See, we planned the trip and Benet said, "Do you want to go to the desert?" And I hadn't thought about it, so I said, "Um, why? What's there other than sand?" Benet goes, "Ah, it was just a thought. Besides, it turns out the Sahara's pretty far away from Marrakech anyway, so we won't have time." Well, it turns out that our hotel offered a two-days-one-night trip as an add-on for $70 extra apiece, and at first I was all, "Ha!" And then I realized that I was somehow already regretting not going. So we decided to set off on the excursion in the morning on Christmas Eve.
So we woke up at six, were ready by six thirty, and ate a nice breakfast, out the door and in the van by seven. Now, I didn't think the Sahara was close, and I knew this was a group excursion, but what I didn't realize is that we'd spend a full hour and ten minutes waiting for every single other tourist in the Old City and in the New City who wanted to go to the fucking desert. This was a particularly long stretch of listening to the one hipster who looks like three smooth Madison hipsters you've passed on the street on a visit here (but without facial hair) slowly telling the Italian lady next to him his life story and about each time they'd been in each other's countries. I was just sad I hadn't packed gloves.
Finally, there was a loud conversation between one of the organizers and our driver in extremely rapid Arabic, with cellphones ringing, and we were off. Okay, no, not quite, we picked up one last tourist on a very bumpy road.
It was then that I realized I was going to barf. Not immediately, but soon. And I hadn't brought Dramamine. I hung on, white-knuckled, for an hour as our tiny bumpy bus-van went through a checkpoint and a few towns, but then we started to go upwards. Finally, we pulled over. Turned out some dude had to take a leak. I got out after him, and said clumsily to the driver, "Je suis desole, mais..." I put my hand on my stomach. I had just finally pulled the French verb "vomir" from my mind when I realized I didn't have to say anything, he was already nodding.
"Vous voulez changer?"
"C'est OK? Oui, oui, yes, please." And up to the shotgun seat I went. Later, though, when it was time for a pit stop, I totally barfed. Then things improved, and there were a few more pit stops. One was for a photo op, and there was a little stand next to the view. They were selling trilobites, like everybody does on the valley road. Orange juice stands, tagine shops, almost all of them seem to have a little table full of geodes, many dyed to please the eye of a tourist. A couple trilobites caught our eyes, but I didn't have enough time to haggle properly; I wound up paying 450 dirham for a sweet little bug nestled in with the heads of a couple buddies. And there was another pit stop to wait for two more people who maybe got stranded somewhere? I'm not sure. We drove over mountains and mountains and just when I thought there couldn't be any more mountains, there were. At least it was nice and cool, though. And sitting up front, I could see the decisions our driver was making, and why, and I grew to like and respect him, turn by turn, passing lane by passing lane, honk by honk.
At first, the mountains had, well, dirt, and greenery. They were not precisely the foothills, but they were definitely lower. They were rounded, folded in on themselves. Some were blunter, two knees tucked into a skirt; some were longer, a foot to a calf all the way to a powerful thigh. But we went on, further and further, high and low and high again, and the mountains turned rocky, square. Here, an elbow, there, a bicep, and here, finally, after we'd stopped for lunch (and I investigated another trilobite, one the size of a dinner plate)...we reached a pinnacle of sorts, the hair so neatly combed that you could see the rakish lines left behind, layers of sediment from years and years. I can't describe it. I looked down and there were the Atlas Mountains, and it seemed we had crossed and climbed each one, and now we had found the top of the world, and even though we had reached this height and would have to come down from here, that the world was so grand and so voluminous that there is no down, there is only more and more and more, as much as you can see, for the rest of your life. I nearly wept, it was so beautiful.
But down we came, and as we had been going along, first there had been the cacti, more than I'd ever seen in one place in my life. Here in Morocco, they are hedgerows. They're hardy, they're good fences, you can eat them, what's not to like? But eventually there were fewer and fewer cacti, occurring more naturally, it seemed, more bushy. There had certainly been palm trees all along, and there had been many little oases here and there, stands of the palm trees and scrubbier cousins. But for something that you know is going to become the desert, there are a lot of little streams, a lot of greenery, a little waterfall down a cliff we drove past, the occasional palm forest, until finally on my left there sprang a huge river of palm trees, stretching on and on and on. I thought perhaps it was another oasis that was going to end after the next turn, but no, it doesn't end for an hour and a half. It is the Zamora valley, the Draa oasis, and the trees play tag with the Draa river, which sometimes just looks like a long rock-filled puddle, sometimes seems to disappear completely, only to pop up again. Either way, you can always see the bed of it, the rounded rocks, the finer sand, the way the land curves for it.
