2011: Morocco, part 1
J. let’s go back to Morocco (meeting 1)
Our hall has always had this photo captioned with the eternal question: Are we going back? The question has acquired a life of its own even though after the first meeting with this country my impulse had been: not on your life, as in never again!
But first things first. Our first romantic trip with J. The offspring’s been abandoned to the alternate care of great-grandparents and grandparents, backpacks packed - we can go. And even fly.
The first backpacker's trip in our mutual history just the way we like it, i.e. return tickets scheduled in a rather twisted fashion from Poznań-> Paris Beauvais-> Nador and Tanger-> Paris Beauvais-> Poznań, and the rest remains to be seen. A vaguely outlined plan to carry out a four-day reconnaissance along the northern shoreline, but without any compulsion to tick off ’must see’ sights. Let’s whip it up as we go, and so we went.
The airport. A short hesitation about the jackets. Take it? It’s winter. Or leave it? It’s Africa. Leave it, it is. It’s bound to be warm! It was not. Jackets left in the car are marked as error number 1. A quick transfer to Beauvais, a short dip into French suburbia to kill some excess time.
The second leg with a surprise stopover in Spain (some heart problems on board), a development which, together with the initial delay somewhat complicated our first rendezvous with Maghreb, as instead of the expected arrival in Nador at 5-6 pm, we arrived at 10 pm. With a Polish couple, we hopped into an old Mercedes, which, as it turned out later, is capable of carrying an infinite number of passengers on its five seats. Seatbelts? Give me a break, why belts? J., sitting at the front, made prudent attempts to fasten his anxious self into whatever semblance of stability. This made the taxi satan cry with laughter as he slowed down to mere 100 km/h in time to squeeze into a corner, dodging stray Nadorians with donkeys in tow, bat-like cyclists, goats and other intrepid participants of pitch-black traffic popping up here and there approx. 0.0005 seconds before potential collision. This is roughly how we arrived in the centre of Nador, a place rather secluded, on the sleepy side, right in the middle of the very nowhere. Almost midnight. Most farm animals and sensible residents already in the sack, so the big question was where to find some food, and then where to stay overnight.
In a rather happy-go-lucky fashion, unaware of where we really were, we started wandering through the streets of the town, until finally we came across a small, somehow open restaurant hidden in the basement. I truly regret that it was dark, late and at the back of behind, cos it’s not like I can ever find my way back to the place, if I wanted to sample its delicious Harira or recommend it to anybody who ever has the misfortune of pitch-black landing in the hellhole of Nador. Its kind, good-natured owner, despite the fact that he had really packed it in for the day and was sitting just for the sake of bedtime TV (Polsat!* Believe it or not?!), first saved us from a bad bout of pneumonia with the epitome of Moroccan hospitality: hot, sweet and invigorating mint tea, and then from famine by means of even better, exhilarating and tastebud-blowing harira. In near-zero temperature around and jackets in Poznań, we ploughed our way through the steaming hot paragons of Maghreb culinary offer. By means of smiles, single words in Arabic, more words in French and infinite admiration of the Polish export commodity in the form of Polsat Channel, the owner decided to take us to a place in which we were supposed to sleep, because the cousin of his mother's brother-in-law from the second marriage has free rooms just around the corner. Well, of course.
At that point things were not funny anymore, because we suddenly felt like we were in a war zone. After leaving the life-saving venue, the owner gesticulated to us that we should keep low profile, be quiet and stay put for a while. Huddled as if protecting himself against potential firing line, he sneaked into another alley and with great caution began to inspect the surrounding darkness around the corner. An inviting gesture - here goes! Surprised, we looked at each other and approached him as if nothing had happened. He hissed with dissatisfaction, because we were stamping too loud. Slightly pushing us forward, he hissed a ’run for life’ command, then held us tight against the wall and repeated the procedure with his stealthy reconnaissance. And there we saw the culprits. Another beckoning gesture and another ’stay put and shut up’ sign, and another to cross the street. I merely caught a glimpse of a large group of louts throwing bricks at buildings in the dark. This is how Nador greeted us.
