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Morocco: Pickpocketed in Casablanca, 1972

March 13, 2010

Descending the Cairo Side a novel of the traveling life

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I first visited Morocco when I was 17 years old, by myself.  I had cajoled my parents into providing me with a ticket to Europe and a Eurail pass, along with sufficient funds to last a couple of months backpacking around the usual destinations of Western Europe.

I landed in Lisbon from Montreal, and true to character, after spending a month in the cold nations of Scandinavia and the Low countries, I made for Madrid and then Algeciras.  From there I knew that passage on the ferry to Tangiers was simple to obtain.

When I arrived in Tangiers the Customs and Immigration officials were friendly enough, but they asked me where my parents were.  I smiled and said, “Well, they’re back in Canada.  I thought I would take this opportunity to visit  your country on my own.”  My interrogators were baffled, but really didn’t care much, so they stamped me into the country and bade me good luck.

Walking from the ferry dock into town was like entering an alien land.  Hawkers and hustlers accosted me, wanting to sell all manner of goods, both legal and illicit.  But I declined, made my way to the Casbah, and found an inexpensive hotel.  Life in Morocco is largely lived on the streets and I was continually captivated by the outlandish behavior and strange ways of the city-dwellers in the back alleys and warrens of Tangiers.

But that city is not a good place for a young teenager to drift aimlessly, so I quickly adapted to the Moroccan style of traveling.  After exploring the locality for a few days and fending off the street hustlers, while spending many hours just watching the multi-ethnic mix of world citizens  who made the old city a home base, I decided to travel by train to Casablanca, a name that brought back visions of the Bogart movie and mental images of the World War II intrigues that had enlivened the place less than 30 years before.

On the train, a modern conveyance that proved a comfortable ride, I met a couple of American backpackers.  We joined forces; they were older but I spoke French and could better navigate my way through the complexities of Moroccan travel.  A perfect combination, the three of us agreed.

We arrived in Casablanca at night and found a hotel with some difficulty. The city was dark and quiet, with few indications of where to find lodging.  But eventually we stumbled upon a hotel.  The neighborhood seemed safe and I bargained the price of the room to a good rate.  All went well.

The next day we utilized public bus transport to get around the city.  The bus fares were cheap and the system reliable.  Before the day was finished, however, disaster struck.  I carried only a shoulder bag with a few meager possessions:  a sleeping bag, tee-shirts and a few pairs of shorts.  But for reasons I still don’t understand, I put all my money in a small wallet and secreted it inside the shoulder bag.  At least my passport and ticket back to Canada stayed in a money belt under my clothing.

Casablanca is a huge modern city with little charm other than its name.  We saw project-like concrete apartment complexes that dominated much of the urban area, and the beach turned out to be dirty and wind-swept.  But none of this mattered.  We were in Morocco, an exotic country in an exotic continent.

On the beach, Casablanca

The last bus we boarded was crowded beyond its maximum capacity and we stood in the isle, crammed together with a jumble of passengers, constantly jostled as the vehicle passed over potholes and made sharp jerky turns.  Long story short, when we disembarked, I reached inside my bag for my wallet and it was gone.  All my cash had vanished, both local currency and my stash of American dollars.  I was broke, destitute, without even a few dirhams to buy a pack of cigarettes or a cheap meal.

Panic set in. I was far from Europe with no way of returning.  I still had my ID, and an open plane ticket from Amsterdam to Montreal, but these constituted the extent of my assets.  Since my parents didn’t even know I had ventured into North Africa, I could hardly call them and tell my bad-luck tale.

My new American friends came to my rescue without a moment’s hesitation.  In return for showing them around Casablanca for a few more days they kindly agreed to pay my hotel and food, and then my ticket back to Tangiers and from there the ferry to Spain.  I was saved!

But they also indicated they would not travel further than Algeciras with me, and from there I would be on my own to return to Amsterdam.  As I still had my Eurail pass, getting to Holland would not be an issue.  But what was I going to do for food and shelter?  Regarding the latter, I could simply ride trains all the way north.  But to eat, well, I would have to deal with that issue as it evolved.

So I returned to Spain with the Americans and we parted company.  The train journey to Amsterdam in those days was slow.  I passed the first four-day period without any food, drinking nasty water from the rail car taps, which were clearly marked in various languages, first in Spanish as no potable, then in French as pas potable, and then in Germanic script which I couldn’t decipher.

The first two days passed quickly enough but soon hunger took hold.  At one point a Spaniard or a Frenchman, I can’t remember which, saw me drooling while he drank a beer, so he bought one for me.  The sensation of light-headedness I felt was exquisite as I guzzled the precious liquid.  Beautiful, cool, refreshing sustenance passed through my throat into my gullet and a warm feeling spread over my body like a comforting blanket.

But that pleasure was fleeting and my situation grew worse.  A day later another passenger donated a chocolate bar, and eating the thing was one of my all-time culinary highlights.  I have never since tasted anything so powerful and the sugar passed into my bloodstream like an intravenously injected drug.

Finally I arrived in Amsterdam at the central train station.  The only remaining task was to panhandle bus fare to the airport and hope to catch a quick flight back to Canada.  I stood at the station’s grand entry, asking other backpackers for help, explaining my rather suspicious story about getting ripped off in Morocco and wanting only to head back home, and how the 30 cent fare to the airport was beyond my means.  I was ignored, insulted, and generally blown off by everyone I asked.

Daylight waned and I grew more desperate.  What to do?  To hell with it, why not ask the Dutch commuters who now thronged the station for the fare to the airport.  The very first man I accosted, a middle-aged business type, looked thoughtful as he listened, and without comment produced the guilder or two that would cover the bus ride.  I was saved again!

At the terminal I went straight to the counter of Air Canada and asked if they had any seats on the evening flight.  The agents told me coldly all flights were booked for at least two weeks.    I retreated to a corner opposite the airline desk and sat on the floor, defeated. God!  I couldn’t stay broke and homeless in an airport for two weeks.

I don’t remember how much time passed.  But eventually an agent walked from behind the counter and spoke.  “You know,” she said, “you can try to fly stand-by.  Perhaps you will be able to get on the next flight.”  I hadn’t thought about that option; my thought process was nearly incoherent from hunger.

So I procured a ticket and marched to the gate.  Surprise, the plane was half-empty!  Now why would the ticket agents have told me when I arrived at the airport that all the flights were full?  Maybe my slovenly, starved appearance kicked in some anti-hippie bias.

I was able to use a nearby pay phone to call my folks in Canada and explain to them, leaving out most of the exact details, why I would be returning home that very night.  They were thrilled; I’d been traveling abroad for a month and a half, no small feat for seventeen year old kid.  But the experience was a great introduction to life on the road, and led me to a passion for travel that has yet to diminish.

And so I arrived the next morning in Montreal, poor but clean.

POSTSCRIPT: The following semester at university I signed up for a class in African History.  During the first day’s session the professor, a pretentious fool who knew very little about the ways of the developing world, asked for a show of hands from students who had actually been to Africa.  In a room full of African-Americans, I was the only person to raise a hand.  The professor asked where in Africa I had visited, and I replied, “Morocco.”  “That doesn’t count,” he said brusquely.  The other students glowered at me.  How could a white boy have visited the great continent while none of them had?

I dropped out of that class with alacrity.  Morocco forms an integral part of Africa, wields great influence around the northern portion of the continent, and is far more welcoming than the ivy-ringed halls of American academia.  You can even travel through the country completely broke, a course I would not care to pursue in the United States.

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