“¡Por el amor de Dios!” I mutter as I sprint barefoot across the scorching white sand. I sigh with relief as my feet reach the water. Even the sea here is warm, but it’s the only escape from the oppressive heat of July in southern Spain. I frolic through the waves (the way only an eleven-year-old can) until I hear the familiar cries of “Cacahuetes! Hay cacahuetes!” Suddenly aware of my hunger, I grab a few coins from my beach bag and chase the vendor down the beach.
“Una bolsita de cacahuetes, porfa,” I pant, holding out the coins. The man looks at me in surprise, and I know he’s noticed my pale skin – unusually white even for a gringa. After a moment’s pause, he hands me a small bag of peanuts. I turn to run back down the beach, but his voice makes me pause.
“¡Oye, blanquita! ¿Porqué hablas español?” I can’t help but laugh at the vendor’s question. Why do I speak Spanish? Well for starters, I live here. With a grin, I tell him just that, before skipping back down the beach.
I settle down on my beach towel and begin shelling a handful of peanuts. My gaze wanders to the faint outline of looming mountains across the ocean. Africa. It’s only 15 miles away, but I know it’s nothing like here. Different languages, strange foods, unknown customs. What I told the peanut vendor was true – I do live here. With a bitter sigh, I throw a few peanut shells into the ocean and watch them float away. Spain is my home now, but tomorrow, everything will change.
“What?” I shout to my mother over the clamor of Spanish, French and Arabic voices. I readjust my grip on my suitcase for the hundredth time, struggling to keep the small bag from being swept away in the current of people disembarking the boat.
“Do you still have your passport?” my mum yells back.
I roll my eyes by way of confirmation, but I still pull my passport out to double check. It’s one of those dumb mum-questions that she always asks, but this time I understand. Now is not the time to lose track of any important documents. My passport falls open to a well-creased page covered entirely by a single, massive, black stamp. Just the sight of it makes me cringe.
“¡Siguiente!” yells the passport clerk, and my mum and I shuffle forward with our luggage in tow. I glance nervously one last time at the stamp before closing my passport and handing it to the man. He eyes the US emblem on the front, quickly scans the first page with my photo, and then opens the passport to a random page near the back and stamps it.
“¡Buen viaje!” he declares, returning my passport with a look of mild boredom. Relief sweeps over me – the clerk never even noticed the deportation stamp. I glance over at my mum, who responds with a small smile and a shrug. I turn and look wistfully back at the shore one last time, then pick up my bags and follow the throng of people onto the boat.
★ ★ ★
Inside the boat is just as chaotic as outside. We manage to find two seats together and hold our backpacks on our laps. There is no place for luggage, so we leave it on the floor in front of us. We have only two small carry-on suitcases and one larger suitcase – not much, when you consider that they hold everything we own at the moment – but they still completely fill the aisle. We brought only what we could carry, and most of our belongings were given away to friends back in Madrid.
I remember my roller blades – pale blue and white, with adjustable sizing to fit my ever-growing feet. I loved to skate around the fountains in Parque Retiro with my friends and show off my fancy roller blades. Helena had those skates now – I didn’t have room for anything so frivolous in my suitcase. And anyway, I hadn’t seen a single tree-lined boulevard where one might skate in our Moroccan guidebook.
An announcement on the overhead speakers rouses me from my thoughts – the boat was finally departing. I glance at my watch, which reads 9:30 am. We’re leaving half-an-hour late, but our train isn’t scheduled to depart until noon, so I’m not worried. As soon as the boat leaves the dock, however, I start to worry – but not about the time. I’ve always had an iron stomach, and I can read while driving down windy roads without getting the least bit nauseated. In fact, I’ve never been car sick, air sick, or sea sick in my life. But I can already tell that even my iron stomach is no match for the rough waters of the Strait of Gibraltar.
Within minutes of leaving the port, the waves are so big that they lap up against the windows. Our suitcases slide each time the ocean heaves, and my mum frantically tries to corral them. Unfortunately, I can’t help her because all of my energy is focused on keeping the contents of my stomach where they belong. Our seats are quite close to the bathroom, which makes for a short run to the toilet if I can’t keep my breakfast down. But, it also means that I am privy to the sounds of the woman inside who has already lost the battle against her stomach… I’m grateful that my mum bought tickets for the faster boat, but I can already tell that even a thirty-minute crossing will prove to be unbearable.
