My first sample of "my two extraordinary years in Morocco".
|Our first visit to Morocco – December 2007
Our Spanish ferry arrived in Melilla's port at 10pm on a cool December evening. Our driver and local contact, Malcolm, was dutifully waiting for us in the concourse of ferry port building. It was a shabby, dilapidated and neglected building. It was filthy, smelling of cheap cigarettes and there were missing floor- and wall tiles everywhere you turned your gaze. Groups of shabbily dressed Moroccan-looking people were scattered around the concourse. There were very few women to be seen. Most of the men were smoking cigarettes despite no-smoking signs in various languages and in the usual modern hieroglyphics. They were seemingly waiting for people. Sharon spotted Malcolm, but I think I would have guessed who he was considering he was the only European to be seen.
Malcolm was a kindly-looking Englishman in his mid-fifties. He was wearing a white t-shirt, grey tracksuit trousers and sandals. He seemed fit and trim, not sporting a healthy beer belly like so many of his peers of his age around the world. He had a healthy head of hair that was largely grey. His skin was golden and slightly weathered, but that wasn't too surprising for someone who had been living in Morocco for a few years. He had bushy eyebrows, a slightly larger than normal hooked nose and a serious facial expression. He spoke in a slow, but considered fashion with a West-country accent. He exuded a calm and considered aura which many people would find soothing, especially at a time of crisis. He seemed unflappable. I took an immediate liking to him.
Malcolm had married a Moroccan woman, Fatima, whom he had met in England. Their union had produced a daughter, Linda, in England. Fatima's parents in Morocco both fell very ill at the same time, so family duty demanded of Fatima that she return to Morocco to tend to her parents in their time of need. Malcolm obligingly went along with this requirement. In what I was to learn was a typically selfless fashion, Malcolm considered the only problem that would force their return to the UK was if their daughter was unable to adapt to life in Morocco at the tender age of nine.
Malcolm was able to take a generous early retirement from his employer and on the basis of this could relocate to Morocco and live quite well, albeit by Moroccan standards. After a few years of exploring, learning about and adapting to his new environment, Malcolm found himself at a loss as to how to spend his days. He got to hear about a massive new holiday resort that was being built a mere 30 kilometres from his town of Berkane. It was to be sited on the Moroccan coastal strip that ran a west from the border with Algeria. This new resort was geared toward international investors, with a heavy emphasis on British buyers. Malcolm saw the opportunity to make himself useful to his compatriots. He decided to offer personalised ground transport services and help people with whatever they needed help with. He spoke passable French, a smattering of the local version of Arabic and knew how things were done in this part of Morocco. He marketed his services through property forums on the internet, which is how Sharon came to know of him.
Malcolm helped us bundle our bulbous baggage into his new Dacia sedan parked outside the front door of the ferry building. He had obviously helped many people through this process before and knew how to speed things up and how to make life easier. Malcolm drove us slowly through the dark, deserted streets of Melilla.
The city of Melilla is a Spanish enclave that is perched on and around a prominent rock on the shores of North Africa. It's northern border is the Mediterranean Sea and the rest of its perimeter is an international border with Morocco. It is 12 square kilometres in size and has a population of about 70,000 people. Almost a third of the people work for a government body of some kind. The military is the largest employer in the city. In order to retain its hold on Melilla, the Spanish government induces people to live there by way of not taxing them at all. Melilla is a Spanish tax haven, with only companies paying tax. Everything else is tax free. Consequently, all manner of consumer goods seem cheap by European standards.
We arrived at the Spanish border crossing, which was a large cement square that was divided into two halves – inbound and outbound – which was well lit and organised, with signs in various languages (except English). There were people milling around whilst there was a constant flow of heavily-laden pedestrians following a route they seemed to know well. We stayed in the car and rolled along in the same “outbound” direction as the pedestrians – toward Morocco.
A few gun-toting Spanish border guards were standing watching this procession, but weren't stopping anybody or any vehicle. All the fuss and activity seemed to be happening on the adjacent “inbound” side where people were trying to get in to Melilla. We rolled down an embankment that lead off the big cement square and into pitch darkness. We had left Spain (and technically Europe) without having our passports stamped and were now heading for the mysterious Morocco.
Malcolm's headlights caught the legs and waists of the pedestrians that we were slowly, carefully passing. All the pedestrians were carrying various types of belongings and obvious recent purchases they had made in Melilla. There was nothing separating the cars from the pedestrians. We weren't really on a road either. It was more like a wide dusty, bumpy track that you would see in the countryside. It was ghostly to push forward through the plumes of dust being kicked up by the never-ending column of legs and waists. Occasionally I would hear people talking in low tones in a language I had never heard before and which sounded totally alien to me.
