[ On Christmas Day 2011, I went out on a walkabout to Morocco (first spending the night in Madrid, Spain). This post originally appeared on my old blog in January 2012 when I got back. It was only a few months before I met Allison. This was the trip that inspired me to quit my corporate job to go freelance, and ultimately is the reason I met Allison when I did. ]
The next morning, I woke up first thing, went downstairs to grab a small breakfast, then gathered my things. I was still feeling like the sinus infection might be starting, and silently prayed (again) for the strength to fight it off before it set in. I jumped in a taxi back to the airport there in Madrid. This time I would be heading to Casablanca, Morocco.Flying across the Straight of Gibraltar and south along the Atlantic Coast of Morocco was an amazing feeling. It was a short, comfortable flight until we got close to the airport in Casablanca, and the pilot banked and pitched like he was avoiding a surface-to-air missile. But I’m not complaining. Maybe he was? As I waited in line at Passport Control/Customs, I chatted it up a bit longer with my new Moroccan friend that I sat next to on the plane. He was from here, originally, but had been living in Miami for the last 20 years so his English was perfect. He was very excited for me and my adventure in his native land, and gave me lots of advice and encouragement. We parted, I handed my passport under the glass to get it stamped, and suddenly there I was. Morocco. A Mediterranean country in Northern Africa where the primary language is Arabic and the second language is French—neither of which do I speak. I would deal with the language barrier in a bit. But first things first. Go pee. Next stop, train station. Now among the miracles that occurred throughout the trip, some of the most prominent were that I was never any more alone than I wanted to be, I never got very far off course, and I nearly always managed to bump into SOMEONE who spoke English—at least enough to help. Over the coming week, I would meet a handful of delightful people from the US, UK, and South Africa. One of the American’s I met on the first train took this picture for me:
He was a cool guy, maybe a few years younger than me. I’ve already forgotten his name, but he was from Connecticut. He, too, was in Morocco for the first time, meeting his girlfriend and her family who were already here on vacation. We waited near the tracks, laughing and telling stories over a couple oranges and some bottled water. His train came first. A hearty handshake was exchanged. “Good luck, man!” I’d need it. :) I picked up my bags and wandered to the other track where my train would show up a bit later. As I got there, I spotted what looked to be another American couple. They were waiting for the same train that I was. Matt and Michaela. They, too, were around my same age and very easy to connect with. Both are from the states, but Michaela works in Madrid and Matt works in Moldova. It turns out that we were on the same flight earlier that morning. The train to Marrakech finally arrived but was jammed full of people. It was standing-room only. This was supposed to be just over 3 hours, so I reset my expectations about a comfortable train ride. I was surprised to see the way women were treated. I mean I already knew something about the culture, but it’s still alarming to watch, first hand, as a guy pushes past an old woman to steal the seat she was about to sit in, forcing her to join me standing at the back of the train car. After a while, another woman noticed and offered the old woman her seat. It’s frustrating to witness that stuff. After a few stops, the train began to thin out a bit and I found a seat next to a window, which is where you get the video from “Part 1” of those videos I shared the other day.
* * *
We arrived in Marrakech about 30 minutes after sunset. It turned out that Matt and Michaela were staying at a hostel quite close to the riad I would be staying at, so we shared a taxi. The taxi dropped us off at the world-famous Jemaa el-Fna market in “old town” Marrakech. It was chaos. The streets were lined with booths of every kind and salesmen pitching their wares. The streets themselves were packed with cars and scooters weaving in and out, all honking and tweeting their little horns as they worked their way through a sea fearless pedestrians. Sidewalks teamed with locals and foreigners alike. The air smelled of grilled meat mingled with diesel exhaust, and smoke from both filled the sky. There was music here and there. Drums. Singing. Shouting. Chatter. I walked with Matt and Michaela a bit as we were accosted by everyone that had something to sell, be it a taxi ride, junk toys, a meal, a hotel room–even offering to guide you to your hotel once he learned you already had a reservation someplace. We dismissed them as best we could. I had about 50 pounds of gear with me, and I needed to find my riad and get settled. I knew my friends felt the same way, so we said goodbye and parted ways. Alone again, I walked hopelessly up and down several crowded streets before I realized just how lost I was. I would need help finding this place–it wasn’t going to have a big bright sign out front, and streets didn’t seem to have any naming or numbering convention that I could easily identify. I would need help. But first, I would need food. All I’d had to eat for lunch was those oranges, and I needed to collect myself over a warm meal. I picked a friendly-looking spot and parked myself at a table inside. My waiter spoke just enough English to welcome me and take my order. Later I would ask for directions, but he didn’t understand. Now I had read about these “guides” that offer to take you to your hotel, only to demand more and more payment even when they originally say they need none. It’s a scam. But I read that there are some legitimate guides, and you just need to agree on a price before you begin walking with them. So I thought I’d try it out. I finished my meal, gathered my things, and headed back out into the crowded market. I hadn’t walked 100 paces before