morocco, pt 1. marrakech: as-salām ‘alaykum

as my plane approached low over the desert city landscape of marrakech, i was a confusion of thoughts and feelings.  i was really excited, and ready for adventure in the unknown, but i also had never been to a third world country on my own without any help before, or africa for that matter.  i had no idea what to expect, and this also would be my first time to travel to a country with such a significant muslim presence, and that also made me a little nervous.  it’s one thing to be open-minded and religiously tolerant in the USA, but things shift dramatically when you leave home and suddenly you’re the minority, especially in these times we live in.  you begin to realize how little you know about the world, no matter how “aware” and “informed” you consider yourself back home.

zuzu expertly educated us on details of moroccan culture i never would have known
zuzu expertly educated us on details of moroccan culture i never would have known

which is why i hired a guide for my first week in morocco.  when i landed, i still hadn’t booked an exiting flight yet, but i had an idea that i would be in the country for more than two weeks and less than three, so i figured the best way to get my bearings about me was to hop in with a guided tour until i felt comfortable to strike out on my own.  i know some adventurers would view this as cheating, but this turned out to be one of the best decisions i made on my entire trip.

the wheels hit the ground with a harsh bump, and the plane bounced high back into the air, frightening passengers and waking me from one of my usual daydreams, where i play out imaginary scenarios in my head that never actually happen.  the aircraft settled in on the runway and pulled into its berth, the passengers emptied out onto the tarmac and herded into the customs gate.  i got into line and realized i hadn’t filled out a customs form.  i found one near the entrance and retrieved a pen from my carry-on pack and furiously scribbled on the paper, trying not to lose the place in line i had jockeyed aggressively for.

turns out i didn’t need to worry about getting through the line quickly, as i would end up being stuck in that musty, stuffy room with stale air for another two hours.  when i finally got to the front of the line, the agent barely even looked at my passport before stamping it and looking past me for his next target.

migrating storks settle in the warm, dry climate of morocco during winter, always building nests at the highest point in the area
migrating storks settle in the warm, dry climate of morocco during winter, always building nests at the highest point in the area

i quickly directed myself toward the baggage claim, unreasonably paranoid that maybe someone had swiped my backpack while i was stuck in customs.  but my pack was rotating around the turnstile with all the other baggage when i got there, and i collected it in a relief.  next objective:  find my driver.

i looked out into the common area where throngs of people were waiting.   this part always bothered me when arriving into countries where man-labor is cheap. there is never a shortage of available drivers, licensed and unlicensed, and all of them are crowded around the exits like buzzards waiting for their chance at a bite of fresh meat.   i took a deep breath and walked out into the crowd, searching for a placard with my name on it.  luckily my guide was a man of large stature, standing above most of the crowd, and his sign with thick block letters, “BRANDON MIQUELON” shone easily visible among the sea of men calling out to me, trying to attract my attention and get my business.

IMG_2748“hello sir!  welcome to morocco!  come with me, let me take your bag!”  a giant smile with an even bigger, joyful voice greeted me as the man and his driver took my bag and quickly started walking away from the busy crowd, as the other drivers disappointedly returned their attention to the doorway, hoping for another opportunity to present itself.

i boarded a large, comfortable, white 15-passenger tourist van, and we drove straight into town down a big six lane road that was surprisingly empty during the mid-afternoon hours.  we arrived at an old hotel that was clearly passed its prime but was still serviceable, and was tucked away in a section of the city that was clearly where the money all seemed to congregate.  well guarded and heavily walled, it was immediately obvious to me that I was in an area where all the tourists are typically held, like in some sort of ivory tower.  i was quickly instructed to relax at the resort and that we would meet back in the lobby that night, after the other folks on the tour had a chance to arrive.  no problem at all, i was tired and dirty and only wanted a nap.  i immediately went to sleep.

that night i awoke and went downstairs a little early to see if i could find wifi in the hotel and send a quick email to my family and friends and let them know I had made it safely.  i quickly discovered that there was indeed wifi available, but only within 20 feet of the front desk of the hotel.  not only that, but everyone in the hotel knew it, so if you weren’t one of the first 15 people to get down there, you had little chance of getting online, due to the limited IP addresses their router was able to assign at a time.  after about five frustrating minutes, I gave up and started snickering at each guest’s behavior as they would return from a day out in marrakech.  families of mid-level wealth would walk through the front doors and everyone would immediately lumber over to a couch, pulling out their mobile device and desperately trying to connect to the world, only to verbalize exasperated exclamations seconds later, realizing there were too many people already connected.  they would drop their hands, holding their phones, express their frustration audibly, hoping someone around would hear them and perhaps relinquish their coveted access to the internet and go eat dinner or go to bed, but to no avail.  they would then roll their eyes and then produce a mini-fit before storming off to their hotel rooms.  it was thoroughly entertaining.

