>Morocco Day 2: The Kindness of Strangers
July 30, 2007 – Well Before Sunrise
By the time we land, get our bags, and make it through the endless passport control line at the Menara Airport, it’s past 3:30 in the morning, Italian time, 1:30 am in Marrakech. What you notice first is that it’s hot. At 1:30 in the morning.
As we leave the secured area of the terminal and enter the lobby, we walk down a corridor lined with people, most of whom are there to provide transportation to various hotels and riads (رياض, in Arabic: a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden or courtyard, often decorated with mosaics and a fountain; in cities, they’ve apparently become the preferred form of hotel, and virtually every lodging place, no matter how squalid, defines itself as a “riad”). They’re carrying signs with the names of the guests they’re expecting to meet, but what’s funny is that none of them is making much of an effort to be noticed. Most are sitting down, either on plastic “bucket” seats or on the floor, fanning themselves; their signs are in their laps or propped up against their stomachs. It’s a scene in slow-motion: You’ll amble out, sooner or later you’ll find your driver, eventually you’ll get where you’re going.
During the long wait at Malpensa, we’d struck up a conversation with a young, exceptionally beautiful and elegantly dressed Moroccan woman who was going home to Rabat for the summer. She lives and works outside Milan, and only the slightest of accents betrayed the fact that she wasn’t Italian. At first I didn’t want to have much to do with her—a little too “done” for my tastes—but M is more democratic than I am, and she was so charming that she eventually won me over, too.
I don’t know where she wound up sitting on the plane, but we find each other again while waiting for our baggage at Menara. Obviously, she couldn’t get a train to Rabat at that hour, so she was planning to spend the night in Marrakech. Of course she didn’t have a reservation—in part because finding a hotel in Marrakech that actually responds to email or even the telephone is a happy little victory that not everyone is privileged to experience. I immediately start worrying about her, wandering around alone in her red silk blouse that’s just a little too revealing across her—as an old dyke friend used to call it—“chestal area,” so I invite her to come with us. Maybe our hotel—which, confusingly, is called the Hotel Riad Assia—has a room available and, in any case, we can help her look. Turns out to be the smartest thing I did on the entire trip.
Unlike the travelers trying to find their lackadaisical and, no doubt, sleepy and heat-addled drivers, we didn’t opt for the airport pickup from our hotel, which would have cost €20, so we’ve got to get a cab to the Medina, about 7 km distant. I’d worried that we’d have trouble finding one at that hour, but when we struggle our luggage out of the terminal and down a long, fenced-off corridor adjacent to the construction site for the “New Menara” airport, there are dozens of cabbies waiting in the near angle of the parking lot.
The wooden wall built alongside the construction area is decorated, for 300 meters or so, with designs of what the ultramodern new terminal will look like when it’s done. It isn’t until the day we leave, when I get a chance to see the posters in the daylight, that I realize that every single person who is depicted in the designs—waving to relatives, waiting for a plane, talking on a cell phone, wheeling baggage across the concourse—is white and is wearing western clothing.
Jasmin (let’s call her) steers us past the younger cab drivers—“We need to find an older one,” she says, “I don’t trust these guys.” Eventually, we come across an acceptable candidate, and she begins haggling with him in Arabic over the fare. We settle on 50 dirham apiece—about €4.50 or $6.00 US. It’s slightly on the high side, but it’s also nearly two o’clock on a Monday morning, and the bargaining advantage isn’t with us.
We cram what seems like an enormous amount of luggage plus our three selves into the cab and set off. The driver knows our hotel and tells Jasmin that he’ll take us around the back in order to avoid our having to schlep everything through Place Djemaa el Fna, the center of the medina which, he assures us, continues at full bore despite the hour. As we get closer, I can see clouds of smoke rising over Djemaa el Fna: they’re still cooking at the outdoor restaurants.
When he stops the cab, I think there must be some mistake. We’re at what seems like a dead-end crowned with a dumpster and the remains of a junk car. It is nearly pitch black outside, and figures loom in and out of the darkness. We wrestle the luggage out of the cab, each of us grabbing whatever is nearest to hand, and we follow the driver into the mouth of a small alley that appears off to the left. Here, it is even darker, but we walk less than 30 meters before arriving at the crumbling concrete steps of the Assia. The owner greets us with a flashlight: the power is off on the whole street. We get everything into the small lobby and pay the driver, who immediately takes off. Jasmin and the owner have a long conversation, the upshot of which is that there are no rooms available in the Assia. He suggests a couple of nearby places, and we decide to take our own luggage up our room and then come back down to accompany Jasmin on her search.
