Before I would discover that I needed a pre-obtained visa to go to Mauritania, I took some time to relax in Morocco's Dades Gorge. Two rubbly mountains climbed straight up to surround the trickling Dades River, like halves of a shark's mouth about to clamp shut. I wrote a poem here. When I told my friend, via e-mail, that I'd mentioned her in my poem, she seemed impressed that I wrote poetry.
"Wow! You're free like an eagle," she said.
And maybe she was right. I traveled to wherever I wanted to on my map, lived in my tent, and spent only $5 a day.
But, when I found out I'd need to return to the north to acquire my Mauritanian visa in the Moroccan capital, it was as if someone had shoved a stick in the spokes of my bike tire. It was as if a malicious ornithologist had clipped my eagle wings.
(My brother Brandon wouldn't clip an eagle's wings, though. He was the type of ornithologist who loved birds. And he'd just landed a good job in Oregon! It looked like one of us Breen Brothers was finally going to settle down. No more chasing after exotic birds for him! From now on, he'd be counting the same birds ... over and over.)
As for me, I wandered around Morocco like a human yo-yo, not knowing which way to go. I followed an exotic woman to an exotic town one day, for lack of anything better to do.
"Bonjour. Ca va?" her full lips had greeted me. I tied my necklace around the darkish skin of her neck, beneath the white bandana covering her hair. She'd asked for the necklace. We couldn't communicate verbally. In a graceful motion, she flicked her finger downwards. I obeyed and followed her.
Leaving the town we were in, we walked upon orange sand beneath round palm trees. I didn't know where she was taking me. Suddenly, an earthy castle which seemed to praise the heavens appeared before us. The crumbly castle rose to uneven heights without pattern, and it seemed they might start falling down on us. We walked among this living ruin. Small rectangular holes all over it let in air. Solitary brown or green doors led into the mud. My guide opened one.
It was dark inside. Mud surrounded the crude cubes serving as rooms. A winding staircase connected the three (or more?) floors of this woman's home. I sat on carpets in one room. Cabinets of tea sets, televisions, and an upside-down whale poster filled one corner.
The woman - named Fatima Hamoudou - brought me olive oil, bread, a heavy sesame-seed spread, and tea. Her big eyes silently watched me. I sat beside her.
She had two children but no husband. She explained to me she needed to get one or two teeth pulled. She had me feel what seemed to be a tumor in her stomach. She seemed depressed and asked if I'd take her to France. She asked for my bracelet. I tied it on her. I tried to kiss her. She refused. I asked if I could see her hair, and she slid her bandana back just enough so I could see her hairline.
I would eat first, and then I would leave, she explained. She served us a hot dish in a tagine: potatoes, carrots, a spicy orange pepper, and some chicken meat. Without speaking, she inquired if I had sun-glasses, rings, or earrings. I gave her: an Arabic kids' book, a photo of myself, and the rest of my "amlou" (a delicious paste made of almonds, honey, and argan oil.) She gave me a picture of her son who I'd never met, which was rather weird.
She led me downstairs and out, through the crumbling mysterious city.
I needed to learn Arabic.
But, it was impossible. The Moroccan dialect resembled the classical Arabic I'd been learning, little more than English resembled German. It even had a different grammar. I wanted to speak to the Moroccans in their language. But, it was difficult for me to find books in the local dialect "darijah" - if such books existed at all.
One driver of mine had told me about the "muharabet oumia". This free public school, whose name meant "to fight illiteracy", taught adults how to read and write. I could join it, my driver said. I imagined myself being taught Arabic, in a classroom beside shepherds and peasant women. It sounded like the perfect fit for me.
In a small town, I sought out and found a muharabet oumia. But, I received bad news. The school wasn't operating during the summer months. Darn!
My efforts to learn Moroccan would represent my greatest, and perhaps only, linguistic failure. Oh, well ...
There was nothing left for me to do but go to Morocco's capital and get the Mauritanian visa so I could continue south towards my destination of Guinea-Bissau.
I would have to pay for the visa; sleep in a hotel; find my way to the embassy; and then pay for public transportation to take me from the city to a good hitchhiking position. Arrrgh! I'd been reduced from an eagle to a chicken. Governments and their laws were good at doing that to people. Why weren't we humans free!?
