Shopping, More Fun in the Desert
By day the work tied us down, but by night we surrendered to the allure of the casbah, the old native section of Tangier, a fascinating labyrinth of ancient alleyways enclosed by a high wall and a fort. In our journey we would visit almost every major medina and casbah in the Arab world-at Rabat, Casablanca, Meknes, Fez, Tripoli, Algiers, Jerusalem, Damascus-but none so impressive as the casbah in Tangier. Here no electric bulbs impose their harsh tungsten shine, no auto fumes assault the air, no talking tubes drown the mellifluous chant of the street vendors. Here a thousand liquid tongues stir a broth of ancient Arabic, the throb of clay drums fills the night air with a solid pulse, and exotic spice and burning incense deluge the senses. Here barbers ply their trade at curbside by candlelight, tanners work the hides of goat and camel into delicate purse and rugged saddle; bearded, fat candy vendors doze unconcerned while thick swarms of bees and flies gorge on their honeyed wares. Glistening kebobs sizzle on outdoor braziers, the sweet smell of Moroccan mint tea hangs heavy in the air, and the faint bluish smoke of hashish curls in mysterious cuneiform behind the turbaned pipe smokers.
The market place supplies all the entertainment and education one could ask, as buyer and seller, their haggling skills honed by generations, slowly sip and puff and do the dance of the dirham. A candle is a penny, a can-opener two, a ball of twine three; a dollar is a night’s delight of bargaining and bickering.
Our bargaining ability was hampered by lack of both language and technique. We could do no more than ask the vendor to write on a piece of paper the price he wanted for an item that interested us, while pretending not to be really too interested, so that, whatever figure he wrote, we could look sufficiently outraged to cross it out and cut it in thirds, hoping to convince him that was as high as we were willing to go. After several blatant failures with this method, we managed to introduce a Western element into the process: competition, the heart of capitalism, the core of free enterprise, and the bane of our casbah shopkeepers. After establishing one vendor’s lowest price, we’d reject it with boisterous dissatisfaction, loudly and directly marching to the next man who carried the same merchandise, leaving no doubts in either’s mind about our motive, a trick to which the average Arab shopper, able to rely on his bargaining skill and restrained by his inbred politeness, would never have resorted. But resort to it we did, and prices fell before us. But we were still to learn that price wasn’t everything, as with my purchases, for example: a day drum and a colorful cotton bathrobe. The drum cracked in my lap the third time I played it, and as for the robe-
“What are you going to do with that dress?” Al asked. “It’s not a dress, stupid, it’s a robe, the kind you wear after a bath,” I retorted.
“If you wear that thing you’re going to have to take two baths-the second one to wash off the dye.”
I looked, and my fingers were already turning green and purple. So much for our noble endeavor to introduce the competitive spirit to the casbah. It was midnight, and time to quit.
The casbah by day and evening is a pageant of shoppers and sellers, but after the witching hour it’s a netherworld of mystery. The worn stone streets rang with our lonely steps as we sought to find a way out. There were only a few faint gas lanterns to guide us. The upper floors of the houses hung over the streets and alleys, turning them into a maze of dark tunnels. Arabs squatted on corners, bent but not asleep, eyes active under their hoods, watching, waiting. Cats were everywhere; not the scrawny, frightened alley cats of home, but the imperious feline queens with shiny fur, fat on casbah rats. Spoiled vegetables lay dumped along the streets, and here and there the contents of a chamber pot; an old man with a water cart was hosing the melange into the sewers. At one corner a man held another on the ground, beating him over the head with a boot; at another four young toughs lingered, just waiting.
When we reached our Land Cruiser, parked outside the walls near the Grand Sacco, the hubcaps were missing. If we had had another day we could probably have bought them back; the Moroccans say that if something disappears one day you’ll find it for sale in the casbah the next.
But we didn’t have the time. We had to go to Rabat, the Moroccan capital, to apply for new Algerian visas, because the ones we had obtained in Paris had expired, thanks to our delays in Spain. Though it had once been possible to get them at the Algerian border, they were no longer being issued there because of the strained relations between the two countries; we had to drive 200 miles out of our way to get them. I envied Marco Polo; he only had to detour for rivers and robbers.
It was the 15th of May when we left Tangier, far behind our schedule, which called for us to be in Teheran, a sixth of the world away. From Cherbourg we had taken 45 days to cover a distance for which our schedule allowed eleven. If we continued at the same pace, Al calculated, our ten-month journey would run to 40. We’d be on the road three and a half years!
- Photo caption on page 72 of the printed publication:
Steve recorded each day’s events in his journal here at a beach campsite near Rabat, Morocco. The small Thermos Pop-tent behind him is where the three hitchhiking New Zealand nurses slept-or tried to.