I was met by the man who would be my guide. His name was Marud. A short, dark man with a toothy grin. A Berber, he was native to Morocco. He offered to help me find where I was going. I asked for a price. “No no no, friend to friend. Friend to friend,” he grinned. My ass. “No, I would like to pay you for your time,” I said. “How much?” “As you like, as you like. It’s okay.” Start low. You’re supposed to start at a third of what you’re willing to pay, they say. I made him an offer and he accepted immediately. “Is fine. As you like. Is fine.” He grabbed one of my bags for me, and off we went. We wandered through the tiny walkways of the busy labyrinth. “If we get stopped by police, tell them I am your friend Marud. Not a guide. Just your friend.” “I’m sorry?” “I don’t have the papers, the permissions to be a guide. They know my face. If they think I’m your guide, they take me to jail.” “Ah.” Grand. “So I am your friend only, you tell them.” “No problem.” Screw you, buddy. We get stopped by cops and I’m throwing you under the bus faster than you can say ‘shish kebab.’ One turn after another, and I’m now even more disoriented than I was when we began. And the crowds are getting thinner and thinner. Soon the sights and sounds of the market are growing distant and I’m becoming more and more aware. Of everything. The way you get when you might be in danger. My guard was up and I was now wondering if I was being taken outside of the market where I could be jacked by Marud and his pals. Is this why he wanted to avoid the cops? My suspicions got a bit worse as he stopped inside one of the shops on our left to ask his friend about the address on the paper (which I had provided earlier). His friend, a larger, less-friendly-looking guy in a leather jacket, now joined us on our little journey. “How far is it?” “Not far, not far.” Of course not, why did I ask. So here’s the situation: I’m walking behind a guy carrying one of my bags, and the address/contact info for my destination. How did I let that happen? Ugh. He’s accompanied by his big bad buddy. I’m keeping a careful distance to allow a bit more reaction time if need be. The streets are narrow and dimly lit, and the market is well behind us. I’m now beginning to expect these guys to get me far enough from the market to jack me, but–while I don’t trust these guys–they really might be taking me to this riad, and they’re just gonna try to get me to pay them both more than I agreed upon when we get there, like the warnings I had read about. It’s dark. I’m in bulldog mode. I’m cautious but optimistic and giving these guys a little latitude. Hopefully all that’s happening is I’m being scammed a little bit by a couple local crooks. But these narrow walkways are dark and quiet, and I wouldn’t be the first sucker to be led down one-too-many dark alleys to be assaulted. I’m ready to defend myself if it comes to that, and I’m honestly wondering if I’m going to have to hurt these guys. I’m aware of everything now. Noises. The occasional bi-stander. The path behind me back to the crowded market. “Here we are,” he announces proudly. Sure enough, there was the tiny sign hanging on the door: “Riad al Mamoune” This was it. *sigh of relief* We knocked on the door, and the friendly staff answered and welcomed me inside. Now Marud and his friend wanted payment. I handed him the amount I had offered before, but–predictably–they wanted much more. I told him he would get the amount we agreed on, and he refused . . . he wanted more or he’d take nothing. Okee dokey, nothing it is. He and his friend gave me the stink-eye as the riad’s staff closed and locked the front door. I wouldn’t see Marud again. The staff tried to calm my nerves with kind welcomes and pleasant reassurances that I was safe and at home. They sat me down in the common area and brought me some nice mint tea (which I would find is served on a regular basis in Morocco).
Now a “riad” is the equivalent of a “bed and breakfast.” This one came highly recommended, in my research, and over the next two days I would learn why. It truly was a comfortable, safe place with at least two of the staff being mostly fluent in English.
My bedroom and bathroom were clean and private. The bed was extremely comfortable, and the shower was plenty hot. I needed both.
It took me a little while to truly let my guard down and allow myself to feel safe. Before showering, I actually lashed the doorknob to the bedpost with my belt, since the only door with a lock in this place was the front door to the street. I know it was probably a bit extreme, but I needed a little time before I could feel safe. Now that I was feeling more secure, I was able to digest everything else I had been feeling. I was scared out there. Scared and lost. I felt stupid for not contacting the riad’s staff in advance to arrange a pick-up from the train station, and for not finding a store owner to call the phone number I had for the riad. I felt stupid for handing over my destination/contact info and one of my bags to that crook, and for not putting an end to it as soon as he told me he wasn’t legal to be a guide. I had done my best, but I made mistakes that could have put me in real danger. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. The long shower did me some good. So did the change of clothes. They had WI-FI downstairs in the common area, so I went down and “phoned home” an email to the family, letting them know I was safe, along with this status update to my friends on Facebook: “Marrakech is a lot like Mos Eisley Space Port.” I went back up to my room, read some scriptures, said some earnest prayers of thanksgiving, and calmed down. My ears stopped ringing as I lied on my bed in the dark, staring at the colorful stained glass window on the wall, which had the tiniest bit of ambient light on the other side to give me a little color in the otherwise pitch-black room. I had a lot to be thankful for. Among so many other things, there was no hint of that sinus infection that had started the night before. A subtle indication that things would be okay. I would sleep for 12 hours.