Monday, November 28, 2011

Le Maroc, Pt. Quatre: Estamos (casi) jodidos.*

             There will not be much room for pretty pictures in this entry because I want to convey the message through words the best I can, and because throughout this whole episode, I didn't feel much like snapping pictures.

             I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with being led down ominous alleys by strange men in North Africa, but let me assure you that there is a reason why you have not heard this listed among many of your friends’ favorite hobbies. It’s shit-your-pants terrifying - that’s why. So as Dave, Michael, Will and I were very hesitant to follow Mustafa off the main strip of shops and down a dimly-lit, person-less alley in Djemma el-Fna, if for no other reason than that we did not much feel like being murdered. Especially not in an alley in Marrakech. Maybe I haven’t been reading enough Beat generation literature, but it doesn’t seem like many good things happen in dark alleys in Marrakech. Plenty of good things happen in well-lit streets and in vivacious, bustling plazas, but foreboding alleys tend to fall short of the Top 10 Great Places for Good Things to Happen list.
            So fuck. We’re being led down this ominous alley by a strange man named Mustafa in Marrakech, and he’s totally beckoning us to come despite our obvious hesitation. Because, y’know, it was, like, horrifying. Of course, being good sheepish Occidentals, we didn’t want to offend our guide by implying that we thought he was going to murder us in a dimly lit alley, so we didn’t want to speak up or say anything that was going to offend him.
            We didn’t want to say anything that was going to offend him.
            Let me say that one more time, just so that its entire conceptual foundation sits clearly with everyone reading this.
            Despite the fact that we were all deeply worried about the whole prospect of being led down a fucking dark, desolate alley in Marrakech by a complete stranger wearing fake RayBans, we were too timid to say anything because we didn’t want to offend him, a man we had never met before in our life, and whom we would most likely never see again.
            Yeah, we’re idiots.
            So as we Pied-Piper’ly follow Mustafa down the alley, we are very apprehensive. We were shooting each other glances, muttering under our breath. We knew this wasn’t a good idea at all, but we seemed trapped in the moment, unable to get out of it. Such is group psychology.
            Suddenly, just in case the austere penumbra of the alley was not scary enough, a child and his burqa’d mother starting following closely behind us, and the child began to sing in Arabic. Actually, “sing” is not the correct word here - “chant forebodingly” is a better phrasal verb to use. So not only are we about to be killed, but our impending doom is being welcomed with terrifying majesty of song. Shit. As we continued to walk down this alley, we agreed in hushed tones that while the alley was already bad enough, there was no way we would go into a building.
            Finally, like ancient Phoenician sailors finally breaking through a blanket of clouds to see the glory of the sun once again, we emerged from our alley-based purgatory into another bustling street market.
            Well, shit. Thank God we didn’t go into a building right?
            We’re still not trusting this Mustafa character. Relieved though we certainly were to not have been stabbed in the kidneys or extorted with any kind of long knife, we did not feel like we were yet out of the woods. Rattled, shaken, we continued on, being led towards a so-called “authentic Berber market” by Mustafa. We follow him around another bend, under a somewhat lower doorjamb, and it just looks like another market, except with a lot of dudes in white coats.
            Mustafa turns to us, looking a lot like Giancarlo Esposito in the movie 1994 movie “Fresh”, and says, “Authentic Berber pharmacy.” He then starts up a set of stairs to our left, beckoning us along with him. Dude did a lot of beckoning. He was huge on beckoning. “Come, come. Let’s go!” he said to us, as if there was an hourglass losing sand somewhere. Well shit, we must have collectively thought, We’re in a building. And we’re about to go up some stairs into an even more recessed part of this building. Well shit.
