Africa greets you with immediate attention. You just barely exit the boat ramp before many men, who we kindly call hustlers, but who call themselves “guides,” greet you, offering you their local expertise for a price. I ignored all eyes and comments as a way to say I was uninterested, but it was more difficult than that. We managed to make our way to the more honest taxi stands and request a ride to the bus station. We had decided to go directly to Fes even though arriving after midnight without a reservation.
After buying our bus tickets, we wandered in the vicinity of the station. The sun was setting and the Imam was calling out from the mosque tower, a call to all Muslims for prayer (one of the pillars of Islam is to pray five times a day). Foreigners and non-Muslims are not allowed inside the mosques. There was one at the bus station and as the front entrance to the station was being renovated, Baxter and I almost made the detrimental mistake of entering through the mosque door. Luckily, I noticed that those inside the tiled room were without shoes and on their knees before we found our life continued from the inside of a Moroccan prison.
Despite our varying experiences in “Spanish Eating,” Baxter and I were in agreement on the topic of Spanish food:: es horrible! While some travelers might fear the food, we were happy to eat in Morocco. A cup of coffee costs about $.10, a good cup of coffee nonetheless, accompanied by an assortment of delicious sweetbreads. To use the restroom at the train station, I had to pay a few dirums. I repeat, I had to pay a few dirums, to go into a room with a hole in the floor and a bucket of water to flush when I was done. I had brought some toilet paper with me, but it didn’t last me long and I adapted to using none, not much different than backpacking in the great outdoors, though a little less pleasant. This was my first third-world experience, but for Baxter it is old hat. He did some growing up in Jakarta, Indonesia as well as Venezuela and so to him, the slight smell of urine that permeates all of the Moroccan cities we visited was not a surprise.
My first impression of Moroccans themselves was that there were kind and anxious to help. They spoke their own beautiful language — Arabic — but most of them also picked up three or four other languages fluently and easily due to the influx of tourism, the desire to make money, and the location of their country as the gateway to Africa. Most speak French as their second language, a remnant of the French colonial days, and at times that was helpful to us in order to read signs and get around, though my spoken French is shamefully poor. We walked through a park behind the bus station and in no time at all, a Moroccan boy in his 20’s approached us and began speaking to us in French. It was the first time of many that a Moroccan would guess where we were from in this order: France, Germany, England, Ireland, Canada. America was always last and I always had a sneaking suspicion that they didn’t want to offend us. But when we said we were Americans, it went like this: oh we LOVE America! When you go home, tell everyone that Morocco loves America. Tell them to come to Morocco. As you might have guessed tourism in Morocco, as everywhere, has dropped dramatically since September 11th, and I’m sure the number of Americans willing and interested to travel a Muslim country right now is severely depressed. Anyway, once this young man realized we spoke Spanish, he switched over and chatted with us for about twenty minutes. At the end of the conversation, he said he’d only studied Spanish for three months, and I probably blushed in disappointment of my own language ability. Ah, but have patience Jill. That is why you are here — to learn.
Soon we were getting on the bus to Fes. I have one thing to say about buses the world over: public busses in America are the WORST! In a third-world country, where toilet paper is a luxury and houses in the medina house up to 80 family members, Moroccan buses far outshine any public bus in the States. Comfortable, climatized, and probably safer than any bus I’ve ridden back home. Of course, by the time we arrived in Fes six hours later, we were not so infatuated with Moroccan busses, but any long journey will do that to you. It is a shame really that we traveled at night because we missed the entire countryside. We listened to the Arabic music, broadcasted prayers, and also the news, which I could tell from the somber tone and the words: Pakistan, Kashmir, Kabul, etc., was not good news. The babies and children on board cooed the universal sound of laughter and tears depending on their moods. Every so often, the bus would pull into a station for a long break. Most got out for a smoke. Each time a line of children came through the bus selling cookies, chips, Coca Cola, etc. They reminded me of the poor children in Tijuana who put the Chiclets into your hand before you have said you want them. Baxter and I especially got harassed to buy, presumably white and rich (ha!), the children put the cookies in our laps and begged for us to buy. Hard to resist… One man came on board with a big tray of homemade candy with nuts and caramel. When we asked to buy some, he cut it off the tray right there. It was good stuff too. And our journey down the Kasbah way continued.
By the time we arrived at the bus station in Fes, Morocco we were both so hungry. Inside the station were lots of stands where you could have sandwiches made on the spot for you or you could play it safe and buy some packaged chips or chocolate. None of the meat on display – nice and raw – appealed to me much, but I did enjoy watching the owner of each of the stands shout niceties at Baxter in an attempt to win his business. He finally settled with the stand of a young boy who happily slapped some semi-raw hamburger meat into a pita with bits of vegetable and what else I don’t know. At another stand, we looked into the glass case at what we thought was couscous. Baxter asked in French if this was so and the men behind the counter shook their heads, but doled out a free portion of it for me to try. And there I stood, in the middle of a Moroccan bus station food stand, a porcelain bowl of yellow rice in hand, eating at the counter like a poor child. I didn’t like it and so ate my portion sheepishly and returned the bowl without buying more. I went to another stand and bought some decadent-looking profiterole with whipped cream oozing all over the place for dinner.
Perhaps it was the blatant lack of female energy in the place that took away my appetite for something more substantial. Looking around, I noticed I was the ONLY woman in the bus station; of course, it was midnight, but there had been other women on my bus. All the men seemed to be there as if it was the place to be. I felt very much in the spotlight and glad I couldn’t understand the Arabic utterances that came our way. What did come our way was one mumbling, sputtering, toothless, emaciated man who gurbled at Bax for food. And Bax, always one to give to anyone who asks whether it be a cigarette, a penny, a bite of his food, or a ride into town, took one last anxious bite of his first meal since breakfast and handed the rest over. This man gleefully showed us how much he enjoyed the food by eating it loudly with his mouth open and drooling, eyes big and smiling. I looked down at the whipped cream thing in my hand, knowing it was all I’d have until breakfast and I’ll I’d really had all day and decided I was not as good as Bax and I was NOT giving it up. While Bax walked just a few feet away to negotiate with a taxi driver, I had a fierce stare-down with this toothless man, who despite the lack still seemed to have food stuck in-between. He put his hands out, pointed at my food, and then at his mouth, but I said, “I’m sorry. This is MY dinner. You just ate” and proceeded with my meal. He watched me swallow the last bit and then turned, sputtering and found some more food from someone else kind of heart. Maybe it was cruel, but my stomach was aching for food.
