Marrakesh really drew me in to the experience of travelling. I was feeling very in tune with the bustle of the Jemaa el-Fna Plaza, the range of new foods to taste, the smells of charcoal, cooking meats and incenses burning, the sounds of voices shouting, haggling, singing and every so often snatches of music or wailing calls to prayer. Like marketplaces since the beginning of civilization it contrived to touch every sense I had. It was intoxicating.
It was so different from the clean supermarket aisles with pumped in music back home.
After three or four days, though, I came back down to earth. I remembered my mail was waiting for me in Rome and it had now been on hold for a month.
I didn’t know what might be there, but I still felt a pull to keep in contact with my friends and family back home.
The surest way to Rome was to take the train from Marrakesh to Rabat, and then to Algiers. The Moroccan train system was a parting gift from the French. Getting to the train station itself was interesting in Marrakesh, narrow streets turned into alleys. You had to wind your way through 5 or 6 kilometers to the other side of the city to get to the train station.
I had contacted the family I met in Rabat to tell them I was passing through on the train to Algeria and they invited me to over night at their home.
It was a welcome relief after the half day train travel through the dry rugged landscape with a stop in Casablanca. Again, I did not stop to visit Rick’s Café Américain for a photo, nor did I see Ingrid Bergman or anyone who looked like her. The Moroccan railway trains might have been made in France, and the experience was similar to riding a train in Europe, but these trains were old and swung and clacked as they very slowly wound their way along.
Leaving Rabat in the morning, the train swayed north along the coast before turning inland through hills, past town after town, each with a mosque and minarets. We slowed and climbed through the mountains that defined the Maghreb. In Rabat, I got a domestic ticket which was much less expensive than an international one to Algeria. The train would take me to the town of Oujda on the Moroccan border with Algeria. It was a full day’s ride to Oujda.
After we had passed deeper into the interior through these hills, we emerged into a wide flat farming area where crops had been sown and were coming up green. Things got greener as we moved northeast toward the Mediterranean. The heat was a constant and the trains were not air conditioned as they might have been in Europe. I reminded myself, I was in Africa.
The train came to a stop at the Moroccan border town of Oujda, which was in an extension of the Atlas Mountains. Oujda was a crossroads. There was a small amount of traffic coming north from the endless Sahara up to the coast. Oujda was also the east-west connection point between Morocco and Algeria. I was heading east to Oran and Algiers. Both were on the Mediterranean which was not too far north of Oujda. South there was a brief stretch of the Atlas Mountains then thousands of kilometers of the Sahara to any significant sized town to the south – with nothing but sand in between.
I got off the train at the end of the Moroccan line. I had no trouble crossing the border into Algeria with the visa I had obtained in Rabat a week or so before.
Because Oujda was a connection point, it was easy to resume hitch-hiking. Trucks were lined up to cross the border into Algeria. Most truckers were eager to give a ride to a roadside attraction that looked European and spoke French. There weren’t any others around who looked like me, almost everyone was Berber or Arabic. Drivers liked company to keep them alert and amused as they drove the lonely dusty roads. Listening to talk radio or even music was not an option for these men, so I was considered entertainment.
By the early morning, we got to Oran. I was excited to see the blue waters of the Mediterranean after seeing so many dusty brown hills and roads over the past days. I should have been tired, but I was energized.
I took some time to walk around the city, visiting Oran University. It was a relatively new University with many new buildings. It felt good to be walking through a campus again only a couple months after walking around my own Penn campus in Philadelphia.
It was a short ride on to Oran City. It was the first modern looking city I had seen since I left Europe. Modernization was more of a commitment here under the new independent government than in Morocco. This was a nation trying to build itself back up after a bloody revolution.
Despite the massacre of foreigners in Oran and the mass exodus of French nationals (Pied-Noirs) when Algeria became independent, there were positive feelings for my speaking French.
Because it was February 29th and leap year had given me an extra day, I went without sleep and was able to hitchhike from Oran and get to Algiers before the end of February.
I got to Algiers in the afternoon. Algiers is in a spectacular setting. The city was like a great amphitheatre overlooking its stage, a half-moon shaped harbor. Up the hill from the harbour, at the back of the amphitheatre, in the cheap seats, was the Casbah. The youth hostel was halfway up the hill.
At the hostel, I met a fellow student traveller there who had also just arrived, but from the south. We wandered around exploring the city and the Casbah. He had been in Algiers before but had just returned from a long trip down to Tamanrasset where he had hiked around the Hoggar Mountains near the town. He had some intriguing stories of his trip into the middle of the Sahara and the amazing scenery he saw there.
I was torn. There was boat service from Algiers to Marseilles which would get me on my way to my mail in Rome. On the other hand, there was the nearby, legendary Sahara desert to explore, and my new friend had just given me a thorough briefing on how to get there and what to see.