The Beginning of the Road
Dorothy Lamour starred in a film “The Road to Morocco” in the 1940’s. I’ve never seen the film but I can imagine it. A young woman, through unlikely circumstances, finds herself in a strange North African country. Misadventures lead her deeper and deeper into the desert, in company with, in pursuit of, or pursued by the male lead. Camels play a big part, as do towering sand dunes, exotic oasis, and perhaps a foreign legion outpost.
I could imagine the film because that’s the kind of trip I’d always wanted to take. My yuppie handbook confirms that once a yuppie has seen the basics: Europe, Hawaii, and Disneyland, it is essential to begin “Adventure Travel”. Adventure travel includes things like dog sledding across Greenland, white-water rafting in Peru, and riding a camel in the Sahara desert.
But yuppie urges, powerful as those were, were not my only motivation for wanting to ride a camel in the desert. In 1967, at age 15, I had spent a week at a Club Mediterannee on the coast of Turkey. Every morning the garbage man would come along the beach on his camel. I was fascinated with both the man (he wore a turban and long robe) and his camel (who wore an expression of lofty superiority). I developed a mild friendship with the garbage man, saying hello to him each morning and chatting a few words about the weather. Every day I tried to muster the courage necessary to ask if I could ride the camel, but every day I failed. It was too much to ask of this robed, sunburned camel master. On the last day at the Club I watched sadly as the garbage man and the camel walked down the beach for the last time. I knew I had failed a deep personal challenge. From that point on my self-image would depend on riding a camel at some time in the future, no matter the risk.
Africa itself has always fascinated me As a teenager I studied maps of the continent and tried to recreate them free-hand from memory. I learned the capitals of Africa, the major rivers, and the mountain ranges. These were not idle pursuits. I was planning expeditions–several-month-long expeditions–and such knowledge was going to be needed.
I read everything I could find on Stanley and Livingston, the discovery of the Blue and White Niles, Lake Tanganyika, Mt. Kilamanjaro, the Island of Zanzibar, and the Sahara desert. Even looking at the words now it is hard to imagine how such names could fail to stir powerful emotions in even the most unimaginative heart.
Yet the expedition never happened, and eventually my interest in the continent began to fade. Africa was partly to blame. Famines on the continent were reported in the news, so much so that one cannot help–even today–but to equate Africa with starvation, and vice versa. There is nothing romantic about famines. Worse, even the enchanting names began to change. Zanzibar and Tanganyika merged, and formed not into “Zanganyika”, which would have been wonderful, but into “Tanzania”, which makes me think of some bleak communist country in Eastern Europe. The Congo–I dare anyone to name a more emotive word–was changed to “Zaire”, which was possibly the greatest tragedy to ever befall the world map. Libya, which is to the Sahara desert what Iowa is to the corn belt, was taken over by an American-hating fanatic, thus depriving the country of much of its charm.
The last straw came in high school when I realized South Africa was racist and torn by riots. I reached a point where I could not understand why I had ever been so interested in the place.
Then a few months ago, when I was awarded two free passes to London for my frequent flying in the U.S., and I took out a large map to see what places were accessible from London, and I happened to notice that Morocco was actually very close to Spain–well, it all came back. This time, nothing was going to keep me from my fantasies. I was going to Africa. I was going to see the Sahara desert. I was going to see Oasis, and veiled women, and kasbahs and, by far the most important, I was going to make up for my lack of character on that earlier occasion. I was going to find a camel, and I was going to ride that camel. It was the beginning of a quest.
The departure lounge for international flights at O’Hare airport in Chicago is a dismal setting from which to begin a trip. Anyone departing for Omaha, or any other domestic city, will find themselves in a more comfortable environment. But the international departure lounge is in the basement of O’Hare’s outdoor parking ramp. The elevators don’t work. The basement is not air-conditioned. And unlike most basements which are cool in the summer, this one acts like a heat-sink, collecting all the humidity, oppressive heat, and–let’s face it–odors that Chicago can produce. One sees the huddled, shawled, downcast women shuffling towards their destinations in this miserable and dirty setting and can almost believe the scene is the bus station in Brindisi, Italy, rather than the departure lounge of a major international airport.
Even the waiting 747’s shun the place. They are parked over a mile away on the ramp. Buses take you to them and you walk up boarding steps to get in. A boarding ramp is a curiously primitive device in this age of supersonic airliners, movable concourses, and advance seat-assignments. The last time I had walked up boarding steps was when entering an old DC-3 in the 1960’s.
In harmony with this hardship motif at Chicago’s airport, the buses don’t have seats. You stand in them and hold onto straps. New York subway riders find themselves at home with these buses. If you close your eyes you can almost hear the bus driver shouting: “59th Street, Next stop! Change here for the IRT.” But when the bus does stop you look up and towering 20 stories overhead is something out of Star Wars: a brilliant, shimmering, aluminum apparition. The entire bus is smaller than one of the engines of the airplane. If you squint your eyes and look far into the sky you can see–almost out of sight–the cockpit, where shadowy figures cast bemused glances down to the steaming asphalt where wave after wave of buses arrive to discharge their human cargo.
On this earth one will never find a sight so near the Christian portrayal of the pearly gates of heaven and the long, long, flight of steps leading up to where St. Peter waits in judgement, as when one looks upon a 747 from the bottom of its boarding ladder. At the top a judgement is indeed waiting: will the seat next to you be empty, thus ensuring a relaxing sleep on the way to Europe, or will it be filled with a fat mother and screaming baby, thus ensuring a taste of hell for 9 hours.
Derry and I were judged mercifully, for although our fists would clinch, our heart rate increase, and perspiration would begin to bead on our foreheads as each subsequent passenger approached on his way to a dwindling number of open seats, these harbingers of doom always passed us by. We had an empty seat between us as the doors closed and the big jet’s engines came to life.
It strains the intellect to comprehend, as the ten thousand tons of a fully-loaded 747 reluctantly pull away from the earth and climb with painstaking slowness to safer altitudes, that such a thing can actually fly a third of the way around the world. It hardly seems able to leave the runway. Following the logic that a watched pot never boils–and perhaps a watched jet never reaches its destination–Derry and I took one sleeping pill apiece, drank a glass of water, and went to sleep.
“Hmmm. It would seem you have married this gentleman?”, queried the pretty customs agent with her delightful British accent. We were proceeding through passport control at London’s Heathrow airport. The name on Derry’s passport and on her emigration card were different, and the tone in the customs agent’s voice implied not a question of fact–but of subjective outcome. As in “You apparently married this gentleman, but do you think it was a good move?” “That’s right” Derry answered, with a tone that implied the move had been a very good one. “Excellent. Well, have a pleasant stay in England.” I was glad our marital life was in order, as consequently they even declined to check our luggage. I shudder at the gauntlet a divorcee must run.
Derry and I have developed our own style of travelling. It is a style characterized by heavy use of guide books, strict avoidance of making any reservations and luggage that can be carried entirely on our backs. This style had served us well on our honeymoon in Switzerland, and on a two week trip to Hawaii. It would soon be tested–with interesting results–in a third-world country. But for now, in England, it was ideal.
Our guidebook showed us how to get from Heathrow into London: by bus or subway. Subway was quicker, but more expensive and entirely underground. We opted for the bus–a charming double-decker–fire engine red, which dropped us at Victoria Station. Out came another guidebook, which told us where to find good budget hotels in the area. We checked several, all within walking distance, and ended up at the Corona. This was reliving our honeymoon, for it was the same hotel we’d patronized then. Perhaps it was not coincidence. A pool ball, shot into a seemingly random grouping of balls, will inevitably follow certain laws of physics and end up in a precise location. If the circumstances are repeated exactly, the ball will find that location again. So it was for us: we had been deposited at Victoria station in identical circumstances and ended up at the same hotel.
But I was not interested in London. As Derry took a quick nap, I looked out over the rooftops, yet did not see the city. I saw sand dunes. Camels. Oasis. Veiled Women. Figs and Dates. The dream was coming closer. We had but to catch a plane early the next morning for Gibralter, and from Gibralter we would be able to look across the straits and actually see Africa. Buckingham Palace, the Changing of the Guard, the Tower of London–it seemed pointless to waste time on such foolishness when there were sand dunes in our future. I could wait no longer. I woke Derry and recommended we go visit the Moroccan Tourist Office. They might have useful information.
I received a staggering blow at the Moroccan Tourist Office, but to explain it’s severity requires some background. Morocco is not Libya or Tunisia, where the entire country is sand dunes. Only the far Southeast of Morocco can claim to be the true Sahara. Dorothy Lamour’s movie perhaps should have been named “The Road to Libya”. If we were to experience the real desert, which was the whole point of the trip, we would need to travel far to the Southeast, away from the major cities and across the Atlas Mountains, to an area where only a few paved roads existed.
There are only two roads in Morrocco that head deep into the desert. One starts at the Atlantic coastal city of Agadir, already far south, and heads even deeper south towards the town of Goulimine, eventually crossing into the country of Mauritania, where the desert comes right up to the ocean. The other starts at the town of Ouarzazate which is almost unpronanceable unless you leave off the “uar” in the middle and the “e” on the end, leaving “Ozazat,” which is the correct pronunciation. Ouarzazate is south of the Atlas Mountains, and the road leading out of town heads directly southeast into the heart of the Sahara, finally dwindling to mere camel tracks somewhere south of the village of Zagora. These two roads are far apart; you need to choose one or the other, and that was the problem–which to choose?
I had spent weeks examining the guidebooks for any hint or clue as to which of these places was likely to have the highest sand dunes, or the most camels. There seemed no reason not to go for the best. I have relatives in the foreign service who had served at the U.S. embassy in Tangier. I called them before leaving and asked which was better for sand dunes and camels: Zagora or Goulimine? Unfortunately they hadn’t heard of either place, but I took this to be a good sign for it implied that both were off the beaten track.
The problem continued. Zagora or Goulimine? In an agony of indecision I finally opted for Goulimine because of its camel market. The guide book says, and I quote “Try to visit Goulimine on a Saturday or Sunday, during the camel market, for otherwise the town can be just a drab desert outpost.” I could hardly imagine any desert outpost being drab, yet the advice seemed good. There were certain to be camels at a camel market.
Thus decided, the rest of the trip fell together neatly. The only sensible way to go from London to Morocco is by plane to Gibralter, and then by ferry to Tangier. Trains take too long. And international flights in Europe, by government regulation, are prohibitively expensive (It is cheaper to fly from New York to London than from London to Paris, for example). Yet because it is part of the British Commonwealth, British Airways is able to maintain extremely low fares on their three-time-a-week flight to Gibralter, and Gibralter–on the southern tip of Spain–is right next door to Morocco.
Once in Morocco, Royal Air Maroc will take you between the major towns and cities for obscenely low fares, which they can afford because they charge so much for their international flights. Derry was already somewhat concerned about getting to Morocco by flying to London, but the only sensible way for us to reach Goulimine was to do just that: American Airways from Denver to Chicago. British Airways to London. (All of this was free). British Airways to Gibralter. Ferry to Tangier. Royal Air Maroc to Agadir via Casablanca. Rent a car in Agadir and drive straight south to Goulimine. Simple.
But to reach Goulimine in this fashion in time for Saturday’s camel market, you must leave Denver Tuesday afternoon, which we had done. In short, the entire scheduling of the trip was based around this camel market in Goulimine. And the only reason to go to Goulimine was because it appeared to be slightly ahead of Zagora in giving you the most desert for your money.
We had even condescended sufficiently to make reservations for the airline flights, and for a rental car at Agadir (Avis is number 1 in Morocco). Everything was in place.
Until we met the man at the Morocco Tourist Agency.
“You will love Goulimine”, he assured us. “Very pretty”. He was a native Moroccan and knew the country well. He suggested we make hotel reservations for our arrival at Agadir, since we would be arriving late and volunteered to do this for us, and even recommended a good hotel. But I had one last question. “What we’re really looking for”, I explained, “is a taste of the real desert. I want to see sand dunes and oasis, that kind of thing. I’ve had a hard time choosing between Goulimine and Zagora. What I want to know is: Did I make the right choice?”
“Hmmmm” He looked sober. He looked at his folded hands in his lap. He looked at me, trying to decide if I could handle the truth. Reaching a painful decision, he blurted it out. “There are no sand dunes at Goulimine”, he said. “The real Sahara begins more to the east. At Zagora.”
There it was. After all those weeks of study, I was finally talking to someone who knew. And what he was saying was that I’d made the wrong decision. I was on the wrong road to Morocco. Dorothy Lamour had gone the other way, apparently. To Zagora.
But the momentum of the trip had begun. We had airline reservations to Agadir. A hotel when we arrived. A rental car waiting. An appointment with a camel market. At least there would be a camel market, although what one does with a camel if there are no sand dunes I could not imagine. And he had said we would love Goulimine, although that was before he knew we were on a quest for sand. It was all happening too fast. Worse, the office was closing. We were politely ushered out onto the street and wished a very pleasant trip. The door closed behind us. Cars rushed by on Regent Street. We were between the subway stops of Oxford Circus and Picadilly Circus and I knew a decision was needed on which direction we should head to get back to the hotel, but being in a state of shock I was helpless.
No sand dunes! Why not just stay here in London! For that matter, why’d we bother to leave Chicago? We could have gone to Omaha and at least had a better departure lounge. These thoughts were arising from the black abyss of my soul as I saw my fantasies of an African adventure destroyed yet again. Derry tried to cheer me up. “Look”, she said. “Morroco will be exciting enough even without sand dunes. We’re still talking camels. We’re still talking Africa. I wanted to go to the Virgin Islands, remember? I don’t think you’re going to be dissapointed.”
Changing the whole trip didn’t make sense to either of us at this point. We’d have to start all over again with the airline reservations, the rental car, the hotel. The timing for the trip was based on the camel market in Goulimine and was proceeding on schedule. I wasn’t even sure of the best way to get to Ouarzazate, the jumping off point for Zagora. Our flight was leaving early the next morning. On balance it seemed much easier to let the planned trip take its course rather than upset the carefully laid apple cart on the basis of a casual comment by one man at a tourist office in London. Yet I walked towards Picadilly Circus and onto the subway with a heavy heart, knowing there would be no sand dunes in my future.
On our honeymoon our favorite restaurant in all of Europe had been a fish and chips bar near Victoria station. I pulled myself out of my misery and took on the challenge of re-locating the place for Derry. This was successful, both in finding the restaurant and in getting my spirit back. The fish was again marvelous: they serve it fried lightly in batter, and in pieces so large one of them covers (in fact overhangs) an entire plate. Even better, in England they serve beer in pints. If you have two beers with dinner, and no one can consider two beers excessive, you’ve almost had the equivalent of a six-pack. And it’s strong. As we left the restaurant I was fairly well recovered. Tomorrow we were leaving for Gibralter and the next day we’d be in Africa. Things didn’t seem so bad after all.
One of the easiest things to do in the world is to go from Victoria station to Gatwick airport. Trains leave every fifteen minutes and don’t stop on the way. But to reach the airport in time for the flight, we had to leave the hotel at 6:30am and that meant we’d miss breakfast. Although our hotel was not expensive for London ($30 per night for the two of us) all hotel prices in England include a large, free breakfast in the morning. The English are proud of their breakfasts because unlike most places in Europe, they consist of more than bread and coffee. Yet these English breakfasts are never quite right. They serve bacon, but it isn’t bacon, it’s ham. They serve eggs but they only come one way: over easy and very runny. And they serve toast, but it is cold sterile stuff. They set it on little drying and cooling racks which are very effective at drying and cooling although one wishes they were less so. After it is cooled, they let you test your wits by serving cold chunks of butter that will no more stick to this toast than a marble will stick to an ice cube. And of course there’s tea, or even coffee if you’d prefer. One talks much about English Tea, but the English learned about tea only in the nineteenth century, from the spoils of their empire in India and Hong Kong. They never learned the secret the Orientals use to make really good tea: draining off the first hot water poured onto the leaves, and then re-steeping them, thus removing the tea’s bitterness. The tea served at english breakfasts is really not very good, to my way of thinking. Yet they make up for the bitterness of their teas by serving watered down coffee. I don’t know the solution to finding a good breakfast in England, but we were sorry to miss our free one nonetheless.
Victoria station was bustling at 6:30 that morning and we fit into it effortlessly. Victoria is where you go to catch a train to Dover, and hence to France or anywhere else on the continent. The schools were beginning to let out and Victoria was in the hands of that European institution: the student with a backpack on summer vacation. We had backpacks ourselves and didn’t mind being mistaken for European students.
Our problem came at the luggage check for the flight to Gibralter. We derive great pleasure at walking past such lines and right onto the airplane with our conveninent packs. But on this flight no carry-on luggage was allowed so we were forced to endure the indignity of the line. Worse, in the middle of this very British and very civilized “queu”, the woman behind us, with embarassing amounts of luggage, noticing we had so little to check, asked if we would mind pretending we were travelling with her and thus allowing all the bags to be checked together. She had a difficult-to- place accent and the English couple behind her were not trying to conceal their disgust. This woman had cut in front of them, having surreptiously slid from a parallel line into ours, so as to be directly behind us.
This was a difficult situation. We didn’t want to agree outright and thus take her side in the matter, for fear both of offending the English couple, and of causing us problems at the check-in counter. She was clearly trying to do something that wasn’t right: avoiding paying extra for her excess luggage, and there seemed no reason to act as accomplices to this minor deceit.
But on the other hand here was a stranger asking for our help, and one doesn’t like to ignore such a plea. I knew how I was going to handle it. As we reached the desk, I spoke first. “Sir, here’s a woman with lot’s of bags, and as you see my wife and I have only these two small ones. She’d like to check all of us in together so we can spread the luggage allowance around. Do you have any problem with that?”
The english couple had already changed lines in a flurry of contempt. The ticket agent, being asked in such a polite way, could see no reason not to oblige. “Well, he said, we’re not supposed to do that but I think we can go ahead in this case.” He took all the luggage at no extra charge and the woman smiled her thanks to us as we quickly left. “I hate situations like that” said Derry. “Whatever you do you’re going to make someone mad.” “So do I” I agreed. We both thought no more about it.
But the woman had not forgotten the favor. Three hours later, after flying almost due south, we landed at Gibralter. The pilot warned us what to expect. “Gibralter is very small” He said, with his beautifully refined British accent. “and they weren’t able to allot much room for the runway, so it’s a small runway. It’s also somewhat ‘wet’ at each end.” (The Mediterannean sea on one end, Algeciras bay on the other.) “Now I’ll do my part by bringing in the plane at the correct speed, and the correct height, and touching down on the correct spot on the runway, but we will have to come to a stop very quickly nonetheless. So if you hear loud noises after we land, like the brakes squealing or the reverse thrusters roaring, don’t be too concerned, it’s all very routine. ”
I should have been terrified, but his calm demeanor and elegant speech were soothing. The plane landed with no difficulty. And there–out the window–was the Rock of Gibralter.
Most everything I know about the Rock of Gibralter comes from having seen advertisements for the Prudential Insurance Company. It’s their logo. But I now know that their logo does not tell the whole story. Gibralter is not just a rock, it’s a country. It has its own currency, its own stamps, and its own passports.
Geographically it’s a piece of Spain, or should be. It sticks out to the South, across the harbour from Algeciras which is the jumping off point for Africa. It forms the other side of the Algeciras bay. For years the border between Spain and Gibralter has been sealed tight due to continued enmity between the Spanish and the English. (The loss of the Armada in 1546 has never been entirely forgiven.) Yet we were fortunate. Three months before, an agreement had been reached and the border was now open. You could walk out of the front door of the airport, turn right, and 200 yards later you could be in Spain.
This was all very interesting but we were here only as a stopping off point on the way to Morocco. We had less than 24 hours to see Gibralter and doubted we could accomplish this if we allowed Spain into our itinerary. A look through yet another guidebook, a quick phone call, and we’d found a hotel. Now we just had to get there. The guide book made vague references to buses, but we found none outside the airport. There were taxis, but one hates to take a taxi. It’s an admission of defeat. Any fool can take a taxi.
We looked around, wondering if we could walk to the hotel. “Do you not have a car?” a voice behind us suddenly asked. We turned around and there she was: the woman from the check-in line at Gatwick. But now she was on her home turf. She was a Gibralterean, it turned out, and her husband–a native Moroccan–was picking her up in a few minutes. She said they’d love to give us a ride to anywhere we wished. The husband tried to be our tour guide as he drove us through the town, yet asked us more questions about America than we could ask him about Gibralter. We talked in English, yet occasionally he would turn to his wife and comment on our answers–speaking in French. Finally in response to one of his questions I answered him in French. They both laughed guiltily, and thereafter used Arabic when talking to each other.
Gibralter is part of the British Commonwealth and English is the official language, but I could almost feel the cultural force of Morocco and the African continent just a few miles across the Straits. Before w’d reached the hotel I noticed three women walking down the street in chadari, those robes and scarves which cover the entire body except for the eyes. And here was our tour guide routinely speaking Arabic. Gibralter was apparently less British than it pretended to be.
Sixty minutes after arriving at our hotel we were on a hanging cable-car, en route to the top of the Rock. And from the window of that cable car, sixty feet in the air, was our first view of Africa. I wasn’t certain it was Africa. But we could see all of Gibralter, all of Algeciras Bay, and a large body of water that appeared to be the Straits of Gibralter. On the other side was a dark, mysterious, mountainous land.
What I was looking at was Mt. Acho, the southern “Pillar of Hercules”, Gibralter being the northern Pillar. It was indeed Morocco. From that moment on I would always be able to say “Yes, I’ve seen Africa.” A small part of the quest had already been fulfilled.
I fought for the self control necessary to focus on Gibralter itself, at least for the afternoon. The rock is not a very good logo for Prudential, it seems to me, because it’s not a very strong or solid rock. Granite would have been the best choice, although a good slate might have served. But the Rock of Gibralter is pourous limestone. On a molecular level it is almost hollow. There are even massive caves inside, and one is so large they’ve turned it into an indoor amphitheater with seating for hundreds. The Rock of Gibralter is no more solid than is a large slice of Swiss Cheese.
We walked down from the top, along a pleasant path rich in wildflowers, grass, and tropical trees. It was a beautiful trail and a cooling wind modified the Mediterannean heat. Spectacular views radiated in all directions. The Spanish Costa Del Sol, Europe’s new Riviera, was visible for miles stretching northeastward. Distant waves splashed against sun-drenched beaches. The town of Algeciras, directly across the bay, shimmered in the Mediterannean sun, looking something like Honolulu, with its modern white skyscrapers. The harbour bustled with activity. Twenty freighters were anchored, waiting for a berth to load or unload their cargoes. Other ships could be seen passing into the Straits towards the Atlantic Ocean, or coming from the west and heading into the vastness of the Mediterannean. And always, there was Africa. A distant mountainous coastline. Beckoning. Tantalizing.
We came upon the Baboons half way down the rock. There were about thirty. Children, adolescents, and adults, they all were very unabashed. I saw one jump on the door of a car, reach in, and grab a cracker from a two year old child. The child screamed. It was like an Alfred Hitchcock movie: “The Baboons”. One theory on how the Baboons got to Gibralter is that they travelled through underground limestone caves from Africa. I like that theory.
We spent the evening walking the streets, sipping beer at a sidewalk cafe, and enjoying the near tropical sunshine. But we went to bed early that night, husbanding our energies for whatever might await us the following day.
Crossing the Straits
Friday, the day before the camel market, dawned bright and clear, with only a light breeze out of the west. Our job was simple: reach Tangiers airport in time to catch the Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca at 6:30pm. But it was going to be harder than I’d planned. No ferry left Gibralter that would get to Tangiers in time. But if we could get to Algeciras, across the bay, a ferry left at 11:00am that would reach Tangiers by 3:00pm. We had no choice now but to go to Spain.
A bus took us to the frontier, back near the airport. During this 20 minute ride we ate bread, yogurt and orange juice which we’d purchased at a sidewalk grocer. If we’d had coffee it would almost have been a good breakfast. The customs agents at the Spanish border were very interested in our packs, but they found nothing illegal or immoral in them and passed us through. Now we were in the town of La Linea, Spain, which means “The Line”. It is a dreary name, but apt. The closure of the Gibralter border during the last several years had cut off the town’s only reason for existence and it was dying. Possibly just in time, the recent opening of the border was now bringing life back to the town, in much the same way as blood will flow back into a limb when a tourniquet is released.
Our guidebook covered many areas we had not planned to pass through, and I was glad it did, for it gave us the information that a bus would take us from La Linea to Algeciras, about fifteen miles away. But I was terrified. Travelling in Spanish-speaking countries always terrifies me. Mexico even terrifies me. My throat constricts and becomes dry. My blood pressure increases.
This is because I speak not a word of Spanish. I have travelled in such places as Yugoslavia, Greece, and Norway and am not worried that I speak none of those languages. Very few people do, and it is no discredit to admit to a bartender or an innkeeper that you cannot speak his tongue. In fact, if you are able to bring together a few words in Greek, for example “I would like coffee”, a Greek bartender will be overcome with emotion and gratitude that you have made such an effort.
On the other hand many people speak Spanish fluently and everyone knows a few words of it. It is unforgiveable to me that I am as helpless in Spanish as I would be in Chinese. So as we walked away from the border station at La Linea down a street that appeared to be heading towards the middle of town, I was dreading what was to come.
Our first encounter was with a stoop shouldered man walking down the opposite side of the street, who seemed to be sympathetic towards our obvious unfamiliarity with the town. I forced down my pride. “Do you speak English?” I asked. He shook his head. “Algeciras? Bus? Autobus?” I tried these several words, hoping he might recognize one of them.
He did. Nodding, he pointed to a spot on the opposite side of the village square which we had come to. We smiled our thanks and headed in that direction. There was a bus there, but it said “Malaga” on its destination card which is in the opposite direction from Algeciras. But at least we had found the bus stop, or rather an outdoor cafe which doubled as a bus stop. We set down our packs and took the opportunity to relax at one of the sidewalk tables. But I could not relax. I knew it was now appropriate to order something from the cafe. I wanted coffee and Derry wanted orange juice but there were no waiters. Apparently one had to walk inside and talk to the man behind the counter.
This was a nightmare, but I summoned up courage and walked through the doors. The man was wiping down the counter and looked up, asking me something in Spanish which I assumed was “What can I get for you?” I tried again. “Do you speak English?” “No”, he said. I stumbled on. “Uno cafe con leche”, I said. This was mixing Italian with Spanish, but it was the best I could do and it seemed to work. He set about preparing the coffee.
Coffee was easy because the word is almost the same in any language. But how could I order juice? My mind went back twenty years. I was sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Madrid with my sister. We were drinking orange sodas. We were drinking them because it was the only thing we knew how to order. Amazingly, I still remembered the words.
The man handed the coffee to me. It was now or never. “Uno naranja. Fanta.” Fanta is like saying Canada Dry, it’s a brand name that’s very popular in Spain. He looked at me puzzled. “Naranaja?” He didn’t know what I meant. I said it again. “Naranja”. “Ah, Naranja!” he smiled with sudden comprehension. Apparently there had been something wrong with my pronunciation. He handed me the orange drink. I reached into my pocket, pulled out some Spanish coins, and he choose the appropriate amount.