Malcolm brought the car to a stop. Nearby we could see a small squat building with a few lights on inside. This was the Moroccan border post. In front of the building was a raised area with metal railings that formed a series of columns for people to queue in that lead a window in a wall of the structure. There were already a few people forming a dark, huddled mass. Other than the lights behind the windows of the border post, there was no lighting anywhere save for the Spanish border crossing a few hundred metres behind us. It was a moonless, dark, forbidding night.
Malcolm then said, “Right. You two need to come with me. Bring your passports. Oh, and you need to set your watches back... about four hundred years.”
We hopped out of the car, firmly clutching our passports and scurried off after Malcolm. We joined the back of the queue that lead to two windows where two scruffy, unshaven chaps in plain clothes sat, dealing with the people before them. Out of the dark a body suddenly stepped up to us, feverishly waving a few pieces of white paper at us. Malcolm calmly and coolly said “La”, but this had no effect on this suspicious figure before us. The featureless figure murmured something in our direction, only for Malcolm to bark back a firmer “La”. Without another sound, the figure withdrew back in to the murky darkness as seamlessly as when first it appeared.
“Here you go. This is what he was trying to sell us. You need to fill these in.” Malcolm said as he handed us each a small piece of white paper that was the immigration entry forms for Morocco. The forms were in French and Arabic, so I was at a loss. Sharon had filled these in before because of her previous visits when buying the apartment. The only problem was that it was too dark to fill them in. We had to wait to get closer to the window to stand a chance of seeing what we were doing. The queue was slowly, very slowly, shuffling forward toward the lights.
I looked around to see what I could discern, if anything, around us. By looking back toward the well-lit Spanish border I could make out a few things other than silhouettes. From the large metal gates at the entrance to the Spanish city towards us ran a 50 metre wide unpaved, rough track. This was the “road” we had just been on. The track was divided into two by a very narrow raised low partition. One half of the road channelled people toward Melilla, the other away from it. Either side of the “road” was bordered by a 10 metre high wall that ran the length of this border crossing and extended up to the Moroccan border post and seemed to go on forever beyond it off in to infinity. Well, further up the road in to Morocco proper at least.
I heard behind me the distinct sound of metal clanking against cement. I turned to see what it was. I had to look very carefully just to make sure I was seeing correctly. A furtive figure was pulling himself up against a wall by using a grappling hook that he had thrown over the wall. Tied to his body was a black bag containing who-knows-what. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. This was a kiddies cartoon-like image before me. I wondered if he was wearing a black eye-mask and had a black-and-white t-shirt on. It was too dark to see. There were more “Ker-clanks” as a few more grappling hooks found their target along the course of the wall. I saw one chap standing on top of the wall, lowering a rope to a shady figure on the ground who was attaching small heavy bags to a rope which would be hauled to the top of the wall then dropped to the other side where seemingly someone else was waiting. Nobody else seemed to notice this obviously illicit activity and if they did, they didn't care.
“Were they used to hearing and seeing this? Was this normal around here? Are we in danger here?” I wondered to myself. I found myself become increasingly uneasy with the proceedings around me. Instinctively I was reaching for a side-arm that just wasn't there.
Malcolm must have noticed my consternation and said, “Don't worry. You're perfectly safe. This is all typically Moroccan.” This put me somewhat at ease, so I put the invisible safety back on on my non-existent weapon. The queue behind us was growing longer as other people on the same ferry as us arrived to join the queue. The same “forms tout” would periodically step out of the murkiness to offer them his services and usually he was rebuffed. Occasionally someone would buy a form from him in exchange for a few coins.
Ahead of us in the queue there would be the occasional raised voice. It was either someone trying to push in at the front of the queue, usually an old Moroccan man or a group of old Moroccan women, or it was the border guard getting cross with someone. Getting the facts right on the little white form seemed quite important, lest you incur the wrath of an irritable border guard.
There was constant stream of pedestrians passing alongside us, heading in to Morocco. Why were they not bothering with border formalities? I asked Malcolm about this. “They have special cards that allow them to come and go between Morocco and Melilla.” was his reply.
As we inched closer toward the lights at the front of the queue I could see more of what was going on around us as some of the light bathed passers-by. I noticed that almost every single person walking past us was laden with consumer goods. Disposable babies nappies seemed very popular. Female pedestrians seemed to have a liking for thick heavy blankets. Well, it was Winter after all. People were carrying all sorts of products, but all seemed to be carrying as much as their bodies could bear. One chap who walked past us was even carrying a washing machine on his back!
We finally had enough light so that we could fill the immigration forms in. We did so hurriedly and Sharon had to help me with mine because I couldn't understand the form. When it was our turn at the window the scruffy, unshaven border guard furiously flipped through my passport. He was obviously looking for something.
“Was it because I didn't resemble the old photograph in my passport? I had shaven that moustache off years ago. Was my feeling old enough to want to look younger tripping me up at the border to Morocco? Was that stamp in my passport from a tour of Turkey causing him some suspicion? Ah, obviously it must be that piece of paper from United States Homeland Security that was flapping about prominently that has irked him. Yes, that must be it.” So the windmills of my mind churned through the possibilities of what could causing the delay.
