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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 / January 8, 1997


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.

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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.

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.