Land of Sand and Smog
before we were to mount our camels and head into the dunes,
I jumped ship. Day two of five, and already I couldn't
take it--the Land Rover, the itinerary, the Berber kid
playing Sambo under a not-so-sheltering sky. I wished
my five companions safe travels and paid the driver 200
dirhams (a king's ransom of $25) to get me to Erfoud,
a small town one hour north. There, I'd catch the 8:30
overnight bus to Fes. Add the 200dh to the $175 I'd already
ponied up for my tour of the "desert"--in fact a horizon
interrupted by power lines and full of the whine of motorcycles
running on the nearby roadway--and I was 200 bucks down
on a tightly budgeted two-week trip.
Five hours later, I was freezing my tits off at a bus
station, sharing a pack of cheap local cigarettes with
Kiko and Margalida, two Spaniards also on their way to
Fes. The station was the same as any other anywhere else
in the world: dirty food stands, dirty prostitutes and
dirty men offering whatever else a lonely bus traveler
might desire. One guy who approached us seemed to deal
in everything, and as the conversation jumped from Spanish
to English to French, his attention darted from person
to person, trying to follow the tenuous string of comprehension.
None of us was interested in his wares, so he moved on.
Back on the bus, two seats ahead of me, an old woman attempted
to empty her stomach into a small plastic bag. Her endeavor
had begun in earnest just minutes from Erfoud, and she
showed little sign of giving up. Days earlier, someone
had told me that many Moroccans from the countryside are
unaccustomed to bus and car travel, and so get carsick.
This poor woman was beyond that. The noises suggested
a butchered chicken removing its own soggy giblets and
slapping them into a sack of wet guts.
Determined to sleep for the remaining seven hours, I dry-swallowed
two naproxens, settled as best I could into my cramped
seat and drifted off while reading by the penlight clenched
between my teeth. The driver, naturally, made good time
and pulled into Fes three hours early. Rather than pulling
in well rested at dawn, I arrived groggy under a Bible-black
sky. The hustlers were already waiting at the station's
gate like a hungry pack of wolves eyeing a flock of three-legged
Kiko, Margalida and I slept in the bus station for three
more hours. We rose with the sun and walked a few kilometers
to the old town, Fes el-Bali, where we planned to find
a cheap hotel in the medina and, Kiko was determined,
a bit of hashish.
my second night in Casablanca, a week before Fes,
I learned the importance of eye contact. Or rather the
importance of avoiding it.
Casablanca is a wonderful hellhole of chaos where the
dance of people and commerce moves nonstop under a gray,
day-lit cloud of exhaust. It's alive and swirling and
soiled, like Athens before the Olympic building craze,
or like a little brother to sprawling Mexico City. Modern
apartment buildings loom over palm-tree avenues, swarms
of red petit taxis fill the streets, fighting for shoulder
space with handcarts piled high with fresh fish. Some
men wear suits, others wear jeans; many chose the traditional
djellabahs, hoods pulled over their heads, the loose,
thick cloth insulating them against both the morning chill
and noonday sun.
I was walking down the street when I accidentally caught
a glance from a man heading toward me. He immediately
looked above and beyond me, and nodded almost imperceptibly.
Three seconds later, Hamid was by my side, shucking and
jiving, a wolf getting to know the sheep.
A man in his early 50s, Hamid was a world-traveling ship
navigator ("See? Here is my identification card. See?
It says there, Ęnavigator' in Arabic.") and he just wanted
to talk, make friends, have some tea. Could he join me
wherever I was going? Could he help me find some women?
Or maybe some kif? He mistook me for British and so talked
about living in London. When I said I was American, he
suddenly knew all about Seattle, about Los Angeles, about
Miami. Forget the weed, my friend, how about some cocaine?
More than one Moroccan described their multi-linguism
as a salat--a mix of every tongue that passes through.
More fascinating than their grasp of so many languages,
though, is the Moroccan huckster's ability to talk about
his mark's culture. I imagine men like Hamid as sponges
sucking up every fact they hear. The relatively few details
he got from me--yes, I live in Manhattan; yes it is expensive;
my rent is more than 1000 euros per month; I was born
in New Jersey, which is just across the river; no, my
family is spread out across the country--have no doubt
already become flourishes in his next target's chat-up.
