December 21, 2010
This morning I looked out the window at 6:30 am and saw the beginnings of the full eclipse of the moon. Nan told me on the phone last night that they would see it on the west coast that evening depending on whether the skies were clear, and I might see it in the morning in the UK, but of course it would be light by then and probably not visible. I don’t even know what made me look out the window at 7:00 am – I’m never even up at that time normally. But there it was – and just beginning. I watched as the earth’s shadow passed in front of the moon, completely obliterating it. I’m a sucker for “signs” and this was one seemed overwhelmingly significant. The last time there was a total eclipse of the moon was the night Geoff died - May 4, 2004. I was leaving in just a few short hours for Morocco – going somewhere I had never been before. It was a comforting sign somehow – that it was taking place again for the first time in six years, and that I should happen to see it.
I got packed up and left the flat for the ten-minute walk to the train station, dragging my wheeling suitcase through packed snow. I was wondering if I’d get out of Norwich without catching a cold. Walking through the supermarket the day before, all I could hear was the sound of coughing and sneezing. It reminded me of what it must have been like during the plague (I don’t know why I obsess about that darn plague). I knew I was just feeling paranoid. But this morning, when I got on the train, there was a family of sneezing, snotty kids sitting in a group. I went as far as I could to the end of the carriage, thinking I was safe. But then, when we stopped at Colchester, more people got on board. A woman and a small boy of about seven sat down opposite me. A sweet blond-haired cherubic-looking boy. His mother phoned someone on her mobile and said it was a shame, but Jamie had a flu. What could she do? She had to bring him along, it’s Christmas after all. I put my sleeve against my nostrils and breathed through the fabric. Then a man asked if the seat opposite me was taken, and I said no, so he sat down. Someone called him on his mobile, and he said to the person on the other end, that yes, he was feeling much better, this first day out of bed in a week. If I escape this germ box without getting a cold before getting to Marrakesh, it’ll be a bloody miracle.
I distracted myself by looking out the window at the beautiful snowy scenes - Christmas card perfect. But I’m glad I’m heading for warmer, un-Christmassy climes.
Got off the train at Liverpool Street, then grabbed a man out of the crowd at the station and asked him to point me to the Farringdon underground train. “Through there, up the stairs to your left and you’ll see the platform – Metropolitan Line to Farringdon.” I don’t know why I can’t do what normal people do and get all this straight before I leave home. It’s available on the internet, so there’s no excuse. Anyway, as soon as the tube stopped at Farringdon, I got off, and not knowing which direction I was supposed to be going in, looked around and right in from of me was a sign saying “Trains to Gatwick.” There was one sitting at the platform, waiting for me, so I jumped on, and it left immediately. It was only then that I thought to check with my fellow passengers to confirm that this particular train was actually going to Gatwick. One nice man said he thought so, although he wasn’t sure, as he was going to Brighton. I checked the map on the wall (given all the other passengers were talking on their mobiles - or pretending to be). Sure enough – this train was going to Gatwick.
There was a two-hour delay leaving Gatwick for Marrakesh. Once aboard though, it was only a three-hour flight and the pilot came on with the cheerful news that we were flying over Casablanca.
Arriving in Marrakesh at 10:30 pm, I looked around for Nancy’s friend “Ali,” checking all the men holding up signs with names on them. None of them said “Phillips.” Thank god I had his card. A nice young woman saw me circling around and asked if she could help. I showed her Ali’s business card and told her that’s where I needed to go, so she took me outside where there were taxis waiting and asked one of the men how much it would cost to take me into the Medina. He said 200 dirhams (20 Euros), and she said that’s too much, but he wouldn’t budge.
