Dispatch from Africa
A mass email I sent out during my backpacking phase, wherein I recount my first encounter with the African continent
Sorry if this seems without sufficient context for some of you, but I figured I’d send to any who might be interested.
Morocco (Western Sahara included) is an amazing place; I would recommend it to anybody. Here’s how the first few days have been.
My first Africa-related experience was on the ferry from Tenerife to Gran Canaria. I helped out a man who was having trouble with the door and it turned out he was from Morocco. His English was about as good as my Spanish, but we were able to communicate on a basic level and he was very excited to hear I was going to El Aaiún. When he relayed the news to his friend that had come outside, his friend pointed at me and said something I couldn’t understand, though I’m pretty sure it was along the lines of “This guy right here? You gotta be shitting me!” so I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that.
I didn’t get to see any of Gran Canaria. My highlight was wasting €6 on a taxi from the port only to find out there was a free shuttle from the ferry company. I got a room in a seedy pension and was off to the airport first thing in the morning. The plane ride was short and uneventful, but it did feature views of the Sahara flying in, as well as some muzak rendition of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town upon landing. The airport seemed taken over by UN planes.
I had been worried about problems getting through customs, but in the end it was rather painless. I did have to step aside out of the main line and talk to some higher-up before I was let through, though. He was very polite throughout, but the gist definitely seemed to be “what the hell are you doing here?” It probably didnt help that I misspelled my hotel (Hotel Rif) on the customs form as ‘Hotel Kif’, which pretty much translates as “hotel marijuana”. I made it very clear that I would be off to the normal Morocco tourist circuit pretty soon, and that I would not linger in the disputed territory nor run off to the Polisario rebel camp to write some expose on the plight of the Saharawi nomads.
Outside, I uncomfortably tried to stall offers from the various “taxi drivers” and leapt into a legitimate taxi as soon as it pulled up. Even he tried to divert me to some sketchy unlisted hotel from which he’d get a kickback, and charged me double fare because apparently getting out to use an ATM en route means I took “two rides”. I wasn’t willing to haggle over 60 cents. The scenery from the taxi seemed immensly foreign. The architecture, the dress, the language: nothing was familiar.
I arrived at the hotel to find the desk deserted. Even after finding the guy he didn’t speak a word of English. With the help of my guidebook I was able to spit out in broken arabic “do you have rooms available”. I received an emphatic, relieved ‘yes’, but even after that, we just sort of stood around awkwardly, as if I’d have to do something more to indicate I actually wanted the room despite having just asked that question. Some minutes later I got the room ($3.70) and collapsed for about two hours. I had never felt so far from home.
After overcoming my what-am-i-doing-here-itis I resolved to venture out and explore. I need to stop rolling into towns on Sundays, because the place seemed pretty sleepy (though I might not have been able to deal with much more at the time). Nevertheless, I got a lot of stares. It even seemed like cars on the street were slowing down to check me out. It made me feel a little unwelcome, like I was being viewed with suspicion, but once I started smiling at people and saw how they immediately broke out into broad smiles back, I realized it was more just curiosity and bemusement. I never did see another tourist the whole time in El Aaiún.
The feeling of the place being totally alien never subsided, though. Just seeing people walk around in african dress – men in robes and turbans/headcloths, women in hijab or even burqa (only the eyes showing) was a headtrip. I think as an American my main exposure to those images is on CNN associating them with some faraway, sinister place, and here it was, right in front of me. But almost everyone I interacted with was warm and friendly. I didnt get hassled at all. I did chat with some schoolkids for a while and they were headed back to their house and wanted me to join them. But one was very insistent that I come to “meet a girl”, so it seemed a little weird and I opted out, but looking back I probably shouldn’t have been such a wimp. On my way back to the hotel a pickup truck drove by with a camel in the back of it.
I ventured out later that night to explore. I heard people tend to hang out at dusk when it cools down (though it wasnt really that hot at midday, around 85°F). There was indeed much activity. I popped into a cafe to eat, and, some hand gestures later, successfully conveyed my intentions to the boy who greeted me, who only spoke French. English-speakers were very rare in El Aaiún. I disclosed that I spoke some Spanish though, and the boy sprinted down the street to fetch some other Spanish-speaking kid (who had spent some time in the Canaries) who then served as my liaison for the rest of the meal. I made it clear to him I didn’t really care what I ate. I dont think that was much of an issue at this place, because from looking at other people, there only seemed to be one thing on the menu. A starter ‘salad’ of minced onion and tomato. Followed by a bean soup sopped up with bread, and then grilled ribs (?) of lamb (?) with mustard. Very good. I was something of a spectacle throughout the meal, lots of kids running around, but it was very fun and jovial. It seemed like running the place was kind of a community affair, lots of different people who certainly didn’t work there were chipping in doing various things. And too many to be just one guy’s family.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of the mosque calling people to prayer. I got up and explored some more. The place had really sprung to life. I realized just how much of a military town this place was. There were soldiers everywhere. I had heard Moroccan men will sometimes hold hands as they walk and talk, and indeed several of them (all older) were doing it. I had some unspecified fruit from a street vendor (later identified as prickly pear), and had delicious tajine for lunch. You’re only supposed to eat with your right hand here because the left hand is unclean (ask if you really want to know) but clearly I find that difficult being left-handed. Hopefully the locals forgave me for flouting conventions. I wandered some more and caught an afternoon bus for Marrakech.
