[Housekeeping Note: I had to back-date this because I didn't have Wi-Fi available when I completed it, but still want to keep it true to the time that it's supposed to represent.]
Wow, the last few days have been a bit of a blur. Chalk that up partially to my lack of sleep, partially to my questionable nutrition during the period, partially to my lack of hygiene, and partially to…well, let's get down to it.
Wow, the last few days have been a bit of a blur. Chalk that up partially to my lack of sleep, partially to my questionable nutrition during the period, partially to my lack of hygiene, and partially to…well, let's get down to it.
As I had eaten the sum total of three-quarters of a small loaf of bread for over 24 hours, I made sure to set my alarm to assure myself breakfast. It worked (although strangely, it was in this most muted, basic sound – somehow, my phone had lost every single one of its ringtones, or at least the ability to access them. Restarting it thankfully fixed the issue, but still, strange), and it was definitely worthwhile. Most of the breakfast was what I'd come to expect. Tea, sweetbread, spreads. But it also came with this yogurt that was more delicious than it had any right to be. Maybe I've just been missing good dairy. After that, I leisurely got my things together, asked the receptionist for the easiest way to leave the medina, and then set out.
After walking for not even 30 seconds, I realized that they never gave back my passport photocopy (remember, kids, never let anyone keep your passport proper. Copy, copy, copy!) I turn around. Suddenly I see a group of children staring at the rich American, saying with enlightened eyes, “Riad Aubrac?” I shook my head and tried walking past them, but they kept alongside – or slightly in front of – me, leading me to the place where I had literally just come from. As I didn't really want to scream bloody murder to make them leave, I just gritted my teeth and turned around. From an economic standpoint, it would be cheaper to just make several more photocopies than to give them whatever they would have asked for. Also, they should have been in school, seriously.
Despite the receptionist's directions, I very quickly became disoriented. However, I was determined to make it to the station without paying a cent. I knew the main idea was to go to the main center, Djemaa el Fna, but so long as I could get outside of the medina walls, I could start to use my proper navigation skills (well, “skills”). So I kept an eye open. First, I followed what appeared to be a German couple. They seemed to be moving with a purpose, so I figured they knew where they were going. I followed a little bit, and sure enough, a sign above said “Djemaa el Fna” with an arrow. I continued following until it was clear that I was moving faster than them. Eventually I passed, but luckily saw two students with fairly nice backpacks walking together. Surely there couldn't be a good school within these medina walls, so I followed them. Again, my intuition proved correct, and I eventually found my way outside the walls. I took out my Google Map, my compass, and started making some headway.
Interestingly enough, Djemaa el Fna was not actually in the medina proper. I only know this because I crossed it by complete accident. I didn't even realize that it was the plaza until I saw all the animals. The dancing monkeys, the snake charmers, etc. This was the kind of thing you think of when you think of a Moroccan marketplace. I briefly considered taking a picture with a falcon, but thought better of it because you can't take a picture of anything there without paying somebody, and the more I thought about it, the less I imagined that any of those animals are treated well. It doesn't really seem like an animal rights kind of environment, and that's not one that I want to lend financial support to.
After briefly speaking with a French couple, I continued on my way. My hat pulled double-duty, both shielding me from the sun and keeping the vendors at bay (well, at least the hat vendors). Still, a three-mile walk is a three-mile walk, especially in 90-degree heat. By the time I reached the train station, I was once again quite damp (though not quite as soaked as I got on Saturday). I took a seat inside the McDonald's. I swear, I've been to McDonlad's more in the past few days than in the past few years. A few reasons: it's fast, it has WiFi, and it accepts credit card. That's a beautiful trio. Unfortunately, flavor or quality isn't among that. Which brings me to the McFondue. I've been eyeing this poorly-named sandwich since seeing it first in Meknes. Now, I freely admit to purchasing foodstuffs on morbid curiosity. Sometimes it works out! Who'd have thought that Doritos Loco Taco would be any good? So, maybe it's the same here, I thought as I ordered it.
Good God. If you ever find yourself in a McDonald's and see this item, do yourself a favor and punch your own gut. It's cheaper. If I had to describe the McFondue, I'd say it's a decade-late answer to Jack-in-the-Box's Ultimate Cheeseburger (“Meat, cheese, cheese, meat, cheese, and that's it.”) It's an extra-large patty (halal, mind you) with about four different kinds of cheeses – Swiss, cheddar, some other white stuff, and then a goopy fondue cheese. It's…actually, if I had to describe the McFondue, I would call it the burger for people who have just given up. There's no happiness found between those sesame-seed buns.