Our taxi driver took us to Hotel Rex, where we checked into a large Spartan room with a sink, toilet with flush and paper down the hall for only 100 Dirums ($10) and we quickly fell asleep. In the morning we were greeted with sunshine and a bustling Moroccan morning. How strange it is to arrive in a place at night, having not seen the land you passed through or the city squares and infrastructure. In delirium, you find a room, and it is with great anticipation and perhaps anxiety that you push open the door in the morning to find out where the hell you have landed. Ah, but it was not Mars! Outside our door was a small plaza park, taxi stand, and lots of cafes with men sitting outside smoking and having their coffees. We walked to the nearest cafe and ordered some for ourselves. We sat in the sun and rejoiced at being here and not in the cold plains of Spain any longer (I’d only been there for a week!). After coffee we walked a bit and found our way to what was called an “American Fast Food” place, advertising donuts and hamburgers. We ordered French omelettes and again sat on the patio in the sun. When Bax went into the toilet, lots of little boys (under 10 years old) seemed to appear out of nowhere. They must have passed by several times and seen that Baxter had a pack of cigarettes. I suppose they thought I’d be more inclined than he to offer them one. One by one, they approached the table where I sat and said in timid, but delightful English, “Cigarette please?” I looked them in the eye and again said no, though I gave into the fourteen-year old (!) if only because I figured at least then Bax wouldn’t smoke it. When he returned from the bathroom, the kids had scattered.
After breakfast, we were of the mind to go into the Medina, the Old Town. We’d asked for directions and knew the general direction, so we began by foot and it took only a minute or so before we had a young man trailing behind us telling us he’d like to show us his city. We walked faster, but he persisted. I ignored him, but Baxter -always making friends – did not. So despite our best intentions, we had a “student guide” and his selling point was that, “as soon as you get to the Medina you will be harassed by others wanting to be your guide, but they will hustle you. You should go with me. I am a gentle hustler.” What a motto: gentle hustler! Our guide’s name was (spelled phonetically since I don’t know Arabic) Toafick. Toafick was a nineteen-year-old university student who does this for a living. When we buy something from a vendor, through whatever arrangements (sketchy or not) he gets commissions or something (hashish maybe? Called chocolate in Morocco) out of every deal we make. He knew at least five languages. Right away he took to calling Bax and me, respectfully, Mohammad Couscous and Fatima Berber (after the Berber tribe).
The Medina was everything I could imagine Morocco to be, a storybook picture of the Old World with winding, tight-cornered streets, little doorways, tall-standing stalls of olives, candies, and fruit. In the outdoor market, you could buy all kinds of awful knockoff Nike, Ray Ban, and Sony products plus a wide array of fake leather clothing, trinkets, etc.
There was the old market and the new market, and the old market contained the Moroccan crafts: ceramics, rugs, jewelry, etc. It was just about time for kids to be coming home from school, so with each white-washed wall we turned in this labyrinth of dwellings, a gobble of children came rushing by. Just about every boy older than 14 made some comment to me or pursed his lips in a fake kiss, which I took as a compliment even if it was a bit annoying after a while. A group of little girls saw the very small (I swear!) camera I had with me and they imitated me taking pictures of all the sights and then asked me in French to take their picture (I did not, but I suspect that if I had, they would have insisted I pay them for it). Men passed by in the traditional Jalaba hooded capes, little yodas everywhere. And Toafick assured us the passing donkeys wouldn’t hurt us, but that they were the “taxi of the Medina.”
Very quickly after joining us, Toafick tried to sell us on the “Moroccan Experience,” which would obviously bring in more money for him, but also was too structured and Disney for our tastes, so we acted uninterested. But when he mentioned coming to his home for traditional tea and to meet his family, we agreed. Through a series of confused twists and turns through the labyrinth that was his neighborhood, we made our way to his home. Inside we found a beautiful room with high ceilings, decorative arches, and one room with plush satin cushions circling the entire room. His brothers and sisters were all in one room watching Egyptian television and they giggled a little when we entered. Bax and I assumed he has tourists over often; his siblings must get a kick out of it. Toafick was the only one in the family, however, who could communicate with us in English. He explained to us that some of the dwellings housed up to 80 family members. It was never clear to me how many lived in his place, but it was much different than an American nuclear family unit. The home itself, according to Toafick, was also something like two thousand years old!
After offering us a seat in the cushioned-couch room, which doubled as a sleeping room, he told his sister to put on the tea and she complied. It was a half-hour before the mint tea was ready. His younger sister brought it out on a gold tray. The teapot itself was ornately decorated and she had three small glasses, similar to what I would call a juice glass, with it. She then proceeded to pour into one glass, but she held the teapot about two feet above the glass and poured quickly. Then she opened the teapot and dumped the tea she’d just poured right back in. She did this twice; I suppose as a way to brew the tea. Finally, she poured a round for the three of us, smiled, and went back to the television. I felt a bit privileged to be allowed in the company of two men, not because I would ordinarily feel that way, but because it seemed to be customary in Morocco and it was rubbing off already. Toafick did most of his talking directly to Baxter and then would indicate to Bax when it was okay for him to consult with me. We must have stayed there for an hour or more. Toafick taught us some key Arabic phrases, we enjoyed the mint tea, and fell into mellow siesta mood though we never slept.
Having been to Morocco before, Bax knew he wanted to go to a Turkish bath and he’d convinced me I would love it. It was I, though, that suggested it at this juncture because I was feeling a bit scummy. I don’t think I’d showered in about three days, and the idea of a bath and massage seemed like heaven. Turkish baths in Arabic are called Hamams. There is one room for the men and one for the women. Toafick could show Bax where to go, but what about me? Again, Toafick called upon his sister. At the mention of this, she seemed to get very excited to be my guide. Toafick arranged it and said she would take me along with her and the four of us would meet back in 10 hours. I am sure I looked a little timid. I looked at Baxter with a face that said, “What have I suggested?” as I was about to go off with a girl I had only just met, with whom I did not have a common language, to do something I had only a slight idea about and in which I knew, obviously, modesty would be an issue. Toafick’s sister gathered up her bathing belongings and some extras for me. She loaned me a towel and some soap, and then she took me by the hand as we followed Baxter and Toafick back through the twisty Medina to the Hamam. A stairway led up to the window where I handed over 100 Dirums for all four of us to bath. At the top of the stairs, one stairway went to the right and the other to left. I looked back over my shoulder to see Bax go his way, and then I looked forward to what was about to be one of the most primal, memorable, and strange things I think I’ve yet experienced.
