Monday, March 16.
I sleep somewhat soundly until about 4:30 in the morning, when I’m awakened by noisy water and toilet pipes, and other things that go bump early in the morning.
For about the next hour, I’m irrationally convinced someone’s trying to break into our room, and I’m constantly checking my belongings in the dark.
Morning brings a return to reason and a light continental breakfast – which includes yogurt. (I’m secretly happy for this – before leaving, a friend advised me to eat yogurt every day to help my stomach adjust to the food.)
I also get a chance to talk with some of my tour-mates, including Alex, our late arrival from London. As it turns out, she’s also a big adherent of breakfast, and we bond over this.
After breakfast, we pack up our bags and store them behind the reception desk. We have just enough time to pay a visit to the Hassan II Mosque – one of only two mosques non-Muslims are allowed to visit, in the entire country.
It’s a good thing I got such a spectactular view of the minaret as the plane approached the airport the day before. The “mist” that rolled in the previous evening has completely obscured the top of it.
As we make our way around towards the entrance, one of the boys sitting around nearby makes eye contact with Nikki, the lone New Zealander on our trip, and smiles, trying to chat her up in Moroccan Arabic. It’s already begun, I think to myself.
I think one of us notes this to her, and she rolls her eyes in recognition of what we mean. It’s all forgotten when we get to the front entrance, though.
The night before, our tour leader had instructed us to find the pregnant female tour guide, because she was apparently very good. No such luck – we get a man instead, and are hurriedly pushed towards the ticket office to purchase our tickets for the tour.
Inside, we’re told to take off our shoes and place them in plastic bags, which we carry with us through the huge worship hall.
The craftmanship is ridiculous. Every corner, wall, and ceiling panel is intricately designed. While the guide rattles off facts, numbers and measurements, I’m just trying to capture as much of the architectural beauty with my camera – if not to truly do it justice, then just to prove I was a witness to its greatness.
We move from one end of it to the other, and then out and downstairs into the area where worshippers perform their ablutions beforehand, and then a brief peek into the hammams. (I can’t remember off-hand whether or not they’re actually still used.) I love the shapes, the colour and design of the tiles – everything.
We return to the hotel, reconvene with our group and then head to the train station, where we take a (relatively) short trip to our next destination – the nation’s capital, Rabat.
Rabat’s sun and cloudless blue skies are a stark contrast to the gloominess we’ve just left. We store our bags at a local hotel just off the main strip. Our trip leader – named Will – starts to direct us towards the neatly maincured promenade in the middle of the street, but is told not to go there – the king’s in town.
So we’re forced to cross the street and stick to the sidewalk – and get our introduction to Moroccan traffic.
We hit a nearby pastry shop to pick up some things for the lunch we’re going to have later on. The shop – whose name I think is actually called Le Comedie – has some of the prettiest pastries, desserts and breads I think I’ve ever seen or smelled. I settle some sort of flaky pastry with meat, a piece of fresh bread and an irrestible chocolate sweet called a Montecristo.
One of my tour-mates – an American named Sally – buys a pastilla – a lovely pastry filled with chicken (or sometimes pigeon), almonds, and cinnamon, along with other things I can’t remember – and dusted with what I’m pretty sure is icing sugar. She lets me have a bite – and I’m in heaven.
We also stop at a small market nearby. While some people purchase some fruit, Alex and I agree to buy some olives – red and two types of green ones.
Will then takes the group down a series of quaint little sidestreets; I’m vaguely reminded of Granada.
We arrive at this place that kind of looks like an old fort … we enter and walk until we arrive at this patio-styled, restaurant-y sort of place where we sit down to eat our purchases. A waiter arrives and offers us drinks and sweets. Some people opt not to because they don’t want to spend the money. I, however, cannot resist.
Poor Nikki is again targeted, this time by a very persistent young woman offering her a henna tattoo. Even when she says no, the henna girl continues badgering her, until our trip leader shoos her away in Arabic.
Following lunch, we’re free to look around the old fortress grounds – part of which has a really pretty view overlooking the water. Following this, we split up to explore the city until it’s time to meet back at the hotel at 4:45 that afternoon.
A group of us – Liz, myself, Colin (the lone man on the tour), Nikki, two Aussies, Grace and Amelia and Alex – head over to the souks. The group eventually breaks down further when the younger members of the group stop to look at camel leather bracelets and the slightly older members wander along further.
