It had been an uneventful evening flight with Royal Air Maroc from Heathrow right up until the plane began its descent into Casablanca, when the pilot announced that the airport was closing due to fog and so we would continue further south directly to Marrakech, the flight’s onward destination. The only disruption for over half the passengers was that they were landing in Marrakech earlier than scheduled, though it was of slightly more inconvenience for those, like me, intended for Casablanca.
Once on the ground there was some initial confusion as to what would happen next, though an airline representative soon enough circulated around the milling passengers to tell us that there were two possible options. The first was to be put up at a hotel near the airport for the night and go to Casablanca on a 6:30am flight the next morning, and the second was to wait for a coach to turn up to take us on the 220km journey by road.
In the circumstances, with the deviation caused by weather rather than by the airline, getting a choice of two ways to get Casablanca was more than reasonable. But considering it was getting late, if I took the flight option I wouldn’t get that much sleep before waking up early and having to trundle out to the airport again. In addition, in order to avoid a potential rip off situation with a taxi from Casablanca Airport I had booked and pre-paid a significant amount for a personal transfer to the hotel, which had now gone up in smoke. Taking a flight the next morning meant running the risk of an unintentionally expensive cab anyway, whereas the coach would presumably get me directly to the hotel. It was an easy decision in the end, and after milling around inside the terminal for a while, a coach duly arrived sometime around midnight and was soon filled with those making the same choice as me.
The motorway between Marrakech and Casablanca was surprisingly smooth and I managed to doze on and off as the coach made its way northwards. I guessed we’d made it to Casablanca when the coach pulled up outside a Ramada hotel, and the silent cabin began to stir to life with hushed conversation and the rustle as almost everyone began to assemble their belongings. Evidently I was with some kind of fully escorted British tour group, and after some confusion over their exact final destination, their onboard representative had navigated the driver to their hotel. One by one the mature aged passengers alighted and shuffled off into the hotel until the coach was empty except for me, the driver and a British woman in her thirties.
At this point the driver intimated his duty was done and that the two of us remaining were on our own. Had I not just been in Egypt and Turkey over the previous five weeks I may have timidly got off and tried to find a taxi without wanting to cause any offence, but I had recently learned that the only way to get anywhere in these parts was to be politely assertive. I walked down the aisle of the coach intending to sit at the front and gently insist that if the tour group got door-to-door service then there was no reason we couldn’t either. But I didn’t even get the chance before the woman lost all composure, sobbing that she was never going to meet up with her friends, her entire weekend in Casablanca was ruined and that she would never come back to Morocco ever again. She swung rapidly between threats of not moving from her seat until we arrived at her hotel, with wishes to be let off to find a taxi so she wouldn’t have to put up with the coach driver’s rudeness anymore.
Somehow amongst the tizzy I managed to coax from her the name of her hotel, which belonged to a common European chain. And to be fair to the driver he was probably Marrakech based and so not necessarily well versed in the locations of Casablanca hotels by name. Though from other things the woman said that made it sound like she had been to Casablanca before, she made no attempts to give us an address or even look out the window to help the driver and I (a total stranger to the city) spot her hotel, preferring instead to continue to bemoan her terrible predicament.
After what seemed like a good twenty minutes criss-crossing town and stopping to ask passers-by for directions, the driver pulled up outside her hotel and the snivelling woman stepped off the coach without a word, a nod or any other hint of thanks to him or me. Considering she’d done absolutely nothing to help herself and had in no uncertain terms denounced the driver’s lack of manners, I was absolutely stunned at the absence of her own. The ungrateful trollop.
After all that it was clear the driver’s patience wasn’t going to last much longer, and all I had was a name for my hotel, the unhelpfully generic Hotel Casablanca, and a street address, Boulevarde de la Liberte. It was obvious the driver strongly considered pulling into the very next hotel he saw, and he tried to tell me that this was the Hotel Casablanca. Considering it was a brand spanking new Hilton, I had to laugh and tell him there was no way I had arranged to stay anywhere this nice.
Exasperated, the driver continued on, and eventually after enlisting the help of a petit-taxi who led the way, at 3:30am I was in front of my hotel (as expected, a far older and more rundown concrete pile than the Hilton had been). The final grievance for the driver came after his inevitable requests for baksheesh, when I could only apologise that I did not yet have any local currency but, as the airline had covered the journey so far, they were probably good for it.
Once checked into my room I considered taking a shower, but as soon as I found the toilet wouldn’t flush and all that flowed into the bathroom sink (after a fair amount of noise and anger from the taps) was a reluctant yellowy dribble, I collapsed directly into bed, very happy to at least have found the place to lay my head.
I was vaguely aware of a mosque’s early morning call to prayer on loudspeakers close to my room sometime before I surfaced for breakfast, and then after filling up on eggs, bread and pastries I happily returned to my room and slept soundly until 3pm.
With only a few hours before I was due back at the hotel to meet my fellow Imaginative Traveller punters in advance of commencing our tour the next day, I hit the streets for my first exploration of Casablanca in the daylight. After loving the chaos and mayhem of my recent visit to Egypt and then being surprised by the relative calm and European-ness of Turkey straight afterwards, I was very interested to see how Morocco compared. After leaving the hotel I immediately noticed Morocco’s largest city was more hectic and dusty than the Turkish equivalent Istanbul, yet it was substantially less run-down and frenetic than Cairo, North Africa’s major metropolis. Down the length of Boulevard de la Liberte and leading into Boulevard du 11 Janvier the benevolent gaze of King Mohammed VI looked down from identical portraits hanging on the walls of the various shops selling fresh fruit, furniture and household goods, which immediately brought to mind Egypt and the ever-present face of President Mubarak. And yet, as these shops were not targeted at tourists, I was able to walk down the street unaccosted in a way that was virtually impossible anywhere in the land of the Pharaohs.
I was very much enjoying my continued exposure to North Africa, though it was becoming evident that I hadn’t done myself a complete disservice sleeping so late, as there weren’t any obvious sights in Casablanca that grabbed my attention. In fact, if it weren’t for a certain iconic 1940’s Hollywood film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, I doubt there’d be much of a lure for many non-business travellers to come at all. As if to prove my point, after hitting the large port area I followed the waterfront to Casablanca’s most iconic landmark – which has only been completed for a decade. Jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, Hassan II, one of the largest mosques in the world, was an impressive structure commissioned by and named for the current monarch’s father. And yet, my attention was soon wavering, as I found myself drawn more to the bodyboarders using the mosque’s platform as a step down to the shore to paddle out into a sweep of small but adequately shaped waves.
