Later in the evening we caught the last train back to Casablanca, a four hour journey that left us at the Casa Voyageurs station where we’d first arrived two weeks prior. This time however, we noticed a wifi network that we hadn’t found our first time through. It just so happened to be that of the Isis Hotel (branch mayor @claytonhauck), which uses the same network name at all of their hotels and happens to have a location literally behind the train station.
As we were without a place to stay and the train to the airport had stopped running for the night, we decided to head to the hotel bar (this time less North Korea, more South Beach) and weigh our options. When the bar closed we brought our beverages into the hotel lobby and continued to weigh our options. By 2:00 AM, the hotel had caught on to us and we moved ourselves back to the train station where we were pretty much out of options. Around 5:00 AM we boarded the first train to the airport, which according to sleepinginairports.com, is one of the worst airports in all of Africa.
After discovering that our flight would not be leaving until noon, we set up camp in a desolate corner of the ticketing area and slept until the morning crowd began to roll in. After a final Moroccan coffee and a quick trip through passport control, we were on a flight to Madrid, where my dreams of spending one night in Iberia were given life by a friendly ticketing agent only to be shattered moments later by his supervisor. Clayton and I parted ways, as he was lucky enough to have an overnight layover in Madrid and I was unfortunate enough to be spending the night in Brussels.
After a decadent meal from cafeteria in Barajas Terminal 4, I was on a flight to Brussels, where upon arrival I walked no less than two miles to passport control and proceeded to wander the arrivals area searching for an ATM from which to withdraw Euros so that I could pay for a train into the city. From the Brussels Central station, I wandered aimlessly, extra careful of my surroundings as I’ve heard that Brussels thinks it’s Chicago and some of the streets are a bit stab happy. I’d decided that I would get a cheap hotel for the night rather than spend another night in an airport or train station, and was quite excited to find an Ibis, only to discover that the rate for one night here was more than the rate for one week in Morocco. Eventually I found a decent little spot in a converted apartment building, conveniently located down the block from the Delirium Cafe, where I was able to negotiate an acceptable rate with the clerk once I convinced him that I was in fact traveling alone and only looking to stay for eight hours. After dropping my belongings in the room, I set out to find dinner, which came in the form of an hour long conversation about Morocco, the United States, and life in Belgium, as well as a shawarma sandwich and a to-go beer from a Moroccan cafe down the block from the hotel. This of course was followed by a brief stop at Delirium before retiring to the hotel for a few hours of sleep and a shower before my flight back to New York in the morning.
Upon arriving at JFK, I was flagged at passport control and sent for further inspection, where I waited for no less than forty five minutes while the customs agent fidgeted with his Dell PC, attempting fruitlessly to log into his system while asking me why they even sent me over to him in the first place. Eventually, but not before breaking a sweat and trying to pawn his job off on another agent, he gave up, told me to have a good day, and waved me through and into the arrivals area. At this point I entered the United States with my backpack full of foreign currency, black tar heroin, and illegal immigrant stem cells only to be robbed of it all by a gang of unruly teenagers in baggy pants while transferring subways trains on my way home.
Saturday night in Meknes was pretty interesting. We almost got hit by a car that spun out in the rain, saw a legit old man bar fight, hung out in the lounge of the Rif Hotel with some bored street women, and ended up at an after hours speakeasy where some agitated drunkards inquired as to our familiarity with the first page of the Koran before buying us a round of beers.
On Sunday we wandered the old section of Meknes, which feels like a completely different city altogether. Though relatively ignored on an international level, Meknes is a pretty important city within Morocco. At one time it was the capital, though this is true of pretty much every large city in the country. The medina is pretty low-key, and much less touristy than other cities in the country. It’s still pretty easy to get extremely turned around, which we did multiple times, at one point wandering back and forth across the perimeter of the royal palace for a solid hour.
Once we were medina’d out, we found our way back to the hotel to grab our checked bags and figure out where we’d stay in Fes. From the lobby, I was able to book a same day deal at the Ibis in Fes through the browser on my phone, which worked out well, as it’s literally the closest building to the train station.
Fes is the religious and intellectual capital of the country. Much like Meknes, the old city and new city feel like completely different places. Unlike Meknes, you’re not likely to end up in a carnival or a speakeasy. It was cold and dark and rainy when we arrived, so we decided to grab a bite to eat and wander the new city for a bit and leave the old city for the next day. The new city is very modern and much larger than I’d anticipated. There’s also not much to see, short of some very New York looking delis, international hotel chains, and neon storefronts.
We made it back to the hotel quite early, where we relaxed and caught up on the internet in the hotel bar, which, with it’s supermarket fluorescent lighting and general lack of things, might as well have been the lobby bar at the unfinished pyramid hotel in Pyongyang.
