Posts Tagged 'Morocco'

Bootleg Blues: Thoughts on the Illegal Alcohol Trade Around the World

It was not a subject I expected to get so drawn into. But there I was, hunched over the pale glow of my laptop, clicking links and watching videos and reading random blogs, that damn color pinwheel spinning from the stress of too many open tabs—like going down a virtual rabbit hole into a murky, liquor-soaked world of shadows and motorbikes and sick yellow skin.

Modern-day bootlegging. Prompted by a New York Times piece about alcohol in tribal Pakistan, NileGuide assigned me an article on the illegal trade of alcohol around the world. It was to be a straight-forward round-up, carefully presenting the information without judgment, condemnation or alarmist cries of “this shit is crazy!” But it kind of is crazy, is the thing, and got me thinking a lot about the prohibition/restriction of substances in a society, and about my own experience traveling in Morocco.

As you’d probably guess, all of the places I discovered with a bootlegging industry either outlaw or strictly regulate alcohol sales and consumption. The how and why of it was fascinating. There were religious reasons, of course, in places like Pakistan and United Arab Emirates, but more interesting to me were Sweden, Russia and these remote rural towns in Alaska. All of these places enacted regulations in response to severe alcoholism within the culture. In the Alaskan towns, the temperance calls came from the community rather than the government—largely composed of a Native American population, folks in these towns were sick of the ravages of alcoholism and wanted to just do away with the whole existence of the glimmering, vile elixir. Can you really blame them?

The problem, as any good alcoholic knows, is that people will find a way to drink anyway. (Shit, I never took a legal drink in my life.) Regulations lead to a bootleg industry rife with gangs, violence and product made with piss-poor ingredients that can sicken and kill those who consume it. It’s not too unlike the drug trade in that regard—which got me thinking, on this uber-stoner holiday, about places I’ve been that have suffered immeasurably due to the drug trade: Mexico and Colombia. As always, the suffering seems to break down along class lines: the people who really get fucked are the poor folks in these cultures.

In Morocco, I had the chance to hang with some sober people. What these people—three expats and one Moroccan woman—told me about the actuality of alcohol consumption in the country kind of blew my mind. “Of course people drink,” the retired American sisters told me. “You’re just not supposed to drink, so no one talks about it. People just kind of turn a blind eye.”

As we pulled into the beach resort of Agadir, they sneered slightly. “They’ve been building the town up,” they told me. “It’s becoming something of a playground for Saudi men, where they can drink and have their call girls without anyone knowing.” They later told me about medina bums that drink cologne—not too unlike old-school stories I’ve heard about how folks, during the Depression, would strain shaving cream and drink the liquid to get drunk. (One report of an Alaskan town claimed mouthwash and air fresheners have to kept behind the counter at grocery stores because people use them to make alcohol.) The gaping, aching disparity between how the rich and the poor consume alcohol astounded me.

In the Gujarat state in India, only the wealthy could afford the imported and smuggled bottles of whiskey, while in Russia, only high rollers could fork over what was a three-fold increase in alcohol tax. Poor folks in these places were left to consume shady moonshine, made from medical disinfectants, that led to sicknesses like toxic hepatitis and “yellow death.” Recent outbreaks had killed over 100 people in both places and sickened over 1000. In Gujarat, people rioted during last summer’s outbreak of poisoned alcohol deaths, accusing the police of abetting bootleggers and clamoring for the repeal of Prohibition laws: “Blanket prohibition has never worked in this free world.” The government responded instead with harsher laws: the death penalty for anyone caught bootlegging.

Then, on top of all that, you toss in the lucrative business of bootlegging, complete with gangs, bribed government officials and violent skirmishes, and you gotta ask yourself: how dissimilar is all this from the drug trade?

It’s too simplistic to just advocate for legalization—there are huge cultural and religious forces to negotiate. But it seems, at least in the cases of Alaska and Russia, that putting tight restrictions on alcohol hasn’t done a whole lot the curb alcoholism. It’s a fast, tangible, measurable action, but seems to have caused a hell of a lot more suffering. The slower, more expensive and difficult answer would be to increase social services, preventive education and not-for-profit recovery centers.

At the very least, legalization means regulation, both of the substance and the criminal underbelly that controls its distribution when a government doesn’t. I’ve never drank moonshine, but I don’t even want to think about all the dumb and dangerous shit I did to get alcohol, all the yellow rocks cut with Ritalin and rat poison that I consumed, about the fourteen-year-old kid “in the scene” whose heart exploded when he took a bunch of bad acid. The safety of banned substances, along with crime, led the US the repeal Prohibition, and I can’t help but wonder if a more feasible answer to combatting the drug trade problems in Colombia and Mexico would be at least a partial legalization.

The sober Moroccan woman I met painted a fascinating picture of alcohol in her country. She was upper-class, from an important family, had been to European boarding schools and spoke seven languages. According to her, everyone in her class drank. It was considered cultured and European to drink—though, since alcohol wasn’t an established part of the culture, it didn’t take the form of a nice Cote de Rhone with dinner; people binge drank. People did it, but didn’t talk about it, a sort of deeply steeped denial. You can only imagine how difficult it would be for someone to admit they have a problem with alcohol, in a culture where you’re not even supposed to be drinking. Toss in being a woman on top of that and, well, you’ve gotta be one tough chick.

