Morocco at 70 mph: Brief Insights & Random Encounters

Thirty years ago I had more time. And less money. I took the boat to Tangiers. Then it was trains, buses, shared taxis. A slow meander through a blazing hot August.

Traveling then, as a nineteen-year-old with my blond American girlfriend and her brother (both of whom had grown up in Cairo and spoke fluent Arabic) things were hard. Using only public transportation put us frequently in tourist hubs. My girlfriend’s brother, a hardcore hashesh who went on to become a successful journalist, resorted once or twice to giving hasslesome men a tongue-lashing in Quranic Arabic which left them speechless.

For this one week, a lifetime later, I assumed things would be different. But blundering out of Marrakesh airport at midnight I found myself lost in the same swamp. Most foreigners, I noticed, were being picked up and whisked away to international hotels in Toyota Land Cruisers. My son and I stood in a crowd of taxi drivers licking their chops over us like dinner. I still had a passable command of Egyptian Arabic from studying years before in Alexandria, and deployed it. I thought it would act like a charm to hold them off or stem their assault.

But it didn’t. Speaking Egyptian Arabic only confused and intruigued them. As more drivers began to circle around, some of the ones already there said, “he speaks Arabic,” as if to warn the others to keep their strategy to themselves. Undaunted by my telling them how much I was prepared to pay (according to Lonely Planet), they fell about laughing. And then demanded triple. I walked off, hoping they would run after me. They didn’t.

“Don’t worry,” I said to Conrad, who was ready to drop into a bed. “We’ll find another way. But the buses had stopped; there were no other ways. We went back into the arrivals hall and found an information desk.

Yes, said the woman at the desk. The taxis should be about sixty, seventy dirham. Except at night. At night it’s double. Ok, I thought. Double. That’s not triple. I can work with that.

Back outside the drivers saw us coming. I could have sworn some of them were actually rubbing their hands. I said, “I need a better price. I can come up to one hundred and twenty.” They argued amongst themselves. Someone pulled out a walkie talkie. He consulted with an invisible personage. Finally one of them said stubbornly, “Two hundred!”

Now we were back where we started. I gave them a short piece of my mind (because my Arabic could not handle a long one), and ended by saying, “Fine! One hundred and fifty!” just as a rotund, bearded driver announced the same price, and we had a deal. “But,” I said, “I want a nice taxi — a Mercedes! and I want it here now!”

Fifteen minutes later, a Mercedes appeared from the very end of the column of cars, all of which had been sitting there the whole while. The Mercedes pulled up and it was a Nineteen Seventies vintage. The odometer read 621,000. More than fifteen times the circumference of the earth. The driver, too, was decidedly vintage, and might have been a middle aged man back when he bought the car new. You want a Mercedes, mot*&^%ker! Here’s a Mercedes! I looked at the other cars; all the new ones were Skodas and Dacias.

So far so good, I thought. As we shook and rattled towards the Medina, the lumpy new developments of outer Marrakesh passed by — at a leisurely rate. Everywhere, new buildings, and most of them unfinished (unfinishable?) dumped in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wasteland.

We reached the Medina. By now it was one in the morning. The area around Djmaa el Fnaa was hopping. Massive crowds surrounded us as we fell out of the antique vehicle. Bright lights, vendors everywhere, drumming, crowds of tourists. Within two minutes Conrad had been offered several Iphones for under 300 dirhams, a monkey, two hotels, and all he could eat at every stall. There was no way to get to bed without going through this.

We had booked a hotel in the old town just off the square, but we had no cell data or connectivity of any kind and the hotel proved impossible to find so we stumbled around until, finally, we were politely directed into a street. As we walked it became darker and seedier. By now it was one thirty in the morning. The alleyways were emptying of all but the latest night owls. Eventually a young man offered us a hotel, and we told him we had a reservation, upon which he set off rapidly leading us into the labyrinth. Eventually he found the place, rang the bell and disappeared.

The riad was cool and dimly lit inside. A polite young man showed us our room which was exquisitely finished with Arabic tile and Berber rugs, and we crashed as the drumming from Djmaa el Fnaa went on into the morning.

After a roof-top breakfast, we rented a car and raced out of town. We passed goats and sheep on the roofs of vehicles. The expessions on their faces said: “somebody help me!” The outskirts of Marrakesh turned into wheat fields and plains, as we hopped onto the brand new toll highway. To the east were the mountains. This was the coastal plain the Arabs had settled, pushing Berbers into the highlands, and feeding their armies with grain, the staple of sedentary civilizations. We stopped at a service station which had two eateries. One served French patisseries, the other tagine. We shared a chicken tagine.

I had been put off by what I saw on You Tube about Essouaira and Agadir; too big, too developed. I wanted the deserted sands of the south, where the development ran out and you could have the beach to yourself — apart from a small outfit that rented surfboards and served tagine and tea.

Coming down from the inland plateau to the plains around Agadir — the gateway to the south coast — we found ourselves driving through heavily inhabited regions, sprawling towns, full of the same half-finished (abandoned?) buildings and developments with more wheat, and olives. Finally we rolled into Tiznit, a medieval provinical capital with a huge walled medina. We re-supplied with chocolate, water and chips, and continued south. As I drove, Conrad popped Pringles and counted camels and goats. We passed checkpoints manned by police in regal white uniforms.

We kept on going, and drove, chasing the setting sun, towards the sea which we could begin to sense though dry, rolling hills and increasingly pictureseque mud brick (and cement) villages, and we finally pulled into Mirleft. We had approached it along a high cliff overlooking the Atlantic. The views were stunning, at least in a Westerly direction. The town itself, however, was more half-developed condominius and villas, randmonly dotted around a barren hillside of succulents and some vibrant spring flowers. Below the cliffs the Atlantic hit the beaches with a resounding and promising crash.

Adrian V. Cole
9 min
10 cards

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