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Episode 2: "Church Music & Fish"

The rest of Morocco (Days 2-4)

Marrakech – Day 2

       We met Max during breakfast on the roof lounge. All she told us was that she had taken a major trip in 1980, so that was our only clue to her age. But for someone who spent her life traveling as much as possible, she looked great. Natively from Sydney, she had been through Central America, Europe, Southeast Asia, and even spent a year on a Kibbutz in Israel (the 1980 trip). She works half the year then travels the rest. She never had kids herself, but is the “cool aunt” to her straight edge (read: non-traveler) siblings’ kids. Over delicious mint tea, coffee, and breads, we shared travel stories with Nate listening on to his first traveler-on-traveler conversation. Max has never written about her travels except for emails sent out to her friends from the road. I told her that she should put them together into a book called “Sent Mail,” and I hope she considers it because I would read it! She is spending another few weeks in Morocco before moving on to I-Forget-Where, so we told each other “bon voyage” before parting ways.

Casablanca – Day 2

Nate and I packed up and left Marrakech on a train to Casablanca. Before we left, I tried to give Nabil a tip for his helpfulness and generosity, but the 50dh I gave him was less than the amount he expected for the sheesha and tea from last night, so his tip turned into payment for what I thought was a complementary service. Sucks for him.

The train was swelteringly hot, and we passed in and out of heat- and tired-related unconsciousness along the three-hour-long route. Upon arrival, the Marrakechian street vendor hasslers were replaced by cab hasslers. “Where are you going, my friend? Ah, no problem. No problem. You get in cab with me, no problem.” If it weren’t for the hassle, I wouldn’t mind the cab rides. But because they’re such scumbags, I automatically go into aggressive counter-haggle mode.

Nate and I wanted two things: to see the main site in Casablanca – the big mosque on the shore – and to get some lunch. I negotiated the cabbie to take us downtown for 30dh. We had a pretty uneventful lunch of schwarma and fries supported by a cool jazz version of Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise,” and then hopped in a Grand Taxi to take us to the mosque. Not knowing that a “Grand” taxi costs five-times the price of a “Petit” Taxi even after confirming the price beforehand, when we arrived, the driver wanted 50dh… we expected to pay 7. He held us back and argued and insisted that we either pay or go talk to the police. I told him to talk to the police since it was his problem. I wanted to just walk away, since I’m pretty sure that Morocco (and thus their police) cares more about tourism then their cabbies, but after being hassled for a good 15 minutes and not wanting to start something big, I handed the guy a 20dh and he stormed off angrily. Fuck him.

       The mosque itself was quite nice – tall and beige framed by the Atlantic behind it. We took a few pictures and sat for a few moments on the immense raised platform on which the mosque stands. I didn’t want to stay too long since we had to be moving on to Rabat and Moroccoan “hospitality” was quickly becoming unpleasant. Forced to choose between taking another cab and making the mile or so walk back to the train station, we decided to hoof it. We took the wrong route along the shore instead of walking down the main road, and ran into some teens who started chatting us up about Metallica (the whole world loves Metallica) and my guitar. Being on defense mode since we arrived, we weren’t sure if they were being friendly at best, to setting us up for a stealing/beating at worst, or anything in between. I kept it friendly, and then asked them the best way to the station. We left incident free… I guess I was worried for nothing, but better safe than sorry. On the almost-too-long walk back (it’s only day two and the bags are almost devastatingly heavy), we stopped for a moment at Rick’s Bar to see the location from the movie, slash the real reason I wanted to go to Casablanca in the first place. They wouldn’t let us in without buying a drink, but we were in too much of a rush to do so. I asked a British guy coming out if it looked like the movie set. He said that there was a piano, but “Sam was not playing it again.” Witty. As we parted, he said “God save the king.” I replied with “Say hello to the Queen for me.” I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic, in which case I replied in kind. If he was serious for some reason, then I guess I was kind of a dick. Fifteen minutes later, we hopped a 9:30 p.m. train to Rabat… or so we thought…

Salé – Day 2-3

Elaine sat across from us and we started talking about things to do after we arrive in Spain via the ferry from Tangier. She recommended that we check out Tarifa where an African Film Festival was going on from June 11-19, but that’s a bit late for us to stick around southern Spain… but we’ll see. She also said that the ferry to Spain will probably land in Algeciras, a port town east of Tarifa. Either way, she recommended Granada afterwards. Someone else asked where we were going, and we gave the location of the hostel. Turns out, the hostel that we booked, Riad Dar Nawfal, “in” Rabat, was actually a residential suburb north of the city called Salé, and apparently it’s a relatively bad area, especially at night.