Let me tell you—she is.

Top Three Travel Secrets: A Chain Letter for Travel Bloggers

It reads as ominously as a middle school chain letter. Except, in the end, failure to perpetuate the chain isn’t sworn to result in untimely death or spinsterhood (which are more or less the same thing when you’re 12). Rather, in this chain, compliance results in access to a treasure trove of travelers’ secrets. And probably some new friends.

I was hit by two writers in the TripBase Blog Tag, spreading through the travel blogosphere like hot gossip around a lunch table. Or a dirty note during Math class, light-up sneakers in a mean game of duck-duck-goose. (The analogies could go on forever.) The idea is you write a post about your top three travel secrets: out-of-the-way towns, little-known restaurants, unheard-of hotels—”hidden gems” that lay glittering in the dimness of obscurity. Until now, that is.

Aside from amassing an ass-kicking list of previously unknown spots around the world, the other objective of the TripBase Blog Tag is to be build community and get folks involved. I can get down with that. In addition to the awesome ladies that tagged me—Stephanie from Twenty-Something Travel and Abbie from Miles of Abbie—I’ve already discovered some new writers on the TripBase list of bloggers tagged so far. (Best blog names? Dirtbag Writer and Snarky Tofu. Fuck yeah.) My hunch: the final list won’t just expose travel secrets, but also some bad-ass writers I hadn’t encountered yet.

They say you’re only as sick as your secrets. Here’s to travel health:

End of the hike: waterfall into the Pacific

#1 Palomarin Hike, Marin County, California

My work friend had been telling me about “the secret hike” for months. Huddled over our staff meals in the cramped bus station, she made rope-swinging into the clear lake, and the coastal waterfall at the trail’s end, sound like a dream. Or at least a damn good fantasy.

We finally coordinated a day off together in August and headed up to Marin to the Palomarin Hike. We grabbed sandwiches and drove up past Stinson Beach to tackle the 11-mile hike. And I gotta say, it was just as killer as she’d described.

The hike starts through rather typical dusty California coastal terrain, taking you past sweeping Pacific vistas us locals have grown accustomed to. After about 45 minutes, the foliage and trees thicken, and you eventually get to Bass Lake, a frigid-water lake that’s biggest draw is an old-school rope swing. You could while away hours here, but, seeing as though it was August in the Bay Area and foggy as hell, we were too cold to partake. We continued on, and ended up at the trail’s end, where a waterfall tumbles into an isolated coastal cove.

The good news: the hike, although long, is gentle and not too strenuous. Which means just about anyone could do it—including my smoke-a-pack-a-day friend and me, who was then recovering from swine flu (yes, really).

The bad news: the Palomarin Hike is a total word-of-mouth Bay Area secret. As is the way with Marinites, locals don’t want outsiders to know about their secrets or have access to them (see also: why BART doesn’t run to Marin). Locals take down street signs and signposts, meaning that you’ve pretty much gotta go with someone who’s been there. So if you’re headed to the Bay soon, just hit me up; I’ll take you.

Ahhh...

#2 Legzira Plage, Atlantic Coast, Morocco

Okay, if you’ve been following this blog for a bit, you’ve already heard me gush about the most deserted and beautiful beach I’ve ever been to: Legzira Plage, Morocco.

Talk about tucked-away: from Tiznit, take an hour bus ride, hop off at the faded roadside sign, and hike down 20 minutes. It’ll really just be you, a couple stray tourists, some fisherman and their donkeys—and the sandstone arches that dive red earth into blue water.

Among the handful of pink building that cascade down the cliff into the main beach, there’s two hotels that offer relatively cheap rooms. I went high-class and got one with my own shower, squat toilet (doin’ big things), and a window that opened onto the ocean view—for under $20.

Another bonus is the Moroccan street harassment factor, and the fact that Legzira Plage doesn’t have one. After a couple weeks of solo backpacking, sweating in long sleeves and fending off the barrage of “bonjour”s, it felt pretty damn sweet to strip down to my bikini and wave-hop in peace.

Kids on their way to school

#3 El Congo, Venezuela

The story goes that, when Europeans first arrived in what is now Venezuela, they came to the Lake Maracaibo villages, perched on stilts amid the marshes and water. Watching the village folks traverse the “streets” in handmade rafts reminded the Europeans of Venice—and they dubbed the place Venezuela.

El Congo, Venezuela is the most other-worldly places I’ve ever been. It’s only reachable by boat, a 30-minute ride through the hazy flat expanse of water, and you’ve gotta book a tour to get there. But surprisingly, the town isn’t the main draw of the tour. The Catatumbo Lightning phenomenon is what draws most people—mysterious, thunderless lightning that occurs almost nightly in the skies over Lake Maracaibo.

The road to Los Llanos was flooded when I was in Merida, so I opted to take the Catatumbo tour in its place. I hadn’t heard of El Congo, but it ended up being the highlight of the tour (the lightning didn’t really happen that night). The town had everything—a school, a fire station, a convenience store, even a Plaza Bolivar—all erected on stilts. Rumor had it there were a couple old folks still living in the town who’d only ever stepped foot for dry land to bury relatives.

