Memoir: Marrakech Express

It was 1971 and Ken and I took the ferry from Algeciras to Tangiers. We looked as if we had been on the road for months but, in truth, it had been only a couple of weeks — we had just let ourselves go on the easy road down through France and Spain. A man in his late twenties — which we considered to be very close to middle age and possibly wisdom  —  whom we had met near Barcelona, told us that the Moroccan authorities were targeting long-haired Europeans. This didn’t bother Ken who always kept his hair short.  But here I was on the windy deck of a Mediterranean ferry with half-way-down-my-back-length hair tied up in string and stuffed uncomfortably inside an oversized cowboy hat I had found near Valencia.

When we arrived, the customs officers barely looked at us, stamped our passports and waved us through. But our Barcelona sage had not warned us about the swarm of ragged boys who descend on arrivals, shouting their wares, begging for attention, pulling at sleeves. Most seemed to be about ten or twelve.  I cannot recall any other passengers on the ferry  — although there must have been — and the crowd of boys seemed to concentrate on Ken and I, circling us with their pleading hands and eyes, until we were brought to a stop on the quayside. Ken pointed to one boy indistinguishable from the rest. It seemed to break the spell and the others slowly dispersed.

“Francais?” he beamed through broken teeth.  We shook our heads.



“Anglais good, very good!” We were following him down the quayside now, toward the intersection where the souk gate led off to the right, and a more ordinary seafront stretched to the left. And all the time he was listing off, in a musical melange of English and French, his perceptions of our wants and how available they might be.

“You want hotel, yes?”

“Yeah.  You know some?”

“Bien sur. Many hotel, many fine hotel for ‘ippy.”  I looked at Ken and Ken looked at me. We had no real idea why we were following this kid, but neither of us had any alternative suggestions.

tabgier-soukBy this point we had reached the entrance to the area of the Petit Socco. Following the child-guide now meant pursuing the unknown deeper and deeper into alleyways that we could never hope to find our way back from.  Not, at least, on this, our first day. But follow him we did, and it was not too far into the market when he pulled us into a building sporting a colourful sign in Arabic and French — “Pension d’Petit Socco”.

The kid did the deal for us. It was even cheaper than we had expected and within a few minutes we were in a room with two mattresses on the floor, no other furniture, and a window onto a rubbish-filled courtyard where a very young girl was struggling to put heavy laundry through an ancient hand-operated wringer.

“You want keef, yes?”  Not daring to voice the thought, we just nodded. He gave us a huge gappy smile.

“Vingt dirham. I return in quarter hour.” He thrust out his hand. Ken gave him the money and the kid ran out of the room. Ken looked at me, and I looked at Ken. What the hell had we done? Would the kid bring the police to bust us?  Would he just steal our money? Shit! What had we done?

The mattresses were dirtier than anything either of us had experienced before. We didn’t need to actually see the bugs moving to know they were there in force. So we didn’t sit down. We stood at the window watching the girl work, smoking the last few of our English cigarettes, thinking our own thoughts of what the inside of a Moroccan jail would be like.

The kid was back in ten minutes. Closing the door, he threw me a huge brown paper bag full of deep green leaves, and a pack of ZigZag papers. His smile, if anything, was broader than before.

“You want girl?  Young girl maybe?  We shook our heads.

“Not my sister.  Honest.  Virgin girl, very good!”

As he said this he looked so young, far too young to understand what he was offering. But he seemed clear enough.   We shooed him out of the room, but not before he had wheedled another 10 dirhams out of us for finding the hotel.  In the end he seemed pleased enough with his morning’s work.

We stacked Ken’s huge back pack against the door.  Then for another ten minutes we stood there, staring at the bag of kif, sure that this was when the police would actually arrive. But our resistance weakened with every passing minute. I took the ZigZags and created a three paper spliff into which I tipped the last English cigarette. In the meantime, Ken had cleaned a small pile of leaf and we added this to the mix. A good tight roll, a piece of the now-empty Player’s package as a filter band, and we were ready. We took turns toking, leaning against the back wall, watching the door, expecting the gendarmerie at every moment. But the kif was good — very good — and our fears gradually drifted away like the thick aromatic smoke.

We stayed in Tangiers for four days, becoming ever more confident in our trips along the steep alleyways and covered lanes that tumble over the hillsides. We explored the Grand Socco, a large square with a permanent market that attracts visiting tribesmen and tourists alike; we tramped the precincts of Moulay Ismail’s minaret which dominates the souk, reveling in the sight and feel of its cool polychrome earthenware tiling;  we even wandered south to the tourist beaches where we leaned on iron balustrades and fantasized about the buxom daughters of German burgher tourists who were obliged to sit on the sand in the wan January sun. But most of the time we sat around outside Café Maroc in the P’tit Socco, just a few steps from our hotel.

Café Maroc was a happening place. It was in the youth of its career as a meeting centre, social club, and bulletin board for the ever-increasing number of young travellers from all parts of the world making their way through Tangiers. At the Maroc you could find a lover, a good deal on dope, a ride on a Harley through Afghanistan, a tip on the best place to stay in Bombay or Katmandhu or St Louis, and, most important of all, friendship and company. You could also get the Hippy Breakfast (a huge omelette and an orange for a couple of dirhams), one of the best tajines in the whole of Morocco and a fine cup of hot sweet mint tea. It was, perhaps, the aroma of heated mint from a score of cafes and market burners that best defined the P’tit Socco.