So I got into this dusty old Renault with its prayer rug on the dash and we sped into town. We got to the top of a narrow lane and the driver abruptly stopped, got out and took my bag out of the trunk. He then gestured for me to get out. There were a few men lounging around the dark lane and I started to feel a little nervous at this point – it was almost midnight. Another young man with a cart came forward and the taxi driver put my bag in the cart. I asked where we were going and the taxi driver somehow got the point across to me that the young man was going to take me the rest of the way to the riad by cart. So we headed off down the narrow lanes, deeper into the souk. After about ten minutes we came to a door, and the fellow indicated the address to me, which matched the address on the card. A brass knocker hung on the door and I rapped it a few times, but there was no answer. Now I really was starting to get worried. Where would I go from here and how would I make myself understood? I rapped again, harder this time, and shouted “Ali”! Finally there were footsteps inside and a wide-eyed young man answer the door, looking like he’d just woken up. I explained that Ali was supposed to have met me at the airport but didn’t turn up. The man, Khalid, as he introduced himself, said that Ali was in England and that he, Khalid, and his friend were staying in a room upstairs. If I wanted to come in, he would call the man who was looking after the riad for Ali. This was a huge relief. I didn’t know how much to pay the cart boy, so Khalid said to give him 50 dirhams ($5). He wasn’t happy about it. I tried to explain that I was sorry, but I didn’t yet understand the money and I didn’t have any change, which wasn’t a lie. He left, and Khalid led me into the riad, which was rather nice, but seemed a bit neglected. The potted orange trees in the tiled inner courtyard were dried out and faded. Khalid phoned the man who was looking after things – Kamal – who spoke with me and said not to worry, I could go and pick a room and he would arrive in about half an hour. He was good to his word and arrived shortly later, a clean-cut young man in his thirties. By this time, Khalid and his Spanish friend, a woman in her late 40s, bleached hair and rather plump and slovenly, were sitting at the table. She was idly browsing through a book and Khalid was drinking beer. Kamal said he would make me some Moroccan tea. He was also preparing his hookha. I didn’t have a good feeling about Khalid and his friend, but felt safe with Kamal, who seemed genuinely honest and kind. He apologized that Ali had let me down and said it wasn’t the first time he’d screwed up. A couple of months earlier he neglected to collect a French woman as originally planned, and left her in a tight spot too – at the Marrakesh Airport with no real idea of where she was going.
The tea was delicious – sweet and minty – and I realized I was hungry as well. It was now well after midnight and I hadn’t had anything since breakfast except for a G&T and some pretzels on the plane. I asked Kamal if it was possible to get something to eat and he said he hadn’t eaten either and would take me into the market to find something. It was another hour before we headed out through the alleys, back to the souk, past groups of turbaned men in shadowy corners. We found a small hole-in-the-wall place that served food – there were men eating what looked like chicken and vegetables and I thought I’d have that, but thought it might be too much food for the late hour. Kamal ordered a plate of sliced cake for himself and asked me what I wanted. I said I wasn’t sure, so he went ahead and ordered something, speaking Arabic to the owner. In a few minutes we had two large mugs of something pale green and frothy put in front of us. I asked Kamal what it was and he said avocado. I said is that all, and he said just avocado and sugar. I was about to take a sip when he added…and milk. I said I was sorry but I couldn’t have milk and he looked like he felt bad about it and asked if I’d like some orange juice. So that’s what I had for dinner that night – freshly squeezed orange juice. Kamal managed to finish off both jugs of avocado shake and we headed off back into the souk to the riad.
Once there, Kamal started to talk and he went on and on, about his problems with Ali and the business arrangement that wasn’t working. I looked at my watch – it was 3:00 am. I told him I needed to get some sleep because the bus left for Dar Sidi Bounou at 11: 45 am. He said that I should call him at around 9:00 am. He had taken a room on the main floor. I slept badly, not sure about the couple in the room next to me and not entirely sure about Kamal. I must have drifted off at one point because I dreamt there was a goat in my room. He had been at the door and then slipped past me and was in the corner. I shooed him out and he went quite happily, which I thought was a good omen. It wasn’t a scary dream – just amusing and lighthearted. I felt like I was being told to relax, that all would be well.
At 8:30 am, I got up, sort of washed, although there were no towels or face cloths, just a towel hanging on the door which I thought others had used. I went downstairs and there was a young woman preparing breakfast – a kind of fried flour tortilla served with jam. It was delicious, especially given I hadn’t had much to eat for twenty-four hours. The woman brought me coffee, and Kamal appeared with fresh orange juice he had just bought for me in the market. I then asked him about getting to the bus station for the ride to Dar Sidi Bounou, and he said, “Do you like motorcycles?”
After I piled on with my bags and clung to his jacket for dear life, we headed off through the narrow alleys, whipping past donkeys pulling carts and people making their way to the market. It was wild to say the least. We dodged buses and taxis and passed other motorbikes with only centimeters to spare. Kamal yelled out and asked me if I was okay and I yelled back I thought so. He laughed and yelled are you spiritual and I yelled back yes. And he said good, but not to worry because he’d had only one accident in this whole life. I yelled when, and he yelled last year, and I asked him if it was bad and he said no it only hurt a little bit. Kamal, to his word, got me to the bus station in plenty of time for the 11:45 am bus, which left at 12:30.
