A Moroccan Apothecary is more than just a herbalist. Besides common health remedies, the apothecary can make you fatter, thinner, high, or even dispense black magic in the form of spells and curses. He’s also the man you go to see for natural paint pigments, pumice stones, natural cosmetics and freshly ground spices.
Yesterday in Essaouira, I was invited by one to take tea. As I peppered him with questions about the contents of his many jars, he collected small handfuls of herbs, raising the jar to my nose each time, before placing each ingredient on a piece of white paper used to funnel this tailor made tea into a large silver pot. After it was allowed to brew, he poured it with traditional flair; raising the tea pot high above my little glass; dispensing it in long steamy ribbons of gold. The fragrance of Mint Lemon Verbena, Star Anise, Cinnamon and Juniper enveloped me in a soft cloud of perfume and the taste was just as botanic; fresh and uplifting, but with a touch of earthy spice. Clearly, the witch doctor knew his craft.
As we sat and talked, gulls drew white circles in a clear blue sky and the call to prayer echoed through the medina.
I left with a collection of little bags of spice, Argan oil, Frankensence and eucalyptus infused Black Soap ( used for massage in the Hammam). No spells or curses, or the mixture of poppy opiates that ‘Make you dream colours when you awake’.
As I wandered my way back to the port, hushed voices in the alleyways advertised yet more local herbery. I can see why Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens loved this place so much.
I was told its impossible not to loose yourself in Marrakech; both metaphorically and directionally. I concur. Expect to be mesmerized by snake charmer’s flutes, the musky scent of burning Frankincense and a cacophony of buzzing motorbikes and clippity clopping donkey carts. Maps really aren’t going to help you when you’re lost deep in the souk, so here are a few tips, gleaned from todays adventures; some bread crumbs for my next trip.
1. If you’re a woman who suffers from low self esteem, you might just love Morocco, particularly if you’re traveling alone. Chances are, within seconds of venturing out of your riad you’ll knock the nearest man out cold with your irresistible charm. Once he recovers himself, he will probably say something like” lady, you the most beautiful woman I ever see’, or ‘lady, I like your style’. At this point (assuming you’re not silly enough to believe him) you have a few options: ignore him and keep walking at a determined pace, or counter with a courteous but firm arabic retort ‘Khalini a fak’ , which, based on todays reactions, is the verbal equivalent of pepper spray. Results are almost instantaneous and your admirer will quite literally dissapear. Warning: I don’t actually know what ‘Khalini a fak’ means. Im slightly concerned that it might have come from page 137 of my guide book, ‘ useful phrases for the pharmacy’, but never mind, just say it with conviction. Post script, after repeated use, its also very satisfying to mumble under your breath in reverse; ‘ a fak! Khalini’ -chances are Khalini is probably close to his name.
2. When you get lost, and you will, don’t under any circumstances, do something sensible like pull out a map. This will alert the nearest con man on the street to rush forth with the news that you are indeed so lost, that the place you want to go can only be reached by following him. Dont. The best strategy is to keep walking till you find another tourist (easy to spot because they’ll also be stumbling around dazed and lost ) then, with the safety of numbers, simultaneously open all your maps and brainstorm a solution. If this doesn’t work, move as a homogenous group to the nearest shop and ask there. At the very worst, you’ll leave with a pair of tasseled slippers, but at least you’ll be safely on your way.
3.Do not look at women getting henna hand prints in the main square. Before you know it you’ll be given a free sample, which will quickly continue all the way up your arm and you’ll be left to flee across Jemaa el Fina in search of a public toilet to wash it off before it is with you for the next two weeks. Same goes for snake charmers. Thankfully I didn’t get close enough to get one of those around my neck. Nothing of course is free, so unless you have some loose change, keep running.
4. Visit Ensemble artisanal Moujamaa Essenai , a fixed price artisans village before shopping in the souk. Here you can casually wander in peace and take note of the prices, which are roughly 10 to 15% more than the real price you should pay in the souk after you’ve engaged in the obligatory haggeling. If you don’t like haggeling, then buy here.
5. Lunch tip- visit the amazing photographic collection at La Maison de la Photographie de Marrakech, then have lunch with a view on the roof top terrace. A three course set menu is US$10 . For this, you’ll get to gaze at the distant snow capped Great Atlas Mountains as you savor a zingy chicken tagine with green olives and lemon. Just sublime.