When I booked a flight to Marrakech to get out of the winter weather, I had no clue what I was in for. The moment I left the Moroccan airport, people were screaming at one another by the cabs. “Why are they yelling?” I asked my cab driver as I scrambled for a seatbelt that wasn’t there. All he said was “Marhaba” (Arabic for “welcome”). When I got out, someone pointed the way to my riad (a Moroccan guest house), then argued until I gave him money for “guiding” me. I collapsed on my bed, scared to leave my room.
The following day, things started to look up when the staff at Riad de la Terrasse de Oliviers served me a Moroccan breakfast: three kinds of bread, jam, peanut butter, nutella, eggs, pistachio yogurt, Moroccan mint tea, and fresh-squeezed orange juice. I ate on the roof as stray cats passed by and chants emanated from the mosque.
Later, when I ventured out to get food, a stranger showed me to a stand selling grilled chicken. (To my relief, he didn’t charge me for directions.) The man at the stand put a chicken breast on a grill then wrapped it with Moroccan bread in foil for 20 dirham, or about $5.50. Later in the week, he’d sell me sausage on a roll for 15 dirham.
The next day, the man who showed me the chicken stand took me to a restaurant, where I realized Marrakech gives “hole-in-the-wall” a whole new meaning. The space consisted of one tiny bench that fit two people at most. There, we ate tagine, a slow-cooked stew in a pottery dish. This one had potatoes, carrots, and chunks of lamb that burned my tongue. I asked for a fork, and the owner took the only one he could find on his table, poured water on it, and wiped it off. I realized it was the only fork he had. Most people just scoop it up with big round pieces of Moroccan bread, my new friend told me. Afterward, I visited a stand to buy figs from the Sahara, strung together on a string like a snake.
On the way back to my riad, my friend carried a friend’s dough to the breadmaker for her. Inside the small underground room, a baker shoveled circles of dough into a giant oven, somehow keeping track of whose was whose and sending it back to each home after it was cooked.
The next day, a man who sold me shoes invited me to come over for more tagine. It seemed the dish was a token of friendship here. But I was hesitant to accept an invitation from a stranger, so I got tagine at a restaurant on my own, with prunes and almonds and lamb, washed down with avocado juice that tasted like a milkshake. A cat sat on the chair next to me, and I fed him bits of meat and bread.
A Marrakech market reminds you where your food comes from. Giant animal legs hang from the meat stands. One day, I saw a man grabbing chickens out of tiny cages and holding them down on scales to weigh them for purchase. It would have made me go vegetarian were the food options not so delicious and limited.
This only added to the complete and utter chaos of the medina. Motorcycles constantly buzzed by inches away from me. Boys shouted “It’s closed!” when I tried to go down streets so they could “guide” me in a different direction then charge me. The “friend” I thought I’d made groped me on a dark street late at night. Others harangued me for my number. I was surrounded by attention but felt alone. Everyone wanted something from me, but few actually cared about me.
After a week, I headed to the Four Seasons hotel in Casablanca on a train, hoping its quiet setting by the beach would give my nervous system the chance to relax. That night, I ate Moroccan bread with the only olive oil I’ve ever had that actually tasted like olives — they came from the Atlas Mountains in the Maghreb — and pita bread with a bright purple dip made of beets. Later in the week, I was served chicken tagine with lemon, lamb couscous with a sweet raisin sauce, and pastries filled with seafood and meat. I visited Patisserie Bennis in the Habous, where I watched people roll dough into delicious almond cookies.
I also stopped by the seafood stands, which had the same effect on me as the meat stands in Marrakech. Dozens of types of dead fish lay flat on their sides, staring at me. A vendor cut chunks off a giant swordfish with a visible face. Crustaceans crawled around right on the table. Despite this, it was quiet and lacked the frenzy of the Marrakech markets.
But this was not the old medina. It wasn’t until my last day that I ventured there. On a Friday night, the medina lit up with an endless, windy maze of food and clothing stands. If I stopped for a second, someone would bump into me, so I walked and walked and walked past hanging cow legs, argan oil displays, and tables full of that giant round bread. Vendors called out to me as cats screeched and fought on the sidewalk. I was once again in the middle of the chaos. And for the first time, I realized there was magic in it.