The next morning we walked a few miles to Fes el Bali, the ancient medina of Fes, which is currently the largest entirely car free urban area in the world. We spent the day getting lost in the maze, bartering for gifts to bring home, and watching people live their lives pretty much as their families have since the city was first established over 1000 years ago.
We left Ouarzazate just after noon on Wednesday, headed out on the longer but more scenic route to Merzouga, which would take us through a mix of desert, mountains and gorges, as well as a surprising amount of berber villages and small to mid-sized towns. As the drive ended up taking almost eight hours (including a stop for a game of pool and a serving of abandoned gas station tajine with peach juice on an outdoor patio twenty feet from a gas pump), we drove the remaining portion from Erfoud to Merzouga (one of the more desolate stretches of the drive and the beginning of the true Sahara) in total darkness. Driving at night is not recommended in rural Morocco not because of the threat of banditry, but because both people and animals like to walk down the middle of the highways at night and those that are piloting motor vehicles (mopeds, cars and trucks) tend to not use their lights. Fortunately we had the sense to turn off of the main highway and drive somewhat aimlessly down a secondary road in the direction of the dunes to find a lodge to put us up for the night. Of course we chose the palace (The Nasser Palace) with the gigantic sign with two camels and a wifi logo.
After negotiating with the owner (who spoke no less than eight languages) for a while on the price for a room with dinner and breakfast, he agreed to knock down the price because we were from Chicago and his brother lives there with his new wife who was once a guest at the palace. The dinner- a delicious homemade soup and chicken tajine with a bottle of Moroccan rosé was worth the cost of the room alone. The owner of the palace joined us for a bit of the meal and seemed to be pretty bored with the fact that there were a total of six guests spending the night, two of which were sleeping in tents in the desert. After he went of to talk to the Italians, the one shitty employee came by to pitch himself as a tour guide for the dunes- which are a thirty minute hike from the palace. Though we politely declined by suggesting that we’d show ourselves to the dunes in the morning, he insisted and even offered to “take us to see the black people” (there is a village of Senegalese refugees next to Merzouga) for an extra fifty dirham. After dinner we explored the roof and took some long exposures of the desert, which actually gave us our first real view of the dunes that lie just past the palace.
Thursday morning we woke up at 5:45 to hike to the dunes for sunrise, which is quite possibly the first time in my adult life that I’ve seen a sunrise in a situation where I had not stayed out acting a fool all night beforehand. The dunes themselves (Erg Chebbi, they’re called) are hundreds of feet tall, exist over an area three miles wide and fifteen miles long, and form the buffer between the towns in southeastern Morocco and the border with Algeria. Getting to the base of the sand from the palace took about twenty minutes and climbing to the top another half an hour. We spent a few hours lounging around at the top, enjoying the morning golden hour and looking down at the village in the distance. Listening to R Kelly on Clayton’s iPhone while tumbling down the backside of the dune towards Algeria was pretty much the highlight of my day.
After returning to the palace for breakfast (as well as the stink-eye from our would-be tour guide) and a pool session, we packed up our trusty Dacia and hit the road back to civilization, not knowing whether we’d make it back to Marrakech that night or sleep in the car somewhere along the way. We’d decided to take the shorter, less scenic (relatively), and more desolate (way less towns, no westerners) route back to Ouarzazate, which ended up cutting that leg of the drive from eight to just over five hours. Though we’d stopped halfway through for strawberry wafer cookies and bottled coke at a little village store, we decided to stop back in Ouarzazate for a real dinner (at the upscale Moroccan restaurant immediately next to the lowbrow Moroccan restaurant at which we’d eaten dinner two days earlier), over which we decided to return to the hotel where we’d stayed two nights earlier and negotiate a return customer deal. Surprisingly this worked and we agreed on a rate significantly less than we’d paid earlier in the week, provided we would forego breakfast. This was not an issue, especially considering that they failed to inform us that we were actually entitled to breakfast on our first stay.
That night we decided to call Tarik, the rightful owner of our vehicle, to attempt to make arrangements to deliver said vehicle in Marrakech the next day. Tarik is not fluent in the combination English and Spanish with a few words of mispronounced French and Arabic, and this proved to be a failure. After calling our friend Fadil in Rabat and requesting his skills as a translator, we had an appointment to meet Tarik at the Marrakech train station the next morning between 11:30 and noon. This would require us to leave Ouarzazate by 7:00 in the morning, not drive off a cliff crossing the Atlas mountains, successfully navigate Marrakech traffic on a Friday morning, and find a place to park the car and locate this person in the center of the city. Miraculously, this worked out perfectly and we waited with the car parked illegally in the exit of the taxi turnaround at the station for about ten minutes before Tarik showed up and repossessed the car. As a parting gift, we left him with a burnt cd (we managed to get a few of the discs to work) containing Weezer’s Blue Album and Pinkerton, as well as another containing the first half of the new Kanye album, both which I will, with any luck, not hear again for quite some time.