eventually my guide entered the lobby and began plucking people from different corners and then issued us all to a cocktail lounge where he introduced himself as “zuzu” and told us a little about his qualifications as a tourguide and a quick breakdown of what we would be doing the next few days.  we then went around the room and got to know each other as tourists.  there was a couple of small business owners from los angeles (originally of indian descent) named surjit and gugu who were a little older, perhaps in their late 50s, and then five aussies, all in their late 20s.  one couple, andrew and sue, had been living in london for a number of years and were now relocating back to australia but were taking a little holiday before completing the move.  then there was jeffrey, a longtime friend of andrew and sue’s, and his girlfriend rachel who both lived in australia.  and lastly but not least, sue, another longtime friend of andrew, sue, and jeffrey’s.  despite being a little spread out, they had all conspired to meet in morocco and take a trip together.  the group had a fun energy and good humor about it, i knew they would be a fun time.

lady on a night strollwe had dinner at a nearby restaurant and got to know each other a little better before eventually returning to the hotel for a round of drinks and then everyone headed off to bed.   i lingered in the lounge a little, noticing that our guide, zuzu, had been periodically conversing with a group of four men who had settled in at a table nearby.  i deduced that they were his friends and, rather than go to bed early, i pulled up a chair and introduced myself to everyone.  zuzu had a surprised smile on his face and it wasn’t long before we were laughing and getting along like we’d all known each other for years.  the majority of the group didn’t speak english very well, so i usually had to wait on zuzu to interpret for me.  if he was otherwise occupied (which happens frequently.  he’s a very excitable person and gets distracted easily), i would do my best to communicate through hand signals and exaggerated movements, as if i was playing a game of charades, with the added difficulty of a language barrier piled on.

after about 30 minutes, the group decided they wanted to leave and go somewhere a little less touristy, where the drinks would be more affordable and the atmosphere more relaxed.  somewhere more moroccans would be hanging out.  they invited me and i enthusiastically accepted.  there was no way i was letting an opportunity like this pass me by.  a bunch of locals taking me to places i had no chance of finding on my own, and an easy escape from the stuffy hotel i was cooped up in.  we exited the hotel lobby and piled up clown-car-style into a tiny sedan, six grown men sharing seats and sitting in each other’s laps.  we drove 20 minutes out to the edge of town where we found a nightclub that i can only imagine is a place the group gravitated more regularly.  it looked relatively nondescript, almost like a large restaurant.  as we entered and made it to the two large armed security guards checking identification, they both stopped and gave me long, suspicious looks before zuzu patted one on the shoulder and whispered something into his ear and they waved me by.  clearly americans did not come here very often.  we entered the main room, music thumping loudly and club lights shining all around the room.  if i had been even a little more sober, it probably would have given me a seizure.  the place was not as packed as one might have expected, but there was still a decent amount of people present.  i made a conscious decision to just play it cool and not drink too much, because i was way out of my element and i didn’t want to do anything that might get me in trouble, especially since i didn’t know local customs and really didn’t want to end up on “locked up abroad.”

zuzu teaches us a little about reading arabic
zuzu teaches us a little about reading arabic

the next thing i know, there are two bottles of johnny walker black on the table and a pretty moroccan woman is standing above me pouring me a glass with ice and flashing me a pretty smile.  i abandoned my plan immediately.
after a few drinks, zuzu lets slip that there had been an attempted attack at the airport that day, and keeps talking as if it was no big deal.  i interrupted him “wait. what?  is that why the customs line was so long?”  i urged him, half incredulously, half excitedly, and not as much concern as i might have expected in myself.  i made it in safely, what was the point in worrying about it?

“well yes, i didn’t want to tell you.  oops.  ISIS attempted to bomb the airport this morning, but the police captured them before they could.  5 men arrested, but this means that the government already knew about it, so there was nothing to worry about!”  he exclaimed with a faux cheerfulness.  i realized that this is the last thing anyone in the moroccan tourism board wanted an american traveler hearing, so he was trying to put a positive spin on it.  the name “ISIS” did give me a quick shock, but i knew i was safe so i tried not to linger on the thought and let it ruin my night.