            Now let me explain something. This might not seem so bad to you guys reading this. You might think that because of my humorous tone that this was somehow not terrifying, that we took all of this lightly. Jovially. Jocularly. No. This was very, very scary. I don’t know exactly how to convey the sense we were all having, but I’ll do my best. Simply put, we felt like were falling farther and farther into a trap that had been laid for us. We all knew the risks of following local guides in Morocco, especially ones that you did not make an attempt to solicit – that is to say, guides that “seduced” you into following them. All of the guidebooks and sources of information with any shred of value will tell you that the number one rule in any country like this is do not follow unsolicited guides into unfamiliar places. Despite all of us being fully aware of this fact, and thinking we had some semblance of being in charge of our respective destinies, we had all gotten sucked in. Due to Mustafa’s smoothness and disarming demeanor, we had all become enganchado – hooked – and we didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. We were all disappointed with ourselves for supposedly knowing better and still going along with him. We felt like we were about to pay for our mistake in doing so, with at least our wallets, and who knows what else. We were truly scared at this point, and we were feeling sorry for ourselves for falling into this obvious trap.
            So we go up the stairs into the “Berber pharmacy”. We file into a fluorescently-lit room that is lined with jars of what appear to be different ointments and powders. There are two men, who don’t look particularly friendly or happy to see us, wearing white lab-style coats. Mustafa talks to them quickly in Arabic. Michael asks Mustafa, pointedly, though not intentionally at the time, “Are these your friends?”
            One of the men with the lab coat quickly says, “No, he’s not my friend.” He ekes out a half-smile.
            Mustafa turns to us and says, “OK guys, I’m going to step outside and have a cigarette real quick and these guys are going to talk to you.” Before we could really assent, Mustafa was gone and the door was shut behind him.
            I don’t know if my words here can really demonstrate how frightened and sad we all were at this point. Scared for our physical and proprietary selves and upset that we had let all of this happen to us, been so enganchados. It’s pretty easy to sit here now, write and/or read this, knowing that everything turned out OK, and to think I’m maybe exaggerating or overreacting a little bit. But the God’s honest truth is that we were right there in that lifeless linoleum room, looking at one another, thinking we might be in some serious trouble. We did not know what to do.
            I have never been so scared in my whole life. Will, Michael, Dave and I all exchanged glances in that room that spoke Encyclopedia-Britannica-volumes of regret, fear, panic. Not to offend anyone with more delicate lexical senses, but there was one sentence stuck on repeat in my mind at the time, and I’m sure my compañeros would second the motion.
            “We’re fucked.”
            This short phrase (Spanish translation: “Estamos jodidos”) sums up exactly how we felt at the time. Well, there’s no getting out of this one. Estamos completamente jodidos. No hay manera.
            And the “Berber pharmacist” went along explaining this powder and that ointment, holding out this jar and that jar for us to smell, but none of us were listening or smelling a goddamn thing that he was proffering to us. We were convinced that something bad was going to happen. Or rather, we were all standing on a precipice of sorts, on the edge of somewhere completely unknown. There was a void in front of us, an uncertain future, and we didn’t know what to do or if there was anything we even could do to change it.
            Finally, after what seemed like much longer than the few minutes it was – because we had all pondered way more than a few minutes worth of thoughts in that period of time – the lab-coated man did that goddamn half-smile and said, “Any questions?”
            And in one of the most genius questions I have ever heard in my life, Will points to a jar of colorful objects and says something to the effect of, “Yeah, I was wondering – I saw a lot of these things downstairs,” putting heavy emphasis on the final word, roughly containing our collective sense of desperation. “Do you think we could go downstairs and look at these again?”
            That’s when, I think, the dude realized we weren’t going to buy anything.
            Mustafa eventually came back, led us around the stupid-ass market for a little bit longer, and I actually ended up buying a silk scarf from one of his Berber “friends”. His “woman” made it. “Made” it. Hmm. Anyways, I’m convinced we’re all still alive because of my scarf purchase. If it hadn’t been for the scarf, we’d all be strung up somewhere in a mountain in Morocco. And it’s good quality silk, too.
            After a little more walking around, Mustafa finally had enough of us, bid us adieu in one of the squares, and walked off into the night. After all that, guy just walks off. Just like that. And we all thought we were going to be killed. Or robbed. Or something.

