The Dry World

Alleys in Marrakech

The Marrakech Orangerie

Why do we travel? In these notes from Marrakech, Morocco, I offer a different view of the pleasures and purposes of travel as I pursue the color and taste orange.

The cobblestone streets of a small back alley in the Marrakech medina catch the yellowish-orange of public lights.

I wake up in the morning in a traditional riad, tucked away at the end of a long, dark pedestrian alley in the old medina.  The staff have lit incense, scenting the small three-story Moroccan courtyard.  Today, I begin an exploration of orange; the fruit, the taste, and the color.  While orange plays a role in many places around the world; nowhere is it infused so profoundly into a city as it is here in Marrakech.

The old city of Marrakech; the thousand-year-old walled center, is the busiest place in Africa, but on a crisp, sunny morning, the labyrinthine back alleys appear empty.  I arrived at the small five-bedroom riad last night.  Now, on my own, I need to be conscious of where I am; to be able to find my way back.  I can’t even pronounce the name of the riad, or its street.  I can’t place north from south, I don’t have a good sense of exactly where in Marrakech I am, and even detailed maps are meaningless in the narrow back lanes.

My sole wayfinding technique is to stop, look in all directions, take a mental note of the scene, and try to remember how it relates to the last time I recorded my position.  I find my way out of the back alley, continue to move; then, stop. Mental note. Move.  Now, I am on a street that is bustling with life:  Smoke from old mopeds, street vendors filling up every free space, chants of prayer, music.  Fabrics in hues of honey and saffron drape the ancient sandstone walls.  Stop.  Mental note.  Move. 

Where am I? 

Keyhole Arches near the Ben Youssef School

Transportation under keyhole arches near the Ben Youssef Madrasa.

A street peddler, sensing I am lost, moves in.  Where are you looking to go? He asks.  I ask him which direction the Jemaa el-Fnaa Square might be.  Thank you, I say, but, Oh, I don’t need you to show me. 

And then, a few streets later, he asks if I would like to meet his father.

Your father?  No, not particularly.  But then we come to a dark, covered alley; the edge of the famous Marrakech souks, and the street peddler urges me to meet a man who looks nothing like him – the boy is black, the man is Arab, and introduces him as his father. 

The man is excited to meet me.  Why? “Will you read to me these letters in English?”  Oh, he needs somebody to translate some letters, no problem.  He opens up a large manila folder, stuffed with hundreds of letters, all in English. 

“Here,” he says, “this is from Jenny Linkletter, Charlotte, North Carolina.”  Tapping on the lined paper, “Read this one.”

“Okay, I say, holding up the ratty, old paper.  “Mr.  Hirboush is an amazing man.  His skills transcend all knowledge and power.  My life was changed the moment I entered through his door...”

“Excuse me, but can you please use an American accent.  The way you normally talk.”

“But this is the way I talk.  Oregon accent.”  Maybe I look befuddled when I say, “Pacific Northwest English!” Somehow he doesn’t like to hear this.  “Okay, read this one,” he says, trying to hold back an underlying impatience.  “Alistair McLeod, Medford, Massachussetts,” and he hands me a piece of paper dated June 14, 1996. 

“I was another person before I entered the souks of Marrakech and met Mr. Hirbousch,” the letter begins.  “Instantly, as he began his work, I entered a new state of being as he worked my feet...”  And then it dawns on me, this jerk just conned me into reading his own testimonials.  “Wait a minute,” I say.  “Are you a reflexologist?  Are you trying to get me to pay for a foot massage?” And I leave, moving quickly through the souk, the street peddler hot on my trail, saying, “Wait, wait!”

Moped Biker in Marrakech

Moped rider near the walls of the Marrakech medina.

I dodge this way, and that way, and into a narrow alley, and I see the street peddler eyeing the crowds.  Then, stop.  Mental note.  Wait, I have completely lost my position.  I have no idea which direction I came from.

I continue to walk, thinking about how, if reflexology seeks credibility, why a practitioner of it may be so quick to play a scam with a street peddler?  But that’s the thing about credibility, isn’t it?  A few gushing testimonials, a warm smile, and a bunch of dumb foreigners, and who needs credibility.  But then, if, as reflexology asserts, nerve fibres run through our whole body, interconnected, could I not get a heart attack from stepping wrongly on a thousand-year old Marrakech stepping stone?

To avoid the street peddler, I light down a lane, out of the crowds.  The bare sandstone walls are fully visible here, and the light, reflected off two surfaces, brightens the alley.  Like in the Desert Southwest, sandstone in Africa changes its tone the more surfaces it has to reflect off; roseate hues brighten into yellowish-oranges and orangish-reds.

