I was still in Madrid and already it felt like the developing world. Almost everyone on the bus was shouting in fast, throaty Spanish or Arabic, I couldn’t tell. They were pushing and yelling at each other, and especially at the bus driver. A Moroccan girl in front of me, Bouchra, explained in Spanish that we were overbooked. Then, throughout the nightlong ride south, she and a few others in our proximity warned me (the only non-Moroccan on the bus) to be very careful in their country, not to trust anyone, to protect my pockets and keep my eyes open. This was going to be interesting.
I didn’t realize it until we arrived in Morocco, but the sky — particularly the bright blue one, with white fluffy clouds — is something I’ve always associated specifically with Oregon. As absurd as it sounds, seeing those same hues and shapes so far from home was suddenly confusing, disorienting as I stood there in Africa, waiting for the bus’ luggage door to open. That familiar sight was made bizarre in the midst of the new world I’d been experiencing since two old ladies shoved me aside to get themselves onto the bus ten seconds faster.
After collecting my backpack there in Tangier, I hired an old man who seemed particularly adept at harassing me in English as a local guide. He showed me the world’s first American embassy (now a museum), a kasbah, the beach where the Atlantic and Mediterranean converge, and places he’d hoped I would shop at in between. The indoor meat and fish markets were straight out of a slasher flick, the fish portion being rank and huge, its floor slippery with the juices that continuously splattered from the chopping tables against my bare legs and feet. The meat market was a sort of guessing game, with me trying to determine what the animal might have been before my guide pointed and said “baby sheep” or “cow hoof.” There was one I knew immediately for some reason: a neat, pyramidal stack of fly-covered goat heads, skinned but still bleeding, it seemed, from their sightless eyes and smell-less noses.
The next morning I was blasted awake at dawn by the regular prayer announcement in the next-door mosque, loud enough for the entire city. It sounded like an off-tune air-raid siren. I went to the bus station that day and left Tangier to go south, deeper into Morocco, to its capital.
There in Rabat I befriended a young couple from Catalonia, Spain who knew a little English, and combined with my bad Spanish we had a patchwork language between us. I explored the city with Jordi and Claudia, seeing more mosques, more of the picturesque coast and dozens of semi-feral cats — the pigeons of Morocco. The three of us left after one night in the capital city, where the restaurants were almost all closed due to Ramadan, the holy month during which Muslims neither eat nor drink while the sun is up (Morocco is about 99% Islamic).
Marrakesh felt at once both more touristy and more foreign than Rabat. Competing for our attention were snake charmers, men with sad monkeys on chains, and merchants peddling hand-squeezed orange juice, dried dates, nuts, honey-sweetened pastries, fresh bread, spices, hanging meat, yellow leather slippers, “Louis Vuitton” handbags and throwaway souvenirs. Crowded pedestrian lanes snaked their way through the city, the hectic atmosphere heightened by a multitude of scooters, motorcycles, mopeds and bikes that sped through the crowd, honking as they swerved around locals and tourists alike.
Ramadan created an eerie effect in Marrakesh: the streets, filled with the human noise of frantic commerce during the day, would empty out when the sun set and it was time for breakfast in the Islamic world. The tourists were then left to wander the roads without pressure for about an hour each evening, a break from the constant salesmanship and lack of personal space, which was great at first. But by my second day in Marrakesh, this evening respite felt like something farther from breathing space and closer to boredom. I’d not only started to adapt to the chaos, I’d begun to miss it when it was gone.
The hungriness caused by Ramadan, which is celebrated every nine months, seemed to make some Moroccans quite irritable by mid-day (an effect it would have had on me, too). One afternoon, Jordi, Claudia and I saw two fights break out within five minutes of each other, each, startlingly, between a man and a woman, and each physical and attracting crowds of shopkeepers and passers-by. They were within a block of each other, and seemed so strange and unsettling that at first I thought they were a ruse for pickpockets to steal from distracted tourists. But I didn’t spot any suspicious movements among the crowd, and the three of us were the only obvious tourists in the area. In fact, I was never pickpocketed while in Morocco, despite (or maybe thanks to) the warnings of my fellow bus passengers on the way down.
But something did happen on my third night in Marrakesh, after saying goodbye to Jordi and Claudia (I had a bus out of town early the next morning, and it was their last day in Morocco). My hotel room, like theirs, was on the third floor and had an ornately barred window facing the balcony common area. But unlike them, I had no air conditioning and so slept with my window open. Late that night, I awoke to see an arm reached through my window above some things I’d left on the chair. The hand, illuminated by the yellow light of a nearby streetlamp, was going through my clothes.