That is where you can see the mountains soften on one side, green again, and on the other, well... It's less that they are mountains and more like mountainous rock formations, like Road Runner cartoons. We saw little villages and bigger towns with shiny modern gas stations, we stopped for water, the last stop, and I knew we had to be approaching the desert soon, so the palm trees would have to end. We started seeing signs for desert tours, for Voyages Au Sud, for camel rides. Soon, surely, the desert would come? And then we turned a corner, and there was the moon, possibly the largest I've ever seen it, all the particulate matter and all the horizon magnifying it hugely as it rose, almost-full, ready to burst in five minutes. My jaw dropped. This time, I *did* weep. And then we pulled over, and I realized the palm trees were gone, the paved road had just ended, and on my right were camels. "But it's not even the desert yet!" I thought, strangely aggrieved. We'd been in the car for hours, but I didn't want it to end.
Slowly, we got out of the tiny bus. I wiped the tears from my eyes and stood there looking awkwardly at the camels (are you gonna bite me? Does anybody really expect me to ride one of these? What if I'm too chubby or short to ride a camel or I can't even get my ass up on one of them?) and noticing the men in their turbans and the little boys, hearing Mustafa, our driver, shout to the Berber guides, hearing everything, understanding nothing.
"Sweet?" I thought I heard, and maybe that's what it was, but the next one was the French, "Biscuit?" Bis-squee? The little boy looked at me imploringly. I thought for a moment, then shrugged and opened my backpack, rummaged inside the ziploc of snacks, and handed him one of my strawberry fruit leather strips. I should have known better, because suddenly I was surrounded by a circle of outstretched hands and tiny voices crying "Merci beaucoup!" "Sweet?" "Biscuit?" I laughed and handed out strips of fruit leather from Target until I was about to run out, and then I saw a blur and heard a child shout and saw the blur pick up a rock threateningly - one of the Berber guides. Whoops. Once I realized I hadn't caused harm to the kid, however indirectly... "Desole," I muttered in the least-sorry fashion possible, grinning under the brim of my hat.
Everybody but two people had gotten on camels, and I was one of the two. "Madame!" One of the guides called to me, and gestured toward a brown camel. "Bonjour, Monsieur Chameau," I said to the placid beast, which I think was actually Madame Chameau, and got on. It was easy, until my camel stood up, and then I was afraid I might fall off. But then it stood up its other legs, too, and all was well. The guides were getting organized and getting people seated, and my camel was swinging its head around to me, rummaging its nose by the saddle blanket.
It was then that I realized my camel had been looking for its rope lead, which had been tucked there, and once found, took its own lead in its mouth and calmly walked the two of us over so it could chew on a bush, some plant that looked like rosemary with copious thorns. I just laughed. They'd somehow managed to find me an Amy-camel.
(I'm the one in the white hat.)
The guide took my camel's lead, hardly even noticing its offhanded gluttony, and another guide took the lead of the other head camel, and we rode as the sun set behind us and the moon rose full and glorious in front of us. I waved at Benet on his camel and looked up. The moon looked so large, and the sky was so colorful, so mystical, that for the first five minutes it seemed that we would ride our camels right up to the moon with little trouble.
It turns out that five minutes is a very long time for a weak-assed American tourist to be on a camel.
We rode for twenty-five more. It began to hurt. But during that half-hour, the moon rose, and the dome of the sky turned the color of nothing, sunset-tinged. I say nothing because I couldn't tell if there were clouds or not; sure, it was bluish, but such a strange blank blue, and then, as the rocky sand turned to the first few dunes, finally darker.As we approached the tents, I looked down and wondered why the sand got darker, too. No, it wasn't darker, it looked like... There were a bunch of acorns on the ground? Ohhh, no, camel poop. LOTS of camel poop. This was our parking lot. I will never look at those Christmas cards that have the outline of camels and wise men quite the same again.