It wasn’t an untouched Eden: El Congo was extremely isolated, making inbreeding a huge problem, and the town was quite poor. Sanitation was a major issue, with most refuse and human waste going directly into the water. Owning an actual boat was a sign of privilege. The less well-to-do had to construct their own floatation devices—this girl tied a piece of wood to some leftover styrofoam, dug a stick down into the mushy lakebed, and propelled herself along that way.

The thing that really bummed me out were the poor yapping dogs chained to the “front porch” of some of the houses. So much for getting a walk, little buddy. But hands down, El Congo was the most unusual place I’ve ever traveled to—and so far off the beaten path, there wasn’t a path at all.

So that’s my top three, scrawled not-so-jaggedly into the margins of a wrinkled note. Now to fold it up and shove it into another sweaty, unsuspecting palm. This could get good…

Street Art Pictures: London, Spain, Morocco and Portugal

First, a disclaimer: I don’t profess to be any kind of expert in street art. Or even a novice, really. I just know that, when I spot a fresh stencil or spy some sick piece, it makes me smile—and, if I happen to have a camera with me, snap some photos.

I guess the thing about street art is the sense of place it evokes—which one naturally notices more when one is traveling, seeing a city with fresh eyes. As the world gets smaller, regionalism can be hard to find; this is especially true in the Westernized world. Traveling in Western Europe, you constantly see the same chainstores, the same brands, the same fashions—girls are wearing whatever’s hip at H&M everywhere from Malmo to Madison (and I’d like to say myself excluded, but that would be a lie). Street art, whether it’s good or not, shatters through that; its viscerality marks a place, claims it, and if you’re traveling, can often reveal a lot more about where you are than reconstructed period buildings and restaurants with picture menus (really, paella all kinda looks the same).

I hung around some East Bay graf kids for a time, and still smile when I see their tags around town. A repeated stencil, a tag, a distinctive style—they’re like recurring images from a dream, someone else’s dream, and you catch little glimpses, train your eyes to look down alleys and up at overpasses, and you feel like you’re in on something. It grounds you in a very tangible way, connects you with the phantoms that sneak around at 3am with backpacks full of clanging illegality, with their finger-staining passions and illicit dreams. Of course, I was never one of them; a certain romance remains when it’s not you getting arrested or jumped in some strange turf battle. But I will say you interact with a city—its architecture and landscape, its thingness—differently when you’re even vaguely in tune with its street art. And when you’re traveling, it can often be your only contact with the night-crawling kids that in large part create the pulse of a place.

My first stop on my trip was London, where I of course went on an all-day goose chase for Banksy (chronicled here). The hunt also took me past several of these digitized little fellows by Invader..

Super poor picture quality, but what can you expect from a 2am street lamp and a mediocre camera? This I spotted in Madrid, near Plaza Sol. If you can't tell, it's two tangoing figures with security cameras for heads.

Granada generally had some piss-poor graffiti and stencils, but this one made me laugh. Totally fitting for a college town.

I spotted this one several times around the beach breakers in Tarifa. The sentiment jived well with the surf-town vibe, and the fact that it was in English spoke to the internationalism of the unassuming little place-between-places.

As you might guess, there wasn't a whole lot of street art going on in Morocco, or at least in the places I went. What one does see a lot of is stenciled Muslim calendars, on the side of buildings, with icons depicting certain holidays and dates. My favorite was the rose. I of course have no idea what it denoted or what the Arabic says, and retained none of the heavily accented, half-French explanations.

But of course, the best stencil piece I saw was in one of my favorite dirt-road beach towns, Mirleft. Popular with vacationing Marrakeshis, artists, dreadlocked travelers and, well, me, Mirleft seemed a perfect place to find this, peeling away on a side street.

Back in Europe, much of Lisbon's street art had a distinctive Brazilian flavor, which makes sense considering the city's large Afro-Brazilian population, and the fact that São Paulo and Rio are some of the biggest and baddest producers of street art in the world. I saw this stencil around the center, around uber-hip Barrio Alto.

And this was a simply incredible wheatpasted portrait over near the Alfama district.

Another college town, Coimbra had a fair amount of politicized stencils. This one was especially interesting given the prevalence of domestic violence in Portugal, and the pervading stigma against seeking help: "Every 2 weeks, a Portuguese victim of domestic violence dies." The number is a little more somber when you consider the small country's population of 10 million.

On the flip side, this was just awesome.

And I quite liked this one as well.

But the place that really took the cake was Porto. Good ole unsuspecting Porto, forever in the shiny, smiley shadow of Lisbon. These were all taken near hip-slick-and-cool Rue Miguel Bombara.

The paper cranes were part of the 1000 Tsuri Project. They acted like punctuation, all over the walls of the street, serving as both a kind of visual break and space filler between the other pieces.

Part of a larger project by artist Costah; check more out here: http://www.costah.net/the-icons.html

This little girl is up a few places; each time, she's touching something different. From what I could tell, this was the logo of a nearby art gallery/collective.

One my favorites. Simple but expressive, and totally took me aback when I spotted it down an alley.

I don’t know if these reveal any more about the places I was in, but to me they do. And if nothing else, they’re better than cell phone ads.

Well, Isn´t This Handy? Moroccan Photos by Someone Else!

Here it is: my best Moroccan photo. Now go look at the other ones...