Clearly, I wasn't going to shake my new friend on the
street, so I stepped into the crowded bar room of Av Petit
Poucet. I ordered a bottle of Flag Speciale, the local
beer, and repeatedly tapped my touchspot, the place deep
in a zipped pocket where my passport and ATM card were
stashed. I paid with spare coins and betrayed nothing
of the hidden wad of dirhams fresh from the cash machine.
Hamid made it clear that I was to buy him a drink as well.
Which I did, if only for the sport, if only because at
$1.50 it was cheaper than the discomfort of denying him
in a room filled with men who resembled him a lot more
than they resembled me. Then he made it clear that I was
to buy him cigarettes. Or, I was to give him money so
he then could pretend to buy cigarettes from the guy who'd
just walked in, made eye contact and nodded almost imperceptibly
in my direction. That's when I wished him a good evening.
Just down the road, back in the direction of the hostel,
I sat down at the Cabaret Le Don Quichotte, put my back
to the wall and put the waiter in my favor with a generous
but not unreasonable tip for each of my five drinks.
The bars of Morocco are uniformly drab, brightly lit,
noisy with traditional music and filled almost exclusively
with middle-aged men. They're hardly a significant social
center, nor are they a fair representation of the culture.
Even if you didn't know that Islam forbids drinking alcohol,
the black curtains that shield patrons from street view
suggest a taboo.
On the last night of my trip, in the capital, Rabat, a
coastal city just northeast of Casablanca, I followed
a sign advertising "NIGHT CLUB." I stepped into the basement
of the Hotel Balima, down the stairs, around a corner
and into a molasses-thick puddle of dirty looks. It was
my most uncomfortable of uncomfortable moments, the worst
of some 10 bar entrances I'd made over the last two weeks,
none of which were particularly pleasant. I felt as if
I'd barged into a private funeral, and I was responsible
for the deceased's predicament.
After an agonizing walk across the room, shoulder-deep
in heavy stares, I took the only available seat, ordered
a beer and paid the waiter. I lit a cigarette and ordered
my second drink right away. After 10 minutes, I was forgotten,
just another piece of furniture. I read my day-old Guardian
and tried to decide if the few women there were prostitutes,
or just poorly dressed.
met Tom and Sean at the train station on the way to
Marrakech. Both were intelligent and handsome and, consequently,
self-assured to the edge of arrogance. But not quite.
They were goofy and fun, and lacking in ego, so they made
good traveling companions for a few days. They both live
in Alaska--work all summer, travel all winter--and I figured
them for early to mid-20s. They were, in fact, both in
their early 30s; likewise, they clocked me at eight years
younger than I am.
Sean negotiated the five-day trip into the desert. We'd
taken rooms at the Hotel Ali, a well-known yet affordable
tourist spot situated on the edge of the plaza that leads
into Marrakech's famous medina. By day, the football field-size
expanse is a jumble of snake charmers and tricksters;
by night, it becomes the most incredible market of food
stalls, with informal but marked zones for different offerings--meat,
fish, nuts, desserts, etc. Only the quilt of smells rising
from the grills rivaled the crisscross slipstream of men
hawking to passersby, pleading and cajoling the hungry
to eat at their stand because it is, my friend, the best
in all of Marrakech.
We wanted to avoid the typical tourist trip into the desert,
so Sean arranged for our own Land Rover and five-day itinerary.
To fill out the truck and keep the per-person price down,
we roped in an Irish couple and Hoja from Japan. On the
first day, we drove nine hours from Marrakech to the edge
of the desert in the Southeast. Along the way, we stopped
at a dozen scenic overlooks and roadside trinket shops
where the bathrooms carried a cover charge of 4dh (though
a single-dirham coin generally appeased the little kid
working the door). Tom was on edge, cranky about being
stuck in the Land Rover; his favorite car activity was
pointing out the rocks he'd prefer to be climbing. "Why
can't we just stop and walk around for a couple hours?"
he asked more than once.
He wasn't wrong, but neither is the petulant child who
complains that ice cream tastes better than broccoli.