Once I was inside the bathhouse, I became like a child. I had no language to speak and everything around me was new. In the vestibule of the Turkish bath, there was a group of older women chatting to each other in Arabic. I was reminded of the bathhouse of the hostel in Cassis, France last summer which consisted of a large cement trough with no privacy, and which to my surprise was a vestibule for womanly chatter. I was again reminded of my American modesty.
My new friend, the sister of my Moroccan guide and my designated exchanged a few words with the ladies. They tried to speak with me, but I just looked at them dumbfounded and then followed the lead of Toafick’s sister. We left our clothes in the vestibule and then she took me by the hand and led me downstairs into the bathing room. The room itself was cement with drains in the floor. It was like a sauna. Women lined the perimeter of the room. Each had two buckets of water and were busy bathing themselves. There were a few women who must have worked there as they were fully clothed and seemed to do nothing but go from room to room refilling the buckets of hot water and mixing it with the cold.
Toafick’s sister and I found a spot in the corner and she took out all the soaps, the scrubs, and the combs we would use to groom and lined them out on the cement. The washerwoman came to us and poured some steamy hot water into my bucket. Out of sudden modest desperation, a desire to begin bathing immediately just so I could be done and put my clothes back on; I reached out for the hot water. Just as I was about to put my fingers in, my friend grabbed my wrist and pulled my hand away and I realized the near mistake that would have left me burnt for sure. She then mixed the water, put my hand in it for me and I motioned yes or no for the temperature. When I finally motioned yes, she took the bucket and dumped it over me one scoop at a time.
In a strange mumble of near-French and generic Human Body Language, on both of our parts, I learned that my new friend’s name was Samira and she learned mine. Samira made it her mission to make me as comfortable as possible, and by the end I felt completely spoiled. She busied herself by washing my hair, getting me more water, washing my hair again. I tried to do it myself, but she felt obliged to do it for me. I even motioned to help her out, as in “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” but she declined. I was HER guest.
Soon she took me again by the hand into another room, which I could only guess was the Scrubbing Room. A whole new set of eyes scanned me and a few people asked me things, probably where I was from, etc., but again I just smiled and nodded and had nothing to say. I truly felt as if a mute. In the scrub room, we found another corner, and Samira took out the exfoliating glove and set to work scrubbing my back and shoulders, my arms and legs. And yes, this was a strange experience, and yes, I was uncomfortable through most of it, but I tried to appreciate it for being different and foreign to me and realize that those who were watching thought it only strange that a Westerner was there, not that she was being bathed by another girl.
After the exfoliating, we returned to the washroom and she washed my hair yet again. It was true I hadn’t had a bath in about three days, but I doubted my hair needed to be saturated with soap. I combed out my hair and as soon as all the tangles were gone, Samira went at it again, soaping it up and rinsing it off. At this point I thought the bath would never end. At this point I realized the ritual and luxury of bathing and I longed for the quick and daily habit of shower, which to a Moroccan must seem cursory.
And so after an hour of bathing, Samira and I emerged, pink-cheeked, and smelling sweet again to the vestibule. We dried and put on our clothes (unfortunately, after all that cleaning I had to put on dirty clothes). We wrapped our hair up in turban-like towels, and Samira again took me by the hand and lead me back into the Medina where we must have been a sight. We passed high school-aged boys and I heard mumbles of “hamam.” Samira smiled widely as if to say, “She is my guest!” When we returned to the house, I said, “Merci beaucoup” to Samira again and again and she nodded as if it were nothing.
Baxter was already there, cleaned up and drinking tea. He too had the flushed cheeks of a warm bath and I rushed to him to tell him what a Turkish bath was on the woman’s side. He had told me there would be a massage and there was none (save the careful scrubbing). On the men’s side of the Haman, he told me, they each had their own bathing room and one male attendant who did massaged and exfoliated all of the skin. But for the women, bathing was a communal experience. After the bathing hour, that seemed to have spanned 100 years, I was happy though dumb to speak English with Bax. And Samira, in the other room again quieted herself by watching the Egyptian TV program with her mother and sisters.
That evening, Toafick showed us to a small cafe for dinner, where we feasted on meatballs (pink in the center), peas and rice, a round of bread, coffee with milk, yogurt for dessert. All of this for about $5 total for both. We sat outside on the patio as the Moroccan sun set and delighted in the warmth of the North African winter. A woman begged on the sidewalk by walking back and forth past the tables. I thought perhaps she had taken begging lessons from my dog, with sad puppy eyes and pouty mouth. She was expert and it was hard to eat. Worse yet, the owner’s of the establishment considered this bad for business (as it was, indeed, bad for my appetite and thus good for my pocketbook), so he would come out and yell at her in Arabic as if she were, indeed, my dog and had bad table manners. She sulked away and hid behind the shrubs, and when he was gone, she emerged again looking sad and pathetic. Baxter and I ate heartily, but there was so much between our two plates, that he cut open the last round of bread and piled in the remaining meatballs, rice, and peas, dolled it up just perfectly as if he were to eat it himself and then placed it warmly in her hands. She nodded kindly, praised him deeply, and gobbled the food. Five minutes later, just as the toothless man at the train station, she was begging for more.
