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Mazed By Morocco


Our Moroccan Adventure. The Arrival

Generally, I’m a nervous flyer, and as the plane began to taxi along the runway I felt morbidly gloomy. The plane was going to crash and we were all going to die, I was sure of it. And for what? We were flying to Morocco of all places. I wasn’t sure Morocco was worth dying for. Now I guess I know.

Needless to say, the plane didn’t crash and no one died a horrible flaming death. In fact it was a smooth, if somewhat crowded flight. Almost every seat of the Boeing 737 was filled. A noisy crowd of middle aged Malaysians sitting in front and behind us ensured we got no rest as they pushed and thumped our seats, coughed, spluttered, hawked noisy gobs of phlem, leaned over the chairs to yell and talk to each other, and otherwise made what could have been a pleasant flight miserable. Worse still, the perfect visibility out of the window was monopolised by a young Moroccan business man who had obviously seen it all before. Miserable bastard I though! Actually he was quite a nice chap. As the flight entered its third hour, the dry, stark panorama of Spain was interupted by a bolt of blue ocean. The Straits of Gibraltar. As we flew over the Pillars of Hercules, I asked, “Is that Gibraltar?” “No.”, the young man said, “It’s on the other side of the plane.” I nodded out of politeness and said nothing. The rock was quite clearly visible through the window, jutting out from the Spanish mainland. “And that must be Tangier.”, I said, pointing to the while blob on a sea of brown across the strait. “Yes,”, he replied. “I am from Tangier.”, he added. “Going home?”, I asked. Nothing like stating the obvious. “Yes.”, he said, then he pointed up the coast. “That is where the smugglers come from.” He nodded knowingly. “Marijuana.” I smiled.

Tangier – a pirates den – is still the home of smuggling. Boats constantly ply the waters at night smuggling fuel, cigarettes, tax free goods and people. Most of Amsterdam’s dope come from here, brought down from the Riff Mountains by old men on donkeys.

We landed briefly at Tangier’s tiny airport. Most people got off, except the noisy Malaysians, who became even more obnoxious. At the back of the plane a French couple’s two year old son decided it would be a good idea to scream his box off all the way to Casablanca. Shelly and I gritted our teeth. Only another 40 minutes.

It was about this time I decided to use the facilities. No one really likes to use aeroplane toilets in flight, but having flown on a lot of long haul flights I must admit I have always found them to have been kept fairly clean. Not this one however. Most people I know are familiar with the concept of using a toilet. The idea is generally to get all the urine and faeces into the bowl. Not very hard really. Even my two year old nephew can manage it. Obviously accuracy was not a concern for some of our passengers however. If they got it on the floor, near the seat, or in the handbasin they were happy. One glance and a quick whiff and I decided to wait until we landed, secretly cursing the Malaysians, who I blamed for all the inconveniences on the flight.

Mohammed V airport was clean, new and empty and we were whisked through customs inside five minutes. A fat, dark skinned Moroccan man was waiting in the arrival hall holding a handwritten sign: “Contiki”. He took our bags to the car while I changed some money. He had no understanding of English, and only a rudimentary understanding of the road rules, sticking to the centre of a dual lane carriageway for the whole drive, except when oncoming traffic forced him to drive on the right side of the road.

Throughout the 30 minute drive he shrieked and argued with someone on a mobile phone. The Arabic words tumbling out of his mouth at a million miles an hour. Shelly and I sat quietly, not knowing where we were, or were we were going. We were finally dropped off at Hotel Suisse, Contiki’s hotel in Casablanca. I tipped the driver 10 dirham. Probably too much, but we were grateful to still be alive.

The staff at Hotel Suisse were less helpful than the most obstructive and officious Russian we met on tour. No one had heard of Contiki. No one knew anything. No one wanted to help. All our questions were met with blank stares and shrugged shoulders. Shelly said, “I don’t want to stay here.” But where were we to go? It was night. We were tired. We didn’t know the city. I asked about a room. The man at the counter laughed, and spoke to the manager in Arabic, then walked away. He came back a few minutes later and started talking to the girl on the switchboard. I asked again. Again he wandered away, then returned and said. “There is only one room left.” The manager added, “It is our last room.”, as if I would have had trouble understanding what was said to me the first time. “It is 480 dirham.”

That was almost the same price as listed in the Lonely Planet guide (which described the Hotel Suisse as a 4 star hotel). We took it – against better judgement. As the porter took our bags upstairs the manager called out, “Breakfast is included!”

The room was huge, with two double beds and a balcony. But the furnishings were old and decrepid. The TV only received black and white static, and the toilet had trouble flushing. After a quick refreshment we set out onto the streets. A block up the road restaurants and cafes by the dozen cluttered the sidewalk. Their managers accosting passersby on the street. They only spoke French or Arabic. We eventually settled on a little cafe, chosen almost a random. The service was sincere and the food earthy and pleasant. I had lamb tajine, a kind of stew, and the national dish. Shelly had chicken cous cous, also the national dish. The tajine was nice. The cous cous was strikingly bland.

The next morning we enjoyed our breakfast – a croissant, orange juice, coffee and mint tea. We then returned to the front desk to see if we could contact the Contiki representative. We were directed to the girl on the switchboard. She dialed the number for the Contiki rep in our travel documents. It was engaged. She tried again. This time it was a wrong number. She misdialed a few other numbers, putting me through to a variety of different people across the length and breadth of Morocco. We thanked her for her time. She then presented us with the bill. 140 dirham for being put through to four wrong numbers. “You’ve got be out of your fucking mind!”, I yelled, and tossed the bill back in her face before storming out of the hotel.

Actually, I didn’t do that. To all our protests the girl stared at us impassively with that “I really couldn’t give a fuck, you stupid foreigner” expression on her face. The hotel was holding our passports. We had to pay.

We stormed upstairs and packed, and checked out in a black mood. Even a cursory glance at the bill confirmed our suspicions that we were being ripped off. The room actually cost 380 dirham. We had just paid 100 dirham for a fucking croissant each (about us$10)! We cursed them openly as thieving bastards as we paid. They handed over our passports and we stomped out the door. I can imagine the smiles on their smug little faces.

“Welcome to Morocco!”

Rabat.