He glared up at me momentarily and then barked in broken English, “You premier visit Maroc?” Was he asking me if Tony Blair had visited Morocco? I had no idea. But Sharon had the idea. “Yes, it is his first time to Morocco.” she said before I could make a fool of myself.
He flicked his head back in a sign of understanding and reached for a stamp. He changed a few numbers and then pounded the thing in to my passport. He then painstakingly wrote out by hand the exact same number immediately below the number that the stamp had emblazoned on the page in my passport. “Crikey. That number is pretty damn important it seems.” I thought to myself. It was. Every visitor to Morocco gets an unique number inserted in their passport that gets used to record their comings and goings in the kingdom. It's called a “C.I.N.” number, usually pronounced as “sin”.
Duly “sin'ned” and processed, we jumped back into Malcolm's car and headed for our eventual destination which was a hotel near the resort. It was now 10.30pm.
The dark dusty track lead to some lights and then a large traffic roundabout. There were suddenly multi-story buildings around us, many with dim lights. The roads leading off from the roundabout in all directions had street lighting, so I was able to get my first glimpses of Morocco. What greeted me was not a pleasant sight.
The roads had potholes at regular intervals. There was garbage piled up by the side of the roads or simply strewn all over the road. Pavements for pedestrians were few and far between. The buildings were in a general state of disrepair and some had totally collapsed. Everything looked dirty and grubby. There were very few people to be seen, but those people I did see were very poorly dressed. There was squalor in every direction I looked. Emaciated stray dogs were slowly moving around, looking very bedraggled, inspecting the litter for scraps of food to eat. There were very few cars on the roads, but those that were were well past their prime. I was shocked by what I saw. This was not a good introduction to Morocco. What had Sharon bought in to?
We drove eastward along a 4-lane highway with two lanes in each direction. Malcolm knew the roads well and knew where unmarked potholes were. He would change lanes well in advance so as to avoid nasty surprises. Some potholes were demarcated by somebody putting a motley collection of bricks and tree branches in the road around the offending pothole. Potholes were obviously not being repaired with any sense of urgency given that Malcolm knew where they were.
As we travelled along the roads that lead from Melilla to Saidia, it became patently clear to me that Morocco was a very poor country. The Moroccan city of Nador, which is next to Melilla, is large in size with wide French-style boulevards and modern street lighting. It is, however, characterised by drab multi-story blocks of flats Outside of Nador street lighting ceased to exist and other vehicles were very infrequent. We drove through a succession of villages and hamlets which exhibited little signs of life. Malcolm told us that these communities were very rural and their mainstay of existence was the fields and plantations that lay behind them away from the road. The road we were driving on was one of the few to be seen with just the occasional road joining up to the road we were on.
The road followed the coastline and this drive was proving longer than I expected or would have preferred given how long we had been travelling for. Malcolm and Sharon swapped information about the resort. I listened intently, broadening my knowledge and understanding of what awaited us. I turned to Malcolm and asked, “What's the compelling reason for people to come to the resort?”, trying to determine the long-term prospects and immediate benefits of the resort.
“It's cheap.” came the reply.
Was that the single best reason to travel for as long as we have? A lot of time and effort for a cheap holiday? The cost of getting here was not cheap either. It didn't sound like a compelling business case to me.
Malcolm said that he would drive us through the resort on the way to the hotel, just so that we could see what it looked like at night. As we drove over a hill and neared the resort we could see a massive light haze over the area caused by the street lighting. Once in to the obviously deserted resort it seemed to be a sprawling collection of 3-storey buildings. As we drove down the main road of this nascent settlement, speeding towards us on the other side of the road came a convoy of four dark cars without their headlights on.
They seemed heavily laden with only 2 shadowy passengers each in the front seats. The trunks had large containers protruding with the trunk lids tied down with string. Their back seats were filled with canisters and containers too. It was all very suspicious looking. They careened off in to a side road and disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. “Petrol smugglers” Malcolm explained. They loaded up across the border in Algeria with cheap petrol and paid no taxes to the Moroccan taxman. They made their way over the border using dirt-track roads, then they used the resort's roads as a short-cut and delivered their loads at points along the road all the way to Nador. It occurred to me that we had seen no petrol stations since we left Nador's outskirts.
No sooner had the contraband convoy disappeared when, as we were negotiating a traffic roundabout, a vehicle going in the opposite direction misjudged the corner and drove straight in to the central reservation at the roundabout. Malcolm slowed down to see if there was a need for us to help. After a few seconds the driver jumped out and ran to the front of his pickup truck that he had now managed to curl the front of around a very sturdy metal post. His two passengers also eventually joined him at the front of vehicle, with much flapping of arms in the air and not just because of the steam coming out of the wrecked radiator.
Morocco was becoming an interesting, exciting place in my mind and I had only been in the country for less than 2 hours.