CRASH!!!

The window across the aisle and one row back shattered, shooting glass into the cabin. It startled everyone, thinking it was an explosion of some kind. In reality, it was most likely some kids throwing rocks at passing trains; another high point for Morocco. (That said, it was a pretty good throw.)

Looking at a map, it appeared as if we could walk from the train station to the hostel which was a few blocks away. But when we arrived, the area didn’t look like we expected, and based on our new information about Salé, we decided to take a cab. More haggling, then a destinationless drive through a walled Old City as the driver kept asking people where our street was. He kept getting out and looking at our map in the glare of the headlights, and each passerby got us a step farther. Where were we going?

Finally, someone said that we were right here, and pointed down a dark and narrow alley. A small sign said the name of the street concurrent with that of the hostel, so this was everyone’s best guess. I was uncomfortable with the whole thing, but didn’t want to show it. I asked Nate if he was good, and he gave a solid “yea.” So we continued “on plan,” grabbed our bags from the car, and walked to the end of the alley to a door.

Surprisingly, it was opened by a young girl who was expecting us. She brought us into the foyer, which opened up into a beautiful two-story open-atrium house, lined with elegant rugs, couches, and tiles. An older woman – presumably her mom – greeted us and went to get our key. I asked her if she had any food, and she took us into her kitchen (this was their house), and pulled some leftovers out of the fridge. There was chicken, rice, and a tomato and pepper dish. She told us to sit on the couches as she warmed it up for us. It turned out to be the best meal we’d had in Morocco, the most comfortable hostel we’d stayed at, the friendliest and most helpful staff, and gave us a refreshing sleep. It’s funny how quickly situations change.

In the morning, they served us breakfast of tea and breads on the roof patio before we checked out and paid. The man who served us breakfast and checked us out also showed us what to see and do in Rabat and how to get there from Salé. He also let me use the phone to call Yassine, my Moroccan musician pen pal. He lives in Khemisset, an hour or so east of Rabat, and when I told him our plan to go into town, he told me to call him in a few hours to plan when and where to meet up.

Afterward, we stuck around in the house for over an hour, repacking our bags and organizing overkill that we intended to send home. We decided to lose a few shirts, underwear and socks, useless toiletries, towels, and other bulky items that were making our bags unbearable. We have so far only stayed in hostels, so the tent and sleeping bags were pointlessly weighing us down. They better get some use in Europe.

Rabat – Day 3

Walking out of Salé was completely un-scary, if not pleasant. It was a real Moroccan, completely non-touristy, city. A ten minute walk outside the main wall’s gate brought us to the new tram line, only up and running for a month now. Broken French led us to the station stop outside of the Hassan V Tower and Palace, one of the main sites in Rabat. After taking an hour to pack up back at the hostel, we didn’t have time to see the palace and the city’s Medina, but we’d seen enough Medinas already. The palace was pretty spectacular, combining old palace ruins with a more-recently-built mausoleum. Upon first approach, the stairs leading up to the main platform were gated off, but some local kids told us to just climb over the fence. They were inside, so we figured the interior was not off limits. We could have walked around to the main entrance, but we were already there so we tossed our bags over the fence and scaled the stone wall.

Nate and I got some good pictures of the building and the Medina with the Atlantic in the background, and when we’d seen enough, walked out to an adjacent park. It was time to call Yassine back anyway. I was hoping to borrow someone’s phone, but few people seemed to have one, and fewer would consider lending it to me. We found a pay phone, and I finally got through to him. He said he was on his way with a friend of his, and that they would meet us in the park we were near.

While waiting in the shade of a tree, we were hassled by no less than three different “salespeople” selling cheap jewelry and trinkets, and wouldn’t take the first two “no"s for an answer. I pretty much told them to fuck off in order to get them to leave us alone. Half an hour later, I had to poo. I ran down to the bathrooms by the mausoleum, only to find my worst nightmare: stalls with holes in the ground and buckets of water alongside. Looks like I was going to experience my first squatting duece, but I’ll be damned if I was going to use the scoop-and-bucket wiping technique; and that is why we carry emergency TP around with us. [TRAVEL TIP #1: Always pack emergency toilet paper.] I’ll spare you the details, but my first “local experience” was about a B+ in success… “aiming” isn’t the easiest thing. Alright… next topic.

