Chapter 14: Return to Morocco
Keeping on the move made me feel alive, as though I feared if I stopped, my blood would cease to circulate, my thoughts would stagnate. --Catherine Doi
(It's going to be a longer one this time (TNWSS). I have some catching up to do. I want to finish my Moroccan adventures in one entry. Then back to Senegal. )
I write this in a hotel near Banjul, the capital of The Gambia in West Africa. I've had so many adventures it makes my dreydel spin. I need to catch up... to get me here. And that means my last adventures in Morocco:
Before I left New York, Habibe, one of my Moroccan couch-surfing hosts asked me to get some books for him. He needed them for a course he's teaching at the university. They were intellectual stuff... heady stuff.. a lot of it Post-this or Post-that like Post-Modernism in African Studies or Post Colonial Literary Movements in Asia.
In a typically American reaction, I asked him why he couldn't get his own books. This is the modern world. Just go to Amazon.com and order them.
“Mykel,” he emailed me, “you're too American. People in Morocco can't order on Amazon. They won't take our credit cards. We're not part of global-banking, you know.”
If there's anything I hate, it's being accused of being American... but he's right. I buy him the books. That's a lot of extra space and weight in a baggage-tight trip, but it's better than being American.
I carry the books around for the first two weeks plus of my trip. Every day they gain weight. Soon, I'll be able to dump them after my journey from Tangier to Agadir... soon.
Before we continue, I should tell you about my power. If I could control it, I'd rule the world. In political elections, any candidate I vote for loses... except once... when I voted for G.W. Bush to insure John Kerry would win. As you know, it didn't work. So the power is that any candidate I want, will loose.
With travel, wherever I go... it rains. Rain followed me through France, to Spain. To Morocco.
“Mykel,” says Zayd, in Tangiers as we huddle in a doorway to get out of the rain, “we were having a drought. Seven months no rain. It was terrible... until you came.”
“They should hire me out,” I tell him. “Send me to the Sahara. I'll turn it into an orchard.”
He laughs. He thinks I'm kidding.
After a great three days with Zayd and my new friends from the park, I sadly leave Tangier to head West-- Southwest actually-- to deliver the books to Agadir and meet Habib.
[Note: Up until now-- five weeks into the trip-- Tangier was my favorite place... except for the rain. Thanks new friends!]
I don't know anything about Agadir, except that it's further down the coast-- more Atlantic than Mediterranean. Actually, I don't know anything about traveling in Africa except “Don't trust taxi drivers. Bargain before you go. And never let them take you to a hotel. They get a percent from the hotel and the hotel overcharges you. Usually it's a lousy place. Also, drivers will tell obvious foreigners that their meter doesn't work. Then make up the charges as they get there.” Good advice from Lonely Planet or a friend who's been here. I can't remember where I heard it.
The ride from Tangier to Agadir is a long one. Train to Casablanca, another to Marrakesh, then change to a bus to Agadir. It could mean 12 hours of travel.
I hate arriving in a new city at night. It's scary. You can't see where you are. Spooky characters lurk everywhere... especially at bus and train stations. I arrived in Tangier at night and hated it... As it will turn out, I arrive in EVERY new city at night.
One of the reasons I love travel-- especially ground travel-- is that I can sleep, relax, get some work done, maybe take some pictures from the window. In any case, it's better than the plane... usually. Ground travel sometimes, though, has the same awful fault that plane travel has.
Sleep, yeah right. Though I'm a supporter of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution,(for the foreigners reading this: the right to bare arms) I'm extremely lucky not to have a gun at the moment. There would be kiddie-blood everywhere.
During the trip, Habib and I text each other... frequently. He tells me that after I arrive, I have to take a bus to his town in the suburbs of Agadir. I ask him where to get the bus. He tells me I need to take a taxi from the bus station to the bus station. Where does he live? Is it in Morocco?
“Hahahaha,” he texts me back. “It's in Tamri, a suburb of Agadir... a bit out of the city.”
He asks me when I'm planning to arrive. I tell him there is no arrival time listed on my train-bus ticket. From the speed of travel, I'm guessing I'll arrive around seven. But this is Africa, so I tell him eight.