an hour later i was doing spin moves and funky footwork on the makeshift dance floor area we created by moving a table to the side, and generally just embarrassing myself as all the moroccans in the vicinity pointed and laughed at the stupid american (very clearly the only non-moroccan in the club).  everyone in our group laughed hysterically at me as I noticed that zuzu had found a pretty lady whose ear he was now whispering sweet nothings into.  I was having a ball, but i suddenly got self-conscious and realized i probably should tone it down a little. self preservation rule #1 when traveling abroad:  never draw unnecessary attention to yourself.  i sat down and a few other people moved in and started showing off their dance moves, the rest of the guys in our group clapped heavy hands on myIMG_2749 back and laughed appreciatively.  one guy, (i honestly can’t remember anyone in the group’s names. they were all middle eastern names and it was my first night in the country, so i hadn’t yet gained the ability to decipher names and simple greetings out of the languages yet) we’ll just call him bob, was the joker of the group and decided to grab my sunglasses, get up, and do his own awful rendition of a moonwalk, to which we all laughed hysterically at when he tripped and almost fell.  he was a goodnatured fellow with a huge grin.  he had started the night out fairly shy, but as more drinks had flowed, he became bigger and bigger in personality.

eventually i noticed a girl that a few different guys had spent some time talking to, but she hadn’t elected to stick with any of them for longer than 10 minutes.  she was now sitting nearby in a corner table, alone, sipping her drink slowly and gazing over at our table patiently.

“bob!  look at that girl over there, she keeps looking over here and she’s alone.  i think she looks at you!”  at this point, our communicational abilities were at an all-time low now that we all had a solid alcohol buzz going and zuzu the interpreter had found a woman to occupy his attention, but i was still trying my best.  nevertheless, the guys seemed to understand what i was implying, as i encouraged bob to go make a friend, and they all began laughing hysterically.  hmm, i thought, they must think i’m making a joke.  how do i explain this better?  i want bob to make a new friend!

secret garden“me?  no man!  you!”  he laughed.   there was no way i was going home with some random moroccan woman.  i didn’t know where the hell i was right now.  i didn’t even have the faintest clue where my hotel was, in fact i had already forgotten the name of it.  i was screwed if something went wrong tonight.  i tried not to let that ruin the vibe.

“oh come on man, i think she likes you!  go talk to her!”   i urged him playfully, giving a wink to the other guys, hoping they would join in.  he looked at me with a confused look as he tried to formulate the words in english.

“okay, but who will pay?”  he looked at me earnestly and the rest of the guys snickered.

“what?  no way man, i never buy a girl a drink unless she’s my girlfriend!  just talk to her, you can buy her a drink later if things go well.”  it wasn’t entirely true, but true enough. he looked at me with a confused look on his face.  either he didn’t understand me, or i wasn’t understanding him.  he shrugged, got up, and walked over to talk to the lonely woman.

i turned around and high-fived the other guys, who weren’t nearly as enthusiastic as i was, but they were laughing pretty hard.  i started laughing with them, realizing there was obviously some kind of inside joke that i was not getting, but whatever.

30 minutes later, bob was still talking to the mystery woman in the corner and we had started to forget about him.  i was doing my best trying to interact with the rest of the group, but i was getting tired.  zuzu was still focusing his attention on his lady friend, and most of the conversation at the table was being had not in english, so i was struggling.  suddenly bob showed back up at the table.

“hey buddy!  you are the man!  you just went over there and picked up on that girl fearlessly!  you are doing well, i told you she likes you!”  i shouted encouragingly over the music.

“okay, i need some money, guys.  i no have enough for her.” he replied.

“well how much does it cost to get her a drink here?  can’t be that much…” i said as i pulled out my wallet.  the guy to my right reached over and touched my arm, shaking his head as i looked up.

“no my friend.  she no want drink.  she is prostitute” he said patiently.  i stared at him blankly as my brain started to rearrange the pieces of the puzzle.

“well that makes a lot more sense,” i said aloud as the whole group erupted into laughter.  i looked back up at bob and said “no way man!  you’re awesome, you don’t need to pay for that!”  a strange mix of relief and disappointment washed across his face as the laughter continued.  he looked back toward the lady of the night and shook his head.  she rolled her eyes and angrily walked away.

we stayed for another 10 minutes and then decided to leave.  we piled back into the sedan and the group dropped me back off at my hotel.  i thanked my new friends profusely, knowing well that i may never see them again, but it was a hilariously unexpected night, and i was extremely grateful for it.  they had already made me feel very welcome in a country that I had been very nervous about traveling to alone.  “morocco ain’t so bad. i got this” i drunkenly said to myself as i walked the hallway to my hotel room and collapsed on my bed, falling asleep almost immediately, fully clothed and extremely exhausted.
hall monitor


today’s musical mystery tour comes from the volcano choir, a justin vernon (of bon iver fame) side project.  the song is called “byegone,” and every time i hear it, i feel like i am venturing out into the great wild.  the open.  the free.

marked by an epic guitar chorus and soaring vocals, the song has a huge, conquering sonic climax with the refrain “set sail!”  how could you not want to go explore the world after listening to this song?  enjoy…

and for those following along on Spotify…

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