Moving through Morocco

Trip Start Aug 25, 2003
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Trip End Jul 23, 2004


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Saturday, July 10, 2004

The border crossing from Melilla, a Spanish enclave, into Morocco was like being on the "Oz" set during a prison break scene. It was complete and utter chaos, kind of if the apocalypse smelled a lot like cat pee and had some really really old men in gnome suits hanging around. That was our introduction to Morocco. Although immediately after the bizarre visa formality (standing in line for two hours and getting a stamp of 8 numbers on the very last page of our passports, with no actual identifying country stamp), we were hailed by a couple in an SUV (side note: SUVs are relatively rare outside of the States) who offered us a ride into the nearest Moroccan town, Nador. Ioanni's a Greek geologist based in Melilla with an office on the Moroccan side and Esme's his South African-born wife. They gave us some good practical traveling-in-Morocco advice (including a suggestion to skip Casablanca but to definitely see Marrakesh; MUCH appreciated), a ride all the way to the bus station, and a contact number in case we "needed help" (this sounded ominous coming from two people who have lived and traveled in Morocco; hmmm...). We thanked them and ran into the bus station, then turned around and ran back out after realizing we had no Moroccan money, hoping we wouldn't run into our free-taxi-friends and look like totally unprepared idiots. No such embarrassing reunion happened, and we returned to the bus station, fistfuls of dirham in hand. We got hustled onto a bus that was already pulling out of the parking lot, which didn't give us a lot of time to inspect our first Moroccan chariot.

No air conditioning, which was a shame in the sweaty heat of the bus, and the leg room was less "Harlem Globetrotter" than "cast of Willow". However, the really unique aspect was the partially shattered windshield, which was holding together remarkably well, considering there were two significant chunks of glass missing, and the rest was held together by a nearly complete spiderweb. We rationalized that at least the broken part wasn't the driver's side, which became more of an important issue when the remaining glass began bowing into the bus from the force of the wind. Not willing to get behind schedule, the bus assistant (wearing a hot pink tank top reading something in grammatically
unique English, featuring the word SWILTY) attempted to patch the hole with some tape, then the plastic board stating our destination, then a couple of pieces of wood, all without the driver having to slow down. As temporary fixes, they were pretty creative, but
about 40 km shy of Fes, a huge swath of tape studded with glass shards flew off the window and hit the guy sitting directly in front of me in the head, causing a nice little 5th row bloodbath, causing some anxiety in the 6th row. I offered up a minute
sterile gauze pad which the bus assistant used to vigorously rub any remaining glass shards further into the guy's skull, apparently from the "ground glass helps wounds heal faster" school of first aid. This was serious enough to warrant actually stopping the bus, and a sturdier fix of plastic sheeting was employed. We arrived in Fes without any further delays, and decided we'd earned a taxi ride to our hotel in the ville nouvelle.

The medina (old town) of Fes is famous for being more authentic than most other Moroccan cities, which have seen much of their original architecture remodeled. On the other hand, we had been warned that the touts in Fes, who earn money by "guiding" tourists around the labyrinthal medina and getting commission from bringing people into
stores, are especially persistent. No one mentioned that they were also criminally insane. We walked from the new town to the medina entrance, and were approached by a man who introduced himself as "Mohammed Couscous". I put my left hand up to indicate that he was much much too close, since another few inches and he would actually be sitting in my
pocket. This made him extremely irrationally angry, and he started shouting,"Don't talk with your hands! I'll break your f---ing eyes! F--- you!" I was willing to write this off as a miscommunication, maybe his accent prevented me from ascertaining his REAL meaning, until he shoved his finger into my back. This is very very inappropriate in any
culture, but in Muslim countries, where married couples don't even touch each other in public, for a man to touch me is considered assaultive. This made me more angry than I think he was expecting, because I turned on him so that we were face-to-face (almost), close enough for him to realize that I was at least 3 inches taller and probably 15 pounds
heavier, and said, "Don't you threaten me or I'm going to kill you, you evil little man!" In retrospect, I wish I'd been a little wittier, maybe insulted him in a casually clever manner, but I was really really pissed off. He backed off instantly to a safe distance, maybe because he thought I might actually kill him, or that Phil, who was close on the
left, might do it for me. As we walked away, he screamed variations on the "F--- you!" theme, but the confrontation was over. Phil said later he was worried that I would have shivved the guy if I'd had the Swiss Army knife, but I don't think so because blood is SO hard to clean off the blade. Ummm...I mean, so I've been told... We headed into the
medina, but the whole episode had left me feeling really raw and angry, and the building Phil wanted to see, the Bou Inania medersa (theological school) was closed for repairs, so we only ventured a short way in and returned to the wide, treed, hassle-free streets of the new town. (I do want to add that this is absolutely the only time we ever experienced this in Morocco; the vast number of people we met were exceptionally friendly and generous and went out of their way to help us. This man is obviously dealing with some inadequacy issues for which he could benefit from professional counseling. No evaluation of Morocco should be based on this guy; imagine if the reputation of the US rested solely on one person, like Carrot Top or David Hasselhoff or, God forbid, Dick Cheney?)

The next day we took the (BORING BORING HOT BORING!) train to Marrakesh, and all residual bad feeling was forgiven. Marrakesh is amazing. There is a huge square in the medina, the Djemaa El Fna, which is an enormous, virtually empty open space until dusk, when it gets absolutely packed with food stalls and fresh orange juice sellers and storytellers and musicians and snake charmers and tons of Moroccans. We ate a platterful of olives and chicken shish kebabs (Phil) and vegetable couscous (me) and plate sized loaves of baguette-y bread washed down with mint tea and it was all less than $5 (insert sigh of contentment). We rolled our bloated selves through the crowds of belt salesmen and monkey handlers towards our hotel where we collapsed into deep food comas.

Next morning, we ventured into the winding streets of the medina and did some combination sight-seeing/souvenir purchasing. We visited the Saadian tombs, which are really old and historically important, and which I dutifully read about in our Lonely Planet guidebook "History of Morocco" and, like most informative historical tracts that I have read in my life, promptly forgot. You aren't really interested anyway, or I would go look some facts up. I'm doing you a favor so you don't have to read the boring stuff. Kind of like a "Cliff Notes" travelog. That night we returned for another food orgy in the main square, and topped it off with a paying-for-the-atmosphere mint tea on a roof-top
restaurant overlooking the action. Phil and I both agreed that Marrakesh has bumped our previous favorite cities (his was Hanoi, mine was Istanbul) out of their top spots.

Bellies full of fresh-squeezed orange juice and honey crepes, we got
back on the (BORING BORING HOT BORING) north-bound train to Meknes.
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