“Eight o'clock?” he answers. “That's late. It's better to stay in a cheap hotel in Agadir and come in the morning. There are probably no more buses at eight.”
I arrive in Agadir about 9:30. I'm beat from the 14 hour trip. No sleep-- only a variety of screaming babies.
It's raining. Before I leave the bus station, I ask about a nearby hotel... something I can walk to. Even though I spent the first two weeks of this trip in France, I spoke more English there than French. Now, unless I want to learn Arabic, it's parlay voo France-say!
“Est-ce que il-y un hotel... pas cher... a cote d'ici?” I ask.
I guess the guy understands me because he answers that there is one just around the corner. Go out the door and turn this way, then turn that way, walk tout droit a little bit, then turn a gauche and you'll see it en face. It's called Hotel Ata-somethingorother. It's only 10 minutes away.
I gather my bags... go out the door... turn this way... then turn that way. I walk tout droit a little bit... then turn a gauche. I am lost. I hail a taxi.
“Je voudrais alle au Hotel Ata-somethingorother,” I tell the driver, looking at the meter to make sure it's working.
“Comment?” he asks.
“C'est prec q'ici,” I say.
He tells me he doesn't know any hotel like that, but he does know a hotel in Centre Ville that is very nice and not too expensive.
“D'accord,” I tell him. I'm ready to take anything.
He takes me to the Residence Hotel Azure. Just what I need: a residence hotel. That's what they call the SROs in New York. Bum hotels, mostly paid by welfare. Bedbugs, winos, with no locks on the door... a theft a minute. People sleep on the street rather than going there. Mmmm yeah. By the time I check in, I forget how much it was on the meter. Something like twelve dirhams. I think.
“Je vous droit combien?” I ask the driver.
“Just give me 50 dirhams” he says in English. When he pronounces the name of the Moroccan currency, it sounds like GERMS. In a way, it is.
Cheated by a cab driver? What a surprise! Fuck it. I'm tired and annoyed. I pay and check in.
Actually, the place isn't too bad. It's a bit fancy for my taste, but they do have a decent bathroom with a HAIR DRYER! Not that I need to dry my hair, but I do need to wash then dry my filthy clothes. I can wash them in the sink, and dry them before morning with the hair dryer. I do.
Here's a picture of the place the next day. One of the few non-rainy days in North Africa:
Not so bad, huh?
The next day, I meet Habib himself, along with one of his childhood friends who has a car. I forget the guy's name. I'll call him Mamoud, just like my favorite hallal street-seller on forty-first street. Mamoud is a taxi-driver in New York. The same job I held about 25 years earlier. We talk shop and promise to meet up in The City. He has some paperwork to take care of before he can return.
The goal is Habib's place. Mamoud drives us. And drives... and drives.... from the window, the scenery looks like Sonora, Mexico. Rock mountains and dessert sand... an eerie dejavue.
Finally we arrive... a small street in a small town. Far away from Agadir. I give the books to Habib, happy to finally lose the weight. He thanks me and again explains how difficult it is to get books in Morocco. He shows me a double bookshelf filled with academic books.
“All from visitors... couch-surfers... people like you,” he says. “I couldn't do it without you.”
It makes me feel great, like I paid for an Oriental baby to have a harelip restored.
“Mykel,” says Habib in English. “I'd like you to talk to my class today. You're a writer... a published novelist... they can get first hand information from you.”
Who, modest, public-speaking shy, me? Talk in front of a bunch of probably very attractive college-age kids? Twenty somethings? Me, make a spectacle of myself? Are you kidding?
“Of course,” I say. “I'd love to.”
At Habib's place I drop off my stuff. It's a simple house in way-the-fuck-out Morocco. When he arrives, Habib says something to his roommate. It sounds like KOO-MAH. Maybe it's cool man. I can't tell. I'll be sharing the living room with the roommate during my stay.
“Hi,” he says. “My name is Osama.”
“Like THAT Osama?” I ask.
He laughs and nods his head.