With a month of travel to go before I was due back home in Australia to be best man at a wedding, my impulsive decision to come to Morocco had been as much about finding more agreeable temperatures than Europe could offer at this time of year as it was about exploring another new country I knew virtually nothing about. And while it was certainly pleasant enough to walk around with only a couple of layers of clothing on, I couldn’t say I would have been anywhere near as plucky as those braving the nippy water to catch the swell on their ‘esky lids’.
After admiring their dedication I continued on past teenage and twenty-something couples promenading by the sea or sitting along concrete walls as dusk fell. Some pairs openly held hands and, although most of the women wore some kind of head covering, I was quite surprised that there were a few that had none at all. If it hadn’t been for the semi-trailer heading for the port along the busy road beside me, with six or eight young boys clinging to the back of the container for a dangerous free ride (or, perhaps, just for kicks) – exactly the kind of hair-raising traffic situation I’d been so shocked by in Egypt – I’d never have guessed I was still in North Africa at all.
But then, just as I doubted, out of the corner of my eye I could see a guy walking in a diagonal path towards me and fall into step alongside. Without either of us breaking stride he soon introduced himself as Mohammed and asked where I was from. When I replied Australia, he boasted he had many friends from there and proceeded to pull out a wallet and shuffle through a stack of business cards. He showed me a card from some bloke from New Zealand before returning it to the stack, evidently satisfied that was enough to prove his credibility with the Antipodeans. Further pleasantries followed which I answered politely but without showing a great deal of interest before Mohammed began a succession of questions that sought my interest on such things as visiting the nearby Medina and whether I needed a hire car during my stay to depart Casablanca for my next destination of Fes. By this time it was dark, and together we had rounded a headland and had reached the beachfront along the Corniche. At this point there was an odd proposition from Mohammed that was somehow related to large quantities of cigarettes, either that he needed help to source or was trying to sell to me (I’m still not sure which), that I flatly rejected in any case. After having dedicated so much time to this engagement with me I was surprised he didn’t protest my complete lack of interest and he relatively hurriedly said goodbye and turned back towards the mosque.
I continued on a little further, now totally convinced that I was indeed in North Africa, before I too doubled-back and, without further solicitations, returned to the hotel for a pre-tour meeting and dinner with my nine new Imaginative Travel companions (mostly Australian and British, with a Kiwi and a Canadian for good measure, spanning a nice mix of ages from a little younger than me up to middle age) and Habar, our interim tour leader.
I had been the first of my group to arrive in Casablanca so, with the rest of my tour mates spending their first morning sightseeing at the Hassan II mosque, I took the opportunity for another sleep in and lazy morning before we regrouped close to midday to head to the train station.
On hopping on the train for our departure to Fes it seemed like our assigned seats had been double booked, but things were soon resolved with our group split between two different compartments, separated more or less by age. The train pulled out of Casablanca across roads with manually operated level crossings, past sprawling shanty towns, mounds of rubbish, makeshift fences of prickly pear, groves of orange and cork trees and the familiar sight (to the Australians at least) of long stretches of eucalyptus trees. Bronwyn, Allie, Kirsty and I made up the younger half of the group and the four of us shared our compartment with a shy local man named Joseph, who seemed genuinely embarrassed to be part of the girls’ chit-chat all the way to the Moroccan capital, Rabat, where he got off the train. The same bashfulness couldn’t be said of the young boy clinging to the outside of the compartment door for a while at some point after Rabat, who, once we noticed him through the glass, was loving the attention of three foreign women before he jumped to the ground when the train slowed on approach to its next stop.
We arrived in the Fes in the middle of the afternoon into a noisy throng of petits-taxis and pedestrians before making our way to our recently renovated hotel and dumping our gear. We stayed in the Ville Nouvelle area of the city for what was left of the day, relaxing with a couple of drinks and tapas of salted cucumber and then later moving onto dinner. I was a fan of my pastilla, pigeon or savoury meat filling, wrapped in filo pastry and dusted with icing sugar. But that level of interest was infinitesimal compared to that generated by our group to the locals. Seemingly all around us, men sat in tea shops talking earnestly and playing dominoes, regarding the women of our tour with more than passing interest. Younger ones on the street followed us persistently, which did manage to put a dampener on some of our first impressions of Fes.
With Habar returning to Casablanca after dinner last night en route to a trip home to Turkey, this morning we met Gwen, our regular allotted guide who the night before had just finished leading another group. She was straight back into action, first leading us to the royal palace at the edge of the Jewish quarter (and gateway to the New Medina) with its intricate golden doors, a massive landmark dating from the days when Fes was an imperial capital.
From there it was out of town and up to the South Fort, from which there was an all encompassing view of Fes’ distinct districts: the sprawling, modern Ville Nouvelle, the much older and more compact Fes-Jdid and, most staggering of all, the ancient, intricate maze of UNESCO listed Fes el Bali – the Old Medina.
But before we were able to get amongst all the action of this part of the city, we were first dropped off at a nearby pottery factory. It was interesting enough I guess, seeing the whole process from the mixing of the clay to the moulding, firing and eventual fine painting of the finished products in a complex of adjacent rooms where scores of people toiled away in crowded conditions. And no doubt anything bought here directly benefits the local workforce, but for me it was just the first of what seemed like an unnecessary number of obligatory retail opportunity stops scheduled by Imaginative Traveller. I mean it’s fair enough as opt-ins for people interested in buying that kind of thing, but for everyone to be forced to listen to the spiel and not be able to leave until the allotted time seems like a waste of both my time and that of the proprietors who aren’t going to get a purchase out of me for all their trouble.
As you can probably tell, I was rather impatient to get immersed in all the colour and activity of the medina, and when we finally were able to make our way down to the tiny stone alleyways I was not at all disappointed.
The scale of the place was simply immense, there were enough passageways to get completely lost many times over, with innumerable clusters of bakeries, fruit and vegetable shops, butchers and a vast array of trades from metalworkers to clothes makers. Given there was no room anywhere within the medina for vehicles, we had to regularly duck into shops to allow laden donkeys through the tiny streets bringing in source materials not available from within the medina, or transporting finished products outside it.
And with a number of customers of the shops comprising the other shopkeepers around their immediate vicinity, it was a fascinating microcosm of commerce, which compared to my world of large supermarket chains, global discount variety stores and IKEA, was a visible and personable representation of how each of the stallholders were mutually reliant on each other in order to make a living.
The touts generally weren’t too pushy either, though as one of the three blokes in the group I was fielding offers to buy the unmarried women. I’d have probably managed to offload them all by lunchtime, and with bids of thousands of camels each I proposed a ‘buy two get the third free’ deal, which thankfully for the girls was received by the potential suitors with as much humour as I had given it.
