Tuesday morning, R and I were at the train station bright and early, having bought our tickets, checked the board and found the correct platform. We were over an hour early, but it was a beautiful day, we’d had breakfast, and we felt very pleased with ourselves overall.
I should mention here that Morocco is the first place I’ve ever traveled where I felt like speaking only English wasn’t really sufficient. Usually, English speakers are spoiled and everyone can talk to us in our native tongue, but Africa’s second language is pretty universally French, of which I have basically none. R took French in school, however, and was able to limp along pretty adequately, but had she not been with me, I would have had a really tough time of it. Anyway, while we were waiting on the platform, a woman sitting nearby with her family came over and offered us a bun, and then we had a little stammering French conversation about where we were going and what we thought of Morocco and about Fez and whether or not we liked it (she didn’t – too cold). After we’d worn out our limited vocab, she went back to her family. A minute later, she looked at us.
“Aren’t you going to Casa?” she (basically) asked.
She indicated a train that had been sitting on the far platform for the last 30 minutes or so, and was just now pulling away from the station.
“Casa,” she said.
We were pretty sure she was wrong, because we’d checked the board and we were on the right platform. Except that it turned out she was right, and we were on the wrong platform. So we waited another hour.
When we finally got on the correct train, we sat in a small carriage for five hours watching the scenery tick by. The Western side of Morocco is beautiful – all green and red farmland and orange trees and olive groves and prickly pear and tiny neon orange and yellow flowers that carpet the ground everywhere. And goats, lots of goats. And also many dusty little towns with a lot of construction going on, but even the crappiest buildings in Morocco have beautiful decorative woodworking around the windows, doors and balconies painted in nice, bright colors. Weirdly, we also passed several small (state-fair-sized) abandoned amusement parks.
When we finally got to Casablanca, we were very hungry and tired. We negotiated with a petit taxi driver to take us to the hostel we’d picked. Now, here’s the problem with petit taxis in Morocco: they’re supposed to use the meter, but when they pick up foreigners, they won’t use the meter, but instead tell you it’ll be something like (I’m going to use all US equivalents here) $5, when if they used the meter, it would be about $1. The Lonely Planet and the internet tell you that when this happens, you should say no, and hold out for someone who will use the meter like they’re supposed to. But the problem is that often, none of them will use the meter. And when you’ve had five cabs refuse to take you unless you pay them $5, and considering that $5 isn’t that much anyway, you generally just agree to it in the end. This was a continual problem that we had with taxi drivers – we went through this over and over again. A few times, we were able to get somebody to actually use the damn meter, but usually, the best we could do was to bargain them down to $2 or so. And sometimes (if it was raining or late), we just paid whatever they wanted. This time when we arrived at Casablanca was one of those times.
We checked into our hotel, which was fine, and then went out for a walk, which was depressing. And now we come to another general note about Morocco: it’s a straight-up sausage fest. Which, of course, we expected. We knew that we were going to an Islamic country. We knew not to drink, and to dress conservatively, and we knew that we would still probably be harassed, and actually I wasn’t harassed nearly as tirelessly in Morocco as I was in, say, China, but the tone was different. In the conservative Southeast Asian countries, I was often treated like a wealthy slut, but in Morocco, you’re pretty much treated like a wealthy, stupid prostitute, the stupid part being key. Though, I am just talking about street harassment by random dudes, or men who work in the tourist sector. Obviously, these men are not representative of Moroccan society as a whole. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to meet a wide range of people – no women at all, and of the men we interacted with, many were not the nicest of people.
But of the men that did accost us, the tone is so bizarre. It goes a lot like this: “Well, hello there, you darling, stupid little whore of my dreams! Aren’t you the cutest little moron I’ve ever seen? Why don’t you pay me $10 for this conversation and also marry me, foolish prostitute?” Actually, I guess that, other than the financial angle, it’s not that different from how boys talk to girls in seventh grade.
Anyway, Casablanca was packed after dark, and there were tons of women out, but it was also a dirty, crappy little town with nothing to see, and we were pretty much hounded off the streets by the number of men of all ages trying to cruise us. Finally, after I got my ass slapped (and not for the last time), I was ready to call it a night. Here are the interesting things we saw:
That was about it. We didn’t feel sufficiently interested in Casa to stick around for a full day, so we decided to go ahead and take the train to Marrakesh first thing in the morning.