After buying second class (never again) tickets back to Rabat, we posted up in the upstairs of the station McDonald’s, taking shelter from the 95 degree heat and hoarding wifi and stuffing our faces with freedom frites. Immediately after situating ourselves in an eight person compartment in the car second from the front of the train, I knew second class was a mistake, as the train was full and the air conditioning not in use. The next five hours were somewhat of a fever dream, as I’d dose off and periodically snap back to life dripping sweat wondering how I could still possibly be listing to the same LCD track.
Back in somewhat familiar territory in Rabat and covered in stale sweat, we walked in circles around Fadil’s office for twenty minutes before finally calling him to realize that we’d literally been two blocks away the whole time. We had beers at the French restaurant next door and picked up pizzas to take back to the apartment where we enjoyed more beers and some internet television and music swapping while debating going to “Le Purple”, the club down the street, just to see how bad it could be. Fortunately we did not do this, and instead went to bed at a decent hour so that we could actually accomplish things the next day. These “things” consisted of eating kebabs for lunch in Rabat, jumping on a train to Meknes, and hopefully finding a place to stay. Thinking somewhat ahead, I took care of the place to stay just before we ate lunch, when I booked an absurdly cheap last minute rate at a French chain hotel in the new section of Meknes.
We spent last night investigating the seedy underbelly of Meknes, the bulk of today exploring (getting lost in) the old city of Meknes, this afternoon traveling by urine soaked-second class-standing room only train car to Fes, and this evening wandering the new city of Fes in the rain. More on that soon.
We have scribbled down in a notebook, a local cell phone number for this guy who we don’t really know and can’t really communicate with (he’s the friend of the door guy at the hostel and he speaks French and Arabic) and we’re supposed to call him an hour before returning to Marrakech on Friday so that he can make his way from the mysterious underbelly of the city to the Centreville McDonald’s to reclaim the car that we’ve rented from earlier today.
Just this morning, after showing up at the hostel an hour late, our rentor had us fill out a few forms before walking to a small square (still well within the medina) where our rental car sat waiting, complete with the owner’s bottle of cologne, sparkly lighter, and bootlegged copy of Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits still present. Fortunately he had the time to drive us out of the medina (I’m not trying to fight for the lane with any donkeys) and through a traffic jam that was apparently caused by the presence of the king and a bicycle event at the same time, to a gas station where he ran off into the day after helping us put 200 Dirhams worth into the car and pointing in the direction of the road that would eventually (hopefully) lead us to some gigantic sand dunes only miles from the Algerian border.
Driving in Marrakech is like driving in a slightly more out of control Tijuana, with more of the worries caused by chaotic traffic than the threat of violence. Once outside of the city, the driving is reminiscent of Costa Rica, with decently paved two lane highways with low shoulders and an ample amount of roadside villages and truckstops between towns.
Driving through the High Atlas from Marrakech to Ouarzazate is amazing. Definitely up there with the drive through the Andes from Mendoza to Santiago or through the Rockies from Denver to Grand Junction.
Ouarzazate is home to the largest film studio in the world. It’s been the shooting location for hundreds of movies including Lawrence of Arabia and Babel. This, along with a gas station/hotel/castle combination is the first sign of the city when coming down from the mountains. The town it’s self has about 60,000 people and it seemed that most of them were in the main square this evening for some sort of variety show.
We’re staying at a small hotel just south of the center, on the highway to Zagora. Our room was about $14 each and we have wifi,a pool, a cafe, and a parking lot- so we’re quite content. After a wander through the old city this evening for some couscous and burnable cds, we spent the remainder of the evening relaxing and working by the pool. Unfortunately tomorrow looks to be full of Michael Jackson on repeat. It turns out our cd-r purchase was in vain, as we are the owners of two vintage macbooks and zero functional cd burners.
Tomorrow we’re off to Merzouga to play on some sand dunes.
After staying up until sunrise Saturday night eating kabobs, drinking at a fancy hotel bar, and debating the merits (and lack thereof) of metal, we woke up at one in the afternoon on Sunday and decided that instead of heading east to Fes, we’d jump on a train to Marrakech and try to figure out how to eventually drive over the Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara. Pretty typical.
I booked two nights at a five star riad turned hostel in the medina a few blocks in from the Djemma el Fna for about $18 per night and after a quick walk through Rabat (taxi boycott continued) and a delicious departure pastilla and coffee, we were sitting in an eight seat compartment on a train to Casablanca, hoping that we’d get there with enough time to transfer to the train that we were supposed to be on originally which left about two minutes after the one that we mistakenly jumped on as it was leaving the station.
Fortunately, crossing tracks in Casablanca ended up being a non-issue, and we were on the proper train within minutes of arriving. Our second class seats were quite comfortable for the four hour trip, despite the standing room only for the first few stops out of the city.
