(Mostly) Morocco

Marrakech Travel Blog

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The adventures began last Wednesday.  I took a train to Madrid so that I could catch the night train to Algeciras, the port city where I would take ferry over to Morocco.  As the night train pulled up, I noticed that all the people were standing outside their cabins in the hall, plastered against the window.  My first thought was, they look like prisoners.  I should have taken that as a sign.  But I got on the train anyway, put my stuff down on my bunk, which was the top one of three.  There used to be a strap from the bunk to the ceiling to keep people from falling off, but it was broken in half, which, if you think about it, is more frightening than not having one at all.

So I went down the hall to find the bathroom, but when I got there it was occupied.  There was this drunk man standing outside, who I assumed to be French (but was actually Moroccan) who kept shouting “occupe!” or however you say occupied in French.  He came up to me and gave me a kiss on each cheek, which is what the Europeans do when they meet somebody, but not usually somebody just standing outside of the bathroom.  I wanted to get away from him, so I went back to my cabin.  Ten minutes later, I tried again.  He was still there, this time standing with his wife.  He asked me  “parlez-vous francais?” and then grabbed me and tried to kiss me on the lips.  I shoved him away, he shouted “gracias!” at me, and I went back to my cabin for good.

When I got back, the rest of my cabin-mates were there.  Two Spanish women traveling together, a couple of girls my age who spoke good English, and this militant looking Spanish girl.  It turns out that militant wasn’t a bad description of her, because when she started talking to the two Spanish women, she told them that she was in the Spanish army.  Apparently she had something wrong with her knee, and the Spanish army wasn’t letting her drive tanks anymore.  She was convinced, however, that the real reason they would let her drive the tanks was not because of her knee, but because she was a woman.  The two Spanish women were fascinated by this, so they suggested that they all go to the cafeteria car to talk about it.  It occurred to me that they seemed to be the type to rejoice in conflicts, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.

About an hour later, around 1am, I heard a commotion outside.  The Moroccan man (who I still thought was French) had apparently not reserved a bed for his wife and was demanding that the train employees find her one, but the train was full.  He then started yelling that the train employees were racists, and that the only reason they wouldn’t give his wife a bed was because they were Moroccan.  They told him to shut up, or else they’d kick him off.  He was quieter for a while, but they kicked him and his wife off anyway. 

My cabin-mates returned from the cafeteria in time for the end of that drama, which really should have been the end of all the drama period, except that one of the confrontational Spanish women happened to be married to a Moroccan man.  When she found out what had happened, she started shouting at the train employees for kicking him off.  She kept saying how hard it is for Moroccans in Spain, how much discrimination they suffer, etc, and what a great injustice it was to kick the couple off the train in the middle of the night, especially since they didn’t speak Spanish.  She and her friends managed to anger the men in the next cabin (who, according to the women, were absolute anti-Moroccans), so they all spent a good fifteen minutes screaming at each other.  Train security had to break it up and make them all go back into their cabins.  This, however, did not stop them from yelling at each other through the wall.  I told one of them, in my most assertive Spanish, to shut up, which of course she ignored.  Finally I resorted to commiserating with the other two girls.  We agreed that the real injustice of the night was that nobody was able to sleep.  I was rooting for the loud women to get kicked off the train too, but honestly I think the train employees were afraid of them. 

We finally pulled into Algeciras the next morning, and my friend Olive from Georgetown introduced me to her other two friends, Jill (from Brown) and Hila (also from Georgetown, but whom I’d never met).  We all went to the port and got on the ferry to Tangier.  According to our guidebook and other passengers, the ferry usually takes an hour and a half, maybe two.  Ours took four.  We still haven’t figured that one out.

Desiring to spend as little time in Tangier as possible (everyone we knew who had been there had described it as “pretty shady”), we went straight to the bus station.  As soon as we got out of the cab, we understood what the guidebooks mean about “harassment.”  Everywhere we went, men were in our faces, shouting, staring.  And not just staring, but staring us down.  Usually when you notice that somebody’s staring at you, if you make eye contact with them, they’ll look away, but not in Morocco.  We were already dressed extremely modestly, but it only took about five minutes before Olive said to me, “Paige, we’ve got to cover that hair.”  I did, not that it made much difference.