It was three more hours on the train to Marrakesh. This train had open carriages rather than little compartments, and I ended up sitting with this woman and her two grandkids, who were both being really winning and adorable for the entire ride, which again, was through beautiful green countryside. I felt pretty great about this particular train ride and was in a really good mood when we disembarked. We had arrived early enough in the day to take a city bus, too, so we didn’t even have to deal with any taxi drivers.
The medina portion of Marrakesh is all pink-walled. The main tourist area is the Djemma el Fna, which is a packed square at the entrance to the souks that is jam-packed with performers and vendors of all kinds. Or it’s jam-packed in the high season; at this time of year, it was reasonably buzzing. Our hotel was very near it, so we checked in and then headed over. One of the first things we saw were these snake “charmers” with their very unhappy looking snakes sitting there (who apparently have their mouths sewn shut):
Robin took this photo and then the guy ran over to ask for money and, of course, to flirtatiously and inappropriately insult her intelligence in various ways. We then wandered around the souks behind the square and around the alleys behind the souks. We were starving to death, and for once, couldn’t find food stalls anywhere. We walked and walked, and finally we found a section of food stalls all serving fried fish with bread pockets and lemon, so we ate at one of them (the proprietor unceremoniously kicked another customer off his stool to make room for us). The fish was amazing – one of our top meals in Morocco.
After that, we wandered around some more, being hollered at by shopkeepers who assumed we were British (“Hey, fish-and-chips! Shop here! Cheaper than Asda! Mmm, lovely jubblies.”). We decided that, even though it was getting late and most tourist attractions were closed, we should wander down to the palace area and maybe look for the Mella (Jewish section) or something.
The area around the palace is very confusing, with giant sweeping avenues lined by high, crenelated pink walls with palm trees behind them, terminating in impressive giant arched doorways covered in tile work.
Everything seems like a grand entrance to something, but you can’t get anywhere and there are no signs at all, so you just keep walking and walking. We walked until we were once again hounded off the streets (this time by roving packs of teenage boys), and then we headed back to Djemma el Fna.
In the evenings, food vendors set up stands in long rows on the square. They are all the same with identical menus and prices, and they are all very aggressive about ushering tourists in to their particular stand. They will call you over all excitedly, and then, if you ignore them, accuse you of being racist and make rude comments about your sexual availability. You know, the usual.
We had some snails first of all, having heard a lot about the snail stands in Morocco:
The snails were entirely tasteless and bland. I would have assumed we picked a bad stand that was just there for tourists or something, except we were surrounded by locals absolutely devouring the same snails, drinking the broth and acting like it was all a big treat. Parents were buying bags of them to take home for their children, who were throwing fits to be given some right away. So, I don’t know what the deal is, because they tasted like nothing much.
And then we ate some other things. The best thing by far in Djemma el Fna is the fresh-squeezed orange juice – there are many stands where you can get a giant glass of delicious fresh orange or grapefruit juice for $.50. You drink it there, then return the glass.
After we’d eaten everything we were interested in, we called it another early night. When we woke up the next day, it was raining and gross. R wanted to go to a hammam, which is a public shower. This is a traditional thing in Morocco. The country suffers from a water shortage; not every home has water for bathing (certainly not hot water), so people go to hammams to shower and smack each other with branches and so forth. There’s usually a hammam adjacent to every mosque, because mosques have fountains and are a water source. The fancier ones have skin treatments and massages, so going to a hammam is also a big tourist thing to do. We decided that would be a good rainy-day activity. We asked the man who worked behind the front desk at the hotel, and he referred us to a guy who works for the hotel arranging things for tourists, but that guy was really overbearing and overeager. He was going to take us to a hammam, but I asked him to give us directions and we would go and tell them that he sent us. But then, we couldn’t find it. So instead, we took a cab up to the area of one listed in our guidebook, but when we got up there, we couldn’t find it at all and no one could help us, so we walked back toward our hotel. On the way, we happened past a hammam, but the women’s side wasn’t open yet. We waited outside for awhile, and then a woman came and unlocked it for us and ushered us inside, where we saw a big, grey cement room cluttered with about a hundred plastic buckets piled all along the walls and very little else. No one else was there but us, so we left as politely as we could.