Other than the potential for female trafficking, the big thing I was looking forward to in Fes’ medina was seeing the famous tanneries, and we could smell them well before we were able to see them. Though if it wasn’t for Hafeed, our local guide, I feel like I’d never have actually found the way to lay eyes on them. From an otherwise unassuming alleyway he led us up a set of narrow, unmarked stairs and through a single doorway which looked like it could be the entrance to someone’s home. At first I thought he was taking us on an intrusive short cut until I noticed groups of other tourists in a long network of dark, tapered rooms lined to overflowing with shoes, handbags, jackets and other leather goods for sale. Finally we squeezed past enough visitors to enter into a slightly larger room with some natural light flooding in and found it was a terrace, looking directly down to an irregular square with perhaps two hundred one-man spa sized pools. Most were filled with dyes in the spectrum of browns and reds, though some were yellow and white, and scores of men toiled away with stacks of hides in the pits or setting out the dyed articles to dry on the rooves of adjacent buildings or from lines strung up outside them.
It’s a pretty tough gig to be waist deep in tanning agents made from urine or pigeon poo day in and day out and I can’t say I envy the workers in their vocation, though I did think some other visitors I saw with mint sprigs pressed to their nostrils were over-reacting just a tad – I didn’t think the pervading odour was quite that bad, certainly not enough to put me off the idea of an impending luncheon interval.
As promised, a delicious main course of lamb and prunes in a nearby family run restaurant followed (though I was particularly taken by the entrée of harira soup, a Moroccan staple made from beans and lentils). This was followed by further exploration of the medina, including finely tiled mosques and a disused school, which were amazingly tranquil considering the noise and clamour just outside.
Appreciative of all the amazing things I’d seen, heard, touched, tasted and smelt, I was slightly more patient with the afternoon’s organised purchasing opportunities before leaving the medina, which included a family of weavers working away at their looms, a ‘Berber Herber’ peddling natural perfumes and herbal remedies for minor ailments, and the inevitable carpet shop where we were promised the prices were “nearly free”.
If you’d previously asked me what Volubilis was, I’d have guessed it was a venereal disease. It turns out it was a once prosperous city of 25,000 people on the edge of the Roman Empire some 2,000 years ago, and is now one of the largest ancient ruin sites in Africa. Over the previous few months of travelling I’d seen multiple places of Roman and Greek ruins and, to put it a little bluntly, other than Ephesus and Pergamon in Turkey they mostly consisted of small assortments of stones or fallen columns just kind of laying around untidy stretches of grass, with no immediate sensation of history coming alive. With this in mind, on our way to Volubilis I was a feeling a little ho-hum about setting my eyes on yet another ancient junkyard. Though on arrival at the site there were an array of intact town gates, colonnades and building walls, so I was inclined to at least walk around the site politely if nothing more.
But what a salve for the cynical traveller this place turned out to be, as I was wowed by intricate floor mosaics that in some dwellings have survived in vivid detail. Scenes of mythology, regular life, animals of the land and the sea all combined to bring a tangible sense that, in many centuries past, real people had lived their lives on these very floors.
That made me further appreciate the other remains uncovered – public heated baths, olive presses, and the none-too-subtle advertisement for a brothel. Maybe my first instinct was correct – and Volubilis really does mean a venereal disease after all.
Only a few kilometres away was Moulay Idriss, a white-washed city spilling over the edges of a small escarpment where Islam was first established in Morocco by newly arrived Arabs in the eighth century. Moulay Idriss is still regarded as a holy city, 16.67% as holy as Mecca by my reckoning (if it is true that six pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss over a lifetime equates to one pilgrimage to Mecca). Not being Muslim, we were forbidden from entering the pristine green roofed mausoleum of the country’s Muslim founder Idriss I, but curiously I got the sneaking suspicion we were not really welcome to wander in the rest of the city’s medina either. There were enough over-enthusiastic hawkers at the base of town in the Saiss Valley on our arrival to suggest it was on the tourist map even now in the low season, but the further into the cobbled alleys we walked the quieter the city became. Certainly we didn’t see any other tourists our whole visit, which I otherwise would have found refreshing. But very few locals were walking around either, and those we did see working in bakeries or manning fruit and vegetable stalls regarded us silently with cold stares. It felt like we were intruding, and I for one was glad to move on to Meknes.
Meknes was a much different proposition entirely. A former imperial capital four hundred years ago and now a modern city of almost a million people, it has at its heart a massive, boisterous central square (Place Hedim) and souq entered by way of some stunning town gates. The market did not appear to be aimed at tourists, with salt sellers, camel butchers and a lot of clothing stalls catering very much for local needs, but the general feeling from the traders as I wandered through the tiny lanes was very good natured.
When rain began to tumble, plastic covers were hurriedly thrown over piles of goods, and as it continued to pour off the edges of low awnings, the water turned the narrow walkways into gushing, muddy creeks. We regrouped in the square and sat out of the rain in a relaxed restaurant, gorging ourselves on a late lunch of turkey kebabs and chips.
With Isham at the wheel of our minibus for the longest driving day of the trip, we packed up from Fes early and began our ascent into the Middle Atlas mountains. Stopping first at a cedar forest which is home to a fast declining number of Barbary monkeys, the only monkeying around in the forest we actually saw was from Gwen and Isham trying to seek out the elusive primates. Then we had a little time in Azrou, a small university town that looked anything but Moroccan – it was dotted with Alpine style wooden chalets.
As we progressed higher, goats roamed on bare, rocky, pale-green hills that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Scottish Highlands, and the air became much colder. It had already been chilly in the mini-van as the rear door wouldn’t close properly, but now my fellow backseat bandits Bronwyn and Ali bundled up into as many warm clothes as they could. I climbed into my sleeping bag, but even that was not enough to stop my lips turning blue. Little had I known Morocco’s topography provided for such considerable divergence in temperature.
Continuing further south-east we climbed up onto a rocky desert plateau on the fringe of the vast Sahara. The clouds remained behind us, and in their place a vibrant rainbow arcing across the blue sky marked where we had come from.
To one side the plateau dropped off sharply into a vast canyon, the base of which was covered in date palms and a few working fields for crops. But on the plateau any vegetation was sparse, the river beds were dry, and the occasional towns were dusty and appeared to have a significant military presence (a reminder of the ongoing tensions over the disputed territory of Western Sahara further south).
It was dark before we had pressed on beyond the town of Erfoud, close to the border with Algeria. Isham turned off the sealed road and followed a series of trail markers through the dark landscape of gravel. Eventually we stopped at a small compound of stone and mud buildings, where in a large room with wall-to-wall rugs we sat on tiny stools at low tables and were treated to dinner and a drumming show from the Berber locals. One by one we left Gwen to catch up with her friends while we retired to permanent square tents outlying the compound, sleeping comfortably on rugs on the ground.