That night, we walked past a movie theatre near our hotel. We stepped inside the vestibule to see what was playing — an Indian film, a musical actually. In the vestibule, there was a small snack stand. No popcorn, but certainly Coca Cola, Kit Kat and other munchies. To our delight, there was a man and his young son there shucking beans. Yes, shucking beans. We were uncertain if there were a movie snack or if it was just their work on the side. The man said something to us, which we did not understand, but he seemed happy to have us there. In another instance of relying on our first language of humanity — body language — we considered that he wanted us to help him shuck the beans. And so Bax picked up a handful and began picking the beans apart. He motioned for Bax to try one and then for me to help too. So we shucked and we shucked. Yes, we shucked beans at a movie theatre where an Indian musical played with subtitles in Arabic! After some minutes of shucking, the man gestured to us to go into the movie and check it out, as if shucking had paid our short admission. We watched a little bit of the movie, a soap opera with beautiful Indian men and women falling in and out of love, the universal music of romance accompanying their words.
In Fez, as in Morocco, alcohol is not permitted in most places, thus no bars, no nightclubs. Once the sun went down, only men remained out-of-doors, sitting at cafes drinking coffee or smoking hashish and watching the people go by. They stayed out late nonetheless. We, on the other hand, went to sleep early and woke up rested (an obvious contradiction to life in Spain where the borders between day and night are constantly blurred). In the morning, we planned to make another journey into the medina and market, maybe to buy jalabas (like yogi capes) and other exotic trinkets…
We had plans to meet Toafick again in the morning, 10 am at Plaza du Flor. Unfortunately, we were running late (I usually am) and when we arrived fifteen minutes after our appointed time, we didn’t see Toafick. In a way, we were relieved because though it was nice to get a local’s perspective, we also wanted the freedom to just explore by ourselves. On the other hand, we felt a little betrayed. It was Toafick, after all, who taught us the Moroccan phrase: prisa mata, which in Spanish essentially means, “If you hurry, you hurry death” or “rushing kills.” Perhaps it was just that Toafick was taking his time in meeting us as he had so many times said to us, “Take your time,” when deciding what we wanted to do next.
So we thought we had freedom, but within two minutes, we had a “new friend” wanting to show us through Fes. He was much different than Toafick. Toafick was just barely 5’3″, only 19, and somehow genuine despite the fact that he did this for a living every day. The boy who greeted us in Plaza du Flor was taller, over 6 feet tall, thin and lanky. He wore a white Nike baseball cap and was a fast-talker. I didn’t trust him from the start, but they are hustlers and they do it well. Despite our pleas that we were already meeting someone, this boy followed us. He called himself “Charlie Brown.” I was again “Fatima Berber” and Bax was again “Mohammed Couscous.” Charlie Brown was talented at elbowing into our scene and not allowing us space to make our own decisions. We told him several times we knew where we were going and didn’t need his help, but it was pointless, he said, because if we went to the Medina alone, some other hustler would get to us. Bax and I kept walking, attempting to ignore him so we wouldn’t feel obligated to pay him. He tried to get us to go to all the same places we’d been the day before, but we had minds of our own.
We strolled through the markets, pretending he wasn’t with us. Baxter bought a pair of sunglasses for about $10. We tried to act as we would without Charlie Brown, but next thing we knew he was taking us to the Medina, again the old city, to show us the “authentic life.” What was perhaps more annoying than the constant tour-chatter and hustle, was hearing the same words from Charlie Brown that had sounded so genuine and fresh just the day before from Toafick.
At the arched entrance to the Medina, another young man stepped up. He started talking to us, telling us we were in good hands with Charlie Brown. Feeling in the stomach: why do I need your opinion? But we proceeded through the entrance and saw the same scenes of kids running through the white-washed corridors, the donkeys passing in the lanes, and little men in jalabas selling nuts and candies in the corners. Now, though, we had TWO guides/hustlers when we hadn’t even wanted one. What’s worse, they were trying to up sell the other when they’d begun as friends. We said point blank that we wanted them to leave us alone because we hadn’t asked either of them to come with us and we could find our way back.
Next thing I knew the two guides were arguing with each other and putting the pressure on Bax to pick one. There was also an ambiguous issue of money and when we would pay, but in our minds we’d said no and we weren’t obligated. I was very quiet. Let Bax do the talking as they really only talked to him anyway, but I was starting to get really uncomfortable as they flanked him and started getting more aggressive on the issue. Bax kept his cool and kept saying we just wanted to be alone, that was all. As things were escalating and I was pushed out of the negotiating circle, I paid more attention to where we were actually going as I sensed we might need to make a break for it. As clever hustlers would do, they had taken us to their territory — a labyrinth of tall whitewashed buildings no less — and figured we would NEED their help to get out. I began planning…
Things escalated one more notch, to the point where Charlie Brown and the other hustler, who called himself “Okey Dokey,” were really pushing on Bax now. He kept his hands in his pockets and said as little as possible. And then came the insults. The day before it had been: tell the Americans to come to our country. Now all of a sudden it was: you think you are big and powerful and rich. You spend $10 on sunglasses but you won’t even pay a guide. You could own this town. You think you are king, etc., etc. This is when I stupidly tried to pay them off, anything to get them to go away. I tried walking with just one of the guys and talking quietly with them, diffuse the situation or something, but that didn’t work because all I managed to do was offend them: they didn’t want MY money.
I really thought we were in for it, and then all of a sudden, we rounded a corner and there were four or five big men (bigger than these 19 year old bullies) who immediately started yelling profanities at our “guides,” who in turn immediately let up their pushing and bullying because they were in for it, low men on the totem pole.
Bax and I did NOT look back. As I said, I’d been looking at the ground, and yes, I noticed we’d passed the same heap of banana peels and other junk three or four times. We’d been taken in circles, but I knew which way to go: left at the bananas. I grabbed Bax’s hand and pulled him through the labyrinth, and I do not know how we didn’t find a dead end or a booby trap or some other close call, but within only a matter of minutes, I’d lead us out into the blue blue sky of Fes.
I did not feel safe anymore. In fact, I wanted as far away as possible, but immediately, I wanted us out of the market. It felt like we were in an unfortunate movie or maybe Paul Bowles “Sheltering Sky,” as we passed under the bamboo sunshades protecting the goods from sunlight. Suddenly we were ten times more American, ten times more white, more middle class, and more everything than we’d felt before. I felt eyeballs searing me with their stares. We walked fast, but not so fast as to draw attention. We turned a corner, and I saw out of the corner of my eye, Charlie Brown and Okey Dokey turn the corner too. “Keep walking,” “Don’t look back.” And we kept walking straight out of the old town, no regrets about not seeing the old world ceramics and handicrafts.