Whenever I do this the merchant always takes great pains to show me what he is doing. He pulls out one piece. Names it. Hunts through until he finds another. Names it. Finally explains what they total. Says it several times to make sure I understand. And then smiles his thanks. I never know what is being said, but the air is thick with honesty and I’m sure I’ve yet to be cheated by paying in this fashion.
I walked back to the table triumphantly, holding the two drinks. “I really have no trouble in Spanish”, I explained to Derry. But my pulse was racing.
Suddenly here it was, a bus with the word “Algeciras” on the front. I gulped down the last of my coffee, we grabbed our packs and hurriedly climbed into the bus. The driver selected what he needed from my spare change, after I said “Algeciras” and “dos”, pointing to myself and Derry, and breathlessly we collapsed in a vacant seat. We were on our way!
No we weren’t. I looked around. All the seats were vacant and Derry and I were the only ones on the bus. Even the driver had left. He was having a cup of coffee at the cafe.
Ten minutes later someone else climbed in. Twenty minutes later the bus was a third full. Finally the driver climbed back in, started the engine, and off we went. Algeciras Bay is large, maybe ten miles across, with Algeciras on one side and Gibralter/LaLinea on the other. Between them are the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains where the earth is red, almost crimsom.
As we headed west through the outskirts of LaLinea the first thing we noticed was the architecture of the houses which was, well, Spanish. “Now I see why they call it Spanish-style architecture.” observed Derry as she gazed out at the adobe houses with roofs of curved tile. To me everything looked like a Spanish-motif sub-division in southern California, although in California the whole place would have had a guard house and a name like “La Hacienda”. No props were needed here though. This was Spain–the real thing.
As we left LaLinea behind the dwellings thinned out and soon we were in mountainous countryside. I looked out over the desolate landscape and could imagine Don Quixote riding over the crest of a hill. Thirty minutes later, as we approached Algeciras, this effect gave way to recognizable urban sprawl. Algeciras was not what I had expected. I had expected a drab, worn-out, past-its-prime, dirty seaport–a Spanish version of Baltimore in other words. What I got was a gleaming modern city, vaguely reminiscent of San Diego.
The bus line terminated in the middle of town, and our only clue for finding the harbour was a street sign a few blocks back pointing to “Port”. We headed in that direction, and soon could see the ships less than half a mile away. A policemen pointed us more exactly after we queried him with “Tangiers?”. We arrived at the ferry terminal, bought our tickets and were directed upstairs to the waiting room.
Here was a taste of the Algeciras I had expected. This place was as bad as the international departure lounge at O’Hare. It was drab and dirty, and the dirt itself looked old. Muted colors held a monopoly on the decoration. In fact there weren’t colors, there were just different shades of dirt. I felt l’d stumbled into a scene from a black and white documentary of poor immigrants fleeing Europe.
The people were well cast for the setting. They were dark, Arabic-looking, and many wore long robes instead of western dress. They stared at newcomers, as men do in southern Mediteranean areas. But these people stared with a special fierceness, as if they had worked on there stares, perfected them, and were proud of them. I knew I was going to need some staring practice if we were to hold our own, so I looked around for a practice stare object. My eyes quickly fell upon one man who had at least thirty pairs of shoes in a cardboard box, which was held together by pieces of twine. The box had been opened, and the shoes were spread out on the floor for sale. They were old used shoes, the kind you find at the bottom of ravines after the spring floods subside. The man was embarqued on an attempt to get these shoes back into the soggy cardboard box and to wrap some twine around it to hold the thing together. But every time he took a turn with the twine, the newly-created pressure split open the cardboard anew and released a cascade of shoes back to the floor.
This was a situation ready made for those in need of staring practice, for being fully occupied struggling with his shoes, the man couldn’t stare back. I therefore stared fiercely at him until I had absorbed the necessary arrogance, and then shifted my gaze to one of the men on the other side of the room who was staring at us. Locking eyes in this way, I held his gaze only until my arrogance was depleted, at which point I would quickly drop my eyes, feel embarassed, and return my attention to the shoe salesman. This process continued for the greater part of an hour, and the length of time in which I could stare at those across the room increased steadily while the necessary recovery time with the shoe saleman decreased. I was practicing, of course, for Morocco.
As departure time drew near the dark robed people began moving over towards one of the doors at the far end of the waiting room. When the line thus created reached a point at which the number of people still sitting was surpassed by those who had joined the line, we decided to join the line ourselves. We had been warned that nothing happens on time in this part of the world, but at exactly five minutes before scheduled departure, the gate opened and the line surged forward, as lines will do when something encouraging happens up front. Then, after some healthy surging, the line quit moving. I looked ahead and realized that this line–about ten abreast by now and about fifty yards long–was having to pass through a passport control station. I raised up on tip toe to study the situation at the passport control station, and what I saw almost could not be believed. Every person in the line, there must have been two hundred, was having their passport checked by one man. At this rate it would take an hour, maybe longer, just to get on the ferry. If they only had one man to check 200 passports, why had he not started sooner? The ferry itself had been sitting there for hours, and so had the people. My first instinct was to become annoyed, but then I remembered that this third-world incompetence was almost certainly due to the proximity of Africa, which shed a very different light on the matter. I relished the bureaucratic incompetence then, knowing it to be a harbinger of the sand dunes, oasis, and camels just across the straits.
One hour later we were on board the big ocean-going ferry. We found an open deck with reclining chairs and happily collapsed into them. Our seats gave us good views of the passengers still arriving and two of them caught our attention. They were American (although I don’t know why it was so obvious) college age girls, dressed as Arabs, with long flowing, brightly-colored robes. Their hair was pulled back and covered with vibrant cottony scarves. They looked like stand-ins for a Lawrence of Arabia film. But the costume was inconsistent. Like us, they were carrying fancy internal-frame back-packs, made from the latest cordura nylon. Worse, the end of a tennis racket protruded from the top of each of their packs. Much worse, they wore dark wrap-around sunglasses of the kind you used to see in old Foster Grant commercials.
Apparently their passports were in order, for they soon joined us on the open deck, likewise relaxing in the reclining chairs. They did not move from these chairs the whole trip, and when we arrived in Tangiers they got off the ship and just walked away. I wonder to this day what happened to them in Morocco.
Two hours after scheduled departure time a whistle blew, the engines rumbled to life, and the big ship edged away from the dock. Soon we were under full steam out of the harbour and into the open Straits of Gibralter. It was a beautiful, sunny, delightful day. The air was clear and the water calm. The ship headed west after clearing the harbour bouy, for Tangier is appreciably west of Algeciras bay–actually on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Being on the port side of the ship our view now consisted entirely of the African coastline.
I studied it closely, for here was the continent that had fascinated me for so many years. It was a rugged, mountainous coast. Barren, covered with a tough grassy-looking surface, it looked much like the coastline north of San Francisco.
Porpoises began jumping out of the water. Graceful animals, travelling in schools, the sea would suddenly erupt with their activity and then become tranquil just as rapidly. There was no way to predict where they would appear next, and trying to guess distracted me for awhile.
The crossing was so relaxed that Derry fell asleep in the deck chair, but I could not sleep. I found my way to the opposite side of the ship and tried to give some attention to Spain. Here coming up to starboard was Cape Tarifa, the southern most point in Europe according to a book I had been reading. I was skeptical of this, not being able to imagine how Spain could be farther south than the southern portion of Greece, but it is.
The word “tariff” dates back to when those controlling Cape Tarifa would extract payment from any ship crossing the straits, by actually stringing an impassable line of boats from the Cape to the African Continent. So as we passed Cape Tarifa we were going through the narrowest part of the strait and technically we were now in the Atlantic Ocean.
We were also in sight of half a dozen freighters at all times during this passage. It would have been interesting to know where they all were heading, or coming from, but there shear numbers provided evidence that this was one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.
Several hours after leaving Algeciras the ship changed headings to the south and began an approach into Tangiers. Tangiers has a bad reputation. Our guidebook said “Go to Tangiers at your own risk!” The crime rate is awesome. Stories abound of tourists being led by local “guides” into hidden alleyways where shopkeepers demand ridiculous prices, literally at knifepoint. I had ripped this page out of the guidebook so Derry wouldn’t see it. There were warnings about guides who approach you off the street. They ask you politely if you are looking for a hotel, and if you give them any attention at all they lead you to a hotel where the concierge asks a ridiculous rate, taking you for a stupid tourist. Walking around Tangiers at night was highly discouraged.
None of this worried me, for I had lived five years in New York City and I knew how to avoid street people. You just ignore them. You never make eye contact. You don’t even slow down your pace when they approach you. I was actually looking forward to giving some of these “guides” a taste of a good New York brush-off. And I was desparately eager to see Tangiers, my first African city, an international seaport, and an exotic Arab outpost all rolled into one. We only had a few hours, for the plane left at 6:30 that evening, but a lot can be seen in a few hours.
From the first Tangiers enchanted me. Set on a hillside, not unlike San Francisco, it looked down on the harbour with its white-washed, cubical, north African buildings. Several minarets were visible, those tall towers from which the faithful receive their calls to prayer. I could hardly contain my excitement as the ship pulled into the dock, the lines were thrown to waiting men on the pier, and the gangplanks were extended and locked into place.
A sizeable line had begun to form for disembarkation, which we joined. The sooner we could get off the ferry, the more time we would have. I groaned inside when I realized that here also we were going through a passport check before leaving the ship and setting foot in Morocco, but it was moving faster than its Spanish equivalent. We were almost to the checkpoint ourselves.
And then the unthinkable happened. For the first time in all my travels outside the U.S., it appeared there was something wrong with our passports. We were shuffled off to the side and motioned to wait. Our passports were taken from us. This was the recurring nightmare that has kept me from ever entering the Soviet Union.
They were sending to the side others as well. We quickly and mutually discovered that all of us were Americans. That was our only common denominator. I had a moment’s uneasiness, wondering if we had taken the wrong ferry and were now in Libya where Colonel Khadaffi would certainly have an interest in any Americans entering his country. But of course this was Tangiers. The sign said so. And Tangiers is in Morocco, and Morocco has the friendliest of relations with France and most of the rest of the world as well. It is one of the most politically stable and pro-western countries in all of Africa. Why should we be penalized for having U.S. passports?
We waited for one hour. The ship emptied its contents of Tangiers-bound passengers, and took on a new contingent, heading back to Algeciras. Through all of this, we waited in deck chairs, with our passports in the hands of an Arab who had dissapeared. One of our fellow Americans was beginning to worry. He was catching a train to Casablanca in thirty minutes. The ferry had left Spain two hours behind schedule, and now here was another hour of delay, all for no reason. I was beginning to realize that travelling in this part of the world was different than in Switzerland or France, where you can set your watch by train and ship schedules.
Eventually our passports were returned, and we were free to leave the ship. The problem had been that during the crossing non-Moroccans were supposed to go to the passport officer on the ship and have their passports stamped. It had not occured to the Arab mind to let this fact be known in advance.
We walked down the gangblank, somewhat tense and frustrated. For the last hour we had not known if we were to be thrown in jail, or sent back to Spain. But it was all behind us now, and the intoxicating city of Tangiers was open to us, beckoning.
The Guides of Tangiers
But it wasn’t yet open to our suitcases. They were ransacked by still more customs officials the moment we stepped off the ship. Finally we were past even this obstacle. Now we were coming into the actual terminal. I was looking forward to sitting down at a table, maybe having a cup of coffee, and looking at a map. But we were being followed. From the point we had left the luggage inspection, a friendly, well-spoken man in his mid to late thirties had attached himself to us. He was dark, but dressed in western clothing. He spoke to us in French, and in a near-monologue.
“Where are you going?” he asked. “Tangier is very complicated. I will show you around. I will take you to the kasbah. Very, very interesting the kasbah. Many shops. I will take you to all these places.” The man was obviously a guide, like the ones I’d been reading about. I was surprised only that he had appeared so quickly. I began giving him the New York brush-off: no eye contact, no response, no slowing down in my walk. Derry did the same.
But it had the same effect on this man as if we had stopped and pulled out our billfolds. The farther we walked, the more in line with our steps he fell, and his conversation shifted from that of offers and propositions, to that of a concluded deal needing only a few details resolved. He was now asking us to decide which of several places we wished to visit first, how much time we could allot to certain areas of interest, what types of shopping we were most interested in, etc.
Seeing that the New York ignoring tactics would not work in this strange country, I kept my speed up but condescended sufficiently to tell him that we had no need of a guide, and were not interested in his services. This heartened him immeasurably, for in his eyes we were now engaged in constructive dialogue. He continued pursuing the details of our tour, and moved in even closer to us.
As I always do on arriving in a new country, I went first to a Bureau de Change in the terminal, which is an office for converting currency. He kept right with us, closer to me than I was to Derry, and I was very close to Derry. He kept talking as we exchanged travellers checks for “Dirhams”. Finally he pulled out his billfold and showed us a badge and identity card, demonstrating that he was an “official guide”.
Now this was interesting. The books had mentioned “official guides”, sanctioned by the Moroccan government. These were to be preferred to the students and street rabble who were unofficial guides. The book had recommended using official guides in some cases. Official guides, I had read, could be secured with the help of the hotel concierge.
I was beginning to wonder if perhaps we should use the man’s services. If he were an official guide, that tended to change everything. I spoke to him politely, explaining that I wished to discuss the matter with my wife, alone.
Derry and I retreated to a corner of the room, and he kept his distance. I explained the distinction between official and unofficial guides to Derry. “But he could have just had that card and badge printed up anywhere,” said Derry, who is generally more street-wise than I am. She was right. In fact, if he was an official guide, what was he doing harassing tourists as they got off the boat? Official guides should behave with more decorum. One should have to request them, perhaps even apply for them.
I went back to the man and told him politely that we thanked him for his help but that we did not wish a guide. I went back to the table Derry had discovered, and prepared to order some coffee. Moments later here he was again, but now with a younger looking man in tow. A youth, or college student perhaps. “I understand you do not need a guide.” he said. “This man is not a guide, like I am. He is a student. He will be glad to show you around.”
I could not believe this was happening. We were still in the ferry terminal. We were within sight of customs officials. We hadn’t even gotten onto the streets yet.
“Sir, we do not need a guide. We do not need any help at all” I stated firmly. They wouldn’t leave. I took Derry by the hand and we began walking towards the door. The coffee would have to wait. I knew if we could just get free of this man we could relax and begin having a good time. So far our arrival in Tangiers had been a disaster.
They waved us farewell, not in friendliness, but in anger and disgust. I didn’t care, we had escaped. We passed through the door of the terminal and headed towards the waiting taxis. I’d decided to get in a taxi and figure out later where we should be dropped off. Anything to leave the scene quickly. But suddenly a new horror was upon us.
“Guide! Guide! We will take you where you want to go! Shopping! We know where there is good shopping. Hey, don’t go so fast. We want to talk to you!” A group of half a dozen teenagers had been lying in wait just outside the doors to the terminal. This was terrifying. It reminded me of portaging a canoe one time in the Quetico wilderness of Canada when I had been attacked by a hoard of gnats. They had swarmed around my head and been sucked into my lungs. Nearly going mad, I’d dropped everything I’d been carrying, and had taken off in a panic-induced run.
Now the same thing was happening, but it was human beings that were after me. I grabbed Derry’s arm and we ran towards the taxis. They ran with us. One of them held the door of the taxi open. I ignored him and shoved Derry in with my own weight moving her faster, slamming and locking the door as quickly as I could. The taxi driver, perhaps in some sympathy for our plight, got in quickly, and we pulled away from the curb.
“We have to get out of this city!” Derry exclaimed. She was absolutely right. Tangiers was worse than I had expected. I realized we would not be able to move ten feet down the sidewalk without these human vermin swarming over us. It was tragic. Tangier, which I had idolized ever since I began looking at maps, which was a long time ago, was to be kept from me. We weren’t able to cope with it. Neither of us had any desire to see any more of Tangier than we already had.
“To the airport” I said to the taxi driver. Better to spend our time waiting at the airport than fighting off “guides”. We collapsed back into our seats in total defeat.
As we moved away from the harbour in the safety of a closed automobile I tried to think how we might yet salvage something from the situation. Our plane didn’t leave for three hours and I did not relish the idea of spending all that time sitting in the airport so I asked the driver if he would give us a tour of the town. This seemed safe for I was asking him, he wasn’t forcing me. The driver, who quickly endorsed the suggestion, metamorphosed into a tourguide and began pointing out the various sights for our examination.
But his French was awful. It was actually below the threshold where we could understand anything he said. So as we drove by the notable sights of Tangier, safely ensconced in a taxi, our driver would turn around and mumble “algk, heliid oiulek wer!!” and point at some building. I would nod appriciatively and and say “Hmmmmm…”, as if lost in contemplation of the magnificance of what lay in that direction.
Tangiers seemed pleasant enough viewed in this fashion. But whenever we slowed down we would see the guides by the side of the road watching us, hungry, waiting to see if we would get out of the taxi. We reached the top of a hill from whence was afforded a very spectacular view of the city, awash in the afternoon sunlight. As the taxi slowed to a stop I rolled down the window and took a picture. In that several second interval, three youths begin coming towards us. I rolled the window back up, told the driver to go on, and the youths turned away.
I did not feel we were seeing the real Tangier, and certainly not the real Africa. We saw government buildings and palm trees, and men walking around in robes. That was fine as far as it went, but it was hardly the kind of experience Dorothy Lamour had had on the Road to Morocco. I even saw two camels sitting by the side of the road, but viewed from the window of a quickly moving taxi the romance and excitement that should have accompanied this event was simply not there.
Eventually we came to the forested and hilly outskirts of the city, and Derry began looking at me nervously. She was worried that we were being taken out to some distant spot to be murdered and robbed. This thought had occured to me as well, but I was not sure what could be done about it. Suddenly the driver turned off the main road, and followed the direction of a sign pointing to “Cape Spartel”. Cape Spartel, I knew, is the northwestern-most tip of Africa, and a place I recognized as being on the tourist agenda which was reassuring. We weren’t likely to be murdered here at any rate. The driver stopped at the lighthouse on the Cape, I took a picture, and we drove on.
Our next stop was the “Grottes d’Hercule”, or “Caves of Hercules”, another tourist spot. We chose not to go in, as there were guides hovering around the entrance, but we did nod our appreciation to the driver. The scenery at least was spectacular, and very similar to Big Sur in California: crashing waves, uninhabited, beautiful sand beaches, and rocky black cliffs. Soon we turned away from the sea and headed back inland. Joining a major highway we saw a sign saying “aeroport” and Derry and I both relaxed, enjoying the luxury of feeling foolish about our earlier fears
Inland from the coast the scenery was reminiscent of Iowa. This was agricultural country and fields of exotic vegetables lined the road. I assumed they were exotic for they were in Africa. The area was hilly, but not mountainous. Occasionally we would see people in brightly colored robes working the fields, or riding donkeys. That was something you wouldn’t see in an Iowa cornfield.
In a few minutes we reached the airport, which was a modern low building; small but not primitive. There were no natives with cartons of chickens waiting in the check-in line, as one might have hoped. We found a modest restaurant upstairs, overlooking the runways and ordered sandwiches and beer. This was the first chance we’d had to relax since leaving the ferry, and we used the time for introspection. What had we done wrong? Why had Tangier defeated us so utterly? How should we have handled things differently?
We could find no answers to these questions, but rather hoped our experience was simply unique to Tangiers, and would not be repeated. This line of reasoning, the beer, and a beautiful Moroccan sunset cast us in a much improved frame of mind. An hour later we boarded our plane, a 737 Royal Air Maroc jet with bright red Arabic writing on its fuselage, and we were on our way to Casablanca, delighting in every new mile that separated us from the Guides of Tangier.
A Change of Plans
We were going to Casablanca only to change airplanes. The timing of the trip was still centered around the camel market awaiting us the next morning in Goulimine, south of Agadir, so Agadir was our destination for the evening. Nonethless we were looking forward to at least setting foot in the airport of Bogart-famous Casablanca. Our flight took us directly along the coast. Leaving the Mediterannean and flying south along the Atlantic, the landscape becomes progressively flat. Agriculture becomes even more prominent. There is a continuously uninhabited sand beach running from Cape Spartel to Casablanca, and quite possibly, all the way to South Africa, interupted only by small rivers and coastal towns. It occured to me that if a person could afford it, it might be profitable to buy up this beach. Perhaps thousands of miles of it, as a hedge against the inevitable tourist boom. I could not help but think of the one time I had visited Jones Beach on Long Island in New York. The people had been packed so tightly that most beach towels overlapped, and it was worse in the water. Those trying to body surf would crash into those standing in the waves. It was bedlam. A bandaid, recently washed off of someone’s festering sore was being maneuvered towards me by the action of the waves. I had fled the water in fright, never again to re-enter it.
By contrast these Moroccan beaches were as uninhabited as the moon.
Casablanca came into view below us and the last rays of the sun lit the city with beautiful shading. It was white, as its name would imply. And it was also very large, seeming to stretch on to the horizon. Unlike America, where cities are characterized by rigid straight lines intersecting at right angles in a never ending grid, Casa, as it is called locally, looked more like Paris: gentle, slightly chaotic curving lines, emanating from the city’s center near the harbour. We touched down and taxied to Casablanca’s Muhamad V airport.
This Muhammad V must have been quite a fellow, for most towns had several things named after him. It seemed as if the main thoroughfare of every city was the Muhammad V Boulevard. A typical square would be named the Place de Muhammad V. Never was there any mention of Muhammads one through four, or of any that may have come after. It occured to me that perhaps each successive Muhammad re-named everything upon taking office. Possibly the current King of Morocco was himself Muhammad V.
One thing we did notice was that the king takes himself very seriously in Morocco. Travel brochures warned that making jokes about the King was not a good idea. A photograph of the King hangs above every check-in desk in every hotel in the country, and above the ticket counters at all airports. In fact, this picture hangs above every place of business throughout Morocco, excepting only the shops of the street markets. Most distressing, the King of Morocco is the spitting image of New York’s Mario Cuomo. I, a Republican, found this unsettling as we traveled about the country.
As we entered Casablanca’s airport we were confronted again with the foolishness of the country’s passport control system. Here we had just flown from Tangier to Casablanca, entirely within Morocco. Yet we had to go through passport control, and even luggage inspection as thorough as if we had just arrived from Israel.
The airport itself was art deco, although I don’t think they’d meant it to be. It was one of those chrome and glass and black formica tile structures that are passing as modern architecture these days. But to me it looked like the top of the old Chrysler building in New York: glitter gone berserk.
Ideally, we would have waited for our connecting flight while nursing a bourbon on the rocks, as Bogie would have done. We chose coffee instead, yet it was hard to conjure up any “Casablanca” flavor while drinking coffee at a chrome table in a bar made entirely of glass and black formica. This was true despite the six foot high rendition of Humphrey Bogart’s face that served as the centerpiece artwork behind the bartender. I refrained from toasting Derry with a “Here’s looking at you kid.” Although I was tempted.
We boarded our next flight and arrived in Agadir, well past sundown. We were tired. It had been a long day, and it was hard to believe we’d started it in Gibralter. All we needed now was to reclaim our luggage, find a taxi, and get to our hotel where we had the only hotel reservation of the trip, and were glad we had it.
In Agadir the passport office gave us a choice ot two competing lines: international arrivals and domestic flights. Most of those on our plane had originated in Europe and a 30 minute line quickly formed for them. We marched smugly past these jet setters newly arrived from France, and hoped they were looking on enviously at us old-time Moroccan travelers. We were waved through passport control and took the best spot at the luggage carousel.
45 minutes later Derry’s pack had not arrived. An airline agent told us it had probably been routed through Marrakesh by mistake, a flight which was just now arriving. Yet 30 minutes later there was still no pack. We were ushered over to a lost luggage desk and began filling out forms.
The nightmare of our first day in Morocco was not yet over. It’s bad enough to have an airline misplace your luggage between Buffalo and Chicago. Yet there is hope. Usually it turns up somewhere: New Orleans, Santa Fe, Los Angeles. And you get it back. But we had lost our luggage in a third world country. This was a place where a picture of the King was hanging on almost every wall. This was a place where you couldn’t walk ten feet without being assaulted by teen-age guides. Funny there were no guides here at the Agadir airport where we might have found a use for them. We could have hired them to look for our luggage.
Worse, every word we had spoken since arriving in Morocco had been in French. No one spoke english, at least no one we had encountered. Speaking a reasonable degree of french ourselves, this was fun up to a point. That point had arrived with the discovery that half our luggage had dissapeared, and for all we knew it was on its way to Timbuctou. Timbuctou is actually not very from Agadir.
The agent at least was very helpful. He belived it probable the luggage was still in Casablanca, and would arrive early the next morning, and that we should come to the airport then. Of course this was the same agent who thought it probable the luggage would be arriving on the Marrakesh flight.
It did not matter. It was midnight now, and we’d crossed a time zone since Gibralter, making it 1:00am our time. We were very tired. We stumbled out of the airport and were greeted by a line of friendly taxi drivers, which was a welcome sight. “Hotel Atlas” I said, preparing to climb in to the nearest cab in line. I was met with a blank stare. “Hotel Atlas” I stated again, careful with my pronunciation, although it was not a difficult thing to pronounce, sounding much the same in either french or english.
“Hotel Atlas? There is no such place.” said the driver. He was genuinely bewildered. He wanted to help, but he could not take us to a hotel that did not exist. He called his friends over. I repeated it again. No, they were all in agreeement. There was no Hotel Atlas in Agadir. I knew they were wrong. Our guidebook referred to the Hotel Atlas. The London office of the Moroccan National Tourist agency had actually made reservations for us at the Hotel Atlas. Cab drivers normally know their town well, and a group of them could almost certainly be counted upon to to find a large hotel, if they pool their resources, yet I was prepared for an exception in this case.
I tried one more time. Actually I would have tried several more times, as there were not many other things to do. But suddenly I was understood. “Ah! Hotel Atlas! Hotel Atlas!” He nodded to the others. Yes, now they were in agreement. If it was the Hotel Atlas we wanted, there was no problem. “Hotel Atlas, Hotel Atlas!” All smiles now. I was afraid they’d began taking it up as a chant. I listened closely and it seemed they were putting greater emphasis on the second syllabil of Atlas than had I, and were prolonging the “s” . It was Hotel AtLASSSSSSS. I had not taken into account that Hotel Atlas might sound much different in Arabic. We were ushured into the car and off we went, into the night.
Agadir, or at least the little we saw of it, looked much like Waikiki Beach. The hotels–tall, white, thin structures making a valient attempt to give every room a view of the water–were closely packed and modern. The cab turned in at one of them marked “Hotel Atlas”, thus confirming its existence. Yet I was beginning to be skeptical of this country. We knew we had a reservation, but did the hotel know this? I asked the cab driver to wait until we were certain we had a room. This did not surprise him at all, which increased my concern.
Soon Derry returned. We had no reservation here, she explained, and in fact they’d never heard of us. But they had room anyway. We paid the driver and walked thankfully into the lobby. Although it was very late at night, we were still on schedule for tomorrow’s camel market in Goulimine, 120 miles drive due south. Deciding that everything in Morocco would benefit from confirmation, I asked the desk clerk if he knew anything about this camel market.
“Oh yes. The camel market in Goulimine is tomorrow” he said. “And also on Sunday?” I asked. The guidebook said it was both days. “No, only on Saturday.” Well, that was lucky. We’d chosen to see it Saturday, and now we were finding out it was only on Saturday. A small stroke of good luck to redeem all the bad we’d suffered. I set my mental alarm clock to wake up at 7:00 sharp, and we went to sleep.