The second to last thing I wanted to do was go for a five hour bus ride after almost 24 hours of traveling, but the absolute last thing I wanted to do was spend any more time in that bus station, so we got on the bus to Fez.   Olive and I got split up from Jill and Hila on the bus, and we were sitting in the back in the middle of a large group of men.  About an hour into the ride, we made a stop, and some new people got on.  One man walked to the back of the bus and started yelling at some of the other men there.  They yelled back.  At one point the new guy took his backpack and hurled it down the aisle.  It was just as loud as the scene on the train before, and probably as dramatic, but I couldn’t tell you what they were fighting about, because it was all in Arabic.  Olive and I just sat frozen in our seats, trying not to make eye-contact with anybody, hoping they didn’t decide that the fight somehow involved us.

We got to Fez probably around 10pm.  We went in search of a hostal, but all the ones the guidebook strongly recommended were full.  We went to one at the end of its list, which it described as having rock-hard mattresses but being reasonably clean.  They got the mattress part right, but I think they might have overstated the cleanliness and failed to mention the freezing cold rooms.  Anyway, it only cost us five dollars each, though I have to say that even in Morocco you get what you pay for.

Hila woke us up bright and early the next morning, because we had only one day in Fez, and she had a full itinerary for us.  She has a friend who had studied in Fez on a Rhodes scholarship, who sent us seven pages of instructions by email.  She called up one of this guy’s friends, Abdul Haiyy, who said he would meet with us and show us around a bit.  So we went into the medina (the old part of town, where all the shops are) to meet up with him.  The medina in Fez is unlike anyplace I’ve been before.  The streets are narrow and dark, because they’re all covered with this sort of hay roof.  They’re very crowded, and we kept having to step aside to let the donkeys through.  The smells are strong, good or bad, depending on whether you’re standing next to a spice shop or a sewer.  So Abdul Haiyy took us through there for a while, showing us a tannery, and pointing out some mosques and an apparently famous library.  I’m glad we had him to show us around, because I’m sure we would have gotten completely lost there alone, and it’s not exactly the kind of place I want to be lost in.  He led us out, and dropped me, Olive, and Jill off at a sidewalk café while he and Hila went to a mosque to pray.  This is when we noticed that women in Morocco do not go to cafes.  It’s really odd to see café after café on the sidewalks filled only with men.

After we had lunch, we met Adbul Haiyy again, and this time he took us to his house, to show us how Moroccans live.  We went inside his house, which was quite large, but extremely sparsely decorated.  He introduced us to his new wife, his mother, sister, and brother, I think.  They were all very friendly.  The women gave us couscous and mint tea (we all fell in love with mint tea in Morocco) and we went up to sit on their roof to chat.  Most Moroccans speak French as well as Arabic, and so the three girls talked to them all in French (except Abdul, who sometimes spoke English) and translated for me as they went along.  It seemed like every time we asked them a question, one of them would go run and get something from the house to show us.  What’s the new Moroccan queen like?  Well, here, we have a magazine with photos of her.  What’s a Moroccan wedding like?  Here you go, our wedding photo albums.  They even showed us a Moroccan Coke bottle (that would be a good one for Jordan’s collection), because Abdul says that when you read the Arabic for Coke backwards using a mirror, that it says, “No Prophet, No Allah.”  He got a mirror to show Hila, who said she could see it.  Abdul’s wife said she didn’t believe it, but he said she was just saying that because she likes Coke.

I’m not sure how the topic came up, but somehow we found out that Abdul’s wife only has one day of the week when she’s allowed to leave the house to visit her mother and run errands.  She said, “it’s a prison,” which Abdul took as a joke, but which created an awkward moment for the rest of us.  Abdul then said, “Come on, ask her seriously if she’s happy.  It’s dangerous out there, and women are weak.  It’s much better for them in the house.”  None of us girls knew quite what to say to that.  We had to wonder about the double standard, because Abdul had been very nice to us all day, and didn’t seem to disapprove of us being out of the house and traveling alone.  All trip long we wondered about questions like that, but none of us were brave (or stupid) enough to ask.  There was also another tense moment when were we talking about Afghanistan (because Hila was born there) and the topic turned to Bin Laden.  Abdul said, “you Americans don’t even know that he did it.”  Fortunately somebody managed to change the topic.