Finally we arrived at a corner cafe where we could duck inside and watch from all angles, a public place where we felt safe. We ordered two Cokes on ice and it was the sweetest taste in the world. We secured our thoughts again, took a deep breath, and thanked our lucky stars. We thought a little bit about what could have happened, and realized that though it makes a good story — for instance, here in this email — nothing REALLY happened. We were alright. It would be only a matter of hours before it would be even a pleasant memory: How We Escaped the Hustlers. And I guess that’s the thing about Morocco: you expect things to go wrong and you are disappointed when they don’t.
That said, I suddenly wanted to get the hell out of Fes. The day before, Toafick had been trying to get us to rent a car and drive into the Sahara as he had a cousin there who owned a hostel and it was, as he said, “the Moroccan experience.” It sounded too kitsch and postcard-perfect to me to really bother, but after the medina escape, it sounded lovely. Yes, get me out of the city!!
We started walking back into the new city and who did we bump into, but Toafick! Baxter told him what had happened in the Medina and Toafick said he knew exactly who it was and he wouldn’t get away with it, etc… We stopped for coffee and a bite to eat and decided, with Toafick’s help, that we would rent a car and head for the Sahara that afternoon. We were told it was only a four-hour drive and it was just getting on 1:00 on a Friday afternoon. We could be there by sunset…
We picked up the economy car, brand new the man said, at the rental place. He told me to have it back “about this time on Sunday.” We collected the insurance papers, signed our names, and then with keys in hands walked out of the office with a look of excitement but also apprehension. We said to each other, “Are we being stupid?” and neither of us had an answer, but our smiles edged us both onto adventure.
Though we’d had it with “guides,” we decided to take Taofick along with us. It seemed foolish to ride off into the desert with no idea where to go. The afternoon was slipping, so we rushed back to our hotel and checked out. I was filled with that certain youthful American sense: Friday afternoon, no commitments, a setting sun, and the mantra “Road Trip!!!” I was reminded of those college afternoons, in which I escaped in my little Saturn to Santa Cruz if only for a few hours.
We bought a map of Morocco, some water, and munchies for the road. Who did we see at the shop, but “Okey Dokey,” the same boy I’d been so happy to be rid of just hours before. Though my heart raced, in this context, I realized he was a 17-year-old kid whom I could probably outdo if necessary. I hoped he wouldn’t notice us, but he did. He and Toafick yelled at each other in Arabic and got pushy with each other, but left Bax and me out of it. Within a few minutes we left the scene with Toafick saying they’d sort it out later. I guessed that it was all for show, and in the end, quite innocent.
Baxter was our designated driver. Toafick doesn’t drive. I don’t drive manually, but have wanted to learn since 16 for reasons like these. Bax said he didn’t mind at all, and teased that he’d teach me to drive out in the desert. I could see, as he strapped himself into the driver’s seat, that he was an American boy at heart. I know he wished it was something more than a little Fiat, something more like the 1967 Ford Galaxy he’d left back home, something more worthy of the road — big, loyal, and made of American steel.
When at first we decided to rent a car, I was supposed to be the driver, and had no qualms with this; hell, I can manage San Francisco, what’s Morocco? But as soon as we pulled into the traffic of Fes, a scene of mayhem where there are no defined lanes, few stoplights, and pedestrians are bold, I was glad to be the passenger. (On a side note, Stop signs in Spain actually say, “STOP” in English. Stop signs in Morocco are written in that slinky thin Arabic writing and appear to really be saying, “No bobsledding”). I give big props to Baxter for his adept driving skills. Toafick was in the backseat giving directions in French, saying “straight” when he really meant “veer,” and yet Bax was driving like a pro. I had the sensation of being miniaturized into a video game; we’d selected the North African route to play that day.
We had two things to do before we could get on the motorway: Toafick needed to go home for warmer clothes and we needed gas. We drove out of the new city and suddenly were circumnavigating the tight corners and streets around the Medina. What a scene: men in jalabas pushing banana carts, groups of women with children in tow, donkeys passing on the right, and just a general clash of all worlds in one place. We entered through the medina gate of typical Moorish architecture, and found on the other side a modern Mobil gas station. We filled up the tank for a mere $40! If I ever hear another American, including myself, complain about gas prices… And to think how close we were to the oasis of the world’s oil supply.
Toafick ran into the small streets of the Medina to his home while we waited in the designated parking area for him to return. While we waited, we got all kinds of attention. Little kids circled us asking for money, trying to sell us trinkets. Older kids stopped and stared. And the exchange of a kiss in public between Bax and me drew what seemed like a thousand jeers from the teenage boys. It was a challenge to keep the ego from believing it a movie star.
While navigating the city itself was difficult, once we got beyond the walls, driving in Morocco was quite straightforward. There is none of the confusion of American freeways with bi-ways, highways, overpasses, interstates, county roads, etc. There is one motorway connecting all points of interest. At the entrance to every city there are police stops. The guards can stop you or just wave you by, whatever they choose. Whether you are doing anything illegal or not, it is a bit unnerving. It wasn’t long before we had the most incredible panoramic view of Fes in our rearview mirrors, white houses and steeples, the minarets of the mosques towering over the town, and all of this at the foot of giant hills and scrub, under a blue sky.
Despite the lack of tunes, this road trip was most amusing. Toafick, in the backseat, was a typical sidekick, as if casted and animated by Disney. He was very quiet in the backseat, at first, so quiet I forgot he was there until he popped his head up between Bax’s seat and mine and said in an exaggerated tone, “Sahaaara!” While he was quiet in the backseat, he’d been wrapping his head in a turban to make the experience more authentic. He was wearing blue jeans and an Addidas jacket and could have been a 19-year-old anywhere save the turban. And that was how the trip went: he would oscillate between sleeping quietly in the backseat, and interjecting jokes. He was our short, stereotypical comic relief. Once or twice an hour, he’d pop his head up, point to the pack of cigarettes on the dashboard, and say, “Thank you. Cigarette. Please.” We couldn’t help but laugh every time. He had us chanting long drawn-out expressions in Arabic. We’d catch ourselves repeating this bit of beautiful, silly nonsense, and then we’d ask, “What is he making us say?” Could have been anything really. Maybe we were being hypnotized… Whatever it was, it was good fun.