We walked back into the main square and a tout immediately ran up to us with fliers for a hammam. This was a touristy thing, but we decided to go anyway. The place was thick with incense and covered in Arabian Nights-ish curtains, pillows and rugs. We were led into little changing rooms and told to strip down to our underwear, which we did. We then went into a little bath room with a big marble slab in the middle, where a small, muscular young woman laid us out on the slab one at a time and unceremoniously smeared us in various substances and then scrubbed us all over (ALL over) with a pumice mitt. It’s very difficult to know where to look when your mostly naked friend is being intimately bathed by a stranger right in front of you, but whatever – it was an experience.
We were then taken into another room with nice massage tables in little alcoves, where we had pretty standard massages. The whole thing was pleasant enough, though not the experience we were looking for: we’d read that going to a hammam was a good way to get to talk to Moroccan women and we sort of wanted something in between the creepy empty shed we’d first found and the tourist joint we ended up in, but it was still fun. All in all, we ended up paying $31/each for a thorough scrub-down and a 35-minute massage. When we talked to the guy at our hotel again that night for something unrelated, we realized he was actually pretty nice and helpful, and that, if we had gone with him, we would have gone to a more authentic hammam and paid about $5/each. Oh, well.
After we’d stopped by the hotel to change into dry clothes and wash the oil off our faces, we headed back to the palace area to see some of the things that were closed the day before, but we found that the area was not any easier to navigate even when it was during business hours. There were no signs anywhere and we couldn’t find anything. This area is where the current Royal Palace is also, so there are a lot of areas closed to the public, which adds to the difficulty of finding where you are supposed to go. At long last, we located a small sign just outside the Badii Palace:
These palace ruins consisted mostly of a huge courtyard with pools and sunken orange tree groves. There were also the ruins of gardens, and some wine cellars or something underground, and many giant storks living in nests along the ramparts.
Once we’d worn the palace out, we looked for the Mella again, and again, couldn’t find it, so we ended up giving in to one of the rude, pushy teenage boys trying to take us there. He showed us the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery:
before yelling at us for not giving him enough money. By the time we were done with that, it was getting dark again, so we went for shrimp and calamari at the food stands, and then we made our plans for the next day.
Here’s the debate we were having: Morocco’s main cities are all along the Western part of the country. The Sahara desert is in the far East of the country. It takes about 13 hours to get from the cities to the desert. The train lines only cover the Western part of the country, and the buses only go to a few of the larger towns in the East. The roads out to the actual sand dunes were only very recently paved and, while they’re much more accessible now than they were a few years ago, getting there involves some tricky navigation – you have to take more than one bus and then you have to negotiate a ride with someone. Tourists, obviously, want to visit the sand dunes, so to make it easier for them, there are a million package tours out of Marrakesh and other places that all offer the same thing: three days and two nights, during which you drive through the Atlas Mountains, visiting a vast number of scenic stops, spend the night in a hotel, drive the next day out to the desert, get there in time to ride camels out into the dunes at sunset, camp overnight in a “Berber nomad tent”, get up at the crack of dawn, ride back through the dunes and then drive for 13 hours back to Marrakesh.
Every review I’d read of these trips said that they’re very rushed, lots of time packed in a car, one brief glimpse of sand dunes, and then 13 hours in a car again. I didn’t want to do that. But after just having spent an entire day wandering around trying to locate a couple of obvious things in a single city, R understandably wasn’t keen to try our chances on finding our own way across the entire country. Eventually, we decided a good compromise would be to take a package tour out to the desert, but then not return with the tour, instead staying in the desert for a couple of days by ourselves before taking an overnight bus back to Fez.
Thus agreed, we arranged the tour with the guy at our hotel. He walked us through the various stops the tour would be making, and gave us the particulars of the schedule. We ponied up $112/each for transportation, breakfasts and dinners, the hotel, the camel ride and the camping. We were told to be in the lobby at 6:30am the following morning.
That’s when our real adventure began.