After tea, Abdul took us over to his brother’s store, because the other girls wanted to buy dresses.  They dressed us all up in turbans and various types of Moroccan dress.  I ended up buying a dress and robe set too, because first I thought it might make me less conspicuous and second I figured that it would be a good Halloween costume next year.  Olive said I look like the new Moroccan queen (she’s a Berber, I think), so I can go as her.

Anyhow, we left Fez around nine that night on a bus to Rissani, a town on the edge of the Sahara Desert.  There weren’t too many people on the bus, so we each got two seats to ourselves, but even so, a bus is an uncomfortable place to try to sleep.  We made a stop somewhere around 3am, and Olive and I got out to find the restrooms and go to the teleboutique (basically stores with payphones).  We were in the teleboutique when a group of men came up to us and started harassing us.  We both got inside the same phone booth, hoping they would go away, but one of them opened the door and started punching buttons and stuff as I was trying to dial.  I pushed his arm out of my way, and his friends all laughed.  A few minutes later, when we thought they had forgotten about us, we slipped out of the booth and made a run for the bus.  They noticed a bit too late and shouted things in English at us, like “You are very dirty, very dirty!”  The bus was locked, but we stood outside next to a Moroccan woman, figuring they wouldn’t come near her, and they didn’t.  “That’s it, no more night buses!” I said. 

We got to Rissani around 6am, and from there we got into a rickety van with some British girls and a French woman to go to a hostal in Merzouga, at the edge of the sand dunes.  I don’t know why Merzouga has its own name, as if it’s a town or something, when it’s really just four or five hostels and some camels.  At any rate, we drove about an hour and a half over the desert (no roads) until we got there.  During the trip, the Frenchwoman I was sitting next to turned to me no fewer than five times and started speaking to me in French, despite the fact that I kept telling her that I didn’t speak it, and also despite the fact that her English was perfectly fine.  She did it again twice after we got to the hostal.  It was really odd.  I mean, it’s not that hard to remember that somebody doesn’t speak your language.  Other than that she seemed normal, but we thought she must not have been all there.

So, we got to the hostal in the desert, and they served us mint tea, and started playing Moroccan drums and singing.  It would have been cool at another time, but having hardly slept in three nights, I was pretty cranky and not in the mood for loud noise and cheerfulness.  They gave us a room and let us sleep until lunch.

After lunch the hostal people told us about the desert excursion packages they offered.  All we really wanted to do was watch the sunrise from a sand dune in the morning, so we decided on the basic one, about 350 dirhams (less than 35 dollars) for camels, food, and accommodations in the desert.  They kept trying to convince us to go for something more expensive, saying that the cheap one was more touristy.  I have no idea what they were talking about, because there couldn’t have been more than about twelve other tourists within a fifty mile radius.  In Morocco you have to be constantly careful not to get ripped off.

So about five o’clock, they gave us some water, sat us on some camels (which we named Harry, Sally, Gringo, and Escape from Afghanistan�"don’t ask, I’m not even sure why) and sent us with a guide out into the sand dunes.  We rode about an hour, and stopped to watch the sunset on a dune near a Bedouin tent.  While we were up there, a couple of Bedouin children ran up the sand dune to sit with us.  They couldn’t have been much older than three or four, and we could see two even younger children still back at the tent.  They spoke a little bit of French, and they were SO cute.  Jill gave the little girl a ring she had in her backpack, and an airplane eye mask to the little boy.  They thought they were pretty cool.

Anyway, we got back on our camels and rode a ways more, until we came to another Bedouin tent.  Our guide got off and started taking down our blankets and stuff.  We were like, wait, we’re sleeping with the Bedouins?  Wow.  So, we unpacked and went inside the tent.  We talked with some of the men for a while (the two women didn’t speak French) and drank mint tea.  They had a little baby, too, but they didn’t seem to know how old the baby was.  When we asked, one of the men started counting moons, and arrived at twelve, but we guessed more like six.  Or maybe something got lost in the translation.  They also told us that they get most of the food from the towns, and that they pick up their tent and move every few months.  We had an interesting dinner of vegetables and unidentified meat, and then went to sleep.  None of us slept too well, I think, because it got very cold out in the desert, and also because the sand wasn’t as soft to sleep on as you might think.  It was one of those experiences that you don’t necessarily enjoy at the time but then look back on and think, that was cool.