We got off the camels, were shown the tent for six that the two of us would help occupy, and then we all sat in a circle to drink tea before dinner. Dinner began with a soup that was almost entirely cumin, so naturally Benet loved it and I thought it tasted like soap. Then a lovely lamb tagine, and oranges for dessert, and then singing around a fire which was not large enough to beat back the cold, and clapped along to songs and drumming. My favorite part was the sky afterwards. The moon was full, so the stars were hard to see, but the dome of the sky was beautiful and unblemished.
By this time, it was stupidly cold. The blankets that I had first chuckled at for being the same as the saddle blankets for the camels, I wrapped around me tightly, layered carefully over the two of us, and dropped off.
I woke up at five-thirty in the morning, because when you go to the desert like that, it's fuckin' loud. Deep in the Sahara, I assume it's quieter, but in the not-very-Sahara, the no-tourists-or-camels-will-ever-be-lost Sahara, there are dogs, camels, drums, children, farmers, everything. After mucking around on my iPad for a while, I got up the courage to go outside. After five minutes, I came back in.
"You have to see the moon."
"I know it's cold and you're sleepy, love. You have to see the moon, and then you can come back under the blankets."
A tousled head appeared, then the rest of Benet, putting on his shoes with surprising rapidity.
"The moon," I gestured grandly to his left.
"Ohhhhhhh...!" His eyes widened. It was a gold coin ready to be plucked out of the sky.
"The sunrise." I gestured grandly to his right, all the colors warming the eastern edge of the horizon.
"Ahhhhh..." He smiled.
"Merry Christmas! I love you. Go back to sleep." I pulled a blanket off the bed and went to watch the moon set. It fell so fast you could almost see it move. What was once a gold coin inflated into a child's ball and was slowly pulled away to become something else.
I turned my attention to the sunrise, and after it flooded the sky with color and light, the guides had set out tea and bread and butter and jam and honey.
Everything was lovely until I got back on my camel and realized how sore I was. A half an hour of this in my future, plus however long it took everyone else to mount up? Augh, no. We persevered, though, the two of us, and tucking one foot over towards my lap lent me a more comfortable (if slightly more awkward) ride. Benet seemed to do fine, naturally.
Then it was back to the van! I took some videos from the window which I'll post whenever they finally upload, but I'll sum up the rest of Christmas Day with a few travel tips you probably don't need.
If you ever go to Morocco or another country where one haggles for prices, beware of expressing interest, or, say, being a smiley nonthreatening American who thinks weaving is cool. You might think that you are in, say, a museum of local historical artifacts, and allow the proprietor to tell you about the rich history of something like hand-knotted Berber carpets at great length, only to find that he finishes his next sentence with, "you like it? How much, for you? How much would you like to pay for it? I will make you a good deal." Then you will be in a difficult spot no matter how gracefully you demur, for the proprietor will only think you are being cautious in your bargaining and polite about his wares. The best way to escape this situation that I have yet found is to express honest surprise that they are for sale and then, as soon as you can divert the steamroller of salesmanship, ask about something you can actually afford, like a soda or trinket.
If you ever go to Morocco, the first thing you should do is get the local equivalent of a roll of quarters. The second thing you should do is buy a package of wet wipes. There are many, many, many pay toilets in the Atlas Mountains, including ones at restaurants where you have already purchased a meal, and not all of them have:
-gender-divided restrooms, let alone single ones or accessible ones
-Western toilets, let alone ones with secure or clean seats or seats at all
-working plumbing or present fixtures
-soap (often colorful liquid hand soap that has been watered down so much it is barely yellow or pink)
-paper towels (sometimes there is a stack of the strange blank newsprint torn into squares which they use for coasters, placemats, napkins, and, apparently, paper towels)
So, if you do find one with the amenities you like, you'll probably want to not just pay a dirham, but give a bit extra as a tip for the attendant. The attendant, for what it's worth, never speaks, and often hands out the toilet paper. If there is any. It's good to tip first (not just see what there is, then take your wipes with you and drop a dime on the way out if it's worth it and you're not caught 'stealing' bathroom time) because the attendant might also choose to alert you with a difficult-to-interpret hand wave if a stall with a broken lock is taken, or warn you if you don't want a particular stall for some other reason. Might.
If you ever drive the valley road through the Atlas Mountains, you will have to do a lot of passing and avoiding other drivers and obstacles. There is ostensibly one lane going each way and sometimes there is a recommendation in the road lines or signs as to whether or not it's safe to pass. However:
-Driving on mountainous roads with miles of switchbacks and hairpin turns means that it will be better for your car to go with the forces of nature, not against them, and not off the cliff, so staying in your lane, and thereby, your side of the road all the time is not an option.
