Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The First Three Days in Morocco- Summer 2001

I was about to leave for a year in Russia. I’d been there before, and had memories of endless blocks of concrete boxes, gruff people and knotted bureaucracy at every step. I wanted some sun before I left. I wanted mountains and blue skies, a complete change of scenery and culture, something exciting before the slog! In fact, I got far more than I’d bargained for.

I picked a workcamp in Morocco. It wasn’t my first choice, which was in an isolated village in the Atlas Mountains, but in Chefchaouen, a touristy town in the “Spanish” north where we would be renovating the Casbah. I got hold of guidebooks – and panicked!! The Rough Guide leads the way in painting a terrifying picture of Moroccans and their country. I was expecting constant hassle from taxi drivers, gangs of street-children, shop keepers, men, pick pockets – everybody, in fact! I dug out old baggy clothes that covered me from the neck down, and scarves for my hair just in case. It’s impossible to buy Moroccan dirhams outside the country, and the guidebooks assured me that airport currency exchanges were bound to be shut. My flight would arrive early evening, and I had visions of finding myself in Tangiers (according to the guidebook, the worst introduction to the country), penniless and with nowhere to sleep.

My heart sank as the flight was delayed – we were now due to arrive at midnight. The heat was still radiating from the runaway as we walked to visa control. The queues stretched out of the building, and, sitting on my rucksack during the hour-long wait, I started talking to a young couple who were also heading for Chefchaouen. The boy had been once before, but the town is famous for its hash, and he wanted to show his girlfirend. We got a taxi (later I realised what a luxury it was, only 3 people in one taxi!) and, at 4 o’clock in the morning stopped to ask some men smoking by a fountain for a hotel. Half asleep we followed one of them into the maze of streets of the Medina, or old town, and found ourselves a space on the roof of a tiny hotel. It wasn’t long before I was woken by the call to prayer, and soon the sun was too hot to sleep any longer.

My first glimpse of Morocco was staggering. Somehow, during the night I had been transported from a Gatwick departure lounge to this rooftop-terrace. The town was white – chalky white-washed walls against the folds of stony white hills. The sky was the bright summer blue that we so rarely get in Britain, and the walls were painted to waist-height in the same colour. Looking down I could only see one narrow path – the houses were so close together as to obscure all the rest. There was a sense of calm, and peace and the sounds of a market in the distance. Two women came by, in colourful skirts and red and white head-scarves. It all looked so beautiful that I couldn’t believe this was the same country that the guidebooks were so scathing about!

I wandered down tiny cobbled lanes in the shade of the blue and white houses. They all led down to a wide, open square, with the Casbah on one side, and a row of cafes on the other. In the corner was a mosque, and a woman was white-washing the walls with a brush tied onto a long stick. The couple and I ordered glasses of tea, which came in tall glasses encrusted with sugar and crammed with a handful of mint. I left to explore the market, a bustling crush of people inspecting mounds of vegetables, chickens squawking in coops, baskets piled with spices, pots, clothes and things I could only guess the use of. Every-one was far too busy to pay the slightest attention to me, and I soon completely forgot the warnings of the guidebooks.

The camp wasn’t due to start until the next day, but I decided to go and see if anyone had already arrived at the Casbah. I found an old man poking at rows of beautiful flowerbeds with a hoe. He led me up the sandy steps to the director’s office, where I explained that I was looking for a group of volunteers who would be working with him. He listened politely, and told me it would be very kind of me to come and work. In fact, it would be a very good idea to organise the sort of thing I was talking about, but he would have to speak to his boss to see if it was possible. He had obviously heard nothing at all about the project so, somewhat confused but not unduly worried, I set off to the school where we would be staying.

The school was locked for the summer. The old women sitting in the playground looked at me suspiciously, and definitely hadn’t seen anything resembling a workcamp. I set off to call the emergency number. It was an answer-phone. Still, I wasn’t too worried, as I had all the following day to find the camp. I didn’t find it. The answer-phone was still on. After having searched all the schools I could find, traipsed to the bus station and the taxi halt, and still no hint of a workcamp I decided that, if I couldn’t find it tomorrow, I would ignore the guidebook’s warnings and leave Chefchaouen to explore the rest of the country. If it was anything like this town, it would be a fantastic journey.

The third day. I decided to go to the town hall – somebody must know about this workcamp! An usher in polished uniform led me past queues of men in their long djellabas and yellow pointed-toed babouches. I sat on an ancient carved bench in an upstairs balcony, watching the men milling around the tiled courtyard below. The mayor called me in to his office, - a beautiful, stately traditional room filled with more men in djellabas. They looked at me curiously as I again explained what I was looking for – and suddenly some-one knew where it was! At last – the workcamp was found!

The usher hand-delivered me to a school – 32 people rushing about preparing dinner and playing cards and banging derbouka drums and talking and lying in the sun – this was definitely a workcamp! I leant my rucksack up against the wall, added my shoes to the pile at the edge of the carpet and went to say hello to the nearest person.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but the very first person I met at that camp, I would meet at a camp the following year, and the year after that – and now, I see him every day. We were married in Morocco last October, so it was a good thing I put all that effort into finding the camp!

Click here for a country profile of Morocco

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