I had other options. I could've tried to enter Mauritania illegally; but, since the whole country was just desert, soldiers, and landmines, this wasn't a realistic option. I could've tried to work as crew on a yacht going directly from Morocco to Senegal. I would've been free like a dolphin - in my case, a dolphin prone to sea-sickness. I might've wasted a long time searching for a yacht, though.
In basketball, I'd learned to: "Go to the hoop!" Even though it was crowded and uncomfortable near the hoop, that was the place to get things done. Using similar logic, I traveled to the Moroccan capital to make the stupid fricking Mauritanian visa.
In the capital city, I met a girl I liked. She sometimes played soccer with the guys on the beach. And she wrote me a short letter in Moroccan Arabic.
I learned I could rent a two-story apartment for $200 a month, in an old medina enclosed by an orangish castle wall. I could teach English by day, and sit on my apartment's roof at night, watching the ocean splash the rocks below me. I could swim across a clean river to the neighboring town and walk around its beaches. I felt good in the Moroccan capital, Rabat. Maybe I should stay a while?
I went to pick up my visa.
Oh? It was only valid for a month - not a year, like I'd requested. Well, I didn't want to waste it. So, I guess I wouldn't be spending any more time in Rabat. Darn. The stupid visa restrictions had altered my life again! Why did we need embassies, border guards, policemen? For security? Only cowards and unnaturally rich people needed security. We needed education and dreams, not security.
So, I had the goddamned f***ing visa. And I would begin moving in the direction of Mauritania.
So, I hadn't learned Moroccan Arabic. Nor had I settled in one place and tried to work in the country. Thus, I didn't come to know Morocco's deepest, darkest secrets. And it was a complex and complicated country.
But, I had learned enough to release my findings. My slaved-over research. My Masters thesis. My pHd. in Moroccology. My MODERN ODDYSEUS' TOP 5!!!, if you will.
The Top 5 Worst Things about Morocco! should tell you something about the difficulties of visiting/living in Morocco ...
1. DISTANCE BETWEEN THE GENDERS -
In conservative societies, life was less interesting. Women with their hair wrapped up expressed less personality and seemed repressed. In the cars I hitchhiked in, men never gave me the names of the wives beside them.
Young people in big cities like Casablanca and Rabat were more liberal.
2. TOURISM -
There was often a purely materialistic, and often aggressive, exchange between the locals and visitors.
3. THE INESCAPABLE HEAT OF THE DESERT
4. CORRUPT POLICE IN THE DESERT
5. MATERIALISTIC -
Women sought men with money. Men liked to show they had money.
In a possibly related matter, Moroccans read little. They seemed to have their TVs on constantly. Boo, television!
Moroccans were very open, though, and I had great conversations with many - including a gentle dentist who said his future bride must be a virgin, and two young guys who frequented brothels.
HONORABLE MENTION included SUGARY TEA AND DENTAL NEGLECT, and ALWAYS GIVEN PLASTIC BAGS.
The Top 5 Best Things about Morocco! should give you several reasons to visit the country. Five reasons, to be exact. Or nine ...
1. THE ANCIENT MEDINAS
2. LAKES TIZLIT AND ISLAY -
Of course, not every community in Morocco was materialistic. The Berber culture in this area was one example.
4. THE SOUQS -
I loved shopping for olives, almonds, chewy figs with their ant-like seeds, dates which resembled cockroaches, honeydew melons, healthy lime juice, etc.
5. TAGINE -
In addition to this steaming dish, Moroccans specialized in couscous. Almost everyone ate couscous on Fridays.
The wet grains shifted and conformed perfectly to my mouth. They didn't even taste too much like sand. I enjoyed a couscous that included steamed beef, onions, and orange squash.
HM included the town of ESSAOUIRA ... LONG FLOWING ROBES, SLIPPERS, AND CARPETS ... THE TAP-WATER, which I drank without problem ... and, IT'S A SAFE COUNTRY.
Welcome to Morocco. Merhaba!
My next destination was the gnaoua music festival in Essaouira.
Wish me luck!
Thanks to Hamid the taxi driver; Abdul-Hatif; Bouhda Mouhamid Amin; Haddou; Soufiane & Abdu; Vincent & Susana; Vincent & Susana, again; Ahmed Tahiri; Said Aloued; Mouhamed & Iman Kabiri; Ouhjite Ali 272; Abdu-Salam; Abderrahmane Salmi; Ahmed & Fatima; and Abdel-Ileh Chouar & Nujud for rides!
Much thanks to Aziz; and Lucas, again, for places to sleep!