Thursday, July 8, 2010

Morocco Part I: Casa/Essaouira

Note: all entries from my recent trip to Morocco will be published after the fact, as copied from the journal entries I wrote offline. The following is a record of the first few days of travel.
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I'm normally not one to tend towards paranoia, but I swear the universe was conspiring against me. The journey started off well enough; although I was still exhausted from my sister's wedding, it was pleasant to drive to the airport with friends-- wedding guests who happened to be leaving from New York that day. Even waiting alone for my flight for five hours wasn't too bad; the solitude was refreshing after the immense team effort necessary to plan a wedding. The trouble began subtly, with a slight delay out of JFK. I didn't think much of it; I was enjoying talking to my seatmate, a twelve-year-old choirboy from Dublin who had just finished a tour of the northeastern U.S.

It wasn't until our arrival in Dublin that I realized our initial delay might jeopardize my already-tight connection. With seven minutes to go, I sprinted through passport control, baggage claim, again through security, across the tarmac, and jumped on a plane to Madrid with seconds to spare. However, my sigh of relief was premature. After an agonizing half an hour at the baggage carousel, my suspicions were confirmed: my bag had not been as agile as I, and was still in Dublin. Together with several other disgruntled passengers, I trudged to the lost luggage counter. Filing a claim was a nightmare-- I had no address or telephone number at which I could be contacted, and I spoke no Spanish (and thus could barely communicate with the incredibly rude and unsympathetic woman behind the desk). In the end, I decided to continue on as planned to Casablanca and hope against hope that I would be able to communicate well enough by email and pay phone to retrieve my bag.

The problems didn't end there, however. My flight from Madrid to Casablanca was delayed by an hour and a half. No one spoke English. I was hot and sweaty and tired and hadn't slept in two days. I was terrified that the problems and delays would make it more difficult to meet up with my friend/travel buddy Ryan, who was flying into Casablanca from Cairo the same day.

As soon as the plane touched down in Casa, I sprinted to passport control... I had twenty minutes to make the hourly train into the city. Again, there were just enough delays to make me miss the train by about 6 minutes. What could I do? I waited for the 5pm train and took the 35-minute ride into the city. Resigning myself to the seemingly inevitable, I strolled onto the platform and into the station, expecting no one.

My relief was almost palpable when I saw Ryan, one of my favorite people in the world, waiting patiently, exactly where he said he would be. It's truly amazing how much a familiar face can lift a dejected spirit. After explaining the situation to him, we agreed that we should go on as planned to Essaouira that night. At this point, it was about 6pm. Essaouira is 6 hours from Casa, so it would be pushing it to arrive at midnight, especially as we weren't sure our hostel would hold our beds for us. However, we went ahead and boarded a somewhat sketchy-looking bus that was supposed to depart at 6pm.

It didn't depart at 6pm. It left at about 7, and made frequent stops to pick up and drop off passengers. It was closer to 2am when we arrived in Essaouira, and getting off of the bus was one of the scariest things I've ever done. The bus station was filled with 20-something men whose eyes followed me everywhere, without a single other female face in sight. We had no idea where we were with respect to our hostel. The surrounding streets, however, were almost completely deserted save some stray cats and menacing-looking youths. We nervously walked to the taxi rank to ask for directions; our hostel was only 400m away, according to the guidebook. After receiving conflicting directions from multiple drivers in garbled French, I turned to Ryan to find him deep in conversation with an older man who apparently spoke Spanish. He warned us that the streets were dangerous at night, and offered to lead us to our destination. He assured us that he was only interested in our safety-- he didn't want money. Warily, we followed him through the dark streets and imposing archways into the medina (old city): a labyrinthine collection of streets and alleyways that taxis couldn't enter.

We had barely gone thirty yards when our erstwhile guide abrubtly turned around and walked quickly back the way we had come, speaking low and in Spanish. Ryan quietly explained that it was better not to go this way because one of the men up there had a knife.