Peace at last. We had to battle our way past a scrum of Grand Taxi drivers outside Hotel Suisse. The Grand Taxi drivers were a breed apart, even by Moroccan standards. The fares they charged were idiotically unreasonable, however, their sheer numbers indicate that obviously a lot of people were prepared to pay them. Two offered to drive us to the train station for 200 dirham. A bus fare cost 1.50 dirham. We took a petite taxi – the kind the locals use. The journey was metered and cost only 25 dr. The driver was surprised we could not speak French. “Not even a little?”, he asked. “No.”, we replied. He asked where we were from. “Australia.” “Sydney! Yes. Kangaroo!” Everyone knew Sydney. Everyone knew Kangaroos. “I think Australia is… grand dirham. Yes?” We were foreigners. We were rich. I checked my wallet, which was getting thinner by the second. Not at this rate, I thought.

It takes about an hour and half by train to travel from Casablanca to the Capital, Rabat. Rabat Ville train station was pleasure after navigating with our bags through the melee of taxi drivers and beggers at Casablanca station. We booked into the Hotel D’Orsay, an French art deco gem directly across from the station. The room was 360dr, with a shower and functioning television.

Rabat’s status as the capital has kept it clean. The streets of the ville nouvelle were wide, clean and tree lined. We set off up the main street – Mohammed V boulevard (all the main streets in Morocco are called Mohammed V boulevard) dodging insane Moroccan drivers at every turn. It took some nerve to learn how to cross the street. Each set of traffic lights has a pedestrian crossing – but the lights are never green. When there is a break in the traffic you simply step into the road and make the cars swerve around you.

Rabat has a few major sights. These we visited when we were on tour, but I will discuss them here. The first is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. The grandfather of the current King, Mohammed V was the first independent ruler of Morocco after the French left in 1955. He died after only three years in power, but he traces his ancestry back to the family of the Prophet Mohammed. Although he achieved little during his rule, he is considered a hero in Morocco for his stand against the French during the push for independence (for which the French deposed him and exiled him to Mauritius).

His son, Hassan II had the elaborate white marble tomb erected in 1971. Strangely, it was designed by a Vietnamese architect, but inside it is pure Moroccan. The cedar ceiling is elaborately carved and every square inch of the walls is decorated in intricate zelij mosaic work. The tomb remains a shrine for many Moroccans, but it is also open to foreigners.In the courtyard across from the Mausoleum stands the solitary minaret known as the Tour Hassan. Begun in 1195, it was one of three monumental minarets constructed by the Almohad Dynasty. One stands in the centre of Marrakesh, the other in Seville – now a bell tower for a cathedral – and along with the Alahambra, one of the few traces of the Moors left in Spain.

The Tour Hassan was built at the height of Almohad power, when they controlled Spain, most of North Africa and west Africa as far south as the Ivory Coast. It was intended to be the tallest minaret in the world, however, construction abruptly stopped at 44 metres – giving the tour its unusual “cut-off” appearance. The mosque attached to the minaret was toppled in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Now all the remain are two fragments of wall and some 40 columns decorating the square. As a landmark in a fairly low rise city it is unparalleled and stands out for miles. It is especially attractive when lit up at night.

Clustered against a rocky prominentory overlooking the Oleg Bou Regreg (the river that divides Rabat from it’s sister city Sale) is the medina and kasbah. The medina is the original fortified medieval city, and every city in Morocco has one. Passing through one of the many elaborate horseshoe shaped gates is like stepping back in time. In the medina there is hustle and bustle, the press of the crowd, dirt, and beggars.

Beggars in profusion – men without hands, without arms, without feet, without eyes, hunchbacks, dwarfs, ancient men and women bent by innumerable years of labour, covered in rashes, pustules, and diseases of all descriptions. And like the jaded and affluent westerners we were, we pushed past them all without a second glance.

There were stalls and markets selling all sorts of items, household goods, tourist items, food – if you can call it that. One shop sold nothing but goats heads. As we pushed further and further into the old city and on towards the kasbah the shops became more and more tourist orientated. Having been to Bali, I was expecting the hard sell at every step, but the Moroccan shop keepers were surprisingly indifferent. “Yes, come and look in my shop!” “Merci, non.” “Is okay. Welcome to Morocco.”

At the end of the medina was a narrow place, now bisected by a main road. This used to be the slave market. Across the road was the kasbah. Despite its exotic sounding name, kasbah is merely the arabic version of castle. Rabat kasbah, built in 1195, was well preserved. Cannons protruded from embrasures in the walls. We entered through the main gate, Bab Oudaia, enormous and elaborately carved. Inside was a pleasant garden. We wandered through to the mini township within the walls. After the capital was moved to Fes, and Marrakesh, and then Meknes, and back to Marrakesh over the centuries, Rabat fell into decline. The kasbah was resettled by muslim refugees from Spain in the 15th century and they changed the character of the city. The houses here were brighter and better kept. They seemed more “Andalusian” in style, and unlike the anonymous houses of the medina, these were painted – half white above, half sea blue below. It was very reminiscent of the Greek island of Santorini.

Sale’ The city of salt

Directly across the river from Rabat is the sister city of Sale’. This is where most of Rabat’s population actually live. Tourists don’t go there, so we decided it would be worth a look. The cities ancient fortifications aren’t overshadowed by modern buildings and are therefore more impressive than Rabat’s. We walked up the main street, running the entire length of the wall. There were no tourist shops here. The streets were broad and empty, a few children here and there.

We sat in the main square for a while. It was hot. The earth was dusty and barren. Even the few trees looked miserable. There was a sudden flurry of activity as an old man collapsed in the park behind us. People came rushing from everywhere. A minute later an ambulance came and whisked him away. The day’s excitement came to an end.

From the broad main street, we pushed on into the souks. The road became a lane, which twisted and turned in on itself, eventually blocking out all light. Traditional clothing and textiles gave way to jewellery. Every shop for a hundred metres was hung with gold chains. Despite loitering in a few shop windows, no one attempted to sell us anything. Then, suddenly, we were out into the light. Walking up a slight slope we came to Sale’s major tourist attraction. The Great Mosque and Medresa. Built in 1333 they are apparently amongst the most beautifully decorated religious builtings in Morocco. Not that you can tell from the outside. Only a slightly ornate door hints at what is inside.

This is the nature of Islam in Morocco. It is a private affair. From the outside the mosques are plain and featureless – if they are visible at all. Sometimes the minaret is the only indication that you are looking at mosque. However, inside they are astoundingly beautiful. Complex zelij mosaic work, carved cedar ceilings, fountains, an open and light floor plan. But all of this is hidden from western eyes. Non muslims are prevented from entering.

