MOROCCO


During the planning stages of our trip we developed an overall framework by selecting the major cities we would fly into and out of. The first flight was into Madrid; our next was flying out of Casablanca, leaving us to travel overland into Africa on our own. The only feasible way to do this is to ferry through the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangier, Morocco, something we really didn't want to do. Tangier has quite a reputation for unsavory characters, you see, and we made several unsuccessful attempts to avoid it. Ultimately we resigned ourselves to our fate and wandered into the port in Algeciras, Spain.

Ferry ticket sellers sat in booths lining both sides of the path to the entrance, giving us the (mistaken) impression that there were actual choices to be made as to when, where and how much each ferry cost. We selected one, paid the fare, and found ourselves plunked down in window seats. The three-hour ride past the Rock of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean/Atlantic Ocean is quite thrilling, especially when you think you're on the right boat, but you're not really sure. And you think you're headed for Tangier, but they could have taken us to Tripoli and I wouldn't have known the difference. And you think the boat will cruise to that piece of land just over yonder, but then it turns direction and you begin to wonder if maybe the captain changed course and you're really aboard a pirate ship bound for open sea as part of a fiendish plot to I get so carried away sometimes. We landed safely in Tangier, but I must say, it didn't take long to realize that all the sordid things we heard and read about were actually true. It wasn't enough that we made it out of the port in Tangier without succumbing to the wily would-be guides/hustlers/taxi drivers. Noooo -- we felt compelled to stay in what we delicately refer to as a "modest" (read: fleabag) hotel near the waterfront. After spending so much money on hotels in Spain and Portugal, we thought we could do just one night in a cheap place, and that's all it took. No shower facilities, but co-ed hole-in-the-floor squat toilets down the dimly-lit hall and bed sheets that looked like they hadn't been laundered since, well, you don't want to think about it. The room had a single bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling and a window with grimy shutters overlooking the raucous streets below. Yeah. Pretty funky. And after being approached on the streets with offers of opium and hashish for sale, we couldn't make it to the train station fast enough.

Which leads us to our next incredible adventure. This is a good one.

THE GREAT MOROCCAN TRAIN CAPER

So, there we were, nestled into our own compartment on the train to Fes, feeling a little insecure about Morocco and Moroccans and aware of the potential for mischief. Shortly after the train began rolling down the track, a very pleasant man came to our compartment and, speaking in perfect English, asked where we were from and where we were going. He told us that we were on a direct train to Fes, and warned that if someone came to us and, speaking in English or French, told us that we needed to change trains, not to believe them. "Don't get off this train," he cautioned. In response to my inquiry, he said he was with the railroad. Ah, the comfort of a friendly voice and sound direction.

Which didn't last long; the drama had begun. Presently a rather sinister looking man came to our compartment, poked his head through the door and, in English, asked if our cabin were full, to which we said yes ("full" being liberally construed). He then asked us where we were from and where we were going, and then told us that we would have to change trains in a place called Sidi Kacem. Being warned of his devise, Randy replied "I don't think so," and the man left. We felt quite smug in bouncing off a suspected hustler. As if to confirm it all, an announcement rumbling from the scratchy loudspeaker told us that we were indeed on the train from Tangier to Fes (well, so we guessed -- but we accepted it as a positive sign). So far, so good.

We chugged through a not-very-colorful landscape where farmers, dressed in their winter jabalas (wool tunics with pointy hoods, kind of like "Obi-Wan" in Star Wars) bounced along on donkeys through the plastic-bag/trash-littered country, while sheep and their herders wandered amongst the flinty earth. After a little while a man in uniform stopped and asked to see our tickets. He spoke mostly French and Arabic, but managed a little English. Accompanying him were two men who, for all we could figure, looked like his shisha-smoking buddies. Anyway, he punched our tickets and told us that we would have to change trains in Sidi Kacem. Hmmmm, a quandary was forming. Whom do we believe: (1) the pleasant man who warned us of a potential plot ("don't change trains"); (2) the sinister man who reeked of being a hustler ("change trains"); or (3) the uniformed-man-with-shisha-buddies ("change trains")? What would you do?