Nate and I waited twenty minutes past when Yassine said he’d arrive, and considered just leaving on another train right up to Tangier and leave Morocco behind. But soon enough, he and his friend walked up to us, recognizing us by my guitar I presume. We shook hands, finally meeting after three months of talking via email, and went off with him and his friend on their way back to Khemisset. Very few people in Morocco have cars, and taxis are the primary route of intra and inter-city travel. The difference is that inter-city taxis wait until they are full before departing. Full, by the way, means six passengers plus the driver; that’s four in the back, and twoin the front passenger seat.

With obviously no room for my guitar in the main cab, I put it with both bags in the trunk as we waited around for two more people who wanted to go to the same place. One came and I heard the trunk open and then slam shut. “There goes my guitar,” I said. Yassine said it would be fine. Finally full, we set off for Khemisset, forced to get closely comfortable with our new friends. Yassine spoke impressive English – a result, he said, of watching the Simpsons. Since his friend was not as versed, I spoke mostly to Yassine along the way as more vocal-less Phil Collins played on the radio.

Khemisset – Days 3-4

Tonight was the band’s weekly practice. Since we first started speaking months ago, Yassine told me that his band has played festivals and other high profile shows. In the taxi, he said that they had recently been featured on a television show similar to our morning talk shows. I was and had been worried that I would not be able to keep up with them on guitar, and would disappoint them and make things awkward, like an audition I once had for a band in Hoboken. I tried not to think about it.

When we arrived in Yassine’s off-the-beaten-trail hometown, we walked a bit to his street to meet up with the other six or seven members of the band. Their practice space was in a converted church which was now a theater, a walk away from where we were. Yassine offered Nate and I to leave our bags in his house while we went to the church, but I still wasn’t sure of how this would all play out, so after saying we would just keep them on us, one of the guys offered to give us a ride while the others walked over.

The converted church was everything I had expected: a curtained stage overlooking a lower level and balcony seating areas. A crappy drum kit was set up in the middle of the stage alongside a small mixing board patched to two or three loudspeakers around the playing area. I took out my guitar - luckily nothing had happened to it when the trunk slammed - and tuned it to the piano in preparation to jam. While the guys set up their keyboards, mics, and guitar amps, I dealt with the actual result of the trunk: One of the passengers must have been transporting a big jug of rotten fish juice, which must have burst along the ride to Khemisset. All I know for sure is that my bag reeked of the most horrid smell you could imagine. Luckily, the contents were kept separate. [TRAVEL TIP #2: Always line your ruck with a large garbage bag to prevent your contents from getting wet or fish-juiced.] My first thought was to unpack all my stuff and drench it in Axe spray to try to mask the fish smell that had certainly ruined my bag. It didn’t work.

All ready to jam, Yassine told me the chords for the first song they were going to play to warm up, and I joined in just fine. Nate occasionally swapped in for the drummer and blew away the entire band, even giving their drummer a lesson or two. I also held my own on guitar and even suggested things they should play or change in their songs to make them better. All in all, we represented ourselves and our country as musically talented.

Over the course of a few hours, we played nearly a dozen songs including some jams, one or two of their originals and a few covers including Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and, you guessed it, Phil Collins. Apparently Morocco is his biggest fan. It was amusing that the song’s lyrics were being repeated by the band, verse after verse, not understanding their meaning or flow but just repeating the sounds that they had heard on the radio.

Practice ended late – around 1 a.m. – and we were all hungry. We drove into town to the main street with the band and some more of their friends – around ten in total – and sat at a meat stand. Over tough communication ranging from charades with the Arabic-only speakers, terribly-tired French with those who knew it, and translated comments through Yassine, we still managed to have a great time. The butcher served us kefta, a ground beef and spices platter, kotbane, which are essentially kababs, maakouda, fried potato pancakes made with egg, flour, saffron, and cumin, and of course, khoebz, the thick pita bread to eat it all with. The sweet atay, mint tea, and the endless supply of delicious food really complimented the warm company of our new friends. As much as strangers with heavy language barriers could, we even managed to tell jokes back and forth, though I’m sure most were misunderstood, or the joke itself was the misunderstanding. For example, we had a quick laugh over the confusion between the words “pita” and “pizza”, which by the way, they had never had. When they refused to allow us to chip in for the meal, I told them I’d buy them all a pizza if they ever came to New York… offer still stands, guys!

