I have had the good fortune to travel through many countries around the world but recall Morocco as the most interesting and exotic I have visited. The year was 1972 and I was bumping around Europe in an English Cummer camper van with three friends. As the months progressed, however, each of my compatriots departed for their own particular reason, leaving me alone with our jointly owned vehicle. One of my friends had been arrested for stealing cheese in Germany and was in custody to be eventually deported. We were unaware of his plight, failing to learn of his misfortune until our return to Canada. A second friend had exhausted his resources and flown home while my final friend travelled to Quebec for a winter of skiing.
I was alone in Germany with a vehicle that barely ran and rapidly dwindling resources. Having met some Canadian Forces soldiers, they offered to take the hapless vehicle off my hands for about $30.00. With little alternative, I took the money and set off for some warmer weather. It was nearing fall in Germany and the temperatures were dropping quickly. Frost was appearing in the mornings and on several occasions there was a light snowfall. With little desire to return to Canada just yet, and with my bolstered resources, I decided to venture south.
Boarding a bus for Spain, I rolled my way through Switzerland and France, not seeing much of the countryside but keeping warm. I landed in Barcelona and roamed the streets for a few days, taking in the tourist sites. The weather remained cool and not to my liking. As most travellers did at the time, I focussed my wanderings around the local American Express office and youth hostel. I met several others who were also roving Europe and soon learned that I would need to go considerably further south if I was to find more tropical temperatures during the winter months. Some had travelled to Morocco and described an exotic country, beautiful beaches and friendly people.
With this new information, I booked a ticket for the port of Algeciras near the southernmost shores of Spain. In Algeciras I boarded a small vessel for a short 10 mile ride across the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangiers, Morocco. At the terminal, and on the boat, I began to notice people wearing clothes that were very foreign to me. Many Moroccans, at least in the 70s, were wearing a traditional attire called a djellaba. This is a long, loose, hooded garment with full sleeves. Women wear a similar garment called a Kaftan that was very much like a djellaba but without the hood. This seemed to me a strange contrast to my expectations of balmy temperatures and a desert-like environment in Morocco. Somewhat taken aback by these clothes and strange-looking people, I felt some uncertainty about the direction I was venturing, but with the Spanish shore rapidly receding, there was no turning back.
Morocco is officially a kingdom with Hassan II the king from 1961 to 1999 when his son, Mohammed VI ascended the
throne. They, however, have held general elections since 1963. Morocco is in the north-western region of Africa. It is characterized by a rugged mountainous interior and large portions of desert. It is one of the only three countries (Spain and France the others) to have both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines. Morocco has a population of over 33 million people with Rabat its capital city. The largest city is Casablanca and other major cities include Marrakesh, Tangier, Fes, and Agadir. The population is 99% Muslim.
After about 40 minutes of floating on the sunny Mediterranean, we docked in Tangier, the most northerly port of Morocco. Tangier was a culture shock, as there were camels being led by djellaba-wearing men. Small children flocked around me speaking 6 different languages all at once and numerous women could be seen squatting on the hard pavement with their various wares laid out on mats. The smell of spices, strange dress, constant chatter in every language imaginable, and the press of the people, was intoxicating. I had, seemingly, landed on a new planet.
I pushed my way through the crowds and tried to ignore the countless sellers accosting me as I must have been an obvious new source of income. Unaware of the location for the local youth hostel, I asked directions for this anticipated safe harbour. One young boy, who spoke particularly good English, pushed his way past the others and volunteered to accompany me to my destination. He offered to take my bag but I declined, following a few steps behind while clutching my life’s possessions. He was very affable and led me through a maze of streets and passages until we finally arrived at a rustic looking archway. We had arrived at the Big Zoco, which is the main entrance to the largest medina in Tangier and Morocco. There are about a dozen hostels in Tangier but my guide was taking me to the largest one called the Tangier Melting Pot Hostel that is located in the heart of Tangier’s medina.
The medina is ancient and surrounded by 7-foot-high walls. It is the center of the city that remains vibrantly Middle Eastern. The smell of spices, mint tea, and cigarette smoke mingled with the vendors trying to sell all manner of product. The Medina’s walls date back to the 14th century and are overflowing with stalls selling everything from spices, to rugs, textiles, silks, meat, fruit, vegetables and much more. Everything is negotiable in the medina and the noise of barter is only overwhelmed by the numerous motor bikes dodging pedestrians on the steep and winding streets. Farmers bring their produce several days per week to the medina and lay it out on tarps where they wait patiently for a sale. As the sun sets the peasants gather their unsold wares, storefronts close, and the people return to their homes outside the 700-year-old walls. Over the next few days I began to perceive a certain order in the chaos.