I barely have time to look around the house: a kitchen with a tank of gas for the stove, a bedroom, claimed by Habib. A squatter toilet with a large basin of water to flush it... and the same basin to wash yourself.
“We'll fill it with water when you want a shower,” says Habib. That's what they call this portable bathing/toilet flushing basin: a shower.
“Time to go to school,” says Habib. Mamoud drives us.
The classroom is like the classroom where I taught in Mongolia. The blackboard is half-chalk, half-whiteboard. The erasable markers are almost out of ink. Habib introduces me to his Theory of English Literature and Criticism class. He teaches the class in English.
“We have with us today, Mykel Board, an author and novelist from New York. Mykel will talk to us about the relationship of the novel... and his work... to structuralism, modern and post-modern criticism, and how criticism itself influences the literature criticized.”
Can I bullshit for half an hour? Can I discuss the chemical reactions in bagel-making when called upon to do so? Can I lecture on sub-atomic particles and the implications of wave theory? Does the pope shit in the woods?
So I talk and talk.. play act... mention The Beats, Celine, Henry Miller... throw in some Zen... a dash of existentialism... a dollop of stream-of-consciousness... Then I ask for questions. There are a ton of 'em. One guy wants me to give him a reading list.
Hooey! This is not a modern American college class. These students are smart. They're interested in the subject. They're eager to learn. All of 'em. Who said that women in Muslim cultures are kept back... kept dumb? I think people confuse Muslims with Americans who are all kept back and kept dumb.
A cute girl in a red headscarf asks me, “What writers influenced you? And was the influence in content or style?”
Another girl, in an almost burqa... only her face showing... asks me, “What are the political implications of your writing? Do you write to make a political point or do your politics come from what your writing reveals?”
The discussion continues. Light skins, dark skins, a guy in a robe with a huge beard, a young Arab that could have come straight out of William Burroughs. This is so much fun.
After a bit, Habib has to stop me. He has a lecture to give. On structuralism and the debate about divorcing work from context... novel from author.
I sit down to some applause. What a great class.
Back at the house, I say KOOMAH to Mamoud and Osama. Habib prepares dinner. Seafood and rice, along with Moroccan bread. Here he is with his creation:
Here too, I learn for the first time about African-style eating.
Like any New Yorker worth his pastrami, I've eaten at Ethiopian restaurants. There, you take a piece of the lemony Ethiopian bread, hold it in your hand, and pick up various bits of food from a central dish... like an instant sandwich. I figured that's Ethiopian... well, sort of. The basic style... all eating from one dish, no separate plates... is African. Apparently from North to South.
[Note: Africa is many things to many people. One of my couch-surfing hosts in Dakar will tell me about his meeting with a Tunisian guest, there in Senegal.
“This is my first trip to Africa,” said the Tunisian.]
We, each of us, fork or spoon into the delicious mixture, slurping it down with some of that great mint tea. No beer... they are Muslim, you know.
The meal is terrific. I thank my host.
“Koolmah,” he says.
The next morning I want to go for a walk. See the town. In order to find my way back, I take pictures of the building next door. It's a bathhouse. Wow! A Turkish... er... Moroccan bath. I wonder if they've got girls that give that...er... special massage. If not, at least the scenery should be interesting. Maybe I'll find Kiki from Naked Lunch-- or my own version. Unfortunately, time and circumstances never allow me to check it out.
On the corner of Habib's street and the main street in town is the town mosque. Not a bad looking building, though in need of sprucing up a bit. (I hate religion, but sometimes the buildings are just so great!)
Around the corner is a store selling Tagines... Moroccan clay cooking pots introduced to me by Zayd in Tangier. I've never eaten from one.
The town is not very big, so when I get back I suggest to Mamoud that we go for lunch in a Tagine place. There's only one... on Main Street. Then we'll go on the hike he's promised me. Habib has to work. And while he's gone, it's Mamoud's job to entertain me.
“KOOOMAH!” He says.
On Main Street, I see a bus pull up to the tangine restaurant. Out come a buncha white guys. They snap a few photos and head for the tables... together.... fill up the place. The tagines start cooking.