The Medresa, a medieval Koranic college, no longer functions and visitors are allowed. But at any rate it was closed. At 12.30 the call to prayer goes out and Morocco shuts down until 3. All museums, and most shops are shut. Then we met our friend – the faux guide. The faux guides are something of a phenomenon in Morocco and all the guidebooks warn you about them. With unemployment so high, it is no wonder that young Moroccans, with some language skills, offer themselves up as guides. Their general aim is to get you into a carpet shop. Then they will receive a commission on whatever you buy (and you WILL buy, whether you want to or not!). In some places they were so persistent and aggressive that the government had to legislate against it. It is now illegal to act as a guide without a licence. The penalty is a 10,000 dirham fine and up to six months in jail.

“Yes, this is the medresa here.”, he said pointing to one of the two doorways. “Unfortunately, it is closed now. It will be open at 2.30.”

Then he looked at us and asked, “Are you German?”

“No we are Australian.”, I said. Shelly pulled at my arm. “Don’t start talking to him!”

But he was up and over to us in an instant. “Yes, there is nothing to see here until 2.30. I can show you another museum. It is over this way. It was a prison. From the roof you can see the pirates graveyard.”

Shelly wasn’t keen, but I agreed, and our new found friend led us away. I asked him how much we would have to pay him, but he simply smiled and shook my hand. “My friend, I am from Sale. You are a visitor to Sale, and therefore a friend of Sale. We are friends. There is no charge and you will do what is right.”

Our friend was a fountain of information and regaled us with the history of Sale, of Rabat, of the Sultans who built the Great Mosque. He told us about Islam, and apologised that he could not take us inside the mosque.

Between the end of the city proper, and the ancient walls was a vast open space. The earth was bare and brown and interspersed with small pieces of rubble. “This is the pirates graveyard!”, our guide said. “Here, here and here”, he swept his arm across the view, “all pirates. No muslims” For about a century Sale and Rabat was the home of the Sallee Rovers, and independent pirate republic. The republic was a thorn in the side of Spain, France and Morocco.

We reached the pirate gaol, but it too was closed. Our guide ran off to see if he could find the caretaker, but a passerby told him he had popped off to the mosque to pray. Across from the gaol stood a white painted holy shrine. We wandered over for a closer look. “This is the shrine of the Andalusian doctor. He came to Sale in the thirteenth century. He cured the sick. You know, the people who have trouble in the head.”

There was a small cluster of people around the entrance. Our guide led us inside. The entry hall was decorated with brilliant tilework. Carpets covered the floor. Immediately we stepped inside, there was a commotion amongst the bystanders. Shelly stopped and didn’t go in. The guide beckoned her forward. “No, no, come in. It is okay!” He called to the holy man in charge of the shrine. He was elderly, bearded, dressed in white and only had one eye. His remaining eye was magnified by the coke bottle lenses of his glasses.

While our guide tried to negotiate our passage inside, the bystanders indicated I should take off my shoes. In the end, we opted not to rock the boat. This was a religious building and may of the bystanders were upset that we had entered. But it was worthwhile for the quick glimpse of the sumptuous decoration inside.

From there we walked along the ancient city wall. We climbed one of the watchtowers and gazed at Rabat. There was nothing more our guide could show us so we bid adieu him and gave him a tip for his trouble. “Enough for a packet of cigarettes.”, he said. We couldn’t begrudge him that. Tired, we took a shortcut back to the river and had an ancient old man row us across to the capital for 1 dirham.

Tangier: A long way to go for a pizza

Having seen just about everything there was to see in Rabat before the tour, we decided to venture further afield. Tangier; pirate’s nest, smuggling capital, “international” city, home to writers and exiles since the 1930’s, and Africa’s closest point to Europe sounded suitably exotic. It was a four and a half hour journey by train. The sleep we would lose getting up early could be made up sleeping on the train so it seemed a fair trade.

Sharing a first class cabin with two Moroccan women; one veiled; one henna’d, we set off. Departing Rabat was exciting. The track took us outside the city, where we had an excellent view of the huge city walls. The view was majestic, but the windows were so dirty we could not capture the moment on film. But soon the landscape changed and became barren and desolate. Attempts have been made to re-vegetate the country. Eucalypt trees are planted everywhere, however, firewood is in such short supply in the country that most trees are chopped down within a few years. As the train rocked and rumbled its way across the scorched land, we dozed uncomfortably. Four hours is a long time to sit still when there is nothing to see.

After passing through innumerable dusty villages we came upon the sea. It was startlingly blue, but the beachfront towns looked desperately poor. Then we pulled inland. Tiny villages gave way to suburbs, and in the distance, we could see the hills overlooking Tangier. And then the train suddenly stopped. This train didn’t stop in Tangier central station, but on the outskirts of town. And when I say outskirts of town, I mean far outskirts. After confirming that this was indeed the end of the line, we stepped out.

Our first experience of Tangier was the smell. The train station was situated right next to an open sewer that drained away from the town. It was hot and the smell was disgusting. We navigated towards the exit. Suddenly we were in a melee of screaming taxi drivers, all yelling at us and grabbing our clothes. “Port! Port! Chechouan! Chechouan! Cebuta! Cebuta!” We barged through the throng and rushed out into the car park.

Pretending we knew where we were going we marched off up the highway towards what we assumed was the town. One last hurdle; we had to cross the bridge over the sewer/river. If the smell was bad at the trainstation, it was much, much worse standing on the bridge. Holding our noses we made a mad dash until we were upwind.

The back of Tangier seemed to be about a kilometre away. It was worth walking a kilometre to avoid the taxi drivers. In fact it was much farther than that. There is a lot of new building in the suburbs of Tangier, however, the city has all the appearance of a slum. Apartment blocks are finished and rented without paint or plaster on the walls. All the sidewalks are cracked open – virtually open scars. We may as well have been walking across wild country. There were no trees, or any vegetation of any kind, just dry cracked grey earth. The sun was beating down. It was extremely depressing.

After an exhausting walk we came to a roundabout that marked the beginning of the nouvelle ville. There were trees and greenery and landscaping, and we were much heartened. After walking into the heart of the new town we came to a pizzeria and stopped for lunch. While the pizza was nice, it wasn’t earth shattering, but what was earth shattering was the toilet.

