My friend Laila from Rotterdam arrived in Morocco last Friday just as my neighbor Jess was having a henna party so Hanane, Jess, and Laila all got henna on their hands. The next eight days were like unpaid work for me, though there were some enjoyable moments too.
Hanane and Laila eating chickpeas on a rainy day in Sefrou.
Jess had suggested that we all go to the Medina in Fes the next day so in the morning we woke up went to Fes and wandered around until it got dark.
We came across a wedding procession in the Medina.
The weather was turning shitty and as such, Laila and I left the next day for Tangier, then for Sebta, a city that belongs to Spain but is in Morocco, then to Tetuan, then to Chefchauen, and then back to Fes. The main reason for the trip was because I needed to renew my visa but since Laila’s visit coincided, we decided to make it a bit of a tourist trip to. Since Hanane and I are pretty poor and I wanted to do this in the cheapest possible way, Hanane opted to stay in Sefrou. With the weather so bad, it was unlikely that we were going to have a grand time anyway.
In the morning I managed to get Hanane in a taxi to her house and managed to finally got Laila to stop buying things and got us both in a taxi to Fes which it turned out took us right to the train station for an extra ten dirham. The greatest positive thing about this trip though was being able to see and experience that my Derrija has improved enough that I can actually converse with strangers a bit beyond just the essentials. The worst part was the responsibility I felt as host, guide, and one feeling responsible for her enjoying herself.
In Fes, we got train tickets, then got on the train for a very pleasant part of the trip. Six hours of shooting the shit with an old friend in first class on a northbound train.
No, this isn’t a school. It’s a coffee shop in Tangier. Note that there are no women here, that’s the usual.
Arriving in Tangier I tried to get us a cab to the Hotel Biarritz but after attempting to talk with the first cab driver, I simply gave up and let her use her flashlight and lonely planet to make demands. The Biarritz Hotel was a run down old place with a beautiful grand staircase and a great view of the muddy shore and a run down custom house. Tangier had a great crusty feel to it that even though the Moroccan government has spent billions trying to get away from lingers on from the days when the likes of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin bought drugs and sexual favors from teenage boys in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Sure, now there is a tourist strip and a tourist medina and everything else that comes with trying to lure budget travelers from Europe and America, but there is something utterly seedy about the place that lingers. We took a stroll through the Medina and past the open air seafood joints and in the process I met several of the locals and managed to have some interesting conversations in Derrija about the history of the old city walls, the dangers of the night, and the days when we would have been targets where we were.
Laila wanted a nice seafood dish at one of the port side restaurants and so we each ended up spending about seventy dirham for the hands down worst tajines I’ve tasted in Morocco. It was a bland fish with a tasteless sauce and so many bones that it was a miracle we didn’t choke on them. The upside was that the young guys running the place were stoked to be talking with a foreigner who spoke Derrija and then a burnt out African guy of forty-two came along and since he was not a native Arabic speaker and neither was I, the guys at the place got a huge hoot out of us conversing in our mutually bad Derrija. Finally we switched to his equally bad English and he told us about how when he came to Morocco twenty-five years before he had been a shoe shine boy and he would ask the clients to take off their shoes and then run with them “If they don’t shine thier shoes themselves before they leave home, then I will shine them at my home and sell them to someone else.” These days the African makes his livelihood selling hashish instead, though it looked as if most of his profits probably go to the pocket of his own dealer.
Laila was shocked when a beggar came and asked her if she was finished and then took her half finished dish to a nearby bench to finish it. That’s just the way it is in Morocco.
In the morning, we woke up ready to explore Tangier and see some interesting sights. Little did I know that the rain would be coming down in buckets nor that Laila would turn that into a priority mission to find her a pair of Crocs. Of course since it was flooding, literally flooding so much that the lids to the sewers lifted off, the water was flowing six inches deep down every street, and I saw a drowned rat nearly a foot long, the Moroccan shopkeepers were smart enough to just stay home rather than opening their shops.
After being dragged hither and thither through the pouring rain and meeting at least one madman whom I would have loved to befriend, we dragged our swamped selves into a cafe. The madman was walking through the rain screaming out “Allah Akbar” and when he saw Laila he said to her “Don’t be scared, God has brought you here for a reason and we are blessed because we finally have rain. Don’t worry. Allah Akbar.” I instantly loved the raving lunatic.