At 9:30 in the morning we woke up. I was not too upset about oversleeping, since we needed it, and since we were still anchored to Agadir until we reclaimed Derry’s suitcase. We showered and finished breakfast quickly. I wanted to leave the hotel as soon as possible.
This was not due to the camel market, but due to the shower. All through Europe, and now I guess Africa, the trend is towards providing private baths with each room. American tastes have finally had an effect. Although we had been staying in budget hotels in London and Gibralter, each room had been blessed with its own toilet, and even a shower. More surprising, the showers had worked as well as might be expected in the United States, which is not saying alot but which is saying something.
But the one thing that had not been satisfactorily imported from America was the concept of shower curtains. The shower in London had had no curtain at all. In Gibralter, the curtain extended one third the length of the tub. In Agadir, Morocco’s classiest tourist center, the curtain reached a full two thirds the length of the tub.
I left the rooms in London and Gibralter as swamps, but when I left our room in Agadir, thanks to admirable water pressure, the bathroom was at full flood stage. I saw no reason to delay our departure.
Our first stop was Avis, for we needed to rent a car. I was by this time looking forward to dealing with an American institution. I was in the mood for some of that old fashioned American competence. Avis would have our reservation. Avis would give us a good car. If we had any trouble, Avis would get there fast. I could see the place in my mind’s eye: bright, modern facility, pretty Avis girls in their red and white checked uniforms, good maps of anywhere we needed to go on the counter for the taking, sparkling restrooms and a red “Wizard” teletype clicking away as important businessmen set up their car arrangements from long distances.
Our cab pulled into a filling station. It was a meager, depressing place. I was surprised the cabbie needed gas for such a short drive, and more surprised that he’d chosen this run down establishment. Then he pointed to the rusty Avis sign, hanging precariously from the door frame.
Of course they did not have our reservation. I had known that from the moment I saw the rusty sign. But they did have a car. One car. They brought it around. It was a Renault 4.
A Renault 4 is what you’d end up with if a garbage can manufacturer decided to go into the car business. A Renault 4 is not quite at the abysmal level of a Citroen 2cv. It can go faster than 25 miles an hour. But it was not the car I was hoping for to speed us comfortably down 120 miles of Moroccan highway to our appointment with the camel market.
I tried to put the best light on it, for Derry’s sake. If Derry knew how I felt about the car she’d say “Simple, let’s skip the camel market and stay here in Agadir. It seems like a nice place.” Derry had really wanted to go to the Caribean all along, and I was not about to give her an excuse to abort the camel market. “Wow! A Renault 4!” I said. “This was the car my family had when we lived in Switzerland”. (This was true, actually, but was not an endorsement. My father had chosen the Renault 4 at the last minute, in place of a strange three-wheeled contraption he’d fallen in love with.) “I could almost get teary-eyed seeing a Renault 4 again!” This also was true, in a manner of speaking.
We filled out the forms. They did have one ancient map stapled to the dirty wall. I blessed my good fortune at having decided to buy a first class highway map of Morocco at a bookstore in London. Derry told the proprietor happily that we were on our way to Goulimine for the camel market. The man stopped filling out the forms and looked up. “The camel market?” He looked at his watch. It was 11:00. “The camel market is over. Or it will be over by the time you get there. It ends at noon. The camels will have left.”
I heard this almost as if in a dream. We had missed the camel market. For some reason, it didn’t surprise me. It was almost as if I’d lived through the experience previously, or had become so accustomed to dissapointment that further dissapointment held no frustration. The man in London had told us Goulimine was the wrong place to go after we’d set up our entire trip around it. The passport agents wouldn’t let us off the Ferry in Tangier. We’d been assaulted by human parasites when we’d tried to leave the port, making a real tour of the city impossible. The airline had lost our luggage. The hotel had lost our reservation, and almost didn’t exist at all. And even Avis had let us down. Of course we had missed the camel market. It fit. It was part of the plan. Why had I ever been so foolishly optimistic as to think we wouldn’t miss the camel market? I felt myself losing my precarious hold on sanity and sliding into a black void.
Derry took me aside. At times like this my wife is at her best. “Look”, she said. “I know it’s a dissapointment, but there are other places we can go. We weren’t planning to see Marrakesh, which you’d hoped to have time for. Let’s drive to Marrakesh. We can just get in the car and go. Maybe there’s a camel in Marrakesh.” She added this last point as a father might hold out to his child the possibility of candy.
But Derry had not taken into account something I had suddenly realized, something that in one moment brought me completely out of my despair and thrust me head first into my maps. It obviously made no sense to go to Goulimine, 120 miles to the south if there would be no camel market when we arrived. But in fact that was the best possible turn of events. If we couldn’t go to Goulimine, we could go to Zagora!
Goulmine was the wrong place to go anyway. The Moroccan in London had told us that but our momentum had carried us onwards. Now our momentum had evaporated and one direction was as good as another. I studied the maps closely, opening them on my lap as I sat in a fly-specked vinyl chair in the side of the room. Derry looked over my shoulder. “There’s a road that leads from Agadir to Taraoudant, and from there to Oaurzazat”, I explained. “Ourzazate is the jumping off point for Zagora. We can stay in Taraoudant tonight, Ourzazate tomorrow, and be in Zagora on Monday.” Taraoudant and Ouarzazate were excellent destinations in their own right, as I’d remembered from the guidebook. The trip could be salvaged after all. It could be made better!
We took the car as planned, and headed for the airport, certain now that things were going our way. The tide had turned. The bag would be there, I could feel it in the wind. And it was. We headed back to town, to find the intersection that would lead us to Taroudant. Yet I was troubled by one problem. Taroudant was only one tenth the distance to Ouarzazate. That made for a very uneven drive. It looked like 10 hours of driving in all, and to only drive one hour of it today was not a very elegant plan.
We pulled off to the side of the road and re-examined the map. It seemed silly to drive one hour now, and 9 the next day. We didn’t have any experience with Moroccan roads. The road from Taroudant to Oaurzazate looked awfully barren. It was clearly on the edge of the desert, as we could see from our well-illustrated map. How much gas would a Renault 4 hold?
Another plan began to take shape. Why not drive over the foothills of the Atlas mountains Northeast to Marakesh.? That looked like a pleasant five to six hour journey. In the mountains, it would be nice scenery. Marrakesh was a place we’d been told not to miss. Then we could head due south from there the next day, cross the Atlas again, and reach Ouarzazate in another 5 hours.
We’d be zig-zagging all around south Morocco, but so what? When you miss a camel market, you tend to go a little crazy.
The Road to Marrakesh
With the help of our map we found the road leading out of Agadir into the mountains. Even though the road signs in Morocco are in Arabic, they will usually condescend to repeat the information in French, but not always. We would occasionally come to intersections and see signs we couldn’t read–we couldn’t read a single letter of them. It was worse than being in Spain. Eventually we came to recognize the look of the word “Marrakesh” in Arabic writing, but I was nervous travelling in a country where even the road signs were incomprehensible.
As we left Agadir and began climbing into the foothills of the mountains the real Africa at last began to emerge.
The people working in the fields or traveling along the road did not belong in the twentieth century. They did not even belong in the second millenium. These were people out of biblical times, old testament times. This was what Judea must have looked like during the reign of King David. It was a land of donkeys, robed men, veiled women, children in colorful peasant rags, and clay water jugs being carried on peoples’ heads. They did not steer the donkeys with bridles or even with ropes, but with sticks, pulled from the branch of a tree.
Their agricultural tools were their hands. The farmers were pulling up the grain in the fields by its roots, often without even the aid of a scythe or a long knife. They would pull it up in clumps, as big a clump as a hand could hold, and lay it onto the back of a nearby donkey, piling this load to twice the animal’s height. The houses were made of mud and clay brick, with straw laid on top of a laticework of sticks.
People were washing their clothes, bright colorful robes and headdresses, by the side of every stream. They used rocks in place of washboards. In Europe every country, especially Switzerland, has its native costumes, which are donned for national festivals, and are sometimes worn by waiters in the touristy-restaurants. They are colorful and provincial and bring back to life another era. But in Morocco that era was still in progress and the people were still wearing those kinds of clothes.
There are places in the United States, and certainly in Southern Europe, where primitive living conditions can be seen, usually in the poorer sections on the outskirts of towns. Yet we were not seeing a disadvantaged few surviving in the midst of a civilization that had passed them by. This was their civilization. We drove for five hours and saw nothing more modern than a stone bridge.
We were in a car, but everyone else was riding donkeys. We did not see a horse, a camel, or even a bicycle; only donkeys, goats, and sheep. There were millions of sheep. It was clear why the Bible spent so much time talking about sheep, the blood of lambs, and your neighbor’s ass, for it was all these people had.
The vast majority must never have seen anything closer to civilization than an occasional car fleeting by at 60 miles an hour. To them it would be no more part of their world than a lightening flash in the sky would be for us. Had these people ever been out of the mountains? How long would it take by donkey? A week maybe? Had they ever seen the ocean? Or a large city? It seemed unlikely.
As we crossed over the top of this flank of the Atlas mountains, and descended northward towards Marrakesh the barrenness of the hills became more pronounced. This was drier country and the population thinnned out. As we left the mountains altogether and drove out onto the plain it seemed we had arrived in the driest, most barren spot on earth. There were no fields here for there was no dirt here. It was simply gravel, extending as far as the eye could see. A load of fresh gravel dumped onto a bleak sweltering construction sight would appear very much as did this part of Morocco.
It was possibly the flattest place I have ever been, and I have been to Nebraska. Our two lane highway cut straight through this unusual landscape. I remembered hearing someplace that if land is good for agriculture, it is bad for highways, and vice versa. Apparently we were driving through the best highway land in the world.
I wondered how we would survive if our car broke down. There was no other traffic and no sign of civilization. It was as if we had called ahead and reserved the highway.
We had eaten nothing since breakfast, and by 2:00pm were very hungry. We passed small towns, characterized only by their minaret tower, and a few gravel houses, yet these did not seem to offer hope of food Eventually we reached an intersection of two highways where a degree of commerce had developed. Several of the stone buildings were occupied by what appeared to be small coffee shops, or food stores.
These food stores were not enticing. One or two lambs, fully skinned and with their heads still on, were hanging on hooks at the window with a skinned chicken or two for company. Flies buzzed around the carcasses.
We saw one store with a Coca-Cola sign hanging out in front. The lettering was in Arabic but the logo was clear, and it served as a beacon for us Americans.
I slowed the car and turned into the gravel drive. Then we saw them. Eight young children began running towards us. They were guides. We could see it in their eyes, and in their hungry expressions. They wore the look a pack of wolves might wear in finding a wounded antelope dropped in their midst.
“Let’s get out of here!” screamed Derry. I kept the car’s momentum going and skidded back onto the highway, doing a U-turn to head on towards Marrakesh.
“I thought we’d left them back in Tangiers.” I said. “This is really, bad”, agreed Derry. “How can we stay alive in a country where we can’t park our car and eat food?” She had a point. We’d enjoyed a sandwich at the airport in Tangier. And breakfast had been simple enough in our hotel’s dining room in Agadir that morning. But we couldn’t spend all our time cloistered in hotel dining rooms and airport coffee shops.
Hunger and thirst were our enemies as we continued over the gravel plains towards Marrakesh. This was so unusual. There was food to be bought, drinks to be had. We had the money. Moroccan Dirhams, American Travellers Cheques. Credit Cards. Dollar Bills. Yet we could not obtain what we needed if we were to be assaulted everytime the car slowed below 10 miles an hour.
A line of palm trees, and a softening of the gravel were our first clues that we were approaching Marrakesh, one of Morocco’s imperial cities, and the city from which the name Morocco was actually derived. Marrakesh is famous. It was reputed to have the largest “souk” (or marketplace) in all of Africa. It has been called the most mysterious city in all of Africa. Our guidebook called it the most African of any Moroccan city. I wasn’t quite sure what all this meant, but I liked the sound of it.
The number of palm trees increased and the gravel was reluctantly giving way to reddish dust as the first houses appeared. These were earthen-walled structures, similar to but of better construction than we had been seeing. It was an example of the red-ochre color of Marrakesh itself. We had a primitive map of the city, obtained from the Moroccan tourist bureau in London, and our guidebook listed several hotels.
Hotels in Morocco are based on the star system. One star, two stars, etc., up to five stars. Except for the five stars, they are regulated by price. For example every four star hotel is priced the same: $21 dollars per night for a double, including breakfast. We saw no reason to spend less than $21 per night, and no reason to opt for more than four stars, so it was in this category that we confined our search.
We worked our way to the center of town, where we assumed hotels would tend to be located. Right away we noticed Marrakesh was very different from Tangier. We saw no buildings higher than two stories, except for the hotels themselves. Donkey carts competed equally with cars on the broad boulevards, yet both were overcome by the hoards of bicycles and motorscooters that seemed to own the roads. Amidst the palm trees we could see low walls made of the red-ochre dirt where in other cities one would expect to see shops and offices. What was behind these walls we could not tell.
As we slowed at a stop sign, two youths rode up beside my open window. “Are you looking for a hotel?” they asked in French. “No, we already have a hotel.” I immediately replied, thanking them for their interest. “We will help you find a hotel” they said. Here it was again. The nightmare of Tangier. “No thank you” I said, driving away. At least here I had my own car. They stayed with me until we reached the next stop sign. The now-closed window didn’t bother them. They just spoke louder. “Follow us! We will take you to a good hotel.” I smiled as we pulled away, and then at the last second jerked the steering wheel to the right, pulling between two donkeys, and onto an intersecting road. It was physically impossible for them to follow, and after several random turns I knew we had lost them.
Eventually we found a hotel that had a room available It was in the basement, but the hotel was pleasant. Not as nice as the hotel Atlas, perhaps, but it afforded shelter from the guides. We had arrived in fabled Marrakesh, and were eager to begin our explorations.
Our first exploration revealed that the toilet in the room did not work. “Le toilette ne marche pas!” I explained to the front desk. “I will see that it is fixed”, replied the concierge. We crossed the street to the hotel’s modest parking lot, shaded by bougainvillea, and were stopped by the lot’s caretaker, and old man, sitting in the sun, fully clothed in a drab western sport coat and someone’s second-hand trousers. He smiled, pulled out his wallet, and flashed a badge. This was to prove to us that he was an official guide, although this badge looked very different from what the “official” guide back in Tangier had shown us. One, or possibly both, were lying.
It did not matter, we thanked him but explained we did not wish a guide. I began to wonder who would have guarded the parking lot if we had hired him, than realized that he probably wasn’t a guard to begin with, just a guide who had found a good spot to base himself. We climbed in the car and drove to the D’jar El Fna, the town square and marketplace. This Fna was a beehive of human activity. The most active humans were of course the guides. It required only a few seconds to climb out of the car, yet during this interval seven guides had handsomely volunteered their services. These people were certainly not official guides, nor did they make any pretence to be. They were urchins. Possibly they were official urchins, but they were dirty, smelly creatures and none was older than fourteen.
We moved quickly through them, towards the center of the Fna. They did not follow us only because they had spotted another car arriving, and immediately left in pursuit of more promising game. I advanced a theory to Derry that perhaps the guides were situated only at the outskirts of the Fna, stationed there so as to intercept new arrivals. If one could succeed in getting past this Moroccan Maginot line, it might be possible to be left alone. I held tightly to Derry’s hand and we sped away towards the center of the square.
Marrakesh, and particularly the D’jar El Fna, is a famous place. Guide books speak of the intoxicating aromas of spice and fruits, and exotic flowers. But we smelled urine. It was the one overpowering all-consuming smell emanating from the Fna. We could not tell if it had originated with humans or donkeys, or some other animal, but it was the dominant sensory element of the market.
As we neared the Fna itself, successive waves of guides washed over us. These were apparently second, third, and fourth line reinforcements. But again we were saved by other victims appearing, more promising than ourselves, and we continued at high speed. It was becoming clear that there was no magic point at which the guides would quit. Derry suggested another, and very innovative tactic. She suggested we follow Moroccans.
The guides would leave native Moroccans alone. So we began attaching ourselves to native Moroccans, easily identifiable in robes or scruffy western clothing. We chose one heading towards the center of the Fna and fell in behind, so close it must appear to anyone that he was our guide. It worked! We could see the hungry eyes of the parasitic urchins watching us, dissapointed that someone else had obtained our business, but resigned to the inevitable. No one approached us as long as we kept within inches of a Moroccan.
It was not always easy. When we needed to change direction, we had to change Moroccans. This required careful timing and advance planning. An intersection of Moroccans was necessary. As soon as this occured, we could leave the one and go with the other. Our skill in this new art developed rapidly. I became adept at coordinating multiple-Moroccan intersections. We would leave one, attach to another for only a few steps so as to intersect a third, and then join with the new one heading in our preferred direction. No guide was quick enough to catch this “sleight of Moroccans” and we were left alone.
But it was a hard-won victory. The game required constant attention, and after realizing that I could successfully navigate to any spot in the market using these human highways, I also realized that I was not seeing anything of the market.
I suggested a new tactic. We would leave the Moroccans, but would use rapid evasive tactics whenever approached by a guide. We daringly cast off from our latest Moroccan and began walking calmly through the market.
Beep! Beep! Beep! My internal radar picked up the approach of a guide, someways off yet, but with us clearly in his sights as he attempted to work his way through the intervening human obstacles. I held Derry’s hand tighter, using the technique she had taught me in disco dancing to signal to my partner the beginning of a turn. As the guide broke through and began to open his mouth, I abruptly turned 90 degrees, with Derry in tow, and squeezed between several lines of people, lost completely to the guide.
Beep! Another one. I was ready. At the last instant we veered 180 degrees and again slipped out of harms way, this time using a snake charmer as our intervening accomplice.
We were beginning to see a little of what this square was all about, by this time. And it was clear why it had earned for Marrakesh the titles of mysterious, most African, most exotic, etc. The D’jarr El Fna is the type of place one expects to see only in a motion picture. It was the image of an Arab slave market in 18th century Zanzibar. Dirty, robed, colorful humanity swarmed everywhere. Persian carpets were spread out randomly on the ground and piled with fruits, vegetables, spices, pottery, and metal works. Diseased, crippled, robed wrecks of human beings were seated or sprawled out amongst these wares. Silver tongued arab traders bargained vociferously with their compatriates over the price of a jug of olive oil, or a bag of dates. Robed monkeys were doing tricks and screetching hysterically at passersby. Snake charmers were everywhere. They performed for free as do the street musicians of New York, and you paid them if you wished. So we were navigating not only between carpets, and guides, and cripples, and dates, and monkeys, but also between snakes.
All of this was occuring in the large square, which itself was surrounded by the medina, or “old city”. We worked our way to the edge of the square and in amongst the alleyways of the medina itself. These alleys, were not for vehicles. Pedestrians only could move through them, and no more than two abreast at that, for the main space of the alleyways was taken up with more “souks”, or shops. These consisted only of a persian carpet spread out and filled with whatever merchandise was being offered. One was piled high with perhaps a thousand leather sandals. There was no order to them, no sense of sizes or styles. Just a mountain of sandals. A robed ancient man sat next to this geologic phenomeon, pulling at random specifimens from a nearby cliff and holding them out to those who passed by.
There were fabrics here also which were displayed in much the same way. Bright, shimmering bolts of silk, cottony robe material and dark wools all competed for attention. Another rug displayed only curved evil looking Moroccan knives made of handcrafted silver and brass.
These alleyways were dark, for no light could penetrate through the latticework of bamboo sticks and palm fronds laid over them. We were in a strange netherworld of shadows, lights, and smells–our minds assaulted with sensory input. This world of souks was so crowded not even the guides could penetrate here. They needed more room to work their mischief, so in a sense we had found a sanctuary.
But now another fear arose. I had read that it was difficult to keep from getting lost in the medinas of Morocco if one did not have a guide. I could well believe this. I was already beginning to feel closed in. These souk-filled streets were like a deep, dark, threatening cave, with enticing caverns that would open up and lead one on to his doom, to a place from which it would be imposible to find the entrance. I toyed with the question of what the place would be like at night, and with that thought claustrophibia surged through me. I gripped Derry’s hand tighter and worked our way quickly back to the open air of the Fna.
Back in the the square we were again awash in a sea of humanity, yet able to at least see the sky, circumscribed though it was by half a dozen minaret towers that added to the Arab slave market atmosphere. We had seen enough. This was the most African of squares in the most African of cities and its effect on us was as it might be on George Washington to be suddenly transported in time to present-day Fifth Avenue in New York. Poor George would only be able to absorb so much without retreating to his hotel room.
I had with me my 35 mm camera with wide-angle to telephoto zoom lens safely carried in my cushioned belt pack, ready for instant use. And here I was in one of the most photogenic spots on earth, yet the camera had not moved from its pack. I’m not sure why this was so. Perhaps my visual senses were being so overwhelmed that it was all I could do to register the myriad sights and sounds myself, without trying to capture them on film. Perhaps it was because I was uncomforable exposing a $300 camera in an environment in which $300 was probably the local per capita annual income.
The photographer in me points out unashamedly that my failure to take a single picture was due to the poor lighting, and general grayness of the day under overcast skys. But that has never stopped me before.
I think in truth I was simply unnerved. The place was too African, too ancient, if possible it was too exotic. I was not comfortable in Marrakesh’s Djar El Fna. This was not a tourist attraction I could stand back from and take pictures of, this was a transplantation in time and civilization and I did not fit in even remotely. Something inside me was telling me I had no right to take pictures. I was seeing things that a twentieth century yuppie was never intended to see.
I’m quite certain that if I had returned the following day, or perhaps forced my self to spend several hours amongst the persian carpets, snake charmers, and robed, crippled arabs, I would have begun to adapt, and with adaptation would have come security. But I didn’t. And as I think back on Marrakesh now, I find it hard to believe it exists at all. And for some reason I am more comfortable with that belief. Photographs would recall it all too vividly, and there are some memories I think that are meant to be kept with blurred edges.
Back at the hotel room, with still no working toilet, Derry and I were facing a crisis of confidence. The trip was beginning to seem less a vacation, and more an ordeal. The biggest problem was the guides. We could handle them, but only at a terrible cost in energy. We would have enjoyed strolling around Marrakesh, and even returning to the Fna, but neither of us could face the hassles this would bring. Furthermore, we had been spending the majority of our time travelling, and travelling is not relaxing.
Looking at the next several days we could see only more driving, and more fighting off of the guides. And Morocco kept putting frustrating things in our path. Reservations fell through. Luggage got lost. Toilets didn’t work. Camel markets adjourned. This was no way to run a vacation.
We considered leaving Morocco and heading back to Europe. We were already planning to spend several days in Brittany, followed by a rendezvous with our friends Mike and Margaret Lauterbach at Mt. St. Michelle. Why not just go there now, find a seaside inn, and spend the days biking through the French countryside. It could hardly be less interesting than miles of gravel pits.
Yet this would be an admission of defeat. World travellers are supposed to thrive on adversity, not run from it. And what did we expect after all, a Howard Johnson’s at every street corner? We had only been in the country a little over 24 hours. Morocco deserved a better test than that.
We postponed a decision and went for a carriage ride. We had seen these colorful horse-drawn open carriages rolling through the streets. They were a quintessential Marrakesh tourist item, like gondolas in Venice, and they seemed a good way to see some more of the city while avoiding the guides.
The driver headed for the kasbah, the old Moroccan residential quarter. We passed through an archway in one of the high mud-brick ochre walls, and suddenly found ourselves back in time again. Marrakesh was like that. Outside the kasbah and the Medina, there was nothing especially interesting, only wide boulevards, palm trees, mud brick walls, and donkeys. Now, as we entered the kasbah we were once more seeing the Africa of two centuries ago. Here the bicycles and motorscooters had been left behind. A few donkeys could be seen, but mostly the people moved about on foot. One normal size American car would have barely fit between the walls of these kasbah lanes. Our horse-drawn carriage was almost as big and as we passed, the robed sun-darkened Arabs pressed tightly against the walls. The men looked at us intently. There was no friendship in their faces, and no animosity either. Tourists were a necessary evil, and if good money could be earned by driving them through the streets then so be it. This man eyeing us from a doorway might have been the brother or uncle of our driver, and the $10 he would earn from the ride might put bread on his family’s table for a week.
The women, already veiled over most of their faces, would nonetheless turn their heads as we passed. I had read that Moroccan’s do not like to be photographed, and it is especially bad manners to photograph women. All over Morocco women would turn away as they saw us, fearing, I suppose, that they might otherwise end up in a picture. In some parts of the world, this fear of cameras comes from a belief that a photograph imprints the soul, thus losing it for it’s rightful owner. But when I later had occasion to ask a native if this was the problem, he said no, it was only an ingrained shyness.
The kasbah was much like the Fna: a world of hanging goat meat, crippled beggars, fly-ridden and naked street urchins, and darkness. It was a darkness of the sort that grips lower Manhattan. The sun was shining, but the rays were unable to penetrate. And there were no tourists here. Derry and I watched, fascinated, but said nothing. We were so close to our surroundings. We could have reached out and touched the hanging goat meat. Or patted a child on the head. Or pulled the cane away from a beggar. Both sides of the coach were narrowly missing the walls of the alleyway, and those we passed flattened themselves against the buildings, or ducked into mysterious doorways, to make room for us.
This was an intimate view of native life, yet in the carriage we were immune to the problems that had confonted us in the Fna. No one tried to sell us anything, no one approached us for a handout, or to offer guide services. It was as if a glass wall existed, and we were peering out throught it, able to see all there was, yet unable to be touched by it. We could stare back at the natives, just as they stared at us, without risk of inviting a solicitation. In their eyes could be seen only curiosity, and I’m sure the same could be seen in ours.
The carriage returned us to our hotel, where we found that at last the toilet had been fixed. As we ate dinner in the dining room, we discussed our plans for the morrow. The ride through the kasbah had re-kindled our enthusiasm and we decided to continue with our original plan. We would drive over the High Atlas mountains to Ouarzazate, and continue on the next day to Zagora. This meant more traveling, but riding in the car seemed safer than touring the streets.
The next morning I decided to trade in the Renault 4. The long drive through the mountains, with still more driving the next day, justified something more than a makeshift automobile. We found the Avis office in Marrakesh and were pleasantly surprised to find it contained the teletype machines and the red-checked uniforms I had hoped for in Agadir. One of the attendants even spoke English.
But a new dissapointment awaited us. They could give us a bigger car but they could not allow us to leave any car in Ouarzazate, as had been our wish. We preferred to fly from Ouarzazate back to Tangiers, instead of re-tracing the long road through the mountains. “There is no Avis office in Oaurzazate” explained the attendant. When I asked if any other car rental agency had an office there he developed an anxious expression. You have to understand,” he said, “Ouarzazate is not like Marrakesh. It is the desert. There is almost nothing there. You cannot leave a car in Ouarzazate unless you hire a driver to go with you and bring it back.” This did not sound like an attractive option.
While pondering this problem we drove to Marrakesh’s airport to see if we could even make reservations for the Ouarzazate flight. It was not possible to phone for reservations, we were told, and if the plane was full we would have to drive back anyway.