The bus ride is one I wouldn’t want to repeat if I don’t have to. Of the ten-hour ride, a minimum of eights hours were extremely winding. The man next to me threw up in a clear plastic bag, and the man across the aisle also threw up but without the benefit of a bag. I was trapped in my seat and just kept my eyes focussed on the horizon out the window, breathing into my scarf.
After a few hours, the bus stopped outside a small café and everyone piled off. It seemed like a good opportunity to go to the loo and eat something, so I ordered the tagine, which came to me hot and delicious. A small stew in a pot that looked like it had cooked a million small stews, its blackened sides and bottom I avoided scraping. It was served with the typical Moroccan bread. I wasn’t offered anything to drink, but had a bottle of water in my bag on the bus, so satisfied myself with just the food. There were other passengers eating as well, some with small children, and everyone seemed happy to have a break from winding road. After half an hour we all piled back on and resumed the torturous journey.
It was after 10:00 pm before the bus finally stopped outside Dar Sidi Bounou. A man came aboard who I knew immediately to be Daoud. A sincerely charming, handsome man of forty with dreadlocks and a wool touque. I understood why Nancy has thrown up most Western ways to be here in the desert with her young man. The couple in front of me on the bus were also welcomed by Daoud - Aysha and Tim from the UK, both thirty-five years old and delightful intrepid travellers. We stepped off the bus into the warm Moroccan desert, under a canopy of bright stars, and headed down the driveway to Nancy and hot mint tea.
It’s hard to believe I've been here a week now. The days have blended together. We’ve been without internet almost the whole time due to the sandstorm that hit just the day before I arrived. There was sand everywhere. I had to shake out all the blankets on the bed in my hut. But somehow it doesn’t matter. Yesterday the washing machine broke, so today I washed my clothes by hand in the shower. The people are incredibly sweet and kind. When I was spotted carrying the basket of wet clothes on my way to the clothesline, it was immediately whipped out of my hand and carried for me. The cook is a large soulful woman called Rakia who greets me each morning with a smothering hug and firm kiss on each cheek. Her smile fills her whole face. They have nothing, and yet they have everything.
I’m usually up by 9:00 am and head over to the open-air dining area where fresh orange juice, coffee, fruit and a Moroccan crepe are served. Then, a long chat with Nancy (with me making discrete notes so I can remember what she’s said when I come to write my dissertation about her this summer). After that I meander back to my hut and grab what I need to take to the shower. Lunch time follows soon after and then a walk down the long straight road towards the dunes. We walk past the camel stables on the side of the road, which is a lovely sight – the wonderful desert beasts all lined up at the feeding trough eating fresh hay, so much like llamas. And there is always a donkey pulling a cart going down the road. I’ve felt a familiarity with this place since I got here, and realized this morning what it is. It reminds me of the farm at Keats in the summers during our heydays there. People, music, great food, the animals – it really was my favourite time during the past fifteen years – that and being on the boat. A relaxed, simple rhythm that marks the beat of your day. As I write this I hear a donkey braying somewhere out on the dunes. There are dogs too – Cambo, George, and Dick – wild, desert dogs who are so very affectionate and come in for a bit of food and some petting, then head off again into the desert. I woke up at around 2:00 in the morning to hear one of them howling like a wolf. There are cats too – a bit shy and skittish, but they come and hang out by the kitchen door after dinner and enjoy leftovers.
At around 6:00 pm, Nancy looks at me and says, “Isn’t it that time again,” meaning G&T time. I brought a bottle with me from the duty free shop at Gatwick and it’s now almost half gone, a week later. It’s the only alcohol I’ve had since I got here – one weak G&T before dinner. It’s just right though. Then out comes the freshly baked Moroccan bread and hot, mostly vegetable and pasta and lentil soup. Following this we have a tagine of meat and vegetables, then oranges and dates to finish up. Rich Moroccan coffee is also served, but I opt for the lemon verbena tea (which they call Louisa), a better option if I want to get a good sleep.
Tonight it was cold, so the boys built a fire on the dunes and we all sat around listening to their drumming and singing. Cambo the desert dog joined us and seemed happy for the warmth of the fire and the people. I retired to my cozy hut and piled on the blankets to fend against the chill air. At least I’m not in the UK with all the snow, but I do wish it would warm up a bit.