            But that’s why you don’t follow strangers down dark alleys in North Africa. 

 *"casi" means "almost", for those who wanna know.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Le Maroc, Pt. Trois: Para enganchar a un americano / To hook an American

            So by now I’ve had it pointed out to me, by people who’ve read Dave’s blog and by folks whom we’ve told what happened, that the “sinister” goings-on implied by the end of the last blog entry were not, in fact, all that sinister. It was more just highly uncomfortable and frightening to be in the situation at the time. All the same, it sucked for us. We were hundreds, if not thousands, of miles (kilometers) from anything we considered remotely familiar, and so having such a high level of uncertainty in such a remote and strange place was definitely what I would call “sinister”. At least, it had malevolent twinges.
Was that the first time anyone has ever written the phrase “malevolent twinges”? Let’s do a Google search and find out.

Dammit, one other asshole had already said “malevolent twinges”, and it was in a LIVEJOURNAL, for God’s sake. Figures.

Anyways, let me continue the most-interesting narrative here.


Marrakech, Morocco. The Red City. It was more a kind of ochre if you asked me, but then again, I was never big on color swatches back in the day, so what do I really know? 

Marrakech, to say it briefly, is an insane place. At particular times and locations in the city, is a place that stimulates every sense of the human body at once, causing so many neurons to fire and so many distinct neurotransmitters to scoot around your nervous system that you kind of just want to go to sleep. The most famous part of the city is called Djemma el-Fna, which is a huge open square, about the size of six or seven American football fields (have to make that distinction over here). In this square, which is the center of the Moroccan sensory overload, there are vendors selling every type of ware you could imagine, from counterfeit iPods to counterfeit Lionel Messi jerseys to authentic Berber handwashes to real-life Jackson’s chameleons. Interestingly enough, the chameleons are actually sold so that they can be burned alive in a particular local ritual that, if I remember correctly, is supposed to cure impotence. It seems like the coolest animals are always killed for such stupid reasons. (Pangolins, anyone?)