“That was the place,” he says shaking his head. “When tourists come there's nothing left. They're like that fish, you know?”
“Piranhas?” I ask.
We turn around and head for the highway.
“This is where you catch your bus to Casablanca,” says Mamoud. “You should get an early one. You don't want to get to Casablanca in the middle of the night.”
We continue our hike. The land becomes drier, more desert-like. We come to a bridge... instead of going over it, we go under it. The “river” is dried up. Just a trickle of water, sometimes stagnant ponds... mosquito breeding stations. We can easily walk over it.
You can see pictures from the hike as well as other Moroccan pictures at my picasa site. Just click on the picture below for the other pics.
|Morocco... other pix|
On the way back, I suggest taking a different route from the one we took first. Mamoud hikes us down a hill where we stop at the beginning of a banana grove. Looks peaceful enough, I think. Why don't we just go on through it?
“Two reasons,” says Mamoud. “One is that I don't like to walk through other people's land. This banana plantation belongs to someone. We can't just walk through it.”
I nod, still in culture absorption mode. Willing to accept anything.
“The second reason,” he continues, “is that the way is blocked by two donkeys. Look at them... see how when we get close their ears shake... and they go back...”
I remember the term mule kick and figure it must come from somewhere like this. I decide to follow Mamoud to find an alternative path. We come to another banana grove. There is a guy attending this one.
He wears tattered jeans and a t-shirt. On his feet are sandals... like everyone else around here... except me in my army boots. He looks to be in his early 20s... handsome in a rugged Arab way.
Mamoud speaks to him in what I think is Arabic, but later turns out to be Berber. Not only does the guy give us permission to walk through his banana grove, he takes us... leading the way along the slippery rocks to the former river bed... then well along to make sure we get on the way. He shakes hands with us to say good bye... and we're off. Just trying to be helpful... he wanted nothing but to be nice. It's a sharp contrast to what I will later find in Senegal and The Gambia.
The next morning, I'm off to Casablanca. Since Tamri is about 90km closer to Casablanca than Agadir, I figure it'll be better to go from there. I leave at 9AM the next day. Habib comes with me to wait for the bus... and wait. Finally, a bus appears, pulls up... and passes us.
“Mykel,” says Habib, “I think you'd better take a bus back to Agadir, to the station and buy a ticket there. By the time the buses get here, they're full. And not all of them come this way.”
“You mean I should go 90 kilometerts in the wrong direction, to come again to the right direction, including those same 90 kilometers? That's almost 200 kilometers out of the way.”
“I'm afraid that's best,” he says.
“Let's give it until noon,” I say. “Maybe we'll be lucky.”
He shrugs and waits with me. At noon, I take the bus back into Agadir. Then buy a ticket to Casablanca... requiring a train change in Marrakesh. The bus isn't scheduled to leave until 2:30PM. It leaves at 3:00.
From the bus, I text my couch-surfing host in Casablanca.
Me: Hi, I'm on the bus to Marakesh. Then I'll take a train to Casablanca. How can we meet?
Him: Who is this?
Me: It's Mykel, your couch-surfer.
Him: Where are you?
Me: On the bus to Marakesh.
Him: I have to tell you that I live with my family. Is that okay?
Me: I don't care. If it's okay with them, it's okay with me.
There's no reply for some time. In the meantime, we reach Marrakesh and I transfer to the train for Casablanca. A woman with a screaming baby sits behind me. A half hour into the ride, my phone vibrates.
Him: It's all fixed. Now I only need to know your age and where are you from.
Me: I'm from New York. And I'm old enough to be your grandfather.
No answer. Nothing. I've got about half an hour until I get to town. There is one possible solution: PUNK ROCK. A punkrocker Facebook friend of mine teaches in Casablanca. I took his number in case of emergencies. I know he lives with a bunch of other people, so I can't stay there. But maybe he can help me find someplace cheap. I text him.
Me: Aaron! I need your help. My couch-surfing host abandoned me. I'm stuck for a place to stay. Can you help me find someplace cheap?
