Monday, December 12, 2011

The Marrakesh Express

The thousands of songs Joe loaded on his iPod and that we play through the car radio have kept us company on our long road trips. With such a wide selection, he always manages to come up with the perfect music for every leg of our trip. Feeling adventurous, enthusiastic and I’ll admit it, a little anxious, we headed southeast from Portugal towards the Spanish coast belting Marrakesh Express along with Crosby, Stills and Nash (

     Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
     Traveling the train through clear Moroccan skies...

Our destination is actually Fes, and not Marrakesh, but the song captured our mood just the same. Fes, the holiest city in Morocco (a plodding 5-hour train ride from the port city of Tangier), is many fewer hours south than the distant Marrakesh (an interminable 11-hour trip, usually done overnight), so we chose to visit the closer city.

     Ducks and pigs and chickens call
     Animal carpet wall to wall
     American ladies five-foot tall in blue...

Our passage across the Straits of Gibraltar from Tarifa was a different story; it was anything but slow. Most of our speedy hour-long crossing to Tangier on the fast-ferry was spent waiting on line to have our papers checked and passport stamped. Looking at and listening to our fellow passengers, we believe we were the only Americans aboard. A few were Spanish, but most were holding Moroccan passports and speaking Arabic. Our hearts were beating just a little faster and we took some deep cleansing breaths as we loaded up our backpacks, pulled our luggage from the rack and made our way onto African soil.

     Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
     Had to get away to see what we could find...

The incessant haggling and our repeated, firm non, merci, in response, began the moment we stepped onto the ferry ramp. A half dozen men in colorful djellebas, the traditional long Moroccan robes with pointed hoods worn by both men and women, offered insistently to help with our bags as we made our way up several steep switchback inclines, over an elevated platform and then down a final ramp to the chaotic taxi zone.

     Hope the days that lie ahead
     Bring us back to where they've led
     Listen not to what's been said to you...

We were immediately approached by several taxi-drivers offering their services, but one who spoke clear English stood out. Once he agreed to take euros (we hadn’t yet withdrawn any Moroccan dirham), we accepted. He quickly helped us load our bags in his cab and before we knew it, we were whisked away through the streets of Tangier towards the brand new, modern railway station.

     Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express
     Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express
     They're taking me to Marrakesh
     All aboard the train, all aboard the train...

The offers of help with our bags resumed at the station but we continued to decline the assistance in both languages of Morocco, having learned how to say no thank you in Arabic from our helpful cab driver: our non, mercis and la shukrans were incessant. Once in the station lobby, however, we were left alone since the Police Touristique do whatever they can to protect travelers inside from being hassled.

     I've been saving all my money just to take you there
     I smell the garden in your hair...

Our two first-class fares for the 303 kilometer trip to Fes were only $30 total. First class bought us reserved seats in a cabin with six passengers rather than the eight in second class (just slightly less expensive). Signs indicated that they accepted credit cards, but as our Frommer guide had warned us, when we presented our MasterCard, there was the inevitable excuse for why we had to pay cash. A frequent explanation is that the machine is out of paper (!), but in our case, the ticket agent informed us that the system was down. We wondered whether the system was ever up and then paid for the tickets with the dirhams we had just withdrawn from the ATM outside the station.

     Take the train from Casablanca going south
     Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth my mouth...

The Moroccan trains are labeled “express” but they’re definitely not fast – no high-speed TGV bullet trains on this leg of our trip. Within about 20 minutes we were in the hinterlands outside Tangier and Joe and I simultaneously turned to each other and said, “We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.” At every train crossing on unpaved roads, a colorful parade of beat-up jalopies, horse-drawn carts carrying multiple passengers and a jumble of wares, donkeys burdened with baskets overflowing with miscellaneous cargo and pedestrians in dusty djellebas waited patiently for the train to slowly pass. Dogs and cats freely roamed and sheep and goats grazed on nonexistent grass alongside the tracks with nothing to prevent them from wandering into the path of the train. A never-ending trail of debris and abandoned junk lined the shallow gully that paralleled the track. How could the few people who live in these desolate places possibly generate so much garbage?

     Colored cottons hang in the air
     Charming cobras in the square
     Striped djellebas we can wear at home...

Our compartment companions were three Moroccan women in their twenties. One was dressed conservatively and talked incessantly, using her headscarf as a hands-free device for holding her cell phone tight to her ear. Our other two fellow travelers were Morocco’s answer to the women from The Jersey Shore. Their chunky bodies were sausaged into their tight dark outfits, they had long black hair รก la Snooky, pouf and all, they wore high leather boots and one spent hours applying thick layers of makeup. The tableau of the three young passengers sitting across from us was completely incongruous with what we witnessed outside the train window. Which Morocco was genuine and which one would we encounter in Fes? At a stop about an hour outside our destination, a lumpy man in glasses joined us in our compartment. He chatted a bit in Arabic with the young women and then asked us in accented English where we were from. Since I was sitting next to him, he struck up a conversation with me, alternating between English and French once he discovered that I spoke the latter. When he found out that we were going to Fes, he immediately related that he had been there the prior week with his brother and sister-in-law from Toronto, that they had enjoyed a wonderful visit and that their guide was excellent. We had been advised by every guidebook that the only sensible way to see the Fes medina (the warren of narrow lanes inside the ancient city walls and the largest in the world) and to guarantee safe passage back to your hotel was with a local guide. Our new friend was a gentle soul who shared with me all the medina sights they’d seen (“My sister-in-law Florence, who looks just like you, was amazed at all the guide showed them and for such a low price...only 250 dirham”). Before I knew it, he had called the guide (Mohammed was his name, of course) and handed the phone to me. After promising multiple times that I would call the guide when we arrived at our hotel, I passed the phone back to our friend and thanked him. He wrote Mohammed’s phone number in my Frommer book and continued to wax poetic about the virtues of the guide until we arrived at Meknes, his stop. We said our goodbyes, shook hands and as the train pulled away from the station, there he was on the platform, searching for us and waving goodbye. It had been a nice encounter.

     Well, let me hear you now
     Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express

We arrived in Fes in the late afternoon, descended from the train and then dragged our bags over the makeshift dirt path that bumped across the tracks and into the station. Over the course of the five-hour journey as scenes of Morocco unfolded outside our train window, we very quickly realized the extent of the adventure we were in for. We took another deep breath and then headed for the throng of taxis on the street, eager but tentative about what we would find, deep in the heart of Morocco.

     Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express
     They're taking me to Marrakesh...

Pictures of our adventures:

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