Here it is: my best Moroccan photo. Now go look at the other ones...

I have a confession to make: I am a terrible photographer.

Not that you´d know, seeing as though I left my camera cord at home and all my posts from the road have been woefully without visual accompaniment. But despite the fact you can´t see any what fills my memory card, I have been making a concerted effort to take more photos on this trip. Photos enhance articles, and most publications dole out additional sums for good pictures. The only problem is, I suck.

It´s not just that I lack the technical ability to address lighting and angles and perspective. I´m a timid photographer, not intrepid enough to shove my camera lens in at the moments that would create good photos. I´ve come home from previous multiple-month sojourns with less than 200 pictures. But I actually love photography, and see plenty of good pictures all around me—it´s just that, by the time I´ve dug my camera out of my bag, turned it on and focused, the moment has passed. And I find I´ve wasted the moment not enjoying it, sucking it in, but instead trying to photograph it.

I´ve decided that, since I´m a much better writer than I am photographer, I´m going to take pictures with words. When I see an insanely beautiful or mesmorizing or unusual image, I study it, memorize it, savor it—then scribble as fast as my fingers will let me, trying to get it all down. It works—when I flip through my notebook, the scraps of phrases bring back everything my haphazard and poorly focused photos don´t.

But a good pictures is still a good picture, and I wistfully reflect on all the excellent moments in time that are only captured in my mind. So you can imagine my delight when one of my favorite travel forces, Matador, published a photo essay on Morocco today.

The photographer, Paul Sullivan, has a killer eye and enough credentials to make you cry. Most of the photos are from Marrakesh, where I spent my ill-fated last day; I think photo 10 of Djemaa El Fna totally captures the spirit of the food stalls.

I like this system, someone doing my dirty work for me without even knowing it. I fantasize about one day setting out on a trip with a photographer, tag-teaming some destination with a dynamic duo of artistic ability. Until I get a grant or find a glossy magazine still willing to send people out on stories old-school style, this will have to do.

(PS—If you´re licking your chops for more kick-ass travel photography, check out my homeboy Peter´s photo blog, stolen goods.)

Marrakesh, You Broke Me Down

DSCN3558It was a long, hard, hot last day in Morocco, in Marrakesh, the pounding heart of the country´s tourism industry.

As I was venturing down the Atlantic Coast, south of Agadir and thoroughly ¨off the beaten path,¨ I was giving some serious thought to ditching out on my flight back into Europe, and spending the rest of my two weeks in Morocco. There was certainly enough to keep me occupied—I didn´t even make it to the Sahara!—and I felt like I´d hit my groove with Morocco. I was getting skilled at traversing the streets, haggling for taxis; I was in love with fresh-squeezed orange juice and mint tea; even my French was improving. We were vibing, Morocco and I, and it seemed a shame to cut out so soon.

But the prospect of Portugal, Western Europe´s ¨forgotten¨ country,  combined with a pre-purchased flight and a chance to wash my blue jeans and ditch that filthy blue scarf won out. I arrived in Marrakesh with just one day to soak in the crowning jewel of Morocco´s imperial cities, and its exotic lure.

I´d heard horror stories—travelers and Moroccans alike warned me that Marrakesh´s touts were the toughest, the street harassment the ugliest. I got off the bus from Tiznit suited up in my thickest armor, ready to do battle with a mean look and a linguistic sword of two words: la shokran, no thank you.

The problem with Marrakesh, or my problem with it, is that people like to touch. I don´t. As my grandma said, I´m ¨a real touch-me-not.¨ The men in Marrakesh really see no problem with poking you, grabbing your arm, pressing their bodies against yours, literally tugging you this way and that. I think it´s largely a cultural difference; Moroccans touch a lot, are extremely affectionate with one another, and I don´t think they view touching as the same kind of violation as Americans do. As in, get-your-fucking-hands-off-me, or touch-me-one-more-time-and-I-swear-to-God-I´ll-drop-your-ass-don´t-even-think-I´m-playing.

Not that I ever said either of those. But I thought it. And I suspect the wild-eyed, shocked look I gave the dudes who put their hands on me communicated well my very visceral reaction to unwanted contact. They, in turn, almost seemed offended that I was offended, got really defensive. It was one of those tough cultural clashes, and I refuse to admit I was in the wrong. Maybe just the different.

But there was, I have to admit, a kind of magic to the city. I always feel lame saying that about a place that´s really hyped up (as in, yes, Paris is all that). I was intermittently in awe of the city, and frustrated beyond belief.

I stayed right near Djemaa el Fna, the open-air market of insanity that really was everything it was cracked up to be. Imagine a county fair. Now add throbbing drums and shrill pipes; snake charmers and witch doctors; wrapped women hunched on plastic stools, ready to ready fortunes and paint henna. Picture billows of meat smoke, the glare of a thousand gas lamps on a thousand white tarps;  see gleaming date stands and pyramided orange juice carts; beggars hands and child shoe-shiners. Hear the zoom and honk of motorbikes; feel the buzz of bodies weaving around one another. Wrap it all in a breeze that comes eastward and touches everything, envelops it in one big ball of electric humanity, shakes it up furiously, like a snow globe—and you´re somewhere close.