This turning back and circling around continued for about an hour as our guide carefully picked out the safest ways through the dark alleys and narrow streets, frequently looking at the map in our guidebook. We found out that Mustafa-- that was his name-- wasn't actually from Essaouira, but actually was a taxi driver from Casablanca, on vacation. He explained that he was staying with a local family who lived in the medina; it was much cheaper and nicer than staying in a hotel, he said.

Finally, we ducked into the tiny derb (alley) that contained our hostel. By this time, it was 2:30am and every door in the city was shut and locked. We rang the bell and banged on the door for what seemed like five solid minutes... to no avail. A man poked his head out of a third-story window and sleepily informed us that they were full for the night. At this point, we had no idea what to do: we were tired and hungry and scared and lost with a stranger in a strange city. Our mysterious guide, however, beckoned us to follow him again through the medina; he said that the family with whom he was staying might have room for us. We twisted and turned through the maze until we arrived at a door marked simply "48". Mustafa quietly entered and we found ourselves in a small open-air courtyad, with more twisting passages and narrow staircases leading to about a dozen doorways. We waited nervously a few meters back from the door on which Mustafa knocked. A tired-looking middle-aged woman opened the door as Mustafa explained our situation in rapid Arabic. As he spoke, two little girls peeked out from around their mother's skirt and gaped at the two travel-worn Americans before them. She let us in almost immediately into a small but beautiful apartment-- a living room with a few couches and a small television, a compact kitchen, a bathroom barely big enough to stand in (with a non-western squat toilet and no shower), two bedrooms and a sort of sitting room, with intricate mosaic walls and cushioned benches. It was to this room that the woman showed us, followed closely by the two small girls bearing pillows and blankets. The girls seemed especially struck by me, in all my unwashed Western glory; they took my hands and showed me the entire apartment (perhaps 650 square feet) before pushing me into a chair in the living room along with Ryan, where they brought us a plate of something that looked like fish. I had no idea what to do with this; I tentatively picked one up and bit its head off, prompting an alarmed squeal from the two little ones, who worried aloud that I would choke. They showed me how to peel the fish in half so that I could remove its spine. They were delighted with even my little bit of French, and chattered away despite the lateness of the hour. I finally convinced them to let us go to sleep, marveling at how lucky we were.

We rose reluctantly the next day, unsure of the Moroccan protocol in this situation. Nalika and the girls (Fatim-Selah and Selma) were nowhere to be found, nor was Mustafa. Could we leave our things there and go out into the city? Did we need to pay right then? Where would we go? What would we eat? Right on cue, Mustafa entered the room and asked if we wanted breakfast. We followed him outside, through the maze of doors that was number 48-- and finally out into streets that had been completely transformed. Instead of the deserted, threatening, claustrophobic alleys of the preceding night, we found: aisles of brightly colored clothing, awnings with shopkeepers shouting to one another and hawking their wares to passersby, heavily laden horses and donkeys carrying goods from place to place. We ducked into a small side street and entered a tiny open-air shop that contained a stove, a table, and some benches in an area no larger than 100 square feet. Two stout women unceremoniously presented us with a pot of mint tea and plates of bread, doused in honey and oil. It tasted strange and foreign but delicious nonetheless. Mustafa poured the tea in typical Moroccan style-- the greater the height of the pour without splashing, the more respect you command from those around you.

