Where to begin? After leaving Madeira we set sail towards the coast of Africa. Our plan was to stop in Casablanca to refuel and then follow the coast towards the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Med. At least that was the plan…
Although we had maps of Africa’s coast, we did not have any detailed charts of the port areas. After Craig emailed us satellite images of Casablanca and doing some research ala Blackberry, we decided that its port was primarily commercial and was not favorable for smaller vessels. In addition, given our current wind conditions we would not arrive until dusk. We noticed a couple of smaller towns south of Casablanca that were a bit closer and so we decided to change course. We had no idea which one was more suitable so we headed between them. As we approached we saw that the southern-most town was more industrial with billowing smoke-stacks and tanker traffic, but the village to the north seemed pleasant. Not even knowing where the port was, we hailed one of the tankers to ask for directions (yes, two guys actually stopped to ask for directions). We headed towards the coordinates they provided but became very concerned when we saw very large rolling waves breaking very far offshore. We almost turned back until we saw a small wooden fishing boat ahead. We waved at them and they came over for a closer look. Walid began speaking to them in Arabic, but quickly realized that due to their dialect, French was easier to understand. Even then communication was very limited and confusing, usually involving pointing and gestures. They indicated that the harbor was nearby, and so we bartered a bottle a wine for a guide into port (evidently they liked the wine because they threw a bag of fish into the deal as well).
The fishermen guided us past the break wall and into the harbor. A medieval Portuguese castle stood guard over dozens of wooden fishing boats of all sizes lashed side-by-side. All the fishermen stopped and stared at the Gryphon as she traveled through the narrow channel into the port. We were the only non-local vessel. We tied off to a large concrete wall and came ashore to clear immigration and customs. I think that we were the first visitors by sea this town had seen in weeks based on the old date that was set on the immigration officer’s stamp. After clearing customs and speaking with the local police, we hired a “guardian” to watch over the boat and to make sure that nothing “happened” to it.
With the boat in safe hands (or so we thought) we headed into town to find a place to stay. We checked into a hotel, got cleaned up, and headed downstairs for a celebratory beverage. At the bar Walid began a conversation with an older gentleman who turned out to be the Minister of French Culture in Morocco. After a few drinks, he invited us to go into town for a tour. He took us to a very dingy and smoky bar full of the locals. Something I ate that evening didn’t agree with me, so I walked back to the hotel and spent the rest of the night worshiping the porcelain goddess. Walid stayed and the story that I am about to tell is his. After many drinks and packs of cigarettes, Walid, the Minister, and several of his friends go upstairs to a disco. Interesting thing about this club was that it was all local…men. Walid started to catch on when the owner of the club asked him if he was the Minister’s lover. Walid explained that he was definitely not and that he had a beautiful, wonderful, and intelligent girlfriend back in New York. Chalking it up as a cultural learning experience, he ended up closing down the club and having a great time dancing hand-in-hand with an Arab Liberace.
Afterwards, he goes down to the port to check on the boat with his new found friends. Our guardian greets them plastered out of his mind. He starts yelling at one of the Minister’s friends (the local baker) and would not let him into the shipyard because he was a Muslim. After several minutes of heated debate to no avail, Walid parted company and went down to the pier by himself. He ended up staying the night on the boat instead of walking back to the hotel.
After taking some antibiotics and Pepto, I felt much better the next morning. We rented a car and planned to drive north to Casablanca. Walid was told, however, by the Minister that the south was much more scenic and interesting. So we headed south to the Moroccan countryside to see what could be seen. The roads were terrible, (although only slightly worse than those of Cambridge, MA) often with just a single lane. We shared the road with mule-drawn carts, rickety motorcycles, dilapidated trucks, and the occasional pedestrian. Given the conditions, Walid switched into third-world driving mode, i.e. driving like a bat out of hell. Big mistake. We soon found ourselves pulled over by the local smoky. We played the stupid tourist routine of “we didn’t know any better, honest officer.” In the end, we were able to talk our fine down to about ten dollars and promised never ever to do it again.
