Taste of Morocco

Morocco is my ex-lover; the one with whom I had nothing in common except an overwhelming chemical need to be intimate; the ultimate bad boy whose vibrant unpredictability: alternating charm, admiration and disapproval, threw me off balance and woke up my dormant carnal desires.

Like many muddled relationships, my recent trip there was an impulse. After traipsing through France and Spain for a few weeks, I disembarked the ferry in Tangier a bit travel weary. My guide book warned the cabbies would descend, and they did; but I wasn’t prepared for the shoving match two of them got into while I stood there with my small (but comparatively heavy) roll-away yelling, “HEY. HEY THERE. KNOCK IT OFF!” And, I certainly wasn’t prepared when the winner of the match drove into the medina, an ancient walled city, and dropped me in front of a steep set of concrete steps. “Your hotel is up there,” snatched the bill from my hand, gave me half the change I was owed and sped off before I could demand the proper amount. Welcome to Morocco.

The guide book also warned of touts who vie for travelers’ money, pick pockets, and wily rug salesmen. It reminded us to be respectful of the Muslim customs and to dress with modesty. It described Morocco as ‘like no place else on earth.’ Boy howdy. What it didn’t, well, couldn’t prepare me for was the overwhelming masculinity of the place. Don’t let anybody kid you. That isn’t just smog from environmentally unfriendly vehicles hovering over Casablanca; I submit that it is, in equal measure, a musky layer of testosterone-aromatherapy on a grand scale.

“Where the hell am I is what I was thinking as I bumped my suitcase up the stairs into the dim, labyrinth of the medina to the Riad Tanja, hoping they had a room because I was told it had a bar and a good shower-not givens in this mostly Muslim country with public bath houses. I rang the bell. After a few minutes a pretty young woman wearing jeans answered the door. “Good morning.” She greeted me. And, yes, they had a room.

It was sweet. Wooden shutters opened onto a balcony with a sweeping view of an active market where you could buy anything from stockings to livestock. On a low round table surrounded by colorful leather ottomans was a lovely china plate with individually wrapped cookies, a silver teapot and china cups.
“Would you like tea?” The man who showed me to my room asked.
“No. I’d like a big shot of Irish whiskey. I was just ripped off by the cabbie and am reconsidering my sanity.” But what I said was.
Yes, please, that would be perfect.” And I felt myself relax.

After I sipped the sweet mint tea and was assured that CNN came through on the TV I wandered out: first to the market and then through the medina’s dim, narrow alleyways. Other than the day trippers from Spain the only women I saw were shopping or selling stuff. There were none in the cafes or restaurants. In Tangier, most Moroccan women wear conservative caftans or jellabas and cover their heads. I felt conspicuous, as if I’d been cast into the wrong movie or run aground on the Isle of Macho.

As I eyed a rack of brightly dyed, pointy toed shoes the proprietor asked, “How are you today?” Is this your first time to Tangier?”
“Yes. It’s my first time in Morocco.”
“Welcome to my country.”
“Thank you.
“You vote for Obama or McCain?”
And so it went. When they had determined that I was an American, everyone wanted to know. Obama was hope for the world it seemed and no more so than Africa, the land of his father, where men are men and unquestionably powerful.

More than once I was reminded by Moroccans that their country was America’s friend. A shop keeper held two fingers together. “We are like this, America and Morocco. Friends. You understand?” Really I didn’t. Truthfully I hadn’t read enough history to understand our alliance with this country-a sad truth that sold us both short.

That evening I dined in the formal dining room of the hotel. I had no idea what to expect because couscous was the only word I understood on the menu. Entrée A or B? O.K. B. I ordered a bottle of red wine. A basket of bread and a plate of assorted olives was set in front of me. A few minutes later small bowls of salads with names like: zaalouk, pepper taktouka, and the obvious: carrots, beets, potato, something mushy green which turned out to be cucumber- and so on until there were six. Six salads, bread warm from the oven, olives and wine. I was full when the entrée arrived in a covered earthen bowl. When the waiter lifted the cover off steam fogged my glasses. In front of me simmered a round section of leg about three inches thick and 6 inches in diameter-the bone dead center.