I meant to treat myself to a fancy last dinner, but when I got to the white-linen restaurant, it felt sterile. I headed down to Djemaa el Fna, stopping to slurp  snails at a food stall along the way. I dined on a wooden bench under the white tarps of one of the skewer stalls, watching the multi-lingual touts and hustlers do their business, sometimes rudely, but mostly with a charming penache that was hard to refuse. The breeze blew, and I felt in love with the night, the place, the country.

I thought I´d seal the deal with some chocolate ice-cream. I made my way across the square, nimbly traversing the crowds, not responding to the barrage of ¨bonjours,¨eyes on the prize.

I heard a loud voice rumble, ¨Hey sweetie!¨ Though the crowd was thick, I had that prickly back-of-the-neck feeling that the call was directed at me. I didn´t look up, kept walking. ¨Hey sweetcakes!¨ it yelled again. Still, I kept moving. ¨It´s okay,¨ the voice hollered, ¨I like small boobies.¨

I whipped my head around and saw a reddened face laughing, jowls shaking in a grotesque mask of amusement. Other faces were turned to look at me and my shawl-covered chest (I mean, come on, a B-cup is not that small). My cheeks flushed; I muttered ¨piece of shit¨and stormed away, trying to lose myself in the throngs.

The face hadn´t been a teenager´s, but a grown man´s, which angered me more. It had seemed quite pleased that it had humiliated me, that other people had noticed and looked. I felt the blood in my body burning with frustration.

A well-dressed man sidled up next to me, holding a clip-board and a perky straw hat. I looked forward, didn´t acknowledge him.

¨That man,¨ he said to me, ¨you can´t get angry. You have to just accept and—¨ out of the corner of my eye, I saw him make a brushing-off gesture.

I sighed, not entirely sure of this man´s intentions, and not in the mood to risk it. ¨I know,¨ I respond. ¨But sometimes I get tired of accepting, of always being the one to have to accept.¨ I could feel hot tears in the corners of my eyes.

¨Where are you from?¨ the man asked.

I eyed him cautiously, as the question was usually a prelude to some kind of hustle. ¨The US.¨

¨Ah, welcome,¨ he nodded thoughtfully. He leaned forward, said softly, ¨Of all the things you remember, of all the things you take home, don´t take that.¨ He nodded again. ¨I´m sorry.¨ He paused, let the words and the sentiment linger there in the charged air for a moment, turned and was gone, swallowed into the crowd.

It was all a little too much for me, the intensity of extremes—the degradation, the laughing face, the twisted soul-sickness that makes someone humiliate another person—and now, such thoughtful tenderness. All of it from strangers, all of it strange, somehow finding me in the immensity of the crowd. The whole day had felt like that, a tugging between two places, between two sentiments, of both loving and hating a place.

DSCN3551I was exhausted. I decided not to fight it, not to try to be tough anymore. I went back to my hotel room and sobbed, for the overwhelming kindness and cruelness of it all. For being a woman, for being a person, in a place, a world, that is simultaneously horrifying and beautiful.

Let’s Get Ready to Pray

DSCN3343Adhans: you can’t escape them. They’re the echoing voice of omnipresence that follow you, haunt you, thoroughout your Moroccan travels. It doesn’t matter where you go, how far you wander—what town you’re in or how tightly you shut your windows at night; they find you. They punctuate your days of sweaty rambling, your dawns and dusks and inbetweens.

The adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, occurs five times a day, blared from the loudspeakers of every mosque’s minaret. The voice of the muezzin, the guy calling the prayer, is usually a little distorted; I imagine sweaty lips held too close to a scratchy old microphone, behind it all cool darkness and bare feet. If you’re in a big city with lots of mosques, the muezzins’ voices ricochet off the buildings and crumbly streets, off one another like a cat playing with its shadow, making it seem all the more enveloping. You have no idea what’s being said—at least I don’t—but the meaning needs no translation.

It happens like this: the voice erupts with a little squeak and feedback from the sound system. It begins slowly, softly at first, the first few syllables careful and clean; it swiftly gathers speed. The voice rises, grows stronger, accumulates decibels and conviction and heat, like an engine reving, smoke billowing from its spinning wheels. It reaches its final fevered pitch, a wail of passion and fury and God that makes you stop, pause in the street, roll over and groan in the first grey light of day.

The voice holds there, wavering in pitch and power, until at last, exhausted by the all-consuming energy of Allah, it shuts out and is gone. All this occurs in the span of about a minute. It happens at daybreak, noonish, mid-afternoon, sunset and early evening.

It’s a little creepy, to be honest—the omnipotence and disembodiment of it. But I can’t help but feel, whenever I hear it, that it sounds a little too like “Let’s Get Ready to Ruuuumble!” Only, you know, “Let’s Get Ready to Praaaaay!” It kinda gets me going, gets me all reved up and inspired; I kinda wanna kick my shoes off and grab a little carpet and kneel and mutter and bow like the dudes in the shops and alleyways I espy. Not knowing what I was saying or what it meant, just yeilding to the power of it all—lowering my head and kissing at something holy and unseen and buried deep in the fabric, the hand-woven and gently frayed thread of things.

Only, I’m not Muslim. Or any religion. And, coming from a (relatively) secular country, it still strikes me as strange to have religion pumped through the streets, sneaking through open doors and cracks in windows, filling the air and getting all over. But, hey, at least they do it with style.