With our hearts in our mouths, we arrived at the mother's brother’s-in-law joke of a hotel, but either he had no vacancies or he didn’t bother. Fortunately, the owner’s grandfather's brother's uncle was known to have a bed or two on offer, so it was there where we laid our tired bodies to rest. The Riyadh with its high vaulted ceilings and tiled walls felt like a 19th Century lunatic asylum. High ceilings, no bedding, a tiled room with a hole in the middle of something that was trying to be a washroom and an uninviting bucket of cold water. Dressed in everything we had with us, which was not much, we fell asleep.
In pitch-black Moroccan darkness, not really knowing why, where, who we were, at one point we were awakened to a monstrous wail. Numb with cold, we took quite a moment to realise that a new day was hesitantly rising, and the terrifying howl was nothing short of a remarkably inept muezzin hollering that it was time to pray. Good morning, Morocco!
So Al-Hoceima with its breathtaking cliffs it will be for the sunnier, but chillier than at home February day, we decided. Or maybe rather similar temperatures minus winter headgear, minus footgear and minus all-body protection.
Al-Hoceima in full sun did manage to prove for about 30 minutes that the Lonely Planet had been right, but the breathtaking rock face soon lost its appeal and left us stranded among crowds of Arab tourists in narrow alleyways, in which it was virtually impossible to escape the omnipresent scrutiny, guesstimation, exaltation and crypto-sexually-induced buzz. Being the only Europeans within several stones’ throws, I reluctantly acknowledged the incidence of error no. 2. I swear to God that never before had I been so pawed, ogled, blow-kissed, lip-smacked, undressed, drilled and x-rayed in my entire life, in spite of the hold-me-tight-or-I-will-perish company bravely provided by my husband-to-be.
Daylight nightmare. It was there where I learnt what cultural claustrophobia feels like. I remember thinking that if I did not find myself in a non-Arab place at that very moment in time, I would just go plain haywire. Despite the fact that we had already paid for the night, packing backpacks and boarding the first bus out had never been more rewarding. Goodbye Al-Hoceima, my darling good-better-and-the-best riddance of all.
It turned out that the Tangier-bound bus that we had embraced with such uncompromising zeal would be calling at Chefchaouen - a legendary white and blue mountain beauty, famous for its charming, Santorini-like alleyways. Admittedly, the arrival there was scheduled for the very middle of the very High Atlas night, but how to let such a treat pass by? Well, it managed to let itself go unstepped on the moment we peeked out of the window to behold an ankle-deep spick and span duvet of lily-white snow (sic!). Sneakers in the snow? Beachwear in the blizzard? Baseball caps in the howling wind? Better not. Driver, keep on driving across North Africa, sir!
Well, what's next in store for you, pitiable seekers of warm climes? We resumed our sedentary positions on our heated seats and mumbled something to the driver about rebooking the trip on to Tangier. So much for Chefchauen, its legendary colours, the famous marijuana plantations and the neighbouring, one of the deepest caves in Africa - Kef Toghobeit.
All this was puffed in the wake of black diesel smoke, and rocked by the frail warmth of the bus, we headed for the promise of glamorous, hillside Medina of Tangier. The bus discharged us at a scandalous five in the morning, when everything was still closed, when the lower jaws repeatedly hit the upper jaws, when the was no escaping the chill, when movement was the only savior, and move we did with an ancient, perky Berber, who had selected us as a morning prey for a round-round-round trip of Medina.
Daybreak come, we kept tearing around like scalded cats, harbouring a mistaken belief that the Medina might be the size of Warsaw or at least a major Polish city. The guide rushed us down the streets right and left, straight and sideways, stopping only at the leisurely opening stands with carpets, spices, or you-must-have-or-you-will-not-survive Berber drums. After the forty-eighth crossing of each street from every possible angle, we knew Medina like the back of our hands, being well aware of the labythintine trick that was being pulled on our innocent souls. Well, at least we were no longer cold.
Anyway, somehow we got to the point where the salesmen greeted us like old friends, as we seemed to sneak around their stands at least every half hour, in tow of our tireless guide doing yet another lap to make sure that all the right venues get open for us to finally do the souvenir shopping as we of course should. Finally, they started serving munches, so we immediately purchased…and here I really regret that there is no photo of it, cos it is not that easy to believe that on top of some meat, our Berber flatbread wrap managed to also host rice, potatoes and fries, so of the complex carbohydrate kingdom only pasta was missing. Ain’t that a shame!