And that’s when I realize that my shoulder bag is missing. It never made it out of the cab and, in the dark, I never noticed.
Immediately, I have an excellent and full-color image of the disintegration of our entire vacation, a complete screen wipe. I imagine: a unplanned trip to Casablanca to the American consulate to get a new passport. No rental car, which we’d reserved for the second week, because M doesn’t have a credit card and the company requires one. No way, in fact, to pay for the vacation we’d planned, because at least half of it was supposed to be financed on those cards; I’m not even sure we have enough in the bank to cover two weeks in cash if we needed to do it, plus the fact that M’s bank imposes a €750-per-month limit on ATM withdrawals. We could potentially get perhaps another €500 for July and then €750 for August, but I don’t think that’s going to be enough. My wallet is in the shoulder bag and, with it, the €350 I had in cash. The contact info for the credit card companies is stored in an online archive, but I won’t be able to get to it in order to cancel the cards until the sun has come up and I can find an internet point and a public phone. We’ve dutifully made copies of all our important documents, including passports, but they, too, are in my bag. In short, it’s a disaster.
What I experience is a strange and unpleasant sensation of detachment. I’m so tired and stressed and distraught that it’s as if I can’t get access to my emotions. I should be screaming or crying or … I dunno, emoting in some way. What I’m aware of, instead, is a limited collection of thoughts that run through my mind on an obsessive loop. I think about what a stupid, freaking idiot I am. I think about how I’ve ruined our vacation. I think about how I want to be anywhere but there, about how I want to go home, right now, and forget the whole thing. I can’t plan or think about what to do next, but I can’t stand still, either. I start pacing up and down the 30 meters of the alley between the hotel and the angle where the taxi driver left us: maybe he’ll come back, is all I can think.
Jasmin and the owner of the hotel are calm. The cab driver will certainly bring the bag back as soon as he realizes what has happened. But what if he doesn’t? Or what if, since my bag is black, he doesn’t see it for hours? Or what if the next passenger notices it and takes it as if it were his own? I’ve got a load of what-ifs, but I can’t even contemplate the idea that a cab driver in Marrakech is going to return my bag to me in the middle of the night.
M has basically fallen silent and is no help at all. He doesn’t know what to do, either, I realize, and he’s never been especially good in a crisis. Fortunately, there is Jasmin, who flies to our rescue. Let’s get another cab and go back to the airport and try to find the cab driver, she suggests. Do I think I would recognize him? Yeah, I think I would.
So that’s what we do. And thank god for her, because she’s able to explain in Arabic what’s going on: to the guards at the airport entrance who don’t want us to enter the cab area from what is essentially the exit road, to the dispatcher who is, amazingly, still on site at the airport and who immediately begins talking into his radio. “Assia” is the only word I understand: I realize that he’s asking if anybody just let off a fare at the Assia.
The cab drivers, Jasmin explains, are basically terrified that I’ll file an official theft report. That means a lot of police wandering around, investigating things—including, I imagine, the cab drivers who have neither meters nor medallions. She says that the police are essentially useless for Moroccans, but will make a big stink if a foreigner is in trouble. As much as I want to find my bag, they want me to find it, too. I decide I’ll wait until later to think about the irony of benefitting from being American—for the second time in less than 24 hours.
After about 10 minutes, the dispatcher tells Jasmin that we need to move to the opposite end of the parking lot, where there is another taxi stand. She explains that he thinks someone there may know something. We walk over and, as we arrive, I see three men coming toward us. One of them has my bag dangling casually from his shoulder.
Sometimes you read in books how someone is so relieved that he says, “I could just kiss you!” I don’t kiss him, but that’s the way I feel. The man says something to me, but I don’t understand. “Look inside,” Jasmin says. “He wants you to make sure everything is there.” I do, and it is: the wallet, the money, the passport, everything. I shake the man’s hand and give him 100 dirham. “Is that enough?” I whisper to Jasmin. “Too much!” she says, but she doesn’t realize how much it’s worth it to me to unknot my gut, to be able to release, in one sudden exhalation into the hot night, the miasma of panic that has been clotting my lungs.
It’s essentially the last nice thing that happens to us for nearly two weeks.