Larache, Morocco

Autumn 2001

Working Donkey, LaracheLaracheLaracheThat sound … somehow familiar, yet … for this urban lad, not really. I’ve heard it often in the cinema: the clip-clopping of shod horses trotting along the street. Here, horse-drawn carts (on car tyres) are a common sight, and the unfamiliar sound adds to the rare ambience of this ancient fishing port situated on the southern side of the Loukos River mouth, on Morocco’s west coast. Motorcycle carts, as well as trucks are also used for cartage, but the wafting smell of fresh horse shit is a welcome relief from exhaust fumes.

They use a smaller breed of horse here, and they use them hard. Mules, donkeys and asses are also used as pack horses, or to plough fields. The ass is often used as passenger transport – frequently the feet of the rider trail on the ground as the asses are so tiny. (I don’t know how an American would read that!) In rural areas, small two person covered buggies drawn by a diminutive donkey, are common. They look stylish, reminiscent of a small Victorian ‘gig’, and are of course practical in giving shelter from the sun and rain to the farmer going about his rounds.

Morocco is still locked up in the time warp I have remarked upon before – many living as in medieval times. However it makes for interesting visiting, and either because of or in spite of the apparent lack of prosperity, most people are noticeably friendly. The Spanish word ‘simpático’, a combination of obliging, sympathetic, empathetic and friendly would best describe them. In the larger cities of course, where unemployment is a major problem, one can be constantly hassled by males wanting to ‘assist’ you or sell you something – they are very persistent, and are a real pain.

The hotel we chose upon arrival had once been a grand establishment. A spacious foyer led to a sweeping staircase, and our room overlooked the main plaza. Unfortunately, the original design was all that was left of the grandeur. It was downright seedy. We moved after a couple of nights to a new establishment nearby: modest, but everything brand spanking new and very reasonably priced.

On our first night, we set about exploring. We found an interesting old market area close by the plaza. Following the directions of a fish vendor we got talking to, we made our way to the port in the gloom. Slipping over ancient, time-worn wet cobble-stones, down through steep, twisting canyons of narrow alleyways that spilled out onto the docks, we found the fishing fleet still unloading their day’s catch. It was a Dickensian scene. In the dim lamp light, the cobbles were shiny slick with the sea mist and worn by centuries of trudging feet, horses and carts. Piles of shiny, silver fish reflecting the moonlight effused the damp night air with their odour. Fishing boats were tied alongside in rows, creaking and nodding to the tide, adding a little colour with their gaily painted upper-works, to an otherwise black and white scene. The old town, a maze of narrow cobbled alleys linking it all, rises up steeply, higgledy-piggledy from the rugged Atlantic coast, to plateau in the town proper.

On the northern bank of the Loukos River, just across from Larache, lie the ruins of the old Roman city of Lixus. There is that palpable past again. These lands inhabited for so long. It’s eerie.

In getting here we came by a circuitous route. We embarked on a ferry in Algeciras, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to land at Ceuta (Bab Septa), a Spanish territory on the north coast of Morocco, and set out for Tetuan. It’s odd, but even the exhaust fumes smell different over here compared to Spain! That may not interest you, but when you walk the streets and alleys of these overcrowded, over motorised cities as much as we do, one notices such subtleties and it registers as interesting, or at least, curious. Morocco is as we left it, poorer than the European countries to the north and, much like India, many people here live from hand to mouth, eking an existence any way they can. That frequently means trying it on with travellers such as us. This second time around however, Rachel has become hardened, and now sternly tells them to bugger off before they get to show us their ‘uncle’s’ carpet stall at the ‘this day only’ Berber market. I’m too mild mannered and they would follow me all day as an easy mark. I’m pleased to have her send them off. She is very effective, and these ‘carpet salesmen’ are a real pest. Besides, we already have four rugs from the last visit to Tetuan!