The tent Rob and I shared was on a slight incline, and evidently during the night I had rolled downhill a bit, because the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes in the morning was Rob’s face mere centimetres away from of mine. I recoiled in surprise and rolled back uphill to where I had originally gone to sleep, and fortunately my gasp was not loud enough to wake him. No offence Rob, but when I dream about a face I’d love to wake up next to every morning, yours isn’t it.
Daylight also revealed the compound was built on the edge of where the stony desert suddenly met Erg Chebbi, the classic sand dunes I had expected of the Sahara. There was time to explore them later, as in the morning we bounced across the rough stony tracks running parallel with the dunes, the mini-van quickly filling with dust.
While still feeling remote, the area fronting Erg Chebbi was not as uninhabited as it seemed the previous night, with a few small hamlets of the same stone and mud style buildings as our compound dotting the stony plain. There were also regular modern but basic hotels and auburges offering accommodation (though most seemed closed for the season), which appeared to indicate that a stay on the edge of the Sahara was popular with French and other European tourists in particular.
After an hour or so we pulled up at the edge of a comparatively large village where a few old people filled plastic containers of water from a line of wells and loaded them onto donkeys, and irrigation channels supported a generous oasis of palm trees. We met up with a familiar face, one of the drummers from the previous night, as this was his home and he was to show us around. As the sun began to warm the crisp morning air, he led us through the greenery and into the dusty, deserted and largely featureless alleyways of town. We were beckoned into the dark of a square, mud building that looked much like every other one in the area, where some more Berber men, and a couple of exceedingly shy teenage boys, put on another concert of singing and drumming.
Beyond tourism, which itself seems like a fairly recent adjunct to the economy, it’s hard to see what life opportunities there are out here beyond mere subsistence in these little settlements. There is no room for agriculture beyond the limits of the oasis, no marketplace, no obvious public buildings of education. And yet our guide, fluent in French, Spanish and English and with a university degree in Europe under his belt, has happily chosen to return. Home really is where the heart is.
After making the hazy return drive in the dust to our accommodation, we enjoyed lunch while watching the compound’s kittens play-fight in and around our bags. Then with the afternoon free I set out on my own for the dunes, where at first many tracks of humans and camels criss-crossed the sand. Slowly plodding up a ridgeline towards the top of the nearest high dune, the tracks became less and less frequent until eventually the only imprints were my own steps left behind me.
It was mesmerising watching the sand spill down both sides of the ridge with each step I took, though what was going down into my shoes and compacting by my toes gave me a tiny idea of the discomfort endured by Chinese girls back when foot bindings were fashionable.
After an hour I had trudged to the top of this particular dune and I revelled in the small escape of not being able to see another living thing anywhere in this sandy wilderness. Then turning back to my solitary curved path, my descent lasted only 15 minutes as I bounced down the slope with great airy leaps and sank softly into the sand as if in lower gravity, like I was an astronaut taking a moon walk. It was a happy dalliance with the Sahara, but my time in the vast dunes was far from over.
Our touring party regrouped and climbed onto a train of placid camels to head back out into the sand. To a steady soundtrack of the soft sounds of camel steps (and the occasional throaty hack), we unhurriedly skirted some of the steeper dunes as the late afternoon light continually changed the shades of the sky and sand, and the clouds and setting sun lengthened the shadows across sandy valleys.
It was all exceptionally entrancing, and the females in the group added to the Arabian mystique by shielding themselves from the gentle wind and steadily dropping temperature with recently purchased headscarves. Though there was one I couldn’t recognise, wrapped all in a rich blue, and multiple comments were made by the group as to the mysterious allure of this Arabian princess. At least, that was, until Sue cheerfully retorted, “stop checking out my husband!”
Whoops, sorry about that, Tony.
Just before dark we circled around a final dune and reached a small camp set up with the same style of low, square tents as back at the compound. A campfire was lit, rugs were circled around it on the sand, and, with no other sources of light anywhere near us, we enjoyed a tagine dinner under the brilliance of many thousands of stars.
When it was time to hit the sack I eschewed the flimsy cover of the tent and chose to sleep outside alone, cocooned in my sleeping bag next to the last fading embers of the fire. I stared up at the boundless heavens with renewed wonder, with only the occasional baying from the tethered camels breaking the silence of an otherwise enchantingly still night. If there is a part of Morocco I look back at more fondly than any other, the second half of today was undoubtedly it.
Most of us were up early while it was still dark, and we climbed away from the camp to silently watch the sun rise about 7am through scattered clouds over an Algerian plateau far away on the horizon. Then we packed up, mounted the camels and took a much shorter route back to the compound for breakfast, and then returned to the more familiar motorised form of transport to finally leave the sand dunes in our dust, making our way back to the relative smooth and quiet of bitumen roads.
We were in Tinerhir, a busy town of 40,000 and a veritable metropolis after the solitude of Erg Chebbi, in time for a late lunch. Free to explore for the rest of the afternoon, it was fairly soon apparent there wasn’t a great deal in the modern part of town to offer much diversion. I ambled without purpose through the pot-holed streets and had multiple conversations with friendly locals eager to lure me to a carpet shop. As the time drew nearer for the mini-van to take us out of town to our hotel for dinner, my bladder did its usual routine of wanting to be emptied, and emptied urgently. Unfortunately the more pressing the call of nature became, the less likely my surroundings looked like offering a public toilet. Unlike many of the local menfolk, my sense of decorum did not easily allow for a whizz against a wall in a quiet corner. Though just when I was considering that very possibility, salvation appeared in the form of a small Mobil service station out on the main through street. Except that when I walked all around it, I couldn’t find a door to a toilet. The dam pressure ever increasing, I began to look for a quiet corner just as one of the teenage boys loitering around the servo approached me. When I asked him if he knew where a toilet was, he pleasantly replied “no problem, come to my house.”
My brain wasn’t so sure this was a great idea but my bladder thought it was a brilliant plan, and so I followed the kid as he took a couple of turns into small alleys away from the service station. After opening a door and climbing a narrow flight of stairs, a large room opened up – his “house” turned out to be a carpet shop. After the great relief of finding a squatty potty, I returned out into the main room to find the teenager had gone and a much older man introduced himself. He offered me a chair and a glass of mint tea and began going through the usual introductory pleasantries before embarking on business. In most other circumstances I probably would have politely sipped the tea (even though I hate hot drinks), listened to the spiel and nodded approvingly at some rugs in return for the dunny dash. But on glancing at my watch I found I had five minutes to get back to the main street to the pickup point to have dinner at our hotel. The salesman had barely got out his catalogue of business cards of previous Australian customers (“look, I even have friends in Wagga Wagga!”) before I hastily descended the stairs, found my way back to the main street and legged it to the pickup point. And a good thing I did, too. The hotel was very small, some way out of town and built into a reasonably steep valley. Finding that on foot in the dark would not have been straightforward, and my bladder, brain and stomach may not have all remained on speaking terms.