The airport was in bedlam. We had stumbled on the one time of day, or perhaps even of the week, when half a dozen departures occured at once. Here were Air France flights, Air Zaire flights, Royal Air Maroc jets. There was no way to make a reservation as the lines at the ticket counter were at least 45 minutes long. But we did find a plethora of car rental agencies, most of them closed because it was Sunday. A sleepy Moroccan leaned against a post behind one of them. On a hunch, I explained to him our need to leave a car in Ouarzazate. He told us to wait, and went off to find his boss.
The boss arrived, a young, handsome, man, with the personality and appearance of Elliot Gould. Somehow, he seemed above the mad scene at the airport, or perhaps even in control of it. He oozed confidence, and spoke excellent French. “So, you want to rent a car and leave it in Oaurzazate? It can be arranged. You will have to pay me the cost of sending a man after it though.” The price for this service was reasonable and we agreed to the plan. He would send someone to meet us at the Oaurzazate airport at 5:00pm the day after next.
“What kind of car can we get?” I asked. “A Renault 4” he replied cheerfully. “A very nice car.” I began to realize that the Renault 4 was the national car of Morocco. I asked to see it, and was pleasantly surprised. This Renault was brand new. It only had 4,000 kilometers on it and looked up to a trip through the desert.
Back in the airport it occured to me that his assistant occupying the rental car desk, which was under the sign of a well-known European agency, had no business being there. He had just taken it over, knowing its real owners would not be there on Sunday. It was a typical Arab line of reasoning.
The real office was downtown, so we followed him back, dropped off our Avis car, and filled out the forms for the new Renault. I asked if there was a place nearby we could buy some food for the trip. He took us around the street to a local grocery. This place was only one step up from the skinned-goat-hanging-in-window environment we were beginning to accustom ourselves to. It resembled a convenience food store in New York City: small, dark, dingy, and not very clean, yet with recognizable items on the shelves.
We bought four gallons of mineral water, a loaf of bread, two pounds of cheese, and several cartons of youghurt. With these provisions we knew we could avoid the guides who would haunt the roadside stops, and it seemed sensible to me to load up with water before heading into the desert.
“One more thing”, I asked our helpful rental car man. “I want to know how to say something in Arabic.” “Yes, of course!” He was pleased with our interest in his language. “What would you like to know?”
“I want to know how to say ‘No, I don’t need a guide'”. At this he began laughing. “That’s an essential phrase in this country, isn’t it! Listen closely: ‘M’abrina Geede.’ That’s all you need to say.”
“M’abrina Geede.” I said it outloud five times, each time receiving a correction in my pronunciation until I had it right. I asked Derry to write it down on a piece of paper. At last we were ready for our big adventure. We would be heading into country more desolate and remote than either of us had ever been in before. We had an almost new car, four gallons of mineral water, and “M’abrina Geede”. We were prepared.
The Great South
Marrakesh faded to nothingness as we headed south. The dirt walls gave way to simple dirt. The palm trees thinned to grass. The motor bikes and the donkeys were left behind. It was a hazy, warm day, late in the morning by this time, and we could see only dimly the outline of the High Atlas mountains directly ahead of us. I was having to fight down a host of worries: foremost among them was the possibility of the car breaking down. I had no idea how we would extricate ourselves from such a situation. Our French was improving in fluency, but outside the major towns only Arabic was spoken.
And what else might we find south of the Atlas Mountains? Bandits? Our guidebook had mentioned that before World War II the pass we were going to take had been rendered almost unuseable by the bandits that would lie in wait for every vehicle. Might some of them still be around?
I did not share these concerns with Derry, yet as the road became more desolate and the relative safety of Marrakesh dissapeared in the rear view mirror, she began sharing them with me. Naturally this required that I make light of them, and in so doing I was able to calm my own nerves.
Soon the road began climbing, and as it did, the vegetation reappeared. These mountains, some of them over 14,000 feet high, could grab at the clouds and extract from them a sufficiency of rainfall. This moisture flowed down towards the valleys but it was used up by the time it got there, so the upper slopes of the mountains were lush while the valleys were deserts.
Here we were in an actual pine forest, having just emerged from a scattering of palms. As we climbed higher these gave way to tough goat-trampled grasslands and small shrubs. It was beautiful countryside, at least when contrasted with the dry and windswept rock fields and barren plains outside Marrakesh. The dwellings we passed were built not of depressing mud-brick and dust, but of well-crafted rock. And they were surrounded by such pretty grasses, delightful streams, and majestic peaks that we could not understand why all Moroccans did not live here. Of course there was not much to sustain an economy: only mountain grasses, and the sheep which fed on them.
We were in donkey country again. We might pass three cars in an hour, and during that time we would pass fifty donkeys. Some would be pulling carts, others were piled high with hay, still others would be carrying people. From observation we learned that one donkey could carry two small children, or one adult, or one child and some cargo. Occasionally we would see a mule. I am accustomed to thinking of mules as small horses, although when contrasted to a donkey a mule is very large. But we never saw a mule carrying cargo. Mules carried distinguished older men who wore large hats. I believe that in Morocco, a mule is the equivalent of a Mercedez. The village elders and overseers of the fields ride around in these Mercedez and would never think of using one for carrying hay or buckets of water.
As we climbed still higher we again found ourselves amongst rock fields. The road was gaining altitude rapidly, and every few hundred yards it would switch back on itself. At each of these turns was a wide shoulder, and at each shoulder a table was set up with rocks for sale. As rocks go they were attractive. We saw sliced-open agates, polished micas, and colorful sandstones as we drove past. Approximately every third table had a caretaker sitting or standing next to it. But most of the tables, set out by the side of the road, had no caretakers. It seemed that one could park, fill up their trunk with rocks, and drive away. But certainly if we had pulled into one of these rockstands it would not have been deserted for long. There were many places among the cliffs by the side of the road for the guides to be hiding, and we knew they were there.
I was more surprised by the number of these rock shops. One or two might have been viable, but we were seeing them at every turn in the road, and this road was continuously turning. Worse, we seemed to be the only tourists. The occasional car that passed us contained natives, and we could not imagine natives stopping to buy these rocks. In fact, we could not imagine anyone stopping to buy them. Who wants rocks? How do you fit rocks into your suitcase? Any sensible person buys rocks close to home.
We rounded a corner and came across a group of cows in the road, being herded by a small boy and girl in native costume. They were very photogenic. I had it in mind to stop and take their picture, even though I knew they would turn on me, and offer to be my guide, and probably try to sell me some rocks. But I could not pass them up, and decided I would even pay something if I had to. I pulled off to the side of the road and turned off the ignition.
This was being very brave. From the moment we had arrived in Morocco we had spent most of our time outdoors trying to avoid the natives. Now here we were actually stopping the car and getting out, in full view of two of them. I was brave enough to do this because there were only two of them, and we were bigger.
They did not come rushing over as I had expected. They simply looked at us curiously, as did the cows. I approached them with my camera and motioned that I wanted to take a picture. They held out their hands–nothing surprising there–but I realized they did not want money. “Bon-bon”, they asked shyly. “Bon-bon”. This is French for candy. Derry found a pack of lifesavers and we gave them the whole roll. They were thrilled. Knowing they must now earn their reward the two children assumed a stern, rigid posture, with arms pinned tightly to their sides, and wiped clean any trace of their delightful and innocent smiles.
I could see this was going to be a problem. Children everywhere do this when being photographed. It was one of those occasions where I envy the skill of National Geographic photographers. How do they do it? Taking photographs is technically easy but getting children to act natural when they’ve seen a camera requires years of experience. “Bon-bon” was the only word both parties had in common, and I could see no way to make a joke out of this one word.
Then I saw a way out. Taking the picture just as it was, I explained to Derry “Primitive peoples always adopt that pose when they see a camera. If they had been smiling it would not have looked natural, and as an artist I try to capture reality, not distort it.”
“No comment,” replied Derry.
As we continued up the road something was stirring in my subconscience and it had to do with our encounter with the children. They had wanted candy in return for the photograph and we had given them candy. Everthing had gone smoothly, in fact, too smoothly.
Suddenly I understood Morocco. We had been fools! We had been spending all of our energies on avoiding the beggars, and the guides, and the street people. We had done this because of our New York training. In New York no one is foolish enough to enter into a conversation with a beggar on the street. Unsolcited strangers coming up to you in New York are to be ignored. That is covered in New York City survival class 101. Our mistake in Morocco had been to lump the guides in to the category of beggars, and therefore to consider them something to avoid at all costs.
But Moroccan guides are not beggars. They are poor, but they are not expecting something for nothing. And in Morroco the rules are different. Tourists are supposed to hire guides–that’s the way the system works. And it is not expensive. Pennies, trinkets, or even candy are all valid currencies in Morocco. Like the Dutch buying Manhattan for $24 of beads, $1.00 would hire a guide in Morocco for all afternoon. I knew that, I just hadn’t made the connection. If $1.00 will hire a guide, and once hired, all other guides stay away, then it’s worth it! Who minds spending $1.00 if it will buy freedom in Marrakesh?
My mind was whirling with activity and a new-found reckless confidence. Here were two more children with a herd of goats. I pulled the car over to the side. They ran to us instantly. I gave each of them the equivalent of two cents. They were ecstatic. I took their picture, now able to physically position them just as I wished in relation to their goats. It was a good picture, and it had only cost four cents. It was going to cost twenty times that for the film and the developing. But it was the four cents which made it a good photograph.
I drove on with sublime confidence. I had learned the secret of Morocco, and knew the rest of the trip would be smooth. We could even buy food now at roadside grocery stores if we wished. We could spend all day in a Kasbah. I mentally vowed that when we returned to Tangiers, there would be a re-match. I would see Tangiers as it has never been seen before.
We were nearing the top of the Atlas mountain range now. At the pass itself was a bright pink stone building, which seemed to be a store, judging from the hanging dead things in the window. I stopped the car for a moment and looked out over the vista that had opened up before us. I could see for fifty, perhaps a hundred miles. There was no vegetation anywhere. Ahead of us was the country the Moroccan’s call “The Great South”, and each mile into it would be a mile farther from civilization. I noticed that from here on our map prefaced each town’s name with the word “Oasis”, as in “Oasis de Tafraoute”. I was impressed with that. This was going to be the real thing, the real desert, and there was no turning back. We drove on with a mixture of excitement and apprehension as the road descended steadily into the “Valley of the Draa.”
After several miles we passed through a small mountain village in the throes of market day. Men, donkeys, mules, and sheep milled with seemingly random movement across the highway. Few women were visible. Market day was apparently an activity for the men.
At the edge of this town we came upon a street vendor selling pottery and primitive rock carvings. We pulled the car over and braced for guides, but none arrived. Perhaps there wasn’t enough of the town to be worth showing. The potter and the rock carver were friendly, and we were greatful to discover they spoke French. Looking over their wares I didn’t see anything I didn’t like. We would be limited only by our pocketbooks and our luggage capacity.
This was the first time we had tried to shop in Morocco, and I was dreading it. Haggling, our guidebooks had told us, is the national pastime. I was not looking forward to haggling for I was certain I would be bested in the process, and the thought of having to do it in French was completely unnerving.
Soon Derry had decided on two items she wanted: a small water jug, and a rock carving of a face. I asked how much they were, and the man offered a price. I feigned astonishment, and quickly put the items back on the shelf. Actually I had thought the price quite reasonable. I continued wandering among the objects and eventually found some stone trinkets I liked. “How much are these?” I asked, again putting them hastily back on the shelves when the price was quoted. We made a pretence of studying some more items, then came back to the originals. I took them all down, Derry’s pots and my stone carvings, and set them on the table. Next I turned to the man and suggested they all be included for half the price he had quoted for just one of them. The man shook his head, and began to create some other combinations, yet at lower prices this time.
Derry did not understand what I was doing. “Wait a minute”, she said. “We don’t need all these things. Just the first two, or one of them, and one of yours.” My hope was to get all of them for far less than the original price, as it seemed easier to bargain with increased purchases, rather than with less money. I did not know how to explain this to Derry without the Arabs overhearing and perhaps understanding my tactics.
Yet they sensed her reluctance. Seeing an opportunity I turned back to them and amplified it. “I am very sorry”, I explained “but my wife just doesn’t want all these things. What can I do?” I threw in a hopeless shrug. All this talking in French made a shrug unavoidable. This caused them some consternation for Derry was obviously being sincere. With the prospect of losing a large quantity of the sale so immenent they re-considered and gave us the price I’d offered. All of this had taken twenty minutes, and their original price of $60 was now down to $20. For this we had obtained a beautiful earthenware water-jug, a brightly decorated pot, and five primitive rock carvings. These rock carvings sold in Marrakesh for $15.00 apiece. Maybe there was something to this haggling after all.
We placed the items in our small cordura nylon duffel bag which we had brought empty for such occasions. The Arabs were fascinated with this bag and said they had never seen anything like it. I remembered the man with the shoes and the dilapidated card-board box back at Algeciras. These Moroccans were surfeited with metal work, leather, and pottery, but had little experience with tough nylon luggage. They offered to buy it but since we needed it more than they we politely refused. Bidding them goodby we drove away smugly from our first negotiation with Arabs.
As we neared the end of the mountains and began catching glimpses of the vast dry plains that awaited us, we noticed that the architecture was changing. Instead of houses made of piled rock we were now seeing the mud-brick style again, rendered differently. There were no bricks per se in these houses, just hardened red-ochre mud similar to adobe. The structures built of this mud were vast. An entire town was actually one integrated building. It appeared as if, as the town grew, more mud walls and roofs were added to the original, giving it the appearance of a swallows’ nest, or beehive.
Each town had one separated component: its mosque and minaret. The mosque was always a low, white non-descript building. But the minaret soaring above it would be majestic, giving life to the town, pulling it out of its meager reality and endowing it with art, religion, and culture. The townspeople lavished all their efforts and creativity on their minaret, for it was always the one brightly painted and perfectly constructed building amongst its bland and uninspired neighbors.
As we continued out onto the red earth and rock plain, an appreciation of oasis begin to develop. An oasis enviornment, I realized, is one in which the vegetation is all or nothing, which is what we were seeing. Along the course of the Draa river, which was mostly dust, the intermittant appearance of underground water close to the surface would sudenly transform the landscape into lush green palm trees and grasses. These would hug tight to the river bottom, spreading out no more than 200 yards in either direction, and then would end suddenly. There was no gradual changing of the flora. It was all there, then it was all gone, and then 20 miles later it came back.
I had quit worrying about the car breaking down. It had shown no inclination to do so and we were now in country so desolated that if we were forced to stop, there would be no hope. It made no more sense to wonder what we would do in that situation then it would to wonder what one would do if struck by lightning. One would simply die.
The countryside was punctuated by sharp outcroppings of rock forced up through the desert floor by horrible pressures inside the earth. I have seen artists’ renderings of the formation of the earth and the apperance of land before the emergence of any vegetation, and this was what we were seeing. “Geologic Nightmare” would be the proper name for the motif.
Yet even though the area would qualify as desert–far less than 10 inches of rain each year–it was not a sand desert. So in my mind it was not the real desert, not the real Sahara. That would come later I assumed at Zagora.
We were nearing Ouarzazate now. “Travel to blistering south Morocco in July or August at your own risk”, the guidebook had warned. “And you’d better be able to take the heat.” Neither Derry nor I can take the heat at all, and we had worried that south Morocco would not be much fun in late May either, but we were finding the climate quite reasonable It was midafternon as we approached Ouarzazate, yet the temperature could not have been higher than 85 degrees, and humidity here was as unknown as snow.
There was a Club Mediterannee at Ouarzazate according to the brochures I had obtained, but our travel agent had discouraged us from staying at a Club Med. Club Meds must be booked as a complete package she had said. You have to join the Club, you have to commit for a specific stay of at least a week, and you have to reserve two months in advance. I had doubted this information at the time, yet I also doubted that my Club membership of 18 years ago was still valid. And we certainly didn’t want to stay anywhere as long as week.
But if there was a Club Med in Ouarzazate–even though a Club Med in the middle of a desert made no more sense to me than a ski area in Florida–we had little to lose by investigating. I still remembered fondly the Club Meds I had stayed at in 1967: one in Spain, one in Greece, and one in Turkey, where the quest for the camel had begun. Derry had never been to a Club Med and was curious about them.
We drove through town slowly, looking for any sign of where the Club might be. At first glance Ouarzazate did not seem the kind of place where one wants to stop for the night. It resembled the outskirts of Marrakesh. Even the town center resembled the outskirts of Marrakesh. It was dusty and uninspired, and although there were a few palm trees, there were so few that they looked out of place. I could not imagine how, or why, a Club Med had chosen this location.
We had almost driven completely through town when we saw the sign pointing to the Club Mediteranee. We followed its directions and were soon pulling up to the main gate. In this neighborhood the white plaster buildings of the town center had given way to the adobe look that was so common in this part of the country. The club was located across the street from one of the massive, bloated, mud towns, and on top of a minor hill. At first glance it’s architecture appeared identical to its neighbors, but then we realized a good architect had merely intended to give that effect. The adobe buildings housing the Club Mediterannee blended perfectly with their surroundings, yet actually were of solid design and modern construction.
A robed Arab came out of the guardhouse and peered inquiringly into our car. Searching my brain hastily for the proper words and phrases in French I explained that while we did not have a reservation we were hoping for a vacancy. This word “vacancy” always gave me trouble in French. One is tempted to use the obvious French counterpart “vacance”, yet in French vacance means vacation. I chose “chambres libre”.
“How many nights?”, he asked. “Two, if possible”, I replied. “One moment”. He retreated to the guardhouse and picked up a telephone. Soon he came back. Yes, they had a “chambre libre” he explained, but it would be $40 per night for the two of us. This seemed high by Moroccan standards, but then I remembered that at a Club Med everything was included. That $40 covered all meals, unlimited free wine, and whatever recreational activities a Club Med in Ouarzazate could provide. “D’accord”, I nodded, and he raised the wooden gate.
Club Meds tend to be of two types: villages and hotels. A village is sprawled over several acres, with separated areas for sleeping (in huts or bungalows), eating, swimming, etc. By contrast the hotel Clubs are essentially single buildings, yet they tend to be exceptional–blending with their particular environment creatively and appealingly. This Club was of the latter type. Around its perimeter a great deal of landscaping had been accomplished, featuring cactus which showed good judgement. The two story-high mud-brick buildings were designed to allow maximum air movement, much as do homes in Hawaii. Several interior courtyards added to this effect. Cool stone and tile had been used extensively, and the Moroccan decor was both tasteful and unobtrusive.
We parked our car, hoisted our packs onto our shoulders, and walked up to the main entrance, not quite knowing what to expect. But inside the door our cares vanished as if blown away by a desert wind. The huge “Chef du Village” was waiting for us in the reception area, and he greeted us effusively, his handlebar mustache getting in the way as he kissed Derry on both cheeks, and pumped my hand warmly.
Other members of the staff were lounging around the cool antechamber that served as a lobby. One brought Derry a single long-stemmed red rose. The delightful blonde girl behind the counter eagerly helped us fill out the registration forms. Suddenly we noticed that the smiling “Chef” was wearing a Copper Mountain tee shirt. Club Med has its only U.S. location at Copper Mountain and they all became excited when we explained that we lived only a few miles away from it.
As far as any of them could remember we were the first Americans to visit this Club. The girl behind the desk spoke a little English, but we found it was easier if we conversed with her in French. No one else spoke any English. Furthermore, these people were real French. It was a pleasure to be able to understand them so clearly, not having to wade through a thick Arabic accent. We wondered if our own accents, poor though they were, had suffered further from exposure to the Moroccan French we had been hearing for two days.
The Chef was now telling us that we were very lucky. Tonight they were holding a “Danse Folklorique”, in which natives would be exhibiting Moroccan dancing. We were shown to our room, up circular stone steps, past a courtyard harboring a small fountain, to the 12′ by 14′ cubicle that was our room. The thick white-plaster walls, narrow windows, tiled floor, and platform beds with embroidered quilts successfully yielded a very Moroccan, yet civilized, flavor.
The afternoon was waning fast, so we donned our suits and migrated to the pool. Everything blended beautifully at this Club Med. The rooms, the courtyards, the lounge area opening on to the emerald-like pool, and especially the dining room all created a subdued yet casual elegance. This dining room was actually located beneath the pool, with glass windows affording diners a fish-eye view of anyone swimming in the water. From the pool itself I could look across the road towards the real mud dwellings, appearing like a stage setting for a Foreign Legion film. I found out later that most of Lawrence of Arabia had been filmed only a few miles away.
Shifting my gaze to the right I could see a vast panaroma to the south. The river at Ouarzazate must stay near the surface for some distance, for now I could see actual fields being worked by the peasants, assisted by a seemingly endless supply of donkeys upon whose backs they would pile the harvested grain. Looking farther I could see another desert town, entirely of mud construction, with a soaring minaret all aglow in the late afternoon sun. The distance softened the look of the mud walls, and in the present lighting it took on the appearance of some mystical place: an Arab equilvalent of the Emerald City perhaps, or a fortress where Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan might live.
Turning around this scene changed abruptly. I was now looking at bare-breasted women sprawled langorously around a poolside, demonstrating French topless sunbathing at its most brazen. When one thinks of topless swimsuits, one always places them mentally on slim and attractive women. Yet these women possessed neither of those attributes. Not only were they overweight, but there was nothing about any of them other than their nakedness which could incline one to stare at them.
Even so I was fascinated by the contrast. In one direction were African peasants, mud and stick houses, Arab mosques, and women walking along the road clothed so completely only their eyes were visible. In the other direction was an elegant cocktail lounge, an inviting swimming pool, and naked women frolicking.
This must be some philosophical lesson, I reasoned. It was like a vision handed down from the Lord: “Choose, oh sinner, the path of righteousness or abomination!” The egalitarian in me was disturbed. Why should some people be toiling in the hot desert sun covered in robes, while others sipped wine and lounged in nakedness by the cool water?
Seeing no immediate answer I decided it must be simply a difference in life-style. Some people are into fields and robes and mosques, and others are into pools and nudity and sangria. Who was I to judge?
The “soiree”, as they called it began at 7:30 pm. In French, “soir” means “evening”. “Soiree” I judged, meant something like “evening event” and anyone who glances through a Club Med brochure will notice that every Club Med in the world has a soiree every evening.
The soiree at the Club Med in Ourazazate began with a pool side cocktail party, and the cocktails were free. The guests were now dressed in elegant evening sportswear. I hesitate to use that word “sportswear” for to me it has always conjured up the image of baseball jersys, boxing shorts, wet suits, and the like. I had a friend who became a salesperson at the sportswear department of Neiman Marcus, and I went in to visit her, thinking I would now be able to obtain a discount on the ski parka I needed. I was mystified to discover that at Neiman-Marcus, and apparently in the fashion world generally, sportswear means long dresses, fancy men’s slacks, and just about anything you can think of that you would not want to wear while engaging in sports.
In any case for the soiree at the Club Med people were dressed up. This was not the same crowd that had occupied the pool in the afternoon. These were elegant and beautiful men and women. They looked like they were from Paris. They looked the way an evening crowd at Club Med should look. One particularly attractive young brunette engaged us in conversation, and then two other women joined us. They were indeed from Paris. Others, they said, were from Toulon, Bordeax, and Marseille. They were all traveling together on a Club Med tour, called “Gates of the Desert”. Ouarzazate was one of the gates. They were only staying at the club one night, then continuing to the Club in Agadir. Their are seven Club Meds in Morocco, more than in any other country except France, which says something about the fascination the French hold with this last remnant of their empire.
These attractive women, all but one of whom were single, invited us to join them for dinner. So it was just me and one other male surrounded by a host of beautiful girls, although Derry was foremost among them. For this evening tables had been set out in the open in a setting which overlooked the scenes I had witnessed that afternoon: the fields, the distant minarets, and the mud cities. Nearby the chefs worked diligently preparing Moroccan specialties over charcoal braziers. Waiters brought wine to the table, and by close attention made certain no bottle was ever emptied without its replacement being already at hand.
Now here was something interesting. No one would challenge that the French know wines. I was curious to see what they would drink: red or white. The variety of foods gave one an excuse to choose either. In the U.S., especially among the quiche crowd in New York, white wine is in, red wine is out. I have gone to parties in Manhattan where there was only white wine served. There is an assumption that only the gauche drink red wine anymore.
I watched the waiter bring the first shipment of wine to our table. He set down two bottles, and I looked quickly to see what vintages of red and white these were. But they were not red and white at all! They were red and rose!
I was scandalized. In Manhattan no one has served rose for at least a decade. It is considered the ultimate in bad taste. It is an admission that one is so unsophisticated they are unable to make the simple choice between red and white. I assumed no one would touch the rose. I certainly didn’t. As dinner wore on I watched the two bottles and to my growing horror I realized I was the only one drinking the red. That one bottle of red lasted the whole evening, while the rose had to be replaced four times. This was incredible. Rose was in, everything else was out! How soon before it swept Manhattan? If I still lived there I could have scooped the whole town.
Our dinner was coming to a close, and the evening’s entertainment was about to begin. This was none too soon, as my mind was exhausted from trying to speak French. I had never had this level of immersion in the language, and I’d never developed enough fluency to feel comfortable with it. It is one thing to ask a waiter where the restroom is. Quite another to discuss the reasons why the tree-line is higher in the Rockies than it is in the Alps, which was the subject we were currently pursuing. After two days at this club Derry and I reached the point where we would turn to each other during a meal, in the midst of the conversation, and communicate un-selfconsciously in French. It became easier than switching gears. We were definitely getting better with the language but it was a constant effort. Meal times were not relaxing they were challenging. And we never looked forward to going to the dining room, we braced for it. It was a curious way to spend a vacation.
The dancers came into the open field in front of our tables to the accompaniment of native drums. The dancers were all women, colorfully robed in bright silks and cottons. The drummers were men, uniformly covered in white, and seated in the middle of the ring the women had formed around them. There was not much to this dance. The drummers beat a steady rythym, the women took up a monontonous chant in time to this beat, and the dancing consisted solely of swaying back and forth. It had all the frenzied, sensous energy of a game of chess.
This was not surprising. Islam is a dismal religion, prohibiting most everything. One can not expect a culture which veils and robes its women to invent something erotic like the hulu. The other guests at the club must have felt much the same for after this Moroccan show the soiree proceeded with disco dancing back at the poolside terrace, where a lot of pent-up energy was released.
The French must have accepted the fact that they are incapable of producing good music. We stayed and danced for over an hour, and heard only British and American popular songs being played. Obviously a melody and a beat transcend any language but don’t the French become terribly curious at what the lyrics are saying? Even those who speak some English would not be able to understand them, as song lyrics are almost impossible to understand even by someone native to that tongue. In any event we felt a curious patriotic pride as song after song by Michael Jackson was played.
The Search for the Desert
We were up late the next morning, but eager for the day’s adventure. At least I was eager. Derry had lobbied unsuccessfully for staying by the pool all day. Tomorrow we would do that, but today we would go to Zagora.
This was an exciting moment for me. It seemed as if we had overcome countless obstacles to see real sand-dunes, and ride a real camel. Today would see the quest fulfilled.
The Renault 4 was slowly turning into a furnace from the late morning sun as we walked resolutely out to the parking lot. There were many parts of it we could not touch, such as the steering wheel, without incurring first degree burns. I found encouragement in this, and in fact would have been dissapointed at anything less here on the edge of the Sahara. I sprinkled mineral water on the critical parts of the car and we were on our way.