Morocco still hasn’t caught on to recycling plastic waste and the result is, the fields and streets on the outskirts of the major towns are incredibly littered with plastic shopping bags – the type given freely at supermarkets and subsequently used as household rubbish bags. It’s a real eye opener, although I think I now know the cause: the rubbish is disposed of by the local councils by ploughing it into designated fields on the outskirts, of course the more the rubbish is ploughed in, the more the bags tear, lighten and come to the surface. Thousands of torn bags are then wind-borne and scattered to the four winds. They festoon fences, trees, shrubs and anything else that stops their flight. It’s a mess.

From Tetuan we caught a bus to Fez – we are spending a few days in each place reacquainting ourselves and discovering more about this wonderful country each time. In Fez we noticed a large gang of ragged urchins (street kids) in a down town park. In age they ranged from teens to what looked like 8 year olds. They looked hardened and tough, the girls too, as they milled about the square. Coincidentally, while in Tetuan, we went to a local cinema to see a good Moroccan film which was a story based around a gang of young, homeless street kids (much as ‘Salaam Bombay’ was), and which used local homeless children as its cast. It wasn’t necessary to understand the language to enjoy the film and follow its plot.

Boarding another bus we moved on, this time to Meknes. The bus stations in the larger towns are incredibly busy places. Dusty (you could say dirty) caverns chock full of smoking buses and clamourous crowds pushing and shoving each other and their bundles and baggage. Vendors squeeze and wriggle their way through with all sorts of odd goodies for sale. It’s a marvellous atmosphere. On leaving Meknes, we headed for Chefchaoun, a rural village high in the mountains. We had intended to stay there a few days, but upon arrival neither of us felt good about it, so, as one can when one is travelling like this, we simply rejoined our bus – the driver having a long coffee break – and bought fares to Larache.

Dammit, it’s difficult to remain aloof when a beggar (in this case a particularly good looking, ragged teen) repeatedly kisses your shoulder, while tugging at your sleeve, muttering over and over an unintelligible refrain in a hypnotic monotone. The more I tried to shrug him off, the more he kissed me. It’s a touching technique. But what the hell, I have a heart of stone. No es mi problema. Oh dear, oh dear. So many sad lives. So many ‘have nots’. I just didn’t want to give this time. He gave the impression he wanted a lot more than the few Dirhams I usually give, and not understanding his message, I chose to freeze him out – to regret it ever since. This was at the bus station in Larache. We were ‘captives’ while awaiting our bus. It was heart rending, but this is their daily routine. Sad.

In one day, we caught a crowded bus from Larache to Tetuan, another crowded bus from Tetuan to Castel Vieja, then a taxi to the frontier at Bab Sebta. After we cleared customs at the frontier, we took another taxi to the port, and then a ferry to Algeciras in Spain. Finally, we caught a bus from Algeciras to La Línea. A long day.

We miss Morocco. It is poor, dirty and muddy: but we love the people and the food. In the morning we would have a sweet, unleavened flat bread, similar in appearance to the Indian chapati, with a glass of fresh, sweet yoghurt. As in India, hard boiled eggs too are sold as snacks. The very sweet and flavoursome mint tea was our main beverage, foregoing alcohol for the duration. Although a Muslim country, bars serving alcohol are to be found in the larger towns and cities, although they didn’t appear to be very popular. For lunch or dinner we’d start off with their delicious soup called Harira, made from a meat stock base, with tomatoes, chick peas, short noodles and herbs. It is very nourishing. This we would eat with fresh crispy Moroccan or French bread. This time around we didn’t have their Tajine, a very filling, vegetable or meat stew served on cous cous. In Larache, we feasted on their fresh seafood: calamare a la plancha with a tomato/olive based sauce – fresh and absolutely delicious: and other local fish dishes. Ramadan, a month in the Islamic calendar during which Muslims fast each and every day, started while we were there, and restaurants, cafés and tea salons don’t open until at least 5pm every day. It does make it difficult for the foreigner, but we had planned to  return to Spain then anyway.

