I’ve been in Morocco for a week now, but every day it feels like I’m getting further and further away from home. The lone road south to the Sahara has felt like a never ending journey, and knowing that I have to turn right back around and come back north once I get there makes me not really want to get there. I started in Marrakech, a city that I imaged to be something like Cairo or other great Arabic cities, but was pleasantly surprised by how small, inviting and colourful it was.
I spent my first day wandering into town alone and was met by a Senegalese man named Adams. He was tall, thin, and dark as night, but I welcomed the male company to guide me through the maze of souks we ended up hopelessly lost in. He helped me bargain for the right prices and towered over me like a guard from unwanted harassment, and visited two palaces with me also for his first time. We sat on the sidewalk for some fried bacalou and eggplant that Adams argued should have cost 50 euro cents, not 60, but I didn’t care – it was delicious and cheap and the toothless woman who served us provided endless entertainment every time she tried to speak the Berber neither of us could understand.
The medina, the walled- old town, was a labyrinth of narrow walk ways, sometimes covered, sometimes barely wide enough for a donkey and his carriage to pass, and always required you to move out of the way for motorcycles zooming past. The buildings rose up on each side of you, in shades of pink or beige, totally sealed and shut from outsiders. But once you entered a building, it always opened up to a sunny courtyard, the source of their light and fresh air, proving they weren’t as dark or secret as they seemed.
As I traveled south, through Agadir and onto Guelmim, I took grand taxis between towns. The grand taxis aren’t any bigger than the petite taxis, but their routes are longer, a hundred or more kilometers, and they don’t leave unless they have 6 paying passengers – two in the front seat beside the driver, and 4 in the back. It’s always a struggle to strategically plan which seat you take and beside who you sit, since you have to choose if its more comfortable to be squashed against the hard door and have window access or be sandwiched between two people who may be hard or very soft (which usually means too big). I always got suckered into being squashed between the women if there were two, and their many layers of flowing cloth always spilled over me and their chatter across me kept me both comforted and stuck. I once got unlucky and sat beside a man who insisted on pivoting to face me with his arm around me and his stinky breath breathing down my neck asking me incessant questions. After 20 minutes of this I asked the taxi driver to stop and he thought I wanted to get out there and then in the middle of a mountain pass, and I started to explain I just wanted to change seats but the two women already knew what was wrong and had started shifting for me to get sandwiched between them. They held my arm and smiled knowingly, and then yelled at the man and the taxi driver for the rest of 1 hour drive.
In another grand taxi, I thought the woman wanted to take me home with her, but she just wanted me to get out of the car to hold my hands for a moment, muttered some words, nodded her head and bowed many times – Im still not sure what the gesture meant but it was nice. In the last grand taxi I took, the 300km long haul to La Ayoune, I shared the backseat with 3 very large Saharan women, which meant I was only left with half an ass cheek on the seat and could only lean back if I lay on one of their breasts. Thankfully we stopped halfway for a lunch break and I was summoned by one woman to walk down to the beach with her to share her lunch. We ate bread and tangine and oranges, and sat in silence taking in the sight and serenity of the polluted beach around us. She showed me the henna on her ankles and arms, and jingled the bangles on my arm in an approving way. When we returned to the grand taxi, the other woman took turns walking up beside me and just standing close in a protective motherly way, and they also jingled my bangles. One sprayed me with 10 or more sprays of perfume, all over my neck and arms, which may have meant I stank or it was just a normal thing to do after we’d eaten.
All of these run ins would have been so much better understood if I could speak Arabic or Berber, but I still enjoyed the game of experiencing one another without a common language. My Arabic has still increased from 3 words to about 20 words, all of which have some in handy at one point or another for me to need to learn them. The administrative language is French which meant I could always talk with police men, which turned out to be useful for the many road checks we got stopped by. The more comfortable and cheaper bus refused to take me the last 300km to La Ayoune because of the road blocks, since foreigners always warranted unwanted attention by police officers.
The last police check was just outside La Ayone, and the police officer asked some basic questions and walked away with my passport (which is always cause for cold sweat). He returned and let me grab the passport, but wouldn’t let go unless I told him what hotel I was staying at. The greasy smile by which he asked me this made me sure it wasn’t part of the routine police check, but I still felt I had to answer him. I couldn’t lie either because I didn’t know the name of any other hotel or if there even was more than a handful of them, so I told him ‘Tafoukt’ (which means sun in Berber) and he said ‘Of course, I should have guessed, since you have no sun in Iceland now’ and winked. (to be continued and pictures added later…)