Nate became part of an awkward moment when Yassine mentioned in English that he was the best drummer that they’d ever played with. Nate made eye contact with their drummer who looked away. We’re not sure if it was because he was offended or just didn’t understand what was being said, in which case the head turn was unrelated. Another act of miscommunication of customs came when the guys started leaving and shook hands with each other. They shook, kissed their hand, then touched their heart. It was kind of like how kids will do the opposite order with a final point at god for granting them a successful three-point shot on the basketball court. They laughed when they did it, and some didn’t. So we weren’t sure if they were messing with us or if the laughing was unrelated and it was a sign of a level of friendship. Either way, Nate and I partook in the possible custom. Maybe we’ll bring it back home with us.

As everyone left, Nate and I returned to Yassine’s house for the night. He lives alone in his parents’ old house after they moved into Rabat. The gate was rusty, the yard was more like untamed brush, the house was a mess, and the toilet was horrendous. It was great. Already close to 3 a.m., we sat up talking about a few things such as TV and music and our plans for tomorrow, which included another crammed taxi to Meknès (a city an hour farther east of Khemisset) to a train to Tangier to catch a ferry to Spain.

I asked Yassine about the recent protests in Morocco that have been such huge news in the States. According to him, they haven’t affected him at all short of a five-day teachers’ strike which gave him a long weekend – since he is a Ph.D student. The protests weren’t a concern for him in the slightest; he doesn’t care about political stuff like that and stays uninvolved. “I just care about music,” he said. I knew that as usual, American elaboration and storytelling that spews from the 24-hour "news" networks have completely misguiding us on the reality of world politics and its affect on foreign people.

Nate and I slept comfortably in his parents’ old room while Yassine rocked the couch slash bed in the living room in front of the TV and computer… dorm style. Regardless of the deflated political turmoil that Yassine dismissed from my mom’s voice in my head, I still had a weird dream where I was in Moroccan custody trying to reach the American Embassy in an escape attempt during a cell transfer…

In the morning, I was safely in bed as Yassine woke us at 10 a.m. to get us ready to go. Nate and I dressed, brushed and packed and Yassine took us down the block for a traditional Moroccan breakfast of harsha (strong “h”), a crispy pizza-slice-shaped bread with honey, and brewat, a more isoscelesian shaped pastry similar to baklava made with almonds.

Yassine walked us back to the parking lot where the Grand Taxis sit waiting for six people to all choose the same destination, but we quickly found a group that wanted to go to Meknès. Getting there first, Nate and I called the first ever “double shotgun” and took the front seat together. This time around, none of our gear was fished along the way.

Meknès – Day 4

Besides for a rogue bee that wouldn't exit the car, choosing instead to make itself comfortable inches from Nate for most of the ride, the trip went as expected, and dropped us off in front of the Tangier bus station. The plan was to take the train in an hour or so, but with the station being another cab ride away, we checked to see if there was a bus leaving sooner for cheaper. There was one leaving immediately, so we bought tickets. The fare did not include the 10dh that an English speaking man “suggested” we each give the young boy who loaded our bags under the bus (we gave him 10dh total), or the 20dh he “suggested” we then give him for the courtesy of showing us the bus and speaking English to us (I happily gave him nothing).

Yassine had warned us not to take the bus, and we soon understood why. The hot and sweat-inducing body odor-reeking bus (not even the bad part yet), was supposed to take four hours to get to Tangier (not the worst part yet), but took closer to eight hours (…getting there), because it would stop every ten to thirty minutes to either pick up someone on the side of the street while allowing local vendors to walk up and down the aisle trying to pawn off their knock-off watches, sunglasses and bags of peanuts (…almost). But the worst part was that the stops sometimes took five minutes, while others were closer to thirty, and we never knew which it would be. Nobody on the bus spoke English, or even French for that matter. We were aliens. One stop, which happened to be a 30-minuter at a gas station six hours into the ride, was the peak of awfulness. After sitting in the bus for the first 20 minutes, basking in the heat and suffering the influx of CO2 fumes flowing in from the running engine, we wondered if there was enough time to go to the bathroom. Five minutes later, Nate went for it, and two minutes in, the bus started to leave. I shouted out “STOP STOP”, and the passengers helped to tell the driver in Arabic. I walked up to the front and held the door open, waiting until Nate returned. For an awkward five or so minutes, I waiting for Nate to walk up, and then tried to mimic what I thought would have been animosity toward the white foreigner holding up the bus to prove that we weren’t “do-what-we-want Americans”, but nobody really seemed to care.