The road south from Ouarzazate climbs a small dividing range before descending back to the Valley of the Draa. We found ourselves driving through a moon landscape again. Strange geologic shapes confronted us. Sheer cliffs dropped away for hundreds of yards into black abysses of nothing. No life forms, plant or animal, were detectable. There was no traffic, no cars, no donkeys, and no sheep. I stopped once to take a picture, expecting flies to buzz around me as soon as I got out of the car. But there were no flies, or any other insects. I leaned over and examined the rocks. I could find no lichen or moss on them. A visitor from another star landing on this part of earth would conclude the planet was uninhabited and lifeless.
It was becoming hotter as we continued.. There were now no more dividing ranges between us and the dunes. The plain we were on stretched unbroken across Africa: to the Red Sea in the East, to Timbuctou and the rain forests in the south. Most of this plain was composed of sand dunes, and we waited expectantly for their appearance.
We were being entertained while we waited. Each mile took us deeper into the country the guidebooks prescribe if one is looking for “foreign-legion type exotica.” That is exactly what I was looking for and I was not dissapointed. The road had now re-joined the Draa river, and what there was of it produced a long, thin oasis through which we were passing. All pretence of the modern day world had been dropped here. We’d seen glimpses of this kind of life before but now we were getting it in heavy doses. It was as if we were driving through page after page of National Geographic.
Everyone wore brightly colored robes and rode donkeys. There were no motorbikes or bicycles as in Marrakesh. We watched as women returned from the river carrying earthenware flasks of water on their heads. Looking past the fragile green of the oasis the rocky, sandy terrain stretched to the horizon in every direction. Except for the road itself and the adobe mud huts there was very little sign of civilization.
I noticed that each mud dwelling connected to its neighbor, yielding one long never-ending structure. Many of the dwellings were in a state of utter ruin. In all fairness a mud dwelling in ruin is not much different from one that is brand new. Even the best looked little better than what a child could construct out of sand at a beach. And the ruined ones looked as if that same child had taken a bucket of seawater and dumped it on his creations at random. It produced a melted look. So a fresh and modern adobe structure was connnected to a melted one, which in turn was connected to another modern one, which in turn was connected perhaps to a partially melted one. This went on for miles. I could not tell if the ruins were 20 years old, or 2,000 years old for there was no means to judge how quickly mud disintegrates in such a climate.
The people were very friendly. The children always waved uninhibitedly as we passed, and the adults smiled warmly, and sometimes raised a hand. Radiant adolescent girls in beautiful costume would smile shyly at us from donkey-back. We were seeing alot of the people, albeit from an uncrossable distance. If we’d stopped and tried to talk, I think they would have quickly dissapeared into the palms. We were curious about the mud houses we were passing. What were they like inside? Were they apartments, or did one family own an entire structure? There were only narrow slits in them for windows. How could light get in? What did their furniture look like? But we could answer none of these questions. We could only smile back and wave in equally-friendly fashion.
Hunger was setting in and the heat was becoming oppressive as we finally entered the town of Zagora, but my mind was aware of neither the heat nor the hunger. Here was Zagora! The end of our journey. We had crossed thousands of miles of ocean, flown on countless airplanes, driven vast distances, and endured many hardships just to reach this place. But it was worth it. This was where the Sahara began. The dunes. The camels. Zagora had become in my mind the epicenter of all that was exotic and mysterious in Africa. Maybe I would never visit Zanzibar, or become lost in the Congo, or hunt wildebeestes on the Serengetti Plain, but by God I’d made it to Zagora. I believe that out of all that I’d wanted to see in Africa, if I’d had to choose to see only one thing it would have been the Sahara desert. And now I was here.
I looked around. The town of Zagora looked much like Oaurzazate. In fact, it looked like the outskirts of Oaurzazate. There was not much further for civilization to fall. But at least it was a town. These were white plaster buildings, not adobe mud huts. And there were cars. Only a few donkeys roamed the streets. I took all this in at a single glance, and kept looking. I was not interested in plaster buildings, cars, or donkeys. I was interested in sand dunes. I wanted towering walls of sand. I wanted limitless vistas of sand. I wanted camels crossing that sand. I wanted robed people riding those camels. I’ve seen enough movies to know what the Sahara desert looks like As I looked around me I knew one thing for certain. This place wasn’t it.
Derry was trying to minimize the problem. “Well, we made it” She said. Zagora! Let’s get some lunch and head back to the Club Med!”
“Derry, there are no sand dunes here”. I said this almost accusingly.
“Well, I was noticing that.” she replied. “I was kind of hoping you weren’t. ”
“Derry, this is serious. What are we going to do? ”
“Well, they must be around here somewhere. You can’t just hide the Sahara desert. Let’s get some lunch and then start looking.” This seemed as good a plan as any and now that the first shock of dissapointment was wearing off, I realized I was very hungry.
We looked around for an air conditioned restuaurent but all we saw were dark holes in the plaster buildings. Some had skinned meat hanging in them. Robed arabs were standing in front of some of these holes and staring malignantly out at us. One building had a Coca-Cola sign hanging in front with Arabic writing on it. This may have been a restaurant but its black hole doorway with the dead chicken hanging in the middle looked no more inviting than did the others.
We weren’t looking for a McDonalds or a Burger King. We knew we’d left civilization a long way back. But a simple, comfortable air conditioned cafe, perhaps featuring cheesburgers and fries, didn’t seem like to much to ask. Or did it? We had now come out the far side of town, without having seen any sign of commercial activity beyond that one arabic coca-cola sign and a decrepit gas station. This wasn’t how the fantasy was supposed to go. Zagora was supposed to be a friendly oasis with camels tethered to the local air-conditioned diner. When we came out the other side of the town without having found any trace of a restaurant we decided it was time to consult our guidebook.
The guidebook claimed there was a restaurant in Zagora, a hotel in fact, “which will appear before you as if it were a mirage, so welcome will it be in the midst of the desert heat.” We looked for this mirage and couldn’t see it. I wondered if maybe it was only visible during certain times of day, or in certain types of lighting. Finally we humbled ourselves and asked directions from a man on the street, and with his help we soon were pulling in to the Hotel Des Almorvides.
It was a remarkable hotel. In fact it was a four star hotel. A few minutes earlier it had looked as if that Coca Cola sign was Zagora’s highest cultural achievement, and now here was a four star hotel! It did seem to be a mirage. To step into its cool coridors was to be whisked out of the desert and into an elegant palace in northern Europe. It was hard to believe we had been baking in the harsh sunlight only a few moments before. We took our seats in the spacious dining room, marvelling at the thick carpet, white tablecloths, and gleaming silver set before us. The room we were in was covered with a rich burgundy red carpet, and the high ceiling was graced with cut-glass chandeliers. There was nothing Moroccan here except for a few items on the menu. This hotel apparently catered to Europeans.
Our waiter was a sundarkened man in his fifties who served with continental grace and a respectful demeanor. He dished out our food with two serving spoons balanced neatly in one hand, while he held the silver tray with the other. The contrast of this hotel to its outside surroundings was making me giddy and I could not take it seriously. It was not right that such a hotel should exist in such close proximity to the hanging dead goats that could be seen just outside the doorway. Something made me want to pierce the waiters overbearing solicitude. I wanted to tell him that the emperor had no clothes. That this hotel could not be real. And I wondered if beneath his dignified exterior there might yet be a sense of humour. Looking up at him with equal seriousness, I asked if the meat he was serving was camel. Without so much as a pause in his motion, he responded in perfect french: “Of course! And it is fresh young camel at that!” The man was quick. As we neared the end of the meal I asked him if he would be our guide and show us the sand dunes.
In this way we hired our first guide in Morocco. He was not an official guide, but as he had lived in Zagora most of his life, and spoke excellent French thanks to a sojurn in Toulon, France, he was perfect for our needs. He was going off duty in a few minutes and we waited in the lobby.
A pleasant meal in this airconditioned hotel did not prepare us for the outdoors. It was now 2 pm and the day was at its hottest. Our Renault, left fully-exposed to the sun, was beginning to melt. The plastic seats were already sticky. No part of the car could be touched. The remaining two bottles of mineral water themselves were too hot to touch. Using a spare shirt in the back, I grasped and then opened one of the bottles and sprinkled it’s contents liberally around the car. I could almost hear steam hissing off the car’s upholstery.
At the guides directions we headed south out of Zagora. Several miles out of town we came upon another adobe-mud village and our guide told me to turn in. This confused me, for it was only a village we had come to, and there were still no sand dunes in sight. But for the moment I was willing to let this pleasant man orchestrate the tour in any manner he wished. He indicated I should park in front of one of the mud brick structures so I braked to a stop, and turned off the engine. We got out of the car and followed him towards a dark hole in the mud wall. It was apparently his intention to go inside.
Derry was nervous. Once inside that hole we would be completely at this man’s mercy. Walking around Marrakesh had seemed dangerous, but this really was dangerous. We did not even know the name of this town. It was not a tourist center, it was the type of mud village we had been passing on the drive from Oaurzazate. We were curious to know what lay inside the mud walls but by going inside we would be trusting completely a man we had only met 45 minutes ago. This could be the man’s game. He guides unsuspecting tourists into this dark hole, his friends ambush us, and that’s it. End of the vacation.
And yet we had solicited him, not the other way around, which made a con game seem unlikely. Several naked and nearly black children were eyeing us curiously. I took Derry’s hand and we followed the man through a slit in the mud, behind which we could only see blackness.
My first sensation was that of cold. We had left the blistering sun outside and in here it was both cold and very dark We stood just inside the entranceway and let our eyes adapt. I began to detect shadows, and then vague outlines. I looked around. We seemed to be in a cave. The mud walls had hardened to stone which was black and cold to the touch. The cave passage forked several yards ahead. There was nothing else we could see.
Our guide chose the right tunnel, and we followed him closely, with memories of Tom Sawyer lost in the cave going through my head. Occasionally we would come to an opening to the right or the left. Our guide motioned us into one of these. It was a room in the cave. Sufficient light trickled in from somewhere above to allow us to see dimly. Yet there was little to see. The room was roughly cubical, perhaps twelve feet in each dimension. Some cloth had been thrown haphazardly into one corner, as a man might throw his dirty laundry into a closet at home. That was all. There was nothing else to relieve the stone: no carpets, no furnishings, no decoration. Then I saw something at the bottom of one wall: some burnt sticks arranged in a familiar pattern. A fire had been made here, and there was sufficient ash to imply that a fire was made here regularly. An earthen-ware pot suddenly revealing itself nearby completed the story: this corner of the room was a kitchen. I looked around again. Someone must live here, in this cave dwelling, sleeping on the barren rock floor, cooking their food with an earthenware pot over an open fire. I took a moment to let this sink in. A cave, a fire, a clay pot. Were these not indices of a neolithic culture? This was the kind of thing you see in those life-like tableaus at a natural history museum. The only thing missing was a drawing of a bison on the wall. What was going on here anyway? Had we slipped through some time warp back into the ice age? A few miles from here there was a four star hotel. Wasn’t there?
Our guide misinterpreted my incredulous expression. “It’s OK”, he said, “A friend of mine lives here, he won’t mind me showing you around.” I could only smile in response to this. There was no more “around” to see. We continued down the cave passageway. A quick turn to the left brought us suddenly back out into the sunlight, and my eyes shut immediately in protest.
When I could see again I noticed that we were standing on dirt, in a narrow aisle between two of the mud-cave buildings. There were half a dozen children here: several naked boys and in contrast, two girls in beautiful woven cotton garments. They smiled shyly. The lighting was dramatic and I explained to the guide I wanted to photograph them. He spoke in rapid Arabic to the children, and I was allowed to position one of the girls as I needed. I took three pictures. Seeing I was finished, all six children rushed towards me waving outstretched hands. I wanted to give them something for their patience, yet I had no idea what to give. I had never been 25,000 years in the past before. What do cave children want? Would they be able to do anything with 20th century money? Would not a slice of goat cheese or a piece of flint be of greater value?
I deferred to the guide, who recommended one dirham for each girl (about 10 cents). I found the proper change and was about to hand it over, but the motion of reaching into my pocket betrayed me. All six begin waving their outstretched hands and I lost my nerve again, surrounded by this forest of palms. I handed the coins to the guide and watched to see how he would deal with the situation. The man pointed succinctly to each of the two girls, saying something which might have been “You! and You!”. Then handed each a one-dirham piece. Turning to the others, as they began yelling and waving their hands, he brought both arms up and across his chest, then brought them down again sharply in a dual-cutting motion and spoke harshly something I understood: “C’est Fini!” (That’s it!.) I think that this bi-lingual man had forgotten he should use Arabic, for none of the children spoke French, but his meaning was not lost on them. They turned away happily and went off to play amongst the cave dwellings.
We walked along the open passageway, turned some tight corners, entered another doorway and climbed a wood-stick ladder through an opening out onto the roof. From here we could see across the tops of these strange cave buildings and it seemed a good time for Derry and me to begin asking the host of questions that now confronted us
“The name of this village is Amzrou.” our guide explained. “It is the last dwelling before the dunes began. We will see the dunes shortly. These buildings are actually condominiums.”
“How do the people pay for them?” I asked. Thinking back on how hard it was to come up with money for the own down-payment on our own first house, I could not imagine how these people had achieved the necessary wealth. “They are traders.” explained the guide. “Everyone here also owns similar places in other parts of the desert. They make their profits on trade goods they bring in from Mauritania, or Algeria, or Timbuctou in Mali. Algeria is very close, you know, only fifty kilometers to the east.” (We were over two hundred kilometers from the Club Med back in Oaurazate. For some reason the fact that Algeria was closer than our hotel was a little unsettling.) “And Timbuctou is straight south, 52 days by camel. There are no roads, of course.”
“Who lives here?” I asked. “Do they all belong to one tribe?”
“No, many tribes. Some are Bedouins, some Berbers. The different colors and style of robe indicates the tribe.” He pointed out a large, open room with no roof which we could see from our vantage point. “That is a common area for travelling caravans. Every village around the desert has such a place. Hospitality is an ingrained part of this culture. Any traveler can stay there, and food will be brought for them. ”
We climbed back down and followed our guide through some more parts of the cave. Soon we found ourselves walking down a narrow alleyway between neck-high mud walls. We were out of the town now, and past the walls I could see an oasis of palm trees. I stood on tiptoe and peered over one of these walls and into a lush green area, with a pleasant stream flowing through it. “That is a play area, for children” he explained. “The villagers planted those trees, and grass, and diverted some of the Draa river so there would be a stream.” I was impressed. This neolithic civilization had actually produced a town park and appeared to have kept it up better than many I had seen in America.
Finally the mud walls faded to nothingness, palms and high grasses took their place. We came to a miniature bridge, underwhich flowed a trickle of water. On the other side of this was a rough fence-like structure made from twisted palm fronds. There was a white painted sign on it, with black letters in both French and Arabic. It said “National Moroccan Conservation Project. Perimeter of the Dune-Fixation Area.”
I looked behind the sign and through the fence, at the hill rising immediately beyond it. The hill seemed to want to come closer. It was already pushing through the fence. I looked at it more carefully. The hill was made entirely of sand. I looked down at my feet. I wasn’t on dirt anymore, I was on sand: clean, pale, fine sand. We had reached the Sahara desert.
The dune towered 200 feet over us, and the grasses that had been planted on it as part of the conservation project only survived near its base. Our guide began walking through the sand to the left of the dune. We tried to follow, but were unable. Derry was wearing only thin sandals and they did not protect her against this overheated desert sand She could not continue so I carried her piggy-back. Here on my first Saharan dune, in the scorching heat, as my own shoes sank deeply I seemed to have limitless energy. I had achieved my goal, and nothing could have slowed me down.
The guide brought us to a stop at the top of a small rise from which we could look out far to the south. In the clear air we were seeing perhaps fifty or sixty miles, and it was all sand dunes. I stared at them as a hungry man stares at food, as a thirsty man stares at water, as a Moroccan guide stares at tourists, trying by my gaze to somehow possess them and make them a part of me. I don’t know how long I stared, trancelike, at this spectacle, for time has no meaning when looking at the Sahara desert. But it had a meaning to Derry: “Let’s go back now”, she said hopefully. This comment at least brought me out of my reverie, even if it was not sufficient to pull me away from the dunes.
From this new vantage point I could look more closely at the dune we had first encountered. A large wooden platform had been built on top of it and a man, small in the distance, was standing on this platform and gazing out steadfastly over the barren wastes. “He is a fire-watcher.” said our guide. “To keep the dunes from advancing every piece of vegetation is important. If a fire starts in this dry heat, it will burn quickly, enabling the dunes to advance farther. As you can see, they are already close enough to be a threat to Amzrou. ”
This was a new concept. These romantic dunes, which I’m certain constituted the end of the Road to Morocco for Dorothy Lamour, and now for us as well, were viewed as the enemy by the people who actually lived amongst them. It was a slow yet perpetual battle of man versus nature. I looked out over this desert sea again, trying to fix it forever in my mind, and also trying to see it through these villagers eyes as a threatening adversary. Yet to me it was only beautiful: a wild, exotic part of the world. Timeless and somehow magical, the Sahara Desert fulfilled all of my expectations.
Except for one. “Where are the camels?” I asked the guide. I don’t see any camels!” The guide looked around. He didn’t see any camels either. “Well, I’m certain we can find some camels”, he said. “They come and go, with the beduoins. But don’t worry, we will find them.” As we turned to head back to the village, we noticed that a small boy on a donkey was watching us with mild curiosity from fifty feet away. His skin was dark black, as were many of the natives here. This far south there were many sub-saharan immigrants. I wondered if this boy’s parents had come from Chad or Mali or maybe even Nigeria. Seeing he had been noticed, he smiled shyly, and in that moment inspiration came to me. I suggested to the guide that the boy’s donkey be employed in carrying Derry back to the village.
The guide proposed this to the boy who enthusiastically agreed. Derry climbed on and off they went. The boy led the donkey at first, then at my urging climbed on as well. The donkey trotted back down the dunes, over the stream, and through the walled alleyway towards the village. The guide and I had to hurry to keep up with them. I had not found a camel but Derry had found a donkey, and she was delighted. At first she held tightly to the animal’s short mane, then as confidence developed, she let go altogether and rode with her hands in the air as if she were a circus performer.
Back in Amzrou and away from the hot sand Derry climbed down and I paid the boy one Dirham. With the guide leading we began walking along the outer wall of the town although I had no idea where he was taking us. A woman, veiled entirely in a black robe with only a small hint of her eyes visible, approached us from the other direction. I asked the guide if it was permitted for me to take a picture of the woman. “Ha! Permitted?” he laughed. “We’ll make it permitted!” He ran towards the woman and grabbed her around the waist. She screamed and struggled. He swung her towards me. “Quick, take a picture!” he yelled.
I was in shock. He had just grabbed this woman off the street, as it were, and was now trying to subdue her while she struggled to break free. He was holding her with one arm and with the other was trying to wrench off her veil, while at the same time trying to maneuver her closer in my direction. This would have been outlandish behavior even in America. In a culture where women are not allowed to even show their face, let alone be touched by any male but their husbands, I could only imagine that this would be looked on as the scandal of the century. I could see us getting thrown in prison or more likely in Amzrou getting stoned by angry peasants. While these thoughts were going through my head, my hands were automatically adjusting the focus and zoom settings on my camera. The woman had already been assaulted, I reasoned. Taking her picture was not going to make anything worse. I clicked the shutter twice, then swiftly hid the camera in its belt pack, hoping no on-looker had seen my part in the affair. I had just finished closing the latch on the pack when I looked up and realized they both were laughing. “It’s OK” he said, “She’s my neighbor.” They both were laughing uncontrollably now: our guide, and the amorphous collection of black robes. The guide hadn’t succeeded in pulling off her veil, and maybe he had only been pretending to try. But they say Arab women are able to project their personality through their eyes, and I noticed her eyes now. They were laughing, exhilirated, and trying to assume a shyness and modesty her laughter belied.
This was the most human side of any Moroccan I had ever witnessed. For days we had been seeing these mysterious veiled women, assuming them to be cold, aloof creatures. Now I realized it was all a pose. There were normal human beings inside those robes, and if their only contact with the outside world was through their eyes, well, they made sure those eyes were something you wouldn’t forget. She waved good by and continued on in the opposite direction, leaving me somehow with a very warm feeling about the country.
Our guide now led us through another doorway and back into the cave dwelling. As we stepped inside and accustomed our eyes to the blackness, I noticed a strange wooden container on the floor. It resembled an oblong drum, and I asked our guide what it was. I didn’t recognize the words in French, so he called to a young girl who had appeared from further inside the dark recesses. She was very proud of this object and I gathered that it was in some way connected with her responsibilities. She upended it skillfully, although it must have weighed almost as much as she did. Looking around the rock floor she found a long wooden stick, or mallet. She placed this inside the object, and began a circular up and down motion. Our guide reached inside, pulled out a few kernels of grain and showed them to us. Apparently the device was for pounding the grain.
We continued on into this new cave, and found ourselves in a large inner room. Here was luxury. Moroccan carpets were spread on the rock floor. One was hanging from the ceiling as a divider. Beyond the divider I thought I could see an open fire burning, and a rudimentary pot hanging over this fire. Robed shadowy people were behind this curtain. In our side of the room several completly naked small boys came and greeted us with smiles and undisguised fascination. The young girl with the wheat pounder came back in, and re-joined the figures behind the curtain. Our guide exchanged words with those we couldn’t see and then motioned to Derry to go behind the curtain. I started to follow, but our guide laid an arm on my shoulder. “No” he said, somewhat sternly. “That is the women’s area. You cannot go there.”
That made sense, but it meant Derry would be walking back there all alone, without even the security of our guide. Who was back there? What strange rituals might be performed by cave people behind a curtain? Why did this room have to be so dark? Derry gave a last glance in my direction, as if to say “Don’t worry, I’ll be all right”, and then dissapeared behind the curtain. She was being very brave. The naked boys meanwhile were beseiging me with questions of their own, which the guide interpreted. I had them try to guess where I was from, and they guessed France. I think it’s the only other country they’d heard of. They all wanted to shake my hand and I obliged them, although their hands felt like caked dirt. One of them now scurried behind the curtain and returned with a glass of liquid which he offered to me. I took it reluctantly, doubting the glass had ever been washed in the boy’s lifetime, and certain that whatever was inside the glass would not be to my liking. I grasped it with both hands and brought it gingerly to my lips, tasting it as I might taste coffee that I knew would be too hot to swallow. It was tea, no more than luke warm, and sweeteend thickly with sugar. That one cup of tea must have contained no less than five or six teaspoons of sugar.
I was fascinated by the experience. Here we were in an actual Moroccan household by an oasis on the edge of the desert. Here apparently was a normal bedouin family, enjoying a routine afternoon tea, inside a mud cave. And we were being extended classic Arab hospitality.
After twenty minutes Derry re-emerged from behind the curtain, her eyes wide and her smile genuine. She looked at me and seemed to be saying “You have been here in this outer room, but I have been behind the curtain!” Later she reported that they had served her tea as well, with all of them sitting cross-legged on the floor. As people will do who speak nothing of each others’ languages, they had made themselves understood with heavy reliance on sign language. They had wanted to know if she had any children. When she explained that she had a one year old boy, they had asked if he was still nursing or not. They wanted to know how long babies nursed in her country. To me these seemed like very female concerns, but then Derry reminded me that it was the women’s area.
It was now time to leave and I wanted to give these children something, at least to show our hostess our appreciation of her hospitality. But would this be an insult? I discussed it with the guide, speaking softly to avoid being overheard, and he suggested one dirham apeice for the three boys. After I passed out the coins one of them wanted my address in America. I gave him my business card, which he took from me and looked at with awe. From his expression, I knew that this card would become one of his prized possessions, which was a better reaction than I can expect from most business associates. We emerged into the sunlight, as if from a dream, braced now for whatever the guide might show us next.
We walked along in the dusty sunlight and soon turned into another cave opening. This time we came into a room with a dirt floor. A large opening in the ceiling emitted a broad beam of sunlight which threw harsh shadows on the rock walls. Two men, one old and gnarled, the other perhaps in his twenties, were sitting cross-legged on the dirt. The older man was working at something with his hands and barely looked up. The younger man rose and greeted our guide as if they were friends. They spoke in French, which seemed odd. Everywhere else in Amzrou our guide had spoken to the natives in Arabic. He explained to the man that we were Americans and though we spoke French we could understand it better if it were spoken slowly. I thought this a diplomatic way to put it.
The younger man, barefoot in a white robe and with a black turban around his head, turned to us, smiled, and shook our hands. He began explaining what the gnarled man was doing on the floor. “He is making jewelry.” he said. We looked closely and saw small pieces of silver with dirt being packed around them dexterously by this man’s fingers. With the help of this new guide, we were shown that clay molds were being made. The silversmith had wooden plugs around which he packed dirt scooped up off the floor. Within arms reach was a small fire built in the ground and controled by a bellows. The man would place the objects in the fire, and heat them sufficiently to harden the dirt. He would then break them in half, remove the wood plug, and then tie the two halves back together with a twine-like filament. An extrusion in the original plug now produced a hole in the fired clay, into which could be poured molten silver. Scrap silver was nearby, apparently for this purpose.
The young man explaining this spoke excellent French, even better than did our guide. It was almost the equal of the French spoken by the young brunette from Paris, back at the Club Med. We listened to his explanations attentively, yet not quite sure what was going on. We could understand the primitive silversmith knealing on a dirt floor. But how did it happen that a young Arab, speaking perfect French, and obviously experienced as a tourguide, was also here? Something about this situation was making me nervous.
When the full process of silversmithing had been explained, the young man stood up and ushered us back to the cave passageway. We followed him past several doors, until he choose one and entered into it, beckoning us to follow. This was a courtyard, open to the air. Moroccan carpets were here in great abundance, far beyond what would be required for decoration. It had to be a carpet shop.
That explained it! Our new guide was a carpet salesman. Of course he was well versed in French, and adept at talking to foreigners. We were not the first he had seen. The man was obviously going to try to sell us a carpet. In true Levantine fashion he approached this destination circuitously. Ushering us into an inner room off the courtyard he sat us down and motioned us to wait. Soon he returned with several glass cups and a silver tea pot. Our original guide was sitting with us as well, and all were sitting cross legged as the situation demanded. Due to some defect in my architecture I have never been able to sit cross legged so I stood, politely refusing the suggestions that I be seated. It occured to me that by standing I might be rendering a horrible insult to someone in this culture, yet I did not have a choice. I knew my anatomy would not bend in that way. Further, if this tea ceremony was soon to turn into a sales pitch, I knew I could best preserve an upper hand, by maintaining a higher physical presence. I was not going to be intimidated psychologicaly .
The salesman, for that is what I now considered him, proceeded to explain to us in great detail how carpets were made. Each point he brought out required a physical example, which in turn required a different carpet to be pulled from the nearby stacks. In this way carpet after carpet was passed to us for inspection. The process was cunning. Ostensibly the man was merely taking his own time to show us something intersting about his culture. How could we leave? In truth, the salesman was merely showing us his wares.