It was my first lesson in Morocco. Pace yourself, eat slowly: appreciate the unexpected, the colors, the crunchy, the mushy, the spicy, the sweet, and the savory; even the steaming when it fogs your vision.

The next morning I woke before most of the city. When I opened the shutters a vendor in a blue shirt across the large vacant lot between the hotel and the market was rinsing and shaking dry large bunches of vibrant green herbs and placing them in a wooden tub for sale. He spotted me and waved. I waved back. That simple gesture made me feel welcome – like I was a part of the day, the city that I had just met, that I had just begun to explore.

Weaving among bins of spices, heady aromas, and traffic-both foot and vehicle, I lost myself in the past and present. I bargained for shoes, small brightly colored leather handbags for my friends, and what I hope is an authentic fossil. I spent a few quiet moments of reflection among the British souls buried in the graveyard of St. Andrews Church, a small, lovely Anglo-Moorish building nestled behind a busy street where women sell cooked eggplant and handicrafts. I rested on the bench in the Grand Socco, a vibrant park surrounded by a traffic circle that is the main entrance to the medina, and emailed my family from the Cyber Café.

In the market a man buying what looked like a slice of fried mush pancake from a street vendor encouraged me to try it. “It is very good, he said, you have some.” OK. I paid my 50dh-about 60 cents and was handed a piece of brown paper with the delicious hot-surprise- fried corn meal mush on top. I scrapped the paper with my finger to get every morsel.

That afternoon I searched in vain for the hamman; the public bathhouse found in every Moroccan city. My guide book said it was in the medina but except for one that reserved a few hours each day for women, and I was too late, I came up empty. Frustrated, I asked a shop owner if he knew of it. Because I am an American in Morocco and it is assumed that I have money, I was directed to the Le Misbah, a five star hotel with a European spa where for big bucks I could be soaked, gromaged, and massaged privately. And, because they were right and traveling takes its toll on the body and constant vigilance of ones stuff on the mind, I succumbed.

After I was sufficiently steamed a young woman began the gromage- a vigorous scrubbing with a green glove reminiscent of the scouring pads we use to scrub stubborn stains from our cooking pots-intended to remove the first layer of epidermis from my body, then finally, and mercifully I might add, I was finally massaged and able to relax.

I followed my indulgence with a glass of red wine and a sandwich in Caid’s bar, a spacious cosmopolitan 30s place complete with a grand piano but, while I was there had a CD of the Eagles’ Hotel California playing. My waiter, a tall handsome young man wearing a white uniform, with a sash, red turban type hat and the Moroccan pointed shoes made me feel I was in one of the movies made in the 30s& 40s when the hotel hosted politicians, mercenaries, secret agents and other cigar smoking WWII dealmakers.

The three days I spent in Tangier only whetted my appetite. I was hungry for a full complex Moroccan meal; one that would indulge my senses, my intellect, and my understanding of this amazing complex country that dates back further than 100,000 years BC; whose nomadic, brave, and resilient Berbers have prevailed against all odds, where ancestors from the Phoenicians, Romans, Carthaginians, Africans, and Arabs (among others) still live.

I decided to head south to Casablanca on the train, with plans to stop at various cities and towns along the way. The first stop would be Asilah, a small beach town an hour or so south of Tangier. I sat with five Moroccans in a small, enclosed 2nd class compartment. The only other woman, who was traveling with her husband, had intricately hennaed hands and feet. We had no common language except for a young man who asked, “You vote for Obama or McCain?” But it didn’t matter; we all smiled and shared our cramped space comfortably.

As the country side sped by the window I marveled that I was on the continent of Africa, venturing alone into unknown experiences, excited like a five year old wondering what surprise Santa had for me, but knowing that because I’m not a child the few weeks ahead would most likely be complex: frustrating, rewarding, complicated, nerve-wracking and fulfilling. I was right. They were all that and then some but it was still just a taste. I will go back to Morocco soon for I am hungry for more. And, I will pace myself.