In addition to Djemma el-Fna, the old city of Marrakech (the medina) contains an absolutely mind-boggling labyrinth of streets and alleys that house an even more extensive market. If you are not careful, these markets will disappear at night, and you will be left behind in a maze-like network of nearly-identical streets, and you will need some time and more than a little luck to get out of there. Really, I don’t know how you would get out – there are no street signs, few landmarks, and not a whole lot of well-intentioned locals to be found who would be willing you come to your aid given the situation.
This brings me to our strange and disquieting experience. Now, we all know full well that in Morocco you’re not supposed to follow people who offer you their services as guides. Fine, that’s easy enough to understand. But the problem is, some of them are damn tricky about not offering you anything, but instead just starting to show you around without you even assenting to anything. Such was the case with Mustafa.
One afternoon, we were doing the Frogger-like traversing of the main street – I want to say Rue King Mohammed the V – to get to the Medina. By the way, the crossing of the street in and of itself is always one of the most dangerous things to do in Morocco that I’m aware of, and actually, I’d be willing to bet it’s single activity that kills the most people every year in Morocco. More than any terrorism, opium, crime, or rogue guides. But I digresss
As we intrepidly cross the street, we notice that a man has joined us. He’s well dressed, wearing some pretty new looking Levi’s, sort-of-real-looking RayBans, and a non-threatening blue pullover. He’s sporting a pretty well-trimmed mustache. Other than the fact that people who are not Tom Selleck with staches can be scary at times, he seems pretty harmless.
It was a particularly harrowing crossing-of-the-street, and the man looks back at us, smiling, seeming to say with this gesture, “Wow, that was a particularly harrowing crossing-of-the-street, huh? Even I as a local Moroccan would agree with you Americans on saying this, if you were to say it out loud!” Of course, owing to his gold-rimmed RayBan-accessorized slickness, he did not say this exactly, but rather said something to that effect but with many fewer syllables. To use Spanish grammatical constructions, that thing has caused me to forget it at this point. It’s not my fault. Third-person singular, impersonal se, ya’ll.
However, this guy does say something quite strange to us, and this is precisely where red flags should have gone up in all of our heads.
“Hey, don’t you guys remember me from the hotel this morning?”
No, dude, we do not remember you from the hotel this morning. At least, we are pretty sure we don’t. Although we should be concerned at this point, more than anything, I think we’re just confused.
So we keep walking a little bit, and this RayBanned dude is walking a little bit ahead of us, safely not part of our group. However, after about thirty meters, he stops, waits up for us, and points to a large building across the street.
“That is the nicest hotel in Africa right there.”
Uh, sweet.
“Yeah, Winston Churchill stayed there, and Sarkozy, whenever he’s in Marrakech,” he says as he scans are not-that-impressed-but-just-confused faces, “that’s the only place he stay.”
“You should stay there sometime if you get a chance.”
So at this point, we think this guy must work for the hotel. We think we’re all in tune with the locals now, understanding what they’re thinking, seeing the other sides to their games. We’ve got ‘em figured out, this guy is totally trying to get us –
The guy keeps walking ahead of us, acting like he doesn’t care at all whether we follow him or not. And that right there, my friends, was the kernel of his genius. The nonchalance, the lackadaisical gait, the aura that he gave off, that he had better things to do than to hang out with us. But the thing is, that we should have noticed right away, is that he kept stopping to conveniently point things out to us, give us nice historical tidbits. The problem was, he adroitly skirted the line between “I don’t really care, I’m just a nice guy” and “tour guide”. He had us hook-in-mouth from the beginning I think, and I think he knew it.
            After about seven minutes of off-and-on walking towards the medina with this shadow-character, this short-of-stature but tall-of-poise man, we make the fatal mistake of letting him know we’re hungry, somehow, I forget either directly or indirectly.
            “I will take you to the finest restaurant in Djemma el-Fna. Riad Omar”
            Shit, now we’re stuck with him.
            He continues on, “You see, most tourists go to the stands in the square, they get sick, they don’t like it, they don’t know what they are doing.” (He spoke in these chopped sentence fragments. That was pretty awesome, actually. For a linguistics nerd like me at least.)
            So “Mustafa”, as we soon learn he calls himself, oh-so beneficently guides us through the libertine madness of Djemma el-Fna to a relatively hole-in-the-wall establishment on a smaller side street. The door to “Riad Omar” is non-descript and is a place no tourist would ever select without prior knowledge of its existence. Or, of course, someone leading them towards it specifically. Despite all of these signs being presented to us of what was happening, we continue on, ascending the stairs to the restaurant. Mustafa presents us to the waiter and said, “Here, he will take care of you. And oh, if you want, I’ll come back after you all have finished desert and I can show you around a little bit more.”
            Uhhh. We all look at each other. What do we say here? Do we tell him “Hey, no thanks, we’re good. We don’t need any more help!”
            Nope, we sort-of nod our heads and assent.
            Mustafa smiles and says, “OK, great. I’ll be back in a little bit to get you. Enjoy your meal!”
            Shiiiiit. We are terrible at this! However, the food is really, really good. I would safely say that it is one of the best meals I have ever head. Cous-cous, veggies, and young-n-tender-just-how-I-like-it lamb. Mmmm.

Plus, the restaurant is on the roof of the building and we can see all around Marrakech, all the way to the Atlas mountains standing sentry over the city to the west.

So we eat and enjoy the view and we talk about how maybe, just maybe, Mustafa is in fact legitimate, and just wants to show us around. Interestingly though, like clockwork, as soon as we finish our meal - as if he were called from the heavens - Mustafa shows up on the roof of the restaurant, all smiles. "My friends, did you like the food?"

Almost done. One more part coming up.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Le Maroc, pt. Deux - Encroaching Horses and Prickly Pears

            We walked around Tangiers for a long, long time. With heavy backpacks on. I think I mentioned that already. We had long since exited the tourist-y part of town and the only European/non-Moroccan looking people we had seen in a long time looked more like professional expatriates than wayward Swedish backpackers (of which there had been many only some minutes before). 

Needless to say, we four pasty, ingenuous looking yanquís did not exactly blend in seamlessly with the locals, what with North Face backpacks threatening to break our clavicles and brochure-sized maps dangling constantly in front of our faces.
No, we did not give off the vibe neither of wayward Berbers nor wandering Bedouins, but like a bunch of lost Americans saying “fuck” a lot. There was some mild debate about how to get back to the train station from wherever “here” was, and so naturally there were also a lot of crackpot theories being thrown around about how to tell the cardinal directions by looking at the sky. I was the propagator of several different, at times conflicting, theories, based on things I had “read on the internet”.