Our original guide, who had taken a seat beside Derry and was enjoing the tea, suggested the man explain to us the difference between “live thread” and “dead thread”. (“Fils vivant et fils mort”). The salesman pulled a thread from a nearby carpet, and lit it with a match. A flame arose, and he quickly puffed it out, leaving it smoldering. He held this smoldering thread up to my nose, asking me to smell it. It smelt like burnt polyester. He then took a thread from another carpet, and repeated the process. This one smealt very different, somehow organic, like a human hair being scorched. That was the distinction. A carpet made from “fils vivant” was from actual living fibers, be they plant or animal. “Fils mort” was synthetic fabric.
This was all very interesting, but the afternoon was waning and I had not yet found my camel. I was willing to buy a carpet, in fact I had wanted to buy a carpet in Morocco, so I saw no reason to drag this process out. I turned to the salesman, choosing my words carefully. “I assume these carpets are for sale.” I said abrubtly. To this the salesman could only nod and reply “Yes, in fact they are.” I seemed to have upset him in some undefined way. Perhaps by taking the initiative I was leap frogging his sales pitch.”Perhaps we would like to buy one” I continued, “but we are short on time. I suggest we look them over now.” I was proud of this speech. In a few words I had taken control of the situation. Derry and I began looking through the carpets. There were at least three hundred. I realized we needed some more information.
“How much do these carpets cost” I asked, knowing I would get anything but a straight answer, much less a true one. “Oh, that depends”, he said. “Some are very expensive, some are very inexpensive.” That reminded me of a professor in college who, when asked how long our term paper should be always responded with his favorite joke: “Just as long as a girl’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject, yet short enough to be interesting.” I had never been amused by that answer, and I wasn’t amused now.
“Of course”, I said. “Now tell me, how much is the most expensive one, and how much is the least expensive one?” He gave me a range. Derry and I continued looking through the carpets. This was difficult. We were not sure which room in our house needed a carpet, how large a carpet might be appropriate, or what colors would go best. The selection was so vast it was as if we had been thrust unexpectedly into the New York public library and asked what book we might like to read. But after a few minutes there was only one carpet I was interested in. It was red and orange and blue and green, and all of these colors blended perfectly, and were interwoven in unique designs. The first time I saw it I flicked past it faster than any others, so the salesman would not know my heart had been captured. Only much later did I reluctantly return to it, trying to make my interest appear merely random.
Derry’s and my experience at the village in the Atlas mountains served us in good stead here, for now began a period of bargaining that continued for two hours. I knew the price I was willing to pay. This was less from my familiarity with world carpet markets than from my familiarity with our bank account. I used this as a bargaining point. The salesman went off into great adventures of eloquence to impress upon us how many hours it had taken some poor tribe on the other side of the desert to make this carpet, how the white threads in it were of pure silk which had been imported, how the yellow fibers were “fils vivant” from saffron plants. I accepted all this with a wave of my hand. “Yes, of course,” I agreed “It is a very good carpet. It is so good we probably cannot afford it, yet unfortunately it is the only one I am interested in. Perhaps we won’t be able to buy anything after all.” This was my theme, and it frustrated the man for he realized that the more he stressed the quality of the carpet, the more I would commiserate with him on the tragedy of its being beyond our reach. He asked me to make an offer. This part was always difficult for me: the offer. I knew it had to be far lower than what I would ultimately pay, yet I could not trust myself to state a price with any appearance of sincerity. Having to phrase everything including the important nuances in French did not help my situation. Or perhaps it did. He may have realized he could not trust himself to interpret our tones as he might usually have done. Our tones may have come primarily from poor accents.
After 90 minutes we had reached an impasse and the salesman realized this. “Perhaps you have some things you would be willing to trade” he suggested. “I buy these carpets from the travelling bedouins, who come from Mauritania. There may be things you have that they would find useful.” My mind quickly inventoried all the things we had brought, not merely to Morocco, but down here in the car to Amzrou, and which we might be willing to trade. I had a pair of jeans that was almost new and which I could give up. I also had the cordura nylon bag that had so impressed the stone carvers in the mountains. I excused myself, found my way out of the cave and eventually to the car itself, pulled out the jeans and the bag, and returned.
The arab was impressed with both items. At first he said they had bags like this in his country, but as he talked he inspected it more closely, and finally confessed to our guide that it was a very different material than any he had ever seen. It was obviously very strong. He asked how much it cost in America, and I gave him a price which was approximately double the truth. He threw up his hands in horror, quickly setting aside the bag, yet symbolically laying one hand back on the jeans.
The negotiation continued, all of us were getting tired. Our guide realized we might soon leave without making any purchase. He proposed that we split the difference between my latest offer and the salesman’s last price. The salesman turned on him savagely: “How could you propose such a thing! My cost is greater than that!” “I’m only trying to help,” said our guide. “We are all of us in a hurry. If you can’t sell for that, you can’t.” “I can’t!” said the salesman.
This obviously rehearsed act was annoying me. I put my arm on each of their shoulders, squatting down as best I could in their fashion. “It is time I explained something to you,” I said. “Do you know what business I am in back in America?” Obviously they did not. “I am in the diamond business” I said. I had their full attention now. “I am very familiar with what you are doing. We do it all the time in the diamond business.” I smiled warmly. “So I think we all understand each other.” They both smiled back, somewhat abashedly I fancied.
“The price I have been offering is not a bargaining price,” I continued. “It is my best offer. We can settle this right now. If you can accept it, we will buy the rug, if you can’t, we will leave as friends.”
“I can’t accept it” he said.
“C’mon Derry, we’re leaving. I had to say this to Derry in French, which seemed unnatural. I took her by the arm and we walked towards the hole in the rock, which passed as a door.
“Wait! he said. Can you at least go to twenty-five hundred dirhams.” This price was only $30 more than my offer. “No”, I said. “Unless you include this other small rug.” Derry had found a small carpet she had thought would look nice hanging in our entryway at home.
“OK” he agreed. We shook hands. “And that includes the jeans, right?” He was still holding them. “No!” I said strongly. Perhaps too strongly. I grabbed the jeans violently. Derry turned on me, startled. She has rarely seen me get upset with anyone, but I was not putting on a show this time. It would be foolish for me to give up my jeans or my nylon bag. They did not have as much value to him as they did to me. Now I was incensed that he was trying to get them anyway when the negotiations were already over.
My genuine display of anger was apparent. The salesman backed down, pretending he had misunderstood, and we paid the bill. As we were turning to leave, he made one last attempt to obtain more of our money: “I also have gold and silver bracelets, in the other room!” he said hopefully. I was not interested in gold or silver bracelets. But I was intersted in Moroccan knives. “Do you have any knives?” I asked.
He led us into yet another room. One wall was composed of a knife collection, perhaps fifty strong. I had a rough idea of what a fair price was for a Moroccan knife. He knew I was short on time, and I knew he would take advantage of this. I selected a beautiful hand-made, curved dagger with a wooden handle and silver adornment. It was just what I wanted. He asked the equivalent of $60. I offered $25, telling him that was as high as I would go. He laughed at me. I took Derry by the shoulder and began to walk out. He quickly laid the knife in my hand and smiled. I paid him the $25.00.
As we said goodby to the carpet salesman I wondered what percentage of our purchase our “guide” would receive for having taken us to him. But it didn’t matter. I was happy with the carpets and with the knife.
Now it was late. We hurried back to the car and ignored the scortching metal as best we could as we climbed in. “Now for the camels!” I said. “Yes, the camels!” agreed the guide. “I know where there are camels. We will find a camel at all costs.” The man had not lost his sense of humour. He gave me directions and I turned back onto the main road, towards Zagora. A mile farther we turned off this road, onto a gravel path, which we followed for about two miles through barren rock. We came at last to another oasis, where the road ended. A small mud-brick structure had been built here, no more than 20 feet in diameter, with crumbling walls and no roof. There was a camel inside. But when we got out our guide ignored this animal and looked around until he found a robed man who might have been a caretaker. They spoke in Arabic at some length. Now the guide turned back to me, chagrined. “There were camels here” he said. “But they have gone away with their owners. They will be back tomorrow morning. Can you come back then?”
“No”, I said. “We must leave in a few minutes. But what of this camel here.” We walked over to the mud-brick corral. “This? Why this is only a baby camel!” He spoke the truth. This camel was no larger than three donkeys stacked one on the other, which is to say it was very small.
“But it is a camel, nonetheless!”, I reminded him. I was trying to hide my dissapointment through optimism. The guide realized this and quickly changed his approach “Quite right!”, he said. “It is a camel indeed! Let us look at it more closely.” We looked through the gaps in the adobe wall at this ugly animal. The camel was just as interested in us. He poked his head through. Our guide pulled some grass from nearby and handed it to him. The camel bit savagely, almost taking the guides hand with the grass. I petted the camels snout. The camel tried to bite my hand off. I gingerly tried to hand it some grass, hoping to make friends. The camel again tried to bite my hand off, and missing my hand sudddenly veered downwards and tried to bite my kneecap. I jumped back in fright. Had Dorothy Lamour been forced to endure such indignity? And this was only a baby camel.
“Well, time to go!” I said enthusiastically, as if this experience had fullfilled all my expectations regarding camels, leaving me ready to pursue other goals. In fact, I tried to convince myself that this was the case. I had now seen a camel, in fact touched a camel, here on the edge of the Sahara. Yet I had not ridden a camel. That was the whole point: to ride a camel. I knew there were no camels at Oaurzazate, everyone at the club had told us that. Then I remembered my first day in Tangier. We had passed two camels while riding in a taxi. We would be returning to Tangier before leaving Morocco. Perhaps I could find those camels again. If I could find them, I would ride them. With hope surging within me again we dropped our guide back at the hotel in Zagora and returned to the Club Med at Oaurazate. We were just in time for the soiree.
The Search for the Camel
The one tourgroup had departed, and another had arrived. We did not have much time to meet them, as our arrival came in the middle of the first event of tonight’s soiree, the snake handlers. We changed into our evening clothes and joined the group in the lounge, where the snake handler was already far advanced in his program.
From a small wooden box on the floor he was pulling snakes, perhaps at random or perhaps with consideration of each one’s attributes. Some snakes he would intwine around each other. Others he would swallow, head first, until only their tails were sticking out of his open mouth. He took one snake by the neck and walked around the room, holding him out for each of us to inspect. The elegant women recoiled from it in horror, as was expected of them, but I had faced camels, donkeys, and carpet salesman earlier in the day, so I reached out and petted the snake. “Quelle gentil serpent!” (what a nice snake!) I exclaimed. The snake handler smiled in appreciation of this compliment, then on second thought regarded me strangely, not quite sure if I was joking.
The outdoor table at which we found ourselves seated that evening consisted primarily of Club Med staff members. Inevitably, or perhaps with my encouragement, the subject turned to camels. We explained our ill-fated quest for camels. “Where are all the camels?”, I asked. “Is this not Morocco?” The opinion at the table was sharply divided. All but one assured us that there were no camels in Oaurzazate, had never been for that matter. They did not know why this was so, but there it was.
The dissenting party was a young man who was head of maintainence for the Club. He agreed camels were scarce, but insisted they were not unknown. “In fact”, he said, “I own one”. This remark was greeted with utter surprise and some disbelief by the others. “Yes it’s true” he continued. “I bought this camel when it was a baby. Now it is full grown. I keep it on the other side of town. If you would like”, he said turning to us, “I will take you there tomorrow. And I know where there are other camels, too.”
“Where?” I asked. My senses were now at full alert, despite the quantity of rose I’d consumed to help my French. “At the lake”, he said. “You go out to the lake northeast of town. In 17 kilometers there’s another road which leads down to the lake. Go down this road and there are camels there.”
I set this knowledge firmly and neatly into a small compartment in my brain, and remembered very little of the rest of the evening. The next day we set off in search of the camels. The first step was to search for the maintaince man but we could not find him. Perhaps he was with his camel already. It did not matter. We had exact directions to the lake. The Chef Du Village saw us heading out the door and asked where we were going today. “Off to find a camel!” I stated smugly. He shook his head regretfully. “There are no camels in Oaurzazate” he said. Turning to the pretty blond receptionist he asked “Are there any camels around here?” “No, there are no camels here”, she agreed. “Nonetheless, we intend to find them,” I said. I knew they were both wrong. The Chef watched as the two crazy Americans drove out of the gravel courtyard.
Seventeen kilometers into the rock desert we found the road turning off towards the lake and followed it. I had been surprised to learn there was a lake in the area for I could not imagine how it avoided instant evaporation. Yet the map had shown it, and we could now see its blue water in the distance. Finally we came to a wooden bar across the road, hinged, so it could be raised up to allow authorized entrance. A sunburned and robed arab stood guard at this gate. Normally this would have caused me to hesitate, but I was in full camel-fever now. I could almost smell the animals up ahead. I rolled down the window. “Can we go in?” I asked. Security was lax for the man nodded and opened the gate. As I drove through I began to wonder who the man would not have allowed in. There was no fence connected to the gate. There was nothing around at all. Just this gate. I didn’t let myself worry about it, concentrating instead on the task ahead. A quarter mile later the road came to a complete end. A path led down from the small parking area we were now in, apparently to the lake. Beside us was parked a tour bus. I wasn’t sure how to read this. It might have been a bad or good sign, insofar as our camel search was concerned. Looking ahead, we could see a party of about twenty men and women, obviously from the bus, now returning up the hill from the lake. I could not imagine what was down the path that was worthy of this tour bus, unless it might be Morocco’s last wild heard of camels. I asked the nearest man now approaching us. “Are there camels down there?” “I don’t know” he said. That was odd. Why would he not know, if they’d been down looking at camels? The man was obviously a fool. “This man here would know.” He pointed to someone who might have been the tour guide.
“We’re looking for camels” I explained. “Are there camels down there?” “Camels?” he looked at me questioningly. “There are no camels down there!” “What is down there?” I asked. Somehow I had known there would be no camels. Yet I couldn’t let the conversation end so abruptly “A hydro electric plant” he answered, and climbed back into the bus. The bus drove away.
“Thirty tourists came out into this nothingness to look at a hydro electric plant?” Derry said to me in amazement and disgust. “You see Derry” I explained loftily, “aren’t you glad we don’t join those organized tours!” We climbed back into the car, dissapointed. It had not been a long drive, yet it had been for nothing. We headed back down the road towards Oaurzazate and the Club Med. Our travelling would be over for today. We had failed in our quest, yet we could still enjoy the afternoon sun at the pool. Tomorrow we would begin the trip back to Gibralter. There was still hope we would have time to find a camel in Tangier, yet I had come to discount this possibility. I mentally girded myself to live with this dissapointment.
We were back at the Club’s entrance by noon, and I prepared to turn off the main road and onto the gravel drive. I signalled the turn, and then hit the brakes. There was a camel crossing the driveway. “My God! It’s the real thing!” I screamed. This was no baby camel. This monster was full grown, probably fifteen feet high. A young man was riding on him with a short stick in hand for steering the animal. “What are you going to do?” Asked Derry excitedly. “Do?”, I shouted. “My God what do you think I’m going to do? I’m going to ride it!” I veered to the side of the driveway, pulling off just far enough to not be a traffic obstacle. I turned off the engine and was out of the car in no time.
Here came the guides. Dozens of little boys and a couple of adolescents. Something was going on here and they could smell it in the wind. Fine. Let them come. I had eyes only for the camel, and the exalted man who was riding it. “Good afternoon!” I greeted him. “That’s a nice camel you’ve got there.” He smiled in friendly fashion, turning the camel back to talk with me. He paraded his animal back and forth two or three times. All the guides were smiling. To them what was interesting was not the camel, it was the two American tourists making a spectacle of themselves. “I would like to ride the camel!” I said, smiling effusively. There. I had said it. Eighteen years ago in Turkey I hadn’t had the courage to utter those seven simple words. Now I did, and I had. I waited expectently, knowing those words were going to bring me a camel ride. He grinned again, but was looking puzzled. I said the seven words again, but still got no response. This wasn’t going right. An older boy stepped forth from the guides, spoke to the camel driver, and then turned to me. “He wants to know what you want,” the bystander explained. I suddenly realized the camel driver didn’t speak French. “I want to ride the camel!” I said to the interpreter. I did not care if I was making a speactacle of myself. This camel was not going to leave until I was through with it.
The bystander spoke in Arabic to the camel driver, who smiled indulgently. He made some motions with his stick, and spoke something–perphaps in camel–to his beast. This caused a horrible noise to erupt. “YYYEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH. YYEEEEEEAAAAAAH.” This was the camel talking. It was not happy with the turn of events. It’s master was ordering it to kneel down on all fours, which required that it fold up all four of its legs like a jackknife. The camel could do this, but it didn’t enjoy doing it.
I now had time to study the animal, which was a mistake. It was one of the most disgusting things I had ever laid eyes on. It’s fur was matted, gnarled and splotchy. It’s head was covered with flies. Rabid-looking foam was drooling from its mouth. I’d seen dead squirrels by the side of the road that were better looking than this camel. But the cosmetics of the situation did not trouble me. The big event was about to happen. The camel driver was motioning me to get onto the camels back. There was no saddle, only a small carpet and a rope, and the man was now standing on the ground holding the rope. The camel driver spoke again in Arabic to the translator, who cautioned me to hold on very tightly to the camels fur, directly in front of the carpet. He showed me how to do this with his own hands and I held on firmly for I did not want to fall off after coming so far.
The caution was justified. A sharp command was spoken to the animal, who bellowed more furiously now, and unbent its rear legs. This sent the entire surface on which I was poised slanting forward to a near verticle angle. I wasn’t holding on to the fur now. I was pushing against it to keep from sliding off over the camels head. The problem corrected itself as the front legs came up and equilibrium was restored. The camel looked around proudly, as if to dispell any notion of wounded pride. Now the camel driver looked at me expectantly. He was not sure what I wanted to do next.
“Une petite tour! Une petite tour!” I cried, feeling like some ancient sheik, now commanding my slave to take me and my camel for a walk in the desert. I’m sure my smile was infectious for all those around were smiling as well. Off we went, Derry following closely behind, taking pictures as rapidly as she could advance the film. I knew that I must look like the quintessential dumb tourist, and I did not mind at all. For once I was going to allow myself to be a dumb tourist.
Far, far too soon we had come full circle and were now back to the car. I realized the tour was over. The camel bellowed again, and down we went, like a jackknife folding up. I dismounted with what I hoped looked like confidence.
I now wanted to pay something for the ride. I walked over to the driver. “I’d like to give you 10 dirhams” I said, smiling. “How about 15?” he replied smiling. Apparently when it came to money, he was perfectly capable of speaking French. I gave him the $1.50 this represented. He deserved every penny of it. I knew it had taken skill to find that camel. I’d been looking for days. I gave fifty cents to the interpreter as well.
We climbed back in the car and continued up the drive to the Club’s entrance, my hands unsteady on the wheel from an ecstacsy of fulfillment. I had actually ridden a camel! And I had seen the sand dunes. The quest was fulfilled. Dorothy Lamour now held nothing over me. (A small voice within me noted that it might have been better to have ridden the camel on the sand dunes, but I dismissed this as utopian.)
“We saw you down there riding the camel!” said the Chef du Village as we walked back in the door. “Yes”, I admitted. “It took awhile, but we finally found the one camel in this whole region.” I walked off smugly, comfortable in the impression I hoped we made that American’s were able to do anything we wished, even to the point of finding camels when it suited us.
Lunch was now being served, and we had not yet had a lunch at the Club Med, only breakfasts and dinners. I was curious to see how big an affair would be made of a simple lunch. A long table had been set up in the dining room. It was filled with a large selection of salads, cold pastas, cold meats and vegetables. It was a good choice for the club to have made in this hot climate, to serve only cold food at lunch. I filled my plate ravenously, went back for seconds, and finally collapsed in my chair, bloated. Then, out of the corner of my eye I noticed steam rising from another long table, set outdoors under an awning. “What’s that?” I asked of those seated with us. “Those are the main courses”, a woman explained “As soon as you’ve had enough salad, you go fill your plate over there. But save room for the desert table”, she cautioned.
My sense of fulfillment continued long into the afternoon with respect to that meal, but an emptiness began gnawing at me when I reconsidered the camel ride. It had been no more than a five minute camel ride. I wasn’t sure it was possible to wipe clean an 18 year quest with only five minutes of camel. Could I honestly say I had had my fill? I found I could not. The sun shone hotly while we relaxed by the pool, yet clouds were gathering in my mind as I realized I would need to track down those Tangier camels after all. There was no sense doing something halfway. I wanted the slate wiped clean.
The Re-Match With Tangier
We left the Club late that afternoon and drove to the airport. He was there all right: the man that had been sent to pick up our car. It may have been the first time anything has gone according to plan in Morocco. Our flight re-traced exactly where we had driven by car: from Oaurzazate back over the Atlas to Marrakesh, then to Agadir, and finally to Casablanca. I found it strangely nostalgic, seeing each city in turn. Each day in Morocco we had adapted further and become more adept at life in this strange and tantalizing country. I was no longer bothered by guides, I no longer feared bandits in the hills. I knew what was inside those swallows-nest villages, and what the people were like who lived in them. If I were just now getting off the ferry in Tangier I thought I would be able to handle things much better. In fact I was looking forward to our rematch with that city which we had fled in frustration.
It was now Tuesday night. There were no more flights from Casablanca until morning, so we stayed over at the Hotel Transatlantique, downtown. Our Berber taxi driver was eager to talk as he drove us the 15 miles into the city, for Americans were rare in this country he said. Most tourists were French, although the English and the Germans were not unknown. He volunteered to return in the morning in time to take us back to the airport.
The Transatlantique was unintentionally a very Bogart-esque hotel. It emanated pre-war decadence and seemed to look back to a day of former glory, although I could not imagine how far back it must have had to look. It seemed the kind of place a dispirited travelling salesman might go to die. Yet it was not unclean and after a long day, a day in which camels had been ridden, its beds were comfortable.
Our ride back to the airport in the morning gave us a better chance to see Casablanca. It was white, in keeping with its name, yet it was a dirty white. One might call it a dishwater white. Our taxi driver was eager to point out the sights such as they were. Most involved government buildings which at least had stately gardens and Grecian pillars to their credit. Outside the opera house a sign said “Les Eagles”, Rock-Groupe Americain, June 12-14th. The Eagles at an opera house in Casablanca? This called forth a host of emotions as I tried to reconcile the cultural mix. Had the Africa I had longed for, for so many years, finally been overcome by modern civilization? Or had the Eagles, a group I admired, fallen so low that they were forced to retreat to third-world audiences? Probably both, I decided.
After a short flight and now back at the Tangier airport we faced the problem of what to do with the next 24 hours, and where to stay. We needed to leave for Gibralter the following day.
There was a Club Med in a fashionable suburb near Tangier called Malabata, and I had it in mind to try again to stay with no reservation. It would certainly be the best place to spend 24 hours. As we waited for our luggage I noticed several girls seated at a snack counter wearing Club Med t-shirts. Could it be they were from the nearby Club, and would be returning, and could even give us a ride? I asked them, but unfortunately they were from a different Club Med, 90 minutes away, near Tetuan. However they were certain we could get in at Malabata, and suggested we just hire a taxi and go.
It had taken considerable effort to find out there were Club Meds in Northern Morocco. The english-language brochures the Club distributes in the United States make no mention of them, except for three extra pinpoints in northern Morrocco on their world map. For weeks I had placed phone calls to the Club’s offices in the U.S. trying to find out about these extra pinpoints. Some told me they did not exist. Others admitted they existed, but said they were only “French” clubs, ie. no english was spoken, hence they weren’t listed in the American brochures. These phantom clubs came to have a strange fascination for me since it had taken so much effort to prove their existence. We followed the girls’ advice and took a taxi to the Club Mediteranne at Malabata.
As we approached the information/registration desk and made our opening remarks in French we were astonished when the friendly girl behind the desk slipped automatically into english, apparently recognizing our accents. And this was fluent American english. She spoke it as well as we did. She was from Vancouver. Later we were to meet among the staff a native Englishman (the sailing instructor) with a brother in Ohio for whom he entrusted to us a letter for delivery; and even more surprising, a native Coloradan from Aspen. So we spoke much more English at this club–the existence of which had not even been suggested to us because of its pure french environment–than we had anywhere in Morocco.
Unlike Ouarzazate, Malabata was a village-club which spread over 20 acres adjacent to the Mediterranean. We were again welcomed warmly, but not quite so personally, for Malabata is huge. There had been no more than 30 guests at a time at Oaurzazate. Here there were probably 300. The grounds were beautiful, the brochure had described them as “tres fleuri” (very flowered). There were elegant, lush lawns; sprawling tropical trees, countless flowers and well trimmed shrubbery. The architecture of the buildings containing the guest rooms was North African, that is white and cubical, while the administrative buildings and common areas looked almost Jamaican in their officias elegance.
The pool complex sprawled over at least two acres, with several deck areas for sunbathing, a continuously open bar, and adjacent sports rooms. As the day was warm and sunny, and we were not adverse to some additional relaxing, we went here first. After claiming a spot of our own for sunbathing we began studying those around us and soon noticed something else different about this club. First, almost everyone was topless, but here the girls were uniformly beautiful and most of them appeared to be single. Judging by what we saw at the pool and elsewhere around the club, women outnumbered men by almost three to one.
One particularly attractive blonde walked into the pool area fully covered in a light summer dress. Finding a spot near the water, and in full view of everyone—fortunately including ourselves—she proceeded to undress. Kicking off her sandals she reached behind and unbuttoned her dress. Letting it fall to her ankles she stepped out of it completely. Then, turning slightly, she unfastened the top of her bikini which she had been wearing underneath and set it on the ground. Then, moving gracefully, she lay down almost completly naked on her back.
As we sipped coffee and nervously chewed on cinamon rolls we watched this performance repeated not infrequently as women came and went over the next hour. I was beginning to realize why the existence of this club had been covered up in the U.S. If American men knew about it they would have swarmed here. It was a sexist male fantasy.
After an hour of watching these pool-side disrobings–and it was impossible not to watch–Derry and I were beginning to feel like voyeurs, so we set off to explore the rest of the grounds. I had by this point realized that Malabata was such a pleasant place it would be foolish to spend time trying to see more of Tangier, or of running around on a wild goose chase to find some silly camels.
Having accepted this completely, knowing it would mean no rematch with the city, and no camel ride I could point to longer than five minutes, I was taken completely aback as we rounded some shrubbery and came upon three camels sitting on the grass. They were obviously of a higher social order than the fly-specked creature back in the desert. These were nobel camels, I could see this at once. They had ornate wooden saddles set elegantly on deep red carpets which lay over their humps. Their bridals were of fine leather and brass. Their fur looked clean and recently brushed. And no fly had dared approach them.
“Holy Christ!” I whispered to Derry. “Do you see what I see?”
“I see camels” she said. “What do you see?” In this way I knew it was not a mirage. There were two men attending these magnificent animals. They regarded us pleasantly and one came over to greet us.
“Can we ride these camels?” I asked.
“Yes of course” he replied pleasantly. “That’s what they’re here for.”
I could not believe this was happening. We had spent a week traipising through the most barren country on earth in search of camels, and here were three of the finest just sitting on the grass waiting for us to ride them. And they were right here in Tangier, where we had started!
For a moment I couldn’t think, while my brain was working through this amazing development. Then I sprang into action. The irony could be sorted out later, I reasoned. The important thing now was to ride the camels, and for that I needed a camera. The camera was in our room so I would need to run back and get it. Derry should stay here to ensure that the camels didn’t escape.