It was at the Café Maroc on our third day that we heard about the train to Marrakech. I had spent the whole of the time it took to slowly eat my omelette listening to a Canadian fellow’s grand idea of hitching his way around the entire perimeter of Africa, south from Morocco, down around the Cape, up again through Egypt. It was a grand plan fueled by several chillums of calculation. When he left, Ken and I started thinking about what we were actually going to do, now that we had arrived in Africa. I was keen on reaching Kenya somehow, maybe working on a game farm; Ken had his eye on South Africa – he never did have any politics. Nothing seemed too hard to imagine, nothing seemed to difficult to try. Ken walked back to the hotel and returned with his map. Over more tea and another sweet kif spliff, we traced various routes on the map which was so small that sometimes our fingers covered whole countries.

It was at about this time that someone at another table mentioned the train to Marrakech. We waved him over and plugged him for information. He had just returned from the southern city, he told us, and taking the train back had been a trip: cheap and colourful, and a heck of a lot quicker than the trucks he had hitched to get down there.  He couldn’t tell us much more before he was drawn away into another conversation. Ken and I peered at the map.  Marrakech was a long way south of Tangiers.  That was a start.



When I left England, I wrapped three T-shirts, three pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks and some washing gear in my bedroll. In the small Army pouch I’d purchased from a Surplus Store, I kept my money, my passport, and my copy of “Siddhartha”. Ken, on the other hand, had purchased the largest back pack I had ever seen. In it, he crammed enough clothes and camping gear to last him at least three years after any nuclear holocaust. It weighed 40, 50 pounds! By the time we had spent three days hiking through France, he must have realized he had brought too much gear. But, at every stop, he would unpack and re-pack the whole darned thing. I spent our last night in Tangiers lying on my bedroll on the floor — we had stacked the mattresses in the corner — smoking and dreamily watching Ken go through his ritualistic packing. It was if he thought that to pack it differently would somehow reduce the weight. I fell asleep laughing.

We arrived at the station early the next morning only to discover that the train didn’t leave until late afternoon. Ken didn’t want to carry his pack (which mysteriously had lost no weight through repacking) all the way back up to the souk, so we sat in the huge cool ticket area and watched the crowds milling around. At that time of day, everyone looked to be just like businessmen everywhere. It would have been really boring if we had been straight. Sometime around lunchtime we decided to buy tickets.

“E” class was  half the price of third class. In third class, you were able to fight for a seat:  in “E” class there were no seats. The carriage was definitely not a cattle car — it had a full complement of windows. Rather it appeared to be a regular train car with all the seats and fittings removed. We thought we had gotten on early but the carriage was already full. Tribesmen in white shirts and pants, their heads swarthed in dark cloths, carrying ancient long barrelled rifles, sat on wide wooden boxes. Dark robed women squatted amid goats, their eyes and their hands — both moving always — the only visible expression of their personality. And dark-eyed, ragged-kneed kids everywhere it seemed, their apparent malnourishment and bright white teeth a lasting memory. Ken and I stood in the doorway for a long minute, surprised and a little scared, until another group of women and their goats pushed us in from behind.  At the far end of the carriage we found a spot and sat down, trying to claim as much space as we could in the crowd.

It was dark when the train pulled out with a sudden shudder that threw me awake from a sitting doze. Ken looked down at me from his perch atop his backpack. The smell of too many close bodies and goats mixed with the coarse smoke of Casa Sport cigarettes assailed me first. I have always been sensitive to smells. It was not unpleasant on the whole, but there was a lot of it. I fished in my pouch and lit my own Casa, turned around to look down the length of the carriage. A dozen small lamps had been lit as soon as we were away from the station. They swayed in the hands of children or perched threateningly on boxes, throwing a warm, golden light. And as I watched the shadows play across the roof and along the creases of flowing garments, I slowly became aware of the low hum of voices, of muffled snores, of children playing quietly.  I closed my eyes and imagined I was in some transplanted hobo novel.

As the slow night moved on, family groups seemed to close up together, leaving a little more space on the floor.  I unrolled my bedroll and lay flat out on it, snoozing almost immediately with the gentle swaying of the train.  As I was drifting off, I vaguely noticed Ken lay his pack down flat, and rest his head on it.  And then I was asleep.

I’ll never know if it was the sound of Ken’s head hitting the floor that woke me, or whether the youth ran over me on his way to the door that separated our carriage from the next. Whatever it was, I was wide awake and watched as the kid struggled to get Ken’s pack through the narrow door. Ken was still rubbing his head as I swiftly rose and went after the boy. Passing through the now-swinging entrance and gingerly stepping over the gap, I pushed open the door into the next carriage and looked for the kid.  He wasn’t there;  and he had certainly not had time to run the full length to the other end. From the bleary looks I was getting, it seemed that I was the only disturbance the travellers had seen that night. I stepped back into the gap between the carriages and looked out into the dark.  We were travelling quite slowly and as my eyes accustomed to the dark, it looked like the passing ground was flat.  Ken joined me.

“He jumped,” I said.

“Jesus God,” he whispered.

We must have stood watching the dark night pass by for an hour or more without speaking.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: