I’m not sure what I was expecting coming to Morocco: somewhere different, a little shocking even, away from the comforts and ease of home or from cultures similar to home like Europe. My idea was to try and meet actual Moroccans and not just other travelers, and to see some of the nature within.
A ‘Friend’ in Tangier
Right off the ferry, I met a man named “Mohammed” that happily offered to show me to the hostel I planned to stay at in the Medina. I knew this kind of jig: someone performs some menial task like carrying a piece of luggage, opening a door, showing you to a hotel or hostel, and then expects some kind of excessive payment after. Coming off the Camino and wanting to meet actual Moroccans, I didn’t have it in me to say no. Once we arrived, he said he’d wait for me at the entry of the one-way alley leading to the small cornered away square in front of the hostel while I dropped off my bag, offering to show me around the town after. The jig I figured was that he’d take me to various places around the Medina, friends’ shops mostlike, trying to convince me to purchase items I didn’t want where he would then get a cut. And so around we went, through tiny alleyway barely wide enough to fit one person, up old crooked stone stairs, worn and sloping due to ages of weather and trodden feet, pointing out this thing and that about nearly every building within the Medina. Regardless of the outcome, how much he’d expect me to pay, he was sure imparting a decent number of facts about the town and the many famous expatriates that visited or called it home over the ages.
Before long, after passing the one time residences of Barbara Hutton and Paul Bowles and the Medina’s Kasbah (fortress), we entered a cafe I recognized immediately from a TV show episode I’d seen a year or so ago: Anthony Bourdain’s “Part’s Unknown,” the episode about Tangier. The place was Cafe Baba, a small little spot right in the Medina’s heart that somehow became famous amongst celebrity visitors, with the likes of Jack Kerouac, Mick Jagger, royalty, and many many others paying a visit for some reason unbeknownst to me. Not that it isn’t a wonderful place, I just don’t know what made it a go-to spot in the first place for celebrities that come to Tangier, creating some kind of snowball effect after. I already knew the scene from the episode: young men sitting at tables playing board games, watching football, sipping tea or coffee, whilst a thick scent of Moroccan hash filled the air. We sat and Mohammed ordered coffee, black for me, coffee he said was handmade unlike all the other machine-made coffee elsewhere in the Medina. Memorabilia from visitors past was apparent everywhere–pictures, signatures, gifts from foreign lands, inscriptions on tables. It was like being transported back to a bygone era, where many writers past sat, pondering, gazing out over the Medina’s rooftops and musing on their next great novel or some other thing to write about.
Back on the cobbled streets now, Mohammed led me here and there, then eventually out of the Medina and up towards the cliffs above the ocean just west of town to another cafe, an apparently even more famous one: Cafe Hafa. Cafe Hafa is another place whose fame I don’t fully understand. I understand that the writer and artist Paul Bowles frequented the place during his 50 years here and people like the Beatles even stopped by in times past. But even sitting above the ocean with a million-dollar view, it lacked the same energy of Cafe Baba to me, however, perhaps because I went there first or for some other reason. With the wind blaring about all day, we sat inside a sheltered area where, again, young men barely out of their teenaged years sat about smoking a tobacco-hash mixture, nervously glancing over in my direction initially as though painfully aware they were doing something wrong and uncertain about my strange look.
After Cafe Hafa we went to yet another cafe, this one right on the Medina’s main plaza where young and older men stared at a TV screen playing Avatar on a Spanish-language television channel while others played the same-as-before apparently typical cafe boardgame. As in the two previous cafes we just sat and sat, with little conversation between Mohammed and I. Looking around, most everyone in all three cafes just sat and stared, to the distance or with a dull gaze towards the TV screen, perhaps contemplating, resting, or altogether something else. Within a couple hours of being in Tangier, I was living as a Moroccan man does, sitting in a cafe and just being. As the man from the minaret started calling for the 4th prayer of the day, Mohammed explained how everyone able to goes to the mosque during prayer-time, while those with work, those disabled, or anyone otherwise occupied with important tasks prayed in place from where they were. Looking around the cafe, men sipping tea, watching Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol at this point, playing boardgames and still smoking hash, nobody, let alone Mohammed, evidenced a hint of movement to go pray, at the mosque or anywhere else. I suppose they had better things to do.
With Mohammed so insistent upon being a guide, I asked to find something simple and easy on the street for dinner, ultimately eating a pita packed with cheese made by Berbers from the nearby mountains. Soon after I said it was time to head back, all the while Mohammed saying he’d find me a cheaper hotel the following day and show me a typical Moroccan breakfast, even visit a tailor to fit me in a Jalabi–a traditional Moroccan robe. I knew it was time to say I didn’t need his help anymore; back at the entry to the one-way alley leading to the hostel, I did, and it was like flicking a switch. Before he was friendly and affable, after he became angry, calling me paranoid and other things before finally revealing the jig and demanding money. The jig was selling hashish, and when I said I didn’t want to buy any, he demanded money for his time, “at least 300 dirhams.” Luckily I only took out a small amount after I’d met my ‘friend’ and had 120 left, about 12 dollars, and happily handed it over given all the time and information he’d given me, a rich experience with all I just wrote. He left extremely angry, and I soon went to sleep, disjarred a bit at how sudden people can seemingly shift, how fake they can represent themselves. The anger too was probably an act for all I know, psychological warfare to make someone feel guilty and hand over more money.
The intent was never to stay long in Tangier anyhow but instead to head towards more mountainous country soon after arriving, and the poor taste left in my mouth by my ‘friend’ made me decide to head out the next day, many lessons learned and better prepared for the country ahead. I learned of a night train to Marrakesh leaving late the second day and went in for a sleeper couch to make the trip a bit easier.
I expected to see Mohammed waiting at the alleyway the next morning, perhaps to again try to sell me his goods or perhaps even angrier than before, but he wasn’t, surely back at the ferry docks waiting to teach some other sap a lesson. Back to Cafe Baba I went, surely expecting to see him there with another me in tow; although it would have been uncomfortable, I took my friend Robbie’s advice here: “You’ve got as much right to be there as anyone else.” He didn’t show up anyhow–one could hope he finally decided to take a different path in life though it doesn’t seem likely. Nonetheless, I tried to channel my inner Jack Kerouac there for a couple hours, sipping on coffee, thinking that if I ever wrote a book I’d come back here for inspiration.
The confusing maze-like streets soon started to have a slight familiarity over the day of walking around, colors and markings reminding me where to go to reach such and such a place. Here are a bunch of pictures of random things in the city, mostly in the Medina.
At one point, in the middle of some dead-end square lost in the Medina, I happened upon the tomb of the legendary traveler Ibn Battuta, an inspiration to me because he traveled the world for 25 some odd years back in the 13th century. It’s hard to even compare, relate, his experience to that of modern day travelers, how rich, authentic, difficult it must have been.
These are a couple pictures from the terrace of the hostel I stayed at, one around sunrise and one around sunset.
Being Friday it was the week’s holy day for Muslims, with men and a few women darting to and from the mosques, chants sometimes continuing for hours from the speakers blasting on the minarets. Throughout the day I made many new ‘friends,’ men who wanted to show me around the town on a tour, sell something from a shop at a “good price,” or, most commonly, sell me hash. As it turns out, many Moroccans told me I look like a hippie and thus I assume this is the reason so many people are trying to sell me the stuff. I quickly correct those who say so; nothing sounds worse to me than being a hippie. I ate tajine in some hole-in-the-wall place for dinner, easily making another friend in Aziz. This time it seemed more genuine than Mohammed and we talked for a couple hours before parting ways. It’s not a challenge making friends in Morocco apparently, the challenge is in telling the “good man” from the “bad” or “worst” man. The more visitors in an area, the more worst men there are it seems.
Taking one last stroll through the Medina with my pack in tow, it was time to say goodbye to Tangier as well, sleeping easily on my own bunk bed in a cabin with three other people on a 10+ hour train ride south.
The best way I can describe Marrakesh is that it’s like an onslaught of constant human interaction, with the beautiful old quarter functioning entirely via the tourist dollar, pound, or euro. And it’s hot.
The city has been steadily rising as an affordable destination of late due to cheap food, friendly people, and the city’s ideal location close to numerous other Moroccan destinations, and it shows in how many people are visiting. It’s so bustling, with constant hustling, that sometimes all I want to do here is retreat to a private room to recover.
Arriving early in the morning, half-lost and walking down a small street buzzing with carts, motorbikes, and people, a local Moroccan asked a lady sitting on the streets to take me to an affordable riad–a traditional Morrocan house with numerous rooms on multiple levels centered around a courtyard. He even gave her the tip I would have had to pay. Down a nearly empty and barren side street, I easily got a room by offering to pay no more than what the helpful man said to pay, 150 dirhams, probably a decent price for a lower-end riad.
Cruising the streets of Marrakesh, it’s even easier to get lost than in Tangier, especially in the maze-like souk/bazaar/marketplace. And get lost I did, finding out quickly that young children enjoy telling foreigners that this street and that street is closed, but are willing to show the correct way out for a price at the end, of course. Also, I found out that everyone here in Marrakesh likes to call me Ali Baba, the legendary character from one of the many tales within Arabian Nights, though I never once got that in Tangier. We both have beards apparently and I wonder if they simply call every foreigner with a beard Ali Baba. I’m not exaggerating when I say that perhaps 1/3 or 1/2 of the people on the street here who talk to me call me Ali Baba.
Regarding street sellers, sometimes it’s the older men running a shop who ask me to take a look, but by far the most aggressive of them are the young guns eager to offer guided directions, sell me whatever goods they are offering or, in hushed tones, ask if I want hash. I’d thought the hash-selling might be left behind after I left the northern part of Morocco where most of it is grown, but surprisingly I get asked to buy it here even more. Being thought of as a hippie by Moroccans, detestable as it is to me, doesn’t change from north to south I suppose. Everyone always has the “good quality” stuff for a “good price.” It never registers until I repeat it a few times that I’m not interested in hash, often only evoking a reply that I can try some as a gift with “no pressure” to buy more.
Having said that about aggressive street sellers, I’ve met a few nice, wonderfully friendly Moroccans, people seemingly not even interested in pushing their wares/tours/services too much and instead just interested in getting to know someone with a smile on their face and a willingness to actually talk. I sat and enjoyed coffee at the cheapest spot on the extremely busy main square with a couple such people, Hassan and Mustafa, where the topic quickly delved into, of all things, environmental protection in both Morocco and the world. As in Tangier, it didn’t take long to find a cafe frequented by locals and do as Moroccans do: sit at a table near the street and watch the thousands of tourists and locals darting too and fro in front of my eyes.
Around sunset I went onto the terrace of a cafe on the main square to gaze at the setting sun and wonder at the dreams of the many people packing the square below while snake charmers played their instruments, men led monkeys around in chained leashes, and people of all colors tried to sell every imaginable product. I contemplated the dreams of the foreigners visiting, searching for the exotic, perhaps called here by Morocco’s reputation for hospitality, though it seems to always come at a price; the locals possibly hoping to make a big score or many small ones for the day to feed the family. Almost all of the locals I met dream of one day visiting the United States too, the greatest compliment I can imagine as an American.
Down in the square’s night market, numerous vendors all serving some variety of the same food items began setting up as the sun begins to set and aggressively compete with one another to persuade passers-by to sit at their makeshift restaurants.
One of the biggest challenges in Morocco and other countries like it is that everybody always has too many big bills and not enough small ones. At one point I tried to get change in the souk–as bad a place as any to do so I’d say– where a seemingly friendly Senegalese man offered to help, calling a man pushing a cart to break my 200 dirham bill. As we exchanged bills, he gave me one 100, I gave him my 200. After a little voice-raising, them saying they’d somehow given me two 100’s when clearly only one was in my hand, a smattering of other small bills and coins appeared, stating that they were only “kidding.” After another late-night coffee, sitting and staring at the main square’s occupants and contemplating the hectic day, the only thing I could have cared to do was retreat to my room to recover and hit it again the next day.
The next day wasn’t much different, only I was a little more steeled than before against the onslaught of solicitations. I must have been tired to start though since in the morning I let a fellow lead me on to shops and tea and coffee and food for perhaps 40 minutes, saying that because he was Berber he wasn’t hungry, meaning he didn’t see only money signs when he looked at tourists. Yet all the same, he too expected money at the end.
It doesn’t take much to just start turning down people, walking away, even ignoring them, when everyone has almost the exact same set of lines, same tactics as the man before. It’s almost as though all vendors and street youth learned from the same textbook, starting their conversations with “Where are you from?” followed by “First time in Morocco/Marrakesh?” Also the obligatory shouts of “Ali Baba!” which I know by now to be a nickname poured upon any visitor with a beard. I hope this doesn’t sound negative, the same old shtick get old though.
Amidst the chaos of the streets and me getting constantly turned around everywhere, I visited a few sites around Marrekesh, namely Majorelle Gardens, the Saadian Tombs, and Bahia Palace. By western standards the places here may not meet expectations in terms of being informative, with little to no descriptive information about the various rooms, plants, objects within. But in another light they allow the imagination to wander, dreaming of the people who occupied these areas and the lives they led.
And again, after another tiring day, I returned to the solace of my room to recover, drained by the several days now of city life. Sitting in my darkened room, a box, I thought, no stars to see, the air stagnant and dry, noises emerging from rooms nearby and the streets below. I yearned for a return to normalcy, the normalcy of walking every day, of knowing the activity ahead but not the place the body will sleep, discovering the shear beauty and wonder and kindness of rural life outside of the cities, the act of truly seeing a landscape organically as you traverse it from one edge to another. Oh how I yearn to walk again, an intense desire that so quickly returned after a mere 10 days or so of not. It was and still is as though my body, mind doesn’t know what to do with itself without the walk. And so that’s what I’m going to do, start walking again. I’m not sure what I was expecting in Morocco, but I discovered that my time of walking wasn’t ready to be over, not even close, but just beginning.