What we thought would be a flexible tour with a driver
who'd take us on a deep excursion into the desert, worlds
away from the tourist hordes, was clearly the same package
reserved for gangs of camera-laden Germans and their children.
Every scenic overlook featured some kid selling overpriced
handicrafts and fossils from the local quarries, and since
our driver earned a commission on sales, there was little
motivation for him to skip them. Where was the profit
of instead taking us on an off-road trek where Tom might
rappel? Five of us knew there was little choice but to
accept this, so our sixth's incessant complaining was
just cruel and unnecessary. By the time we stopped for
midday lunch, the Irish couple, Hoja and I were prepared
to send Tom rock climbing--headfirst down the nearest
We hit town at six o'clock and ditched our bags with the
driver, taking only what we needed for one night. I was
determined to loosen up and enjoy myself, accidental package
tour be damned. These were good people, after all. Tom
had stopped talking about boulders and was once again
fun to be around; the Irish couple and Hoja were charming;
and I suspected there was more to Sean than just being
the Guildenstern to Tom's Rosencrantz.
Spend just 10 minutes atop a camel, and you'll appreciate
an old man's hope for a calm, quiet death. Like the mules
I'd seen whipped and beaten in the Moroccan cities and
countryside alike, these camels are born into service.
They're peculiar creatures, at least when domesticated--intelligent
as horses with the dim disposition of cows. We rode for
two hours, the beautiful, promised sunset inconveniently
behind us, and reached the camp of three semi-permanent
tents where we shared a chicken tagine (a stew of meat,
vegetables and couscous), followed by mint tea. I shared
a joint with the Irishman, then wandered into the sand
for an hour, thinking about those things one thinks about
when lying under a clear North African sky.
Our hosts were young men in their 20s, Berbers who normally
lived with their families several days away, deep in the
desert. They did their best to entertain us, offering
what they thought we wanted: genuine desert nomads who
struggled with funny American catchphrases ("Oh my gawd!")
while calling each of us "Ali Baba." And every few minutes,
a motorcycle whirled by, no more than a half-mile away.
When the moon rose in the west, it illuminated nearby
power lines. I felt like a child who'd gone camping in
his own backyard, imagining the hedge was a deep forest,
the family dog a grizzly bear.
The next day, I plotted and made my escape from Merzouga.
in the old hotel in Fes, I had to wait an hour for
my room to be cleaned. The Spaniards and I hiked from
the bus station and looked at a few area hotels before
settling on the Hotel Lamrani, where the rooms were clean
and affordable enough at 60dh each ($8). My single was
a mere closet, just large enough for the single bed and
my bag propped precariously on a rickety wooden chair,
but it was all I needed. It was also conveniently located
just inside the medina, and though a hot shower cost 10dh
extra, I intended go to the hammam, or public bath, later
that day. It, too, was conveniently located--just eight
feet across the winding alley that was in reality a major
avenue through the marketplace.
The medina of Fes is one of Morocco's oldest and largest,
with a rumored 9400 individual streets. Staying within
its walls is like living in a blender. Step off the hotel's
tiny stoop and you have to jump to avoid the whirling
blades of the salesmen pushing overpriced rugs, guides
trying to intimidate you with stories of lost tourists
and children begging for change. Avoiding eye contact
keeps the first two at bay, while the children are easily
appeased with a cigarette that they can then sell.
My first proper morning in Fes was foggy and wet and more
cold than chilly. The haze hung in the air like drops
of oil, but burned off by noon. Moroccans pay little mind
to the temperature. They leave the house wearing a couple
of layers and a heavy coat, or maybe a djellabah, and
throughout the day they don't remove anything. In the
heat, outside at the cafe, they're still bundled up. In
the evening, inside or outside, it's the same outfit.
On my second night, having had my fill of the medina's
nightlife, I took a taxi back into Ville Nouvelle, the
new city, which resembled Casablanca: wide, tree-lined
avenues between modern buildings and busy storefronts.
At Caf´ Chope, I was offered radishes and artichokes with
my beer, then a chunk of fried fish and olives; like the
bars of Casa, it was too bright. At Hotel Lamdaghri, I
ate more olives, this time served with slices of cucumber.