The next morning we woke up about 4:30 to watch the sunrise, but there weren’t any clouds, so it wasn’t very impressive.  We rode the camels back to the hostal.  When we finally got off of them, we could hardly walk.  Much worse than riding a horse.   We wanted to leave for Marrakech, but the only bus left Rissani at 5:30 pm, and I had already vetoed the idea of another night bus.  The owner of the hostal told us he had a friend with a taxi who would drive us there for 30 euros each, which we thought was reasonable.  He told us if we left at noon, we ought to be there by six. 

Our taxi came to get us in Rissani.  It was an old, beat up BMW, missing door handles, seatbelts, and the right hand side mirror.  It was quite a tight fit for five of us.  I was also pretty nervous about making the drive in a car like that, especially having been warned about drivers in Morocco, but there didn’t seem to be any other options, so we got in.  The driver was a very nice guy, never stopped smiling the whole trip, I think because we’d probably just paid him half his month’s salary in one day. 

As we drove along, it became apparent that Marrakech was not a six hour drive away.  We actually pulled into town around 1:30 am, after spending much of the drive on dirt roads or terrifyingly narrow high mountain passes without guardrails.  As in Spain (except worse than in Spain) drivers in Morocco view the land markers as mere suggestions.  To make matters worse, Jill had eaten something at lunch that made her sick, so she was even more miserable than the rest of us.  We all made ourselves stay away so that we could keep the driver alert too, so by the time we made it to the city, we were pretty delirious.  As we were driving into the city, I saw a tall light in the distance, and said to Olive, “Look at that.  Maybe that’s the city’s mosque…either that, or a sideways Ferris wheel.”  Both options seemed equally probable to me at the time, which goes to show you what sleep deprivation will do.

When we finally got to Marrakech, we were ready to spend some serious marra-cash (thanks, Dad) on a really nice place to stay, since we’d neither showered nor slept well in four days.  Fortunately we found a nice looking hostal with decent beds and warm showers for eight dollars a night a piece.  Turns out to have been more expensive than I’d thought, but I’ll get to that later.

The next morning, after a nice long night of rest, we got up, showered, and had breakfast on the rooftop terrace.  It was a beautiful morning, and we were all so happy to be clean and comfortable.  The view from the roof was beautiful, as we were in a nice part of Marrakech, with several gardens and parks in sight.  Olive and I made plans to meet up with the other girls later that day, and then we set off for the medina.  We spent a few hours in there shopping, and we each bought some neat things.  It takes forever to shop in Morocco because you have to bargain for everything.  You ask how much it costs, the owner names you a price, you offer him a third of that, and he sells it to you for somewhere between one third and one half of the original price, every time.  The first time you go through it, it’s kind of quaint, but by the fifth time, it’s a real pain in the neck.  They told us you even have to bargain for movie tickets in Morocco.  “And that’s what we call inefficiency,” said Olive.

That afternoon, Olive and I met up with the other girls at a Moroccan bathhouse, called a hamem, which we’d heard was an essential Moroccan experience.  We were surprised to find out that Muslim women are a lot less modest than Westerners.  The bathhouse was so hot and humid that you felt like you practically needed gills to breathe in there, but we all enjoyed it anyway. 

That night I took a night train back to Tangiers by myself, because I had to be back in class Wednesday morning.  When I got to the port, nobody would take a credit card for the ferry ticket, so I opened up my purse to take out some euros, which is when I discovered that the ten euros I had saved for a cab in Algeciras were gone.  I checked my backpack for my fifty emergency euros, which I kept in a secret inside pocket of my backpack, and they were gone too.  They were there when I left the desert, so I’m pretty sure that one of the hostal employees went through the stuff that I had left in the (locked) room.  Make that a 68 dollar hostal.  I went to the ATM machine, but it wouldn’t accept my card.  I started to panic, because I’d spent all my dirhams, since you can’t change them back at the port.  Finally one of the ferry ticket employees took pity on me and admitted that they did have a credit card machine (why it should be such a secret, I have no idea).  I had to show my passport to like a dozen different people, because apparently people who try to pay with credit are suspect, but in the end I did get on the ferry.