-The road lines sometimes represent wishful thinking, are sometimes gone because of construction, or are sometimes worn away.
-Even if you drive a car at sloth speeds, you will be faster than someone, like one of the many, many scooters, or the frequent elderly or differently-abled pedestrians.
-There are many things to avoid in the road besides things going more slowly than you, like cars pulled over, police checkpoints (okay, don't avoid those, but you'll have to stop for the sign even if they wave you through), potholes, goats, cows, sheep, cats, dogs, children, people who think running into the road to make faces at you is a good idea, debris...
-Honking is a slightly different means of communication. A single short honk is polite and common, meaning something along the lines of "I am here and intend to keep going in this direction in this lane at this speed." Sometimes people honk if they are about to make a hairpin turn, to warn approaching traffic that a car will be coming, maybe not all the way in its intended lane due to the forces of physics and such. If you give a single short honk while right behind a car in front of you, that means the above with a heavily implied "and I would like to pass you to do that." The car in front of you can wait/ignore this message, weave slightly so you can see the slower-moving object in front of them, slow down so you can pass easily and see better, or, best of all, give a right turn signal, which, rather than implying they will pull over to the nonexistent shoulder, implies that the car has (hopefully) scanned the road for you and is ready for you to pass. If that car responds promptly, it's friendly to give a wave or a short "bee-beep" of a "thank you," communicated by that quick double-honk. If that car doesn't respond promptly and you have to wait an unacceptable length of time before passing, scanning the road and turns ahead nervously before making your move, you might express your frustration as you pass with a triple "beep beep beeeeeeeeep" honk.
-At nighttime, this language is conducted less in honks, and more in flashing one's high-beams. Traffic gets heavier in Morocco at night. Though most cars have two functioning headlamps and most scooter-riders have helmets, those headlamps might not be bright and those scooter-riders don't worry about having much that's reflective at all. Also, there are almost no streetlights on the valley road. I strenuously recommend not driving over the mountains at night.
I wrote this safely in bed after a delightful meal in the courtyard of our riad, and a nice hot shower. With soap! And clean towels! And no attendant or worries about having pocket change.
Chapter Four: Boxing Day is for Shopping and Eating
Today was our last full day in Marrakech, so we stopped to buy spices from Abdul and Rashid when they would be the freshest when we got home. The ras al hanout they ground for us from the big chunks of soft cinnamon, the cumin seeds, the pointed stars of anise, the paprika, the peppercorns, the ginger root, first showing it to us in the rough and then bringing us the bag, still warm and so, so fragrant. When I get home, my clothes are going to smell incredible! We also wanted to check in and get Abdul's advice on shopping for more trilobites in Marrakech. He used to work at a fossil shop, but he said there are no more dedicated fossil shops in the Medina that he knows about, there aren't enough customers. Germans love fossils and minerals, some Americans, but not enough to stay open. He talked to his boss and they agreed that the best thing to do was for us to look around the big souk, the big market square, for places that had antiquities, and then look for fossils, or the dyed geodes that everyone has. They might have a few out front some places, then we could ask if they had any more, it's like that with some shops, they'll have some things out front as an indicator.
And that's what we did. It took some time; there are a LOT of clothing shops in the big market. Four different dudes wanted to shine my shoes, one stopping me so I could see that he had the good shoe polish. On our way, we saw snake charmers! Real live black cobras! We paid to get our photo with them. They draped us with calm tourist snakes and got good pictures, with the cobras in the frame.
Benet actually liked that. I got the best cinnamon ice cream I've ever had in my liiiiife(which I am holding in the photo), and finally we walked down a row of shops where I saw some of the dyed geodes and some of the round rocks with rubber bands around them, which is to say, trilobites 'avec les couverts' - the trilobite is in the bottom half of the rock and someone has broken it open, and you can pull off the top half of the rock to see the trilobite on the bottom and the indentation of all its vertebrae on the top. It's one of the best ways to find real trilobites. There really are fakes out there, and I've gotten better at recognizing them, but the easiest way is to get one that's got its cover, and look at the porous, reddish rock, then you'll know. I found a nice little one, fairly intact, solid, and one rock that had two trilobites inside, with two covers on different parts of the rock. That was a very good piece. I knelt down and took off my glasses, looking for cuts and imperfections on the five or six specimens the shopkeeper had brought me, telling him we'd just been in the Atlas Mountains and seen the trilobites there, so he'd know I wasn't a rube. He tried to get my interest in other things, Desert Rose, ammonites, dyed geodes, and then, when he saw my disdain, undyed geodes. But finally I stood up with the two-in-one and the little one.