We worked ourselves up into a froth, let me tell you. We checked our maps, we double-checked our tickets, and we wondered about motivations and played out various schemes and scenarios, none of which helped in deciding what to do.

Over the next hour or so, the train continued through several small towns where it made momentary stops along the tracks to pick up more and more people and their belongings, usually a conglomerate of boxes, baskets and bags tied with string or whatever else was handy. Most locals preferred to move along to other compartments when they saw us, but the time came when a Moroccan man (Man No. 4), a country farmer, perhaps, was left with no choice but to sit with us. He loaded his many packages in and initially chose to stand outside the compartment for a while, looking out the window and pretending to be comfortable standing. Shy, I guess. Eventually we coaxed him in to have a seat.

Man No. 3 (the uniformed train officer) poked his head in again to check tickets, and reiterated (this time in English), that at the next stop we must get off the train and take another to Fes. Oh, dear. Fear and confusion surfaced again. Candi votes to stay on the train; Randy said maybe we should stay; I said I don't know, let's talk to this man in the cabin.

This is what makes being a traveler so enticing, I suppose. The train began to slow down as it approached the next stop -- the now infamous Sidi Kacem -- a weighty decision bearing down on us: stay or go? What did we do? The three sophisticated, world-travelling Americans cast their fate into the hands of a shy, non-English-speaking Moroccan farmer. And that, as Robert Frost said, "has made all the difference." Wish I had a picture.

After a series of mysterious hand motions and ticket show-and-tell, the train came to a full stop. The farmer motioned us to follow him, and we plodded along with all the other passengers -- three foreigners amidst a pile of Moroccans -- to sit out in the dust and wait for another train, the train to Fes.

A Word about Ramadan

Travelling to a Muslim country during Ramadan is not something often recommended, for some very good reasons. Our entire stay in Morocco was during this time of fasting/feasting and intense religious goings-on. We found it to be a challenge, but also an opportunity to have a peek at new and curious customs. Normal routine is turned topsy-turvey; Muslims are not allowed to eat, drink, smoke, or have intimate relations from sunup to sundown, which means all the restaurants and many of the stores are closed a good part of the day. As the clock ticked forward through the afternoon, the people seemed to get crankier and crankier. Arguments were common right before sundown as the anxiety levels rose to a fevered pitch. Finally and predictably at the sundown call-to-prayer, the entire town would shut down, the streets would empty, and quiet would reign as the "break-fast" orgy began. Tables and chairs were set up with breakfast plates all lined up and ready to be served. The standard fare consisted of Harira (a very yummy soup), some sort of bread, hard-boiled eggs, dates, and some honey-sesame sweet pastry things (in very large quantities). At about 8:00 p.m., the streets would begin to fill with happy people who gathered with family and friends to celebrate. The next day the whole cycle would take place again.

The major hurdle we encountered was finding food when we normally ate, and it was a little hard when we were told that foreigners would not be served food while the Moroccans ate breakfast. There were days when we were quite hungry by that time as well. (In Egypt we witnessed the direct opposite -- people would invite us to eat with them, even if their food portions were meager.) We ended up purchasing supplies the night before and eating breakfast and lunch in our hotel room. The only exception was when we were in Casablanca -- the McDonald's there was open all day and served foreigners. The great part was that, being an American and non-religious institution, McDonald's was also offering a Ramadan "break-fast" meal. Guess you could look it as another kind of "happy meal."

FES

Fes is divided into two sections: the Medina, or old city, where the Berbers have lived for eons; and the Ville Nouveau, or new city, where the French set up shop during their occupation but now inhabited by Arabs. Note the distinction between the Berbers and the Arabs -- there must be some consternation between the two as it was brought to our attention a number of times.

Medinas are common throughout the Old World, but this Medina is billed as the largest. It's a vast labyrinth of towering walls and narrow cobblestone streets, a maze of homes and markets, kids and veiled women, donkeys and untold other beasts. It's huge, and I can imagine getting lost after a couple of turns. We chose to visit the Medina with a guide.