All doubt I had about Tinerhir as a tourist stopping point was blown away this morning, as we walked through a lush valley of date palms, alfalfa and mint to an abandoned old village – an atmospheric collection of decaying mud kasbahs inhabited for over 350 years until 35 years ago. Left to eventually return into the dust from which the walls came, it was like strolling through the remains of a bombed out ghost town, and we had it all to ourselves.
Beyond the ruins, old people toiled in the fields and women washed clothes in a stream, while far above us all small patches of snow had been sprinkled across the tops of desert mountains. The clash of green oasis, mud walls, red desert and white snow was quite amazing.
And I must say, after the welcome absence of touts in Erg Chebbi, returning to the hassle factor of Tinerhir had been confronting and it was nice to be where they were not for a while. Or at least that’s what I thought. No sooner had we climbed out of the valley and up to an empty stretch of sealed road to wait for Isham when the touts and peddlers appeared out of nowhere and descended on us like flies. When “la, shukran” (“no thankyou”) repeated a couple of times was not enough to dissuade one enthusiastic scarf seller, I figured I’d try a different tack. Taking my own scarf off and wrapping it around his neck I made multiple compliments on how well it suited him, what fine quality it was, asked him how he liked it without waiting for an answer and then offered it to him for the special price of only 2,000 dirhams (A$300). For a second, and only a second, he was too shocked to speak. But then he broke into a smile and started to play along, finally offering a trade of my scarf plus some dirhams for some of his. But at least I was able to establish my disinterest without feeling aggravated and was then left alone, and we’d both got a laugh out of it in the process.
I was soon to find out the most popular point of interest in the area was Todra Gorge, a tall and narrow canyon carved out by the power of a long disappeared glacial river, particularly popular with rock climbers, and we headed here next. Though of all the variance of landscapes across Morocco seen on this trip, Todra Gorge was the most similar to something I’d seen closer to home. One of the only things I found different here compared to Standley Chasm, near Alice Springs in Central Australia, was the absence of rock wallabies. To compensate there were menfolk, able to use the gorge at its narrowest point to latch onto female visitors without them being able to escape their clutches so easily. And despite wearing the fake wedding ring that was supposed to help ward off unwanted attention, Alison seemed the most popular here.
After an easy walk along the sealed road at the base of the canyon (it was easy at least for me – I wasn’t attracting any attention), I turned around and returned to the guesthouses and restaurants at the gorge entrance to meet with the others for lunch. And here too there was another unexpected sense of familiarity. Over the last week or so, tagines, the classic Moroccan dish named after the clay pots in which they’re slow cooked over coals, had formed our staple diets for at least one, and sometimes two, meals a day. As much as I liked the tender lamb or chicken and smattering of vegetables or apricots (more often than not arranged on a bed of couscous), today I was hoping for something a little different just for a change. My hopes were immediately raised after skipping past the listed tagines on the menu and ordering a completely unfamiliar dish called kaliya – only to find out when presented with a familiar looking clay pot that what I had ordered was in fact a curry flavoured tagine.
The afternoon was spent back in Tinerhir, with the trip’s only officially sanctioned stop at a carpet shop. The family running the shop were certainly nice and there was none of the usual pressure, but I still bailed as soon I thought it wasn’t obviously impolite, leaving the rest of the group to ponder potential purchases.
In the midst of a small hail storm we journeyed into the Dades Valley, aka The Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, dotted with a stunning collection of mud fortresses in various stages of distress. With the sun coming back out we stopped at one enormous kasbah, with imposing castle-like turrets and a multitude of other little artistic flourishes, to see its restoration in action. A wheelbarrow of mud and straw had been brought directly into the entry room, where it was shovelled upstairs and applied onto beams of palm trunks and lashed bamboo.
From there we were led through to an internal courtyard and garden where the owner flamboyantly poured us glasses of Berber Whiskey (aka mint tea) in a dramatic serving ceremony of his own devising, and, in a show of appreciation, I just as flamboyantly tried to pretend like I was drinking it.
Though on that front I probably looked about as genuine as John Howard in a snippet of news footage I saw once some years ago, when he was handed a beer by an Australian army officer while on a visit to the troops on peacekeeping duty in East Timor. After a hearty “cheers”, the Prime Minister brought the stubby to his pursed lips for a moment, then studied the label closely with a nod and made appreciative noises, before promptly putting the clearly still-full bottle down on a table somewhere and swiftly moving on. But then perhaps I’m being a little unfair on the PM – as I recall it was a bottle of Carlton Cold.
Our lunch stop was in Ouarzazate, the home of Atlas Studios, one of the largest film studios in the world, and it also appeared that 4x4 excursions into the desert were a popular option for visitors as well. In the two hours we had available neither seemed possible, so I wandered up and down the town’s one major street fairly aimlessly trying to make the time pass and, not surprisingly, found the town’s souq. To give Ouarzazate some credit, the very modern open marketplace wasn’t all that touristy, and I was able to walk around the stalls of produce and home wares without much hassle at all. When I passed by a stall of plastic toys and the old man there asked what I wanted and I replied that I was “just looking”, he then asked me where I was from. Once I had told him that, he responded a little wistfully, “Ah, Australians. Always looking, never buying.”
If I had managed to bump into him again before we left I could have advised him that, if he really wanted Australian customers, then he was better off ditching toys and getting into women’ shoes. When meeting back at the van to depart, it was apparent a couple of the ladies in our group had used the time here to buy a stack load of them.
Our travelling day ended nearby at Aid Ben Haddou, a spectacular old fortified city of kasbahs. After checking into our hotel in the modern part of town, Rob and I set out for the almost dry riverbed separating us from the high mud walls of the World Heritage site. The daylight was on the wane and a cold wind was whipping up and, given that it seems that the fortress’ losing battle with the elements has forced all the townspeople to live in more modern amenities in the new part of town, we figured it would be pretty quiet. And it was, to a degree – Rob and I certainly seemed to be the only visitors at the time. But we’d barely finished crossing the sandbags placed along the watercourse when we were accosted by three children demanding we pay them an (unofficial) entry fee. Rob, being a much nicer guy than me, handed over the dosh without much protest (and received no ticket or receipt in return), while I politely refused. I don’t think I even had ten dirhams on me at the time, but even if I did have enough cash I wasn’t going to fall for that little scam.
Eventually the kids got sick of badgering me, but we then became the sole focus for every wannabe tour guide, peddler and shop keeper inside Aid Ben Haddou. Though the steep and narrow hike through the more decayed upper parts of town was well worth it for the rewarding view back down over the citadel from its all-important (and well protected) granary.