Anyhoo, after that…experience, I walked to the bus station next door. I saw a guy standing by one of the buses. Maybe an employee? “Zagora?” I ask. He nods and points me to a place where I can check in my bag. I dramatically hug it, showing my intent to hold on to it. He then starts speaking in English, talking about himself, that he's from Rabat, and he doesn't have money for a return ticket, so how about twenty Dirham. “Dude…” I say exasperatedly, turn around, and walk away from him. I began thinking about my last bus ride, how moved I was by the poverty, and how I felt like I should be helping everybody. And I've given a pittance here and there to the people on the side of the road. But for some reason, the moment someone asks me, gives me some sob story about how they're poor and such, it just bristles my spine. I dunno, maybe if you have to convince me you deserve it, you don't deserve it.
The bus ride from Marrakech to Zagora was long – eight hours – but man it was nice. First of all, the bus itself was leagues above what I took from Tetouan to Meknes. Air conditioning can make all the difference, it seems! Holding onto my bag did create some discomfort for me; imagine carrying a 40-pound baby on your lap, except that the baby had an internal frame which all the weight rested on, pushing directly onto your legs. I had to readjust it every so often, and each time I said, “Ah, this is the most comfortable position.” And it was…until it wasn't. In fact, the only truly comfortable position was having the bag to my side when a number of people left in Adgz (giving my legs two very comfortable hours). But, that aside, it was an amazing drive that went curving through what I believe were the Atlas Mountains. Seeing hills and valleys and waterfalls in the distance as the sun was setting – it was absolutely glorious. I got some great pictures out of it. Even after the sun had long since set, the view was great. There weren't nearly as many stars as I were expecting for being in the middle of nowhere (I suspect the almost-full moon was responsible for that), but the silhouettes were vast, mysterious, and beautiful.
At about 11pm, I got to Zagora, the “Gateway to the Sahara”. I'll start off with somewhat of a disappointing note: I have few pictures of my time in Zagora. You'll understand more in a bit.
Shortly before entering the town, I saw a unearthly light on the horizon. That can't be normal, I thought to myself, that's got to be a fire or something. Nope, turned out it was normal; in fact, it was the main street of Zagora, lined and illuminated by hundreds of the brightest, most sickly-orange streetlamps I've ever seen. They clearly took some pride in it. I stepped off the bus, and almost immediately, I was greeted by my CouchSurfing host for the town, Omar. We exchange the usual pleasantries, he says “You are welcome!”, and he walks me to his home, which is actually outside the modern part of the city, past the sign exclaiming a 52-day camel ride to Timbuktu, and out into the beginning of the poor parts of town, complete with the sounds of braying donkeys.
Omar lived inside a cinderblock building, and stepping inside, I met his mother and brother, sitting on some Berber rugs (they are a Berber family) and watching a tiny CRT TV. They more-or-less ignore my presence, while Omar shows pictures of people that he and his uncle have taken on tours into the Sahara. His mother boiled some tea on a very crude burner sitting atop a propane tank, and we all had some. I paid some attention to the TV, which was the weirdest stuff. Nothing seemed to last for more than two minutes, and it switched from BBC news reports with Arabic dubbing, to trailers for local soap operas, to clips of American cartoons (Nickelodeon and Pixar and such) with Arabic music overlaid, to what appeared to be straight-up propaganda videos. I wish I could have understood it, though I think even if I could, it would still be incomprehensible.
Omar asked if I was tired. I was, so he brought me up. Past the second floor, where another six people or so were sleeping, and onto the roof. I was fairly tickled by the circumstance. He said it was because it was too hot to sleep inside. Made sense. He set down a couple blankets, and I went between them. I took off my shirt – I don't like sleeping with shirts –and immediately regretted it. The wool blanket did little to keep out the breeze. (Not sure why I didn't just put the shirt back on.) It took a while and some repositioning to keep myself nice and toasty, but I eventually fell asleep. Once the sun was up, I had a better understanding of the blanket. It wasn't meant to keep out the cold, it was meant to keep out the sun. I pulled it over my head, similar to what I saw Omar doing, and it kept me cool and dark for another hour or so.