The Melting Pot Hostel is in the center of all this pandemonium. I was a bit concerned that the hostel would be as frenzied as the streets, but once through the expansive Moroccan archway I was delighted to find a beautiful tiled plaza with traditional Moroccan arches and considerable calm. There were a few travellers lounging on soft chairs but none of the bustle outside the arched door was seeping into this apparent sanctuary.
Paying my $3.00 room charge I was glad to flop on my chosen bed which was one of about 20 others in a large room. A few of the beds were occupied by sleeping tenants while others had travelling gear piled high. Over the next few days I met a few other travellers and was soon enjoying the delights of this city with a couple Germans, an American woman, and a Brit. We took in many of the sights but most of all enjoyed sitting in the outdoor cafés sipping mint tea. These teas were delicious with a tall clear glass holding steaming hot water, a large meandering stem of the mint plant within, and a liberal portion of sugar. We would slurp these concoctions like visiting sultans while surveying the adjacent street that contained a constant flow of beggars, children and the disabled. We were constantly accosted for whatever we were willing to part with. After giving in to a few of the more tragic assailants, we learned that if we provided for everyone, we would soon be similarly disposed. I had trouble denying small children, lepers, or the severely disabled who would drag their useless limbs across the pavement to extend a hand. Interestingly, I was told that many disabled beggars were often the wealthiest people in the city. They were said to own hotels and have servants who carry them to their begging locations. This was never confirmed however.
I stayed a few days in Tangier before boarding the Marrakesh Express made famous by the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song of the same name. The Marrakech Express is an overnight train journey from Tangier to Marrakech thus saving me a night’s accommodation. It is also very cheap even if you go first class which gives you a 4 berth carriage (only 1 bed purchased per ticket). I recall most vividly the view from a window with the sun rising in the morning. I would take this journey again just for that view. I travelled with the American woman I had met in Tangier as she was, amazingly, travelling alone. Women alone in Morocco are constantly harassed by the locals but this woman was very big and strong, and looked quite intimidating, resulting in few problems even while hitch-hiking alone.
We landed in Marrakech and were similarly accosted as in Tangier but soon found our way to the youth hostel and local medina. My best memories of the Marrakech Medina were the snake charmers who mesmerized cobras with a flute causing the snake to sway to the music. I stayed about a week in Marrakech but was somewhat forced to leave as I had sold some cheap puzzle rings that I previously purchased in Turkey to a local vendor. Not my most brilliant exploit, I severely exaggerated the ring’s values and traded them for a large quantity of leather goods that I sent home. The next day, however, my victim had determined the true value of the rings and threated to sell me to the white slave market. Not wishing to be some boy toy to a sultan or, more likely, a laborer in a mine, I decided to leave town immediately and boarded a train for Casablanca.
Casablanca is a city made famous by the Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman movie of the 1940s. Arriving in the city center, I immediately became aware that Casablanca did not have any resemblance to the movie and I seriously doubted I would find the nice bar Ingrid and Hump had been cavorting in. Somewhat miscalculating, I also found myself deposited in this very large city at about 2:00 AM, with no accommodation or idea of how to find one. All hotels were closed and the usual paddlers or willing guides were surely slumbering. Wandering the streets for a time I finally found one small boy who agreed to direct me to a fine hotel for a modest sum. Hesitantly I followed and was guided to a not-so-fine hotel with a burly clerk whom I disturbed from his involvement in a boisterous game of cards. He agreed to give me his, apparent, last room. The room was very primitive and a chair leaning against the door was the only security I enjoyed that night. A couple hours later my much needed sleep was intruded upon by a loud banging on my not-so-secure door. It seemed the landlord needed to repay a gambling debt and had decided to increase my rent. I paid!!
The morning came too early and I was out the door by shortly after sunrise. Deciding Casablanca was not at all like the movie, I returned to the same bus depot where I had arrived a few hours earlier and boarded a bus for Agadir. I had heard
Agadir bordered one of the most highly
rated beaches in the world. Considering that cultural tourism was growing a bit wearing, I thought a bit of fun in the sun might be nice……..my Agadir adventures next time!!