★ ★ ★
Our boat pulls into the dock at 11:30 am sharp. So much for a thirty-minute crossing… We had been told that the trip could be a little longer today due to the waves, but four times as long?! I hate to imagine how long the slower boat must actually take, which claims a crossing of two and a half hours.
The boat takes quite a while to unload, and I begin to wonder if time is measured differently on this continent. I certainly see no sign of the frantic frenzy of energy that all Americans seem to possess. Under normal circumstances, I would doubtlessly appreciate the absence of such needless rushing about, except in this case it will most likely cause us to miss our train. Indeed, we don’t make it out of the ferry terminal until well after 12:00 noon. Seeing as we’ve already missed our train, my mum and I decide to take our time meandering over to the station.
When we arrive, we make a disappointing discovery: despite being directly south of Spain, Morocco is in a different time zone and we’ve only missed our train by a few minutes. Luckily, one of the ticket venders speaks some broken English, and we ask him for help. The next train to Meknes isn’t until 5:00, he says, meaning we wouldn’t reach our final destination – a small town named Moulay Idriss – until after dark. But after some investigation, the man informs us that we can take an earlier train to Sidi Kacem, and then take a taxi the last 40 kilometers to Moulay Idriss. Elated by the good news, my mum eagerly purchases the tickets, and we sit down on a bench to wait.
I step into the train and, for the first time, I am forced to confront the poverty of Morocco with my own eyes. This train looks nothing like those of Europe or the US, which are adorned with cushioned seats, arm rests, and fold-down tables. Instead, a narrow corridor extends down one side of the train, with open doorways revealing cramped compartments. Each compartment is furnished with two wooden benches covered in some sort of bright red (and rather grimy) vinyl material. I hesitantly choose a bench and sit down, wishing desperately that I had a jacket to sit on. But of course, with the temperature at 100 degrees, anything of that sort was buried at the bottom of my suitcase. We hadn’t even pulled out of the station yet, but already this train ride was looking to be no more pleasant than the morning boat ride.
★ ★ ★
“We’re almost here, Mija,” my mum whispers as she nudges me awake. I sit up with a start; I must’ve dozed off on her shoulder without realizing.
“That nice man put his newspaper over the window to keep the sun out of your eyes,” she adds, gesturing to the bench across from us. I glance first at the window and then at the man, who smiles shyly at me. I am immediately overwhelmed with guilt. Here I’ve been worrying about the bench getting my pants dirty, while this man – who doesn’t even know me – has sacrificed his only source of distraction from the boredom of this long train ride just to keep the sun out of my eyes!
“Shukran,” I mumble timidly. My tongue stumbles over the unfamiliar sounds, but he understands me just the same and his face breaks into a grin.
A few moments later, the train screeches to a halt and my mum and I collect our things. As I leave the compartment, I look back at the man and give him a small wave. He beams broadly and waves as I disappear down the corridor.
As we step off the train, I realize that I haven’t eaten a single bite of food since leaving Spain, and that if I don’t eat right this second, I am going to pass out. I tell my mum, and we drag our luggage over to a nearby café. She heads over to the display case of sandwiches, while I plop down into a chair without even bothering to inspect its level of cleanliness first. After witnessing the kindness of that stranger on the train, I have vowed to be less squeamish about the conditions that many others face on a daily basis. Easier said than done, I realize, as my mum places a chicken salad sandwich on the table in front of me.
“I can’t eat that,” I protest, a note of panic creeping into my voice.
“Why not?” asks my mum as she takes an enormous bite of her own chicken salad sandwich.
“It has lettuce on it!” I exclaim indignantly. “It’s been washed with unfiltered water! It’ll make me sick!”
“Nonsense,” responds my mum through a mouthful of food. “I ate lettuce all the time last time that I was in Morocco, and I never got sick.” She nonchalantly takes another bite, but I still eye the plate before me skeptically. Eventually, however, my growling stomach forces me to overcome my fear, and I take a hesitant nibble of the sandwich.
★ ★ ★
Once our hunger is satisfied, we turn our attention to arranging the next leg of our journey. We decide to ask the friendly sandwich seller for advice, but unfortunately, he speaks neither English nor Spanish. Thus, my mum is forced to rely solely on the French she’d learned in high school more than 30 years before.
She asks where to get a taxi to Moulay Idriss and how much we should pay, which is easy enough to do. Understanding the man’s response, however, is another story. With some difficulty (and a bit of charades), my mum is able to determine that we must first take a petit taxi to the taxi stand, and then take a grande taxi to Moulay Idriss. But unfortunately, the sandwich seller is from a town several hours away and has no idea how much we should pay.