Liz, Colin and I eventually keep walking, turning corner after corner and momentarily stalling at the odd stand, until we wander out of the souk and around what appears to be the newer part of the town.
We end up going to a nearby park and chilling out on a park bench for a while. We just sit in the shade and talk. Colin occasionally consults his guide book for information about things.
At about four o’clock, I hear the call to prayer for the first time on my trip. A friend of mine who went to Morocco about 10 years ago described the sound as “sexy”. I think it’s both beautiful and haunting.
But I don’t hear just one. Two more calls to prayer start up within about 30 seconds of one another – so for about two or three minutes, it sounds like the muezzins are either on an audio delay – or competing with each other.
After about 40 minutes, the three of us decide to start making our way back. But we get lost, walking street after street, trying to find the main drag and not finding anything remotely resembling it.
Colin consults the map in his guidebook a couple of times. The street we’re on isn’t even on the map. We ask someone for directions and get a not-so-distinct answer. Time is ticking away, and Colin suggests – in a slightly panicked voice – that we should maybe try getting a taxi.
We don’t, and keep walking. We come across a policeman and ask for directions. I try and translate what he says (thank goodness I know my numbers!), and then keep onward. I don’t know how or when, but about two minutes before we’re supposed to be at the hotel, we finally hit Mohammed V – and eventually the hotel.
We board the train to Meknes at about 5:30 p.m. It is PACKED. Some people find seats in cars almost right away; a bunch of us have to stand in the small open area – practically on top of our luggage (or maybe that’s just me) for a couple of stops.
I’m nervous. Besides the dude I saw in one car giving people the finger as we we were boarding, the thought of trying to talk to Moroccans – given my nonexistent Arabic and mediocre French skills – worries me. I’m bracing for hostility.
Nonnie, one of my older tour-mates from Australia, and I get couple spaces in a nearby car, about two stops into our trip. For a few moments, no one in our says anything – we’re looking at each other, at the other people and then briefly away.
But then this one young guy sporting a suit starts talking to us in English, asking where we’re from, etc. It turns out he’s from Malaysia. He’s really nice.
Then this really pretty Moroccan girl (wearing a headscarf) sitting next to him chimes in, albeit in a combination of broken English (and my poor French). I also try acting as translator for Nonnie, who owns a French phrasebook but doesn’t know a lick of French, so that she’s included in the “conversation”.
We find out the pretty girl lives near Meknes, but she – and another woman sitting next to me – are originally from Agadir, a coastal town just south of Essaouira (where we’ll go later on in our trip). She speaks of how it’s the same size as Essaouira, but very pretty and known for argan oil and (thuya) wood sculptures. She add that we should that we should try and stop there on our travels.
My fear of conversation dissolves just in time for her to leave the train at a town called Kenitra. There are two other girls sitting in our train car, but my French isn’t good enough to carry on a full conversation with them. So other than the odd question from one of the girls, they keep to themselves, talking about shopping and whatnot (from what little I could decipher).
When the train pulls into Meknes, it’s twilight. The light in our car is broken, so we sit in darkness.
Our hotel is, thankfully, less than five minutes by foot. After checking in and dropping off our things, we head to dinner at this place our tour leader Will found accidentally on a previous occasion (he’d been looking for a restaurant he’d been to before, but it had closed down).
We sit outside on the patio in our jackets, sweaters and fleeces, shivering. At one point during dinner, Will is sitting at one end of the table while he’s left his cigarettes at the other. I absently turn to look in time to see this kid (probably no older than 11), make his way up to the table, snatch the pack of smokes and take off down the street with his buddies. (The staff find out and buy Will a new pack of Marlboros.)
Following dinner (and the theft), a few of us stop in at a local bar for some drinks. The clientele are all men, except for the female bartender smoking behind the bar. Nikki goes upstairs to save some seats for us while we order our beers.
When we make our way upstairs with our drinks, poor Nikki’s been cornered by a lone Moroccan dude who won’t leave her alone and – despite her vocal protests – insists on buying her a drink, pulling out a huge wad of dirhams as if to prove he can afford it.
Even when the rest of us form a circle with our chairs and effectively block him out, he refuses to leave – pretending to talk on his cell phone and surrepitiously taking pictures and then pretending he isn’t when we call him on it. I’m really annoyed and am ready to bust some heads. (Okay, maybe not, but I’m ready to take my own camera and start snapping unwanted pictures of him to get him to piss off.)
He eventually leaves, but only because closing time is called only a couple of minutes later.
Ah, Meknes. What an introduction.