Honestly, it was pristine. The cleanest toilet we saw in our entire time travelling the world. And that is a pretty impressive claim as far as I’m concerned!

But no one comes to Morocco to see the new cities or their pristine toilets, so after a “refreshing” break we headed down to the port.

Everywhere huge hotel complexes were being thrown up. Most however seemed to have gone bust. The half finished towers of grey cement now little more that garbage dumps for their more successful neighbours. The amount of garbage is my most vivid memory of Tangier. It was everywhere. On the streets, in the parks, and in enormous piles in the derelict building sites.

After weaving through the building sites we reached the boardwalk in front of the port. A double row of sad looking date palms stood as a reminder of a time when Tangier was an exotic destination. Along the harbourside, French art deco hotels stood in sad decrepitude. And everywhere languid Moroccan men watched us intently. Beggar children spotted us immediately and, once attached, were difficult to shake. They eventually abandoned the pursuit as we marched up to the old medina, and we entered the territory of other beggars. We entered the medina through the gateway to the Old American Legation. Curiously enough, Morocco was the first country in the world to officially recognise the United States.

Inside this part of the medina everything was clean and painted, similar to the kasbah of Rabat. But the narrow streets grew windier, and narrower, and the buildings grew taller, until neighbouring buildings actually touched each other with their roofs and cut out the light. At each turn we met a young Moroccan man, sitting in a doorway. He would regard us with suspicion, and we moved on quickly. At the next corner another two, and the next another one. Three more on the next street. And then, as we passed, one would stand and begin to follow us. And so on. For the first time we really felt threatened. Not looking back, we followed the twists and turns of the streets until, through good fortune, we exited at the same point we came in.

We decided to go to the kasbah, following a shit and filth covered street, that we later discovered was the Grand Socco – formerly the centre of all economic and social activity in Tangier. Once this wide street was home to snake charmers, dancers, madmen and storytellers – all the things that make Marrakesh such a feast of the senses. Now, it was simply the home of fishmongers and a vegetable market. All refuse was simply thrown into the middle of the street to be ground into a black unspeakable (and putrid) mess on the pavement. This was quite simply the most disgusting street I have ever seen in my life.

We rushed on up the hill, hoping that we would eventually see something that would make this long and tiresome trip worthwhile. Alas, no. There was a brightly painted and tiled minaret towering over the sultans gardens at the end of the kasbah, but getting there would involve crossing the gardens, which were strewn with litter and unwashed vagrants. All the while onlookers pointed out the bleeding obvious – “Kasbah!” Yes, we know we are in the kasbah! From a hole in the kasbah wall we found a viewing platform. A few miles across the strait we could see Spain, even though the visibility was poor. A whole other continent – so close. It reminded me a little of gazing at Asia from Istanbul – except that Istanbul is a great city, while Tangier was a shit hole.

That was enough for us. We fled, hurrying down through the centre of the medina (we didn’t want to walk past all the disgusting creatures on the Grand Socco again). Perhaps that was a bad idea. What am I saying? Of course it was a bad idea! Two turns and we were lost again. A young kid ran up to us saying the street we walking on was “firme” – closed. Shelly didn’t believe him and wanted to press on, but some of the bystanders were giving us evil looks. I suggested we follow the boy, and asked him to take us to the “sorte” – exit. He led us quickly out to a gateway overlooking the harbour. He gave me a look of extreme annoyance when I only paid him 2 dirham (well, he only took us about 200 metres!). Then he was gone.

Suddenly we realised he had taken us to another dead end – the gateway only led to a viewing platform. Little shit! He was back in a flash offering to take us to the real entrance. We told him to fuck off and found our way out ourselves.

We killed time at a cafe, drinking Fanta and Sprite – no beer here – before taking a taxi back to the railway station. All in all it had been a disappointing waste of a day. To top it off, a toothless, 500 year old porter followed us into the train, all the while happily chatting to us in Arabic. The train was almost empty and we found a carriage on our own (it really wasn’t very hard!). No sooner had we sat down than he demanded a tip for escorting us. I slapped a dirham in his hand, but he handed it back and took out a 100 dirham note. This was how much he expected for his “service”. I waved him away, but he wouldn’t leave. He was smoking in our non-smoking carriage. Shelly had had enough and tried to throw him out, but he simply wouldn’t budge. Eventually he took his dirham and left, as new passengers approached.

There is nothing worse than facing a long boring journey back over the same ground you have already covered – especially when it wasn’t worth travelling in the first place! Shelly leaned her head against my shoulder and said, “Thank God we are going on a tour. I couldn’t put up with much more of this.”

Four hours later, the sight of the Tour Hassan and Mausoleum, lit up under floodlights, brightened our spirits. We were back to “civilisation.”

Back on the Bus: Hello Contiki!

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. The Contiki tour doesn’t start in Rabat, but in Casablanca. The first day of the tour is a transfer from the airport, to Casablanca, then to Rabat. Contiki’s hotel in Rabat was way out of town at a tiny beach resort called Temara. After kicking around the city for a while, we set off for “Club Yasmine” at 2.30. Unfortunately, it was too far for a petite taxi. They only drive within the city limits. A grand taxi offered to drive us for 200 dirham, then dropped the price to 100. We refused. But there was a dearth of information available to non-French speakers and we were left stumbling around for some time trying to find reasonably priced transport. By chance we eventually came across a bus stop heading in our direction. The fare cost us 3.20 dirham.

The bus was an old clunker that would have been scrapped in any place other than the third world. And it was packed. Shelly and I were weighed down by our heavy backpacks and had to take up two seats each – greedy, decadent westerners!

At the first stop an old man in a grubby white suit and white skull cap, tilted jauntily on his head, got on board. He was missing all his upper teeth on the left side of mouth. As if in compensation, he was missing all his lower teeth on the right side of mouth. He was holding what in this part of the world passed for a musical instrument – a piece of wood and sheep hide with three strings. He was a story teller.

As the bus bumped its way along, he stood at the front of the bus alternately strumming the “mandolin” in such a way as to indicate he had not a whit of musical talent, and chanting out a story or song in Arabic to his captive audience. The funny thing was that he was immensely popular!

The people at the back of the bus all stood to get a better view. Everyone was smiling and laughing, at what was apparently a very saucy story. Some of the women were blushing and giggling quietly. When he finished his tale a few people tipped him a few dirham, but he didn’t come around and ask for anything formally. He simply waved goodbye and got off the bus. For free we had experienced something of real Moroccan culture.