Rob left me at the top and I continued to explore a little longer alone, though on the way back down through the alleyways it was me who fell for an invitation. Once it was established which language I spoke, an old man standing outside his little emporium asked me if I could write a letter to a good friend on his behalf as his written English was not so good. It instantly sounded like a tall-tale, but it was getting dark and there didn’t seem to be much else to see (plus there was still some time to kill before a dinner of Berber omelette and a tagine), and the man had been far more polite than anyone else in the old fortress, so I was curious enough to see where this would lead.
I sat in the front of the shop while the man fossicked around for a pen and a pad. When we got started he dictated his friend’s name (“John”, I think it was), but didn’t seem too fussed on the address, only saying it was “somewhere in Canada, I don’t remember exactly”. And the letter didn’t amount to much either, just a vague “Dear John, hope you are well. I am in good health. It would be nice for you to visit again.”
Now completely convinced the letter was a ruse, I wondered what extra “benefit” I was to get for my time and assistance above and beyond a regular walk-in customer. The simple answer was none – there was just another invitation to look around his crappy rings and other jewellery, pots and pans, mirrors and, if I wanted to, more bloody carpets. The more I politely declined, the less courteous the old man became, until I finally left with my dark mood restored and his frustrated yells of utterly ridiculous prices, for second rate goods I didn’t even want to look at, ringing in my ears.
As it turned out, perhaps my favourite thing about Aid Ben Haddou was breakfast – delicious Moroccan doughnuts. Then we left immediately afterwards to traverse the High Atlas mountain range once again to make for the flatter lands of Marrakech.
It was a bitterly cold morning heading up the snaking Tizi n'Tichka mountain pass, the desert peaks rising above us generously dusted with snow or patches of ice. Fortunately, while Isham hadn’t had any luck finding someone to fix the back door of the van in Tinerhir, this morning Tony had put together a better temporary fix which meant there was no need to rug up into our sleeping bags.
As the sun grew higher in the sky, there was more activity by the roadside. Women washed clothes in a stream, leaving the wet ones to dry on rocks. Next to them an outdoor barber had an old reclining chair set out between the water and the road, about to go to work with a cut-throat blade on the face of a customer foamed with shaving cream. But the most popular pursuit seemed to be the rock and fossil trade, with young boys and old men lining the roadside attempting to attract the attention of passing traffic.
We pulled over at the very top of the mountain pass to take in the view of the hairpin ribbon of road of our approaching descent, and I had a look at what the fossil and mineral sellers set up at this vantage point were offering. The most common were geodes, roughly spherical rocks that ranged from egg to cricket ball in size, which had been split in half to reveal colourful crystals of quartz inside. Every colour under the rainbow was available, so I wasn’t surprised to be told by Gwen that while the crystals themselves were real, most of the colours weren’t necessarily natural and had been painted on. I elected to buy two small egg sized rocks, the first (I hope) a natural amethyst shaded purple, and the second a pink so deeply rich it was surely synthetically enhanced.
As we continued down and away from the High Atlas, the landscape also became more colourful. While the seemingly inaccessible little villages continued to match chameleon style with the rock of the steep ridges they were built on, some of the crags had been terraced, and the deep shades of green and brown suggested the land was more fertile than the desert we were leaving behind. And there were shrubs, bushes and trees in increasing clumps that added to the more verdant landscapes.
It was getting warmer too, though not enough for the cows and sheep being processed by the outdoor butcher in the hamlet of Taddart to attract any flies.
With the highlands and desert not far behind us, it didn’t take much longer for Marrakech to loom on the horizon, a flat urban sprawl of low-rise pink far more pale than my touched-up quartz. After almost a week away from anything larger than a provincial town, the noise, bustle and crowds of Marrakech were an immediate shock. And our hotel was right in the thick of it, directly opposite the 12th century landmark tower of Koutoubia Mosque.
Right around the corner was Djemaa el-Fna, the main square, a congregation point for musicians, snake charmers, tooth salesmen and almost every other Arabian fantasy instantly brought to life (though, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t see any knife throwing). Rob and I had a late lunch on a terrace overlooking all the mayhem (a pretty good calzone that finally deviated from the steady tagine diet), watching a big crowd congregate around a heated argument between two men on a horse and carriage that soon escalated into a bit of push and shove. A screaming match soon started in the restaurant too, though it wasn’t immediately clear who the woman working there was having a go at. All I could tell was that it sounded like she wanted this person dead.
After eating, I crossed the square and grabbed a fresh orange juice from one of the many identical stands set up in a row, and then plunged headlong into the adjacent souq, Morocco’s largest.
Not surprisingly this too was an intense experience, and for the first time I found I was intermittently grabbed by the arm to try to lure me into different stalls, despite my constant protestations of “la, shukran”. It became pretty quickly apparent that the tourist orientated shops were all selling identical items – especially wooden crafts and metal lanterns – but delving deeper and deeper into the market revealed sections for live birds and traditional clothing, where I could take a breather and absorb the atmosphere without feeling too pressured.
By the time I managed to work my way out of the souq and return to Djemaa el-Fna it was dusk, and the square was in the midst of its nightly transformation into an agglomeration of restaurants.
Dinner was a veritable feast, I had tapas style dishes of eel, calamari, sausages and chicken (though I concede there were some things too adventurous for me – I couldn’t stomach the idea of boiled sheep heads), and in a bit of ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ we found our hosts bending the strict alcohol licensing laws by offering what they called ‘Special Coke’ – red wine served in glass Coca-Cola bottles.
When in Egypt a couple of months before I neglected to leave enough room in my backpack for a sheesha (or hookah) pipe, and so one of the few things I had prepared for in advance for Morocco was to leave sufficient space to purchase one here. It seemed like it was now sufficiently late in the trip that I wouldn’t have to lug one around for too long, and with the souq still a busy trading place, I certainly had the time here after dinner to scope out the possibilities.
I wanted the largest sheesha that I could possibly haul back at least as far as London (where my friend Eu-Jin was continuing to very kindly let me use his residence as a half-way house and self storage unit for the duration of my travels), though I wasn’t at all surprised to find it was difficult to compare sizes without leading to the expectation I was going to buy every single apparatus my gaze touched upon. After being free without pressure to browse a little bit at one large stall specialising in sheeshas, and finding a large glass base that I liked and a metal body that would fit, I asked the elderly man watching me closely how much it was. To my surprise, his offer was not outrageously bad. Certainly a lot higher than I was willing to pay, but nowhere near as ridiculous as the starting prices feverishly foisted on me at other stalls while I was attempting to browse. I still responded that his offer was ‘crazy’ in Egyptian Arabic (the handful of words I had picked up there were still exceptionally useful in Morocco, even though the dialects are quite different) and I countered with a ridiculously low bid of my own. At this point the old man went off to get a stool for me and asked me if I wanted some mint tea – the negotiation was to begin in earnest.