"Les deux ici, et le petit." I gestured to both of them in my hands. "Combien, les deux?" How much for these two? "Cinq cent?" Five hundred?
"Ah, no, ils sont vrais. Mille cent. Neuf cent cinquante." No, they're real. A thousand. 950.
I offered six hundred. His eyebrows went up, like, 'you're fuckin' serious about that, aren't you, you know they're real.' He went on to tell me, inasmuch as I could gather, that that would be a fine price for ones that maybe they had set out in the Atlas that were imperfect, 'comme ca, c'est coupe.' Like this one, the cut one. A trilobite which I had picked up and looked at its cut-off vertebrae and said, "Awww, c'est coupe, le pauvre." Oh, it's cut, the poor thing. And set it down and patted it sympathetically, and moved on to its healthier brethren. But these were real, were complete, finding them took work, and look, this one, it's two-in-one, it's rarer, it's more difficult to find.
"C'est bien, c'est bien. Sept cent." Seven hundred.
"Non, huit cent cinquante." 850. He gestured with his hand, like that's the lowest, lady.
I nodded and smiled and said, "Bien. Huit cent seul. Pas de cinquante. Oui?" Alright, eight hundred only, not the fifty, yes? And we shook on it and he went to wrap them up. Overall, one of the most perfect haggling examples of the trip. I started at five, he started at ten, we wound up at eight, they'd probably cost a little more in the states, it's all good. Benet thought it was fair, and then remembered that he'd wanted to get a photo of me haggling for trilobites, possibly the most Moroccan activity there is, and asked the shop owner if it was okay. We took a photo together, and he smiled. See?
Then he said there was a bigger shop that his brother owned that we should check out down the way, and we went and looked to be polite, but it was all the usual tourist stuff, Berber daggers, jellabas, tagines. Meh. But his brother was very nice and wished us a good visit.
We walked on, and I felt accomplished. "Hello, just a look, just to look, and then move on, it's okay?" Now this is rare. In the big marketplace, a lot of people don't know from browsing. This was something that Rashid and Abdul had lamented when I told them the henna story. Everybody has a price in mind and wants to make a deal, now now now, buy buy buy. There were some pretty ceramics, a nice blue mug with a silver bottom. I wouldn't buy it, naturally, because microwaves and dishwashers are nice, and I break things, but I wanted to reward someone who understood browsing, and we stepped inside the little shop. The keeper's name was Omar, and after finding we were American, high-fived us both. He put his hand on my shoulder and showed me the ceramics. Oh, okay, friendly. Then his other hand on my waist to angle me towards the tagines. That felt a little too friendly. He stepped away to show Benet the leather goods. Benet said no, not for me, thanks, whatever she likes is good. Omar took hold of me again and told Benet he was lucky, jokingly offered four thousand camels for me, and assured that I would be in a large house. We all laughed at the joke, though I bristled slightly and pointed at my rings. Omar nodded and took my hand, put it in his, perilously close to his crotch, and said, "we smile, we smile, we always smile, if we make deal, is good, if not, we both still smile, yes? All good, all happy."
"C'est bien, c'est bien," I took my hand back and reached for a nice little lidded canister, indigo with black decorations. It'd be nice for sugar or spices or tea or something. He told me about it at length, kept putting his hands on me. I said I liked the indigo, I gestured to my black-and-blue sweater, shirt, hair, and he called me a Touareg (lots of Touareg things are blue, they're very into indigo). By the time he got his hand on my hip, I stepped away and smiled and told him it was a very nice shop, but for me, I was done. No more room in my luggage because of the trilobites. He put his hands back on me and said he thought I liked that piece, what was wrong with it? I showed him the glazing imperfections, the roughness, the way the lid didn't quite fit. He protested that it was handmade, that those were signs of its unique nature and quality, and he'd give me a good price, eighty-five dirham only, very good. I kept trying to leave and get him off me and Benet kept agreeing that we should leave and taking me by the arm and looking concerned at me, and Omar, not sure whether I was serious or haggling (he even said so at one point and I assured him I was done, it was a lovely shop, but we should go), just kept going down in price until finally he said thirty dirham, and three bucks really WAS a fair price. I stopped and said, "Actually... Yes. Oui, c'est bon. That's a good price."