The conductor told us when to get off. We found ourselves dropped in the middle of one of Rabat’s satellite suburbs with no idea where we were. Eventually we managed to find a petite taxi, who drove us to the hotel for 12 dirham.

Club Yasmine was very nice, and the girl on reception spoke English. Hooray!!! She advised us that 6 other Contiki guests had arrived, but the bus would be running late. It would probably arrive around dinner time – 7.30. We swam in the pool, watched TV and slept. About 7.30 I went to reception to see if the bus had come in. Unfortunately, the English speaking girl had left and we were back to a Hotel Suisse situation.

“Contiki?”, the guy repeated slowly. “What is Contiki?” Oh dear. In broken English and broken French we conducted an idiotic conversation around the simple question “Has the contiki tour arrived?” I guess the answer was no. Actually the answer was no. I checked again at 8.00 & then 8.45 & then 9.15 and finally at 9.45. In the meantime I checked at the restaurant to see if they had a booking for Contiki. “What, who, Contiki? What is Contiki?” Once again, no one had heard of Contiki.

At 9.45 I walked into the restaurant to find 30 odd people hoeing into their food. I had found Contiki, but they hadn’t bothered to find us. I had a little word with the tour manager (and advised him that there were at least 6 other Contiki people in. Reception had their room numbers if he wanted to let them know the tour was in) who invited us to join them, if we wanted. As the restaurant wouldn’t feed us unless we paid them ourselves (and this meal was included as part of the tour) we hadn’t eaten. So at 10 we sat down to join our new tour group. It was a good start.

The tour was a mix of Canadians, Americans and Australians, with Australians being in the minority. Our tour manager, Jason, was as much a tourist as the rest of us. He and six other had just completed the Spain and Portugal tour and were continuing on to Morocco. Our Moroccan tour guide was Mohammed. He got do all the work. First stop on the tour (for us) was Rabat, but we had seen most of the city already.

However, just outside the walls of Rabat was one of the most scenic places in Morocco – Chellah.

Chellah: The city of the dead

Chellah was built on the site of the old Roman city of Sala Colonia. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, the the city fell into ruin. The descendents eventually moved from this site and re-established their settlement at Sale’. However, in the twelfth century, the Merenid dynasty began fortifying the ruined city. But no one actually intended to live in this new “city”, nor was it part of the fortifications of Rabat and Sale’. Chellah was actually built to protect the Merenid’s graveyard. Inside the enormous ring of walls they built a small mosque and a few shrines. All are in ruins now, but it’s setting is magnificent. Most of Chellah is a botanical garden, but towards the bottom of the hill on which the city is built are the remains of the Roman city – a forum, the bases of a few columns, a bathhouse, a market. They are remarkably small. To the right of the Roman ruins, is the Merenid Mosque. The minaret is still intact, and some elaborate green and blue tile work is visible at the top. A stork’s nest tops off this monument. Outside the ruined mosque is the remains of the royal graveyard. The humble gravestones of the Moroccan Sultans are poigniant for their simplicity. No ostentation in death. It is a particularly Moroccan Islamic tradition.

Meknes: The Moroccan Versailles

We left the calming beauty of Chellah and hit the road. The first stop – Meknes. Meknes enjoyed a brief period as the Moroccan capital under the terrible Sultan Moulay Ismail – reputedly THE most bloodthirsty ruler in the world. Okay, there have been some rulers who have caused the deaths of more people – Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, etc. But they were never involved in the business end of killing. Moulay Ismail took particular delight in his exploits, killing over 30,000 people with his own hand. To celebrate his accession to the throne he sent 10,000 decapitated heads to the former capitals of Fes and Marrakesh. Apparently he would amuse dinner guests by lopping off the heads of his unfortunate slaves. This sort of behaviour proved to be a hit with the chicks and he fathered over 800 children.

Apart from his rather anti-social habit of killing people, Ismail considered himself to be something of an enlightened ruler. His rule co-incided with that of Louis XIV in France. His ambassadors to France returned with tales of Louis’ magnificent palace at Versailles; of the Sun King’s power; of his patronage of the arts. Ismail was impressed, and as soon as he’d finished severing the heads from his ambassadors’ necks, he set about trying to outdo Louis’.

Meknes was orginally little more than a village, but Ismail rebuilt it from scratch. He tore apart the nearby ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis for building materials and created a massive imperial city.

Unfortunately, after his death in 1727, his son abandoned Meknes and moved the capital back to Fes. Much of his monumental construction fell into ruin.The city’s main gate, the Bab el Mansour, is still a magnificent monument, and a tribute to Moroccan tile art. All the tour buses stop here, and we were no exception. But the rest of the city (and we only saw it for two hours) was a disappointment; dirty and neglected. Shelly and I went in through the imperial gate and found ourselves in a desolate, barren stretch of ground that was supposed to be a public park. We wandered around for a while until we found the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail. He was such a legendary figure that his tomb is open to westerners (almost the only one except Mohammed V’s). The entrance was surprisingly plain. A ochre coloured wall, and a green tiled door. There was supposed to be an entry fee, but another tour party was going in so we slipped in with them and got in for free. Inside was a cool, enclosed courtyard with blue and white tiles on the floor. A small fountain stood in the centre of the room.

From there we entered an open courtyard – this is where people can pray, as the mausoleum is a functioning mosque. Beyond that courtyard was another room, where Ismail is buried. All in all the mausoleum was surprisingly plain.

Outside the Bab el Mansour is an open square, the Place el-Hedim. To the right was a covered market. Inside we found every type of foodstuff. The back of the market was a chicken stall – not so exciting! We had lunch in the square of anonymous Moroccan food (maybe I don’t want to know what it was?). It was actually very tasy, and cheap! Mohammed told us not to venture back into the medina behind the square, so we set off there immediately. It was crowded and the markets seemed to be mostly selling toys and sneakers. It wasn’t very exciting so we wandered back to the square (via the chicken market – mmmmmm!).

At the end of the square, facing the imperial gate was a magnificent public fountain. A museum of Moroccan art lies behind it now. To its left was a neat square building with a green tiled roof – the public toilet. It was quite an elaborate building really, considering the squalour of the surrounding market. For Shelly and I the time had come to bite the bullet. There were no toilets on our bus. We debated for a while before going inside, expecting to see and smell the worst of third world public conveniences. To our surprise they were very clean and didn’t smell at all, even though they were squatters! The toilets in Russia had been much worse.