Because we had seen old Tangier sort of inside out, we had no problems finding our way to where we really felt like being, which was the hammam with its hot-hot water and comforting steam. A very nice married couple running the thermal paradise let us come in a way of special guests outside standard opening hours, thanks to which we had the whole spa to ourselves. Otherwise, I would have to come in hours for women and J. in a completely different time slot for men. Bah! They offered us not only a bath, but also a massage, which we gladly agreed to. Perhaps the beginning of this story could be qualified by J. as error no. 3, but I faintly hope that enough time has passed for the trauma to heal. Bathing first. We were introduced to a large tiled room, with something like a manger filled with boiling water and an immortal bucket next to the tap. An assortment of broken French, sign language and is-that-really-so smiles told us to mix the boiling tap water with the freezing tap water to arrive at the desired temperature, and so I’ll leave you to your own devices and please let me know when you are ready for the massage. Allah!, how blissful! Heat, heat and scalding hot! As every single cell was in need of prolonged reheating, we spend almost an hour soaking in the heat wave, recharging, pouring, scrubbing and again soaking in, desperately trying to squirrel away as many joules as it is humanely possible. When we were already cleansed and snug, and you could even say that we had forgotten about the outside chill of mere 9 degrees, we wrapped ourselves in towels and gestured to proceed with the massage, sir.
Here is the moment that, even after almost ten years ahead, makes me laugh out loud without repentance and up to tears. The massaging of J.
The owner, rather short, but inscribed into a square, was a robust and vigorous type. Wrapped in a towel, I look with unexpected amazement, as the inconspicuous figure first throws much taller J. on the tiles in this pig-slaughtering fashion, then he ruthlessly pours boiling water several times on the fallen body, and then begins something akin to planing as in woodwork, rather than scrubbing as in body treatment. The glove he used for the woodworking procedure was later spotted on the local souk and felt like a wire brush rather than something to be applied onto human skin. There came a moment at which J. began to croak nervously, which is how he habitually reacts to extremely stressful situations, and I was obviously cracking up with laughter. The tormentor planes J’s surface, including his cranium, making J., who has never experienced a peeling session, catch up for the lost experiences of at least a few incarnations backwards. And that was just the beginning. The ruthless masseur repeated the maneuver with boiling water, then crushed J. with his knee to the ground and began to apply nelsons, double nelsons and other levers. Bien? asked the executioner. Pas bien! Pas bien! shouted the victim to the hollow echo on the tiled ceiling, to which the savvy butcher gasped with admiration, wondering how he had hit such a tough guy and that it seems to be never enough for him, so be it as it may, the belt is going to be clamped even harder. Somewhere in this amok, among the flares of pain, it dawned on J. that the only way to liberation was to reverse the content of the yell and finally he managed to spit out Bien! Bien! I bet that the old town of Tangier had stories on its streets for days on end about a certain white gentleman whose desire for torture could never be quenched. Finally, he was again treated with some boiling water, which in the face of everything that had already transpired, probably did not even register as yet another, final wedge of the ruthless pig-slaughtering procedure.
I got up from my knees, because in the meantime, instead of saving my husband-to-be, I had been rolling around laughing (may I be forgiven).
Now you, Lady? The owner washed his hands in invisible soap, but I was rescued by the cold blood so holistically acquired in these scandalously low temperatures of the northernmost African country, so I replied:
Yes, but your wife was supposed to massage me.
Bitter disappointment was painted on the face of the callous pork butcher, he shrugged, howled something with a lot of „chCHRchr-chr" in it into the corridor and the sadist’s wife gracefully danced into the tiled abattoir. As she had to remove the headscarf for the massage and unveil her hands, J. was asked to leave the bathhouse and, as it turned out later, he spent the next 40 minutes at the door waiting for me to finally scream.
Meanwhile, the savage therapist's spouse mixed up two opposing temperatures, asked if it was not too hot, gently washed my head admiring my blond hair, massaged me making sure at every moment that all was good, not too much or not too little, etc. I left really relaxed, but the next day I had terrible sores on my stomach anyway. J., thanks to the hot-dip&grate technique was left with no muscle sores at all.
The end of part one.