Subject: by the beard of the prophet, I am a retard
Date: Sunday 3rd October 1999
To my lovely family and friends,
Thank you heaps for your messages, I am much becalmed at the 20 or more messages in my in tray, and sorry for my querilous message in Rabat. I was still tired and stressed out, and of course didn’t realise it was a weekend so sorry.
I am currently in Fes after being in a mountain town called Chefchaouen in the north. I will rest here for 3 days before moving onto Meknes then to the south. Sorry for this brief note. I have just spent over 2 hours on hotmail – reading all the messages then writing a huge, impassioned and might I say very amusing note. Hotmail then cut me off abruptly when I tried to send it, saying I had to re-enter my password. It then lost the massive letter, even though I asked to save it, so now I am back to square one. Xxxooo
Ah the early days of email! Erasing vast letters was a common theme for me in Africa – somehow I never got the hang of ‘cut copy paste’ from Word. Sometimes I would give up and write a letter to the olds, in the hope they might type it out and send it on – alas at that time they were even more clueless than I…
Letter to oldies: 26th September – 3rd October 1999
Dear Mum and Dad,
-THE STORY SO FAR-
I arrived in Fes last night after staying in the lovely mountain town of Chefchaouen for three days, for rest and relaxation.
I arrived in Rabat on a Sunday, not a good day for visiting embassies, or travel agents for that matter. So I wandered around the medina, only to realise they don’t open their shops until 3 or 4 pm. I met two university students (Kacem and Benomar) who were very sweet and patient with my French, and took me for a turn about the Kasbah. Also to see the view of the local beach and neighbouring town Sale (a kind of Albury-Wodonga idea). When they heard it would be heard for me to get a visa for Mauritania, Kacen insisted he pick me up in the morning on his scooter (le moto). I had been dying to whiz around on one of these – they look a bit like trail bikes (but more decrepit) and are started by peddling furiously downhill.
So the next morning we took off, with me clinging precariously to the back and giggling hysterically – as I have said before there are no road rules in Africa. Kacem also insists upon singling ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ to me in Arabic. So we spent an hour at the Canadian embassy for a letter of recommendation only to find that I don’t need one due to the lack of Aussie embassies in Africa. (note – to get a Mauritanian visa I had to get a letter of recommendation from an embassy and a return plane ticket) We then found a travel agent – another confusing exchange where we finally agreed that yes, I want a return ticket to Mauritania, but only wanted to go one way and return tomorrow for the refund.
Onto the Mauritanian embassy situated conveniently 10ks out of town, where the boot-faced secretary snaps at me in Arabic and waves papers in my face. She is busy. We must return tomorrow. Apparently this is normal. So Kacem invites me back to his house in Sale (this is also normal – everyone seems to invite me to their house). Which is a real eye-opener for me. Three bedrooms for 10 people, a dingy kitchen with gas bottle for a stove and a noisy woodcarving workshop in the building opposite. I went to the loo – normal enough with the seat down, but up a murky pool of mud and god knows what. And no button to flush! There was a patch for the shower but no taps and a basin with no mirror. Also about 8 pairs of shoes on the ground.
Kacem made me lunch – we sat on the floor and lunched on olives, bananas and eggs which we mopped up with bread. I think they must have bought their food fresh every day due to lack of refrigeration. After lunch, Kacem puts on a horrendous Bryan Adams love song on the tape deck and tries to get me to slow dance with him!!! This is a triple shock:
a) I’ve known this chap for less than 24 hours
b) I don’t slow dance
c) Bryan Adams!
When I shove him away and insist he takes his hands off me he is taken aback. He is most desperately and painfully in love, and feels I must swear my undying allegiance. An exchange ensure, where we finally agree that I will never be in love with him, my ‘petit ami’ would be very angry if he knew I was here, and that he was a ‘bad Muslim man’. Kacem is most lavishly sorry. Although I have ruined him for other women he will take me back to my hotel, as I ask. I am privately amused to tell him to ‘get over it’!