            Finally, after many a Moroccan child had yelled “¡Hola!” or “Bonjour!” at us from many a weathered-looking playground – they’re used to seeing a lot more Spanish and French people around than estadounidenses – we again found the Mediterranean Sea. Once seeing the beach and the dying light of the day, there was a resounding collective “Screw it” thought and subsequently exasperated by our traveling party. Then we made the strategic decision to sit on the beach for an indeterminate period of time.
            Once on the beach, a princely looking character riding a horse decided it would be funny to keep circling us, missing us by a few feet every time. He looked more like a young British earl returning from a foxhunt than someone you would see on the beach in Northern Morocco. We then dug a few holes in the sand to leave behind so as to perhaps make him reconsider circling future backpackers on his grand steed.

            After a few hours of intermittent silence and pseudo-profound philosophical posturing about “the Earth, bro, and like, the sky” (and no we did not buy any hash from the ubiquitous “good deal for you my friends” who proffered it to us everywhere), we decided to try to find a grocery store so we could pack some vittles for the upcoming overnight train ride, which we still had several hours to wait for. We did not find a supermarket but instead a pretty sketchy part of town where a lot of unintelligible homeless folks asked us for money. I think. I think we also walked into a brothel. I don’t know who thought there was the possibility that they would be selling snack foods in there, but I can assure you that it was not me. From the outside, the building looked like a bordello, but I guess they come in all shapes and sizes.
            We ended up finding a strange-smelling market and I bought some insanely addictive pita chips, which we all still have a craving for to this day. They must contain some kind of garlic-based opioid. I wish I had taken a picture of the bag. Maybe they didn’t even really exist…maybe these pita chips were just in our imagination…
            Finally, we again uttered a collective exasperated sigh of “screw this” as we had now been officially killing time for the past seven hours waiting for our goddamn train. We went to the goddamn train station to continue waiting for the goddamn train, but at least a little closer to the goddamn place from whence it was to leave. After being mesmerized by the Arabic-LED “Arrivals / Departures” board for an hour or so, we were granted access to our lovely sleeping quarters on the train. Though by no means the sketchiest place I have ever slept (that story is for another blog!), our train compartment would not have shown up in the Lonely Planet guide as a suggested lodging choice for those who make more than $15,000 a year. It reminded me of Boy Scout camp, complete with vinyl covered “mattresses” and bunkbeds, but it was cozy and awesome in its own kind of way. I actually really liked it a lot and I slept like a log, albeit one cramped into a too-small bed (and I was the shortest person between the four of us) that was about as soft as an exercise mat at a gym.

            The light creeping in past the tattered curtain on the window woke me up at about 6 AM. I pulled the blinds back a tiny bit to take a look out at the Moroccan countryside without waking up my comrades. It was a beautiful sight – the desert sand was an ochre-red, and bathed in the dawn light it looked like Martian landscape; unearthly. Every couple miles or so, there were small towns ringed by what looked like goat and sheep farms whose exterior fencing consisted of purposefully arranged rows of Prickly pear cactus to keep their ruminant subjects confined. 

Also, every little town was clustered around an immaculate central mosque. In fact, it reminded me a lot of the small towns I saw in the countryside in Mexico. There, the church was always the most cared-for and important-looking building. However, here in North Africa, those churches were simply replaced with mosques. I think, though, that these societies have more in common than their far-flung distances would suggest. More than just cacti and the pious faithful.
            At about 7:45 AM we arrived in Marrakech. I could already tell that this was a nicer place than Tangiers, at least in terms of what they wanted outsiders to see. Even the train station, complete with Moroccan KFC, was immaculate and beautiful.    

We took a cab to our hotel, and our cab driver was strangely friendly, as opposed to the ubiquitous grumpiness we encountered in Tangiers. However, this was to be a portent of soon-to-unfold events in Marrakech. 

As an unfortunately general rule, we discovered that, at least in during our stay in Morocco, when someone is overly friendly, they are usually trying to get something from you. That something is usually money, but sometimes it seems to be something more sinister.

To be continued.   