The cafe we ducked into was run by an Englishman and his Syrian wife. Davood and Fatima. Great middle eastern food. Expensive but delicious and the one meal in all our travels that was actually worth the price we paid for it. I had tabouli that Davood made to order and Laila had a falaffal sandwich. Plus, two real life lattes! Davood and Fatima, when I started to talk to them told how tourism has changed and how tourists now come in and regularly ask for half a sandwich, complain about the prices, and don’t tip. All of this in the past year or so. They bought the building, restored it to beauty, and now can’t find a buyer for it at any price. They may close it. Morocco is eating them up and they dream of returning to Damascus. Davood said he had bought antiques to decorate that he was told were priceless and now the same dealers will offer nothing for them. He recommended that we visit the American Legation which I had wanted to see anyway because of it’s room dedicated to the writer Paul Bowles, Tangier’s most celebrated American ex-pat. Actually, the most famous ex-pat American in Moroccan history. It was a nice thing to be able to touch his suitcases and to sit in a dry place with warm heaters. It’s a beautiful old building filled with beautiful things but neither of us had much interest since we were both soaked to the bone and I literally was walking around with shoes that were completely filled with water on expensive Moroccan rugs. We spent time in the Bowles Room and another room with dioramas of famous Moroccan victories, one against an invading Portuguese Army and another 12 years later using the seized Portuguese weapons against an Army from the south of black Africans. We each took lots of pictures of the dioramas though for some reason I didn’t take a picture of the suitcases.
Leaving there we caught a taxi to Fnidiq near Sebta and then a twenty dirham taxi to the Spanish Frontier. The taxi ride to Fnidiq via Casa Saghira was thanks to Davood who suggested it was the best way to get to Sebta from Tangier which many others (including lonely planet) had said was not likely or possible. Crossing into Sebta was easy and it was stunning as well since it was December 21st and suddenly we were no longer in Moslem Country but firmly in the realm of Jesus Lovers near the blessed commercial holiday. We took a bus into the city, sat in a tapas bar and drank a few beers.
I’d forgotten to bring my new pin number for the only account with money in it and couldn’t withdraw any Euros.
The prices in Sebta were shocking after Morocco. 35 Euros for a double room instead of 120 dirham (12 Euros) and food equally expensive. I woke up early and escaped out to explore Sebta (Ceuta to the Spanish).
It’s amazing that Spain and Morocco can coexist at all. One loves pork and beer the other forbids both. Different worlds and overlapping.
It’s a charming Spanish City on a beautiful Mediterranean Peninsula jutting towards Europe from Africa.
The streets are hilly and curved and the place feels more Spanish than many parts of Spain. I managed to milk twenty Euros from my Paypal account and enjoyed a coffee and got a pack of cigarettes.
After I returned, Laila was awake and we grabbed a coffee, had a short walk, and then we checked out and went back tot he border. At the border we needed to get stamps and checked for flu and while that was happening she found a Dutch man whose wife had been videotaping the border and got arrested several hours before. It was none of our business however and I was glad to leave. We also saw a young Moroccan guy trying to sneak across and get thrown in jail, get beat a little bit. Morocco is not an easy nice place and I could only sheild her from so much of it’s ugliness and horrors.
Upon reentering Morocco, we went to the grand taxi stand and of course the first guy to see us tried to usher us into the taxi. For twenty Euros each to Tetuan, about 340 Dirham too much. I argued with him a bit. Mentally I just said “Fuck it” and then I did some harsh bargaining actually getting a price that was ten dirhams lower each than the standard fare. I knew there would be trouble though, especially when he started to kick his other passengers out of the car and then I saw he and his friend shoving another man. The man was thrown to the ground and kicked while our taximan and his henchman laughed and then shoved him away. “Oh, they’re just playing.” Laila said, but in fact they weren’t. We were in the car of a dangerous guy. Again, I said ‘Fuck it’.Arriving in Tetuan, I asked him where the bus station was and he started to demand that we give him more money and hire him to take us to Chefchauen, where he had figured out we were going. I refused since he was asking for fifty Euros. Laila wanted to know what was happening. I tried to explain exactly who it was that we were riding with and at that point he understood the term taxi mafia and started to berate me in Riffian Berber. I berated him back in Swahili which caused everyone to start to look a little concerned. I asked to be let out several times and he refused but then another passenger needed to stop and so I leapt out of the cab, said ‘Come on’ to Laila and grabbed our things from the trunk. The driver was demanding more money for actually bringing us to the bus station, which was the destination of the other passenger. I refused and walked into the safety of the CTM station. I bought the bus tickets. We were fortunate since the bus was leaving in 15 minutes.