Quickly, day turns to night, I find a restaurant.  The waitress seats me at the rooftop terrace, four stories up, where I sit alone under moon and stars.  I do not know why she put me up here, away from the other guests, who are seated among empty tables on floors one through three.  But the view is spectacular. At the end of the meal, a waitress brings a bowl of couscous flavored with orange and cinnamon.  The way orange, and other citruses, are used here is unusual, but each time it works.  Salads are sometimes as simple as orange slices, with radishes and salt.  Orange is infused in tea, in chicken tagines, in desserts, appetizers, lamb, even bread.

The exploration of orange in food and drink has always compelled me; it goes back to a very early time: My earliest memories are of orange popsicles.  Not just the sweet, artificial citrus taste, but the bright, wonderful color. Frozen around a wooden stick, and representative of all things good.  The orange popsicle meant summer, the warmth of the sunshine, and big days, where the sun was up early in the morning and not down until late in the evening.

I equated different colors with different numbers, and orange, which I considered the sweetest and most optimistic color, represented multiples of three – three, six, nine, twelve, eighteen.  I associated certain tones and melodies with color too.  When I hear classical East Indian music, I imagine dark orange; when John Coltrane and Miles Davis play, I hear orange on blue; like that color combination that the impressionists so adored.  For followers of the Grateful Dead, the live performances from the spring and fall of 1977 most sounded like a warm summer evening captured in music.  I can never separate the tangle of sounds from this era to a range between yellowish-orange and orangish-red. 

I pay for my meal, and begin the hopeless quest to find my way back to the riad.

Sandstone Alley in the Marrakech medina.

Sandstone alleys in the Marrakech medina turn shades of orange as reflected light bounces through the narrow street.

It's fashionable for travelers to explain why they like to travel. They will say, I like to get lost in other cultures! Or, I want to embrace their food. I want to immerse myself in authenticity. My wanderlust inspires me to seek the new!

These may be good reasons to travel, but I do not always believe that these stated themes really explain why someone is traveling. To me, they seem like Twitter-era advertisements for the traveler's view of the world or even how they want people to perceive them. A traveler may truly immerse himself into a culture, may get lost in its cuisine, and have an infectious wanderlust, and yet, the most significant learning, or discovery, or joy in a person's travels rarely seems to have much to do with any of these stated themes.

Foodies don't eat continuously during a trip, I've noticed, and I've met culture-conscious backpackers who spend much travel time reading a good paperback, in their own language. A common theme among travelers is the joy of meeting someone that comes from where they come from. I once asked a traveling hunter what his favorite part of the trip was. He said it was seeing all the different species of songbirds!

When I set out to create my list of things I hoped to accomplish this year, a habit I do each year and which I begin early the year before, I felt exasperated. The list was too long; a recipe for failure. Each year before, I failed to live up to my goals, so why was my list even longer and more complicated?

Bike shop in the Marrakech Medina

Bike shop at last light in the Marrakech medina.

I took a paintbrush and marked the top of my list with a thick line of orange ink. Somehow, it made the list more appealing, and I realized then that orange had always played a role in my life. No, it wasn't my favorite color, and no, I don't wear orange bow-ties or hang orange paintings in my living room. But I couldn't deny the influence of the color throughout my life. Why not just make orange the theme for the year; all tasks, goals, hopes and dreams can be organized neatly under a single theme. No longer lists of finances, family, fitness; but a year in color.

By having a color as my theme for travel, I was both admitting to myself that there was nothing noble about why I traveled, that I was not seeking or losing myself or curing an insatiable wanderlust, but rather that travel is more a way to pursue and sort out the themes of our own lives.

Lost in thought, but also lost, I approach a street vendor, and pay him to help find my way to the riad. 

The next morning, I meet up with Hicham, a friend of a family friend who drove from a coastal city to act as my driver. I jump in his car and we leave the medina for the outskirts of the city. Many streets are lined with orange trees. "But those are not the sweet oranges that we eat," Hicham says, explaining that they are a type of bitter orange tree typically grown here ornamentally, because they produce oranges throughout the year.

I imagine Marrakech a few hundred years ago; in a time before cars and street signs, and a street like this one would have been all the color of sand and sandstone, and the colors that would stand out the most would be the orange trees themselves. It's a lovely architectural element: orange and green against the subdued natural colors of sandy Marrakech stone and mud.

Lamps for sale in the Marrakech souks

Lamps hang in the traditional souks of the medina.

Bitter oranges, in all their hybridized forms around the world, play as much of a role in the orange taste as sweet oranges – Marmelade, Grand Marnier, Curaçao, spiced Belgian witbiers and various orange extracts, flavors, orange blossom water and essential oils. 

Here in Marrakech, citrus trees, and perhaps particularly the bitter orange tree, plays a central cultural role. To understand the role of the orange tree, you have to understand the riad, which is really a traditional Moroccan courtyard house. "These days," explains Hicham, "many of the riads in Marrakech have been converted into hotels, but it used to be that this is where people lived." 

"It doesn't make sense to me," I say, "riads are large. They are three or four stories high, they are like mansions. How did people afford to live in such space?"