About an hour before we arrived in Tangier, Nate and I had gone into near delirium. We were dehydrated and our sentences were spotty and nonsensical. We would initiate topics of discussion then immediately retract them after realizing that we couldn’t verbalize the thought strings dangling in our overtired, crowded and oxygen-deprived minds. Instead, we played Dots twice before it got boring. As we drove north, we passed miles and miles of street stands, all selling the same brown plaster bowls and junk. The same bowls and junk. Tens of thousands of them. This raised many questions: who is making all these bowls? They are so similar that they must be mass produced. But then why make so many? Why set them up side by side by side on a randomly travelled road, the one place where our bus did not stop? Even if some wealthy American collector decided he wanted to buy 500 bowls, that would barely dent their inventory. I just don’t get it.

At long last, we stopped at another random roadside lot, and this time I ran off to buy a water bottle. After being so parched for over nine hours, it was strange that my body only needed a few sips rather than a chug to return to normal. It was a slow process of recovery.

Tangier – Day 4

Walking around Tangier was no different than any other place I had been to, especially regarding the truthlessness of the locals. Nate and I asked where to go for the ferries to Spain and received five different answers. Some said the new port, some said the old port; some said there was no overnight ferry, some said there was. We finally picked one direction and got another cab (our last one in Morocco!) to take us to the main port. Arriving, we received bad and worse news: first, the price was twice what I expected it would be; second, my assumption of a ten-hour ferry ride (like the one I took from Italy to Croatia), which would have landed us in Spain in the morning, only took 45 minutes (hence the obscene price), landing us in Tarifa at 9:30 p.m.

Breezing through customs in Spain, Nate and I had finally escaped Africa and were on European soil. But there was no time to revel in that thought as we had a decision to make: stay in Tarifa, which was described as beautiful but small and difficult to find lodging this late, or hop on the free shuttle bus to Algeciras, which was a “more metropolitan city” where lodging will be easy to come by. Given the fact that it was farther east – the direction that we were inevitably heading – we took the bus.

Algeciras – Day 4

       This was a huge mistake. Algeciras is little more than a port city, with a main street polluted by young adults who seemed up to no good. We walked up and down a street or two comparing hostel prices. Long story short, we picked the cheapest one that said it had internet. That was a lie. It did, however, have two beds and a communal shower that produced four minutes of hot water. To make matters worse, I can´t get the smell of fish out of my bag. All my stuff stinks. I tried bathing the bag in the cold communal shower, and nothing... I literally need a new bag. Everything smells like fish. My tent smells. My sleeping bag smells. I hate fish! I’m never eating fish again, and now I have a story why. That cab ride might have cost me hundreds of dollars by the time I replace and wash everything. It has really been overshadowing all the good times I´m having. FUCKING FISH BAG!!!!

       Back in the room, we read Lonely Planet’s review of Algeciras, which to paraphrase, said, “Don’t go! If you’re stuck there for some unfortunate reason, good luck and get out quickly." Reacting to the seediness of the port that reminded me of the scene in Hook, We devised a plan to place the heavy coffee table in the room a foot away from the door with a water bottle upside down supporting a few coins which, if tipped, would fall on the glass table and floor, promptly waking us for battle.

That really is all there is to say about Algeciras.

       In the morning we bought bread and fruit from the grocery store, found an internet place to book a room in the Oasis Hostel in Granada for the night and to research which bus we’d need to take to get there. I did, however, want to stop in the UK territory of Gibraltar first since it was on the way, so we planned a quick stop over via a short bus to La Linea de la Conception (the last stop in Spain before reaching the UK border).

Morocco, a review:

Culture: B+
Food: A-
Hospitality of friends: A+
Hospitality of local vendors/cabbies: D-

Overall: C (Wouldn’t return though glad we went… would recommend for the experience that you’d never want to have again)

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