Africa, Travel

Morocco: Something for Nothing

You know that sensation when something happens, just for a moment, but it seems to stretch out for long enough to allow your brain the time to wonder “what the hell is this?”. That was the exact sensation I felt as Ibrahim the Moroccan mechanic leaned in and briefly sucked on my neck. You could not have described it as a kiss, there was too much…ingestion. Kiss verses suck. Even if it only lasts a second, you can tell the difference. It wasn’t so shocking that I recoiled immediately, but jarring enough that, when the mechanic asked for a photo with my boyfriend and I just seconds later, my expression could only be described as that of a bewildered sufferer of chronic hemorrhoids.

As we drove off, I looked back at the workshop.

“That guy just sucked on my neck” I said to my boyfriend, Oscar.

“What? The mechanic?? Didn’t he kiss your cheek?”

“Nope, it was my neck, and it was a fleeting but definite suck.”

“That’s fucking weird” said Oscar.

I couldn’t help but agree.

Erg Chebbi post-neck slurp

Things are often like this in Morocco, you can go for a long time believing things are one way, in this instance, avoiding physical contact with men, smiling, touching your hand to your heart and feeling incredibly smug and culturally aware, only to have someone greet you not with a polite but distant gesture but by performing an alarmingly accurate garra rufa fish impression right under your left ear.

Maybe Ibrahim was going for a fashionable French cheek kiss and missed the mark? Maybe the neck-suck is an ancient Berber greeting which I should have returned? Probably, it will remain a mystery.

One thing to know about Morocco is that it is almost impossible to be truly alone there. You can drive for miles away from the nearest village, over dunes soft as flour and through near-impassable river beds, to a place where the only sound is that of a fat black beetle dutifully shuffling a ball of camel shit towards its hole. Wait five minutes in that serene and silent spot and a chair salesman with 7 wicker stools strapped to his scooter will appear like a mirage. “Hello my friend! You want chair? English car yes? Lovely jubbly!”

Stool salesman territory, Moroccan Sahara

The other thing to know about Morocco is that people will ask you for things, and demand them in some cases, whether they need them or not, on the offchance that you’ll give it to them anyway. Thousands of French tourists visit Morocco every year. Most of them drive sinfully ugly but expensive campervans, and most of them make a habit of bringing giant bags of sweets with them for every visit so they can toss them out the window to local children like leathery, pétanque-playing Santas. The effect of this well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful gesture (depending on who you talk to) is that almost anywhere you might choose you stop your car, your bike, or linger in a public place, you’ll be swarmed by either children demanding bonbons, or adults inviting you in for a cup of tea and then asking for a tenner.

The third thing to know about Morocco, is that, even if people aren’t simply putting their hands out and begging, they’re probably thinking about getting your money some other way. Indeed, in a lot of places, opportunistic scamming is basically a national sport. We experienced this more on our trip through Morocco’s more cosmopolitan areas in 2017, but found it was still alive and well this time around. Take this story from our friend Hamid (who swears he doesn’t do it anymore) as a shining example. Hamid is a desert guide who lives in Merzouga, on the edge of the vast and glorious dunes of Erg Chebbi. Morocco is pretty strict when it comes to drugs and booze, but according to our entrepreneurial friend Hamid, that doesn’t stop desperate tourists from seeking it out.

Hamid the entrepreneur

“Sometimes I went out to the desert with the tourists, we stop for the night, have some food, watch the stars, have nice time. I pull out my hashish and I smoke. I say nothing. They say, “is that hashish?” I say yea. They say “man, can you get us hashish? We’d love some hashish”. So I say yea I can get it, but it is difficult. There is not much hashish in Merzouga, so it’s expensive and there are problems with police. Same with beer. Then they say “oh man could you get us beer too?” I say yes but will take longer. They say they want beer and hashish. I prepare to go walk and say, if I’m not back in one hour and a half, there are problems with police. So I go over one dune, just one big dune, I sit and smoke for 2 hours, maybe 3 hours. I already had my hashish in my bag, this much”

(He shows half a thumbs worth)

“It cost me twenty dirham”

(approximately €2)

“I go back to camp and get beer from kitchen which is already there. I go to tourists and say ‘I’m sorry there were problems with the police, I got a big fine’ they say, “no problem man” and give me two hundred euro.”

That is a kind of swindling genius you really can’t fault, but all the same it gives a certain insight into the national psyche.