The ride to Chefchauen was the nicest part of the trip so far. Laila fell asleep and I was able to see the vast and uncommon beauty of the Rif Mountains. The flooding had not spared the mountainous regions of the Rif and along the way I saw roads washed out, cars washed into streams, and a land so beautiful and raw that I now fully understood why all of the travelers I had met who had made this trek were so astounded by the beauty.
After a journey of some four hours we arrived in Chefchauen. While Laila had slept I consulted the hated Lonely Planet and found two guest houses which seemed suitable. One was more highly recommended but I chose instead to go to another which the book boasted of having a fireplace and a book exchange.
After some time, I managed to find the Hotel Andalus, which was the guest house I had chosen. The clerk, Youssef was a slightly crippled young man with a scraggly beard and glasses. He reminded me inordinately of my friends from Bellingham, Washington. In fact, Chefchauen itself had much of the same feel as Bellingham despite the notable outward differences. Chefchauen was a haven for Jewish refugees from Spain after the reconquest by the Spanish and later for Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis in Europe. In honor of those refugees, virtually the entire city is painted blue, the traditional color of the Jews.
This happened in the 1930s and has become the trademark of the place. It has a feel of outdoorsyness, hippy ethic, and back to earth that made me feel refreshed and at home.
Laila headed to the Hammam while I wandered the Medina, met several new Moroccan friends, found a cyber cafe, managed to use Skype to text my sister who then called my mother in California who then gave my sister the pin number for my card, who in turn gave it to me. I once again had access to money. Thanks God.
With cash in hand I set out into the Medina to find one of my new friends, Abdul Karim. I was unsuccessful but instead was found by his brother Yassine who had heard I was a green sweatered foreigner who spoke Arabic and lived in Sefrou. Yassine led me to their families artisanal shop where I bargained as hard as possible to buy a thick wooly Chefchauen sweater. My final price was about 130 dirhams. Then we watched television before I set off for the hotel. At the hotel, Youssef said that local price was usually around 230. It must have been the watching TV that did it.
Since Laila wasn’t back yet, I went out and got a shave and haircut from a sweet young barber named Abdel Kadr.
He was probably gay but maybe just effeminate. In any event, effeminate barbers always give the best haircuts so I was happy to find him. A funny thing though, there is no act of trust so great as to be shaved by a stranger with a straight razor. While the blade was on my throat, I became aware of it, but Abdel Kadr was of such a sweet nature that I wasn’t worried.
Back to the hotel and I found Laila, Youssef and several other people lounging in front of the fire. They were Azziz, the friend and coworker of Youssef; Simon a warden (ranger) from Wales, and Allison a foreign aid worker from Australia who has spent the past ten years working in Southeast Asia. These were great companions and we spent the remainder of the evening talking of books, travels, stories, and Simon and I played a game of chess which I won by the skin of my teeth. We were well matched. I went to bed and slept quite well after a hot shower.
In the morning we four went to a small cafe in the square where we ate eggs, toast, pancakes, and juice. After this a short walk to look for a merchant Simon called ‘Hatman’ who made custom knit hats, but we were unsuccessful. We attempted to take a hike to a cascade but since it was still flooding the trail was closed. We then sat in a small cafe for mint tea and happened upon a Frenchman named Jeremy whom I felt an instant bond with. He was slightly older than me, smelled of pachouli, and had been wandering in the mountains for some time. It was his twenty-fifth trip to Morocco over the past twenty years. He seemed attracted to Laila and she to him and I did my best to encourage them in this as any friend should do.
