In Morocco the kindness of strangers can get you through any volatile situation…
The Atlas Mountains loom over the convoy of four-wheel drives snaking their way through the roads of Morocco as the sun glares down from a cloudless, blue sky. The curves of these perilous mountain paths are spotted with stalls selling crockery and pottery, the signs handwritten in English next to Arabic Coca-Cola promotions that had somehow managed to invade the stretch of road leading into the Sahara. I was in Morocco, unsure of how I ended up chaperoning Bindy, a girl from Queensland I hardly knew, into the biggest desert in the world.
We’d been in Marrakech, where the medina is full of orange carts selling (in my opinion) the world’s best frozen juice. But unfortunately for my companion since finishing her glass, Bindy had thrown up everything she’s eaten, the victim of some insidious parasite gnawing away at her stomach.
In Fez, famous for those little hats, I was buying a goat wool rug off a mountain man with one tooth and ten kids; Bindy was quietly spilling her guts behind some stone ruins. In Casablanca, famous for Humphrey Bogart, when I was watching kids play soccer in an abandoned parking lot, Bindy was spewing in a gutter. In Chefchouen, famous for vast marijuana crops, when I was buying hashish from another mountain man, Bindy was in the bathroom bowing down to the porcelain throne.
We’re travelling with two Frenchies who’re arguing with the driver as we pull over to see a Kasbah. I don’t speak French (the most common language in Morocco after Arabic), but I know what punta means. Bindy doesn’t seem to notice, barfing all over the Kasbah walls, but I’m sure they’re complaining about her cultural insensitivities.
It’s a nine hour drive and I’m cursing myself for ever agreeing to come here with her. It sounded like a good idea when I was too hungover to look at an Estrella Damm, leaving behind the all night parties in Spain to travel to a place where alcohol was as scarce as rain, giving my body a little holiday from my holiday.
But with Bindy, pale, sweaty, clutching her stomach and stinking of vomit in the seat next to me, in the desert sun with two pissed-off Frogs in the front and my iPod out of battery, I think I’ve made a serious mistake. I mean we’re going to a place where the biggest attraction is sand. I wanted to go to Eastern Europe for Polish babes and Budvar but there I was.
So for the gruelling nine hour car ride I try to remember the things I’ve learnt over the past week and decide how I feel about Morocco.
As we’re constantly bombarded with images of Muslims as crazed suicide bombers and cruel draconian clerics, I thought visiting a country where 98.7% of the 34 million people lived by the laws of Qu’ran might dispel a few cultural stereotypes. The first Muslim I met was Mohammed, a hashish dealer at the train station in Tangier, boarding the midnight express to Marrakech. Rather than hating Westerners, Mohammed was overjoyed just to spend time with Bindy and I. He stayed with us the five hours before the train arrived; listened to us play guitar, demonstrated how to roll a joint and taught us the Arabic phrases we’d need to survive our stay. He was warm, generous and strangely innocent, begging us to come back and visit him.
Essoueria is a fortified sea-side town defined by the arches and walls that section off the city’s blue and white streets. Morocco is famous for being a French protectorate from the 1912 Treaty of Fez, but the country (only a tad bigger than California) fought off major European powers since the 15th century. Morocco’s defensive prowess is apparent in all its cities, especially Esoueria, twisted streets built around a medina, the walled town square that these day’s houses snake charmers, cheap food stalls and performing monkeys trying to seduce the tourist dollar. It was when I was lost in one of these twisted streets that I met Mohammed the 2nd.
Mohammed the 2nd was an English literature major who lectured me on the staccato style of Hemmingway, found me a hire car (his friend happened to own a company), a private apartment (another friend’s) and who was attending graduate school in Washington DC. People warn you of locals taking advantage of tourists but I had never met anyone so helpful and genuinely kind since the few days before when I’d met Mohammed the 1st.
It wasn’t until we reached the edge of the Sahara that I had the opportunity to meet the indigenous nomads, the Berbers or Imazighen (as they refer to themselves), the men who yearly journey through the Sahara to Timbuktu. We saw our first Berber holding the reigns of a convoy of camels, wrapped head to toe in blue gowns and turbans.
So off we lurched into the desert under their guidance. A young child ran alongside us waving folded paper cranes, screaming he had gifts. When I took mine he demanded money and didn’t seem to understand that being on a camel I had none (or what the word ‘gift’ meant). He followed us until the lights of the town faded behind us and a guide finally made him turn back. It was a good distraction from listening to Bindy trade spit with her camel.
In the Sahara, famous for being the world’s largest desert, I was enjoying a traditional dinner of tagine, couscous and the delicious mint tea that is Morocco’s national drink, while Bindy was chucking up behind the sand dunes. After dinner there wasn’t much to do apart from get stoned and curse Bindy for bringing me here, so I wandered into the desert, passing the Berber’s tent a hundred metres from ours. When I peeked inside a group of them were playing drums and strange string and wind instruments, one of their members dressed as a bird, dancing madly in the centre of them.
They came back to our camp, and without speaking a word of English, sat in a semi-circle before us and began playing their instruments, picking up the show I’d spied them performing. Even the Frogs started clapping along to the hypnotic drum and got up to join the wild waltz inspired by the birds of the desert.
Afterwards, the Berbers took Bindy and I into the sand dunes. They taught us how to find our way by reading the stars and showed us how to keep warm in the desert at night, which is as simple as digging a hole and burying yourself, the heat from the daytime sun keeping the sand warm a few layers under the surface. The youngest Berber only taught us this so that he could dig the sand out between Bindy’s legs and cop a grope when helping her ease her feet into the hole. It made me think, this guy isn’t so different to me. I wondered how many camels (the currency of the desert) I could trade for her.
When I was getting ready to sleep, with shooting stars whizzing over my head, Bindy was throwing up behind the tent. But I didn’t care anymore, the serenity of the Sahara conjured the experiences I’d had over the last nine days, and I realised that I was going to be sad starting the three day journey back to Europe the next morning because Al maghrib baladun jameel! (Translation: Morocco is a wonderful country.)