The International Writers Magazine

Andres Mariani
Journey to Africa's Gate

e finally crossed the Mediterranean Sea in a half hour trip from Algeciras, Spain to Ceuta, Spanish territory strategically situated north of Morocco. The border was the first contact with this different world that we were about to explore, so different and just from a few hours to the one we where used to hike and travel in our beloved old continent.


We arrived ´bout nine in the morning. 'We' were three friends that met in Dublin working in a traditional Irish pub. Only one, Nacho, had a valid driving license so he was the one behind the steering wheel during the entire trip. We gave our passports and papers to the Moroccan police, they stamped them and gave us a free entry visa for three months. The border was the first glimpse of what we were about to see during the eight days we spent in Morocco. Rows of women wearing long dresses and black veils covering part of their faces, carried heavy baskets full of lambs wool over their heads. Men wearing long and heavy hooded tunics walking quietly behind loaded mules following the way which non friendly faced policemen ordered them to go. Little kids were running and playing soccer with a torn ball, some of them begging along the cars on the way out of the border.

When we finally crossed the border; a loud silence joined us while we were looking wide eyed from the window. Nacho was driving carefully and once in a while turned back to Agustin or me saying: 'Look man!'.
The city of Tetouan was on the way to our first town scheduled, Chefchauen. We didn’t know where the exit was to grab the national road that would lead us to Chauen, so we asked for directions from a really nice guy in a motor bike, who cheered for Spain and Madrid when he saw us, we guessed that he saw Nacho’s car plates.  He told us to follow him, which we naively did. We hadn't been warned that people might take advantage, we asked him several times to take us to the road but instead he made us a city tour and finally left us where we met him twenty minutes before. Of course he asked us for some money for the service provided and after fighting for a couple of minutes we gave him two euros and left him behind swearing at us. From that moment onwards we decided to ask the police for directions and finally found the road that took us to Chauen.
The journey took us into the heart of the Riff Mountains, the road was twisty and in bad condition. Paul McCartney's acid interpretation in 'You never give me your money' from Abbey Road sounded from the CD player, whilst we encountered people running beside the road waving their hands offering us big packets of what we later found out from a local guy was hashish, a common thing to do in that region.

We finally arrived in Chauen, a little white town washed with the sweet sun of the Mediterranean. Every town and city in Morocco is divided in two parts: the ville nouvelle or new city, and the ancient medina where you find the real Morocco, a maze of little and noisy streets, houses, shops or souqs, street sellers and mosques, all surrounded by fortress walls with entrance arches generally located in the four corners of the medina.

We found a very cheap hotel in the ville nouvelle, left our backpacks in the room and wondered down to the medina. When we entered the medina a completely new world appeared before our eyes. People stared at us with such intensity we felt like we were people running away from a mental institution. I gotta tell you that we never felt that watched before, we were starting to wonder when they last saw foreign people.  

Chauen´s medina is small and quiet, houses and stairs are dyed with soft blues and cream colours giving a sensation of coolness and cleanliness. You just have to let go of everything else and get lost in the hundred of tiny narrow streets, trying no to bump on beggars sitting on the floor and street dealers offering you hash or marijuana. You have to answer politely but firmly and they won't bother you any more. If you pass by any house-shop you will get the inevitable offer of visiting: 'Please feel free to look around and touch, there is no need to buy, try it!'

The real thing is that you feel terrible entering their houses and not buying anything at all, all quality products and everything so beautifully on display. They even offer you tea or coffee. But you always end up feeling guilty because you wasted his time. During the next days we began to understand that it was all part of the game, so we relaxed and enjoyed.

We decided to stop to have a mint tea in a typical coffee place, where woman are not allow to enter, when something incredible happened. For the first time, we heard the chants to call the people to prayer, coming from the speakers from one of the many mosques. It felt like time stopped and we were special guests in an Indiana Jones movie. The first stage in this amazing trip was as good as it gets. We went to sleep and woke up early the next morning to go to our next stop.
Nacho drove the two hundred or so kilometres between Chauen and Fez while Agustin and I quietly looked from the window trying to memorise everything that happened the first day. When we finally arrived at Fez, we found our hotel Hotel Amor, after asking several people for directions with Agustin's best french: l´Hotel Amour?. Morocco has two official languages, Arabic and French, however Spanish and English are widely spoken due to the increase in tourism.