Morocco is more diverse a country than I ever imagined. It is the size of California and just as varied. We drove through the Atlas Mountains, which were still snow-peaked. Tucked away in the Atlas is a town called Ifrane, known the world over as “the Switzerland of Morocco.” Ifrane is home to the only private university in Morocco, prestige in a hillside town. Though I’ve never been to Switzerland, I imagined it to be very similar, with perfect little chateaus, clean streets, well groomed everything. Strangely enough, Bax had just spent his Christmas in Switzerland, and seemed a little disgusted with the replicated perfection. To the Western eye, Morocco is Morocco not for its order, but its perceived chaos.
Toafick had a place for dinner in mind, but Bax and I kept stopping for munchies along the road: chocolate, coke, popcorn, etc. When we finally reached the town for dinner, neither of us were hungry, but we ate anyway. It was a dingy little roadside stop. It was very cold outside in the mountains and we were glad to find a wood stove in the middle of this “restaurant.” It probably would’ve helped too if there’d been a door to close. The clientele consisted of the typical conglomeration of older men with missing teeth. There were several kittens (or rather emaciated cats). I am probably failing to whet your appetite, but the truth is none of this really bothered me, though I wouldn’t chose it daily.
Toafick ordered us a pot of mint tea and a Tajine, the typical Moroccan staple. Tajine comes in a clay pot. Like stew, there’s a piece of meat in the middle to flavor the rest of the dish. I am vague here because I don’t know if it was sheep, cow, or what, and I didn’t ask, nor did I eat the meat itself. Around the meat were potatoes and carrots, sometimes celery. A very simple dish really, served with a big round of bread for dipping. The best part were the seasonings and coarse salt to add a little bit of heat.
When the three of us had finished, Bax took the rest of the meat – a really big piece actually — and fed it to the kitten at his feet. The meat was bigger than the kitten’s head, but she devoured it. Bax, always looking after the kittens of the world just as I’m always stopping to pet the dogs of the street.
We’d already been on the road for the estimated four hours and we had a long way to go. The sun was long gone. Toafick settled into sleep in the back while Bax and I talked at length. We’d been apart for four months, and it seemed as if we had opened a new chapter of our book. It was, actually, almost like meeting him all over again. In a few more hours, we finally pulled into the town of Rissani.
Toafick’s friend Ali met us in Rissani. He was a tall Arabic man, dressed in the jalaba and turban and his smile was disarming. It was now about 11:00pm and we were tired. Ali took over the driving from here as we were really about to enter the Sahara and the roads didn’t look like roads at all. Bax and I took to the backseat. I wanted to stay awake the whole time as I had no idea where we were going and had just relinquished semi-control, but the lull of the backseat put me to sleep immediately, and Bax too. I woke up occasionally to see the rough road ahead. We bumped along, hitting potholes and ditches every inch of the way. The car curved and twitched, and sounded as if it might bust at the seams. Had we been 4-wheeling, it would have been quite fun, a night desert in front of us and a deep blue sky with piercing diamonds overhead.
After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the hostel Maison Touareg. After working at the Sacramento Hostel, in the middle of downtown and realizing that people didn’t even know it existed, I couldn’t believe there was a youth hostel out in the middle of the Sahara that made any business. The hostel was a big mud house, kept amazingly clean. There was running water and even toilet seats and paper, which I had expected more frequently in the city. The bed was a most dense mattress, which I could just sink into. Though I naively expected the desert to be hot, in the middle of winter it was very cold, so I piled the blankets on top of me and I was asleep within seconds. This, despite the absolutely brilliant sky above me that beckoned for star-gazing, the milky way milkier than I’d ever seen it, an indigo blue falling to the ground to match the moon-glow orange of the desert sand. We’d made it to the Sahara, I thought, as I fell into a dreamy Moroccan landscape.
We were the last of the hostal guests to emerge from our rooms. We woke to a beautifully blue and fresh desert sky, a group of French hippies playing a pickup game of soccer in the dusty plaza of the hostal buildings, and another couple eating a simple breakfast of coffee, bread and butter on clay benches. It was already warm with a Saharan breeze.
A wrinkly and very dark Moroccan woman came from the house with a tray carrying our breakfast. This woman was Fatima, the real one this time. She was the only woman of the hostal and so tended to all of the cleaning and food preparation. She was an expert in other areas as well: when a cigarette or a joint needed rolling, Fatima was called and with one-handed dexterity, she fixed up the porros.
During breakfast, which we ate vigorously, as if the starved cat we’d met the night before, Toafick and Ali asked us if we wanted to ride camels into the desert. They romanticized the deal to a tee — it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I wasn’t interested: I’d ridden a camel before (so what if it was at Marine World, Africa, USA). I’d slept in a tent before. I didn’t need or want to spend this much money for a Saharan camping trip with pets. Bax, too, had done it before during his first visit to Morocco. And yet, eventually we looked at each other again with that damn gleam of adventure so easily perpetuated when we are together; “Ah, what do we have to lose? What the hell, let’s do it.” This said, of course, with the stipulation that we would try to bargain the price.
So, after breakfast and a short after-breakfast nap, the camels were loaded with food and water. We met Josef our guide — a dark young Moroccan boy wearing a green jalaba and Nikes. He made a little click with his tongue, and the animals dropped to their knees with a thick thump in the sand. What a gracious animal, to carry my water and food and now to bow for me to sit upon. Sure, we felt like desert kings and queens. Josef walked alongside the camel leading them by a rope, my camel connected to Baxter’s camel. Within a half an hour, the novelty of sitting upon a desert canteen wore off. The rhythmic hip movements painful. We both opted to walk for a while.
A few hours later we saw, off in the distance, a red splotch of color. As we plodded closer a young girl emerged into perception. She was trying to corral her donkey, with little luck. She shouted at him in a language I did not know. We continued our quiet rhythmic pace, passing the young girl, who said nothing to us or our guide. Over a large sand dune, we came to a rather flat valley with a single palm tree in the middle. I wasn’t sure if this was reality or mirage. I wasn’t sure if mirages even existed or were merely something designed by Warner to aid the success of the Roadrunner. As we descended into the valley, I became certain the mirage was reality. Not far from the lone palm, a seeming miracle in the desert, we approached what appeared to be a large heap of blankets.