All in all, the place looked very run down, but I guess thats the norm I’ll have to get used to in developing countries. But beyond surface appearances, the place didn’t seem awash in poverty or anything. Internet cafes abounded. Many stores selling TVs and toasters and DVDs and the trappings of modern life. Although they were right next to stores selling severed lambs heads on hooks… the place seemed very genuine and untouched.
The bus to Marrakech was long, and comfortable for about the first 8 hours. It seemed like the bus was going so slow, and we were running way behind, but lo, we arrived in Marrakech right on time. There were many police (gendarmarie) checkpoints along the way, but we were waved through all but one, just outside of El Aaiún. The scenery was as expected: desert. And brightest stars I’ve ever seen.
Marrakech is a crazy place. So much activity. Every street a massive free-for-all of pedestrians, mopeds, cars, horse-carriages, and mule-carts. I feel like I should have been run down by a moped at least ten times by now [editor’s note: this actually happened later]. The city itself is extremely difficult to navigate. The whole place just feels like one giant organism. No clear distinction between streets, alleyways, narrow market aisles, between inside and outside. It all just flows in one continuous space and gradually changes between all those different states. I consider myself a pretty adept navigator, and I’ve still gotten pretty badly lost. There are no street signs, no useful landmarks. All minarets in Morocco are built to 5:1 proportions, completely nullifying any sense of scale, so yeah, that huge mosque in the center of town you thought you’ve been walking towards for 20 minutes turns out to be much smaller, closer mosque in the complete opposite direction… I hate backtracking when exploring a new place, but in Marrakech, retracing your steps is a must.
They say arrive to a new town early so you can get a hotel before they fill up. But I guess 7am is too early here because none of the hotel-keepers were even awake yet. Some guy latched onto me and starting escorting me from hotel to hotel (for a few dirham, of course). He kept dragging me from place to place, waking up the keeper, having a short exchange in Arabic, then whisking me off to the next place before I could even register what happened. “Complet! Complet! Full! Full!” It was starting to seem like a scam to me, so I started addressing the hotel guys myself and indeed almost everywhere was full, full. I eventually found a room though.
(I’ll add that on the outside this guy was full traditional garb, but at one point he hiked it up to re-adjust and underneath he had on this ridiculous pastel magenta tracksuit.)
I was expecting a lot worse with hustlers. I think this place has been cleaned up dramatically from the days that gave it its reputation. People are still pretty agressive, but they wont latch onto you and follow you if you make it clear you’re uninterested. However, overcharging and short-changing seem pretty standard here. It’s all pretty light-hearted, all part of the game, but it wears on you after a while. Every transaction involves some drama. I’m still adjusting to the haggling lifestyle. There are successes and failures, but the failures linger in your mind more. My cab driver from the bus station tried to charge me 50 dirham for a ride that should have been 15. He left with 20. [I later learned he was actually right because I had accidentally taken a ‘grand taxi’ rather than a ‘petit taxi’; oops…] On the other hand, a snake charmer demanded 200 dirham ($25!!) for some pictures I took. I settled for 100, but it was still far too much.
Dinner my first night was quite the gastronomical adventure. A starter of snail soup. Followed by lamb tanjia with a side of calf tongue and sheeps brain. I actually enjoyed the tongue and snail. The brain was a little gross, like eating a stick of butter. Dessert of mint tea and fresh dates was very good as well. I ate on the main square (Djemaa el-Fna) which is like a circus at night. Musical acts and storytellers (in Arabic only) and snake oil salesman hocking their wares.
Today I explored the town of Imlil, a Berber town south of Marrakesh in the Atlas mountains, very close to Morocco’s highest mountain, Toubkal. I wanted to use the grand taxi system, and had mixed success. Grand taxis are shared long-distance taxis. You wait around until enough people show up that want to go to a given place, negotiate a rate for the car as a whole, and split it evenly. Cool idea, but I knew it would be a challenge in practice. I cabbed it out to the gare routière to find a taxi. The place was very overwhelming, no sense of order, and the word I eventually got was no one wanted to go where I was going (not even the taxi drivers). I found another grand taxi back in town that was willing to take me. He originally quoted me 400 dirham, one-way to the halfway point of my destination. I eventually haggled him down to 400 for round-trip all the way to my destination – very close to the market rate, I believe. So that made me feel good. The only downside was no-one to split with. And it really annoyed me that the guy refused to pick up other passengers along the way, particularly other tourists in Imlil who needed a ride back, so I felt a little taken in that respect. But the mountain town was very beautiful. It was a popular destination for tourists; I just have no idea where they caught their grand taxis from. I guess the best way to look at it is you learn a lesson from every interaction.
There’s more I could go into, but this is probably getting too long. I did get caught in the middle of a pretty animated human traffic jam on one of the streets this evening, but came out unscathed (first pickpocket attempt notwithstanding).
It’s off to Casablanca early tomorrow morning. Miss you all.
PS: Ramadan began tonight at sundown, so it will be interesting to see how the character of the place changes; and, I also spent a very pleasant 9/11 surrounded by Muslims.
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