Our rental was a compact, front-wheel drive Ford Fiesta. Why not go off-roading? Scattered throughout the hills were these small towns with buildings made entirely of mud bricks and thatched roofs. We headed off the “main” road into the hills on what appeared to be a donkey-cart trail. The town was something out of a movie. Chickens and goats were roaming between the houses. Eyes peered out at us behind the dark windows. They did not know quite what to make of us. The trail we were following soon ended and we saw the main road in the distance. We headed towards it through a rocky field and down a very steep embankment. With just a few scrapes we managed to get back onto the road and continued our journey south.
After exploring the countryside further and visiting several small villages, we arrived in Marrakech to find it a bustling cosmopolitan of old and new traditions. We checked into a wonderful hotel that used to be an old courtyard-style mansion. It was gorgeous! Every room in this three-story palace overlooked the courtyard and was intricately decorated with colorful tiles and mosaics. The roof deck overlooked the city’s skyline of spires and towers.
The streets of Marrakech were narrow and filled with vendors selling everything imaginable from lamps to livers. At the center of town was an enormous marketplace and bazaar. Snake charmers mesmerized cobras and vipers as they swayed to and fro. Merchants sold carpets and other wares. Smoke from grills cooking lamb, beef, and chicken filled the air. We happened to arrive during an international film festival and a giant screen and projector loomed on the far side of the square. With my blonde hair and blue eyes, more than once I was asked if I was from “ollie-wud,” here for the festival.
After eating a wonderful dinner of lamb tagine we set off to explore the city. We found a very eclectic shop selling antiques and other local goods. After a few minutes of haggling, we purchased a couple ornate rifles and some antique jewelry. We had interest in so many other items that the owner invited us back the next day to have lunch with him, claiming that his wife made the best tagine in Morocco. He was right. It was absolutely delicious! With several more hours of negotiating and bargaining we procured an antique engraving, a backgammon table decorated in mosaics, an ornate Berber sword, a glass table with engraved bone legs, candlesticks made of ram horns, and much more. The merchant was very comical, insisting that we just “close our eyes and give him our credit cards.” We must have gone through five rounds of “final” prices over several hours of heated negotiations before closing the deal. After we had paid, he wanted our sunglasses and insisted that as a gift we should buy him a Dell laptop. We politely excused ourselves and went about our way.
If we had thought the market during the day was colorful, the night-time experience proved to be much more intriguing. Upon a suggestion by the merchant we went to a very shady and seedy cabaret with belly dancing and hookah pipes. What a sight! Smoke filled the air as scantily clad dancers jiggled to exotic music encouraged by drunken hollering. Kuwaiti oil sheiks threw money into the air as the dancers gracefully seduced them. We were the only non-Arabs in the establishment. Walid’s Lebanese heritage allowed him to blend in relatively well. I, on the other hand, was a lost cause and stood out like a sore thumb. We smoked pipes while watching the dancers and listening to the enchanting music.
And then the night became very interesting. Walid had a bit too much to drink and wandered off in a drunken stupor while I was in the bathroom. I came back to our table with him nowhere to be found. As I was looking for him around the club, it became very apparent that I was no longer welcome without my Arab sponsorship. I tried to explain that my friend was still there but I was told that I was not allowed to wander around the establishment by myself. Evidently they didn’t like Americans…hmmm…I wonder why? I was escorted back to my table somewhat forcibly, asked to pay our bill, and then directed to leave. Not to cause a scene, I complied and went outside. Luckily, Walid hadn’t wandered too far away before falling asleep on a bench. I flagged down a taxi and managed to communicate to the driver (barely) where we were staying. I’ve traveled to many places in many foreign lands, and never once had I felt so unwelcome. Nevertheless, all ended well and it will make for a great story!