Fes: The labyrinth and the big man of Fes

Fes claims to be the heart of Morocco. It has more mosques, more important shrines, is the home of Moroccan handicraft, and is the most traditional big city. The city is very oddly situated. It sprawls along a valley between two hills. As a defensive position, it is appalling. From the heights an invading force with artillery could completely dominate the city. In fact, that was what happened when the French invaded. A few hours of bombardment and the city, then the capital, fell.

We arrived in the late afternoon. Shelly was out of action with a sore throat and bad cough, picked up on the day before the tour. She went straight to bed. I set off to explore. It was a sunday and almost everything was closed. The nouville ville was attractive and very art deco. The main street (Mohammed V again!!) was lined with Ficus trees, which at this time of the afternoon were home to nearly a billion swallows. Their squabbling and squawking as they fought each other for a roost was simply deafening. After half an hour I was lost, but managed to find my way back within the hour. Armed with a bottle of Fanta, I returned to the room and we set to demolishing our supply of Russian vodka. That night we had dinner in the restaurant, an elaborately tiled and decorated masterpiece. After dinner some of us sat around discussing our options. Was there anywhere we go for a drink? A party? It seemed not. The bar at the hotel was wall to wall Moroccan men – not very appealing – especially for the women on tour. Mohammed said he knew a club we could go to, but added that none of the girls could go. Bearing in mind the tour was made up of 99% single women, this suggestion wasn’t a real hit. It proved to be an early night.

The next day we headed into old Fes. The first stop, the Imperial Gate. We had our group photo (once again taken by a photographer with no idea of balance or perspective). After a drive up to the lookout over the city, we plunged into the medina. And plunge is the right word. There are 9400 streets in the medina, none larger than an alleyway, and none straighter than a dogs leg.

The local tour guide took us to a variety of traditional shops, stores and markets. We visited a bakery (most homes in the medina don’t have a proper stove. The women make the dough and send it out to the bakery to be baked), a weavers, an embroiders, a fruit market, the blacksmith’s souk and the old Jewish Quarter.

All the way we had to duck and weave as streams of overburdened donkeys, driven or ridden by old men and boys, stampeded hither and thither. One minute you would be walking in a line, you would glance down at the uneven ground and look up to be faced, not with the back of a fellow Contiki traveller, but the front of a donkey. “Balak! Balak!”, the drivers’ cried, which roughly translates to “get out of my way before my donkey grinds you into the pavement”, or something like that. The loads carried by these poor beasts often defied belief. We saw one little fellow struggling beneath an enormous cast bronze door. The door was over six feet wide and twelve feet long. Honestly, it was only fractionally narrower than the street. Two men at the back end, and one at the front kept the door from smashing into anything. Just as the load reached a T junction onto a wider road, a convoy of six donkeys carrying building rubble pulled into the street. Traffic Jam, Moroccan style! The door carriers started yelling at the rubble carriers (while we crowded into nearby shops and stalls to avoid being crushed). Obviously this happens all the time, for although we could see no way to move either load, except backing up the donkey convoy, the drivers quickly negotiated a way out of the impasse. The door was tilted up on its right side, which left a tiny space through which the convey of donkeys somehow managed to slip. Then they were off again. We took the opportunity to make a mad dash up to the wider street. Another convoy turned down the street just as we got out,and another exchange of curses and insults began.

One of the “must see” experiences of Morocco is a visit to a tannery. Actually, it is more a “must smell” experience. Moroccan leatherwork is still carried out in the traditional method and there are tanneries in both Fes and Marrakesh. As we lined up outside the door several in our group were beginning to get squeamish. Our guide gave us a handful of mint – to hold to your nose to block out the smell. It did stink, that’s for sure, but I really expected it to be worse than it was. The first part of the tannery was an open quadrangle with square troughs in the ground. Each was filled with limey water in which animal skins were soaked. A walkway no wider than two feet ran around the outside of the room. It was slippery and rank. We were quickly bustled inside a pitch black room and shoved up a narrow and very, very steep staircase. Suddenly we were on the roof of the building. Now we had the luxury of looking around.

The first room was for cleaning the skins. They are soaked in a mixture of water, lime, urine and bird shit. This loosens the hair from the skin, which is then ripped out by hand. The skins are then dried for a while before being taken out and tanned. This part of the process was by far the worst smelling. The fumes were noxious and overpowering. On the other side of the building were the dying and tanning pits – simple circular mud pits of different colours – black, red, yellow, brown. Here the skins are soaked in another disgusting mixture and softened, then they are dyed. Eventually the skins are staked out in the sun to dry. From the roof top the smell was quite mild (not pleasant you understand, just mild).

But the demand to witness this medieval profession at work must have been quite high, as next door to the tannery a roof top cafe had opened. “Yes, you too can enjoy the sights and smells of the tannery while sipping a mint tea and eating a piece of chocolate cake!”

From the tannery we went to the dyers souk. While not as stinking as the tannery, it was pretty damn dirty with dye and ink staining the footpath. We all pressed ourselves up against the walls, careful to avoid the donkey traffic on one hand, and the ink spattered walls on the other, while our guide explained what was going on. I didn’t really pay much attention to what he said because of an extraordinary sight I, and I alone witnessed.