The train station in Marrakech is on the new (relatively speaking) side of town, near the designer shops, boutique hotels, and expensive clubs and restaurants. The station itself is beautiful and much larger than the stations in Casa or Rabat. It’s also a few miles across town from the medina, and after a quick serving of fries and wifi from the station McDonald’s (again, wifi) we walked across every last foot of it on our way to the hostel and were checked in by midnight. Finding it was a good time, as the directions involved walking through arches and alleys, making u-turns, and walking specific amounts of steps in many different directions from the left side of the largest cafe on the square.
The hostel (Equity Point Marrakech) was without a doubt the most beautiful and pleasant I’ve ever stayed at. Besides the fact that they have a pool and incredible rooftop terrace, the guy who works the front desk (gucci mane enthusiast) was able to get us a rental car (which we’re pretty certain is his friend’s personal car) for three nights for less than the price that the international rental chains wanted for one day.
Our time in Marrakech was spent getting lost in the souks, dodging mopeds and donkeys, eating kabobs and olives in the square, drinking delicious fresh squeezed orange juice, and lounging in the pool.
Two nights wasn’t exactly enough, and I’m kind of hoping that after returning
from this outrageously aimless desert roadtrip that we’ve embarked upon, we can spend Friday night back in the city and see what kind of shenanigans we can find in the newer side of town.
We’ve been in Rabat since Thursday afternoon now. It’s smaller and much cleaner than Casablanca, though they’re only about an hour apart on the train. It’s also the political capital of the country.
We’ve eaten at quite a few nice little French restaurants, a local couscous spot, as well as a New York style pizza place with crust that can easily compete with Carmine’s. The mustard here is especially spicy and delicious- not to mention the mint tea.
Yesterday afternoon while enjoying some tea at a sidewalk cafe on a downtown street, we came upon a relatively large street protest, which turned out to be a group of angry teachers from throughout the country. After finishing our tea we followed them around for the remainder of the afternoon, wandering all around the city and eventually ending up at the Parliament building near the main train station. This afternoon we stumbled upon the same group as yesterday, though it was obviously much more tense, with a larger military presence.
After it became pretty obvious that we were being watched at the protest, we walked to a local bar (not a club or restaurant), which is pretty much a smokey room full of older men drinking cheap beer and wine and debating over al jazeera. Later (but no later than 7:30) we proceeded to a local liquor store, to pick up a few beers for the evening- which brings me to now. Time for dinner.
General Rabat Photos:
Thursday morning we had a breakfast of bread, pita, fresh squeezed orange juice, and mint tea before checking out of the hotel and leaving our luggage locked up to wander the city for a bit. We planned to catch a train to Rabat later in the afternoon and decided to walk along the waterfront to the Hassan II Mosque- one of the largest in the world and apparently one of the few that non-Muslims can enter. The development along the way is a bit out of control- with flashy, English language billboards for new shopping and condo developments directly across the street from slums and next to the Mosque.
We came upon some kids (no more than ten years old) who were swimming in the pools on the rocks near the mosque, who were very adamant about posing for pictures and then yelling “facebook! no facebook!” I’m pretty sure they were fucking with us until some older people yelled at them.
After wandering around the waterfront for a while we walked back through the medina to find some outlet converters and went back to the hotel to grab our bags before walking (we’ve still not been in a cab in Morocco) to the Casa Port train station to catch a train to Rabat.
This is the view of a small square in the medina from our hotel room
Residential neighborhood south of the main road on the waterfront
New waterfront developments in Casa
People lounging on the rocks near Hassan II Mosque
Train station in Central Rabat (Gare Rabat-Ville)
Yesterday I started my day at home in Brooklyn where I took the L train to the A train to the Skytrain to JFK to catch a flight to London where I got held up by a lethargic woman at security and had to sprint to catch a flight to Madrid that got put in a holding pattern for forty minutes which in turn required me to sprint to a flight to Casablanca and wait in an hour long passport control line to rendezvous with Clayton to catch a train into the actual city to walk 6 kilometers to a hotel that I’d previously booked in the medina.
So we’ve actually been in Casablanca now for about seven hours. It’s my first time here, and all I’d heard before arriving is how it’s a big, ugly, dirty shithole with nothing to see and that I should get out as soon as possible. As this is also what most people say about places like Mexico City and São Paulo, I was tipped off in advance to the likelihood that I’d find it charming, which so far I do. Nevertheless, I’m full of mint tea, espresso, shwarma and french fries and I’ve slept for about an hour in the past two days. We’re planning on catching a train to Rabat tomorrow, so I’m staying in tonight. I’ll have a few days to really explore this city on the way out of the country in two weeks.
These are a few pictures that I took on the walk to the hotel and from the rooftop earlier this evening.