I have only been to Africa once, and that was, believe it or not, an accidental adventure. While traveling with my friend, Lisa, through Europe on our Interail (Eurail for the Yanks) adventure, we decided to take a quick day trip to Morocco, as our train tickets included the ferry ride from Algeciras to Tangiers. We thought we would pop over, do a spot of shopping and be back in time to catch a train to Madrid (foolish girls, we were). So we left our gear in Spain and took a roll of toilet paper, water, and a change of underwear in a day pack and hit the ferry. (Five days later….)
On the ferry across the straits of Gibraltar, we met up with three single guys, all traveling on their own. I’m not sure who decided it, but we ended up making an impromptu tribe of backpackers. There was an Irish guy, the only one of us who wisely carried food and water, though I thought the chickpeas and brown bread an odd choice of cuisine. He had been camping in Spain and as a result, had welts across his face from the mosquitoes. It looked like a contagious disease and though he was a really nice guy, I tried not to get too close, just in case, it was contagious. The Dutchman, who practiced yoga. (That was before yoga was cool). An American, who lived in Madrid as an English language teacher, seemed to be the most clued up traveler of our lot. And then there was Ben. He was an American who grew up in South America with his missionary parents. He carried a hammock, a bible, and a trusting soul.
Our Morocco Welcome
An eclectic mix of eccentrics, we disembarked our boat at Tangiers ready for adventure and were promptly greeted by a man with a knife upon our arrival in “friendly” Morocco, who demanded our money. He had wild eyes and a rusty knife. The port police, spotting our predicament, shooed our would-be robber away with a laugh. Welcome to Morocco!
It was the 4th of July, so we had a quick celebratory beer with our new found friends, only half of us celebrating American Independence, but all of us in agreement that Tangiers was NOT a safe place to stay. We were persuaded by our new traveling companions (over another beer) to see Marrakesh. The city, far from Tangiers, famed for exotic markets and wild nights, brought chills. We would be venturing well beyond our comfort zone, but our Interrail tickets included the train trip (the real deal-breaker), so why not?
An overnight train took is into the heart of Morocco. I’ll leave the Marrakesh Express Mystery for another time, but we arrived in the ancient city the next afternoon. Eugene had heard of places to stay around the Djemaa-el-Fna, the main square. Ben disagreed, wanting to check out the Youth Hostel in the other direction. We parted company amicably and headed into the heart and soul of the city.
The sounds and sights of Djemaa-el-Fna I still recall, from the snake charmers coaxing actual cobras from baskets with music, vendors with carts piled high with oranges proffering fresh squeezed orange juice, young girls draping jewelry over our arms in a bid to sell their wares, and the guides. Everyone wanted to be our guide. We found a hotel off of the square. The rooms were not pricey, but they also offered beds on the roof for a fraction of the cost of a room. Our little tribe spread itself over the rooftop, and one of the hotel guests, Burt, joined us, with his guitar.
But we had not come to Morocco to hide on our rooftop oasis and returned to the ground level to face the guides. Daunting & scary, demanding to be our guides, they threatened us just as the knife-wielding robber at the port. Was this a typical city welcome in this country? I began to wonder. I don’t know who actually chose little Mohamed as our guide, but this infuriated the others and we found ourselves literally being chased through the dizzying labyrinth of stalls of the Marrakesh bazaar. Running for our lives. Where was our string, or bread crumbs? And how on earth would we find our way back to the square? We ran to the newer section of Morocco, and up to the top floor bar of a hotel, where locals were not allowed. Catching our breaths, we had a beer and waited for our pursuers to tire of waiting.
We warily left our safe haven to return to the streets at twilight. Our pursuers had retreated, so we headed back to the square and running into little Mohamed, who had acquired a bodyguard for protection. This whole scene was insane. Our guide wanted us to eat in a proper restaurant (he would have received a kickback for that), but when night descended on Djmaa-el-Fna, festivities of the day gave way to a party atmosphere of the night. Music, dancing, and tables loaded with curious looking food. How could we resist? I remember eating meat that resembled a turd but tasted pretty good and salad. More about that later, as I won’t forget that salad. Ever.
We wandered the night and the boys traded their college sweatshirts for blankets. Lisa and I didn’t have anything to trade, so we had to buy our own camel haired blanket. We had left everything in Spain, and the night chill was already settling over the city, so the blankets were more of a necessity purchase than a souvenir.
A couple more backpacking girls joined us on our hotel roof that night and we fell asleep on our hard wooden pallet beds, the camel haired blankets protecting us from the night air, the sounds of music and screaming cats filling the air.
Mint Tea, Markets, & A Guide Named Mohammed
The next morning found us at breakfast with toast and mint tea: glasses stuffed with mint leaves and topped with steaming water. It was so strong it brought tears to my eyes, and the only way I could drink it was to add too many cubes of sugar- it ended up being more like sugar water infused with mint!