You see, everyone stood on the left hand side of the street, but that didn’t leave me with much room, and I was too far from the guide to hear what he was saying, so I crossed to the right hand side of the street and moved closer to the action. The problem with that was I now couldn’t see into the souk – which was behind me. So naturally my gaze was drawn across the street, passed my Contiki pals. The street was steeply sloped – we had been walking uphill – and from my position I could see across the rooftops down to my right. The roofs of the houses in Morocco, indeed in all North Africa, are flat, and are used as a patio (as the houses don’t have yards). Women hang their washing there and chat and socialise. About three houses away, maybe ten metres, I could see a young man in a baseball cap. He was wearing a flannel shirt, the buttons undone. He was the only person visible along the roofline. Then, slowly, he stood up and I was absolutely gobsmacked. The baseball cap and flannel shirt was ALL he was wearing. Now I don’t regularly go around looking at blokes dicks, but no joke, this guy was f……… ENORMOUS! He had the kind of tackle that would make Dirk Diggler blush with embarrasment. He stood up, slowly stretched and gave it a good scratch, the item swinging around his knees like an giant gelatinous sausage (Honestly, I know I am prone to exaggerating, but he was huge. It was scary). Jesus! I thought, this isn’t for me, this is something the girls need to see. I thought shouting out something like, “Hey look at that guys dick!” wouldn’t sound too good, so I called to the girl nearest me. Unfortunately, it was a girl called Nicole from Sydney. Nicole and her friend Anna-Maria were travelling together and always remained aloof from the rest of the group. “Come here quickly!”, I whispered. She glared at me. “What?” “Don’t argue, just come over here really quickly.” Maybe that was a foolish thing to say. She decided to argue. “Why?” “You need to see this.” She looked at me suspiciously, then slowly came over. With each step towards me I said to her, “Turn around, turn around now. Look up at the roofline. Look quickly!” Of course she didn’t. When she finally came up in line with me I had to physically turn her head in the direction of the donkey man. Of course, he chose just this moment to sit down again. “What am I looking at?”, Nicole asked. “Nothing.”, I said. “It’s too late. You missed it.”

But she wouldn’t let it go. “Why did you drag me over here then? What was it? What? What? What?” I pointed out the baseball capped head that was still visible over the roofline. “See that guy. He was just standing there a minute ago and he wasn’t wearing any pants. He’s hung like a horse.” It sounded pretty pathetic. Nicole gave me a long, cold stare that made me feel a lot smaller than I already knew I was. Scowling at me, she asked, “You thought I would want to see something like that?” I didn’t even bother to answer.

We continued on. We visited the Kairaouine Mosque, one of the most venerated in the country, and the tomb of Moulay Idriss II. Of course we could only peek through the doors “interdict per aux non-muslims.” We stopped for a late lunch in a carpet shop. The building was a former 12th century mansion and was very impressive. The carpets themselves were very impressive, and the prices they charged were even more impressive! After an amusing talk by the proprietor and three glasses of mint tea, they let loose the salesmen on us. “Just look. Looking is for free.” No way, Jose! The salesmen worked on the divide and conquer principle. Some carpets may have been unfurled at our feet, but the moment any interest was shown they whisked the unsuspecting suckers… er customers… out the back to begin the hard bargaining. And they crumbled like sandcastles on a stormy beach.

Many of the Americans and Canadians bought, and bought big. Three thousand dollars for a large floor rug. One of the Aussie girls paid a thousand for a small decorative rug. “Are you happy with that?”, we asked. “Yes.”, she replied, and she did look genuinely happy. “Did you barter?” “No.” “I see.” And we said no more. It would have been rude. And as all the other happy shoppers returned we heard the same reply. The cheapest purchase was a thousand (and yes, we are talking US $). About 8 rugs were sold. We estimate the shop made around US$10,000. The guide would have received a fabulous commission. Mohammed muttered to someone that what he really wanted to be was an official guide in Fes. The commissions you could earn were fantastic.

Towards the end, those of us who were not to be tempted were getting pretty pissed off. We could not leave and had been there almost two hours. Eventually, realising he was facing a mutiny, the guide took the rest of us back out into the town. He took us to a few of his mates shops but we were all pretty sick of it by now. Many of us wanted to explore, or look at other shops. “Please do not wander away.”, he kept saying. And then he led us out of the city and back into the light. We met up with the rest of the carpet shoppers near the Bab Guissa. It seemed to me when we quizzed them on their purchases they had lost a little of their earlier enthusiasm. “Yes, I paid $3000 for two carpets. No I didn’t bargain with them. It would have cost me $5000 at home, so I still got a bargain.” But they just didn’t seem so sure anymore.

It was still a bargain compared to home. But it was probably an extraordinary rip off for Morocco. In Marrakesh we purchased two small rugs (they are small) for US$100 (after about 45 minutes debating). They don’t look all that much different from what some of our Contiki pals bought. That night we went out to a traditional meal in an old palace. The mosaic decoration was fabulous. The food was excellent. But the wine was shit.

I think it will be a few more years before we are talking favourably of dry Moroccan white. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant, if somewhat subdued night.

Erfoud:  The Desert

There were ominous signs on the morning of our departure from Fez. Rachel, a girl from Sydney, and Phil, another Sydneysider who was in England playing county cricket didn’t make it breakfast. Both were laid low with a “gastric problem.” They emerged into the daylight moments before the bus was to depart, pale and sickly looking.

From Fes we drove into the Middle Atlas mountains. Most of the landscape we passed was treeless desert – utter desolation on each side of the bus. As we began to gain altitude we passed isolated berber camps – simple rag tents with a few sheep and goats. Both children and adults waved at the bus as it drove by. Mohammed commented that the berbers lived terribly poor lives. We had a quick pitstop by one berber camp as Phil failed in his attempt to keep his guts under control. There were murmurs of sympathy and disquiet.

Our first stop was the alpine village of Ifrane. Ifrane was built by the French in the 1920’s as an Alpine retreat. It’s Swiss style chalets are something of an anachronism in Morocco. After a quick pit stop we were away again. The Ziz valley, through which we drove was barren, but there were mud villages every few kilometres. It was strange to see newly constructed houses, rendered in the local pale grey mud, standing next to the remains of ancient mud kasbahs, slowly crumbling back into the earth.

Even the oldest and most primitive looking houses had satellite dishes on their roofs. We stopped for lunch in a dusty, sprawling town called Midelt. Mohammed warned us against eating the local food – “it is not good, and they are very slow.” Shelly and I picked up a loaf of bread, some cheese (imported from France no less!) and a coke for about 10 dirham. Finding somewhere to eat it was a little more difficult. The streets were dirt and there were no seats anywhere. We spotted a few of our Contiki pals enjoying a drink on a rooftop taverna. They waved us up. We checked with the owner, who didn’t mind us eating our own food, as long as we bought a drink. I had a mint tea; Shelly had a Fanta. Some of the others had taken a punt and ordered a meal – lamb kofta and chips. It looked nice, and as no one had turned green and fallen on the ground in fits, I ordered the same. It was really nice, and came with a zesty, salsa-like salad. Shelly warned me if I died of food poisoning I would only have myself to blame.

After lunch it was back on the bus for more views of dry, dusty mountains. We stopped for a drink in el-Rashida – a military garrison town. The architecture of the town, although mostly dating from the 1920’s was extra-ordinary. Everything was elaborate nouveau kasbah style or something. Unfortunately we did not stop anywhere where I could take a photo. For a while we sat around the pool of an obscure hotel on the outskirts of town and munched on re-frozen icecreams. Then it was on to Erfoud.

