Monday, February 28, 2000

Essaouira, Morocco

My Lonely Planet guide described the Atlantic Coast town of Essaouira as an undiscovered jewel, which is surely the travel equivalent of the kiss of death. The city ramparts looked unchanged since Orson Welles shot "Othello" here on a shoestring in the fifties, but an invading army of pudgy pink tourists in bad clothes had settled in for the long haul. I got up early to avoid the tour buses, and also to get a better seat in the Cafe Paris for my morning croissant and cafe au lait.

Before breakfast though, I watched the shadows cast by a line of palm trees on the old city's walls, and stood in one place, waiting for one more element to enter my frame. Then I went and had breakfast

Saturday, February 26, 2000

Casablanca, Morocco

My trip to Casablanca seemed like a good idea, anyway. But warm sunshine and exotic locales always sound good in the middle of a Seattle winter. Visions of the luminous Indrid Bergman don't hurt, either. I knew the city's namesake movie was shot in a Hollywood backlot more than half a century ago, but the city's noise, crowds and grime still came as something of a shock.

My utter incompetence in both French and Arabic didn't help matters. Finally working up the energy to leave my hotel room, I walked the city's winding, dubiously signed streets in a jet-lag haze, on guard for threats both imaginery and real, and found my way to Place Mohammed V, a crowded plaza centered around a long dry fountain.

Amidst the henna stands and crowds of loitering men in shiny suits, pension-aged merchants sold sips of water from goat skins. It didn't seem like much of a living, but since they were the only ones who didn't shower me with abuse when I raised a camera, they were then only people I photographed that day.

Friday, February 25, 2000

Casablanca, Morocco

Each morning, a thick blue-gray pall rises above the jammed streets and a stupendous din of car horns, diesel engines and whiny two-stroke moped builds into one continuous celebration of unmuffled internal combustion. While trucks and buses clog the streets, taxis, scooters and bikes all weave through the maze. Pedestrians cross at random and are clearly at the bottom of the food chain. It takes only a little while to figure out all the people on crutches.

Morocco has long hosted travelers and tourists. After the French were sent packing after independence, Paul Bowles and fellow Beat Generation writers descended on Tangier, and were duly followed by hippies stumbling though Marakesh in a pot-induced haze. Thirty years of package tourists in bad shorts and worse haircuts have followed, leaving a landscape littered with carpet shops, Coke signs and legions of sharp-eyed touts in pirated Nike wear. But oddly enough for such a tourist destination, just about everyone hates cameras. Both religious and cultural traditions frown upon recording a human likeness, though hospitality also remains one of Morocco's most distinctive national traits. You just never quite know which one will be encountered in any given situation.

After a few days, I feel like a jittery rodent in some sadistic Skinner Box experiment. The rat raises his camera…and he's embraced as a brother, invited home for dinner and offered full liberties with the family livestock. The rat raises his camera again and…. BWAAAAAAA!!!!! 8500 volts of righteous Arabic fury, with even the sheep baring teeth and hurling epithets.

No wonder my hair is falling out.

Thursday, February 24, 2000

Casablanca, Morocco

I am sitting in the worst cab on earth. Hurtling through pea soup fog at 120 km/hour in a godforsaken gypsy taxi with shot suspension, missing muffler. One lone wiper scrapes the windshield without a blade against the gloom. Pavement is visible rushing past my feet, while my ass sticks halfway through the backseat, and I'm shortly going to crawl the rest of the way into the trunk. At least I will die with my luggage.

The ink on my passport stamp had not dried before some tout grabbed my bags and seamlessly hustled me into this Mercedes deathtrap. I was supposed to know better, but 36 sleepless hours of travel slow even the keenest reflexes. In Africa, the slow and weak are always the first to fall. It's nature's way of tidying up the gene pool.

To my great surprise, I was duly dropped at my hotel door. A rancorous discussion regarding the bill shortly ensued, as per local custom, but since the police were just then hustling a prostitute down the hotel steps, a tactical retreat seemed to serve his long term best interests.

I have often said that you can go far in this world with nothing more than credit cards and a willingness to surrender all dignity. As a product of American public schools, I can barely speak English, and I know just enough Spanish to order beers and insult your mother. I can't even do that in French or Arabic. This stands me poorly in dealing with the realities of daily existence here in Morocco.

Somehow though, a mixture of sign language, goofy pantomime and the liberal application of a cartoon French accent propels me forward. Possession of a thick wad of Moroccan dirhams and a willingness to part with them doesn't hurt.

My first few days consist of little more than jolting awake at 3 a.m. in a jet lagged stupor, lying perfectly still for two more hours to mimic the death I would at this point cheerfully embrace. At first light I shower in water the color and temperature of yesterday morning's Earl Gray and embrace the dawn.

But Casablanca's embrace can be seem prickly, like hugging a chain smoking cactus who's leaning on the horn, speaking French, Arabic and Berber with equal ferocious passion and driving like a bat out of hell.