As soon as I had gotten off the ferry from Spain in Tangier, an enterprising guide had brought me to a rundown hotel in Tangier not far from the harbor. We were like cattle being brought to slaughter – we had no idea where we were going but we were willing to be led.
The smell of hashish, marijuana, and other scents was everywhere – I am pretty sure it wasn’t just incense and patchouli. It gave the arrival area a mysterious and exotic sense and set the tone for my visit to Morocco. It was a little like Alice passing through the mirror.
In Europe there were lots of people who looked and dressed like me. In some ways that social ethic forced you to conform and act like people around you. But when everyone looked entirely different, you needed to be more conscious of what you were doing because you were the odd one here. Clothes looked more like robes, not the European style pants and shirts I was used to. Food was also different, more hands on and dipping.
I spent a couple days wandering the narrow streets in the market inside the casbah. There were sellers of clothing, fruits, and vegetables. I was enjoying this new world and was getting a fresh start and a fresh perspective of my travels.
The cultural differences were enlightening. Like most college students of the day, I had tried marijuana. Now I tried hashish which seemed everywhere, in fact Morocco is one of the largest producers of cannabis and hashish in the world, if not the largest. It was “officially” illegal but that was not a law that ever seemed to be enforced and there was open use of these products everywhere. And apparently there had been for centuries.
This made Morocco an attractive haven for youth and student travellers. They were what the locals called “Hippies.” This also explained the crowds of hashish sellers that surrounded the young people getting off the ferries.
Tangier is very old, dating back to 1000 BCE. More recently, after WWI, it had gained a reputation for being an international city and with little or no regulation. It was a crossroads and attracted diplomats, spies, bohemians, writers, money changers and businessmen. Many a modern fortune started with a displaced person trading in Tangier.
I arrived bearing a fancy new aluminum frame backpack that made me stand out like a foreigner, even more than I probably did. I found a merchant who was willing to trade my pack for one that was less ostentatious, that blended in with the other travellers around. I also got a leather bag, which I still have to this day; I mailed that back to my family from Morocco.
I found some wood and nails and made the loose backpack into a sturdier piece that more easily supported my things. Later, I was glad I had made the trade because the aluminum frame pack would have made me a target for theft, maybe getting ambushed – I was a lone traveller.
There were beaches on the Atlantic, just to the west of the city. I decided to move south along the Atlantic coast from the more Spanish influenced north to the more French influenced centre and south of the country. The beaches were beautiful. I stayed in hostels either on the ocean front, or nearby. The fresh ocean breezes coming in off the Atlantic were invigorating.
My first stop was Rabat, the capital city only a few hours south. There I met a very hospitable Moroccan family who were amused to meet someone from the US who could speak to them in French. They opened their home to me, and I stayed with them for 3 or 4 days. We even went to the horse-races together.
I was becoming more immersed in the locations where I found myself. I was transitioning from being a tourist to being a traveller, not just looking at things as an outsider but starting to dive in deeper and experience the lives of people, eating what they ate, going where they went.
In Rabat, I realized that it would be easier to get to Algiers and Tunisia over land and then cross the Mediterranean to Sicily to be able to get to my mail in Rome. Rabat, as the capital, had embassies and I was able to get visas for Algeria and Tunisia.
Before I left Morocco, though, I wanted to see a little more of the country. Rabat is in the north; even though it is in Africa it is about the same latitude as South Carolina. So, I headed further south.
I passed through Casablanca – without visiting Rick’s Café Américain. The movie was over long ago, and I wasn’t looking for the usual postcard photo opportunities. From there I headed south to Marrakesh, the Red City, so named for its walls.
Marrakesh is very well known but at the time only had about 300,000 population. It was decidedly French which suited my needs very well. It is in the Atlas Mountains in a river valley so not nearly as humid as Rabat or Casablanca on the coast. The mountains around it were beautiful.
I explored the souk and wandered the city for a couple uneventful days. In one of the souks, I decided to purchase a djellaba. The djellaba is a loose robe worn over whatever you want to wear underneath.
It has longish sleeves, a hood and pockets. It drapes over your entire body down to your ankles. It protects you from the wind, sand and sun. Mine had vertical stripes, a pretty common motif.
The djellaba also worked well as a sleeping garment when I was forced to sleep outdoors because there was no accommodation nearby or if I simply wanted to.
Now, after some beach days on my way south that darkened my skin a little, wearing a djellaba, carrying a Moroccan style backpack and speaking French, I didn’t appear to be just another étudiant américain.