Michelle is fairly modest and it's possible I didn't explain to her exactly what was going to happen....she came out with that same shell-shocked look.

That evening we had drinks and ate another lovely dinner, this time at an asian restaurant.  Our waiter enjoyed dressing us up.

The next morning we went to the train station and got back to Rabat drama-free. I was fairly proud of myself for navigating our trip successfully (If a Peace Corps volunteer reads this they are laughing/rolling their eyes that I'm patting myself on the back for such an easy feat), and Michelle was proud of her rug purchase.

We went out for a celebratory Moroccan meal with Joe and Matt and said goodbye the next morning.

Sorry Mary, you were on maternity medevac. Also, look at all those Blackberry phones on the table.  (Horrors!)
Sleepy evening goodbyes with Joshua.
And here's where I tell you about how United airlines inadvertently paid for that rug.  Michelle, while thrilled with her rug purchase, was still sweating the price a bit.  This was definitely an investment piece.  On the way back, she got bumped from standby in Frankfurt, offered up her seat, and was given a voucher for several hundred dollars.  What?  We're still not sure how that all happened, but as Michelle always says, "I'm God's favorite."

Michelle- we are still so honored that you came to see us in Morocco.  We love you SO much, and you will always have a spot on Team D JV!

P.S.  Thanks for letting me wear the pants.

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