At some point, Omar got up and said, “I go down for breakfast with my family. You come?” I, of course, agreed, and he walked down. I got my own things together and went down to the living room. Omar wasn't there. His mother was, as was an old woman, hands pitch black from years of henna work, that I can only assume was his grandmother. She seemed both bemused and unamused at my presence. I tried to politely introduce myself, but she wouldn't have any of it; she just started talking to the mother and the little toddler in the room. She then lay on her side, lightly flagellating her back with an elongated pom-pom that I can only assume was for the many, many flies in the room. Meanwhile, Omar's mother set out a table, set some tea and bread and spreads, and then sat back down in here own corner. I very uncomfortably took a piece when Omar finally appear. “Eat, eat!” I ate a bit, and when he had done so as well, he told me to come with him.
Now, I will give this to Omar – I cannot put my finger on him. All of my other Couchsurfing hosts, regardless of my time with them, I got. Not him, though. When we were first making plans online, the idea was that he'd show me the Sahara; maybe we'd spend a night out there. That would have been cool. But of course, because of the bus situation, I couldn't do that. I had to explain that to him several times before he understood I needed to leave the day after I arrived. I tried to make the best of it – “Maybe we could do a very short thing,” I said, “An hour car drive out and an hour drive bac-” “Yes, yes, no worries.” That was another thing that got me, how quickly he answered everything, despite only really having slightly-above intermediate English skills. He did make it quite clear that he fancied himself a tour guide, and that taking people out to the Sahara was a business. But did that include his Couchsurfing guests? Was he planning on charging me for going out to see the desert? When I asked “Do I need to pay to do the Sahara trip?” he said, “You don't need money in the desert, lunch and dinner are provided.” Which didn't answer my question at all. What weighed even more on my mind – was he planning on charging to host me? Because that would be a serious breach of Couchsurfing regulations.
My vexation was not allayed when we rode (on his cheapo motorbike with no helmets) to a completely unidentifiable building. Whereas most buildings at least had some French somewhere, this one was completely in Arabic. There were a bunch of people inside, some bureaucrats behind glass, and nothing that helped me understand my situation. “If anyone asks, you're at hotel. You're not couchsurfing.” “Why not?” “You fill out this form. If police stop us, it says I'm your guide and you're supposed to be here.” I was getting really nervous; was this some kind of I'm-not-a-kidnapper form? Was that a thing? After handing over my passport (always a tense moment), the guy behind the desk says, “When are you leaving?” “Tomorrow,” Omar replies. “Today,” I correct. This seemed to surprise him, prompting me to explain the situation again, insisting that we go to the bus station as soon as possible to get tonight's ticket. “Don't worry, there's plenty of seats when you get ticket before noon.” We arrive at the good bus station. Full. Of course. Before I start going off (as I had asked Omar to buy the tickets for me three days ago), he takes me to a friend who I've never seen before named Hassan, who takes me on another motorbike to the not-good bus station, where we get a 5pm ticket. Earlier than I would have liked, but I'll take what I can get.
After getting the ticket, I realized that I had left my camera in my backpack at Omar's house. No matter, I thought, we'll pick it up before heading out to the desert. So, Hassan takes me back to his souvenir shop, and makes me some tea. We begin talking, and I make it very clear, “I'm going all over, and I'm not getting any souvenirs except the ones in my head. They're easier to carry.” Hassan shows me some necklaces, telling me they're small and light. I start growing frustrated. “No, I don't want souvenirs. They make my experience worse.” That got through to him. “No worries, my friend, no obligations.” I could see a pinch of bitterness in his eyes, though. Eventually, Omar returned from…wherever he had gone, and I walked with him. We met up with another friend, Mohammed, who was guiding an Englishman named Adam. I briefly said hello to Adam, and saw that he had to wait in the bank to get some cash. Meanwhile, I followed Omar and Mohammed on…errands? Yeah, that's what it looked like. Going to get some clothes. Picking up something at the store. Meeting up with someone to get money. Odds and ends.
When we stopped at a café for tea, I asked, “Is there time to visit the desert, just very quick?” “Yes, yes, the desert can be explored with cars and camels. You sure you can't stay overnight?” After convincing him again that I couldn't, he took me on a very short walk around a part of the town, pointing out the nearby mountain and lake. Before long, we saw a couple of cars, and there again were Mohammed and Adam, plus a third dude. As far as I could tell, Adam needed to find a hotel, and he didn't exactly trust the driver he had, so Mohammed agreed to take him someplace. Omar got in Mohammed's car, and told me to come to. I did so, and we were taken to this very nice hotel. Adam checks in and goes to his room. Omar brings me to the lounge and says, “Wait here. I be right back.”