We drove through innumerable villages, where life it seemed had not changed in centuries. The women in the Atlas generally wore the chadour. We noted that they were always black, which must have made it damned hot in summer. As the shadows lengthened we arrived at Erfoud. It seemed like an interesting town, built of red and brown mud, and full of life. I would have liked to have wandered around the streets. There was a bustling market. But, of course, our hotel was situated well outside town – too far to walk back to town.

As if in compensation, the Hotel Erfoud was the most luxurious place we ever stayed at. There was a magnificent pool, gazebo, bar and restaurant. All the rooms were huge, with airconditioning and a balcony. Regrettably, the view wasn’t anything special, just more dry landscape. But there was no time for luxury, we were off to the dunes – the Erg Merzouga, the western most tip of the great Saraha Desert. We piled into six four wheel drives, shaking off school boy hawkers trying to sell us doctored fossils.

I had just agreed on a price of 10 dirham for a trilobite when our driver gunned the engine and raced off down the road crushing the poor boy to death between the wheels. Such is the price of doing business in Morocco!!

The drive was wild. Each of the drivers dreamed of competing in the Paris to Dhakar race and drove like a maniac. Once out of town there were no roads, just a broad expanse of flat stony desert. The drivers traced wild patterns across the desert, swerving across to cut off a rival, then tearing away to forge a new path across the trackless wastes. For us it was exhilarating and terrifying. We were bounced around in the cab like rag dolls, grasping at anything in order to keep our seats. After some 45 minutes we sped past the tiny township of Merzouga – last stop of civilization – and then, there it was. Way ahead of us was the Erg, a great slow moving ocean of sand. From this distance it looked an ochre colour, but it became lighter as we got closer. We made our driver stop (much to his disappointment – he thought he was winning!) so we could take a photo. After a little more than an hour we arrived.

At the foot of the Erg was a plain brick building. This was the campsite of the Tuaregs. The Tuaregs, or “blue men” are a desert people. They wear blue robes which eventually stain their skin a purple colour, but who are in fact a caucasian people. Camels are their livelihood. For only 100 dirham they would take us by camel into the dunes.

Some people don’t like camels, but I think they are great. They are the one pack animal that demonstrates personality – that is that they don’t like being pack animals! Who can blame them for being grumpy. They all sat quietly in their rows until their drivers indicated it was time to do some work, then they began to snarl and complain. You can almost imagine what they are saying, “Oh shit, not more fat stupid tourists!!” The mounting is difficult and uncomfortable, but once up, the movement is very pleasant – slow and easy. It wasn’t a long trek, just a few hundred metres into the dune, then we got off. The Tuaregs were grabbing people left right and centre – mostly the female kind of people. Shelly was whisked away by an old man who later claimed to be a senior member of the tribe. I thought I should probably follow her, but his son opened negotiations for her sale. The offer was pretty attractive too. To this day Shelly doesn’t realise how close she came to being traded for a couple of camels!

The sunset was a bit disappointing. There was dust on the horizon and the sun was diffused, disappearing from view a few metres above the horizon. It was still an impressive place though. Quiet and serene. The sand was so very fine and soft. But we were allowed no rest. If they couldn’t buy our women, the Tuaregs wanted to sell us fossils. Southern Morocco and Algeria are littered with fossils. Every roadside stall has trilobites and ammonites for sale, some of enormous proportions. In fact the marble table tops at our hotel were filled with marbleized fossils. Unfortunately, for our new found friends I already had all the types of fossils they were offering (being a collector from way back). Their disappointment was obvious as I refused to be drawn into negotiations.

Suddenly it was time to go. Mohammed had told them to take us back to where the jeeps were waiting, but our friends had other plans. They took us to the camel enclosure, which was about half a kilometre away from the jeeps. A furious argument broke out between Mohammed and our guide, with all the usual Arab versus Tuareg rhetoric – “you are liars, you are cheats, you are thieves”, etc, etc, you get the drift. Our erstwhile guides now showed themselves ravenous for money. We paid over the 200 dirham to our guide, plus a tip. But others were soon pressing us for more, “You no pay!” “You must pay me!” “Give me a gift!” After 15 minutes of harrassment the jeeps began arriving and we escaped. We had a new driver this time, one who could actually speak a little English. ‘You like to drive?”, we asked. “Yes. Dhakar, Dhakar!”, he replied. Yep, we knew where his ambitions lay. Shelly sat next to a girl from Sydney named Rebecca; a nurse and hypochondriac, who decided to regale us with all the problems of her life. Despite the lack of suspension, I immediately fell asleep and missed almost all of this very exciting conversation.

When I awoke, Rebecca was still taking but we back at the hotel. The previous hotels offered only two types of meals – traditional Moroccan (cous cous and tajine), or western (some vague impression of the kind crap we westerners eat). It was all a bit much after a while. Imagine our surprise, imagine our joy, when we beheld the magnificient feast laid before us by the Hotel Erfoud! There was a spectrum of cullinary treats – italian pasta, greek salad, cold meats, steaks, sausages, seafood, a variety of vegetable dishes, the best meat ball tajine IN THE WORLD, canneloni, cous cous, and deserts (something almost nowhere else offered).

Shelly had finally gotten over her miserable cold and had an appetite, and we pounded the stuff down. We had a swim in the pool later that night. It had been a wonderful day, and we retired looking forward to the rest of our trip.

It wasn’t to be. About midnight I was woken by an urgent call. Frankly, it was as if my insides had exploded. I was relieved when it was over – and damned glad the toilet was working! But there was to be no rest for me that night. Seven visits later, I finally fell asleep. When Shelly woke, I asked her how she felt. She was fine. But then, just before we headed down to breakfast she was waylaid with a personal emergency. She never made it to breakfast.

The breakfast was as full on as the dinner, but I couldn’t stomach it. Most of our group were still excited – “try the pancakes” “have you had the eggs” “its wonderful….” I tucked into a couple of pancakes, and yes they were lovely, but it was hard work. As the table began to clear I noticed there were a number of absentees. I broached the subject with my fellow diners who had eaten at the cafe in Midelt. “Are you all…. okay?” There were blank stares. It seemed everyone was fine – at least that was what they said.

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