I explained what I needed to Derry and the camel drivers and then took off in a run. While running I had time to consider that running was perhaps not necessary. We had come across these camels just sitting on the grass in the middle of the Club Med, and the man had said they were there to be ridden. He had honestly seemed as delighted to find us as we were to find him. The chances were heavily against the camels going anywhere no matter when I returned. Yet this was logic talking. I knew intuitively that camels don’t come easy, and I also knew that in a country in which hotel reservations get lost, luggage gets lost, even hotels almost get lost, that you can’t take anything for granted, least of all camels. I kept running.
Although it had only been a few minutes, I was just as surprised to find the camels actually back there waiting for me as I had been the first time I’d seen them. More surprising, the camels were lazily chewing on the leaves of nearby bushes. One of the camel drivers was actually lying down on the grass. Derry was enjoying the sunshine. Well, it was too late for them to get away now. I could tackle one of the camels if I had to.
The lead camel driver explained the alternatives: we could merely sit on the camel for a moment, we could walk around for a few steps and then get off, or we could take the “grand tour”: a full hour of camel riding.
“What would you like to do?” he asked politely.
I looked at him suspiciously. I had never heard such a stupid question in my life. “We want the grand tour, of course” I snapped.
Derry hadn’t realized she was going to be getting on a camel as well, but I waved aside her hesitations impatiently. “After all” I explained, “you’re already an accomplished donkey rider.” She seemed to take strength from this and I thought I detected a fleeting glimpse of pride as well. Soon we were both on camels being led down the path.
On camels it did not take long to tour the entire club, and our hour was far from over. “To the beach!” I commanded. I had remembered footage from a film starring Sean Connery and Candice Bergen: The Wind and the Lion. Camels being ridden along a beach by the sea had been prominently featured, and I saw no reason why our grand tour should not promently feature this as well.
As we left the gates of the club and headed across to the beach one of the Tangier guides finally caught up with us. He must have been following our trail for days. “Good morning!”, he said from the sidewalk. “My name is ‘Abdul'”.
“Good morning Abdul, it is a fine day, is it not?” I was in a recklessly friendly mood and knew I came to the situation possessing the upper hand for I was 10 feet above this young man looking down at him from my camel. “Will you be going to see the town later” he asked. “I will be very glad to take you there and show you around. You will get lost unless you go with someone who knows the area.”
I remembered our first day in Tangier when these parasites had defeated us and drove us from the city. I could well afford to toy with this one if it pleased me, and it did. “Well, Abdul, that is a very kind offer. But I do not think we are going to town, and I do not think we would need a guide if we did go.” I knew this speech would only encourage him, as it did. “Excellent” he replied, in the inimitable persistence of a Tangier guide. “I will be outside this gate from noon until three o’clock. I will meet you here. We will go see the city.”
“Good by Abdul”, I waved and our camel caravan passed on.
As we rode our camels along the beach, high-rise resort hotels were on one side of us, and looking out over the water we could see Tangier, perched above the bay and spread out in white. It looked beautiful, but I knew this was only because its guides were invisible at this distance. I tried to surpress the bitterness I was feeling but could not. I was still humiliated by the way we had been run out of the city.
As we left the beach and headed back towards the club I had time to focus on the mechanics of camel riding. For years I had tried to remember how that garbage man in Turkey had ridden on his camel. Since Africa only has the single-hump variety (technically called dromedaries), does one place the saddle on top of the hump–in which case what would keep it from sliding off–or forward of the hump–which would improve the center of gravity and provide a valley for the saddle to rest in but which might strangle the camel.
Looking directly below, all I saw was an immense wooden contraption under which were an infinity of blankets obscuring all vision. Yet I could see Derry, and her saddle and blankets were perched squarely on the top of the hump. Their weight must hold them there, I decided, and possibly the blankets and saddle were shaped in some concave manner that incorporated the hump. There was no girth as there would have been on a horse.
I also noticed that unlike on a horse in which one tends to move up and down as the horse walks or trots, on a camel one eases forwards and backwards. I tucked this tidbit into a far corner of my brain. One never knows when such knowledge might be useful.
And there was one more thing I was noticing about riding a camel. I was ready to get off. This realization crept up on me slowly, taking me completly by surprise as it needed to for I would have dismissed it if I had seen it approaching frontally. Yet, the truth was, a camel saddle is not the most comfortable thing in the world. And the motion a camel produces does not add to this comfort. And other than being able to cross a desert and consume no water for 45 days while carrying up to 500 pounds on its back, there wasn’t anything very special about a camel, I decided. Perhaps that’s why they had not caught on in America.
We dismounted at the end of our grand tour and set off to find lunch. I now knew, with satisfaction, I would be able to plan our next vacation without taking camels into consideration—which for me represented considerable progress.
Abdul had tried one last time as we re-entered the camp. “Go have lunch!” He had suggested. “I will be here when you are ready to go into town.” “No thank you Abdul” I had replied in equally friendly fashion, and had waved my hand again in parting. Yet after lunch–after another of those feasts in which ten long outdoor tables were covered with every food imaginable, much of it being cooked right there by chefs in long white robes–we decided to tackle Tangier. We had met a young Moroccan working at the Club’s bicycle concession earlier in the day named Joseph. He had been friendly and very interested in America. We found him again and mentioned that we were going into town. “If you wait a few minutes I’ll go with you,” he suggested, which is what we were hoping he’d say. “I need to buy something at the market.”
So we set off for the City, equipped now not only with our considerable Moroccan experience but with a native of Tangier who was going as our friend. However at the gates Abdul was waiting for us. He didn’t realize that his services were now redundant. In fact he still thought we were alone because Joseph was waiting outside past the gate, believing it inadvisable to be seen fraternizing with the guests. I could have waved and asked for Joseph to tell the man we didn’t need a guide, but something had been building in me for days, and I was ready to let it loose.
“Bonjour!” Abdul said upon seeing us. “I will take you first to the Kasbah.” He started following us down the street. Revenge for all my frustration at the hands of the guides was going to be focused into my next several words. This was going to be my moment, and I wanted to do it right.
“Abdul” I smiled pleasantly. “Yes, yes”, he said eagerly. “Where do you want to go first?” He was running up beside us now. I stopped in my tracks and turned on him forcefully.
I bellowed this out. Everyone on the block must have heard it. Abdul was stunned, frozen in his tracks. I have never seen shock registered so perfectly on a face. The magic incantation from Marrakesh had turned him into a stone figure. Then his shoulders dropped, he smiled meekly, waved dispiritedly, and turned away. Possibly it was the first time a Tangier guide has turned away from anyone. I watched him go, a little remorsefully. He was a beaten man, a broken man. Yet a fighting spirit welled up within me. We had won! We had faced up to a Tangier guide and beaten him. This was vengeance, this was success! It was inexpressably sweet.
We climbed into a taxi with Joseph, who was very proud of us, and drove victoriously to the Kasbah. Tangier looked entirely different to me now. No longer was I a scared tourist huddled behind the safety glass of a taxi, afraid even to step out to take a picture. For one thing, Tangier no longer looked exotic. In fact, after Zagora and Amzrou, Tangier was a modern western city. And as for the guides, well, I now had a tested incantation that could render them as harmless as a Superman confronted with Kryptonite.
Touring the Kasbah’s market in company with Joseph was effortless. Seeing him, the guides stayed away. And Joseph knew where he was going. He took us down tiny alleyways, through breaks in mysterious walls, into inviting crafts shops, and finally into the food market itself–the epicenter of the Kasbah. We had lost our ability to be scandalized by hanging goat heads and the like, yet here in Tangier’s food market even our deadened senses were tested. We walked along one covered alley for ten minutes, passing carcass after carcass of hanging skinned cow. Derry turned to say something to me, bumped into one, and screamed. Yet the bulging eyes of the corpse just stared unconcernedly. It was past the point of caring whether it was bumped into or not.
We emerged into a very large covered room which was the fish market. Possibly the fish market is itself the epicenter of the food market, for here was the real action. The arabs may have been indifferent to the prices they paid for vegetables and meat, but in the fish market they were intent on making up for it. The incessant bargaining, pleading, and conjoling seemed in contrast to the dubious quality of the merchandise. Bushels, hogsheads, and crates of dead slimy things were piled twenty feet into the air. In one corner several gallons of fresh fish had been poured out onto a Moroccan carpet. The owner sat cross legged behind it, carrying on his business, yet he was close enough to the fish mountain that whenever he scooped up a few fish for a customer, five or ten more would pour over his legs. I could not decide if he was getting the fish dirty, or if they were getting him dirty. Neither of the two was being improved by the process.
Joseph, friend though he was, was still Moroccan enough to take us to an acquaintance who owned a carpet shop, and to leave us there while he went off to do his errands. Maybe its written in the Koran that every Moslem must do everything in his power to guide a non-believer into a carpet shop. I was amused for I knew we could handle this carpet salesman. But when he started off by sitting us down, offering tea, and embarqing on an explanation of how the carpets were made it was like the recurrence of a bad dream. I cut this nonsense short by telling him we had already bought as many Moroccan carpets as we wished, and had no interest in discussing them. However, there were some beautiful Moroccan handpainted mirrors in another room, and Derry and I had both gravitated to them upon entering the shop. I re-directed the salesman’s enthusiasm to the mirrors.
Forty-five minutes later Joseph returned, as if by magic, for we had just completed the bargaining process for the mirrors, having reduced the original asking price by approximately 75%. Derry no longer demured during the barganing for she realized you could no more buy anything in Morocco without bargaining than you could eat at a French restaurant in the United States without having your wine choice disputed by the waiter. Infact she had actually improved on her part: pulling me aside at moments of impasse and suggesting loudly enough for others to hear that we actually couldn’t afford to buy anything. These interludes always got us through the tough negotiations.
We returned to the club in time for the horse jumping competition, but as I know nothing about this subject I will not remark on it. I was more impressed by the fact that the Malabata Club was large enough that even though a horse jumping competiton was going on, it excited only modest interest.
To wind up the day I insisted to Derry that we go for a walk along the beach. This was a Club Mediterannee, after all, and although we had had no choice in the desert, here on the coast it seemed appropriate to interact with the Mediternannean in some manner. If we did not have enough time to go windsurfing or scuba diving we could at least wade in the water barefoot.
As we walked along the beach on the lookout for something scenic to photograph I saw three Arabs in the distance having finished perhaps some meditation by the sea now returning towards town. The light was just right, the backdrop was good, and I had a long telephoto lens. I took their picture.
This was a mistake. The Moslem world at this time was in the throes of “Ramadan”, one of its holy periods, in which no food or water is consumed by any of the faithful from sunup to sundown. We had been told by several people that during Ramadan, not surprisingly, the natives are not very friendly. Actually they are just hungry and thirsty but as the day wears on, this is manifested by a growing anger, especially towards those who were smart enough to have chosen some other religion.
These men had seen me take their picture, and they didn’t like it. One raised his fist angrily and yelled something in Arabic, probably “Death to the infidels!” They both started walking fast in our direction.
Derry did not like the look of this, nor did I. We began moving in the opposite direction. We could not do this indefintely as we were within the confines of a fenced-in area. We looked back. They were still coming towards us and were not seeming any friendlier. A gate at the other end of the fence would give us an escape, back onto the main road, and just across from the entrance to the Club. We hurried towards it. It was locked. They were still coming. We climbed over the fence.
It was fortunate we had escaped for I did not think I could have stopped them with “M’abrina Geede”.
The soiree that evening was a fashion show put on by the staff, and was a silly affair. We enjoyed another elegant Club Med dinner while meeting more French people and wrestling with the language. But we went to bed early. The next day was going to be difficult.
Our hope was to fly standby from Gibralter to London on the Thursday flight, but our reservations were for the next flight, on Saturday. To even try for the standby we had to arrive in Gibralter by 1:00pm. It was not a great distance geographically, but it was an immense distance politically. We knew from experience that travel between Europe and Africa could not be taken for granted. Coming from the other direction we had disembarqued four hours behind schedule. It would be prudent to build in that margin of error for the return trip.
A ferry left Tangier for Gibralter at 8:00am yet that was not early enough to leave the four hour margin. A speedy hyrdofoil left at 10:00 but if the sea was too rough it didn’t go at all. And finally an airplane left at 9:00, making the trip almost instantly, yet it cost more and we had no reservations. The airline office had not answered their phone for 24 hours which somehow disinclined us towards trusting that flight.
As we awoke at six in the morning, we did not know which of these three means of transporation we would use, although the Ferry was my first choice. Weather wouldn’t stop it, and reservations were not necessary. We left the club before most were awake and took a taxi to the port. Enlisting the aid of a taxi driver in a foreign country is always a smart move, for if a taxi driver is on your side most obstacles can be overcome. When we arrived at the port the driver tried to determine in a few Arabic conversations when the ferry really would leave. Yet his information was inconclusive. “The ferry is supposed to leave at 8:00,” he explained, which conformed to our understanding. “Yet”, he continued, “maybe it will and maybe it won’t.”
This also conformed to our understanding, and did not help with our decision. The driver recommended we take the Hydrofoil at 10:00. But I did not like the look of the sky. It had been raining last night, it was overcast this morning, and the clouds in the west looked ominous. “Take us to the airport” I finally said. If for some reason we could not get on the plane, the hydrofoil option would still exist. But if we planned on the hydrofoil and it was cancelled, there would be no plane.
Once at the airport another problem arose, this one entirely unexpected, and it confirmed again the difficultry of relying on any travel plans in Morocco. The airline agent would accept payment only in Moroccan Dirhams. On a cash basis this was understandable, because it is not legal to accept dollars in a country like Morocco which can’t descipline its own currency printing presses, and therefore doesn’t like any infusion of foreign currency to compete with its own. Yet this agent wouldn’t take our credit cards either, which was unheard of. Even the carpet salesman in Amzrou took Visa, opening up an embroidered leather bag and pulling out some faded and battered Visa slips, and writing in my name and card number by hand.
Derry and I had deliberately kept our supply of Dirhams low, for even if you exchange them legally, and get a receipt, you can only re-convert fifty percent back into dollars. The airline agent told us not to worry because the exchange office would open before nine, and there were plenty of seats on the plane. Yet as nine o’clock drew near, even the agent began to get nervous. The exchange office had shown no sign of opening, and the plane was scheduled to leave in ten minutes. As departure time approached he re-canted, and agreed to accept dollars to supplement however many dirhams we had. I pulled out our travellers cheques. “No, no!” he exclaimed. “Not travellers cheques, only dollar bills.” This was absurd. Of course we had no dollar bills.
It appeared we would not be able to get on this plane. I was not too worried because the hydrofoil option still existed, as I explained to the agent. I hoped this mention of a competitor would shake some sense into him, but it had the opposite effect. “No no, haven’t you heard?” he asked. “The hydrofoil is cancelled today!”
Now I was in a panic. The only transportation that could get us to Gibralter left in five minutes, and we could not get on it without more Dirhams. A group of American Embassy staff and their spouses had come through the airport a short while ago. They had passed customs and were waiting in a boarding area. The ticket agent now ushered me quickly through customs and over to these people. “Maybe they will help you.” he suggested. “Maybe they will accept a travellers cheque.”
This seemed monstrous, to go up to a group of strangers and ask if one of them would cash a travellers cheque. Who would I ask? How would I ask it? But I had no choice. I looked over the large room. The embassy staff was scattered around haphazardly, looking very refined and diplomatic amongst the Arabs and Gibralterians. I spoke in a loud voice, as if I were an airport official making an announcement. Everyone turned towards me. “Who wants to help a stranded American?” I asked in English.
This was just the right note to appeal to the embassy staff. It was one of their primary functions, after all, to help Americans in trouble. They ushered around me, as if to thwart immediately whatever evil might be present in the room. I hastily explained the situation while the airline agent nodded sympathetically at my elbow to confirm the story. One of the women took out her purse and gave me Dirhams equal to forty dollars, accepting my two twenty dollar travellers cheques in return. I was impressed. It was my first contact with U.S. diplomats, and after reading “The Ugly American” I had never formed a good feeling about them. This simple action restored my confidence in America’s foreign policy.
We ran back through customs to the ticket counter, and the agent quickly issued the documents. Then, taking me by the arm, he tried to rush us through customs yet again, but did not succeed this time. Now the Moroccan customs staff was highly interested in us and we were searched thoroughly. Our bags were opened, contents strewn around the tables, and even the cosmetics and shaving gear kits dumped unceremoniously onto the stainless steel counter.
I think that customs agents have an unrealistic faith in the space available in the typical travellers’ luggage. Travellers always carry more than they should, and their bags are always over-flowing. In the calm and organization of a hotel room every article can with diligence be made to fit. Yet now we had only seconds in which to catch the plane, and everything we owned on this trip was scattered outside of the packs. We got everything back in only with brute strength, relying on adrenaline-assisted muscles to force the zippers shut. We raced past the boarding area and out onto the concrete ramp, leaping up the boarding ladder as the planes engines came to life. The plane was moving before we had found our seats, and was soon in the air. We had left Africa.
The Costa Del Sol
The transition was that quick: one moment we had been fighting bureacrats in a dirty airport on the outskirst of an African city. Now we were safely tucked into an airline’s seats, confronted with nothing more pressing than the decision on which of several vapid articles from the in-flight magazine to read. The polite British stewardess spoke about smoking and seatbelts over the loudspeaker, also announcing we would be arriving in Gibralter in ten minutes. I could only stare unseeing out the window as the rocky cliffs of Cape Spartel fell away below and the plane banked eastwards toward the Straits. After living so long amongst guides, ineptitude, dirt, and a strange mixture of Arabic and French, I tried now to relax and mentally leave behind the petty difficulties that had become our everyday life. In a few minutes we would be back in an English-speaking country. If I needed something I could just ask for it knowing I would be understood and that I would understand the answer. Such a thing seemed too good to be true.
As the plane descended into Gibralter, I had time to consider the fact that in ten minutes we had retraced what in the other direction had been an eight hour journey involving two bus trips, a long hike, three countries, and a ferry crossing. The pilot announced that the ship Queen Elizabeth II was in the harbour and we had a three second glimpse of it from 200 feet just before our wheels hit the asphalt. Now we were back in Gibralter. The plane to London left in two hours so we proceeded directly to the British Airways desk.
“I’m terribly sorry” said the agent, “but I’m afraid you’ve been misinformed. Your tickets require that you fly on Saturday, and even on a standby basis they have no value on this flight.” I explained that if I was misinformed I had been misinformed by British Airways themselves, but this fell on deaf ears. The man was the only British Airways agent in Gibralter and he could have invented any regulation he wished. But he did add something which in a strange sense softened the blow: “It really makes no difference”, he said. “The flight is completely full.”
So while we had won the battle in Morocco, we had lost the war here in Gibralter. We would not be able to get to London until Saturday. Defeated, we drifted listlessly over to the waiting area benches to re-plan yet again.
“I say!” said the agent, calling to us from the window. “I should consider myself fortunate if I were you. Why don’t you go spend the next two days on the Costa Del Sol? It’s right next door you know.”
The man was assuming we were going to wait two days for the next plane, but that was far from decided. If we left Gibralter on Saturday afternoon for London, how could we get to Mt. St. Michelle, to rendezvous with Mike and Margaret, by 1:00pm on Sunday? A plane from London to Paris would be too expensive, so it had to be done by surface transportation, and looking over my train and ferry schedules I was not sure it was possible. The other option was to take a train to Paris immediately from Spain, and then connect with another to Mt St. Michelle. But we would get no refund on our airline ticket if we did that, and the long train trip would be exhausting. Two day’s relaxing on the Costa Del Sol sounded better. The problem of getting to Mt. St. Michelle, we rationalized, would just have to work itself out.
Back we went to La Linea, Spain, our packs on our backs–much more heavily loaded now with Moroccan carpets, pottery, knives, and mirrors–found a rental car agency just over the border, and headed for Torremolinos on the Costa Del Sol. There was no choice but to go to Torremolinos for although I had never heard of the place before, our guide book made much of it. “The blonde in cutoffs getting on the Yugoslavian frieghter headed for Tangiers will end up in Torremolinos before the summer is over,” it had said. “And that unemployed college student from Hamburg with the backpack thumbing a ride south will probably find his way there as well.” The point was that Toremolinos was a mecca–the jet set location on the Costa Del Sol. The book also said that from mid-September through May, the Costa Del Sol is desparate for vacationers, and the innkeepers will greet guests with open arms. (As contrasted to the period from June through August, during which the place is mobbed and hotel reservations must be made months in advance.) It was still May, and if Toremolinos was the place to go, that’s where we would go.
As we drove northeast up the sun-drenched rocky coastline I was surprised how civilized Spain seemed after Morocco. I had completely lost my fear of the country by now because I knew that in Spain no guide was going to lead me off to some hidden pottery shop and knife me for my dirhams. So what did one really have to worry about?
The Costa Del Sol is a bad location from which to judge Spain, because of the heavy tourist influence. The French go to the Rivera and the Italians have their own beaches. But for the English, the Germans, and the Scandinavians, the Costa Del Sol is the summer destination, and the wide use of English and German is the natural result.
Torremolinos has fallen victim to outrageous commercialism. The city consists of high-rise hotels and posseses no characteristics of Spain. The one dominent architectural features are the signs: “Midnight Disco!”, “Best Food in Andulusia!”, “Tours to Malaga!”. The senses are assulted by this tasteless advertising, and ordinarily we would have been disgusted by it ourselves. But the city’s purpose is to pamper tourists, and we needed some pampering. Morroco does that to a person.
The guidebook was correct, it was a buyer’s market for hotel space. For $24.00 per night we were granted a two room suite on the top floor of a hotel on the beach, with a full length balcony overlooking the ocean. And breakfast was included. We only had two days to saturate outselves with Spain and knew it would be difficult in Toremmolinos. That evening we found the last quaint spanish restaurant in town and enjoyed a rice pilaf dish on an outdoor patio. This did not compare with watching a bullfight in Seville, but it was a start.
We discovered the next morning that the Costa Del Sol is a sham. Touted as a world-class tourist mecca, Spain’s southern Mediterannean coast possesses one of the world’s most unpleasant beaches. It is dirty, the sand is coarse, and the beach itself is so narrow it actually dissapears at several spots during its run through Toremolinos. And despite the name “Sol”, it rained much of the time we were there. Like the French Riviera, most of the women go topless, but like at the Club Med in Ouarzazate, one wishes they wouldn’t.
Set on this unappealing beach is a solid mass of wooden and uncomfortable reclining chairs, which tip-hungry attendants rent out by the hour. One is faced with the choice of renting a chair, or of lying down for free on the tiny strip of dirty sand between the chairs and the water, and even this is available only until the tide comes in.
We had to leave Toremolinos if we were to see anything of Spain. The old Roman city of Malaga is just up the coast so we tried that. Here we found broad boulevards, tree lined plazas, Andulusian architecture, the requisite cathedral, and even some old fashioned Roman ruins we could sink our teeth into. Ancient widows wobbled down the narrow back alleyways clothed in black. Elegant fountains graced several of the intersections. We hired a horse-drawn carriage for a tour along the waterfront and the carriage itself, with its rich black leather and highly polished brass and wood, complimented the Spanish flavor of the city. I climbed down to take a photograph, stepping as I did onto the polished brightwork. The driver scolded me immediately, pulled out a cloth, and re-polished the wood I had scuffed. Malaga’s residents take pride in their town.
Having had our fill of Malaga’s historical essence we debauched at a modern Aqua Park on the outskirts of the city. I had never seen an Aqua Park before, which is essentially an amusement park with water-based rides. This one included such things as a synthetic “rapids” which one descends on large inner tubes. There were several water flueves; long twisting slots of running water which were terrifying. The “Cresta Run” was a free-fall water slide, and an artificial-surf pool reproduced the effect of a Hawaiian beach. Or at least it tried to. We could have stayed all day for the admission price of three dollars but we left after I’d nearly given myself a head concussion on our last run down the synthetic rapids.
We used the rest of our time wisely on the Costa Del Sol, which is to say we did nothing but lie in the sun, eat meals, and sleep late. This part of the trip was for recuperation while we prepared for our next ordeal: a frantic race to Mt. St. Michelle for the rendezvous.
The Race to Mt. St. Michelle
After deciding we could leave Gibralter on Saturday and somehow make it to Mt. St. Michelle by 1:00pm the following day, I had lately been glancing at the timetables to see just how we were going to accomplish that feat. The several possibilities I’d had in mind weren’t standing up to the realities of the timetables, but I was not yet as worried as I should have been.
We left Torremolinos at 10:00 on Saturday morning and arrived back in Gibralter with plenty of time before our 1:30pm flight, so that first leg was accomplished without difficulty. Once on the plane I set to work in earnest to plan the rest of the trip. We would be arriving shortly at London’s Gatwick airport, which is far to the south of London.
The cheapest and most sensible way to get from Gatwick to Mt. St. Michelle is to take a train back to London, connect to another train to Dover on the English Channel, cross to Boulogne, France on a ferry, and then work your way to Mt. St. Michelle by train either directly or via Paris. But according to “Cook’s Continental Timetable”, it couldn’t be done in time.
The next obvious choice is to rent a car after arriving in France, and to then just drive to the destination. But is it possible to rent a car at 10:00 at night in Boulogune, France, which is the earliest we would be arriving? And if not at night, then it would have to be done no later than 7:00am the next morning–Sunday morning–and that was likely to be equally difficult.
The only fool-proof way to do it is to rent a car right there at Gatwick, drive to Dover, and then take the car along on the ferry. Yet ferrying the car to France is certain to be expensive. And worst of all, that entails driving on the left side of the road in England–which is bad enough–and then being stuck with a car with its steering wheel on the wrong side in France: altogether an unacceptable solution.
We needed more information, so upon landing at Gatwick, we went straight to the rental car desks. Here were the reassuring “Avis”, “Hertz”, and “Budget” franchises, as well as the large European companies happily competing for our business. It was obvious we would be able to figure things out with the help of their competent, modern personnel.
I approached Hertz first. “Can you tell me if you have a franchise in Boulogne, and how late they stay open on Saturday night?” I asked.
“What’s Boulogne?” the bewildered girl asked. “It’s a town in France.” I said. “It’s just across the channel from Dover.”
“I really have no idea,” she said. “You’d have to reach our international department.” I tried a nearby phone, and found the international department continuously busy.
I went to Avis next. They were number two, and might try harder. “Where’s Boulougne?” asked the girl, in response to my question. This really had me puzzled. Boulougne is not a small town. For travellers it’s a well known spot on the map and is England’s primary gateway to France. Most of the ferries leaving England for the continent go to Boulogne. It was like someone living in San Francisco not knowing what lay on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. “It’s a town in France,” I explained.
The girl pulled out a red and white checked book, and looked up France. I almost thought she was going to ask me how to spell it. But she found France, and with my help found Boulougne. There was an office there, however she had no way to contact it, being “in a foreign country and all”. I wanted to tell here that England was a foreign country as far as I was concerned but decided that would get us nowhere.