Now, the government of Morocco, in an attempt to make their country more tourist-friendly, created the "Official Guide." They are presented as trustworthy and knowledgeable people, and for this you pay a premium price. There also exists a host of unofficial guides, which seem to pop out from behind every door, street pole and alleyway, and with whom you are free to negotiate a price. The Official Guides badmouth the unofficial guides, and vice versa. From our vantagepoint, they looked and acted the same.

After talking to a few people about guiding us, we went with a man named Said, a Berber who acted in the most straightforward and casual manner. He led us through a dizzying array of ancient monuments, markets, and picture-taking spots. He walked quite fast, though, and it was hard to keep up with him on the uneven and crowded streets. Said invited us to his home for a little "Berber hospitality": hot mint tea and a cool respite. It was also a wonderful opportunity to see what's beyond those shadowy and oppressive walls. After stooping through the small door and entering the cool darkness of the home, we were led to a livingroom-type area with cushioned seats lining the walls. From there I could see into a very small room where his sister was sitting on the floor squeezing oranges for juice, and his father secretly peering down on us from the living quarters upstairs. After looking at Said's picture album he offered to take us to eat some "real Berber food." "Great!" we thought, but in retrospect this is when things began to fall apart. Said took us to a very beautiful restaurant -- it's funny, because most things in the Medina look fairly old and decrepit, but after turning a couple of corners we found ourselves in a building that sparkled with exquisite Arabesque design and traditional Moroccan decoration. Unfortunately, the restaurant was expensive and touristy, and the food not all that tasty, and ultimately we wished we had not eaten there.

After paying a bill that included an unexpected commission for Said, we were lead on a sales-pitch-laden tour of shops selling beautiful things that we did not want to buy. Said's hospitality began to run out when he realized he would not be making any more commissions. After telling him we wanted to go, Said began to lead us out of the Medina. Things turned really weird at this point. Said told us that he had three jobs: (1) a tour guide, (2) a person who gives "Berber massages", and (3) a gigolo. Hmmmmm. You gotta wonder. He led us to the exit of the Medina and pointed us in the direction to walk back to the hotel, and we never saw him again.

After being in Fes for a couple of days we began to feel unsatisfied with the trip to the Medina. We thought it might be interesting to go back at night, and we were still open to snatching up a souvenir or two, so we asked a person we had befriended to help us. His name is Amen, and he will forever stand in our memory as Morocco's piece de resistance of con men. Here's his story:

THE NOMAD

While wandering around town our first night in Fes, we met a young man full of life and quite excited to talk to us. A small person with sparkling black eyes and bright, easy smile, he introduced himself as a Berber and one who loved America. He showed us his passport stamped with an U.S. visa, and explained that he had traveled to New York to receive a heart transplant through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, for which he would be forever grateful. He loved New York and talked about all the places he had visited, the Bronx being one of his favorites. His name is Amen, and he was irresistible. Although we couldn't be sure, we guessed him to be about 15 years old.

Amen went out of his way to help us and answer questions, and showed genuine concern that our stay was a good one. He warned us about the nefarious activities of some people in Fes. "Moroccans will not harm you," he said. "You'll find no knives or guns here. And if a man picks your pocket and you catch him, he will return your wallet. But, if he can pick your pocket without your knowing it, he will keep your wallet. We have very polite thieves." He also cautioned us about people who present themselves as unofficial guides. Those people, he said, would take tourists to the Medina simply to reap commissions off of their purchases, and sometimes take advantage of the fact that it was easy to get lost inside the walls.

One rainy night, while on a futile search for a pharmacy to buy cold medicine, we bumped into Amen. He explained that during Ramadan there was always one pharmacy open late into the night because, after fasting all day, many of the people (Arabs, not Berbers) would eat way too much and get sick. This pharmacy was quite a hike from the hotel and it was hard for him to explain how to get there, so he took us. We found the place to be a mob scene, packed with heartburners and bellyachers standing four and five deep and absolutely crunching themselves up against each other and against the fenced-in pharmacy counter in desperate attempts to be the next person waited on. It appeared to be a complex system of ordering, paying, and receiving medication -- one we never really mastered since Amen stepped up to help again. He wriggled up to the front of the pack and shouted that he was helping tourists, and the pharmacists begrudgingly waited on him. We stood in back trying to look inconspicuous and feeling a little bit guilty, but also felt relieved that we didn't get caught up in the fray. We probably wouldn't have done it without him.