With many smiles, dramatic gestures and a ragtag exchange of words in English, French and Arabic we played the game of finding the middle ground. Eventually we agreed on a price closer to his original starting offer than mine, but one I was still happy with, and with packets of coals and tobacco thrown in. As the old man fetched the extra items, a much younger man came over and asked him what the deal was worth. When the old man replied, the younger man (evidently the boss, or at least someone higher up the chain of command) looked very angry and chided the old man sharply in Arabic. The old man seemed unperturbed, shrugged his shoulders and responded to the boss in English (evidently for my benefit) with a casual “he speaks some Arabic”. I think that was my proudest Moroccan moment.
As far as sights go, Marrakech is a fascinating mix of the old and the new. The old side for our group today included the sixteenth century tombs of Morocco’s then ruling Saadi dynasty, as well as the adjacent ruins of their palace El Badi, which was now home to a large number of nesting storks. Earlier in the morning Bahia palace had covered the newish-made-to-look-old angle, a late nineteenth century attempt by a prominent family using the services of the finest craftsmen of Fes to construct the most brilliant Moroccan palace of its time. But perhaps my favourite new-meets-old feature in the whole city was in Dar Si Said Museum, where a new canvas roof had been added to provide cover over the grand old building’s finely detailed traditional courtyard.
Though as much as I loved the energy and verve of Marrakech, even after just twenty four hours here I also found it draining and exhausting, and I was eager to find a quieter side to the city. Thankfully, as long as I steered well clear of Djemaa el-Fna, it was possible, and I passed the afternoon away wandering through much smaller souqs specialising in spices and along narrow little backstreets that offered no passing glimpses into the households that hid away behind solid doors and tall walls.
Our group dinner was in a restaurant in one such riad, where the internal courtyard and water feature was a tranquil oasis of calm far removed from the frenetic pace of life outside its confines. If still a residence, this area would have provided a communal focal point (and cooling space in hotter weather) for the women of the house without needing to comply with public requirements of modesty. But never mind the chicks, I was glad even for myself to be able to really relax in here and enjoy a casual meal far from the urgent hassling of the outside world.
We left Marrakech across dry, semi-arid flatlands dotted with argan trees, and every so often we’d see goats climbing up into the lower branches to feed on the fruit. The trees are prized by Berbers for the argan oil pressed from the pips or stones of the fruit for use in cooking, cosmetics and medicine. Traditionally the adventurous foraging by the goats was an important part of the harvest process – the Berbers collected the pips ready for pressing directly from the goats’ dung.
Other than stopping at a police checkpoint on the highway, where the police seemed particularly thorough with Isham and the van’s paperwork, the drive to the coast was pleasantly uneventful and Isham dropped us off in Essaouira, bid us farewell and then immediately set out with the minivan back to Casablanca.
A few months earlier when I was in the south of Portugal I had met a guy in my hostel originally from Essaouira, who had since moved to Germany to study. With a few days off up his sleeve, he had come to the Algarve with his surfboard to catch his last waves before winter, and he had encouraged me to one day visit Essaouira to check out its own beach scene. Little did I know then that only a few months later I would, and a second reminder of that Portuguese trip came as soon as I saw Essaouira’s central square – its low-rise, shuttered, white-washed buildings occupied by ice cream parlours and patisseries looked like they had all been transplanted directly from one of Portugal’s coastal towns.
Beyond that, I looked out to the south to a wide sweep of beach fringed with statuesque Norfolk pines that looked more like the Central to North Coast of New South Wales than even some of the Central to North Coast of New South Wales does. Though just to quell any possible confusion of whether I was in Europe or Australia, down at the harbour persistent touts did their best to woo lunch-hunters to a row of sheds which housed a chaotic merge of restaurants offering fresh, grilled whole sardines on wooden tables and benches. In true Moroccan style the service was haphazard, the waiting time between ordering and eating was long even though the tables were empty, the dishes given to us didn’t exactly match our orders and we had an argument over the size of the bill. But all that was worth it for the atmosphere, looking over the protective walls of the harbour to the small blue fishermen’s rowing boats that filled the docks and out to the bigger trawlers tied up on the far side of the breakwater, where seagulls noisily fought over the last scraps of the morning’s catch.
After lunch I walked south along the beach, and though the coastal breeze was brisk I was very happy for the weak sunshine. There was no swell to the Atlantic as it washed up quite gently onto the sand, so the kind of intrepid bodyboarders I’d seen back in Casablanca at the start of my trip were nowhere to be seen here. The only physical activity on show was soccer, where at the port end of the beach small groups of teenage boys each played their own enthusiastic games, forming an end-to-end chain that spread for some distance. Beyond that, beach hawkers tried to sell me packets of biscuits and there were camel rides available to the very south end of the beach, where the ruins of Bordj El Berod, an eighteenth century watchtower, slowly decayed on the shoreline.
But perhaps the most surprising thing I noticed as I strolled down Essaouira’s beach this afternoon was the attention I received from a number of loitering local teenage girls. Most would look in my direction, smile shyly and then whisper to each other, and it was so startling that at first I kept looking around expecting to find someone else younger, better dressed, more buff or just generally more attractive walking in my close vicinity. But I found no-one else, and when a couple of braver girls came up right in front of me, commented that I was “très beau” and then walked away giggling, I finally realised they were in fact addressing me. And there was more of the same when I turned around and met with a few of the group to watch the sunset from the cannons at the Old Town fortress, where it did not go unnoticed by the others that I was the subject of glances and whispers by the girls hanging around there too. Clearly the culture on the coast was more liberal than the other cities inland – though every girl still wore a head covering of some form, mostly a light scarf. Despite being in my mid-twenties and therefore in my mind far too old for them, I must say I did find all this new attention quite flattering – it was about the first time I’d been noticed in the last few months by anyone other than enthusiastic purveyors of goods looking for a gullible tourist buyer. And yet, I was still too hesitant to even engage in a friendly chat with the any of the girls in broken English/French/Arabic. I couldn’t help thinking the local menfolk might disapprove of them speaking to a Christian foreigner, even if it was just a friendly, innocent exchange – or that their older brothers, fathers or uncles would find out and come around to beat the crap out of me.
Though in truth, my eyes were only for the receptionist of the small Hotel Gnaoua where we were staying. As well as being more my age, she was also the most elegant and graceful woman I had seen in a long, long time. So much so, that she was the only person who had made the local djellaba – the thick, woollen, hooded, unisex winter cloak worn by almost everyone in Morocco – look like a hot fashion item. But I had been so flustered around her when checking-in and receiving the room key for Rob and I, that whenever she looked at me directly my own eyes dropped to the floor and I couldn’t even summon the courage to meet her gaze. Ah, I’m such a hopeless case.