I vaulted out of bed with a reflexive shout, a scream without words but clear in intent, deep and guttural and primitive. And as I raced to the window still bellowing my war cry, the arm snapped back from the opening with something in its hand. By the time I made it to the barred frame, grunting simian and barechested in the artificial light that glared off my sweat-slicked skin, the figure outside had cowered back into the privacy of darkness, the bars a cage between me and what he’d stolen.
And as I grabbed at the bars by sheer animal instinct — only two or three seconds could have passed by now — I saw through the glare that there was not one figure but two, and they had not gone far but only five or six feet from the window, as if I could not get out at all. I shifted to run for the other end of my room, to tear through the door and give chase, but as I leaned to take the first step my eyes adjusted further to the light and I saw something more in the shadow outside. The figures looked scared, innocent, familiar. They were Jordi and Claudia.
Our trembles of adrenaline turned into the shakes of hushed laughter just in time for the panicked receptionist to come flying through the stairwell door, having jumped from sleep to run up three flights expecting to find a murder victim. I apologized and explained in a way that surely made no sense, and after the receptionist left, Jordi showed me what had been in his hand: a photograph. He and Claudia had spent the final hours of their last night in Morocco finding a late-night print shop to surprise me with two pictures of us together in Marrakesh. Knowing they wouldn’t see me in the morning, they had slid one photo under my door and were trying to set the second on my bag when I erupted from bed in primal rage.
The next morning, throat still sore from my nocturnal murder scream, I got up early for a three-day trek to the Sahara desert. The tour minibus was slated to stop by my hotel between 7:00 and 7:30, though I assumed it would be late like every other bus and train in Morocco and didn’t worry when I made it to the reception desk at 7:04. But the bus had already come and gone. The receptionist told me not to worry, made a quick phone call in Arabic, and a few minutes later a small, cheerful man on a loud moped pulled in front of the hotel. “You’re very tall,” he said as I got on the back, feeling like a tricycle act at a carnival as I braced myself for a short but bumpy ride.
Locals laughed and tourists gave shocked looks as we motored past, me with my oversized backpack on, ukulele in one hand and water bottle in the other, wide-eyed and hulking behind the man at the handlebars as we buzzed through the morning air. And though I was in an alien continent and destined for a mass of sand more expansive than anything I’d ever seen, as we gunned across the city center toward the tour bus’ next stop, the sky ahead shone so bright and blue that I could have thought I was heading home.
More stuff from Morocco:
– Being so keyed up from the other passengers’ warnings that when Rashid, an English-speaking Moroccan who sat behind me on the bus from Madrid, offered generously to show me around northern Morocco in his car, I assumed he would try to murder me and so took his number but never called. Realizing later that a lot of Moroccans are actually just very friendly and excited to practice their English.
– The constant trilingual advances (in French, Spanish and English) from shopkeepers, begging mothers holding opened-mouthed babies on the street past midnight, and children trying to take me to restaurants, hotels, shops, and historical places for a fee. Feeling more linguistically uneducated than ever before.
– Seeing an 8-year-old boy in Rabat working his own lemonade — wait, no — cigarette stand.
– The twisty roads to the Sahara: fourteen of us with our lives on the line, not including the lead-footed driver who kept our knuckles white as we careened through the Atlas mountains in our top-heavy minibus.
– Surviving the ride, making friends with Irish Aidan and Australians Lisa, Keira and Megan, and Germans Andres and Anika. Riding uncomfortable camels, sleeping in the Sahara under the stars, sitting up in the middle of the desert and sleeptalking in what sounded to some like Arabic. The desert being so beautiful that it broke my camera. (The sand may have played a role, too.)
– Falling in love with Marrakesh, then falling in love with its opposite, the beach town Essaouira. Realizing in Essaouira that I hadn’t smiled at anyone in days as a defense against the sales pitches of Marrakesh.
– Spending evenings on the roof of an Essaouira riad (guesthouse) with friends from the Sahara trip; watching the sun set over the Atlantic.
– Getting to know a Senegalese soccer player on the bus to Casablanca; splitting a hotel room and a cab with him to the coastal side of the city to check out the nightlife; discovering that the club scene revolved around cocaine and prostitutes; having the best night ever. (Kidding!)
– Going to Fez for a planned two days; staying there at a family-run riad for eight nights; eating every meal with the mother of the house, Fatima, and her daughter, Hadija; not getting a stomach bug until my 16th meal there; Fatima nursing me through it over my last days in Morocco.