Omar's eyes widened and he said to Benet, "Now that... She is much more valuable than camels. You are a lucky man." And I gave him the money and we got out of there, thank goodness. I said to Benet after we left that I was happy to be out from under his grasping hands gracefully, but if I had to withstand that, at least I got a good bargain. I felt like I deserved *something.* A trophy or a restraining order would have been nice, but what can you do.
More than twenty minutes of getting a hard sell for stuff is incredibly exhausting. It's in my best interest to haggle, but I was tired like I'd just gone for a five-mile hike, and so was Benet. We found our way out of the labyrinth of shops (it's hard to be somewhere where, if you take out a map, five local guides will come out of the woodwork and ask for money) and started back to the riad, stopping briefly to show Abdul and his boss the trilobites so they'd know we did okay on their advice. The next day before leaving Marrakech I stopped by to give them a copy of my album.
We got back to the riad and the maids had scattered rose petals on the bed. So beautiful! Such a nice reminder that we were in Morocco. Here, there is what was once a fountain in the middle of the courtyard, and it is always full of rose petals and, during the evening, little candles. An hour or two of tranquility was enough for us to come back to ourselves, and I remembered that after we'd had breakfast earlier, a well-dressed young man had tried to sell us on lunch right next door, and we'd told him we might come back. It's common here for there to be hawkers for restaurants, and unlike shopkeepers, it's hard to argue with someone who has just eaten, so you can actually make eye contact and say, 'une autre fois, peut-etre, inshallah,' which is polite and gets you out of there. Because what are they going to do, say "Oh, but you haven't eaten lunch yet as a gift for someone else!" (A common tactic with shopkeepers.) At any rate, we decided to go back there, and the same guy came out and recognized us!
He said he was lucky to have met us earlier and he was glad we came back! We'd be the first people there for dinner tonight. He showed us a bit of the riad and talked up the spa (two aspects of the business which I'd completely missed earlier) and then we went up a couple of flights of stairs to the terrace, which was jaw-droppingly beautiful. When you're in the Main Street on your way to the big square, it's craziness, and if you look around with wide eyes, well, you'll make eye contact with someone who wants to sell you something, or you might look as though you need directions. It's dangerous and noisy and smelly and vibrant and crowded. People are going by on scooters, people are walking by with two or three foam mattresses piled on their heads (I'm not kidding, all the mattress shops are right there, it's nuts), cars are honking, pedestrians are risking their lives constantly... But up on the terrace, just two floors above, it was another world.
The two nearby mosques shone with light, the city glowed, the street noise was dimmed to a low roar. There were little tables, a small swimming pool, a bar, and a large luxurious tent, rich with embroidery, under which was a glass house of sorts, and that is where we ate dinner. They brought us olives shining with oil and fresh bread, orange juice just squeezed a minute ago and sparkling water. Just before the meal, the call to evening prayer rang out, and while you can always hear it in Marrakech, up on the terrace by the two large mosques and perhaps a couple others nearby, it was the most beautiful cacophony of three or four calls to prayer all at once, echoing and mixing into each other.
I ordered the chicken cooked with honey, and it fell off the bone, the outside caramelized and rich and a little sticky, the inside all tender juicy shreds. They gave me carrots and cucumbers, green beans and root vegetables, steamed and herbed, tender and a lovely counterpoint to the chicken. Benet got chicken tagine, and it sizzled at the table. One of the best things about getting tagines is the way that the juices pool at the bottom and the thick ceramic keeps them warm. He finished the chicken and dipped his bread into what was left until the tagine held only bones.
For dessert, black coffee and fresh oranges sliced and sprinkled with cinnamon for him, or as the waiter called it, "vitamine C avec la canelle." And for me, a plate of the local pastries and mint tea, or as the waiter called it, "Berber whiskey." There were shortbreads which tasted as though they were 95% butter, and two little cookies with stars on one side and a round coin of chocolate on the other, but my favorite were the two warm ones, a spiral and a filled triangle, roasty-toasty on the outside and drizzled with rosewater-honey, and on the inside a lightly sweetened paste of peanuts and walnuts and almonds. I tried to enjoy them slowly. Afterwards, we tried to get some photos of the mosques shining through the night, but who knows if they came out. I stood and turned in a slow half-circle, trying to get a panorama, and realized I was in the way of our waiter. I apologized and he waved it off. "This is your home!"