From Algeciras I took the high-speed train to Madrid, and took a cab straight to the bus station at 9pm, but the 9:30 and 10:00 buses to Salamanca were sold out, so I had to spend the night in Madrid.  At least I got a chance to eat some KFC.  No Dunkin Donuts, however, as it was closed already when I ate dinner and not yet open when I had to leave in the morning�"apparently the Spaniards don’t know that the best time to eat donuts is late at night and early in the morning!

So I made it back to Salamanca safely and in time for class, but the excitement was not quite yet over.  I went to the grocery store that afternoon, and while I was looking for toothpaste I hear a bunch of screaming and yelling at the front of the store.  A group of women and a little girl are all crowded around the cashier, who’s yelling at them to get out.  I didn’t understand everything, but she kept saying “because it costs me money!” and “You people try to pull this all over town!”  One of the women slapped her, and she slapped right back, and then tried to push them all out of the store.  She was yelling at the workers in the back of the store to call the police, which I guess they did, but the people ran away before the police got there.  I still wasn’t really clear on what had happened, but this other woman in the store just started talking to me, and she said, “With those people you can’t be too careful.”  I asked who those people were, and what happened.  She told me that they were gypsies, and that they train their kids to go up to the cashier and kick them while the rest of them try to steal stuff from the store.  The cashier later said she’d seen it happen before.  Doesn’t seem like most subtle strategy…  Anyhow, this was the third time in a week I’d seen people shouting at the top of their lungs at each other in public.  It’s so funny, I just can’t imagine any of it happening in the US.

In more mundane news, Georgetown offered us a class Wednesday night on Spanish cooking.  I was looking forward to it, because I want to learn to make tortilla espanola and maybe croquetas, but instead they taught us gazpacho, flan, and sangria.  I’ll admit (and Aunt Elynn can back me up) that there’s a certain amount of precision needed to make good flan, but come on, how hard is it to mix some wine with 7-UP and put pieces of fruit in it?  There’s nothing especially tricky about gazpacho either.  We felt a bit cheated.

Yesterday I went to hear the European Economic Minister and a few other EU officials speak, as part of the Salamanca 2002 activities.  The topic was the transition to the euro.  I thought it would be interesting to hear because the switch to the euro was such an enormous job that went over so smoothly, but actually they all spoke like economists and I was thoroughly bored.

Yesterday my linguistics professor told us that we’re not having class next week, and since Wednesday is a festivo, that means I’ll be going to a grand total of seven hours of class next week.  It’s not unheard of at Georgetown to go to seven hours of class in a DAY.  I’m not sure what to do with myself.  I guess it’ll be a good time to concentrate on Spanish. 

Steve is doing fairly well.  He was offered a job last week, but unfortunately not one that he wanted to take.  He’ll keep looking.  We’re trying to plan his next trip out to Europe, and we’re thinking that northern Italy in late June would be perfect.  Unfortunately we’re apparently not the only ones who think so, as we have yet to find anything approximating a reasonable price for airfare.  I’m not giving up yet though.  We’ve still got Priceline to try.

I hope you all have been having weather as beautiful as what we’ve had in Salamanca the past few days.  I’m enjoying it while it lasts, because all of the locals assure me that it won’t.  My demography professor told us two jokes about Salamanca’s weather.  He said first, that here you have to wear your coat until the 40th of May (it actually rhymes in Spanish), meaning that it stays cold a really long time.  The second thing he said was that there are only three seasons (estaciones) in Salamanca: invierno (winter), verano (summer), y la estacion de trenes (the train station).  It only works because estacion means both station and season in Spanish.  I was pretty happy to have understood, because I never get jokes in Spanish.

Okay, I’d better stop before I develop carpel tunnel syndrome and you all go blind.  If only I could think of this much to write for my school papers!  I’ll be interested to hear what you’ve been up to lately…
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photo by: sweetet