This was not just a pile of blankets, but a deeply structured assortment of fabric, layered and layered upon each other to become a home, a tent of sorts for this family of Berbers. They made their home here and we were guests for the afternoon in their home – a mobile home, carried by donkeys and constructed by children and able to withstand the desert heat, wind, cold, and snow (yes, it snows in the Sahara). There was no address, no formal invitation, no gracious bottle of wine as thanks. There was just the young girl and her donkey (who joined us later), a spurting, giggling baby Berber of maybe two years old, and their mother with deep dark wrinkles, eyes bright from the desert sun, with hands that could tell the world’s history in single crease.
Josef clicked his tongue and the dromedeers dropped to their knees with a thud. He unloaded the food we brought from the animals and handed them to the woman. She smiled. There weren’t spoken introductions as there was no common language: Josef could speak Arabic, French, English, Spanish, and a little bit of Berber (Arabs, by the way, are known for their language acquisition abilities). We merely smiled hello and let the family give us a good look over. I felt more like lunch itself than guests because of the fixed eyes on me. To be the specimen is not so easy.
Lunch was served in a large woven bowl: corn, tomato, bell peppers, and tuna accompanied by bread was our delicious lot. We ate with gumption, just Bax and me, while the three Berbers watched us. The baby spurted and giggled and I expected she would jump forward from her mother’s lap at any moment to get a closer view. The older girl, probably about eight or nine years by now circled us, smiled, and sometimes came very close just to look. She may have even touched Bax slightly on the shoulder to be sure he was real (just as I did when we reunited in December and do periodically still). When we had had our fill, we passed the woven bowl to our hosts. As if a cornucopia of feed, they too feasted. After eating we relaxed for a spell until the silence became too loud and said with our deepest gratitude Merci Beaucoup and Showkran.
We trotted through the afternoon. Our kind carriers seemingly patient and tolerant. The Moroccan Sahara is a big series of dunes covering an area equivalent to the size of California. We spoke very little as we traversed one dune to the next. I found myself thinking about the nomad life, the real nomad life, not my nomad life where I can leave CDs, books, and a car with my parents and know I can return whenever I want. My thoughts were finding form just as we arrived at our next destination and the sun began to sink. It was another temporary camp, the intricate folding and stacking of thick blankets to make home. Josef let us off the dromedeers at the top of the ridge into the dune valley and he continued into it to feed and water the animals before dark. We sat on the ridge of the dune and watched the sunset. I expected sorbet sky, a burst of oranges, iris, and life – everything a desert sunset should be, but the richest color still remained in the orange sand itself and the deep sky that was born after the last sunglow. Down below us, at the camp, we could make out four figures, three of whom were vesseled in jalabas. One of the voices carried up to us as we began to descend the dune. It was a hearty voice of a woman and I recognized her accent immediately.
“She’s from Ireland,” I declared to Bax. Four bootfulls of sand later (his and mine), we nestled into the large tent where we would sleep that evening with our new companions. Katherine was a lovely, bright, and talkative woman from Northern Ireland currently working in the European Union in Brussels. She spoke to the guides in French. Masu was a hippyish Japanese man currently working in London. He spoke to the guides in Spanish. Among the four of us we shared our stories. Josef and the other guide prepared a tagine for dinner and served us mint tea while we waited. All of us ate as if starved. (I’ve yet to figure out why Morocco made me so hungry.) A campfire was lit and one of the other guides brought out a bongo drum. The drum was passed around the circle and those of us with enough confidence beat out a rhythm. The rest of us, like me, wished we could.
What should have been a pleasurable nightlong vista of cobalt, was really an agonizingly long and unreached journey towards sleep. Don’t be fooled: sand is damn hard and the desert in winter is cold. These are understatements. Bax, in particular, had such an awful night’s sleep that he tried to get our money back to no avail. Pay for the experience. A Dutch travel agency recently offered, and this is no joke, a five-day stay in Paris for only 290′. Sounds incredible, but keep reading. The five nights are passed in a cardboard box as if homeless. This is the future of adventure travel: pay to have your creature comforts taken away, suffer in silence, and then encourage everyone you know to do the same, to see the tougher side of life, if you will. Somewhere in the middle of the night our capricious decision backfired on us and we were miserably ready to get out of the Sahara.
We all woke earlier than the sun because we never really slept. It was with great effort that we pushed pounds of heavy blankets off of us. We should have been warm for all that weight, and yet we weren’t in the slightest. Katherine was the trooper of us all; that is, she still seemed excited to be there having survived her second night of North Pole-like conditions. Bax and I walked next to, rather than sitting upon, our dromedeer friends, if only to attempt to create some body warmth. My feet were numbed to the point of imbalance and didn’t thaw out completely for a the entire day. Up until the Saharan trip, the slower pace of Morocco was welcomed, but this day we just wanted something to be convenient, anything, so we pushed on ahead back to the hostel. We rushed our guides: no time for tea, no time for stopping, we want to get warm, let’s go…
Back at the hostel we found a happy but sleepy Toafick. He’d spent the night in the warmth of the hostel, presumably for free. Over tea, bread and butter, some coffee, cigarettes, and for some, even morning hash (not hash browns mind you), Toafick told the group about the party they’d had at the hostel the previous night. Alcohol is forbidden in Morocco, as in most Muslim countries, but it is available despite its rarity. Toafick, nineteen, had only tasted alcohol a few times in his life but was quickly becoming an expert in the forbidden hangover as well. Despite the slight smell of stale beer, it was good to see Toafick again. I guess we’d grown fond of our little sidekick and running commentary.
