Morocco 1998


We start planning our September 1998 trip to Morocco a year earlier, as soon as I finish my masters degree. Craig was in Tangier, on the coast, in the late ’70s while travelling around the Mediterranean. This will be my first time in Morocco and my first time on the African continent.

The routing is Vancouver – Paris – Casablanca. All summer we monitor the status of an impending Air Canada pilots’ strike, worried that our trip will be affected. Sure enough, two days before we are due to fly, the strike is announced. FCUK!!!

On the day of our flight we go the airport anyway and join the hundreds of others scrambling to get out of YVR. Without even discussing options we implicitly agree that we will not go home from the airport. We will go wherever we can get to.

We find a flight to LA, where we spend a day and then get a flight from there to Paris. Our visa card takes a hit, but we are determined to have this trip. Eventually Air Canada reimburses us, but, more importantly, we get to Casa Blanca. From there the Marrakech Express takes us south to the famed Berber city on the edge of the Atlas mountains.

In Marrakech we find the Grand Hotel Tazi, centrally located, inexpensive and very atmospheric. A bit run down. Plumbing and bathroom appalling. A solid 2.5 stars.

It’s a short walk to the Jmaa el Fna, the main square, and the souk, the labyrinthine old shopping area behind the square. At night the square which becomes a huge night market. Food. Crafts. Entertainment. Music. We feast, wander and love the scene.

We rent a car in Marrakech and head south into the Atlas Mountains, to the desert on the other side. Driving down the road we listen to Arabic gibberish on the radio. The news casts make no sense whatsoever apart from a few words. Salam alaikum, God be with you. Shukran, welcome.

We begin to notice that the news blabber is being increasingly interrupted by blah, blah, blah, Bill Clinton, blah, blah, blah, Monica Lewinsky. All over Morocco. Blah, blah, blah, Bill Clinton, blah, blah, blah, Monica Lewinsky. We guess something is going on between the two?! That turns out to be an understatement.

We visit two towns: Ouarzazat and Zagora. Outposts of civilization. Two nice hotels with swimming pools for around $50/night, which, at that time, is at the top end of our budget.

Market day in Zagora is a treat. We buy carpets and jewellery. Watching the market-goers pack their cars and head south further into the desert at the end of the day, we are tempted to follow them into the dunes. But without guides, it is likely dangerous.

Instead of going south into the desert, we head north to Fez, the capital of Morocco, and old medieval city. The architecture and tiling here are exquisite. The food delicious. At our hotel in Fez I have the bowl of soup that will become the inspiration for my own curried lentil soup.

At the train station in Fez, we are met by a young man named Mohammed. Says he has a taxi, which is not, of course, a taxi at all but rather a private car. The guidebooks warn about this kind of scam, but he seems like a nice guy and offers to be our guide. When we ask the price, he says we can pay him what we want at the end of our time with him. A deal we can’t refuse.

He asks about our budget and takes us to a perfect hotel, offering to return later and take us to a restaurant. The evening restaurant is great. As is the tour the next day. He knows where we want to go and how to get there and his restaurant picks are spot-on.

He notices I am not married, asks about it, and starts talking about how unhappy he is in Morocco. The only way out is by marrying a foreigner. A fake marriage, for sure. He is already married to Sani. Once in the country of exile for long enough for him to get a residency card, there is a divorce and he brings Sani over.

At first I can’t quite believe what he seems to be suggesting. He wants to marry me and come to Canada with us. He tells us the story of a Finnish tourist last year who agreed to go along with his scheme, but he backed out because Finland is too close to Russia. Where he really wants to go is Canada.

He wants us to come to his apartment for sweets the last night we are in Fez. He offers to come and pick us up later, after dinner and take us to his place. I am nervous because we have turned his marriage proposal down. But we like him and don’t want to hurt his feelings, so we go. He is so proud of his small apartment in a cinder block building on the outskirts of town. His mother lives in the same building. He is so proud of Sani and the sweets she has prepared for us. I take a group shot so I can remember them. I wish we could have helped him.

We have a few unplanned days at the end of the trip and decide to go to the Atlantic coast, to a town called El Jadida. To this day that name has become code-word for a very bad travel experience. “It was a real El Jadida” is one of the worst insults we could hurl at a place. The beach is 4 ft high in garbage, for miles along the shore. The town is run down and broken. We see very few women. Mostly young men loitering in groups with boom boxes, drinking beer and making noise. Our hotel is a bit away from the fray and we are afraid walking after dark.

A large cockroach makes an appearance that night high up on the wall in the corner of the room. Craig throws something at it and hits it when it drops to the floor. Craig gives chase as it runs around the room. He hits it a few times with his flip-flop but the thing does not die. It runs in my direction and I jump up on the bed pulling the covers over my head. In so doing, I break the bed.

We have to get a new room. Craig winks at the desk clerk when he explains that the bed is broken.

We leave town early the next morning and go to Casablanca for a few days. I develop a bad stomach bug. The pain is so bad that I take enough codeine to knock myself out right as the cab arrives to take us to the beach outside of Casablanca for the last three nights. Once at the new hotel Criag has to drag me out of the cab, up the walk to the reception and down the hall to the elevator. The bell boy carries our bags and Craig drags me. No doubt the hotel staff wonder what the *(!@#$%^&*&%$#@ is going on. For three days I lay in bed, getting out only to go to the loo. What does Craig do? Eat, drink beer, walk the beach.

We fly home through Paris, where I am still not well. It’s raining. Craig walks at night in the Latin Quarter and along the Boulevard St. Germain. Not the best way to end a vacation, but Morocco will remain in our trip pantheon as a wonderful introduction to Africa and the Arab world. We’d love to go back, but other places beckon and since the Arab Spring of 2010, the general unrest in northern Africa and the incursion of ISIS into Mali, to the south, we’re less keen.

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