So, I sit in one of the lounge chairs and watch the TV. It's some American show (something on FX, I think),but for the most part, I'm just twiddling my thumbs. Before I realize it, a new show comes on. (This time it's professional wrestling – TNA – and all the storylines are about signing contracts. I think they need new writers.) And after some more time, Adam comes down. “Oh, you're still here?” he asks. I tell him I'm surprised, too. I've been waiting for nearly two hours. There was no indication that this would happen; I didn't have any opportunity to walk around with that time, instead sitting in some lousy lounge watching lousy TV. So I used that time to speak with Adam. I really liked him. He's literally twice my age (51), and he is one of those really good-hearted people that describes other people as “beautiful” (culturally beautiful, or maybe beautiful in spirit or something). Ironically, with his age he's grown a bit more naïve traveling – he committed the cardinal sin of leaving his actual passport at some car station. I become hyperaware when anybody even mentions the word “passport.” He also said that food is just as expensive as in London, which told me that he was eating at all the wrong places. But still, he's a good guy and I wish him well.
When Omar finally returned, he was massaging his wrist. “So much work today.” I had only an hour before I had to be at the bus station, and so I said simply, “Can we go get back to get my backpack?” He told me that he'd rather just pick it up and drive it over to me, because he had to book some new guests. I wasn't sure how the two were related, but since my stuff was all in one place and tightly locked up, I didn't object. He told me to eat, which was probably a good idea, since I didn't have lunch. I asked the owner how much 20Dh would get me (I find this to be a good way of not overspending), and got a nice tomato salad (with bread and olives) for it. When Omar returned with my bag, he asked me where else in Morocco I was going. Marrakech, I said, then Ouazazette and Merzouga (these being where my camel tour took me). At the mention of Merzouga, he seemed a bit defensive (as I think it's the rival desert town). “Merzouga is not Sahara.” He said. (100% lie, by the way.) “You know what else isn't the Sahara?” I replied, “This room.”
Okay, that last line never happened, but had I thought of it at the time, maybe it would have. Maybe. In any case, we got a taxi for me to take to the bus station. Omar was very friendly in his goodbye, telling me that I have to come by next time.
Again, I can't put my finger on that guy; I don't know his angle. I probably would had I gotten there Saturday as planned. Maybe we would have gone out for a night in the Sahara. Maybe he would have charged 100Dh. Maybe he would have charged 1,000Dh. Maybe it would have been worth every penny. Or maybe it would have all been free, out of the goodness of his heart. I don't think we had the language compatibility possible to figure out the nuances of our relationship. Like Stonehenge, Omar will forever remain a mystery, at least to me.
In any case, getting onto the bus was fairly straightforward. I was pleased to see that this one, too, had air conditioning ports. The bus managers asked me if I wanted to put my backpack with the storage. One was very adamant about it, but I was equally adamant about keeping it, so they let me go. I found an excellent seat and made myself comfortable. All was going well until we reached the first stop, where the majority of people boarded. Suddenly a group of people are looking at me, and demanding to see my ticket. I show them, and it turns out that this bus had assigned seating (news to me). I was forced to move to an inferior seat on the other side of the bus and not by the window.
What's more, one of the bus guys was telling me I had to put my bag beneath the bus. I told him no. He said yes and grabbed one of the straps of the bag. Suddenly, my eyes bulged and my nostrils flared like a bull's as I stared at him for touching my thing. The man, a full head shorter than me, regained his composure, yanked the bag from my hands, and began walking out. I followed. As soon as he stepped out, I heard shouting, and before I could reach the door, another bus manager was walking in with my bag, saying in English, “He's crazy!” I don't know if he was talking about the other dude or me, but he handed me the backpack, and that's all I cared about. I sat down and hugged onto it. Some people looked at me, annoyed that I would keep some big luggage like that on my lap like a child. Honestly, I don't begrudge them for begrudging me. But they didn't understand my situation, and I couldn't explain it to them, so I was fine being some kind of pariah.
The bus ride was not the worst by any stretch of the imagination, but it was by no means smooth sailing either. I should have been able to tell by the fact that the clock was hanging upside down. Or the fact that none of those air conditioning ports worked. But still, it drove for 10 hours. And all that time I had to consider whether to drink water to quench my parched mouth, thereby risking needing to use the restroom (of which there was none). I finally caved when we made a stop about an hour away from Marrakesh. I drank all the water I had left, and bought a new one, which I dove into. I also tried sleeping on the bus, knowing that I wouldn't have much opportunity after landing, but the speed and sharp turns the thing made were equivalent to a kid's roller coaster. I was lucky to get the hour-point-five that I did.