Legzira Love

DSCN3456I think I may have just found the most beautiful beach in the world.

Yes, it’s a sweeping statement, and no, I’m not a beach afficionado. But if red cliffs diving into pebbled sand coves count for anything; if lazy waves crashing against sandstone arches score points; if a tourist to local fishman/swooping seagull/stray dog/donkey (hey, it’s still Morocco) ratio of 1:5 means much—if these are the elements that create that “paradise” thing all the guidebooks talk about, well then, I just spent the night there. And slept with the windows open to the ocean. Cause why not, you know?

Legzira Plage is pretty incognito—it warrants not more than a paragraph in my guidebook and a weathered-beaten, graffitied roadside sign along the pretty two-lane highway connecting Tiznit, Mirleft and Sidi Ifni. Down Morocco’s Atlantic coastline, just before the Western Sahara and a disputed border, the area as a whole doesn’t attract the hordes that the country’s other wonders do—which is why it attracted me. A near-deserted beach away from any big city or pushy tout? I’m in.

I took the local bus from Mirleft, got off at the faded cement block sign at the access road, and took the 20 minute walk down to the beach, a lazy slope washed in ocean breezes. The scenery revealed itself like a striptease: a sweeping hill view, a peak of ocean, the sound of waves, the pink edge of a pink building. I turned into a small dirt parking lot, and almost started laughing—it was so beautiful, it was almost obscene.

DSCN3464There were half-a-dozen pink buildings cascading down the cliff to the beach. Sweaty and shoulders aching, I set my backpack down in a cheap but cheerful hotel room with windows that flung open to the ocean. (Now thoroughly “off the beaten path,” the room costed only a little more than my smelly toilet- and shower-less hole in Essaouira.) I kicked off my shoes, grabbed my camera, and went for a walk.

I’m not much of a shutterbug, but I exhausted both my camera battery and memory card. I walked for over an hour; each cove was more secluded and empty than the last. On the first few beaches, I passed a small group of teenagers playing soccer, a fisherman, and a handful of sun-bathing tourists, many of them Moroccan (tell-tale sign: the lady’s swimming fully clothed). We “bonjour”ed politely. I rounded a gently jutting set of red rocks, and was alone. I closed my eyes, and let out a long exhale.

I’ve really been liking Morocco, but I can’t tell you how good it felt to be alone, away from any non-human sound—just me and the seagulls, you know? Later, I stripped down to my swim suit, and wave-hopped and sun-bathed without concern for modesty. I soaked up much-needed sun, vitamin D sparking wildly through my body. I didn’t worry about, well, anything.

I had a simple dinner of grilled fish (yes, caught that afternoon) and pommes frites, washed down by that killer mint tea. The hotel’s patio was sparsely populated with about a dozen dining guests. If there were any less people, I realized, it would have felt creepy. Like The Shining or something.

The hotel only ran electricity for prime hours during the evening, so I read by candlelight for awhile before crashing out. It was warm enough, so I left the windows open and slept to sound of the waves, to the smell of salt.

Donkey on the beach!

Donkey on the beach!

In the morning, the fog outside the window was thick. The tide was so far out that a previously offshore crag of rocks connected to the beach. I sipped my freshly squeezed orange juice and nibbled on my still-warm bread breakfast, and watched the fishmen trod out for the day, the sifters search out clams and mussels (I think) in the tide pools. A waiting donkey with two empty sacks on its side bickered with a yapping stray dog with a wobbly magazine of stretched-out nipples. The fog thinned, turned to a fine mist, and slowly, so faintly I could hardly notice, was gone.

I don’t know why Legzira Plage is so under-visited, under-promoted and unknown. But I’m not complaining. My camera battery may have konked out, but my personal battery is fully recharged. Just in time for Marrakech.

The Best Tour Guides in Mirleft

DSCN3389Yesterday I found the best 3 tour guides in town. No, they weren’t the touts that surrounded me shouting in 3 different languages and tugging me in 12 different directions the second I stepped out of the grand taxi from Tiznit. They were a rag-tag group of stray dogs that led me around the Berber beach town of Mirleft for over 2 hours.

We met outside my hotel, Hotel Atlas, the cleanest, cutest and most well equipped of my trip thus far (hot water, flushing toilets AND toilet paper—hot damn!). The leader, a German Sheppard looking female with a mangled hind leg and a black patch of furless scar tissue, greeted me as joyously as an old friend. I politely explained that I didn’t have any food, but she didn’t seem to mind. I’m not as worn out by the street dogs as everyone else in town is; I didn’t shoo them away, just kind of smiled and kept walking down the dirt main road toward the beach.

The dog immediately took the role of loyal and ardent defender, barking and growling at every scooter and donkey that passed, as well as a couple old men and frightened schoolgirls. I smiled and shrugged at them; we exchanged chuckles.

Along our pebbled-path way, we picked up a couple other boney-ribbed dogs who displayed proper supplication to the leader. I didn’t know where I was going other than coastward; Mirleft is too small to warrant a map in my guidebook. So the dogs would trot off ahead of me, sniffing through refuse and gnawing on plastic bottles. When we’d reach a crossroads, they’d pause and wait for me to catch up before continuing waggingily along whatever way they thought was best. Who was I not to follow? They knew the town better than me, and I was grateful for the speechless company.

