Land of Sand and Smog
Minutes 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 sheep.
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.
On 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.
I 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 scenic overlook.
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.
Up 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 the drinks.
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 doing there.
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.