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Ian McLaren on the nightmare of budget travel in Morocco

I set off with Amarjit Srah, my friend and business colleague, on what proved to be the most traumatic and ill-fated adventure I have ever been on. Amarjit, a former A.T.C. cadet of mine, had not been abroad before and so this was something of a baptism by fire for him. As this was my fifth time in Morocco and having a good command of French, Arabic and Islamic ways, I expected the experience to be almost routine. However I was ill-prepared for the dramatic and unwelcome changes in Moroccan lifestyle, and the obstructionist establishment attitudes. One mistake made was not finding out what is legal and what is not. We took an Air-Band transceiver and a paraglider, both of which were seized on our arrival by car ferry in Tangier. The bolshy Senior Customs Officer also confiscated all my electronic product samples, and my tool-kit, but did at least allow me to import my meteorological sensors and displays so that I could monitor the weather.

As I did not pre-arrange a sponsor to meet me and vouch for me, it was illegal just to go there on a roving business trip. My nerves were in bad shape because of rough weather on the sea crossing and I had several bottles of lager to try and relax. The customs officer, smelt this on my breath on arrival and in a self-righteous way castigated me for drinking alcohol whilst proclaiming Islam. I told him, ³I will account for my sins and you will account for yours².

We were detained by Customs for so long that the coach driver left without us. Fortunately I had only left my raincoat on the coach and not my video camera. We had to wait to get another coach arriving off a later ferry, arriving over-burdened and dis-spirited at the first hotel we found open in Meknes at 2.30 a.m. on the morning of March 28th. I mentioned we were over-burdened ; even without the paraglider and all my electronic equipment we still took far too much. After two nights at the first and most expensive hotel, we searched for somewhere of better value.

Although allegedly a Muslim state, Morocco still celebrated Easter as a public holiday and we couldn¹t get any further South by coach to the desert where we wanted to go, as all long distance coaches were fully booked. I was searching for Fathima. I asked a young, well educated man at the Mosque in the New Sector, if he knew of a family Tourabee, whose father was an Imam in that area. He said he did, but later investigation revealed that the name Tourabee is as common in Meknes as Jones is in Wales. However I eventually traced Fathima after three days by working through a local telephone directory and got a taxi out to meet her in her house in a suburb of Meknes.

Apparently she had waited two years for me to return and then married a Moroccan and now had a 13 year old daughter. All the rest of the family had emigrated to Canada three years earlier, so Allal, who had the electronic business, was no longer there to partner me in my proposed business venture. I had wanted to establish an electronic manufacturing business in Meknes making good use of the cheap labour rates there and the comparatively low cost of living. I could pay a good living wage to ten workers there for the price of one in the U.K. It made good commercial sense. However the beaurocracy made it virtually impossible without a Moroccan business partner, which I didn¹t have. I needed someone who was bright, with a good business brain, fluent in Arabic, French and English, written as well as spoken, and who had an in depth familiarity with Moroccan business law. So after about five days we abandoned the business side and just treated it as a holiday.

We had hoped to do paragliding from the Middle Atlas Mountains, which rise to 8,500 ft., but the Tangier customs officer had scuppered that idea. The only way out was by train to the North, as there was a major international conference taking place in Marrakech and the place was swarming with media, and not a bed to be had for miles around. The train service like the rest of the public transport system, is VERY efficient in Morocco as also is their international telephone system, which was to prove something of a lifeline later in the trip, due to another major error of judgement on our part - not having a return ticket.

On one day trip from Meknes, we got a rather battered Mercedes-Benz taxi to the ancient Roman site of Volubilis, about 40 miles to the North. It is about two miles from Moulay-Idris, named after the man who established there the first mosque in Morocco and the town bears his name. The entrance is guarded by a substantial oak beam, so worshippers need to stoop to enter the mosque as a token of humility. As is common in the Middle East and Asian mainland such as Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, the mosques are maintained to exquisite standards The ladies Prayer Room, Moulay Idris mosque whilst the houses are crumbling shacks. On arrival in Moulay Idris, a rather scruffy and objectionable peasant latched on to us and after our trip was over he organised our return to Meknes, for a fee, in an unroadworthy, unlicensed, pick-up truck. The driver, his friend, or should I say, partner-in-crime, was not licensed or insured to operate a taxi service, but yet the guide whom we had not recruited, demanded not only the same taxi fare as the licensed Mercedes-Benz (200 Dh), but also an additional 200 Dh (£14), for his unsolicited services as a guide and downright pest!