Breakfast for the three of us was a mere 20 dirham, about $2.25; Mustafa informed us that it was much too expensive because we were foreign. He led us through the labyrinth to the area near the beach, where seagulls and tourists flocked in droves. In a combination of French and Spanish, he described the sights we passed: the kasbah, a walled fortress reminiscent of medieval times; the ramparts, or skala, where you could walk for 10Dh; the fish souq, where you could take your pick from the catch of the day and have it grilled for you before your eyes; the fishing boats in the harbor; the plethora of windsurfers and sailboats by the beach. It was unlike anything I'd seen before. We sat on a stone wall above the beach as Mustafa ducked out to buy something... he returned with a bag of sardines, bragging about how little they cost compared to what we might pay in the U.S. He threw a few to the endless parade of gulls and stray cats before ushering us back to 48, asking us where we thought we were and making us lead the way to ensure that we would be able to return alone. On the way, I browsed shops for some additional clothing, since my luggage had yet to be found (at this point, we'd purchased a moroccan SIM card and attempted to call the baggage claim office in Madrid several times ... no luck). Mustafa dropped us off at 48, and after dropping off a few things we ventured into the city alone. I purchased a few essentials and we wandered through the medina in search of a good place to eat lunch. An intricate archway led us into an open courtyard of restaurants and shops, relatively bare of people. Confronted with signs touting organic and vegan fare, we assumed we'd found a backpacker's haven and settled down to eat at the Earth Cafe, an all-vegetarian restaurant clearly aimed at expats and tourists. The friendly English-speaking proprietor, Ben, encouraged us to return often and review his place on Tripadvisor.com. he also gave us directions to another branch of the cafe in Marrakech, our next destination. The meal was delicious and filling and vegetarian (which Ryan appreciated), and the square was quiet and peaceful; we lingered until almost sunset. I spotted a shop selling some clothes I liked and bargained a shopkeeper from 180Dh for a pair of pants down to 125Dh-- not a great job haggling on my part, but still only about $13 for a nice comfy pair of pants. We wandered over to the beach until the sun set, then back to the streets to search out a place to have a light supper. We eventually settled on a small place called Cafe des Arts, which looked relatively cheap and nice. The food-- a vegetarian couscous and tajine-- was more than passable, and as we ate the waiters would take turns playing traditional Gnaoua music on strange-looking instruments in the corner of the tiny room. As the evening progressed, the place took on the air of an American coffeehouse-- the room filled with young Moroccans who sipped mint tea and clapped and sang along with the 5-6 waiters, who had formed a jam band of guitars, keyboards, percussion, and strange Gnaoua instruments.

After dinner and entertainment, we contentedly began to walk back to 48. The shops were closing, which made it difficult to navigate, but with some effort and a map we returned at about 10pm. When we walked in, the small TV was playing a French-dubbed version of the American movie "Dreamgirls" to a rapt Mustafa, Fatim-Selah, and Selma. The girls leapt up and offered us plates full of fresh watermelon, fish, bread, and mint tea. Another woman was there, who as far as I could understand was a neighbor from one of the many other doors in 48. This woman, Latika, was much more talkative than Nalika; she also knew a bit of English. However, the bulk of the conversation was carried out in French. Ryan, tired and uncomprehending, went to bed, leaving me at the mercy of Latika and Mustafa's endless questions. They asked me about my life and family in the U.S., whether or not university was expensive there, even whether or not Ryan and I were engaged/married (during the day, we'd gotten some cheap rings to wear to deter harassment, on the advice of several stateside friends who'd previously traveled in Morocco). The dialogue flew by at times too fast for me to understand it, as French was translated to Arabic to English and back again.

I then hesitatingly proffered that I was attempting to learn Arabic, which spurred an excited burst of chatter. I had printed out some lessons from a teach-yourself website, and showed them. Latika became very excited and began to read sentences in Arabic, had me repeat them, and then translated them to English. Fatim-Selah grabbed my hand and sat me in a chair, writing out characters and instructing me on how to pronounce them. Selma sat patiently, copying out sentences in both Arabic and English-- when making English letters, her pen moved from right to left even as her hand moved from left to right. Fatim-Selah made me repeat the numbers 1-10 until I could say them perfectly. The lesson lasted until late that night, and ended with an exchange of addresses and promises to write-- me, someday, in Arabic. I bid goodnight to the man who had virtually saved our lives, the woman who'd taken us in, her enthusiastic neighbor, and the two little girls who'd stolen my heart.

The next morning we packed our things and breakfasted again with Mustafa. We wanted to catch a bus to Marrakech but were unsure of the correct station; as before, Mustafa guided us through the medina and out to the station. On the way, he stopped in a small shop and purchased a CD of what he said was the best musician from Essaouira's recent Gnaoua festiva, an event famed throughout Morocco. He gave us the CD as a parting gift, and showed us to the station. After a few snafus with a different bus station and a bus that was full already, we packed into a bus to Marrakech, saying farewell to our friend and guardian. All in all, our trip to Essaouira was a suitable beginning to our Moroccan adventures.

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