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Le Maroc

            I tried a few times to write something profound about Morocco, but I ended up shelving everything I wrote. It was too complicated, too convoluted; I tried too hard to make a point. There was flowery language describing non-flowery things, there were myriad lamentations of sociological phenomena and philosophical problems that I felt like we were encountering. However, a couple good friends of mine gave me some advice that I can more or less paraphrase in the following words:
            “Dude, I think you’re taking your blog too seriously.”
            Dude, they’re totally right.

           Now, I don’t want to do a disservice to Spain’s nearest African neighbor and say too little about the country, but I’m going to do the best I can to do Morocco justice in fewer words than Absalom, Absalom!


            Morocco is a place of contrasts. First of all, the flight from Madrid to Tangiers (“Tánger” – “tahn-herr”, with a nice, guttual ‘h’ thrown in there for full Spanish effect) takes only one hour, but as far as I know, I’m not aware of another flight that short that will take you somewhere so different.

            One huge difference is that there was Arabic writing everywhere. I know this sounds obvious being that Morocco is an Arabic speaking country, but I have never been to a country that does not use the Latin alphabet before, so to see words that contain characters that looking more like drawings than letters is very shocking at first, and becomes somewhat entrancing later on. I think the Arabic script is one of the most beautiful looking typesets on the planet and to see it everywhere, especially when it’s been written as graffiti on dusty car windows, or scratched into the side of a building with a stick, or carved by mischievous waifs into drying concrete, it adds a level of humanity that’s often missing in Western portrayals of the language.

“Oh yeah, it’s just a bunch of somewhat arbitrary symbols used by other human beings just like me, and it just happens to congeal together and mean stuff like ‘Wash me’ or ‘Real Madrid sucks balls’, just like we write in English!”

Again, obvious as it may sound, it’s something I didn’t really think about much until I was in Tangiers, surrounded by Arabic everywhere. I think it really took the dirty car window to make me fully realize how alike we human beings truly are.
            Now, Morocco is not just a country that uses the Arabic alphabet, but it’s also a Muslim country, and so it was also the first time I had ever been to a country where Jesus-ians did not predominate. Although Morocco is a “liberal” Muslim country in comparison with some of its fanatical neighbors, it is still a much more conservative, pious society than any I have ever experienced in my life. Five times every single day – beginning at 5 AM, to the chagrin of would-be lazyheads everywhere – a member of the clergy called a muezzin chants the Islamic call to prayer from the minarets of every mosque across in the Muslim world.

 It’s a fascinating and hauntingly beautiful phenomenon, and at risk of causing Edward Saïd to roll over in his grave, I think it’s one of the most “exotic” things I’ve ever experienced. That is to say, it caused me to have another one of those “Toto, I’m not in Valladolid anymore” moments.
I wanted to explore more of the religious buildings and institutions in Morocco, but alas, as a non-Muslim, the buildings I’m allowed access to are few and far between. However, I was able to see through the gates of a few of the Muslim cemeteries, and one of the things I noticed was an abundance of cats sunning themselves within.
            For those who don’t know, in Islam cats are seen in a favorable light due to the Prophet Muhammad’s own affinity for the furry felines, and unfortunately for us dog-folk, he was not down with the canines. Because of this, there are more than a few feral-but-well-fed-looking cats wandering around, and I’m guessing a lot of people give the poor bastards food. Specifically, several times when we were dining in the Moroccan aire libre, there were prowling kitties showing up ASAP after we had begun. 

And, like good tourists in a Muslim country, we paid alimentary alms to our feline hosts. Some of them, I must admit, were pretty goddamn cute, and their wiles were exceedingly difficult to resist and if I’m dropping the “c”-word, you know I’m not joking.
            So it was perhaps due to this VIP treatment in Moroccan society that the cats were so profligate everywhere we went, and it was especially interesting their residence in the aforementioned cemetery. I won’t lie, it was somewhat surreal to see an orange tabby sunning himself on a crumbling, granite tombstone, and one adorned with what looked like several paragraphs of Arabic calligraphy. It was a real contrast for me, a perfect mix of lo rutinario, the routine – the complete banality of a cat stretching out on a rock; and lo extraño, the strange or different – the afterlife of a culture that I don’t understand and probably never fully will.

Here's another example of that phenomenon:

More to come.

For another great interpretation, check out mi compañero Dave Palmer’s blog here.