There, an older man bought me a drink after I offered
him the stool that opened up between us. In halting English,
he told me, "There are no good men in Morocco," a bit
too loudly for my tastes, me the sore thumb sticking out
with my blond hair and fair skin. I taught him to say
"I want a drink" as opposed to "I want to drink" when
requesting a refill of his vodka. A subtle distinction,
to be sure, but it was all I could offer in return for
I took a taxi back to the medina and smoked a bit of hash
on the roof of the hotel, the swirl of commerce continuing
in the alleys below. How peculiar, I thought, that I would
get anxious in the medina when surrounded by the salesmen's
aggressive, incessant commercial catcalls forcing me into
a turtle shell of isolation; but drop me into any bar,
no matter how seedy or nasty or intimidating, and I can
make friends. I can find refuge, away from the hustlers
and kids pushing wares and knowledge. In Morocco's desert
and in its bars, I found peace.
I set out to Meknes the next day, wedged between an overweight
woman and the scratchy carpet on the inside of a local
bus. At each of the 10 police stops during the 90-minute
trip, my heart raced as I thought of the chunk of hash
stuffed in my pocket. There was nothing to worry about,
of course; so long as you don't cross the international
border, the police have little concern for American idiots
carrying three dollars' worth of drugs.
That afternoon, I met Fadoua, a 20-year-old university
student who was bored with her hometown and the same old
faces. She approached me on the street, speaking no English.
I speak neither French nor Arabic, so for the next three
afternoons, we stumbled on in Spanish. Our ability to
communicate was laughable--we conjugated verbs by adding
ayer or ma└ana to the simple forms to indicate tense--but
we still got to know each other.
I don't chase sex when I travel and was happy to spend
time with the devout Fadoua. She showed me around town,
revealed to me the passages between buildings and vouched
for me in the back alley cafes where her friends played
pool and drank tea late into the night. One of her pals
wore a silver pentagram around his neck. My Spanish was
too lacking to ask if this were a religious, cultural
or political statement--the symbol of Morocco is a five-pointed
star--and if he got into many fights over his torn jeans
and blond-streaked hair.
Four days later I was in the next town, Rabat, where I
chose a small, private room in the town center over the
cheaper bunk bed of the hostel. The fiscal misstep of
the desert tour was by then forgotten, and I was back
on budget. I decided that the extra five dollars was worth
the central location. The hostel, though clean and friendly,
was a 30-minute walk from the train station and bordered
a parking lot along with a swarm of local busses and taxis.
In two days' time, I would need to catch an early train
to the airport, and didn't fancy the pre-dawn walk.
I woke up early on my last full day in Morocco and walked
to the Roman-era ruins, the Chellah, on the southern periphery
of town. There I saw hundreds of storks perched atop the
remains of Rabat's legacy as a trading center. In the
morning sun, huge birds nesting atop a crumbling minaret,
the scene was unreal--a screenshot from Myst, a painted
cel from a fantasy movie. At the northern edge, several
hours later, I sat near the ocean and watched two dozen
kids on surfboards make the best of the modest waves coming
into the horseshoe-shaped inlet. Behind me, the Kasbah
watched over us, imperial and still majestic, a string
of Moroccans perched on the rock wall, some hand in hand,
stealing the last bit of the sun's warmth.
Down on the jetty that stuck out into the ocean, I sat
still for 10 minutes, until I became furniture for the
families and groups of kids around me, then took out my
camera and took a few photos of the Kasbah, the surfers,
the cemetery on the opposite hill. I thought about one
of my favorite childhood spots down at the Jersey shore--a
jetty where I'd often fish with my grandfather, who passed
away several years ago--and I considered the comfort of
familiarity. Not as a crutch, but as a nice thing to carry
with you, a touchspot inside, something to occasionally
tap when you're not quite sure where you are or what you're
I walked back up the hill, through the last medina I would
see, and returned to my hotel room. I packed my bag, discarding
my guidebook and the novel I'd finished a week earlier.
I checked the train schedule, smoked the last bit of hash
and decided that a couple of drinks were in order.
Across the street, a sign on the Hotel Balima boasted
of its "NIGHT CLUB." I left my key at the front desk and
stepped into the chilly Moroccan night.