The road to Rabat, which was a smooth and well-banked highway of French construction-the last good stretch of asphalt we’d see in Africa-ran along the Atlantic coast and gave us a breathtaking view: the sea in great green swells rolled in to meet an endless beach upon which she crashed and foamed and released the mighty power nourished by an unbroken journey of five thousand miles. There was no horizon line, for the sky and sea blended into one; there was no time, no sign or scar of civilization, no living things save us and a few camels chewing salt grass on the beach.
We couldn’t reach Rabat by nightfall so we pulled off the road as evening came, into a palm-fringed clearing in the middle of a grape field. An Arab came out and introduced himself-Abdul Marrakchi, owner of 160 acres of vineyards, yet dressed like the poorest of his laborers and as work-stained as any of them-and welcomed us with plates of cooked liver and bottles of iced beer. Till the moon and his men were high, they sat around listening to Moroccan music on our radio, finished three packs of Salems and a bottle of Old Granddad, and told us stories of Morocco’s battles for independence. One of them even rolled up his trouser leg to display his war wounds. By the time they left, the girls were thoroughly frightened-far from home, in the middle of a grape field in Africa, with drunken Arabs all around, strange animal sounds in the night, and tales of war and bloodshed still fresh in their ears. Thus did I agree to break a basic rule of the expedition: that the girls slept alone in the Poptent and the men in the camper. I nobly gave in to their frightened entreaties and, despite much grumbling from Al and Manu, squeezed into their tent, the girls snuggling beside me.
I had just dozed of when I felt something crawling over the foot of my sleeping bag, moving toward Barbara. I had to warn her. I shook her gently and whispered in her ear, “Barbara, Barbara, don’t be alarmed, and don’t panic, but there’s some animal or something near the foot of your sleeping bag.”
Barbara stirred, but didn’t awaken. I nudged her gently again. “Barbara, Barbara, now listen. Easy. Don’t be alarmed, but there’s some kind of animal in the tent.” She rolled closer to me.
“Quit joshing, Steve. You’re a real card, you are. Go back to sleep.”
When the thing jumped on her she let out a scream that carried clear back to Tangier. She tried to spring to her feet, but her sleeping bag tripped her and she fell on top of me. Liz and Mira were awake now-alarmed, hysterical, screaming, “Help! Steve! There’s a bloody snake in the tent! Help! Help!” But Steve was in no position to help anybody. All three girl were upon me. I couldn’t get to my feet. I couldn’t get to my flashlight. And worse, I couldn’t even find my pants. Barbara and Mira were sitting on top of me, and Liz had her leg wrapped around my neck, all three of them hysterical and howling.
Finally I found the flashlight and flickered it on. There, at our feet, was the biggest, slimiest, fattest, ugliest toad I have ever seen, a foot across if he was an inch, rot-colored and wet and covered with lumps. Despite the girls’ hysteria, and their leg and arms which were wrapped around me every which way, I was able to catch the toad, unzip the flap, and throw him out of the tent, exclaiming, “Okay, okay, he’s gone. Now for God’s sake stop screaming.”
The girls settled down. Mira climbed back into her sleeping bag, and Liz returned my left arm, but Barbara was still frightened. “What if there are more of those buggers in here, Steve?” she asked.
‘I’m certain that was the only one,” I assured her, “but if it’ll make you happy I’ll shine the light around.” It hardly made her happy. On top of her knapsack, surveying the scene with moist, bulging eyes, was another toad-even bigger, slimier, fatter, and uglier than his predecessor. The girls screamed, all of them, one on top of the other, and all on top of me. Mira was trying to sit on my head, Liz was shinnying up me like a telephone pole, and Barbara was crying and jumping and scratching my back. They were absolutely out of control. When I finally caught the toad, I tossed him out of the tent-and there, rolling on the ground, clutching their stomachs with laughter, yelling, ”Au revoir, crapaud,” were Al and Manu. And I swear the damn toad nodded to them as he hopped off.
Ten minutes later all was calm and the girls settled down. ”After all, it was only a toad,” I’d pointed out, “and they can’t hurt you. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“You’re right,” Liz admitted. “We’re sorry we acted so silly, Steve. But those bloody frogs took us by surprise. We’re okay now. Let’s have a nip of wine for a nightcap and go back to bed. All right?” She reached for the wine bottle-and there was another toad, the granddaddy of them all, the biggest, slimiest, fattest, ugliest toad in Morocco. Liz screamed and dropped the bottle, spilling wine all over my sleeping bag. Then Barbara and Mira joined her, screeching at the top of their lungs and scrambling for footholds on my stomach. I pushed them off, grabbed my pants, and moved back into the camper. Al and Manu were still laughing when I walked by.