DSCN3394They led me down a steep flight of cliffside stairs into a cove of jagged rocks and gleaming sand. Shirtless local boys were playing afternoon soccer and a couple tourists sat out on blankets. My guides dashed off to leap in the waves; I rolled up my jeans and waded behind them.

I wanted to tip them—I certainly would be expected to if they were people—but thought they’d be terribly uninterested in my pocket full of coins. I rustled some stale crackers out of my bag, and they chewed them gratefully. I sat in the sand and watched them trot off, skinny and mangled and more-or-less happy.

Vomit Ride Through the Heat-Land: Part II

Grand taxis outside the bus station

Grand taxis outside the bus station

We groaned our way along the highway, rocking and swaying with every dip in the road. The air-conditioning had completely given out; I was grateful to be sitting by one of the few curtains, blocking out the mid-day sun. I shifted around the cheap shawl I had covering my bare arms and realized I was sweating so badly the blue dye was wearing off on my sticky arms.

I devolved into lamaze breathing. Well, no, not really—but I did employ the breathing technique I learned in yoga class to release heat: exhaling with a “hah,” like you’re fogging up a mirror (or a steaming bus window). Burning it up in a power lunge or cramped to hell on a sweat-bomb bus, it really does help. It also took my focus of my increasing nausea, not at all abetted by the chorus of gagging and spitting surrounding me. Despite having passed all those littered landscapes, I felt immensely grateful for plastic bags.

Others around me weren’t so lucky. The poor boy left crouching in the stairwell—some kind soul had supplied him with some newspaper to sit on—had been puking more or less constantly the whole ride, now approaching 3 hours. He’d been provided with an arsenal of plastic bags, a supply he apparently exhausted. That’s right—I saw his desperate face, checks full and eyes searching, then heard the sound of splattering on the stairs. A chorus of shouts erupted; the tout appeared with a fist full of newspaper and women waved robed arms in an effort to fan away the smell. It didn’t help much—in the heat, the vomit pile festered, wafting odiferously through the bus carriage in rank waves.

Any minute now, I told myself, we’ll get to Agadir. It wasn’t my destination, only a little more than half-way along, but a big transfer point. Hopefully the stop would be long enough for someone to hose down the floor.

We careened past a cliffside, a gorgeous view that I could almost enjoy through the misery. We passed construction cranes and cinderblocks outside Agadir, a package holiday town more akin to Miami than Morocco. Traversing a tangle of traffic, we pulled into the bus station. Doors sighed open and people pushed towards the front stairs to disembark.

Most of the passengers weren’t staying on for the rest of the ride, so I took advantage of the time before the next batch of grim faces boarded and got myself a primo seat: closer to the front, on the unsunny side, under the blowingest vent I could find. I smiled to myself, privately pleased that I had endured the trip without vomitting. You’re tougher than you think, I congratulated myself. I felt validated,  rewarded by the best seat on the bus.

We sat for awhile. This didn’t surprise me; most non-first-class buses don’t maintain timetables, just wait until the bus is full—or overly full—before departing. A new round of unsmiling people trickled on, along with the usual tissue, jewelery and snack sellers that enter through the front doors, shout the names of their goods as though you couldn’t see what they were, then exit through the back doors. Additionally, a sullen woman with a dirty scowl distributed those Xeroxed scraps of paper, telling her story of hardship, to each passenger; as per usual, she made her way back down the aisle, recollecting the papers and giving an even dirtier look to anyone who didn’t give her a couple coins. Though the paper was hand-written in jagged Arabic and I could have feigned ignorance, her bullying expression inspired me to give her some change.

No one, I noted, was coming to clean up the back stairs. I sighed, taking solace in my good seat and that fact that the worst heat of the day had passed.

The tout poked his head through the open door and pointed accusingly at me. “Tiznit?” he bellowed. I felt all eyes on me. “Tiznit,” I echoed with a nod, confirming my final destination. He gave one hard nod and disappeared.

He came back a couple minutes later, placed his hand surprisingly softly on my shoulder and launched into a choppy French explaination I couldn’t begin to understand as he ushered me off the bus. “Tiznit?” I asked feebly, pointing at my well-earned seat, fading as I stepped down the bus stairs. “Oui, oui, Tiznit,” he replied as he dug my dirty backpack out of the luggage compartment, hoisted over his shoulder, and walked me over to another, scrawnier bus. He tossed my bag into its luggage compartment, patting his hand firmly against the dented side of the bus. “Tiznit!” he assured me, and then was gone into the scurry of bodies and glint of steel that filled the station lot.

I stepped disheartened onto my new bus. The seats were scattered with a couple forlorn looking faces. They looked like they’d been there awhile; from the number of empty seats, I didn’t anticipate leaving any time soon. I flopped into a sun-baked vinyl seat and scowled. Through the window, I watched my sense of victory lumber away on the previous bus.

It was an hour before we left the station. Night fell pinkly and hazily between the palm trees and pebbles outside the window. Exhausted, I surrendered to a neck-jerking broken sleep; I woke just as a row of lights was growing closer.

Instead of a bus station, I was deposited on the side of a half-deserted road. Some teenagers hooted at me as I hoisted on my backpack; I gave them the finger and crossed the street to the Teleboutique. I had to call my hosts—at last, I had arrived.