Founded in the 8th century, Fez has been eclipsed by the big cities from the west: the official capital Rabat, and Casablanca and Marrakesh, tourist capitals. However no visit to the country is complete without seeing Fez. The medina is perhaps the most difficult to navigate due to the almost nine thousand streets and half a million residents. It makes sense to hire an official guide to show you the inside. Everything we expected from this trip when we were planning it in Dublin we found right there in Fez.

It was absolute chaos, from the sensation of being touched all the time by hurried pedestrians, to the traffic mules carrying heavy loads on their back struggling not to lose equilibrium while climbing steep streets, street sellers offering spices in big baskets over the floor, tourist groups trying to stay together, bazaar souqs selling huge varieties of meat. The medina itself is divided into quarters, in every quarter you find a mosque, a water fountain and a mud oven for bread. Sweet smells coming from these bakeries and for only ten dirham (one euro) you can eat a very tasty crepe. Our unofficial guide, Ahmed, led us to the main sights of the medina. He showed us a beautiful Koranic school in the Andaluz quarter, a couple of hammanes or baths, where women shower in the morning and men shower in the afternoons. We had lunch in a really cosy restaurant, gathering strength for the last part of the day. Shopping, is sometimes a great and sometimes an annoying experience in Morocco. Bargaining is an accepted was of life. The initial price will be extraordinary high, so you'll have to counter-offer with a really low price. The salesman will be angry and even try to make you feel bad, saying things such as 'I have to feed my family, this is excellent quality, hand made stuff, etc., etc'... But it's all part of the game, so don't fall for that and stick to your offer. He'll ask you if your offer is the final one, say yes until he gets tired and sees that you are not changing the offer. It could help if you pretend to leave the shop and enter in another one, but he may grab you and throw you inside to finish the deal. We were now nearly at the end of our trip to Fez, so we made our deals and thanked Ahmed for the wonderful tour and went to the hotel to sleep. A long journey on the road waited for us.
Nacho's brother, who had visited Morocco on several occasions told us that the Cascades d'Ozoud were a must. This oasis is located in the heart of the Atlas Mountains, running across the entire country, with a high peak of over four thousand metres. The road that led us to the Cascades was beautiful, with big views over olive fields, a natural lake surrounded by snow and small villages spread out over the coloured hills. Since we took longer than we expected to get there we decided to spend the night in Azilal, a red-brick coloured lost village in the middle of the Atlas. We spent the night in a gorgeous hotel where we had the best dinner of the trip, the hospitality was superb. We left early the next morning and arrived by noon at the Cascades. We hired a guide because we wanted to go down the waterfall to see where it flowed. We never dreamt of seeing these landscapes in Morocco, we thought that everything was arid and deserted. However the waterfall formed way up in the top of the canyon, three streams flowed in a tiny lake in a second level which finally flowed in an enormous and unique stream forming a deep and vast crystal lake.
With the end in sight, we were on our way to Marrakesh and Casablanca. We left the Cascades and took the national road to Marrakesh. After arriving in the afternoon, we found a great hotel with a balcony looking at the Djema'a al -Fna, the main square of the medina. This is the famous square where you can walk between musicians, people listening to storytellers, box fights between boys and girls, snake charmers, acrobats and mystics; it bursts with the noise of motor bikes, people offering their wares, kids running from the dangerous cobras. When the sun goes over the horizon the whole square converts into a big fast food restaurant, with dozens of different stands offering any Moroccan dish you can imagine. We spent three days there, just relaxing and wondering around the medina. We drank tea enjoying the sun and breathtaking views that terraces offered us.
We said goodbye to Marrakesh, promising to come back again in the future and took the ferry to Casablanca. We wanted to see one of the two mosques that tourists are allowed to enter. After the three hour journey we arrived in the city. Flashbacks from the famous movie came to my mind and unfortunately we couldn't find Rick's Café. To be honest only Agustin entered the Mosque, but Nacho and I waited for him outside laying on the grass. Back at home we watched everything on Agustin´s video camera. It looked like the Basilica of San Pietro of Mosques, everything so boastful and wealthy, built with brilliant mastery, particularly on tiny details.
We spent the last night in Kenitra, a town near the frontier. We drank some beers in the hotel celebrating the end of the trip. Morocco is the most moving place I've ever visited; the places we visited and the views we saw will stay with me forever. Being on the road is a lifestyle waiting for you, it's just there, within hand's reach. All you need a backpack and the will.

© Andres Mariani
November 2005

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