Life At The Border

The Moroccan ports of Ceuta and Melilla, on its Mediterranean coast, are small but important Spanish territories on Morrocan soil. They are, in effect, all that is left of what was Spanish Morocco. They are both Tax Free ports, and, like Gibraltar, because of this, smuggling comes with the territory. Large quantities of drugs are smuggled out through them to the European market, but that has nothing to do with their Tax Free status. What was interesting for Rachel and I to observe on three or four of our transits through Ceuta, was the smuggling of colossal amounts of just ordinary, but tax free retail goods into Morocco proper.

Entering, one goes through Police and Immigration control through a broad stretch of land: the ocean nearby on one side, and a large, muddy mountain on the other. One emerges then to a lively open bazaar, and a field full of taxis and other waiting vehicles. Sharing a taxi with up to five locals is an economical way to get further inland, to say – Tetuan. One time, while we were waiting for a balance of passengers, we had the leisure to observe inbound smuggling taking place on a grand scale: not, as one would think in one huge bulk, but little by little by little. Circumventing the boarder control, thousands of Moroccans: men, women, old and young, and children trekked over the aforementioned mountain with huge bundles on their backs, to stagger and crab their way down a rugged track to the area close by us, where awaiting cars, vans and 4WD’s would be loaded, to head inland for the market – the retailers in the cities. The couriers would then head back through the frontier, to the port, to reload and repeat their circuit.

It was a bizarre scene – it was raining that day. An endless line (we were assured that it went on continually until a ship was emptied) of hunched over figures, straining as they wearily traipsed in each other’s footsteps, as in some monstrous Conga Line: evoking scenes of mass exodus one sees from countries suffering drought or war. The customs and police appear to turn a blind eye to this, but they carry out random searches further inland. We witnessed more than one vehicle having its load emptied, under the eye of the police, at the roadside. They also regularly pull over passenger buses to do spot checks on the passenger’s goods. Entertaining for us (as passengers) at first, but a bit of a drag after a while.

It’s an old scene. The first time I entered Morocco through Ceuta, some 35 years ago, I was on a packed passenger bus that was pulled over by police. On the first occasion, I and four other westerners were put off the bus because our hair was too long – a rather crude, and ineffective way of filtering out ‘undesirable’ hippy types. Well that was okay as one of us had a pair of scissors, and it wasn’t a problem to wait for another bus. Further into Morocco, on another packed bus on the same route however, we were stopped and boarded by police again. A Moroccan woman in the seat directly in front of me was discovered to be hiding some goods in her clothing, and was asked to accompany them off the bus. Instead of getting up, she started wailing in a loud, high pitched tone, and proceeded to repeatedly smash her head on the rail of the seat in front of her. I was, naturally, appalled. I don’t recall what the outcome was, but that image has stayed with me.

More recently, on exiting Morocco into Ceuta (where incidentally, we never lingered), as we walked away from the border Rachel and I found ourselves amongst a crowd of pushing, panic struck youths humping large bundles on their backs. This lot, one of the smuggling queues, must have just received notice of an immanent police check, as they were hurriedly reversing direction and heading to a fence over a culvert on the seaward side. Here, they were heaving their bundles over, scrambling up and over to recover them, and hurriedly struggling along the sea shore to evade the border post. So this was an alternative inward smuggling route. The interesting thing about this was; there was a little old lady who was directing them, shouting, pushing and urging them on – like a female Fagan with her motley charge of young thieves.

Like India, Morocco is what I’d term ‘exotic’. For me that translates as extremely interesting, and as we become more familiar with it, it gets even better as a destination.

One of the things that I have found interesting on our travels, is the total absence of any atmosphere or threat of violence: everywhere we have been. No fights, (well, a couple of old, drunk seamen cussing the hell out of each other in Setubal, too old to harm each other) no flashing knives, no gunshots even. We have walked down plenty of dark back streets and alleys too, night and day, in some pretty deprived areas, and not felt threatened either. I realise that there are a lot of countries we haven’t visited, and it could be that we just missed it all – but I would say that the world we visited is a safe place to be. Oddly disappointing in a way, but I suppose getting robbed at gunpoint, raped, maimed or mutilated, or your bus going over a precipice isn’t all that much fun.

Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 2009