I refused and threatened to take him to the Police so he went off in a huff, presumably to rip off some other tourist the following day. Many pleasant days were spent in the warm sunshine and virtually cloudless skies, even though it was still their winter. We then decided to head North by train, to Tangier and soon experienced cold, wet and windy weather. On arrival we struggled with our excessive baggage inland from the main promenade area where the expensive hotels are to be found, and headed towards the medina looking for a cheaper hotel. In fact the Hotel Mamoura where we were to spend the remainder of our time in Morocco is in a narrow alleyway up a steep hill and many flights of steps, near the Grand Juma Mosque.

Photo by Tore Kjeilen/LexicOrient. Used with kind permission from Adventures of Morocco

It had the highest standards of furnishing of any hotel we stopped in, and was also, by the time of our departure, the cheapest. We stopped in a double room with two single beds, with en-suite shower, wash basin and bidet. For the last few days of our trip we had negotiated the cost down to only 70 Dh. between us (about £2.50p. per person).

As can be expected in a tourist area, the vultures are there to be of service when trains, boats, planes and coaches arrive, eager to carry our bags, which WAS welcome, but the cost was about twice that of a taxi, door to door, station forecourt to hotel! There then followed much argument and ill feeling when we sent them on their way with half what they asked for. Although we met them again later during our stay, still wheeling and dealing, they bore us no animosity and indeed were quite friendly. There are a lot of people in Tangier looking to buy foreign currency and offering much better rates of exchange than the banks. Indeed I was able to trade in Spanish Pesetas, Saudi Riyals and Greek Drachmas, although I couldn¹t even GIVE AWAY my Egyptian Piastres. Even the beggars are choosers there!

Both in Meknes and in Tangier we quickly made friends and soon found a good quality restaurant offering excellent value for money, and we gave them most of our business. A huge bowl of Moroccan soup with French bread loaf, the soup having the consistency and nourishment of Scotch Broth, was 3 Dh (21p). A mushroom and cheese omelette with chips and garden peas was only 14 Dh (£1). On our second day there disaster struck again. I¹m sure Tangier is jinxed. We were lying sunbathing on the beach, after Amarjit had been on a camel ride. As we couldn¹t get South to the desert, he decided that a walk along the beach on a camel was as near as he would get on this trip. I filmed it creatively with my video camera, so that it was impossible to tell. Whilst soaking up the sun, two traders arrived, one carrying a black plastic bag, and they were offering wallets for sale. I declined, saying that I already had one. Whilst one was showing me the wallets, which I really didn¹t want, with me looking to my left and my jacket lying on the beach to my right, and hence out of sight, the other crook put his hand in, lifted the wallet and replaced the jacket to make it look undisturbed. At this, his pal, who was showing me the wallets, said, ³OK, not to worry, have a nice day², and I thought at the time that he hadn¹t really pestered us when we said that we didn¹t want to buy. We subsequently got up to go and on arrival at the bus station to book our return tickets, I suddenly noticed that my wallet was gone, and with it all our remaining cash, which was to get us back to the U.K. It also had the receipts for the goods confiscated by Customs, plus driving licence, donor card and lots of personal papers. We only had 300 Spanish Pesetas between us, which of course we were able to change back into Dhirams without trouble, but it did mean we were stranded and running up a hotel bill we could not afford to pay.