Him: Sure Mykel. I'll ask around for a place. See what I can come up with.
While I'm waiting, I text the first guy again... just to be sure.
Me: I didn't get an answer from my last text.
Him: I'm sorry. You are too old. Maybe we can meet for a coffee.
Okay, that takes care of that. It's about twenty minutes before Aron texts me back.
Him: I talked to my roommates. They said it's all right if you stay here. Call me when you get in.
In about half an hour I'm in. I call Aron. Tell him I'm at the bus station.
The connection is horrible. I can just make out what he's saying... or not.
“Take a cab to Schadfafda adfieare,” he says.
“Sorry,” I tell him. “I didn't get that.”
“The Shwin Center,” he says.
“Shwin?” I ask, “like the bike company?”
“Shwin,” he says. “Like in the Shwin Towers in New York. You know... terrorism and all that.”
“Oh, the TWIN CENTER!” I say.
“That's right,” says he, “that's what I said.”
A short time later I'm there. We meet up, I drop off my bags, then go out for a beer in a secret bar at the back of an empty restaurant. Good hiding place in a Muslim country.
The next day, I'm out on my own while Aaron works. I go to the Medina. (Every Moroccan town seems to have a Medina. I figure it either means “old city,” or “port.”) In any case, I'm far from the tourist area: an obvious stranger in a strange land. It looks like what we used to call a dangerous neighborhood.
I pass a school... just getting out... Junior High from what it looks like. Students in blue and white uniforms. Boys and girls in seperate groups. The girls look at me, say something in Arabic, and laugh. A common reaction... except for the Arabic. I just walk ahead, looking for a place to have some coffee at an outside table.
I find one. As I prepare to sit down, a bunch of boys... obviously from the school... come up to me and shout. I don't know what they're saying, but it's menacing. They make shooting gestures with thumb and forefinger. One of the older boys, bigger than the rest with a handsome face and protruding ears, laughs. It is not a harmless that's funny laugh. It is a malicious we're gonna get you laugh.
The proprietress of the restaurant comes to my aid. Matronly, with a stern face and white scarf around her head, she yells at the kids. Gives 'em a good scolding. Like a mother who caught the kid with a cigarette.
The boys look at me, touching their right hands to their heart. The universal African gesture of apology.
The proprietress takes my order and I sit down outside. The boys turn the corner and look at me again. Several of them give the apology sign again. I smile and give the thumbs up sign. They give me the thumbs up sign and walk off. As they're leaving, the guy with the protruding ears swivels around, holding his right wrist with his left hand... pointing like a cop on a TV show... he aims his finger and shoots.
I don't leave that restaurant very quickly. And when I finally do, I look carefully around before I head into the Medina.
That night, after Aaron returns, he takes me to listen to some modern non-hip-hop at Casablanca's only “alternative bar.” Here's a bit of what we see.
Aron introduces me to his friends. We talk punkrock. During my 3 days in Casablanca, I finally get to eat couscous... and tangine. Aaron is a vegetarian, and declines my offer to treat him.
Finally, it's time for me to leave for Dakar... via Lisbon. I bid my farewell to my host and leave for the airport. I get in a taxi and tell the driver where I want to go. Then I point to the meter.
“I am very sorry,” he says in bad English. “The meter doesn't work.”
It's always nice to get comments to these entries. Please leave one. You can contact me on Facebook or at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I'm traveling, however, I may not be able to answer your email very quickly.
This is the 14th entry of my travel blog for this trip. Here are links to the past entries:
Episode 1 here (Before leaving New York 1)
Episode 2 here (Before leaving New York 2)
Episode 3 here (Before leaving New York 3)
Episode 4 here. (Before leaving New York 4)
Episode 5 here (New York to Paris)
Episode 6 here (Strasbourg Party Time)
Episode 7 here (Ryan Air)
Episode 8 here (Paris)
Episode 9 here (Death in Tangier)
Episode 10 here (Resurrection in Tangier)
Episode 11 here (Monkey Business in Gibraltar)
Episode 12 here (Entering Senegal from the rear)
Episode 13 here (Killing Me Softly)