Finally, shortly before 3am, we arrived in Marrakesh. I jumped off, bought chicken kebab sandwich from a street vendor (probably so delicious because I hadn't had protein since that terrible McFondue), and then took a horribly-overpriced taxi to the train station (I committed the foul of not agreeing to the price beforehand). I then found out, to my dismay, that the train station was closed. I didn't think such a thing could be possible, but it made me homeless for the night.
I decided to try my luck with a nearby hotel, so I walked across the street. I ask the guy at the front desk, “I just need a place to stay for the next five hours. Can I get a room at a discounted rate?” He said yes, but unfortunately, I walked into the most expensive hotel in the area, because the discounted rate was 500Dh. That's 50 Euros for five hours. Not gonna work. “Can I just pay a small amount to hang out in your lobby?” The guy then did a very bro-fist-worthy thing by letting me store my baggage, then telling me I could go to the nightclub nearby until it closed at five, and then spend the rest of the time in the lobby. I thanked him and walked over to the club.
Now, a nightclub has the potential to be pretty awesome, right? That's the point, isn't it? Well, yeah, but this was 3am. This wasn't the cream of the crop here. There were women in cocktail dresses, but they were…how can I put this delicately…they were chub. (Now, I am 100% in favor of being comfortable in your body, but once you start dressing three sizes small, you're now just trying to be something you're not.) There was live singing, which is impressive that late at night, but it was just some random dude in a plaid shirt singing Arabic songs that are probably really popular, but I couldn't understand (and really, plaid). All in all, there were almost assuredly more employees than customers. Ten guards, six waitresses, three bartenders, a live band, and the singers, all for, maybe, a dozen people. I figured this would work as very loud, if dull, entertainment.
I ordered a Diet Coke (Coca Cola Light). 100Dh. Wait, 100Dh?! That's 10 Euro! For a normal 12-ounce can! Oh, you better believe I nursed the HELL out of that son-of-a-mother. As that thing was my ticket to not getting kicked out, I made it last the full two hours, sipping arrogantly from one side of the room, watching the place with crossed legs, as if I was fully in charge.
And really, at that moment, I had the most keen sensation of being in a video game. More-so than any other moment in my life. The gaudy neon lights, the overbearing sound, the culture of excess, the underlying seediness of it all. There is a reason the nightclub is a classic video game trope, after all. And I could have easily been an NPC in some Arabic video RPG. When your character selects me, I say “I don't speak your language. Go away,” and take a drink from my never-ending glass. I felt like I should go up and ask the bartender if he's heard any rumors. I may have even done it, if a) he spoke English, and b) it wasn't so loud that any language would be lost. Actually, I wanted to assassinate someone. Not that I actually wanted to kill, but that's what usually happens. You assassinate someone in a nightclub. Seedy places, seedy things happen. So, every time someone went up the staircase near my chair (mainly the guys in suits), I had the impulse to silently follow them, carrying a balisong or garrote, and carry out the deed in some dark corner as the music below drowned out any sign of struggle and the people danced away obliviously.
That never happened, but I did dance! Right before closing, the live music stopped, and the DJ started playing some records. I used this time to use music that I understood to my advantage. And I did my dance. I don't know how to describe my dancing – if you've seen it, you know what it is – but I would definitely call it “spirited”. It, to my surprise, didn't cause a ruckus amongst the people there. In fact, only a couple even took notice. But “dance like nobody's watching…” and yadda yadda, so I danced until one of the singers came back on to do the final song. I used that opportunity to walk back to the hotel, where thy graciously let me sit in the corner, typing the first half of this blog while charging all my electronics. No Internet, but hey, I made it through the night for the low price of 100Dh and no sleep.
At 8am, I stepped in front of the main door of the train station, and 12 minutes later, my driver, Abraham, came to pick me up for my camel trek adventure! So we started on that travel. And I think I'll stop there, because even though the first day of that is done, it really kind of runs into the next two days, so that should probably be an entry unto itself. Good so far, though!
Also, I'm tired from lack of sleep, and I need to take a shower. I couldn't at Omar's place (their bathroom just had a squat toilet and that's it – not even mirror. I was going to ask where they brush their teeth, but harsh truth be told by looking at his, I don't think they do), and I couldn't when I was homeless. So tonight I clean off, sleep, and then continue into the desert.