As soon as he is confident that we have understood him thus far, the sandwich seller hurries over to a group of men and begins chattering animatedly with them in Arabic. He returns after a few minutes and announces that we should pay the taxi driver exactly 1,000 dirham and not a single coin more. Still not satisfied with his service, the sandwich seller escorts us to a petit taxi and tells the driver exactly where to take us and how much we will be paying him. We thank him profusely, but he waves us off.
“Bon voyage!” he exclaims as our cab peels out of the parking lot at an alarming speed.
★ ★ ★
The petit taxi driver dumps us unceremoniously in a large parking lot and zooms off again. There are a handful of cabs littered throughout the parking lot, although surprisingly they look scarcely bigger than the petit taxi we just vacated. They are certainly no larger than a New York taxi, but here in Morocco, they’re considered a six-passenger vehicle.
“Moulay Idriss?” my mum inquires of the nearest cab driver. The man calls over another driver who leads us to his taxi. This man informs us (in French, of course) that he is going to Moulay Idriss but has only one other passenger so far. We can either wait for three more people bound for Moulay Idriss, or we can each pay a double fare and leave immediately. Realizing that it could be hours until the car was full, we agree to pay the double fare. The third passenger, a large man already comfortably settled in the front seat, agreed as well, and we set off.
“Just as well,” my mum laughs. “I don’t see how they could fit another person in the front seat!”
I spend the first few minutes of the drive thoroughly examining the car’s interior. The fish-print vinyl upholstery is particularly perplexing, until it dawns on me that the driver has used a shower curtain to upholster his car! Finally satisfied with my answer to this peculiar puzzle, I turn my attention to the outside world. I am shocked at what I see.
The dirt “highway” is lined with dusty fields that apparently haven’t seen rain in months. Men, women and children labor out in the sun, despite the 100-degree weather. We rarely see another car, instead passing scrawny donkeys dragging overfilled wooden carts. Many, it seems, can’t even afford a donkey, as we see whole families trudging along the road carrying their belongings.
“This is one of the richest countries in Africa?” I blurt out, eyes wide as saucers.
The grande taxi arrives in a small parking lot at the base of the town, and the driver climbs out and deftly transfers our luggage from the trunk to the street.
“Au revoir!” he sings out as he climbs back into the car and speeds off. I look at my mum with uncertainty and wait for her to take control of the situation. She glances around the lot, which is filled with plenty of cars, motor bikes, donkeys, and wooden carts, but very few people to ask for directions. She notices an old woman nearby and decides to approach her. I had seen very few women since leaving the boat, and the sight of another female helps me relax a little.
“Où est La Colombe Blanche?” my mother asks tentatively. The woman stares at us blankly for a few moments, then turns on her heel and hobbles off without a backward glance. I look at my mum in complete shock.
“I guess she doesn’t speak any French,” my mum says with a small shrug. We turn around in search of someone else to ask and spot a large man hurrying toward us. Without warning, he picks up two of our bags and marches off before we even realize what’s happening. I stand rooted to the ground, watching a stranger make off with everything I own. I turn to my mother in horror.
“He might be a porter,” she responds, attempting to reassure me before grabbing our remaining suitcase and running after the man while shouting “Où est La Colombe Blanche?” Realizing that I am about to be left behind, I shoulder my backpack and try to catch up.
The man turns sharply out of the parking lot and onto a narrow street, and we follow in hot pursuit. I quickly realize why the taxi driver left us in the parking lot. The streets are both too narrow and too steep for a car, and the loose cobblestones and intermittent steps make this town impossible even for a motor bike to navigate.
My mum and I are so focused on our footing that we almost run straight into the man, who has stopped abruptly and dumped our luggage on the ground. He extends his hand and stares at us impatiently. So, he was a porter after all. My mum fishes a handful of dirham from her pocket and gives them to the man, who promptly hurries off without a word.
The porter has deposited us in front of a doorway at the bottom of a very tall and incredibly steep flight of stairs. I glare angrily at the staircase – I am far too tired to drag my suitcase up this colossal mountain of steps. The stairs are indifferent to my animosity, and eventually I am forced to follow my mum up the stairway. In a final act of defiance, I leave my suitcase handle extended and drag it up behind me, letting it thump loudly into each step that dares to offend me with its presence.