The next day Kacem meets me at the train station, to my surprise. He apologises again and ferries me to and fro between the embassy and the travel agent, another long day where the bitchy Mauritanian secretary keeps us waiting another 2 ½ hours. Various people also try to convert me to Islam, which is something I am getting used to. Kacem got into a grave discussion with the travel agent about my godlessness. The agent is shocked and hauls out an enormous volume of Koranic verses from his bag, and reads to me a rather twee tale about why seeds grow. The entire time he’s preening his three-piece suit and looking out the window at passing girls. His parting shot: “I hope, sincerely and honestly, that one day you find your God!”
Gleefully, and with visa and ticket in hand I say my final goodbyes to Kacem at the train station. He tries to give me his fish necklace as a token of his esteem, but I advise him to give it to a ‘good Muslim girl’. “My fish! She will die!!!’ he wails melodramatically and with tears in his eyes. I am grateful for his help, but also grateful to be getting on the train!
I then got a bus to Chefchaouen in the dead heart of kif country. I know this, due to the 6 police checks on the way. When I arrive I am hot, stinky and swearing, having narrowly missed stepping on a sackful of live chooks on the floor of the bus. I am immediately surrounded by hustlers and guides, but wave them away. I toil for 20 mins up a near vertical mountain (with pack!) – one Berber guide is particularly insistent and says his hotel is just around the corner, is cheap and has showers. The hotel turns out to be 20 mins away from the medina, where I want to be, but I didn’t realise this! The Berber man was quoting from my guidebook the whole time “The name? Chef means look at, and Chaouen means peaks so….” “I know I know, look at the peaks, page 159 in the Lonely Planet!”
When I get to my room I collapse in the crucifix position, completely unable to speak. I strip off and head for the shower, which looks suspiciously dry. I turn on the taps – nothing. You must understand, I smell worse than an open sewer in Casablanca, look like a strawberry and am dying of thirst. Finally I try to flush the toilet, which knocks ominously, but no water. I don my malodorous rags and trudge downstairs.
“I’m sorry Madame, no water until 6:30.” It is only 5:00. When I finally get my shower it is a glacial trickle that leaves me fairly dry, but manages to soak the entire bathroom. When I leave the (empty) hotel to get some dinner, I am swamped by the group of hustlers who hang outside every hotel. They insist that Chefchaouen is too unsafe for me to see alone and hassle me up and down the street until I go back in defeat. The next morning I creep out early and find the cheerful Hotel Andalus in the centre of the medina, which has only one sleazebag out the front instead of 5! Whew!!
As Chefchaouen is in the north, everything seems quite Spanish. It was a surprise to hear everyone shouting at me ‘Hola’ instead of ‘Bonjour’. I was lucky to come on one of the market days, when all the villagers come down from the surrounding hills to sell vegies. I bought bread, olives and chili, a huge bunch of grapes, and ate my first pomegranate right out of the tree!
I didn’t see any evidence of the local green harvest until the last night, when I smoked a joint in the local open-air café overlooking the main street with two Mohammeds. To quote Edina Monsoon, “It’s legal here sweetie, so you can’t disapprove!” I also met two Americans and a dodgy Spaniard who was sleeping on the roof, whose principal topic of conversation was drugs – what to pay, where to get them and how to get the good stuff. They also discussed the pros and cons of swallowing drugs and trying to get past the x-ray machines in Tangier. I thought this was very funny until I realised they were serious.
So I returned to Fes and am now in the Hotel Lamrini after a wee taste of the medina here. It is quite extraordinary – big iron doors, tiny damp passageways, little steep stairs leading nowhere, big sunny squares, all with lashings of donkey poo! Sounds of the medina: heehaw of donkeys, street procession of a wedding – drums, whistles and roosters, ‘barek’ for ‘get out of the way’, men shouting out wares, muezzins calling to prayer 5 x a day, but different times for every city! I will venture out tonight. X