An Impromptu Ride on the Marrakech Express

Two adventurers toss travel schedules out the window as they discover the marketplaces and merchants of Morocco

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

This was to have been a quiet vacation in the south of Spain - my idea. We would drive to the Alhambra, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain; walk scented gardens; and learn about Arab culture.

A toll-studded drive along the coast road from France brought us across the Sierra Nevadas just in time for the last tour, in Spanish (not helpful) and in moonlight (glorious, no translation needed.) By morning, I had located a copy of Washington Irving's "The Alhambra" and was about to settle into a long read.

"Did you know that Morocco is only 12 miles from Spain by ferry?" said my husband. I had heard the sound of the map opening and could see that "got the urge for going" look in his eyes.

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We didn't talk much more about Morocco that day. But every conversation we struck up with other Alhambra visitors seemed to be about Morocco. By noon, we were humming fragments of the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song, "Marrakech Express." By nightfall, Washington Irving didn't have a chance.

A kind hotel clerk in Algeciras, Spain, let us leave the rental car and our now-useless Spanish guidebooks in the parking lot near the ferry. She seemed concerned when we said we were going to Morocco. "It's best to go in a tour group," she advised.

In the end, our tour group found us. We met Shah on the ferry to Tangier. He was a physician from Los Angeles who grew up in India and loved unscripted travel. He also had decided to come to Morocco at the last minute, but at least had managed to buy a guidebook. Dominique and Samantha had planned to hike the Atlas Mountains, but after 10 minutes in Tangier, Samantha was ready to head back to Spain. "A man outside said he would kill me if I didn't give him all my money," she said.

We all decided to share a compartment on the night train to Marrakech, to depart nine hours later. An "official guide" who had walked us from the ferry to the train station offered to show us the old city. "Always negotiate the price in advance," Shah whispered - the first of many useful lessons in a culture where no price is fixed.

For a few dollars apiece, the guide helped us change money and store luggage, both of which required ingenuity. He helped us pass through the phalanx of would-be guides at tourist arrival points in Morocco. (Official guides wear badges and carry identification papers. Don't hesitate to ask.)

Our little tour wound through the twisting streets and alleys of the medina, or old city, where even a map would have been useless. We passed 13th-century mosques and sites from Henri Matisse paintings. Rug merchants served us mint tea, as assistants unfurled Berber carpets.

Toured out hours later, we followed some children carrying towels to the city beach. Dominique joined a soccer game at the water's edge. Samantha tried to join in, but young Moroccans quietly told her that soccer is a game for men.

I asked a family of Muslim women if I could join them. They said they liked talking to foreigners, and rarely had a chance to. I wondered how it was to swim in long pants, a jacket, and a head scarf. They laughed. "The veil is a choice," Meholia said, as her two toddlers clobbered each other with a shovel and pail. "Our daughters will choose for themselves when they are 13 or 14, and, yes, it feels fine." Her mother offered biscuits and a glass of mint tea from a thermos as we watched the sun set.

By the time the night train pulled out of Tangier, we were ready for sleep. In Marrakech, Dominique and Samantha took a bus toward the mountains; Shah stayed on with us to see the city. He arranged for the taxi at the train station.

A cab driver offered to take us to a five-star hotel for a price. Shah waited (the hardest part of a bargain). "No," he said, at last, "That is too much." The driver's eyes lit up; he'd found a tourist who knew how to bargain. A deal was struck: The driver would help us find some place clean, not too expensive, and near the market - the kind of hotel that tourists could never find on their own - for about half the price.

The driver scoffed as he passed the five-star hotels: "Those are for rich people," he said. "I will find you something better."

The hotel we found is not in any guidebook. The $22-a-night room charge was payable in advance, and there was no lotion, shampoo, nor instant shoe-shine kits in the bathroom. No credit cards, no English spoken, no phones, no television, but it was clean, had a fan, and - most important - a small window looking out on an inner courtyard.

We were also brilliantly located at the edge of the Jemaa el Fna square and miles of souks beyond. By midmorning, only the snake charmers, the fortune tellers, and a few dozen juice vendors had set up shop in and around the main square. But the souks beyond were already teeming. Donkeys, carts, bicycles, scooters, cows, sheep, porters, vendors, shoppers in veils and shoppers in Reeboks all made their way along twisted alleyways, sheltered from the sun by slats of wood overhead that streaked dark passages with shafts of light.

Here you find meticulously ordered racks of spices or heaps of mint, cooling under wet canvas; around the next bend, ceramics, silks, rugs, silver jewelry, antique doors, carved cedar boxes, tooled leather bags, brilliantly colored robes, perfumes, plastic shoes, fresh-cut cacti, tart olives, baskets, leather camels with sequins for eyes, or henna for tattoos on hands and feet, "so your husband will love you," we were told.

My husband, it seemed, had just offered to trade me for five camels. "I think you're worth more than that," said a rug merchant, with a smile that you rarely see in Western cities - a smile that takes a while to get there and then lingers on.

At dusk, the huge square outside the souks fills up with food vendors, dishing up stewed meats, fried fish, couscous, and lentil soups, served with wooden spoons and accompanied by dark spiced confections. Other diners, in to trade from the countryside, made room for us on wooden benches. Shah moved from bench to bench, eating heartily of all but the stewed meats, while we slunk off to a restaurant.

The next day, our group split up for the last time. Shah stayed on in Marrakech to bargain for rugs (the merchants probably ended up paying him to take them), and we moved on to Fez. But he would have been pleased with our progress: We found our own "official guide," bargained for taxis, and bargained again to reduce our hotel rate.

No need to tell Shah that the hotel was up on a hill, away from the old city. It was not five-star (we had some pride), but had hot water, took credit cards, and provided soap.

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