They always say that here. I got back to the riad and thought about going back to that place for a massage the following day before catching a train to Casablanca. After all, this is my home."Good friends from whom we now must part, where are we bound? Your hands and voices lift my heart; here is my home. Come darkness, come light, where are we bound? Come morning, come night, here is my home."
(Si Kahn)Epilogue: Things Do Not Always Go Well When We Travel
And finally, lest you imagine that my traveling is all adventures and stories and songs and bright pictures, there was the ordeal of getting home, with the accompanying hatred of everything that this sort of travel brings.
We arrived at the train station in Marrakech and went to the machine to get tickets for Casablanca. It says there's only one in first class, and then it won't even take Benet's money. He gets antsy - it's frustrating, it's confusing, and there are a lot of people in the station - and I go up to the counter. Okay, there aren't first class tickets until around 7pm, and it's around 2pm right now. Fine, deuxieme classe, whatever. In the guide I read it said that first class is 6-seats-to-a-cabin and assigned seats (which we verified on the way over) and second class is 8-seats-to-a-cabin, unassigned. Whatever.
I get back to Benet with the tickets and he is worried because we have no transfer tickets to the airport (you can't get directly to Casablanca's airport from Marrakech, you must transfer at L'oasis or somewhere similar). I relayed what the ticket guy said, which was to get them in Casablanca. Benet wanted tickets, so we went up to the machine again. It wouldn't take his money. He got antsy. I went to the other machine. It had a long line, but I waited. Part of the reason the line was taking so long is because there was a train station receptionist there to "help." I tried to describe what I needed and she kept pushing buttons to get me a ticket from Marrakech to the airport. Finally, I pushed the buttons for her, and then when the time came to select a train, I looked to her for the one piece of advice she could offer - when our train would arrive in Casablanca. She indicated a button for 4:20. I shook my head and chose the next one, knowing the train took longer than that.
Of course, I bought tickets for a train that was still too early. We decided we didn't care at this point, and went to catch our train. What I didn't know is that the guide was wrong about first and second classes on the train. True, first class is six seats and assigned, but second is not eight and unassigned. Eight is steerage. They don't just fail to assign seats, they also don't cap them. And it was a weekend. There were no seats left on the entire train, just people filling up the tiny hallways outside the cabins. We took a deep breath and did the same. It was so warm and so crowded, I felt motion sick almost immediately. The train ride was nightmarish, and trying to escape the train was nearly worse, and I will leave it at that.
We finally arrived at L'oasis and get a ticket for the airport and stop to have a soda and decompress before our second train. We see one arriving - pretty early for our train according to what our tickets say, but we say what the hey, we'll amble on over to the platform anyway. The ticket-taker says, "A l'aeroport? Allez, allez!"
We hurry down the stairs and a conductor sees us. "A l'aeroport?" We nod. "Vite, vite!" We still don't know why we're being hurried for a train that's not supposed to leave for eight minutes, but we hurry. Benet makes it on the train and I am on his heels. There is a conductor at the door and he gets between me and Benet. The train begins to pull away and I hop on, and the conductor pushes me bodily off the train away from my husband. I begin to freak out. The conductor also hops off the train and waves at someone to stop the train and then ushers me on, looking askance at the both of us.
We get to the airport station and go through the seemingly spurious metal detector to get out to where the hotel shuttles are. Four different people approach us asking if we want taxis and we say no. The fifth says, in French, "You're waiting for the shuttle? That will take at least half an hour, forty-five minutes. I can get you there in fifteen."
We say no and sit down. Right on cue, a whole minute later, the shuttle pulls up. Finally, some luck! We approach it and this dude takes our bags to put them in the back. ...and he's not the chauffeur, it turns out. Benet has given him 50 dirham, but he comes back and says some stuff, but he does it badly and confusingly to the point that we're not sure what's going on. Then we see the actual shuttle driver and it becomes clear that this was a bit of a shakedown and that other dude was unrelated and asking for more money for helping with our bags. We shrug it off (after I checked with the actual driver that our bags were indeed in the back).