"Actually, you would have many generations living in a riad," he explains. "If you get married, you would still live in the riad you grew up in. You would have many generations living in each one. That is one way in which they do not work in the modern world."

The riad grew out of different traditional elements: the Moroccan desert weather; harsh wind and sand necessitated an enclosed space. But the beautiful and nearly ever-present warm sun justifies the courtyard, which blocks the harsh weather but brings in the bright light. 

View of the Atlas Mountains from Marrakech

The Atlas Mountains are visible in the distance from the top of a courtyard roof in Marrakech.

Also, the Islamic notions of privacy (particularly hijab; the partitioning of adult women from the outside world), the Islamic/North African concept of hospitality, which is very much central to life here. Hicham explains, "It is not like in the states, where if you want to have your friends over, you invite them over and they come at the time you tell them. At home, for example, if we are making a tagine, we make enough for five or six people, even though there are just the four of us. You never know when a friend or family will stop over, and we expect that they do regularly. If nobody comes over, we have leftovers."

The next morning, I meet up with Hicham, a friend of a family friend who drove from a coastal city to act as my driver. I jump in his car and we leave the medina for the outskirts of the city. Many streets are lined with orange trees. 

"But those are not the sweet oranges that we eat," Hicham explains, explaining that they are a type of bitter orange tree typically grown here ornamentally, because they produce oranges throughout the year.

I imagine Marrakech a few hundred years ago; in a time before cars and street signs, and a street like this one would have been all the color of sand and sandstone, and the colors that would stand out the most would be the orange trees themselves. It's a lovely architectural element: orange and green against the subdued natural colors of sandy Marrakech stone and mud.

The Islamic concept of the garden, the earthly reminder of paradise, also plays a role in the creation of the riad, and at the center of each is almost always a citrus tree. It may be a single orange or lemon tree, but larger courtyards may host two or three trees. These ideas of hijab, hospitality, weather and garden put the orange tree front and center. They become almost like a symbol of the way of life here.

Oranges did not always exist in Morocco or the Mediterranean at large. In fact, they didn't always exist. Before man's role in citrus, native citrus shrubs existed in India and Southeast Asia. They were evergreen shrubs that loved sunny jungles, bore greenish or yellowish fruits, and probably were unremarkable and patchily distributed. There were no limes, no lemons, no grapefruits, and in fact botanists believe that since fruits of the citrus genus so easily hybridize, that each fruit we know today is the result of so much manipulation that learning the taxonomy will never get resolved. An orange, for example, may be a cross between a pomelo and a mandarin. But a pomelo itself, a hybrid of a hybrid of a hybrid of some native citrus, from some vast region, from plants that may have existed somewhere between India, China and Southeast Asia. If that's confusing, then consider the grapefruit – a hybrid of an orange and a pomelo, or the lemon, which is a hybrid of an orange and a citron.

Arches in Marrakech

Marrakech Alley in afternoon light.

Citrus began to appear in North Africa and the Arab world in the first millennium, and even surfaced in the Qu'ran; in the defining era of Islamic culture in North Africa, the bitter orange tree must have been something to behold; brilliant evergreen with bright bulbs of a color so rare in this part of the world.

In English, the name for the color comes from the name for the fruit. In the countries of the Far East, the name of the color is named after the spice that is so often used to dye garments orange – saffron. In those countries, the concept of orange is exaulted by Buddhism and Hinduism, and it is ever-present in design. For me, that is a strange concept, because in North America, orange is the least used color in design, fashion and architecture – it is associated so closely with friviolity and plastic. 

But perhaps its rarity endears me to it; whenever we do use orange, we use it boldly. We know there is something dangerous about it; dangerous and bright and bold and optimistic. Over the years, I've learned that it's difficult to mix red and yellow paint to produce a big, bold crisp orange. To truly represent orange, you need a naturally occurring pigment.

After three days of traveling with Hichan through Marrakech, I sit down on the rooftop of the riad with my Winsor & Newton ink – just brown and orange, and try to capture Marrakech in two colors. For breakfast, fresh squeezed orange juice with pistachio yogurt.

I remember a year ago, when the doctor first said that we should try running the color-blindness test on our son again. And how, after seeing that when we drew together, that he tended to draw everything in the colors of yellow and blue. And that one day, when we were sharing a plate of pita, hummus and carrots, I asked him what the most brilliant color on the plate was, and he pointed to the little yellowish garlics infused in the hummus. At first, I was hurt to learn that my son would never see the color orange the way I do. 

But if travel is about exploring our own themes in our own lives, then a pursuit of the color orange has reminded me that we each see things our own way. Not everybody sees the big, bold optimism that I see in orange, but six billion people each seeing the world through their own eyes is what makes being a part of it so interesting. And sitting up here, under the morning sun, I ponder being back home, and sharing an orange popsicle with my son – his favorite flavor.