The following morning we went to the British Embassy but it was closed for Easter. So next day we went back and asked for repatriation, but apparently it is no longer British Government policy to help stranded travellers. The Consul had bullet-proof glass, electric locks, and even the lift needed staff to insert a coded card to get it to operate. The Consul told us we needed to have money deposited in a Foreign Office bank account in London and then they would pay us the equivalent in local currency, less £15 ³service² charge. So the Consul contacted the Foreign Office by fax, with instructions to phone my landlord and ask him to send £150 to facilitate our rescue. The £15 was to cover the fax and one telephone call, which must have come to all of £1. 50p. The Consul told us to return the following day to check on the progress and we did as requested, except that by that time we had insufficient money to buy any food, so the Consul gave us a sub of 100 Dh. from his own pocket to keep us going for a few days. In fact it was enough for about three days and then I had to change my Saudi and Greek currency to keep us going.

The following day my back muscles went into spasm and I was in unremitting intense pain for the next five days. My digestive system shut down and I was unable to urinate, defecate, eat, drink or sleep. Amarjit nursed me and wet my parched mouth with orange juice. The powerful pain killers I took were just lying in an empty stomach and so when, after five days my digestive system did come back on line, I immediately vomited as a reaction to what would have been an overdose. The only pain killer and muscle relaxant to take effect was some high quality cannabis resin obtained by Amarjit from one of the street traders, which I smoked in a pipe and had IMMEDIATE relief. This again made me mobile and I went for a slow walk, bought a walking stick and went to the Juma Mosque. I was again in pain but the following day, after another joint, I was totally healed and joined other worshippers in full prayers. After another sub from the Consul, the money came through, seven days after the theft, so we made plans for our return. The customs officer would not release my confiscated goods without the receipts which were in the stolen wallet, even though he recognised me. I had to get a declaration of theft certificate from the Police. I was shunted from one Police Station to another and charged 10 Dh. for a diabolical photocopy, and a further 10 Dh. for the paperwork itself. I gave my statement, first in French, and then had it translated into Arabic. It took two days of intensive walking to complete the documentation and another day before Customs could trace their paperwork.

I eventually recovered some of the goods in time to get a ferry out of that hell-hole, only to discover on our return to the U.K. that they had separated the air band transceiver and electronic samples from out of the toolbox and as of the time of writing I am still trying to recover them via the Trade Attache of the Moroccan Embassy in London. I had to sell my £1,200 video camera and professional tripod for £260 to pay off the hotel bill, as we only had enough money to get to Barcelona where we would need to repeat the procedure at the British Consul there. However in Barcelona things went much more efficiently and we had our money within 24 hours from my business partner. As it happened this only got us as far as London Victoria Coach Station where I had to make a reverse-charge phone call to two more friends to get us back as far as Birmingham City Centre. Then another call was needed around midnight with my last 10p, to get yet more money for a taxi to get us home. However more of that later.

The ferry crossing back to Algeciras, in Spain, was significantly rougher than the outbound leg and I couldn¹t afford any lager to calm my nerves. However the thought of returning to civilisation did help. On arrival at Algeciras we had about one mile to walk with heavy luggage to reach the railway station. The Spanish have a nasty habit of siting railway stations a great distance from ferry terminals or coach stations. The last train of the day was ready to depart but none of the staff told us our ticket, obtained from a travel agent in Tangier, was not valid for use on this particular express train, and therefore we had to pay 500 Ptas. each to validate it and get as far as was possible on that train. We then had a six hour wait in a bitterly cold waiting room, with no free water to drink, until the next train arrived, for which our ticket was valid. This got us as far as Valencia, where we had to change trains, but again we got on the wrong train, and when I refused to pay the surcharge the guard had us put off at a tiny station, in the middle of nowhere, to await the next train which we could use, and that was about eight hours later. We could only afford one banana between us as we were fast running out of money for food. As we pulled out of the station we saw the village was surrounded by orange groves, and we had gone hungry! Finally we arrived in Barcelona at about 11.30 pm with insufficient money to book into a camp site or buy food. At least in Tangier I could speak French and Arabic but with neither of us having any understanding of Spanish I was despairing, wondering if we would ever make it back to civilisation.

