As we descend, the temperature rises again, but the trees and greenery don’t return; it’s still stony fields and tiny scrubs all around. I’m absolutely amazed by the sparseness of the landscape, the way the mountains turn into plains with zero vegetation, which turn into blue-purple mountains again on the horizon. I hadn’t expected this part of the country – so close to the green Atlas mountains – to feature exactly the kind of epic desert landscapes I had been dreaming about. Caravans coming from the other side of the Sahara, carrying gold, slaves, ivory and more, used a string of oasis towns in the Moroccan desert as stopovers, with each of these towns having several castles made with stones held together by a mixture of mud and straw (called kasbah or ksar), to protect the precious tradeware from bandits. Skoura was the last in this string of towns; here, the goods were transferred from camels to donkeys and taken across the Atlas mountains to the large cities near the coast.
I can’t turn around. I can’t move forward or sideways either, for that matter. The train’s seats are all occupied, and the pathway is too narrow; adults, children, suitcases, backpacks, and cardboard boxes full of tradeware are all jammed in there with no space to move; for a while, there’re even people hanging out the door. And that’s before the refreshments trolley has to come through! We make the most of it though, exchanging looks saying ‘lovely, isn’t it?’ with the wise old Moroccan who makes sure no one gets trampled, and having some small talk with the Indian-American tourist whose shoulder is wedged into my armpit. It seems a suitably chaotic way to travel to Marrakech!
Our first few minutes in Meknes are spent wedged into a tiny Isuzu minivan, probably from the early eighties. Bernhard, Lorena and Casey sit in the windowless back, while I’m next to the driver, whose XXL figure is comically oversized for a car like this. The chassis seems to have been repaired – poorly – several times, and I’m so far forward in the car that in case of an accident, I would probably be the main component of the crumple zone. All of this makes me even less enthusiastic about the driver’s preferred method of minimizing the time spent per ride: inventing extra lanes whenever there’re cars moving slower than he’d like, squeezing his sardine-can-on-wheels inbetween trucks and busses with admirable precision, too much speed and a whole lot of confidence in the bus and truck drivers.
Screw Fes. In fact, screw Morocco. I’m sick of the chaos, I’m sick of the heat (it’s 23 degrees here in Fes, while just two days ago I was walking in the snow), and most of all, I’m sick of the hustlers, none of whom are really my friend, even though that’s what each and every one of them uses to address me. The shopkeepers constantly trying to attract my attention and the restaurant people shoving menus in my face as I walk by can bugger off, too. Fes may be the cultural and spiritual capital of the country, but I can’t wait to get out of it.
On the first morning of my four-day trek in the Rif mountains, I meet up with my guide, Amin. He’s 40 years old and has been guiding tourists for the past 20 years (after deciding that smuggling cannabis to Spain was too risky). His father was a Berber from the mountains, while his mother is an Arab from Chefchaouen. He’s not married but, insha’Allah, he will be in a year’s time.
The morning of my departure from Tanger starts badly; on the toilet, for an hour and a half. Thankfully it turns out to be a case of agitated bowels not yet being used to the Moroccan cuisine, rather than a virus that would leave me toilet-bound for days on end. Once my bowels have calmed down, I walk to the port, where Lonely Planet claims there is a bus station for CTM, Morocco’s national bus company.
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The mad dash through Europe has hit me harder than I thought; the morning after my arrival in Tanger, I have a bit of a cold. This isn’t made much better by me staying in bed and not eating or drinking enough during the day, so by the end of the afternoon I decide to go out and exploren the Ville Nouvelle a bit. It’s full of Art Deco buildings with an Arabized twist in details such as doors or windowsills. It’s also full of people; during the day it’s busy, but in the evening it’s absolutely crowded. Seemingly all the young people of Tanger gather here to eat, shop, flirt, and generally enjoy the good life.