Another day passed with a couple more chance meetings on the street with Amen. Uncanny, we thought, of how we kept bumping into each other. By this time we felt pretty comfortable around him, and looked forward to hearing more stories of his adventures in America. He asked again if we had been to the Medina, and we told him that we had gone with Said, an unofficial guide. In a very strange twist he casually said that the unofficial guides were better to go with, since the Official Guides rushed through the sites and then took tourists to government-run shops, where huge commissions were paid. How confusing -- didn't he say the direct opposite before? I shrugged it off. He changed the subject and started talking about how he read the first book in a series called the History of the Bronx, and how he looked forward to reading the entire series. How sweet he was.

The day before we were to leave, at just about the time we felt disenchanted with our previous guide Said, we told Amen that we would have liked to look at some of the shops for souvenirs. He said that if we wrote down the things we wanted to look at, he would be willing to take us back, not as a guide, but as a friend, and show us only those things we wanted to look at. He added that we would not be ripped off by his friends, and assured us that we would be getting "Berber prices." The only thing he asked for, in trade, was that we pick up the next book in the History of the Bronx series and send it to him. Sounded fair. We arranged to meet later that night.

Shopping list in hand, we set off into the rainy night to a different part of the Medina, quite far from where we had gone before. The dark halls were peppered with the sounds and smells of Berber life. We caught glimpses of workers hewing, pounding, and sewing crafts in the dim light, and climbing steep stone stairways we looked out over the walled city and listened to the muezzin call everyone to prayer. What a striking contrast to the American way of life.

Amen held true to his word: he took us to the places we asked to see, the first one being an herb and spice shop. It was here that we began to understand the elaborate tapestry Amen had woven. Needless to say, we ended up spending more than we wanted to on herbal tea and wonderfully fragrant incense. In some kind of reverse butterfly move, Amen metamorphosed into a salesman, and before we knew it we were back in the carpet shops and leather tanneries being held under the glare of anxious shopkeepers pitching their goods. And what about those "Berber prices?"

Looking noticeably disappointed and suddenly more aloof, Amen led us out of the Medina as soon as we could politely make the request. At the final gate and in a startling abrupt manner, Amen pointed to where the cabs were, said "nice to meet you" and "good bye." Wanting to fulfill our end of the bargain, we asked Amen for his address so that we could send him the book he asked for. This is what he said:

I am Berber, and we are nomads. My father may be moving soon. Next time you come to Morocco, bring the book with you. Then hold me in your mind, and I will find you.

CASABLANCA

We left Fes after only a few days feeling an unusual sense of fatigue borne of swinging wildly from fascination to frustration. We boarded a train to Casablanca feeling somewhat whipped -- the lingering colds we developed were rotating through us like a game of musical chairs; just when one of us would start to feel better another would fall, the cycle repeating itself for weeks. On New Year's Eve Candi stayed at one hotel underneath all the blankets we could scrounge, while Randy and I searched in vain through a blustery rainstorm for a hotel that had heat. Never did find one, but we did manage to find one with hot water, electricity, and a rare delight: clean blankets. Over the next few days we checked out a little bit of Casablanca, a large modern city with a beautiful new mosque partially built out over the ocean, a medina (that pales in comparison to the one in Fes), and a bustling nightlife. We had planned to go on to Marrakech, but after talking with other travelers we learned that it had just snowed in the High Atlas Mountains. We decided it was time to change latitudes. I felt sad to leave Morocco a week early, and wondered about the more beautiful parts of the country I would miss. I could have kicked myself for poor planning and not bringing appropriate warm clothing, but I also know that Morocco was a difficult country for me to explore.

We waited for several hours at the airport for our flight, arriving early enough to insure that we could actually get on the plane, and then sitting in suspense when the flight was delayed for several hours. No explanation as to what the delays were about, but we found out as soon as we settled into our assigned seats.