Vomit Ride Through the Heat-land: Part I

1009173272_3ef7bfbbe6Yesterday I had the most authentic Moroccan experience of my trip so far. It wasn’t in a medina, it wasn’t at any monument; it wasn’t outside of a mosque or inside of carpet shop. It wasn’t in some exotic spice souq, or even with a witch doctor.

It was knees-to-chest, sweating obscenely, holding my breath and trying not a vomit in a catastrophic cauldron that careened its way through the countryside. That is to say, it was on a bus.

There’s two kinds of buses in Morocco: the first-class and the “other.” My previous two bus rides had been on the plush, first-class CTM company. The guidebook doesn’t just recommend CTM; it virtually doesn’t list the times, prices or destinations of other companies. In most cities, CTM’s buses depart from their own seperate offices, far from the chaos and heat and exhaust-laced smell of rotting ass characteristic to most bus stations, not just in Morocco, but around the world.

CTM accepts credit cards and assigns seats; their desk workers speak English. These are not the buses of screaming children or those checkered mesh bags fraying at the plastic seams from the weight of all some old lady’s worldly possessions. These are the buses of laptops and exquisite scarves, polo shirts and heavy gold rings. And independent travelers with Western standards and a low tolerance for long-distance discomfort. Together, we bound competently down the highways, stretching our legs and basking beneath the gentle blow of air-conditioning vents.

Once on board a CTM bus, you usually make a stop at the big messy main bus station before departing a city. In Tangier, I parted my curtain and peered out at the shouting, scrambling insanity of the real bus station. Jam-packed buses, a jumble of children’s bodies and grim faces pressed against tinted glass, heaved and wheezed and lurched haphazardly through the lot, shouting touts hanging from still-open doors. I have to say, I felt kind of like a chump from my kooshy assigned seat in a half-empty bus. At least once on this trip, I told myself, I’ll ride a real bus.

I intended to fulfill this brazen commitment on some short-distance route—45 minutes, an hour tops. Just, you know, to feel like I’d done it, gotten a taste and promptly gotten out.

The problem is, CTM runs infrequent services to only a few destinations, especially towards the south of the country. In my great haste to flee dishearteningly over-touristed Essaouira, I weighed my options: languish at the bus station and continue to get hassled by hotel and taxi touts for two hours while I wait for the CTM bus, and then have to make a connection mid-way through my journey, or hop on a direct “other” bus leaving in 15 minutes. Comfort flew out the window as I climbed the sticky stairs of the second-class bus.

I found an empty seat towards the back, and observed. This was the bus of acne and deep wrinkles, missing teeth and stern expressions. Children didn’t get seats, were left to swim on the laps of their parents. Upholstery was browned; I could feel the springs through the thinned seat fabric. A tout with a scar on his chin and impossibly stained fingers came off and on the bus, taking money, scribbling crude tickets, counting seats. I was grateful for the wobbling vents that blew a little air down from above my seat.

As the seats filled and the horn honked, people continued to pile on. The tout appeared with a stack of plastic stools; he strained to tug them apart and, after some shouting and coordination, placed them in the narrow aisle. Women were given stool seats first, then men; an adolscent clutching a book and a plastic bag was left standing. As the bus began its lumbering, the tout yelled at him to get down. The boy curved himself into the back stairwell—we slid past the officials at the station gates and were on our way.

The tout continued collecting fares and writing tickets as we lurched through the taxi- and scooter-swarmed streets—not an easy task on an old bus with poor shocks and an aisle full of huddled bodies. To get the job done, he balanced his feet on the edges of seats and literally climbed over people, his crotch in this lady’s face, his elbow in that guy’s chest, his entire torso smashed against my already-sweating body. He clutched a fistfull of bills, carefully folded between each finger, and with each new fare, made an almost tenderly careful note on a worn piece of paper.

We left the city center and began up a steep hill. The bus struggled, slowed to a speed scantly faster than a donkey cart. The effort cut out the faint blow of air-conditioning, and arms raised to fiddle hopefully with vents. The boy next to me unscrewed the top to a pocket-sized perfume bottle, pressed it against his nostril and inhaled. The tout distributed black plastic bags—vomit bags, I suspected. Beside me, the boy tossed a jacket over his head, leaned against the window and was gone.

Less than 15 minutes after departing, the adolscent in the stairwell began politely hurling with a liquidus sound into his plastic bag. I could make out, displayed proudly on the top of the windshield, just the last words of the bus company’s name: “Fadl Allah.” I jokingly translated this to myself as “pray to f%^*ing God.” The boy in the stairwell caught his breath and discreetly tied the handles of his bag together.

We made our first stop, and much shouting and shuffling ensued. The tout had the disembarkers already climbing over the aisle-sitters before the bus was stopped. We paused only momentarily; those getting off were left on the dusty roadside, struggling with heavy bags. Stools were cleared for vacated seats, and a new slew of stern faces took their squatting place on the plastic as we bumbled back on the road.

We fell into a determined quiet, just the struggle of the bus, soft conversations and the gentle gagging of vomiters. The scenery was pebbled and stark, branches bent cryptically; with the vent back a’blowing, I was almost comfortable enough to fall into a ragged sleep.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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