At long last we reach the top and the manager of the guest house appears, who is terribly excited at the prospect of guests. His face quickly falls, however, when he realizes that we are looking for La Colombe Blanche. Apparently, this is not the right guest house. My mum apologizes in her broken French and explains that we already have reservations somewhere else. The man says not to worry, and even calls up the manager of La Colombe Blanche to come and get us. Yet again, I am struck by the kindness shown to us by complete strangers here in Morocco. My mum is so grateful that she digs a box of maple sugar candies out of her suitcase and gives it to the man.
My grandfather bought the sweets in Vermont and brought them when he came to visit us in Spain. And now the box has ended up in a provincial town in Morocco. Who would’ve guessed?
After a few minutes, the owner of our guest house arrives, and we thank the first man profusely before dragging our luggage back down the stairs. This new manager has brought along the same porter that carried our luggage before, and I realize that he must be the town porter. The four of us set off again, and my mum and the manager begin conversing in French.
The porter walks more slowly this time, but I still struggle to keep up. I am utterly exhausted and on the verge of tipping over from the weight of my backpack. The loose cobblestones only make this worse, not to mention the precarious stone steps placed at random intervals.
I make a mental note to never leave our guest house alone – provided we even make it there! The streets are so windy and narrow that I lose my sense of direction in mere seconds, and the street signs written in Arabic don’t help at all. French is one of Morocco’s national languages, but I am quickly realizing that it won’t help us much in this tiny town. Not that I even speak French, anyway. Still, it would be nice to have a few street signs with letters that I at least recognize!
We suddenly exit the labyrinth of narrow streets, and I find myself in a crowded market. Everywhere I turn, people are shoving and shouting and clamoring over one another, trying to haggle for the best price on an endless array of food, animals, and other wares. This place may very well be the definition of chaos, and I have never felt so disoriented. Still, I can’t help but grin. There is something so exhilarating about the new and unknown!
I suddenly notice a crowd of people haggling with a fruit vendor, all of whom seem completely oblivious to the thick layer of flies covering the pile of fruit. I cringe and look the other way, praying I didn’t just see tomorrow’s breakfast.
Exhilarating, yes, but still unnerving.
Upon our arrival at La Colombe Blanche, our luggage is whisked upstairs to our room as we are shown to a small table in the living room and served freshly brewed mint tea. The ceiling in this room is three stories high, with balconies running all along the edges of the floors above us – presumably leading into the rooms for rent. The sides of the first floor are lined with tapestries which, when pulled back, reveal a long narrow room carpeted with floor cushions. This seems to be where the family sleeps, although it must get rather crowded at night, as I’ve already seen at least a dozen people passing behind the curtains.
The owner excitedly introduces me to one of his daughters, who is also eleven years old. She smiles sweetly at me, then jabbers to her father in Arabic. He translates her question into French for my mum, who then speaks to me in English.
“His daughter asked if we want to go to a hot spring with their family on Monday morning. How does that sound?”
“Wow,” I think to myself. “This girl has known me for all of 30 seconds and has already invited me on a family outing. Everyone here is so kind!”
“Sure, that would be a really cool experience!” I tell my mum, and the chain of translation resumes, this time in the opposite order.
★ ★ ★
After giving us a few minutes to unpack and settle into our new room, the father serves us dinner on the rooftop terrace. And Lord, what a dinner it is. First a fresh salad followed by a homemade soup, and then a couscous and chicken tagine that must’ve taken hours to prepare. I’ve never tasted anything like this, and I eat until I’m so full my stomach hurts.
Once I can’t take another bite, I walk over to the edge of the terrace and gaze out over the town. This has been undoubtedly the craziest and most chaotic day of my life, but surprisingly, I feel okay. More than just okay, actually. Suddenly, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. How had I missed the majesty of the jagged mountains and crumbling buildings?
Swallows wheel through the sky as the sun sets in a blaze of red. I feel the wind brush across my face, carrying the aromas of exotic spices from the market below. Haunting cries emerge from minarets across the city as the evening call to prayer begins. Never in my life have I heard anything so enchantingly beautiful.
I close my eyes and try to take it all in, to hold this moment forever. A feeling of calm washes over me, and yet I’ve never felt more alive.
Want to know more about my adventures in Morocco? Click here to read all of my posts about this incredible country. Or, if you want to read a similar travel tale, check out this post about how I learned to travel without the FOMO during a two-month backpacking trip across Europe. And for even more, check out all the stories from my travel journal here.