Saturday, March 24, 2018

Testing the truth from the back of a scooter in Morocco


The driver holds a sign that says "Riad Lamzai."

But I thought I was staying at the Riad Lamzia? It's about 1 a.m. outside the airport on a summer night in Morocco — which means it's more pleasant than a summer night in St. Petersburg.

Without asking for my name, the driver assures me that I am in the right place. And so I hop in the front seat of his SUV.

After 15 minutes of driving, we pull off the road near a small park where a few dozen people are sitting. The driver lowers my window, where another man appears on a scooter. They speak in Arabic, and I'm left to wonder what's going on.

After a few seconds, the driver says he can't go any farther — wait, what? — and says the man on the scooter will drive me the rest of the way.

InShaAllah, or God willing.

I get to the Lamzia (I'm right, the sign is wrong) that night on the back of a scooter roaring through the Jemaa el-Fna, the main square filled with thousands of people and at least two angry donkeys.

Marrakech is a city that will keep you in a constant state of slight uneasiness — from its sinuous narrow streets and unremitting shopkeepers, to the unsavory monkey handlers and unyielding summer sun.

But the day you leave, you'll be thinking of how to get back.

I was in Spain recently to attend a fact-checking conference for my day job as executive director of PolitiFact. Marrakech, a 100-minute flight south, was the answer to my free weekend.

Working as a fact-checker is important to the rest of this story because I'm prone to test the truth of what people say.

"Sir, the road is closed," a teen says the next morning as I'm walking through the mazelike downtown of Marrakech. "Are you looking for the museum? I will take you there."

Why yes, I am looking for the museum, I think.

So I follow the boy.

Fact-check No. 1

The road isn't closed.

The boy walks fast and is taller than me, so I'm struggling to keep up. We go through the Rahba Kedima, where people are selling spices and straw hats.

We turn into a store that sells Morocco's Argan oil. The boy introduces me to the owner, and then I'm on a whirlwind 15-minute tour of oil. Argan oil basically cures everything, he says. Wrong audience, I think. I come out without spending a dirham. (Basically, 10 dirhams equals $1.)

"To the museum?" I ask. Yes, the boy tells me.

We walk for a bit, but we most definitely don't end up at the museum. The boy takes me to the Souk des Teinturiers, otherwise known as the dyers market. It's an area of town with rows of shopkeepers selling handmade scarves, towels and rugs.

I meet a man who tries to amaze me with how this color was made or that color was made. I don't care.

But the scarves and towels are beautiful.

Next thing I know, the shopkeeper is taking pictures of me with a scarf tied around my head and I'm spending about 600 dirhams ($60) on some Moroccan towels. Critically, I'm out of cash. The museum has to wait.

Fact-check No. 2

Your brother or cousin or uncle most likely didn't make this.

In 36 hours in Marrakech, I meet four shop owners whose family personally made the crafts they were selling.

They even had videos or photos.

Marrakech is a town built around tourism, the guy who picked me up at the airport told me. And the medina, or old town, is an intricate maze of shops selling everything — food, shirts, meat, fruit, berber, spices, old computer parts.

It's also very clear that there is a significant wealth gap. You can drink where Churchill did, at La Mamounia, and sit on a grand terrace overlooking a garden. But to get in you have to get past security and be ready to spend the equivalent of $19 for a gin and tonic or $33 for a craft cocktail.

Then there's the medina, where if you walk around long enough you'll see the flies on the fish and the man wringing the necks of chickens that will become someone's dinner.

Fact-check No. 3

You will get your exercise.

Large parts of the medina in Marrakech can't accommodate taxis, so unless you're brave enough to hop on a scooter, that means lots of walking. I walked 12 miles during a full day of sightseeing and shopping, ducking for shade wherever I could find it.

Marrakech feels no more or less safe than any other big city.

Two things you should see, and one thing you should skip.

See: the Saadian Tombs. The tombs were built by Sultan Ahmed el Mansour as a burial ground in the 16th century. A few decades after the sultan died, the tombs were sealed by rival Alawite Sultan Moulay Ismail. They remained sealed for nearly 300 years, until they were discovered in 1917.

See: the Koutoubia Mosque. The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque rises more than 225 feet above the Marrakech skyline. The mosque, built in the 12th century, is surrounded by a beautiful garden and square that is popular with locals when the sun goes down.

Skip: the Marrakech Museum. The museum was my original destination when I got sidetracked on a shopping adventure. In the end, the museum wasn't worth it. The building, a former palace, is interesting, but not as ornate as the nearby Bahia Palace. The art in the museum is sparse and underwhelming.

Fact-check No. 4

You'll love the food.

Breakfast at the Lamzia, a small six-room house with an open-air courtyard, is a mix of breads and jams, a pancake and an omelet served on colorful ceramic plates.

Lunch is at Nomad, a modern take on traditional Moroccan dishes with a rooftop view overlooking a spice market. The roof has a series of pergolas and water misters to keep you cool, even in the summer sun, while you dine on chicken tagine, a traditional chicken stew served with apricots and carrots.

The spiced Moroccan espresso provides the caffeine jolt to continue your day. When that wears off, vendors in the Jemaa el-Fna sell fresh squeezed orange juice for 4 dirhams (40 cents) or grapefruit juice for 10 dirhams ($1). For a snack, the nut stands provide a salty-sweet balance.

Morocco is a predominantly Muslim country and it's illegal for alcohol to be sold anywhere within sight of a mosque. Most hotels sell beer and wine, however, and the Lamzia had small cans of Flag Speciale, a Pilsner brewed in Morocco, for 30 dirhams ($3).

At night, the Jemaa el-Fna becomes packed with thousands of Morrocans huddled around groups of musicians and carnival games, or even a boxing match between teen girls.

The air is filled with the smell of grilled meats and the sound of men hawking you toward their barbecue stand.

I never felt sure where to step or what to order.

But at some point, you just need to take a step. Get on the back of a scooter.

Be a bit uneasy.

Aaron Sharockman is the executive director of PolitiFact, the fact-checking website of the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at [email protected] Follow @asharock.

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