Mohamed led the way through the souq and we spent a day of exploration in the markets and through the maze-like streets, winding our way through stalls filled with hammered silver and copperware, vast rooms heaving with handmade carpets. Dyed wool (or was it camel hair?) hung from above, draped across the narrow corridors, to dry in the African sun. The pungent smell of fresh, unfinished leather filled the air, mingling with heady tobacco smoke and spices. The exotic. The unknown. Our language-teacher tried on the clothes of a desert nomad in one stall. He could have easily passed for Lawrence of Arabia, had he brandished a sword. We laughed. We even stopped for a rest and more mint tea in the courtyard of his family house. Blue and white tiles line the walls of the inner open courtyard. There were no signs of our angry ‘guides’, but Mohammed’s bodyguard kept an eye out for all of us.
Lisa and I found a stall with aromatic vats filled with quartz immersed in heady liquid. Amber. The vender chipped off a piece of the rock and weighed it on a brass balance- selling it to us by its weight. It’s the first time I had ever seen rock perfume. You were supposed to rub in on your wrists and behind your ears. I stuck mine in a film canister – and still have it- as fragrant as the day my friend bought it. Every now and then I open the canister and breathe in deep, the memories and nightmares of our African adventure rushing back.
Through the Sahara
I’m not sure who made the decision to go to Essaouira, a coastal village, but one minute we were hanging on the rooftop in Marrakech and the next we were riding a local bus out through the desert. There were no seats left, so we had to sit on the floor. One of our guys started playing his guitar, the other the drums he had picked up in the night market. Soon everyone was clapping their hands and singing. They couldn’t have been singing insults to us, for all we knew, but they were smiling, so it was good.
The bus went through some intense Sahara scenery. Ochre forts rose out of the sand like mud fortresses. Barren wasteland with only a tree here and there. (I’ve since learned they were Aragan trees). It was beautiful and brutal. What a hard life these people had.
When we arrived at Essaouira it was twilight and a hush fell over the bus- as if there was some no-fun zone that we had passed. All music and chatter stopped. I swear, the hair on my arms stood up. I had this awful feeling that to this day I can’t explain.
The bus stopped at a depot just outside the city walls. People in hooded cloaks were going in and out of the gates, but they had their heads bent and everyone’s faces were shrouded in darkness. Like in a Star Wars movie (except those guys wore masks).
We went through the heavy studded wooden gates. They were not for show. They had held off fierce enemies at some point in history. Walking through the darkened narrow streets and tiny passageways in search of some sort of accommodation that we all could afford. Read: cheap as possible, bed on the roof.
We ended up getting a little box of a room on a rooftop lined with beds around the walls. The bathroom was two floors down and it was cheap and a place to lay our filthy heads for the night.
Not-so Friendly Market
Some of the vendors were okay, but others violently swore at us because we would not give them our money or buy their stuff. It was startling and kind of scary how they would be so nice one instant and then scream f* you the next. Like they were Jekyll-Hyde off-spring. I seriously believed that these people thought f* you was a word to be as casually used as hi or bye! We had encountered this same issue in Marrakech, but these guys in Essaouira seemed even more so. It made for a weary day.
Sick in Africa
And just as noon struck, I began to feel ill- really ill. I got sick- so sick- from eating a salad in the market in Marrakesh. Ironically our guide warned us not to eat in the market- but at the time we suspected he was trying to sell us a restaurant for a kick-back. But I had the salad. How ironically that it is always the temptation of fresh veggies that gets me in the end! I spent a day running up and down the stairs to the toilet with non-stop diarrhea and became so worn out and ill that I ended up crawling on my hands and knees up and down the two flights of stairs to the toilet because I was too weak to stand up.
And that roll of toilet paper we carried? We ran out and that’s when I learned that Michael Landon had died in the USA, as I was onto newspaper by then… yeah, gross! By the time I left (5 days later), I was exhausted, dehydrated, had diarrhea from that salad in the Djmaa-el-Fna that would haunt me the rest of the summer. Even though there were good memories mingled with the bad, I would not rush back to Morocco.
We ended up taking a tourist government bus back to Marrakech. It was hot, stuffy and lacked the local color of our ride out. I think we all agreed that the local bus was better (and cheaper!) From Marrakech, we literally jumped on the train back to Tangiers. We didn’t even have time to get water or food for the journey. I remember falling asleep and waking up to a super crowded rail-car with a raging thirst, still dreaming about that pepperoni sandwich in Algicares.
Morocco was a combination of nightmares and fantasies- a feast of senses. By the time we left (5 days later), I was exhausted, dehydrated, still had diarrhea from that salad in the Djmaa-el-Fna that would haunt me the rest of the summer. Even though there were good memories mingled with the bad, I would not rush back to Morocco.
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