The weather was bitterly cold and windy, making sleeping very difficult. We thankfully found a lovely, generous girl at the tourist information desk who gave us a map, and directed us to the British Consul, and showed us some waste ground to camp on as all the parks were locked at night to stop dossers. It would have been bad for the image of the city which hosted the Olympic Games. She then risked her job for us by opening up two giant left-luggage lockers with a pass key and feeding them with tokens for the next two days. She also gave us 500 Ptas. each with which to buy food and get a metro ticket to save our weary legs, saying that we could repay her out of the money from the Consul. We then stashed most of our non-essential luggage in the free lockers and trudged wearily with one tent and cooking equipment and the last of our food, to the waste ground. It was a land-fill rubbish tip with hardened mud and rocks to lie on. We put up the lightweight frame tent and cooked rice with Soya mince and gravy at about 1 am. We did not enjoy the rather bland food, but we needed the energy. We did in fact manage to sleep until about 8 am, probably due to total exhaustion. The following morning we set off to find the Consul. It was raining overnight for the first time for months and we looked like tramps as we arrived at the Consul, which took several hours and many weary miles to find. Fortunately there are no hills of any significance in Barcelona, but being so fed up as we were it was a debilitating walk. The money was with us within 24 hours and we then phoned FREE from the Consul to check the availability of seats on the next coach leaving for the U.K. We established it to be midnight on the following day, and so we then made our way to the coach station with all our luggage and parked ourselves in a nearby railway station, which was equipped with perforated metal seats, seemingly designed to specifically discourage long term use, as the pattern of small holes was imprinted on your backside within a very short while. If anybody did go to sleep lying down, they were kicked off for a first offence and ordered to sit up or get out. A second offence of sleeping led to you being frog-marched off the station forecourt by armed Group-4 security guards. When the rail station closed down at around 12.30 am, all occupants were ordered out and moved to nearby cardboard-city, where they tried as best they could to sleep on concrete benches or on the stone cold ground, which was part of the coach station. We got NO sleep that night and Amarjit was propositioned by an off-duty male nurse, who spent his time and money trying to buy sexual favours in the early hours of the morning.

At least we both ate well for a change and had hot drinks and soup to offset the bitterly cold wind. On the coach coming back we had to beg from other passengers for food, hot drinks and cigarettes. The Spanish cafeteria near the border with France reluctantly took all my French money, about £5 worth, for a bowl of soup and a sandwich, which we shared between us. As we got off the ferry at Dover we tried to phone friends to get a lift from Victoria Coach Station, back to Birmingham, but no one was available. The coach driver got badly lost in London and had to be directed by a passenger. Again it was bitterly cold and we had less than 50p between us. Three reverse charge telephone calls later and we had a ticket, thanks to a lovely young lady we both knew. On arrival in Birmingham I had to spend my last 10p. on a telephone call to our friend, Philip Stones, who should have been joining us on our adventure. He arranged for us to collect £10 for the taxi fare and food on arrival at his flat. We got back to my home at around midnight to be given soup, butter beans, coffee and cigarettes by a Greek sailor, Denis, who was another tenant there. The following morning, after a brilliant night of sleep, I had to go to get food, sign-on again and the following day get a sub from Social Security just to keep body and soul together. Although I have bounced back from the ordeal, I¹m still paying off debts to people who rescued me and paying for a video camera and tripod I no longer have.

Press rewind and see how it should have been done.
1. Plan carefully for all contingencies. 2. Buy a RETURN ticket before setting out. 3. Buy travellers cheques rather than carrying large sums of cash. They are insured and can be replaced within 24 hours if stolen. 4. Take out comprehensive travel and health insurance to cover the whole trip, to include air-ambulance cover. Most other countries do not have a free health service, and even in Europe cover is limited. Often bills need to be paid there and then and reclaimed from DSS on your eventual return. 5. Obtain the booklet ³Health Advice for Travellers², from the Post Office. This contains a Form E-111, which needs to be completed and stamped by the Post Office, before your departure. The booklet details what is free and what is chargeable, in both European Union, and many other countries.

© Ian McLaren 2001

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