I used her phone and tried calling but the international operator couldn’t get me through. I began to realize that Europe is not like the United States. It’s better than Morocco, but in many ways its not much better. It was inconceivable to me that this Avis office couldn’t just turn to their Teletype and find out any information on any Avis office anywhere in the world, and reserve a car for me as well if I wanted it. But none of these car rental offices even had Teletypes. They didn’t even have agents who’d heard of Bolougne, France, even though it is closer to London than Milwaukee is to Chicago.
I tried the back-up plan: we would rent a car here and take it to France. This plan disolved when we discovered there was a $150 surcharge for taking a car out of England, and the round-trip ferry would be another $100. These were prohibitive numbers.
I tried several of the other agencies but met with no more success. It was exasperating. All of our options were being closed off one by one. I knew that if we could get to France by tonight, we could somehow get to Mt. St. Michelle by 1:00 pm the next day. I wouldn’t have to worry about crossing international borders, or making ferry connections. Somehow we could get there.
So feeling like Phineas Fogg racing the clock we took a train back into London, changed at Victoria station, and changed again halfway to Dover. By 7:15pm we were in Dover, which should have been in plenty of time to catch the last ferry at 8:00. This part, at least was going to work out.
Derry and I had made the train/ferry connection in Dover before–during our honeymoon–and we knew how it was done. You go out to the parking area and get on a bus that meets the train and takes you to the ferry. But when we arrived at the spot where there should have been a bus there was instead only two old men. Behind them was a complicated bus schedule which I set about immediately to decipher. As I interpreted it, there were no more buses for the evening; we would have to take a taxi. But in this case why were these two elderly men, possessing between them what I guessed must be close to 180 years of combined experience, waiting for the bus? So I asked them.
They did not speak English. They asked if I spoke Italian. Finding I did not, they asked if I spoke German. I asked if they spoke French, which they did, a little. That was fine with me; there was only a little to discuss. They were certain a bus was coming and I was certain it wasn’t. I asked them why they thought a bus was coming. They motioned to the timetable on the wall. I asked them if they understood the timetable. They said they did. I asked them how they could understand it since it was written in English and they didn’t speak English. They had no answer for this. It was becoming pretty obvious to us that we knew more about the situation than did they, but we didn’t want to give up on the bus until we knew for certain they were wrong. Finally we all agreed to go inside and ask the station master.
“No, there are no more buses” he said. “Are you trying to catch the 8:00 ferry? If so you’d better hurry because you need to be there by 7:30 or they won’t let you on.” It was 7:25. All of us were in a panic now. We found a taxi and jumped in, urging the driver on in the various languages at our disposal. The cab dropped us at the ferry terminal where we hastily split the fare with the two men. Racing inside, we bought our tickets, scrambled to the waiting room, and arrived just in time to get on the dock-bus which conveyed us to the ship.
On board at last we collapsed in a heap amongst our packs. Getting to the ferry at Dover had been considerably harder than I’d anticipated, but now at least we were assured of arriving in France tonight and from there nothing could keep us from getting to Mt. St. Michelle the next day–I hoped.
Our problem on the ferry was food. Shortly after we had arrived four tour buses had raced up to the gangway and had disgorged several hundred elderly British tourists. These unwelcome hoards were now clogging up the stairways, bringing traffic in the aisles to a complete standstill, and in general making a nuisance of themselves. They were merely a nuisance until dinner-time, at which point they became a serious problem for they brought the cafeteria line to a standstill.
We waited for the line to work its way back to normal proportions, while enjoying the view of the waves from the upstairs lounge. Occasionally one of us would run back down and check on the progress, but it became apparent that the line was growing longer, not shorter. At this rate the ferry would dock in Boulougne before we would have a chance to eat. Confused as to why the line should be moving so slowly, I entered the cafeteria from another direction, and worked my way upstream past the cash registers into the serving area itself. I was shocked. Heaping plates of delicious, mouth-watering food were sitting there under heat lamps ready for the eating but were being ignored. Most of the people in line were special ordering and because of this it was taking about eight minutes for the kitchen to process each customer.
I grabbed a tray, set two of the standard hot dinners on it, picked up a couple of beers, paid the cashiers–who were themselves idle because of the special ordering–and went back upstairs. Derry looked up at me with hero-worship in her eyes. “Nothing an experienced traveller couldn’t handle” I explained, and basked in the glow of her admiration.
We arrived in Boulougne at 10:00 but due to a time zone change it was 11:00pm local time. With the experience of Tangier still in our minds, we positioned ourselves so as to disembarq first, and headed straight to the rental car desks upon entering the terminal.
Our first shock was to discover that there were none; only a long row of rental car direct-line telephones. I dialed the first, no answer. Then the second, no answer. Derry tried a couple with equal success. I was scared now and put two to my ear at once, dialing simultaneously. Derry did the same. But it was futile. As we had feared the rental car offices were not open in Boulougne, France at 11:00pm on a Saturday night. I now suspected that no one would answer Sunday morning either. We found a bench in a nearby waiting room and I buried myself again in the train schedule guide. There had to be a way to at least get to Paris! After a few minutes the awful truth emerged. Not only was their no train to Paris tonight. There was no train to anywhere. And there were no buses. Bolougne was closed down. We were trapped.
This was not the first time we had been trapped in Boulougne. During our honeymoon we had fled Paris to escape the pollution and noise and lack of hotel space and had ended up in Bologune late at night, having missed the last ferry to England. A taxi driver had been responsible for helping us find the only hotel in town with a vacancy. This had been the “Seaman’s Hotel” down at the waterfront. Derry’s first sight of the lobby had revealed a drunk sailor with blood all over his face. Not a romantic place to spend one’s honeymoon but we’d had no choice. Bolougne has never been thought of fondly by us since, but I was sure it’s undesireability had grown in our imagination over the last three years. After conquering Morocco I was certain we could handle Bolougne.
But I was wrong. This time Bolougne was completely booked up. The friendly agent at the ferry terminal placed a dozen calls hoping to find us a place to stay but all had the same story: no vacancies within fifty miles. Judging by our packs I guess she thought we were campers for she offered to let us sleep in the terminal on the floor. But in our case our packs didn’t hold sleeping bags although they did hold a beautiful Moroccan carpet.
I wanted to return to England. There was one more Ferry leaving that night. It would mean not making the rendezvous with Mike and Margaret, and then calling after the fact to apologize. Although this was unthinkable it was an attractive option. I did not want to sleep on a Morccan carpet on the floor of a ferry terminal.
But Derry did not want to give up. She insisted there must be a way out of Bolougne, and I finally admitted there was. Seventy-five kilometers away is the town of Lille, and according to “Cook’s Continental TImetable” a train was scheduled to stop in Lille on the way to Paris in 45 minutes. Althought it would be expensive, I figured it would be possible to take a taxi to Lille. If we got there in time, we could catch the train. We’d have three hours in Paris in the middle of the night, and then could catch another train that would eventually get us to Mt. St. Michelle. It would be a crazy trip but it was now the only way to get to the rendezvous.
The taxi driver accepted the challenge eagerly. He was a young man who owned his taxi: a powerful Peugeot with fuel injected engine. As he pointed out it was now midnight, the roads would not be crowded, and he knew some shortcuts…
Derry and I managed a few minutes of sleep while the Peugeot roared over the country roads of France at 110 kilometers an hour. We arrived in Lille with only minutes–maybe seconds–to spare. Despite his assurances to the contrary it now became apparent that the driver had no idea where the train station was located, and he had to ask directions of another cabbie at a stoplight. We arrived two minutes after the train was due to leave. Leaping out of our respective doors, we all three raced into the station, the driver helping us carry our packs. It was now 1:15 in the morning. The few drunks and custodians in the Lille train station looked at us curiously as we rushed past the outer waiting room and through the doors opening onto the tracks. The terminal was large and we now paused a moment, uncertain which way to go. A man sweeping the floor looked up and asked what we were doing. Our driver spoke rapidly to him. “The train for Paris? Has it left yet? “Train for Paris?”, the man answered. “What train for Paris? The last train to Paris left seven hours ago. The next train doesn’t leave until eight this morning.” We had not missed the train, there simply was no train. I was shocked. I have relied on Cooks Continental Timetable since I was twelve years old and it had never been wrong. In the dim light of the station I glanced at the cover of the book and realized what had happened. We were using a winter schedule. The entire continent of Europe had switched to summer train schedules at midnight on May 15th, 24 hours ago.
Back in the taxi, discouraged and sleepy, we discussed our options with the driver. Bolougne and Lille are two points of an isocoles triangle with Paris at the far end. “I will drive you to Paris!”, the driver suggested. “I often drive people from Boulougne to Paris, and from Lille it is no farther. In fact, I will only charge you the fare from Lille.” This was generous for it meant he would not earn a penny for his now futile mad race from Boulogne. But it was still expensive. On the other hand, as Derry pointed out, we would not be staying in any hotel tonight, so there was that savings that could go towards the price. It seemed the best thing to do.
We enjoyed an hour’s uncomfortable sleep on this leg of the trip, and awoke to find ourselves pulling in to Paris’ Gare du Nord, the station the nonexistent train would have taken us to. Our destination in Paris was Gare du Montparnasse on the far south side of the city, from which the early morning train would leave for Mt. St. Michelle. But our driver refused to take us that far since it would add at least another half hour to the trip, and we were in no position to argue. We got out sleepily and paid the man.
It was 3:00 am on a dark night and we were standing outside a deserted train station in Paris. Our packs had never seemed heavier and I had never been so tired. Our day had started in Torremolinos and showed no sign of ending. Across the street was a hotel, its doorway emitting warm light from its lobby and appearing like a harbour beacon to wayward seafarers. Derry followed as I stumbled across the street and through the door, asking the concierge if the hotel had any vacancy before I’d even reached the desk. “I am sorry, monsier,” he replied. “We have no vacancy, nor does any other hotel in Paris. Everything is full.”
We wandered back outside and over to where several taxis were parked in front of the station. Perhaps they were waiting for the occasional train that arrived at strange hours. I had it in mind to take another cab to the Gare du Montparnasse, so at least we would be there for the early departure. “You cannot go there and wait this time of night!” the woman cab driver exclaimed with some emotion. “It is much too dangerous at night, that area. If you must wait, wait here, then go in the morning.” She pointed to a bar that appeared to be open down the street. “You can wait in there”, she said, “it is open all night.”
This bar was not an attractive option but it was the only option so we hoisted up our packs and stumbled off towards its dubious light. I suppose all-night bars in Paris look pretty much alike, but I’d never been to one. This bar was small, brightly lit, and crowded. It was two deep at the counter itself and the tables were full, except for one small table by the window which had been hidden behind a pillar and which apparently was only visible through the window from outside.
After managing to squeeze ourselves and our packs thorugh the crowd we arrived at that table and collapsed. It was becoming difficult to think what our next move should be. Derry suggested two cups of coffee.
We stayed at this bar for three hours, alternating coffee with beer, trying to stay awake and trying to have fun respectively. Against all expectations we made friends quickly at this bar. Most of the clientele were students from Germany who spoke English better than French which was a welcome relief. But because they were drunk it was difficult to understand them even so. On learning we were Americans one of the Germans dragged me over to his acquaintances at the bar and introduced me as his best friend. Everyone in the bar was there for the same reason: they could find no hotel space. One man told how he had called 48 hotels from a pay phone before giving up.
I was surprised at this for it was only May and the summer crowd should not have reached full force. I tried to remember ever having had a good experience in Paris, but was unable to do so. Perhaps in the middle of February it is possible to find a room, but I’m not convinced Paris is worth waiting for. London and Rome are far more interesting and never as crowded. The area of France in which Paris is located is less scenic than Indiana. Paris has the Louvre, but the Louvre is inferior to the Prado in Madrid. The Eiffel Tower is a mere plaything compared to New York’s World Trade Center. Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur are worthwhile cathedrals, but they hardly compare to Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s in London. As I sat at that beer-soaked table in a Paris that is perennially incapable of providing lodging to visitors, I could find no reason for having come here. Then I remembered: we had come here because we had had no choice. That explained it.
I looked at my watch. It was now six a.m. In truth I did not want to take a taxi to Montparnasse to catch a 7:30 train that would require two more connections plus another taxi ride before we reached our destination. I wanted to rent a car. Then we could ignore the train schedules and go where we pleased, leaving right now if we wished. But I could not imagine how we were going to find a rental car agency that would be open at 6:00am on a Sunday morning. While Derry engaged in a lively conversation with a young woman from Rotterdam, I walked back and forth outside on the sidewalk, trying to think. The darkness was being overcome now by the diffuse lighting that passes as dawn in a smog-filled city. I noticed the line of cabs at the train station, and walked over to them. Hearing their Parisienne French as they chatted back and forth was such a delight after the incomprehensible accents of the Moroccans and the blurred English of the Germans and for some reason it encouraged me.
“I wish to rent a car” I explained. “Is that possible at this hour?” This is the kind of question taxi drivers love when they are waiting in a line that has not moved for three hours. It gives them a chance to discuss something besides the weather with their fellow drivers, calls upon their unique expertise regarding the city, and holds out the promise of a fare if they know the answer. There was one driver who was certain it could be done, but only at one place in Paris: Charles De Gaulle Airport. The airport had occured to me as well, but at 6:00am on a Sunday morning even this had seemed like a long-shot. And I didn’t want to risk a cab fare, nor miss the back-up option of taking the train, unless I was certain. But this man was so certain he offered to take us there for free if it turned out he was mistaken. I retrieved Derry from the bar and as we headed north out of Paris the sun was at last breaking through the morning mist.
Charles De Gaulle is a beautiful new airport consisting mostly of reinforced concrete and dark glass, but as we drove up we saw few signs of activity. And once inside we found the rental car desks deserted.
The extent of the dissapointment was only beginning to register on our sleep-starved minds, and in a different way with our driver, when in the door came salvation: a young woman dressed in a red and white checked uniform. The Avis counter, at least, was now open. Twenty minutes later Derry and I were driving out of Paris.
Completely exhausted, we were now facing a four hour drive westwards to the Normandy coast. We took turns at the wheel, one driving while the other slept. Despite the drugged state of our minds we were not oblivious to the fact that the scenery was improving with each mile away from Paris. Soon we were in forested rolling hills and gentle farmland. Occasionally a chapel or cathedral would be visible in some distant town. We saw many signs advertising “chambres libre”, instilling in us hope that soon France would yield to us its rarest commodity: a room at a hotel.
We stopped at a roadside cafeteria and enjoyed a good bread and jam breakfast with emphasis on the coffee. Our bodies were slowly coming to the realization that they weren’t going to receive anymore sleep, so reluctantly and protestingly they began waking up. Soon we were not tired at all.
We reached the coast as this rejuvenation was beginning to wear off, yet there was no time for a nap. We needed to find a hotel room, take some showers, and hurry to the rendezvous. We passed a large truck, came around a bend in the road, and suddenly Mt. St. Michelle was in front of us, shimmeringly beautiful. The morning mists were being pierced by hazy rays of sunshine, and one of them paused long enough to illuminate the city, rising mystically from the fields of springtime grass. The frustrations of 24 hours fell away and we knew the ordeal had been worth the effort. This was a sight we would not have missed. Countless travel posters feature just the view we were now enjoying, and it was all the more exciting for that reason, as is the first view one has of the Statue of Liberty or the Golden Gate Bridge.
Mt. St. Michelle is a walled town built around a cathedral and occupying the entirety of a small island two miles offshore in the Bay of St. Malo. It is an island for only a few hours out of the day. Periodically, the tides flow out, and in Cinderella fashion the island is transformed into a mere penninsula, connected to higher ground by a long causeway.
This causeway was now coming into sight. A line of cars and tour buses stretched the length of this road and far worse than the line itself was its utter lack of movement. After miles of exquisite and empty French countryside, we were now back in a tourist infested enviornment. But in contrast with the situation in Paris this seemed only fitting and proper for Mt. St. Michelle is spectacular and deserving of its crowds.
We had hoped to spend the night in the town itself but now realized this would not be wise, and would probably not be possible. At the intersection of the road leading to the causeway were two nondescript motels: comparable to a Motel 6 in the United States. It seemed an insult to the French to patronize such Americanized establishments, but now was not the time to seek out the quaint or the unusual. We took time only to shower before returning to the car and joining the pilgrammage moving slowly across the causeway.
The vehicular river terminated at a large parking area adjacent to the only entrance into the city. There were no less than 100 large tour buses occupying this parking lot, and perhaps ten times that many private automobiles. I glanced up at the Mount, tried to estimate its interior capacity, and began to have a very uneasy feeling about the situation.
The approch to the gate was a wooden boardwalk and the sheer mass of human beings walking this path had brought all movement to a crawl. As we advanced with the stop and go motion common on freeways at rush hour we had an opportunity to study Mt. St. Michelle from point-blank range. It was a fairy-tale creation. A host of medeival turrets and ramparts rose above us. From tiny slits in the walls archers had been able to shoot their arrows at the approaching enemy. If anyone manning the walls now had chosen to pour down boiling oil it would have been an effective deterrent to the horde now beseiging the town. But as I looked up I could only see more tourists looking down on us.
Immediately through the main gate was a small courtyard, and in this the traffic from the boardwalk expanded, filling the available space before constricting again as it was pushed inexorably through an arched portculis which led into the town itself. At this point the human tide was squeezed to its smallest dimension yet, and the shoulders and arms that had previously been only touching were now crushed against us mercilessly and helplessly. Just when we thought we could be squeezed no more, we popped out the other side of the portculis and the flow expanded again. We were now facing an upwardly-sloping alleyway which seemed to be the main street of Mt. St. Michelle. It curved up and around the island like the red stripe on a barber pole. Along its periphery were clustered the shops, restaurants, and pocket-museums catering to the tourist trade. As I looked over the heads of those nearest me I could see the predictable post cards, the ugly ceramic vases, and the gaudy ashtrays, all bearing the regulation “Souvenir de Mt. St. Michelle” insignia.
Frozen in place by this human glacier, I could yet see ahead and what I saw filled me with hope. It was a sign hanging above the crowds, like a sword of Damacles. “Hotel-Restaurant de Guesclin” it said. This was our destination, the point of our rendezvous with Mike and Margaret. It was only a few minutes past one, the hour of the rendezvous, and we had agreed on a two hour leeway in anticipation of the difficulties involved in arriving from different continents. So we were not yet late. But at our present rate of speed it would be twenty minutes before we crossed the 50 yards now separating us from the hotel.
I have never liked crowds, and although I know of no one who does, I suspect I have a higher level of dislike for them then does the average person. I have been known to leave an expressway and embarq on a thirty minute detour to avoid ten minutes of traffic jam. I have frequently walked up stairs rather than submit to the crowded condition of an elevator. And my persistent dislike of Paris stems primarily from its over-crowding.
New York’s subway crowds are the worst and have always been the object of my greatest revulsion. On New York’s subways you don’t look for space in which to stand. You look for space for a hand, and for an arm, and for your left leg and for your right leg. If you are lucky you will find accomodation for all parts of your body and when this is the case you can board. There are those who beleive that more room can always be found if one pushes hard enough which is true up to a point. But those pushing continue to do so even after that point has been reached.
That point had now been reached in Mt. St. Michelle. If I had chosen to scratch my left ear I would have been unable to do so, for there was not sufficient space to bend my elbow. If I had wanted to work my way to the edge of the crowd, enter a shop, and buy a “Souvenir de Mt. St. Michelle” postcard, this would not have been possible. Derry was not far from me, and could not have been had she tried. Nor could she have come any closer. She was as locked up as a fish frozen in water.
Actually I was pleased we had made it this far at all. Only recently we had been stranded on the docks at Boulougne and less than 24 hours ago we’d been in Gibralter. Now we were within 50 yards of our destination and these crowds were only a minor and almost humourous inconvenience.
But why was anyone else here? Why would anyone who hadn’t travelled 1,000 miles to make a rendezvous tolerate such conditions? These other people could, with effort, work their way to the opposing stream and with the passage of time find themselves back outside, where they would be free to move and go places. There was no question of practicing tourism here. We were only seeing people–vast hoardes of people. One can see more of Mt. St. Michelle from travel posters.
I was certain Mike and Margaret would not yet have arrived. They were only coming from Paris, but they would have encountered these same crowds and if they had planned for 1:00pm they would be lucky to be here by 3:00.
Eventually the human glacier reached Hotel de Guesclin and by this time we’d been able to work our way painfully and rudely to the outside. As occurs with rocks near the edge of a glacier we were now being rolled and crushed against the surrounding buldings, so that when the door to the Hotel was adjacent to us, it required only the reaching out of a hand to open it and the dynamics of the flow forced us inside. A quick look around indicated that the restaurant was on the second floor so we walked up the stairs, emerging at the top into a pleasant and surprisingly uncrowded dining room. In the nearest table to us were sitting Mike and Margaret.
This dining room was like an island paradise and we enjoyed it for two hours while the crushing humanity outdoors eroded the walls and smoothed all sharp edges in the town. We talked of our respective new homes, jobs, acquaintances, and all the other things we’d travelled this far to hear about first hand. At 3pm it was time for them to leave and catch a bus back to Paris, but leaving Mt. St. Michelle was no easier than arriving. Fortunately they had alloted an entire hour for the time it would take to get from the door of the restaurant back out to the parking lot. If possible it was even more crowded now and as the four of us worked our way back to the main gate the crowd reached a point where all movement stopped for approximately ten minutes. This was the gridlock I have seen paralyze car traffic in New York City, but I’d never seen it happen to pedestrians. This was frightening. I could see the headlines in the next day’s paper:
CROWDS TRAPPED IN MT. ST. MICHELLE!
TOWN’S ENTRANCE SEALED OFF BY STUCK TOURISTS!
EXPERTS SAY ‘MAY BE PERMANENT’!
When we finally made it back to our hotel we slept for 17 hours.
In the morning I wanted a re-match with Mt. St. Michelle in the same way we had had a re-match with Tangiers. We drove back across the causeway at 8:00 am on a rainy Monday morning. This time there were only five cars and no buses. Mt. St. Michelle was empty.
As we walked in through the main gate it was difficult to remember that this was the same town. We passed easily through the courtyard, under the arch, and up the street to a pleasant sidewalk cafe which served us a continental breakfast. We were the only people there. After breakfast we continued up the curving street, saw one of the museums, toured the ramparts, and bought some postcards. We saw no more than ten other tourists. In fact, we saw all of Mt. St. Michelle in the time it had taken us yesterday to walk from the main gate 200 yards to the restaurant. It occured to me that the crowds beseiging Mt. St. Michelle are very similar to the tides. They inundate the island, and then ebb away completely. There was a philosophical lesson here, but I could think of nothing more profound than “Don’t visit Mt. St. Michelle during high tides.”
The Road Ends
From the coast we drove North through the lush Normandy countryside. Some of these places we recognized from the recent WWII nostalgia celebrations, such as St. Lo and St. Mere Eglise. But we had no time for sightseeing now. Three hours after leaving Mt. St. Michelle a ferry left Cherbourg for Portsmouth, England, and we needed to be on it. The rental car that had saved our day in Paris was dumped unceremoniously at the Avis parking area near the ship and we raced up the boarding ramp. Racing up boarding ramps had become routine.
The ferry headed into the open waters of the Atlantic as we stood on deck and watched the harbour lighthouse dissapear behind the diesel fumes of our steamer. The crossing from Dover to Boulougne is in the narrowest part of the English Channel, a scant thirty miles across. But from Cherbourg to Portsmouth, England is a six hour trip and we were out of sight of land most of that time. Derry made friends on this crossing with a couple from Cardiff, Wales who had a three month old daughter. Derry spent the six hours discussing diapers and bottles and feeding times and I sat nearby and marveled that those topics could prove so lengthy.
Arriving in Portsmouth is like arriving in Pearl Harbour. Portsmouth is England’s primary naval base and as we came up the Sound we passed destroyers and guided missile cruisers and two aircraft carriers with Harrier jets poised on their decks. The man from Cardiff explained to me that these were the ships that had fought the Falklands War. This must have been true for most of the other passengers on the ferry had lined the decks and were eagerly pointing out to each other what this particular ship had accomplished, or how that aircraft carrier had been the one containing the brother of Prince Charles, etc. I think the Falklands episode gave back to the British some of the pride they lost during the two world wars. And for a people who maintain a royal family for no other reason than to have something to look up to, pride is important. In any event from fifty yards away the ships were dramatic.
Outside Portsmouth, and looking south over the Isle of Wight, is the suburb of Southsea. In my reading of E.F. Forestor’s Hornblower books, reference is made to a wife Hornblower maintained in Southsea, and I’d always pictured this as being in Tahiti or Moorea or some such place, but now I knew better. We found the “Hotel Victoria” in Southsea, an Edwardian bed and breakfast establishment and the first in all our travels without a bath in the room. This was made tolerable by our knowledge that the next night we’d be home in our own beds.
It was a “Bank Holiday” in Britain and as a result there was only one restaurant open in Southsea. “Bank Holiday” means everyone takes a holiday, bank or not and I found this straightforward and refreshing. In America banks wait anxiously for any excuse to close their doors, usually having to drum up some non-event like Columbus’ birthday as an excuse. But in England if the banks want to close down they simply do so, and don’t pretend there’s a reason for it.
The one restaurant that was open was named “The Sixties”, and was dedicated to memorabilia from the Beatles’ day, primarily in the form of newspaper articles glued to the walls. It was run by a man from Malta who enjoyed telling us about his three daughters now in school in England. His daughters had been fond of the Beatles, he explained.
Portsmouth is famous for its Naval Museum, where in addition to the “Victory”, Nelson’s fully-restored battleship, is the hull of the “Mary Rose”, Henry the VIII’s recently-recovered flagship. We had hoped to see these the next morning but a line several blocks long which formed thirty minutes before the museum opened discouraged us. We had had our limit of crowds and did not intend to spend our last day standing in one. Instead we rented a car and headed north towards Heathrow airport, on the west side of London, and the point of our departure back to America.
After a stop for coffee and a stop for lunch we found ourselves returned to the land of 747’s, jet lag, and lost luggage–a portal back to our own universe. This time our luggage did not get lost but our reservations did. The computer thought we were returning tomorrow. 747’s always have extra seats so there was no problem getting on the plane. But when you lose your reservations you lose your pre-reserved seat assignments, which is a serious matter on a trans-Atlantic flight. We were given the choice between flying twelve hours seated next to each other in smoking section, or seated apart in non-smoking, and were furthermore given six seconds in which to make a decision, because by now we were late. In convulsions of mental agony Derry choose to sit next to me in smoking and I took this as a high compliment, knowing how she feels about cigarette smoke. But we walked to the gate in dread, unable to contemplate the hell we knew would await us as soon as the no-smoking light went off.
Then a delightful thing happened, one of those strokes of good luck that are all the more pleasurable for being unexpected. During the time we were walking to the gate the airline received a cancellation, a seat opened up, and by the time we’d arrived the gate agent had been sent special instructions to intercept us and change our seat assignments. Now we were together by a window in non-smoking.
Taking those seats was the moment when the trip ended. There were twelve hours of flying to Chicago, and then two more to Denver, and a drive up the mountain, but all of that was routine–even passing over the ice-capped mountains of Greenland. At the moment we took those seats there was nothing more to do: no hotels to worry about, no maps to study, no language problems to overcome, no plans of any sort to make. And since those are the very things that give life to travelling, and the success or failure of which give excitement, our trip had now ended. We could sit back, enjoy the free drinks, watch the two movies, and begin planning where we would go next. The Road to Morocco was behind us.