The two young Americans were very lucky to have met David on the ferry between Algeciras and Tangiers. Things might have turned out much worse. David was a tall, elegant, cosmopolitan, multi-lingual Brit who befriended the Yanks and wound up being their guide, mentor, and protector. He must have been appalled at their naïvetté.
Luis, the older of the two Yanks, was far from cosmopolitan, but he had lived in Spain for two years and adapted well. However, he erroneously believed that traveling from Tangiers to Marrakech would be similar to going from Madrid to Barcelona.
Ira, the youngest of the three men, had never been out of the United States. He had been invited by two girls he knew to spend his winter vacation with them in a beach house they had rented to the northwest of Marrakech. He spoke only English and was under the illusion that wherever he went, things would function just as they did in Syracuse.
The train station in Tangiers is surrounded by desperate aggressive, mendacious characters who see tourists as meal tickets. Mostly unemployed young men, they seek to insinuate themselves into the lives of the foreigners as guides, interpreters, agents, and bodyguards to usher them through the Pandemonium of Tangiers. They are shameless liars and will say anything to gain confidence and dependence:
“You’ve missed the last train to Marrakech and must stay in Tangiers until tomorrow.”
“I am from the government bureau of tourism and will help you.”
“You must come with me.”
David, with his two newly acquired dependents in tow, plowed through the mob shouting, “No, no, no.” Besides being cosmopolitan and elegant, David was strong; he resembled more a defenseman in soccer than a rugby player.
He got tickets for all three members of his platoon, and commandeered a first class compartment. In between providing the group with platters of rice, lamb, and salad, arguing with train personnel in Arabic or French, and shooing off peddlers and other shady characters, David gave his companions a crash course in dos and don’ts. Don’t trust natives who try to befriend you: they will expect payment for the most trivial favors. Be alert when sightseeing: it’s easy to get lost in the serpentine labyrinth of streets in Moroccan cities. Most importantly, don’t buy hashish or marijuana from the locals: many dealers have arrangements with the police whereby they inform on their buyers; the buyer is then arrested and the drugs are confiscated. These drugs are later returned to the dealer.
When the train made a fifteen-minute stop in Fez, Ira decided he would telephone his friends in the beach house. David attempted to dissuade him. Ira insisted it would only take five minutes; David explained with Jobian patience that it would take a lot longer. Luis commented that even in Spain, making a phone call was more complicated than in the U.S.. Ira ultimately acquiesced.
When the train arrived in Marrakech after the 11-hour trip, Luis said goodbye to Ira and wished him the best. Ira and David were traveling beyond Marrakech, to the northwest. David walked Luis to the door.
“I think you’ll be okay, but Ira worries me.”
“Me too. Thanks for everything.”
A firm handshake, then Luis stepped off the train and was on his own.
He found his way to the hotel in which he had reserved a room. The room was clean and comfortable. The restaurant in the hotel was excellent. It offered gourmet food at reasonable prices, and fine Moroccan wines which are made from the grapes of vines of French varietals that have been relocated to Moroccan soil and have thrived.
After a good night’s sleep, Luis spent the next day exploring the city. He tried to remember David’s advice, but violated it on his first enterprise. He did not pay close attention to markers, and got irrevocably lost in the market. An old Moslem cleric noticed the incipient panic in his eyes and offered his help. When he had delivered Luis to his hotel, Luis compounded his error with a faux pas by offering money to the man, who shook his finger admonishingly, turned around, and walked away.
Not far from the hotel, there was a small lunch stand that offered light meals, pastries, and mint tea. Luis liked to sit there in the warm Moroccan sun, sip the tea, and smoke. He had been an ESL teacher and had picked up a few words and expressions in Arabic, which impressed the people at this locale in spite of his difficulties with pronunciation. Using fractured Arabic and fractured French, New Jersey English, and signs, Luis communicated that he was a teacher, was from America, and had had many students from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Jordan, the Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. He shared his Marlboros with owner and the two waiters, asked them about their lives, and listened to them with respect. He left tips that he hoped were neither meager nor lavish. The owner and employees seemed pleased by his visits.
It was on his third day in Marrakech that Luis forgot or ignored the most important advice Dave had offered: he bought a small package of sinsemilla marijuana from a local hoodlum. He did this on a main street, in the middle of the afternoon, within a short distance from the lunch stand. He then walked to the lunch stand for a cup of tea and a pastry. When he sat down, he could see his vendor speaking to two men and pointing at him. The small envelope in his shirt pocket felt disproportionately heavy.
The two men approached Luis and in a ridiculously short time were standing in front of him. They said nothing, but stared hard at Louis. The incriminating left pocket of his blue dress shirt was covered by his blazer. One of the waiters came over and said with a smile, “Oh, oh — the police.”
Luis told the waiter to ask the men if they wanted a cup of tea. The offer was rejected with the slightest side-to-side movement of the head as the two men continued to stare hard at the American. Luis had recently seen The Midnight Express and at this moment he was making a Herculean effort to not remember it.
The lunch stand people spoke softly to the policemen.
After five or ten minutes, or five hours, the men walked away. They never said a word. Luis thanked the staff, went to his hotel room, and flushed the contents of the packet down the toilet.
The rest of the week was peaceful and uneventful. The King’s motorcade passed through the city drawing huge crowds, but for most of the week Luis had the city to himself. He bought fresh oranges, bananas, and figs at the market, chatted with his friends at the newsstand, found copies of the Herald Tribune, which he read in parks and public spaces, feasted on roast lamb and other local specialties, and drank copious amounts of excellent Moroccan red wine.
He met some Moroccan students, but avoided befriending them. David was correct in his assessment of the economic desperation in the country. Everyone, except the cleric, seemed eager to ingratiate himself in the hope of earning money as a guide or translator.
On the night train to Tangiers, he met another American who was more urbane than Ira or himself. His new friend spoke fluent French, and during a long stop in Casablanca, proved an excellent guide.
In Casablanca, Luis witnessed a frightening incident. One man confronted a large crowd. At first, there were merely shouts and apparent threats, but the situation evolved into violence. The man was viciously beaten, then dragged off. No one intervened. One had the impression that in this country anyone could be murdered and his cadaver made to disappear with no consequences. Luis remembered all the bodies that had turned up in Mississippi lakes and reservoirs when the police were trolling for the bodies of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner.
The next morning, the two men got on the ferry and headed back to Algeciras. When they arrived, Luis got down on his knees and kissed the soil of Spain. It was impulsive, not histrionic.