We arrive at the hotel, fill out the forms, get our room key, have a room, it's great. I propose room service as a way to obtain food without pants, and Benet says awesome, he'd like a club sandwich. Me too! I call to order two of those and a Kronenburg and some fruit juice.
The menu comes in English and the receptionist downstairs spoke English. The room service lady doesn't speak English. Fine, I order in French. They don't have club sandwiches. Fine. I order a chicken sandwich and a panini. They don't have panini. Fine. A chicken sandwich and a hamburger, you have hamburgers? Good. And a Kronenburg, okay? And fruit juice, it says you have many kinds here but doesn't list them, do you have peach, it's on the breakfast menu. No? Orange? No, no fruit juice. Fine, I'll order an iced tea. No, they don't have iced tea. Okay.... Coca-cola? Okay, a chicken sandwich, a hamburger, a Kronenburg, and a coca-cola, room 271. I make sure Benet has change for a tip and go to take a shower.
An hour later, there's still no food. I call down. Someone different answers this time. I ask in my clumsy French if our order will arrive soon. He is confused. We are confused. Benet goes down to the front desk. Turns out the previous shift took our order and then just basically fucked off home without doing anything about it. Benet reorders, comes back upstairs. Turns out they didn't have Kronenbourg either. He subbed another beer. Okay, this has been a pain in the ass but at least I don't have to put on pants.
Eventually there's a knock at the door. Benet goes to intercept and pay. The room service guy is full of apologies and barges on in past him. I squawk and try to hide behind the closet door and a pillow. Benet hands me a robe, pays, signs. Finally, there is food! And it's here! And it's still hot! I take the cover off my plate and pick up a packet of ketchup, opening it for my fries. It splorts over the bedspread and floor.
We only got four and a half hours of sleep, but got to the airport okay, got through security okay, got breakfast, got on the plane, four hours. Arrived in Paris, went through different security, purchased some nice duty-free Armagnac, got on the plane, nine hours. Got to Atlanta and waited in an interminable line to have ourselves photographed and fingerprinted like criminals so it could spit out a piece of paper so we could stand in a line so we could talk to a lady who would photograph and fingerprint us like criminals. (Okay, Benet's the only one who gets fingerprinted because he's a resident alien, but I bristle at it every time on his behalf, I can't help it. He just shrugs.). Then we waited for our luggage, put the duty-free in the luggage, waited for a dude by a conveyor belt, gave him our luggage, and got in another interminable line, so we could go through security again. Oh, goody! What I was missing in the last ten hours, what I missed dearly, was another scan and pat-down. I was beginning to think there wasn't enough radiation in my brain, or enough skepticism over my appearance, or enough suspicion of wrongdoing.
But you know, ridiculous as it is, all that irritation and ire faded away as soon as Benet brought me Chik-fil-A. I don't even really like the company (though their chicken is terrific), but there is nothing quite so North American as a huuuge soft drink filled with ice. I love traveling, but it seems that no-one across the pond likes their soda ice-cold. Sitting on the runway through the delays wasn't so bad (first weather, then mechanical, then bags, then paperwork delays) because we knew this was the last leg. Crunching through the snow on the jetbridge was actually nice because we knew we were home. Driving through the snow to our wonderful apartment was wonderful.
Having to dig the car out of a thick line of snow left by the plow just so I could take a right turn was irritating. Having to dig out a parking space because there weren't any, because everyone just stopped going out when the blizzard hit last night and so they already had parking spaces... That was awful. Benet offered to come help, but I knew I'd be done in ten minutes and asked him to put the kettle on. On the other hand, I strangely had energy to do it. I shoveled and shoveled, and a few people stopped and asked if I was stuck (no, thank you), and then my wallet got knocked off my belt by the movement and upended itself, and then I had a place to pull in my car.
Of course, I found later that I'd lost my driver's license in the snowdrift. Happily, I found it the next day after pulling my car out of its carefully-shoveled space.
It was a pretty epic journey back, and I mean that in the original sense of the word. There were great rains, a voyage to the underworld, soul-testing battles, everything. But a week before we left it had been unseasonably warm, and everyone felt weird about it. And now we are back and the weather is right and I have a suitcase full of spices and trilobites to remind me that it wasn't a dream.