On our way from the cafe the two women went inside because Laila had to use the toilet and this time a Moroccan man, presumably angry that women were in a men’s cafe, pounded on the door and when Laila opened it, he shoved her out of the way and went inside. Simon returned to the hotel and the four of us went to get bus tickets. Jeremy was leaving that evening, Allison was leaving on Christmas, and Laila and I got tickets for the next morning at 9 am.
We then went and collected Simon and the five of us had dinner in another cafe where I invited a bummish old Arab to sit with us and play his violin for ten dirhams. He was awful but I’m a sucker for bummish guys with violins.
At this point we took leave of Jeremy and returned to another night of stories, fire, and chess. Once again, I won by the skin of my teeth. I retired early and listened as they told riddles down by the fireplace. Sometime in the evening the power failed and I was disappointed to realize this probably meant no hot shower in the morning.
Imagine my surprise when I woke at 7 am and found the power restored and then my disappointment at finding the water cut off completely. Keep in mind I don’t have a hot water shower at home. Okay, now you’ve got it. At the station we found that due to flooding the road from Tetuan to Chefchauen was closed and flooded out. This in turn meant that our bus would be severely delayed or not coming at all, since it was from thence it came. Knowing that the stationmaster was simply telling us later later or later later later, when a third party bus was offered for fifty dirhams each I bought tickets and suggested that a tourist couple also thus stranded do the same. They took my advice. Soundly I think.
The bus was half soaking wet and fully stinky. I saw it as our only option. Bear in mind that Hanane had faithfully waited in Sefrou for us to return and had been quite understanding of my choice to stay and relax one additional day in Chefchauen. She called and texted and by this point I am of course fully aware of the treasure I have in her. I wanted to get back to her. I missed her.
On the bus, the other tourists were relaxed and making the best of things as was I. After eight hours we finally arrived in Fes. I smoked two cigarettes in three puffs each and then guided Laila to the Sefrou taxi stand just in time to avoid missing the last taxi before the stand moves to Atlas in the evening. When we got to the taxi two glue sniffers were fighting over the snack stand and I got her to get in the taxi before they could approach her since I immediately noticed their tourist radar go off when they saw her. Our driver climbed in and I smelled wine on his breath then we had the scariest ride to Sefrou I’ve yet had. He was an awful drunk driver.
In Sefrou, my sweet and tender Hanane came over, made a tajine, and helped us to decompress. I’ve never been so happy to see anyone in my entire life.
Hanane suggested that in the morning Laila and she go to Hammam since Hanane had been waiting all week to take Laila there. I seconded that suggestion and looked forward to having my house for a few hours so that I could wash my clothes, relax in solitude in my home, and in general repair the mental damage that this hellish trip had bequeathed to me. I woke up feeling relieved at the thought.
Sadly, the sun came out and Laila decided she didn’t want to go to the hammam. Both Hanane and I were disappointed. I went to the cyber cafe for a few hours and left them at the house. When I returned, I found that Hanane had done all my laundry and cleaned my entire house. Laila was on my roof reading a book in the sun. After this we had Friday couscous at Hanane’s parents house and then went to Fes so Laila could buy gifts for her friends back in Holland.
We went to the Souidi house, ate a beautiful lunch, and then Mohammad, Amine, Hanane, Laila, and me piled into the Mohammad mobile and I drove her to the airport. On the way I was stopped by the police once and then let go with a warning. At the airport, I pulled into the drop off point, pulled out her bag, mumbled something about hating good byes and prepared to leave. Amine carried her bag up to the terminal for her and thus earned me a 400 dirham fine for parking in a no parking zone.
Somehow this wasn’t quite the visit I was expecting but the good news is that nobody died and I got my visa renewed and Laila made it safely home to Rotterdam.
The next day was my birthday and when Hanane asked what I wanted, I told her I just needed to have a day to myself and she being the incredible woman that she is gave it to me. During the course of that day, I bought a violin for 500 dirham and with that, I should be able to find some measure of joy for years to come.
In short, it worked out. What did I learn? Well, next time friends come to Morocco I will make my house and myself available for three days just as both Ben Franklin and the Prophet Mohammad recommend, after that, I will be happy to suggest the services of a guide and cheap hotels and if I need to make a trip in a cheap, fast way…I know just who to take…me. Just me.