We collected our few belongings, said our goodbyes, and with Toafick and Ali were driven back over the potholed roads to Rissani. Ali, the conductor, stopped at Maison Toureg, his family’s Moroccan rug showroom. We believed we were simply there to pay for the dromedeer adventure and that it would be a short stop allowing plenty of time to get the car back to the car rental on time. Maison Toureg was similar to Toafick’s ancient home, with high ceilings and scarce furniture. One of Ali’s relatives, a large, jovial man with a smile as warm at his, greeted us kindly. He took us into the showroom as if honored guests. Someone was sent off to prepare tea while Mr. Toureg showed us his guest book containing pictures of famous people I didn’t recognize but somehow should have. I feigned interest as best I could and was thankful I wasn’t wearing a watch. He was building to the sale and I thought, what does my pocket book have in common with any of these famous folks? Answer: nothing at all. What’s in my pocket book? Answer: almost nothing at all. After twenty minutes with the guest book, we moved to another showroom. The tea was served to us in graceful, if not excessive, Moroccan fashion. The walls were covered in rugs. Two men came into the room and sorted through the six-foot high piles before us, choosing one and unfolding it onto the floor in front of us. Mr. Toureg announced the rug by style name and then gave an exhaustive description and history of each. I wished I’d been researching this for a thesis, but I was not and I’ll I could think about was returning the car.
We knew from the beginning we weren’t going to buy a Moroccan rug. Maybe one day, but not this one. How come they couldn’t see it? We listened politely though impatiently. What would have been interesting another day, was now only a nuisance. After the hour dissertation, we finally refused to buy. I didn’t have $600 for even the cheapest one there. Mr. Toureg was disappointed but accepted our good wishes and payment for the dromedeer excursion with a smile. We said goodbye to Ali and then corralled Toafick and put the pedal to the metal.
We arrived in Fes just a half-hour after the car rental closed. We tried to call the “emergency number” the salesman had given us, but apparently emergencies don’t happen on Sunday. Allah, like God, rests too. We elicited the help of the Maitre’d at the restaurant across the alleyway, a friend of the owner, but the attempt was unsuccessful. What had been an expensive weekend away, was getting more expensive every minute. Now we would have to pay for another night in Fes and the late return fees on the car. To make matters worse, while at the five star restaurant across the way trying to place a phone call, both Bax and I escaped to the bathroom — a wise decision this one, with a toilet seat, three-ply paper, soap, running water, and a towel — to discover that the flavor of Morocco had, indeed, affected our insides giving us both full-blown cases of diarrhea. I’d arrived in Morocco with wide-eyed excitement and now I was ready to leave as if that feeling had never rested upon my shoulders. All we could do was drive back to Hotel Rex, check in again, use the bathroom 500 times, and go to bed.
In the morning, we returned to the Car Rental. We explained as best we could that we attempted to get back in time, but had been held prisoner at the Rug Camp. I tried to argue that he had only told us to have it back “at about the same time as we rented it.” I was under the impression that they weren’t so exact in Morocco. He wanted us to pay for an entire additional day’s rent even though we had done nothing but park the car for the last ten hours. When he inspected the car, he asked us where we had gone. We gave him a vague answer, but the word “Sahara” is not easy to disguise. To the salesman, this mean lots of rough roads and little rocks flying at his Peugeot, not to mention the potholes Ali was never afraid to charge over at a speed close to liftoff. I expected to buy a new car, but in the end we paid only the extra $100 and thanked Allah for letting us off the hook.
We took another $1 taxi ride to the train station and bought tickets to Tangiers easily enough. After the miserably long and suffocating bus ride to Fes, the decision to take the train wasn’t a decision at all. And despite our earlier excessive expenditure, upgrading to first class was automatic in a country where for once we felt rich. This is the joy of traveling with a strong dollar: even a poor wannabe college student can afford a little luxury now and again. The train ride was pleasant. We had a compartment all to ourselves. While the sun was still high, we watched the countryside glide by us with that rhythmic tick tick of trains like a lullaby. It was dark by the time we reach Tangiers.
The barges were still at port; we were just in time for the last one, if we hurried. We ran past the guides and up the ramp and dozens of steps to passport control where we waited in line for a quarter hour only to be told we didn’t have the paperwork we needed to board. Of course, it was only logical that the passport controller didn’t have the papers we needed. The papers were downstairs, he said, sans smile. Border hopping is never as easy as we wish. We ran downstairs. We ran upstairs. The barge was still at port. We declared our names, nationality, and professions on the paperwork we finally obtained, making up great professions as a matter of course. If you can’t have fun at customs, well…
After getting the passports stamped again, the man motioned back in the direction we’d come. All of this bureaucratic bullshit took place before a ramp to a boat that wasn’t even leaving! His directions were the vaguest ever: something that resembled a wave of the hand accompanied by the look of, “Just go on and get out of here.” We asked him to elaborate and received nothing but an icy stare. At first I thought it was just us — those hated American tourists — but as we rushed out of the building onto a dock, we saw others fleeing just like us, one family pushing an unhappy baby in a stroller. We ran, yes we ran, towards the water, the only logical place to go. To our left we were bordered by a very high wall and I only hoped we didn’t somehow need to get around it. To the right, there were several ships heading to Gibraltar, France, Portugal, but not our way. There were buses to dodge in-between too. Running behind Baxter I had the image of him making the boat by a long and lucky leap and me being left by myself in Africa despite our best attempts at a dramatic movie ending, hands clasping just at the right secure moment.
Finally someone indicated the right boat, but where was the walkway? We were at level with the bottom of the boat, not the passenger hold. The only way to enter was through the bottom cargo hold where there were buses, imports, cars, etc. From the cargo hold, we walked up three internal staircases to the ground level. When we finally arrived, I felt as if I’d emerged from the shell of a submarine. We found the nearest place to sit down, dropped our packs and stripped off our sweaty layers of clothing. We truly felt like we’d escaped somehow. Only after a deep gulp of the cafeteria Coke, did we begin to relax and then realize we weren’t moving. We’d rushed like never before to get on this boat, and it was going nowhere! This boat went nowhere for a whole hour, though it was closed, sealed, documented, and ready to go. Nowhere. Nowhere! I said. A tiny fifteen-mile straight we needed to cross and by the time it finally left port an hour later, the entire journey lasted more than three.
As we finally approached the shores of Algeciras, Espana we welcomed arrival in what seemed, to us, as it must to so many immigrating Africans, like a new world. A world of convenience, speed, and comfort. Convenience, speed, and comfort: adjectives I’m not likely to give Spain in comparison to the non-siesta lifestyles of the world, but nonetheless a description she deserved this night. After five days of travel by boat, bus, train, car, and dromedeer I remembered two things about travel: it’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it, especially in good company and with a mind for adventure.