The Flight of the Berbers

EgyptAir loads passengers on a bus and shuttles them out to the plane for boarding, and because there were few people waiting for our flight, we made the trip comfortably. Ambling into the night we passed another bus crammed with people dressed entirely in white, the light of the bus appearing phosphorescent against the dark tarmac. Randy joked that it would be funny if all those people tried to get on our plane.

The 30-or-so "regular" passengers were spread throughout the plane, and we sat in the center isle, using three out of the four-across seats. We were pretty enthusiastic about being able to spread out during the flight since there were so many empty seats, especially the empty one next to me.

It wasn't long before we heard a rumbling coming from the general direction of the metal stairs leading to the door of the plane. As you probably have guessed by now, the other bus had arrived. Like a dam breaking people began spilling into the isles and rows of the plane and, holding their tickets and chattering excitedly, they bumbled, crashed, and collided as they searched for their seats. We soon realized that most of them had never been on a plane before.

The flight attendants were trying their best to settle them down, and when I got the opportunity to ask, I was told that these people were Berbers on their way to Mecca for the haj (pilgrimage). Coming from all parts of Morocco, they were decked out in their traditional dress whites, freshly pressed jabalas and all manner of headdress, mostly tidy white turbans and flowing veils. Most of them appeared to be older folks; their brown faces offered the character of their long lives, with gentle eyes and maybe a missing tooth or two.

So, if you have one person who (a) does not speak or read English, (b) has never been on a plane before, and (c) doesn't understand the phrase "seat assignment," and multiply that by 100, what do you have? Pandemonium. If they ever found the same seat as the one printed on their ticket, they didn't stay in it long. They hopped around, traded seats to be by their friends, clogged the isles with their bags, and wandered about for, I don't know, an hour or so. After finding seats they fiddled with all the gadgetry we find commonplace: they flicked the ashtrays open and shut, the seat tables came up and down, lights flashed on and off, emergency rescue cards and airline magazines examined and traded. When ready to get going, the pilot turned the "seatbelts" sign on and, after finding two ends each, the Berbers began exploring various methods to fasten their belts. Some simply tied them in a knot, others puttered and tinkered with the metal clasps until, eventually, they were all fastened in.

When the flight attendants finally gave their okay, another hour or so later, the pilot taxied the plane onto the runway and began its takeoff. Chanting and praying, the Berbers sang out in a pitch and volume that matched the ascent of the plane, stopping only when we were safely flying into the darkness.

It's hard to describe the delight and awe of the people when they were handed headphones. Try to picture an old man chuckling out loud as he placed the headphones over the top of his turban, then gazing at the plug at the other end in wonderment. And the look of surprise and glee when, after a period of trial and error, he finally figured out the right hole to plug it into, then hearing music come out. Squeals of delight! Comparing notes with each other, some were even able to match the audio up with the on-screen video.

Throughout of the rest of the flight they traipsed through the plane, shared snacks they brought with them as well as the on-board meal, and clamored about the flight attendants as they tried to roll beverage carts down the isle.

Of particular interest were the bathroom facilities. Flush toilets, from all appearances, were a novelty and not quite fully understood. As with everything else, the Berbers enjoyed exploring the soap, paper towels, perfumed water, toilet paper, mirrors, waste paper baskets, let's see, did I miss anything? There was a non-stop parade of Berbers going to the bathroom, and by the time I managed to squeeze in, the place looked like a bomb went off, paper squeezed into every available nook and cranny. The flight attendants had to completely close one down. As the night wore on, many fell asleep, dreaming dreams I would never understand. They reminded me of worn-out kids dressed in holiday clothes at the end of Christmas day.

When we finally arrived in Cairo and the last Berber found his carry-on bags and travel buddies and sleepily ambled off the plane, I looked up and down the rows littered with banana peels, eggshells and orange peels and, feeling sorry for the flight attendants, asked one how it all went. "It's okay," he said, smiling. "They're wonderful people going on an incredible journey." And I had to agree.

Pictures of Morocco