So, keeping in mind those above three points, we headed into the High Atlas Mountains with excitement and a twinge of trepidation gnawing away somewhere deep in our skulls.

The mountains were beautiful – tiny mudbrick settlements with horses grazing in front of towering snow-dusted peaks, crumbling roads being whipped by some of the wildest winds we’d ever experienced. About three hours in, we found ourselves on a winding dirt track overlooking a green valley. Around the bend, a house appeared, and two figures running like hell towards us. We lowered the window and a pair of wrinkled hands clamped onto our door frame with the strength of of a pair of hands that had clamped onto many hundreds of door frames in the past.

“Dirham! Dirham!” the old woman barked. Now, we might have been inclined to give the woman some food, but if you give money to everyone who asks for money in Morocco, you’ll barely make it past the border. Besides, she didn’t ask very nicely.

Gently, Oscar pried the old woman’s fingers from our vehicle, and we trundled off to the distant melody of Arabic swearing. It wasn’t for another few minutes, when we heard a metallic clunk and then a dull thud, that we realised we’d forgotten about the second distant figure, and while the woman had diverted us with her vice-like grip, her grandson had climbed onto the boot of our car and begun untying our worldly belongings. If it wasn’t for the fact that aluminum clothes racks make quite a bit of noise when they hit the ground, we might never have noticed. Oscar pumped the brakes, and chased a skinny-jeaned teenager, sans clothes rack, up the road. If the kid hadn’t been laughing and pointing at us, I might have assumed he was in more of a desperate situation.

High Atlas Mountains

On we trundled, down deep into the guts of the mountains, along the valley floor with the light falling and nowhere to camp in the howling wind. We were greeted by a large family who must have heard us coming for miles. They seemed excited, the road had washed out some time ago with no obvious efforts made to replace it. Visitors didn’t pass through often. They spoke over each other in French and Arabic, inviting us in for tea or a meal, we said we had to keep going, but to avoid another attempted clothes rack heist, plonked a perfect round orange into the hands of each family member.

Their reactions were not ones of satisfaction, in fact they looked truly confused. They spoke to each other with unfamiliar words but an entirely recognisable tone. They hadn’t asked for anything, they’d simply wanted to help us out, why are these stupid white people tossing oranges out of the window for no good reason? We left feeling abashed. Onwards into the night in a place we didn’t know the rules for anymore.

The next morning, we came across Omar and his brother, two charismatic young Berber men trying to hillstart their dusty car. We gave them a jumpstart and were invited in to meet the family and have breakfast. The house was toasty warm, with the morning light streaming through the window and a medical reality show playing on the small TV in the living room. After a sleepless night in our tent cowering from the wind, the steaming mint tea and bread with jam was a godsend. As we left, we asked Omar if he wanted anything in return for the hospitality.

Bristling slightly, he replied.

“Porquoi?”

Why indeed, we left reprimanding ourselves again.

Breakfast at Chez Omar

Call it southern hospitality, or luck, but from that point on every single local we met wanted nothing but to talk, and be friends.

In Mirleft, Bokhtar and Ali shared fishing tips and some of their catch. In Dakhla, we spent two days camping next door to Jelili, who kept us topped up to the eyeballs with tea and insisted we join him for a feast of fish tagine, lemony and delicious. At the border of the Western Sahara, a disputed territory and former conflict zone, Abdes, a military police officer, kept us lingering under the blazing afternoon sun as he showed us what seemed to be every picture ever taken of his new wife, a wide eyed beauty with an impressive cake repertoire.

Ali and Oscar with the day’s haul

Morocco is an enigma. The constant clamour of touts and opportunists can make you feel miles from home, desperate for the cool indifference of a Glassons sales assistant. On one hand, people back home aren’t going to mount your moving vehicle to steal your clothes rack (probably), on the other hand, New Zealand Police wouldn’t invite you into the office for breakfast to say sorry after giving you a speeding ticket, and they definitely wouldn’t wave you down to show you pictures of chocolate gateaux.

I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in Morocco, and travelled many thousands of kilometres within its borders. People sometimes ask me what to expect from the country, and frankly, I wish I knew. You can prepare to be swindled, but you should also prepare to be as surprised by the kindness and humility of the Moroccan people as you would be by a cheeky neck-slurp. Like Forrest Gump’s infamous box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get, and to be honest, that’s at least two thirds of the fun.

Agadir sunset

Etoh’s house, Mid Atlas Mountains

Tata gorge

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