But before you think that Essaouira is a crazy, topsy-turvy place in this part of the world where all the noticeable attraction between locals and tourists is reversed, the natural order of things was restored after dinner. While roaming the streets looking for a place for a quiet drink, an intense bloke in his late twenties or early thirties barrelled up to our group and took an instant shine to Kirsty (and, conversely, took an instant dislike to Gwen). He said he knew a place that sold beer for “not forty, not twenty five, but TWELVE DIRHAMS!”, and seeing as how there were eight or nine of us and only one of him, we figured we were safe enough and decided to take a chance. He led us through the now quiet and dark streets of the Old Town, intermittently reeling off rap lyrics with the repeated promises of, just in case we weren’t sure, beer for “not forty, not twenty five, but TWELVE DIRHAMS!”
We walked through a small, white-washed building and outside into a vacant, walled parcel of dirt filled with plastic tables and chairs. The clientele were all local fishermen whose second glances suggested an element of surprise at the presence of a bunch of foreigners, but true to our new guide’s word, the beers were indeed only twelve dirhams (A$1.80) each. We passed a very pleasant evening chatting away, while our new friend tried the spadework on Kirsty and every so often reminded Gwen that he didn’t want to speak with her – despite the fact she wasn’t even trying to speak with him. In the end the beer was making the bloke even more intense, and we were all ready to shake him off and call it a night. To give him some credit he wasn’t too difficult to give the slip, tailing us (or, more specifically, Kirsty) no further than the front door of the bar entrance before leaving us be without further protest.
After a welcome sleep-in I was interested to explore the northern side of Essaouira’s medina. Beyond the patisseries, ancient arcade game parlours and teleboutiques of the white-washed centre, it wasn’t long before I passed an entire street almost exclusively devoted to mechanics working on cars and motorbikes and, just before I reached the city walls abutting the smelly sea, found a rubbish dump that was a busy spot for foragers of both the human and bird kind. I continued around to the old Jewish quarter of the medina, where the decaying tenements looked as if a bomb had hit and mounds of rubble blocked the street, and then walked outside the city walls and onto the rocks holding the Atlantic at bay, where I scrambled around discarded plastic, broken glass and other rubbish back to the port area.
I was glad to have found Essaouira a slightly warts-and-all kind of city, and especially loved that – excluding the makeshift fish restaurants – the city’s approach to tourists was so much more laid back than the frenzy of Marrakech. Even the pace of life for the locals seemed gentler than Fes and Casablanca. And my love of the place was sealed when I was able to complete a quick and completely hassle-free haggling trip – a feat I would have considered impossible anywhere else on our itinerary - for some bubble wrap to protect my sheesha during my forthcoming flight out of Morocco.
It was barely above freezing and there was a heavy frost on the ground as we took an early public bus from Essaouira to Marrakech, and were in time to make the 9am train from Marrakech back to the delightfully slightly ramshackle Hotel Casablanca, making it back there in time for lunch.
After two weeks away from ‘Casa’, returning to the sprawling, throbbing, economic and industrial centrepiece of Morocco came with another jolt. In the afternoon I set out in the general direction of King Mohammed VI’s present day Royal Palace, which I eventually found in the quiet street of a very well-to-do neighbourhood lined with finely manicured citrus trees – but not without first stumbling into the medina near the rear of the palace, where I did my best to move along as quickly as possible as soon as the hassle factor amped right up.
Later I found myself in another, less touristy, market where amongst the fruit, meat, socks and underwear, counterfeit Formula One team jackets seemed to be a popular commodity. Coats adorned with badges for Ferrari, Williams and Toyota were most prevalent, though, just to diffuse any lingering doubt as to their authenticity, some were stitched with the badges of all three. I managed to pick up a mild winter coat for myself, only the finest black polyester with red lining (and free of any blatant trademark infringements except for one discreet logo of a well known swimming brand), for the bargain price of 100 dirhams (A$15).
Though we were all tired, our group got together for one last dinner of Spanish tapas and sangria. While mulling over what to do with my last week before my temporary return to Australia, I made plans with Allie to do a small road trip in the UK together, and then we all ventured to the restaurant’s downstairs bar where Cuban music transitioned into thumping techno and the place filled up with young, affluent Casablancans partying away like it was any nightclub in Europe.
When Rob and I were ready to go back to the hotel we found a grand-taxi, agreed a (probably fairly generous) price with the amenable driver before hopping in, and then crossed town in the ever-busy traffic. Once outside the hotel, we paid, thanked the guy and began to get out of the cab, whereupon the driver became more agitated and insisted that the previously agreed price was per person, not total. While I argued with him, Rob quietly paid up again (any doubt at all that he is a much nicer guy than me?), and then I got frustrated at Rob for giving in so easily. It was at this point where I realised I had really cracked the irrits with Morocco and was ready to leave – though I still had a final thirty six hours remaining.
After over two weeks together, a small travelling group gets to know each other pretty well: Likes, dislikes, who snores the loudest, who likes a good sleep-in, etc. So with most of the group leaving the hotel for the airport just after 8am, they were all surprised to see I had got up to wave them off – though in truth no-one was more surprised with my early rise than I was. Remaining downstairs long enough to see one of the pre-arranged taxis arrive with a flat tyre (and the driver casually downplay that impediment to his otherwise roadworthy vehicle), I later returned to my room and got some more welcome sleep.
Kirsty and I had both elected to stay on in Casablanca for an extra day, and we had both already realised at the very beginning of the trip that this was unnecessary. At a loss of finding new sights to pass the time away, I retraced my steps from my first full day in Morocco – down to the port, past the Hassan II mosque and then along the Corniche. In about the same place as I had first been approached by Mohammed the mysterious cigarette trader, another Australian tourist was engaged in a discussion with a local man. Indeed, it could have even been the very same Mohammed trying out the same business deal. Relieved to walk by without being waylaid, I continued on and found myself approaching a passionate protest by some forty people or so on a restaurant roof terrace. I couldn’t tell if the object of their ire was the new beachside McDonald’s outlet opposite, and while the policeman at a nearby observation post seemed unperturbed, I felt more comfortable not hanging around.
I eventually sat on the rocks at the end of the Plage Ain Diab, lazily watching a series of beach soccer games in far greater number than those in Essaouira a few days before, and reflected on my time in Morocco.
It was a chaotic mix of indigenous Berber, long established Arab and later European colonial influences, and the landscapes, particularly in the Middle and High Atlas mountains, had been similarly dramatic. Though I was completely ready to move on, I was still very glad to have come. I’d learnt a lot about a country I previously knew nothing about, especially how difficult it is to leave without buying a carpet.