Monday, May 11, 2009
MOROCCO, LAND OF THINGS TO HIT YOUR HEAD ON
Royal Air Maroc is a fantastic airline. They serve whiskey for free, let you change to empty seats, and have pretty good food. And they are fast.
The taxis in Casablanca are tiny, blue, and old. We got in one and asked for 'Hotel Guynemer,' where we had a room booked. The driver said, "American? Very good! Obama!" We said, "Yes, yes, Obama!" and then he said, "Bush!" at which point we sensed a little insincerity in his enthusiasm. Then he produced a dirty white bottle, unscrewed the cap, and shook some brown powder on his wrist, which he snorted. As we stared, alarmed, he handed the bottle to us. When in Rome, right?
[video of taxi-cab powder-snorting deleted]
But it became increasingly clear he didn't know where our hotel was, or where the street was. He kept asking things we couldn't understand, and saying higher dirham amounts that the ride would cost us. A little woozy/lightheaded, we kept repeating the street name. "Osama bin Laden," he muttered darkly. We drove another half block. "Do you have any idea where this place is?" I said. "Osama bin Laden," he said a little louder. "Fine, let us out," I said, tapping the window. He stopped and demanded eighty dirham (far more than the original quote). "You didn't even take us anywhere," I said, and gave him twenty. He seemed pretty pissed off.
In Casablanca there's the third biggest mosque in the world, the Hassan II mosque. It is a temple to Mammon, not Allah. In the 1990s, the king spent $800 million in taxpayer money building it. The city around it is in utter disrepair, with starving cats in the street and heaps of trash and cat-like junkies skulking around late at night asking you in broken, hissed English if you want to drink or smoke, and then calling you an American devil if you tell them no.
We tried to take a tour of the mosque but were told that there were no more. Then a tour walked right by us, so we quietly joined it and no one noticed. It went down into the underground guts of the mosque, and then we slipped away and started walking around. Eventually a monkish guy in robes and fez approached us. We thought we were in a bit of trouble, but he just kindly showed us around, into beautiful, echoing empty halls with low ceilings and everything made of marble. When we eventually tried to leave, the guy just put up his hand and made the universal symbol for money--fingertips rubbed together. Everything for sale.
From the roof of our hotel in Casablanca, we saw motorcycle cops stopping a group of teenagers, throwing them up against a wall, searching them, demanding to see their papers.
The best time in Casablanca was waiting for a train to Marrakesh at 6 am across the street from the train station. The cafe was filled with Moroccan men--each man sitting alone at a table, drinking cafe au lait and eating a chocolate croissant. In Morocco they put sugar on everything. We ate and drank quietly for a long time. As the sun came up, some men gathered at a table in front of the cafe, beside our window. The waiter came out and stared at them menacingly. Then he lunged forward and began to tickle one man's mustache. The others began to tickle him, too. The waiter came back inside and the men continued talking, occasionally tickling each other's mustaches.
The medina in Marrakesh was hot, vivid, and dwarfed by the sky above it. The tanneries are filled with little dogs and interesting aromas.
There's very little hygiene in the country. In the markets, they put their hands all over the food before they give it to you. The people are very short. The doorways are even shorter. I hit my skull like ten fucking times.
The salade Marocain--just tomatoes and spice--is delicious. The tajine, their staple stew, is also good. The chickens, cooked on spits all over the place and covered in spice, are great. The pancakes with soft cheese are great. The doughnuts are brilliant and virtually free.
After Marrakesh, we went to Essaouira, a beach city within walls. We arrived late at night and entered the walls of the city. Even the central street was dark, close, overwhelming. We had no idea where we were or how to find Hostel Essaouira, where we intended to stay.
We turned down several streets, each one darker and narrower and emptier than the last. The streets inside the walled city don't feel like streets, they feel like hallways. You're essentially in a huge building that has no roof. Kids and men constantly come up to you asking where you're going. They want to show you--then demand money for showing you. Everybody wants your money, and they want it intensely.
A kid began leading us to Hostel Essaouira. When one scavenger picks up a quarry, other scavengers notice and try to glom on. So we quickly had more kids, and young men, following us. We went down more dark alleys, completely lost. Very narrow, with high walls, the middle of the night. No one in sight except drugged-out junkies and skinny cats. The kids were trying to sell us hashish. There were a lot of them behind us so it would have been very difficult to turn back the way we'd come. We couldn't even see their faces. For the first time on the trip, I was worried about our safety.
Then we come to a dead end. There's a little door in one of the walls. A hobbit door. Above it, in what looks like crayon, is a faint scrawl: "Hostel Essaouira." The crowd is clustering in on us, murmuring, some of them holding their hands out. If you give one money, you have to give them all money, or they're all over you. We rap on the door. It opens.
A dizzyingly gorgeous girl peers out. "Hillo," she says in a strong New Zealand accent. "Git in." We duck in, amazed, and she shuts the door behind us. We're in some kind of dream place. There's a living room with red couches, a bar, a sort of lounge with curved more sofas centered around a widescreen LCD TV, a small courtyard with a big green tree, a spiral staircase heading up several stories... The beautiful New Zealand girl, whose name is Theresa, takes our bags and makes us tea. She and her friend are travelers, too. The guy who runs the hostel comes back with his sanguine little dog and shows us the beers ($2 each) in the fridge and shows us our rooms, which are on the penthouse, which has an open air deck and a barbecue. There's no one else up there, it's all ours. I said, "We're staying here for a while." And we stayed there for the rest of the trip.
The food is tasty in Essaouira. I ate a lot of sardines. All kinds of sardines. Stuffed, grilled, on pizza, whatever.
We sat on the beach. I'm tan as fuck. I want that epitaph on my grave:
Tan As Fuck
We drank a lot. We met some smart, funny Dutch girls on the beach and then drank with them on a rooftop. We drank on our own on our roof. I bought a lot of loose Moroccan shirts that feel amazing. We met a cool Scottish guy and hung out with him. We met an intelligent, ambitious Moroccan guy named Ajou and hung out with him.
The kids there--it's sad. We met two different kinds of kids. Poor kids and not-poor kids. One night we were eating outdoors at a cafe. They'd brought us some french fries with our meal. A little kid came up and tried to sell us tissues, which is what they do constantly. We waved him away. He stared at our table and said, "french fry." So we gave him some--handed them to him because he was filthy and it didn't seem like a good idea to let him touch the plate. Then he sat at the next table and ate and watched us. Other kids gathered. The first kid suddenly lunged and grabbed a handful of fries from our plate. Russell instinctively grabbed his arm and the kid screamed in terror and then ran away, shouting, "Fuck you!" The kid was maybe seven or eight. The other kids hovered ominously, then gradually dispersed.
Another day, we were on a fort and there was a field trip of Moroccan kids there. They looked well taken care of. They spoke French and a little English in addition to Arabic. They wanted to talk to us and practice their English. When they learned our names, they kept shouting them and crowding around us, asking for our phone numbers and telling us, "America... is... verygood!" I think they were from the suburbs outside the walls of the city.
The single best experience of the trip was the hammam at Lalla Mira, a place in Essaouira. Hammam is amazing. We went into a dark, tiled room with low, arched ceilings. It was full of steam. We were in boxer shorts. There were two burly Moroccan guys in their underwear, pouring hot water everywhere. We sat there in the steam and heat for a while and then they motioned us over and poured water on us that was so hot it felt cold. It feels terrifying at first, then incredible. Then they rubbed some kind of spices all over us and let us lay there for a while. It's a surreal experience. The echoes, the guys chattering in Arabic. They're in there for hours--that's their job--and they're constantly pouring the burning water all over themselves, too, to clean themselves off. Then they poured more hot water all over us. Then they scrubbed the fuck out of us and massaged us. Then more hot water. Then freezing cold water. It takes about an hour. Then we went outside again. You feel fucking amazing. We did it twice.